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.
“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny (1963, text and audio free on EscapePod, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). 1964 Hugo nominee (short fiction)
In this classic and much-anthologized tale of life on Mars, Gallinger, a brilliant linguist and poet with an antagonistic personality, is part of an Earth mission to study the humanoid Martian natives. The Martians are long-lived but slowly dying society, though Gallinger sees evidence of their past greatness in their buildings and culture. As he studies their ancient texts, tutored by M’Cwyie, the ancient Martian matriarch, and becomes acquainted with Braxa, an attractive and gifted temple dancer, he begins to understand both the past event that has led to the decline of Martian society and their religious belief that underscores promotes their fatalistic outlook. But Gallinger’s studies, and an unexpected turn in his relationship with Braxa, lead to a crossroads for both Gallinger and the Martian people.
This story is charmingly dated, both in some of its social references and especially in that it features a highly developed civilization of human-like Martians. Still, it’s a well-deserved SF classic. Roger Zelazny’s writing is wonderfully rich, immersing the reader in a world that’s both strange and strangely familiar. And Gallinger is a memorable protagonist, a proud genius who gradually learns what it means to care about someone else. ~Tadiana Jones
Bourbon, Sugar, Grace by Jessica Reisman (2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
Fox is a young woman living on her own on the mining planet Sloe, after her hard drinking offended her co-op’s administrant once too often. Life on Sloe is difficult and jobs are scarce since the mining company abandoned the work and most of its mine workers there. Now Fox is scraping by doing odd jobs as a scavenger.
Fox’s current salvage job is to retrieve an object from a wrecked train car mired in toxic sludge, identified by the scanner given to Fox by the person who employed her to retrieve the object. It turns out to be an oblong rock with a strange crystal spiral embedded in it. When Fox badly injures her leg leaving the train car, burning it in the sludge, the rock seems to block most of the pain. It’s worrisome, but even more concerning is the fact that two sinister company employees are hard on her trail, searching for this mysterious rock.
This novelette is an interesting mix of hard science fiction and mysticism. The power in the rock seems to have a link to the stories once told to Fox by her two loving moms (one of whom is referred to as “he,” in a noteworthy take on gender identity). Fox is a solid character, damaged by life on the inhospitable planet of Sloe, but she begins to understand that it’s nevertheless home to her and many of her community. ~Tadiana Jones
The Orangery by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (2016, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue). 2017 Nebula nominee (novelette)
This Greek mythology-inspired novelette alternates between the voices of two nameless narrators. The first, the guardian of the Orangery, lives a solitary life, caring for and protecting the trees that are in her keeping, who were once human women. The trees’ startled shrieking one day warns her of an intruder: Apollo has come, searching for Daphne, whom he still longs for, though he’s more than willing to have sex with the guardian (or any other woman). The second narrator is the guide, who shows visitors through the Orangery and tells the stories of the women who now live there as trees, and their fraught dealings with the men who wanted them, but too often were abusive in the process. Not coincidentally, Apollo plays a role in all of these tales she tells to the visitors.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s story focuses on the relationships and issues between men and women, with a strong feminist message, woven together with the guide’s stories, which are variations on ancient Greek myths. It’s a disturbing story, with the ruthless Apollo symbolizing the men who are unwilling to take no for an answer. On the other hand, one of the stories features Dryope, a married woman who engages in an affair with Apollo to her ultimate sorrow, giving the story an interesting element of complexity.
The guardian makes some questionable choices: instead of leading Apollo to Daphne, she sacrifices another nameless woman, telling him this woman’s tree is Daphne, to try to protect the real Daphne. And she ultimately breaks away from the isolated Orangery to explore the world and herself:
Time had not been as kind to me, for I’d lived the kind of life some would be ashamed of. I’d known a hundred men, women too. I’d embraced Dionysus and explored other states of reality. I’d exhausted many of the world’s possibilities. I wasn’t ashamed.
Yay? For me that message doesn’t resonate, but others may find it, and this story, more appealing. ~Tadiana Jones
Vampires from Outer Space by Robert Silverberg (1959, $4.99 at Audible)
Robert Silverberg’s novelette Vampires from Outer Space was originally published in April 1959 (when Silverberg was 24 years old) in the 35₵ Special Monster Issue of Super-Science Fiction Magazine. It seems likely that this was one of the many stories Silverberg wrote as simply a money-maker since he attached the name Richard F. Watson, one of his many pseudonyms, to its byline. (And at least one of the other stories in that same Special Monster Issue was also written by Silverberg under a different pseudonym.)
The story takes place in a far future (2104) when Earth is inhabited by several visiting alien species. One of these, the Nirotins, are physically repulsive to humans (they look like giant purple bats) but are tolerated because of mutually beneficial trade agreements. When one of the Nirotins is allegedly seen killing a human by sucking out his blood, and after several other humans are killed in a similar fashion, humans turn against the entire Nirotin race and call for their expulsion from Earth.
This story is simple and simply written — not up to the standards of some of the glorious later fiction we’ve seen from Robert Silverberg — but it’s interesting and, for a story written in 1959, amazingly timely. It’s sad that, when it comes to racism, prejudice, and our tendency to suspect “others” of evil and to want to kick them out of our communities, we haven’t progressed very far in the past 60 years.
Mike Vendetti narrates the hour long audio version of Vampires from Outer Space. He does a nice job. ~Kat Hooper
“Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color” by Sunny Moraine (2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
A young wife, who seems to have recently moved with her husband into a new home, struggles with visions of flocks of starlings that flutter all around her and whisper with a thousand shadowy voices. She develops a mistrust of her apparently loving and concerned husband, who is blending into a terrifying starling king type of figure in her mind. She feels totally unable to communicate with him or her friend about her troubled mind and heart. Meanwhile, a terrifying voice speaks to her of fearfully running through a cornfield, of monsters waiting for her and calling to her in the dark, and of debts owed.
“Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color” (the title is taken from a line in T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men”) is highly fantastical on one level. There’s some interesting imagery here, including a creepy cornfield element, perhaps inspired by Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn,” as well as terrifying birds that Hitchcock would have approved of. But once you cut through all of the bird imagery and evocative language, it’s entirely straightforward at its heart: the story of a mentally disturbed woman who’s gradually going over the edge. I don’t believe this is even a fantasy, except to the extent we’re getting inside of the narrator’s head.
The narrator’s thoughts on her mental illness are occasionally intriguing:
Some of us want the light left on. But others of us want to surrender to the darkness. Everyone is eager for us to get over it. What we represent. What we are. What they sense. In our terror we become terrifying.
While I felt pity for the narrator and sympathy for her husband, ultimately this story failed to particularly interest or move me, and it didn’t especially illuminate the problem of mental illness. ~Tadiana Jones
Oh, I love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes!” I’m so glad you enjoyed it, too, Tadiana.
It’s actually a longtime favorite, but it’s been many years since I’d read it, so I was delighted to come across it again!
I read it for a college class, then re-read it about a year ago, and discovered that I’d forgotten how enjoyable it is. :)