Thoughts: Short Story Round-Up!

In late October I read a load of short stories in a short timeframe, so I’m going to do a quick round-up here. I’ll be doing a similar graphic novel round-up soon too, because I’ve been riding that train these last couple of months. Also, these short stories are available online for free, so I’ll link them and you can read along and decide whether I’m wrong or not.

Evil Robot Monkey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a truly short story (some of the others linked here are much longer) so a good one to start with. Nominated for the 2009 short story Hugo, it’s the story of a monkey which, through the meddling powers of science, has been endowed with human intelligence and is now in a zoo. It’s a really tight story, going from problem to solution with very few distractions, only two on-screen characters (not counting the schoolkids), and the premise set out neatly during the course of the story. Very no-nonsense and no-frills, and part of me finds it a bit too neat, if that makes sense. It’s so tight that sometimes it feels almost like a technical exercise more than a story.

Nuts-and-bolts prose-wise, in a story this lean, a couple of missing commas was enough to throw me off a bit, which was a shame, and a couple of the sentences near the beginning were a bit… not clunky, but obviously rusty in the well-oiled machine that is the rest of the story. And the final revelation, while genius, didn’t need the separate line of “Clay.” This is the stupidest nitpick, but the story really is so lean that even repeating the word once felt like being hit on the head with a hammer.

Anyway, I really did enjoy it, and the little act of kindness that provides the solution to Sly’s problem was lovely. I also liked how she described Sly’s behaviour and his motives. That was a really cool touch.

Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar

This story (longer) won the 2016 Hugo for Best Short Story. Yes, the title is in the Thing of Stuff and Whatsit style that apparently 60% of all fantasy stories have to be titled nowadays, but I really, really liked this. I love fairytale retellings done well and this is done very well, and as a bonus ties together two more obscure fairytales (though I will note that East of the Sun and West of the Moon is looking like the next big retelling-mine). The premise is pretty simple – two women in different fairytale predicaments meet. And when they meet, they talk. And when they talk, they get some perspective on their situations, realising that things they had been led to believe were their faults are perhaps not their faults. The way of the world as described to them is unfair. We get alternating perspectives from both Tabitha (East of the Sun) and Amira (The Glass Hill) and we’re given little nudges from the start as to this unfairness: Tabitha is aware that the sort of magic shoes fairytale men get to wear are almost universally the fun kind. Amira is called terrible things by her suitors, though all she can do is sit in perfect stillness on her glass hill, as though she’s forcing them to try to marry her.

If you’re not a fan of the moral, then the exploration of this world alone is great, sketched out in brief, evocative flashes. It’s succinct and true to the fairytale style despite being a slight reimagining – the language retains the magic, the archetypal feel, the poetry you’d expect, though the scenarios have been… not updated, but twisted a little to show us a story from the woman’s point of view.

When the women do meet and talk it’s a huge relief, and the importance of talking and sharing experiences is illustrated expertly. Tabitha and Amira’s different experiences and different penances are nonetheless linked to something larger and systemic. Their escape, however, feels absolute. I never doubted that they’re totally free now, that they’re happy. A proper fairytale ending.

The City Born Great, by N. K. Jemisin

From the 2016 Hugo shortlist. A really cool premise – cities are only born when they reach a certain size – that sort of reminded me of the Mortal Engines universe even though it’s not like that at all. It’s very much a love letter to New York, and yeah, as a non-city kid, city love letters leave me a bit cold, but it’s also a love letter to the people of New York, all the people who make it what it is. It’s about the battle being fought for the soul of the US, which is in many ways a battle that has been fought in other places at other times, and it’s done really compellingly. The protagonist is chosen deliberately, by the city and by the author too, to represent something. It’s about how we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. All.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers, by Alyssa Wong

This is the second short story by Alyssa Wong I’ve read, and the only thing I can fault her on are her titles, which are just a bit too much for me. Her prose is beautiful, her concepts are beautiful, her stories of escapes are beautiful. This is a story about sisters who can control the weather and time for no reason other than Because, and they seem to keep it secret but it’s never clear whether magical powers are normal in this world. It doesn’t matter – the story isn’t about that. The story is about grief and survivor’s guilt and how unfair it is that the dead ask us to move on because it’s easy for them to say. Absolutely stunning story, but make sure you’re feeling emotionally resilient before you read because ow. Also, embarrassed to say that in the comments to the story people were talking about how they were burnt out on reading about trans people’s suffering, or conversely that they appreciated this raw portrayal of trans people’s suffering, and it hadn’t occurred to me at all. But a skim back through and yes, of course. I am an idiot. You want to talk show-don’t-tell? THIS is how you show-don’t-tell.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, by Brooke Bolander

Another short one from the 2016 Hugo shortlist. This is a revenge story, like, proper revenge. Old school harpy revenge, fury revenge, and the narrator seems to be something along those lines, winged and furious. It’s vivid and full of feeling and foul language (if you care about such things) and so angry that it feels like something that really happened (and I guess it kind of did, kind of is, kind of will). It’s unapologetic in its subject matter, and straightforward. No subtle themes or motifs here, just fire and brimstone. There’s not much to say other than that I enjoyed it and am curious to see what else Bolander has done.

That Game We Played During the War, by Carrie Vaughn

Last one from the 2016 Hugo shortlist! And it’s our old friend Carrie Vaughn, whose Kitty Norville series I finished reading this year! I started out in total starry-eyed love with the Kitty series and ended it a bit battered but still loyal. I was glad to see that Vaughn has been busy, and gladder to see how far she’s come since those maddening middle books. This is a secondary-world story about a war that’s just ended and shows us a little of how the people left behind are trying to get on with their lives. Also one of the sides is telepathic, so there’s that. Though it takes place after the armistice, we get plenty of flashbacks and backstory, so the whole story is filled in for us, pretty much, or as much as we need. The two main characters are from opposing sides and got to know each other through stints as prisoners of war, first one then the other.

Vaughn again pulls off the balance that I loved so much about the early Kitty books, of people living their lives around fantasy concepts, in this case telepathy. How do you go about your life as a non-telepath among telepaths? How do telepaths go about their lives surrounded by people who just let their thoughts spill everywhere? She explores these issues at the same time as she explores the more personally relateable human issues of forgiveness, picking up the pieces, getting on with things.

We only find out very close to the end who won the war and how. And maybe it’s not an important point… but maybe it is.

Fox 8, by George Saunders

A non-Hugo story! George Saunders is better known right now for his Lincoln in the Bardo, which is on my list and I’ll probably get to in about five years (sob) so I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Probably even if I had read Lincoln in the Bardo I wouldn’t have expected this. Fox 8 is about an actual fox (they’re differentiated by numbers) and it’s written from the perspective of that fox – but not in the way you’re thinking. We’re not in the fox’s head, experiencing his life, but these are his words to us. See, this fox has taught himself to use human language.

Okay fine, you might not get on with the style. It’s very distinctive. But he is a fox! You can’t expect miracles! No one ever taught him to spell!

Personally I adored the style (every exclamation mark an endearment!) and the voice. I loved his foxy observations of human behaviour. The character development is way more intense than you’d expect. The ending is about as far from the cutesy “Oh no, the most dangerous animal of all is Man!!!” as you can get. Fox 8 starts the story as a happy-go-lucky, naive sort of idiot savant fox, always chasing ideas and wandering off on tangents, but he ends it with clear eyes, looking right into the reader’s.

The Edge of the Shoal, by Cynan Jones

This is the winner of the 2017 BBC Short Story Award, and it is pretty harrowing. A tale of trouble at sea, a lone man in a kayak swept out by something huge and uncontrollable (quick spoiler, next post will be about The Old Man and the Sea, by total coincidence!). It’s a deep, detailed story and it wears its themes quietly, there, for you to notice or not. I kept wondering if the storm would have come if he had had the courage to scatter the ashes. Would he have gone fishing at all on that day? Would the storm have held off out of some superstitious reaction?

Gorgeously written, matter-of-fact and keenly observed and unflinching. I found myself wincing in sympathy several times. And that ending. What next? I genuinely didn’t know where it was going to go – it could have gone either way, life or death, and still felt complete, but now what?

In my mind, he makes it. I have to believe he makes it. I have to believe that everything we do counts for something, even against the blank amoral expanse of nature.

This entry was posted in Books, thoughtpinions and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.