Thursday, October 29, 2020

Questing in Shorts: October 2020

I had an unintentionally great month for reading shorter queer fiction in October, with a whole new publication of flash fiction delights and a great collection! And next month: Questing in Shorts goes ON TOUR.

Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Issue 11 (read online)

Five stories and two poems in this issue of Anathema, ranging from dark horror to hopeful near-future space travel to a Vietnamese fable-like story reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. I loved them all, but a couple really stood out for me. I've been meaning to read Iona Datt Sharma's work for a very long time - Not for Use in Navigation is on my e-reader and everything - and I finally got to follow through on that with the opening story here, "Heard, Half-Heard, in the Stillness": the story of Ekta, a young Indian woman who has been training her entire life for an Indian space programme that has just had its funding pulled. The story deals with Ekta's complex emotions: her dreams have been crushed, and her new cousin-in-law is being awful about it, but it also means she can spend more time with a family and home she loves. Slice-of-life near-future space-age stories is quickly becoming one of my favourite short story subgenres, as this month's roundup can attest, and this is a great entry into my very small canon of stories I like.

My other highlight of the issue was "We Have Evacuated, Have a Good Day" by Jendayi Brooks-Flemister. In the face of an oncoming "Category 6" superstorm, a woman goes to Loris, the small town in which her elderly grandfather still lives, to try to evacuate him out of the storm's path: but he refuses to go, and she refuses to leave him, and so they live out the disaster and its aftermath in his home. The set-up of the story leads us to expect a tale of connection across the generations and the very different lives and values of the two characters, and we get that in some ways even as Brooks-Flemister completely subverts it in others, taking the potential for cathartic reconciliation and turning it into something that at first feels more real and then abruptly goes somewhere very unexpected. By the end we, like the protagonist, can't help but smile and accept the situation the story serves up: a weird and yet fitting end to an otherworldly disaster.

Baffling Magazine, Issue 1 (read online)

This is the first issue of a new online publication by Neon Hemlock Press, edited by Craig L. Gidney and dave ring, offering up a tasty collection of Queer Weird fiction from a quartet of great authors. It kicks off with an opener from Jewelle Gomez, author of The Gilda Stories - a groundbreaking 1991 novel about a Black lesbian vampire. Gomez's story, "Merida, Yucutan: 2060", is a near future tale with Gilda at the centre, pitching its hero into a world where pollution and degradation of the earth has pushed people into desperate circumstances, many of whom are choosing to abandon Earth for opportunities on other colonies. At the story's opening, Gilda is also choosing to leave, but its events give her pause to consider her responsibility to, and hopes for, the planet she is leaving behind. It's a story that didn't resonate with me as much as it might have if I'd read The Gilda Stories (it's on the TBR!), but even on its own it offers an intriguing vignette on the decision to stay and fight for a world, even when it has done such harm to your ancestors and to you.

"From The Deep" by Izzy Wasserstein is a spooky underwater story, starring an explorer descending into a maybe-supernatural extraterrestial ocean only to hear a song from a past connection which threatens to overwhelm her. "Cellars, Caskets and Closets" is a dense, lush prose poem in which the narrator brings to life a labyrinth of their own internal creation: at once a chase through a crumbling house and an exploration of coming out and the internal processes around it. Finally, "Velvet" by Nino Cipri is another flash piece about a boy living in a suburb with lots of deer, who has a nightmarish, slipstream-y encounter with a moulting stag. After my experiences with Cipri's collection, I'm always pleased to read a story by them, and while this is an understated one in some ways it rounds out this issue very nicely.

This first issue of Baffling was over all too quickly, but I was really impressed with how strong the publication's identity felt even in this short first hit. Gidney and ring clearly know what they are trying to achieve here, and I for one was highly baffled by it, so I think that all worked out well.

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel by Julian K. Jarboe

With a title like that, there was no way I was going to let this collection pass me by, and it more than lived up to that initial expectation. Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel is a collection of flash fiction and longer pieces, most of which focus on the radical act of existing as a queer and neurodiverse person under capitalism. The first half of the collection breezed by, with pieces that drew me in through their narrative voice ("Self Care" has the most spectacular use of FRUSTRATED CAPITALISATION outside of an online teen journal), or imagery (The menstrual body horror of "Heavy Flow"). A longer fairytale piece, "Estranged Children of Storybook Houses", is about a changeling in a world where changelings are accepted as fact and theoretically supposed to be loved as part of their adoptive families. When its protagonist realises that her parents and brother will never accept her nature, she goes looking for the "original" human version of herself in fairyland, only to realise that she is not the perfect daughter that they're seeking either. It's a sweet but melancholy story that doesn't really come to any neat conclusions about belonging as a neurodiverse person in a family that fundamentally wishes you were different, but it does at least leave its protagonist in a quietly comfortable place by its end.

Most of the collection's second half is taken up by the original title story, a mosaic of a novella novella that draws together all of the themes of the collection into a quiet but deeply moving science fiction dystopia. Meandering between the lives of Sebastian and his sister Lara, with divergences into chat logs and, at one point, a poetic job application, the story builds up a town and a family which no longer fits into the capitalist dream, as people move underwater or out into space. Sebastian is trying to find a job after graduation, but keeps finding that everything he applies for or tries out doesn't want someone like him; Lara's story centres on her relationship with her mother and her difficult childhood, even as she tries to reconcile the elements of her own personality and needs that seem to mirror the things she likes the least about her parent. It's a strange, drift-y sort of story which I highly enjoyed: "Everyone On The Moon Is Essential Personnel" left me aching to see more of its characters and to perhaps see something in their lives go right.

Strange Horizons, May 2020

I never have an agenda for talking about older stories except that I don't read things on time, but I feel very pleased to be able to bring this May trio of stories from Strange Horizons into the column, as they are all excellent in different ways. "Have your #Hugot harvested at this Diwata-owned cafe" (online) is a story set in Quezon City,  Philippines, and takes the form of a fake long-form magazine feature about a newly opened restaurant by one of the city's magical residents, where human diners can have their heartbreak and emotions (I understand that #hugot, in modern Philippines internet-speak, is used to indicate that something pulls deep emotions out of you) taken out in the service of supernatural cuisine. It's a story that draws together mythology and modern political events, "interviewing" relatives of desaparecidos who disappeared during the Marcos regime or who were casualties of the current drug war. The effect is a narrative that weaves personal and national reckonings with tragedy, the perspective the Diwata herself offering a distancing lens that lets the reader explore what different responses say about humanity's ability to contextualise and move on.

"Martian Cinema" (online) is a delight of a story, one which brings that "undersupervised children discover a hidden world of magic in their own home" vibe to a story set in a Martian colony, where survival is precarious and resources have to be carefully managed. The undersupervised children of this story discover a picture of a unicorn in a cave, and use it to build increasingly elaborate stories using their makeshift "cinema". The antics of the children, and their progressively more fanciful ideas for their cinema and the ways they use the material around them to make it work, have that balance where it's never quite clear what is real, what is imagination and what's magic, and the story ends on a wistful note (involving adults being The Worst) that makes this clear this was a moment that will never be recaptured. May also brings "The DEATH/GRIP Challenge" (online) by Johnny Compton, a horror story revolving around radicalisation and a child trying to care for a parent who is going through psychological trauma well beyond her capacity to deal with.

The Future Fire, Issue 55 (Read Online)

The last issue of the year for The Future Fire has 5 stories, all of which deal in some form with identity and community, particularly family relationships. These range from the creepy, claustrophobic "Mijara's Freedom" by Eleanor Glewwe, in which a young woman recounts one of her childhood summers in her family home, whose strict otherworldly rules stifle her and her cousins and provoke acts of small rebellion. With all the curtains drawn and the threat of summer fires which it is claimed the government doesn't want them to see, Glewwe's story weaves a very tight family horror with a more broadly sinister, patriarchal aura to create a compelling story about escape (or, more specifically, being left behind). "We Will Become as Monsters" by Benjanun Sridaungkaew is also a highly atmospheric story, about a thief who finds a dying soldier on the edge of a mysterious labyrinth. Promised wealth, power and beautiful concubines if she takes the woman's gauntlet, the protagonist instead finds herself subjected to powerful magic and drawn into the heart of a general's quest to seek something at the labyrinth's centre. On the science fiction side, I really enjoyed the premise and execution of Jennifer R. Donohue's ‘Know They Will Die under the Salt of It’, in which people descended from those who survived a generations-ago spaceship crash watch the goings-on of the ship itself, now submerged in the ocean beyond free diving range, in which lights still sometimes appear and signs of life seem to be increasing.

I struggled more with the last two stories in the issue: "The Scaled Soul" by Rhianwen Phillips is a short piece that deals with a survivor of domestic abuse and male violence, who births a snake monster that saves her, then threatens her, then eventually offers to train her to look after herself. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for a story so centred around violence and victimisation, but I struggled to find the element of novelty or perspective shift in the story's closure that made the depictions here worth sitting through. And "The Good Hawks" by Danielle Jorgenson-Murray just didn't bring me on board with its uprooted, shapeshifting young protagonist early enough for me to really get invested in her journey and transformations. It might work better for me on a reread, though, so it's definitely worth checking out if slice-of-life shapeshifter narratives are up your street.

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