This week's stories read include Veronica Schanoes, Catherynne M. Valente, Ken Liu, M. Bennardo, N.A. Ratnayake, Alena McNamara, and Claire Humphrey.
"Burning Girls" by Veronica Schanoes, Tor.com, June 19, 2013
Tor releases top quality shorts time and again - there is nothing I've read this year I haven't liked. Burning Girls is no exception - a novelette length piece with a mass of intensity. Some might argue that this story could be shorter without any loss of intensity, but I would disagree. The ocean- and generation-spanning magic had a lot to say about the adaptation of traditions to a changing world. There was a no nonsense approach to magic and communities that were strictly for the women, but did not infantalize the men. There was an effortless blend of fairy tale and horror.
I liked how the narration changed as the narrator aged. Schanoes built a character full, luminous and rich in Deborah. The peasant upbringing was also presented in a fascinating light - no different, better, or worse than the city life Deborah divided her time between in the first part of the story. It was a retelling that repositions the concept of "immigrant" - the deprivations and loss from revolution and death makes the women more resilient and capable.
The story comes with quite a horrific end, but the slow build of intensity throughout is good preparation.
"The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World" by Catherynne M. Valente, Subterranean, June 2013
I will read anything of Valente's I can get my hands on! (I am so looking forward to the Mechagirl anthology this month) Here she is with more of her delicious prose. Perhaps I'm getting used to her turn of phrase, perhaps there was a lot of allusion to American culture I'm somewhat familiar with, but there was a lot here I actually understood! That's a big thing for me with a Valente and as I always say, I don't care if I don't get it, hers is still the most delicious prose I've ever read, I'll read it for the sheer beauty of the words.
A nice post-apocalyptic number here, dabbling in the Weird Western Valente has taken a shine to of late. The magic born from a slowly dissolving world could be allegorical, could be real - that's the great thing about Valente, she can be read so many ways. The lingering patriotism also jarred, but I also feel that was a nod towards American seclusion tactics - why would The World Police look for help at the End of All Things?
"The Shape of Thought" by Ken Liu, The Other Half of the Sky, April 2013
I'm trying to understand how a story this lacking in nuance could make its way into a feminist-styled collection. It's almost like it was written by someone with little understanding of modern feminist theory, with a few bullet points to hit: feminists don't like men, so here's a violent, nasty father; women are caring and nurturing, so here's A Mother Communication Specialist; we're in the age of gender swapping heroes, so here's our place holder young female hero!
If it had been positioned as a parody, then it might have worked, but the joke never kicked in. I seriously sucked my teeth early on as the protag Sarah gave evo-psyche gendered descriptions of the non-gendered aliens (boy has a weapon, girl has makeup-like features), then decided they didn't know how to categorize their gender...yet went on to assign them one of the non-gendered pronouns commonly in use today (almost as if it was picked off Wikipedia, because the pronouns chosen are problematic to certain members of the genderqueer community - they're not a hive mind!).
Where did Sarah find an understanding of non-binary pronouns? There is no explanation. In fact, where does Sarah find her understanding of anything at all, caught between the violent father and pacifist mother? Social and cultural awareness doesn't happen in a vacuum. I'm very upset by this because we right now have a cultural shift in the understanding of gender, and yet here in the far distant future we have a community of ex-Earth people completely stumped by non-binary people. Is there some time in their history that humans eradicated genderqueer people?
I wouldn't be surprised, as the next egregious black mark against the story involves forced colonization via the eradication of language. In this world building, the only language in use is the "superior" English, and all other languages from human Earth have been eradicated. Again, right now, we have cultures fighting to retain their language, and I cannot imagine a history where people would go quietly into the night.
Sure, it's a set up so the language and communication specialist (the mother, quell surprise - I love the smell of evolutionary psychology fail in the morning) fails in their job. It's a terrible set up - we're being beaten over the head with the club of "Savage Noble Good, Colonization Bad". For crying out loud, the term "savage noble" is even employed at one point! How can anyone be a "specialist" in language, when your only baseline is one language? The story goes on to posit a diversity in language after the failure, but in a world currently fighting to retain language, this is a particularly awful strawman.
And the strawmen keep on coming...including the sole male character. The father is posited as an awful violent man with no nuance (why is he so violent? Why does he believe humans are superior? What do they teach on that generation ship?), and his wife and child accept him like that, professing their love for him (because he's just "misguided") till the end. There are other words for this - gaslighting, abuse. Again, I do not understand how hundreds or thousands of years in the future this is still a Thing, unremarked, when we are working on eradicating these problems today.
And then there's the "sex" scene. I say sex in quotes, because the aliens are posited as asexual reproducers, and derive their pleasure from the sharing of knowledge and communication...but somehow Sarah's alien friend knows to go straight for the tits when she offers herself up for DNA sharing. Thoroughly disappointed - this collection is no place for the male gaze.
I have high hopes for this anthology, so I'm hoping this story is an anomaly. I expected more of a top name writer, and a feminist leaning publication.
"Thirty-Four Dollars" by M. Bennardo, Menial: Skilled Labour in Science Fiction, Crossed Genres Publications, February 2013
I honestly do not know how I skipped over Bennardo's contribution to Menial - bad me!
And what a goodie it is. Bennardo offers up a smooth, subtle piece that on the surface reads like a short obituary, set in a post-scarcity world. Dig further, and he does with gender what I only dream I could do - quiet, unassuming acceptance, that makes you question every other character. I got to the end and had to go back to the start and read again to understand how he did it - I just adore when a writer can so effortlessly flip your expectations about gender without any sort of large road markers. Absolutely first class.
There's also a quiet acceptance of an Earth dealing with the consequences of climate change. Normal people, needing to make a buck, have to make do, no matter the circumstances. This perfectly plays into the wider theme of Menial. The politicians are well out of sight, and the Mike Rowe's of the world are getting the job of survival done.
"The Parched Lands" by N.A. Ratnayake, Crossed Genres Magazine Issue 7, July 2013
CGM's theme for July is "Expectations". The first story of the issue is stereotypical thematically - a teenage coming of age in high school - but using a technology that seems frighteningly close at hand, intertwined with a political system that posits a robot-like attentiveness to education. Considering the risks and pressures, mental and physical, young students are already taking now, it's not that far away.
When the protag rebels against the system, they discover an all too familiar underbelly to the system - students deemed less worthy, of a different class or caste of skin, those with an inability to truly connect with the system. It's not quite the school-to-prison pipeline the US is building, but there is definitely "less" for creative thinkers, for those who question.
There's a couple of nice short, sharp jokes (the TV show du jour is called "Slippery Slopes"), but I do feel the story ends too soon.
"As Large As Alone" by Alena McNamara, Crossed Genres Magazine Issue 7, July 2013
Mermaid story? Ghost story? First love? Coming of age? All of the above? McNamara certainly plays with expectations, making this story intriguingly hard to pin down.
There's a few technical bumps in the story, especially early on, but once underway it has a nice dreamlike quality to it, with the water and fog, dirt and weed of a summer holiday. The characters of the parents were a little underwritten, almost as if they were place holders, but the little sister Mandy (ohai!) made up for it, being more than just the "annoying stupid little sister". What did Julia know about mermaids that she wanted to protect her sister from? That Julia already knew something about drowning, death, and mermaids (and all three intertwined) defied our expectations of the story from the get go.
"The God-Seed" by Claire Humphrey, Crossed Genres Magazine Issue 7, July 2013
This is the outstanding piece of the issue. It's an odd little beasty, very understated in its magic, but its beauty lives in that understatement - we can find the magic in small every day things, the magic of becoming, step by tiny step down a long hard road.
Humphrey asks the reader to defy their expectations of gender - not a hard thing for me, I'm always happy to see more genderqueer characters. Then there's the expectations of death and mourning - Avis deals with the death of their parents in a non-conventional way, but there was a line that rang very true for me: "I did my mourning months before they died" is something I've heard from people nursing elderly parents with cancer, and so someone not performing the social expectations of mourning can seem quite jarring. In fact, I thought it was great characterization, because people mourn in their individual ways.
I also really liked the unspoken expectation - was the god-seed the cause of Avis' parents death (by cancer and/or fire)? There was certainly the expectation that Avis would die if they did not find fertile ground for it.
The story meandered into strange territory with long passages about Avis interactions with the strange Solveig, Solveig's choosing of a cat, and her taking care of a sick Avis. However, these passages all pull together in the end as the reader comes to understand Avis is creating a new friendship, no matter how against her whim, which helps her plant the seed, literally and figuratively, for a new life. I really liked how Solveig became a friend and not a lover - it was much in line with Avis' loner status, and also not every friendship needs to become bigger than it really is.