Thursday, July 24, 2014

Short Fiction Reading Spree - Recap Part I, Stories 1-25

Today is day 5 of the 10-day short fiction spree, in which I read five stories a day. I thought I'd do a recap of the 25 stories I've read so far. I've broken it down by day, with a few notes on what criteria (if any) I used to pick the stories, and some brief, capsule reviews/responses to each story.


Day 1

To select my five stories on day 1 I perused the latest short story reviews by Lois Tilton, Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois. I wanted something recent. I also wanted:


  • at most one story per venue,
  • a story from a magazine I'd never read before
  • all five stories to be by writers unknown to me.


Here are the five short stories I selected based on the above criteria:

# 1) "The Talking Cure" K. J. Zimring (Asimov's April/May 2014)
Zimring's sf idea was interesting, and the emotional implications were nicely foregrounded: but I thought what really made the story work was actually the narrator's tone. It was enjoyably acerbic without being cynical or morose.

# 2) "White Curtain" Pavel Amnuel (F&SF May/June 2014)
Really liked the concept behind "White Curtain", and a couple of specific moments. Unfortunately the story, as a whole, didn't quite knock me off my feet. There was a weird, almost breathless quality to the prose (is that somehow related to the Russian cadences in the original, I wonder?) and I didn't get sufficiently invested in the character to be truly moved. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, and the ending, though maybe a bit predictable, was well done.

# 3) "Sadness" Timons Esaias (Analog July/August 2014)
This one will stay with me. Extremely good worldbuilding and atmosphere--thorough and carefully done. Good character development and an unpredictable situation. Memorable ending. Just about everything worked for me, and the first few paragraphs gave me that tingly "otherness" feel I so enjoy in science fiction.

# 4) "Tunbi" Chikodili Emelumadu (Luna Station Quarterly June 2014)
Talk about "otherness"--whoa! "Tunbi"'s got it in spades. Interesting effects with language too, and a really out-there character you won't forget anytime soon. Grossness and dark comedy to spare. As for the plot, I found it a little underwhelming, but I'll be looking for more of Emelumadu's work in the future. And I'll be coming back to this magazine as well.

# 5) "M1A" Kim Winternheimer (Lightspeed Women Destroy SF June 2014)
I'm conflicted about this one. I thought the writing was effective and tone-appropriate for the narrator's age. The central image/conceit is horrific and memorable (though not so original). But I'm not sure it sustained the narrative for me, even though it was a flash. I would love, I think, to have seen this is a poem. Still, glad to have read it.

Interesting coincidence: all of these stories were in the first person.


Day 2

As with the selections from Day 1, I wanted to read stories by writers whose work I'd never experienced before. And they're all from 2014. Other than that, the selections were pretty random.

# 6) "Artifice" Naomi Kritzer (Analog Sep 2014)
I found "Artifice" pleasant and diverting. Nicely unadorned prose. The concept felt a little familiar--at one point, the story made me think of "In Theory", that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation were Data becomes involved in a romantic relationship. The conclusion pushes the pathos in a different direction (of necessity, since Joe, the humaniform robot in this story, isn't our POV character, unlike Data was in that episode). A few nice observations regarding domestic life and relationships.

# 7) "Collar" Leo Vladimirsky (F & SF March/April 14)
"Collar", I'll admit right away, blew me away. Holy crap, why I haven't read Vladimirsky before? I loved the story's quiet, unassuming opening, built on solid narrative description, depicting an apparently quotidian setting but suggesting some interesting weirdassery in a subtle way. The dialogue throughout is rendered with precise naturalism; and all of the prose is threaded through with the kind of rough, sinewy muscularity that I'm a sucker for. Tonally it reminded me of some of Robert Reed's short stories. Or maybe an SF version of early Cormac McCarthy. Other things I enjoyed: the worldbuilding was achieved almost completely without infodumps and melded intelligent realpolitik with scientific extrapolation. The character development was concise, but deep--elegantly handled. And the--SPOILER--irresolution (though you might be able to excavate an implied resolution) of the ending works beautifully.

# 8) "The Low Hum of Her" Sarah Pinsker (Asimov's Aug 2014)
Enjoyed "The Low Hum of Her" quite a bit. The image of the birdcage was amazing, and I liked how it became functional as the story progressed--in fact, essential to the plot, not just a neat visual stroke. I'll admit the story left me wanting a little more, and I feel ambivalent about that.

# 9) "Everyone Will Want One" Kelly Sandoval (Asimov's Sep 2014)
"Everyone Will Want One" does a lot of things well, including effectively depicting young peoples' social dynamics and really investigating what it would take to maximize popularity (and what that effect such a "victory" might have for the victor). I liked the setting too. There were a few moments when the narrative flow felt just a bit repetitive to me (similar sentence constructions and length of paragraphs), and I didn't *love* the ending, though I found it effective and understated.

# 10) "Everything that Has Already Been Said" Samantha Murray (Lightspeed Women Destroy SF June 2014)
"Everything that Has Already Been Said" is a flash that packs a lot in--a lovely idea, two interesting characters, and plenty of pathos. I really admire a flash story where everything is so essential and lean. And the narrative's temporal lens, which pans out at the end, added a great sense of SFnal scope, really illuminating the central conceit. Powerful.

My one observation regarding this batch of stories, considered as a group, is this: Mechanical/artificial beings everywhere! Fully FOUR out of the five stories featured an artificial creation in some way designed to help fulfill the emotional needs of the human characters or to enable their accomplishments. Not sure what this means--is the Zeitgeist prepping itself for sentient robots/AIs, finally?--but I'm curious to see how many more stories I encounter that riff on this theme.


Day 3

To select the stories for day 3 I decided to ransack Tor.com's great archives, as I've fallen way behind on their short fiction. Tor.com has some excellent short fiction acquiring editors. As in days 1 and 2, I picked writers whose work I've never read before. And all work was published in 2014.

# 11) "Among the Thorns" Veronica Schanoes (Tor.com 5/7/2014)
"Among the Thorns" is technically a novelette, and to be honest, I found it a little slow at the start--seemed rich on incident and setting but short on actual story. I do think the writer created the sense of place and time very well. I find it's more difficult for me to enjoy the revenge motifs than others, and it was fairly clear that this story was headed in that direction early on. I haven't read (or can't remember) the original fable on which it's based, and maybe that hampered my experience a bit. There were strong character moments and a nice conclusion. Overall not really my cup of tea but I quite enjoyed the historical feel.

# 12) "The Color of Paradox" A. M. Dellamonica (Tor.com 6/25/2014)
Unlike revenge stories, which are a hard sell for me, I'm pretty susceptible to time-travel (as long as it's handled thoughtfully). "The Color of Paradox" is indeed a thoughtful treatment. The writing sucked me in right from the start: tight, compelling, direct, often very fresh. Like readers commented, the Connie Willis reference was hard to miss. The historical aspect was intriguing too. And I loved the characters. Felt like this was the beginning of something longer; ending didn't quite satisfy.

# 13) "The Walking-Stick Forest" Anna Tambour (Tor.com 5/21/2014)
What a marvelously strange and beautiful piece "The Walking-Stick Forest" is! Anna Tambour's gifts for rich, sustained description are impressive. The story is full of the kind of dark, grim, unsettling, oneiric imagery that stays with you long after reading. I loved the long, rolling sentences, the specificity and abundance of detail, and the final stunning image. Notice how precisely Tambour modulates her paragraph lengths and sentence structures as she nears the story's end. Such craft. Can you tell this was a favorite?

# 14) "Bridge of Snow" Marie Rutkoski (Tor.com 1/28/2014)
“Bridge of Snow” contains that story-within-a-story device that can so easily go wrong (becoming an over-indugence, an excess of postmodern playfulness), but it handles it adeptly and uses it to great effect. Not a lot to say besides that. I enjoyed it--and it has a really strong ending. I may be tempted to return to this world.

# 15) "The Madonna of the Abattoir" Anne M. Pillsworth (Tor.com 5/6/2014)
The second story from this batch whose writing I found outstanding. "The Madonna of the Abattoir" is a foreboding, miskatonic delight--and that's coming from someone who has hardly read any Cthulhu fiction at all, original or otherwise. But the formalized language, the vivid, sensory-laden descriptions, and the complex characters won me over in no time at all. I think it helped I had no idea this was Lovecraft-inspired going in, too, so I approached it without specific expectations. I'm certainly glad it worked out that way.

The writing of these Tor.com stories was perhaps a cut above, on the whole, from what I've seen in some of the other magazines. The focus here is definitely more on the dark and fantastic. Out of the five stories above, only one was really sf. Which I'm sure comes as no surprise to devoted readers of the site (or maybe it's just an accidental impression caused by my five-story sample). And again, as with previous days, quite a lot of first-person narration going on in this group too.


Day 4

And now for something completely different...

For this day's stories I decided to hit up some "lit" mags. After all, I think it's important to read widely, and why should short fiction be an exception? :-) My only requirements for these stories were that they were published in 2014 and that they were penned by writers unknown to me.

# 16) "The Sky in the Glass-Topped Table" Elizabeth Evans (Ploughshares Spring 2014, Vol. 40 Issue 1)
Really liked Evans' story. I found the story to be a touching and effective portrait of the enormous psychological gap between the young woman Kelvyn, from whose point of view we see things, and the much older with whom she has chosen to associate, with a believable setting and great attention to detail throughout. Can the distance between them ever be crossed? The story ends in heartbreak of a kind (but also implied liberation), so I'll let you guess the answer.

# 17) "Dreamlives of Debris" Lance Olsen (Conjunctions Spring 2014, Issue 62)
Olsen's narrative is an experimental assembly of thought fragments, chorus voices and other devices. I loved it. I remember that in high school I had to study (i.e. torture) Jorge Luis Borges' story "La casa de Asterión" and a few paragraphs into this one I thought of that other story. It was particularly fun, then, to encounter a "jorge luis borges song" about halfway through. Apparently Olsen has written numerous books on narrative theory/experimentation, and his mastery shows. Definite recommendation if you're into this sort of thing. I'll quote the story's opening to give you a flavor: "I have my doll and the screamings behind my eyelids. The screamings look like fluttery lights. The fluttery lights believe they live inside me, but I live inside them too.
My doll’s name is Catastrophe."

# 18) "When We Realize We Are Broke" Manuel Gonzales (Tin House Summer 2014, Issue 60)
Gonzales moved me deeply with this story of intense quiet desperation, manifested in the form of a rapidly escalating money woes and the main character's self-imposed alienation from his wife, kids and the world around him. There are times throughout this story when you want to kick some sense into him. But then you realize that's the point--this is how bad decisions are made, and how relationships suffer.

# 19) "To The Lake" Luke Mogelson (The Paris Review Spring 2014, Issue 208)
Luke Mogelson's "To The Lake" was a little less effective for me. The writing was excellent on a line-by-line level (though he did use this one same affectation "twice" in the same story, which may be fair given its first-person narration, but seemed like a tiny blemish to me). Outside of the craft, though, I just didn't care much for the protagonist or what happened next. I have a feeling things won't end well at Lake Champlain.

# 20) "Noble Things" Roxane Gay (A Public Space Summer 2014, Issue 21)
Science fiction? What? In a "mainstream lit" magazine? Well, sure. A story is a story. "Noble Things" is set in a future in which there's been a secession by the South and a New Civil War, so I think from the point of view of extrapolative setting, that certainly qualifies. Nice character dynamics, but I felt it was a little overlong for the main effect it was going after, and perhaps a tad over-expository too.

My venture into these non-SF magazines was very rewarding. I should read them more often. But I felt ready to dive back into fantastika with day 5's stories!


Day 5

I'm tired, so I cheated a little (not really [actually, yes, just a little, by following the letter of the law but sort of chuckling at its spirit (okay fine have it your way--but you shall forever more think of yourself as a CHEATER after this [how do you know I already don't? now get back to your thought])]) and read shorts from Nature.

The five shorts/flash stories were, again, all from 2014, and by writers whose work I'd never read before:

# 21) "A long way from home" Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Nature 511, 502 (24 July 2014))
Delightful. Nice emotional spectrum in this one, from the seemingly innocuous to the existential. Also, loved the German details.

# 22) "Are you receiving?" Rebecca Birch (Nature 511, 376 (17 July 2014))
Ooh, interesting. The narrative device--transmissions being sent out under increasingly desperate circumstances--hooked me right away. Liked the storytelling transition right at the end. Memorable imagery, and a dreamy conclusion that manages to tie it all up nicely (no, it was *not* a dream--well, not the normal type, anyway).

# 23) "Benjy's birthday" John Grant (Nature 511, 258 (10 July 2014))
Sly and elegant. A fun read. You think you know where it's going, and maybe you do--but there's a little bite in the ending I didn't see coming. And I think the whole story can be interpreted in at least two different ways.

# 24) "Cargo cult" S. R. Algernon (Nature 511, 118 (03 July 2014))
Something about the tone/flow of this one made it a little harder to get into. I liked the ideas, and thought it was clever. Not sure the ending gave me the same tingle the other stories in this group did.


# 25) "Emancipation" João Ramalho-Santos (Nature 510, 436 (19 June 2014))
I appreciated that the focus of the conceit was biology here, instead of physics, cosmology or space exploration. I did find some of the early paragraphs a little info-dumpy, but nothing terrible. The last line, I'll admit, made me chuckle.

These short works were entertaining and thought-provoking. Plus they've allowed me to discover some new writers whose works I know I'll be looking into.




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