Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column co-curated by myself and the marvellous Brit Mandelo, and dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
This week, we’ll be reading through two of the seven Nebula-nominated novelettes, namely “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente and “Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” by Rachel Swirsky. I figured it’d be a bit much for me to review “The Finite Canvas” by my aforementioned collaborator, but let it be said that her story is deservedly in contention for the iconic award as well, alongside shorts by Catherine Asaro, Ken Liu, Andy Duncan and Megan McCarron.
So why these two tales above the others? Well, because a single thread connects them: both explore the idea of the image, and the terrible power of the picture of perfection.
Art and magic come together in the first of the nominated novelettes we’ll survey today, which can be read as a literal expression of the superstition that to capture an individual in an image is to steal its subject’s soul.
“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” is a Rachel Swirsky story, so I expected great things from the author of “Eros, Philia, Agape” and “The Lady who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” which won Best Novella at the 2010 Nebula Awards. What I got was an absorbing, erotically-charged short about obsession and the evolution of aesthetics.
Swirsky’s use of the first-person perspective allows us immediate insight into the mind of our central character. Renn is an artist under the tutelage of one Lisane de Patagnia, the last in “a line of geniuses stretching back through time like links in a chain, each creating a kind of beauty the world had never seen. Every one of us who came to study with Lisane hoped to be the next genius to emerge from that line,” and Renn is no exception. She’s putting the finishing touches to her latest lacklustre commission when we’re introduced, in a passage which presages the dark turn this text takes:
The painting showed a winter landscape of my patron’s fortress. Massive stone cylinders rose out of relentless white. A frozen river wended diagonally from the eastern tower to the edge of the panel.
I’d gone out to sketch the fortress three months ago. At first, my patron had been afraid the building would decay if I sketched it on the spot. I explained to him that the magic doesn’t work like that, but he still kept and anxious eye on the stones as my stylus crossed my tablet.
Magic frightens people almost as much as it intrigues them.
In this midst of this process, an improbable knock at the door rouses our ruminative narrator, who I should stress is fairly out of favour. For the first time in a long time—for the first time, in fact, since their intense affair ended untold ages ago—Lisane has asked after her most overlooked student.
She’s dying, it transpires, and she has one last request that only Renn can satisfy: Lisane wants her portrait painted... but with magic rather than art.
In the world of Swirsky’s story, this is possible, but the apocryphal act comes at an awful cost:
According to the church, employing magic to paint a man is a sin for two reasons. First because it is murder, and second because it may interfere with the dispensation of his soul. In case anyone should take a different view, the church is prepared to enforce their assertions with faggots and flame.
We have our own reasons for avoiding that kind of magic. We have records—diaries and observations carefully copied and passed down through generations—detailing what happens to those who try to paint men with magic. Such a painter need not fear the state. The act itself will drive him mad.
Those who believe in demons say that opening oneself to so much magic creates an opportunity for infernal creatures to crawl inside and hollow you like a husk.
But Lisane does not believe in demons, and Renn reflects that it’s better to burn out than to fade away, so whether out of love or ambition, desperation or revenge—that’s for me to know and you to find out—Renn takes up her brush, and begins to paint the last ever portrait of Lisane de Patagnia.
The provocative premise of Swirsky’s story grabbed me immediately, and for the most part, she nails the follow-through, too. Characters takes shape slowly but surely—Renn’s distressed perspective is a particular pleasure—whilst the narrative unravels to reveal an indignant account of the love lost between these women, via gathering glimpses of an exploitative fling which do a great deal to emotionally underpin Lisane’s last moments.
Thus, the pace of “Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” is painstaking, but appropriately so given the story’s slow-burn potency. Additionally, Swirsky’s imagery is rich, and furthermore fitting, offering a painterly perspective on events. In any given scene, Renn’s roving eye is distracted by the play of light and shadow across certain surfaces; by the profile of some striking shape, or the commingling of cacophonous colours. These artistic asides work to add dabs of depth and a sense of texture to the tale.
All in all, “Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” is a strong story from the pen of an exceptional author... but the end, I’m sorry to say, is unfortunately obvious. Swirsky makes a meal of the very last paragraphs by doing the unthinkable: telling what she has already shown. For fear of spoiling all, I can’t speak to the specific instance; you’ll know it, though, when you see it... or when you’re told it, I suppose.
Aside from this dubious denouement, I liked “Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” a lot, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t think it’s our winner. More likely that one of the other contenders in this category will take home the trophy, for instance “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente.
Nothing is impossible when you’re young… except, I guess, growing old. That always seemed unlikely to me.
Yet when you hold the seed of your future in the palm of your baby-soft hand, you can picture any other possibility. At that early stage, any crazy dream could come true. So you want to take over the world, or bring peace to all men. Well, what’s stopping you?
But what if choice was no longer possible? What if freedom was simply no longer sustainable? What then?
Then, you either dread the day when you absolutely have to do what you don’t want to, or you fall in line with the best of a bad lot of options, much as Martin does in this dystopian delicacy.
More than anything in the world, Martin wanted to be a Husband when he grew up.
Sure, he had longed for other things when he was young and silly—to be a Milkman, a uranium prospector, an astronaut. But his fifteenth birthday was zooming up with alarming speed, and becoming an astronaut now struck him as an impossibly, almost obscenely trivial goal. Martin no longer drew pictures of the moon in his notebooks or begged his mother to order the whiz-bang home enrichment kit from the tantalizing back pages of Popular Mechanics. His neat yellow pencils still kept up near-constant flight passes over the pale blue lines of composition books, but what Martin drew now were babies. In cradles and out, girls with bows in their bonnets and boys with rattles shaped like rockets, newborns and toddlers. He drew pictures of little kids running through clean, tall grass, reading books with straw in their mouths, hanging out of trees like rosy-cheeked fruit. He sketched during history, math, civics: twin girls sitting at a table gazing up with big eyes at their Father, who kept his hat on while he carved a holiday Brussels sprout the size of a dog.
Depending upon your perspective, this excerpt will have left you wondering one of two things. Why the strange conflation of Husband and Father, for instance? Or perhaps: who in their right mind would wish such a staggering sprout on the world?
I dare say an answer to the first question would give a carefully sustained game away, so let’s solve the second instead.
It’s actually a surprisingly simple riddle, though to her credit—and in contrast to the conclusion of Rachel Swirsky’s story—Catherynne M. Valente lets us figure it out ourselves. In fact, “Fade to White” begins with a potential explanation: namely the script for a government-sponsored advert, complete with an exacting editor’s suggestions.
ZOOM IN on a bright-eyed Betty in a crisp green dress, maybe pick up the shade of the spinach in the lower left frame. [Note to Art Dept: Good morning, Stone! Try to stay awake through the next meeting, please. I think we can get more patriotic with the dress. Star-Spangled Sweetheart, steamset hair the colour of good American corn, that sort of thing. Stick to a red, white and blue palette.] She’s holding up a resplendent head of cabbage the size of a pre-war watermelon. Her bicep bulges as she balances the weight of this New Vegetable, grown in a Victory Brand Capsule Garden. [Note to Art Dept: is cabbage the most healthful vegetable? Carrots really pop, and root vegetables emphasize the safety of Synthasoil generated by Victory Brand Capsules.]
Betty looks INTO THE CAMERA and says: Just because the war is over doesn’t mean your Victory Garden has to be! The vigilant wife knows that every garden planted is a munitions plant in the War Fight Struggle Against Communism. Just one Victory Brand Capsule and a dash of fresh Hi-Uranium Mighty Water can provide an average yard’s worth of safe, rich, synthetic soil—and the seeds are included! [...] Just look at this beautiful New Cabbage. Efficient, bountiful, and only three weeks from planting to table. [Note to Copy: Again with the cabbage? You know who eats a lot of cabbage, Stone? Russians. Give her a big old zucchini. Long as a man’s arm. Have her hold it in her lap so the head rests on her tits.]
Martin, in short, wants what the powers that be want him to want, and he wants it a lot—though this is no guarantee that his dreams will come true. First, he’ll have to fill a cup with a different sort of seed than we spoke about before.
Sylvie, however—that is to say this tale’s other narrator—is less than impressed with Betty’s breasts... but then, she’s hardly the target market of the aforementioned advertising. Indeed, she has a very different destiny ahead of her; one which she’s none too happy about.
You see, rather than being Announced when she comes of age, like Martin and other apparently marriageable men, Sylvie must make a Presentation on the appointed day. She’ll have to dress her best and answer all kinds of questions. She’ll be examined every which way, on the inside and the out. And all this to determine what sort of Wife and Mother she will be, because her Husband will be assigned based on how perfectly, or poorly, she Presents.
If you think that’s sinister, wait till you see what else Valente has up her sleeve. I won’t go into detail, but be warned: “Fade to White” is an incredibly unsettling affair which charts two characters, disturbed in different ways, as they approach the day they’ll be considered adults in the eyes of a demonstrably desperate society.
Martin and Sylvie respectively represent the bliss of ignorance versus the pain of awareness. Sylvie does not know it all, far from it, however she has a sense of herself that Martin entirely lacks—though the would-be family man, in his innocence, is still sympathetic.
Indeed, Martin’s narrative is markedly more engrossing than Sylvie’s initially—the glimpses it gives into the inner workings of the family of the future are fascinating—but Valente makes up for the relative non-eventfulness of that latter’s earlier sections with a chilling reversal come the phenomenal finish of “Fade to White,” which is as much about silence as it is violence.
Between rapturous moments with Martin and sections spent with cynical Sylvie, Valente treats us to several subsequent scripts along the lines of the Capsule Garden ad with which “Fade to White” begins—punctuating her very precise prose with commercial breaks, basically. I may be a monster for saying so, but these are a fair bit of fun.
More meaningfully, however, they underscore the overwhelming importance of the image to both of Valente’s central characters, because the beliefs of both Martin and Sylvie can be read as responses to the pervasive picture of perfection portrayed on television at, as aforementioned, the government’s behest.
Other authors would have taken the ideas outlined in “Fade to White” and turned them into a trilogy—a trilogy sure to sell, as well—but do not think them lesser for their brevity. By channelling her evidently unending energies into this novelette instead, Valente is able to explore the significance of the image to the family of the future more suggestively that I warrant would be possible in a novel.
And what more can you ask for from a short story?
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, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.