“Look at this, Russ. A first edition Jack London. Tales of the Fish Patrol. Can you believe it?”
I was five years old, and had just gotten my first pair of spex, providing rudimentary access to what passed for the ubik back then. I wasn’t impressed.
“I can read that right now, Dad, if I wanted to.”
Dad looked crestfallen. “That digital text is just information, son. This is a book! And best of all, it’s mongo.”
I tried to look up mongo in the ubik, like I had been taught, but couldn’t find it in my dictionary. “What’s mongo, Dad?”
“A moment of grace. A small victory over entropy.”
“It’s any treasure you reclaim from the edge of destruction, Russ. There’s no thrill like making a mongo strike.”
I looked at the book with new eyes. And that’s when I got hooked. From then on, mongo became my life.
– from “Wikiworld,” by Paul Di Filippo
One of the dullest exercises in writing about literature, or really any sort of discussion, is to try to codify the “state” of something, whether it be a genre, a literary practice or product (which loops back to genre), a “trend,” or any sort of discursive or symbolic thingamajig. I think we drive ourselves rather loopy in these efforts to frequently codify the “state” of a concept or field, as if we can solidify it into something unmoving, intact, and graspable. It can be a compelling exercise to tackle such a topic, but generally the result is partial, overly truncated, or engineered to ignore diversity. Of course, any endeavor to codify such things is contingent and subjective, but the notion of “state” in this sense comes from the idea of status, of discerning attributes and conditions of the standing of the subject(s) being discussed. It has a more formal ring to it, an air of higher purpose and discernment; “I will discuss the state of [insert subject here]” sounds more important and prestigious than “I would like to talk about [insert subject here] and some things I noticed about it.”
With that said, this week I want to discuss several short stories that exemplify a promising aspect of the current field of short fantastika. I’ve been reading scads of short stories over the past few weeks and realized that I infrequently review or discuss short fiction. This seems particularly foolish given that I write short fiction and am trying to get some of it published, and that short fiction, while like publishing in general in a state of transition, serves several functions in the literary field, particularly for fantastika. Each story is a text to discuss in its own right, but also indicative of something noteworthy in the larger field of short fiction that contains many pleasures but that still seems underappreciated.
In terms of story selection, there are a host of arbitrarinesses here, from the story selection criteria to my understanding of them. That is to some extent intentional; rather than set up haughty parameters that might limit my reading, I tried to have as few restrictions as possible. I confined the selection to “new” short stories until one friend asked “Newly published, or new to you?” I decided on stories new to me that had been published in the last six months, and quite subjectively chose stories that sparked a conversation in my head. What makes these stores compelling to me, regardless of flaws, is that I found them “good to think with.”
1) “Conservation of Shadows,” by Yoon Ha Lee:
I found this story to be the most perplexing of the lot (and once you read about story #5 below, you will realize how significant that declaration is) for two reasons. First, it is written in the Dreaded Second Person, which I have personally always disliked; second, it relates a story that on the surface is little more than a gauntlet of strange hazards which is narrated for “you” by the very thing “you” are trying to destroy. Replete with vivid imagery, little dialogue, and a narrator whose world seems to be part-dream, part game, you read to find out where you the reader are being taken with the seemingly passive protagonist. Reading it, I admired the excellent writing, gritted my teeth through the perspective, and wondered where this story was taking me.
I still wonder that now, after another reading of it, but while the story makes more sense when you discern its mythological inspiration (which I will not spoil here), it, well, only makes a bit more sense. But the story is not written to be completely graspable, which is something I see more and more in short stories and that I am coming to admire. Neatness of narrative and precision of word is employed in this story to enchant you, to make you wonder what it all means, and not just within the tale. Its mythological resonances are amplified by the language, and even as the reader is unbalanced by the perspective, by the combination of co-optation and distanciation, your eye and imagination move forward. The ending is a sort of twist, and for me was a bit of a letdown, but this story becomes more about the journey with each re-reading, and I see this as a story that should be savored and puzzled over, in some ways perhaps not daring, but in others challenging the reader with image and action rather than speech and vista.
2) “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut With Unicorn Hair,” by Rosamund Hodge:
Set in a secondary fantasy world where various spirits and powers protect kingdoms, Zéphine dreads her ritual duty to dance for the unicorns that guard the land of Retrouvailles. Failure means that the dancer suffers the indignity of the story’s title and is sucked dry of blood by the unicorns and becomes a “bride” who rides with them mindlessly forever. Her desire to be free leads to a destructive conflict that forces sacrifices from Zéphine, her family, and Justin, a guardsman who is more than he seems. It is a story with rich potential for symbolism and drama.
To some extent the story delivers this, as Zéphine undergoes a gradual transformation from pining maiden to responsible ruler, at great cost to herself and the land the unicorns protect. But the narrative loses some of its power as it unfolds. The two elements that jarred me out of the story frequently were the casual phrasings and the frequent sense of compression in characters and scenes. Lines such as “It didn’t hurt that he was handsome” felt out of place in the narrative voicing, and from the rather cardboard villain to the condensing of emotional moments I felt that the story was being squeezed into a shorter form that missed some of the possibilities of the story and removed most of the potential distinctiveness from it. I wondered several times if it would not be a better read as a novel; the reader is rushed from one confrontation and sacrifice to another, and these moments of conflict and choice lose some of their power in the shortening. I found myself wanting more out of the story, which took some rote symbols and ideas and tried to rework them into a more emotional evocative and affecting story. It was an attempt to find more feeling and significance in some well-used tropes.
Here we have a very amusing story, not laugh-out-loud hilarious but fun; it is hyperbolic, densely detailed, and full of quirks. “Wikiworld” is the story of Russ Reynolds, who for three days was the de-facto president of the United Wikis of America, in a future where everything is organized and performed via wiki using a vast communication network known as “the ubik.” The story is peppered with references to a future of ubiquitous technology that is run through constant interaction via a hugely-updated and expanded form of the Internet. Russ’ adventures truly begin when he meets Foolty Fontal (aka “FooDog”) and Cherimoya Espiritu (aka “Cherry”) on the day when many of the wikis Russ is affiliated with participate in the building of his new home on a nub of land in the Cape Cod Archipelago.
Russ’ story of his bizarre rise to power is enjoyable to read and, while the future described seems both improbable and oddly optimistic, a little unsettling. Di Filippo posits a cacophony of changes in a world that is in itself unstable, yet never goes over into either full chaos nor complete order. “That’s the greatest thing about wikis: they combine the best features of democracy and autocracy. Everybody has an equal say. But some got bigger says than others,” as Russ puts it. This is political science fiction that eschews grit and bite for a world that, despite climate change and natural resource shifts, indulges in the potential positives of a world of instant communication, massive access to information, and constant interaction between its inhabitants. The scenes of political participation (through wiki editing, essentially) are charming, although the more you think about them, the more you wonder if humans would use such a system so benignly. But Di Filippo takes a chance, with comedic twists, on telling a story of a better world. I think we could do with a bit more of that, if only to get us to think more creatively about the future.
4) “You Have Been Turned Into a Zombie by a Friend,” by Jeremiah Tolbert:
This story was recommended to me by several people, and after a single reading I understood their fondness for it; it is fun, nimble, and barely contains its glee at the fusion of sorcery and technology that produce the story’s energy. Another second-person narrative, this one puts the reader squarely in the shoes of Dakota, an apprentice net-mage who specializes in social magic, whose power comes from the repetitive activities of people on the Internet (in this case, quiz memes). One day Dakota gets and invitation to a zombie game, and soon finds out that evil is afoot at the local high school. Tolbert takes a number of conventions from all areas of fantastika and mashes them together, much like the nerdy teenage heroes of his story do with their net-magic. It is a zombie story with a few twists, and a lot of flair, and diverting moments of invention.
We’re seeing a lot more of these fusions in both short and long fiction, from excruciating exercises such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Nick Mamatas’ and Brian Keene’s more political and shocking The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham. Some of them are highly inventive, others terribly derivative. Tolbert’s story has some freshness to it, but while I enjoyed the ride through his short adventure, I felt that there was very little to chew on afterwards. There is invention in the details, but the story structure, despite the perspective, had less ingenuity. I waited for more play with the narrative itself to energize the story, to work with the potential of those details to mess with the reader’s perception and assumptions. There seems to be a lot of untapped potential in these genre fusions that could be better experimented with in short fiction.
5) “Absinthe Fish,” by M. David Blake:
This story was recommended by Lois Tilton in Locus (and, full disclosure, by the editor of Bull Spec who supplied me with an electronic copy to read). I had to read it three times before I could decide if I liked it, and by then, I was intoxicated. It is a hallucinatory, perplexing, and deep story whose length is indeed deceptive. The story, and I use the term with some trepidation at its reductive properties, is a description of, essentially, a tank of fish:
“The fish swim inside a large, copper alembic. The alembic sits in a distillery, and the distillery is in Pontarlier.”
The fish become, over the course of the narrative, much more than fish.
The story reads like a meditation, an extended observation of possibilities, and an intellectual puzzle-box of metaphors and thought-experiments. Blake chooses a dissembling oddness in his word choices and relationships and throughout the story questions every element with juxtapositions of imagery and interrogation and the normalization of the improbable. The fish infuse the world around them as they infuse the absinthe, and they are in the end they are not fish at all. This is a story that fuses magical realism, quantum ponderings, and philosophical permutations into a text that makes you question everything that you encounter in the story, and that leaves some of the questions in your mind long after you have read it. It is a word-experience, really, and it relies more on the openness of the reader than any specific protocols of reading. It requires not the suspension of disbelief, but the constant rethinking of certainty. it is beautiful and dubious and rather devious.
All of these stories, to different extents, require this rethinking, whether they refer back to “reality” or question it, innovate with technology or magic or ontological musings, or play with the certainties of language that are, really, not always so certain. Each of these stories has that quality of questioning, what the best fantastika aspires to. They show us some of the many ways to try to fulfill that requirement, even when they fall short a bit. They exemplify a spirit, schmaltzy as that may sound, that impels us to keep trying to ask “what is real?” and give us mind-places to explore that question, and enjoy ourselves along the way.