Short Fiction: December 2010

From where I sit, it looks like a lot of fiction venues are looking to end the year on a high note. I had a wealth of great stories to chose from in November, and I don’t see things slowing down at all in December.

Clarkesworld #50World Fantasy award-nominated, Hugo-award winning Clarkesworld marked a milestone in November — their 50th issue. Beginning in Oct 2006, and published every month since, they deliver two short fiction pieces a handful of non-fiction — and now they even have podcasts of their short stories. The highlight of Issue #50 for me is N. K. Jemisin’s “On the Banks of the River Lex.” Imagine a future where all the humans have disappeared, ala Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. But instead of examining the fate of subway and sewage systems, Jemisin inquires into the fate of the personified gods, myths, and fables that we might leave behind. We start with Death, in an opening paragraph that almost perfectly captures eternal boredom:

Death lay under the water-tower on a sagging rooftop, watching the slow condensation of water along the tower’s metal belly. Occasionally one of the water beads would grow pregnant enough to spawn a droplet, which would then fall around — and occasionally onto — Death’s forehead. He had counted over seven hundred hits in the past few days.

Death is actually one of the lucky ones; birds, cats, and coyotes still live and die, giving him some level of support over the years. But without humans, even the life of the supernatural seems to lack elan or excitement. Other gods have it even worse; without worshippers some of them are fading away. The gods in New York city band together in support, offering needed worship to each other. But throughout the story we start to see that life, real life, is moving on. A new type of plant pops up through the cracks in the sidewalk, a differently-colored bird struts around. Eventually Death is attracted to the remains of Coney Island, where something even more special is just beginning. In the end he notes:

He understood this, the life and death of species, as he had always understood the life and death of individuals. But perhaps he had been too preoccupied with the latter, as a result failing to notice the former.

There’s a lot to love about this story. I love the way it blends SF and fantasy tropes — a near future run-down city after an apocalypse, but also all the supernatural beings running around. I appreciate the fact that it is solidly rooted in the multi-cultural New York city that also featured prominently in Jemisin’s Hugo-nominated short story, “Non-Zero Probabilities.” Among the deities we meet here are the Dragon King of the Western Ocean (coming from the Chinese tradition, we meet him learning to play the bagpipes), English nursery rhymes, Lise and Magu (twins that together are an African creator god/goddess from Benin, they have been trying to come up with new things — we meet them when they open a coffee shop), an unnamed angel, and others. It put me in mind of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, especially in that it inspired me to look up many of the referenced gods. So I got to learn about mythical traditions that were new to me. There were only a few rough spots that I noticed on a second reading. There’s one scene that is left deliberately unresolved that I think could have either been dropped or seen to its conclusion. Perhaps one or two scenes in the middle could have been cut without too much loss. And upon close reading, it seems that there may be some logistics involved in the ending that might be a little shaky. But these are very minor complaints.

I’m trying to be coy about the new thing that happens at the end, but it struck me as poetic, charming, and just about perfect. A whole host of SF stories throughout the last century have served to remind us that while we take ourselves very seriously, without us the universe will continue unfazed. The most depressing iteration of this that I’ve come across was “Adam and No Eve” by Alfred Bester, found in the Adventures in Time and Space anthology of 1946. “On the Banks of the River Lex” may be the most charming and thoughtful version I’ve seen yet.

The next story comes from a new-to-me venue, Inter Nova SF. I learned about it thanks to the World SF blog. It is a venue for international and translated science fiction — something we need more of! One story that appeared there recently is “The Tetrahedron” by Vandana Singh. One day a large impenetrable tetrahedron appears in the middle of a busy street in New Delhi. Among the witnesses is a young woman, Maya. She has been drifting through her life, frustrated but inactive. She is engaged to a promising but condescending man named Karthik. He was the one she chose, and her parents believe he is the perfect match, but she’s coming to dislike him. After seeing the tetrahedron appear, she spends a lot of time bonding with a young astrophysics student named Samir. He is from a higher social class than hers, an unsuitable romantic match. All the while the tetrahedron sits there, inscrutable. Politicians, military, celebrities, and tourists all swarm round, while Maya sits back and observes.

This story reminded me strongly of Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” (although to say that may give away too much about the ending). Maya is initially trapped in a relationship that makes her unhappy (although there are no true villains here — Karthik is a bit of an ass, but everyone is really trying to do their best). She meets Samir, and that would traditionally be the solution to her problem: he respects her intelligence, they have a great time talking, and he could be a gateway to a higher class of living. But Maya rejects having her future defined by those traditional narratives. She doesn’t need a perfect romance to rescue her from an imperfect one. Instead she chooses a third way — one unrelated to traditional man/woman romantic bonds. (As an extra bonus, we get to learn more about the consequence of her choice than we do about the fate of the women from Tiptree’s classic story.) All of this comes together in a narrative that also provides fun speculation about science and aliens, portraits of life in India, and sketches of how that life is viewed by others. A complete and satisfying package.

Finally, a five-minutes-from now story from Midnight East, an Israeli magazine (with another shout-out to World SF blog for the link). “Generation E: The Emoticon Generation” is a novelette by Guy Hasson. It reads like an article that could appear in The Atlantic magazine next week. The journalist-narrator picks up his daughter’s cell phone to make sure she hasn’t been targeted by any sexual predators. She hasn’t, but she has been exchanging thousands of exclamation point and moon phase icons with a young gentleman from her school. Our intrepid reporter goes out into the world to try to research just what’s going on with kids these days.

What he finds is another mode of communication being used and developed by teens. When even Twitter takes too long, there are always emoticons. First he visits an emoticon poet: “…this man is a star, and the Generation E’s see him as we saw Salinger.” An example of the poetry:

By Anthony R
Rhymes… [Sad face]
Meaning… [A face with its tongue out]
Symbolism… [A face, with its hand giving us a thumbs down]
Old School… [A face, with its hand giving us the finger]
Generation E… [A face, with its 2 hands giving us two thumbs up]

In this section, the narrator speaks to linguists who make interesting and subtle points about how language evolves and how words convey meaning. He’s very grumpy about it, but admits that the young poet may truly be an artist. (And he admits that every older generation has been grumpy about just about every younger generation’s chosen forms of expression — cf Rock n’ Roll.)

Next he goes to interview the genius behind the exclamation points and half-moons. ‘“People don’t need words,” Mark Fox, CEO of Ping!, Inc., [no relation to Apple’s iTunes Ping system] tells me. “People need attention.”’ The exclamation points are “Pings” that you can send to your friends and receive in turn. The moons, of various phases, are “Rogers,” which acknowledge a “Ping” but without as much attention in return.

Remember my daughter’s iPhone being filled with moons, half-moons, quarter-moons, eighth moons and even smaller moons? Now we know what they are. But now we also know what she did in the last hour before sleep. Let’s say she sent the boy a Ping! and he was already tired and it was time to go. He sent her a Roger. She sent him a half Roger. He sent a quarter Roger. She sent a quarter Roger back, refusing to go lower. He was touched by her sentiment and wouldn’t go lower first, so he sent her a quarter Roger back. It’s a Generation E version of “You hang up!” “No, you hang up!” conversation that can last for hours.

The phenomenon has already gone through at least four or five evolutionary iterations in the time period the journalist writes about: bots that send Pings automatically to your partner, social networks that monitor the Pings send to others, IP masks that allow you to send Pings anonymously, etc. The tide of popular culture sweeps ever on, ever faster.

At the end the narrator decides that he still doesn’t like the whole thing. He definitely feels that this is no substitute for ‘real’ communication, and that it can never express ‘big ideas.’ My biggest complaint for the story, frankly, is that the author lays on the “Damn you kids, get off my lawn” narrative voice pretty thick. But this is a story form that is perfectly suited to its subject matter. This is a near future idea that’s just that: an idea. The pseudo-article form allows for the idea to be explored in depth without cluttering it up with character or plot. Some may regard that as a failing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see every short story move in this direction. But in this case the technique places the focus squarely where it needs to be: how do we communicate? What do we need from each other? “…how small could a word be and still be a word? What is the minimum feeling I would ever have to convey?” Another important point is that I feel like the story opens up these questions instead of arriving at a definitive answer. In the end the narrator doesn’t really like what’s happening, but that’s easy to dismiss. He’s raised some important questions in an even-handed way. And the author gives us both some plausible prognostication and a different way of thinking about communication. That’s pretty much exactly what I want from my near-future SF, and I was happy to find it done so well in such an out-of-the-way (for me) venue.


  • I think I can guess, but: who wrote this piece? There isn’t any attribution that I can see.

    • Sam: It is Karen Burnham. How are you viewing the article? I’m guessing it is some mobile platform that can’t see the contents list and author bio in the sidebar.

      • Ah, I see it there in the sidebar; as that is under the ‘current issue’ and then an ad, I didn’t mentally/graphically associate that with the article I was reading.