I enjoy following debates both large and small about the vitality or exhaustion of genre fiction; they can tell you a lot about how literature is received and related to by readers. Muses know I love a good debate about the death of SF or the power of fantastic literature, but this week I want to engage with stories rather than polemical positions. I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction collections in the fantastic vein recently and what I’ve found in them is a vitality and pushing of boundaries that is, for me, what makes fantastic fiction exciting and intriguing. What these collections demonstrate is that that fantastika, in the broadest sense, is still fertile ground for wonderful, challenging stories.
The collections I want to discuss are Kiini Ibura Salaam’s Ancient, Ancient, Karin Tidbeck’s Jagganath, and Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry. Each of these volumes conjures something affecting and extraordinary, even though the stories are disparate and polyvocal. If they represent a trend, it is towards short story writers distilling their voices and concentrating their narratives, taking chances seen far less often in novels, playing not just with ideas and tropes but with style and reader expectations. All three authors write stories that disrupt assumptions and certainties by drawing the reader into the fictional world of the story while undermining our sense of “the evident universe.”
Salaam’s fictional worlds range widely in scope, but they are bursting with exuberant, poetic life. Her protagonists seek satisfaction on multiple levels, whether they know it or not, and sensual fulfillment is inseparable from intellectual or emotional achievements. From the driven Sene, exhausted by life’s demands but unbeaten in “Desire”, to the conflicted Cori in “MalKai’s Last Seduction,” Salaam’s characters are seekers. They are not fixated on a goal so much as hunting for answers, for connection, for the energy to continue living. Salaam’s characters are more embodied than Tidbeck’s or Hand’s, partly due to the erotic nature of the stories, but also because they declare and examine and struggle with their desires in very physical ways. The eroticism is not just titillation or romance, but a foundational aspect of living. Every creature must deal with their desires and their need for gratification and release, even when they themselves put obstacles in their way.
In Salaam’s stories some characters hunt for these thing because it is the key to life for them. But aliens, humans, and gods alike are all shaped and motivated by this craving; no one is aloof or immune to the emotional need for connection and ecstasy. Sometimes this is a terrible pursuit; in “Marie” a young woman makes a choice to get free of her pain and finds the cost to do so just as terrible. In “Rosamojo” a younger girl must create her own magic to escape a brutalizing existence. In all of these stories the vitality that emerges is rough and uncertain and swirls out from the dynamics and power of sex. What Salaam does beautifully across the collection is show us how moving through the world means acknowledging what drives us, whether it is pain or pleasure, obvious dissatisfaction or submerged desires. Until we become intimate with the truth of our existence we wander like the time-traveler in “Battle Royale,” moving from moment to moment until we deeply experience, in body as well as mind, what our nature is and how that affects our place in the world.
Tidbeck’s approach is often spartan and terse, but can surprise you by opening up into excess and deep veins of emotion. One of the remarkable things about Tidbeck’s stories is that, despite their brevity or sparseness, they are very focused on experience. This comes out more strongly in the stories that are told in first and second person as well as those told in epistolary fashion, but throughout Jagganath Tidbeck deftly sketches her stories and lets the emotion emerge between words. Stories like “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom” build slowly, but insistently, and you feel the protagonist’s emotions in that building. It is not the embodied erotics of Salaam, but a combination of longing and dislocation.
Dislocation is a primary theme in most of these stories, as characters shift between realities, change status, and get left behind or discarded by the workings of the world. In “Reindeer Mountain” a younger daughter prepares to be taken away by the vittra, only to find that others have different plans. In “Cloudberry Jam” and “Aunts” characters mature in strange, unsettling ways, shifting their reality while transforming. Other characters suffer, literally, far worse changes in “Rebecca” and “Arvid Pekon” as estrangement is forced on them. In Tidbeck’s worlds there is a tension between an assumed normalcy and the inexplicable workings of the world. The veneer of the usual or natural is quickly stripped away and we glimpse the workings of the world beneath, which some characters thrive on while others are destroyed by it.
Contrasting this with Hand’s stories is stark and telling. To a large extent Hand’s worlds are the most realistic, at least on the surface. In all of them except “The Return of the Fire Witch” we seem to be in “the evident universe,” and we seem to stay there for the duration of most of the stories. But what Hand does so well is to start to erode the edges of the world, causing two revelations: our anchorage in the evident universe is tenuous, and there is a constant wearing away of it by other forces and desires. In fact, the real world is a place where strange things happen all of the time, and it is only because we try to rationalize or unsee the strangeness that we maintain a sense of consensual reality. If we just let our preconceptions go, whether to look at an impossible sight in “Hungerford Bridge” or take an improbably journey in “Near Zennor,” we see that the world’s is actually a strange place that we overlay with a veil of normalcy, carefully constructed and reproduced.
The world itself starts to act in counter-intuitive ways, and the characters in Hand’s stories are jolted into confronting the inherent strangeness and unknowability of existence. People try to live their lives as “normally” as possible, but the very nature of life works against that. In “Summerteeth” the narrator discovers that firm footing in life is fleeting, that memory and intention and anticipation can be untrue. The world often seems completely laid out, but it is more fragmented and lunatic in its motion than we allow for in our conceptions of it. The world, however, refuses to let us sit comfortably in our forts of imagination and keeps showing us how bizarre life is.
What I love about these collections is how can see each author’s method of creating narrative context. Tidbeck’s stories are about characters mediating a movement between worlds, while Salaam’s stories are often about a clash between characters and their worlds. Hand’s stories are more firmly situated in “the real world” which is revealed to be more fantastical or weird or amazing than suspected. While the strange happenstances of Tidbeck’s stories are not completely separate, her protagonists cross a line, become liminal and move to another status, another life. Salaam’s try to fulfill or substantially alter their path, while Hand’s characters are jarred by the disjuncture between their assumptions about the world and what they discover about it.
While I can see a coherence within each collection, there are also lovely moments where the authors make something different. There are quiet stories that seem slight compared to their companions, but that still disrupt and surprise. Tidbeck’s short tale “Miss Nyberg and I,” of a little brown man who grows in a pot, is a vignette whose plot, such as it is, is thin and unresolved. What it does is leave something warm and quiet in the imagination, something less than joy but more than satisfaction. Hand’s “Hungerford Bridge” is also brief and seemingly lightweight, but becomes something more sensuous and delightful with its cavalcade of color imagery and the excessive, tall-tale biography of one of the characters. Salaam’s stories are the most intense but the brief “Debris” creates a different tone than the other stories. There is a wonderful line near the end where the narrator says “We are more – so much more- than elegant skeletal spectacles.” There is vitality that is “indestructible,” that is created from within us. That sense of something enduring and magical is brought out by all three of these collections.