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Short Fiction Friday: Happy Birthday

REVIEW SUMMARY: This week is celebrating its 5th birthday, in honor of which they are giving away an eBook with all of the original stories, with accompanying illustrations, featured over the past 5 years.  This week I review four recent original story offerings.


BRIEF SUMMARY: Alien symbiotes and their teenage hosts populate a post-alien-invasion Earth; a low-level boxer comes into his own when a concussion and the following surgery leave him with heightened powers of perception; frustratingly realistic government posturing and bureaucracy greet the discovery of an object of alien origin found in our solar system; and a writer in a bar meets another writer who relates his strange-but-true tale of space travel over a number of alcoholic beverages.

PROS: Creative look at conflict resolution in an Earth vs. Alien war; interesting commentary on world systems that should undergo meaningful evolution; a strong example of how to effectively capture the teen voice.
CONS: One unlikable protagonist with no arc of character development; one story reads like a writing exercise with a limited, niche appeal.

BOTTOM LINE: For five years Tor has been one of the leading publishers in the SFF field, one of the reasons being their willingness to embrace social media and provide regular, worthwhile content for fans of the genre.  Their commitment to showcasing original short fiction for free, including work from established authors and exciting newcomers, and their understanding of the importance of marrying good art to story, makes them a leader in the field.  These four stories are some of their most recent postings, and although they did not all “wow” me, each one is an example of good technique.  Not every short story…heck, not every story period…will appeal universally to readers.  When it comes to the free fiction that Tor publishes, there is no hack work.  I encourage readers to register on their site for the sole purpose of getting the weekly featured stories emailed in their newsletter.  As a bonus you’ll also get access to great genre-related content.

One” by Nancy Kress

Zack, an angry young boxer, awakens from a surgical procedure to correct a bout-induced head injury to discover that he is aware of what others around him are about to do. He cannot read their minds, per se, but he is acutely aware of the movements they will make, their emotional state, and generally knows things about them that are not being communicated to him verbally. This naturally confuses and then angers Zack until he begins to get a handle on the fact that this is occurring, even if he does not know the how’s and why’s. It does not take Zack long to find a way to exploit this in his career, but this new-found ability does not take Zack on the journey one would expect.

I am a fan of both the short and longer fiction of Nancy Kress and thus I was surprised by the problems I had with this story. Zack is not a likeable protagonist in any way. Which is not a problem in and of itself. If you have been reading for any length of time you can probably name unlikeable characters who have captured your imagination. Kress takes Zack’s story in many unexpected directions which makes the novella an interesting read right through until the end. However it is not apparent that Zack makes any progress or self-discovery during the journey. Let’s face it, Zack is an ass. There really is no better way to describe him. He appears to suffer from some self-esteem issues as evidenced by his frequent ruminations on his intellectual shortcomings. He has a low frustration tolerance and lashes out at everyone in his life, including the one possible love of his life, a 17-year-old girl named Jazzy. [An aside: it surprised me to see a contemporary story written by a female writer that had an underage character as the protagonist’s sexual partner.]

On the relationship front, his “gift” allows him to suddenly know and anticipate what any sexual partner would want but as the act ensues he finds himself somehow merging with that person and feeling as if he becomes them. This gives his sexual partner an unbelievable experience but leaves Zach feeling violated and angry. This was in large part where Kress’ story went off the rails for me. Zack finds himself needing to become highly intoxicated to enjoy sex “the way it used to be”, which, without a lot of detail, left this reader to interpret that as sex in which he could think only about himself and his own needs and not have to care about his partner. I’m reasonably sure that is not what Kress meant to present but with the absence of a lot of detail it reads as if this is simply one more aspect of Zack’s narcissism.

Every unlikable protagonist need not go through a redemptive arc in order for a story to have impact.  However it felt as if Zack went through no development arc at all with the exception of his career choices.  Even those landed him right back where the reader meets him, from a maturity/development level.  The impression given by the ending of Kress’ story is that Zack may have the opportunity to reconnect with his lost love on his terms, something I would not wish on that young lady for anything in the world.

The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn

“The greatest discovery in all of human history and funding held it hostage.”

In tracking and photographing various asteroids within the solar system, Jane took note of the anomalies of one particular asteroid in Jupiter’s orbit and identified it as an object of alien origin.  What should have generated excitement, this potential proof of first contact, instead remains largely unexplored.  As Jane herself states, “The thing is, you discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and you still have to go home, wash up, get a good night’s sleep, and come up with something to eat for breakfast in the morning.”  Time passes and Jane becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of focused action and the seeming lack of desire to devote resources to further exploration and discovery.

Vaughn’s short story is a brilliant piece of commentary on the frustrating and generally stifling level of bureaucracy that seems to accompany all aspects of contemporary life.  This story could have been written with a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and gotten a similar message across but works far better with a more serious tone; the feelings of sadness and melancholic resignation it engenders speaks to the feelings of many about the current state of the American space program.

Carrie Vaughn proves that it does not take many words to convey truths worth looking at, even if we have been aware of them all along.

Contains Multitudes” by Ben Burgis

Earth went to war with aliens and the aliens won, obtaining in their victory permission to enter into a symbiotic relationship with that next generation of children, children who are now in their teens.  These teenagers in many aspects appear normal, but they carry an Other within them with whom they share a very intimate personal relationship.  As one would expect, being different is not always a welcome state of being and there are those who look at these young people as unwelcome outsiders, especially given the nature of the aliens that live within them.

It is not unusual for stories with teen protagonists to examine the feelings of alienation that teens often experience during this transitional stage of their lives.  I enjoyed the manner in with Burgis touches on this without it being an obvious focal point of the story.

Burgis has written a slice-of-life story featuring two very likeable teens.  In their interactions he creatively unveils his imagined future in a unique and engaging way.  Burgis captures the teenage voice well; the characters feel authentic to the reader.  This was a fun, sometimes disturbing, tale that leaves the reader imagining a variety of scenarios, not all of them good, that could play out as the result of a very out-of-the-ordinary date night.

Rocket Ship to Hell” by Jeffrey Ford
(This story available online July 20th)

In order to find respite from an exhausting convention experience, the author drops by a neighborhood watering hole to have a drink or two. While there an older gentlemen walks in who is himself a science fiction author and proceeds to tell Ford and the female bartender about an unbelievable experience he had as a younger man, when he was picked to take part in a secret NASA project funded by a few rich private individuals to travel into space and write about the experience. Ford’s story reads as an entirely plausible account in which a highly implausible story is being related. The story told by the older author is an homage to the kind of fantastic adventure-in-space tale made popular in science fiction’s pulp era.

Ford’s story is a fun exercise that may resonate with fans who have a fondness for that era of science fiction and its fandom. As did many of the pulp era stories, the tale of the journey into space is so full of questionable “science” and plot holes that suspension of disbelief is unlikely. Would any group of people, private or government-run, really spend the money to build a space ship only to send three poorly trained individuals–a writer, a musician, and a painter–into space? It is little wonder the story leaves Ford and the bartender incredulous. The storytellers “proof” is another fun nod to classic science fiction. Enjoyable, if somewhat slight.

Don’t forget to go register on to get a free copy of their Ebook edition of the first 5 years of original short fiction.

Artists for the featured stories are:

David Palumbo (“One”,”Rocket Ship to Hell”)
Greg Ruth (“The Best We Can”)
Jeff Simpson (“Contains Multitudes”)

2 Comments on Short Fiction Friday: Happy Birthday

  1. What about “Old Dead Futures”?

    And I guess, “Dragonskin” wasn’t included because it’s fantasy?

    I’ve only had time to read “Rocketship to Hell” and “The Best We Can” so far, but I thought both of them were excellent.


    • I read and review fantasy here as well. The stories were chosen a bit at random out of the more recent lineup. I intended to review more but ran short of time.

      I was very impressed with “The Best We Can”.

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