Category Archives: short story collections

Colonials

I’ve had a chance to read more than just the appendix in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The opening story, Mark Onspaugh’sWelcome to the Federation,” is a fundamentally familiar story to me, and to anyone who has lived in a place that’s been colonized. Gird, leader of Covalla, struggles with the changes on his home planet brought about by the coming of the Federation. The story is a bit top-heavy with telling rather than showing, but it paints a clear picture of the sense of regret and bitterness that comes in the wake of colonization:

The bus went along Coastal Route 24, a four lane highway that the Federation had built to replace the first Federation road, a two-lane thoroughfare they had named Sea Front Road. In pre-Federation time it had been a small and lovely path called Minoh-Ul-kjavallah, or “The Trail Minoh the Sea God Took to Court Mother West Wind”.

You couldn’t see much of the ocean, any more. The clear areas had become the sites of barracks for a proposed Federation base. The enormous base had been half completed when war had broken out near Antares, and all available Federation soldiers and engineers had gone to fight the good fight.

The story takes its time establishing cultural details of the Covallans. Reading it reminded me of the way I felt growing up on Oahu in Hawaii. My grandmother worked at the Iolani Palace, seat of the Hawaiian monarchy at the end of its years, and I would take tours often, hearing stories of how the last Hawaiian queen, Liliuokalani, had been removed from power. I heard about prohibitions against the hula dance. I watched rich foreigners establish a place on the island at the expense of native Hawaiian people and culture. I had mixed feelings about all of it, because I’m a poi dog (mixed blood), and because I felt nostalgic for a past I didn’t know even as I couldn’t imagine giving up the comforts of the present.

“Welcome to the Federation” doesn’t approach this topic in a very complicated way. It’s basically a wish fulfillment story–Gird devises a plan to get the Federation to pull back enough that his people can restore their original culture. I enjoyed the fantasy, but I was a little unsatisfied because my experiences growing up left me distrustful of  simple nostalgia. The story is simplified in part by the fact that the main character remembers what the planet was like before the foreigners came. I was in pretty different shoes growing up after the Hawaiian language had become a curiosity.

I did enjoy the story’s humorous tone, though the jokes exploited easy targets:

Admiral Benjamin Breckenridge IV was the first to step out onto Gird’s lawn, squashing some hgu lilies in the process.

“I’m here for the Ptaak,” he said menacingly, holding both a ceremonial sword and a phasing blast pistol. His first words had been carefully crafted on the journey to Covalla, beating out “Show yourselves, alien scum!” and “Who wants some?”.

“As soon as they saw you coming they ran,” said Gird nervously.

A victory cry went up, cut short when Breckenridge raised his hand. “And just who might you be?”

“Gird Mackel, brother of the late Governor,” Gird said.

“I thought the dead Governor was Gird Mackel,” said Breckenridge, puzzled.

“All my brothers are named Gird Mackel.”

Admiral Breckenridge nodded paternally, accustomed to the simple ways of indigenous people out on the Wrong Arm of the Galaxy.

As I read the story, I wondered why it was science fiction. Don’t get me wrong–I think science fiction is a good venue for addressing issues of colonization, because stories of aliens are similar to stories of foreigners. I found the analogy so direct in this case, however, that I was curious about how the science fiction setting added to or changed the story. I don’t see grounds here for a rigorous definition of science fiction. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on how the genre serves the story.

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Things That Make Me Spend Money

There’s an awesome sale on at Small Beer Press ($1/book). I recently blogged about how awesome this company’s books are and how I want every one of the books they’ve published. Errm, let’s just say that my Small Beer Press collection just got significantly larger. Like, 10 times larger. Here’s hoping that you read this post in time to pick some stuff up. I’m not sure how fast it will go.

In honor of Short Story Month, how about Maureen F. McHugh’s Mothers and Other Monsters? Or Alan DeNiro’s Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead? Small Beer Press is the place to be for tales of the weird. Enjoy.

Missing the Target

I just finished Erika Krouse’s short story collection, Come Up and See Me Sometime, and I decided that I don’t like it. While I tend to dislike writing negative reviews, and I feel weird about beating up on a seven-year-old book, I decided to go ahead and write this because I want to like this book, I almost like this book, and I want to think about why it is that I ultimately don’t. Also, I googled the book and found a bunch of positive reviews, so perhaps I am missing something. There will be spoilers, so beware.

The stories in the book are structured around a set of quotes by Mae West. The back of the book says:

With Mae West as her ingenious guiding spirit, Erika Krouse introduces us to thirteen young, single, geographically and emotionally nomadic women looking for self-knowledge and trouble. … These smart, quick-witted women strive for the unflappable sass and strength of Mae West, but often fall prey to their own fear and isolation.

The front of the book says:

Potent, original stuff … Krouse leaves us with a feeling of unbounded, exhilarating possibility. — The New York Times Book Review

I give you this because this is what drew me in. I love Mae West, and I was interested in reading well-written stories about young, single women. I remember moments of unbounded, exhilarating possibility from when I was younger and single myself. I was hooked. I picked up the book at a friend’s house and snuck paragraphs while we were eating dinner. By the end of the evening, I asked if I could borrow it.

That night, I stayed up reading. Every story started out great. Krouse undeniably writes smoothly, with good descriptions of character and a lot of clever detail. For example, from her story “Mercy”:

Every time I came home, Kim followed me as I wantdered among the tables, walked back through the gritty kitchen and started up the stairs to my apartment. “Here, try this,” he’d say and I’d pause with my hand on the banister, opening my mouth. He usually popped something in with a toothpick, or if he had no time for a toothpick, with his sesame oil-stained fingers. Sometimes a fresh dumpling but more often an experiment — shrimp fra diavolo, or a scoop of shepherd pie. A stuffed jalapeno. Escargot.

I said, “The sign says Chinese restaurant, Kim. Why do you serve Chateaubriand?”

“My grandfather’s French. And we sold four today,” he said.

The Chinese restaurant cook who is a living, breathing person, a creative man who experiments with his art, only gets better as the story goes on. The story’s narrator has come to the city after leaving her abusive husband, literally stealing the wallet from his pocket while he beat her. She is a true-to-life combination of tough and clueless. The complexity of the male and female characters here, and the gentle romance that begins to grow between them, had me deeply immersed in the story. But, like so many of the stories in this collection, the ending left me cold. Krouse spends page after page of great writing carefully building up the characters, showing how the woman is learning to be in the world on her own. But, at the end, the woman tells Kim what life with her husband was like. He walks out without explanation (which I found confusing). She waits for him all night, and then also leaves.

I checked out my reaction. Was I merely disappointed that it wasn’t a happy ending? Did I need to be more mature? I ended up deciding that this wasn’t the problem. The comments Michael left on my post “Moment of Attraction” echoed through my mind the whole time I read this book. Michael says he asks, when having others read his work, “When did this author seem deluded instead of the character?” Over and over in Come Up and See Me Sometime, I thought this was happening, and I thought it at the end of “Mercy.”

Krouse’s book is very much about the problems of being single, and I don’t think she has to solve those problems to write a good book. I do think, however, that she has to show some unique perspective on those problems. And I think leaving is too easy, and that is what her characters do most of the time. I think that, in a lot of fiction, characters die or leave at the end simply because the author doesn’t know what else to do. I kept feeling that was happening in this collection, and the effect became claustrophobic.

I like to read short story collections partly because I like to see an author’s range. This book, however, felt limited. “Mercy” was a standout story in terms of characterization, but, aside from that, most of the main female characters seemed like the same woman over and over again. I didn’t feel much variety in subject matter, perspective, or tone. I found myself reading on and on, seduced by good beginnings and middles, yet never feeling satisfied at the end, when I didn’t think I’d been shown anything new. Certainly not anything that left me with a feeling of “unbounded, exhilarating possibility.” Reading the book felt a bit like eating empty calories — you expect it to feel good, and so you continue, waiting for that good feeling to kick in.

It got to the point that, when the last story in the book, “What I Wore,” started out with, “I left Jerry the same day I auditioned for the role of a boysenberry in a yogurt commercial,” I sighed and said to myself, “Of course you left Jerry,” barely even registering the delightfully wacky image of person dressed as a boysenberry.

Lest you think I was actually looking to read chick lit in search of happy endings, I’ll talk a moment about the story in the book that I did like. I would have loved “Mercy” if the ending had been right. But the only story that I thought truly had a good ending was “Too Big to Float.” This is a story about a woman, desperately afraid of flying, who hooks up with a pilot in the course of attending her stepfather’s funeral. There is some kind of real potential there, and the pilot wants to take her to Aruba, but she is just too afraid to get on the plane with him:

Max looked away and said, “I can’t believe this.” His face grew rigid with pride. He said, “You’re afraid of everything!”

“You don’t understand. I don’t think I can do it, Max.”

“Will you do it for me?”

I didn’t say anything. I was thinking.

“Do it for me.” His hands were curled into fists on his hips.

I tentatively moved one foot forward, onto the plane. Well, I did it in my head. I meant to do it. Before I got the chance, Max whispered, “Coward,” with what looked like tears in his eyes. He readjusted his cap and stormed into the cockpit. I stood there for a minute. “Coward?” I asked. The stewardess was still smiling. “Coward?” But it was true.

The narrator goes back to the gate and wonders if he will come off the plane and come to her. Instead, she ends up watching the plane take off. And here’s the ending:

I didn’t cry, I didn’t wave. I just watched the plane through the airport window as it blew up in the sky, bursting into flames and falling to the earth in chunks of twisted metal and flesh.

No, it didn’t.

Instead, it shot away into the sky like a bullet just missing its target, the heart.

I found this ending lovely, though, as I said, not exhilarating. The image of possible love that’s bound up in that last sentence is so interesting. The shooting away into the sky — the possibility — seems to have come about only because the target was missed.

To sum up, I think this story shows that what Krouse is attempting can be done. But I think she needed to stretch more in this collection, push harder to understand her characters’ motivations, and let go of the gimmicky Mae West thing. Every positive review I’ve read talks about Krouse’s sharp, witty style, and the smart female characters. I didn’t particularly detect this, and I think these features were undermined for me by the relentless boredom of the delusions of being single played out over and over again. It would be one thing if I felt the author was truly aware of and reflecting on those delusions. Instead, it seemed like a blind spot.

Unsatisfied

Today, I read an incredible story in the New York Times Magazine online about the history of trolling on the Internet. Mattathias Schwartz’s “The Trolls Among Us” is the sort of story that makes me jealous when I read it. How did he get such a great assignment? How did he manage to talk to these people? The story is full of anecdotes of his interactions with people who function online as trolls:

On Monday we drove to the mall. I asked Fortuny how he could troll me if he so chose. He took out his cellphone. On the screen was a picture of my debit card with the numbers clearly legible. I had left it in plain view beside my laptop. “I took this while you were out,” he said. He pressed a button. The picture disappeared. “See? I just deleted it.”

And I admire Schwartz for his commitment to showing his subjects as complicated people. Not just villains or misunderstood innocents, but as people who hold difficult views that make others uncomfortable in part because there is a strange sort of logic to them. For example, Schwatrz is with one of his interview subjects at the time the seizure-inducing attacks were made on Websites for epileptics. The subjust, Jason Fortuny, has this to say about it:

Fortuny disagreed. In his mind, subjecting epileptic users to flashing lights was justified. “Hacks like this tell you to watch out by hitting you with a baseball bat,” he told me. “Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed.”

“So the message is ‘buy a helmet,’ and the medium is a bat to the head?” I asked.

“No, it’s like a pitcher telling a batter to put on his helmet by beaning him from the mound. If you have this disease and you’re on the Internet, you need to take precautions.” A few days later, he wrote and posted a guide to safe Web surfing for epileptics.

So I read most of the story with a mixture of admiration and jealousy. How did Schwartz land the assignment, track down the right people, get in close enough to them, at an opportune time, and then write the story beautifully? However, there’s a major flaw in the story, and it’s been bothering me all day.

Schwartz transitions from following Fortuny to following another troll named Weev. His transition paragraph is here:

Sherrod DeGrippo, a 28-year-old Atlanta native who goes by the name Girlvinyl, runs Encyclopedia Dramatica, the online troll archive. In 2006, DeGrippo received an e-mail message from a well-known band of trolls, demanding that she edit the entry about them on the Encyclopedia Dramatica site. She refused. Within hours, the aggrieved trolls hit the phones, bombarding her apartment with taxis, pizzas, escorts and threats of rape and violent death. DeGrippo, alone and terrified, sought counsel from a powerful friend. She called Weev

This led me to expect Schwartz to follow a certain pattern with his writing. I thought he was going to tell us about Weev, and probably go into how frightening and ruthless he can be online, finally doubling back to DeGrippo and explaining how and why Weev helped her. The problem is that this never happens. The story creates an expectation (that we will hear the rest of the story) that is never fulfilled, and misses out on the chance to show Weev’s complexities the way Schwartz showed Fortuny’s, above.

I’m surprised that this oversight got through the NYT’s editing process, and, for me, it mars an otherwise fantastic story.

A Souvenir

Today, I finished Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, an excellent short story collection published back in 1993.

I picked this up over 4th of July weekend at Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. Click on the link to the store, and you’ll see why I had to follow the path to the store’s front door — it had too much sense of mystery to pass up. The store is small. The fiction section is a single floor to ceiling shelf, not much wider than I am. I like that in a bookstore, though. It’s nice to be able to read all the titles in the fiction section and then start pondering. I like getting a balanced alphabet in my selections.

I like to buy souvenirs when I travel, but this is the sort of thing I get. To be honest, I’d be unlikely to read histories of Provincetown, and I’ve got little use for picture-filled coffee table books. On the other hand, I always remember the bookstores I visit. I still remember that 10 years ago, during my first visit to the St. John’s College Bookstore in Annapolis, where I later ended up working off and on for four years, I bought a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems. Or that, a year and a half ago at San Francisco’s famous City Lights Books, I bought Georges Bataille’s deeply disturbing Story of the Eye, a book that I’m not sure I will ever have the courage to read again. The experience of reading these books will forever color my memories of these places.

And sometimes, the souvenir is even more serendipitous. When I bought McCracken’s book, the bookseller informed me that she used to be a customer at that store. The stories in her book are set deeply in Massachusetts, and are populated with odd characters. I ended up thinking of Provincetown as I read these stories, imagining that she was surely influenced by that place — a beach town that must go deeply gloomy in the winter, full of hordes of tourists and drag queens in the summer.

I knew I had to buy the book when I read the first paragraph of the first story, “It’s Bad Luck to Die.”

Maybe you wonder how a Jewish girl from Des Moines got Jesus Christ tattooed on her three times: ascending on one thigh, crucified on the other, and conducting a miniature apocalypse beneath the right shoulder. It wasn’t religion that put them there; it was Tiny, my husband. I have a Buddha round back, too. He was going to give me Moses parting the Red Sea, but I was running out of space. Besides, I told him, I was beginning to feel like a Great Figures in Religion comic book.

While I love short stories, I’m sometimes suspicious of literary fiction, which I suspected McCracken’s book of being. I find that sometimes, in literary fiction, it seems like nothing happens. There are pretty descriptions, but no plot. This wasn’t the case here. People murder people, fall in love with people, run away from their families, lie to each other. And most of the characters are delightfully strange, even while many of the stories have a dark streak. Here are quick comments on my favorites:

The title story is the one that’s really going to stay with me. “Aunt Helen Beck” concocts family relationships that she uses to mooch of strangers for as long as she can get away with it. McCracken uses this full name every time she mentions her, and this is an important piece of characterization in itself. Here’s an excerpt:

Aunt Helen Beck worked hard at all the things that convinced people to let her stay. She got up early to bake bread, examined the books that were on the shelves and referred to them in conversation. She did dishes immediately; cooked for herself; went to bed early and pretended to sleep soundly.

She charmed Mercury, at least. He adored her, and started playing in the yard less and in the house more. She instructed Mercury to behave, she threatened him with poems about goblins that stole nasty children, and he seemed eager to be taken, and asked her if she were the head goblin.

Every quirky detail in those paragraphs is made to count once Aunt Helen Beck’s ruse is discovered. In fact, I just now noticed that stealing nasty children turns out to be a theme. What seems to be a throwaway line on a first read is actually a carefully chosen piece of foreshadowing.

My other favorites are “Mercedes Kane,” about a woman who gets to meet, as an adult, the child prodigy she worshiped as a girl, and “Secretary of State,” which is a story about the sort of family that keeps all its members trapped in its web of opinion, but turns out to be a bittersweet story about love.

I’m glad I picked up this book and got the chance to discover McCracken. It looks like her next book is a memoir. I’m sorry that it seems she’s moved away from short stories, but perhaps I’ll read more of her in the future.

A Sense of Myth

For several years, I’ve admired Rebecca’s work over at Hitherby Dragons. Since September 2003, she’s been posting short fiction on her site. Reading through the archives, a definite mythology builds up. There are recurring characters, and stories that have the ring of myth. It’s been a while since I followed the site daily, and I thought I’d check it out tonight. Sure enough, “Fire on the Tongue” had that same sense of myth and mystery. It’s a riff on the story of Prometheus, except that the three would-be saviors of humanity are Dinosaur, Frog, and Chameleon.

The fire gutters. It goes out.

Frog’s feeble struggles grow feebler yet. Her eyes bulge out. Her skin is moist.

Humanity … clusters around the remaining warmth and the afterimage that was fire. It wails softly as that fades away.

Frog, broken, maddened, crawls off to the swamps. She leaves a trail of slime behind.

Then there is silence where she had been and humanity departs.

Now there is darkness on the world but in the darkness no one dances. Now humanity mourns for there is none to be its god.

I don’t always follow the meaning of these stories, particularly when I’ve been out of the loop for a bit. In this story, I enjoyed thinking about the mythological resonance of the three creatures, and wondering about what their actions and fates mean. Dinosaur, for example, quickly fails to bring fire to Earth, attacked and killed by the “Three Lords.” I wondered why it is easy to defeat the dinosaur, and why brutality seems to be so effective against it.

Reading a bunch of Rebecca’s stories in succession is fun, since that mythological understanding builds up in layers, operating at its own subterranean level of consciousness.

The Chemistry of Fantasy and Hard Science Fiction

I’ve been in many arguments about the relationship between the genres of fantasy and science fiction. I tend to prefer science fiction, but am far from a purist. Recently, I talked with someone who dismissed science fiction authors who dared to “commit fantasy.” The idea that writing a fantasy story is a crime that disqualifies someone from writing real science fiction didn’t sit right with me. Not long after that conversation, I discovered the perfect refutation: Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines.

The stories in this book are, for the most part, about robots living without humans on planets scattered all across the galaxy. Lem writes them in lovely, courtly fairy tale prose. They are about unjust kings, and quests, and the search for treasure. They are also undoubtedly science fiction, based solidly and playfully in chemistry. In many cases, the outcomes of the stories are determined by the nature of the materials Lem has chosen for the planets and the characters, and he litters stories with clues to the endings in the form of clever names and puns.

“Uranium Earpieces,” for example, is a fairy tale about the subjects of the oppressive king Archithorius, who becomes more and more paranoid about a possible revolt, and comes up with ever crueler ways to keep his subjects apart so that they can’t plot against him. The science, however, is front and center, both in the king’s oppression and in his ultimate overthrowing. For example (from the Michael Kandel translation):

In the day, when the sun was too much for comfort, [the people] slept in the depths of their mountains; only at nighttime did they assemble in the metal valleys. But cruel Archithorius ordered lumps of uranium to be thrown into the kettles used to melt palladium with platinum, and issued a proclamation throughout the land. Each Pallatinid was to come to the royal palace, where his measurements would be taken for a new suit of armor, and pauldrons and breastplates were made, gauntlets and greaves, a visor and helmet, with everything glowing, for that garb was of uranium alloy, and brightest of all shone the earpieces.

After this the Pallatinids could no longer come together and hold council, for if a gathering grew too numerous, it exploded. Thus they had to lead their lives apart, passing one another at a distance, fearful of a chain reaction: Archithorius meanwhile delighted in their sorrow and burdened them with ever newer levies.

I found Lem’s writing so refreshing. The science fiction and fantasy elements are so closely married here that I’d be hardpressed to pick them apart. Beyond that, the elements have greater impact when Lem combines them. For example, surely it is not an accident that Lem has the king use uranium as a tool for his tyranny.

This story is one of my favorites in the book, but, for the most part, all the stories are both quirky and moving. I also especially enjoyed “How Erg the Self-Inducting Slew a Paleface,” “The White Death,” “Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon,” and “King Globares and the Sages.” Though each story is self-contained, they build up a coherent universe and paint an ever clearer picture of how humans might fit into all this. Many of the stories have a pessimistic, tragic, or cynical tone, but, somehow, I still find them delightful.

The way Lem uses chemistry in his storytelling is inspiring to me, and I’d love to see analogous works that told stories that also adhered to the rules of programming in Python, for example, or the behavior of packets sent through TCP/IP.