There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we’ve read recently that we wanted you to know about.
“And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” by Margaret Ronald (June 2016, free at Clarkesworld or paperback magazine issue)
Dr. Kostia is a keynote speaker and panel participant in an academic conference. Her specialty is extra-terrestrial intelligence ― specifically, the analysis of some radio-like transmissions from an alien race called the Coronals. About thirty years before, Earth scientists received a signal from the Corona Borealis that rewrote an entire computing center, turning it into a receiver for the Coronal’s communications and, conveniently, including a translator. Interestingly, the “infospace” transmissions are a broad-based slice of Coronal life, comparable to the Internet: the transmissions include news, drama, and even personal communications. However, the nature of the Coronal transmissions recently changed, in a disturbing fashion.
Dr. Kostia’s discussions of her findings regarding the Coronal’s communications at this conference is interwoven with some personal family drama: her son Randall appears at the conference and asks her to do something about her other son Wallace, who’s joined some kind of group that’s intensely studying the Coronal transmissions. Randall’s concerns are alarming enough that Dr. Kostia agrees to leave the conference early to go visit with Wallace personally.
Margaret Ronald skillfully explores the impact of the Coronal transmissions on humanity, in both positive and negative ways. Details like semi-sapient computer code, imitation Coronal jewelry, cults, and the increase in multilingualism add color and depth to this short story. It’s a wonderful story, bittersweet but with a hopeful element. ~Tadiana Jones
“Pocasin” by Ursula Vernon (2015, free at Apex magazine or $1.99 Kindle magazine issue)
I fell in love with Ursula Vernon (aka T. Kingfisher) when I read her award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. I return to that story again and again. “Pocasin” shares a similar tone, a combination of whimsical beauty and playful characters. The story begins when a very old god in the shape of a possum arrives dying on the porch of the tired old witchwoman named Maggie. Maggie is busy tying flies with a needle and thread and is not amused by the disturbance. In fact, she is tired of always having to sort things out for everyone else. But it is against Maggie’s nature to turn the god away, and so she sets her mind to protecting it when three sinister creatures come looking.
What I love most about Ursula Vernon is the way she conjures settings with perfect ease, utilizing little-known natural ecosytems and wildlife ― in this case the marsh-like pocasin found in North America, where the call of the whip-poor-will bird disturbs the peace. Her settings are fabulously alive, so much more than a passive backdrop.
The bottom of the sundew pool was made of mud and sphagnum moss, and it wasn’t always sure if it wanted to be solid or not.”
These are sentences to be cherished. Vernon also has a gift for leaving just enough unexplained. She reveals peculiar details about her settings in a matter-of-fact way that allows the reader to fall straight into the story, knowing it is simply the way things are.
That said, I didn’t enjoy “Pocasin” as much as “Jackalope Wives”. I was confused as to whether Maggie Gray in the former is the same character as Maggie Harken in the later. If not, it would have been nice to see more of a difference between them. And as a whole there is less back-story and less character development in “Pocasin”. The story reads more like a snapshot of a particular time and place than a tale with a beginning, middle and end. Nevertheless, the real reasons I love Ursula Vernon shine through, and for pure magic and stunning settings I will come back for more. ~Katie Burton
“What Doctor Gottlieb Saw” by Ian Tregillis (2010, free at Tor.com or 99c Kindle)
“What Doctor Gottlieb Saw” is a short story related to Ian Tregillis’ debut novel, Bitter Seeds. The story occurs at the farm where Doctor von Westarp is running his experiments to create an Übermensch. It can be read without having read the novel, but if you have read Bitter Seeds, “What Doctor Gottlieb Saw” will shed some light on certain events. Either way, it is very much worth reading.
The story starts with someone is serious trouble. Doctor Gottlieb works at Doctor von Westarp’s farm as a psychiatrist. Accused of practising Jewish science, he is only tolerated for as long as he remains useful. His already precarious position becomes even more unstable after the death of one of von Westarp’s test subjects. They are looking for a scapegoat and Gottlieb might just be it. Desperately, Gottlieb looks for a way out, and everything points in the direction of a seriously disturbed young woman named Gretel, another one of von Westarp’s creations.
Gretel is one of the more interesting characters in the novel Bitter Seeds, but in this story Tregillis manages to portray her as even more disturbed. Thus, “What Doctor Gottlieb Saw” is even darker than the novel. What we see of Gretel is a young woman who practically radiates innocence but at the same time ruthlessly exploits her talent to see into the future. Perhaps it is because of the short story format, but I thought the contrast in this story is even sharper than in the novel. Add to that the carefully controlled sense of desperation that puts a strain on Gottlieb, and the way he realizes the implications of what goes on but decides to keep this knowledge to himself, and you have a very interesting story. I thought the dark and tense atmosphere in the story were very well done. ~Rob Weber (guest reviewer)
“First Flight” by Mary Robinette Kowal (2009, free at Tor.com or 99c Kindle version)
“First Flight” is a time travel tale that takes us back to the day the Wright brothers successfully tested their Flyer III in 1905. Because nobody expected it to succeed, there are no images of this event, and now historians intend to rectify that. One of the limitations of time travel in this story is that you can only travel to a period in time in which you were actually alive. To be able to go back all the way to 1905 one needs to be well over a hundred. Eleanor Louise Jackson is one of the few people who fit that description. Unfortunately the trip does not quite go as intended and the Time Machine breaks down at a very inconvenient moment. The historians want Eleanor to go back and get the job done as quickly as possible. Eleanor has her own ideas on how this situation should be handled.
“First Flight” contains two elements you find in most time travel stories: a fear of being discovered and a fear of altering the future. As such this story is not unique, but I have to admit the moment Wilbur Wright draws his conclusions from what Eleanor tells him is memorable. The last couple of pages of “First Flight” carry quite a punch. I must say I didn’t think I’d like it so much up to that point, but Kowal managed to convince me with the ending. There’s a nice nod to an H.G. Wells classic in there as well. Very enjoyable read. ~Rob Weber
Chains by A.J. Hartley (June 2016, free at Tor.com or 99c Kindle version)
Anglet Sutonga, a sixteen year old girl in the depths of poverty, is a steeplejack in the city of Bar-Selehm, helping to build a suspension bridge. Anglet is an indentured laborer: most of the money she earns goes to the leader of her gang, and any attempt to escape the gang is likely to lead to a violent death. Nevertheless, Anglet is captivated by the scope and importance of the bridge, seeing each stage of building it as “a step toward a glittering new order.” Her diligent work, painting a protective coating on the huge chains of the bridge, attracts the attention of the white head of the project, Sir William Defarge, who takes her under his wing and even offers to buy her freedom from the gang. But when trouble arises, will Sir William listen to her?
Chains is a prequel to A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack, a new YA fantasy novel set in an analogue to 19th-century South Africa. The white Feldish people, although a minority in numbers, are in control of the country and most of its wealth. The black Mahweni are the native people, some city labourers and others living in the savannah. Anglet is of the Lani, another darker-skinned people who immigrated over several generations to this land, and are mostly servants and laborers.
Chains introduces us to a grim and violent world of white overlords and minority resentment arising out of poverty and mistreatment. If there are any magical elements in this fantasy world, they aren’t apparent in this novelette. Hartley appears to be more interested in examining the relationships between people and races. He’s written a thoughtful article on the Tor/Forge blog titled “Writing POC While White.” Hartley’s wife is East Asian, and they have a son, so he has some personal experience with racism, and his interest in the topic is not just academic. The racial tensions of historic South Africa, which still continue today, are painfully echoed in the relationships between the different races in Chains. Chains, clearly, can be made of more than just metal. ~Tadiana Jones
“Location, Location, Location” by Marion Deeds (June 2016, free at Daily Science Fiction)
Our SHORTS feature this week would not be complete without a mention of this short story by Marion Deeds, one of our own Fantasy Literature reviewers. In “Location, Location, Location,” an interested buyer visits with Emma, who has placed a very unusual advertisement to sell her house for a dollar. She’ll even pay the closing costs! And it’s a nice place: four bedrooms, two and a half baths, with a lot nearly an acre. Of course there is a, “well, not a catch, exactly. A condition.”
Told in the form of a short one-act play, this delightful tale will amuse anyone who has bought or sold a home … especially if there are “conditions.” I won’t rate this story since it’s from one of our own, but of course we all loved it! ~Tadiana Jones
I enjoyed “First Flight” too, and the more I read of Ursula Vernon, the more I want to read. Her work is great!
I loved the story Marion! I think he’ll be back.
I enjoyed “First Flight,” as well–I think it was the first of Kowal’s fiction that I read, and it definitely set a good level of expectation in my mind for her other work.
Tadiana, I’m so glad you mentioned Marion’s short story, since we’re all so proud of her!