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I knew that Maureen F. McHugh was going to be a Guest of Honor at the 2013 Readercon, but I hadn’t read any of her work. Luckily I was given a copy of her short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and I found time to open it over the holidays. Well, there were some stone steps involved, and a patch of ice, and a day spent lying in bed trying to not move anything that was sore, but it was during the holiday break so that’s close enough.
I had no idea what I was going to get into when I opened the book. The first page of the first story opens on a zombie preserve. A guy, a prisoner, dropped off there to survive, and oh yeah it used to a be a real city, this place full of walking dead. It used to be Cleveland.
Yeah, that’s when I fell in love with the book.
I wasn’t wrong, either. McHugh’s prose is easy, flows well from one sentence to the next, without too many sharp edges or dictionary words, but the stories aren’t simple. They’re full of smart ideas. “The Naturalist”, the first in the collection, skips past the zombie apocalypse to a point where we could get rid of the last stragglers if we wanted to … but what we had another use for them? From that concept comes another simple idea – what if the guy sent to get eaten by zombies started studying them instead?
It’s not too much of a stretch, and in fact, none of McHugh’s stories are. There a few steps beyond what we have now, in some cases just a little hop into tomorrow, but you can trace them all back to something recognizable. “Special Economics” takes the idea of biotech advances in China and reduces it down to a young factory girl working off her debt. “Useless Things” shows us an American Southwest after an economic crash but doesn’t use the setting to explore large-scale effects of poverty. McHugh focuses tightly onto one older woman, living in the desert, making ends meet with a skill she learned before the jobs disappeared.
It’s that focus that makes McHugh’s work personal and accessible. “Lost Boy” investigates the unusual amnesia affecting a boy lost during a dirty bomb attack in Baltimore. Not the aftermath of the bomb in the conventional sense, not the terrorists, not the long camera pan across a pile of bodies lying in the street outside of the bomb site. Just one teenage boy, misplaced in the chaos.
“The Kingdom of the Blind” includes a tech girl who loved Mycroft from Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress - one of my favorite books – so there may have been a little fangirl squee on my part at that moment. The story itself wasn’t one of my favorites; it felt a little forced in places, though not much. It’s followed by “Going to France”, which is the only piece in the book that I didn’t like. I’m not sure if it’s the rambling tone of the story, or the fact that it included a mute autistic character who only served to be a part of the scenery. She’s got a superpower – flight – like some of the other characters, but while McHugh describes one flyer as being nervous after a brush with mortality, and another who “seemed caught up in dealing with logistics”, she then says “the autistic one was just pure compulsion”.
Not a fair description of most autistic people I know.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” had an odd narrative flow and while the story mentioned an Avian Flu it’s really about a teen girl torn between a dying parent and an irresponsible one. It’s a story about a personal apocalypse, the end of life as she knew it. “After the Apocalypse” ends the book on a strong, dark, note, making up for the minor missteps of “Kingdom” and “France”. It blends the personal trauma with loss on a larger scale and puts into perspective a woman’s choice to save herself instead of anyone else. Doesn’t make light of it or, I think, approve of it, but the explanation is there. McHugh also plays with a present tense voice that isn’t as distracting as it could have been.
In the end, I loved this book. These stories are wonderful. McHugh writes in a evocative yet minimal way that I like to shoot for my own writing. She rarely tries to make it complicated, because she doesn’t have to. The stories are strong, they’re good, without making them fussy or overtly decorative. It’s a small book of short stories but it’s also a fine example of what writing can be: smart, clean, powerful.
I’m very glad I read it.
Synopsis: Nineteen writers dig into the imaginative spaces between conventional genres—realistic and fantastical, scholarly and poetic, personal and political—and bring up gems of new fiction: interstitial fiction. This is the literary mode of the new century, a reflection of the complex, ambiguous, and challenging world that we live in. These nineteen stories, by some of the most interesting and innovative writers working today, will change your mind about what stories can and should do as they explore the imaginative space between conventional genres. The editors garnered stories from new and established authors in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and also fiction translated from Spanish, Hungarian, and French. The collection features stories from Christopher Barzak, Colin Greenland, Holly Phillips, Rachel Pollack, Vandana Singh, Anna Tambour, Catherynne Valente, Leslie What, and others.
At Readercon this last July I got both Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing and Interfictions 2, collections of short stories that are considered interstitial – not necessarily of one genre or another, but something in between. Strange but not quite speculative; often based in realism but still unreal. They were put out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation (disclaimer: I’m a member and you should be too), and I’ve been working my way through the books. Since it’s just been announced that the anthology series is moving online and will be open to submissions in February, it’s a good time for a review of book one.
I’ll give my quick thoughts on each story and then an overview at the end:
Christopher Barzak, “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House” – Easily my favorite story in the collection. The first person collective voice fits the story perfectly and adds that little bit of a strange, not the same kind of strange as reading a ghost story (which it also has), but the “what kind of story is this” strange that makes it interstitial. Loved it. (more…)
I hadn’t been reading much the last few months. My to-read list piled up around me. I culled my bookshelf, pulled out a couple of bags of things I could live without because either I had them digitally or I was probably never going to get around to it, but that list kept getting bigger. Recently I stopped in the middle of something else, thought about what would make me happy at that moment, and realized I can’t be happy if I’m not reading. I mean, I always knew that, but I can’t remember the last time I stopped reading long enough for it have an effect on me…
I’m better now that I have a book in my hand.*
Back in September I subscribed to digital versions of several magazines. One of those, Fireside Magazine, was new, and I caught the first two issues:
The debut issue of Fireside has four shorts stories — Press Enter to Execute by Tobias Buckell, To the Moon by Ken Liu, Emerald Lakes by Chuck Wendig, and Temperance by Christie Yant — and a comic — Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas, written by D.J. Kirkbride and Adam P. Knave, penciled by Michael Lee Harris, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic. – from the website
My favorite pieces were the stories by Buckell, Liu, and Wendig. Liu’s was first, and To The Moon is one of the best things I’ve read from him in a while. Liu always has intelligent plots, and he thinks his ideas through to their logical conclusion, instead of relying on a shiny new idea to carry the story without the framework of logic. However, I haven’t always been able to connect to his work. To The Moon combines the writing quality we’ve come to expect from Liu with an emotional exploration of truth vs what’s right, and the result is unforgettable. Loved it.
Wendig’s story, Emerald Lakes, is part of his ‘Atlanta Burns’ stories, which I haven’t read, but it works as a stand-alone piece about a young girl in a bad place. I am just getting into Wendig’s fiction, though I’ve been a fan of his non-fiction essays and blog for a while. He’s got a gritty style and puts all of the dark things out into the open, easily, casually, like dropping a filleted carcass on the table and walking away without an explanation. It’s going to have an effect on you, that’s for certain.
Buckell’s contribution is Press Enter to Execute, an alt-future tale of hitmen who take out not political figures or drug bosses, but spammers. You know, the people behind the email spam you get flooding your inboxes each day. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it because the premise seems weak and there isn’t much to the story except the way it’s told, but Buckell tells it well. It’s worth checking out to see how he takes a single idea and expands it into a whole story. It’s entertaining, and we all need entertainment.
The second issue of Fireside has stories by Stephen Blackmoore, Damien Walters Grintalis, Kat Howard, and Jake Kerr, and a comic written by Brian White, drawn by Steve Walker, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic.
My favorite pieces were Grintalis’s Scarred and Blackmoore’s Rhapsody in Blue. I’m used to be a fan of horror but once you read enough of it you see there are very few original ideas left. Someone has a dark secret, wants to be violent, is chasing someone, or running from someone, and there’s always a conflict with something unreasoning … it’s all the same. The best you can hope for is to read a piece that is well-written. It sounds silly but there is so much terribly written horror in the world, it’s easy to give up on the genre. Scarred is another “inner-conflict crazy person does violence” kind of story, but you can’t dismiss it as just that. Grintalis has a way of embodying her characters, so that if you understand being off kilter, being tempted to do horrible things, the story makes sense to you. And if you’re lucky enough to never have felt that way, you’ll catch of glimpse of that unsettled frame of mind. It’s worth a read.
Rhapsody in Blue Shift is a science fiction story with a classic space opera feel. It’s definitely the type of story I’m always going to give a chance, and I’m glad that I did. The name is a play on both George Gershwin’s 1924 musical composition and a blueshift (a decrease in wavelength usually caused by relative motion toward the observer). That should give you a pretty good idea of what the story is about, or at least what inspired it, but what makes it special is the main character. Blackmoore puts a low-grade employee of a space liner into the middle of an emergency and throws in a backwater upbringing to make the kid seem less bright than you might have hoped. Mark Twain meets Robert Heinlein, which is to say that it reminds me of Heinlein’s YA stories, especially Starman Jones. It was a fun way to end the second issue!
A successful Kickstarter has already been run for the third issue of Fireside, and I can’t wait to read it. Click on the images to buy each issue now!
*Not a print book, most days, but my Nexus 7 loaded with ebooks. I love living in the future.
Have you seen the introductory essay for my new indie comics column at SF Signal? Though I am aiming to keep myself to speculative fiction comics for them, because that fits with the scope of what SF Signal talks about, I read a lot of other comics each week. I’m particularly into semi-(and)autobiographical and realist stories, which rarely have a speculative element, but I still think are worth reading. In the last two weeks I’ve read:
Lost At Sea, Bryan Lee O’Malley – This book, by the creator of Scott Pilgrim, comes early in O’Malley’s career, drawn when he was just 24. Though SP fans will be able to see the evolution in O’Malley’s style from here to there, I actually prefer Lost at Sea. It’s not as directed toward the 20-something gamer geek crowd, which I am tangentially affiliated with (being both a gamer and a geek) but not quite a member of.
Lost focuses on the story of one girl looking for her soul, which was stolen by cats, or traded to the devil. Or she could be looking for friends, or a salve for her broken heart, or a ride back to Canada. There are a lot of possibilities. O’Malley mixes a strong but cute style – grounded in his use of dark line work and sometimes-dynamic panel placement – with a not-entirely-linear story line that was so intriguing I read the whole book in one sitting.
I recently subscribed to Clarkesworld as well, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, since I actually buy their issues when I get a chance. Now I get them delivered to me, thanks to Weightless Books! Let’s jump right in…
- “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson – another short, list-structured story, like Ken Liu’s piece from the August Lightspeed. Like Liu, Johnson gives us a smart, well-crafted, rigidly structured story that, for me, lacked an emotional element. I can see how it’s pretty and clever, but it didn’t affect me.
- “Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar – Oh, this was perfect. Samatar lets the story of mothering a different kind of child unfold naturally. She’s set up her world and her characters off screen so that all she needs to do is show you their story, the one that makes sense in that world, and she doesn’t clutter it up with unnecessary explanations. By the end of the story, it’s all clear. The child, the parents’ relationship, the ways in which their world is different from ours. In between bits of a rather frightening alien invasion story (made less scary, initially, by the fact that Samara doesn’t tell you about it all at once, which just means it hits you harder when you understand what’s happened) you also see the ways in which a woman adapts to her child, and a marriage lives, stutters, or dies. I had to take a break after reading it, to let it all soak in. “Honey Bear” combines horror and beauty in the best possible way.
- “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente – I want to ask Valente if she’s played Fallout, particularly Fallout: New Vegas, because in a way this story could be a glimpse into the lives of the people who didn’t go into a Vault just after the war. But saying that might give you the impression that this story is childish or flat, which is completely wrong. That “Fade to White” appealed to my geeky, post-apocalyptic, Cold War loving self (in a variety of ways) is no complaint. It is a sharp, brilliantly written, look at what being a teenager is like, when you live in an America that was hit by nuclear bombs, is ruled by “President McCarthy”, and is struggling to hold on to the imagined brilliance of the 1950s it didn’t get to have. It’s all about the propaganda that the adults created to hold on to their American Dream, and the ways in which that shapes and manipulates the people trying to live up to it. Like Samatar’s story, like all of the best stories, Valente’s tale doesn’t spoon-feed you the world building or explain it all up front. You see it like you see your life, out car windows and in commercials and in small pieces in the tiny moments you’re truly alone. Loved it.
- “The Spell of History: Magic Systems and Real-World Zeitgeists” by Jeff Seymour
- “In a Carapace of Light: A Conversation with China Miéville” by Jeremy L. C. Jones
- “Another Word: Plausibility and Truth” by Daniel Abraham
- “Editor’s Desk: Finding the Good in a Dark Day” by Neil Clarke
I don’t have anything to say about the essays/interviews individually, except to say that they’re good, you should read them, you’ll learn something. Clarkesworld has a great non-fiction editor, and their essays are more about exploring a piece of genre than about fawning over a particular author, which I appreciate.
Overall, I’d say it’s a short but excellent read. As always, I wish that Clarkesworld had more fiction, because what they print is so good. It should tell you something, though, that the only complaint I ever have with this magazine is, “WANT MORE!” – which is really a compliment, phrased badly.
Want to hear these stories as podcasts instead? Go here and listen.