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‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ by Tori Truslow – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ was originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #113.

Usually I would say read the story before reading this post. This time, I’ll say read the story but then read this Short Fiction Snapshot from Abigail Nussbaum before reading on. Done? Okay.

First impressions are important but they can also be deceptive. Most of the commenters on Nussbaum’s piece – myself included – had a strong negative reaction to the opening paragraph of Truslow’s story but ultimately liked the whole thing. So let’s the skip the horrid tweeness of the introduction in which we are told we are reading a story (told by someone within Truslow’s story) and move onto the meat.

The meat turns out to be a story within a story within a story. A bunch of indolent young men, attended by a servant, are whiling away the evening telling each other tales. Chief amongst them are brothers Cail, “clever and dutiful”, and Jerrin, “lazy and stuffed with dreams” (Truslow pre-emptively lampshades this conveniently broad characterisation by having having her narrator note: “You know how brothers are in stories”. These metafictional insertions are an unwelcome but defining characteristic of the story.)

But it is not the brothers who are the heart of the story but there servant. Truslow nicely sketches both their indulgence for their employee (“Bue poured their cups full to the brim, and served himself too, as none had forbidden him.”) and the limitations of this (“You’ll do it,” said Jerrin, bored of joking. “Or I’ll have you sent back to your swamp, where you can practice your wit on the crabs.”) This beneficence extends to allowing him to tell his story.

But ‘he’ is not right; or rather, ‘he’ is not solely right. Bue was a country girl from a family of fishers who discovered an unexpected talent for magic. “And her parents thought, and conferred, and spoke to their cousins and their neighbors, who all agreed: a girl with such a talent could marry well.” So far, so traditional. But Bue’s response and, more importantly, her parents’ reaction is not:

Bue’s smile was not a delicate thing but a big rash grin when she said, “why should I be a girl?”

And her parents were not hard people. “Ah, is that how it is?” said Bue’s mother, who had seen her nodding at shrines to the double-god Kam. “It’s a week till Crossing, isn’t it?”

“Go as our son, then,” said her father. “If you find yourself happy, well enough. If you change your mind, come home for the Carnival, and we’ll send you back as our daughter.”

This easy, happy fluidity of gender is the story’s great strength and allows Truslow to pursue a new type of fairytale that looks forward rather than back. Unfortunately she then spoils the effect of this passage by making her narrator lecture the reader:

Have I confused you? Oh, to be telling this tale in my own tongue! They say a bad workman blames her tools, and maybe so, but your language throws up strange borders. Understand: to her parents, Bue was a daughter, but to herself? Neither “he” nor “she” is exactly right, and nor is any third word. But these are the words you understand, so I’ll do what I can with them.

No, I wasn’t confused, I was impressed; now I’m simply annoyed. Anyway, Bue travels to the city, where she uses her “haunt-tricks” and a bit of typical fairytale trickery to tame a ghostwood barge belonging to the brothers’ father. Truslow is probably at her best both in the language she uses to describe magic and the description itself (my favourite neologism, however, is “night-tired” for hung-over). Bue then finds a fairytale princess in a tower to be rescued which is prettily managed, if fairly familiar.

As the story heads to its conclusion, Truslow again swerves off to tell another story. This time it is ‘The Wandering Lovers, or How Kam Married Theirself’, the origin story of the god of the Crossing. But why? This sort of background explication is entirely unnecessary when over the page we have a much more direct and affecting depiction of the outcome: “They saw a stranded Carnival boat of young boys with painted ladies’ faces, striking parody poses, all but one making themselves giddy laughing at each others’ antics. The last of their number simply peered at her new reflection in a puddle and smiled; her friends didn’t laugh at her.” On more than one occasion, ‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ is a story that would have benefited from being told true. Like many of its characters, it wears a mask but is at its best when we can see its face.

Written by Martin

21 February 2014 at 13:39

Posted in sf, short stories

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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ was originally published at Strange Horizons

One of the odd things about SF short fiction – and one of the reasons for this feature – is that so much of it is published but so little is written about it. And when short fiction is written about, it is usually in the listings format that goes for comprehensive coverage of as many stories as possible over analysis of individual stories. As an example, here is how ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ (a story which was voted the best of 2013 by readers of Strange Horizons and was subsequently shortlisted for the BSFA Award) was described by the two biggest short fiction reviewing venues when it was first published:

“Told in short back-and-forth sections, this one is a typical SH story about love and commitment, with the selkie tale standing in as a metaphor.”

Lois Tilton’s short fiction column for Locus Online.

“Sofia Somatar’s storytelling style owes a debt to Kelly Link’s magic realism, but lacks that author’s emotional wallop. A quick read that gets a little lost in its own naval gazing and one non sequitur too many, but your mileage may vary depending on your taste for quirk.”

Jared L Mills reviewing for Tangent Online

It is hard to write about short fiction. It is particularly hard to write about short short fiction (‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ is 3,000, a thousand less than ‘Saga’s Children). But surely if it is so central to our genre, we need to collectively get a lot better at it? (I’m including myself in this.)

So, a selkie is a mythical creature that looks like seal in the water but once on land, having shed its skin, appears to be a human. There is something inherently a bit naff about selkies, something Samatar gestures at with her title, and Tilton is right that here they function primarily as a metaphor (you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to read this as an entirely realist story).

The sentiment of the title is voiced by the narrator in the opening paragraph: “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.” It is a great opening, immediately capturing the protagonist’s voice whilst also flagging the irony and metafictionality of the story. She’s eighteen, trying to understand her mother’s sudden disappearance on top of already trying to understand herself.

This second half of the story is reflected in the lovely relationship she forms with fellow waitress Mona, something that might be a burgeoning romance or might be platonic intimacy: “I’ve never kissed Mona. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I keep deciding it’s not time. It’s not that I think she’d freak out or anything. It’s not even that I’m afraid she wouldn’t kiss me back. It’s worse: I’m afraid she’d kiss me back, but not mean it.” If, like Mills, you can read any of this stuff without getting walloped by emotion then perhaps you need re-calibrating.

Equally, it is hard to spot the supposed navel-gazing and non sequitars. This is an extremely cleverly and precisely composed story; each short paragraph overlapping and amplifying the themes of the others, fluidly and without attracting attention. I guess this is part of the trouble with reviewing such fiction: if you take it apart, will it still work? The beauty of the story certainly isn’t broken by examination but I’m not sure it can be spoken either.

Written by Martin

14 February 2014 at 16:29

‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)

You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.

So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.

‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.

This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?

The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.

That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.

Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Stranded on the moon, a group of American astronauts watch with horror as the Cold War turns hot and the Earth begins to tear itself apart. Painfully aware that reserves of food and good will are running low, they begin experimenting with a new technology in the hope that it will somehow allow them to find a new home.

First in a series of four self-published novellas, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains offers an unusual but compelling combination of immaculately researched hard sf and literary fiction. Central to the book’s strangeness is that, despite drawing on two very different literary traditions to tell his story, Sales makes no attempt to integrate the prose styles associated with these traditions. This collision of styles results in a series of arresting passages where beautifully formed and intensely poetic images loom up unexpectedly from a fog of numbers and acronyms. Initially quite unsettling, this discordant style proves highly effective once Sales begins exploring similar tensions within his characters. By juxtaposing the inhuman and technical elements of hard sf with the humanistic and lyrical elements of literary fiction, Sales suggests that his characters may well be burying themselves in the technical aspects of their jobs in order to escape from feelings which, though perfectly human, have no place amidst the square-jawed heroism of the American space programme. This ambivalent attitude towards the character of Apollo-era astronauts also provides the basis for an unflinchingly brutal assault on the myth of the ‘right stuff’. In fact, it is hard not to think of science fictional archetypes like Robert Heinlein’s Capable Man when Sales takes all the machismo and patriotism of a Sixties astronaut and forces it to decay into a hideous radioactive sludge of pride, resentment and petulant sentimentality.

Though packed with invention and fleeting displays of true literary grace, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains is a somewhat unbalanced piece of writing. For example, while the experimental juxtaposition of different prose styles is successful on the whole, Sales does occasionally lose himself in technical detail, resulting in readers having to pick their way through needlessly dense thickets of acronym-studded exposition. This sense of imbalance is also evident in his tendency to lavish attention on world building while expecting readers to fill in the gaps when it comes to characterisation. Particularly annoying is the way that Sales ends the book with both a bibliography and a potted history of his fictional space programme when those pages might have been better put to better use unpacking the human elements of the story. Thankfully, though undoubtedly a source of frustration, these imbalances prove relatively unproblematic when weighed against the scope of Sales’s ambition and the adroitness of his execution. The Apollo Quartet promises much but in order to deliver on this promise Sales must learn to trust his instincts as a literary stylist as the muse of technological correctness is only holding him back.

This review originally appeared in Vector #271.

Written by Martin

28 March 2013 at 15:44

‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ by China Miéville – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ was originally published on Rejectamentalist Manifesto.

China Miéville bestrides the genre stage like a colossal sentient oil rig. He’s been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Novel four times (winning for The City & The City) and ‘Covehithe’ was on the Best Short Fiction shortlist last year. That’s in addition to his Hugo, World Fantasy Award, three Clarke Awards and seven Locus Awards. You often get the impression that he could publish his shopping list and it would be up for a major award. Which is pretty much what has happened here – Rejectamentalist Manifesto is Miéville’s blog. The items on his shopping list are:

  1. A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’.
  2. A wannabe gonzo interstitial story that only reachs goofy and literalises the technology/drug metaphor of ‘Immersion’ to no greater effect than the metaphor.
  3. A smoke beast urban horror as pointless as Lost and as under-nourished as ‘The Flight Of Ravens’

You can read it as a compressed novel but I’m more inclined read it in the same was as ‘The Song Of The Body Cartographer’: as a nothing. Still, it is better than ‘4 Final Orpheuses’. But then again, ‘better’ is a useless concept when it comes to these blog posts. Putting this story on an award shortlist seems rather like compiling M John Harrison’s blog posts into a How To Be A Writer book.

Written by Martin

27 March 2013 at 10:18

‘Limited Edition’ by Tim Maughan – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Limited Edition’ was originally published in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive

The BSFA Award is open to all types of speculative fiction but, given its full title, it is pleasing to see some actual science fiction about Britain on the shortlist rather than, say, supernatural Victoriana.

“GRIIDS PUT YOUR SPEX OOOONN,” Melody screams again. Echoes.
“I GOT NO CREDIT,” replies Grids.
“WHAAAT?”
“NO CREDIIIIIIT.”
“Jesus fam, nuff shouting,” mumbles College.

‘Limited Edition’ is, of all the things to be nominated for an award in 2013, a cyberpunk story. Reading it, I was surprised how much missed what the subgenre spoke to and how timely and relevant is occasional outbreaks remain. I was also reminded of my review of another one of those outbreaks, Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.

We all live within a system that exists solely to unevenly distribute wealth. Even when a technology itself is universal, the rich will always get more for less. In a genre so often obsessed with the exceptional, Beukes and Maughan know that most people will be losers and their story is just as important to tell. You might call this Pay As You Go SF.

The story opens with an advert, an advert for limited edition trainers, “serious nice kicks” endorsed by Eugene Sureshot and due to be released in ten days. Grids finds out that the trainers are already in storage at his local retail park in Bristol and organises a smash and grab. Since this is the future, he uses the Smash/Grab server to both anonymously co-ordinate and gameify the raid.

So ‘Limited Edition’ is situated in obvious response to the 2011 riots in England but perhaps more importantly in response to the response. There are a few broad stabs at political satire such as a reference to the 2014 Anti-terrorism, Illegal Protest, Sporting Events-Related Violence and Retail-Slash-Enterprise Zone Security And Management Act but generally (and more successfully than that clunker) Maughan takes a street-level approach. It is an attempt to sympathetically imagine what life will be like in the near future for kids like those who took part in the riots and much more science fiction should be trying something similar.

Some is. His peers, as I see it, are Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross since their fiction so often shows the dirty interaction between nerd-rapture tech meeting humanity. Which is not to say their writing itself is similar – a comparison between the kids of ‘Limited Edition’ and those of Little Brother leaves is just embarrassing for Doctorow. But comparing them to the twenty and thirty somethings of Rule 34 is less comforting for Maughan. It is unfair to compare the scope of a novel to that of a short story but Stross revels in the economic and class complexity of world whereas Maughan is pretty wobbly outside of the immediate social strata he is interested it. At one point Grids wonders about the followers piggybacking his feed and it stands as a wider comment on the story:

Who knows who they are? Bored office workers, slum kids, stockbrokers, fashionistas, online griefers, lazy journalists, housewives, angry Daily Mail readers.

Never mind the journalists, this is a pretty lazy list. It also points to a tension in the story: Maughan rightly deplores the casual contempt of the term chav but is happy to indulge in his own broad stereotyping. The story is punctuated by tweets providing commentary on the events that are unfolding and the negative ones come from people with names like WhiteVanStan, F1 Fan and ManU4eva. The dichotomy of meathead sports fans versus the cool kid gamers doesn’t sit easily with the aim of the story to look beyond labels to individuals. In fact, given the unwieldy title of that imaginary 2014 legislation, Maughan should be making common cause between the two groups. The other group associated with negative comments are women or girls with names like KattyKins13 and xxKayleighxx. This is even more uncomfortable, particularly when set against Melody:

She screw-faces, and he feels embarrassed again, because she looks cute when she does. Not bimbo, high-street, wannabe-gamer cute, but smart, confident. And cute. He kinda likes her, but he’s known her for time. Since they were little. Plus her mum would kill him.

That is Grids in full girl next door crush mode. Not only does this reduce Maughan to clichés, it also reinforces the sense of dividing people up into categories; I’m sure he doesn’t believe in the existence of fake geek girls but he is leading himself down that path. This partisan deployment of sympathies is most clearly seen in Grids himself. Why does he Smash/Grab? The story’s first answer is ego: “Nothing scares him like the insignificance.” The second and perhaps more disingenuous answer comes at the very end when we discover he is the surrogate rather to his two younger siblings:

It’s the last of the few quid he made by trading in some of his points on the Smash/Grab server. Meaning his ranking has taken a major kicking, but it’s all good if it means he can feed everyone for a few days.

So nicking a pair of trainers is literally equivalent to stealing a loaf of bread. This big rhetorical land grab and not one Maughan backs up, tying in with Niall Alexander’s point that there is “a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines.” It also gives the lie to an earlier protestation:

Grids ain’t no sociologist, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how a community is meant to work. And even if it is then he’s not part of it, because he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider.

Grids is pay as you go crew: not in the game but not out of it either. To return to Gibson, saying the street finds its own use for things is another way of saying the losers of capitalism will always subvert it for their own gain. In this sense, it is a shame that globalisation rose to prominence as a concept (and counter-concept) just as cyberpunk started to decline. It is to Maughan’s credit that he explicitly aligns the two since they are such obvious bedfellows but unfortunately the lack of depth with which he explores the issues is also a weakness of the story.

Just before they arrive at the sportswear shop, it is tagged with a QR code by a political activist who is dragged off sharpish by the police. The code links to a video clip of the sweatshop conditions in which the Eugene Sureshots are made. Grids views the clip and has an epiphany which leads to him torching rather than stealing the trainers:

“If you’ve seen what’s playing on my stream yeah, then you know why I’m going to do this. This is for them yeah, them girls. For all the kids. For all the kids that can’t come down here and do what we do. This is for them cos it’s their world now.”

Not massively convincing. A quote like that wouldn’t look out of place in a Doctorow novel and I imagine that is the last thing Maughan wants. Things like this take the edge off the passages that really give the story its power:

Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here – it’s nowhere, a non-place.

That power remains though, expressed through prose alternating between the limber and the abrasive. ‘Limited Edition’ has far more vitality, verve and curiosity than the previous three stories on the shortlist and I hope Maughan will continue to immerse himself deeper into the poetry and politics of his work.

Written by Martin

25 March 2013 at 22:11

‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ was originally published in Philippine Genre Stories

We first see Siren and Inyanna as lovers. Siren explores Inyanna’s body – different to ours – before the scene tastefully dissolves to orgasm. We next see them as doctor and patient. Siren is the body cartographer of the title and the genetic engineering that took place whilst Inyanna was in the womb was not entirely successful. Specifically she cannot bond to her pillor’ak, a flying Pern-beast. Both women are citizens of the Matriarchy which is currently in negotiations with the Patriarchy so this failure of flight takes on a political dimension.

So ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is telling three stories – a romance, a drama and a political thriller – but Loenen-Ruiz does not have room to tell one.

When Siren and Inyanna first meet their relationship is medical, when we first meet them it is erotic, when we leave them it is true love. None of the steps in-between are depicted, leaving the relationship weightless. To fix the genetic mess that Siren uncovers, Inyanna has to be stripped back so far that her personality will be altered and their love lost. The story ends with Siren whispering “goodbye, my Only” but it is impossible for this to have any emotional force.

Instead, most of the story is devoted to sketching out bits of this ribofunk world (I was reminded of Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi’s much richer and successful ‘The Fluted Girl’). An origin story of their culture is repeated second hand through a series of canvases Siren’s, an interesting device but not one I found very illuminating. Nothing much is made of the importance of the pillor’ak despite the radical transformation required to ride them. Similarly, Siren and Inyanna are of different classes but similar status so it is pretty much irrelevant. I suspect Loenen-Ruiz has a deeper culture in her head than she has placed on the page.

This is most noticeable in the political dimension. Very little is said of their relationship with the Patriarchy and for the majority of the story I assumed it was just a background note that – like the romance – was there to give a flimsy story a bit more heft. At the end, however, it suddenly becomes clear that Inyanna has become the victim of espionage and that she is not the only one. The scope of the story is blown open and it becomes instead a first chapter. Niall Alexander agrees with this assessment and points out that it really is an extract from a novel in progress. Siren assures us she will get on the case off the page: “She would study the grids in the quiet, and hopefully she would find some clue that would point her towards whoever was behind these crimes.” Well, one day the reader will actually get that story.

Finally, I think I need to mention the title. Siren is the body cartographer so Loenen-Ruiz is explicitly evoking the song of the siren but to what possible intend? The only possible reading I can make of this is that Siren is the saboteur but that seems utterly unsupported by the text. Is it just there, as with the relationship itself, to add a bit of gold leaf in an attempt to make the story look more valuable than it is?

Written by Martin

24 March 2013 at 09:39

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