REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s Short Fiction Friday is a review of the recently released short story collection by author (and SF Signal Irregular) Carrie Cuinn, Women and Other Constructs.
BRIEF SUMMARY: Six previously-published short stories, a Shakespearean sonnet about a murderous robot, and two pieces of fiction new to this collection showcase the range of an author passionate about the short fiction format.
PROS: Stories set firmly within, as well as blending, SF/F/H demonstrate a good working knowledge of genre fiction; several stories show that longer format fiction is not the sole proprietor of strong character development; occasional gut-wrenching emotion; thought-provoking content that addresses social and societal issues without sacrificing story.
CONS: One otherwise great story ends too abruptly; some readers may not find the more brief works as enjoyable as I did.
BOTTOM LINE: I was immediately struck with a feeling of trepidation after agreeing to review the short fiction work of Carrie Cuinn, an author whose posts I admire both here on SF Signal and on her blog. I had not read her fiction. What if I didn’t like it? What if the subject matter crossed into areas of personal discomfort to a point where I felt uncomfortable with continued reading? I consider myself an honest reviewer. I do my best to not only see a story itself but to incorporate what I interpret as the intention of the story and whether or not the author succeeded. Thus I would be writing an honest review of Cuinn’s work even if it meant a negative review. I don’t know her personally, but the SF Signal kinship gave me pause. I wanted to like this.
Instead, I was “wowed” by it.
While Cuinn’s work does not shy away from dealing with material that pushes the comfort level, those stories in which she does so contain the sort of raw emotion and confrontation of reality that prove not only how powerful fiction can be, but how much influence and power short fiction can wield. She also knows how to entertain, and she demonstrates an ability to be light and fun while having something meaningful to say. I have been a fan of Cuinn’s nonfiction for some time. I am now a fan of her fiction, and I hope you will become one as well.
You had me at “hello”.
It may be uncommon to review and rate a book’s Introduction, but the art of the Introduction is one that not every author possesses, as personally evidenced by the many dry, uninteresting or downright poor introductions I have read over the years. When done well it is something to be celebrated as it adds to the reading experience.
In her introduction, Carrie Cuinn states:
“I don’t like not being good at things. That’s something you have to know about me”.
This personality trait was her impetus to learn how to write good short fiction and that statement gives the reader an expectation going into this collection that the results of her practice and study are going to be stories that she is proud to have written, that demonstrate her past efforts at becoming a skilled artisan in the realm of short stories, and that engage the reader.
Carrie Cuinn is forthcoming about her love of short stories, both reading them and writing them. Admirers of the art of short fiction will find a kindred spirit in Cuinn.
The Introduction also contains a fun piece of Twitfic.
“Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance”
On a nice Spring day a stray dog sets in motion a series of unexpected events when he digs up and runs off with the forearm of Mr. Liu, a resident of the village’s old cemetery. In his pursuit of the purloined appendage, something he is too attached to (or was until recently) to easily part with, he brings the dead in contact with the living in a manner that is far too familiar and discomforting for those still imbued with their mortal coil. As the villagers and the deceased meet to come to terms that will return the dead to their proper place, events unfold that demonstrate that a lot can be learned from those who have gone before.
Carrie Cuinn opens the collection with a story that mixes the humorous and grotesque with the manners, and the prejudices, of an earlier time. The treatment of the “outsider”, of those “not like us”, is both historical and fantastical in this tale but will be familiar to anyone who has lived long enough to understand this behavior is alive and flourishing today. The dead here are as charming as those in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride; the story appeals when read on a surface level though it contains something more for those willing to look a little closer.
“Letter From a Murderous Construct and His Robot Fish”
A Shakespearean sonnet from a future time reflecting age-old desires for love, freedom, purpose and companionship. Cuinn uses the form to full effect, creating rhyme that does not feel forced. The rhyme was so subtle that, as I got lost in the details of the story, I was unaware of it until a second read-through. A one-page story that marries form with function to great effect.
Annabelle was three years old when her parents moved to the new house; the tree was but a sapling. Like all who love trees, Annabelle took great pleasure in spending time outdoors, sitting near her tree as the two grew up together. Her parents, however, found this behavior to be of great concern, as they did for much of Annabelle’s behavior. If they were paying attention to her at all, that is.
Annabelle is an only child with no friends, except a tree, and that knowledge alone informs you that this is a poignant tale. There is nothing sappy here (no pun intended), the emotion is very real, raw and palpable for any who have experienced loneliness. As a parent, particularly as a parent of an only child, this is a story that burrows into your core. I wanted to go and give my daughter an extra-long hug after I finished.
“Annabelle Tree” was commissioned for a specific anthology, one in which the theme features prominently in the story’s end, thus I will not reveal the theme. My only criticism about what was an emotionally-gripping story was the abrupt nature of the story’s end. I cannot help but wish that Cuinn would take up Annabelle’s story again to continue/finish it without the constraints of the theme.
“A Cage, Her Arms”
This hauntingly sad story is told from the point of view of a protagonist who is being kept alive by machines, and the interactions he has with his mother. More than simply a machine that keeps his body alive, this young man is digitally connected to a vast network, one in which he remains an active participant in a life that is different than the life he had, but one in which he finds fulfillment.
While on a global level “A Cage, Her Arms” posits one version of a post-human future, at its more intimate level it examines a parent-child relationship as well as the dependence and interdependence of a bed-ridden person and his/her family and the manner in which a caretaker may choose to deal with their grief.
One of many facets that make this story work is the way in which the situation and setting slowly come into focus. The ending was unexpected and thus surprising. A measure of this story’s effectiveness is the fact that days later I suddenly had a different interpretation come to mind and could not wait to read it again to see it in this new light.
“Call Center Blues”
This clever tale follows a conversation with Claire, an employee of F.A.X. Unlimited, and a customer, John Holden, who is unhappy with the robot he ordered to cook and clean for him. Anyone who has worked in any form of retail and had to deal politely with irrational, irritable customers will feel an instant kinship with Claire as she attempts to successfully navigate the potential minefield of an irate customer.
What would appear on the surface to be an entertaining, slightly comical and cathartic story for the majority of readers that have had their own John Holden experience is in reality something altogether deeper.
Fiction in general, particularly science fiction and fantasy, are ideal vehicles in which to examine gender stereotypes and racial prejudices and here Cuinn uses the SF trappings to full effect to shed light on an ongoing problem with humanity’s expectations of women and their place in society. “Call Center Blues” entertains, don’t get me wrong. It is not preachy, but it cuts to the quick.
In reading this story I was fascinated with the conflicting feelings it engendered. On one hand the story has some graphic sexual imagery, especially if one has an easy time conjuring up the mental pictures an author paints with her words. I don’t say that to be critical, I only state it because this “type” of short story (at the risk of creating a faux pas by classifying it as a “type”) is usually one I avoid simply as personal preference.
On the other hand, the subjects of sex and robotics in speculative fiction is a staple that continues to be examined in interesting ways as technology develops, giving contemporary SF authors an entirely new set of tools for the playground of their imagination. Let’s be honest here: it would not be surprising, given the advances and technology featured in a story like Cuinn’s, to see enterprising individuals turn the situation into an opportunity for sexual gratification. And while the visuals of “Mitch’s Girl” can be a bit disturbing, Carrie Cuinn has taken this idea to a place that I have not previously seen and there is a part of the whole idea that is intriguing, in that ‘train wreck’ sort of way.
Cuinn gives little insight into her motivations for this story. Given the discussions around the web regarding harassment, sexual and otherwise, and the continued denigration of women in genre fiction (conversations of which Cuinn has played an important role), I could not help wondering if I was to be reading more into this story in regards to the way that men throughout history have viewed women and sex. Conversely I wondered if it was unfair to the story to read it in that light.
In the end I wanted the story to be more than it was. This is probably a scenario in which the fault lies with the reader, and not the writer. It would be interesting to see where Cuinn would take the story if Mitch and his “girl” actually developed a relationship in a story that shifted its focus off of the sexual aspects.
“All The Right Words”
A wife reacts as she discovers her husband’s infidelity, the discovery being the result of his lover’s early arrival, a day before his wife was scheduled to leave for a long off-world survey. The cheating husband does not handle this unexpected revelation well. His lover stated that she “wanted to know the truth”, the irony of “truth” being contained in a relationship built on lies is not lost on the reader. The selfishness inherent in infidelity is on display in the actions and reactions of the husband.
This story shares a kinship with others in the collection in that it utilizes the science fictional robot/A.I. construct to examine real human relationships. The way in which the human mind and emotions react to story is fascinating, particularly the way in which anthropomorphized animals or machines can play upon emotions and create a window through which harsh realities can examined with an open mind.
“Monsters, Monsters Everywhere”
Culinary delights mix with grand adventure in this tale of a monster hunter traveling through remote Mexican villages, dealing with monster troubles big, and small. There is something of a Lost World feel to the jungle the unnamed protagonist finds herself in, and as she takes in her surroundings, providing description to the reader, the suspense builds towards the inevitable confrontation. The jungle touches off reminiscences of her youth and time spent with her grandmother and these are intertwined with the more intense moments of the story creating an even greater degree of tension. There are no wasted moments in this story, even its denouement surprises.
“About the Mirror and its Pieces”
There is no shortage of emotionally rich stories in Women and Other Constructs and the collection ends with arguably the most powerful of them all. If you have ever read fairy tales with their stock evil stepmothers, princesses or queens, or viewed film adaptations of the same, and found yourself wondering about the villain’s motivation, Carrie Cuinn provides a possible explanation. This story is the least obviously fantastical of the collection and like “Annabelle’s Tree” explores some difficult subject matter in regards to the treatment of children by parents who, in an ideal world, should know better. Concepts like “entertainment” and “pleasure” that play at least some part in the story choices of readers are misplaced inducements when it comes to stories of this nature. This is not the realm of fiction in general, let along genre fiction, where most readers want to dwell consistently on their reading travels. Which is what makes issues like those raised in “About the Mirror and its Pieces” ideal for short fiction.
The story is powerful, visceral, and left me feeling quite raw after the euphoria I felt upon discovering Carrie Cuinn the fiction writer in the collection’s opening story. I work in the mental health field with broken families and stories like this, which remind me thematically of the work Charles de Lint does in his Newford stories, humble me. They take me to a place that I am grateful I have never experienced personally and they help me to develop a more tangible empathy with the people I come into contact with on a daily basis. Stories like this awe me in their ability to open readers’ eyes and they become a foundation upon which one can begin to build understanding and healing.
Women and Other Constructs is a varied, powerful collection of stories that showcases the range and talent of an author who will hopefully continue to rise in exposure in the SFF community. Her work demonstrates that the short fiction format, particularly in SF/F/H can be a vessel that contains effective plotting, strong characterization, and worthwhile examination of important topics while still being highly entertaining. This collection is not light, by any means, conversely it is not heavy to the point of getting in the way of good storytelling. The stories Carrie Cuinn includes in this volume show that “thought-provoking” need not mean “inaccessible” to the average reader.
Carrie Cuinn is offering ebook and print book versions of Women and Other Constructs on her site in individual or bundled packages at extremely reasonable prices. For purchasing options follow this link.
Carrie Cuinn can be found writing about books, stories, the writing process and any number of topics of interest to the genre community on her personal blog as well as in her Outside the Frame column here at SF Signal.