What I’ve Been Reading: Rickert, Burstein, Sharma, Tobler

This week’s reading was a collection of stories I randomly discovered online, either because someone recommended it, or because I stumbled it across it while looking for something else.

The Mothers of Voorhisvill”  by Mary Rickert, Tor.com (novella)

5 out of 5 stars

There is a grandeur to Rickert’s work which is almost immediately obvious but not overwhelming. You begin to read the tale she’s written, sentences unfolding simply, with hints of strangeness, until a few paragraphs in you start to see the edges of the world she’s created — and it hits you. It’s never “let me tell you about every aspect of this setting for three pages before anything happens”. It’s not “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. She understands her characters, where they live and how they move about in that place, so well that when she writes the story, it’s just you (the reader) and them (the fictional characters), having a dialogue.

Reading Rickert is like listening to the chatty neighbors you’d never noticed until they happened to be the most fascinating people you’ve ever met. You’ll find everything you’re looking for by the time it’s done.

The shape of this story is as a series of interviews conducted with various women who’ve, they admit at the beginning, done something terrible, or wonderful, and now they’re explaining why. There’s contrast between the things they’re admitting, the events they’re saying didn’t happen quite that way, and and the moments of “well, sure, it did happen, but she’s completely wrong about the way she describes it”. We read how the women see not only the events of the story but their own worlds so differently from one another. All the pieces of “Mothers”, not disparate but simply not the same, weave together until what you finally have is so large, so monstrous and beautiful and greater than you’d imagined, that “grandeur” is the best word to describe it.

There are definite hints of Witches of Eastwick, and Nightvale, but there are sensual details — the hundred scents, the beauty of light, of women, of creative arts — which swell as the women do, breaking free from other influences. Those details carry on as the story changes, gets darker and more desperate, breathing life into individual moments with the names of board games, the color of jam. It’s real without being weighted down; terrible in the way that it makes perfect sense. I continue to be in awe of Rickert’s ability to tell a complete story, full without going on for too long, like a ripe peach on the last day before it’s plucked and eaten.

Kaddish for the Last Survivor” by Michael A. Burstein, Apex Magazine.

2 out of 5 stars

A SF tale about Holocaust deniers? You might think it would be preachy, pointed, too invested in its message, and Burstein’s story is all of those things. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001, and it’s worth figuring out why.

First, there’s very little SF in the story. It’s set in some near-future where the last of the Holocaust survivors is dying. There’s memory-chip tech mentioned in passing, and a mental note to do something later we don’t actually see, but otherwise, it isn’t speculative at all. It’s a mundane tale of one woman’s choice to pursue the life she’s started (college, boyfriend, marriage) outside of the Jewish community, or to give up her own dreams to keep her family’s bloodline pure. What’s “strange” about the story is the perspective of the Jewish characters depicted in it; their language, their theories about the necessity of remaining Jewish in order to protect their future generations, the view of all others as either the enemy or collaborators. Burstein writes them as if they are a kind of alien, set apart from “the rest of us”, insular and self-referential — so much so that he doesn’t feel the need to explore the characters beyond a “this happened and then this happened and then this happened” structure. We’re allowed to see these people but neither they nor the author care too much whether we understand them.

I wish the writing was better; I’d love to be able to more heartily recommend this story. I wanted more emotional connection, more of a reason to mourn the sacrifices that the main character seems to make too easily, and of course some resolution with the opening conflict. I will say that Bustein wrote it 15 years ago, and has written much more since, so don’t judge his current work on this one old piece. It’s still an interesting glimpse into a group of people who are not aliens, are not fantasy, and are very much a part of our society. If you don’t immediately recognize this tale as not-really-fiction, then read it at once.

Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma, Tor.com

4 out of 5 stars

First-person present tense from the PoV of a 19th century scavenger in an alt-history Liverpool. Opens with more exposition than I think is necessary (worldbuilding that’d have been better served being revealed in the course of the story, or along with some action), but the pace picks up once the dialogue starts. The exposition continues on but it mixes in with the plot and doesn’t feel as overbearing as it did at the beginning. It could be a too-thoughtful narrator, almost. Toward the end, the disparate bits of Sharma’s tale come together: action, violence, lies, sex, betrayal, hope. If you’re the sort to quit on a story that bores you on the first page, don’t give up til you’ve finished this one. As a whole, it’s greater than the writing initially implies, and is well worth the time spent. Bonus points for consistent use of dialect, careful details, and a setting which is not exactly unique, but rarely done as well as here.

We, As One, Trailing Embers“, E. Catherine Tobler

4 out of 5 stars

Another alt-Earth tale, set in the late 19th or early 20th century US, and as with Sharma’s story, Tobler employs a first-person present tense perspective. There, the similarities end. “Embers” is a horror-tinged dream unfolding like molasses, never hesitating, never rushing, toward a end which resolves in the same way that the story was told all along: without shock or climax. Not that there’s a lack of strange in Tobler’s world: the narrator is one (or both?) of a Siamese twin, born with a shape so different that it surprises even a man who’s job is to surgically construct oddities for circus sideshows. But there are no deep valleys or high peaks in the emotional landscape. It begins weird, remains weird, ends weird, all in this flow of words which might have had greater impact had it something “normal” to compare to.

Though Rickert’s “Mothers” is the only one I wouldn’t change a thing about, there’s something to recommend about each of these stories. Of Sharma and Tobler’s stories, which might seem related, I think it’s actually beneficial to read them together, because in close proximity you can see where each differs, and succeeds, from the other. They’re both beautifully written, and I’d read each of them again.

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