Back from holiday and here's a couple of new stories for short fiction Wednesday. Had I been smart, I would have chosen the stories before I left and taken them on holidays with me to read. Never mind, though, cos I read these over the last couple of days in the little corners of the day; stories of this length are ideal for my short commute or over my sandwich at lunchtime. This, of course, is one of the great things about short stories - it's a low commitment, especially when it's all free on the internet!
Playable Characters by Eric J Juneau combines online gaming with a kind of town-vs-corporate-muscle-round-up-the-posse-western plotline to create a fun take on the fantasy quest. The situation is a clever one: in a fantasy MMO the quest that Cyril wants to complete is being squatted by Real Money Traders, who complete the various quests and sell the in-game prize items for real-world money. Cyril's stubborn desire to fulfill the quest has just the right combination of righteousness and Quixotic absurdity to carry the dramatic and humorous needs of the story.
Much of the comedy comes from the self-aware characters who can wise crack about the foibles of their users. Cyril is a great take on the put-upon protagonist of farce and his fellow characters Peachbutt and Bolbadir provide fine comic support. It's a a clever idea, and yields some great lines, but I did find myself wondering how aware these characters were supposed to be. The division between what they could and couldn't do was a bit confusing, and I was never certain about the rules of player-character-hood. In the end, I figured it was best to just not worry about it too much and enjoy the jokes.
Electric Spec looks like a great venue, too, with a regular schedule and new content four times a year. I shall definitely be checking in again.
The next story, Autumn Leaves Falling by Greg Mellor, is from Cosmos, which looks like an Australian general science magazine. A poke around their site reveals that the fiction editor is the noted Australian SF critic Damien Broderick, which confirms the Australian connection and raises one's expectations.
Autumn Leaves makes powerful use of a central image – the falling Autumn Leaves of the title, embedded in the text as a quote from TE Lawrence – to represent the SF concept, the novum again, the uploading of one's mind to a computer. The situation is complicated here by the suicide of the narrator's father, and I found his final resolution of those emotions very moving. There's a bit of a distracting swerve into the psychological effects of The Singularity which doesn't quite work and diverts the momentum away from the climactic build up that had been going on, but aside from that this is a rich and well-crafted story.
Both stories this week are solid, trad SF of the sort that grey beards like me find very satisfying. Plausible futurism and a good eye for character gives a glimpse of how we might be, if things go a certain way. Stories of this type make small observations about big changes in the world, small, human moments that capture a flash of something eternal about the human condition.