Thursday, April 30, 2020

Questing in Shorts: April 2020

Happy Thursday, friends! April has been a month of ups and downs but I'm tentatively celebrating the return of my reading mojo to, if not normal, then at least to an acceptable pandemic level. I've been a little low on magazines this month, but I do have a full length round-up for you and I'm once again making the resolution to give my full-to-bursting Kindle magazine folder some love in the next month.
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu (Head of Zeus, 2020)

Ken Liu's fantasy series and translation work are both very familiar to me, but I've experienced less of his short fiction - so when the opportunity arose to own this super colourful collection (seriously, my copy is an orange hardcover with purple sprayed edges - it doesn't get more delightfully clashy than that) it was not in my power to resist. What I got was a wide-ranging collection with an interesting focus on the development of artificial consciousness and how humans might look at the singularity from both sides of the technological divide: what we gain from technological advancement, and what we might leave behind. Stories from the nested tales of interplanetary adaptation of "Ghost Days", to the slow decaying heartbreak of "Staying Behind" to the surprising time dilation of "Seven Birthdays" deal with migration and intergenerational communication, giving both older and younger generations things to offer to each other even when the characters themselves don't realise it. A couple of interesting shared universes (or maybe one big shared universe?) offer continuity within the middle part of the collection: in particular, the trilogy of "The Gods Will Not Be Chained", "The Gods Will Not Be Slain" and "The Gods Have Not Died In Vain" tell the single story of a girl who has lost her technological genius father, only to rediscover him via an emoji-heavy chat programme, once again looking at communication across a gulf but in a very different way to the classic "parent child" dynamic. There's also an apparently shared conception of the singularity which offers a very human, understandable sense of what it might be like to be a consciousness that no longer lives in the human world. I'm not sure I'm ready to live in a fourteen-dimensional hypercube myself, but Liu's vision of our possible technological future makes it feel like something tangible and lived in, rather than acting as the death of all we currently hold valuable.

There are some fantasy stories here as well, including an excerpt from the final book in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy (a satisfyingly standalone piece, but I'm now even more impatient for 2021), the intriguing "Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard" about a trio of shapeshifters, and the title story, "The Hidden Girl", in which the youngest of three sisters raised as assassins decides, on her first mission, to save her target and defeat her siblings instead. All in all, this is exactly the level of accomplishment I'd expect from Liu, and I'm already making plans to hunt down his first collection and stuff that into my eyeballs someday as well.

Giganotosaurus: February, March, April 2020

Three stories over three months for the dinosaur semiprozine: February brings "Thin Red Jellies" by Lina Rather, the story of a near future where it is possible to save and reimplant a human's consciousness after their death, either in an artificial body or compartmentalised into the brain of another person. When Amy's girlfriend Jess dies in a car accident, she offers her brain as a stopgap, but the long-term solution for two young women without good health insurance in a future USA is further out of reach than they thought. It's a story which deals with intrusion: the challenges faced by both women as they adjust to life and communication in one body, the accommodations and sacrifices each has to make for the other, and the horrifying assumptions which a privatised health system and the companies which own it make about workers' autonomy and quality of life. Rather doesn't pull punches about what this does to Jess and Amy's relatively new relationship, and the story's abrupt ending doesn't offer much in the way of catharsis but it does underscore the inescapable nature of their situation.

March's story, by ZZ Claybourne, is "The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar", a very atmospheric piece about nomadic witches : very atmospheric story about a family of nomadic witches whose youngest member, Amnandi, is trying to overcome the loneliness of her situation. And April gives us "A Wild Patience" by Gwynne Garfinkle, a story that literally had me grinning from ear-to-ear in the first twenty percent once I realised what was going on. In a town where a large number of men have always had perfect, home-making wives, things start to get a bit... messy... when the doctor dies, and Gretchen and Jessica suddenly find their Mom is more interested in reading the poetry of Adrienne Rich and discussing self-actualisation with the other mothers than fulfilling her role. Turns out, there's a semi-secret robot-wife cult in town, and neither the mothers themselves nor their daughters and the other women around them are interested in keeping the mens' dirty little secret. What I enjoyed most about this story was the focus on Gretchen and Jessica's wellbeing and the caring, if different, relationship they build with their Mom once her secret is revealed; every attempt at the men in the story to reclaim authority and project threat is laughed off and non-violently swatted down, leaving the misogynists of the story looking ridiculous and exposed as their "perfect" lives cease to be.

Summoned to Destiny Ed. Julie Czerneda (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004)

I've had this cute looking older anthology on my physical TBR for a while, having picked it up as an impulse buy in Forbidden Planet back in the days when in-person book browsing was a thing. It finally called to me last week, and I discovered a fun fantasy collection of shorts that deal in some way with coming of age or call to action moments for their various protagonists, from magical awakenings to bardic apprenticeships to rituals of power. That focus on the call to action lends itself a little bit to a "the end of the story is where the novel would begin" sequence, and while none of the stories explicitly end with "they smiled: there was so much work to do" - my least favourite story ending ever - it felt like a close thing. But there's a great range of worldbuilding (especially when it comes to developing the sacred) and character development here which overcomes the sense of reading a series of prologues, and makes this an intriguing collection in its own right.

The story I enjoyed most is by far the longest in the anthology: "The Colors of Augustine" by Michelle West (Michelle Sagara). This is the story of Joseph, an orphaned boy in a world where some people are able to paint visions of the future, who discovers he is talented but whose colourblindness (and implied neurodivergence) makes use of that talent challenging without the constant help of his friend Caroline. When both are picked up for an apprenticeship by another member of the Augustine Painters (and a former orphan himself) they are thrown into a world with a mixture of magical and mundane threats, and pushed into service to try and avert danger to the King while also staying alive themselves and protecting Caroline from a predatory Count who has his eyes on her. Unlike many of the other stories, which focus on a single unique young person finding their way into life-changing situations, West's story explicitly focuses on the relationship between Joseph and Caroline and the way that they support each other to shape the future together. While it's Joseph who is more outwardly "special", Caroline's role in the story and in his success, and her own independent strengths, are treated with constant respect by other sympathetic characters and by the narrative itself.

FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 14

No novelette in this quarter's unthemed issue of FIYAH, but four interesting short stories that range from epic fantasy to cyber thriller via a pair of urban speculative stories that straddle each side of the science/magic divide. On the fantasy side, Tobi Ogundiran's "Guardian of the Gods" packs a great deal of adventure into its short length, telling the story of Ashâke, an acolyte who has been left behind by her classmates because she can't hear the gods. When she learns the forbidden truth behind the place she's been brought up, Ashâke has a crisis of faith and returns to right the wrongs she feels has been done to her - only to find out the truth isn't nearly so straightforward. I could happily read a full novel set in this world, and the same goes for the issue's other fantasy story, "Your Rover is Here" by LP Kindred, which offers a high-action magical altercation in an urban fantasy world where bigotry and economic inequality looks much the same as it does in our own. The 2,000 words of this story do an amazing job of sketching a world with various types of magic, political structures at play, and putting an interesting character at the heart of it all.

On the science fictional side, "A Terminal Kind of Love" by Veronica Henry is the story of a tech genius who is in the process of divorcing her unfaithful husband, who unfortunately also happens to take away the company they helped build together. When Athena tries to get her revenge, it winds up not working exactly to plan and brings their problems to a head in an unexpected way. While the prose in this one is a little "explain-y", the emotional weight of the situation is well handled and I liked the touches of Freetown in the setting. "Uniform" by Errick Nunnally rounds out this quartet with another deeply emotional story, this one about a Marine veteran who was turned into a mechanised soldier following fatal injuries, and who is now attempting to find his place in a world where he is regarded as a killing machine. The story turns from a touching slice of life moment to an unexpected opportunity for heroism, and while the ending feels a little neat, it still allows the protagonist a moment of choice and recognition which allows it to be earned and for some of the themes of the story to be laid to rest.

Bonus Round: Prose and Politics

Over the past couple of months, I've read some interesting works that combine fiction and non-fiction in different ways. Europa28, edited by Edited by Sophie Hughes & Sarah Cleave from Comma Press, incorporates fiction that ranged from dreamy slipstream to continental personifications to mythical retellings within a set of mostly non fiction essays, all written by women from different countries in Europe. It's a tricky book to review in this context, as none of the fiction entries really stand up on their own as stories; what makes them interesting is how they juxtapose with the memoirs and analyses of other parts of the collection to build up a patchwork of perspectives that coalesce into a snapshot of a complex, fractured continent grappling with ghosts of the past and the inequalities of today. It may just be the cynical former EU intern in me, but the project of creating shared European cultural identity can be prone to simplifications that are cringey at best, and enormously problematic and neo-colonialist at worst. Europa28 does occasionally veer into cringe (the story "In Human Form", about an entity coming to Earth to learn about what it is to be "Europe", and the extended metaphor of "Europe as a house" gave me the feeling most persistently) but it's more than balanced out by the nuance in many of the more geographically focused pieces, and I particularly appreciated works from Eastern European perspectives which are less regularly heard in English-language conversations.

I've also made some progress on my resolution to read more of PM Press' Outspoken Authors series, a series of short collections or novellas which combine fiction, non fiction and an interview from a particular author, often highlighting work that hasn't been collected elsewhere. Nisi Shawl's Talk Like A Man is one such collection and one of the series' more recent titles, bringing together a handful of short stories, a long essay on the relationship between science fiction and religion through the lens of Shawl's practice of Ifa, a West African religion, and a long, wide-ranging interview with series editor Terry Bisson. The setup here is more "traditional" with non-fiction coming after the fiction, but there's still a sense of getting to know an author over the course of the collection that feels qualitatively different somehow from reading a normal collection, despite the shorter length. The highlight of the fiction pieces here was "Walk Like a Man", a story that combines a gritty, aggressive version of female adolescence with a cyberpunky aesthetic exploring reality, relationships and belonging.

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.