Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. This is the second week we’ll be discussing Lightspeed Magazine’s June special issue, “Women Destroy Science Fiction!”—a huge collection of sf stories by women writers, some familiar and some upcoming. And, like I said last time, we’re still barely scratching the surface of this issue, which is rightly more of an anthology (and in fact can be purchased in print, if you were so inclined).
Since last week we only talked about one short story as well as a few pieces of flash fiction, this week I thought I’d focus on a couple more of the longer offerings that I found compelling: “The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick” by Charlie Jane Anders and “The Lonely Sea in the Sky” by Amal El-Mohtar. Both of these stories are available only in the for-purchase edition—which, let’s be clear again, has more than 850 pages of material—and on their own make it worth picking up.
Charlie Jane Anders’ “The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick” (reprinted here on Tor.com) is a near-future sf piece that deals with issues of neural mapping and memory-sharing; it’s also about relationships and human faults, and that really unfathomable thing: how people form emotional connections. I liked this one a lot, partially for its treatment of relationship development and partially for its cleverness—plenty of stories deal with memory transfers, but it does nonetheless feel fresh here.
One thing I appreciated about it, for example, is the attention the story pays to the complex crossover between a platonic friendship and a romantic relationship—as well as how those can become confused and complicated, with jealousy and the need for love alike. That emotional jealousy is also painted as relatively normal; it’s not crazy that Stacia was initially jealous of the time Mary spent with Roger and not her, it’s just an outgrowth of going from being inseparable from a person to being part three of two.
The prose here also has a certain detachment that I tend to associate with Anders’s fiction, but which definitely works in the context of these kinds of stories: it’s matter-of-fact, almost like reportage at moments, but simultaneously strange and dense. The removed authorial voice allows the story to encompass both factual developments and characters’ internal narratives without much strain between the two, creating a tone both intimate and impersonal. It’s something I’ve come to really enjoy about Anders’ fiction, and in “The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick,” it works toward creating the genuine emotional effect of the conclusion. We get just enough information to create affective webs and responses without being overburdened by explanation or exposition.
For example, throughout the story, as we follow Mary in her relationships and experience her day to day issues and feelings, it feels as if we’re watching it happen from a remove—but, by the time we reach the final scene of her caretaking Stacia, there’s a definite closeness that resolves in the final line when she brushes her hand over her friend’s forehead. The story allows an affective reaction to develop naturally and through the various cues and hints of the piece, instead of shepherding it along with direction—and in the end, that totally works. When dealing with relationships, getting to know people, and knowing them too long, the balance of closeness and separation managed in the prose here makes for a pretty incisive representation.
Another story in “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” that does a lot I appreciate is “The Lonely Sea in the Sky” by Amal El-Mohtar—a fairly upsetting piece about the complications of scientific discovery, exploitation of resources, and human callousness. The central conceit of the story of the discovery of Lucyite, a liquid diamond material on Neptune that allows for teleportation of sorts. The issue is that many—including our protagonist—believe the ocean of liquid diamond to be an organism, one that humanity is wounding by removing chunks of it to shape into gates for teleportation.
The piece is constructed through diary entries and other ephemera such as news articles and scientific reports; throughout, we discover that the protagonist has developed what might be a disorder or might be an authentic view into a great interplanetary evil—and there’s not quite a way to say which, even in the end. I appreciate the ambiguity and the pain of it. The equation the protagonist makes between the cruelty done to her and her childhood friend Hala for loving each other—Hala, who has also been the one to diagnose her with the disorder and send her to a subterranean facility to recover—and the cruelty being done to the Lucyite is intimate and wrenching. It also, truly, might be a delusion, a metaphor constructed to give meaning to her experience of the Lucyite substance.
There are other indicators, of course, that this is not delusion but truth: that corporate greed has driven this thing to become what it is, that the people who claim Lucyite is a sentient organism have their own evidence and arguments that are viable. As the protagonist has come to a decision, in the end, to kill herself and unite the Lucyite she has consumed with the rest of the Lucyite body—we might feel better, as readers, to think it’s necessary. But El-Mohtar does not offer that comfort or an easy solution; instead, the piece closes on a discomfiting and disruptive note, poetic and haunting.
The affective arc of this story is powerful, no denying it, and dark. I very much appreciated its lyrical stylings and the balance of voices between the different pieces of prose that make up the story. The form contributes greatly to the whole, here, as the protagonist’s entries in her therapeutic journal become progressively more poetic and wild and disconnected while the other sections remain “objective” and standard in their prose. This is a story that’ll stick with me, for its imagery and its conclusions, its portrait of one person’s fragmentation—perhaps for a legitimate cause, perhaps not.
On a larger note, too: “The Lonely Sea in the Sky” is of a different tone and an almost entirely different structure from Anders’, but both are undeniably strong science fiction. That’s part of what makes this issue such a delight: the range and diversity of what falls under the heading of “science fiction,” all of it written by women. From each piece to the next, the essays and the stories alike, there are shifts. These stories are united by genre and their expansion of what it mean to be in that genre, and they do not echo each other. Each has unique touches, angles, and interests; if nothing else, it’s great work to have collected them all together under one aegis to explore what it means to say that women don’t write sf and how frankly absurd that is.
But more than that, too, because these stories are so very good. I appreciate this project, and I certainly am looking forward to the future special issues, too.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.