Thoughts on short fiction this month.
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Bluejack, here is what I wrote about some of the short fiction over on Ellen's BB.
*The Best Christmas Ever – James Patrick Kelly
What grabbed me about this story was how JPK had me suspending disbelief even though he dared to name the momma biop Aunty Em. C’mon, how gutsy is that! No way would I have tried that. But JPK got me around paragraph 12 or 13, when he wrote, “Taking care of the man had changed the biops. They were all so much more emotional than they had been when they were first budded.” That is when the story became real for me. Once I can see the human side of a short fiction piece, and I can feel the emotions of the characters, I become very interested in a story. I loved how JPK continued to work the biops’ emotions, especially the jealously of the girlfriend. And the Walmart encounter with Mrs. Marelli was gut-wrenching. The climax for me was here:
“The girlfriend sank to her knees, rested her head on the coffee table, and began to cry. Only biops didn't cry, or at least no biop that Aunty Em had ever heard of. The man glanced around the room for an answer. The pals looked at their shoes and said nothing. "Jingle Bell Rock" tinkled on the music box. Aunty Em felt something swell inside of her and climb her throat until she thought she might burst. If this was what the man felt all the time, it was no wonder he was tempted to drink himself into insensibility.”
By that point in the tale, I had written off humanity. Al and Marelli were goners anyway. The real future was in the biops, and I wanted to see – I needed to see, that they would carry on some part of humanity. To see the evolution of the biop girlfriend and the epiphany of Auntie Em was more powerful to me than anything that happened with Bertie.
‘Nuff said on that one.
*Paul’s Treehouse – Gene Wolfe
This one opens confidence. In “How to Open Without a Bang,” available here (http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/dec97/keegan3.htm ), Alex Keegan writes:
It's the confident whisper, the self-assured promise I look for, the paragraph which quietly says, "I don't need bells and whistles. Listen, listen."
Wolfe does exactly that. He writes:
It was the day after the governor called out the National Guard, but Morris did not think of it that way; it was the morning after the second night Paul had spent in the tree, and Morris brushed his teeth with Scotch after he looked into Paul's bedroom and saw the unrumpled bed. And it was hot; though not in the house, which was air-conditioned.
OK. Here’s a guy who tells me the National Guard was called out, then says nothing more about it, because he wants to talk about unmade beds and air-conditioning. Well, not really. Wolfe wants us to see the effects of collapsing society without focusing on the sensational. He wants it to hit home. And it does. Right from the beginning.
‘Nuff said on that one.
*The First Commandment – Gregory Benford
Benford’s story didn’t hit me as hard as many others here on SCIFICTION have. Sure, I liked it. I even thought parts of it were chilling, like the creepy fanatic Mr. Abrahams. Ugh. Scripture-quoting fiendish bad guys give the willies every single time. But the ending did not bring me any revelations, nor did I see any of the characters undergo any transformative epiphanies. Not even a tiny bit. And I tend to feel the most powerful stories (at least for me) are the ones where the characters experience what Flannery O’Connor called the moment of grace (although I do not necessarily approve of her religious lessons, I think O’Connor kicked butt as a writer). For me the moment of grace is just some change that the character undergoes. And through that character, I, the reader, can experience that change in some way. I did not feel that here, and so all the other writing in the tale, as good as it is, is not memorable to me. It is the difference between a likeable story and a great story. In case you are wondering, my favorite SCIFICTION example of a great story is still Kij Johnson’s “[At the Mouth of the]River of Bees.”
*Family Bed – Kit Reed
I found the lack of traditional punctuation slightly confusing, but soon realized that the style of the story required such strange punctuation. It just wouldn’t have been the same without the weirdness. I mean, the whole weird concept really needed a weird writing trick like the dashes to set it all off. That said, my earlier comments about needing to see change in the characters still stand, for me, at least. Sarah seemed to know that something was rotten in the state of Denmark from the beginning, so I did not see her eventual rebellion as a true change. And any hidden messages like: “Over-sheltering/over-protecting your young is really just a way of killing them” did not quite ring true for this story. It was just soooo odd that I had a hard time drawing meaning from it. Again, the writing was fine, but the meat was not there for me.
*The Voluntary State – Christopher Rowe
Weirdness times a million! No, times a billion! I read on the BB that at least one or two brave souls dared to admit they did not like it. In fact, one guy said that this type of story almost drove him away from SF altogether. Well, I liked it enough to finish it. There were some really cool parts, like the Commodores:
They were tangled giants of rust, alike in their towering height and in the oily bathyspheres encasing the scant meat of them deep in their torsos, but otherwise each a different silhouette of sensor suites and blades, each with a different complement of articulated limbs or wings or wheels.
Super cool. I also enjoyed some of the symbolism, although I thought some parts were just plain silly. C’mon. The car was soooo cheesy to me. And the bundle bugs. But I admire Rowe for his imagination, and I appreciate his underlying messages about freedom, tyranny, and the blurry lines that can confuse the two.
*Un Bel Di – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
I thought this story was amazingly good, but it also disturbed me too much to write about it. I’m not sure that will make sense to you all. I just reviewed a story for Andromeda that bothered me similarly. It was a lurid interpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn complete with child molestation and vampirism. Ugh. But the writing was amazing. It is hard to compliment the writing without seeming to praise the sensationalism of the themes about child molestation. So I just kept quiet about Un Bel Di, and I will continue to do so, except to say that I thought it was amazing.
*Elvis in the Attic – Catherine M. Morrison
Tangent has an interesting take on this story. The reviewer, published author Eugie Foster, writes here (http://www.tangentonline.com/reviews/magazine.php3?review=1001) that the plight of Kenny's Elvis can be compared to that of any misplaced wildlife. I hadn’t thought of that. But I did feel that the story succeeded in being quirky, funny, and moving at the same time, which, in my opinion, is almost impossible to do. I am still imagining a forlorn Elvis tied to a doorknob with a bit of string, mumbling his old tunes while I try to decide what to do with him. And this is weeks after reading the story. A job well done by Morrison.
*The Dandelion Girl – Robert F. Young
Let me just proclaim to the world, or at least the BB, that I loved “The Dandelion Girl.” This story reminded me of a romantic old Hollywood flick, complete with guilt, true love, and a dreamlike quality that made me very happy that Mark and Julie ended up with the best of both worlds. I think Young accomplished this in part with his use of incredible imagery. Eyeball kicks abound in “The Dandelion Girl.”
Perhaps it was because of the way she was standing there in the afternoon sun, her dandelion-hued hair dancing in the wind; perhaps it was because of the way her old-fashioned white dress was swirling around her long and slender legs.
…now the woods lay behind and far below him, burning gently with the first pale fires of fall…
Her eyes were blue, he saw when he came up to her—as blue as the sky that framed her slender silhouette. Her face was oval and young and soft and sweet. It evoked a déjà vu so poignant that he had to resist an impulse to reach out and touch her wind-kissed cheek; and even though his hand did not leave his side, he felt his fingertips tingle.
And that is only in the first few paragraphs. Young writes achingly, and so I read him that way, and I think that is why this story was so powerful for me.