Five by Five: Five Short(er) Fictions for a Busy Time of Year

            With Thanksgiving ended, the busiest part of the season, for some people, has just begun. It can be difficult during the holiday seasons, with increased workloads and family obligations, to keep up with what’s new in current short fiction. But not impossible. Keeping in mind that many of you may be oversaturated with events on your calendars during the next couple of weeks — okay, months, really — I’ve picked three shorter short fiction pieces to review from various online magazines. All of them are free, and all of them are worth checking out.

“Guide to a Childhood Diversion” by Emma Smith-Stevens
Web Conjunctions
            Many of the fiction pieces at Conjunctions blur the line between prose poetry and short fiction, and “Guide to a Childhood Diversion” is no exception. Set up as instructions for a game which must be played between two sisters, this story concerns the dynamic between the younger and oldest sibling. The game serves as a metaphor for the way these sisters will interact their whole lives; the story seems to say, this is the way all sister relationships are. A bit presumptuous, perhaps, but, for me, the youngest in a similar sibling pair, this rang true for me. I too have played the game of lasso, where one keeps agreeing to be the chasee only in hopes that one will, one day, be able to trick the chaser, grab the lasso, and turn the game around. The language here is beautiful and poignant, and Smith-Stevens often defines the two sister characters with lists, a technique which could have easily been boring but which is not, mainly because the items in those lists are actually quite fascinating.
“The 17th Contest of Body Artistry” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
Expanded Horizons
            This surreal story concerns, well, the 17th contest of Body Artistry; in this future world, the concept of the juried art show has been taken to an all new level, with artists modifying their entire bodies. And this isn’t your typical body modification; as MacFarlane writes in the first paragraph, one woman molds her torso into a replica of the space station, Goldchair; the contest takes place on the station, and the contest advisors this year have chosen as their theme the history of Goldchair, a decision which has upset many, as the theme is much more serious than it usually is, and many of the critics believe that choosing the space station as a theme is exclusionary to outsiders participating in the contest. This is not the plot of the story. In fact, this story, like the previous one, does not have an easily discernible plot. The story is made up of two sections which introduce the contest and then the controversy, and then descriptions of the winning entries: third place, second place, and first place.
            This flash piece is quirky and inventive. It reads like a news brief, an interesting one. The piece is moving and feels nearly complete; I wouldn’t have minded some spot-on, specific details, especially in the penultimate section concerning the winner of the contest’s entry, perhaps a specific image of one individual person emotionally moved by her display. As such, the description isn’t quite specific enough to elicit a strong emotional response from me. And the last line sinks. It too could have benefited from some specifics, a final glimpse of the strange in the wonderfully strange world MacFarlane has given us. I would have loved, personally, to hear some of the ideas for the future contests. A missed opportunity, but the piece still resonates.
“They Make of You a Monster” by Damien Walters Grintalis
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
            This story’s a bit longer than the previous two, but it’s available as an audio download, and so would be perfect to check out on a busy commute. The style this story’s written in — short, clipped paragraphs — makes reading the story seem much faster, anyhow. In a patriarchal fantasy world where magic has been forbidden by the king — the ability to do magic, in this world, is only found in women — a young woman is locked in a prison where every day magic practitioners called Healers come by and torture her using the magic she herself is forbidden to use. That the king’s oppression of magic is essentially an oppression of women is purposeful; this story seems to make a comment on man’s fear of women’s power and the harm that causes when those men come into power.
            The forbidden magic in the story is also compared to the female main character’s somewhat-less-forbidden romantic relationship with another young woman. That their relationship is not treated as drastic a taboo as the use of magic is refreshing, though their relationship and the use of magic is intertwined, I won’t tell you how. The majority of the story takes place inside the prison cell, where a transformation is taking place within the main character, one which, in the end, has both positive and negative consequences.
“Cutting” by Ken Liu
Electric Velocipede
            An editorial note at the bottom of this story expresses hope that the way the editors chose to lay it out worked in the story’s favor. I’m going to go ahead and state that it does. At first, when I read the opening of Ken Liu’s “Cutting,” it felt like fairly standard fare. Monks cut words from their holy book to make up for human error. The next section shows us what the monks have pared the holy book down to, and the third yet another pairing. These last two sections read like Dada-esque poetry and are moving on their own. But there’s a surprise hidden in the formatting, one which made me exclaim out loud. I won’t spoil it, as the discovery is part of the experience. But I will recommend this story if not for the originality of idea then at least for the originality of structure.
“The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1” by M. Darusha Wehm
EscapePod
            This podcasted story runs about twenty-eight minutes, another good one to download and listen to while traveling. “The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds” caught my eye because of the funny title. In the story, a domestic robot named Rosie comes into a new home armed with the knowledge it has been given in the form of a manual by the company which made it. As a result of its tendency to take things literally and its lack of understanding for human complexity, studying “the herd” it works for like an anthropologist who has never experienced being human, the robot thinks that the family’s daily fights are rituals and that “the herd” is perfectly healthy. The irony is that the reader knows quite clearly that the family is in fact falling apart, but the robot’s obliviousness is both charming and sad.
            Christiana Ellis reads this story with a monotone-ish, unaffected robotic tone, which adds a great deal to the humor. Several times throughout the story I couldn’t help laughing out loud. As the family falls apart, Rosie witnesses more and more of the family’s transgressions. Unfortunately, the problems that the family faces are nothing new to fiction: cheating spouses, drunkenness, a child born unplanned. One thing I would’ve liked to see in this story was something new with regards to the way the family crumbled. And I felt as though the father figure is painted as too much the victim, and the mother as too much the villain. I longed to know more of the family’s secrets, or seen a brief softer side to the mother, something to make the two parental figures as believable as the daughter. Still a hilarious piece of short fiction, one I highly recommend.
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