SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week’s post reviews several of the current crop of Locus Award nominees. 

Phantoms of the Midway by Seanan McGuire (2019, anthologized in The Mythic Dream, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe). 2020 Locus award finalist (novelette).

Most kids dream of running away to join the carnival. Seventeen-year-old Aracely dreams of running away from the carnival. Her mother, Daisy, is the boss and the tattoo artist of the traveling fair, and she’s overprotective, forbidding Aracely to step outside the carnival grounds. Aracely has always obeyed — until the day she sees a mysterious house just beyond the edge. And meets a girl.

Phantoms of the Midway, a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novelette, is a retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone, set beneath the “Dorothy Gale blue” Midwestern sky. This myth can be approached from a lot of different angles; in Seanan McGuire’s version, the focus is on the daughter’s need to differentiate herself from her mother and see the world beyond what she has always known.

The story is poignant yet hopeful, and there’s a big twist hidden within it. McGuire’s writing is beautiful, with vivid imagery and a lyrical rhythm to it that fits the hazy days of summer. I’m always looking for good retellings of this myth, and Phantoms of the Midway is a very, very good one. ~Kelly Lasiter

“The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” by Kelly Link (free at Tin House). 2020 Locus Award finalist (short story).

A professor is stranded in Detroit when her flight is canceled, and over the next several days every subsequent flight she tries to book is canceled as well. She spends her days in the airport hoping a flight will finally take off, and her nights in a Sheraton hotel, seeking peace of mind by swimming in its indoor pool. But she’s growing more and more anxious as the days pass. She wants to get home to see her wife and daughter, and she has an upcoming appointment that she can’t miss.

The SFF element in “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” is subtle, and in fact, it would be possible to read the story as entirely mundane. But it’s there if you look between the lines. Kelly Link hides the weirdness just under the surface of the normalcy.

I’m still not sure I understood everything in this story, and it left me with a sensation of unease that came from imagining some of the things that might happen after the ending — not all of them good. It’s the good kind of unease, though, the kind that comes from an author skillfully messing with your head. ~Kelly Lasiter

“It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning” by Ted Chiang (2019, free at The New York Times). 2020 Locus Award finalist (short story).

Forty years in our future, an op-ed piece is published that discusses recent findings related to the “Gene Equality Project.” For many years humanity has had the ability to perform genetic engineering that increases intelligence, resulting in an average IQ of 130. But the process is so expensive that it has been largely limited to affluent families, whose cognitively enhanced sons and daughters are called the “New Elite.”

In 2035 the philanthropic Gene Equality Project made this cognitive enhancement genetic engineering available to 500 lower-income families. The hope was that this protocol would lead to measurable benefits for these children. Unfortunately, the “500 subjects of the Gene Equality Project are not enjoying career success that is remotely comparable to the success of the New Elite.” This fictional op-ed examines the reasons for that failure, and suggests additional ways to address social inequalities that are leading to a de facto caste system in America.

This fictional piece by Ted Chiang (I hesitate to call it a story; there’s no discernable plot) is the first installment in a new series for the New York Times, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which SF authors and others write op-eds that they imagine we might read many years in the future. I recently read Chiang’s short fiction collection “Stories of Your Life and Others,” and noticed his affinity for “thought experiment” types of stories that are structured around a particular idea. So Chiang is a natural for this type of a work, and his logic and arguments here are compelling … and of course, the message is primarily about our current society’s shortcomings. A year after he published this piece in the Times, it’s more timely than ever. ~Tadiana Jones

The Justified by Ann Leckie (2019, anthologized in The Mythic Dream). 2020 Locus award finalist (novelette).

It took me a little while to get my bearings in Ann Leckie’s The Justified, a Locus Award finalist for Best Novelette. Leckie throws the reader straight into the deep end of the pool, and you have to figure some things out by context. I found it rewarding, though, and in the end I think the lack of info-dumping is a strength.

The Justified is based on the Egyptian myth of Sekhmet. Leckie’s Sekhmet character is Het, who at the beginning of the story is in a frozen wasteland where she has lived in solitude for many years, surviving by hunting and fishing. She is summoned back to court by the ruler, Merur, who wants Het to root out a conspiracy.

This story is set in the far future. Merur and Het are both among the Justified, an upper class of enhanced people with certain superhuman abilities and perks. The masses, the one-lived, do all the work and fear the Justified as gods. Merur believes the one-lived are plotting against her and wants to use Het as a weapon against them, but Het has some serious qualms about what she is being asked to do.

The Justified is inventive, gory, and satisfying, with a timely message that justice should be for everyone. ~Kelly Lasiter

“I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married“, Fonda Lee (2019, free at MIT Technology Review 12/27/19). 2020 Locus award finalist (short story).

This Locus-nominated short story is told in the form of a series of blog or subreddit-type posts. The writer of the posts, a young man — actually, he’s old enough to have parents bugging him to get married, but he certainly reads young — decides to deal with the parental pressures in a millennial type of way: he creates an AI-generated virtual girlfriend named “Ivy.” She’s great at texting him loving messages, and the website that he signed up with will also insert this virtual girlfriend into his photos and short videos that he can show to his parents.

He’s a little nervous about the fact that there are only twelve different girlfriend facial models, which might show up in an online search, so he uses a deepfake app called FaceAbout to alter Ivy’s face in the media files. Since FaceAbout needs several photos of a woman’s face to do its magic, he uploads pictures of a gay friend of his, Mikala, without her permission, figuring no one will ever find out. And all goes well until, of course, it doesn’t.

This is an amusing story, though with sobering undertones. The main character starts to develop feelings for his virtual girlfriend and uses her for his main social outlet instead of real friends. The only people he confides in are the followers of his posts. It’s a predictable story, but Fonda Lee does an excellent job of capturing the voice and personality of an incel blogger who spends most of his time online. ~Tadiana Jones


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

    View all posts
  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

    View all posts