Our exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read recently that we wanted you to know about.
“Birch Daughter” by Sara Norja (2018, free at Fireside Magazine)
“Birch Daughter” is about Aino, a young woman whose mother was turned into a birch tree by an evil spell. After hearing from the forest-folk in her dreams, Aino sets out to save her mother from her fate.
There’s a certain delicacy to “Birch Daughter.” From the first few lines it made me acutely aware of every choice every character made, in a way that made me also very aware that if any of those choices weren’t made so quickly or so confidently or even so quietly, everything in the story would come crashing down.
I enjoyed how the story had a dream-like quality, conveyed not overtly but through its poetic language. There is a kind of lilt to “Birch Daughter” that carried me through the story smoothly without being obtrusive.
“Birch Daughter” is also thoroughly and convincingly a folktale. I am not deeply familiar with Finnish folklore, so I do not know if this story is based on a particular tale or tales; but the author captures the feeling of a rich cultural background well. ~ Skye Walker
“They Have All One Breath” by Karl Bunker (2016, free at Clarkesworld, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction)
James is walking down the street late one night when he meets an old friend, Ivan. They walk together toward their apartment building, talking about the huge changes that have occurred ever since the AIs started taking over. It began with weapons falling apart in soldiers’ hands and missiles and tanks fizzling out and dying, averting a war in the Middle East. At the same time, flying bots were dropping tons of food and other necessities on refugee camps to alleviate the suffering.
No one claimed ownership of these Good Samaritan cargo-bots, nor of the gremlinesque nanoes that were screwing up the mechanisms of war. It soon became known that these were machines built and run by other machines. It was becoming undeniably evident that something new was moving upon the face of the land. Indeed, that the world was being rebuilt around us, disassembled and reassembled under our feet. The AIs were taking over, and they were changing the rules.
Over the next months and years the AIs continue changing our world in ways that seem clearly benevolent, or at least intended to improve society. They create nano-bots that cure disease, they solve worldwide problems of hunger and needs, and resolve other problems … often in surprising ways. But not everyone is fully on board with the actions of “the Machine.”
“They Have All One Breath” is strongly reminiscent of Jack Williamson’s well-known classic 1947 novelette With Folded Hands …, but takes a somewhat more ambivalent, nuanced approach to the takeover of society by robots. Karl Bunker effectively uses flashbacks to relate the details of the takeover by the AIs, with the division of opinion about the benefits of the takeover being represented by James and his former partner Lisa. Though Bunker owes a major conceptual debt to Williamson, his story is a thought-provoking and well-written one that’s worth reading. ~Tadiana Jones
“Delilah Dirk and the Easy Mark” by Tony Cliff (2013, free at Tor.com)
With “Delilah Dirk and the Easy Mark,” Tony Cliff challenged himself to answer the question of what might change about his DELILAH DIRK series of graphic novels if the title character were … a cat. A lovely cat, who looks quite a bit like her human counterpart and manages to carry a bag for purloined goods and a wicked-looking little dagger, and maintains exactly the same trouble-magnet personality as before. Mr. Selim remains his normal self, going about his normally quiet life until the appearance of said cat into his life, which causes all sorts of consternation and endangerment of health, but Delilah manages to make it all right in the end.
Most of the story is conveyed in wordless panels; Cliff relies almost solely on facial expressions and body language to show readers what’s happening, and does a good job overall. Without much conversation or even a few narrative boxes here and there to indicate time’s passage, however, there are a few sequences that are difficult to suss out, and it’s not quite clear whether certain items are being stolen or returned to proper places, for example. The story itself is a cute introduction to the characters and Cliff’s sense of humor, but I think readers who are already familiar with the dynamic between Delilah and Selim will get more out of her recklessness and his consternation. More than anything, “Delilah Dirk and the Easy Mark” was a good reminder that I still need to pick up a copy of the series’ third graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules. ~Jana Nyman
“Fire in the Bone” by Ray Nayler (2019, free at Clarkesworld)
While robots work in the field harvesting pakata for the great harvest ship that looms overhead, the unnamed narrator watches them. He somewhat impatiently listens to the philosophical musings of an acquaintance, Albert, who obliquely warns him of youthful desires that should be put away. But the narrator isn’t listening; he’s much more interested in his upcoming clandestine meeting with his forbidden lover … a robot. She meets him in the hallway, and they make arrangements to meet after the upcoming “ritual meal.”
The little church where they meet has stained glass windows that tell a story of his ancestors’ landing on this planet and their dealing with an uprising of the robots. Despite his love for the robot, the narrator is uneasy about the future. But there are more reasons to be uneasy than he realizes.
It’s an interesting story, but relies too heavily on the surprise factor of an event toward the end, building up to that climactic point. It wasn’t a particularly successful build-up for me, because several events in the story seemed either highly improbable in light of the final reveal or simply innately unlikely. It’s impossible to be more detailed without getting into spoiler territory, but give it a read if it sounds interesting and let us know what you think. ~Tadiana Jones
“Britannica in Dust” by Wendy Nikel (free at Daily Science Fiction, May 1, 2018)
In an unnamed time and place, a young girl, Maddy, looks longingly upon her grandmother’s old print encyclopedias, kept locked up and out of sight, concealed from casual viewers as well as the “soldiers that monitored the city streets.” When a bomb strike hits the house, Maddy is able to finally look inside, gaining a revelation that both changes her view of the current world and offering inspiration to maybe help bring on the next.
There’s some nice language in here, like the row of books described as standing like those soldiers in the quote above, pages that open “like wings, skin-thin and lovely and delicate,” which works not only as description but metaphor as well, the idea of a fragile freedom being important to the story. But while the first half sets things up nicely, the second half is a bit more ragged and somewhat disappointing. The logistics are a little muddled, the language sometimes tips into melodrama, and the revelation feels overly familiar and is marred by the reliance on convenience. And while the ending line aims at inspiration, the implausibility distracts from that intended impact. ~ Bill Capossere