A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
Welcome to July’s Women to Read: Where to Start. Looking back, it appears I started this column two years and one month ago. Happy belated birthday, Women to Read! A birthday is the perfect time to focus on stories featuring youth and growing up. These aren’t traditional coming-of-age tales, but all my recommendations this time around deal with characters at an in-between time of life, defining who they are, and searching for their place in the world.
First up, my recommended starting point for Marlee Jane Ward is “The Walking Thing“ from the June 2015 Interfictions. “The Walking Thing” can be seen as unique take on the zombie trope, an anti-zombie story, or something in-between. The protagonist is a young woman named Nita. As the story opens, Nita is fooling around with her quasi-boyfriend. Her mother unintentionally interrupts the moment to report on ‘the walking thing’ an inexplicable compulsion to walk, which has struck their town. Attempts to make the walkers stop fail. On the surface, it seems like a mild plague, but it continues to spread and eventually the inevitable occurs – those afflicted walk themselves to death. Ward offers no explanation for the plague, or for why Nita is the only one in town not affected by the plague. The why of the disease isn’t important. Nita’s emotional journey as she copes with survivor’s guilt is the heart of the story. Nita’s changing relationship with her mother, and with her quasi-boyfriend, Brian, are important markers on this journey. Before the plague strikes, Nita frequently reacts to her mother with eye-rolling, embarrassment, and resentment – a typical teenager. But when other families flee town, Nita can’t bear to leave her mother who has been afflicted. She sets up food and water stations for the walkers, but ultimately all Nita can do is keep them company and witness their deaths. When Brian returns to town after everyone else is dead, we see the completion of Nita’s transformation. Brian has been completely sheltered from the plague while Nita has dealt with death first hand. Brian’s main ‘trauma’ from the plague is that he got bored of playing the same video game over and over again. He hasn’t grown up at all, while Nita has been forced to grow up all at once – stronger for what she’s survived, but burdened by the loss she’s witnessed.
“RedChip BlueChip” by Effie Seiberg from Crossed Genres Issue 30 is my next recommended starting point. The protagonist, Mikila, lives in a near-future world where everyone is implanted with a chip at age fifteen to determine their brand preference from then on – Coke vs. Pepsi, Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks, etc. What keeps the story from feeling like a typical evil corporation/group-think story is seeing the world from a younger perspective. Mik’s friends fancy themselves counter-culture rebels. Instead of weary cynicism, we see an optimistic and youthful ‘I have it all figured out and I’m going to stick it to the man’ attitude. Like Ward’s story, the heart of Seiberg’s story is Mik’s journey as she attempts to fit in and impress her friends, particularly Sivvy, the queen of the cool girls. This pits her against Ant, another of her friends, who wins major cool points by introducing Mik and Sivvy to an underground coffee shop supposedly free of brand names. In her attempt to out-do Ant, Mik discovers the coffeeshop is nothing more than an alternate Starbucks brand, designed specifically to capture the ‘stick it to the man’ youth market. The story pokes gentle fun at the mindset of teenagers who think they are breaking the mold when they’re really just choosing a different aesthetic, usually one shared by their friends (i.e. being unique just like everyone else). But the story isn’t mean-spirited. It feels authentic to the teenage experience, down to Mik’s choise when she discovers the truth about the underground coffeeshop. She uses her knowledge to try once again to make herself popular with her friends; any dramatic reshaping of the world as a result of her actions is merely incidental. This is refreshing, as so many stories unintentionally age their protagonists. Yes, some teenagers want to save the world, but a lot of them just want to make it through the day without doing or saying anything in front of their friends that will keep them from fitting in. In “RedChip BlueChip”, Seiberg gives us a character who grows over the course of the story, but still feels like a real teenager to the end.
My recommended starting point for Nicola Griffith is Hild, which offers a completely different take on youth and growing up. Set in 7th century Britain, Hild fills in the untold story of the real historical figure, St. Hilda. Griffith uses the very little known about St. Hilda and creates a living, breathing, complex character. The story opens with Hild as a young child, but even then, she’s wise beyond her years. Her circumstances don’t permit her to be anything else. She’s the king’s niece, and thanks to a dream her mother claims to have had while pregnant, she is also ‘the light of the world’, the king’s seer, destined to lead through vision and prophecy. Hild spends her life embroiled in politics, forging alliances, watching for treachery, searching for patterns and information. Despite this, many of Hild’s struggles are still relevant to the teenage experience. Hild is isolated; she has trouble finding friends she can be herself around. She questions what she wants to do with her life. What happens when the king doesn’t need her anymore? Can she live with herself after the blood she’s spilled to keep her people safe? Will she ever find someone to love her and appreciate her for herself? The few moments when Hild is allowed her youth – running in the grass, climbing trees, laughing and talking with friends – are particularly lovely, underlining her weighty responsibilities. Hild isn’t a typical portrait of youth, by today’s standards, but it’s still a powerful one. The speculative element is light. Most of Hild’s ‘visions’ are simple careful observation, but there are moments – beautifully described by Griffith – where Hild’s understanding of the warp and weave of the world borders on the supernatural. She transcends her flesh, putting herself into the body of a bird and seeing the pattern of all of Britain laid out below her. The theme of weaving and patterns carries throughout the book, both literally and metaphorically. Hild weaves with the other women in the king’s household, and she also studies the weave of the world, noting threads that can be tugged to shift the balance of power. The novel itself is a tapestry, one whose details are dazzling close up, and work together to form a stunning picture of a richly built world when taken as a whole.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting point for Kelly Robson’s work is The Waters of Versailles, recently published at Tor.com. (On a side note, why aren’t more speculative fiction stories set in Versailles? It’s such a magical, lush setting!) Youth isn’t as front and center in this story, but it is key, running under the surface of the tale. The main character, Sylvain, is a soldier-turned-engineer, thought to be a wizard by many in the court of Versailles for the magic he works with its fountains, and for bringing indoor plumbing to the court. Yes, a story about toilets reveals a surprising amount about human nature as nobles fight for the prestige bestowed by owning their own toilet, then quickly tire of the fashion when everyone has one. Sylvain’s water-wizardry is at least partially supernatural. Some years ago, he captured a water spirit, and he’s been keeping her in the cisterns beneath the palace. When Sylvain’s friend Leblanc, who is also the water spirit’s only close companion, dies, things start to fall apart. Pipes leak and the plumbing begins to fail. Sylvain’s position at court, already tenuous due to his peasant birth, is put in even more jeopardy. This also starts Sylvain’s journey from a somewhat unsympathetic character, to a deeply sympathetic one. Early on, he is shallow, a social climber denying his true self. Here, youth comes into the story in two key ways. While she isn’t the main character, the water spirit is essentially a child. Sylvain even refers to her as ‘the little fish’, but it isn’t until he truly recognizes how young she is that he comes back to his humanity. She isn’t a malicious trickster trying to imperil his position – she is a bored, lonely, and occasionally frightened child. The more Sylvain comes to care for her, the more he reclaims his own childhood. Singing the songs of his youth to soothe the water spirit leads Sylvain to ultimately experience a second ‘growing up’ himself. He learns to stop caring what the nobles of the court think, realizing he’ll never be good enough for them simply by not being of noble birth. In the end, he sheds the trappings and glamour of Versailles, emerging as a kinder, more mature, and gentler person.
So that’s it for another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. As always, if you have your own suggestions of fabulous work by women, please share them in the comments below.