So, a lot has happened since the last time I clicked post. Most significantly, AE Micro is now available for you to read.
Within the pages of AE Micro, you’ll find five excellent stories selected from those submitted by our readers. But there were certainly more than five top-quality entries. We were thrilled by the overall calibre of stories submitted and had no easy task is choosing just five. This prompted us to offer critiques of those stories which didn’t make the cut, and quite a few of our writers agreed to take us up on that. So this will be one of a series. We are excited at the chance to revisit these stories, as well as to offer you a glimpse into what makes a piece particularly suited to AE.
by Richard Edgar
"Not now. Deploy aft weapons system."
"Aft weapons system, aye."
"System is nominal. Now, Joe?"
There was no response. Blue light from the screen bathed Lt. Forsyte's face. I knew exactly what he was looking at, looking for. The numbers that would tell him we had—or hadn't—accomplished our mission.
"Chemical sensors, check. We have a following of biologicals," he said looking up from his screen with a grin. "They're gonna have ants in their pants, ants led by us."
"Now what was the question, Marine?"
"Sir. I feel like I have insects crawling on my skin. Sir." Sometimes it's best to do things by the book with a jarhead.
He laughed, mostly at me, but partly at himself. "Microwarfare doesn't have the same ring to it as armored cavalry, it's true," he said. "But how are they going to keep us out? Fire ants are small enough to go in through mosquito netting. And they'll follow our trail, right into the enemy camp."
My leg began to burn, just above the boot. Unlike Forsyte, I'd lived with fire ants. And now, I will die with fire ants.
Duff says: This story leads strong. I have always had a soft spot for opening with dialogue. It is certainly effective at thrusting us into the action. And the fact that the dialogue is unattributed only heightens the immediacy. We don’t even need to know who is speaking. All we need to know is that they are saying: “Joe.”
And the response is likewise excellent. “Not now.” Already we have the sense of two characters and suspense. Something important is happening, and it’s happening too fast for the people involved to communicate about it. Unfortunately, this response isn’t attributed either, nor framed with narration. And the same for the next line, and the next. So that, by the time we actually get some exposition, we have well since transitioned from excitement to disorientation.
And with such a short piece, it can be nigh impossible to recover from an early stumble. The story finds its legs in the middle and it is clear that there is an interesting scenario developing. But, when we reach the end, we still don’t have a strong sense of who is doing what to whom, and why.
Helen says: The military atmosphere is pretty well done; the dialogue strikes the right tone, so you get a sense of the setting right away. It’s a little difficult to follow exactly what’s happening, though. Beginning with dialogue can be an effective device, but in this case it’s hard to get a sense of who’s talking to whom. Who’s Joe? Is that Lt. Forsyte? What’s the relationship between him and the narrator? What are their relative ranks/roles? (Actually, it threw me a bit when it turned out this was a first person narrative.)
“Sometimes it’s best to do things by the book with a jarhead” sounds a bit off, especially since the narrator is, apparently, a Marine. It feels odd for him to take that attitude regarding Forsyte. It sounds like Forsyte outranks the narrator, yet he addresses him as “Joe”?
Weaponized fire ants sounds a bit implausible to me, but perhaps fatally (for an entry in this contest), ants did not feel sufficiently micro. I did like the cadence of the ending, though: “Unlike Forsyte, I’d lived with fire ants. And now, I will die with fire ants.” I just wish I understood the rest of the story better ...
“Don't Wake Up”
by Michele Marques
Every night, a new generation of nannites is born. Last week they cured my cold. Last night I dreamt that they had clustered and formed a monster. Somehow the nannite monster got out of my body and was chasing me down the street. The buzzing cry becomes my alarm, and I slap it off.
My eyes are still fuzzy with sleep as I stumble to the washroom. I could splash myself awake with cold water, but instead I grip my toothbrush, apply toothpaste, and open my mouth.
What's that? I glimpse silver scales ducking behind a molar. I pursue with the brush. I'll scrub him out.
Something tickles my gums, and I chase the beast around. White froth fills my mouth.
That's it! I'll drown the interloper! I slap my toothbrush on the sink and fill my cup with water. I rinse heavily, imagining the micro monster cresting the waves.
I spit out the water, and a few grey specks. Is that's all that's left of him? Just to be safe, I swill a dose of mouthwash, hoping the sting of alcohol corrodes his lungs.
I ignore the thrum of my blood.
Duff says: The prominent misspelling in the first sentence was an immediate turn-off. On its own that would not have prevented us from selecting the story as a winner – it is clear what the author intended – but it doesn’t make a good first impression.
And then, in sentences two and three, the author makes use of two of the most fickle implements in the fiction writer’s toolbox: the dream, and the word ‘somehow.’ Both of these things can be used skillfully, but a developing writer would be well advised to consider carefully each time before employing them. In the case of this story, I think that they would have been better omitted.
The dream, particularly, leaves a sense in the reader of being uncertain as to the degree that the story is science fiction and the degree to which it is an exploration of delusion. That particular distinction, of course, is a favorite stomping ground of science fiction. Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut have been here before, and there is certainly room for it to be revisited. I just don’t think this story quite manages it. The reader is left with a furrowed brow rather than a blown mind.
All that said, the last line is tremendously potent. It backs a story’s worth of creeping horror into a scant seven words. “I ignore the thrum of my blood.” Yes, please.
Helen says: I confess, I have a soft spot for nanites. Misspellings (“nannites”) make me sad, though. This may be a little harsh, but for a contest where you’re only allowed 200 words to make an impression I believe that every one should be perfect.
The first paragraph starts off promisingly enough, but in the end the story is fundamentally one of the “it was all a dream ... or was it?” variety (or “it’s all in your imagination ...”) My quibbles with the execution are relatively small (you don’t need to specify “micro monster” just to hit the theme — the nanites got you there already). Unfortunately there’s only so much drama to be mined from brushing one’s teeth, and there wasn’t enough here to stand out from the crowd.
by Wayne Myers
Crow mounted his hover, blinking in the Martian sun. Adjusting his helmet, he bit down and retched as the stelazine hit.
The airlock slid open and the bike shot forward.
Let the stelazine work today. Enough little green men.
Three kilometres of Martian desert and he heard the sickly voice.
A tunnel gaped before him. The hover plunged into darkness. Blinded, he pulled to a halt, waiting for his helmet to adjust. It was cool here, a gentle downward slope.
The little green man sat in mid-air.
"I don't have time," said Crow. "You're not real."
The little green man laughed.
Crow bit on the pipe and retched. Nothing.
The little green man held out a handful of pebbles.
Crow stared, then grabbed at the pebbles and swallowed one, retching some more.
Tunnel and homunculus vanished. Done. Back to work.
Four hours later he brought the hover home, dusty and exhausted.
"Any little green men today, Crow?"
"Nah," said Crow. "Stelazine worked a treat."
He fingered the pebbles in his pocket. A week's supply, maybe two.
Enough little green men.
Duff says: I love the rhythm of this one. The opening sentence primes us for some unapologetic science fiction and I’m ready to lap it up. I had never heard of stelazine before reading this story, but it’s such a seamless part of the protagonist’s world that it doesn’t matter; its purpose is clear. This is a good trick to master when writing SF because, though stelazine is real, the same technique can be used to introduce any sort of phlebotinum without needless exposition.
The combination of hallucinatory little green men and the Martian setting was a little facile, but I don’t think it counts as a demerit. Also, I felt that certain repetitions throughout the text (“retched” and, to a lesser extent, “little green men”) needed to be either made more deliberate or avoided altogether, but I likewise felt that to be a minor matter. What stopped me from endorsing this story wholeheartedly was simply that I didn’t get the feeling that anything was at stake. It’s a compelling sketch of character and setting, but nothing is ventured and nothing gained.
Helen says: Well, I learned something about stelazine because of this entry. This one came in with a tweet, “Hope ‘micro’ connection is not too tenuous.” Well, it was, a little. We were open to a pretty broad interpretation of the theme, however. The main problem for me was that I’m not entirely sure there’s a story here. “A story implies motion. It’s not just description. Something needs to change.” This description comes from Ben White, editor of the Twitter publication @nanoism, who was running a contest for even shorter stories than us at the time of AE Micro. In “Crow,” we get a portrait of a schizophrenic on Mars, but I don’t know quite what to do with it. I’m probably missing the significance of the pebbles, but it reads to me as just another delusion displacing the first, so that we end in a state almost indistinguishable from status quo.
It’s hard to write a story in the space we allowed that includes a truly transformative moment, we know. It’s a feat of agility that makes the winning stories all the more impressive.