Dang Good Stories #2

This week we’ve got stories about boats and trains. (No planes, sorry.)

“Boat in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies January 2013)

I originally read this story in Heiresses of Russ 2014: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction which was a kickstarter reward for Lightspeed‘s Queers Destroy SF! project, but it was first published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

I do not read enough of BCS. Whenever I come across one of their stories, they knock my socks off. “Boat in Shadows, Crossing” takes BCS‘s usual emphasis on interesting worldbuilding and kicks it up a notch. There’s so much packed into this world. Death-magic and ghost houses; living, vengeful boats; a many-gendered god and the festival inspired by them; a town that eats people. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that all of this remains comprehensible and consistent.

The story follows Bue, who journeys from a village to the above-mentioned people-eating town to make a living with their death-magic. In the process they save a girl from the ghost-house that was once meant to protect her and is now a prison.

In other hands, this could have been a simple story, but in Truslow’s hands the plot becomes as layered as the world. There are stories-within-stories, marriage plots, questions that interrogate what we think of love and gender. And gender is also integral to this story–Bue is the daughter of a village, who takes on the guise of a son to go to the city, and who seems to take on different aspects of genders as they choose. This is a world that plays with gender unseriously, where identity is mutable. It’s a fascinating topic that’s often not deeply considered in fantasy.

I absolutely adored this story and I’m looking forward to finding more of Truslow’s fiction.

“Katabasis: Seraphic Trains” by Sarah Monette (Tales of the Unanticipated July 2006)

Sarah Monette might be my favorite short story writer. Her stories are incredibly varied in voice, subject, and style, but always beautiful. This story was republished in Monette’s collection Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, where I encountered it.

In this story, a young woman hopes her music will let her board one of the unnatural trains that circle the city, so she can find her lost love. But of course, such wishes don’t come without cost.

This is a story that showcases Monette’s gorgeous, almost-poetry writing, but it also has a depth of plot that a lot of “pretty” stories lack.

“The Strangers” by Anonymous (Creepypasta.org)

I’m not usually a creepypasta reader, but this story was linked in a discussion of the above Monette story and it is so good.

In this story, a man notices a person on the subway who is not quite…right and he follows the stranger to the end of the line. The true horror of the story isn’t what he finds there, but what it does to him.

One thing I like about this sort of internet story is how the form influences the reading experience. If this story were in an anthology, I don’t think I would have responded as strongly to it. The author’s anonymity and the ephemeral feel of the site gives the story, paradoxically, a sense of truth. This could be anyone, anywhere, posting this.




De-Gendering Stories Writing Challenge

SFF author Alexandra Erin recently posted “De-Gendering Stories: A Challenge” on her website. In short, she challenges authors to pay attention to the ways we use gendered language and signal characters’ gender by writing a story in which at least two characters appear and neither character is explicitly gendered.

I’ve been thinking about gender in fiction a lot recently, especially in regards to one story that I just revised. I wrote it in the second person (not a popular choice, but I find that stories often come to me with a perspective already chosen, and I’ve never had much luck in changing them) and in the spring of 2015 workshopped it. The protagonist is female–there’s at least six points in the story where she’s explicitly gendered, and two of them are in the first pages–but half the workshop never realized this and complained that her gender had surprised them in the last few pages. Because she has a girlfriend, I assume.

I thought about changing the perspective, but ultimately left it as is. Ironically, that story just sold, but it left me thinking about how much of our interpretation of gender is tied up in sexist or heteronormative stereotypes.

As someone who writes primarily mostly characters, gendered language and signaling gender is always on my mind. I think its vital that writers learn to move beyond the male/female binary and the expectations that come along with gendering characters. I consider myself a feminist and someone pretty well-versed in gender issues, but I still find myself going that character’s a computer programmer, so they must be a he and falling back on old tropes.

I’m going to give this exercise a shot. I think it’ll be a real eye-opener to examine how I imagine my characters’ genders and how I use gendered language.

Alexandra Erin’s challenge continues until August 1st, and she’s offering a small prize for her favorite entries to encourage participation.

Dang Good Stories #1

One of my goals this year is to read more short stories. Between my own writing, slush reading, and all of the awesome books in the world, I read woefully few last year. So I’m going to write about my favorites here, probably 3-4 every couple weeks, both because short fiction needs more recognition and because its a nice way of remembering what I’ve read. (Hence the optimistic #1 up there.) In particular I’m trying to read older stories, since new stories often get a burst of discussion anyway.

Also, my second goal was to put something on this blog whose domain I’ve claimed. Two birds, one stone, you get it.

Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed October 2011)

I read this story because of a recommendation on someone’s Twitter feed (no idea whose, sorry) so I went in blind. Before reading it, I was only familiar with Adam-Troy Castro as the author of the middle-grade series Gustav Gloom so I was expecting something a bit lighter. Humorous, even.

This is not that story.

This story punches you right in the sternum. It begins with Rebecca’s husband–what’s left of him, that is–coming home from the war. And you think this is the horrifying part, right? The disembodied hands?

Wrong again. The horrifying part is what happens after, when Rebecca and her husband have to deal with the psychological effects of the war, how the lives they imagined are now in ruins. There’s one particular scene set in a support group meeting for veterans and their spouses that is possibly the scariest thing I’ve read in a short story in a long time, even though all the characters do is talk. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it will stick with me a long time.

“On Discovering a Ghost in the Five Star” by Peter M. Ball (Daily Science Fiction June 3rd, 2016)

The thing Daily Science Fiction does best is find stories that pack a hell of a punch in a tiny amount of space, and I love that approach. Publishing 365 stories a year does mean that the amount of attention each story gets is reduced though. This is one of the ones that deserves more discussion. I’m not usually a big fan of ghost stories–I find them overdone, and often reliant on tropes that are no longer frightening–but I’m still thinking about this one a week later.

In short, this piece is about a ghost in a laundromat, and how her death and reappearance reverberate through the community. To say more is hard because of the length, but it’s well worth your time.

I read this because of a tweet by Cassandra Khaw that called it “a powerful piece on anger, and being afraid to understand” and while I see that, I thought it spoke most powerfully about the lengths people will go to to ignore, to hide, the problems in their community. I found the ending a bit pessimistic (perhaps because of the current uproar over the Brock Turner rape case and how its made me think about women’s agency and justice) but powerful.

“Cafe Macondo” by Megan Arkenberg (Daily Science Fiction October 21st, 2014)

I’ve been on a bit of a DSF kick lately. A couple of years ago I would have said that flash fiction was my least favorite length, but these days I’m really digging how I can fit a bit of reading into my day and how through sites like DSF I can sample many different writers.

“Cafe Macondo” starts off goofy, with a customer at a grocery store trying to buy coffee from an alternate dimension, and then twists the premise to make it just a tad bittersweet. It’s a much lighter tale that the previous two but it makes a lot out of what could have been a one-note joke. It left me rooting for the protagonist, although she doesn’t even have a name.