I get a fair amount of short fiction books; multi-author anthologies, single-author collections and even individually published novellas. I love the short fiction form, not just because I can easily squeeze in more reading time, but because of the economics of short fiction storytelling. There's no padding here, just pure story.
Here's a roundup of my recent adventures in short fiction reading…
Neil Clarke's themed anthology The Final Frontier collects stories of space exploration and travel to other worlds, two of the classic pegs on which science fiction fans hold their love of the genre. There are certainly plenty of stories in this massive, 600-page anthology to keep readers occupied. One such story is Ken Liu's magnificent "Mono No Aware." The story alternates between flashbacks to the grim setting of the last days of Earth as a planet-destroying asteroid careens toward it, and about twenty years on with the last of mankind soaring through the universe on a giant ship driven by solar sail. The story is narrated by Hiroto, who was a little boy during Earth's last days, but now monitors the precious sail that propels the ship. As Hiroto reminisces about the lesson taught to him by his father about the transience of life, a problem emerges that threatens their journey. This story packs more than one emotional punch and I hereby demand that someone adapt this into a film right now.
Another fantastic space-based story in The Final Frontier is "Diving into the Wreck" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here, the crew of the salvage ship Nobody's Business makes a stunning find: a derelict spaceship originating from five millennia into Earth's past. The ship is an impossibility; it was never designed for travel this far from Earth and it should have been destroyed long ago. It's a great find for the crew but there is one catch. The ship contains a piece of deadly, long-forgotten technology that endangers the dive. But the decision to proceed is made by the crew's captain, who prefers to be called "Boss," and her curiosity and love of things having historical value make it an easy call. Rusch's story of how the crew finds and examines the derelict ship is engrossing for the way the mystery is teased out. Layered on top of that are some interesting characterizations and excellent world building. By the story's end, you'll be wanting to do your own diving into this universe. The good news is that you can. As stories sometimes do, this novella forms the basis for the novel-length story Diving Into the Wreck which itself is the first book in a series. Consider this short story your boarding pass to a series of page-turning mystery-adventures.
"The Martian Obelisk" by Linda Nagata is an entertaining albeit somber story that offers two settings. The first is a not-too-distant future Earth which is past the tipping point of a slow decline toward extinction. An octogenarian architect hopes to construct (via remote-controlled machines and artificial intelligence) a massive structure on the sands of Mars to stand forever as a monument to humanity and an age of space exploration that never came to be. The other setting is Mars itself, site of her Martian Obelisk-in-progress, where a shocking discovery changes everything. Most stories about the decline of humanity's time on Earth are dark and this is no different; Susannah's contemplations about the speed at which our final fate arrives convey the seriousness of the survivors' situation. Often, end-of-the-world stories also offer hope and "The Martian Obelisk" does that, too, in a way that balances the story quite nicely. It's quite simply a great read. Many editors thought so too: you can find it in Clarke's The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 3, in The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Twelve edited by Jonathan Strahan, in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, as part of the 8-disc audio anthology The Year's Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster. (Any one of those anthologies is a treasure chest waiting for you to open it.)
In Tobias S. Buckell's excellent story "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance," the point-of view character is a robot, or as it refers to itself, "hull maintenance form." To all outward appearances, the crab-like being looks like a robot, existing on the outside hull of a spaceship traveling near a black hole, repairing the damage from normal space travel, and more immediately, from a recent battle. However, this robot houses a copy of a human mind. In this posthuman future, humans have uploaded their minds into other forms. This particular form implicitly follows Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which give the story a classic feel, while still being rooted in more modern sf tropes. The central conceit posed by the story is how the narrator can overcome its programming to solve a moral dilemma, the solution of which even Asimov wouldn't have seen coming. This was a fun story. I had the pleasure of experiencing this story in audiobook form, as part of the audio anthology The Years Top 10 Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster, in which longtime Audiovox narrator Tom Dheere does his usual bang-up job of portraying distinct characters. There are also printed versions of this story available in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Twelve edited by Jonathan Strahan, The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 edited by Neil Clarke and online at Lightspeed Magazine.
Next up was Adrian Tchaikovsky's engrossing novella The Expert System's Brother, which excels at world building, but then that's the beauty of novellas—they have the room to do so. Readers of fantasy will feel at home with the humble beginning featuring a small village set in their ways. But it soon becomes apparent that there is more at play here than meets the eye. For one thing, the village, centered around a single tree that houses a hive, is led by leaders who have been co-opted by "ghosts." One of the jobs of the ghosts is to determine who is no longer fit to be part of this close-knit community. Through an unfortunate accident, young Handry is marked by the Severance and deemed to be one of these outcasts by none other than his sister, who is the reluctant vessel for one of the ghosts. Handry soon learns firsthand the real quandary of outcasts; the land is not fit for humans. Native food is toxic at appreciable levels and Handry must survive by raiding other villages, at which point he becomes aware of the true nature of the world. If Tchaikovsky's story was just the straightforward narrative that it is, readers would have enough to keep them entertained. But he also teases out clues about what's really going on that engage the reader even more. The Expert System's Brother thus rises from a good story to a great one.
Rock Manning Goes For Broke by Charlie Jane Anders is an absurdist and dark take on Dystopian fiction. Its central characters, Rock Manning and Sally Hamster, meet in school, realize they have similar-but-complimentary interests, and begin making silly, just-for-fun short films, mostly involving Rock's affinity for amateur stunt work and pratfalls. They post their videos online and, as years go by, eventually build a following. This does not go unnoticed by one classmate, Ricky Artesian, the character through which readers get a glimpse of the unrest spreading throughout this dystopian alternate-present. Rick is a member of the Red Bandanas, a group that is destined to become a nationwide militia of significant import. As Rock and Sally progress through college, they drift apart, their friendship torn by tragedy. It's their relationship with Ricky, however, that eventually draws them back. They are enlisted to help the Red Bandanas produce a propaganda film that furthers their agenda. But, as Rock laments at one point in the book, tragedy seems to follow him wherever he goes, culminating in an event that plunges the world even deeper into chaos, with Rock and Sally at the center. For a short novel, Rock Manning Goes for Broke is jam-packed with clever ideas and interesting takes on how a society copes with hard times. It also manages to do so while being both witty and darkly serious at the same time.
If you need a good laugh, then carve out a few minutes for "Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0" by Caroline M. Yoachim (available in Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 edited by Jane Yolen and online at Lightspeed Magazine). This tongue-in-cheek story takes place on a space station where you, dear reader, have been bitten by an alien insect. The story is loosely structured as a choose-your-own-adventure where you get to decide your own fate. I say loosely because all roads inevitable lead to the same outcome: hilarity.