I Read David Marusek’s “Getting To Know You”

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.)

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #104, 105

Furthering my quest to catch up on my reading list, I finally started on my back issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The magazine usually publishes two stories per month, focusing on “Literary Adventure Fantasy”, and is edited by Scott H. Andrews. They also post free podcasts of some of their stories on the website.

Issue #104 (September 2012) introduced me to Seth Dickinson, who offered up “Worth of Crows“. Dickinson’s quest tale has a young wizard seeking a dangerous foe, as many such tales do, but he changes it up by making the hero a girl. Who’s also a necromancer. Who also knows that magic is nothing without science, and who talks to dead crows about thermodynamics. It’s a solid fantasy story that doesn’t rely on florid language or huge chunks of exposition to make it feel magical. Loved it. (Listen to the audio version here, read by my friend Michael J. Deluca.)

Issue #105 (October 2012) was their anniversary double issue. Marissa Lingen’s delightful “Cursed Motives” reads very much like a Terry Pratchett story (I’m thinking of Nation particularly) and is a great example of two things: telling a story within a story in order to give history or explain a character, and using a very common idea as the kernel of a fantastical story (in this case, the idea that “getting exactly what you wanted” is a curse). Peta Freestone’s “Luck Fish” is set just next door of our own Universe, in a familiar-feeling tribal village with comfortable characters. Again, there’s s simple-seeming core of this story – unfortunately for this village, it only rains once a year. Freestone takes that idea and runs it with toward a very logical bit of world-building.

Unsilenced” by Karalynn Lee is a complex story, weaving the love lives of several different people together, that would have been much more interesting to if it had been about something more than that. Girl wanted her father’s love, family friend wants hers, male mage wanted the girl’s mother, female mage wanted some other guy, girl wants the mage’s love … Every action in the story is based in someone trying to win the heart or warm the memory of the person they love, and I’m kind of tired of those stories. But the world building is interesting, the writing is strong, and the plot holds up as Lee ties the different threads together. I think this is a case of a good writer telling a story I’ve heard too much of, but someone else would probably enjoy.

You can also listen to Lingen’s story read by Tina Connolly – who I’ve published at Dagan Books – here.

Overall I really get into about half of what BCS publishes. Sometimes the stories that are part of larger pieces – themed short story collections, or novels set in the same world – seem to rely on having a reader knowledgeable about those other works. I don’t read much novel-length fantasy, so pieces like Marie Brennan’s “The Ascent of Unreason” are measured on the strength of that one tale alone, and for me, didn’t work. But the original stories, the ones not part of a larger arc, tend to be creative, smartly-written, and entertaining. Many of them feature strong female characters, and there is a decent amount on non-Western settings. It’s especially nice when those strong female characters are girls of color, like in “Cursed Motives” and “Luck Fish”.

BCS is definitely on my list of markets to submit to this year. And check back next week for another set of BCS reviews – I have 8 more issues to get through.

I Read Craig Strete’s “The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories” (1974)

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.

Review: Apex magazine (Issues 40, 41, 42, and 43)

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:

Issue 40

“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.

Issue 41

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.

Issue 42

“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.

Issue 43

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.

You Should Read Maureen F. McHugh’s “After The Apocalypse”

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.