Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about, including 2017 Nebula nominees in the short fiction categories.
“What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh (April 2018, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)
Ben and several other middle school aged children are separated from their families and taken to an isolated school, to participate in a “unique program” that is supposed to be an incredible opportunity for the children. Once they arrive, Ben and the other students are given some odd instructions: wear an earbud day and night. Follow its directions without question. Say what it tells you to say. The reason for these bizarre instructions becomes slightly clearer when the children meet their “special classmate,” a terrifyingly strange creature called Eve.
It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe.
The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire.
“Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”
It soon becomes clear that the children and Ben, in particular, have been chosen to befriend Eve, and that the officials in charge are trying to direct their every move toward that end, though they won’t say what exactly Eve is or why this is important. But Ben and the other children are frightened and repulsed by Eve, and Eve doesn’t trust them either. Things begin to change, however, when Ben makes a controversial choice that has an unexpected consequence.
“What is Eve?” is an engaging tale with a fascinating and original premise that illuminates the entire story. I felt for all of the children involved ― not just the human children (for its own purposes, the government officials picked out a group of kids who are bright and ambitious but also rule-abiding and kindhearted) but also Eve, who was terribly mistreated until the government realized what exactly is at stake. It’s rather trite to use government officials as the convenient villains, though perhaps not entirely unrealistic. Ben comes of age as he begins to realize his ability to make his own choices even when people around him are pushing for conformity, and to have compassion on those who initially seem frighteningly different. ~Tadiana Jones
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara (2017, free online at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2017 Nebula award nominee (novelette)
Finley Hall becomes a transgender victim of a gay vampire’s bite while standing over a urinal in a public restroom. The consequence of the bite is death, but before it’s all over, the vampire predator in question offers Fin the option of becoming a vampire himself.
The vampire transformation of this trans victim is a lens for the examination of bureaucratic constraints on medically supported gender transition. And when Finley’s uterus is “reanimated” by the vampire’s bite and he begins menstruating, Finley is back in the clinic confronting a barrage of inflexible bureaucratic prohibitions against vampirification of trans individuals — rules frustratingly unresponsive to the reality of Finley’s crisis. A crisis, of course, which, we may say, Finn elected — if choice is preserved where the alternative is death. I’m not certain whether it’s part of the wry humor of this piece that said decision is animated, rather shallowly, upon Fin’s having done too little with his life, creatively speaking, or if we’re to take that seriously.
Maybe vampirification is good for art. It seems to have done something for this piece. ~Taya Okerlund
Finley is out at a club, enjoying drinks on the cheap, when what is intended to be a quick bathroom break turns into a very different kind of night than he had planned: a vampire named Andreas bites him and takes Finley back to his home, where Finley is offered a choice between dying on a futon or becoming an undocumented vampire. Finley accepts Andreas’ offer to turn him, embarking upon an emotional and difficult journey of transitioning self-identity and extreme physical changes that are nothing like, and yet exactly like, what Finley had been going through during his testosterone therapy and various surgical procedures.
It’s a unique use of vampirism as an allegory for a current social issue — the idea that transitioning in “small changes over long periods of time” from one state of being to another, whether as a human-to-vampire or from one gender to another, is one that I haven’t seen before, and K.M. Szpara succeeds strongly in paralleling one with the other. My biggest complaint was that I wanted the story to be longer, to more fully explore Finley’s changing sense of self either before or after he was bitten, so that the reader could get a deeper sense of the contrast between who he had been and who he is becoming. But overall, it’s an enjoyable and unique story, well told, and I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more of Szpara’s fiction in the future. ~Jana Nyman
“A Mere Formality” by Ilona Andrews (2011, free on the authors’ website).
“A Mere Formality” is a light, humorous, and R-rated science fiction short story from the Ilona Andrews team. It’s very different from their usual fare, a space opera tale with (as usual for Ilona Andrews) a romance subplot, mixed with (not so usual) a great deal of rather clinical discussion about various sexual acts and positions.
Deirdre is a cultural attaché, part of a diplomatic team in deep space that is attempting to negotiate a deal on behalf of the Second Intergalactic Empire with an independent human race of highly trained military warriors called the Reigh. The Reigh are in desperate need of funds, which the Empire would be delighted to provide in exchange for some development rights and military assistance … but the Reigh doctrine strictly forbids mercenary work, taking payment for their military skills. When the reigning Reigh Lord dies of apparent poisoning at a banquet hosted by the Empire, the situation looks disastrous … but there may be an opportunity as well. It seems that the Reigh Lord’s son, Lord Nagrad, has taken an interest in Deirdre.
The authors comment on their website that this story was written as something of a dirty joke, in response to a personal challenge they took on, to wrap a story around a particular phrase (it seems a safe assumption that that phrase is the title of the story itself, though the Andrews team doesn’t say). The story itself is thin and rather weak, with several plot holes, and the romance is of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type. But there are some nice touches and details to the story ― I particularly liked the older duke character ― along with a few heartwarming moments. It makes for a bit of an odd combination with the clinical discussions of sexual positions and other smuttiness, but it’s an amusing if lightweight tale. ~Tadiana Jones
I wonder if we’ll see SMALL CHANGES OVER LONG PERIODS OF TIME morph into a novel in the next year. It seems that nominated novellas/novelettes often go down that road.
Whenever authors do that, it seems like I almost always prefer the original, shorter version. Nightfall, Flowers for Algernon, Beggars in Spain. The only exception that comes to mind is Ender’s Game, though I’m sure there are others. Maybe McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, though I don’t want to commit myself since I read it when I was young and impressionable. :)
I like what Theodora Goss did with her expansion of The Alchemist’s Daughter from story into novel. :) I think there’s a lot of room for expansion of “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” into a novel- or even novella-length piece.
Oh, good point, Jana. The Alchemist’s Daughter was definitely an improvement. I can see where SCOLPOT leaves room for more to be said, so we’ll see. Who knows what Szpara has in mind?