It was a pretty damn good week for releases of shortform spec fic. While these three stories aren’t all of the good stuff I’ve read, they’re ones where I had far more than 140 characters1 of comment. (More on what these reviews are/aren’t here.)
All of the stories deal in a way with alien worlds and alien cultures, and with the difficulty of comprehension due to that alien-ness. That conflict drives these stories, but to very different conclusions, all meaningful.
Ur, by Iona Sharma (Expanded Horizons)
Ur itself is an alien world, but not the homeworld of the people of Xi Lyr who live there. Instead, it’s a planet whose civilisation is long dead or departed; the people of Xi Lyr are colonising it and have offered to make the colony a shared venture with humanity. The humans who live on Ur are of mixed feelings about their trial stay there, but not nearly as much as those back on the slowly-dying Earth, who are more than a little sceptical of the other people’s reasoning and motives…and a vote of whether to continue the project or not is imminent.
The protagonist, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, is the wife of one of the human government ministers on Ur, and the larger plot is driven by her and her household’s transition in understanding what Ur is, what it could become, and what humanity’s place is in the universe. This is Sharma’s beautifully nuanced way of analysing the much larger sociopolitical issue at stake in the narrative. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, her household help and their friends/family, her alien neighbours, and her husband (in this sphere, outwith his professional capacity) are all working to navigate the intersection of two species, and all in different yet equally valid ways.
‘Ur’ is sketched out in neat spare descriptive lines, with skill and initial reserve that blooms into deep emotional resonance like the flowers of the madi’s garden. (I almost cried at the last few paragraphs, right there at my desk, which is pretty damn uncharacteristic of me.) While I did have a question or two unanswered, Sharma clearly understands the structure and impacts of politics, culture clash, language shifts, and social transition, but with a difference. She reveals the big picture subtly and with great skill, never forgetting the personal element to make her tale seem entirely, palpably, real.
Stalemate, by Rose Lemberg (Lackington’s)
Our protagonist has awoken with no memory, in an oceanic habitat on a world that’s effectively inhospitable to life. He knows how to work the computers, he has excellent engineering skills, and he knows something is very wrong with the highly regimented people with whom he’s ended up. What that is, or perhaps if something is wrong with him instead, will eventually come back to him, and the truth is far bigger and more complicated than it seems.
Lemberg proves to be a master of the slow build with this piece which inspired the ‘Institutions’ theme of this issue of Lackington’s. Perhaps almost in an institution way itself, ‘Stalemate’ takes a relatively traditional present day vs. dream/flashback narrative sequence, but it’s a mystery and there’s enough tantalising detail revealed, bit by bit, in both threads of the story, to keep the reader engaged. While you can see where Lemberg is going before the climax, all of the pieces don’t come together until the very end, and it’s a harrowing irresistible journey through immersive writing until then.
And in that end, we find that this mystery, as all good mysteries, is devastating in more ways than one. The stakes here are extraordinarily high, and while ‘Stalemate’ does have a touch of the morality play style to it, it’s a morality play where there are no absolute correct answers. (Would that, perhaps, be the inverse of a morality play?)
On that, I highly recommend reading Lemberg’s story notes after reading the piece. I’m trying desperately not to lead to spoilers, but very generally speaking, they provide a take on the completed narrative that I didn’t initially see. In fact, I ended up kicking myself for not seeing it due to some ideological tunnel vision–and ‘Stalemate’ has given me even more to chew on now than it had prior to the insight.
A Moon for the Unborn, by Indrapramit Das (Strange Horizons)
Vir and his partner Teresa have returned to Earth after some time doing research on the extraplanetary body Akir’s World. They’re still haunted by what happened to them there, how all of the babies conceived on Akir’s World were stillborn. And, worse yet, how phantom children then roamed the near-airless camp at night, seen with eye and camera but disappearing whenever one tried to encounter them in the flesh. Vir keeps dreaming of them, even home in Kolkata, and we find he’s unable to entirely put the past away.
I’ve read a bunch of ‘ghost stories’ lately, or rather, stories of the dead being made manifest–probably because it’s that time of year. ‘A Moon for the Unborn’ has all the opening characteristics of a ghost story, with spooky dreams, eerie imagery, and relationship discord, but eventually reveals itself to be far more than that. We, and Vir, begin to understand this to be about belief, and faith, and one’s own personal mythos. In other words, ‘A Moon’ ends up being about how we make our own ghosts–ideas, dreams, stories–flesh, and what weight they should have in the real world.
From a writing perspective, I found Das to be particularly good at providing a sense of place; all of the locations in ‘A Moon’ are incredibly evocative and meaningful to the story. While I had a few quibbles on the interactions of Teresa and Vir (this could just be because I’m not terribly romantic, good job me), I found he portrayed Vir’s trans identity with dignity and respect. Not gonna lie, I get excited every time I see a character who is trans in SFF, whose narrative is shaped by their identity but not driven by it alone, who are more than a plot piece or tragedy. It’s a pleasure to experience characters such as Vir who aren’t tragic but whose identity is, as it is for all of us, part of their lives.
I’m hoping like hell to have remotely as good a selection in the next few weeks coming up. Stay tuned, and check out my Twitter feed for more short thoughts about shortform in the meantime. Among the wide-ranging variety of other stuff I talk (rant) about, that is.
By the way, you can buy from or donate to to all three of the venues I mentioned above. Please consider doing so if you’re able to, so that they can publish more diverse, thoughtful spec fic. I particularly want to flag up Strange Horizons’ 2014 fund drive, which is on for the next several days from the date of this posting; check it out.
Less! When you count the hashtag and the link and the author’s at-username… ↩