Wednesday, April 1, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 03/2015

I'm quite tempted to fill this space with recommendations of actual beers and pairing them with classic stories in honor of April Fools Day, but I have wisely restrained myself in order to bring you yet another great batch of stories. March breaks a long held belief of mine that I don't much care for time travel stories, as there were two this month that I just had to include. Also included, a number of stories featuring complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. Also, an epic poem made it in here because it's great and long enough to count as flash fiction. So yeah, relax and prepare your palates for a tasting adventure in speculative short fiction.

Tasting Flight: March 2015

"Documentary" by Vajra Chandrasekera (Lightspeed #58)

Art by Wylie Beckert
About war and recovery and loss and a were-helicopter, "Documentary" feels like a stout, dark and a bit murky with a dense, captivating head. The story is about a couple living along a beech following a long and brutal war. The physical remnants of the war are gone, but the ethereal scars remain in the form of spirits that haunt the area, that refuse to let the world forget about them. Without bodies, without resolution, they cannot find meaning in their own deaths, and instead seek the story of the couple in order to give context to their ghostly forms. Meanwhile the couple has problems of their own, as the woman suffers from were-helicopterism, which causes her to transform and fly about, guns itching to destroy something. But she holds it all back. Meanwhile the man is lost in folding, in obsessive ticks. Together they cannot escape the pull of the spirits, the way they try to force them to acknowledge them, to give them meaning. They are trapped and they know of no way out. The man wants his partner to destroy the spirits when she transforms, and in some ways she wants to as well, but she doesn't want to relive the last war, doesn't want to be responsible. So they are trapped, all of them in a sort of limbo, waiting for the moment when they'll have to act. It's an excellent use of war and transformation, ghosts and were-helicopters. Like a stout, it remains heady and strong throughout, leaving a residue behind that never quite goes away.

"The Scavenger's Nursery" by Maria Dahvana Headley (Shimmer #24) 

Art by Sandro Castelli
A fascinating and rather creepy story about all the trash in the world waking up and gaining life, "The Scavenger's Nursery" is a black IPA, my personal favorite drink for revolutions. The story follows a few story lines, multiple characters, but one central idea. That the trash is getting up. It is a terrifying image that is slowly built. At first the trash-creatures are small. Babies. Children. They bond with certain humans who see in them something relatable, something almost human. And then the landfills start to stand up. They start to reclaim the land, destroying cities, toppling governments. There is no stopping them, no way to cling to the capitalist way because it simply creates too much trash, and that only makes "the enemy" more powerful. This is the return of the unwanted, the discarded. It's a return of the mistakes of mankind in the most profound of ways, because it's a problem that humans created and it's taken on a life of its own. It's fighting back, demanding an equal right to exist. It is sort of a wake-up-call for exactly home much garbage we create. It truly is frightening to think of it turning against us. It's a black IPA because of the bitter strength of it, the almost tarry flavor, smokey and dark. But it's just the thing to wake you up, to open your eyes when it might be more comfortable to keep them closed.

"The Shape of My Name" by Nino Cipri (Tor)

Art by Richie Pope
A time-travel story wrapped around the estrangement of a young man from his mother, "The Shape of My Name" tastes like a wheat ale to me, a mix of almost nostalgic flavors with a twist of citrus that gives it added depth and complexity. It's a classic sort of story in one sense, a boy being born into a line of time travelers, but it's complicated by the fact that, to his mother, he's not her son but her daughter. It's something that she knows ahead of time, kind of, because of the nature of the time travel, but something that she never accepts. To her, she gave birth to a girl, and instead of coming to terms with the fact that she didn't she runs, exiles herself outside the scope of their time travel to live the rest of her life alone. As sad and depressing as that is, though, the story manages to be something more than just about grief. It's about identity and growing up and, ultimately, about forgiveness. It's not something that is easily forgiven, though, not instantly swept away because they're family. Indeed, because they're family makes this more difficult to forgive, because she should have been better for him. But there's still the hope, in the end, that he will forgive his mother, that he will heal and move forward. And it is incredibly interesting to think about that moment, because the end of it is already foretold. They will talk and she will exile herself. Was he the reason she made that choice? Not to go, but to go into exile. Because for him it's in the future, but the way their time travel works, for her it's in the past. So like a good wheat ale there's a rich texture but also that twist, that bit of flavor that compliments and complicates the experience.

"Story, Story: A tale of mothers and daughters" by Chikodili Emelumadu (Omenana #2)

A cycle of tragedy passed from mother to daughter evolves in "Story, Story: a tale of mothers and daughters" hits like an ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels, that mixing of two different worlds, that trying to get the ale to conform to the flavors of the wine. The story is a generational tragedy, a women who is defined and named for her function trapped by the expectations of her family and society. Successful, smart, and proud, she excels in business but this only makes her siblings jealous and the rest of her family anxious for her to get married, to have children. So she finds a husband, but can't have a child, so her life falls apart. People judge her, people treat her poorly, and then she seems to create a child by accident, and vows to not repeat the mistakes her parents made with her. Only she makes mistakes just as bad, still trying to control her child, still treating her as an extension of her will, more like property than a person. So when her daughter rebels, as she rebelled and, in some ways, as most children are destined to rebel against their parents, tragedy unfolds, drawing to a close the heartache and loss that started because people were too concerned with their own wants for their child to see what their child actually wanted. It's a sad story but with a clear moral, and like a parable it sets up the consequences of ignoring your child's identity and trying to get them to conform to some external standard. It hits hard, and like aged ale there's definitely something to be learned from carefully unpacking the story and its messages.

"Quiet Hour" by Peni Griffin (Crossed Genres #27)

For someone who doesn't normally gravitate toward time travel, two made it into this month's Round. And "Quiet Hour," a story about a woman dealing with the death of her mother and finding out a few strange secrets along the way, is a Long Island Iced Tea, something to sip on a hot day among friends. The story follows Delia as she is interrupted from her own Quiet Hour because her mother has suffered a heart attack and needs help. It opens up a mystery even as Delia races to help her mother, who survives only long enough to tell Delia to be in the kitchen of her boarding house next Quiet Hour. It's a strange request made stranger by the fact that no one can figure out who called Delia or the ambulance. It's something Delia finds out when she follows her mother's instructions and is transported through time to the same house, but with a group of women in it. A group scattered through the decades and centuries but linked by the house, by the kitchen. It's a great concept and it gives Delia and the reader a perspective on time that is not exactly linear or confined. That though Delia's mother is gone, this group that she was a part of goes on, and that through that group so many divides, of race and sexuality and wealth, are bridged and something wonderful happens. It's a lovely story of a great many elements coming together to work as a fantastic whole, which is to say a pretty darn good Long Island Iced Tea.

"The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild" by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld #102)

Art by Peter Mohrbacher
A two-part story with legs to keep a frantic pace going to the very end, "The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild" is a Sangria, a blend of bright red wine, fruit, sugar, and brandy that mixes a sweetness that is almost juvenile with a punch that is very adult. The entire story is told in a strange diction that makes it seem like it's aimed at children, one that seems nearly stream-of-consciousness but which has different, color-coded lands that each have their own language, their set of rules by which metaphors are rendered tangible, real. Time is a mass of devouring squirrels, and sorrow is an elephant but also something different in every land. The story is not a particularly happy one, as Violet loses her best friend when he is eaten by time-squirrels. Unable to stand the sorrow, she decides to travel to the Red Country, where death and sorrow mean something different and where she hopes to be reunited with her friend. It's not an easy task, though, and there are those who want to see her stop, who want her to give up and accept her fate. Not one to listen to authority, though, Violet pushes on, her journey violent and filled with danger but also with an unmistakable charm and a flowing style that makes it captivating. And in the end the story is about not compromising in the face of difficulty, of not letting the arbitrary rules of where a person lives stop them from finding what makes them happy.


"Small Wishes" by Carol Otte (Flash Fiction Online)

A man goes in search of dragons that begin answering wishes in this story which tastes like a Purple Dragon, a mix of bourbon whiskey, raspberry liqueur, ginger ale, and sour. There's a magical feel to it, blended well with the mundane world of contemporary Earth. The dragons arrive and start granting simple wishes, and one man who has suffered a debilitating injury goes to see if they can make him better. Only once he confronts them, once he sees them he knows that they are as bound and restricted as he is. They do not choose to grant wishes. Like genies they are slaves. And so instead of asking for his own freedom from the pain and loss his injury has brought he wishes the dragons free. It's a nice message, not too overdone, and makes a rather interesting point when drawing parallels between it and other, larger issues. The idea that one cannot really be free if by that freedom you enslave others. That being selfish, even when many would find it justified, is not justified if it comes at the expense of others. It's an interesting story and, like the drink, provides a deep and layered experience for something so small. 

"Red String" by Cassandra Khaw (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination)

A ghost story with a twist, "Red String" is a Back on Track, a mix of blueberry juice and vodka with a banana liqueur. The vodka and juice turn a bright red and the banana liqueur floats on top a spectral green. Like the drink, the story is both sweet and a biting, with a mortician trying to court the recent widow of a man he had prepared. Things aren't quite what they seem as the widow refuses to move on from her husband's death, keeping her in her mind, not moving on with her own life. And while the mortician at first seems a bit cold for pressing her, the story's twist is that he's only trying to help the dead man who is kept from passing on, kept from the true afterlife, by his former wife holding on so tightly to him. They are connected by the red string, which is supposed to bind lovers, only here it has been turned into something that keeps him in a sort of limbo. Most of the time stories focus on how letting go is good for the survivors, and this one hints at that as well, but also brings up the interesting idea of what rights the dead, the lost, might have, and how they might want to be forgotten. It's an idea that pairs well with "Documentary" above, though this story is much more humorous, even if that humor is enriched by some serious complications.

 "Long Shadow" by Rose Lemberg (Strange Horizons)

I'm breaking all my rules with this one, which is an epic poem and not truly a flash fiction, but I liked enough that I'm making an exception. Just try to stop me! And this one, about a goddess frustrated that all her work has not healed the world of all its wounds, is an Espresso Grande, a mix of orange liqueur and espresso. It makes for a strange drinking experiences, bitter with a hint of sweetness and enough of an espresso punch to really wake a person up. The poem follows a goddess upset that all her work seems for not, that for all her compassion and righteousness there is still war in the world, that there is still pain and ugliness. That she can't seem to fix it, and by not fixing it completely she wonders if it's worth it at all to try. She travels far, and in each place is told that she cannot do what she wants most, to escape the cycle of suffering. But also, that fixing it really isn't the point. That her aid and service are not lesser for not fixing the world. That she does something, and that she should continue to do something because she helps people, and even if she doesn't help everyone, it's worth it to try. It's a powerful message for people who come from places of privilege and don't like that they can't solve everything. That it acknowledges that it doesn't excuse those with power from trying to help, from using what they have to try and lessen the suffering of others. Even if, in the end, it doesn't seem to do much. Because it's not about the goddess in the end and her power or her ability or accomplishment. It's about the people who need a way out of suffering. It's a fine work of long poetry.

POSTED BY: Charlesavid reader, reviewer, and apparent destroyer of science fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.