Much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, size absolutely matters.
What? I’m a shorty; I get to say these things!
But I mean the size of stories, of course. There are no two ways about it, I’m afraid: whether because of price or presence, viability or visibility, short fiction is the person at the party we politely ignore, or outright rudely overlook.
I’m as guilty of this telling offence as anyone. In the second installment of my ongoing British Genre Fiction Focus column, I talked up the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Novel nominees—amongst many and various other subjects—yet neglected to mention the six short stories up for one of the BSFA’s other awards. I am appropriately penitent, as we shall see, but this sort of treatment is simply all too typical of the short shrift short fiction is given.
In order to address the problem head on, Brit Mandelo and I will take turns discussing a selection of short stories. As we alternate weeks, Brit will be writing about magazines, primarily—whether physical or digital—meanwhile I’ll be going wherever the wind takes me. This week, for instance, in a timely attempt to correct my earlier oversight, I’ll be running through two of the six nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story award, and in subsequent editions of the Short Fiction Spotlight, time permitting, we’ll consider the remaining contenders together.
After that? Well. I’m sure we’ll see....
You are, of course, cordially invited to read along with us. We’d adore it if you did! And though not all of the shorts we mean to talk about in this column are available to read for free, where possible we’ll be providing links to the texts themselves, and failing that, advice on how to get hold of certain stories. If you keep watch on the comments, I’ll try to give you advance warning about what we’re reading next, as well.
Anyway, what say you we get this show on the road? Beginning with...
by Tim Maughan
In early August 2011, the world almost ended. Or so it seemed from where I was sitting: at home, glued to the news, watching in horror as thousands of people took to rioting in the streets for no reason I could easily see.
Using social media and mobile devices to organise themselves, these individuals made of London a living hell, and various other British cities went down the toilet as well. The gangs took what they wanted from shops little and large—from TVs to trainers—and burned what they didn’t.
Estimates place the cumulative cost of the resulting property damage at approximately two hundred million pounds. But forget the finances: five people died, many others were injured—and that isn’t counting the countless participants who were uncannily quiet about their so-called war wounds.
The forces of law and order did eventually respond. All the police who had planned leaves of absence were told to hold their horses, whilst parliament was (rather pointlessly) recalled. Our poor Prime Minister even had to cut short his holidays!
Ultimately, more than three thousand people were arrested in relation to the riots, and gradually, they did die down. But the image of them—the idea of them—still persists. As “Limited Edition” illustrates.
Tim Maughan’s startling short story begins with an extraordinary advert:
Eugene Sureshot, one mile tall, strides through the wasteland. Where his limited edition trainers hit the ground deserts bloom, city blocks rise and mountains rip themselves from the ground. Vistas erupt from each footfall, spreading like bacteria, mingling, creating landscapes. New places from the dead ground. Civilisations rise, intricate detail evolves around the soles of giant feet.
Then Sureshot stops, as if something blocks his path. [He] steps back, raises a foot from the ground—leaving behind light-trails of glass skyscrapers and steel domes, and puts one limited edition kick through the screen, so all that Grids can see is the rubber sole, embossed tick logo.
It’s only a commercial for new shoes, but Grids can’t get it out of his head. By hook or by crook, he resolves, he’ll call a pair of these limited edition kicks his own. Alas, “he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider. It makes him insignificant.” So when Grids gets wind of a local store with inventory already, weeks before street date, he and his mans meet in an empty epic fantasy MMO to hatch a plan.
“Standard Smash/Grab rules yeah? No casualties, especially no staff or civilians,” he stresses. Thus the game begins: servers are brought online, admins are installed, and other essential information is seeded, secretly, via >>blinks<< on Twitter.
The progress of Grids and his gang will be followed by a flash mob of interested observers; though an ARG overlaid on their spex, they’ll unlock achievements and score multipliers for achieving certain objectives. Their success will essentially earn them import. Their failure? Infamy. It’s a win-win situation...but of course it gets out of hand quickly.
“Limited Edition” is a chilling take on the reign of organised anarchy in the UK discussed above, and as such, its contemporary relevance is second to none—certainly to none of the BSFA’s other nominees for the Best Short Story of 2012. It touches, too, on the potential consequences of targeted marketing; on the place of gaming in our era; and on the immeasurable impact social media has had on society. As an extrapolation of recent events and advances, “Limited Edition” is as astonishing as it is alarming.
But beyond its bearing on tomorrow’s world—nay, today’s—Tim Maughan’s cautionary tale of the dispossessed in Britain’s cities also functions on a number of other fronts. It’s particularly fantastic in terms of character; somehow, despite what they’re doing, Grids and his fam seem sympathetic. On one level I honestly wanted them to get away with their Smash/Grab!
Then I remembered myself....
There is, then, a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines. In addition to this, “Limited Edition” is propelled by an exponentially more desperate momentum, and bolstered by some very fitting imagery, which has nature resembling artifice rather than the other way around:
“When Grids and his crew get to Avonmeads, he sees they’re being eyeballed by a fat black crow, perched on top of a CCTV pole. Like the camera it watches them pass. [...] He feels knots in his stomach, that feeling of being out of his comfort zone, of being watched and pointed out as an outsider.”
“Limited Edition” may be a cutting commentary on any number of contemporary topics, but it’s also a damn fine short story—one of the most intoxicating I’ve read in recent years—with candid characters, powerful pacing, and a terrific yet terrifying perspective.
To wit, Tim Maughan’s latest tale is well and truly deserving of its spot on the BSFA’s shortlist—as was “Havana Augmented” (now available as one third of Paintwork) when it was nominated two years ago—though I wonder whether or not the same can be said of our next contender.
The Song of the Body Cartographer
by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
The trouble with “The Song of the Body Cartographer” in my opinion, is that it’s just too short to get its point across.
At the outset, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz introduces us to Siren and Inyanna, class-cross’d lovers in a world of windbeasts, where emotional programmers are able to remap the human animal:
“The Matriarchy had sent Inyanna to Siren with an express command. For all that Siren was one of the common, she had been and still was the best body cartographer in all of Ayudan. She could have become Qa’ta if she wished, but she’d always cherished the freedom that came with being common and no matter that being Qa’ta came with privileges, she couldn’t bear to leave her carefree life behind.
“Inyanna was Timor’an–more than that she was gifted with insight and with the Matriarch’s blood. She would ascend to the Matriarch’s place if she could prove herself in flight. And there lay the heart of the problem–Inyanna was meant to fly and yet she could not.”
What follows, in a heady succession of short scenes, is equal parts a chronicle of Siren’s attempts to enable Inyanna to fly—as the rest of her kind can—and an account of the rise and fall, or the fall and rise, of a strange but beautiful relationship.
On the sentence level, at least, “The Song of the Body Cartographer” is sublime. The author’s soaring prose is practically poetry in motion—that she is a Clarion West graduate comes as no surprise—and whatever its other issues, this is an undeniably evocative short.
But from the climax at the start to the bittersweet resolution come the conclusion, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz seems keen to the reader on the back foot, and predictably, this proves problematic. “The Song of the Body Cartographer” boasts enough world-building to warrant a novel, characters that seem to have stepped out of something far larger, and though it does end, in a sense, on the whole, it reads more like an isolated excerpt than a whole story.
For instance, there’s an overwhelming volume of terminology, complete with the deliberately placed apostrophes we see so much of in high fantasy: see qa’ta and qi’ma, pillor’ak and Timor’an. Meanwhile one’s sense of setting is fragmented at best, and the narrative—which I should stress does come together eventually—is so overstuffed with invention and imagination that its focus feels fleeting:
“Siren adjusted the gaze on the machine. The cocoon was one she’d had made after a visit to the Veils. She had watched the stoic Nahipan as they went about their business and had observed a cocoon which was put to use at certain intervals of the day.
“Drawing closer, she had been surprised to see that the cocoon uncovered extraneous layers, laying bare the cords of muscle and the line of nerves underneath.
“Fascinated by the cocoon, she’d obtained permission from the Nahipan’s chief technician and with his help she had managed to recreate a facsimile in Lower Ayudan.”
Ultimately, I was not surprised to read, per the story’s postscript, that “The Song of the Body Cartographer” is inspired by the surrealist artwork embedded above—namely “Creation of the Birds” by Remedios Vario—nor latterly that it was in fact extracted from Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s current work in progress.
In the past, I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s other shorts—let me especially recommend “Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litok-litok and their Prey,” which you can read for free here—and indeed I appreciated the potential of “The Song of the Body Cartographer.” I’m just not quite convinced Rochita Loenen-Ruiz realises it here... but perhaps she will in the forthcoming novel this nominee is apparently a small part of.
That’s all we have time for today, I’m afraid, but when next I take over the Short Fiction Spotlight, we’ll be talking about two more of the British Science Fiction Association’s nominees for the Best Short Story of 2012. You’ll have to buy a copy of “Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales if you want to follow along—it’s oh so worth it, I assure you!—but China Mieville’s “Three Moments of and Explosion” is freely available on the author’s blog.
So... how did you like week one of the Short Fiction Spotlight?
And if you’ve read the aforementioned stories, obviously I want to know what you thought of them. Are you with me on “The Song of the Body Cartographer” or do you disagree? What about “Limited Edition”? Were you dazzled, or dizzied?
Now I for one have my work cut out for me for the next couple of installments of the column, but if you’d like to suggest an author, a subject, or some other timely topic for us to consider covering in subsequent weeks, just pop your recommendations in the comments, please.
That’s it from me for the moment. You officially have the floor, folks!
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.