SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. In this week’s column, we review more of the current crop of 2019 Nebula nominees in the short story and novelette categories.
“A Strange Uncertain Light” by G.V. Anderson (2019, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine). 2019 Nebula Award nominee (novelette).
Anne and Merritt have just been married, practically on impulse. Each of them has a problem: Merritt is a drunk, but Anne sees the ghosts of strangers at the moment of their death. As prosaic an activity as looking out a train window can give her a vision of a man caught between the rails and the wheels, “to be sliced through like brisket.” Neither of them has confessed to the other, though Merritt’s shortcomings have been unhappily obvious. Still, they are honeymooning at Rannings, in Yorkshire, a grand hotel, and Anne is happy.
Another woman, who narrates her own story, is crossing the moors to Rannings to rescue a friend. In her time, years before Anne’s time, Rannings is a sinister sanatorium. Mary is in trouble the moment she sets foot in the rambling manor, despite her determination.
The stories collide, even though the three women are many years apart in time. Though Anne is a mouse, overprotected by parents who convinced her she was hallucinating because of stress, it is she who finds the moral strength and courage to do an unpleasant job that needs doing, and it is this growth that is the ultimate story here. Anderson skillfully merges the timelines to a shocking climax, but it is the tail end of the story that draws all the threads together and demonstrates Anne’s growth.
It’s a complicated plot to contain in so few pages, but Anderson pulls it off with writing that is clean and assured. Anderson’s descriptions of the Yorkshire moors, in brilliant purple bloom, and the rambling hulk that is Rannings, complement her excellent character work. Anderson is a talent to keep an eye on. ~Terry Weyna
On a generation ship journeying through space toward a distant planet they call Paradise, a bomb explodes at the previous captain’s funeral, killing everyone in the room except a young girl, Mey. Mey is the only daughter of the captain’s “sin-eater,” who was also killed in the explosion. She’s forced to take on her father’s role as sin-eater, drinking from the sin-cup containing the nanobots that will circulate in her bloodstream for the rest of her life, filling her mind with the consciousnesses of all of the hundred-odd ship captains who have previously died during the ship’s journey.
It’s a terrible burden for Mey, since the captains’ memories that now fill her brain contain all of their worst deeds and thoughts. They can control her body to some extent and prevent her from telling others what she knows. At the same time, the new captain Bethen, the young daughter of the captain who recently died, drinks from the virtue-cup, which fills her with the all of the previous captains’ most virtuous and self-assured memories, so that she can “lead our generation ship with confidence, with a mind tuned to moral truth.” When Mey dredges up an old, deeply-held secret, she also needs to find a way to communicate it and convince others to take action.
The narrative of “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” is non-linear (for no particularly good reason as far as I could tell, other than making the plot more challenging to grasp) and somewhat opaque, so it may take some time to fully comprehend what’s going on. I certainly appreciated this story more on my second read. Osborne found an intriguing way to weave the ancient ritual of the sin-eater into a science fictional setting, along with themes of abuse of power and the divide between the privileged and those in steerage class on this generation ship. ~Tadiana Jones
“Weatherman” means something very different in Sila’s town. Some years ago, eerie magical storms began striking the town, attacking people, destroying homes, and wreaking all sorts of havoc. Sila, who narrates this story, lists several different types of storms for the reader. (“A Glare: a storm of silence and retribution, with no forgiveness, a terror of it, that takes over a whole community until the person causing it is removed.”) Eventually the townsfolk learn that some people have the gift of shouting down storms and turning them away. Naming the storms also helps. (“A Searcloud: heated air so thick it blinds as it wraps charred arms around those it catches, then billows in the lungs, scorching words from their sounds, memories from their bearers.”) The problem is that these people, called weathermen, eventually transform into mist or lightning or other types of weather themselves.
Sila’s family already has lost some of its members as weathermen who changed and disappeared, and Sila’s mother is determined to prevent Sila and her sisters from becoming weathermen. But Sila feels that this is a destiny calling to her, and begins to secretly create her own lists of storms, and naming them. (“A Leaving: that rush when everything swoops up in dust and agitation and what’s left is scoured. Prepare to bolt your doors so you don’t lose what wants to be lost.”)
“A Catalog of Storms” is strong on evocative imagery, if short on plot and logic. No real explanation is ever given for why all these mystical storms started attacking the town and why the people who fight them as weathermen turn into weather themselves. The tale works best on the metaphorical level, exploring the drive many children have to break away from their families and find their own paths, their mixed emotions at leaving, the difficulty parents may have in letting go, and the heartache and love felt by family members who are left behind. ~Tadiana Jones
A cheap, remote cabin with no amenities, but with lots of dead wasps and at least one dead mouse, seems like just the place for author Suzanna to hole up and write her next mystery novel. Zanna’s assistant Shar sweeps away the dead creatures, sets her up with groceries, and leaves for a nearby motel so Zanna can write without distractions. But the next morning Zanna blows the cabin’s fuses when she tries to use the coffeemaker and the microwave simultaneously, which makes her laptop with its worthless battery unusable for writing.
After some fruitless rummaging around in the cabin’s creepy crawlspace, Zanna decides to hike down to the cabin owner’s home to get help, and finds him dead, apparently from a fall. She calls 911 and her faithful assistant Shar for help. The police don’t blame Zanna; however, something about way the man appears to have died, along with some odd comments made by Shar, triggers Zanna’s sleuthing instincts. But does she really want to know the answer?
What starts out as a seemingly ordinary mystery takes a fantastical turn, although it makes a certain amount of sense based on a few clues we’ve been given in the story. But the internal logic of “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” breaks down significantly: the explanation Zanna is given for why a certain strange and deeply serious problem has been allowed to continue doesn’t seem at all like a reasonable way to handle the problem, and Zanna’s blithe acceptance in the end is amusing but simply not believable. ~Tadiana Jones