Another Short Story Club

Just a quick post from me to say that those of you who enjoyed the last couple of years of short story clubs here might enjoy a project that Karen is kicking off over at the Locus Roundtable blog: a club to read some of this year’s award-nominated stories, on the following schedule:

  • May 22: “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, Aliette de Bodard [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • May 29: “Ponies”, Kij Johnson [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 5: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, Eric James Stone [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 12: “The Things”, Peter Watts [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, a BSFA, and a Shirley Jackson]
  • June 19: “Plus or Minus”, James Patrick Kelly [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, and a Nebula]

So the first discussion is this Sunday. See you over there?

(Actually, while I’m here, I’ll also point out the ongoing Tiptree Award book club, which is working its way through some work from recent honor lists; they’ve discussed “Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh, “Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Lifelode by Jo Walton, and are currently considering “Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim.)

Short Story Club Post-Mortem

So, another round of short story club is complete. For reference, here are the links to the various stories and discussions:

As previously mentioned, I’d now like to open the floor for a more general discussion. There are two topics here. The major one is the stories themselves — which ones you liked, which you didn’t, what patterns or trends you spotted. And the minor one is about the logistics of the club — too many stories? Too few? Too similar? All feedback welcome.

Short Story Club: “Throwing Stones”

Plenty of comment for the final story, starting with Lois Tilton:

This is a lovely fantasy, mannered and sensuous. There is also a subtle subtext about the nature of gender roles that rouses echoes of our own culture.

Karen Burnham goes into more detail:

Baker offers a beautiful tale of identity, politics, power, and love, all intertwined together. Tuo feels just slightly alien, slightly Other, in an effectively disconcerting way. The gender power reversal works well, and the relationship between the goblin and the man, both physical and emotional, queers gender on several levels. Of course, much is left to the imagination of the reader. But in an allusive tale, the poetry of the prose is key, and lines such as:

I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the slick skin of his forehead; it tasted of salt and fish and something acrid I could not identify. The immediacy and honesty of it hit me like a gust of dry wind blowing fog from water.

show a mastery of craft — the repeated use of water imagery, the contrasts of dry wind and lake fog, and the overall rhythm of the piece all come together to make this tale well worth reading.

Matt H wasn’t so impressed by the gender reversal:

This is a story about a society with inverted gender roles, but the story feels like it was written about a woman in a male dominated society, then had all gender references inverted in revision. Certainly it doesn’t read any differently than its opposite, except perhaps to readers so new to the genre that they haven’t encountered a story challenging gender roles before. The story finally approaches interesting territory as the narrator is given a transient female body via magic, but the author seems like she’s in a hurry to reach the ending by this point and nothing much is done with it.


all that said, I found myself won over to large degree upon finishing the story. Nothing about the writing jumped out at me as really superlative, but as a whole I was impressed with the execution: the slimy, amphibian true form of the goblin, the narrator’s hatred for his own body, the way the goblin’s chaos infects and destroys the narrator’s life in a way that he observes but doesn’t see as important, and then the implication that the goblin is here acting as an agent of Ru, the very goddess in whose name the matriarchs suppress the men in their society. These elements weren’t enough to turn this story into one more to my particular tastes, but they did make it unexpectedly enjoyable to read.

For Chad Orzel:

It’s very well written and paced, and what we see of the world is nicely detailed. But it seemed a little too obviously to be making a Point, and as a result didn’t really connect with me. Despite the fact that it’s a well put together story, I still found myself doing the “Yes, you’re very clever, now move it along,” thing, and that’s never good. But, of course, the usual disclaimers apply– it’s entirely possible that this is an idiosyncratic reaction on my part.

The one thing that struck me as a real flaw in the story, and not just something that failed to work for me, was the passivity of the narrator. I mean, this is supposedly a person who has embarked on a dangerous plan to subvert the basis of his whole society, and yet he never takes any initiative, ever. He doesn’t approach the goblin until the goblin notices him first, he just sort of falls into the relationship with the goblin without really wanting it, and he doesn’t really have a plan for how to get into the Temple structure until the goblin practically pushes him into it.

Maria Lin appears to disagree:

You could call “Throwing Stones” a romance, as the whole of it centers upon the relationship between these two characters. Baker manages to make slimy, froglike creatures sensual, which is some feat. Both the narrator and Luo are reserved, calculating people, but for the narrator at least the strength of emotion pushes through and makes things more complicated. By the end of the story the narrator has entered training in the temple, but their conspiracy has yet to be revealed, and the relationship between himself and Luo remains uncertain.

Because “Throwing Stones” leaves the stone still poised to be thrown in the end, the reader is left to come to their own conclusion about what will happen when our protagonist starts making ripples in his society. Baker has written a neat story with a sympathetic narrator that is worth checking out. She is also apparently working on a novel set in the same world, so if this story appeals you might have more to look forward to.

And for Pam Phillips:

The story attempts to turn our expectations about gender upside down, like the customers at the teahouse being powerful women, or the narrator blaming his/her shyness on being male (rather than just being born shy). And yet, I still mostly read both the narrator and the poet as men. Both feel stifled by the society they live in. Tuo wants the narrator to “throw a stone” into the lake of civilization, raising ripples that will someday lead to change.

But what is the change they want? The way the women in Jiun-shi are keeping (at least some) men from being what they want to be, suggests that no matter what, one side will oppress the other. Or maybe the idea of a city ruled by women is just trying to get us to think about how our world feels to some people. And this is where trying figure out what this story wants to be gets all slippery on me.

So, as ever, the floor is open. And pop back next Friday for a general discussion of the short story club — favourites and least favourites, what worked and what didn’t.

Short Story Club: “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”

Some quite divergent opinions for this story. We start with Rich Horton, in the June Locus:

I was impressed last year by Paul M Berger’s Interzone piece “Home Again”. Now he contributes a brilliant story to Fantasy, one of the stories of the year so far, “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”. Loran, an old elven warrior, has taken Jessica, a young human, as his wife, and the pair visit a tourist attraction, the ruins of the Gray Fort, one of the last human redoubts in the long war that ended with humans enslaved. We learn of the pair bond between the two, such that they both feel and sense what the other does, and some of human/elf history that led to the current debased state of humans. The title artwork is a very clever invention, and nicely reflected in the story’s two parts, one from the POV of each character. The direction the story takes is on the one hand predictable, but nicely executed, and with some ambiguities and surprises that give it freshness and depth.

For Pam Phillips the story is

the sort of story I was hoping to find when I decided to join the Short Story Club at Torque Control.

A elf, Loran, and his human wife, Jessica, visit a ruined fort. From the first words, the story does an excellent job of portraying how the bond between them allows them to share sensory input, but not thoughts.

Their conversation is filled with suggestions of an epic history, war, conquest, and resistance. Loran is so arrogant, you just know he has underestimated his wife. That we confirm when we read Jessica’s side of the story. I like the Rashomonization in getting different meanings from the same events, but I could live without the verbatim repetition of dialogue.

Only after the story is allowed to take shape, do we get to the conceit that spawned it: a stereogram that can only be comprehended by a bonded pair. This stereogram is wonderful enough, but the best part is the way it pays off in the ending.


And for Matt H it’s the best so far:

Perhaps the most interesting part of the setting, and probably the concept the author meant to actually show in the story’s “stereogram”, is the nature of the colonial government. Loran’s narrative makes it very clear that the Elves only respect strength and were in fact disappointed when they finally defeated humans. Unlike the colonial powers of our world, they don’t seem to be extracting labor or natural resources. There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden, or at least, not since the war ended, since they see humans as only being worthy of respect when they are capable of fighting the Elves. Yet Loran says that in his role as a sort of regional governor he is responsible for “teaching” the humans under his control. What could he want to teach them, then, if not to fight back again? It seems like we are meant to conclude that he has essentially planned his own murder. Although this level of manipulation seems well beyond his ability to comprehend human psychology, even Jessica’s despite the link between them, at least we can say he shaped the outline if not the detail of what happened. Thus what might have seemed like a rousing stick-it-to-the-man ending becomes fairly ambiguous. As readers we’re predisposed to be sympathetic to Jessica’s stand, but when we realize that in doing so she’s adopting the values of the colonial power, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Loran has made her into a William Wallace when humanity would be better served by a Mahatma Ghandi.

But Lois Tilton is ambivalent:

The narrative follows the stereogram pattern by relating the story first from Loran’s point of view and then Jessica’s. What’s going on here is subversion of the notion of the noble High Elf, as Loren regards himself, revealing them as a race that would destroy another civilization to give its people the perverse gift of recovering their own capacity for martial glory – and themselves a partner for war that they could consider worthy even as they destroy them. Loren’s own words indict him even more thoroughly than Jessica’s version of the events. I love the vision of the ruined fort, the scene of former glories, even knowing that the vision is false. But too much of this story depends on the notion of the marital pair-bond, which I can’t help finding contrived.

As is Chad Orzel:

I ended up being unimpressed with this, and I’m not sure exactly why. Mostly, it’s that I could see exactly where it was headed from about the point where the brain-sharing thing was explained, and knew it exactly by the time she picked up the dagger. The shift in perspectives was not that much of a revelation, and the whole thing unfolded with a sense of inevitability rather than a sense of wonder.

But again, as I say, I’m not really sure why my reaction to this is a jaded “Meh”– it’s not like there’s a huge glut of psychically linked elf stories on the market, and as a technical matter, it’s well done. Berger also deserves credit for having a return of magic without turning it into a My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend kind of story.

It’s just… Something about the way it all unfolded wound up feeling, for me, more like the completion of a checklist than a compelling story. Remark about technology making humans weak, check. Remark about our world being too amazing to be true, check. Change in perspective making “courtship” seem really creepy, check. One of linked couple able to hide thoughts and plans from the other, check. And so on.

I’ll be interested to see where everyone else comes down on this one.

Short Story Club: “The Heart of a Mouse”

The story is here; let’s kick off the comment round-up with Matt H, this time.

Boiled down like this, this seems like a parody of the post-apocalypse genre. This apocalypse makes no sense whatsoever, but really, do they ever? Meanwhile it literalizes what is usually implicit in the subgenre: the loss of humanity, the emergence of animal instincts, and the destruction of the artifacts of civilization. It’s a situation, and in fact a whole world, that the reader can’t possibly take seriously. Even the characters–the hard-edged father, the naive son, the mother whose death haunts both of them–are right out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

But the story is completely deadpan. The cartoon world around the characters isn’t even remotely as frightening as McCarthy’s, but the relationship between the narrator and his son is far more dysfunctional. […]

An interesting story, and well written I thought, but while it’s clearly a story in dialogue with the rest of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I don’t understand what it’s saying. It feels a little like steampunk, having fun indulging in unusual scenery, but ultimately telling an overly familiar story.

It didn’t work for Pam Phillips:

Ugh. I feel like I’m being hit over the head. Even a talking animal can’t overcome my hate for depressing post-apocalypse settings. Sorry guys, I really don’t want to read this one.

Lois Tilton also sees echoes of…

It’s impossible to read this without hearing overwhelming echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is a slightly more humane, less desperate scenario, in that there actually is an economy of sorts and cannibalism is not the only food option, despite most of the creatures at large being predatory. There seems to be unexplained purpose at work. Still, while the author treats the narrator’s mouseness seriously, the echoes of the more realistic work make this one less credible.

And apparently Chad has posted about the story here, but I can’t get the page to load. While I hit refresh a few more times, over to the rest of you.

Short Story Club: “My Father’s Singularity”

The discussion for this week’s story might be interesting. Chad thinks it’s the best of the club so far:

This story’s a little difficult for me to approach objectively, because it hits a little close to home, in that I grew up in a small town, and went off to college, and when I go back nothing is the same as it was. […]

With that as a disclaimer of sorts, I thought this was an excellent story. It nails the emotional target it’s aiming for, that sense of a difference that has grown up and can’t quite be overcome. Unlike a lot of first-person narratives, I can actually imagine a real person telling this story in more or less this way. The outlines of the future world are there in the background, but as the narrator says at one point, that’s not this story, so we don’t get the changes spelled out for us in any great detail.

It’s subtle and restrained, but all the more powerful for it. And I think this is the best story of the lot so far, by a good margin. Both the SF elements and the human elements are handled deftly, and fit together really well. Whether I read any more award-eligible short fiction or not, this will almost certainly be going on my Hugo nominating ballot next year.

Evan had some problems:

The embedded assumptions are maybe going to be less apparent or obnoxious to the non-American people; it might even be West Coast specific. Capitalist/libertarian-oriented, dully US-centric, assuming that each tech boom will be followed by another, the country is better than the city, manual work better than intellectual work, government is evil when not incompetent, etc., etc., so on and so forth. It circumscribes the world declaring that while it might be different, it can never really be better. I am against the golden age, as a human concept. The fact that we all feel it says something about us, rather than something about the world. If the story had been a dissection of this feeling through its blinkered and backwards-looking main character, it might have been something interesting, but it doesn’t even remain unexamined; it seems to be the explicit position of the story. […]

Even putting aside the ideological underpinnings of the story, the failures of character would be enough to damn it, all on their own. Prose-wise, it feels under-baked, larded with a few too many stock phrasings.

Lois is in the positive camp:

This is a tale of loss, inevitable but unbearably sad. Here is another story in which the well-wrought characters are its heart. The emotion is genuine, the situation universal, the future too familiar in its disappointment.

And Pam Philips liked it:

The payoff moment comes when his father crosses a singularity of his own. All the technology at Paul’s command can’t undo the effects of age. While the situation is poignant, the tone of the story is restrained, as if it were asking permission to tug on my heartstrings.

It’s all right. You can tug.

But it didn’t work for Matt H:

Two major elements of the story, namely its narrator Paul and the future he’s moving into, are left mostly to the reader’s imagination. Paul comes off as a fairly cold fish with apparently no emotional attachments except a weak sense of filial duty. We are encouraged to think that Paul, after initial difficulties, has completely left his rural past behind and become wholly modern, but the world around him is given such scanty detail that the reader is left to guess what, if anything, that might imply. His father, theoretically the subject of the story, is given even less time. We learn he likes science fiction books, dogs, farming, and that’s about it. You’d think a man who read science fiction would have some sort of opinion about gene therapy or whatever the magic medicine of Paul’s future is, but the reader isn’t told anything that would clue us in to what he thought. Paul and Mona probably knew, but it doesn’t occur to either of them to mention his preferences when discussing his treatment.

Given how unimpressed I was with Paul, it’s not surprising that I didn’t find the conclusion of the story very moving. Paul, who only a moment ago was saying nothing bad ever happened to him, spends about three sentences coping with the fact his father (a man he was so close to he couldn’t bear to spend more than a day with him) can’t recognize him now. Then the story ends on a vaguely distasteful note by suggesting that getting Alzheimer’s is a singularity in the opposite direction from the SF kind. Perhaps it’s one last bit of characterization: Paul is so self-centered that he feels someone who no longer recognizes him has become something less than human.

So: which side are you on?