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 the December edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. There’s no particular theme this time around, just some fantastic works to keep you company during the long winter nights. Or, if you’re the type who departs for warmer climes as the temperature drops, some excellent reads to stretch out with on the beach.
First up, my recommended starting point for Erika Saftika’s work is “We Take the Long View,” from Shimmer #21. It’s a perfect example of alien culture done right. Too often we’re presented with aliens who reflect human (usually Western) values by either mirroring them or acting as an obvious foil for those values to triumph against. Any problems in communication are easily dismissed with a wave of the hand. The classic example is Star Trek‘s ‘forehead aliens’ – monolithic cultures who look and sound and act like us, except for the variation in their make-up prosthetics. While it isn’t practical to re-invent the wheel with every new species you meet on a weekly TV show, stand alone novels and short stories have more freedom to portray truly alien aliens. Saftika does this brilliantly, giving us a species with an entirely different set values, mode of communication, life cycle, and means of ingesting food. There are echoes of Speaker for the Dead here, which – problematic as Orson Scott Card may be as an individual – is still one of the most unique portrayals of alien culture ever put on the page. Elements of the story also call to mind Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. The alternating viewpoints show that what is horrible to one species is normal to the other and vice versa without ever feeling preachy or heavy-handed. Overall, an extremely satisfying read.
There are many places I could recommend as a starting point for Fran Wilde’s work, but I have a particular soft spot for “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” which appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of Asimov’s. It features one of the most innovative uses of wasps in fiction that I’ve seen, and editing multiple entomology-focused issues of Unlikely Story, I’ve seen my fair share. The wasps in Wilde’s story are bullets in a unique game of Russian roulette as bored miners let them walk across their tongues, waiting for a potentially fatal sting. The wasps are also used to detect heavy metals in the mining operation, and are the key to solving the story’s medical mystery. I always appreciate stories that take gosh-wow-neat scientific ideas, and work them into a narrative that goes beyond the gosh-wow-neat-idea story form. Making this story even more appealing is the way Wilde explores female power. She smashes the notion of the lone exceptional female surrounded by a company of men, and challenges the “kickass heroine” trope, showing there’s no one single or right way to be a strong woman. Through Rios, Lefevre, and Cabrese, we see a range of women in powerful positions with their own strengths and weaknesses, all fully developed characters with agency of their own. All of this is wrapped in sharp prose, which makes it the perfect starting point for Wilde’s work. To play the bonus round, keep an eye out for her next Asimov’s story, “How to Walk through Historic Graveyards in the Digital Age,” which will appear in the April/May 2015 issue, which combines tech, surveillance, memory, identity, PTSD, and ghosts. What more could you ask for?
At this risk of sounding like a shill for Shimmer (I swear their badgers aren’t hovering over my shoulder, dictating this post; it just so happens they just publish consistently brilliant work) my recommended starting point for Alix E. Harrow’s work is “A Whisper in the Weld” from issue #22. It’s a ghost story, seared with the hot-metal smell of industrialism, darkened by the shadow of war, and populated by fierce characters. It’s a story of family and loss, touching on the role of women working on the margins of the conflict itself, but impacted by it every bit as much as the men. It also deals with class issues and race issues, shifting the focus of the traditional war narrative to the stories we don’t hear. Too often, only the front line is seen as important, but tales from the home front can be just as brutal. “A Whisper in the Weld” centers on a woman of color working at a steel mill, the sole provider for her two daughters after her husband goes MIA. When she dies in a violent explosion at the mill, sheer tenacity, force of will, and love for her daughters keeps her around to watch over them. Though their role in the story is smaller, the daughters are every bit as fierce as their mother, offering a glimpse another perspective not seen as often – that of children impacted by the war. For a story about the harsh realities of war at home and abroad, Harrow fills the story with poetic language. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.
Last, but not least, is my recommended starting point for Sofia Samatar’s work – A Stranger in Olondria. I fully recognize that I’m late to the party with this one, as it’s already garnered major recognition, including winning a World Fantasy Award and a Crawford Award in 2014, as well as several award nominations. Books and the power of the written word are at the heart of this novel, so how could I fail to love it? Samatar weaves a beautiful story about stories, about carrying on a legacy through the tales we tell, while also exploring themes of displacement, cultural/linguistic isolation, the rashness of youth, and ultimately finding or making a place for yourself in the world. One of the things that struck me most powerfully about A Stranger in Olondria is its brilliant travelogue style, evocative of novels of an earlier age. The world-building is so rich and detailed here, you feel as though you could step through the pages to each place the author describes. The awards and nominations are well-deserved, and as a debut novel, I can’t wait to see what Samatar brings us next.