Friday, March 29, 2013

Too Many Speculative Fiction Stories

When I saw the line up for Clarkesworld's March issue, something in me got a little overexcited. Aliette de Bodard and Genevieve Valentine write incredible short fiction, and I like A.C. Wise a lot too, though I haven't read as much. For some reason - partially, probably, because I visit Clarkesworld often but rarely end up reading most of it - I took this as a sign that March in free online speculative fiction was going to be apeshit in terms of quality. So I read way too goddamn much of it, and now I am going to alchemize that time I spent on BART trains and smoke breaks into pure, unadulterated aspirational labor, just for you.

Aliette de Bodard's "The Weight of a Blessing" is one of the best short stories I have ever read, and I don't have a whole lot to say beyond that. It is important. Its fractured structure, always unable to reconcile with itself; its thematic threads picked carefully and woven beautifully; its moments of conflict, presented with all their deferment and difficulty; basically, everything, everything.

And there was "Loss, with Chalk Diagrams" this month too, by E. Lily Yu, whose story had me at first skeptical, but ultimately attached itself to my brain very firmly. I thought at first it was to be another future world without emotional distress, where grief was moralized as a Part of Human Nature, another thin allegory for biopolitics. And I think it can and will and has been read that way, probably, but there is a subtlety to the narration, which exists ephemerally between the characters and is dramatized by the deteriorating media of chalk and postcards in the story itself, that makes produces this story in a space outside the moralistic and gives it real power. Consider these lines; "She took a drag on the cigarette, and smoke flowered from her mouth." and, a few bits of dialogue later, "Rebekah said, waving away the smoke." That slight shift in the narrative's focus on the object of smoke changes everything. And, like Weight, Loss ends on such an understated note that you almost don't notice the vertiginous depths of its betrayal.

Ekaterina Sedia's "Snow" is a story about the flows of a city, in this case the "micro-regions on the outskirts of Moscow," where the (as far as I can tell, ungendered) narrator tells talks to us about the way that the daily rhythms of avoiding neighbours and smoking at the bus stop and going to the market become intertwined with ethnic violence. This is a crime story in which the murder is in no way an exceptional case, where the is no such thing as an exceptional case, because the rhythm of place is the truth, the way a place interweaves its outsides into its interlocked system. It is, like Let the Right One In, what the Coen Brothers dream they could make, only even more, its violence the kind that makes you rejoice not when you meet an old friend for the first time in years, but when she leaves quickly.

Caitlín R. Kiernan had two stories published by Subterranean Press for free online this month; one in the Spring issue of Subterranean Magazine and one on the page for her short story collection The Ape's Wife and Other Stories. "One Tree Hill" is the latter and it is a pretty incredible little bit of Lovecraftiana; I am not especially familiar with Kiernan's work but she seems to be hitting it out of the fucking park as far as critical endorsements in the places I visit go, and I was glad that even though "One Tree Hill" didn't crush me with its brilliance or whatever that it jabbed the fuck out of me with its images. Shades of Lovecraft's "The Color Out Of Space" and first part of "The Mound" gave the story a distinct tint for me, and coupled with lines like "I am quite entirely aware I am trapped inside, and that I am writing down, anything but an original tale of uncanny New England" make the story feel slight. Not that this is a bad thing at all: very well written, and truly imaginative, slight Weird fiction reads superbly and I wish there were more of it. On top of that, Kiernan manages to do something that I, at least, deeply appreciate; by insisting on the possibility that it is all a dream, she subverts that annoying madness moralism, that unendingly dull implication of systems of medical oppression that so Lovecraft so adored (and that make "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" simultaneously his best and worst story) by way of an implicit acknowledgment of form. If, as roughly every human being ever would claim, "It was all a dream" is an unpardonable narrative copout, then fine; Kiernan cops her way right out of abdicating her fidelity to the Weird. This slight Weird story might well mark a true shift away from slavering over that deeply fucking stupid line at the beginning of "Call of Cthulhu" without losing the cool shit that came out of it, and I for one would be ecstatic about that.

Anyway, there was actually quite a few Slight Weird stories published this month. For instance: "The Sign in the Moonlight" by David Tallerman is maybe the slightest Weird story I've ever read. It's got an icy mountain, a magician (Crowley, nonetheless) and a cult who performs a ritual to summon tentacly moon people through a mirror; he's basically just played the whole scale. There's nothing particularly exciting about it, not to me at least, but for me at least it works very nicely.

Equally worthy of acknowledgment in the Slight Weird is Sarena Ulibarri's "The Bolt Tightener," about a man who gets a job tightening bolts around a sea wall, encounters a monstrous tentacled thing, kills it, and brings about the end of the world (in the SFnal sense of world(building), at least). Again, nothing to send you into rapture here, but often as not it is the repetition that matters, the way the unavoidable difference inscribes itself as the same, and the same decomposes into the soil for the different.

And if the Slight Weird is a compost heap then let me give outsized thanks to Jeff VanderMeer for offering to mulch a fucking house into it with "No Breather in the World but Thee." I kind of have, like, a thing about houses, okay, but there's also the fact that if Sedia's "Snow" is Let the Right One In then "Breather" is its remake, or early Argento, all traumatic perspectival shifts looping around a misprised Hitchcockian eye. The fractured narrative (as each character dies horribly and the focus shifts) keeps the rapidly escalating scale (going from a dead fish's rolling eye to a pitched battle between a mansion and a tower) from becoming self-parody, and the way the catalyzing incident keeps rescinding into the background as the coolness of the hostile objects manifests and moves on keeps the story moving at a clip and keeps the narrative confined to where it always should be, the ever-retreating frame. "Breather" is obviously a bit meatier than the two previous Slight Weird stories but I still think it belongs among them, and if you disagree then feel free to invent a category that isn't as stupid as this one. It shouldn't be hard at all, since what the fuck am I even talking about at this point.

Then there is this month's stories from the Weird Fiction Review, which, speaking of liking A.C. Wise, includes a reprint of her story from the Fungi anthology, "Where Dead Men Go To Dream." I wasn't incredibly impressed, but damn if the images don't linger. The same can be said of K.J Bishop's "The Love of Beauty;" I wasn't really thinking of including either here, but something certainly stuck, and I would feel like such a fool if it turned out I ignored them now then decided they were indispensable later. Carlos Díaz Dufoo's "Selections from Nervous Tales," on the other hand, I am pretty confident about; the three short stories here are borderline prose poems, the language elliptical and estranging. Of the three, I think the very brief "The Death of the 'Master'" is the most noteworthy, capturing in brief the joyous and irreconcilable tension between forms (here, stories and painting) in a way that escapes my own exegetical faculties but seems rich with possibility.

Speaking of that tension, Caitlín R. Kiernan's "The Prayer of Ninety Cats" is a narrative that straddles the line between script and viewing experience, detailing in second person a speculative film about Elizabeth Bathory in a way that shows an incredible sensitivity to the way that film's affect their viewers while also incorporating historical and aesthetic analyses that makes this Weird story the gnarled fruits of the decomposed Slight. Like Kiernan's other one from this month, there's a bit of a metafictional tinge here that seems, well, uncanny; it is hard to tell exactly whether or not it detracts from the story's overall Weirdness, but the formal experimentation here quickly makes that point a moot one. Somehow this story ends up being almost as good as de Bodard's, as inapt as any more detailed comparison might be. This too is a phenomenal collision of form and content, the story of Bathory's fall viewed through the silver screen being situated in just the right space that it reflects the form in a distorted grotesquery. Everything here is in it's right place, and I can't even imagine, after this story, a Weird canon without Kiernan heavily featured.

Speaking of experiments, Jake Kerr is revealing himself to be a bit of a one-trick pony, isn't he? I was kind of into "The Old Equations" when I first read it, which was also when I started reading all these online magazines; his new one, "Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince" just keeps flogging that quasi-epistolary horse down its slightly-less-well-trod path. Hey, he is risking poison ivy for the good of the genre, everyone; give this guy a round of applause, and maybe a couple Nebulas. I mean, don't get me wrong (or do, yes, maybe do, always, that would probably be way more interesting), I enjoyed the story. It, also like Kiernan's "Cats," is a rumination on art, although it seems more interested in the historical and psychological than the formal or aesthetic, and, like Yu's "Loss," it is also about shades of grief or guilt and the complexities introduced to them in a transparently presently extrapolated future. Unfortunately both of those stories were published this month as well though, so.

On the topic of things I hate, Ben Heldt's "Fidelity" was just about the only thing published in Daily Science Fiction this month that didn't leave me all pissy. I can't stand flash fiction, and while I think it is cool that they are doing their thing or whatever, I cannot fucking stomach the amount of it I read, ever. "Fidelity" is a perfectly adequate little "is it or isn't it" bit of science fiction, about a man whose wife either stayed behind from her space flight or was replaced by a perfect robot. Neat, right.

Margrét Helgadóttir's "The Rescue" at Luna Station Quarterly manages to be an interesting story about enclaves and preservation, genetic engineering and political isolation, while also incorporating a little linguistic twist that is more interesting in and of itself than for its particular content. I would class this one alongside any of the stories in this month's Crossed Genres, although most probably "Mother of Waters" by April L'Orange, as doing things that are well constructed and probably very interesting in a way that I am unfortunately kind of blind to. "La Coeur De La Mer" by Alexandra Zomchek, also at Luna Station Quarterly, has a couple instances of really outstanding language as well.

The other story from Eclipse Online this month was An Owomoyela's "In Metal, In Bone," which, if VanderMeer is Hostile Object Theory, is a bit closer to a fantasy Internet of Things; the protagonist can access the memory of others through objects, and is sent to a war zone to identify remains by way of remembering through their bones. The end of this one is a little too Neat! for my tastes, but then I can barely bring myself to give a shit about the end of a piece of fiction even when I try, so who cares really. The story as a whole is very strong, both compelling and productive in its tight use of language and pleasantly light on the narrative. It is, I think, an exemplary story, one that remains transparent enough to read deeply the first time through but no weaker because of this.

Anil Menon's "Dialetheia" has a similar sort of quality, as a story following an Australian mathematics doctoral student in 1930s Germany whose dissertation is preempted by Gödel. The story itself works exactly as it seems to want to, creating a believable group of sets and characters and telling a story in and through them, which concerns itself with the relationship between science and story. Setting itself in the moment when the Weimar Republic began its quick slide into the Third Reich is maybe a little obvious, but the strength of "Dialetheia" has less to do with subtlety and more with its implication of a strong argument for the way we tell ourselves stories, and create myths, around math and science, and how when we don't do it, well, Hitler.

Toh EnJoe's "A To Z Theory" does something similar, although in his hands it reads less as an argument and more like a freewheeling kaleidoscope of associations that occasionally falls into a pattern that turns out to be a high-powered laser.

I feel like this month's issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is kin to this month's Crossed Genres; both venues published solid short stories that I will definitely remember but that also I haven't got much to say about. Of the two issues that BCS put out, I think I would most highly recommend Alec Austin's "Blood Remembers," if only for being kind of beautifully "fuck you, FANTASY" in a way that hardly any other stories I read during this experience were; it is the story of a church schism told with the kind of magic that exists basically just to do hella cool shit with, and fuck your nerdy systems. I mean, that is what I took from it at least; I can be an aggressively shitty reader when it suits my purposes, and maybe that is just what I am doing. Possibly the same reason I remain so into "The Rescue," which I talked about earlier. The two also seem to share a kinship.

Kat Howard's "Painted Birds and Shivered Bones" might have fit best next to the discussion of the other stories which incorporate other types of art practices into their stories, but here it is anyway. I was initially kind of disappointed with this one; I was totally enamoured with her "Breaking the Frame," and while it managed to track out that poetic relation to form in a similar way to Dufoo's "'Master,'" it didn't seem particularly good at losing sight of itself or tracing out its own incidentals in the way that, I thought, would make it a wonderful story instead of an awkwardly long prose poem. The images of "Bones" have stuck with me fiercely though, so I feel much less critical of it now than I did immediately after reading.

Bryan Francis Slattery's "The Syndrome" - the last Subterranean story I will be talking about, I promise - is sort of the opposite of the last few I have been discussing. If the nebulous lingering sense of interest characterizes a lot of what I have been recommending here, then "Syndrome" is just interesting, full stop. It is an undead story, in which a long-past event raised the dead and transformed society along a zombie-vampire spectrum. It does some unapologetic Mad Maxing - you know, postapocalypse as TINA teleology - which fits nicely into its positing of undead subjectivities as ontologically different with respect to temporality. That the undead view history as space rather than time is established regularly, and the story tracks the reemergence of the liberal progressive narrative within the dual emergence of forms of humanism (art) and the repressive state. The wonky fantastic elements ("vampires" who eat "zombies" get some sort of permanent ability/curse to see the present outcome of all possible timelines) couple with the limited narration (a psychologist) to paint a very intellectual picture of this collapsing of exhausted genre tropes. It is a thinky little fucker, and while it hasn't left me trying to puzzle it together since finishing it I did enjoy the way it kept me fully engaged for just as long as it was.

"The Horse Latitudes" by Sunny Moraine was kind of similar here, in effect and for me, at least. Its central image is a bit colored by both that scene from Fellowship of the Rings and The Ring (the horses, y'know), unfortunately, but the interlocking timelines turning into a bit of a return of the repressed do a similar thing, if to less incredible effect (and I hardly mean that as a dig), to "The Weight of a Blessing." It ends up being a little more conventional, and feeling a little less pressing, than "Weight," but damn if that still doesn't make it well worth a read, as far as I can tell.

Returning to the Clarkesworld issue that sent me down this hellish path to begin with, A.C. Wise's second-person subversion of the sexbot subgenre with "The Last Survivor of the Great Sexbot Revolution" plays with gendered assumptions of the generic, telling a properly Harawayan cyborg love story whose formal idiosyncrasies support the thematic content and provide them a depth that allows the words themselves a strong foundation on which to build. And it doesn't disappoint.

Joyce Chng's "Eagle Feathers" seems at first to fit into this pattern as well, but there is an understatedness to it that opens it into something much bigger. A story of development against nature, and the fantastical form of revenge, it is marked by a kind of heterogeneous wish fulfillment without being in any way pandering. The oily monstrosity is somewhere between, in my mind, Fern Gully and Cyclonopedia, with all the weird weight that puts on it, and though it seems a fairly straightforward bit of fabulism there is an economy of expression here that defies the simple call to categorization. The way that small symbols get woven into the fabric of the tale, situating its fabulism by way of the thematic and cultural particular, gives this story a peculiar heft well worth exploring.

Genevieve Valentine's "86, 87, 88, 89" from this month's Clarkesworld left me kind of underwhelmed - it felt a little more Jake Kerr than Caitlín R. Kiernan, if you get me - but luckily she also had "Terrain" published this month, which is probably a story that had people gripping the edges of their smartphones just dying to know what happens or whatever but holy shit, lets just ignore that and talk about how incredibly fucking on she can be with those clipped sentences when she is writing about the setting. The sentences themselves, the way they are so sharp they just snip right off the rest of the paragraph, and they suggest so much, and slowly accrue until you finally run across like, a whole four-sentence paragraph and it feels like the heaviest thing you've ever read, like this dead character fucking died; but more than that, the landscape, the way this supremely non-mimetic weight gives these words a space to create space and fucking feel like space. I am pretty into it.

And finally, finally. This story would've fit in a discussion with others but I wanted to leave it to last because it is the only story I just straight up liked as much as "Weight;" "Town's End" by Yukimi Ogawa. Ogawa's "The Earth of Ashes" was one of my favorite stories of last year, and "Town's End" maintains the elegance while introducing a kind of whimsy. I also have very little to actually say here, but of everything I read this month, "Town's End" was, for me, absolutely the most pleasurable, and I don't mean that in some escapist page-turner sense; I mean its language works its way into you, and reconfigures something small inside.

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