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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time ed. Hope Nicholson

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Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is a collection of indigenous science fiction and urban fantasy focusing on LGBT and two-spirit characters. These stories range from a transgender woman undergoing an experimental transition process to young lovers separated through decades and meeting in their own far future. These are stories of machines and magic, love and self-love.
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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time occupies an important place in science fiction: not only centring queer voices and narratives, but also centring Indigenous voices and narratives, a group all too often left out of discussions of the genre. Not all the writers in the anthology are themselves Indigenous, a point Nicholson acknowledges in her Editor’s Letter, but all the stories feature Indigenous characters, cultures, and themes.

Love Beyond Body, Space & Time opens with three nonfiction pieces. Nicholson’s opening letter is largely a disclaimer about this not being her story to tell, but the others are more interesting; a piece on two-spirit stories as survivance stories in science fiction by Grace L. Dillon, and a piece on the historical and present day role of two-spirit people in Indigenous communities by Niigaan Sinclair. Both are fascinating essays, situating some of the things the anthology is doing in a wider cultural discourse and a wider social model, and providing multiple possible frameworks with which to approach the stories within.

There are a couple of absolutely outstanding stories in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time. Daniel Heath Justice’s ‘The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds’ reads as a fable, with a very obvious moral; it’s well written and beautiful, as the best fable are, and with the poetic style and lack of specificity that much living myth has. Its queerness is explicit, varied in kind, and powerfully central to the story, and to the model of diversity in which Heath Justice is invested in the tale.

In stark contrast, ‘Né Łe!’ by Darcie Little Badger is straightforward science fiction, albeit with mythic resonance; it’s also a sweet lesbian romance story, that is impressively moving in its simplicity and with very strong characterisation over its short length. In similar vein is ‘Valediction At The Star View Motel’, a lightly fantastic story of young love, passion, and memory; Nathan Adler takes on the racism faced by the Indigenous community, including some of the racist policies applied to them, whilst also keeping at the core of the story the simplicity of young love.

The strongest story in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, by my lights, is Gwen Benaway’s ‘Transition’. Benaway writes a transition narrative that deals with the difficulties of being trans in a cis world; the way every day involves armouring up and self-defence strategies to keep cis violence from breaking out against one. It’s also a story of community and history; Benaway builds into the very bones of the story the acceptance of trans people by at least the Indigenous community she chooses to present. The mythic fantastic creeps in around the edges of the story, which is essentially mimetic, and ‘Transition’ emerges as emotionally resonant and incredibly powerful.

At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Aliens’ by Richard van Camp is a frustrating piece, which if the reader accepts and enjoys the voice in which it is told might well work. However, it feels too mannered for the attempt at naturalism it is making, and the treatment of gender diversity as a big secret and major revelation at the end of the story is a frustrating one, playing into a number of harmful tropes and a deeply problematic presentation of gender diversity. Similarly, in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Mari Kurisato writes a transition narrative that uses an alien transitioning to human as a metaphor for gender transition; seeing human trans people in fiction is powerful, whereas in this collection especially, this treatment of transness felt painfully out of place. Kurisato’s style and characterisation are excellent, and there are some really brilliant ideas in the piece, which makes the fundamental failure all the more frustrating.

Failing in a different way, ‘Perfectly You’ by David Robertson just doesn’t emotionally connect. This attempt to tell a romantic story feels strained and emotionless, essentially empty of real content; there isn’t really enough ground on which to build the payoff Robertson wants to give, and the strongest parts of the story are those in which he is building that ground.

In the end, Nicholson has engaged in an important project in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, centring Indigenous queer people, but it’s a deeply flawed execution of that project; we need more anthologies like this, but next time, more stories like Heath Justice’s and Little Badger’s, please!

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman

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FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
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Fairytales for Lost Children came across my radar primarily through Roxane Gay, but the idea of a selection of short stories based around immigration, homosexuality, and African life was immediately appealing.

Osman’s collection is a short one – barely 150 pages – and made up of 11 stories and illustrations; the art is line drawings in what we might describe as a traditional African artistic style, but also incorporating Arabic and elements of modern political cartooning into it. They bear at first glance little relation to the stories they illustrate, but give a flavour of Fairytales For Lost Children; the mixed cultural heritage, the imagery of gender-transgression, and in many cases a certain flirtiness to the portraiture combine to create a sense similar to that of the stories.

Those stories are a revelation. Osman’s writing is incredibly human, incredibly gentle, and incredibly visceral; by gentle, I don’t mean that Fairytales for Lost Children pretends life is better than it is, but rather than Osman slips into the lives of his characters, brings the reader with him for a brief snapshot, and then slips out again. Whether it is Zeytun, the protagonist of ‘Earthling’, a schizophrenic lesbian who has to deal with the loss of her sister, or Hassin, of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, an immigrant in London who is isolated and longs to build a relationship, Osman creates whole characters, human characters, in a very short space, and brings them painfully to life. There is a degree to which most of these stories are tragedies, but at the same time, some have true catharsis at their close, such as ‘Earthling’; despite being on the surface horrendous stories, they have a sense of rightness and closure about them too.

Fairytales for Lost Children is ineluctably erotic; almost all the stories include Osman describing sex, although the stories of women loving women tend to have less of this, but ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ is practically pure pornography, beautifully evocative erotic writing that mixes at once the idea of immigrant communities, the homophobia that traditional families sometimes bring with them, the exclusion from both community and country that this can create, but also the idea of the gay community and the community of love. It’s a strange story, at once dark and light, sexual and playful but also threatening; of release and ending all at once, wonderfully.

Osman is also wide-ranging. His stories touch a mix of experiences; queer youth (‘Shoga’, ‘Fairytales for Lost Children’); queer life in Somalia (‘Watering the Imagination’, about being the parent of a lesbian; ‘Shoga’ again); about being an immigrant (‘The Other (Wo)Man’, among others); about mental illness (‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’), but also a variety of different kinds of queerness. As well as homosexuality, and the gender-transgression of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, there is the genderqueer protagonist of ‘Pavilion’, presented with humour and affection by Osman, but without becoming a comedic character; Fairytales for Lost Children never sympathises more with oppressor than oppressed, but does have a certain sympathy for the oppressor, the straight, the cis. Osman seems to understand the imperatives that make people discriminate against, attack, verbally abuse queer people; and he presents those who do this as human too, especially the relatives of the queers he is portraying.

It’s a fascinating, beautiful, haunting collection that won’t leave the reader happy, per se, but will leave one satisfied and wanting more all at once; Osman, in Fairytales for Lost Children, has unleashed a truly amazing collection on the world that every queer-basher, and every racist anti-immigrant demagogue, should be forced to read. It drips empathy off every page, and that’s a rare, and beautiful, thing.

Held Close In Syllables of Light by Rose Lemberg

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Abruptly his stronghold folded. His names struck. He tore my mind-veil off. Before I could react, the names retreated, reformed his stronghold. All too powerful for me. He laughed. “The Raker’s daughter has taken a single two-syllable. Women, huh. Weaker even than your mother. So be more sensible than her, sweet Vendelin….”
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Rose Lemberg is one of those amazing people on Twitter who, on seeing someone looking for diversity in their reading, will turn around and recommend a whole tranche of work… and discuss why finding intersectional genre fiction is so hard. She’s also absolutely lovely, and described the world in which this story takes place as an incredibly intersectional one, so I couldn’t really resist giving it a go!

Held Close In Syllables Of Light is, in some ways, standard secondary-world coming-of-age travelogue fantasy; Vendelin is in many ways the stereotypical protagonist of such a story, headstrong, struggling to find her place in the world or who she is, trying to live up to the reputations and expectations of those around her whilst not betraying either her friends or her principles. The personal conflicts that engenders are fantastically portrayed and Lemberg manages to write teenage angst without it feeling like teenage angst; rather, it feels like the disgruntlement, uncertainty, lack of belonging that we feel at that age and that is (dismissively) described as teenage angst in bad fiction. Held Close… also manages to portray a number of other characters, and while the Shahniyaz is rather two-dimensional and stereotypical in his evil, the allies of the protagonist are rounded out and interesting characters who add a lot to the story in the ways they act on and are acted on by Vendelin, which has an interesting impact on the plot.

Held Close… has a plot that at times feels a bit unfocused. It’s not just episodic, though it certainly is that, it also seems to lack a unifying theme other than Lemberg’s need to move the chess pieces for her set-up at the end; Held Close… in some ways feels like the long prologue to a standard epic fantasy novel, wherein the teenage protagonist is set on a coming of age quest that goes wrong and becomes a far bigger quest than anticipated. A number of things just don’t seem to have a pay off in the story, but Lemberg does manage to keep the reader’s interest, in part with a beautiful, visual writing style that creates a fantastical world wonderfully and that really manages to realise the secondary world of the setting.

It’s also an incredibly queer setting. Held Close In Syllables Of Light features a number of different societies, but the one that is portrayed in the best light is Vendelin’s native society. This is one in which polyamory is the norm, homosexuality is perfectly acceptable and even expected, and there seems to be no real judgement about consensual sexual acts in or out of marriage; the lack of nonbinary gender aside it is almost a queer paradise in its acceptance, and Lemberg’s obvious partiality to it does nothing to undermine its uniqueness. The other societies are different, much less accepting, and that is shown to be damaging to everyone involved; Lemberg clearly has no time for the restrictions on human sexuality that the modern West places on us.

In the end, I wish Lemberg had been more clear about what Held Close In Syllables Of Light was doing; as it stands, it feels more like the prologue to an Eddingsesque high fantasy than the new, mold-breaking story that both world and characters clearly want it to be. Since it’s available free in Beyond Ceaseless Skies #80, I do recommend taking the time to read it for its portrayal of these accepting societies, just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot!

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Three Partitions by Bogi Takács

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Bogi Takács is another author who, like Benjanun Sriduangkaew, writes very intersectional fiction, fiction that matches eir intersectional life as a Hungarian Jewish genderqueer author studying in the United States of America. Giganotosaurus, as with Sriduangkaew, is where I found this particular piece (April 2014 issue), and again, it’s in that interesting space between short story and novella, too short for one and too long for the other…

Three Partitions is, perhaps, best read as someone with at least a better-than-passing familiarity with Jewish faith and culture; my paternal relatives being practicing Jews, that’s something I bring to my reading of this story. It focuses on the life of a Jewish settlement on a planet that is, essentially, Lovelock taken to the next level; the conflict arises not out of any inherent problems with Judaism on another planet, but with how human insularity and dislike of differences interacts with a planet that needs an intermediary… but one who it must, essentially, possess in order to communicate through. The three partitions of the title are the mechitza, curtains used in Orthodox synagogues to separate male and female worshippers; here, there is a third partition, for the intermediary who is neither male nor female. That is, essentially, a secondary characteristic of her difference, the primary one being her reliance on the community to keep her whole; but it is a marked one, that marks her as apart from the rest of the community. Takács approach to writing about this is fantastic, and eir sympathy for Adira, the agendered intermediary, is very clear.

The actual plot is very briefly summable up as Chani, a woman in the settlement, coming to terms with both the planetmind and Adira’s status as its intermediary, and then trying to force the settlement to do the same. Takács is very sympathetic to her ignorance and failure of empathy, and impressive feat for an author who must have suffered much from exactly that; but Three Partitions really takes off in the back half when Chani’s sympathy becomes evangelistic and she plots how to ensure the rest of the community understand the reality of the situation. It’s a deftly handled, simple, slim plot; Takács certainly knows eir craft with that, as e uses Jewish culture and science fictional tropes together to create a story that really draws the reader along. It does use some, at times, rather frustrating elements – telepathy that doesn’t seem to have clear consistency, a precognitive who shares information with his acolytes more sparingly and more manipulatively than Dumbledore – but overall this is a story that works, and works very well at its length.

Giganotosaurus is quickly looking like it will be my go-to for queer genre short fiction, and it is for stories like Three Partitions and authors like Bogi Takács that this is the case. I commend it to you.

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Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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Benjanun Sriduangkaew has been one of the writers that, in the past year, has basically exploded into ubiquity amongst the more progressive parts of the genre scene; unfortunately, that hasn’t gone alongside the sale of a novel (yet), and while novellas and novellettes have earned her a place on the Campbell shortlist, they… don’t tend to come with blurbs. So, we’ll start this review with a summary!

Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon was published by Ann Leckie in Giganotosaurus in their November 2012 issue. It is, as the title implies, somewhere between a reinvention of an old myth-type – the romance doomed never to be fulfilled, between an avatar of the Sun and one of the Moon – and a whole new mythology itself; replacing the generally-straight couple with women, taking a fictional Oriental-inspired(?) setting and indeed drawing on homophobia for a plot element, Sriduangkaew refreshes the myth in her retelling, the combination of innovation and tradition creating an interesting story.

As a presentation of a queer relationship, Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is rather beautiful; Sriduangkaew doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of a queer life, no least the prejudice and refusal to accept it as valid of those around one (both gods and mortals seem to take the view that homosexuality is abnormal or simply nonexistent, an odd take given the genderfluid nature of the gods). However, she also doesn’t try to minimise the humanity, sexuality or romance of a queer relationship; Houyi and Chang’e are a real couple, who don’t always get on perfectly, who have to deal with people outside their relationship and their problems, but who also revel in each others’ company and are both emotionally and sensually connected. Sriduangkaew writes one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve ever read, and it’s a really refreshing read to see one so happy, too!

Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is not, of course, without conflict. Much of that is driven by Houyi’s refusal to bow down to normal social convention and gendered activities; she is an archer and refuses to be second to anyone or to pretend to be anything other than a woman who is the best archer there is, and that – along with her spurning of the advances of various male gods – leads to her downfall. But Sriduangkaew doesn’t let the reader think the downfall is her fault; rather, it is the fault of those who cannot accept that Houyi isn’t interested in them romantically, and in those who think it is better to force a woman into a social box into which she doesn’t fit than to change the society. On those terms, Houyi is a fascinating character study of a woman in conflict with her society.

As a retelling of the old myth, Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is perhaps inevitably an unsurprising tale; but at the same time, Sriduangkaew adds some twists of her own (including one recognisable from the Pirates of the Caribbean use of the same trope), not least her setting. This novella is set in a lush, rich, beautifully portrayed and living setting incorporating gods and mortals into a society and cosmology very heavily reminiscent of the Chinese Imperial belief system; and the way the myth makes use of that setting is fantastic, with place and culture both forming a part of and irrelevant to (in different ways) the characters’ lives and relationships.

Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is the first work by Benjanun Sriduangkaew I’ve read, but it makes me want to seek out more of her work and preferably a novel; if this is her general standard, it’s no wonder she’s made the Campbell ballot.

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