I sometimes think that short stories are the highest form of storytelling. They’re more effective than novels because they are short. Novels, and series of novels, give you a chance to build a long spear, but short stories have to be a stiletto thrust. There are definitely some awful short stories out there, but when I read a terrific collection like Pump Six or The Fate of Mice I start thinking about that again.
The Fate of Mice is split about evenly between science fiction and fantasy. There aren’t any duds, and the quality varies from very good to startlingly brilliant. You can identify some themes, like concerns with feminism, animals, compassion, and forgiveness running through a lot of them, and you can identify the last two sometimes as clearly by their absence as by their presence. And all the stories are brilliantly written, every word placed just right. They vary a lot in tone and genre, but not in effectiveness.
The title story is SF, a mouse with enhanced intelligence getting interested in stories about mice and what happens to the mice. It’s hopeful but not happy, like many of these stories. The point of view is just amazing. You don’t often get stories about people thinking about other stories, let along mice thinking about other stories, so this is pleasingly meta. It’s also very tense, because we already know enough to know that lab mice often do not come to good ends.
The most disturbing one is “Gestella,” which I first read in Starlight 3. It’s horror, or possibly fantasy, from the point of view of a woman who is a werewolf and who ages in dog years, seven years for each human year. What it’s actually and horrifyingly about is divorce. There are a lot of stories about divorce, it’s been a major theme in twentieth century literature. There are lots of novels like Marge Piercy’s Fly Away Home about older women coping with men they love stopping loving them. This is just like that, except for the speed of aging and the whole wolf bit. I don’t think I’ll ever read anything on this subject, or even have a conversation about it, without “Gestella” coming to mind. It is part of my mind’s furniture on the subject now.
The collection also contains “Ever After,” the first Palwick I read, in a Dozois’s Year’s Best some time ago. It’s a version of Cinderella with a horrible twist.
Also do not miss the last story, “GI Jesus.” This one takes genuine modern American folklorethe things you see in the Weekly World Newsand does something with it. A woman takes communion when she shouldn’t, and has stomach pains, and on the screen during her barium GI investigation she sees Jesus. But it’s really about love and community and what we owe each other.
I think Palwick is a major writer, and I wish she would write more.