Short SF Marathon Day 31: Kai Ashante Wilson, Alyssa Wong

Kai Ashante Wilson, “The Devil in America.”, April 2, 2014.

I’ve talked before about American fantasy, the kind of fantasy that took the myths, legends and fairytales European migrants brought with them from their home countries and adapted them to the American landscape, the kind of which Lovecraft and Bradbury are offshoots and that got rationalised in Unknown and darkened in Weird Tales. It is of course mostly white American fantasy, drawing on English and German sources, ignoring most if not all other sources of fantasy and magic that come together in America.

But there are other traditions of fantasy and if they’re often invisible to those of us comfortable in our genre ghettos, this is changing again. One indicator of which is the Nebula nomination for this story, a story that revolves around the African magic brought to America by the people kidnapped during Slavery. Set in 1871, only a few years after the Civil War and the end to slavery, it’s about a family that still has “that old Africa magic” running through their blood, but who through slavery have forgotten most of what they need to make it work properly.

This is an angry story, a justifiably angry story, one that could be depressing as well but despite the horrifying conclusion, one that you’re dreading and see coming throughout the story, it does offer a glimmer of hope even while Kai Ashante Wilson is merciless in reaching the inevitable conclusion. He’s also careful in providing a context to the story, by mixing in snippets of history in between the chapters. If it wasn’t clear yet that this story was a response to recent events, an interview with Wilson makes it crystal clear:

Ten thousands things have to spark all at the same time, and cohere into a good hot flame, before a story results for me. I can still count the stories I’ve begun and finished on one hand. But I suppose I might date the precipitating spark of “The Devil in America” to an interview I caught with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. The love of parent for child has been an immense preoccupation of mine for a long time, and in the most receptive state of mind imaginable, I sat listening to that television interview: My son was walking back from the convenience store…

It’s no surprise this was nominated for the Nebula and I’m seriously considering changing one of my novelette nominations to this.

Alyssa Wong, “Santos de Sampaguitas” (also, part two). Strange Horizons, October 13, 2014.

The first of two stories by Alyssa Wong, this is a fantasy story set in the Philipines about a young maid who inherits the family god and the choice she has to make whether to accept him or not. This is a well written gem of a story and it’s the weaker of the two.

Alyssa Wong, “The Fisher Queen.” F&SF, May/June 2014.

Because “The Fisher Queen” is perfect, a Nebula nominee and a story I put on my short story nominations list. It’s a story about a fisher girl from the Mekong delta who one day learns the truth behind her father’s joking that her mother was a mermaid. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a feminist fairy tale.

Short SF Marathon Day 30: Damien Angelica Walters, LaShawn M. Wanak, Peter Watts

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter.” Strange Horizons, January 6, 2014.

The second Damien Angelica Walters story is even more explicitly feminist than her first. An astronaut is ambushed during a press conference with the news that a notorious serial killer is in fact her father. Now she has to deal with the fallout. If this story has a mission statement it’s in the following quote:

Right. I’ve got grime under my nails that will never come out and I like it that way. Know why? Because it says I’m real, I have a fucking purpose. I’m not somebody’s tits and ass on display like a window mannequin. They did that shit to the baddest fictional woman in the universe. Hell, they even did it to the female marines in the second movie, but that’s sort of forgivable because the guys were in their skivvies, too.

Science fiction at its best always is about today’s concerns as well as the future and this is a great example, a look at a future where we may be going to Mars and have regular commercial space stations in orbit, but women in tech still suffer from the same sort of problem as today, still have to deal with GamerGatesque problems.

LaShawn M. Wanak, “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One).” Strange Horizons, February 3, 2014.

Sometimes a spiral staircase appears on your path, from out of nowhere. If you decide to climb it, you can find enlightenment, but you have to climb all the way to the top. The problem is what happens after enlightenment. All of which of course screams metaphor, which is acknowledged in the story. One of these stories where the fantastical element is there to illuminate the quite mundane but therefore no less important concerns of the characters.

Peter Watts, “The Colonel.”, July 29, 2014.

Peter Watts has made a name with dense, brutal science fiction and this is no exception. Set in the same universe as Blindsight, this is a story about a still human Colonel safeguarding the world against the dangers of Hive minds, until he has given an offer he can’t refuse. This is strictly in the Sterling-Stephenson-Strossian mode of jargon heavy, figure it out for yourself if you can mode of science fiction, which if done right, I like a lot. This I like a lot.

Short SF Marathon Day 29: Harry Turtledove, Genevieve Valentine, Damien Angelica Walters

Harry Turtledove, “The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging.”, January 8, 2014.

Am I the only one who found this story about an Anne Frank who survived WWII on the creepy side, and not in a good way, especially coming from somebody who made his name essentially writing Slaver Rebellion fanfiction? It doesn’t help that it’s so damn pious about it all, with huge chunks of as you know Bobbery about the Holocaust and what happened to the Dutch Jews in World War II. It’s a very American way of looking at the Holocaust and an approach I find suspicious at the best of the times. I much prefer Lavie Tidhar’s way of handling it, much more willing to take risks with such a heavy subject.

On a more general note, doing an alternate history story this way, in which there’s nothing going on but figuring out how the world differs from our own because something else happened, is only fun if the world is indeed somewhat different. Of course it is possible to focus your story on an ordinary life lead in an altered world — Jo Walton did this well in My Real Children presenting two different timelines and the different lives lead by the protagonist — but what Turtledove does with it is just not interesting apart from it being Anne Frank. Using her name gives it a cachet it hasn’t earned.

Genevieve Valentine, “The Insects of Love.”, May 28, 2014.

This is another sort of time travel/alternate history malarky all together and a much better story, one that has earned its emotional weight. Love conquering death has been done before, but rarely it’s been the love between two sisters. Told in fragments, in stream of consciousness by the younger of the sisters, which more often than not doesn’t work, but here does. What also worked was the overall insect imagery, which I’m not sure was about real or imaginary insects and don’t want to find out.

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Floating Girls: A Documentary.” Jamais Vu 3, September 2014.

The best story of these three and one that’s gone on my Hugo nominations list. A very simple story about an unexplained wave of girls, well, just floating up into the air and the indifference with which it is greeted. It feels very much of the moment, a response to things like GamerGate and such.

Short SF Marathon Day 28: Anna Tambour, Natalia Theodoridou, E. Catherine Tobler, Jeremiah Tolbert

Anna Tambour, “The Walking-Stick Forest.”, May 21, 2014.

A weird fiction revenge story in which the person seeking revenge comes to some well deserved grief themselves. Not that much fantastical about it, but it reminded me somewhat of interbellum horror and weird fiction stories without being a pastiche.

Natalia Theodoridou, “The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul.” Clarkesworld, February 2014.

This is a brilliantly done take on an old subgenre, that of the stranded astronaut on an alien planet and how they fill up their lives when rescue is …unlikely. Here the stranded astronauts makes large automotons from his wrecked spaceship’s resources, inspired by Theo Jansen’s strandbeesten. The holy numbers of the title are also inspired by these strandbeesten.

E. Catherine Tobler, “Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds.” Clarkesworld, May 2014.

A woman walks through an empty world having escaped from a bunker, looking for company but not finding it anywhere, just more empty bunkers. Throughout the story there are hints that she was the victim of alien abduction, but she herself doesn’t remember anything of what happened before she found herself in this world. A nicely atmospheric story that is careful not to provide any real answers.

Jeremiah Tolbert, “In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape.” Lightspeed, January 2014.

This is the quintessential example of a particular strain of hippy science fiction, where peace and love are meant to bring us to the stars. A few years into the future, “space whales” start “beaching” themselves on Earth and certain people feel telepathich messages or hallucinations when they touch the beached carcasses. Thom is one of them, one of the most sensitive and he’s used by Lilian, the leader of the Contactee movement, to get closer to the mystery of the whales. Nicely done, but incredibly sentimental and if you’re allergic to that, don’t read this.

Short SF Marathon Day 27: Vandana Singh, Michael Swanwick, Rachel Swirsky, Bogi Takács

Vandana Singh, “Wake-Rider.” Lightspeed, December 2014.

A well told, intriguing space opera short story that makes me want to read more in this universe.

Michael Swanwick, “Passage of Earth.” Clarkesworld, April 2014.

A nicely weird first contact science fiction story, in which contact is not just made with the alien outside, but also the alien inside. Very new wavey without being old fashioned.

Rachel Swirsky, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap).” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

There’s always been a strong Jewish current in science fiction of course, Avram Davidson for one, but what struck me reading through so many short stories in the last couple of weeks is how much more comfortable science fiction has become with matters of cultural identity, that you don’t need to pander to a percieved need for universalism by making sure all your heroes have good, decent Anglosaxon names. Rachel Swirsky’s story here is a good example of how having Jewish characters with a strong Jewish identity can be done while telling a universal science fiction story that’s enriched by this, without needing an excuse for them being Jewish. This is not another Golem story.

All of which is just to distract myself from the emotional content of this story; like Swirsky’s Hugo nominated short story “If you were a dinosaur, my love” this is a story about grief and suffering, in which a father has to cope with the death of his wife and the slow dying of his daughter from cancer, his daughter has to cope with her own dying and her father’s suffering, while the robotic copy he has made from her has to deal with her own emotions in all this. It’s a gut punch of a story, something that creeps up to you and then BAM, hits you in the feels.

As you may gather from the title, ballet too is a key ingredient of this story, as the dead mother used to be a ballerina, while the daughter sneaks into her abandoned studio to watch her old performances on dvd.

Bogi Takács, “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation.” Scigentasy: Gender Stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy #6, July 5, 2014.

On an alien planet, where the land and sea are locked into continuous battle with each other, yet in equilibrium, human settlements have learned how to use this battle to wage war against themselves, which in turns hurts the planet. Bogi Takács is “a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish author”, so it’s tempting to call this story a trans/genderqueer metaphor, the sea and land standing in for that battle of genders that isn’t a battle, the damage done for the damage that can be done by others or yourself when denied your own gender identity. But science fiction is always about metaphors made concrete and you don’t need to know what all this really means to appreciate its queerness, in the best sense of the word. It’s hopeful and joyful and a good palate cleanser after Swirsky’s heavy trip.