January 31, 2015

Short and Sweet Banner copy

Welcome to the first edition of the doubtless-irregular and potentially short-lived Short and Sweet, featuring unformed thoughts on speculative short fiction I’ve read and liked in the last week. I have two goals, here: First, to sort of participate in the digital curation of great short fiction.[1] Second, to take note of useful “lessons” buried in these stories, for myself and folks like me, who aspire to write more, better, and more bravely.

The Half Dark Promise, Malon Edwards, Shimmer Magazine

half darkA Haitian-American school-girl goes on a monster-slaying spree protected by her hardened, snake-like skin. See, when you say it like that, it sounds like a comic book plot from the 40s. But it’s not really about fighting monsters. It’s about facing your fears, looking into the half-dark shadows of city streets and telling it like it is.

But the thing that made me rub my hands together like a Disney villainess when I read it was the rhythm of it. It’s a beautiful, sometimes-opaque jumble of Hatian Creole and English and sing-song call-and-response, but I swear to god it has a beat to it. A syncopated ba-da-dum, what Woolf might have called “a wave in the mind.”

Lesson: Stories are made up of plots and places and little girls with afro puffs, sure, but it’s important to find their rhythm, too. As Mrs. Woolf would say: “Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.”

Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight, Aliette de Bodard, Clarkesworld

This one is a little like a memorial to a futuristic, Vietnamese Vandana Shiva, written by her three kids over three cups tea. The first cup belongs to Quang Tu, her eldest son, steeping in bitter, lonely mourning. The second cup is Professor Tuyet Hoa’s, the intellectual heir to her scientific research, trying to find her own path in the shadow of the great scientist’s work. The last cup belongs to The Tiger in the Banyan (oh yeah, one of her three kids is a spaceship), and it’s the most complex, most measured combination of mourning and memory.

In honest confession, I haven’t read de Bodard’s other stories in the Xuya universe—there are about six dozen, at a rough estimate—but you can feel the depth of the world like a many-layered quilt beneath your feet even in this short slice of story. An alternate chronology supposing an Asian-dominated modern imperialism, a set of technologies born out of both practical and cultural need, a complex bureaucracy supporting a multi-planet empire.

But it wasn’t the depth of the world that won me over, as impressive as it is—it was the more familiar story about mourning and motherhood and family, and how the memory of a great woman is shared and refracted through the lives of her children.

Lesson: Every science fiction story, no matter how many planets and sentient ships and bots are littered like wrapping paper on Christmas morning, ought to first be a human story.

Disconnect, Cassandra Khaw, Terraform

disconnectThis is an entire story in a single dinner conversation (for writers who regularly sprawl into novelette-length multi-year short stories, and then have to whittle them down word by painful word to a reasonable size, this achievement is almost depressing): A recently-surgically-modified android-woman at a fancy restaurant with her human boyfriend, trying to interact around the new strangeness of her body.

While there are some unanswered questions (why did she transition to this “tele-operated android” form? What does she look like now?), the one blindingly clear element is that Mr. Human can’t handle his partner’s new body. At one point she seems uncertain, and he rushes to comfort her: “It’s okay, we can fix you.”

And that’s when I decided I like this story. Because, like de Bodard’s story, it’s a sci-fi vision of an awfully familiar reality: relationships that are candy-coated poison. A partner offering the kind of ‘support’ that is really an undoing of yourself, an erasure.

Lesson: Write. Shorter. Stories. They can clearly pack the same oomph.

[1] Much more reliable and professional venues include the following: the #ShortSFF tag on Twitter, for regular conversations about recent fiction; Cecily Kane’s “Short and Sublime” column at Skiffy and Fanty; A.C. Wise’s “Women to Read” column at SF Signal; Tor.com’s Short Fiction Spotlight; Amal El Mohtar’s “Rich and Strange” column; K. Tempest Bradford’s Best Stories of the Week at i09, Charlotte Ashley’s Clavis Aurea review section of Apex Magazine, and probably a zillion others I’m missing. Feel free to mention them in the comments!

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2 comments

  1. Regarding “The Half-Dark Promise” having rhythm and a beat to it — YES this is why I can’t wait for this story to be podcast. The consonance and assonance gives the story a lot of internal rhyming, too.

    I had completely forgotten about Terraform; look forward to reading Khaw’s story.

    I’ve been generally trying to focus on writers who aren’t well-known yet because I can’t read everything, but at some point I’ll get to the new Xuya story. I’ve only read a handful, but always enjoy. “The Waiting Stars,” which IIRC won the Hugo and the Nebula last year, is a must-read. You can find it for download on the author’s website, but the entire anthology from whence it came (The Other Half of the Sky, all female protagonists in space opera stories) is very worth reading.

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