Monday, July 26, 2010

Short fiction by John Scalzi, Ian Tregillis and Mary Robinette Kowal

I haven't read nearly enough short fiction lately and I was in the mood for some this weekend. Perhaps because I didn't have quite as much time to invest in the novel I am currently reading as I would like. I have a number of collections waiting to be read but all of them were too big to read in a weekend so instead I raided for short stories. Here's a couple I read on Sunday.

After the Coup - John Scalzi has recently celebrated its second birthday and in that short time it has collected quite a treasure trove of free short fiction on their site. I haven't nearly read all of it but some of the ones I have read are quite good. One of their latest additions is After the Coup by John Scalzi. A short story set in the same universe as Old Man's War, which to my shame I haven't read. He is also the proprietor of The Whatever, one of the most popular SF-blogs on the net. Apparently his proudest achievement is the bacon cat incident. Given my limited experience with Scalzi's work I am not quite sure what this tells us about the quality of his writing.

But back to the story. Lieutenant Hart Schmidt is in serious trouble. On a diplomatic mission to the Korba, he has failed to foresee the interest in military matters their new military junta is displaying. An agreement between the Korba and Colonial Union hangs in the balance. Schmidt has only one soldier aboard his ship. The engineer Harry Wilson, a man with no recent combat training. When he lets this titbit slip in the negotiations the Korba immediately propose a duel. On their terms. And Harry is suppose to loose. The stakes are high and so Schmidt is forced to face Harry with the question: "How well do you take a punch?".

After the Coup is a very humorous story. The dry, stating the obvious way of dealing with an impossible situation made me laugh out loud a number of times. The antics Wilson has to go though to keep his skin more or less in tact are painful and hilarious at the same time. The mixture of annoyance and amazement in Wilson when the Korba reveals yet another unsuspecting quality is very well done. It is a fast, fun story. If you haven't read Scalzi before don't let that discourage you, it can be read independently of his books.

The story can be read and downloaded here.

What Doctor Gottlieb Saw - Ian Tregillis

The second story I picked is something quite different. I recently read Tregillis' début novel Bitter Seeds, an alternative history novel set in the early stages of World War II, and a number of Wild Cards novels that contain contribution by him. What Doctor Gottlieb Saw is a short story set just before the main part Bitter Seeds at the farm where Doctor von Westarp is running his experiments to create an Übermensch. It can be read without having read the novel but if you have read it, the story will shed some light on certain events. Either way, it is very much worth reading.

Again the story starts with someone is serious trouble. Doctor Gottlieb works at Doctor von Westarp's farm as a psychiatrist. Accused of practising Jewish science he is only tolerated for as long as he remains useful. His already precarious position becomes even more unstable after the death of one of von Westarp's test subjects. They are looking for a scapegoat and Gottlieb might just be it. Desperately Gottlieb looks for a way out and everything points in the direction of a seriously disturbed young woman named Grettel. Another one of von Westarp's creations.

Grettel is one of the more interesting characters in the novel Bitter Seeds but in this story Tregillis manages to portray her as even more disturbed. What Doctor Gottlieb Saw is even darker than the novel. What we see of Grettel is a young woman who practically radiates innocence but at the same time ruthlessly exploits her talent to see into the future. Perhaps it is because the short story format but I though the contrast in this story is even sharper than in the novel. Add to that the carefully controlled sense of desperation that puts a strain on Gottlieb and the way he realizes the implications of what goes on but decides to keep this knowledge to himself and you have a very interesting story. I thought the dark and tense atmosphere in the story were very well done.

The story can be read and downloaded here.

First Flight - Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is a name I've seen popping a number of times but like with John Scalzi, I've never read anything she's written. Until now only short stories have appeared, some of them collected in Scenting the Dark and Other Stories (Subterranean, 2009), but next month her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) will be published. I've already seen some glowing reviews but I'm not quite sure if it is something that will appeal to me. First Flight is one of a number of short stories that can be read for free on the web. I very much liked it so perhaps I ought to dig up some more.

First Flight is a time travel story which takes us back to the day the Wright brothers successfully tested their Flyer III in 1905. Because nobody expected it to succeed there are not images of this event and historians intend to rectify that. One of the limitations of time travel is that you can only travel to a period in time in which you were actually alive. To be able to go back all the way to 1905 one needs to be well over a hundred. Eleanor Louise Jackson is one of the few people who fit that description. Unfortunately the trip does not quite go as intended the Time Machine breaks down at a very inconvenient moment. The historians want Eleanor to go back and get the job done as quickly as possible. Eleanor has her own ideas on how this situation should be handled.

The story contains two elements you find in most time travel stories. A fear of being discovered and a fear of altering the future. As such this story is not special but I have to admit the moment Wilbur Wright draws his conclusions from what Eleanor tells him is memorable. The last couple of pages of First Flight carry quite a punch. I must say it didn't look like I'd like it all that much up to that point but Kowal managed to convince me with the ending. Nice nod to H.G. Wells classic in there as well. Very enjoyable read.

The story can be read and downloaded here.

That's it for now, perhaps I will get around to one of those collections next week. I really ought to have a go at the one of James Van Pelt's collections, The Radio Magician and Other Stories has been on the to read stack for too long. Next week.

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