Adult · Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #3: Ambiguous Endings in Fiction (and more)

Welcome to the third post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. In 2019, I wasn’t reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

This time, I will:

  • review four short stories, including a Nebula finalist and recently published stories by well-known SFF authors like Alix E. Harrow and Yoon Ha Lee;
  • one short story collection from a well-known horror author;
  • talk about ambiguous endings with a focus on short fiction vs novels.

Recent Reads

Short Fiction
  • 46301916For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com): this is from a completely new-to-me author; I decided to read it because it’s a Nebula Award finalist. And… it was amazing? It’s about cats fighting the Devil to protect a poet, full of delightful cat logic and very interesting cats (I’m sorry but I want an entire book about Nighthunter Moppet now). It doesn’t take itself seriously at all but it talks about the nature of temptation in a way that doesn’t feel too one-dimensional and yet makes sense even for a cat. I think I would have liked this even more had I been already familiar with Christopher Smart (as usual, everything kind of assumes you already know English classics), but that was interesting to learn anyway.
  • The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix E. Harrow (Uncanny): this was wonderful, and yet I don’t fully love it. It’s as much of a modern witchy twist on Apollo and Daphne as it is a commentary on how society shapes women to turn our anger inwards, our problems against ourselves, so that we’re pretty much trapped by our own minds. And it’s beautifully written, but there’s something about Harrow’s complete lack of subtlety coupled with the predictable trajectory of the story that makes most of her short stories (and her book) not work for me. It’s just so obvious and there’s not much to take away from the journey. Still, I didn’t think this was bad, and I loved how the author mentioned which kinds of plants she was talking about (that’s the way to go if you’re writing about witches!), even though I spent the first third of the story wondering which kind of tree she actually meant with “sycamore”, since that can mean several wildly different species and I have very weird priorities. (I’m still not sure, by the way.)
  • The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe by Cameron Van Sant (Clarkesworld): this is from the author of one of my favorite short stories, the very trippy Super-Luminous Spiral, so I was immediately intrigued. This is set… around a space whale carcass? And I think the main characters are something like space mermaids (they/them pronouns are used for both). This is kind of sad but it’s also a story about love at the end of the world, so not completely sad? Weird, but this time not a kind of weird that resonated much with me. I don’t really know if I got it.
  • The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies): apparently, this is Space Mermaid week! This is a story about a mermaid who wants to become an astronaut, and it’s about sisterhood, relativity, and the way learning science can shift one’s worldview. Also, now I want a scrimshaw depicting a sacrifice to eldritch gods. Apart from the descriptions, though, this is… not my kind of thing. It’s very sweet, and it reminded me of the flash fiction of The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales in its gentle, unhurried nature (…which one wouldn’t expect if only familiar with Lee’s longer works). However, this is not a flash piece and wouldn’t work as one, and it has no sense of urgency behind it. I would recommend it to fans of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, because they’re somewhat similar in nature (alien space crew!) and because I felt pretty much the same way about them: lovely message, boring story.
Collections

The collection of short stories I read this month was Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I loved both her memoir In the Dream House (review) and her short story The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (review) in February, so it seemed like a good idea to read this as well.

33375622Some of this was brilliant and daring, some of this really wasn’t, and most of it bored me.

There’s a running thread of unease and alienation in this collection, of things never being quite right, of details that might seem innocent becoming more and more uncomfortable as you look at them. It’s a collection about bodies, especially women’s bodies, representing the impact of the psychological violence against them as a physical manifestation. It forces the reader to look at it, to acknowledge it exists; just because a lot of it is subtler than a punch, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

The stories are ambiguous and twisted, and there’s enough material and subtext to write pages-long reviews of most of them. But here’s where the issue comes in: I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel drawn to dissect or discuss them, or spend any more time on them. I just wanted this book to be over.

This had to do both with personal taste (this is not my kind of body horror, apparently) and because some parts were frankly overdone.
Let’s take the longest story in this collection, Especially Heinous. My biggest takeaway from it is that litfic-adjacent authors can get away with almost everything and have it praised as an incisive masterpiece, and “everything” includes bad fanfiction. Not only I didn’t care because I didn’t know the show this was rewriting (as it happens with fanfiction), it had nothing new to say – it read like a cheap fever dream with nods at twice-reheated commentary.

There were two stories that I really liked, Real Women Have Bodies, an eerie story about the damaging effects of beauty standards with an f/f relationship at the center, and Eight Bites, about the ways fatphobia and misogyny are tied, and how their impact is seen across generations. Mothers was also a really interesting piece about the double-edged nature of fantasy, but I find myself already forgetting most of what I thought about it apart from my feelings about the writing (those descriptions were… something else. I really have no complaints about the writing).

This is probably the first time the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me: individually, I only actually disliked two stories; together, I found myself thinking that again? a lot. I can’t even say it was repetitive, because it isn’t that, exactly; these stories explore an array of different experiences. It was emotionally monotonous to the extreme, however.

My rating: ★★½


On Ambiguous Endings in (Short) Fiction

As I don’t doubt many others are, I tend to be annoyed by ambiguous endings in novels. Of course, there are a lot of situations in which they can make sense, and giving the readers space to find answers themselves can sometimes be a good thing, but there’s always that undercurrent of… betrayal, in a way: the book took a certain amount of time to set up a question, and the reader dedicated a certain amount of time to reading it, but then the book didn’t give an answer. Of course it can be frustrating, especially when there isn’t going to be a sequel.

Something I realized while reading Her Body and Other Parties is that I don’t feel that way at all when it comes to short fiction. The shorter a story is, the more I appreciate what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out. While I didn’t feel compelled to dissect the stories in that collection – for reasons different from their ambiguity – I did see a lot of parts that would have been perfect for that, and if I had been reading this with others, maybe I would have. I remember having a lot of fun with the more ambiguous parts of Salt Slow just a few months ago. I want to be confused and have something to untangle.

Everyone takes away something different from a novel, it’s the fun part of reviewing; with short fiction, this is true to the extreme. People can read Machado’s short stories and come to a completely different conclusion about what they actually mean, and I’m not even really interested in knowing if there is a real answer, the truth of what the author was trying to say – more in various interpretations and how the reader got there. So, Her Body and Other Parties wasn’t necessarily the most interesting collection to read, but it was a really interesting collection to read reviews of.

I think my feelings on this topic have a lot to do with time, how much time the story required me to spend on it just to finish reading it. If it took me an hour, I’m fine with doing all the work myself, but if it took me three days (so, average book-length), I’m going to feel differently about it.


How do you feel about ambiguous endings? Have you read any of these stories?

5 thoughts on “Short Fiction Time #3: Ambiguous Endings in Fiction (and more)

  1. I think the main reason I tend to dislike short stories is because they often feature ambiguous endings! Or I come away from the story not really understanding what the hell I’m meant to have just read! I remember once reading Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” which I think was nominated for some award, and I kept hoping that at the end I would understand even just a little of what was happening, but then there was nothing, and I was left very unsatisfied. =/

    I feel like in certain short story circles the trend now is to have short stories be very ambiguous and cerebral and the weirder and harder to understand they are the more they’re praised! My favorite short stories are the ones that make perfect sense, that have clear and cohesive arcs and endings, so I wish there were more of those!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I also like the cohesive kind, it’s nice not to constantly feel like I might be misreading horribly (I haven’t read all the Nebula and Hugo nominations yet but the ones I did read were like that and I think it’s a solid line-up).
      I think making stories ambiguous on purpose is a way to make them more interesting to discuss between people, since everyone tends to arrive to different conclusions – and that’s useful for awards nominations because discussions brings more attention? (A big problem with short fiction is that not many seem to care outside of the people who write it.) Or not, because I remember that when I was talking with a friend about Alyssa Wong’s short stories, we both thought “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” was her weakest and didn’t understand why it got nominated for awards, we just found it pointless. So yeah, it’s a risk.

      I do have the suspicion that being deliberately obscure is kind of a requirement for being taken seriously in litfic-adjacent circles, but I know very little about them so I can’t really say.

      […I sure hope no one is going “five stars! Because I understood nothing”. That’s only acceptable to say for adult sci-fi worldbuilding of course.]

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also hate ambiguous endings. They make me feel cheated :(. But I agree, I appreciate them a lot more in short fiction.

    Something I didn’t invest, you know, like 10 hours of my time in reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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