Welcome to the fifth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.
This time, I will:
- review six short stories (nothing like last month’s fourteen, I know; that’s just how my relationship with short fiction is, it comes and goes)
- write a DNF review of an anthology
- explain why I don’t give a rating in the aforementioned reviews.
What I Read
The Time Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu (Tor.com): A Snow Queen retelling with physics! Abstract and unusually formatted (with footnotes); not an easy one to follow, but really interesting nonetheless. It talks about the nature of evil, how we tend to rationalize and dismiss it, because that’s how it always has been. I’m not sure I fully got the scenes of the Robber Queen and the Lap Women: maybe an acknowledgment of the importance of friendship and elders in this situation, coupled with the distance that it has inevitably already formed? Apart from that, gorgeous writing; this is the kind of science fairytale I could see myself returning to.
A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential by JY Neon Yang (Clarkesworld): trans mecha phoenix pilot story in space! I think this one definitely could have been shorter (there are parts that kind of drag, which shouldn’t happen in a novelette! Of course it happened on Clarkesworld) and I’m generally not going to mesh well with stories that heavily involve religion without actually talking about the religion (in this case, basically AU Catholicism in space), but I recognize that there wouldn’t have been the space for that here. Still, I… really, really liked this? Especially the ending. There’s a lot to say about how the idea pushed on queer people (sometimes even by other queer people) that figuring oneself out is quick and easy is one of the ways society compels us to accept the roles we’ve been forced into – but sometimes you don’t know who you are because you’ve never been given the chance to be anything else. Powerful and so, so non-binary.
Beyond the Dragon’s Gate by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com): What I love most about queer SFF are the new perspectives it brings; this talks about AIs’ relationship with their hardware in a trans perspective – while also having human trans characters. By the way, no wonder the non-binary marshal is fascinating despite the little space they have to shine, it’s a Lee story with typical Lee elements (including Unfriendly Architecture, which I love). I liked how AIs crossing the Turing Threshold was likened to a carp turning into a dragon, it reminded me of one of my favorite novelettes (Zen Cho’s imugi story, which I think is inspired by tales with similar elements).
Taraxacum by Cristina Stubbe (Anathema): I read this one for sapphicathon! I’m in the middle of preparing myself for the phytognostic part of the botany exam, which involves dealing with a lot of weeds; this is about magical weeds, so it felt right. Specifically, it’s about dandelions growing on the windowsill in slightly magical ways. It’s a latinx sapphic story about grief, a relationship that ended unexpectedly, written like many diary entries. It’s quiet and full of botanical magic, just what I need to not mind that a short story is excessively straightforward. I really liked it.
The Insects of Love by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com): dreamlike story about an entomologist looking for her dead sister… maybe. You can draw completely different conclusions depending on how you look at it. It’s barely grounded and one could question everything about it, as you have no way of knowing what’s actually real inside the universe of the story. I appreciate the attempt at sci-fi entomology (one really can’t have too many bugs in a book, I say), but I would have liked this a lot more if the author had asked someone with basic knowledge of taxonomy to proofread it, as it’s full of obvious and jarring mistakes.
Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Café by Vida Cruz (Strange Horizons): written like a tourist guide, inspired by stories from and current political situation of the Philippines, this is about a Café staffed by supernatural creatures, and one of the main ingredients is human heartbreak. It’s explicitly and deliberately political, which makes me think I would have gotten more out of this had I been more familiar with the context. Still, it was an interesting read, especially Maria Makiling’s outlook on non-humans and her goals (and everyone’s ideas about her goals). I also really liked that it’s a multilingual short story, as I don’t see them often – most of the parts not in English (I think they’re in Tagalog and Cebuano?) are already translated for English-only speakers, but not all of them – and, of course, the food descriptions.
This month’s anthology was The Mythic Dream edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, but sadly, it ended up being mostly “this month’s attempt at an anthology”, because I rather quickly realized that I was hating it. After having disliked most of Hungry Hearts (which I forced myself to finish) last month, I decided to just DNF this one. It’s not that all the stories in it were bad – they weren’t, actually! I liked the one at the beginning by Seanan McGuire, and the one by JY Neon Yang – but the majority of them were mediocre, forgettable, and didn’t say anything interesting nor came together in a way that made reading the weak ones worth it. Even the two stories I mentioned wouldn’t have been anything special outside the anthology, not when I’ve been reading so much great short fiction at the same time for free online.
I just think short fiction retellings aren’t that great of an idea. What sets a retelling apart is in the execution, and even with deconstructions and stories that play with format (like JY Neon Yang’s) there’s only so much that can be done in a short story. The result is… not that interesting 90% of the time? Outside of this anthology, even Variations on an Apple, a lovely & very peculiar retelling of the Iliad by my favorite author, is one of my least favorite of Yoon Ha Lee’s; and The Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu was good but it’s not a favorite. I just don’t think short fictional retellings are for me.
Why I Don’t Rate Short Fiction (Mostly)
If you’ve been following this series of short fiction reviews this year, you might have noticed that on this blog I don’t rate any of the short stories I read, and this is a recent development – in the past, when I wrote reviews of short stories, I always rated them. What changed?
Mostly, I’m finding that it isn’t useful to me, at least here. For the short stories I do mark on goodreads as “read”, I use ratings because I notice that having a rating calls attention to a review the way a text-only one doesn’t; short fiction is already something that gets little to no attention. However, this isn’t a problem on this blog, and mostly: I want people to read why I liked or didn’t like a short story and see if it would be for them instead of just basing themselves on the rating.
As I already find difficult to sum up what I felt about something so short with a rating, I don’t want people to ignore something just because I gave it three stars! Especially when in this format, “like” or “dislike” has so much to do with personal connection to themes and writing, more than it does with actual craft, at least most of the time. More than in novels for sure.
To be honest, I also find the one-to-five star rating useless when it comes to short fiction, because as far as I’m concerned all of short fiction is divided in “favorite” (will forever remember, left me something, maybe even changed my life – yes that has happened but it’s a discussion for another day, don’t dismiss short fiction) and “not a favorite, will forget about it”, with some exceptions being stories that I hated – but that happens rarely. I can try to translate that to star ratings, and I do, but it’s not accurate. There’s so much difference between a five (favorite) and a four (not a favorite), while there isn’t so much between a four and a three or a three and a two.
So I don’t rate it. I try to explain what I thought of it in words; I hope it works.
Have you read any of these? How do you rate short fiction?