Free Flash Fiction: “A Revised History of Earth”

A Revised History of Earth

“I don’t care about any of that,” Sherla said without looking up from her nail polish.

“But the tests are conclusive,” Mattie said, shaking her tablet at the other woman. “I’ve got it all right here.”

“Don’t care,” Sherla repeated. She applied another strip of opaque black polish to a blank nail and watched as it slowly expanded to cover her nail perfectly.

“You don’t care that the ruins we found on Planet X are actually older than any known civilization on Earth?”

“Nope.”

Mattie sat down on the edge of her bed with a heavy sigh. “I mean… that’s a big deal to me.”

Sherla was lying on her belly on her bed, only a few feet away in their tiny cabin. She turned her head to look Mattie in the eyes, while still blowing her nails, now finished. “I care that you care, honey. But I think we just see this two different ways.”

Mattie shook her head, barely ruffling her close-cropped curls. “How’s that?” she asked.

“Well, as you and most of the scientists on board see it, this expedition has proved that Earth was some kind of colony, right?”

“Yes, I think that’s got to be our working theory going forward from here,” Mattie said, relaxing a little. “We’ll have to go back and revisit all of the old site maps, build a new history of human civilization. New textbooks, new arguments. Oh no, those ancient alien crackpots are going to have a field day!” she added with a sudden grin. “I don’t envy the folks back home who’re going to have to listen to all of that nonsense on the off chance there’s even one hypothesis that matches up with what we’ve found here.”

“Right,” Sherla said, “because you’re not going back to Earth.” She blew on her nails one last time.

“Well, no, I – the expedition is moving out of our solar system to follow the star charts we found during the excavation.” She frowned a little, her dark eyebrows drawing closer together. “That doesn’t make our find less important. It’s actually the whole reason we’re still on the ship.”

Sherla pushed herself up off her elbows, turned, and sat down on the edge of the bed facing her friend. “No, Mattie, it’s why you’re still on the ship. And I’m glad for that, ‘cause you’re a whole sight better than the last girl they stuck me with.”

“The snorer?” Mattie asked, sympathetic.

“The snorer,” Sherla agreed, and for a moment, they both smiled. Then Sherla leaned in, put her hands on Mattie’s knees, and said with a serious face, “I’m not a scientist, honey. I’m enlisted. They didn’t put all us soldiers on this ship to help dig, and we’re not all heading out into the great unknown for anything other than one reason: someone with more brass than me decided I might have to kill some things.”

Mattie bit her lip. “I know that,” she said after a moment, “but that’s statistically unlikely, you know. Whatever might have been out there has probably been dead for half a million years, and Earth has what remains of its refugees.”

Sherla sat back. “Maybe. I hope so, really. I’d love to spend the next couple of decades learning new things and staying pretty instead of developing any serious holes in any part of my body that I can’t live without. But I have to wake up every day and train for the possibility that what’s out there didn’t want us to find it.”

All around them – the floor, the ceiling, the beds – began to shake, and a quiet hum started, grew louder. Sherla stood up.

“That’s ignition, which means we’re officially under way, and that means the goodbye party is about to start. Come on, honey, tell me how pretty I am.” She put her hands on her hips and posed.

“You’re very pretty,” Mattie replied.

“Which means you’re drop dead gorgeous,” Sherla told her, “and it would be unfair to deprive the folks in Aft Lounge 6 of the chance to see the two of us in all our glory.” She held her hands out.

Mattie took them and let herself be pulled to her feet. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“I plan to be, honey,” Sherla said with a grin. She kissed her roommate on the cheek, leaving a faint red stain behind in the exact shape of her lips. “There,” she said. “Now you’ll look like you started the party early, and everyone will be dying to find out just how fun you are.”

“I should get back to monitoring the digital reconstruction of the dig site,” Mattie said, but didn’t sound certain.

“Tomorrow,” Sherla said as she put her arm around the other woman and steered her toward the hallway. “Tomorrow you can worry about how to find our celestial ancestors and I can worry about how to fight them.” She tapped on the side of their door, which slid into the wall. In the distance, they could already hear the sounds of music, and distant voices.

“Tonight…” Sherla paused, and squeezed Mattie gently. Mattie leaned into her friend and nodded.

“Tonight,” Mattie finished for her, “we’re going to say goodbye to Earth, and drink until we forget that we’re never going home again.”

“That’s my girl.”


Greg Bennett gave me the prompts for this story: “Planet 9 discovered and in close orbit to solar system, woman led exploration mission, ancient ruins, discovery that Earth’s inhabitants are actually refugees…” It took me a little while to think of a way to do that without sounding like Battlestar Galactica, but once I realized I could start after that stuff has already been discovered, I knew the moment, the part of this story, I wanted to write.

This is the 4th story I’ve written for this year’s Flash Fiction Challenge, and it’s about 890 words long.

If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, HERE.

You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.

So far, I’ve posted three other stories. Read them here:

Fred Coppersmith’s Favorite Stories of 2016 (includes my @apexmag tale!)

Over on Twitter, author and publisher Fred Coppersmith has been tweeting about stories he likes all through the year. He starts off with my Apex Magazine story, “That Lucky Old Sun“. Thanks, Fred!

He’s curated the whole list on Storify, which I’ve embedded below:

#SFWApro

You Should Read: THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J. G. BALLARD

First published in 1978, this collection of nineteen of Ballard’s best short stories is as timely and informed as ever. His tales of the human psyche and its relationship to nature and technology, as viewed through a strong microscope, were eerily prescient and now provide greater perspective on our computer-dominated culture. Ballard’s voice and vision have long served as a font of inspiration for today’s cyber-punks, the authors and futurist who brought the information age into the mainstream. (Amazon)

I think I’m going to let my friends tell me what to read for a while longer. Fresh off finishing Ted Chiang’s amazing collection, the same friend who recommended that book also gave me this one. Next up on the review list is John Joseph Adam’s Brave New Worlds, suggested to me by a different friend. My advice to you: if you want to read great books, befriend readers.

J.G. Ballard is one of those authors I can’t believe I didn’t know about. What he writes fits so perfectly with the kind of hard-science, dystopian, speculative fiction I’ve loved from writers like Clarke and Asimov and Niven. Taken as a group, it’s clear to see the guy was worried about overpopulation, unchecked capitalism, and government control, but his forays into the science of sleep make for some interesting fiction as well.

“The Concentration City” starts the collection off with a great story about a possible future where space – up, down, left, right – is valued at a price per foot, and the city itself is a huge mass of buildings clustered together. Ballard’s male protagonist (and they’re always men, it should be noted) is one of the forward-thinking types he favors, and this fellow has the idea to ride the train out of the city, just to see how far he can get. The story is meant to make us think about space, government, inbred agoraphobia, and mob mentality, and it does all of those things well. This might be my favorite story except for the existential twist Ballard throws in at the end, which in my opinion he didn’t need to do at all. It turns the tale from a brilliant look at the mentality of an overgrown city-state into a “oh, look, it’s spooky!’ morality play. Didn’t care for it.

“Manhole 69” looks at what happens to men who no longer need sleep. Again we’ve got Ballard looking at science as a way to explore psychology, and I like what he does here, though I felt the end was a bit rushed. We could have used a few more pages about the subjects’ descent into madness, instead of “oh, look, it’s scary!” But unlike “Concentration City” the twist at the end of “Manhole” actually makes perfect sense, if thrown in earlier than feels comfortable.

“Chronopolis” I loved. Ballard’s future city here is one that saw the rise of the government culture, fed on organization and efficiency, and rebelled against it. The protag’s rebellion then isn’t against the oppressive regime but against the unorganized society which arouse from those that had overthrown the past. In Newman we get a kid who’s seen the future and the past both, and makes it his life’s work to get back to a kind of interwoven lifestyle he feels we should never have left.

“The Voices of Time” was about the science, for me. The interpersonal moments, of which there are more than usual, seem to be there to support the science. The core idea is that when the world is ending, we’ll sleep more before we die. This takes us back to “Manhole 69” in a way, Ballard playing with the idea of sleep, and of the two stories I prefer “Voices”. It may be the difference in the way that “Manhole” internalizes the actions of the main characters and “Voices” allows them to be affected by external forces.

“Deep End” wasn’t as moving for me. Perhaps it’s that the moral of the story – stupid boys ruin everything because mankind is inherently destructive – is one I’m all too familiar with. It’s a dystopian staple to have the enlightened main character be hurt at the end because other humans just don’t “get it”. Ballard does it, everyone does it. Before you point out that this collection is 30 years old, yes, I do acknowledge that, but this particular idea was old even in the 70s.

“The Overloaded Man” is a lot of fun, if you enjoy darkness and not being able to tell if the main character’s discovered a super power or has gone insane. Personally I prefer to think of it a la Twilight Zone, and imagine that Faulkner has found the ability to destabilize form from function into idea. One of my favorites.

“Billenium” reminds us that we are our programming. It was so sad for me to see that at the end, Ward succumbs to the idea that it’s better to live in a closet than to have room enough to breath. He doesn’t rebel, he doesn’t struggle against the system, he just quietly lets it roll over him. The character’s actions made perfect sense, given his society, but personally I’d have loved for him to have his secret room and to have been the one person who understood freedom.

“The Garden of Time” is boring. There, I said it. It feels more like a writing exercise than a story. What are we supposed to be emotionally invested in?

“Thirteen for Centaurus” is another one of Ballards thought experiments. He takes a psychological problem and explores the minds of the subjects who’re part of the testing process. It reminds me of “Manhole 69” though they’re set in completely different facilities. Again, Ballard feels the need to do the “shocker” twist ending, which neither feels twisty or shocking, but sort of a reasonable ending given the story. (You can tell it’s meant to be shocking because it’s in italics!)

“The Subliminal Man” takes the theme of unchecked capitalism and agressive government thought control and nails it. It’s pitch-perfect, start to end.

“The Cage of Sand” – This story felt longer, as if Ballard had more time to let the story unfold naturally, even though it’s about the same size as several of the other tales. I think it much more effectively explored the dying world theme than “Deep End”.

“End Game” – By this point I was a little tired of Ballard telling me how fascinating his own ideas were, but if you can ignore that, it’s a exploration of a mental game to see how long it takes a prisoner to break.

“The Drowned Giant” – Ballard does his best work when he’s dealing with external factors – government, science, mutated creatures …. It’s also an fascinating look at a story written entirely in exposition, as there’s no dialogue in it anywhere.

“The Terminal Beach” is one of only two stories in the book to be written as a set of notes, broken up into tiny sections, complete with headers in bold type. I enjoyed the change in style.

“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” Ballard takes his characters off the ground and into the sky and the result is beautiful. One of my favorite stories, and one of the few that actually ends on a basically happy note.

“The Assassination of John Fitzegeral Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” tell you, right there in the title, exactly how irreverant and darkly humorous this flash fiction piece is going to be. Also, the story’s not much longer than the title.

“The Atrocity Exhibition” is the other index-card style story, and I think it’s more successful than “Beach” because the subject matter is more interesting. There’s a small mystery unfolding in this tale, in segmented pieces and without all the facts. “Atrocity” is an excellent choice to end the collection.

While I didn’t absolutely adore every single piece of every single story, the overall collection is amazing and shouldn’t be missed. I know so much more about writing than I did before I started the book. Taken as a group of stories, it’s easy to see why Ballard is as oft-recommended as he is. If you haven’t read him, you should.

ISBN 0-312-278446, PICADOR

 

You Should Read: Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

Ted Chiang (born 1967) is an American speculative fiction writer. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York and graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, near Seattle, Washington. He is a graduate of the noted Clarion Writers Workshop (1989).

Although not a prolific author, having published only twelve short stories as of 2010, Chiang has to date won a string of prestigious speculative fiction awards for his works: a Nebula Award for “Tower of Babylon” (1990), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992, a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Story of Your Life” (1998), a Sidewise Award for “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), a Nebula Award, Locus Award and Hugo Award for his novelette”Hell Is the Absence of God” (2002), a Nebula and Hugo Award for his novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), and a British Science Fiction Association Award, a Locus Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Exhalation” (2009). (From Wikipedia)

I was sick for five weeks, down with a bronchial infection that my work schedule wouldn’t let heal. I would get up, go to work, come home and pass out again, over and over, until it finally passed. I wasn’t reading, and certainly wasn’t up to coherently reviewing anything.

When I did recover I started reading Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I didn’t used to enjoy short stories, and up until about a year ago I only owned one anthology. Recently I’ve started reading flash fiction, micro-fiction, and more traditional-length short stories, finding the craft in carefully constructed worlds designed to blossom, burn bright, and die within 4,000 words or so. A short story has to be meticulously worded to fit the maximun amount of meaning into the smallest space. Often the best ones tell a second story in the empty spaces, adding to the original tale by the implication of what they left out.

Having read Chiang’s collection, I come close to accepting why he publishes so little and so rarely. His stories are crisp and pure, releasing words the way a melting icicle gives up its essence, drip by drip. There’s nothing tacked on unecessarily, and at the end of each story I was left with the peaceful sense that each tale ended exactly as it shoud have. On the other had, this is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish a book of any length, because I found I couldn’t read more than one story at a time. I would finish one, then need to push it away from me, come up for air. A week would go by, maybe more, before I felt ready to open the book and let myself be engulfed by Chiang’s words again.

My thoughts on the collection as a whole mirror much of what’s already been said about Chiang, so I’ll focus on the stories that stood out to me:

“Tower of Babylon”: From the very first story in the collection, Chiang shows his abilty to thoroughly embody his chaaracters, to know how they move, how they work, how a piece of stone feels under their fingers. He sees the sun in the sky as his characters do, feels the wind blowing, and by knowing these things he can put into words the simplest explanations of how that world works. The stone masons and metal workers who travel to the Tower, construct of legend, suffer mental and physical side effects from existing at ever-increasing altitudes – who thinks of that? It isn’t a thing which the plot hinges on, but a thing which would be true, if the place and the people existed.

“Understand”: What if everything started to make sense to you? Society, language, music, psychology, math, government, violence, dominance, and even murder? The story shows you what that might be like, and the feeling of understanding the potential in that much coherence is at least momentarily overwhelming.

“Story of Your Life”: By far, my favorite story of the collection. It’s a story for people who have loved enough to understand going through all the pain and sorrow and loss of real life, just to feel the good parts again. Like everything else Chiang writes, it also features a sideways look at a real science (in this case, both physics and linguistics) and how that might be viewed differently in a world where the rules aren’t the same as ours. I enjoyed this story for the emotional aspects, the way it made me feel something deep in my chest, and the way it let me empathize with a character I could see, clearly, had no other choice. I was also intrigued by the description of a race of extra-terrestrials that truly was alien, instead of simply a scaly/tinted/tailed version of  a human society.

“Seventy Two Letters”: A weird little tale about homunculi and golems and the secret powers of words. I had to read this twice before I settled into liking it, not because the story was written badly (it certainly wasn’t!) but because the oddity of the material required another look. I actually love golem stories, ever since I was a kid and found out what they were. I always thought of them as being a secret art, whispered about only in silent libraries and dark corners of a temple, not something right out in the open where any kid could learn how to make his clay toys walk. Thinking of that way, it’s obvious how the story should unfold, which is how it does – and another great aspect of Chiang’s writing is that he doesn’t work against the grain of the story. He doesn’t need to rely on twist endings to shock the reader or to make a statement. Simply by showing us a world which works the way he thinks it should, he shows us something worth seeing. No tricks required.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”: It’s the style of writing, in bits and pieces, a journalistic pastiche, that intrigued me about this story. Though I actually found the story to be one of the few in the book which covered already-written-about territory, the way in which Chiang presents it is novel enough to make it work.

I talk about Chiang’s collection in terms of feelings and understanding, because that’s how it affected me when I read through it. I had an emotional reaction to many of the pieces in Stories of Your Life and Others which I hadn’t been expecting, but am grateful for. So many writers can be clever or subtle or quick or brilliant, but how many can be all of those things and affect your heart as well?

Trade paperback/ebook · October 2010 · 9781931520720, Small Beer Press

 

You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)