Our weekly 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.
You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, Alyssa Wong (2016, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue) 2017 Nebula and 2016 Hugo award nominee (novelette)
Alyssa Wong sets her novelette You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay in a Western mining town, focusing this second-person tale on Ellis, a young boy who works at the town’s brothel, as does his best friend Marisol. Ellis has the mixed gift and curse of an untamed, not-fully-known power over the dead, who roam the nearby desert that so calls to him. The precipitating event of the story is the arrival of some of the mine’s owners — “city men from the East” — here to check out the mine after its tragic collapse (which killed many of the miners). They hope to use Ellis and his power to get them past the desert’s angry dead.
The prose is sharp, vivid, and evocative, and Wong does a great job stylistically mirroring/emphasizing the wild nature of the desert magic as well as Ellis’ sense of personal confusion/chaos. There’s a lot explored here: grief, exploitation, greed, coming into one’s own, vengeance, the uncanny aspect of the natural world, though some of it comes a bit scattershot or feels a little rushed and thin. The ending is nicely bittersweet and mostly effective, even if I had a hard time engaging emotionally with Ellis (less so with Mariposa). For me it was an enjoyable, mostly well-told story with some stylistic verve that didn’t particularly wow me and probably won’t linger all that long. ~Bill Capossere
“Red” by Ramsey Shehadeh (May 2017, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
Ansel, age 17, is playing a homemade board game with his parents. It’s a type of detective game, a little like Clue, and it once was a favorite game of Ansel and his younger sister Louise. Louise has been missing for some time, and Ansel, who was the last person to see her, has been racking his brain, trying to figure out a way to find her. In his desperate grief, he finds himself inside of the game, playing the part of a detective, seeking clues to Louise’s whereabouts from the characters in the game.
“Red” is a fascinating story: The gradual disclosure of the story of Louise’s disappearance in the real life scenes, and its effect on Ansel’s family, interweaves so well with Ansel’s investigation inside of the game. It’s never clear whether he is actually magically inside the game, having found a portal into another world, or whether it’s in his imagination, or is a psychotic effect of his guilt and sorrow. The characters he meets inside the game have many of the same limitations that they do in the actual board game, but there’s some flexibility there, as with the LIBRARIAN:
They’d drawn her as a kind of caricature. She had a large undifferentiated shelf of breasts, bee-stung lips, absurdly high heels. But she was philosophical about it. They just made me, she always said. I am me.
I loved everything about this story … except the ending. It’s abrupt and annoyingly ambiguous, though perhaps I’m simply not perceptive enough to get the author’s subtle clues. Confusingly, there are both positive and negative images and hints, both light and dark. Despite multiple rereadings of the ending, it’s simply not clear to me whether Ansel’s direction at the end is a positive step for him or a nihilistic one. Ansel says, in the end, “Ok, I get it” … but I don’t. Still, I found this bittersweet story very appealing. ~Tadiana Jones
“Mitigation” by Tobias Buckell & Karl Schroeder (2008, audio free at StarShipSofa, $1.95 at Audible)
Like many of Tobias Buckell’s stories, “Mitigation” is set in a future where the environment has been ravaged by humans or their technology. In this story we meet a man who grew up on a Caribbean island that no longer exists due to global warming and the rising ocean. Though it satisfies him to be an ecoterrorist, sticking it to the big corporations that try to profit from carbon credits, his job doesn’t pay well. Then he gets hired by Russians to act as a bodyguard for a biologist who needs to enter the World Seed Bank. But guarding the biologist is just a pretense. Once he gets access to the bank, he has another job to do. It’s illegal and risky, but he’ll be paid enough to retire.
“Mitigation” is an exciting tale — fast-paced and fun. I liked the ecoterrorism theme, the way the story made me think about the future of our lands and oceans and, especially, the twist ending. The Audible version of “Mitigation” is just over 1 hour long and narrated by Jeff Woodman, who’s excellent. It was worth my $2 (though I probably got it at a half-price sale). The free StarShipSofa version read by Mike Boris is quite good, too.
“Mitigation” first appeared in the 2008 anthology Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders. It also appears in Buckell’s collection Mitigated Futures. ~Kat Hooper
“The 37 Faces of Tohk Bathom” by Effie Sieberg (May 2017, free at Podcastle)
Effie Sieberg takes a fairly conventional plot (an abused child is aided by a supernatural champion) and gives it an original spin in Podcastle’s “The 37 Faces of Tohk Bathom.” The story’s innovations are enhanced by beautiful, sensuous descriptions: the carvings on the walls of the temple, the texture and scent of the frangipani blossoms, the flickering light of the candles, the pressure of the stone floor on the main character’s knees.
Chananthay, an orphan, is the Temple Child of Tohk Bathom, where the monks routinely conduct the Ritual of Reason, asking the 37 carved Faces for answers to questions about the future. Then, the monks retire to a room where they debate and parse the answers, often for days. In their quest for knowledge, the monks are harsh, and their treatment of the Temple Child is cruel. She is regularly beaten for any possible transgression, and she has heard a rumor that the previous Temple Child was killed by the monks. The most hurtful thing, though, is that they tell her she is “useless” and “illogical,” because the monks set great store by logic.
Beneath her hurt and fear, Chananthay holds a deep pit of loneliness. To pass the time and give herself comfort, Chananthay has given names to the carved forms of the soldiers on the walls of the temple, and while she is doing her chores, she imagines conversations with them. One night before a Ritual of Reason, Chananthay makes an error in the color of frangipani bloom she must use for the ritual candles, and the result is that one of the 37 Faces –those who speak only to the monks – talks to her. She discovers she is not the only one who feels isolated and lonely.
The character voice of Chananthay is convincing as that of a vulnerable child, sincere in wanting to do well, and lonely. Chananthay is badly treated, including being physically beaten, but these events happen off the page. It isn’t that they aren’t serious, because we see the consequences, but by moving them offstage Sieberg lets us have a lighter ending, in which Chananthay gets justice. Along the way, Sieberg has some fun at the expense of the logic-bound monks and makes some points about information, knowledge, wisdom and how those are all different.
The original setting and the grounded physical detail elevated this story for me. The podcast of “The 37 Faces of Tahk-Bathon” is narrated ably by Podcastle co-editor Jen R. Albert, who brings Chananthay’s voice, in particular, to life. ~Marion Deeds
“Sentiment, Inc.” by Poul Anderson (1953, free on Kindle and on Project Gutenberg, $2.99 at Audible)
Colin Fraser has been seeing a lot of Judy Sanders, a small-time theater actress, and it seemed that she was about to accept his marriage proposal when she suddenly tells him she’s instead going to marry an aging millionaire whom she had previously dumped. She claims to love the millionaire, but Colin doesn’t believe it. He has a feeling that her sudden change of heart has something to do with Sentiment, Inc., a research facility where she’s been having her brain measured. So he starts investigating.
On the surface, this 1953 story feels really outdated, especially when Judy says things like “Colin, you know I want to get somewhere before I marry — see a bit of the world, the theatrical world, before turning hausfrau.” However, neuroscience is just now getting to the place where the “science fiction” of this “Sentiment, Inc.” is starting to become a possibility, which, I think, makes it of interest to modern readers. I enjoyed it.
This early novelette by Poul Anderson was first published in Science Fiction Stories edited by Robert W. Lowndes. You gotta check out the cover. It’s now available free on Kindle and elsewhere on the internet. If you get the free Kindle version, you can add the Audible narration for 2.99. Tom Weiss does a nice job with the narration. ~Kat Hooper
“The Time Being” by Antonia Honeywell (2014, free at Audible)
“The Time Being” is a teaser for Antonia Honeywell’s novel The Ship, which Ray reviewed last year. It stars 11 year old Lalla, who lives with her parents in a future dystopian London. When she sees advertisements that tell her she could have a wonderful happy life at Regent’s Park, she begs her parents to take her there. When they refuse, Lalla decides to take matters into her own hands, and trouble ensues.
Fans of The Ship, I think, will be most interested in “The Time Being” because it shows a young Lalla growing up in this unpleasant and dangerous dystopia. The story didn’t do much for me, mainly because the setting seemed like your run-of- the-mill dystopia (perhaps it is more interesting in the novel), the plot wasn’t all that exciting, and the crux of it depended on Lalla’s parents unwisely not simply explaining to their daughter that Regent’s Park was likely a government trap. If there was a reason for them keeping silent, it didn’t come across.
The audio version of “The Time Being” is free at Audible. It’s 31 minutes long and the narration by Melody Grove is lovely. ~Kat Hooper
“Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor (May 2017, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
In a dystopian future, the world has changed drastically: the seas are rising, society has fallen apart, survivors are few and barely scraping by, birth defects are high, and evolution seems to have abandoned humanity and turned its attention back to creatures like trilobites and coelacanths.
Mir is a teenage girl in a small community on the eastern shore of the U.S. Her family is fraying: her mother committed suicide with Mir’s deformed baby brother, her scientist father waxes eloquent about how these ancient monsters from the sea are developing the ability to live on land, and he is physically changing in some very strange ways. Mir’s friend Jersey begs her to leave their failing community and strike out inland with him in search of a better life. She’s tempted, but torn.
Despite its bleakness, I was interested in “Sweetlings” until it took a sharp and unexpected turn into sheer horror at the end, a move that didn’t seem to bear any real relationship to reality and wasn’t sufficiently connected to what came before. The shift from slightly fantastical dystopian science fiction to gruesome fantasy horror left me repulsed. Fans of the horror genre might find more to love here than I did, though. ~Tadiana Jones
“This is Not a Wardrobe Door” by A. Merc Rustad (2016, free at Fireside Fiction) 2017 Nebula award nominee (short story)
In this portal fantasy, Ellie has happily traveled back and forth between our world and a magical fantasy world, where her best friend Zera lives. Sometimes she ages while she’s in the magical world, but she’s always six years old again when she returns. But now for some reason the portal has stopped working for her. Ellie writes pleading letters to the “Gatekeeper,” asking that her closet door please be fixed so she can return. She misses Zera desperately; she misses the adventures they had playing with sea monsters and flying to the moon on dragons.
Meanwhile, her friend Zera is on a long and dangerous quest to try to re-open the portal from her side. But Zera knows that time passes more quickly on Ellie’s planet, and she fears that they may not be able to reconnect before it’s too late.
The basic idea for “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door” — the closed magical portal — is charming,* but the story is a very simple one, and it descends into heavy-handed preachiness at the end, with unsubtle messages about gender fluidity, empowerment and love. The linchpin of the story, the angry Forgotten Book, doesn’t get enough explanation or foundation to really integrate with the story; it’s just a device to send another social message. Ultimately it’s a weak story, not, in my opinion, deserving of a Nebula nomination. Political correctness alone does not a good story make. But I did like the way Ellie’s mother is integrated into the story, and the illustration for the story is delightful.
*Actually, the basic plot idea is so appealing that at least two other similar short fiction works have been published in the last year with the same type of plot: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and “Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill. I consider both of these stories a far better way to spend your time. ~Tadiana Jones
Marion, I read “The 37 Faces of Tohk Bathom” and thought it was a very good story. I loved the fantasy aspect, though I had reservations about the reliance on the abused child trope.
PLEASE somebody else read “Red” — I’d love to chat about what you think that abrupt ending is supposed to mean.
**spoilerish comment follows**
I’m an optimist at heart but because of various clues in the text I tend to favor the idea that this is a nihilistic type of ending, though it’s not clear exactly what’s actually happening to Ansel. I noticed that the reviewer at RocketStackRank takes a positive view of the ending, though.
Tadiana, I read “Red,” and… I’m more than a little confused by the ending. It feels so abrupt, like a whole section containing the resolution is missing! I must have missed a lot of clues along the way.
Dang! Well, at least it’s not just me. The comments section to this story on Tor.com indicates a general state of confusion as well. I’m all for subtlety, but I don’t think the author should have been quite this opaque.
Agreed! Authors have to leave at least a few breadcrumbs for the readers to follow. :)
No idea either what’s going on there. I think it’s a little more than ambiguous and actually fights against itself a bit there, which is frustrating. But certainly leaves the optimists and pessimists to go whichever way their heart desires . . .