These days, I read a fair number of short stories. Not as many as I would like, however. Part of this is because for the past five months or so I have been engaged in work that doesn't leave as much time as I would like for reading; but part of this is because there are simply too many publications. What I manage to read and review only scratches the surface. There are probably a dozen strong print venues—maybe more—that I don't receive (and probably wouldn't have time to get to if I did). There are several dozen publications on the Internet or that distribute be ebook format. And there are dozens more that probably couldn't be termed "strong" but which do still manage to find and publish entertaining stories.
In short, there is a surfeit of good stuff out there, much of it free. Does anyone have time to read all this stuff?
Naturally not. As I mentioned last month, there are indications that the number of people reading short stories is generally in decline, and has been for something like 25 years.
I have a few theories on this, one of which is: people don't know how to read sci-fi magazines! (Mind you, I think this is just one factor among many, and hopefully I'll have space to share further ones in the future.)
With that in mind, here are a few tips to get more out of genre short stories, or—if you don't read them at all—some guidance to get you started.
(1) Don't read every story. I cannot over-emphasize this. When you buy Digital Camera Monthly, or Hot Rod, or Guns-n-Ammo, or Cosmo, you probably don't read it cover to cover. You skim it for the articles, pictures, or advertisements that interest you, and don't glance back. Short stories should be dealt with in the same way.
Magazines generally target a range of readers, and it's unlikely that you are going to match every nook and cranny of the demographic. So why waste your time? You can generally tell within a page, maybe two, whether a story is the kind of thing you are going to appreciate. If it doesn't feel like it's going anywhere, skip on to the next.
You might miss a great story, but odds are you'll pick it up again anyway.
(2) Match Story to Time. A good novel offers the immersive experience that allows you to pick it up again later, because the world is so rich, the plot so absorbing, the characters so familiar that you almost feel like you're waking up from an inconvenient dream called life when you take the book in hand again. Short stories aren't like this.
If you have a half hour bus ride, read a story that you can finish. If you only have ten minutes here and there, read a longer story that is more like a novel in its ability to bring you back. Now that you don't feel compelled to read every single story, you should also feel free to read them out of order! But, if you have a quiet evening to yourself, sit down with a couple of magazines, and make yourself a mug of tea.
(3) Read More Magazines. Seriously, if you plan on not reading every story, you'll find you can sample a great many more magazines. Fortunately, much of this reading material is freely available online, so we're not talking about breaking the bank. I find that the pleasure of reading short stories grows when you start making connections between the many authors and publications. You also come into contact with a much greater variety of story, of author, and of style if you read from multiple sources.
(4) Talk About the Stories. Isn't it more fun to go to a movie with someone else so you can discuss it afterwards? The ideas, the characters, the plot mistakes, the cinematography, the meaning? Short stories are a lot like movies, that way. They grow in the discussion. Authors will often put an enormous amount of work into composing a story. Much more than they are likely to put into, say, a single chapter of a book. Many short stories— presumably the ones you end up reading after you skip the boring ones—will benefit from a close discussion. If you don't know anyone who reads the same stuff you do, you might want to consider evangelizing a little. But you can always find conversations online. The Nightshade Forums are good. Asimov's and Analog have active forums. I am sure there are other places as well. Reading reviews (like the ones below, or like those at Tangent Online) is also fun. Many reviewers write more for to share their thoughts with others who have read the story, than in order to give advice to potential readers. After all, how many people read a review of a short story and then go out and buy the magazine? It happens, but it's rare.
(5) Remember What you Like. Hundreds of short story writers are published every year. Many of them are new. If you are interested in 'discovering' the hot new writers, I suggest jotting down the names of authors you have enjoyed, and their titles. It gives a great feeling of pleasure to find those same stories popping up in award nomination lists and best of collections. It also helps you seek out the stuff you want to read.
And now, on with the show!
I mentioned I am swamped with outside work? Well, that should be over soon, so look for an enormous catch-up article in December or January... but one nice new treat, I received the new 3rd Alternative and Interzone this month, both now under the editorship of Andy Cox. The latter is reviewed below, the former next month.
Analog finishes Mary Turzillo's Old Fashioned Martian Girl this month. This space is devoted to short fiction, and Old Fashioned Martian Girl was definitely not short.
For short stuff, Rajnar Vajra's back in the pages of Analog with The Ghost Within. This is certainly a fun story that plays with several motifs popular in the genre these days: personality uploads, matrix-style virtual realities, that sort of thing. It's framed as a detective story in which the detective is hired to verify the viability of a technology. As often happens in these sorts of tales, pretty much everyone in the picture has an ulterior motive. Ultimately, there was enough here that just didn't make sense for the story to really make me happy: a crucial plot point hinges on the fact that ultra-advanced aliens can't see the color blue. I can't see ultraviolet light, either, but I know when I'm getting a sunburn, and believe me, I'm not very advanced. Some other questions of motivation and believability may weaken the ending for some readers.
In Paparazzi of Dreams, Kristine Kathryn Rusch picks up on a topic that I last encountered in the film Until the End of the World (1st half great, 2nd half mind-bendingly dull). The recording of dreams. In this case the illicit recording of celebrity dreams in order to splash something into the tabloids. An undercover detective working infiltrating the culture of these "dream thieves" finds himself on the track of a bigger story when the dreams of one popular celebrity may be the clue to unravel a murder. The ending sort of peters out without a satisfying conclusion, but some may welcome the ambiguous, introspective direction the story takes— a departure from more standard Analog fare.
Speaking of strange stuff for Analog readers, Mike Moscoe returns to religion in this story, which if it's genre at all is more in the fantasy line: The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann. A woman at the end of her life has a strange call from some unborn children. I'm not sure many sci-fi fans will have sufficient understanding of the deep-rooted Catholic response to abortion to appreciate this guilt-driven story. Strangely, it isn't even about abortion: it's about four artificially fertilized eggs that didn't actually make it to birth.
Gun Control by Edward Muller is well named. In this tale, a minor diplomat tasked with the impossible job of reconciling two warring factions finds job complicated by the fact that the weapons his people have are programmed against firing upon the enemy. So, when he challenges the aggressor to a duel of guns, he'd better have something clever up his sleeve. Unfortunately, the clever answer has an enormous problem involving simple Newtonian physics (Click here for spoilers). If you can ignore that, it's a cute story.
Given the recent spell of extra long games between the Red Sox and the Yankees, this story seems eerily well-titled. However, it's not so much the baseball teams as the fans themselves going into Extra Innings in Robert Scherrer's story. There's not a lot of motion to this story, and the topic of infinite life extension is not going to be an eye-opener for many Analog readers, but the story is pleasant enough. It has the feel of a "Probability Zero" piece that, well, went past the initial nine.
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Aug-Sept)
Andromeda Spaceways declares itself Australia's PULPIEST Speculative Fiction Magazine, and it does have a tendency to publish stuff on the fluffy side of fluff. Examples of light-but-fun in this issue include Scales of Justice by Susie Hawes, Counter Clock by Patrick Mullarkey, and Lost Property by Bren MacDibble (are these names real?). The Sleeper by Mark Healy seemed to aim at something a little more serious, but I didn't think it quite hit the mark.
More surprising to find in ASIM is The Water Cure by Liz Williams. Williams is not typically a pulpy writer. However, by her standards, a tale about an encounter between an undine and a man who unwittingly draws electricity to himself (with disastrous consequences) might well be considered light stuff. Williams does adopt a rather flippant tone in parts here, but the story has its dark side, and her use of period language is far more competent than the standard pulp writer.
Also on the dark side is Body and Soul Art by Eugie Foster, in which a foolish boy does exactly the wrong thing to impress an attractive woman: he has a copy of the snake she wears as a tattoo needled onto his own skin. But she's not just any woman, and the snake is not just any snake. Soon the boy's in way over his head... A cautionary tale for those who might be inclined towards impulse tattoos. A little rough, but a satisfying ending.
(The presence of Eve and Lilith in this story was never really explained; I couldn't figure out if this was supposed to be an artistic flourish on Foster's part, or whether we were supposed to believe these two were the genuine female progenitors of humanity.)
With a title like Hitler's Ghost Possessed My Cat you wouldn't think there is much room for darkness here. You would be right. Ben Cook delivers an absolutely delightful story about tracking down a secret cabal of bingo-playing geriatrics intent upon resurrecting Hitler. The scenes that involve cracking a secret code is a fun parody of conspiracy-theory stuff, the characters are quirky, but somehow believable, even the cat manages to steal a scene. Different readers will undoubtedly have different tastes when it comes to humor, and while this was not side-splitting non-stop laughs, this is sure what does it for me.
However, the true gem of this issue is not one but seven! Each of the pages comprising The Munchausen Papers by Stuart Barrow and Mark Bruckard is a glittering little tribute to a bygone age of tall tales in the Munchausen tradition. I have not actually read the Munchausen stuff myself, but these well crafted little stories remind me other works of the era. Barrow and Bruckard manage to pack more twists, turns, and flights of fancy into each paragraph than many writers fit into a whole story.
Interzone (Sept-Oct., 2004)
Interzone is back! There was a bit of a publication delay as it switched hands from longtime editor David Pringle to Andy Cox of TTA Press. There is a nice tribute to David Pringle in this issue, but clearly the look and feel have switched over to the style readers of The 3rd Alternative have come to expect.
In Song of the Earth, Steve Mohn relies on the reader to piece together the nature, history, and culture of a strange world despite the fact that the story picks up considerably faster than the background information. Humans, we eventually figure out, have colonized a strange world and are themselves hybridized grafts of adaptive, mutated technology and good old fashioned flesh. The technology is intended to participate in an accelerated survival-of-the-fit ecology as people figure out how to live on the new planet—and the new planet adjusts to its human occupants. Despite the presence of an artificial intelligence guiding the technological evolution, not all grafts are beneficial. One girl must choose between trying to escape her appointed graft and the possibility that her participation in the ritual of adulthood will transform the process itself.
Douglas Smith suggests that Enlightenment may be more than most people—especially military people—can handle. A lost human colony, which has lost its interstellar capability, is being manhandled back into the fold. The soldiers dispatched to re-acquire control, however, find the natives to be... unsettling. They know too much. Indeed, they seem to know everything. About everyone. Fully understanding that knowledge is power, the military commanders resort to brutal methods to squeeze the secret of their seeming omniscience out of the laid-back locals. Public beheadings and similar atrocities doesn't phase the indigenous population, but eventually the military finds a way to get what they want. And they learn the hard way that the natives weren't keeping a secret from them; they were protecting them.
Karen D. Fishler continues to impress with her stories of difficult, troubled, conflicted people. In Someone Else, Fishler takes the reader into the life of a young, troubled, self-destructive prostitute. Dea is particularly disturbed not by the drugs she has done, the work she continues to engage in, or the company she keeps, but by the haunting image of someone flickering through her awareness. Is this a strange technology? Is this drug-related flashback? Is this something occult? Fishler's ability to create a creepy sense of unease that holds the potential for any of these explanations is a marvel to behold. Equally marvellous is her treatment of unpleasant people and material: despite Dea's work and mentality, there is nothing gratuitous here, there's scarcely even anything explicit. Instead, Fishler effortlessly unfolds the unsettled psychology of her subjects. Dea's sympathy for an abusive john, for example:
And the truth was that, even as the [man] had her pinned again, ... and was slapping her and calling her names and pulling off the rest of her clothes the way an animal pulls flesh off a carcass, she felt a distant sympathy for him. He was just trying to feel something... A doll could be programmed to allow a man to act out his power needs, but it couldn't fill the void at the heart of him. Whereas if she felt something—like pain—it meant he was feeling something.... She remembered that same effort, the effort to feel, and how difficult it was, how ultimately fruitless.
Dea seeks solace, or maybe healing, or maybe peace with a therapist. At one point:
She would think about the answer, looking at the carpet, envying its flatness and silence and the musty way it didn't have to respond to questions. And finally she would shrug.
Then later the carpet remains present:
... She could imagine that the traffic noise way out in the streets was actually wind in the trees. She had never uttered so many sentences at the same time. She felt as if both Memmers were listening now, along with the rug and everything else in the room.
This immediately precedes a crucial turning point in the story. The conclusion, which places the story in the science fiction, rather than horror or fantasy genres, brings profound and tragic resolution. Fishler is unquestionably one of the rising stars of short fiction in the genre today.
Dreams of the White City by Jay Lake seems to introduce an intriguing world, a fantasy future in a post-science-fiction advanced-science=magic sort of way. Despite a compelling protagonist, this story suffers from an enormity of world-building that overwhelms the characters and the limits of the existing narrative.
Presented as an Interzone Promotional Feature, Air Cube by Antony Mann is a perfectly delightful satire on consumerism and the role of advertising in the present age. "Reduce. Improve. Prevent." Such is the whole of the advertising that prepares a ready public for the Air Cube. "I bought mine to Reduce," explains one character. Others are hoping to prevent. Once the air cube (only $7.00!) is appropriately ubiquitous, a slightly larger Air Sphere is introduced. "Reduce. Improve. Prevent." One thing leads to another, and a rather stylish cult of self-improvement by means tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating nothingness is established. On various levels, this story mocks, even as it admires, the kind of thinking that goes into making money—literally—by selling something empty of all real value. At the same time it examines the way in which the product is secondary to the idea, and make explicit the ways in which people pay good hard cash for things that are merely symbols for what is truly desired. A surprising and subtle work.
SciFiction (Aug-Sept, 2004)
The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid by Walter Jon Williams opens with all the feel of summer movie fluff, the kind of would-be blockbuster thriller that's so ludicrous it's fun to laugh at. Eventually, however, the silliness grows somewhat overwhelming, and the plot deteriorates into incoherence.
Also in August, Ilsa J. Bick's The Key was published. The story opens like an episode of Law & Order: a jogger's golden retriever finds a dead baby in the park. The police on the scene (the narrator and his partner Kay—confusingly close in spelling to Key) describe the deceased in grotesque detail.
Story shifts from a rather humdrum police story to a somewhat humdrum nazi-demon supernatural story. The whole is far more melodramatic than the narrative makes convincing.
Speaking of things it's hard to take seriously, Beautiful Stuff by Susan Palwick begins with a character named Rusty Kerfuffle. However, what begins as a strange and silly tale about the dead being reanimated with the blank minds of infants suddenly takes a moving turn when they are used for a political campaign, a gimmick to remind people about the scare of terrorism, to re-elect a candidate determined to wipe out the enemy.
Normally, the dead don't have much to say about the interests of the living. They prefer playing with pretty, shiny things. But when it comes to being dead, and wiping out the enemy, it turns out that the dead do have something to say. And, at least in my view, Palwick gets it just right.
August shifts to a more serious September with Bulldozer by Laird Barron. This opens all style and no discernable meaning, but gradually resolves into an occult manhunt during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Barron jumbles language effectively: now the rough, formal drawl of the frontier, now the disjointed spectacular language of an Ezra Pound, a James Joyce. The story is John Constantine, and Cthulu, and Gunsmoke, and some sort of bounty hunter true-crime adventure all rolled into one. A shot of Cormac McCarthy and a shot of Raymond Chandler, neither shaken nor stirred: just pounded straight down. Every now and then I stopped to wonder if a phrase might be anachronistic, but generally, Barron gets the feel so smooth, my conclusion was, he's more likely to be right than I am.
The longest piece of September is Left of the Dial, a three-parter by Paul Witcover. Although it opens slowly, with extended meditations on edge-city suburban life, and a languorous memoir of growing-up-geek, the story picks up with a turn for the weird at the very end of the first part. The work as a whole traverses well-worn paths of the science fiction repertoire: ghost story, time travel, maybe alternate dimensions. But Witcover treats his material with such delicacy, such sensitivity, and such uncomfortable honesty that I expect more than a few grown-up-geek readers will recognize too much of themselves in this text for comfort.
Howard Waldrop brings us a pleasant little history of The Wolf-man of Alcatraz. The most excitement in the story is a prison riot in which the fear of the Wolf-man does what a platoon of marines cannot. But otherwise, this is a quiet tale, more about one man's fascination with the moon than the actual condition of lycanthropy.
Strange Horizons (Aug-Sept, 2004)
In Displaced Persons, Leah Bobet provides a charming prose poem, a eulogy of sorts, on the part of the winged monkeys of Oz to their lost wings—for they have been chopped off in the course of the regime change after the Witch died. They flee to the mountains, hope for their children to have better lives than they did. Fans of Oz will get a little more out of this than others, but Bobet gets the tone just right.
Crossing Borders is an immature and awkward work: I found myself consistently stumbling over uneven sentences, extra words, and unnecessarily foul language, and improbable dialog. The story attempts to intercut the psychology of a victim of childhood abuse with a spy story, and to his credit, Doyle gets the more difficult of these two far more right than he does the spy story. Implausible situations, irrelevant people, but he almost made me care for his unlikable protagonist.
Iron Ankles by David J. Schwartz seems to be something of an allegory about cementing one's personal identity in a sub-culture. It purports to have a fantastic element involving creatures that bite ankles—little gnomes or something. Whether this is intended to have a farcical connection to the phrase "ankle biters" (which, among other things, is Australian slang for toddlers), I couldn't quite fathom, but the overall effect was well into the territory of absurd. Ultimately, I thought the psychological dimensions of finding freedom in naming oneself, and freedom in releasing oneself from the bondage of that name was worthwhile, but the story seemed pretty thin.
The fairies are recruiting a new king in Hold Tight by Gavin J. Grant. James, however, doesn't want to be king. He doesn't want to marry the girl Lily, whom the fairies grabbed from Wales. The live of an ordinary boy juxtaposed against the possibility of Kinghood in Faerie makes for an interesting premise, but the dramatic arc was fairly shallow.
Liz Williams writes a delicate and tender selkie story in The Pale. Particularly evocative are her descriptions of the far northern islands, and the life there.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages is a chilling little story about the testing of the first nuclear bomb.
We return to the theme of personality editing in another two-parter from Jason Stoddard. The Revision takes up years after Unfinished, (from May of this year) left off. Stoddard expands the philosophical nature of Unfinished into new territory. Gillam Anderson is back, this time confronting the ethical dilemmas inherent in personality editing. Again, Stoddard manufactures a compelling story by successfully merging challenging philosophical questions with plausible characters, both hero and villain.
Gillam has damaged a loved one through too much irreversible Editing; and now he is called upon to heal a man whose self has been lost, also through overly extensive revision. Against the wishes of the man's daughter, Gillam goes far above the call of duty to find a solution for the problem of lost personality. I'm not sure I found the solution convincing, but the ethical questions and the spirit behind the characters certainly was.
Spillage by Nancy Kress is reprinted from F&SF, April 1988. A dark and vivid story, beautifully told.
I would have been tempted to title this "Werewolves of the Arctic," but actually it was were-bears, which, frankly, sound too much like care-bare's, so it's a good thing Joanne Meriam didn't actually use that term. Walking Hibernation, in good Strange Horizons is as much about settling down, choosing responsibility over freedom, and other traditional literary values as it is about lycanthropy.