Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.
This week, let’s take a look at three very different stories, by three very talented writers, from the May/June 2019 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:
1. “On Stony Ground,” by Cynthia Ward. Although the tone and narrator’s voice are completely different, Ward’s newest bit of alternate history somehow put me in mind of one of my favorite alternate history mosaic novels, Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna. In Ward’s tale, the civil engineer responsible for completing a major rail line has her day of glory overshadowed by a Nazoraian prophetai’s arrival. We as readers only hear a little of what the teacher speaks, but it’s enough to know who he is, what he has to say, and how his lessons are powerful to rich and poor alike, no matter the timeline in which they are taught. I found the story enhanced by the author’s use of as much Latin as possible, even for names and titles that we’re more accustomed to hearing in Romanticized or Anglo form; it would be easier to use the more familiar forms but that would take away from the sense that this is a world similar to but removed from our own. The narrator, Berenike, is a strong Aithiopian princess-turned-engineer with very clear opinions about how the world should be that the author plays against a real-world political-religious situation of the time. The author subtly shows that her alternate Roman empire is quite diverse not only in terms of who can rise to power but what’s socially acceptable (Berenike comments that her cousin Iakobos is chatting up one of her “better looking officers,” clearly a male … so it would see homosexuality is not taboo in this world, for instance.) I’m not sure if Ward has told other stories in this alternate history – but I’d enjoy seeing them.
2. “Repairs at the Beijing West Space Elevator,” by Alex Shvartsman. This is a nice piece of science fiction that focuses on infrastructure, customer service, the blame-game and crowd control. Phrased like that, it doesn’t sound like compelling stuff, but Shvartsman pulls it all together through the eyes of an exploration fleet engineer tasked with finding the cause of a power-fluctuation problem at the busiest space elevator on Earth – during one of the busiest holidays of the year. The tale is briskly told, the problem and solution uncovered fairly quickly with no distracting complicating drama. This gives the author space to concentrate on the “fish out of water” aspect of the main character, who is so accustomed to fleet life that the teeming masses of humanity on the space elevator terminal gives him anxiety and a bit of claustrophobia. Combining a character who has a common (but not often written about in sf) anxiety with a set of behind-the-scenes problems that are not usually the focus of sf novels is a great way to get the reader to care about both, especially in a story that is not any longer than it needs to be.
3. “Painting the Massive Planet, by Marissa Lingen. Lingen’s nameless narrator looks at various artistic movements’ attempts to truly capture the majesty and life of the planet Jupiter and how they all somehow fall short. Or do they? Is art meant to exist in a vacuum or interact with its surroundings? At first blush, the story seems to be about the effect of science on the arts (and possibly by implication vice-versa), but I think it’s more about the effect of art, and artists, on each other: how we build off of each other, are inspired by each other, and how each of our chosen genres/styles/takes on a topic helps build a more complete picture of the whole. (Note: I am always impressed by anyone who can not only write flash- or drabble-length fiction, but even more so when they can pack so much to think about in such a small space and still tell a compelling character and plot driven story. Kudos, Marissa!)