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
Here we are in May. There’s no real theme this time around, but as promised, I did include some novels since I’d been neglecting them. However, I’m still going to get things started with some short fiction. Onward!
My recommended starting place for Zen Cho’s work is “Monkey King, Faerie Queen“ from the Spring 2015 Kaleidotrope. What can I say? I’m a sucker for trickster stories. The Faerie Queen in this case is very much in her trickster aspect, stealing babies and changing shapes, refusing to play fair much like the Faerie Queen who forced Tam Lin to change shapes as Janet desperately tried to win him back, or Madam Mim fighting Merlin in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. What’s even better than a story with one trickster? A story with two. Watching the Monkey King and the Faerie Queen go head-to-head, trickster-to-trickster, is a delight. A particularly nice touch on the author’s part is the characters’ inability to understand each other. They are from different worlds, there is no reason they should be able to communicate, but most fiction hand waves that problem away for the sake of simplicity. Here, the language barrier, says something deeper about the characters – they simply don’t care to understand each other. They each have their own concerns, and neither one fully considers the other worth their time. Selfishness, after all, is also part of a trickster’s nature. The language here makes it feel true to the spirit of old trickster tales, while putting a fresh spin on it by mashing the tricksters up. Very nicely done.
Next up, my recommended starting place for Helen Oyeyemi’s work is Boy, Snow, Bird. I almost recommended Mr. Fox, and it’s a wonderful starting place, too, but Boy, Snow, Bird is fresher in my mind. The speculative fiction element is light here, and in fact, it may be nonexistent. Like Mr. Fox, much of the fantastic can be put down to unreliable narrators, or unreliable world views. Boy, Snow, Bird is primarily anchored in the speculative realm through its roots in fairy tale. The touchstones of Snow White are there – a stepmother, a preoccupation with mirrors, references to apples and the number seven scattered throughout. But the story strays from the expected path. Boy, the ‘wicked stepmother’, escapes an abusive father. She marries a widower with a daughter named Snow. Eventually Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, and the true heart of the narrative kicks in. Everything she thought she knew about her new family is turned upside down. They are light-skinned African Americans and have been passing as white for years. Boy’s daughter, Bird, is dark-skinned, like the sister-in-law she’s never met, who was sent away to live with an aunt and uncle to preserve the family secret. Patterns repeat, but rather than sending her dark-skinned daughter away, to the family’s chagrin, Boy exiles Snow, her light-skinned stepdaughter. As the novel explores identity, self-perception, race, and family, it continues to call back to its source material through the main characters’ relationships with mirrors. Boy is fascinated by mirrors, but doesn’t always recognize her reflection. Snow and Bird both claim mirrors don’t always see them. These conceits function as a speculative element, and commentary on invisibility in a larger sense. Dark-skinned Bird is frequently invisible in society (and with her family) because of her race. Light-skinned Snow is not seen for who she is because she can pass, and because of her great beauty (which is also tied to her ability to pass). Boy doesn’t know herself at all. While I’m torn on the ending, the last few chapters aren’t enough to detract from the whole. Boy, Snow, Bird, is a refreshing take on a familiar fairy tale that has been retold so often it should be played out. The characters are compelling, even when they aren’t always likeable. Overall, Boy, Snow, Bird makes for compulsive reading, and it’s a good place to start in order to get a sense Oyeyemi’s skill with language, characters, and imagery.
Jumping back to short fiction, my recommended starting place for Emily Devenport’s world is “Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine” from the March/April 2015 issue of Uncanny Magazine. (Though I was quite impressed with her “Postcards from Monster Island” from the April Clarkesworld as well.) “Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine” is a story full of subtle threat. I’m a sucker for stories told largely beyond the page, and Devenport leaves holes just the right shape and size for the reader to fill in the terrible and wonderful things happening beyond this story’s margins. The focus in on the mundane, centered around a character who would be overlooked in most stories – a janitor. A woman cleaning a hallway sounds dull, but Devenport turns it into a remarkably tense tale. Harris was hired to work one day out of roughly every 28. Her sole job is to clean the hallway around a mysterious phenomenon known as The Effect, and not ask questions. The Effect warps time and space. A machine whose function no one is entirely certain of was turned on and its creator disappeared. Now creatures which Harris has been instructed to never look at head-on walk the hallway disappearing through a Gateway in the bathroom at the end of the hall. Warping reality is a messy business. The Effect leaves urine, feces, blood, and other unrecognizable and inhuman bodily fluids behind. Harris cleans them, and does an exceptional job. The fact that she cares about doing her job well, no matter how disgusting it is, ultimately makes her special in the context of this story. She prevails not because she’s a hero, or chosen, but because she’s smart, competent, and follows the rules that make sense to her, not the ones imposed by petty bureaucrats looking to cut corners. “Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine” is the ultimate every-person story, and at the same time, an excellent sci-fi tale in a very subtle, unusual, and refreshing way.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Emily St. John Mandel’s work is Station Eleven. Quiet and post-apocalyptic are not words that necessarily pair naturally, but Station Eleven is exactly that – a quiet, post-apocalyptic novel that focuses on the inter-connectedness of life, the fragility of human civilization, and the wonder in everyday objects. Death bookends the story, one wholly unconnected to the plague that wipes out civilization. Arthur Leander, an actor, just happens to die of a heart attack the same night the apocalypse begins. In framing the book this way, Mandel pushes death to the margins, physically placing recovery, hope, and rebuilding at the heart of the tale. The characters have scars, literal and figurative, but that isn’t the focus either. It’s the personal relationships, all tying back to the dead actor, Arthur Leander. He is a flawed thread, which is part of the point, but a strong one, tying the whole tapestry together. The title refers to a fictional comic book within the novel, reminiscent of Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen. However the hyper-violence and grim world view of Watchmen is absent. Station Eleven is slow and meditative. Even the landscape emphasizes stillness – the hush of falling snow, the solitude of a world emptied of humans. Station Eleven is a character study, which just happens to take place during the post-apocalypse. In a way, that may make it a quintessentially Canadian novel (Mandel was born in British Columbia). All the stillness makes a nice contrast to post-apocalyptic novels full of zombies and violence, though those have their place, too. If post-apocalyptic fiction is meant to show that humanity can survive against all odds, why not focus on just that – humanity. People working together, keeping art alive, and mostly being kind to each other, rather than turning the future into a grimdark bloodsport.
Those are my recommendations for May. As always, I hope you’ll share your own recommendations for women to read in the comments. See you again in June!