Simone Heller

astray in worlds and words.

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New short story: Keloid Dreams

My new story “Keloid Dreams” ist out in Future SF #8, a medical-themed issue published in September 2020. Read on if you’re interested in process and trivia, but beware, here be spoilers!

If you’d like to experience Carebot’s sensor input first and see to the patient’s wellbeing, please come along. And don’t forget to take a look at the other stories in this issue – I’m totally awed by the big ideas and scientific details my TOC mates came up with!



Future SF #8 coverFirst of all, phew! All my writing attempts since 2018 got shelved during first draft, and while people kept congratulating me on my last story, I plunged into a pitch-black hole. Then along came this healthcare prompt to yank me out of my comfort zone, with a tight deadline on top. And here we are, finished story! “Keloid Dreams” originated in thoughts about healthcare getting under your skin via implanted sensors, combined with the idea of robots caring for people. How would they become accepted, what would their humanizing features have to be so that you’d trust them with your parents?

I was planning to write about dementia first, about a patient losing himself, and a robot finding a personality, but the emotion-learning robot voice didn’t work for me. The refurbished warbot idea had been lurking from the beginning, and I truly hit my stride when I imagined the two veterans on a last mission together, despite the fallout of going to war.

Then it was a question of digging deeper. I connected bits and pieces to family history: my Dad, who was excluded from taking part in my life when I was ten. My Grandfather, who turned his back to fighting, but the whole story was obscured by the way German families don’t talk about their WWII past. On a lighter note, Overwatch inspired some details of the story, and if you played the game, you may find teeny-tiny easter-eggs and guess who my favorite character is. When I considered what Callas would do as a hobby, I settled on bird-feeding, partially because bird-feeding has gotten me through the worst of this pandemic. This decision made me pull one of my favorite graphic novels from the shelf, Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt, providing further inspiration.

My thanks go out to Ella Voss and Elena Kotsiliti who were lightning quick with their insights on very short notice, and Jennifer Hudak, who helped me make the story so much sleeker and more powerful. To firefighter/paramedic Meo, who was awesome at explaining complex physiological processes and effects (any bugger-ups are on the author’s side). And to my editor, RM Ambrose, who really got to the core of the story and helped me polish it. If you like his work for Future SF and feel the need to imagine the future of healthcare differently, consider backing his anthology Vital on Kickstarter, bringing you more stories soon!

Writing this piece of post-military SF has unlocked an achievement: true short story! I almost made it down to 5,000 words – and I’m in deep awe of people who truly master this and even shorter lengths!

Achievements remaining unlocked:
– write something that’s not 1st person
– write a story without reptiles (They’re invisible this time. Improved much?)
– write a story from the POV of an actual human.

Next time, maybe. Or maybe not. I have a roster of a dozen partially told stories, some mostly dead, some quite fresh, and some same old in a shiny new skin. Onwards!

For He Can Creep (Siobhan Carroll)

Now that there is a 2020 Eugie Award winner, I absolutely have to remedy the mistake of not urging you enough to read her story: “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll is told from the point of view of a cat. And not just any cat, but distinguished, treat-loving, fierce-clawed Jeoffry, the feline visitor to a 19th century London asylum fighting the demons torturing the place.

“For He Can Creep” is a classic outsmart-the-devil story, but it is so much more: its protagonist’s cattiness is captured in every hiss and every purr, and he has to give his best performance to defend his incarcerated poet against the nastiest of foes. If you love non-human POVs, this one is for you.

And the best thing is: “For He Can Creep is”, title and all, based on a real poem! I had to look this one up, and I was delighted to find that there was a story behind the story.

For He Can Creep, free to read at Tor.com, has also been a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award finalist, and is nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

A Handful of Sky (Elly Bangs)

I love it when stories just place me into a world and a society, leaving me to figure out the rules, and with a protagonist whose mysteries I have to unravel. A Handful of Sky by Elly Bangs delivers on that and more. Don’t miss it if you like fascinating magic concepts and high stakes!

It starts like a gritty sword and sorcery tale with a hunting party bringing in a slain dragon for its parts to be utilised. But these tropes are soon subverted, the more you find out about the hunters’ destination, a city of whispered secrets and eternal youth. The latter is not for everyone, though, and it’s always a delight to see an older female protagonist like Jorren Borriwack, a down-to-earth tailor just getting by, her talent buried and tarnished and waiting to change the world.

The story’s magic has the best handmade flavor, it’s very tangible even when it should by all means be abstract and elusive, and the ending is perfect – that’s the kind of fantasy I’d love to read more often, hopeful and addressing relevant questions.

Read it here in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #280 (June 2019).

Sword and Sonnet

Many of the short stories I enjoyed most in 2018 came from one anthology – Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler. And before I’m going to tell you about the stories I loved, I need to emphasize how awesome the anthology as a whole is. It’s about battle poets (identifying as female or non-binary), and of course this concept grabbed my attention faster than any smashing opening line. Why, yes, please let me know everything about the power of poetry, about the wielders of war-winning words, about the searing sting of a single syllable!

The diversity of these stories is absolutely fantastic, much more so than you’re probably expecting! There are tales set in forests and tales among far-flung stars, there’s revolution, revenge, and revelation, and styles range from lyrical delicacy to effective bluntness. There was not a single story in this anthology that didn’t convey its vision or failed to engage me, even if it didn’t correspond with my preferred styles or topics.

Sword and SonnetAnd there were a lot of stories I enjoyed tremendously: After reading about all these vastly different word slingers, I should know that there is no such thing as the quintessential battle poet. But Gennesee of A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin by Hayley Stone somehow etched herself into my brain as just that, from the moment she sits waiting in her cell, sinister and full of hate, a victim and a perpetrator of war crimes … but still an artist. Another protagonist perceived as evil and in shackles at the beginning of her story is the witch Alejandra in El Cantar de la Reina Bruja by Victoria Sandbrook, and both stories find different and equally beautiful – but also painful – ways for seeking freedom and new beginnings through poetry.

The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts by A. Merc Rustad is probably my favorite story – it’s the perfect mix of myth, bold world-building, and traces of folktale (also, dinosaurs, and trees – would have been kind of hard to pack even more things I absolutely adore into just one story). Dulce et Decorum by S. L. Huang blew my away with the questions it brought up, questions you probably have faced if you ever saw common ground between poetry and war. And This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers by Carlie St. George was exactly up my alley because it features the difficulties of translation, and was about meeting and maybe coming to understand people of wildly different cultures. It was great fun, too, as should be expected of a story about settling intergalactic conflict via art conference.

Close runners-up to these favorites were Siren by Alex Acks (the lyrical voice and the scope of this story!), And the Ghosts Sang with Her: A Tale of the Lyrist by Spencer Ellsworth (a beautiful fairytale with a charming protagonist), The Firefly Beast by Tony Pi (great atmosphere in this elegant and action-packed tale set in China), and The Bone Poet and God by Matt Dovey (featuring a bear called Ursula who is also a shaman/poet).

These were the stories that appealed most to my personal taste. As I said, I found something worthwhile and engaging in every story of this anthology, and your favorites might be different ones. Be sure to check them out!

The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul

When Natalia Theodoridou won the World Fantasy Award 2018 for The Birding: A Fairy Tale last weekend, another one of her short stories came to my mind again: The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul, first published in Clarkesworld 2014 (you can also read it on Medium).

The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul drew me in and never let go – a hopeless tale of a man stranded alone in the small confines of a bleak, almost lifeless environment. It is full of despair, decline, and lost dreams, and yet, there is something; life’s incredible resilience even under hostile conditions.

Natalia Theodoridou paid homage to artist Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests (and if you’ve never seen them, visit the webpage; it’s worth it!) They invite story, and they already seem to incorporate the melancholy that permeates The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul. So mechanics and beauty were embedded in the story’s theme, but the third ingredient is mythological and gently nudges you in the direction of the answer to a question the Strandbeests seem to evoke: man is lonely, and even in end-times builds himself life-like (if strange) companions. What is their place in the cosmos?

New novelette: When We Were Starless

My new novelette When We Were Starless was published in the October issue of Clarkesworld, and I wanted to provide a little bit of trivia and background for readers with an interest in such things. There may be mild spoilers. If you want to read the story first, here it is – you could go chasin’ ghosts among the ruins of a fallen world with Mink right now!

Clarkesworld 145

It is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.

When We Were Starless had a rough start. I was struggling with what felt like the certain knowledge that my first story had been a fluke, and I wasn’t convinced it would be a good idea to revisit this world. But the image that stuck with me was nomad herders with 3D printer spiders!!! I imagined a trickster story first, about a stranger shaking the tribe up and inducing change, before leaving them again. It took me some time to realize I didn’t want another outcast story. So the only thing I kept was Mink’s ability to change her color. The trickster goddess whom this would have been attributed to (as well as the ability to drop tails) sadly had to go.

My main source for research was Vanishing Footprints: Nomadic People Speak by Ann Perry and Anthony Swift (not a perfect book, but it makes an effort to feature the voices of nomadic people). As I figured out the plot, I visited a planetarium (for the first time ever!). Huge parts of the story clicked into place while I was there.

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium, Nuremberg: For a very brief moment, I thought this might be the ghost Mink meets …

There are some direct inspirations: part of the opening was inspired by the framing narrative of Clifford D. Simak’s City; and when I began to think about the exhibits in the dome, I couldn’t resist the urge to write a happy ending for xkcd’s super sad Mars Rover episode.

The music was a happy accident, more or less: I always envisioned Mink’s people as musical, but the strong focus on music snuck into the text almost without me noticing. The moment I found out how it would play into the ending, I knew I could make this story work. I also listened to a lot of music and have my own Paean of Manifest Horizons (more of a Paean of Manifest Finishing Line, because it took me forever to get there …).

Last but not least: Many thanks for encouraging me, and your brilliant ideas and editorial help, to Juliana Socher, Maike Claussnitzer, Catherine Brennan, Miriah Hetherington, and Sonia Focke! <3 And thank you, Clarkesworld, for publishing me a second time!
And thank you, readers, for spending time with my stories! Your comments, shares, and reviews mean the world to me!

There might be more of what I secretly call lizardpunk coming up at one point, more Shrouded Earth to unveil – or maybe space nomads? Or something else altogether. I’m not decided yet. Gotta go writing now to find out which egg will hatch next (or, you know, at all)!

Sunday Story Time: By the Hand That Casts It

I don’t know about you, but I would never have suspected a flower shop, a place for delicate displays of desire, to be the location of a deadly duel. This elegant story by Stephanie Charette in one of the (sadly) last issues of Shimmer sold me on the idea from the moment the first obnoxiously self-absorbed client enters florist Briar Redgrave’s domain. By the Hand That Casts It makes the best of its Victorian setting, with a snarky heroine in retirement (yay for retired leading ladies!), contrasted by a flamboyant second main character (of the kind we all know and roll our eyes at), and plenty of shadowy secrets hiding away under polished surfaces. It felt like a very different coming-of-age-story to me, one that is maybe unique to female biographies. And I loved the intimate setting full of subtle rules and agreements hemming in the heroine from all sides, while she holds the shears in her hands all the time.

You can find By the Hand That Casts It in Shimmer #45, and read the story here, or buy the whole issue here.

Sunday Story Time: The Secret Life of Bots

With the Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer, I came for the title and had my eyes glued to the screen from the moment Bot 9 is activated and given a (rather domestic) job on a starship with a (rather crucial) mission. It is a beautiful, fun, and fast-paced story you don’t want to miss if you have ever suspected appliances might have feelings, too.

While exploring the diversified bot population of the ship (always operating within well-defined parameters), Suzanne Palmer keeps you grounded: Familiar space opera/military sf tropes are used as a mere backdrop … until they aren’t.

You can follow the adventures of amiable busy-bot 9 on Clarkesworld #132 (also podcasted). And don’t forget to put Steve Jablonsky’s Transformers soundtrack to good use for the finale of this stellar story!

Sunday Story Time: Postcards from Natalie

It’s been some time since I last posted a free online story goody for Sunday aftern…ight reading. Well, at least it’s technically still Sunday around here, and I want to pick up the habit again, so here we go!

Today’s story, Postcards from Natalie by Carrie Laben, really gripped me, and I think it will stay with me for quite some time. It’s a short story about two sisters, one of which ran away from home and keeps informing the other one on her travels via postcards. Deep rifts run through the family and keep the younger sister from getting all the messages. But as they begin to sound more and more despondent, she goes to some lengths to read them.

Postcards from Natalie has been published in dark fantasy/horror magazine The Dark, so better don’t expect a cheerful story. There’s no blood and gore, though, and it’s a really beautifully crafted piece of fiction – the dread creeps upon you very slowly, and you won’t realize it punched you in the guts until it’s too late.

But then, it has some surprisingly uplifting imagery for a story about those dealt a bad hand by fate. There is a quiet strength to the ending, in how it deals with the fact that some people, especially women, just fall through the cracks and are dismissed all too easily. A haunting, intense read!

One of my favorite Murder By Death songs came to my mind: The lyrics (not the video shown here) of Hard World are eerily fitting for this story, right down to some of the images.

Sunday Story Time: From the Point of View of a Cat

Time for some cat content, always a wise choice when time is short and the mind is distracted with other things. Czech writer Karel Čapek did not only coin the term ‘robot’ in one of his plays, he also wrote about animals frequently, as in War with the Newts.

In this short piece from 1935 he takes the point of view of a cat, and he seems to be a real cat connoisseur.

I stumbled upon it on tumblr, where you can have a look at it, too.

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