Metal Like Blood in the Dark • 2020 • SF Fairy Tale short story by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First sentenceOnce upon a time there was a man who built two enormous machines, and he loved them very much.

Synopsis: The man names those two sentient machines Brother and Sister and sends them out to enjoy the ruins of their planet. Brother loves to fly while Sister digs into the ground. Both feed on rare metals but don’t find much in the depleted environment. 

When their father gets very ill, he sends them out to the asteroid belt only to return when he is better. The asteroids don’t provide much norishment as well. They starve until they find the jackpot: a huge space ship rich in metals. 

But the owner, an even larger sentient machine, returns, overwhelms them and demands payment for feeding on his possession. Brother must weave him a set of wings that lets the owner return to his nearby home gas planet. 

Review: It’s clear from the first sentences on that this is a retelling of Grimms’ Hänsel and Gretel fairy tale. This sets the struts for the story ending in Gretel shoving the witch into the oven in the form of the gas planet. Only the bread crumbs are missing and riding a duck back home over a large lake. 

The story digs into Sister’s/Gretel’s coming-of-age by letting the sentient machine discover the possibilities and applications of lies and half-truths. Knowing this, she will never be able to fully trust others, and can’t go back to her innocent child stage. The universe is full of predators and they have to understand this to survive. This follows the established psychological interpretation of the fairy tale. It’s been used in psychiatric contexts for schizophrenia conditions and anorexia.

The fun in reading the story is not in the established plot but in the different angle and genre the author takes. It provides enough brain-food to rediscover the original tale without the moralistic touch. The narration’s grimdark atmosphere is transported perfectly for adults. I really enjoyed the reading.

In summary, it’s a bit better than Yoon Ha Lee’s Little Mermaid retelling (review) which is also part of this year’s Hugo ballot.

Meta: isfdb. Available online at Uncanny. Nominated for the Hugo Award.

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