Welcome to the second post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I haven’t been reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.
This time, I will be reviewing four short stories, of which two are Nebula finalists, one short story collection from an acclaimed SFF author, and talk about the importance of reading from people you disagree with.
- The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta, 2020): I will never forget this. It’s decadent, visceral, and very gory, with a thick, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s about a messed up relationship between an actress and the young woman who basically becomes her servant, including BDSM and a dynamic that is both toxic and intoxicating. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from the grotesque! (The fantasies about vore, of course, are there just for literary purpose! If you don’t know what that means, please, don’t google it.) The points it makes about sex and violence, about what we see as depraved and oddly don’t, about body horror being something so tied into the feminine… it really is true, when our bodies are the landscapes of everyday horror themselves. I’m currently reading Her Body and Other Parties, but this new story is still my favorite short from Carmen Maria Machado.
- Variations on an Apple by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2015): What if you were in love with a city?
The Iliad, retold in Yoon Ha Lee’s signature math-fantasy style. Dizzying, wonderfully queer, and suffused with a quieter sadness than one would expect from a story about war, it talks about fate, and the unstoppable potential of human discord. It’s an even more remarkable experience if one is familiar with either Ninefox Gambit or Lee’s game Winterstrike, as some parts of it felt like glancing at those through a distorting glass. Also, of course cities have no concerns for something as human as gender. It’s not my favorite by Yoon Ha Lee (my favorites remain Ghostweight and The Knights of Chains, the Deuce of Stars) but really good nonetheless; some parts almost read like poetry, and the writing is sharp enough to cut.
- Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, 2019): cannibalism, lesbianism, and the othering, oppressive nature of western anthropology all rolled into a short horror story, one told through excerpts of fictional books and articles. Original, and manages to pack a punch in very little space.
- His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal (Tor.com, 2019): a story about freedom, loyalty and gay love between a human and a jinni set in India. Like the previous one, I tried it because it was announced as a Nebula finalist. I feel like the characters had a lot of backstory I couldn’t see nor feel in this space, and I didn’t feel attached to them as a result, but I did really like the escaping devadasi subplot. Overall, nice, but not that memorable for me.
In February I read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, a collection of short stories from N.K. Jemisin, an author I’ve had mixed experiences with before. That didn’t change, since this collection was even more of a mixed bag than I’d usually expect. Still, it made me want to at least try both the Dreamblood duology and The City We Became; I don’t have any doubt about her skill, especially when it comes to the writing in itself – there’s hardly a word out of place.
In fantasy, I love her worldbuilding. I now want to read The Killing Moon purely because of how much I liked the world in The Narcomancer; it was so vibrant and atmospheric and intriguing. I also love the way she talks about cities – especially New York and New Orleans. The concept of a city itself having a deep, positive power despite all its flaws is one that appeals to me, and so does reading about the complicated relationships marginalized people have with the place they live in and the other people who live there with them. Of course, The Effluent Engine and The City Born Great were two of my favorites. Jemisin always has a fantastic grasp on atmosphere, which shines in this kind of stories.
Sadly, I don’t seem to get along with her sci-fi stories the same way? This is probably more on me than on her, because while sci-fi is my favorite genre, there are some subgenres of it I really can’t get into (cyberpunk and the like) and several of the sci-fi stories fell into that. The Evaluators was the main exception, and it would have been interesting if the ecology in the story had made any sense.
One particularly low point was L’Alchimista, in which the author attempted to write about Italian characters in real-world Italy without even trying to get the Italian language right.
– N.K. Jemisin, 2006.
…that’s like having an American character apologize by saying “Hi’m sorpy”. You can’t expect your readers to take you seriously while talking about Italian food and politics after you do that! As usual, I’m left wondering what American authors have against putting effort into other languages.
Still, since it was written more than ten years ago, I hope she’d make different choices today and it doesn’t influence my interest in her other works. And I do like how she writes about food when she’s not writing about Italy; I really liked the food witchery in Red Dirt Witch and what she did in Cuisine des Mémoires, because stories that explore the link between food and memory have always been my kind of thing.
Overall, this was very interesting, because I didn’t feel the same way about two stories. Some I loved, some I couldn’t even finish, some I finished and hated, some I liked but didn’t feel strongly about, some I liked while partially disagreeing with – it’s far from my favorite collection, but as far as reading experience, it was one of the most dynamic and I never quite knew what to expect next.
On Reading From People Who Disagree With You
The idea for this discussion was born when I read the first story in How Long ’til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight, which has since been reprinted on Lightspeed Magazine, where you can read it online. It’s a response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (a story I’m only tangentially familiar with because of discussions on twitter) based on Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance.
This story made me think about how we in the book community frame the idea of reading from people who we disagree with. Because I disagree with some points in the story, especially its concern with passive corruption¹ (it’s probably because it reminds me of the twisted, nonsensical book twitter ethics towards fiction²).
The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a story that celebrates diversity while underlining the importance of strong boundaries against intolerance, which can’t be just seen as a “difference of thought” – something I strongly agree with. What I don’t agree with is the process through which this story thinks people become intolerant. Reading this story gave me a reason to truly dissect why I don’t think this feels right to me, which I don’t think I would otherwise done; it means that I did get something out of it, just not necessarily what the author put on the page.
And… being able to read something I disagreed with without feeling attacked by it is something I see as a progress. I learned reviewing from looking at what other people did, and tried to use that framework to talk about my own feelings. But the thing is, we are all hobbyists, and it’s difficult to tell – especially if personal and painful topics come into play – when something stops being an interpretation and starts becoming projection. Couple that with general insecurity about one’s own opinions, and you get defensive callout mentality. There’s a lot of it in the book community, and it’s often rewarded – in places like book twitter, anger and lack of nuance get more traction than anything else – and I’m still trying to disentangle from it; I’m not completely sure I’m successful (also, the worst part about misguided righteous anger is that it feels good). But if I tried to avoid stories like these, that make me a little uncomfortable by having parts I strongly agree with and parts I don’t, and examined what my knee-jerk reactions were, I wouldn’t have reasons to realize this even was a problem.
¹ coming in contact with bigotry will make you partially a bigot? And having come in contact with it means you will spread it and need to get murdered to save the utopia? People never come up with horrible ideas on their own if you shelter them enough…? Simplistic and I don’t think people even work like that.
² Book twitter increasingly seems to operate with the assumption that fiction influences real life (concern towards possible passive harm) but what we accuse others of on the internet somehow doesn’t influence real life (lack of concern towards probable active harm). As you can imagine, it’s hell. I recommend reading this interview by Tamsyn Muir and what happened to Isabel Fall if you want to know about recent examples.
³ In case it wasn’t clear, I agree about them being dangerous, but not the “they will contaminate you” part. It’s far more complicated than that.
Have you read any of these? How did you learn to review? Have you ever gone through realizing that you were doing some parts of it badly?