Happy New Year from Short Story Review!

Cover art by Yang Xueguo

Yang Xueguo
Yang Xueguo

I don’t post a lot of personal info on Short Story Review, but at this time of year, when so many are reflecting on and reviewing the last twelve months, I’d like to share my own brief reflection.

2013 was both the worst and the best year of my life (so far).

It was a great writing year; in February I saw my first professionally published stories appear in print. In total, I had three poems and six stories appear, three in professional-paying magazines. (For a listing of those stories and poems, please visit the Stories & Poems section of my website.)

Unfortunately, February also turned out to be the scariest month. My current-husband, then-fiancé Peter underwent spinal surgery to have two tumors removed. The tumors were, thankfully, benign, but the day after his surgery, I totaled our recently-purchased car in a wreck and broke my ankle. I was forced to undergo ankle surgery. This left Peter and I unable to fend for ourselves. Luckily, some of our amazing friends and family came to our rescue, helping us clean up our house, driving us to appointments, and giving us some much-needed moral support.

Katie Crumpton & I, before walking
The good side of being off my feet for eight weeks was it gave me time to work on my thesis, a short story collection entitled Strange Monsters, part of my final requirements for the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. Then in July Peter and I took the train to Maine for graduation, where I gave my first full reading. I read “The Wanderers,” that first published story of mine. It went better than I ever could have expected.
In April, my second nephew was born. In May, I changed jobs and went to work for an educational company where I wrote lesson plans and taught creative writing to kids. In July, Peter got a full-time job, making us much more financially secure. Over the summer, we helped my family prepare my late grandmother’s house to be sold. In August, I attended my first WorldCon in San Antonio and had a blast. In September, I put on the second Art & Words Show.
Post-wedding, dazed and relieved
In October, I was on my first convention panels at FenCon. A week later Peter and I got married; we asked our friend, poet Evan Klavon, to officiate, and he delivered a beautiful and fun ceremony, complete with The Top 5 Big Lebowski Quotes on Marriage (# 4: “Strikes and gutters, ups and downs”).
After we returned from our honeymoon, our cat, Don, ate two feet of ribbon and had to have emergency surgery, putting us in further debt. In November, I was laid off. But in December, I found a new, better job. We spent the holidays with both sides of our family.
Obligatory cat photo
It’s a lot for one year. There were moments when I thought I would break. But I didn’t. I struggled with seeing the positive, with feeling sorry for myself and Peter. I spent way too much escapist time on the Internet. But I also did good, productive things; I channeled emotions into writing. I wrote a whole host of stories about people reaching their breaking point, and breaking. I made daily gratitude lists. And here I am, here we all are, at the end of 2013, heading into 2014. I wish all of you more of the good and less of the bad, but more than that I wish you all the ability to process and channel the bad, when it comes your way, into something good, something beautiful.

Stonecoast Stories

As some of you already know, mainly because I mentioned it in my last review, mid-July I graduated from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. Come next January, when it’s time for yet another Stonecoast residency up in Freeport, Maine, I won’t be there, and neither will the rest of my class, or the classes that graduated before me, with the exception of some lucky students close enough to visit. I will miss my Stonecoast friends immensely, though I hope to make certain that July will not be the last time I ever see them.

There is a lot of talent in the Stonecoast community. For this week’s Short Story Review, I will highlight four stories published by either current Stonecoast students or Stonecoast alums. There are, of course, far more than four, and more, certainly, to come. If you’re a Stonecoast student, current or past, feel free to post a link to one of your published stories in the comments below.

“Paradigm Shift” by Julie Day

Free read in Electric Velocipede, Issue 26

I met Julie my first residency at Stonecoast, and she graduated my third. We are, I will admit, part of the same writer’s critique group, and this short flash story was, in fact, penned as part of my Art & Words Show. It was one of my favorites, written in response to a painting of the same title by artist Trayce Cochran. It’s no wonder that after the show, it was accepted for publication by Electric Velocipede.

A little girl is forced into the pageant life by her overbearing mother. Despite her hard work, she never wins a trophy. At sixteen, the girl undergoes an operation to turn herself into a cyborg. This flash fiction is short, but it packs a punch; powerful writing here from a master of weird stories. “Paradigm Shift” is an intense piece of fiction, and captivating until the last sentence. The mother is a genuinely creepy presence who invades even the parts of the story in which she is absent. There are suggestions of an interesting and complex world outside of the story’s parameters, a world in which these elective cyborg surgeries are somewhat common, that enhance the weirdness even further.

“The Taste of Salt” by Rachel Halpern

Free read in Daily Science Fiction

Rachel Halpern’s “The Taste of Salt” is a flash fiction about Aina, a young woman in a small town where a cult’s attempt at summoning a demon actually worked. The demon now requires sacrifices, and sorcerers make sure that the demon gets them. The background sounds kooky, but Halpern’s crisp writing makes certain that it’s taken seriously. Aina even recognizes the cliché of the robed sorcerer masters making sure the surviving humans don’t escape, a self-awareness that saves the setting. Besides, the story isn’t about this takeover. It’s about Aina and her relationship to the world, specifically her relationship with the next sacrifice, Evan, who is waiting to be consumed. The story is surprisingly both hopeful and dark, a combination of moods that I greatly admire.

“Dirty Dishes” by Cristina Perachio

Free read in Apiary

Cristina’s fiction is not speculative; it’s about as real as you can get. Though Short Story Review mostly focuses on realistic stories, I feel that I have to include Cristina because of just how talented she is, and how good this story is.

“Dirty Dishes” is about a young girl working in a restaurant. Actually, “Dirty Dishes” is about being a young girl working in a restaurant, and it’s all refreshingly true-to-heart. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant can identify with this story. Any woman can identify with this story. Anyone who’s ever known a woman can identify with this story. It’s a story about being young. A story about the often fucked-up dichotomy between men and women. And it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking.

“Failsafe” by Karen Bovenmyer

The Crimson Pact Volume Five

Karen Bovenmyer read part of “Failsafe” for her graduating student reading; we were partnered together, and so she read it after I read my own story, “The Wanderers.” I’m glad that she went second, as I was able to get my nerves out of the way so that I could fully engage with Karen’s story, as it’s extremely creepy and compelling, with a main character, Kira, whose voice is one of the most distinctive I have ever read.

Kira’s the captain of a salvage ship, the Recovery. She lives a lonely life, her only company the Recovery’s emotionless AI. When she receives a message from the terraforming ship, the Queen – a little girl’s voice says that everyone is dead – she is obliged to board, as the little girl is still alive, and Kira’s contract states that she is required to rescue any survivors. What she finds aboard the Queen is her worst fear: bodies. And beyond her worst fear, too, something she never would have thought up: a demon that inhabits those bodies. “Failsafe” is not a light story; it’s gory, and the trials that Kira and the little girl, Walkabout, face are long and frightening. It is well-told, thoroughly engaging, and memorable. Especially that ending.

SSR Extra: An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

In honor of this year’s Hugos — and my excitement at attending WorldCon for the first time — I am publishing interviews with the three writers nominated for Best Short Story; a few weeks ago I featured a brief interview with Ken Liu. Today I’m featuring my interview with Aliette de Bodard, author of “Immersion” (reviewed as part of my Hugo Awards Post).

Aliette de Bodard’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Interzone, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. She won this year’s Nebula for “Immersion,” which has also been nominated for the Locus Awards and the Sturgeon Award. Her Aztec mystery-fantasy novels, the Obsidian and Blood series, were published by Angry Robot. On her website, she states that she “lives in Paris with her husband, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a bunch of Lovecraftian plants that are steadily taking over the living room.”

with more computers than warm bodies, and a bunch of Lovecraftian plants that are steadily taking over the living room. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/biography/#sthash.1IIL5Voq.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. – See more at: http://aliettedebodard.com/#sthash.vZbkuufC.dpuf

Short Story Review: Tell me about your short stories.

Aliette de Bodard: I write character-driven science fiction, a lot of which is set in non-Western settings. I draw inspirations from myths, legends, and the odd smattering of science in order to explore other cultures in space and the different uses they’d find for technology. Most of my SF is set in the recurring universe of Xuya, an alternate history where China has become the dominant spacefaring culture, and biological constructs known as Minds have revolutionized space travel as well as familial structures.

Short Story Review: What is one of your favorite stories you have written and why?

Aliette de Bodard: The one I really like is my novella “On a Red Station, Drifting”: I started it as a homage to the Chinese Classic Dream of Red Mansions, meaning to carry over its domestic focus into space; and it mutated into a long meditation on what war means to those who stay at home, on the different significations of honour and familial loyalty. It wasn’t an easy thing to write, but I’m very glad that I finished it, and that the reaction to it has been so positive.

Short Story Review: Are there stories you’ve published, perhaps earlier in your career, that you would change, if you could?

Aliette de Bodard: Ha, quite probably! There’s always that moment of staring at the screen and marveling at how far I’ve come. I was much less aware of problematic tropes and bad representation of minorities when I started writing, and it shows in a few of my early stories (not to mention the ones where I cheerfully mangled the Chinese language through sheer ignorance…).

Short Story Review: How do you write stories? Do you edit extensively? Do you write so much per day?

Aliette de Bodard: I am a very irregular writer: I tend to brainstorm extensively before I write even one word of the draft. This enables me to save on editing time, because I produce relatively clean drafts (there are exceptions of course, and stories I’ve had to take apart in order to make them work). I don’t write so much per day when writing short stories: it’s more irregular bursts of activity when I have time to spare. For instance, it took me three weeks to brainstorm “Immersion”, but only about two days to write the first draft, and then a week or so to complete edits after I got feedback from my beta readers.

(Novels are different beasts though; I’ll make efforts to write something on a novel every day, or I’ll lose momentum).

Short Story Review: What themes and subjects do you find yourself drawn to? Why do you think you’re drawn to these subjects?

Aliette de Bodard: It really depends on what I’m writing, but the themes I’ve focused on lately have been the meaning of familial bonds–how they function and how they are stressed, and what gets passed from one generation to the next and how its meaning shifts. I suppose a lot of it is down to my personal history (I come from two cultures where family is really important), and to familial history (my maternal family immigrated to France, so a lot of my focus is on identity, assimilation, and the shift from the first generations of immigrants to the later ones who have never really known the home country other than through brief holidays).

Short Story Review: What do you have coming out, and what can you tell us about these stories?

Aliette de Bodard: I have a novelette, “Memorials”, coming out in Asimov’s, which is a complement to “The Weight of a Blessing” (a story published in Clarkesworld March 2013). It deals with war refugees, the appropriation of their experience by the local culture, and how a troubled young woman makes her way through life in the absence of familiar guidance.

My story “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” will be out in Ben Bova’s and Eric Choi’s Carbide-Tipped Pens. It’s set in a society where people change bodies like you change haircuts, and where specialised teams of authenticators use statistical analysis in order to make sure people are who they say they are. My main character is one of those authenticators, and has to deal with the difficult problem of identifying a man who has been absent from that society for twenty years…

Short Story Review: What are your favorite short story magazines?

Aliette de Bodard: I read a lot of magazines, and I like them all–they’ve got different preferences and different kinds of stories. My current favourites are Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons (I like their fiction, but it’s their non-fiction articles and reviews that keep me coming back to them), and Interzone, which has great fiction by authors you don’t necessarily see elsewhere (and nifty illustrations!).

Short Story Review: Who are your favorite short story writers?

Aliette de Bodard: Ken Liu, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Zen Cho, Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

Short Story Review: What are five of your favorite short stories (by other writers)?

Aliette de Bodard: “The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary” by Ken Liu is a poignant look at the meaning of history, and how the descendants of those involved in atrocities come to terms with what happened.

Zen Cho’s “House of Aunts” is a hilarious and bittersweet take on Malaysian vampires, and is about a teenage girl who becomes a vampire and has to navigate school, her growing attraction to a classmate, and her impossible aunts.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s “Dancing in the Shadow of the Once” is a really sharp look at the use of colonised people as commodities, and how even “charity” causes can become humiliating; it’s also a beautiful meditation on what coming home means when you no longer have a home of our own.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” is a lovely retelling of the legend of Chang’e and Houyi (the goddess of the moon and the archer who killed the nine suns in Ancient China), in which both main characters are women. It’s a great piece of feminism, as well as having some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read.

Collection Review: In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I hope everyone’s having a great holiday season, spending time with family and friends, finding time to sneak off and read when necessary for mental health, etc. And here’s hoping everyone’s keeping well, staying clear of cold weather colds, which I’ll admit has always been the hardest part of winter for me.

Got some exciting news yesterday, a holiday surprise of sorts. As many of you know, I’m working on my MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program, a low-residency program which requires me to attend two ten-day workshops a year up in Maine. Yesterday, I got an e-mail from our workshop leader informing us that this January, one of my favorite writers, Theodora Goss, will be co-leading our workshop. This will be my last workshop at Stonecoast, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to end it. So, in honor of good news, I’ve reviewed Theodora Goss’ short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting.

Theodora Goss is a master of place. In all sixteen short stories in her collection In the Forest of Forgetting, the setting, though often a fantastical place, is as vivid as the characters, many of whom are greatly affected by the places they inhabit. In the introduction by Terri Windling, which gives an interesting biography of Goss and explores her historical context for the way she writes, Windling says, “Goss is a travel guide across borders both real and imaginary: borders of time, of gender, of genre, of landscape, of culture, and of expectation.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. Goss does indeed eschew borders. Her fiction crosses genre lines and is therefore difficult to categorize. While the fantastical is always an element in her stories, it is often metaphor, or a subtle expression of her character’s rich inner lives that manifests itself in reality. And while Goss’ work is certainly fiction, her prose could be called a form of poetry. The images she creates are certainly vivid enough.

The most poetic piece in the collection is “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” which revisits the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of each character involved: the witch who curses Sleeping Beauty, the magician who alters the curse from death to sleep, the king and father, even the spinning wheel, the tower and the rose. Goss’ structure is flawless; there are twelve numbered sections, and each section is a point-of-view. The unifying theme of each section, besides the Sleeping Beauty story itself, is the presence of the rose.

Goss also crosses borders of traditional story structure. Often her stories are split into pieces that, by the end, form a whole. Sometimes numbered, sometimes not, each section reads like a transition in the story and explores a refreshing view of the short story itself; so often one assumes that short stories, unlike novels, do not contain parts. Perhaps this is because the parts of a novel – its chapters – are obvious. Goss makes it obvious that short fiction as well is capable of layers.

The collection as a whole contains many linking parts. Many of the stories bleed into one another. The character of Miss Gray, a dark Mary Poppins-like woman, shows up in three stories, always when the other characters, particularly children, need her. She grants wishes, though sometimes in unfavorable ways; her magic comes with a price. The story “Lessons with Miss Gray” revisits the lives of two of the characters from the World Fantasy Award-nominated story “The Wings of Mister Wilhelm” and fills in the blanks regarding the back story of the characters.

In several other stories, character names are repeated. Though the fact that they are the same character in both stories is never clarified, the repetition gives the impression that these stories must be related in some way. Discovering the links between stories is rewarding. The world of In the Forest of Forgetting feels as rich as the worlds of the stories inside. And as mysterious.

Which brings me to the mystery of Goss’ fiction. What I like most about her writing, and what makes her such an exciting writer to read, is that she never explains everything. Though she certainly gives the reader enough information to form their own opinion of what exactly has occurred in many of these stories, she never answers every question. There is no attempt on her part to tie up all her loose ends, a technique that I think engages the reader even more in the story and makes things much more interesting.

Other highlights of the collection include “Pip and the Faeries,” “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” and “Letters from Budapest.”

Contains the following stories, three of which are available online:

“The Rapid Advance of Sorrow”
“Sleeping with Bears”
“Pip and the Fairies”
“The Rose in Twelve Petals”
“Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold”
“Lily, With Clouds”
“Miss Emily Gray”
“In the Forest of Forgetting”
“Letters from Budapest”
“The Wings of Meister Wilhelm”
“Conrad”
“A Statement in the Case”
“Death Comes for Ervina”
“The Belt”
“Phalaenopsis”
“Lessons with Miss Gray”