365 Days of Women Writers

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Archive for the ‘short story’ Category

“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard

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“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard slaps you in the face with the effects of cultural imperialism.

In one strand, Quy is required to wear an “immerser” – a device that allows her to mimic (and appear as) the dominant Galactic culture – when she waits tables or conducts business in the family’s restaurant. She hates it:

She didn’t mind Tam borrowing her stuff, and actually would have been glad to never put on an immerser again—she hated the feeling they gave her, the vague sensation of the system rooting around in her brain to find the best body cues to give her.

In the other strand Agnes has allowed her immerser to take over her life and her own culture and thoughts have become an impenetrable fog. We first encounter Agnes in the second person sections of the narrative. Second person was an effective way for de Bodard to show how distant Agnes was from herself and how deadened her emotions are.

You’re dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-traveled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.

When we first see Agnes from the outside it is through Quy’s viewpoint and she’s horrified:

Agnes. Quy turned, and looked at the woman for the first time—and flinched. There was no one here: just a thick layer of avatar, so dense and so complex that she couldn’t even guess at the body hidden within.

I find this an affecting story because it’s so easy to empathize with Agnes, the awkwardness she felt in another culture, and the choice she made to allow herself to be subsumed by the immerser, and the struggle she’s having at finding even the scraps of herself. De Bodard wisely doesn’t pin a “villain” tag on Agnes’s husband Galen (who is a Galactic), though Quy initially assumes that he is.

This isn’t a technophobic story – both Agnes and Quy’s sister Tam are adept at electronics, and that’s why Tam is able to articulate the poison pill in the immersers:

“It’s their weapon, too.” Tam pushed at the entertainment unit. “Just like their books and their holos and their live games. It’s fine for them—they put the immersers on tourist settings, they get just what they need to navigate a foreign environment from whatever idiot’s written the Rong script for that thing. But we—we worship them. We wear the immersers on Galactic all the time. We make ourselves like them, because they push, and because we’re naive enough to give in.”

She’s desperately striving for a way to bypass this tech:

Tam’s eyes glinted, as savage as those of the rebels in the history holos. “If I can take them apart, I can rebuild them and disconnect the logical circuits. I can give us the language and the tools to deal with them without being swallowed by them.”

No, the point made is not subtle, but sometimes we need to be slapped in the head. (I recommend reading Aliette’s notes on writing “Immersion”.)

While I find the ending emotionally satisfying, I do find it a little bit too easy. (I would have preferred Quy to have given her the word for older sister.) Still, that is a minor complaint in a story I enjoy quite a bit.

This is my favorite of the three nominees and I hope it wins.

Disclosure: I am friends with Aliette.

Written by Chance

June 30, 2013 at 9:32 am

Words without Borders and SF Mistressworks

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I’ve recently discovered a new online magazine called Words Without Borders. It publishes stories, poems, graphic stories, etc. that are English translations of works originally written in other languages. (Always near and dear to my heart because I feel my exposure to non-English literature is spotty at best.) Unfortunately, the percentage of women authors featured in the magazine is as strong as I would have liked.

Many of the translations can be viewed side-by-side with the story in its original language. Here’s the page for None of Your Business by Natalia Klyuchareva. I’m fascinated that the original Russian story is so much shorter than the translation. (I think perhaps the end of the story is missing. Otherwise, Russian is a marvelously concise language. Possibly both.)

This is a rather grim story of a boy with alcoholic parents who one day locks his parents out of their flat and refuses to let them back in. Remarkably, it sticks and his parents go on to freeload from friends until they drift away.

Everyone was waiting for Yurka to break. The longer this didn’t happen, the less they sympathized with him. The Krivovs had already attracted the general sympathy.

They lived by migrating among their numerous relatives. They drank, complained about the “monster,” and drank again—until their hosts, out of their wits over their drinking, showed them the door. Then they went on their way. Little by little they moved so far from their own home that even old lady Faya, who knew everything about everyone, lost track of them.

And life goes on for the son who was only in middle school when he evicted his parents – he takes in a lodger and makes ends meet, barely, but the weight of his parents is always in him and something that he carries alone.

The story is rich and grounded in detail, but at the same time almost magical:

When he got back from vacation, Gerka had a gut feeling that something was very wrong. Sparks of a scandal filled the air. Even his hair seemed electrified and stood on end, and his hands, magnetized, stuck to each other.

In the end, family ties are inescapable, and redemption of the parents and the child is, at best, illusion.

On another topic, there’s been a lot of discussion around the internets about the dreadful lack of women in the SF Masterworks series (there are more titles by Philip K. Dick than all women combined) and now there’s a blog devoted to SF Mistressworks (dreadful name, I know.) The only thing I take umbrage with is that young adult SF is not allowed. *shakes cranky old man fist of internet rage* Of course, looking at both proposed Mistressworks list and the Masterworks list, there’s a couple that when I read them I thought they were YA ….

Written by Chance

June 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Disassembly by Kathy Fish

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I was poking around on the internets and got led to the guernica site because of a a story about the decline of Detroit and then noticed that they also published fiction. New fiction site=same reaction as a feral cat who discovers catnip for the first time, only with less drooling.

I like this story but I can’t really articulate why. It seems to encapsulate perfectly the horror of funerals and the private history that plays such a huge role in families. This story feels true, even if there isn’t that much that happens and in its own way it dribbles off a bit. It hits its mark because of the way life dribbles off a bit.

I give myself extra points for mentioning drooling/dribbling so many times. The story is much better than my comments.

Written by Chance

January 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Posted in kathy fish, short story

The Silence of the Asonu by Ursula K. Le Guin

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The strength in Le Guin’s writing has always been her worldbuilding. She seems to have an infinite capacity for creating varied cultures. In The Silence of the Asonu she creates a world in which none of the adults talk and the children gradually lose language.

Children from two to six years old chatter to each other constantly; they argue, wrangle, and bicker, and sometimes come to blows. As they come to be six or seven they begin to speak less and to quarrel less. By the time they are eight or nine most of them are very shy of words and reluctant to answer a question except by gesture. They have learned to quietly evade inquiring tourists and linguists with notebooks and recording devices. By adolescence they are as silent and as peaceable as the adults.

There is little plot in the story – there is a somewhat amusing section where the silence of the Asonu has been given a mysticism by a group of zealots who seem to want to read far more into one Asonu’s utterances than warranted.

The story turns dark when one of the zealots kidnaps a young Asonu child in hopes of getting it to speak longer so that she could teach him the secrets the Asonu hide. Unsurprisingly, this does not turn out well.

Unfortunately, the story collapses for me when Le Guin ends the story with a lame joke.

Written by Chance

January 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Day 53: The Bolted Door by Edith Wharton

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Sometimes when I read a story, I wonder what it would be like if I had read it when it was first published. Or at the very least, much earlier in my reading career before I became aware of the patterns of fiction.

So it is with The Bolted Door by Edith Wharton. It’s a bit tell-tale heart and reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie. (In the fascination with useless upper class people unable to conceive of working for a living way)

Hubert Granice is that useless upper class person who has spent the last ten years of his life as a failed playwright and now his despair drives him to do something curious – confess to the decade-old unsolved murder of his cousin in hopes of getting the death penalty.

Unfortunately for his plan, the man he confessed to (his lawyer) doesn’t believe him. How ever Granice tries to convince him, his lawyer doesn’t budge in his belief that Granice is innocent.

Much of the story is taken up with Granice confessing this crime over to various people who all refuse to believe him. He has an iron tight alibi that was investigated years earlier, and all the people that Granice suggest could corroborate his story cannot be found. Eventually he becomes unhinged that he’s locked up in an asylum.

The twist at the end is (of course) that he’s actually guilty of the murder. Maybe when the story was first published this twist was surprising.

The trouble for me is that there isn’t much development in the story beyond the initial confession – sure his agitation heightens with each confession until he’s completely unhinged but for me it was obvious that this tension was just building for the reveal that he’d had in fact committed the murder.

I can’t say that I’ve read a story with this exact plot before, but I feel like I have. If I hadn’t, I imagine I would have appreciated this story quite a lot more.

Written by Chance

November 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Day 52: 50 Fatwas for Virtuous Vampire by Pamela K. Taylor

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Kameron mentioned this story on twitter the other day and I’m glad she did. I’ve got a love/hate relationship with it.

First the love: I rarely like faux non-fiction, but I really enjoyed the excerpts from the books that advise vampires on how to live a virtuous life and one keeping with the Koran.

In Chapter Three of Ethical Eating: Seven Steps to a Godly Diet’ Sheikha al-Binawi explains, “Selecting the appropriate individual for dining upon can seem quite a daunting prospect. However, the Muslim vampire can take heart, for God does not leave us without guidance. The Qur’an, in a most appropriately titled chapter–The Table Spread–tells us that ‘whoever slays a human being, except for murder or spreading corruption on the earth, it is as though he had killed all of humankind, and whoever saves a life, it is as though they had saved all of mankind.’ Keeping these words firmly in mind, a righteous vampire can not only have his cake but eat it, too! His heart can rest at ease as he dines upon murderers, arsonists, rapists, philanderers and other nasty criminals, knowing that he is not only ridding the Earth of those who would corrupt it, but also saving innocent lives in the process! Truly, we must be deeply grateful for the double blessing the Lord has showered upon the Everliving!”

The actual narrative part of the story, well that’s something else. First, having your main character stand around and think a lot? This very rarely a good idea and definitely not one here.

The bigger problem is that I didn’t feel like the author had any awareness of how repulsive Ibrahim was. I feel like she meant him to be a hero who is saving Lina from the horror of a brutal marriage. Of course, he’s the man who attacked her and now she makes Bambi eyes at him? The whole last scene makes me want to stab the author with a fork.

Imagine to yourself what you would do if a stranger approached you on the street and said:

“I want to help. I can protect you from Sidi Ahmed.”
“You know about him? What he wants?”
“I overheard.”
“What can you do? We depend on him for everything. We’re completely under his thumb.”
“I can marry you,” he said, surprising himself.

Are you going to look at him like a) a dream come true or b) another predator who is going to do you wrong as much as the guy who was trying to blackmail you into marriage.

I choose B. The author chose A

Written by Chance

November 11, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Day 51: The Popinjay’s Daughter by Anne Cross

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(sorry, still behind and trying to catch up.)

So this felt a lot like the first chapter to a novel. I wouldn’t mind particularly if it were because I enjoyed the concept and the story.

Who can resist a house with rules of its own?

You may pass through as many of them as you like and not arrive where you think you ought to, because you cannot leave the House except through the door you entered in by, and you cannot exit the House unless it be in the same state you came in.

Sure, it’s got your standard fantasy bits – the plucky urchin who becomes apprentice to a powerful magician (sortof), the corrupt magical society who use their power for their own gain. There’s a bit too much of “you can do whatever you want to women if you are powerful” for my tastes. (Seriously, I’m just done with that. You know what? Don’t make it a plot point. You don’t have to. Think different, people! Ahem.) There is also my super-pedant complaint that second world fantasies should not mention places in our world, so Mad Russian, no thank you.

However, although this danced in familiar shoes, they are comfy shoes and I like them. I like how earnest Ghost is about trying to learn, but not quite able to teach himself how to read. I like the strength in him and how he doesn’t fall for the beautiful woman, but for her baby.

Written by Chance

November 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Day 50: Bread and Circuses by Genevieve Valentine

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Much like dragons, circuses make everything better, so I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t an actual circus in Bread and Circuses. However, there was quite enough here to like even without an actual circus.

Instead, there is only a refugee from a circus, Valeria who becomes a walled town’s new baker. The narrator, Tom, is the one who stokes the fire for her over, is her jailor, and belatedly her friend.

This town is a prison that locked itself in a cycle of fear – their greatest fear being that someone will steal their wheat and attempt to sell it to the neighboring town. Sadly, there is no theft, there is simply not enough to go around. (That’s how they lost their last baker, in a year of famine she was made the scapegoat. Tom and Valeria have been set up to fill this role again.) Their community is a fragile, suspicious thing.

This story reminds me of one of my favorites from SCI FICTION, The Water Master” -the shortage in the water master is water, not food, but both the water master and the baker take a similar spot in the society – the outsider who fills a role that’s essential to the community well being but at the same time is demonized for it.

The narrator here is a bit naïve and oblivious. He was the last to realize that he has been made her jailer. One day he watches her sift dirt into the dough and does not comment. Then:

The third day when I looked up at her, waiting, she shook her head silently, made little pockets in the bread so it looked bigger than it was. (I was too crushed by her silence, I didn’t think much of her doing it; I didn’t realize that her worries had begun in earnest.)

He wraps his hopes into the circus – the thing that he experienced only briefly and from the outside, it is a childlike and melancholy hope, but Valeria tries to protect him:

Her hands were shaking as she turned back to the dough, and I knew she wouldn’t speak another word about the circus—not even for her own sake, but for mine.

The story ends with escape and death, but also with defiance.

If I jumped, I would land outside the city walls. That would be enough; whether or not I lived, I would have been even once outside the gates.

(The aerialists had done the same—you held your breath and jumped as far out as you could, and hoped the wind would carry you.)

Written by Chance

November 7, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Day 49: Heart of a Mouse by K.J. Bishop

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There is a fable about a mouse who is turned into a lion, but is still afraid of everything because he’s still got a heart of a mouse. Bishop has taken this fable and literalized it –people are turned into who they are inside.

Some people are turned into volk which seem to be gun-nut Christian right types, they carry around AK-47s and shout purity slogans. Some folk have been turned into cats and dogs and pigs or angels or dreams or bactyls (mindless eaters of some sort).

The narrator has been turned into a mouse, a giant bear-sized mouse, but a mouse none-the-less. As you read the story you get a sense that he wasn’t a particularly nice man before the great “search and replace” happened.

Before he was a cop, a bully, divorced from his wife for reasons we don’t know, but it’s not too hard to guess that it was probably his fault:

Well, I can understand that. It’s how she was, anyway. Vain creature. Wanting someone to look after her but never wanting to be obedient or altruistic. Yeah, that’s the kind of power she’d give him if she was real.

a man who beats his son and tries to make it sound like he had to do it to:

So I have to hit him, not out of hurt feelings, of course, but because there’s no way I can look after him and keep him safe if he doesn’t respect me and do as I say.

Yep, this guy is a real prince and who would want to spend the apocalypse with him? (You can’t help but to compare this story to The Road what with the endless travel and the idyll in the found house that is common to them both. Unfortunately, Bishop easily loses that comparison.)

He starts to change when he finds a hut, and against his better judgment decides to stay there for a while, making a home, and in the process grows, but he doubts himself.

This seems like my old way of thinking coming back, the way I used to think in the days before, making justifications and excuses–murky, weak thinking, pretending to put others first when actually I’m only trying to look after myself–deceitful, slimy thinking. The thoughts a bactyl would have, if it could.

And perhaps he’s been given the chance to be more of a man than he would have ever been in the pre-change world, but at the end of the story when he needs to move on again, he’s afraid he’ll become who he was before:

What I’m worried about most of all is that now we don’t have the hut anymore, now we’re back to where we were before, he’ll change back, lose the brains and guts that last night’s episode proved he’s grown, and the sensitivity I’m seeing in him now. And that I’ll lose what I got back too. I don’t think he understands that, though. He’s only a kid.

I didn’t find this story affecting. It was interesting for the worldbuilding, but the emotional arc the narrator goes through left me cold. Something about the narrator failed to engage me – I wasn’t even terribly repulsed by his brutish behavior. Overall, I felt like the story was trying so hard to move me it ended up being very on-the-nose and had the opposite effect.

Written by Chance

November 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Day 48: You Leave Them by Mona Simpson

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I first enjoyed the uncomfortable pleasure of watching fame seeking when watching Star Search (you go Ed McMahon!) though the real winner of this category is clearly American Idol.

You Leave Them is all about the stage mother and her daughter who travel across the country in search of fame and fortune.

“My name is Heather,” I said. While we were driving she told me I could pick a new name for myself in California. It would be my television name.

“Heather, then. You know who I mean.” She sniffed me, “You smell,” she said, and handed me a towel. “Let’s have some scrubbing action. Get undressed and hurry up.”

I washed standing on one leg, the other foot on my knee, swishing the towel around lightly. Other women’s faces sealed the mirror. My mother didn’t notice women leaving the restroom but she saw that I was embarrassed. All of the sudden she saw that. And it must have seemed like a defeat. She’d driven all that way and now we were here and I was ashamed of her.

Written by Chance

November 4, 2010 at 9:51 pm