Short Fiction: September 2010

Karen Burnham will be bringing us news of the best of recent short fiction releases, concentrating primarily on stories that are online where you can go and read them immediately.

To read through even a fraction of the genre short fiction available in July 2010 is to take an extended journey through foreign lands. Like any traveler, I’m eager to share with you some of the gems that I’ve seen and experienced on my trip although I’ll try very hard not to bore you with the mundane minutia of the day-to-day experience. What follows consists of only my favorites from my recent reading, stories that I hope you will seek out and enjoy when next you travel hence.

First off, I would like to commend to your attention the venue Expanded Horizons. From their mission statement:

The mission of this webzine is to increase diversity in the field of speculative fiction, both in the authors who contribute and in the perspectives presented. We feature speculative fiction stories and artwork, as well as essays about speculative fiction and fandom from diverse points of view.

While there might be some worry that this could lead to preachy or didactic stories, none of those were on offer in Issue #20. My favorite from this issue is “Coyote Barbie” by Cat Rambo. It’s a short piece that brought a big smile to my face, told sharply and quickly with no wasted words or effort.

In the spirit of the Toy Story movies, it involves a new Barbie showing up in the toy aisle, inspiring the other mundane Barbies to reach higher. Part of it involves re-identifying themselves:

“No more Prom Queen Barbie, Golf Pro Barbie, Moviestar Barbie, Glamour Rock Barbie,” she declares. “You there, Prom Queen, you’re, mmm, Valkyrie Barbie. Golfer, you’re Mother Goddess Barbie. Moviestar, you’re Postmodernist Barbie. Names like that. Pick ’em and lemme know what you decide.”

Part of it involves magic. They go forth and conquer the war toys aisle in a bloodless coup. After which, my favorite part:

The Barbies finger all these strange new toys, guns and knives and cannons and catapults, trebuchets and ballistae, gleaming in metallic splendor, but Coyote Barbie shakes her shaven head.
“Nuh uh,” she says. “We don’t need all that.”

Valkyrie Barbie raises an eyebrow. “Then why,” she asks, “did we bother?”

“Because we could!” Coyote Barbie shouts, and waves the banner she’s acquired along the way. “Onward to the Legos!” They swarm that aisle and build castles, skyscrapers, monuments, Barbie versions of the Taj Mahal and the Tower of London. Buildings reach to the ceiling, far above the shelves, and atop the highest one, Coyote Barbie and Astrologer Barbie work on their own project, a spaceship big enough to hold everyone, a gleaming silver Lego ship like a dream of the 1940s, a cyberpunk Barbie contraption ready to spread its mechanical wings and float away.

My inner geek girl simply loves that vision: taking the boring old Barbies and re-purposing them to live out creative dreams, even SF dreams, without having to become the same as the war game/boy toys.

In the third quarter Abyss and Apex, I particularly enjoyed the YA coming of age story “Ice Moon Tale” by Eilis O’Neal, the story of a northern tribal society where an individual’s role is defined by the moon under which he or she is born. Laila is a no-moon child and as such has magical talents for hiding and stalking prey, very valuable to her people. But she has always enjoyed story telling, the particular skill of the ice moon children. At the Gathering of the tribes, she competes with other no-moon children, but hardly gives it any effort. (“Your mind was elsewhere,” Arna told her when Laila left the field to seek her out. “You hardly disappeared at all — I could still make out the beads on your jacket!”) On the Night of Tales she goes to the story telling, knowing just what story she wants to tell.

But as the stories were told, she grew more and more uneasy. Her story, which had seemed so fine as she told it to herself out beyond the edge of the village, now seemed drab, as lifeless as the bear pelt on which she sat. By the time the girl to her right had finished her tale, Laila could feel sweat building on her palms and a knot tightening in her stomach.

She stood as the last words of the previous story died away, her mouth dry. The muttering started again, and her vision swam in front of her. She wanted to call on her no moon knowledge and disappear. “I am Laila-in-Shadow,” she croaked, “and this –”

But she could get no farther. She gazed around, seeing the eyes of the People staring at her, knowing that her story was a thin, weak thing when compared to a true ice moon child’s story, and ran from the longhall. Hands tried to reach her; she saw her father start towards her to comfort her. But she pulled the no moon knowledge around herself and, unseen, dashed into the night.

Certainly an experience anyone who has ever been nervous at public speaking can relate to. Laila runs and runs far away from the Gathering. Out in the wilderness, she has a vision of a reindeer. It has obviously come to her, but when she tries to use her no-moon skills to catch it, it runs away. Finally as she is injured and hoping for rescue, it comes to her and shows her her own story. After she is home and healing, the elder of the storytellers comes to her:

Ulf’s face grew more solemn as he said, “You will always be a no moon daughter. It is what you were born. But sometimes, very rarely — so rarely that I have only heard of it happening one other time, when I was a boy — a person can become a two moon child. So that they have the knowledge of the moon they were born under, and the knowledge of another moon. But it only happens when the desire for new knowledge as fierce as an angry ice bear. Last night, in your distress, you called a story and one came. Only an ice moon daughter could have done that.”

It’s a lovely when society is flexible enough to encompass a girl who doesn’t quite fit into her preconceived role. This is an engaging story; I found the imagery to be quite beautiful and the language has a good rhythm to it.

Beneath Ceaseless SkiesAnother story that deals with societal expectations is “Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker, found in Issue #47 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The narrator is a young man passing as a woman, hoping to gain admission to a school of seers that admits only women. This societal belief is so strong that when his brother told people that he had the Sight, he was executed. We also learn something of the story of Tuo, a goblin passing for human who tends to observe the world as a poet from the alehouse in which the narrator works. They recognize each other as living lies, and join together on several levels. When Tuo learns of the young man’s desire:

“What would be the purpose of that?”

“To throw a stone into the pond, as it were. Perhaps open the way for other men, if the ripples I make are large enough.”

“Self-sacrifice,” said Tuo thoughtfully. “A concept that has always eluded me. Social change, on the other hand, I find both necessary and pleasing.”

While the narrator’s deception has been perpetrated by clothing and makeup, the goblin is using true magic — magic he can also grant to the young man. Between the goblin’s wealth and magic, the young man is able to enter the Temple. We do not get to see whether or not he is successful in his efforts, but just the idea is enough. Baker offers a beautiful tale of identity, politics, power, and love, all intertwined together. Tuo feels just slightly alien, slightly Other, in an effectively disconcerting way. The gender power reversal works well, and the relationship between the goblin and the man, both physical and emotional, queers gender on several levels. Of course, much is left to the imagination of the reader. But in an allusive tale, the poetry of the prose is key, and lines such as:

I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the slick skin of his forehead; it tasted of salt and fish and something acrid I could not identify. The immediacy and honesty of it hit me like a gust of dry wind blowing fog from water.

show a mastery of craft — the repeated use of water imagery, the contrasts of dry wind and lake fog, and the overall rhythm of the piece all come together to make this tale well worth reading.

In lieu of some grand wrap-up or overarching theme for this column, let me also praise the cover art found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Scott H. Andrews and Kate Marshall have exceptional taste in art (in that it seems to line up with my taste for art unusually closely, of course). The art currently up on the website and associated with Issue #47 is “Spring Sunset” by Andreas Rocha, and I found it particularly lovely. When you’re traveling out there on your own through the exotic lands of genre magazines, don’t forget that editors and artists deserve awards too!