“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (June 2017, free on Strange Horizons)
Charlie Wilcox, after uncounted centuries of cryogenic frozenness, is decanted in a distant future. He’s cheerfully helped to adjust by an extremely ditzy person named Kit/dinaround, who is the assistant of the AI known as the Allocator, which watches over and guides humanity. Through a temporary upload station, Kit shows Charlie the ropes of their virtual society, which humans (who now number in the trillions) experience solely as digital entities, “uploaded consciousnesses in distributed Matryoshka brains.” It’s an immense, and immensely complex, Matrix type of world.
After Kit takes Charlie on a quick trip to the “Bird Simulator” world, which leaves Charlie totally freaked out, Allocator intervenes and sends Charlie to a simulated world that he’ll find more congenial: Middle Earth. Kit is appalled; Charlie is delighted. But even a perfect elvish conclave, “green and vibrant, untouched by the tides of strife or decay” and “inhabited by beautiful and mysterious immortals” (“Siiiiiiigh” says Kit) might get old after a while. And Allocator has plans …
“Utopia, LOL?” is an absolutely delightful story. Kit is a truly hilarious narrator whose commentary and digital side conversations with Allocator make for one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. There’s a heartwarming and poignant conclusion to the tale, giving it an unexpected depth. It reads even better the second time around. Don’t miss this one! ~Tadiana Jones
“The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt” by N.K. Jemisin (2016, free on Wired)
About two hundred years in our future, humanity is engaged in exploring other planets and worlds and meeting alien civilizations. Wei Aiuha is part of a team that is engaging in discussions with a newly discovered alien race, the Manka, to see if humans can develop a relationship with the Manka and engage in some profitable trade with them. Back on earth, Thandiwe Solomon is trying to decipher Aiuha’s personal logs from her meetings with the Manka two years earlier. The human team has disappeared, but perhaps Aiuha’s logs will shed some light on what happened and whether humans should engage in commerce with the Manka.
The story is told through transcripts of Aiuha’s discussions with the Manka, her file notes shared with her team, and other file memoranda that Thandi is reconstructing. There’s a sense of urgency to her job, though it only becomes clear at the end what the stakes are.
The structure of “The Evaluators” is a little confusing at first, and the confusion isn’t helped by all the distracting ads on the Wired webpage. But it’s well worth puzzling through. N.K. Jemisin has created a race that is truly alien, which I admire, and realistic misunderstandings and greed play a role in the way events unfold. It’s an intriguing mystery with a subtle element of horror that gradually comes to the fore. ~Tadiana Jones
“I, Cthulhu, or, What’s a Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing in a Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47° 9′ S, Longitude 126° 43′ W)?” by Neil Gaiman (2009, free at Tor.com)
This humorous short story by Neil Gaiman is, like “A Study in Emerald,” a take-off on the Cthulhu Mythos. Here we have the monstrous Cthulhu dictating his memoirs to a hapless human servant named Whateley. The beginning of his personal history:
I was spawned uncounted aeons ago, in the dark mists of Khhaa’yngnaiih (no, of course I don’t know how to spell it. Write it as it sounds), of nameless nightmare parents, under a gibbous moon. It wasn’t the moon of this planet, of course, it was a real moon. On some nights it filled over half the sky and as it rose you could watch the crimson blood drip and trickle down its bloated face, staining it red, until at its height it bathed the swamps and towers in a gory dead red light.
Those were the days.
I laughed right out loud, and never looked back.
I’m not a serious fan of H.P. Lovecraft and am only passingly familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos, so a lot of Gaiman’s sly references to characters from Lovecraft’s and others’ mythical tales (like Hastur, the King in Yellow and Tsathoggua) initially went swooshing over my head. The Wikipedia article on this story shed some light on these references, and the Lovecraft wiki was extremely helpful with a few key terms like shoggoth. Mostly, though, I simply enjoyed Gaiman’s tongue-in-cheek humor juxtaposed with Lovecraft’s “eldritch nightmares.”
A must read for Lovecraft fans, and recommended for anyone who likes fantasy horror mixed with humor. ~Tadiana Jones
“Welcome to Astuna” by Pip Coen (June 2017, free at Apex, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)
Jane Long wakes up in a dirty motel room in Astuna, her last memory that of headed into a freshman evaluation with a Professor Shenk. She has no idea how she wound up in a squalid motel. Worse yet, when she looks at herself in the mirror, she finds she’s some fifteen years older, wiry and scarred. Jane, like most people, has a brain implant, and somehow years of her memory have been taken from her.
Astuna is a tropical island, overloaded with casinos, where there’s a thriving semi-illicit business in memories ― a business that’s now illegal in the United States. Peoples’ memories are worth a fair amount of money, and doing something like, say, losing too much money at the gambling tables can result in your creditors taking your memories in compensation, keeping them on a “memory slip” that’s required to be encrypted to protect your privacy, though that encryption protection lasts just one year. Jane has a mystery on her hands: why were her memories taken, and is there any way to get them back?
Jane’s a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed character, rude to everyone she meets, but the fix she finds herself in is a fascinating one. As the fast-paced plot begins to unfold, there are several surprises in store for both Jane and the reader. The ending puts everything into perspective, in an unexpected but entirely logical way. It’s not a terribly deep story, but it’s a well-crafted, noir-ish adventure. ~Tadiana Jones
“No Sweeter Art” by Tony Pi (2014, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, £0.99 or 99c Kindle magazine issue). Finalist for the 2015 Aurora Award, Best Short Fiction
Ao has a remarkable gift. Not only can he spin and blow sugar into the shape of zodiac animals, he can also inhabit the caramel figures, move them, see through their eyes and by doing so communicate with that animal’s zodiac spirit. But the spirits are tricksy ― for every favour Ao asks of them, there is also a price to pay. When Ao is hired to protect the important Magistrate Gongsun from a dangerous sect who is out to kill him, Ao has to employ all of his talent to do the job, crafting a caramel rat, monkey, ox and rooster to help him. He also has to ask for help from the zodiac spirits and pay his debts to them in return.
There is a charming inventiveness to this story and it conjures some lovely images. Ao’s sugary talent is described in wonderfully tantalising detail:
I would cook molten sugar in my pot to draw crowds from afar with its unmistakable syrup-sweet aroma and hold them rapt with my Tangren art, blowing candy zodiac animals from molten caramel, while Nong would tempt the same spectators with fragrant roasted melon-seeds.
Tony Pi has created an enticing world of riddles, traps and magic – the sort you long to visit despite its many dangers. I had fun hearing from each zodiac spirit and learning of their tricky personalities.
“No Sweeter Art” feels incomplete by itself and so I was pleased to learn that Tony Pi has written more in this series (in fact “No Sweeter Art” is a sequel to “A Sweet Calling,” though it can be read alone). Ao and his candy animals make for such a fun and inventive story that it would be shame to leave them at this one adventure. ~Katie Burton