2009 short fiction
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
10 March 2010
As I sit down to write this piece I am close to, but not quite at, the end of a four month trek through 2009's genre short fiction. I have read through the archives of online magazines, through the year's run of print magazines, and through the tables of contents of themed and unthemed anthologies. I've picked individual stories here and there because of a friend's recommendation or a previous positive encounter with their author. How many stories? Probably more than five hundred; probably less than a thousand—and let it not, for a moment, be thought that I've sampled all, or even the majority, of the year's output. How do I feel? Mainly, exhausted. I'm neither about to announce the doom of genre short fiction, or compose an ode to its vigor and resiliency. The fact is, 2009 was probably no better or worse than any other year, and Sturgeon's Law holds for genre short fiction as it holds for any vibrant, busy field. I've read some excellent stories this year (the best of them, Helen Keeble's "A Lullaby," right here at Strange Horizons—it's not covered in this piece because I've already written quite a bit about it, but seriously: Go. Read.), a few bad ones, and a hell of a lot that were simply OK, or well done but familiar. The stories I've chosen to talk about here are not necessarily the ones I've loved best or the ones I'm planning to nominate for awards, but the ones that did something much more difficult and remarkable. These are the stories that have stood out in my mind, that have lingered with me, that I've argued with or remembered fondly. For good reasons (mostly) and bad (on occasion), these are (some of) the stories that have stood out from the pack.
Nicola Griffith's novelette "It Takes Two," from the third volume in Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse series of unthemed, original story anthologies, is one of my very favorite stories from 2009. It also doesn't really work.
The first half of the story introduces us to Cody, an executive at a San Francisco technology firm desperate to close a big contract but dreading the necessary sales pitch to an Atlanta executive named Boone, who likes to size up, or possibly just rattle, his prospective business associates by taking them to a local strip club. A gay woman, Cody find herself perpetually on edge on these excursions and unable to fit in—to feign aloof disinterest would alienate her from a prospective client; to join in the fun would damage her professional image. On this trip, however, Cody is mesmerized by, and seems to equally mesmerize, a dancer named Cookie, with whom she quickly absconds for a night of passion.
It's here that the story starts to list. After several pages of Cody and Cookie (real name Susanna) simultaneously marveling and rejecting their undeniable chemical response to one another in slightly clichéd terms ("'Do you suppose this is l—' She couldn't say it. She didn't believe it."), Cody returns to San Francisco and is accosted by her friend Richard, and for the next ten pages or so "It Takes Two" mainly consists of Richard explaining the story's McGuffin and Cody reacting with varying degrees of alarm, disbelief, and horror to the revelation that she hired Richard to prime both herself and Susanna with each other's sexual and romantic preferences and fantasies, essentially manufacturing love at first sight. Even leaving aside just how convoluted and tenuous a method this is of securing a deal (are there really executives, even Atlanta good ol' boys, who will sign a deal with someone because "I like the way you handle yourself . . . no boasting, no big words, you just sit quiet then seize the opportunity"?) the structure of the story is off: story, story, story, exposition, exposition, exposition, dilemma—as Cody has to decide whether to take what Griffith rather cleverly dubs "RU486 for the brain" and destroy her artificial feelings for Susanna, or embrace them.
Why then, do I still think that "It Takes Two" is a brilliant story? Because it is just so damnably creepy. We all know, even if we don't like to be reminded of it, that even the loftiest of emotions are chemical fluctuations in our brains, and that those chemicals can and are being manipulated on various levels and with various degrees of finesse. What makes "It Takes Two" disturbing is not so much that it adds love to the list of reactions that can be externally, medically controlled, but that it takes the obvious next step of assuming that once that ability is achieved it will be commodified, that the next step in prostitution will be whores who really do mean it when they say "you're special, I wouldn't do this with anyone but you" (in that sense "It Takes Two" covers much of the same ground as Joss Whedon's recently cancelled Dollhouse). "It Takes Two" doesn't shy away from the fact that Susanna has sold herself in the most profound way possible, and that Cody has bought her, but at the same time it encourages us to root for a romantic ending. The resulting tension between romance and revulsion is what makes the story, what makes it possible to ignore the problems in its premise and structure, and what makes its ending simultaneously satisfying and horrifying.
There's a similar, though deliberately less intense, ambivalence at the heart of N.K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities," from the September issue of Clarkesworld, which is currently on the Nebula ballot for best short story. Its main character, Adele, is introduced to us "[girding] herself for the trip to work as a warrior for battle," saying prayers, bathing in herbs, laying on protective amulets. Even these are not enough. On her way to work Adele witnesses a catastrophic accident on the elevated train. Later, she sees a child playing frisbee, unwittingly running into the path of an ice cream cart.
too late she realizes she is at the epicenter of one of those devastating chains of events that only ever happen in comedy films and the transformed city. In a Rube Goldberg string of utter improbabilities, the cart tips over, spilling tubs of brightly colored ices onto the grass. The boy flips over it with acrobatic precision, completely by accident, and lands with both feet on the tub of ices. The sheer force of this blow causes the tub to eject its contents with projectile force. A blast of blueberry-coconut-red hurtles towards Adele's face, so fast she has no time to scream. It will taste delicious. It will also likely knock her into oncoming bicycle traffic.
Adele escapes this happenstance by the skin of her teeth, but not before making it clear that such narrow escapes and unlikely predicaments have become a matter of course in a New York in which the laws of probability seem to have gone out the window—"The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time." "Non-Zero Probabilities" is more a character piece, studying Adele's adaptation to her altered landscape, than a worldbuilding piece, but nevertheless Jemisin does a good job constructing that landscape, outlining the dangers and wonders of this new world—Adele waits for an auspicious day to hire a car to go to Ikea, but on the other hand, cancer and AIDS patients have experienced miraculous recoveries. What's most enjoyable and refreshing about "Non-Zero Probabilities" is that despite describing a New York that has reverted to A Simpler Time—no one drives, everyone eats locally because out of town food supplies are sporadic, people know their neighbors—it is decidedly unsentimental about the city's transformation. It ends with Adele weighing both the good and bad aspects of her altered life, and leaves it to us to decide whether a return to normal would be a good thing.
The world is also transformed in Alice Sola Kim's novelette "Beautiful White Bodies," from Strange Horizons. Justine is twenty-seven years old and has moved back home with her parents after losing her job. Working at a coffee shop in her home town, she's in prime position to observe the disease-like transformation of the town's teenage girls into impossible beauties—"manga [godesses] with big-irised sepia eyes and witchy white skin and an upper lip with two fine, pointy peaks." Justine observes the plague with a concern that is spiked with only the tiniest hint of curiosity, but her sixteen year old friend Pearl—a classic homely-but-bright combination—is bereft. "Why her? No wait, why everyone but me?" Even the strange, depersonalized behavior of the transformed girls—they post videos of themselves to YouTube doing nothing but stare at the camera, order food they can't eat ("they left plates of muffins, poked into infinity crumbs, and full drinks with only the foam licked off.")—and the occasional death doesn't seem to deter Pearl, or many of her contemporaries, from wishing themselves infected.
"Beautiful White Bodies" is obviously modeled after Night of the Living Dead and its many followers and imitators, with a single sane protagonist observing the slow slide into madness of their world. This doesn't quite work. The story is a little too long for a piece whose structure is so easy to identify, and this is obviously because Kim has so many observations to make about the relentless imposition of (for the most part, white) beauty standards on women, and many ways, usually somewhat heavy-handed, in which she wants to bring that point across. Some of these are well done despite their obviousness—"Some days it seemed as though everyone in the whole world wanted her to know what she looked like . . . If only they would all shut the fuck up. If only she had been taught not to listen. It was too late to save herself; she wondered if it was too late to save Pearl."—but others simply clunk, coming off more like talking points on an activist blog than anything that a real person would say or think —when Pearl, a Philippine girl, starts transforming, she complains about the erasure of her ethnic identity but also thinks that her parents would like her better as a white girl—and the cumulative weight of them warps the story. Similarly, Justine's revelation at the end of the story that she is " would be one those girls who ran to save their mothers, girls who knew how to cobble together weapons out of household items, girls who could kill without crying, girls who grew up to be women with weathered creases down their cheeks and mysterious, hard-earned eyepatches " feels, despite the character's generally appealing and level-headed demeanor throughout the story, unearned. That "Beautiful White Bodies" works despite these flaws is due mainly to its nevertheless quite scary premise, and even more so to Kim's writing, which is wry and sharply observant much more often than not. It's a story that often seems to work despite itself, but which is nevertheless worth a read.
Will McIntosh's "Bridesicle" [pdf], from the January issue of Asimov's, is another story that at times seems to work despite its slightly clomping treatment of its subject. Another way of putting it is that this is a story that doesn't bother to hide how manipulative it is because it is so secure in the success of its manipulation. And with good reason. "Bridesicle" opens with the protagonist, Mira, coming to a slow and disoriented consciousness to find a stranger leaning over her. He informs her that she has died in a car accident, and that her insurance will pay to keep her frozen indefinitely, but not to revive her. ""The way this works is, we get acquainted. We have dates. If we find we're compatible," he raised his shoulders towards his ears, smiled his dainty smile, "then I might be enticed to pay for you to be revived, so that we can be together.""
None of this, of course, makes much sense. Why doesn't Mira know about the dating centers if she's got cryogenic insurance? Why buy cryogenic insurance at all if she can't afford to be revived? Why, most of all, go to all the trouble of storing and then reviving dead women in a world in which live ones sell themselves into marriage all too often? For that matter, why are there only women in the "dating center"? "Bridesicle" works because it's not at all subtle about paralleling real-world mercenary marriage arrangements, and because, no matter how contrived and manipulative it is, Mira's predicament is too stark and too horrifying to be denied. The bulk of the story is spent in her brief respites from oblivion, which are often decades apart, in which she desperately tries to please her current wife-seeker. Along the way, we learn more about Mira's life before her accident, itself no picnic—guilt-tripped into integrating the preserved consciousness of her domineering, homophobic mother into her own, Mira was unable to mourn the death of her partner or try to find a new one. Again, there's a lot of obvious manipulation going on here, and again, that manipulation is effective despite its obviousness. The story's ending is perhaps a little too neat, with Mira having found a way not only to be revived without selling too much of herself, but to be reunited with her lover, but it's a victory that is just partial and just costly enough to be believable.
Sara Genge had three stories in Asimov's in 2009: "Slow Stampede," in the March issue, "Shoes-to-run," in July, and "As Women Fight" in December. All three are stories about the fluidity of gender roles in tribal communities—generally post-industrial and sometimes posthuman—in which those roles are essentialist and proscribed. To put it another way, in all three stories, what a man and what a woman are is set in stone, but who gets to be a man or a woman is not. "As Women Fight" begins with Merthe, a hunter, returning to his home, grimly musing that the hunt has taken too long and that now he will have no time to train for the upcoming fight in which, we soon learn, he and his wife Ita will contend over the right to inhabit her body. Being a woman, Merthe's bodyswapping people have decided, is preferable because women's senses are sharper, and Merthe is determined to get back in the body that Ita has won from him—"Five years as a man is too much to bear." What's best about "As Women Fight" is just how fully Genge embraces the confusion that this setup sows in its central relationships, between Merthe and Ita, and between their neighbors Elgir and Soma. As a man, Soma was abusive towards the couple's children, and Elgir hoped that the gender change would gentle him. Proven wrong, he must regain the female body in order to have rights over his children, but that leaves the female Elgir unable to provide for them. Ita and Merthe, meanwhile, have fully inhabited the roles of nagging, shrewish wife and stolid, long-suffering husband, a cliché with which Merthe's desperate desire to regain the role of wife sits ill.
Ultimately, however, there is a sense that the world of "As Women Fight" is just too contrived, that the combination of gender essentialism and gender fluidity just doesn't make any sense. "We swap bodies the better to understand each other's minds," Elgir tells Merthe. "We were meant to be balanced, equal." That the society in the story still clings to such a strangely conservative inequality doesn't seem believable, and though Genge, through Elgir, tries to argue against the rigid gender roles that her society has embraced despite the ability to bodyswap, its ending, rather than combatting this attitude, seems to arrive at the conclusion that the best woman is a man, or at least a woman in a man's body. Elgir is better positioned to protect her children from Soma as a man, but has to return to a woman's body if she's to get them away from him entirely. But then she requires Merthe's protection, and as he enters the ring with Ita Merthe wonders whether, as a man, Ita will hunt for Elgir and her children as well as for himself. In the end, he chooses to remain a man, in part in order to keep protecting Elgir and in part because Ita "made a terrible husband." "As Women Fight" is worth reading for its imaginative premise, which Genge carries out impressively, but it is less than entirely convincing.
Michael Anthony Ashley's "To Kiss the Granite Choir," from newcomer magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is notable, for a short story, first for being one of only a small number of novella-length stories published online last year, and secondly for being a fully, even elaborately realized secondary world fantasy. Imre is the last surviving member of house Balgas, fleeing his family's murderers to an archipelago ruled by the Silici, a fearsome warrior people whose left arms are made of stone or metal and who fight with swords grown from their own bones. Imperiously stepping in to save the local princess where little saving was necessary, Imre finds himself imprisoned and then enslaved by the ruling family. The bulk of the story is concerned with the battle of wills between Imre and his captors—will Imre, arrogant and dismissive of a culture he views as barbaric and inferior, but also smart and a fierce warrior in his own right, be swallowed up by the Silici's way of life, or will they learn to accommodate what they view as an unforgivable softness, both physical and mental, on his part? By the end of the story, it's hard to know who to root for. Both Imre and the Silici are brought so vividly to life that it's hard to wish for either to change in their essence, especially when the fight scenes between Imre and the various Silici characters—of which there are a prodigious amount—are so well done, both grueling and exhilarating, every blow of stone against flesh, every slice of the sword resonating through the text. The story's ending manages to avoid choosing between the two points of view in a way that is both unexpected and entirely in keeping with "To Kiss the Granite Choir"'s brutal tone and almost operatic pitch.
This, then, was a small taste of my reading over the last four months. Would I do it again? It's tempting to say yes, that stories like the ones above make the long slog through painful mediocrity and just-good-enough worthwhile, and in a few months I might feel that way again, but that's not exactly the whole answer. One doesn't commit to such a slog because one wants to find the next undiscovered gem. Rather, it's the belief that the next gem is out there, and that one more magazine issue, one more author's website, will be enough to find it, that keeps you coming back. The search is both its own reward and its own punishment, and I am looking forward to a bit of a rest from both. But who knows? Next year I may start all over again.