Rachel Swirsky reviews Short Fiction, October 2016
Clarkesworld 4/16, 6/16, 8/16
Uncanny 3-4/16, 7-8/16
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/16, 7/16
While Gardner Dozois is recovering, Locus has given me the enormous privilege to fill in with two columns. I join everyone in wishing him a swift return to health and writing brilliant articles.
This review focuses on a sampling of short fiction from three prominent online venues – Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny Magazine. Since I have the privilege of a second column, I will take a different perspective then.
One benefit of the narrow focus is that all these stories are easily accessible on the web. I hope you choose to read and enjoy some of them.
Clarkesworld is a natural home for alien stories. Neil Clarke’s editorial voice emerges in the magazine’s persistent themes and aesthetics, a frequent thread of which is the consideration of alienation and identity.
‘‘Touring with the Alien’’ by Carolyn Ives Gilman (April) is an exemplar of character-driven science fiction, providing both an intellectual lure, and a subtly effective emotional journey. Avery is a hauler with high-level security clearance who’s recruited to drive a mysterious alien (Mr. Burbage) and his human translator (Lionel) across the United States. Mr. Burbage is sessile, hidden from Avery for most of the trip. Lionel, who was abducted as a child and does not understand humanity well, reveals that the aliens are not self-aware.
Nevertheless, Mr. Burbage is addicted to consciousness, which he can only experience through humans, and which shortens his lifespan. Both Lionel and Avery, grieving for different reasons, are intimately confronted with the pain of consciousness, which Mr. Burbage has chosen to take on. The story balances on a delicate, regretful tightrope, weighing the virtues of self-hood.
‘‘Things with Beards’’ (June) by Sam J. Miller approaches the same themes. On his blog, Miller describes the story as ‘‘essentially a fanfic sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing.’’ For those unfamiliar with the movie, the story’s main character, MacReady, is the survivor of an Antarctic expedition where he was possessed by an alien:
The thing wears his clothes, his body, his cowboy hat, it doesn’t want him to know it is there. So the moment when the supply ship crewman walked in and found formerlyfrozen MacReady sitting up – and watched MacReady’s face split down the middle, saw a writhing nest of spaghetti tentacles explode in his direction, screamed as they enveloped him and swiftly started digesting – all of that is gone from MacReady’s mind. But when it is being MacReady, it is Mac- Ready. Every opinion and memory and passion is intact.
The story is a tangle of metaphors that knot perfectly together. MacReady wears a multitude of beards: he is a disguised alien, a disguised gay man, a disguised terrorist. He is the vector of a deadly, unknown disease that he suspects and dreads but doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know about the literal tentacles inside him, but he also doesn’t know what mundane monstrousness he possesses. He wonders whether anyone in this compromised world can. ‘‘He can’t do anything about what he is. All he can do is try to minimize the harm, and do his best to counterbalance it.’’
This story joins others of Miller’s, such as last year’s ‘‘The Heat of Us’’, as a startling and intelligent engagement with queer history through a science fictional lens.
Dale Bailey, an underappreciated short fiction powerhouse, provides another take in ‘‘Teenagers from Outer Space’’ (August). His story springs from the imagery associated with B-horror movies – a 1950s invasion of strange looking aliens – altered by a modern viewpoint.
The powerful, strange aliens send their teenagers to high school, where they play football and attend English class. A human girl, Nancy, tells the story of how the aliens influenced her friend Joan, the restless daughter of a ‘‘strict disciplinarian’’ who regularly hits her. After Joan rebels against her father by going out with a facile older boy – a ‘‘cheap hood’’ – her date repays her with attempted rape. She’s rescued by an alien, Tham, who offers her a freedom she can’t find anywhere else. Bailey’s characteristically beautiful prose creates an eerie but alluring alien world, deliberately reminiscent of fairyland:
With each passing block, the streets became increasingly unearthly. Entire homes had been buried under thick, undulating vines, succulent and smooth… Fleshy, tentacled trees – I have no other word – shouldered up to the sidewalk and intertwined their limbs in a dense, rippling canopy that blocked out the sky… And everything sang. I sometimes hear it still, that soft, arrhythmic music, ethereal, and eerie as the tones of a theremin… It got inside my head, like an itch I couldn’t reach to scratch.
In this setting, Joan is: ‘‘tall and unafraid… the one unmoving point in that undulant landscape, her face softly illumined by the slow-pulsing colors.’’ Bailey captures the same poignancy Gilman does, a tension between the desire for Joan to go, and for a world in which she would be able to stay.
Uncanny Magazine’s predominate mode is lushly voiced stories that create intensive, enduring emotional immersion. Some are like Dali paintings – or, perhaps more relevantly, like many Kelly Link stories. Disparate, vivid images converge and clash, allowing the story to bloom in the interstices.
When one finishes a story like Catherynne M. Valente’s ‘‘Snow Day’’ (July-August), it’s not always immediately apparent what has happened on a literal level. In fact, it’s not clear that ‘‘Snow Day’’ can be usefully interpreted on a literal level.
Gudrun lives in a world that she perceives as near-apocalyptic. Her narrative is deeply unreliable; she was raised by her mother, Ruby, whose obsession with the end of the world drove her to isolate herself and her daughter as completely as possible. Though Ruby is dead, Gudrun feels bound to the house, waiting for the world to whimper out on the ‘‘Snow Day’’ she has marked on her calendar.
‘‘Snow Day’’ successfully evokes the feeling of claustrophobic stasis. Events do happen. Gudrun bides time waiting for the apocalypse by writing a diary in the marginalia of old pornography books. She passes notes back and forth with the general store owner, who has taken an interest in the isolated woman to whom he sends regular orders. Although the tone of the piece is often science fictional, it blends into fantasy. Gudrun experiences sudden, inexplicable parthenogenesis as the world winds down, and must raise her adult, newborn twin. Gudrun is also literally allergic to bad art, an affliction that does not affect her enjoyment of pornography because:
Those books were just what they aspired to be, nothing more and nothing less. They achieved their ambitions and fulfilled their purpose. Against all stylistic, narrative, and technical odds, they performed the function of fiction and imitated a certain delicate reality perfectly. Not the reality of Ruby and Gudrun and Murray and the Secretary of Agriculture and the Uptown Grand cinema, but something better, a cohesive universe of total generosity, of events occurring in perfect order and quick succession.
It’s long been my assertion that certain kinds of experimental fiction instruct you on how to read them. A passage like this provides a possible key. ‘‘Snow Day’’ is ‘‘imitat[ing] a certain delicate reality perfectly.’’ It’s not our reality – it’s ‘‘the reality of Ruby and Gudrun and Murray…’’ Unlike the pornography, the world of ‘‘Snow Day’’ is not ‘‘a cohesive universe of total generosity,’’ and does not have ‘‘events [which occur] in perfect order and quick succession.’’ It is a world where science fiction, fantasy, present, past, memory and contradiction exist in fractured simultaneity.
Instead ‘‘Snow Day’’ communicates by feeling. It is movement-but-stasis, real-but-uncertain. It’s the abrupt ending when stasis turns to sudden end:
‘‘Your calendar says today’s a snow day,’’ he said softly. ‘‘I wouldn’t count on it.’’ …. Behind them, the television cut out as quick as a knife. Pemberley screamed for her mother. She couldn’t ever be brave in the dark.
Far below, the lights in the valley vanished, one by one, the Uptown Grand Cinema and the Abalone General Store and the Post Office, the houses and the banks, the bakery and the schoolhouse, and when they had all gone, only a stillness like black nebulas remained.
‘‘It’s nothing,’’ Gudrun whispered in the sudden, total silence. ‘‘Just something my mother used to say.’’
Shveta Thrakar’s ‘‘The Shadow Collector’’ (March-April) provides another collection of vivid imagery. Most prominent are the miniature girls that the narrator, Rajesh, grows in the queen’s garden. Some are jasmine; some are roses. A delightful Lotus randomly recites silly predictions and aphorisms.
Rajesh also collects shadows which he steals from the garden’s visitors. Shadows constantly ‘‘[beckon] to him, tempting, always tempting.’’ The story turns when he’s dazzled by the ghost of the queen’s broken flute, who seeks revenge for having been carelessly dashed.
Unlike ‘‘Snow Day,’’ the events in ‘‘The Shadow Collector’’ take place in a linear, logical sequence. However, it still has a dreamlike quality. To borrow Valente’s lens, this story isn’t telling the reality of a cohesively built secondary world. Instead, it presents a place where one magical concept emerges after another, where flower-girls blend into shadow stealing and the spirits of magical flutes, where another surprising turn could easily emerge and reshape the world.
If the story can be criticized, it may be for the fact that the images don’t play off of each other with the kind of ideal tension that Valente’s ‘‘Snow Day’’ achieves. Though the story has a dramatic moment, by and large it floats without risk. Images nestle softly together, all pretty: flowers, shadows, flutes.
Or, via another interpretation, one can say that the story, per Valente, ‘‘achieve[s its] ambitions and fulfill[s its] purpose.’’ It is a gentle story, which evokes a blossoming mood like the garden, leavened with moments of fading and broken branches.
Alyssa Wong, who has rapidly risen to prominence with sharp, visceral stories, achieves her signature effect in ‘‘You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay’’ (July-August). In contrast to Valente’s stasis and Thrakar’s beauty, Wong’s story is saturated with rising dread. The story is a tense, second-person narrative about a young boy who works at a harsh brothel in the Wild West where the Madam unhappily tolerates his strange abilities to control dead things.
The sound of bones rattling against metal fills your ears, and you turn to look; the chicken she’d been preparing for dinner staggers back to its feet, half–skinned, half– butchered. Its flesh hangs in open, swaying flaps. The discarded pile of plucked feathers begins to swirl around it like an obscene snowfall. You can feel each movement the dead chicken takes, your blood pounding in time with its footsteps…
The chicken’s headless neck whips toward you, snakelike, its ragged circle of severed bone and muscle gleaming at you like a malevolent eye. Its toenails rasp against the sink. Calm down, you think, and it sways, sinking to its knees. Go back to sleep.
This passage demonstrates Wong’s skill at creating horror. The image of the dead bird is vivid enough, but her sentences surge urgently forward, snapping between unsettling images without allowing time for dread to dissipate. The imagery is unsettling – ‘‘its toenails rasp against the sink’’ – when it is not outright repulsive – ‘‘flesh hangs in open, swaying flaps.’’ Severed bone and muscle ‘‘gleam,’’ creating a dissonant sense of beauty.
The story pursues a more traditional plot than some of Wong’s work, as the boy embarks on something like a quest. It only becomes darker after the passage above, but it best evokes my lingering feeling of vacillation between the uneasy and the horrifying.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies has always had a strong editorial voice, partially because of its distinct focus on secondary world fantasy. Its stories usually have strong, forward-driving styles with external action. What really makes a Beneath Ceaseless Skies story, though, is unusual worldbuilding, the stranger the better.
For several years, the magazine has been mining a rich world-building seam: gender. Since gender is a significant organizing factor in most societies, and much (though certainly not all!) older science fiction didn’t deeply interrogate it, BCS authors often build on the traditions of authors like Tiptree and Le Guin.
While writing about gender roles is often equated with writing about women, many excellent stories discuss men’s gender instead (or additionally). Mishell Baker’s ‘‘Fire in the Haze’’ (July) takes on circumscribed male roles. En is a man who can wield magic, in a world that believes only women can or should. Ten years ago, his former lover, Tuo, a magical shape-shifting child of the goddess Ru, cast a spell on him so that his body would become female at nighttime, allowing him to enter the goddess’ temple as a magic-worker. Though the plan was that he would reveal himself once he was entrenched, En has become complacent, enjoying a steady, fulfilling life. When Tuo’s spell breaks, En is forced to act, but his revelation doesn’t stir the High Seeress’ convictions about men; instead, she condemns him to death.
En’s sadness at losing his contented temple life slowly shifts into the well-rendered revelation of his abiding pain at having loved and lost Tuo. When he once again finds Tuo, he still cannot make sense of the Child of Ru’s non-human loyalties. This is a story of unequal, irreconcilable, and yet durable love.
‘‘The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles’’ by Rachael K. Jones (July) is considerably more surreal than Baker’s ‘‘Fire in the Haze’’. However, the stories share preoccupations.
Hester sells asp eggs at the illegal Night Market where women buy reptile eggs to swallow, hoping to transform into reptiles themselves and escape their human encumbrances.
[Hester] used to ask them why, back when she first started selling. Why the bazaar? Why tonight? Why this shape?
‘‘Because this body has grown too tight around me.’’
‘‘Because breathing weighs me down, and I am exhausted.’’
‘‘Because each night, I dream of walking into the desert and not returning.’’
‘‘Because each morning, I watch the merchants pass into the gates, and I want to scream, ‘Stay away!’’’
At the night bazaar, they shed their skin and leave as asps and tortoises and crocodiles. They pass the gates unimpeded. They go out into the desert and erase the footprints leading inward.
Hester has come to crave this escape, too. She dreams of what would happen ‘‘[i]f she could be that kind of creature. If she could cross the desert. If she could break free of the spidersilk bonds… the thin invisible obligations tying woman to man to woman to child, a web which caught and snared.’’ However, even when she resorts to swallowing her own wares, she cannot transform.
Though everyone believes only women can turn into reptiles, Hester is rattled when her male partner insists on swallowing one of her eggs. He achieves what she cannot: ‘‘An asp springs from his breastbone, a fine golden-eyed creature damp from heart’s-blood.’’ She is left to help butcher his ‘‘unwanted body,’’ selling hair to weavers, bones to fruit-growers, meat to candle-makers. Hester’s yearning for a life scraped bare of obligations is as palpable as the desert.
In addition to her beautiful Uncanny piece, Catherynne M. Valente also contributed a lush story to BCS: ‘‘The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or the Luminescence of Debauchery’’ (May).
If ‘‘Snow Day’’ is reminiscent of Kelly Link, then ‘‘Lumiscence’’ evokes Tanith Lee, with its sumptuous descriptions of decadent lives. The narrator is expertly characterized through his elevated, old-fashioned style, which teeters between gorgeous and pompous, often hitting both.
The story glories in indulgence, the narrator making no pretense at morality.
That narrator, Cornelius, is first introduced as Perpetua, the daughter of a glassmaker who inherits the least useful of his property – an iron punty which she cannot make use of while seen as a woman. To solve the problem, Cornelius simply adopts a man’s role (which may or may not be initially inherent to his identity, but certainly becomes so), a change he describes in unilaterally positive terms: ‘‘My womandectomy caused me neither trouble nor grief – I whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone!’’
Working as a glassmaker, Cornelius eventually discovers his calling, crafting unparalleled glass eyes more beautiful than real ones. On a whim one day, he crafts a pair of glass eyes, though his client only needs one replaced. Experimenting with the spare, Cornelius discovers that his creations possess a magical ability; when he looks into one eye, he is able to peer through its match and see the world from its owner’s perspective.
Unlike Baker’s and Jones’, Valente’s story does not dwell on the concept of men and women’s parallel achievements. However, the story does include a trans woman; her character can be read as mirroring Cornelius’s, though it’s not a central thread.
Though not as emotionally evocative as ‘‘Snow Day,’’ Valente’s BCS story is rich and beautiful, and will delight readers who enjoy her wit and chameleonic style.
One thought on “Rachel Swirsky reviews Short Fiction, October 2016”
Quote from the review of Sam J. Miller’s “Things with Beards”: “For those unfamiliar with the movie [John Carpenter’s The Thing], the story’s main character, MacReady, is the survivor of an Antarctic expedition where he was possessed by an alien…”
In the movie, MacReady was never possessed by the alien. It was left purposefully ambiguous according to Kurt Russell who played the MacReady character. Minor point, but in the interests of accuracy… 🙂