Our 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.
Accolades have been pouring down on this 2017 SF short story, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and is also a Sturgeon Award nominee, a Locus Recommended Short Story, a Apex Magazine Reader’s Choice Winner. Additionally, Rebecca Roanhorse won the Hugo’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. On my first read of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”, several months ago, I thought it was a solid story but riding somewhat on the coattails of the popularity and currency of the cultural appropriation theme. However, its win of the Hugo Award last week prompted me to give it a reread, and the story actually hit me a lot harder the second time around.
Jesse is a Native American, working a virtual reality type of job that pushes him to sell his culture in dishonest ways that cheapen it. He acts mostly as the native guide for tourists’ “Vision Quest” virtual reality journeys. (At least it’s better than the demeaning “Squaw Fantasy” that the women employees are forced to engage in.) But a small hope comes into Jesse’s life when he meets a virtual tourist ― Jesse gives him the spirit name “White Wolf” ― who is truly interested in Jesse and his actual experiences. A little too interested, perhaps …
The theme of cultural appropriation is at the forefront here, impossible to miss, but the layers and subtleties in the story ― including the dual meaning of the story’s title and the symbolism of White Wolf’s name ― impressed me. The ending is a knife twist in the gut, and meta in a way that casts new light on the entire story. It meshes well with the unusual second person narration of the story, pulling you into Jesse’s experience. Highly recommended! ~Tadiana Jones
Editor’s note: Katie Burton also reviewed “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” in our December 11, 2017 SHORTS column and rated it 4.5 stars.
The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer (2017, available on Kindle or at Audible)
The Strange Bird is a companion novella to Jeff VanderMeer’s gorgeous novel Borne, which Bill and I loved. You do not need to have read Borne before reading The Strange Bird ― the stories take place concurrently ― but there may be some minor spoilers for Borne in this novella. The protagonist is “the strange bird,” a piece of biotech that’s been made into a bird shape by one of the scientists that belongs to The Company. After a raid on the scientist’s lab, the bird escapes and discovers that it has a “compass” guiding it to some unknown place for some, also unknown, purpose. Along the way, the bird’s mission gets thwarted by multiple malicious forces.
The Strange Bird is just as atmospheric, beautiful, tragic, and moving as Borne is. At the end, I was almost in tears. The story also adds more texture to VanderMeer’s world, a horrible and heartbreaking place that I hope I’ll get to visit again.
I listened to the audiobook version of The Strange Bird, which was produced by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. Her melancholy portrayal is perfect. I definitely recommend this version. ~Kat Hooper
Toby Benson was a wheelchair-bound, sixteen-year-old African American, with a terminal condition, when he was given the chance to leave his dying body behind and become a part of the space program. Now Toby is nineteen, the bodiless intelligence operating an experimental spacecraft that is circumnavigating the moon. But he’s still human in his thoughts and emotions, and panic hits as he approaches the point where he’ll have radio silence for thirty minutes. It’s possible to abort the mission and circle back to earth, but his failure would set the program back years. Houston advises him and Toby’s mother comforts and encourages him, but he’s not sure if he has the strength to complete the mission.
“Loss of Signal” is a short and fairly straightforward story, but Toby’s internal struggle and his deep and loving relationship with his mother gives it depth. She’s a strong single mother who has always been an example of love and determination to Toby:
Heroes aren’t bothered by the cold. They don’t complain. My mother never did. She would come home at night and rub bag balm onto her hands. Chapped skin would curl away, powder white against coffee black, especially after she’d pulled a double dishwashing shift.
On one of those nights, years ago, I asked her, “Does it hurt?”
“Like the devil on Sunday, baby, but it’s only pain. Buckle down and push through. Get the job done.”
There’s more than one hero in this story. Her assurance to Toby that her love for him is unconditional, whether or not he’s able to complete the lunar mission, is part of what gives Toby strength. It’s a heartwarming tale, a tribute to bravery of different types. ~Tadiana Jones
In my recent reviews for C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry, I mentioned that there was one story missing from both of those collections, and that it just happened to be the same story. And since the Smith tales had dealt with the exploits of a futuristic, space-age smuggler/rogue, and the Jirel tales with a medieval swordswoman, it might understandably be wondered how any author could possibly unite them, for the first and final time, in any one story. Well, that was the challenge that Moore and her future husband, Henry Kuttner, rose to successfully, in their very first collaboration of many.
The story, “Quest of the Starstone,” initially appeared in the November ’37 issue of Weird Tales magazine, the publication in which all the previous Smith and Jirel tales had appeared. “Quest,” for the longest time after its initial publication, was almost impossible to find. Indeed, it never saw a reprint in any anthology until almost 40 years later, when editor Lin Carter selected it for inclusion in his 1976 collection Realms of Wizardry (“It was obviously an impossible feat for any author to bring together in one story a Sword and Sorcery heroine from the Middle Ages and a science fiction hero from the distant future; therefore, it was only natural for Kuttner to suggest the notion to Moore,” Carter tells us in his intro). This indeed was the book that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on, many years back, more than willing to pay the purchase price for this hardcover volume for the one story alone. But somehow, the story remained unread; I kept putting it off, telling myself that I really should reread all those Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories again before diving into this prize. But as I have finally taken in both series for the first time in 35 years, and renewed my love affair with both, I was also finally, at long last, able to take in this hard-to-find wonder.
The only thing is, the story is not exactly hard to find anymore. Today, anyone can go on the Internet Archive and read it for free. The story also appears in Karl Edward Wagner’s 1989 collection Echoes of Valor II, and in Planet Stories’ Jirel collection Black God’s Kiss (2007), as well as in its Northwest of Earth anthology (2008). And it can also be downloaded today on to your Kindle for just 99 cents. Thus, what was once a story that was virtually impossible to find is now readily available for all fans of Golden Age sci-fi and fantasy to enjoy.
So, how did Moore and Kuttner unite Catherine Lucille’s two most famous characters in one story, despite Smith and Jirel’s extreme distance from one another, both spatially and temporally? As the story opens, Jirel and her men are seen sacking the castle of the evil wizard Franga, from which the warrior lady of Joiry successfully steals the mysterious gem known as the Starstone, which reputedly confers both luck and wealth on its possessor. Enraged at his defeat, Franga opens a shadowy portal that he creates out of thin air, materializing on the planet Mars in the far future, where he tempts a certain spaceman (can you guess which one?) with pearls to do a job for him. Thus, Northwest Smith and Yarol the Venusian (his companion of old) are catapulted through both time and space to Jirel’s castle, tasked with getting the Starstone back from her. Smith is even taught a certain incantation by Franga that will sweep him, Yarol and Jirel to an otherdimensional nowheresville, so that the recovery might be more easily carried out. And so, in a momentous meeting of legends, Smith and Jirel do indeed converse, in the guarded seclusion of the warrior lady’s castle. But once Smith has snatched her into Franga’s magical realm (Jirel, incidentally, gets involved in some kind of otherdimensional mishegas in every single story that she appears in; Smith, not nearly as often), our stalwart spaceman is prey to misgivings, as he begins to wonder if he and Yarol are indeed contending with the right foe … leading, as might be expected, to an uneasy alliance between Moore’s two greatest creations…
For a story clocking in at a mere 26 pages and, by my rough count, 13,000 words, “Quest of the Starstone” packs an awful lot of color and action into its short compass. Highlights of this tale include our indomitable trio facing off against a horde of the reanimated undead in that otherdimensional realm; the torture that Smith is forced to undergo at Franga’s hands; and the final revelation as to the Starstone’s nature. But the smaller moments here are the ones that resonate most, such as Jirel’s comment after hearing Yarol speak in High Venusian (“What is he saying – he gurgles like a brook…”); Jirel’s grudging admiration for Smith’s brawny physique, and her awe at his heat gun and valiant spirit; and the touching suggestion that some kind of a romance might have perhaps been possible between Smith and Jirel, had circumstances been otherwise.
For the rest of it, the story is not quite as epochal as this reader had been hoping for – bringing to mind, somehow, the slight disappointment I felt when Captains Kirk and Picard met for the first time in Star Trek Generations – and almost crying out for a longer, more in-depth treatment (as H. Rider Haggard had done in his 1921 novel She and Allan, in which he united his two greatest characters, Ayesha and Allan Quatermain). The tone of the story is different from all the others, somehow, and Franga’s statement to Smith that the year he has been brought back to is 1500 also strikes a wrong note; somehow, I had sensed that Jirel’s time period was at least several hundred years earlier, and indeed, in one of the earlier Joiry stories, Moore had mentioned that the Roman empire had recently fallen. But if 1500 is indeed the accurate date, then we have also finally been vouchsafed a rough date for the Smith stories, as well, since Northwest reflects, upon his return to the Mars of the future, that Jirel had been dead now for 2,000 years, making his own time period … A. D. 3500? Again, that also does not strike the reader as being correct.
But these are quibbles. The bottom line is that all fans of Moore’s two greatest characters will love seeing these two interact, despite the improbabilities and despite the unsettling discrepancy of tone. It is more than a matter of being a completist, as far as these two landmark series is concerned. The story is fun as can be, and a must for fans of Golden Age sci-fi and pulp fiction in general. Only … I wish we could have been told more about that Martian tavern owner who lost his legs “during an illicit amorous visit to the forbidden dens of the spider women”! Sounds like the basis for a novel in its own right, doesn’t it? ~Sandy Ferber
“The Birding: A Fairy Tale” By Natalia Theodoridou (2017, free at Strange Horizons).
Maria is traveling from Athens to Thessaloniki in a post-apocalyptic world. A strange, devastating plague struck while she was away from her home and her husband Simos, visiting a doctor in Athens. Now Maria slowly making her way back to Thessaloniki, twenty-four weeks pregnant, with her slowly altering father in tow, wearing a gas mask to try to avoid getting infected with the plague, scrounging in abandoned stores and homes for food and water. There are only a few scattered humans remaining, but the sky is filled with birds of all kinds.
As one of the characters points out, it’s like a zombie apocalypse, only with people turning into birds rather than zombies. As finely detailed as the descriptions are of the change process, the idea is just so far removed from reality that I was having trouble suspending my disbelief in a setting that seemed more sci fi than fantasy. Not only do people turn into many different types of birds, either at random or as a reflection of their inner nature, but they may turn into, not just large storks or eagles, but also tiny songbirds that a cat can quickly turn into dinner. It’s not clear what becomes of the extra mass in those cases.
If you can roll with the concept, perhaps by simply viewing it through the lens of fantasy or symbolism, “The Birding” is a lovely (if highly somber), elegiac tale, with an unusual fairy tale as a framing device. The Greek setting is rather thin; other than a few place names, this story really could have been set anywhere in the world, but it does give a certain universality to the tale.
“The Birding” explores human relationships and loyalties in the midst of chaos and disaster. Maria refuses to leave her father behind, even though he can no longer communicate and is clearly, irrevocably, turning into a stork. She tells her friend El, “I love him, but there was not enough time to forgive him. I don’t know if I ever will.” But she still keeps him with her and protects him as long as she can.
“The Birding” is a 2018 World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Short Story. ~Tadiana Jones