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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.

 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #10

15) ‘Astrophilia’ by Carrie Vaughn

Stella is an accomplished weaver, living and working at the family co-operative of Greentree homestead. When repeated cycles of drought render the micro-economy of Greentree no longer viable, Stella travels two hundred miles to take up a new position at the more prosperous homestead of Barnard Croft. This homestead has proved so successful they have been allowed to ‘put in for a baby’, the lively Bette. If the homestead’s prosperity continues, they may even be green-lighted for a second. Stella quickly adjusts to life at Barnard. She likes her new co-workers, and begins to form a special attachment to Andi, with whom she shares living quarters and later a bed.

But Andi is at odds with her father Toma, who also happens to be the head of the homestead and responsible for all hands. Toma’s grandparents lived lives of regret, desperately missing the world they grew up in, the world before the fall. Toma, staunchly proud of Barnard Croft and the life they have made for themselves, is terrified of a future that threatens to repeat the mistakes of the past. Andi insists that progress is essential, that the desire for knowledge is what makes them human. It is not long before Stella finds herself caught between them.

“I know disaster can still happen. I know the droughts and storms and plagues do still come and can take away everything. Better than anyone, I know. But we have to start building again sometime, yes? People like Andi have to start bulding, and we have to let them, even if it seems useless to the rest of us. Because it isn’t useless, it – it’s beautiful.”

I’m afraid I found this story a bit of a make-weight.  There’s a lot of overlap here with both the Lucy Sussex story and the Ursula Le Guin – post-collapse world, harsh life on a remote farmstead, even the weaving – and yet ‘Astrophilia’ lacks either the caustic edge of the Sussex or the literary accomplishment of the Le Guin. The prose is perfectly adequate but it bears no distinguishing features. The story is perfectly pleasant but there is nothing remarkable about it. Indeed, it felt old-fashioned to me – swap Andi for Andrew and this could be a John Wyndham story. (It reminds me of the end of The Chrysalids.) Nothing wrong in any of that, and this is definitely a feelgood story – it’s just that for me at least ‘Astrophilia’ doesn’t seem to bring much in the way of originality to the anthology as a whole.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #9

12) ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ by Nalo Hopkinson

This is a story about overcoming guilt.

Dry Bone is a kind of leech, a vampiric demon-like creature that lies in wait for unwary souls already shouldering a burden. Once Dry Bone battens on to you, you can’t get rid of him. It’s like making a deal with the devil at the crossroads, only the deal is all in the devil’s favour:

Dry Bone sit up straight. He lick he lips. A stranger in Duppy Dead Town, one who ain’t know to avoid he. One who can’t see she joy for she sorrow; the favourite meat of the one name Dry Bone. He know she good. Dry Bone know all the souls that feed he. He recognise she so well, he discern she name in the curve of she spine.

The story as it stands has no discernible science fiction element. It has the feel of folklore, of a grandmother’s tale, told to scare the children at night. I was curious about its presence in an anthology of science fiction stories, and so (cheating again!) I searched for information about its background.

I discovered that ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ is one of three tales Hopkinson wrote as an integral part of Midnight Robber, a science fiction novel in which Tan-Tan is the main character.  Sessily Watt writes with great articulacy about the relationship between science fiction and fantasy in ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ here:

In Midnight Robber, the science fiction tropes outweigh the fantasy ones, but they are both present. Characters chafe under a high technology, surveillance state and escape it for an alien planet, where legends seem to come alive.

I’m very excited by these ideas, and now find myself eager to read Midnight Robber. In the meantime, the beauty of ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ resides in the musicality and Caribbean cadences of its language, which begs to be read aloud.

 

13) ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’ by Zen Cho

This is science fiction used as metaphor, a story about being part of a diaspora.

There are four Chang Es, one for each generation. The story also takes the form of a circle,

In the final days of Earth as we knew it, Chang E won the moon lottery. 

For Earthlings who were neither rich nor well-connected, the lottery was the only way to get on the Lunar Habitation Programme. (This was the Earthlings’ name for it. The moon people said: ‘those fucking immigrants’.)

As we see the first Chang E leaving Earth for the moon, selling everything she has – ‘the car, the family heirloom enamel pin collection, her external brain’ – to facilitate her resettlement, so we watch as a fourth generation Chang E returns many decades later to her ancestral homelands on Earth. But the woman who returns is no longer in any sense the woman who left:

Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you were from, the thread snaps. The narrative breaks. And you are forced, pastless, motherless, selfless, to invent yourself anew. 

At a certain point, this stops being sad – but who knows if any human has ever reached that point?

Things do become easier for Chang E – she and her family are assimilated and to some extent accepted as part of the moon people’s community. She has a good life – but it is never a one-way trade, and there is a sense, always, that she cannot afford to ever relax her guard completely, something fourth-generation Chang E is reminded of most forcefully when she visits Earth:

Here, thought Chang E, was what her mother had dreamt of, Earthlings would not be like moon humans, always looking anxiously over their shoulder for the next way in which they would be found wanting. 

‘The Four Generations of Chang E’ is deceptively simple – a second reading reveals a brittle edge to the humour,  a sadness and sometimes an anger that linger a long time in the heart. There’s a whole world here, if you care to look for it. An accomplished story.

 

14) ‘Stay Thy Flight’ by Elisabeth Vonarburg

A very beautiful, mysterious story, a riddle befitting the reputation of its protagonist…

The narrator of this story is a bio-sculpture, a piece of art created by renegade artist Angkaar, just before the creation of sentient artworks was outlawed. She is a sphinx, and she stands on – or is chained to – a pedestal in a public park. People may come and ask her questions, and at certain times – on what the sphinx refers to as slow days – she may in her turn ask questions of human beings, if they are willing.

The language of this story is notable for its evocative rhythm, an effect that is almost like hyperventilation, achieved through the unusual placement of commas:

You are immobile, for me, by day, almost, less than I for you, but slow. Everything around me, becomes slow, after dawn, the sun rises, heaves itself up, slows down, crawls, an imperceptible movement, in the sky, the birds’ songs too, in the park, draw out, lowering down, deeper and deeper, to a basso continuo, some modulations, but spaced out, wind, when there is some, leaves, music, solemn, meditating, I like.

Through the course of the story we see the sphinx form particular attachments – first to an artist who comes to paint her, then to a young woman who seems to know more about her than she ought to – and through their questions and actions we learn more about the world beyond the park. The waters are rising, things are changing, a cycle of existence is coming to an end.

The sphinx refers to her thought processes as ‘programming’ but she knows there is more to her than that, even if she is powerless to name it.

Sad, absorbing, subtly unnerving.

 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #8

11) ‘Mountain Ways’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

On the planet O, the marriage unit – known as a sedoretu – is a foursome, two men and two women. Each sedoretu contains within itself four interweaving partnerships and two forbidden partnerships. Marriage is important within Ki’O society, not just for reasons of love and companionship but for the successful maintenance of communities and livelihoods. Like any form of marriage, the sedoretu can have its problems…

‘Mountain Ways’ occupies similar ground to the Lucy Sussex story, even down to its highland/lowland dynamic. It is true that marriage on O seems an altogether more open, free and equitable arrangement than the male-dominated and often unhappy power relationships we see in Sussex’s world of the Crash, and what interested me most about ‘Mountain Ways’ was the portrayal of societal equality between genders. In her novel Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie showed how the use of a single pronoun might realign perceptions around gender; in ‘Mountain Ways’, Le Guin manages to achieve a similar effect simply by ‘writing equal’ and it’s masterfully done. More of this in  SFF, please!

I happened to enjoy ‘Mountain Ways’ more than I enjoyed ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ – the sense of place seemed more richly abundant, and I was more heavily invested in the characters. I liked the ambience generally. Le Guin’s writing is, as ever, elegant and concise and quietly poetic:

After her meditation and reading, Enno would come out and find Shahes on the great slopes where the yearlings still ran with their dams and the new-borns. Together the two women could fill a forty-pound sack a day with the airy, silky, milk-coloured clouds of combings. Often they would pick out a pair of twins, of which there had been an unusual number this mild year. If Shahes led out one twin the other would follow it, as yama twins will do all their lives; and so the women would work side by side, in a silent, absorbed companionship. They talked only to the animals. 

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #7

10) ‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ by Natalia Theodoridou

Theo is the lone survivor of a crash-landed space mission to find new worlds for human habitation. The planet he finds himself on, Oceanus, is a barren, bleak wilderness. There are signs that animal life once flourished, but is now virtually extinct. There are only the fish, strange, pink-skinned entities that are now Theo’s only source of food. He has managed to survive for eight years, but his position is hopeless:

You know, at first I thought this was a young planet. I thought there was so little here because life was only just beginning. I could still study it, make all this worthwhile. But then, after a while, it became clear. The scarcity of lifeforms. The powdery sand, the absence of seashells, the traces of radiation, the shortage of fish. The fish, the improbable fish. It’s obvious, isn’t it? We are closer to an end than we are to a beginning. This ecosystem has died. We, here, well. We are just the aftermath. 

These glimpses of a dying world reminded me intensely of what the Time Traveller sees when he journeys to the ‘end of time’ in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In order to make his ordeal less lonely, Theo has constructed ‘simple Jansen mechanisms’ – mechanical animals – to keep him company. The meaning of the ‘eleven holy numbers’ passed me by. Personally I didn’t mind that – I tend to like stories that keep a part of themselves secret from me – but Lois Tilton gives a concise explanation here that I was pleased to find.

The story has a surprise in its final paragraphs. I won’t go so far as to say that the ending is hopeful, because it can’t be, and this variation on the Robinson Crusoe theme is far too bleak, far too sad to love, even for me. But it is certainly powerful, and compelling, and a useful antidote to all the ‘boldly go’-type tales of space exploration featuring an all-conquering hero. Even if I couldn’t love Theodoridou’s story, I admire its bravery.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #6

8) ‘The Other Graces’ by Alice Sola Kim

Anyway, you were getting off the bus in that nice neighbourhood when the handle of the violin case slipped out of your hand. You stopped to wipe your sweaty hand on your t-shirt. Someone pushed up behind you and said, “Out of my way, chink.”

Who does that? Surely the dickhead utterer of such words must have been green-skinned, a thousand feet tall, dragging a spiked club behind it as it picked and ate its own boogers. But, no, it was just some pretty white girl, a little older than you, highponytailed and tall. She didn’t even look at you as she walked past.

The science fiction element of this story is ingenious but incidental. Trying to write about ‘The Other Graces’, which involved me so utterly I felt short of breath while reading it, leaves me wanting to tell you just read it. The way this story is told – that loose, idiomatic style that is nonetheless replete with original turns of phrase and striking imagery – is as ingenious as the SFnal conceit itself, doing things with point of view that are such an integral part of the story you barely notice their cleverness. Some small portions of the text are written in Hanja, which I cannot read, but that felt vital to the impact the story made on me nonetheless.

I’ve not come across Alice Sola Kim’s writing before, but I am delighted to learn that she’s currently working on a novel.  In the meantime, luckily, there are more of her stories online for me to read.

 

9) ‘Boojum’ by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day/if your Snark be a Boojum! for then/You will softly and suddenly vanish away/And never be met with again.” 

(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark)

As well as the invariably lethal variety of Snark as described in Lewis Carroll’s epic poem, it is worth noting that ‘boojum’ was also the name given to a never-finally-commissioned variety of supersonic cruise missile. In Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s story a Boojum is an organic, sentient creature – a kind of space-whale, I think – that humans have learned to corral and control as intergalactic starships. The Boojum in question is the Lavinia Greenlaw, known as Vinnie to her captain and crew, a company of space pirates. Black Alice is an engineer, and has formed a particularly close bond with the ship on which she serves. Her ambition is to become chief engineer, but that ambition is not to be realised. When Captain Song picks the wrong craft to attack, and Vinnie begins to show dangerous signs of non-cooperation, Alice is brought to a decision that will reshape her universe…

It made sense, from what Black Alice knew about Boojums. Their infants lived in the tumult of the gas giants’ atmosphere, but as they aged, they pushed higher and higher, until they reached the edge of the envelope. And then – following instinct or maybe the calls of their fellows, nobody knew for sure – they learned to skip, throwing themselves out into the vacuum like Earth birds leaving the nest. And what if, for a Boojum, the solar system was just another nest?

… Jesus and the cold fishy gods, Black Alice thought. Is this why the Marie Curie ate her crew? Because they wouldn’t let her go?

‘Boojum’ is one of only two stories in this anthology that I’d previously read, and I was delighted to encounter it again. It’s great fun – this is beautiful worldbuilding – and gives you everything you’d want to find in a New Weird romp about space pirates. But the fun is thoughtfully underpinned by some serious meditations on the nature of non-humanoid intelligences and the exploitation of sentient beings. Wonderful characterisation, smart dialogue. I was left wanting more.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #5

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

Mary Anning made it into Jules Verne’s books in the guise of her monsters, but never into Austen’s. She wouldn’t have made sense there with her bits of gothic history, her lightning, her science, her creatures. She wouldn’t make sense in any story until the story changed. 

Pioneer palaeontologist Mary Anning, novelist Jane Austen, and the protagonist of Austen’s novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot, all exist in the town of Lyme Regis in the same space and time. Karen Joy Fowler has put them there, and as the three figures circle each other – two real, the third the imaginative creation of the second – we are bound with each word by the feeling that they could have met, this could really have happened, even though it couldn’t have done.

‘The Science of Herself’ is not science fiction as such – but it is a piece of speculative fiction of the most superior quality. The elegance of Fowler’s conceit, the flawless overlapping of fact with fiction, the vital sense of place – these aspects of the story among others make this work both captivating as story, informative as history and supremely admirable as a work of art. The writing is – well, just magnificent, really. The kind of writing that makes you want to give up and pushes you forward simultaneously. Fowler just rocks.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #4

6) ‘Spider the Artist’ by Nnedi Okorafor

My husband was a drunk, like too many of the members of the Niger Delta People’s Movement. It was how they all controlled their anger and feelings of helplessness. The fish, shrimps and crayfish in the creeks were dying. Drinking the water shrivelled women’s wombs and eventually made men urinate blood. 

There was a stream where I had been fetching water. A flow station was built nearby and now the stream was rank and filthy, with an oily film that reflected rainbows. Cassava and yam farms yielded less and less each year. The air left your skin dirty and smelled like something preparing to die. In some places, it was always daytime because of the noisy gas flares. 

Eme lives with her husband Andrew in a village that has been polluted and despoiled by the oil industry. She wants children, but has not been able to become pregnant. She dreams of becoming a teacher at the local secondary school. She both fears and grieves over her husband, whose abusive personality has been further degraded by the struggle to win back land from the oil companies. Her one solace is her father’s guitar, a beautiful, antique instrument for which she has a virtuoso talent. Her favourite place to play her music is the land behind the house, close to the oil pipeline that runs through everyone’s backyards. Here, she can be herself – and it is here that she one day finds herself with an unusual audience…

The government came up with the idea to create the Zombies, and Shell, Chevron and a few other oil companies (who were just as desperate) supplied the money to pay for it all. The Zombies were made to combat pipeline bunkering and terrorism. It makes me laugh. The government and the oil people destroyed our land and dug up our oil, then they created robots to keep us from taking it back. 

The robots in question are the Anansi Droids 419 – eight-legged, spider-like AIs that patrol the pipeline at frenetic speed, killing anyone who so much as touches the pipeline and generally acting as a super-fast, super-vigilant, super-ruthless police force for the oil industry, no prisoners taken. When one of these AIs not only begins to show an interest in Eme’s music but to display musical talent of its own, Eme is both wary and entranced. Gradually she is drawn into a kind of comradeship with the thing. But can this alien intelligence truly be trusted?

The story ends horribly, and with a warning. Are the Zombies meant as avatars of the forces exploiting Nigeria and its people? Can any Zombie be trusted, even a good Zombie, when their agenda is so different? Can any alliance between villager and Zombie be anything other than precarious and temporary? This is a story about loyalty, and about exploitation. It is also a story about Eme, who is such an interesting and powerful character one longs to meet her again.

I’m still thinking about this story and its implications. A tremendous piece of work.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #3

4) ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ by Lucy Sussex

We’re in the post-apocalyptic world of the Crash. An anthropologist, or ‘story eater’, from the north has travelled to a town in the Highlands of Suff to observe a court case that has ‘brought everyone down from the mountains and into the valley':

When I woke, I tested my tape recorder – a precious thing, not because it was a genuine Tech artefact, but because it was a copy, its workings painstakingly rediscovered. Of course, it wasn’t as good, nothing was, for we would never be as rich, nor as spendthrift, as our forbears. For over a century now, since the Crash, we had been adapting to an economy of scarcity. It was the adaptations, rather than the antiques, or the neo copies, that interested me – particularly the Rule Houses, and at their centre, the Queen Polly Andree. How would it feel, to have multiple husbands? And what would happen if you grew tired of them?

The court case the has brought everyone into town concerns two women, Sadry and Idris, who have chosen to reject the system of polyandry that holds sway in the southern highland settlements – they want to live together as a lesbian couple.

Our oldest book, though, isn’t medical – it’s called Erewhon, but it’s not about my House, but a dream, a nowhere place. In this book things are reversed: the sick are criminals, and the criminals regarded as ill. 

Idris: Are we criminal, or ill?

Bel: Both, probably, in the eyes of the men. 

Sadry: The book Erewhon seemed strange, but not much stranger than the Rule. Or the way I would live in my house, with Idris, if the court permits us.

Sussex evokes her world and its complex webs of social relations with vigour and skill. I can see why this story is important, and as a fine example of a particular kind of polemical science fiction it belongs in this anthology, absolutely. But for me personally the didactic style of ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ proved a bugbear. Also, I have a pet peeve about the way so many writers insist on saddling their post-apocalypse worlds with vast strews of capitalised proper nouns:  Rule, Queen, House, Crash, Scavengers, Tech, the list goes on. You find this in everything from The Chrysalids to The Bone Clocks and it has become distinctly tiresome. Perhaps I’ve just read too many post-apocalypses, but it’s amazing how much more convincing and more contemporary said texts instantly become, simply by replacing these annoying capital letters with their lower case equivalents.

I admired ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ for its directness and for the skilfulness of its arguments, and although it’s not a story I warmed to personally, it fits right in alongside texts such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army and should be similarly appreciated.

 

5) ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ by Tori Truslow

This story is many things: Chapter 7 of a fictitious biography of one Elijah Willemot Wynn, a delicious feminist inversion of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, a starred-First-calibre example of New Weird aesthetic.

We enter a world where the Moon is populated by mer people. You can get there on the Great Ice Train:

We stood shivering in our thick coats on that desolate northern platform… the train rose out of the water like a ghost. We stood, gaping idiotically at it – but not Elijah. He mounted the step and strode into the carriage. Emboldened, we followed – several slipped and fell on the frozen steps, but at last we were all aboard. I had followed Elijah into the first carriage. Directly before us was the captain’s car, completely filled by the intricate engine, pipes connecting jars and tanks of strange half-substantial things. The sea glowed all around us… we gazed up through the ceiling to our destination and felt a queer tug as the Moon opened her pores.

In some cases you need to be kissed by a mermaid to survive the journey. You can fall in love with a mermaid, but you can’t have a sexual relationship with one because that way lies madness. Also, it just doesn’t work out biologically.  The mer-moon is altogether not a sensible place for a human to be.

Wynn’s ‘biography’ is substantiated with all manner of secondary sources: poems, extracts from treatises on ‘modern faery studies’, contemporary memoir, poems. I’m a total sucker for this kind of compendium narrative, and Truslow’s invented secondary sources are of the very best kind in that they never read like Victorian pastiche. Rather, they feel disconcertingly authentic, the kind you’ll feel tempted to Google, just in case…

The language of this story is sumptuous and sparkling. More than that, the story as a whole seems boundary-less, in that it hints at a whole world beyond the page, one that is so skilfully evoked that suspension of disbelief is effortless.

There is not one thing about ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ that I didn’t love. Glorious.

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