Clarkesworld Magazine #178, July 2021 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As I’ve said before, I feel that short stories are under-reviewed on Goodreads, and in general—a short-sighted omission. Think how many wonderful authors have been immortalized through their short fiction: Ephraim Kishon, the Israeli humorist, for example; Roald Dahl (if you haven’t read his short stories for adults, please…) Stanislav Lem his with ‘Tales of Pirx the Pilot’. The creator of Sherlock Holmes…
Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 178 contains seven outstanding stories, one review of the history of the planet Mercury in science fiction, and two interviews.
My review method is, admittedly, personal and arbitrary—I comment on my three favorite stories only (and don’t award them points out of ten).
My third favorite is ‘Promises We Made Under A Brick-Dark Sky’ by Karen Osborne. Written from a first-person point of view, Elissa, a mother with an infant child emotes about having killed god, doomed her world, and needing to escape (as soon as her unsatisfactory lover arrives with the transport). She’s very intense and things are clearly badly out of hand. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific without introducing spoilers—because a good portion of this story’s magic is Osborne’s powerful and fresh use of imagery to conceal, and then slowly reveal the true nature of what is happening. In that respect, the writing is a technical tour de force. Mesmerizing.
More about this story later.
My second favorite is ‘When the Sheaves Are Gathered by Nick Wolven’. I enjoyed the humanity of this story. There, I’ve said it—I quite like chatty stories with happy endings about ordinary people in positive relationships that make me just a little gooey inside. It’s a personal taste. (I also like stories about rockets that blow up, but…) Anyhow, Johnny has the half-remembered impression that his friends are disappearing. He discusses it with Armin his sweet and deeply supportive, long-time lover who speaks comforting, common-sense wisdom to him: “…can’t we enjoy what we have, while we have it?” Shortly afterwards, Armin… (well, that would be a spoiler).
My favorite is ‘The Falling’ by M V Mercer. This unassuming story sneaked up and gut-punched me. In it, over the course of a lifetime, the protagonist (the reader never learns his name) becomes a senior engineer on a survival ark fleeing an encroaching singularity. He has to make tough decisions, jettisoning many thousands of fellow fugitives…
I’d like to take the liberty of comparing ‘The Falling’ with ‘Promises We Made Under A Brick-Dark Sky’, but with this caveat: both stories are brilliant, just I’m interested in how Falling achieves its impact, and hope that a comparison may give an inkling.
Both stories are first-person. Both deal with a central character involved in escape from inimical circumstances. Both employ metaphor to disguise and add mystery to the nature of the threat, but that’s where the differences start to show. Whereas Promises maintains the mystery to the end, in Falling the metaphor is transparent, almost cursory, a nod in the direction of horror. In addition, language and imagery in Falling are far simpler than in Promises: whereas Promises is brilliant and evocative, Falling is stripped-down, almost plain. Elissa in Promises is intensely emotional whereas the unnamed protagonist in Falling is restrained and unassuming. One might imagine that powerful language and an intense protagonist would be more impactful. Certainly, they’re more engaging: I never thought of laying Promises aside whereas I had to force myself past the first dozen pages of Falling before it clobbered me—Mercer took a risk writing that way.
How did the writer achieve her impact? After reflection I decided that the anonymity of the protagonist—his unassuming, boyish decency as presented in those first lulling dozen pages—invited me to step into his shoes. Thus, when he experienced his first milestone it slipped in right under my guard. And this went on happening through successive triumphs and losses (I was almost moist-eyed by the end of the story). By contrast, Elissa was so intensely portrayed that I couldn’t invest her space. I either had to identify with her, or not. I couldn’t.
This is not necessarily bad. It depends on the role of the character in the story. Bronte’s Heathcliff is a towering villain, his emotions vividly portrayed. Even though the reader might feel a smidgen of sympathy for him at the end, it is clear that he is not the kind of person one wants to be around. Or identify with. (And Du Maurier’s Rebecca is completely venomous, even at third hand.)
On the other hand, Rex in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War is lovable because of his grit, honesty, determination to serve, and need for affirmation, and of course because he’s a good dog (even if he is about 9 foot tall and loaded with weapons). His emotional state is vividly drawn and very compelling, and I think it’s safe to say that most readers root for Rex, and in that sense, identify with him.
But to get the reader to step into a character’s shoes as Mercer does (I’m speculating here—I’d appreciate other people’s thoughts) requires the construction of a special literary persona, almost a blank, but showing the kind of positive traits we all assume we have when we communicate with others: unassuming honesty, because we like to believe that others will accept us as we present ourselves; quiet strength, because we like to believe that we are able; and clear decision making, because we like to believe we are effective.
If that’s true, the writerly question we’re left with is, in what kind of stories does this near-blank persona work best?
Paul du Pré
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Clarkesworld Magazine #178, July 2021 by Neil Clarke