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“Hard reset or soft?” Chance had asked with a tender voice. She brushed the hair away from my cheek and her brow furrowed as she looked, again, at the blackening contusions all along the left side of my face. “Hard this time, right?”
I did that head tilt that I always do when I don’t have the right words. I knew from the way she pursed her lips that seeing me beat up was bothering her but I couldn’t explain that it didn’t bother me. Saying, “Don’t worry, I’m used to it,” seems to make people feel worse somehow. Or they stop caring entirely and I didn’t want that either. Chance was a sweet older woman who always put me under with a gentle touch. Instead of explaining I said, “Soft, please.”
“Why would you want to remember this one, honey?” she asked.
“I don’t really, but it took me three months to learn how to turn at the right time so he did less damage. I should hold on to that.” Which was true enough.
She didn’t argue. I leaned back into the chair while she slipped on a pair of synthetic rubber gloves, stifling a smile at the way they snapped around her wrists, signifying her transition into Medical Professional Chance IF1214. So serious, and of course I giggle. She makes a tiny frown but doesn’t waver as she slides a needle into the back of my right hand, piercing a vein. The drip bag is already hanging and while I know it’s a mix of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, glutamate blockers, and something to equalize my adrenocorticoids, I have never once asked for brand names. If I knew, I would research them, and my innate curiosity is dampened by the fear that being too aware of the chemical processes involved would stop the treatment from working.
Call me superstitious.
Thoughts? I’m about 800 words in on this one, and this bit isn’t the beginning but it’s just after the introduction.
I’d never heard of David Marusek when I was handed this collection*. Just told that I would like it, and I should read it. It sat on my bookshelf for a few months while I caught up with other reading material, but lately I’ve been trying to get through my back catalog, finish tasks, let go of things I don’t need anymore, and move on. Clear out my inboxes. Turn in what I owe people.
Read books that aren’t mine so I can give them back.
The collection of ten short stories was put together after his 2005 novel, COUNTING HEADS, got great reviews. Half of the stories are set in the same future, and one (“The Wedding Album”) won the Sturgeon Award.
“The Wedding Album” is a novella, the longest piece in the book, and switches perspective between a couple of different characters, though mostly it’s told from the view of a simulated Anne, captured on her wedding day. A couple of hundred years pass as civilization rises and falls through the evolution of their technology, but wedding-Anne has no say in what happens around her. It’s sad with brief bits of loving, though it’s mostly a look at how selfish one man can be.
“The Earth Is On The Mend” is a flash piece, well done, a slightly rambling account of one survivor’s day in the frozen wasteland that was the Earth. It tells you enough to suspect this story will end badly. That’s what flash is about – setting a scene, giving you one moment, and enough other bits to hint at a great deal more.
“Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz” was written as a letter to editor Gardner Dozios, who published it and gave Marusek his start as a published writer. The epistolary style isn’t one of my favorites, but this version is light-hearted. It’s got dying husbands and cryogenics and Alaska small-town culture – it qualifies as a science fiction story, certainly. In the end it’s just cheeky, daring you to enjoy it and daring Mr. Dozois to publish it. Worth a read.
“A Boy In Cathyland” was originally a chunk of “The Wedding Album” but was cut from the final version. Marusek revised it into a stand-alone short. It explains a minor detail from the novella, but that’s not what’s important about it. The best part of “A Boy” is that Marusek blends Russian into the dialogue without explaining the meaning. He places description and action around the non-English parts to give the reader enough context to suss out the meaning on their own. The story is weak without the knowledge of what happens in “Wedding Album” but I like his use of language a lot.
“We Were Out Of Our Minds With Joy” is another novella, Marusek’s second published piece and the first of this length. It’s set in the same universe as “Wedding Album” and makes up the beginning of his novel. Like several of his other stories, Marusek introduces an idea, then ignores it while he goes through all of the history and scene-setting, then gets back to his opening toward the end.
The introduction to “VTV” warns that it was an exercise in writing a miserable story, and the reader should feel free to skip it. I didn’t, and I’m glad, because while it contains many of Marusek’s most-used elements, it stands out from the others because of its subject matter. It’s more concerned with making a point which, while still negative, has the potential to affect our lives now instead of centuries in the future. One of the more interesting pieces.
“Cabbages and Kale or: How We Downsized North America” is another one about the same old things. So is ”Getting To Know You”. Not bad, but dull after reading all of the rest.
“Listen to Me” is written in second-person perspective, which immediately makes it stand out. It’s about boredom and, again, about isolation and selfishness. But it’s also set aboard a starship, which is different. It’s very short, and I liked it.
“My Morning Glory” is another flash piece, forcefully exuberant, a quick-step shuffle off the edge of the cliff that is the end of the book.
There isn’t much to connect with, emotionally, in this collection, except the overriding feeling of sadness. It’s sad that these people can’t be happy for long. It’s sad that technology outpaces humanity. It’s sad that the only other feeling to come across is one of isolation. I don’t know if Marusek is disconnected from the world or if it’s the one emotion he knows how to write well, but it’s there, with the sadness, in every story. They’re two sides of the same coin – the characters are sad because they’re distanced from the things that make us happy, like love and companionship and hope.
In a way, that’s what makes the book kind of boring. Marusek has a few ideas which he clearly loves, so much that he recycles them through several stories. His “original” ideas, the ones not part of his “Wedding Album” universe, appear in the shortest stories of the book, as if he didn’t want to - or couldn’t – write about them in the same way he writes about his holos, simulacrum, and clones. He even recycles characters (not just Cathy from “Cathyland” but Yurek Rutz, who’s mentioned in “VTV”) and locations – Alaska comes up a lot. I don’t mind any of that as much as I mind him recycling plot points. After all, so many of the stories are about the exact same thing: how do you handle living in a future where artificial people are common and naturally-born humans are not?
Apparently Marusek only has one answer to that question. I would like his work much more if he had more to say.
Overall I’d suggest reading this collection for the technique. The structures are crisp, the writing is clean, there’s rarely anything unnecessary going on. Parts which appear to be side stories get mentioned or dealt with again before the tale is finished. Marusek is a skillful writer and is able to keep control of stories with circular natures. This tight hold on where his writing is going takes some of the surprise out of the ending but I look at this collection like the start of something good. If he has this much skill when he’s starting out, all he needs to do is maintain that level of writing while adding in whatever he’s fascinated by next.
Read GETTING TO KNOW YOU one story at a time and take a break in between. You’ll appreciate it better that way.
* Another book loaned to me by Don, who has the best taste in reading, and has shaped the course of my literary education the last few years. He gave me copies of Craig Strete’s THE BLEEDING MAN, Maureen F. McHugh’s AFTER THE APOCALYPSE, Brian Wood’s DMZ, M. Rickert’s various stories, Fran Lebowitz’s METROPOLITAN LIFE and The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. He convinced me to buy INTERFICTIONS, Ray Vukcevich’s BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS, Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT, Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES, Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, Stephen Elliott’S MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP and Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS.
He also loaned me Etger Keret’s THE NIMROD FLIPOUT, though, sadly, I had to give that one back. (Click on the links to read my reviews of these titles.)
The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories (1974) is a fascinating blend of genre-bending ideas, outsider perspective and misogyny. I simultaneously loved and rolled my eyes at these stories, and while you absolutely must go into Strete’s work aware of his bias, I still think it’s worth reading. A quick look at each story:
“Into Every Rain, a Little Life Must Fall” - bored cop doing surveillance on a rainy night finds a man he can’t arrest because the system doesn’t recognize him. Prescient, for the early 1970s. Sparse, quick writing.
“White Brothers from the Place Where No Man Walks” - I liked the recursive storytelling beats in this myth. It’s strange and won’t appeal to everyone, which is part of what I like about it. You’re not going to read a story like this every day.
“When They Find You” – My favorite piece in the collection. It’s sad, callous, and innovative in turns. Probably the best written story in the book.
“A Sunday Visit with Great-Grandfather” – about the power of not believing in science. If you imagine that magic only works if you believe in it, then perhaps technology works the same way.
“Mother of Cloth, Heart of Clock” – sad, first person perspective tale of a zoo animal (an ape, most likely) who’s about to be put down. Second best story in the book.
“The Bleeding Man” – The government emissary is a heartless woman who doesn’t understand drinking, gambling, or storytelling, and therefore deserves to be cut into little pieces. Oh, and something about a god-being who might be Jesus.
Overall this collection deals with themes of otherness, magic vs. science, and the oppression of living in someone else’s society. Ironically, Strete creates stories of oppression of Native American men which are meant to show how wrong that oppression is, but does so by substituting women as acceptable to denigrate instead.
The main characters are all male, and though females (human, alien, and animal) appear in most of the stories, they’re all one-dimensional. Grandmother, mother, bitch, fuck toy – each woman has a role to play, that of an object that the males move around and influence. There are no women in the first story at all. The mothers in “White Brothers” and “Bleeding Man” are there as containers of a baby and no more – and both are subsequently killed without having uttered dialogue. They’re also named for the men in their lives: “Old Coat’s daughter” and “my sister by law” (also called “the mother” and “his wife”). The Grandmother in “Sunday Visit” is a repetitive caricature, kicking the shins of her cantankerous husband while also making sure to be there in case he has a coughing fit. The narrator’s mate in “Mother of Cloth” is taken away to be experimented on and then put down when her personality changes to violent.
The Riyall woman that Gantry buys for a mate in “When They Find You” is called “Bkaksi” once, by her father, when he’s selling her in exchange for a shirt. (The father doesn’t even wear the shirt; he folds it up and sits on it.) Bkaksi doesn’t speak, is the perfect lover and servant, empathically knowing Gantry’s ever need, but he never falls in love with her. He barely learns not to hate her for being human. She doesn’t complain when he takes her into town to get a surgery that will allow her to bear his children, though he doesn’t ask if she wants it.
Miss Dow, the only named woman to get dialogue in Strete’s stories, is mean, stupid, and might have been attractive if only she’d smile, according to her coworker in “Bleeding Man”. It gets worse from there, as if her insistence on being a person who makes decisions – or at least, enforces them – proves her unworthiness to be cared for or kept alive. I saw what the author was trying to do with the tale but couldn’t get invested in it.
Interestingly, the forward – written by a woman, author Virginia Hamilton – skips over Strete’s treatment of women entirely.
All of that said, the book is still worth reading. Blame the era, blame the author, blame … whatever you want, the book is awful to women and there’s no ignoring that. But the stories are still mostly innovative, and at times uncomfortably emotional. They push the boundaries of genre, remind us that there are more than white Anglo writers in the US, and suggest new ways that we can tell a story. I will look at my own work with new eyes after reading this collection, and I would be very surprised if I didn’t incorporate some of Strete’s ideas about structure into my future writing.
I subscribed to Apex Magazine for the first time this year. By the time I got a chance to read the accumulated issues, I had four of them waiting for me, so I’m going to do one big round up. Because this is a multi-genre magazine, I made a note of what I suspect each story’s genre is after the review.
My favorite pieces from Issues 40, 41, 42, and 43 are:
“Sexagesimal” by Katherine E.K. Duckett takes the idea that the Afterlife was always meant to be a short term excursion a place where we could digest the moments of our lives before letting go of everything else, and gives it a structure that makes logical sense. Very smart, great read. Shades of Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.” SF.
“Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” by Elizabeth Bear invokes the image of real-life boxer Sonny Liston, mixes in some of the history of greatness, gives us a know-it-all narrator, and spins a story about winning that is more about the way it’s told than what’s being said. What’s being said is good, no doubt, but it’s the words that matter here, and Bear tells you this story like it wants to be told, needs to be told, so shut up, sit down, and let her tell it. (Reprint from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction edited by Ellen Datlow, 2008.) Lit bordering on SF/Fantasy in an alt-history kind of way.
At first I thought Cecil Castellucci’s story, “Always the Same. Till it is Not” was a prose poem, a jagged, off-kilter stream of emotional words, growing into phrases, but those words developed as the narrator’s view of himself evolved, until the story appeared. Nicely done. Horror/Fantasy.
“Simon’s Replica” by Dean Francis Alfar makes me wonder why no one has pointed me toward Alfar’s work before now. Seriously, I expect better from you people. “Replica” is deceptively simple-seeming with a touching ending that makes the set-up worth the time invested in reading it. It says something beautiful. Lovely. Lit bordering on Fantasy.
“Splinter” by Shira Lipken is short and blunt, to the point, and a perfect piece of flash fiction (though I think it may have a few too many words to strictly be called “flash”). It’s a moment, a conversation, a story, a thing that happened, and it says just enough to be all of those things without having to be anything else. Wonderful. Fantasy/SF.
“Erzulie Dantor” by Tim Susman is a werewolf/ghost story set in Haiti after the earthquake. I appreciate when American authors try to reach outside of the US for source material, and the setting enlivens an otherwise straight-forward tale of a jealous woman. Didn’t love it but liked it. Horror.
Alethea Kontis takes a classic gothic horror trope and gives it new life by showing the us lovesick girl who gave the bad baron his start. “Blood from Stone” tells the oft-retold story of the baron in his castle, killing young brides one after the other, beginning not with the final girl whose brothers will save her from the baron’s clutches, but the first sacrifice that happened before the story as we know it. The modern dialogue toward the end felt out of place, but if you assume that Death is timeless, you’ll be fine. Horror.
“Labyrinth” by Mari Ness made me cry. I didn’t expect the ending, though it fit perfectly, and the first person narration wasn’t overwhelming. I’m labeling it Lit bordering on Fantasy, though there’s no magic in it, because maybe it’s alt history, and maybe it’s not.
“Relic” by Jeffrey Ford is a strange tale about a saint’s relic, talking fish, myth and thieves. It was I’m just starting to get into Ford’s work; if this is a typical story from him I’m going to love his writing. Weird Fiction.
Overall I’m enjoying Apex. Editor-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas has a taste for borderline stories, tales that are just barely in genre, and that suits my reading tastes. It reminds me of Goss and Sherman’s selections for Interfictions, which I reviewed two weeks ago. In fact, Apex publishes work that is similar to my own writing, and I definitely need to submit to them soon.