Three pretty good short stories that were published in March 2012

This month, I read the March original fiction output of Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld.

I really didn't want to like my favorite story of the month. In fact, I positively resisted it. I read it with the utmost disinterest for about a third of its length until I finally gave in--against my own will and political instincts--and admitted to myself that it was awesome.

"The Bells of Subsidence" by Michael John Grist (Clarkesworld) - A young girl leaves a young boy--her very best friend--behind on a desert world. She goes up into a galaxy-trawling spaceship in order to perform the complex mental gymnastics that keep it moving through time and space. The ship moves without guidance or purpose. It is the remnant of an ancient empire that populated the galaxy and then subsided. Now it takes a hundred children from every world that it visits and then it slowly chews them up with its intense mental demands. But the girl remembers her boy. Even as she forgets everything else, she remembers his name. She remembers that the name is important. She resists the crack-up, and retains her mind, and becomes captain of the ship, and searches the galaxy for the answer to a question that she cannot remember.

Now, if you're like me, you're groaning right now. Really? Love conquers all? You can become a spaceship captain and travel the galaxy, but what really matters is the boy you left at home? It's horrifying, and until the very last sentence, I kept hoping that the story would subvert the trope. But it didn't, and I guess that's okay. In a way, I suppose the story is a subversion of all the stories in which people are so anxious to get into space that they are willing to take any risk and undergo any kind of physical or mental trauma. In this story, a woman is given the galaxy, and she turns it down, in favor of the comforts of home.

The story is great. Its portrait of an empire that continues to propagate itself mechanically is awe-inspiring. I loved the Bells--the spaceships--and the lost, confused Bell-captains. I loved the strange planets. I loved the way that each third of the book feels different in tone and setting, as if this was three different stories. It's a beautiful, suspenseful story, and it's definitely my favorite out of all the ones that I read this month.

Alarms by S. L. Gilbow (Lightspeed) - I think we've all met someone whose personal problems made his presence kind of alarming. A person who has made us say to ourselves, "Umm, this guy has way too much going on right now. I'm just going to stay away until his issues sort themselves out". In this story, a woman finds that her presence sets off all the mechanical and electronic alarms in her vicinity.

It's kind of a metaphor for the woman's mental problems, but it's also a problem that's treated seriously within the text in that interesting way that genre-fantasy (as opposed to allegorical fantasy) sometimes does things. She can't go into any building because she'll set off smoke detectors. She can't go too close to parked cars because she'll set off their car alarms. She can't work. She's isolated herself. She's slowly falling apart.

What drives the story is a very spritely voice. Even when things are going to shit, the protagonist remains committed to examining her own life and trying to figure things out. And I really admired the last third: the ending deft and thoughtful. The story takes its premise as a starting point and goes farther than most stories would.

"Nightfall in the Scent Garden" by Claire Humphrey (Strange Horizons) - A contemporary fantasy story told as a letter by a grown woman to her (female) childhood friend. She describes an incident from when they were young. Her friend was about to be enslaved by a fairy queen, but the protagonist claimed her as her beloved and, thus, saved her (or perhaps not--it is implied that the friend's true desire might have been to go and live with the fairy queen). In return, the protagonist agreed to take no other lovers and to, someday, spend a hundred years in the service of the queen. But now they've grown up, and the two friends are not together. Her friend is married to a man and has a child, and the protagonist is left alone with her unrequited love. And the protagonist is wondering whether she should break her deal.

I loved this story. It's very tragic, but it's also kind of creepy. The protagonist feels, somewhere deep inside, that she has some kind of claim over her friend, and she can't stop begging her friend to honor that claim. If this was a straight guy writing to a lesbian girl, it would be super creepy*. As it is, the lesbian girl to straight woman version is just sort of creepy. We'll know we've achieved equal rights when we consider the lesbian version to be just as creepy as the straight version.

At the same time, whatever. We've all experienced unrequited love. It's creepy and it's quite distasteful, but it's a real feeling and it deserves a place in our stories. I loved the internal tension in the protagonist. She knows the beautiful--and perhaps the most honorable--thing would be to continue to hold to her bargain and to throw her life away in service to this love, but she also cannot help but struggle against that fate.


*It's kind of hard to imagine a version of this story in which a gay man writes to a straight man, not because it's impossible for a gay man to have an unrequited crush on a straight man, but because it'd be hard for such a letter to contain a similar allusion to the possibility that the straight man might turn and choose to be with the gay man after all. Rightly or wrongly, men are not thought to be so fluid.

Four pretty good short stories that were published last month

Longtime blog readers may perhaps remember that in December 2010, I promised that I was going to read the top online SF/F markets every month and find nice things to say about at least three stories (in order to combat the pernicious feelings of envy that had been [and still are] assailing me). bad. I only did it once. Okay, but now it's a new year, and I'm trying again.

I just finished reading the combined output January 2012 output of Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and Strange Horizons....err...except for the reprints*. I chose four stories this month, and they are below.

“Scattered Along The River Of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld) - This story is simultaneously about a woman leading a rebellion against an interstellar colonizer and about her granddaughter coming to an exile community to witness her heroic grandmother’s funeral. While I was reading this story, I thought, “Hmm, this is pretty good...but I’m not sure it’s going to be one of the ones that I blog about.” The story is beautifully written, and there is something very delicate about the very carefully calibrated narrative distance from which it’s told. However, the plot seemed banal. And then I got to the end. It has a great ending. A perfect ending. The ending ties up every strand in the story in one arresting image, and manages to comment powerfully on exile and assimilation.

“How Many Miles To Babylon?” by Megan Arkenberg (Lightspeed) - Okay, so sometimes I read a story, and even though it seems pretty good, I keep thinking, “What’s the point of this story? Why does it exist? What makes this story original?” and then, other times, I read a story and I think, “Holy crap, this story is awesome”. This story is one of the latter ones. It’s a man and a woman driving across a perpetually-darkened Earth, and perpetually under attack from these devilish pseudo-Biblical creatures. It’s full of arresting images: a civilization subsumed by rotting, leafless trees; a town on fire, with skeletal figures writing in the sky above...

But, do you see the problem? None of that stuff is exactly new. The hellish landscape is a mélange of Hieronymous Bosch, Hellboy, South Park, and everyone else who’s ever treated the subject. And the central plot of two survivors making a line-drive through a hostile environment to the supposed safety of some last redoubt has also been done a large number of times. And yet, I don’t care. I still really like this story. It’s weird biblical-horror tone and intense pace was enough for me. This makes me wonder whether I actually dislike stories for their unoriginality or whether I find them unoriginal because I dislike them.

“The Five Elements Of The Heart Mind” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) - Sometimes I forget that there is such a thing as a science fiction story which hinges upon some interesting scientific concept. Most SF stories don’t have too much to do with science. They’re either about playing around with mythopeic tropes (aliens, robots, generation ships, immortality, etc) or they’re about gadgetry and futurismic speculation. This story is about an interstellar traveler who is marooned on a planet that happens to contain a long-lost colony that has regressed, technologically, into the Iron Age. There, she falls in love with a local villager. Now, that would be a pretty dull story (although it is very engagingly written), if it didn’t have a super amazing scientific speculation at its heart. I don’t even want to tell you what the speculation is, for fear that it will ruin the story. And what’s more impressive, the scientific speculation provides new vigor to the castaway plot. The whole thing really works. I was very impressed.

“The Chastisement Of Your Peace” by Tracy Canfield (Strange Horizons) - Okay, so this one is pure jealousy. Astute fans of mine might perhaps have noticed that doubling is one of my themes. I’ve written about office-slave clones (“Ted Agonistes”); a British Navy staffed entirely by parallel universe versions of Admiral Nelson (“Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast”); a society created by the discarded nanotech replicas of one man (“The Association Of The Dead”); and a tiny cockroach that gives birth to replicas of itself (“What Everyone Remembers”). I don’t know why, okay. I just love doubles. And I have so many more unpublished stories and story ideas that involve doubles. If I published them all, I could literally populate a whole collection of doubles stories. And when I read Tracy’s story about a world populated entirely by parallel universe versions of Jenny Sirico (just one random woman), I thought, “Damn, I wish I’d witten this one.” It’s not only an idea that I love, but it’s treated in exactly the manner that I love. It’s full of all these fun little flourishes that give the Jenny-world the illusion of being as rigorously logical as (we hope) the real world is. And I like the direction that the actual story went, too. Everything about the story really clicks. It feels like, given this setting, the story used the exact right character and told the exact right story.

*I'm sure that some people enjoy reading the reprints, but I am not one of those people. I kind of feel like the only reason to read a monthly fiction magazine is to get a glimpse of what's new...these stories are literally the latest thing that is happening in the SF/F world. The reprints are probably pretty good, but they're just not new, and hence they're hard for me to get excited about. Whenever I want to read reprinted short stories, I prefer to read them in a Year's Best or single-author collection.