Somebody else’s stories, May 2014 edition

It has been a long time since I’ve written here about stories I’ve been reading. Mostly it’s because I’ve been busy and have been reading a lot less than I did a couple years ago.

But we make time for the things that are important. And this is something I think is important. So here, at last, are a few of the best stories I’ve been making time for lately:

“Observations about Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” by Carmen Maria Machado, in Lightspeed Magazine. This is a trippy tale about the narrator’s (or possibly curator’s?) encounter with an overbearing seatmate on a commercial flight on a regional airline. The seatmate has seemingly an endless store of interesting (and spooky) information about eggs… But unfortunately it comes wrapped in a sense of entitlement.

I really think the subtle interpersonal tension of the seatmate’s intrusiveness elevates this above most list stories, as it makes the act of listing itself into a narrative force. There comes a point in the story where the reader both craves and dreads the next tidbit to fall from this guy’s unhinged lips.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in Lightspeed Magazine. If you’d asked me two weeks ago how I would react to a story that opens with a scene of communal vomiting, I would have said, “Not favorably.” But the vomiting here has a point — and it’s handled skillfully enough that the desperation and disorientation of the characters comes through without too much ick-factor.

In short, one girl at a compulsory “camp” is urging the others to purge themselves of a bugging device that has been implanted somewhere deep inside them. The others (including the narrator) are not so sure that any such thing exists, and even if it does they may just want to ignore it anyway. Propulsive and unsettling, a lot of the conflict in the story comes from the tension between the competing desires most kids feel to conform on one hand and rebel on the other. But the decision is already made for these kids from the start, and the whole point of their “camp” is to tip them all in the direction of conformity…

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M Wanak, in Strange Horizons. In twenty-one interconnected vignettes of varying length, the narrator explains her history with spiral staircases. In this world, fantastical spiral staircases are the literal embodiments of the potential for revelation, epiphany, growth… When one appears, you can choose to go up it, or you can choose to ignore it. But the catch is that you won’t know what the new perspective will teach you until you get to the top.

I love this imagery. It’s the kind of thing that seems obvious in retrospect, but really it takes a smart observer to come up with something so elegant and natural-feeling. And it takes a deft writer to keep it from feeling too “on the nose”. But Wanak keeps changing perspectives on the spiral staircases — offering points and counterpoints through the experiences of various characters — so they never become a magical cure-all. They’re just another tool that only works as well as the person wielding it.

“Coffin” by Mari Ness, in Daily Science Fiction. Short but engrossing. Ness relates the history of a familiar fairy tale artifact in an original way. But first she builds a real-feeling world around the artifact — so well realized that it’s not clear that this is a fairy tale take-off until well into the story. The effect is less folk tale and more magical realism. It’s a great effect.

“Love is a component of this story” by Liz Argall, in Daily Science Fiction. Another short one that weaves threads concerning gender, sexuality, and love into a complete whole. In her story notes, Argall says that this was the result of a dare to write a romance story. To me, it reads more like an anti-romance. Or, at least, a deconstructed romance in the way it attempts to separate the “components” of human attraction and compatibility into discrete boxes (e.g., gender without sex, sex without love…) but ultimately finds that the threads don’t stay separated long when a human element is introduced.

Full disclosure: I’ve been published by all of these zines, and I continue to submit to them. I’ve had many friendly interactions with Mari Ness and Liz Argall. I’ve also edited and published stories by both of them. (Ness in Sixteen Single Sentence Stories and Argall in This Is How You Die.)


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