Short Fiction Review

April 2017 Review: Part 2

Here is a dish served with fish, figs, and the flesh of a human heart. You’ll need the calories before you begin your trip across parallel universes—or was it Norway at the top of a drowned world? I’ve scoured some of the most popular science fiction and fantasy magazines available online and these are my thoughts. (Possible spoilers ahead!)


FIRESIDE
Apr. 2017

The Hulder’s Husband Says Don’t” by Kate Lechler 

The hulder myth was one I wasn’t familiar with, so I looked it up. Generally, they are female-looking creatures who seduce hunters and steal them away to the mountains until the hunter agrees to marry her, after which she reveals herself to be seriously ugly. They have a tail (usually a cow’s but sometimes a fox’s) and look like a hollowed tree from behind. In this sinister short version at Fireside, the hulder seduces a hunter, but she doesn’t keep him captive. Instead, after seeing her enough times, he brings her home on his whim. Things go badly for her after that. Similarly to the misconceptions she has about him, the husband had some of his own about what a hulder should be like.

This house is a forest of don’ts.

When you stand up from a chair, don’t leave circles of twigs prickling in the seat.

When you meet a stranger, don’t talk to them about the care and maintenance of cow’s tails.

Don’t sing. Your voice makes the neighborhood dogs howl.

If he wanted a “normal” girlfriend/wife (more on that later), why did he take home a hulder? The fact that she’s not wholly human should have been a good indication that she would not fit into this mold in his mind of what constitutes an ideal partner. But that’s what this story is saying: that “normal” or ideal partner isn’t built to suit your needs. She isn’t a prize to put on display, or a wild animal to be tamed. She is who she is. The hulder’s husband says “don’t,” but perhaps he ought to have left it at “hello” and found somebody else.


LIGHTSPEED
Issue #83 – Apr. 2017

Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather

Sarah and her wife are looking for their daughter, Elena, across universes. But Elena hasn’t gone missingwell, in a way she has, but Sarah is looking for “a world where she’s happy.” Elena is in trouble in this world, addicted to drugs, so Sarah has built a transporter in order to jump between realities to find a happy Elena. Six out of seven times, she finds an Elena that is worse-off or non-existent. Take this one:

As it turns out, in this world—devoid as it is of opium and hydrocodone and heroin—Elena is addicted to a sort of computer virus. I don’t pretend to understand it. I’m no neurobiologist, and even if I was, I doubt there’s anything like this in my world outside of the pages of a science fiction magazine. This Elena, who is not as skeletal as mine but is getting there, has a silver port screwed into the back of her skull.

And that’s only world number two!

The Elena that she finds in the seventh world is finally what she’s been searching for, but not in the way that she originally had thought. When Sarah does come across a happy, productive version of her daughter, she laments to her wife, Dahlia, that “it wasn’t our Elena.” How could it have been? The only daughter they have is the one that lives in their world, but it took Sarah jumping across universes to finally understand. The story says a number of things: cherish what you have and save it before it’s gone forever. What makes it all the more biting is when those whom you love are already gone. For the rest of us, there is still hope.

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Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger” by Charles Yu (Originally from Dead Man’s Hand, 2014) 

In this fun little romp we’re introduced to a town with three fast gunslingers: Fallon, Pete, and Ratface. Fallon and Pete are second and third fastest, but not always in that order. Ratface is the understood fastest of all, although we never get to see it in action. Well, another bloke, the narrator and erstwhile bookkeeper for the town, talks his way into a duel between Fallon and Pete one afternoon and ends up earning the third profession in the story’s title. (Hint: he becomes a gunslinger.) Turns out he’s wicked fast, faster than anyone, and people come from all over to challenge him. How does he do it? Some form of telepathy. Near the end we discover he’s not the only telepathic gunslinger, either, as he stares down another for one more duel. Will it be his last? That’s anybody’s guess. As a whole, it’s entertaining and light, though I would have liked another level touching on the theme of the reluctant hero, or a little more spice sprinkled into the origin story motif, too.


NIGHTMARE
Issue #55 – Apr. 2017

(☆) “Figs, Detached” by Jenn Grunigen 

I waffled over starring “Figs, Detached,” but decided to because it’s just so unhinged, so committed to its pastiche that I couldn’t resist. Where to begin? For one, it may be helpful to have Google at hand, but not wholly necessary. For example, plugging in names such as Dioscorides and Sykophantes seems to be encouraged by the author, but a straight reading of the story without doing any homework won’t devoid the reader of important plot points, rather it’s merely there to enhance the flavor. Readers may find themselves lost regardless.

The meat of “Figs” is about a relationship. Our narrator encounters Lacticifer (laticifer: circulatory tube-like cells that secret latex in plants), a fruit seller, but the fruits are born of his flesh, generated by lust or hatred or boredom or love. He doesn’t only fuck her exclusively (is it her?) in order to get pregnant, however, to her chagrin; there are others. That’s really it, with some mundane day to day activities splashed in between. But it’s all so weird and gross and sticky. I’d really like to share full passages of the text, but standing alone they aren’t as powerful, and I’d prefer you go read the story yourself. See what you think of these figs, and maybe like me you’ll find yourself attached to them in the end.


STRANGE HORIZONS
Apr. 2017

Lacuna” by Lane Robins

This is a great story. I didn’t understand it the first time around. There are still things I don’t wholly understand now, either, but I appreciate it for what it is. In the titular city of Lacuna, “an apostate city, full of believers who have lost their faith,” Father Jean-Paulo is sent to find the dying Father Padraig-Immanuel, and return with him to Rome. But along the way, Jean-Paulo is lead astray. There’s a burlesk in Lacuna where the girls are golems “created by a runaway rabbi who tired of creating creatures of war and changed up his template.” Jean-Paulo is entranced by these dancers, and during his visits he collects their discarded, broken body parts from a dumpster out back as he assembles his own hodgepodge golem girl. When she finally comes to life, something’s wrong. You see, Father Padraig-Immanuel had warned Jean-Paulo of his blind spot earlier, and again the blind spot has won. But what was it? Truth be told, I did a little sleuthing in order to place the last piece of the puzzlefilled in my own blind spot, you could say. But I think the discerning reader can come up with it on their own if they choose to engage the text closer than I did. That said, this story won me over with its vivid and rich setting, troubled characters, and biting end. Superbly crafted and fantastically detailed. Strong “Best of” potential.

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Seeds” by Margaret Wack

How do we rebuild the world after it almost ends? How do we navigate a changed landscape without any maps? How do we reconcile with a destructive past while still reaching toward the future? In fewer than 900 words, “Seeds” addresses these questions, albeit briefly, of course. Snow and a group of other girls are looking for Norway in a post-cataclysmic world. Wack employs beautiful writing to describe all this, packed densely into passages like the following:

Snow knows the maps like she knows her own bones, though they shift sometimes, like bones; they warp and grow. She does not know who first made that important notation, long erased but embedded in the minds of her mothers like the need to sleep and eat and reproduce. Norway, the map says. North. An island so cold and strange and far away as to be unreal. As to be exempt. From the end of the world, and from everything that comes after.

So what grows from a seed? All the information that came before it, passed down from prior generations. Snow and these girls might be after this destination in the north to find the fabled seeds, but what they’re after has been inside them all along. They are the seeds, and together, they will regrow the world. Take a few minutes and unpack this story for yourself. Then read it again. It’s worth it.


TOR.COM
Apr. 2017

Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson

Somewhere in the dark of the arctic, a creature stirs. It bears resemblance to men, but not for long. It craves the beating heart of another to feast upon. They call it a wendigo, and Noel of “Dark Warm Heart” may be turning into one to the terror of his wife, Kristine. He’s been a bit off. He sits at home for hours, whole days even, listening to the recordings he took while up north.

Noel was hunched over the laptop like an old man. The shadows hollowed out his cheeks and for a moment his eyes looked like black holes. Then he looked up with a bleary grin and pulled the headphones down around his neck.

Necessity drives us all, like the necessity to work, and greater still, the necessity to feed. This hunger’s strength can be overwhelming, and as the story shows, frightening. “Dark Warm Heart” has the makings of a tight, well-spun horror story, but the pacing flagged more than I would have liked, and the ending is abrupt to the point of being nagging rather than mysterious. Also, Larson is the king of characterization, so it surprised me to find generic placeholders such as “nails digging crescents in her palms” here. But really, the complaints don’t outweigh the enjoyment from reading the story. Dark, cold, and plenty of heart. Check this one out!


UNCANNY
Issue #15 – Mar./Apr. 2017

The Red Secretary” by Kameron Hurley (Originally from Kameron Hurley’s Patreon, 2016)

In this world, war erupts every three hundred years when “the enemy” rises, like clockwork. Those who commit violence are incinerated after the conflict settles down in the hope that a more peaceful world will develop afterward. (But if the enemies always rise three hundred years later, what does it matter?) At the start of the story, Arkadi is sent to negotiate the ransom of a massive power generator sitting on top of a methane deposit, held by AWOL soldiers. Apparently, enough soldiers who signed up for war knowing they would be purged afterward change their minds later, requiring a class of negotiators to intervene. If the structure goes, it takes the whole province with it, hence Arkadi’s mission.

While I liked “The Red Secretary” for its creativity, I found the world’s framework ill defined. For instance, if there is no military tradition intact in between conflicts, how are the people prepared to go to war when the centuries old enemy rises again? If Justicars are sent after AWOL soldiers who refuse to self-immolate, aren’t they responsible for committing violence, too? (It’s said that some people are pushed into the incinerators by the Justicars, for instance.) How do they keep track of who commits violence, and will the Justicars know that Arkadi is responsible for what happened in the Red Secretary if they’re able to hunt down others who try to escape their fate? None of this means I didn’t enjoy the story; if anything my engagement via these questions indicates a willingness to understand. If this piece were part of a larger context, which it very well may be, I’d like to see how it fits in. As a standalone, however, I was left feeling unfulfilled.

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An Abundance of Fish” by S. Qiouyi Lu

How can such a short story be so sad? Lu pulls it off, mainly through an immediate grounding in this relationship between lovers. It’s told simply and beautifully, during the spring festival, cooking (and burning) of fish, and hanging paper ingots. Then giant fish arrive, cities are destroyed, and one of the lovers dies. The fish have to be managed afterward. They arrive predictably, and we learn to adapt, our narrator included. The pain still lingers, though, poignantly in the story’s final sentence: “But oh, xin’gan, I miss you.” Heart wrenching, and impactful.


© 2017 Derek Thomas Conrad
Stories Reviewed — Fireside: “The Hulder’s Husband Says Don’t” by Kate Lechler
Lightspeed: “Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather; “Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger” by Charles Yu
Nightmare: “Figs, Detached” by Jenn Grunigen
Strange Horizons: “Lacuna” by Lane Robins; “Seeds” by Margaret Wack
Tor.com: “Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson
Uncanny: “The Red Secretary” by Kameron Hurley; “An Abundance of Fish” by S. Qiouyi Lu
All stories reviewed are copyright of their respective owners. Featured image “figs” © 2011 Dauntless-85, used under the Creative Commons license.

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