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 another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. February is a short month, and by coincidence, I’m focusing entirely on short fiction this time around. Two are newer pieces, and two are slightly older (in internet years), but all are well worth reading.
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu) appears in the current January/February 2015 issue of Uncanny Magazine, a new publication which is off to a very strong start. This is a story that takes a concept that would have been at home among the ‘gosh-wow’ idea stories of the past, and evolves it into a fleshed-out tale with complex characters, while examining issues of class and economic status. The story refuses to paint flat villains or heroes, presenting characters who feel real and human. Partway through the story, the protagonist, Lao Dao, is faced with a choice that ultimately makes him feel like a mercenary. This decision highlights the humanity of Jingfang’s characters. Lao Dao struggles. He tries to be a good man, and he has a strong sense of loyalty, but he needs to pay for his daughter’s schooling and in the end he accepts money to omit a truth. There are similar moments throughout the story, giving it an extra layer of realism. The privileged frequently don’t recognize their privilege, simply because they’ve never known any other kind of life and it doesn’t occur to them that there are others who don’t have the same advantages. Just like in real life. This examination of humanity and class is made literal through the story’s core conceit of a folding city divided into thirds, where each class gets a portion of the day to live, spending the others in a drugged sleep. The story calls to mind China Mieville’s The City and The City, where people co-exist in parallel worlds, but are trained not to see each other. Even though they play with similar themes, Hao Jingfang brings a fresh voice to the concept, with wonderful descriptions of the city folding and unfolding, and glimpses of humanity, compassion, and glimpses of beauty woven throughout.
Toiya Kristen Finley’s “Everybody Has a Twin Except for Me” was recently published in the newly re-launched Farrago’s Wainscot. I’m recommending it as a starting place partly because it makes for an interesting companion piece to Jingfang’s story. Although the two stories are very different, Finley also plays with the idea of a world (or worlds) within a world, and lives lived in parallel. Finley’s protagonist, CF, flees through a series of mirror existences, encountering ‘twins’ of people he knows, but never himself. The author avoids explanation, leaving it to the reader to decide whether these parallel worlds are fantastical, scientific, or psychological – born from CF’s feeling of isolation and alienation. Whatever the case may be, the shifting realities are real for CF, and he faces persecution in each one. There’s a sense of claustrophobia to the story. Even though the protagonist has infinitely worlds to move through, his options are limited. He doesn’t fit in with his family or their friends. They are prone to gambling and solving their problems through violence. He’s in love with a white girl with a drug problem, who he ultimately has to distance himself from rather than watch her destroy herself. The world, every world, constantly throws up rough edges for him to grind against, while everyone else seems to glide through life effortlessly. Finley suggests, without stating outright, that CF is the only self-aware individual in the world; everyone else’s existence is defined by posturing and self-delusion, but ultimately, they are the happy ones in the end, secure in knowing the world is filled with others just like them. While there is no solid ground in the story – reality shifts and drops out beneath you in a twisting, dream-like way – there’s a beautiful rhythm and voice to the piece to carry the reader smoothly through. After starting here, it’s also worth reading the author’s “Over the end, and over again”, published in Fantasy Magazine, which deals with similar themes of repeated/doubled identity, questionable reality, isolation, family, and adds in a healthy dose of ghosts to boot.
Stepping back a few years, my recommended starting place for Charlie Jane Anders’ work is “Six Months, Three Days,” published at Tor.com. The story won the 2012 Hugo for best novelette. Like “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado, which I covered in a previous column, this story plays with tension to draw the reader through the tale, but in a wholly different way. The main characters, Doug and Judy, can both see the future. For Doug, it’s a single, absolute outcome; for Judy, it’s a number of branching possibilities, which guide her choices in life. Through their shared recollection of the future, the reader knows their relationship will end in disaster. It is absolute, yet Judy has enough doubt that the reader doubts (or hopes) as well. The concept of remembering the future is only part of what makes this story so compelling. Anders plays with time as well as memory, blurring what has happened with what will happen, and casting doubt on both the past and the future through the imperfection of the human mind. The story is also an examination of a larger belief in pre-destination versus free will, embodied in Doug and Judy. In the midst of all these big-picture ideas, “Six Months, Three Days” also manages to be a story about the small moments, the little things that happen in-between the dramatic waypoints Doug and Judy measure their relationship by – the first time they have sex, their first big fight, him meeting her parents. The in-between moments, though they are largely left off the page, are the ones that make their relationship worthwhile. They know they are both going to suffer heartbreak and pain, but in the end, rather than avoiding the relationship completely, they take the bad for the sake of the good. The story explores in real-time a question most people have asked themselves at some point in their lives after a friendship gone bad, a nasty break-up, a soul-crushing job, or a trip that turned into a disaster: Was it worth it, and would I go back and change it if I could?
My recommended starting place for Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s work is another story from the archives, as it were. “The Song of the Body Cartographer” originally appeared in Philippine Genre Stories in 2012, and was subsequently shortlisted for the BFSA Short Fiction Awards. Like Anders’ “Six Months, Three Days”, Loenen-Ruiz’s story also has love at its core, and a character choosing to walk away from love for a different kind of happiness. Inyanna was born to fly, but cannot. She is sent by the Matriarch to Siren, a body cartographer, to unravel the trouble keeping her grounded. In learning Inyanna’s body, its pathways, colors, and moods, Siren discovers Inyanna was tampered with before birth. She can be healed, but she will likely have no memory of Siren when she wakes in her new body. In “Six Months, Three Days”, Doug chooses to walk away from the woman he is deeply in love with because he believes it is his fate, and possibly, deep down, because of a fear of pain. In “The Song of the Body Cartographer”, Inyanna believes she will remember Siren in her new body, and embraces her destiny of flight, thinking it will cost her nothing. Siren, on the other hand, is firm in her own belief she will be forgotten, and she is the one to distance herself first. In the end, despite their believes, Siren is the one who suffers heartbreak, as she remembers what is lost, and Inyanna goes on to a life that makes her happy. Rather than trying to forge a new relationship, Siren leaves Inyanna behind to start a new life elsewhere. Belief is tangled up with love in both stories, and both show how sometimes belief doesn’t matter. No one exists in a vacuum, and no matter how hard you try to protect your heart, it will get broken eventually as a consequence of allowing yourself to love in the first place. Loenen-Ruiz’s prose is beautiful throughout the tale, and the imagery of mapping a lovers’ body is a poignant one. Most relationships involve mapping another person in a way, and here it is made literal – a map that brings the two women together, and ultimately tears them apart.
That’s it for February’s Women to Read: Where to Start. Come back in March for more fantastic women, and as always, please feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments.