There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.
“Aye, and Gomorrah” was first published as the final story in the ground-breaking anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), edited by Harlan Ellison. It was also included in Samuel Delany‘s only major short-story collection Driftglass (1971) and an expanded edition titled Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories (2003). Delany was never a prolific writer of short stories, but this one made a splash and won the 1967 Nebula Award for best short story. So I got very curious, and decided to give it a try when I discovered how short this story is.
This is a very strange tale written in flashy New Wave SF style. It tells the tale of some Spacers who drop by the Earth for some “shore leave” like futuristic sailors, and spend their time dallying with some very sexually perverse groupies who are attracted to Spacers due to the fact that they are made sexually neutral in order to work in space. These details are only revealed in passing, and the whole story feels William S. Burroughs-like. I’m sure it was pretty shocking at the time, but even today it gets full points for decadence and sophisticated ennui. It’s certainly an apt metaphor for the status of gay people back in the late 1960s: hated, feared and persecuted, and yet having straights weirdly drawn to them at the same time (not speaking from experience, I wasn’t even around at the time). The fact that the Spacers prostitute themselves for the sake of these groupies is also very telling. All in all, it’s quite a subversive and uncomfortable story that was an important watershed in the genre. ~Stuart Starosta
Liu Cixin’s short story “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” is a tale of generational change, science and optimism, using as a prominent element one of the most playful and beautiful things in science: soap bubbles.
Yuanyuan is born in a drought-stricken northwestern China. In the early days of her young life, very little seems to give her pleasure; the story says in the second paragraph that “She even seemed to cry as if she were discharging an obligation.” Yet, when she is five months old, she sees soap bubbles for the first time, and gurgles with laughter.
The story moves through Yuanyuan’s early school years, her college graduation, and her stunning success as an entrepreneur, contrasting her joyous curiosity with her father’s anxious commitment to seriousness and duty. While Yuanyuan is making millions, her father’s parched city prepares for a government-enforced evacuation. While her Baba can’t completely understand his daughter’s values, she doesn’t grasp why he chooses to stay in Silk Road City, which is going to disappear. The heart of this story is how each one learns from the other. That is precisely captured in a series of scenes between the two.
There is some science, and I picked up some interesting knowledge about surface tension and surfactants, but I thought the scientific applications in this tale were a bit of a stretch. Mind you, I didn’t care, because, for me, this was as story of two people who love each other struggling to understand each other – and, the bubbles were fascinating.
Carmen Yiling Yan translated “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” from Chinese, and in a couple of places I thought the prose glitched. In one short section, for no apparent reason, Baba becomes “Father” for three or four instances, then reverts to being Baba. This distracted me, but didn’t affect the meaning or limit the power of this tale. Liu understands about generational conflicts and the sadness of endings, and he can also rejoice at the beauty of a soap bubble. This is well worth reading. ~Marion Deeds
“Errata” is a meta and rather mind-bending short story. An author (Jeff VanderMeer himself, in one of the meta aspects) is sent by James Owen to live in isolation on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Jeff has been sent there by Mr. Owen to write for some murky, half-explained higher purpose. Specifically, Jeff needs to write and then publish several errata, fixing and improving the language in several stories that were previously published in Argosy Quarterly by Mr. Owen — but why? Argosy was a real magazine actually published by James Owen, which further increases the meta quotient. And apparently the so-called “errata” in this story are revised excerpts from stories that were actually published, or slated for publication, in the now-defunct Argosy.
Jeff is camping out in a half-built, decrepit condominium complex; its foyer is the hangout for multiple freshwater seals and a friendly, misplaced rockhopper penguin. There’s a mysterious shaman who will help Jeff (for a price), another mysterious man who (Mr. Owen warns Jeff) will try to kill him, and a pair of pearl-handled revolvers provided to Jeff by Mr. Owen to stop the murderous man.
This story is somewhat reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke‘s “The Nine Billion Names of God.” The various pieces of this story are intriguing, but in the end they didn’t all quite come together in the way I had hoped. ~Tadiana Jones
“Oral Argument” is a stand-alone SF short story by well-known author Kim Stanley Robinson, amusingly presented as the transcript of one lawyer’s oral argument presentation to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). He’s repeatedly interrupted with questions from the justices, but the story doesn’t include their questions or comments, only the lawyer’s responses. It’s a humorous story, but with serious undertones.
It begins with some rather dry and difficult to comprehend (at least for me) discussion by the lawyer of biochemical DNA engineering (a cursory review disclosed that biobricks and plasmid backbones are, in fact, actual genetic engineering concepts, but that’s as far as I cared to delve into the underlying science). The story became more interesting when it finally discloses exactly what the SCOTUS argument — and the once-patented technology — was about (discussed in the last paragraph of this review, so skip reading that paragraph if you want to remain completely unspoiled), and why the government is so exercised about this technology’s effects on the economy. In the end this story devolved into a criticism of our legal and judicial system, as the lawyer repeatedly throws back into the court’s face positions that the justices have taken in other cases. As a lawyer, I found it diverting that the lawyer’s critique of the court’s position has its roots in real-life present-day Supreme Court opinions, although one could certainly argue that those positions were over-simplified by Robinson for the sake of making his point.
Additionally (and disappointingly!), scientists believe that enabling humans to photosynthesize wouldn’t be particularly helpful as a food or energy source. Synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis has been quoted as saying, “Animals need a lot of energy, and moving at all doesn’t really jive well with photosynthesis. If you imagine a person who had to get all of their energy from the sun, they’d have to be very still. Then, they’d need a high surface area, with leafy protrusions. At that point, the person’s a tree.” Still, it’s an intriguing concept, and I enjoyed this story despite its flaws. ~Tadiana Jones