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The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: wrap-up

One of the problems with many anthologies – and the reason, I guess, why people often admit to only dipping into them rather than reading them through from cover to cover as unified texts – is that of unevenness. You get a couple of truly standout stories, a turkey or two maybe, and a whole bunch of what you might call so-so stories, enjoyable enough at the time of reading but not all that memorable. My own pet peeve with anthologies is that they often lack cohesion. What you get is a kind of grab-bag of odds and ends, with no real sense that the stories belong together, or make a coherent statement as a group. For me, an anthology should say something – about the theme or title of the book, about the writers who’ve been gathered together. The individual pieces should be strong in themselves, but they should also add up to something. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women does all these things.

In her introduction to the anthology, editor Alex Dally MacFarlane states that she wanted to take a snapshot of where science fiction – and by implication, science fiction written by women – is at at the present moment, the multiplicity and variety of worlds it seeks to inhabit. For me, she has succeeded admirably. She has succeeded not only in reflecting the breadth and excellence of the work that is being done, but also in gathering together a group of stories that, through the interplay of their themes and internal resonances, form a statement that is striking in its coherence.

In terms of the individual stories, the anthology has an amazingly high strike rate. Of the thirty-three stories included, only one flat-out didn’t work for me, with very few weak spots amongst the others. As for standouts, there are so many memorable stories here that I’m having trouble picking my favourites, but just for the record and in no particular order, here they are:

1) ‘The Science of Herself’ by Karen Joy Fowler

2) ‘Spider the Artist’ by Nnedi Okorafor

3) ‘The Other Graces’ by Alice Sola Kim

4) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

5) ‘Enyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

6) ‘Valentines’ by Shira Lipkin

7) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

8) ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

This list could easily have been twice as long. Many of these stories will remain with me for a long time. As well as presenting me with work by writers I already know and admire, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women has highlighted the names of writers previously unknown to me whose work I shall definitely be seeking out in the future.  That is a marker of success all by itself.

Was there anything missing? Well, no anthology can contain everything, and every anthology must of necessity be shaped by the knowledge, ambition and personal taste of its editor – indeed that’s sort of the point. Given these caveats, I found the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women to be remarkably well balanced, containing, as per the old adage, something for everyone, pretty much. Looking back down the table of contents, it occurs to me that the anthology is a little short on hard SF. The single hard SF story contained here – Natalia Theodoridou’s ‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ – is admittedly excellent, and highly original, but I do feel the anthology could have benefited from a little more hard SF input – off the top of my head, Linda Nagata, Madeleine Ashby and Tricia Sullivan spring instantly to mind as writers working in this particular area. Something else that strikes me is the shortage of British contributions. Of thirty-three writers, we have only one British (Tori Truslow) and one British-based (Zen Cho) writer on the slate. Given the high proportion of American and US-based writers represented, it would not have hurt to have a story by Gwyneth Jones, say, or Mary Gentle in the mix.  But these are minor quibbles.

As well as fulfilling its editor’s own mission statement, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women is an important book for other reasons, too. Firstly, it tackles the whole ‘women don’t write science fiction’ bollocks head on, and wins by a knockout. I would lay money on the fact that anyone picking up this book – out of curiosity perhaps, or as a learning experience, or just looking for something new to read – would forget all about the ‘by women’ epithet within the space of a couple of stories. They’d be too busy enjoying the wide range of material on offer, and wondering where they could get more stuff by these writers. To anyone – male, female, publisher, reader, writer – stuck with that sneaking feeling that science fiction written by women ‘just isn’t their thing’, I would say get yourself a copy of this anthology and prepare to have all your assumptions blown out of the water.

The anthology also does great work in debunking the currently fashionable complaint that SF is exhausted. Compiling a Year’s Best must be the devil’s own job, and clearly it’s physically impossible these days to even hope to read every piece of SF short fiction published in a given year. But one of the issues I’ve seen aired about Year’s Bests in recent years is that the large majority of stories selected are culled from relatively few venues, and always the same venues, an editorial choice that is bound to result in a degree of sameness and even blandness, however honourable the intention otherwise. Hence the impression of science fictional exhaustion.  The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women isn’t a Year’s Best, of course – these works have been chosen from stories published over the past two decades – but it is noticeable and commendable to see twenty-five separate venues listed in the publication permissions credits. I would perhaps have liked to see a story or two coming from places outside the genre – but again, this is a small quibble, and overall the diversity of source venues is reflected in the stimulating diversity of the stories on offer here.

And almost as a bonus, we have the sheer quality of the writing. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who carps on about science fiction not being capable of the heights of literary expression and formal innovation reached in the sphere of mainstream literary fiction needs to read this book and then revise that opinion. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women offers abundant proof, if any were needed, that science fiction can do anything mainstream fiction can do and then some.

I’ve been on a wonderful journey with these stories. I recommend this book unreservedly, and I hope that once you have read it you will do the same.

 

 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #19

31) ‘Vector’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Out through the school gate, part of a crowd pouring out, you hope for familiar smells of roast pork and sticky rice, for colours you recognise: an old tree with a pink sash around it to mark the spirit within. Tiny plates of food at the base of a utility pole, to curry favour with any small god that might live in the wires or the concrete. It does no harm to put such things out. But they are superstitions and the farangs passing by smirk. A tourist more freckles than skin pauses to blink at it; her spectacles give off a flicker. Photo snapped and uploading, to be laughed at and rendered into a joke. Who believes in divinities so diminutive? 

In the near future, a young woman sacrifices her life to be turned into a computer virus, the ultimate post-human condition. Her country’s cultural landscape has been overwritten, used as a strategic stepping stone by a dominant power. As she readies herself to complete her mission, memories of her human life struggle to rise above the surface of an imposed reality:

She ascertains that she’s in a ruined hospital in Palangkaraya, basement level, far from home. It chills her until she remembers the distance is irrelevant, that come success or failure she will never leave this place. What remains of her will not survive being disconnected from the tank. 

All is anatta. Sangkarn is transient. She needs to let go. Panic rises anyway, even though she’s so detached from flesh that she should be beyond this choking terror, above this mindless fear of the grave.

This is impassioned, driven writing, with not a word wasted. The science fictional conceits merge seamlessly with the shifting layers of images worked from two opposing realities. ‘Vector’ constitutes a powerful fusion between feeling and meaning, thought and word, image and idea. I admire the strength of purpose in this narrative, which serves as a darker, angrier counterpart to de Bodard’s Immersion. This story has weight. It’s even better on a second reading.

 

32) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

I loved this piece – for me it had the feel of a novel in miniature – so much I was moved immediately to search for more information about it. Angelica Gorodischer is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for some time now, and ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ felt like the perfect introduction to her work. If it reminded me of anything it’s Jan Morris’s Hav, or even some of Roberto Bolano’s more discursive factioneering. The story is actually a single chapter from a longer work, Kalpa Imperial (go to this page and you’ll find some links to extracts from the book, also an interview with Gorodischer), a novel detailing the rise and fall and rise again of ‘the greatest empire that never was’. The ‘mountain city’ at the centre of this particular story is described – or more accurately word-painted – as a microcosm of history in flux. Kings, empresses, wars, artists, hucksters, armies – they all pass through the city and they all leave their mark, some more indelibly than others. Always, at the centre, the city herself, warping and changing but never quite laid low, inimitably herself in spite of the erosions wrought upon her by an unruly populace:

The mountains are buried under walls, balconies, terraces, parks; a square slants down, separated from a steep drop by stone arcades; the third floor of a house is the basement of another that fronts on the street above; the west wall of a government building adjoins the ironwork of a courtyard of a school for deaf girls; the cellars of a functionary’s grand mansion become the attics of a deserted building, while a cat flap, crowned with an architrave added 200 years later, serves as a tunnel into a coal hole, and a shelf has become the transept for a window with golden shields in the panes, and the skylight doesn’t open on the sky, but on a gallery of waterwheels made of earthenware.

The city as organism is a beloved theme among readers and writers of speculative fiction alike. Gorodischer’s work here is a fabulous addition to this particular canon. It’s a privilege to see a master at work.

 

33) ‘The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

…and my Beast came up to me one night and said: “Oh please, oh please, can you write me a story where Venus is like it was in old SF books, all waterworldy and with big fish and stuff?” (While I was writing Golubash, he said “oh, please, oh please, can I have a pony in it?” You can’t blame him, he’s been waiting for me to write SF for four years–exactly, in fact, as today is our anniversary–so it is a bit like getting a vending machine suddenly stocked with your favorite stuff. He just keeps mashing the buttons to see what will come out.)

(Catherynne M. Valente – extract from a post at Rules for Anchorites)

This is the story of the documentary film maker Bysshe, who goes to film the legendary callowhales of Venus. Lovely links and resonances with both Gorodischer’s story and Truslow’s. There’s as much New Weird here as there is science fiction – the story’s aesthetic brought Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film The City of Lost Children instantly to mind – but who cares about categorisation when the writing is this good? I love Valente’s work. Her imagination is so fluid, so fearless, and her command of language feels completely effortless, even though I know that isn’t the case, that prose like this has to be crafted and fought for every word of the way.

The levitator told her of a town called Adonis, a whole colony on Venus that vanished in the space of a night. Divers they were, mostly, subject both to the great callowhales with their translucent skin and the tourists who came to watch and shiver in cathartic delight as the divers risked their lives to milk the recalcitrant mothers in their hibernation. They built a sweet village on the shores of the Qadesh, plaiting their roofs with grease-weed and hammering doors from the chunks of raw copper which comprised the ersatz Venusian beach. They lived; they ate the thready local cacao and shot, once or twice a year a leathery ‘Tryx from the sky, enough to keep them all in fat and protein for months. 

I think I mentioned before how much I enjoy stories that contain found documents or pose as secret histories, fictitious biographies. This is one of those, and it is a beauty.

 

Well, that’s the last of our 33 stories. It’s been an amazing journey. Stay tuned for a wrap-up post, coming soon!

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #18

27) ‘Sing’ by Karin Tidbeck

On the off-world colony of Kiruna, a tailor, Aino, comes into contact with a scientist, Petr, who is visiting the colony in a research capacity. Petr finds himself increasingly drawn to what he sees as the honest simplicity of life on Kiruna, and enchanted by the seemingly miraculous singing abilities of the colonists. He is determined to discover their secret. Aino fears that such a discovery will destroy the growing bond between them.

He reached into the back pocket of his trousers and drew out something like a very small and thin book. He did something with a quick movement – shook it out, somehow – and it unfolded into a large square that he put down on the counter. It had the outlines of letters at the bottom, and his fingers flew over them. WHAT HAPPENED WITH SOUND?

I recognised the layout of keys. I could type. SAARAKKA, I wrote.  WHEN SAARAKKA IS UP, WE CAN’T HEAR SPEECH. WE SING INSTEAD. 

WHY HAS NOBODY TOLD ME ABOUT THIS? He replied.

I shrugged.

He typed with annoyed, jerky movements. HOW LONG DOES IT LAST?

UNTIL IT SETS, I told him. 

This is a classic ‘curiosity killed the cat’ story. It’s also a story about acceptance, and difference, and coming to terms with who you are and where you fit in. The worldbuilding in ‘Sing’ is charming, and skilfully wrought, but in many ways the science fictional elements are incidental – this story could be set in any small community, anywhere. It’s the way people relate to one another here that make the story what it is: odd, with a quiet beauty, and just a little unnerving.

 

28) ‘Good Boy’ by Nisi Shawl

The invitation is entirely legitimate. Those who find the language in which it’s couched to be odd should refer to the available historical data on mid-twentieth century black musicians, specifically Sun Ra, Parliament, Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire. A notable space travel mystique developed around their work, and it is to honour its creative impetus that I’ve arranged for y’all to party up! Everybody party up! Come fly with me! I am the Mothership Connection. You have overcome, for I am here! 

On the planet of Renaissance, the City’s colonists are falling prey to a mysterious infirmity. The doctors are stumped. Ivorene McKenna has her own ideas about how to effect a cure, though there are those who disapprove, to put it mildly. When chaos breaks loose in the City, Ivorene is absent – but who’s that wearing her body? Her daughter Kressi is caught in the crossfire between the old and the new. The funk is risin.

Oh, this story! How it sneaks up on you. There’s no way it should work, but it so does. There’s everything in here from pulp to cyberpunk and seventies funkadelic. Fundamentally, this is a story about how the values and accumulated wisdom of the past have to be carried with us into the future, lest we forget who we are and undermine our spiritual foundations as a result. ‘Good Boy’ is tremendous fun – I was completely swept along by it. But it turns out to be genuinely interesting as science fiction, too, seizing upon tropes and reshaping them to create something entirely original, a law unto itself. Also, there’s music and dancing. Go party!

 

29) ‘The Second Card of the Major Arcana’ by Thoraiya Dyer

Some lovely resonances here with Elizabeth Vonarburg’s ‘Stay Thy Flight’, and also with Nisi Shawl’s ‘Good Boy’, although the tone of this story could not be more different. The main character is a sphinx, but she’s definitely not chained to a pedestal. She’s stalking the world and she’s angry. She kills people who can’t answer her riddles, just by thinking at them. But who is she really, and what is her mission? As with the Nisi Shawl, ‘The Second Card of the Major Arcana’ is a story about how we accommodate the past within our vision of the future.

We descend into Beirut, a capital mismatched as an unsolved Rubik’s cube, so often wrenched apart and poorly put back together. No two pockets of any single alliance are placed handily together but instead separated suburb from suburb, street from street. Like the national draft, the strategy of melding disparate peoples is designed to create unity. 

Instead, it creates paralytic indecision.

The language of this story is rich and dense with imagery and symbol. My grasp of Middle Eastern history is scattershot, to say the least, so I know there will be plenty of references here that will have slipped by me. As a reading experience though, I found this work hugely satisfying. A thought provoking story, with prose to slay for. The ending, where fantasy morphs into science fiction, is brilliant.

 

30) ‘A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas’ by Ekaterina Sedia

The Sea of Clouds is entirely contained by mountains, so high above the blue moon surface that the clouds fill the basin. Mermaids from all over the world make their yearly pilgrimage to this sea – they crawl over land, their tails trailing furrows in the blue dust, their breasts and elbows scuffed on the flat lunar stones. They leave traces of pale mermaid blood, its smell tinged with copper. 

So we’re back with mermaids on the moon, a nice echo here of Tori Truslow’s ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ and at this point in the anthology I’m really liking the way these resonances between the stories have been set up. ‘A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas’ is what’s known as a list story – the narrative taking the form of a series of shorter mini-stories that together form an over-arching whole. Sedia’s tales of the lunar seas run parallel in some ways with Hao Jingfang’s invisible planets, and thence with Marco Polo’s journey through the invisible cities. Sedia’s magical realism is nuanced, wry and charming, thrumming with beautiful images and engaging ideas. Yet I cannot help wanting a little more from my ideal list story than this. There is no story here, not really, and these twenty sparkling parts do not exactly add up to a whole. Still lovely to read, though.

 

 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #17

25) ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard

You hear them negotiating, in the background – it’s tough going, because the Rong man sticks to his guns stubbornly, refusing to give ground to Galen’s onslaught. It’s all very distant, a subject of intellectual study; the immerser reminds you from time to time, interpreting this and that body cue, nudging you this way and that – you must sit straight and silent, and support your husband – and so you smile through a mouth that feels gummed together. 

You feel, all the while, the Rong girl’s gaze on you, burning like ice water, like the gaze of a dragon. She won’t move away from you, and her hand rests on you, gripping your arm with a strength you didn’t think she had in her body. Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinnamon – no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life. 

‘You have to take it off,’ she says. You don’t move, but you wonder what she’s talking about.

‘Immersion’ is the other of the two stories in this volume that I’ve read before, when it first came out.  Reading it again now, it comes across even more powerfully. As an example of a particular kind of science fiction – the social allegory – it is pretty much perfect.

There are strong resonances here with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s story ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’. The immersers in de Bodard’s story work similarly to the augmentations in Loenen-Ruiz’s, only in the opposite direction, interpreting and normalising a culture that is foreign to the wearer, rather than acting as a conduit for suppressed memories. Both stories though speak of oppression, of the devastating impact on individuals and on a whole people when one culture imposes itself upon another, no matter how beneficently.

De Bodard evokes her world with skill and although one could not describe this story as action-packed, plenty happens nonetheless. I especially loved Tam. I think she should have a whole book to herself…

 

26) ‘Down the Wall’ by Greer Gilman

They’ve come into a wide square, set with shattered baulks of stone: a great cat with a muffled head, a riven owl, a witch in flinders. There are fires here and there, some leaping and some embers, ashes. Some long cold. And some a-building: leaves and boxes, doors and drawers and random trash. Children heap frail crazy towers: sticks stacks crows’ nests, all to burn. Some run with brands, they leap and whirl them in a swarm of sparks. They write great fading loops of spells. Three drag a gnarled branch to the fires, its dry and leafy fingers clagged with tins, as many as the rings on a witch’s hand. And still it scrabbles, rakes for more. 

This is a night-fantasia, Mervyn Peake on speed, Gustav Dore drawn in words. You could quote from anywhere in this story and it would be uniformly exquisite, universally sublime. ‘Down the Wall’ is a work of poetry, really – its connection with any usual style of prose narrative is tendentious at best. If I were to compare it with music (which I feel driven to, inevitably), which work would it remind me of most? ‘A Night on the Bald Mountain’ by Modest Mussorgsky, of course. Dance, witch, dance.

Greer Gilman is a magician. Her use and love of language is as ferociously advanced as anything in mainstream literary fiction, and then some. What a voice. I was lucky enough to hear her talking on a panel at this year’s Worldcon. The discussion was about favourite sentences. Gilman chose a line from Andrew Marvell. Way to go. I am lost in awe.

 

Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #16

24) ‘Semiramis’ by Genevieve Valentine

A climate change story. Global warming has precipitated a catastrophic rise in sea level. Many major cities and some whole countries are already underwater, and the disaster is still in motion. Some things remain the same, however, and the greed and short-termism of business corporations is one of them. Two workers at the the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway plan a minor insurrection.

i pick some seeds that will grow in any soil (as dumb as it is, I still want to plant something, once, and watch it grow). I pick some seeds because they’re rare enough to make a decent bribe if things go south.

I pick a bird of paradise, a seed with a sharp red tuft, for no reason except that it’s been ten years since I’ve seen something red; the Aurora is yellow and green, and the rest of the world is the tight dark of seeds, and the envelopes paler than skin.

A fascinating story,  and Valentine’s writing is watertight as always. But something was lacking here, for me.  The overall tone of the narrative is rather cold, rather blank, and whilst I’m sure the writer did not take this decision lightly, for me at least the urgency of the theme seemed diminished by it. Also, this was one of those occasions where I would have greatly welcomed some more background detail – for a story where theme is key, this was all too elliptical. ‘Semiramis’ is a good story, but the diffidence of the (mysteriously annoying) protagonist left me feeling lukewarm about it.

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #15

23) ‘£nyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

I fell in love with Hurley’s writing when I read God’s War, and this nasty, brutish and regrettably short story reminds me in every which way of why. Enyo is a – well, what is she? Terrorist, murderer, mercenary, escaped prisoner, fugitive, just desperate to get away? Anyway, she’s in charge of an organic satellite-thing stuffed with illegal alien biotech, employed by a dubious outfit to map the outlying and probably dangerous areas of a neighbouring system. It’s one dodgy gig. Plus the satellite needs regular feeding. This cannot end well.

She had stopped worrying where the body had come from, or who it had been. Her interest was in pondering what it would become when they reached its destination. She lost track of time in these intimate reveries, often. After half a rotation of contemplation, Reeb would do a sweep of the satellite. He would find her alive and intact, and perhaps he would go back to playing screes or fucking one of the engineers or concocting a vile hallucinogen the gelatinous consistency of aloe. They were a pair of two, a crew of three, picking up rim trash and memories in the seams between the stars during the long night of their orbit around the galactic core. 

This story has the festering, Gigerish outlines of what might be termed Alien-punk: corrupt organisations and lethal technology,  hardened professionals of dubious reputation, outcasts and stowaways gone to the bad, or sold to the worse. It’s stunningly written. It’s sad and frightening all at once. It’s everything I enjoy. More set in this world, please!

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #14

22) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

I really loved this one, mainly because of its powerful narrative voice. Keisha lives in Nashville, out by the interstate. She tells us about her neighbours and her cousins, the kids down the street she likes to hang out with. But something odd is happening to her neighbourhood. There’s talk of a death. Strangers drive by in a silver Buick, asking for directions to a beauty parlor that doesn’t exist. Keisha is curious about that. She feels drawn to these people in ways she can’t explain:

Actually, I could sympathise. Sorta. Not that Momma’d ever let me get my hair done in a beauty salon at my age, but one of my grandfathers used to own a barber shop. I couldn’t remember which grandfather, though. Grandmommy never talked about her ex-husband, and I’d only met him once when me and Daddy ran into him at Farmer’s Market. Nobody really discussed Daddy’s family either. All I knew about his father was that he had water-wave hair, and that he didn’t have no grays when he died. One of my grandfathers was a postman, and one owned the barber shop. I got them mixed up. Actually, I’m not sure about the postman thing, neither. I think I remembered hearin it one time.

As history becomes more insistent, Keisha becomes more distressed. Pieces of the world are going missing and she is desperate to recover them before any more people or streets or buildings disappear. ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ is a perfect piece of slipstream: lyrical, intense and persuasive. It’s about the importance of history and finding your place in it. It’s about identity and how the forces of history can conspire to take it away from you.  I turned the last page, hoping for more, but I’d reached the end. This is a story to carry with you, a story to keep.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #13

20) ‘Ej-Es’ by Nancy Kress

The story is told from the point of view of Mia, a doctor in the space corps, well past the age of retirement and worn out from long service. We join her as she and her colleagues are about to touch down on the planet named Good Fortune, where an established colony has suddenly ceased communicating. The reasons for this are soon established: the colonists have fallen prey to a new virus. They’re all dead. ‘Rec’ cubes left behind by the final victims tell their own story. Mia and her colleagues get to work isolating the pathogens and, from them, creating an antidote:

The colonists had had interment practices, they had had time to bury some of their dead in strong, water-tight coffins before everyone else died, and their customs didn’t include embalming. Much more than Mia had dared hope for. Good Fortune, indeed. 

In five days of tireless work they had the micro isolated, sequenced, and analysed. It was a virus, or a virus analogue, that had somehow gained access to the brain and lodged near the limbic system, creating destruction and death. Like rabies, Mia thought, and hoped this virus hadn’t caused the terror and madness of that stubborn disease. Not even Earth had been able to eradicate rabies. 

These brave pioneers of the space corps are clearly accustomed to measuring time in E years, travelling at speeds ‘just under c’ and solving complex bio-medical problems within five days. It all seems so, so easy. The skeletons of the dead colonists have been picked clean of muck, so there aren’t even any rotting corpses to dispose of. The reconnaissance team later run into some ‘natives’ who seem to be affected by a condition that causes delusions and hallucinations. Mia, worried by their plight, voluntarily maroons herself on Good Fortune so she can spend the time left to her saving their civilisation.

There’s a moral at the end, about not meddling in things or people you don’t properly understand, but by this stage in the story the whole thing had become too Star Trek for me to care.  I’ll happily spend an evening watching DS9 or Voyager, but as it appears on the page, I lost my taste for this post-Golden-Age kind of science fiction many years ago. The workmanlike prose, the little mystery that needs solving, the by-the-numbers characterisation? Just not for me.

 

21) ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’ by E. Lily Yu

I’m not always a fan of stories that make use of animals to tell a human story, but when they are invested with this amount of wit and invention they can be powerful and strange. Bees seem to be in vogue at the moment, science fictionally, which is no bad thing at all. Not only are they vital to our survival as a species, but with their complex and often untranslatable social systems and modes of being they provide a potent source of metaphor and imagery for any writer.

I was aware of ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’ the year it was published. I know this story was nominated for a fair few awards – I just never got around to reading it. I’m very pleased to have made good that gap, because it’s a wonderful piece of writing: amusing, cautionary, excellently crafted. In essence, it’s a war story, a story of brutal invasion and counter-revolution, the struggle for power:

Whereas the hive before the wasp infestation had been busy but content, the bees now lived in desperation. The natural terms of their lives were cut short by the need to gather enough honey for both the hive and the wasp nest. As they travelled farther and farther afield in search of nectar, they stopped singing. They danced their findings grimly, without joy. The queen herself grew gaunt and thin from breeding replacements, and certain ministers who understood such matters began feeding royal jelly to the strongest larvae.

Meanwhile, the wasps grew sleek and strong.

In spite of the elegance and beauty of its language, there is nothing even remotely soft-centred about this story. I only wish it could have gone on for longer.

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #12

18) ‘Valentines’ by Shira Lipkin

The waiter’s name is V. It’s a new restaurant, sci-fi themed, all of the waiters have names like Klaatu or Ripley. I point out that V is a series, not a character, and he laughs, ‘No one remembers the character names from V. But everyone remembers the show. Everyone remembers the lizards.’

I could love this story for this paragraph alone, because… so true, so true. But there’s more to love besides.

The narrator sits in a cafe, a diner, the themed restaurant described above, and makes careful notes about their surroundings and the waiter who serves them. The waiter is Valentine, Val, V. This information seems important and yet elusive, the identity of the waiter or anyone else is never static. The narrator seems on guard, watchful, determined to isolate the crucial details of their experience:

Information is sacred. I don’t remember why, or who told me. But I know that information is sacred, so I write it down, scraps of knowledge and observations. I used to write in leatherbound journals with elegant heavy pens, but the fetish for elegance has fallen by the wayside in my rush to commit everything to paper. Now I use cheap marbled composition books, purchased by the dozen. 

Does the narrator have traumatic amnesia, or are they living in a condition of existential anxiety? Which of the Valentines is the real Valentine, or are they all? Are we catching glimpses of a multiverse, or are we trapped in a hall of mirrors? Later on in the story, the narrator mentions having had a seizure. Could ‘Valentines’ be a metaphorical exploration of the heightened states of consciousness experienced by some epileptics?

I couldn’t decide, and I think in the end this story could best be described as being all of these things, rather than being restricted to any one of them. I love the style of ‘Valentines’, the nouveau-romanesque obsession with quotidian detail, the narrator caught in the act of describing what they are doing even as they are doing it. If the story is a metaphor for the act of writing itself, it is a good one. I envy the deceptively simple outlines, the finely sanded surfaces of this piece. I wanted to stay with the narrator. I could have carried on listening to them for many pages more.

 

19) ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

Hala is an Artifact, a living exhibit. A representative of the Once-people, she is sent to the planet Silhouette in order to perform the ancient rites and dances of the Once as an educational entertainment for audiences eager for an ‘experience of the exotic’.  Born to the Blood, she has been taken from her own world too early for her innate psychic abilities to develop. In order for her to properly function as an Artifact, she has been fitted with augmentations that allow her access to her people’s communal wisdom and experiences as well as her own formative memories. But the augmentation process is not without risk, and soon Hala will have a terrible choice to make…

This is a story about colonialism. What it shows most powerfully is that the damage inflicted upon colonised peoples is by its nature so deep and so wide-ranging as to be incalculable, even when the colonisers – in this story they are named the Compassionate – believe their actions to be benevolent.

They came with their big ships, riding through the rifts in the Veil that protected the Once-country. We could not say if it was capture or salvation that came to us. They, who we called Compassionate, came for us and took us from the devastation left behind. Of the great number that were the Once-tribe, there were only a handful of us left. We watched as the world we knew and loved vanished in the chaos created by the rifts. And as we departed the Once-country, we wondered if we would ever see it again.

This story is moving enough on its own terms. It is also a powerful allegory, beautifully told.  ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ is a forthright and courageous indictment of the spiritual and emotional violence that is always bound to be present in any action where one people is encroached upon by another, even when physical violence is not. It is a story that deserves to be read, and read again.

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #11

16) ‘Invisible Planets’ by Hao Jingfang

A nameless narrator tells a nameless listener stories of distant planets and the strangeness and wonder that can be encountered thereon. Marco Polo is referenced, and indeed this magical-realist story carries an echo of the sound created by Italo Calvino’s imaginary voyage in Invisible Cities:

Can you tell which stories are real and which are not? I travel through these planets like Marco Polo wandering through the cities of the Orient, like Kubla Khan riding through his endless realm. Everything happens in the blink of an eye. You can say that I really have been to these places, or that I have never left.

‘Invisible Planets’ is a story about storytelling, about the changes that are impacted upon us by hearing another person’s tale, by walking for a while among the shadows and silences and musics of a different world. We are the aliens, and the aliens are us. I found some lovely echoes here of some of the themes Vandana Singh explored in her story, about how when two sentient beings encounter one another, they create a third, entirely different being between them:

But they don’t realise that this sense of ‘self’ is an illusion. At the moment when two of them merge, the two original selves cease to exist. They become a combined person and, when separated, two new persons. The new persons do not know all that transpired before their encounter and each believes that the self is the self, never having changed at all.

A gently provocative story, luminous in its language and landscapes.

 

17) ‘On the Leitmotif of the Trickster Constellation in Northern Hemispheric Star Charts, Post Apocalypse’ by Nicole Kornher-Stace

There’s a part of me that says the current micro-fashion for story titles that spill over into a second line of text is a fashion for bigging up something not so great as the sum of that title’s parts. There’s an equal part of me that revels in the poetry and boldness of such a titular statement, throwing down the gauntlet to a reader right from the off, and that my own tendency to err on the side of understatement where titles are concerned might in fact be rather boring.

An interesting discussion to have, but in the case of OTLOTTCINHSCPA, it’s beside the point.  Nicole Kornher-Stace’s story is deliriously fine, as boldly poetic in its use of language as it is terrifying and unsparing in its vision.  I don’t think I’ve fully grasped all of it yet – what are the ghosts, for example, how are they ‘captured’? – but as I’ve said before, not fully getting a story has never been a deterrent to my enjoyment of it.

Wasp is an Archivist in a post-apocalypse world. Her task – her birthright – is to gather knowledge about the world before the apocalypse, and her main way of doing this is to entrap ‘ghosts’ of people who were alive during that period. Her day-to-day life is brutal, defined by physical combat and material hardship. The end of the story hints that she may have given her life for the sake of those ghosts she pursued.

The imagic ‘furniture’ of post-apocalypse has become rather well-worn in recent years. What a thrill then to find in Kornher-Stace’s post-apocalyptic world a place of genuine terror, genuine mystery:

The slow burn of autumn congealed into winter, the edges of the map grew sticky with apple juice and the dirt from underneath Wasp’s bitten nails, and the ghost was getting restless. ‘This is not a map to walk by, idiot,’ it told her, standing by in silence as she lay out the saltlick and the apples and the little dish of blood. As she crammed ghosts into jars and took them back to the hut where she paced the tiny room of it nightlong, four paces by four, and questioned them. Each with its story of a long drop on a short rope, or a fall down the stairs, or a half-dozen bullets sinking themselves, wet as kisses, in its erstwhile flesh. Or of a strange deep sick-smelling sleep, stalked by the dreams of dreams. 

The amalgam of myth, science-as-magic and the ruthless imagining of a depleted world is potent and strange. The dense, allusive prose rewards multiple readings. Eager to find out more, I was delighted to learn that Wasp’s full-length story is forthcoming in 2015 from Small Beer Press.

 

 

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