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.
“Variations on an Apple” by Yoon Ha Lee (2016, free at Tor.com or $0.99 at Amazon)
I want to thank Tadiana for bringing this story to my attention. I probably wouldn’t have found it on my own, and it’s a stunner.
This is a retelling of the siege of Troy, complete with the three goddesses and the apple of discord. As the name implies, here the apple is not simply a catalyst for strife caused by female jealousy; and this story is not simply about a war. And Troy, called Ilion, is not merely a nine-walled fortress-city.
Hera, Aphrodite and Athena approach Paris, a prince, bringing with them the Apple of Discord, which is inscribed “To the Fairest.” Paris, who is fiddling with an abacus that is also a computer tablet, is reluctant. Even when the goddesses offer bribes, he hesitates, asking why this falls to him.
“Because there’s a siege through the threads of time,” Athena said, “and you are knotted into it. Not that you’re the only one, but that’s not yours to know, not yet.”
“Siege through the threads of time,” and the word “superposition,” which is used twice, are clues about what is happening, or when/where it is happening. Paris, who loves his city, Ilion, does the unexpected, in the hope that it will change things, but even though this is a story about a quantum universe and a quantum city, things are not as random as Paris hopes.
Later, Paris meets with his lover, Ilion. Yes, the city takes the form of a person, and Paris is that person’s lover. Ilion is a handsome young man or a tawny girl; it’s a walled Bronze Age city; it’s a quantum computer; it’s a space station, and in this story there is no reason it can’t be all of those things at the same time. The war lasts ten years, or a hundred, or a billion. This is the war of discord.
If you’re like me, you’ll have to read this more than once before you decide what is going on. If you’re like me, you won’t mind at all, because it’s that gorgeous. Yoon Ha Lee’s language is breathtaking. She probably knows from line to line whether Ilion is in the then, the now, the near future, the far future, or in another reality completely. I didn’t know that, but I didn’t really care; the small clues (a city that is shaped like a spindle, the gates that “flowered open”) painted an exquisite picture of this quantum city and its human lover.
I liked the depiction of Cassandra and wish we had seen a bit more of her. I did not love the portrayal of Helen. Because Yoon Ha Lee is sticking closely to the original story in some ways ― no, I’m not being ironic ― I know Helen had to be in there, but after the power of the relationship between Paris and Ilion she felt more like an afterthought that the powerful game-changer she is supposed to be. That didn’t stop me from loving this story. I felt like this was the best of the old 1960s New Wave, brought to updated, poetic, breathtaking life. ~Marion Deeds
“Points of Origin” by Marissa Lingen (2015, free at Tor.com or $0.99 at Amazon)
Torulf Chao and Judith Goldstein are a couple in their eighties (which has become middle-age, thanks to advances in medicine) living on Mars, raising tankfish, and quietly going about their lives. After an economic collapse in the Oort Cloud colony and some potentially uncivil disobedience, a social worker presents them with three young grandchildren: serious-minded Enid, nervous Richard, and cheerful Harry. Though Torulf and Judith merely donated some genetic material to a childless couple years ago, the parents are no longer able to raise their offspring, and thus they have come to Mars. Living planetside is a whole new experience for the children, much as raising pre-teen strangers will be for the adults, and some major adjustments and concessions will have to be made if everyone is to get along.
One of my favorite things about Marissa Lingen’s fiction is that her characters never just read as characters; they’re people with rich inner lives and realistic dialogue, and who seem completely at home in their fantastic settings. It’s like she’s transcribing the stories people have told to her, then passing the stories along to the reader, rather than sitting at a desk and saying, “I want to write a story about a man who has difficulties connecting with his precocious granddaughter.” Obviously, I have no idea what her process is, but her fiction always comes across as a fluid, natural narrative, something found rather than crafted and shaped. In “Points of Origin” itself, Torulf describes peridot mining at the town of Magus Station as “picking up perfectly nice things from the ground.” To my mind, Lingen may as well be describing her own fiction with this phrase.
Also, I may now be mildly obsessed with the idea of finding a pallasite necklace. ~Jana Nyman
“Bloodless” by Cory Skerry (2015, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies or $0.99 at Amazon)
“Bloodless” is set in a society where vampires are made then used as enslaved guards for their villages, kept alive and obedient through a “witch star” that replaces their hearts and a daily libation of blood and herbs. The protagonist, Kamalija, was turned as a young girl and has been guarding her town for a couple of generations. An intriguing man, Lafiik, approaches her one night while she is on guard. He is a “bloodless,” like her — but a free one. Kamalija is torn between duty and freedom, between a life of sacrifice and a life of choice. In the end, she finds a surprising compromise.
The story is interesting, but Skerry’s details are gorgeous. Several of them slipped by me unnoticed the first time I read the story. On a second read, I was able to visualize the world much more fully — and now I want more in the same world. ~Kate Lechler
“Defending Elysium” by Brandon Sanderson (2008, free on Sanderson’s website)
This novelette, one of Sanderson’s first published works, is set in a future where humans have been contacted by aliens. One of the Bell phone companies played a key role in that contact and, as a result, the “Phone Company” has a monopoly on all alien technology, including the secret to faster than light (FTL) travel, which would open up the galaxy to humanity. The fact that the Phone Company won’t share its knowledge of FTL travel with the rest of humanity has created a lot of resentment. But there are reasons for this secrecy.
Jason Write, a Phone Company operative, has been sent to a deep space habitat to investigate the disappearance of another company employee. From the moment of his arrival, life get progressively more complicated for Jason: his telepathic communications are being monitored, he’s being followed by an intelligence agency operative, an alien ambassador has been killed, and the missing woman turns up with a very odd type of amnesia. The reasons for all this are stranger than even Jason would have guessed.
This story has a fascinating worldview:
“Do you know how the Interspecies Monitoring Coalition rates a race’s intelligence class?”
“They look at the race’s children,” Jason said quietly. “The older ones. Children who have lived just long enough to begin imitating the society they see around them, children who have lost the innocence of youth but haven’t yet replaced it with the tact and mores of adulthood. In those children, you can see what a species is really like. From them, the Varvax determine whether a species is civilized or barbaric.”
“And we failed that test,” Lanna said.
My imagination was captivated by “Defending Elysium,” but I was left with several irksome questions about the events that take place in the story, even after reading it twice. Still, the world it creates, including an unusual alien race, the use of the alien’ knowledge of technology and the development of psychic powers, and the theme of conformity and dissidence, was intriguing and indicative of Sanderson’s early promise as a writer. I think I need to go read this one more time … ~Tadiana Jones
The Long and Silent Ever After by Carlie St. George (2015, free at The Book Smugglers)
“Jimmy is having a hard time focusing on the case,” says the teaser, and that could be equally true of my reactions while reading The Long and Silent Ever After itself. The case in question is the disappearance of Rose Briar, a cabaret singer with ties to multiple criminal figures in Spindle City’s underworld. Jimmy Prince has a lot on his plate: Rose is his friend, so her absence is especially worrisome; he’s spent a horrid year dealing with the worsening effects of the Pins; he’s been avoiding Hank Delgado like, well, the plague; and if all that isn’t enough, Jimmy’s mother is planning his upcoming wedding to Ada Singh — an event in which neither party is interested. Unless Rose is found, Jimmy won’t be able to afford the medicine which keeps his legs or his life in working order.
There’s a lot going on in this concluding novelette in Carlie St. George’s SPINDLE CITY MYSTERIES trilogy of novellas, none of which will make sense if you haven’t read the preceding ones, and most of which could have been solidly great if just given a little more time or space. Moll Chen, the Dragon (a tough old woman who burns her foes alive) has the potential to be really frightening ― even more disturbing than the Godmother is — if the reader didn’t also have to contend with everything else I listed above. So much focus is put on Jimmy’s personal life and his borderline obsession with Hank that the case and its fairytale elements become secondary, losing the charm and novelty which so impressed me in The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper. The language and style of the prose itself is still powerfully reminiscent of 1940s-50s detective novels and noir films, so that element is still appealing, but I didn’t get into these stories because I wanted to listen to Jimmy whine about how much he doesn’t miss the one that got away. I wanted fresh new takes on classic fairy tales, and that thread seems to have been lost along the way. ~Jana Nyman
“Vortex” by Gregory Benford (January 2016, Fantasy & Science Fiction, $1.98 at Amazon.com)
On Mars, a new Chinese expedition asks for help from old First Expedition members Julia and Viktor when problems arise in their encounter with a huge underground lifeform discovered by the First Expedition. Meanwhile, on Earth, war has broken out amongst several of the nations, threatening the interaction of those on Mars, as well as their possible eventual survival.
This was a solid, Golden Age sort of short story. The positive aspects of its classic nature were the intriguing life form (a sort of seemingly intelligent microbial mat), the basic “problem to solve” plot, well-grounded and lucidly explained science, and a clear “humanity kinda sucks” theme. The downsides to its classic form were the lack of any real characterization, relatively flat prose and run-of-the-mill structure, a lot of expository writing, little sense of urgent conflict despite conflict being at the heart of the plot, and a too-clear “humanity kind of sucks” theme. I felt like I’d time traveled to 1973 when I was buzz-sawing through all the Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc. I could find. My 10-year-old self would have found “Vortex” okay but wanted more action; my, um, “older” self likes the long bits of biology but wants more character depth and more stimulating style and structure. ~Bill Capossere
Marion, I’m so glad someone else loved the imaginative writing and imagery in “Variations on an Apple,” even though it’s a little confusing and elusive. I had to read it a couple of times as well.
Jana, I found many lovely examples of pallasite necklaces with a quick Google search. Unfortunately they will set you back several hundred dollars. :)
Yeah…that’s what I found, too, which was disappointing! Still, it’s a neat idea. :)