Tuesday, October 6, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 09/2015

Welcome back, thirsty travelers. Pull up a chair. Got an ear for the fantastic? A tongue that relishes the steel curve of a spaceship, the crackle of raw magical energy? This month's choices are robust, unflinching, and all about the strength of facing the complicated, the wounded, the misunderstood. About climbing mountains, about not looking away, about facing our pasts so that we can be free to face the future.

The stories this month remind me, each one, why I love speculative short fiction. Because these stories range far and wide. Science fiction that pushes so far into the future of humanity that almost nothing recognizable remains except the core and science fiction that pauses on one moment, no more distant in the future than today, a person facing the infinite wonder of the universe. Fantasy that pushes back into our own distant past to confront monsters and magic and fantasy that pauses on one moment, no more distant in the past than today, a person facing the infinite wonder of the human being.

So sit back and set your worries aside. This Round's on me.


Tasting Flight - September 2015

Art by J. Otto Szatmari
"The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld #108)

A story about love in the cradle of pain and loss, "The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a pumpkin porter, that most exotic of Midwestern ales, in some ways a parody of beer and in other ways a rather satisfying experience. And I can think of no better way of capturing the essence of this story, which takes all the tropes and trappings of fetishizing the East, the "Orient," and flipping them, making one of the last Westerners, one of the last Occidentals, into a novelty whose white skin is a mark of wealth for those who possess her but a mark of shame and filth for the woman herself. Kerrtu is a bride, but also a former war criminal sought so that she will flush out former associates of the Mafia. And oh my god I loved that the Mafia was basically in charge of the West like so many texts just throw in the Yakuza as omnipresent in the East. And Heilui, the woman who takes Kerrtu as a bride, is running from her past as well, running away and to something that might work better, where maybe she can forgive herself and be forgiven by those she hurts, including Kerrtu. The story works on levels, on the one hand an incredibly parody of tropes about Asia and on the other hand a very deep story about loss and power and forgiveness. This is not a comedy, for all it is rather funny, but a romance that is played straight (well, queer, but still). It's an amazing story that refuses to release the reader even as it draws them in, and in the end it's a story of recovery and hope. Like a pumpkin ale, there's some part of the experience that is surreal, a meta level where it's almost like the brewer were deconstructing beer itself. On another level, though, the result is oddly pleasant and compelling, sweet and dark and satisfying.

Art by Lauren K. Cannon
"Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions" by Gwendolyn Kiste (Nightmare #36)

Examining the intersection of depression and sickness, friendship and caring, "Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions" by Gwendolyn Kiste is a nut brown ale, dark and complex with notes, buried deep within, of something sweet half-remembered. The story focuses on two friends, Vivienne and Tally, who both have scored poorly on the Ten Questions, an examination which is supposed to gauge how likely a person is to disappear. The parallels to suicide are impossible to ignore, and the story does an excellent and powerful job of critiquing how suicide is viewed by society at large, how it is seen as a sin, as a crime, how people with depression are viewed as potential criminals who don't care about pain, who need to be protected from themselves. And...for anyone who has faced depression or known someone facing it, for anyone who has lost someone to suicide, this is...a difficult story. But it is also a delicate and a subtle story, building the relationship of Vivienne and Tally, girls in school who are treated entirely differently just because of how they scored on a test. Who viewed as deviants instead of as people, as things to be caged in order for the school, for parents, for whoever to not have to take responsibility for the pain, to protect them from having to act. It's something that hits strong and doesn't let up, and yes, I cried for this one, because it faces the fact that sometimes there are no good options, there is no escape, and that love means more than a presence. The character work and the setting are chilling but with a spark of warmth and hope, a nut brown ale which goes down like a smoldering fire, the memory of roasting marshmallows and of childhood that cannot be reclaimed.

Art by Craig Shields
"Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed #64)

Following Mei, a woman who grows beyond space and time, "Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World" by Caroline M. Yoachim is an IPA bock, a mix of darkness with the bright rebellion of an IPA, an experience that draws the drinking down even as it pushes them forward into new and greater revolutions. The story is told at a ponderous pace, as IPA bocks are best consumed, slow and steady, sinking ever deeper into this universe of cause and effect, time a landscape like space that can be pushed and warped. Mei is willful and wanting to improve on humanity. To become something more. The story reminds me of the pre-reboot Star Trek, about exploration and pushing boundaries and also about becoming something new. The idea that within humanity is a power to transform and create that is beautiful and terrible. And it is. The story moves in fits and starts, across time, with Mei the inventor, Mei the pioneer, Mei the intelligence and power and creator. Wanting to make something to last, to pass on, but never quite able to manage it because what makes human creation beautiful is its fragility, its mortality. The story visits the monuments of humanity, the works that are made to last, but which can't. The wonders that inspire the imagination and the creative spark. And in the end the story embraces mortality and runs with in, a moving tribute to human potential and human failing and human creation. It's haunting and it lingers, dark and heavy, in the gut like a true IPA bock, a burn of possibility that won't quite go out.

Art by Matthew Dow Smith
"The Oiran's Song" by Isabel Yap (Uncanny #6)

Searching and with an eye deconstructing the monstrous, "The Oiran's Song" by Isabel Yap feels like a Sauvignon Blanc to me, dry as tears and with a mouth of winter crispness, with a acidity that feels like blood upon the snow. Akira is a young man taken as a soldier, taken for soldiers, used and abused sexually and made complicit in the abuse of an Oiran, a woman set to serve the soldiers. It's a story about war and about loss and about how those that make the decisions for war can live separate from the horrors of their decisions, how it falls upon the powerless to face the pain, to take the punishment. Akira is a victim in so many ways, and in the Oiran he meets another victim, and yet one much different from himself, one unwilling to accept quietly the situation. Her rage is contrasted to Akira's numbness, his innocence, his hesitation. But even her power, her monstrosity, pales to the landscape. She is the demon in the snow, but war is the winter that birthed her, the map that defines the borders of pain and loss. And war makes victims of everyone, monsters of everyone, and in the end Akira has to face that within himself and within the Oiran and he makes his decision of what to do. It's a difficult story and one that refuses to let the reader flinch away from hard images rendered almost beautiful by the prose. Like a Sauvignon Blanc, it is piercing and compelling, layers of fruit and memory, but also dry, bracing, with a vein of something that is a bit unsettling.

Art by Ekaterina Zagustina
"Mountain" by Liu Cixin, translated by Holger Nahm (Apex #76)

The longest story in the Round this month, "Mountain" by Liu Cixin is a pilsner in a boot glass, poured so high it is a mountain in its own right and requiring a will and technique to reach the finish of. The story follows Feng Fan, a man living at see far away from mountains as punishment for getting four people killed during an expedition to the summit of Everest. He is determined to never attempt a mountain again. Until, of course, an alien vessel visits Earth, as big as the moon, and raises a mountain in the water. Of the water. And so Fan decides that destiny has brought him one last mountain to climb. It's a fascinating story that explores difference and science and discovery and the nature of will. The aliens that Fan meets are, like humans, driven by their curiosity and sense of discovery. They could not be more unlike humans in their physical manifestation, and yet they sail the stars, seeking others who want to climb mountains, who want to push the boundaries of knowledge. The story unfolds as the aliens evolve and grow their understanding, as they accept risk after risk to push back the limits constraining them. The story is complicated by their destructive force, by their ability to obliterate, just as Fan's climbing is complicated by the deaths of his fellows. The story's one failing (in my mind) is in not confronting the importance of consent, but the sense of progress and hope in the story is palpable. Like a pilsner, things fall apart a little bit when pushing too deeply, but there is enough here to get you more than drunk, to draw you higher and higher to the summit of beer mountain, and perhaps send you tumbling back down.

"Bodies Are the Strongest Conductors" by James Robert Herndon (Strange Horizons)

With a sharp metallic tang and a sense of dread, loneliness, and desperation, "Bodies Are the Strongest Conductors" by James Robert Herndon is a red ale, coppery and deceptively sweet, concealing a strength that hits with a sharp punch. The story focuses on two boys with some serious problems. Nicky is suffering from a sort of heavy metal poisoning, where he can't touch metals because they build up in his body. Isolated and needing human contact, his only friend is Lumpy, a boy with an abusive home life who can't really understand a tender touch, who sees violence as love. The relationship the two have is the heart of the story and it is dark and twisted and yet captures so purely their characters, the feeling of being young and different and in some ways incapable of being what another person needs. Because as children the characters are selfish and immature, are cruel and mean and violent. They are the products of what has been done to them, their wounds open and obvious. And because of those wounds they cannot fully heal the other, cannot even really soothe, can only comfort by being another wound close by, a reminder that neither of them are exactly alone, even as they cannot quite bridge the gap between them. It is an unsettling story, uncomfortable and raw and reaching and real. And it offers no real happy endings, just a certain promise. Not of an end to pain. Not even of a release from it. But a certain nearness, a companionship. Like a red ale, there's something sweet there but also the taste of blood, and the two never quite reconcile, even as they provide a memorable drinking experience.


"The Attic of Memories" by Sunil Patel (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination)

A woman explores the many experiences of the universe in this story, which goes down like a Memory Loss, equal parts peach vodka, rum, apple juice, and gin, with just a squirt of lemon. Jacinda's quest is simple, to go out and bring back powerful experiences to store in her attic. Like collecting photos for an album, she journeys out and returns, again and again. What remains in the attic is a text, a sort of representation of her trips, her adventures. But the text pales in comparison to the living memories inside her, to the way her body reacts to the remembrances, to the past itself as it breathes through her. It's a story about nostalgia and about living life without looking back, without relying on others to show you how to live, where to go. It's about collecting memories, experiences, more than collecting pictures. Because the albums will all forget, will become texts wholly divorced from the feelings that created them, and the most beautiful and powerful experience is the one that can only be felt by one person, in a single mind, looking back on all that was possible, and all that was accomplished. Sweet and strong with a twist, the story leaves the reader a little breathless, but very ready to face a universe of potential.

Art by Dario Bijelac
"The Wedding Gig" by John League (Flash Fiction Online)

This story, about a group of musicians playing a wedding, and also about disease and stigma and scars, is a Wedding Cake, a mix of a teaspoon sugar with equal parts vanilla vodka and hazelnut liqueur. The story unfolds in the wake of a disease that left its mark on the population, physically in the form of scars on those that suffered from it and survived, and mentally and emotionally in the loss of life, the loss of security, the loss of voice. The main character is one such survivor who lives with the scars, who has felt their voice shrink away, their playing not as forceful or free as it used to be. But they're still there, still trying, holding on by a hair's breadth. They hide their scars but feel lesser for them. And then...and then the story does an excellent job of turning the tables on what the scars might be, of what they can be. What results in a story that exalts surviving, that revels in hope and possibility and healing. Not erasing, not taking away the marks the disease left, but allowing for actual healing by confronting the pain and the emptiness left in its wake. Lifting and with a sweet taste of hope, the story is a celebration, a song and a marriage and a story worth reading.

"Homesick" by Debbie Urbanski (Terraform)

About a group of people fleeing Earth and unable, despite everything, to leave it all behind them, this story is a Whiskey Sick Day, a hot drink of cocoa mixed with Irish cream and then spiked with a healthy amount of whiskey. In the story, the refugees from Earth hope for a future free of the terrors they left behind, but their flight haunts them, and in a way that goes deeper than their fears, striking at them in their hopes, in their justifications. Because their children represented for them their new life free from the crushing reality of Earth, and also a forgiveness for what the parents had to do to get away. The story circles around redemption and responsibility but also about trying to bury a past without facing it, without letting it out of the dark. And in the dark it spreads and infects their hopes, worms its way into the minds of their children, filling them with the most dangerous thing of all--curiosity. A curiosity that could undo everything because the adults, the parents, refused to view these new children as people, saw instead a redemption that could never be truly offered. There is a warmth of remembering here, but also a shadow that runs thick, inky, the whiskey that stalks the sweet, opaque depths of the drink, like the shadow that lies over the dreams of the children, a hidden truth that will out, one way or another.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.