Short SF Marathon Day 22: K. J. Parker, Richard Parks

K. J. Parker, “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.” Subterranean, Winter 2014.

Three fantasy stories today, two by Parker, which read as if they’re set in the same or at least very similar worlds. Both star feckless young men who made the wrong choices in their lives and now have to live with the consequences. The first one is a light, humourous piece about a con artist/thief who seeks to entrap another con artist in teaching him magic.

I begin to understand Parker’s strengths as an author, they’re excellent at creating a well put together world through little details and have that ability of a good fantasy writer to take you along with them on their journey.

K. J. Parker, “The Things We Do For Love.” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

Which is even more the case in this story, even if i got this song stuck in my head thanks to its title. This is the longest story so far I’ve read, a proper novella about a young thief who has a witch fall in love with him and the increasingly desperate attempts he undertakes to get rid of her or her love, either by killing her or by killing himself.

This is meant to be light hearted I’m sure, but I found the protagonist to be an ass and some of the details were a bit uncomfortable.

Richard Parks, “The Manor of Lost Time.” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 26, 2014.

Richard Parks meanwhile writes a good old fashioned demonic summoning story, told in the traditional monologue to the reader as the demon pontificates on his relationship to the very famous enchantress his summoner was interested in. Well told, with some neat ideas, this still feels more like an advertisement for a novel than a proper short story in its own right.

Short SF Marathon Day 21: An Owomoyela, Susan Palwick, K. J. Parker

An Owomoyela, “And Wash Out by Tides of War.” Clarkesworld, February 2014.

This is a story about a woman growing up without her mother because her mother has gone off to war and what happens when she comes back. One of the qualities a good science fiction writer should have is the ability to imply a much larger world than is shown in their story and make it look natural. Owomoyela has that ability in spades.

Susan Palwick, “Weather.” Clarkesworld, September 2014.

Every now and then I still have a dream in which Sandra’s alive and in that dream I both know she’s alive and know she isn’t. I always wake up stressed and depressed The idea of giving the dead a virtual afterlife, of having them interact with their friends and family left behind fills me with dread. That seems like the worst of both worlds, having them there but out of reach, never quite getting closure.

Not a new idea in science fiction, but Susan Palwick gives it a new twist and makes this a deeply humane story about love and regret and wanting to make up for mistakes made when it’s probably already too late.

K. J. Parker, “Heaven Thunders the Truth.” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2, 2014.

I said Yoon Ha Lee had the most stories in this list, but K. J. Parker equals him. Parker is a veteran SFF writer I’ve never read anything by, one of those writers who’s there but never discussed much. As an introduction to their writing, “Heaven Thunders the Truth” would be difficult to improve. Set in a vaguely African country, it’s a story about a wizard and a king and the virtue of telling the truth at all times.

Annihilation — Jeff VanderMeer

Cover of Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer
208 pages
published in 2014

Last year Jeff VanderMeer (or rather his publisher) did something rarely done, releasing an entire trilogy in one year. Annihilation is the first of this Southern Reach trilogy and has gotten steady buzz as one of the shoe-ins for Hugo and Nebula nominations; it already managed the latter, in fact. VanderMeer is arguably the father of the American New Weird, that mid-noughties movement that came bubbling up from England and got codified across the pond, mainly through his and Ann VanderMeer’s contributions. I’ve only read one story of his before this, the deliberately confusing The Situation.

Annihilation is a much more straightforward story, of a four woman expedition into Area X, as told by the biologist through her field journal; the other three members are the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. Their names are never told: “names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X”. They’re the twelfth such expedition into the Area; the previous eleven all came to grief one way or another. What they’re setting out to discover is left vague; they themselves only know in general terms what they’re doing or what they can expect, though the psychologist seems to know more than she lets show.

Because I’ve read it only recently, the comparison with Arkady & Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic was in the back of my head almost from the start of the story, as well as with the genre of horror survival games it inspired. Area X is devoid of human life, supposedly depopulated through an unspecified eco disaster though that’s only a cover story, but at first glance only looks like a well established wilderness park, signs of most human life almost disappeared, save for the lighthouse on the coast.

It’s only on the second day that the expedition finds the first truly alien entity in the Area, a tunnel, spiral staircase into the ground which the biologist can’t help but see as a tower. At first she sees this as a built, artificial tunnel, but an accidently inhalation of spores growning on the tunnel/tower’s walls shifts her perception and she starts to realise the psychologist has hypnotised them to shield them from the truth. But what she can’t shield the expedition from is the writing on the tunnel walls:

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been.

Who or what is writing this and why is the central mystery driving Annihilation as the expedition falls apart until only the biologist remains. She has an ulterior motive for taking part, as her husband was part of the eleventh expedition. He came back altered and she hopes to find out something about what happened to him.

Meanwhile, as the expedition unravels, she also finds herself reflecting on her own life and past, which is just as gripping as the slow unravelling of the mystery of Area X and like it, there are no easy answers to how she became the woman she is, just a steady building awareness of something gone wrong, until she finds herself in the Area. It adds a melancholic element to Annihilation, a sense of options closed off and roads not taken.

There isn’t any real horror, an evil lurking behind Area X, there is at first glimpse not even anything stranger than a wilderness area that’s both more wild and more clean than it should or could be. Nevertheless there’s the sense of dread that builds up throughout the story, an awareness that something has gone wrong and that more has happened than is acknowledged. And as with Roadside Picnic, it’s unclear if there is a central intelligence behind the change, or whether it’s something natural.

And I didn’t find it scary while reading it, but this was still the sort of story that cost sleep after I’d finished it on Sunday night, as I kept thinking about it half asleep. Not many books can do that. It will be interesting to see what VanderMeer does in the other two books in the trilogy.

Short SF Marathon Day 20: Sunny Moraine, John P. Murphy, Anna Noyes

Sunny Moraine, “What Glistens Back.” Lightspeed, November 2014.

Sunny Moraine’s previous story was a reimagined fairytale. They come back with a science fiction story that could’ve been written fifty years ago, save for one important detail. An astronaut has his landing craft break up around him while attempting to land on an alien planet; now he’ll land a whole sooner. Meanwhile his husband up above in the mothership is desperately trying to save him…

If anybody ever tries to convince you science fiction is looking forward to the future, remember this: why wasn’t this story not published fifty years ago?

John P. Murphy, “Still Life, With Oranges.” Lakeside Circus, January 6, 2014.

A neat, clever little time travel story.

Anna Noyes, “Becoming.” Guernica, November 3, 2014.

Perhaps the type of science fiction story I like best is the sort that requires the reader as a detective, puzzling out what it is talking about through the clues scattered through it, untill the whole picture emerges. This story starts this way, but ends up in an emotional sucker punch.

Short SF Marathon Day 19: Sam J. Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Sunny Moraine

Sam J. Miller, “Kenneth: A User’s Manual.” Strange Horizons, December 1, 2014.

As I said before, I started this project partially because I wanted to read more short fiction to be able to vote better in the Hugos, partially to see if Jonathan McCalmont’s fears for the direction of short fiction were justified. If I could guess, both this and the next story are prime examples of what he was talking about.

Because if we’re honest, “Kenneth: A User’s Manual” didn’t need to be science fiction, in its wistful recall of a certain type of early eighties, pre-AIDS gay man through virtual recreation a couple of decades in the future. Leave that framing out and you could publish it as a mainstream nostalgic-bitchy feature.

Yet, as I’ve argued before, plenty of classic honest science fiction had the same problem, could with a few tweaks be sold as a mainstream story, yet wasn’t. That’s where space opera originally came from after all, a derogatory term for this kind of story. But you can’t say that this particular story is cookie cutter in the way old school space opera was and if Miller feels more comfortable in writing what seems to be something of a personal story in a genre he’s used to, let him. In any case this was an interesting look at a sub culture I barely know anything about.

Mary Anne Mohanraj, “Communion.” Clarkesworld, June 2014.

Meanwhile “Communion” is, apart from a story that tells more than it shows — was this a sequel to a previous story perhaps, also a story that doesn’t make any sense when you think about it too long, even when you’re reading it. The political situation doesn’t make any sense; humans are at war with aliens or are they, but still one can come to the planet where his brother died? Meanwhile there are internal’religious’ conflicts about gene manipulation as well? And why provide the elaborate cod-scientific explenation for the alien’s death rites that really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it, if it could just as well have been explained as a cultural thing?

But where this story succeeds is in its emotional truth, of a grieving alien who gets involved outside his will in the domestic troubles of the couple that have kept the remains of his brother safe for him to take home. Again, with a bit of squinting this could just as well been a non-sf story, but I’ve been coming more and more to the conclusion that the particulars of a story matters even when generally it could’ve been told in another way as well. The shape of the story is what it is and should be judged on. We don’t need to worry about ersatz science fiction from pulp writers anymore; they’re long gone.

Sunny Moraine, “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow.” Lightspeed, February 2014.

The one thing that always annoys me about retold fairytales and allegoric tales undsoweiter, even the best of them, is the usual insistence that the story follows a set of arbitrary, unclear rules, that they run on deterministic tracks. Well, this is one fairy tale whose heroine has decided to break all the rules…