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.” Tor.com, 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.” Tor.com, 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.” Tor.com, 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.

Short SF Marathon Day 25: Kelly Sandoval, John Scalzi, Veronica Schanoes

Kelly Sandoval, “The One They Took Before.” Shimmer #22, November 2014.

I think this is going on my Hugo short story shortlist, an urban fantasy story that looks at what happens after you get back from fairy land. It reminded me a bit of Jo Walton’s Relentlessly Mundane, about the same general emotions of loss and bitterness, but in a different key so to speak.

John Scalzi, “Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.” Tor.com, May 13, 2014.

Scalzi takes the oral history format that’s become popular in the last couple of years to remember anything from the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America in the early eighties and uses it to chronicle the spread of his fictional disease from his novel Locked In. A bit of a tear jerker in places.

Some of the developments seem to have gone a bit too quick or easy to be totally believable, but that’s more of a question of how much room there is in a novella. It’s funny to think that Scalzi has basically taken the exposition from his novel and reworked it into this.

Veronica Schanoes, “Among the Thorns.” Tor.com, May 7, 2014.

I’ve mentioned before I don’t like fairy tale inspired fantasy, but once again I have to make an exception. Apparantly there was a Brothers Grimm fairy tale in which a lowly peddler tricks an evil Jew and robs him of his money, then kills him by dancing him to death in a thorn bush. Veronica Schanoes uses this as the base of her story and puts it in the context of the actual antisemitism and brutality against Jews as happened in the period the fairy tale was roughly set in. Then she takes the daughter of the murdered Jew and let her take her revenge on the people who killed her father.

There are some horrible scenes in the first paragraphs of the story, but the violence isn’t gratitious. What I liked was this was both brutal and humane; the people who killed the protagonist’s father aren’t nazi caricatures but ordinary human beings and way Schanoes described the crowd who watched his death reminded me also of lynching mobs from American history. Ordinary, decent people can take great delight in watching the other being tortured and murdered in the right circumstances and Schanoes isn’t shy to point this out. But it’s not a story totally devoid of hope and decency. Revenge is taken but not total, Itte is too human to be as horrible as the tormentors of her father were.

Well done. On the Hugo ballot it goes.

Short SF Marathon Day 24: Alastair Reynolds, Mary Rickert, Sofia Samatar

Alastair Reynolds, “The Last Log of the Lachrimosa.” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

This is set in the same universe as Reynolds’ first novel, Revelation Space and sequels, another one of those stories where a dysfunctional crew stumbles over an alien secret unimaginably old. Well written as anything Reynolds has done, but it reminded me a bit too much of an average Star Trek episode.

Mary Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhisville.” Tor.com, April 30, 2014.

This is a stupid story about stupid people doing the most stupid thing possible because they have to adhere to the conventions of genre fiction, so nobody ever talks to anybody else until it’s too late. It’s mired in gender essentialism and goes on for way too long.

In Voorhisville a mysterious man driving a hearse seduces and impregnates most of the town’s women and when their children are born they have wings. Everybody is convinced nothing good can come from revealing their children, who do seem to have some mysterious powers and while those are troubling, mother love trumps everything. Therefore they all responds the same by keeping it a secret and from there things meander to their foregone, blood soaked conclusion in a Waco style standoff. All of which told through a sort of diary supposedly put together at the end of the siege, with the mothers acting as the narrator in turns.

The problem I have with this is that this is a short story spun out into a novella, with lots of padding and local colour that doesn’t really add anything to the story. In a short story, it doesn’t matter so much that each of the mothers respond exactly the same to their baby boy developing wings, but here there’s room to notice. This could’ve actually worked better as a novel, where there’s more room to develop the characters beyond “town floozy” or “rebellious teenager” and the threat of the babies could’ve been build up better.

A bigger problem is that whole idea of mother love trumping everything else and women being made crazy through pregnancy. It feels old fashioned and slightly insulting. You could argue that it was because of the nature of the pregnancies, but that wasn’t established well enough for my liking.

Sofia Samatar, “How to Get Back to the Forest.” Lightspeed, March 2014.

Now this is a much better example of body horror fiction, one that can achieve in a tenth of the words the sort of revulsion Rickert was going for. It starts with a group of girls on campin the middle of the night herded to the bathroom to puke because one girl believes that way you can puke up a bug that regulates your emotions and it builds up from there. It’s a smart enough story to only hint at what’s going on, not have easy answers and that’s what makes it uncomfortable. There’s also an undercurrent of queerness running through it, a sort of counter current to the surface emotions in the story.