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.