Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column co-curated by myself and the Nebula Award-nominated Lee 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.
You are, of course, cordially invited to read along with us. Indeed, we’d adore it if you did, so where possible we’ll be providing links to select stories—and advice on how to get hold of those that aren’t available for free. I’ll try to give you advance warning about what we’re reading next, as well.
This time on the Short Fiction Spotlight, we venture courageously into the care of a pair of evil geniuses, only to find that no mad scientist succeeds unaided. The characters explored in these stories, both of which can be found in one of the year’s most inventive anthologies—namely The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, excellently edited by John Joseph Adams—are the unsung heroes of the apocalypse every crackpot professor strives to bring about.
But as we will see, the life of crime has its hardships, and though some may thrive in this environment—take the narrator of today’s first tale—others, including those who do not choose it, as per our second story, can struggle to keep the crazy at bay.
“Captain Justice Saves the Day”
by Genevieve Valentine
“How do evil geniuses get it all done?” asks the editor of this outstanding collection in the preamble to Genevieve Valentine’s amusing contribution. After all:
“They have theories to spin, hypotheses to test, devices to create, and evil to plot, and each of these tasks requires time, effort, and often a large number of unusual materials. There’s so much work behind every nefarious deed, it’s remarkable anything evil ever gets done.”
Our inaugural evildoer is Dr. Methuselah Mason, and recently he’s been busy building an elaborate contraption to spread his airborne chaos serum—mostly to inconvenience one Captain Justice, a good guy by all accounts, but so utterly insufferable that our sympathies rest anywhere but with him.
Truth be told, the dastardly doctor doesn’t seem disturbed so much as desperately disorganised. How fortuitous, then, that he has an assistant to take care of all the busywork his master plan requires!
Brenda has been working for Dr. Methuselah Mason for two years the day he suggests strapping her to his doomsday device, in lieu, we gather, of a proper damsel in distress—ostensibly because all the temp agencies have blacklisted him, but Brenda wonders idly if in fact he hopes to get his own back after she dared to criticise the grammar of his latest rambling ransom demand.
A little silliness later, Brenda does indeed agree to play the part of the innocent victim for her misbegotten employer, knowing in her heart of hearts how disappointed he would be if his chance to aggravate the titular hero was thwarted by blasted bureaucracy. In any case, it’s been ages since she had a night on the tiles:
“The good news was that Dr. Mason had tied her up on the scenic side, so at least she could look out over the city. It was the closest thing to a night out she’d had in a long time. There wasn’t much to do after work in farmhouse-lair country.”
Clearly, “Captain Justice Saves the Day” showcases a very different side of Genevieve Valentine than the author demonstrated in Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti—an absolutely marvellous novel that hasn’t, alas, resulted in the sequels I’d dearly like to read.
Here, however, Valentine is snarky rather than arty, impulsive where once she was subtle. Yet “Captain Justice Saves the Day” is such unadulterated fun that I can’t find fault with the story’s refutation of restraint. Never mind that it put me in mind of her blog before her book; after all, the vast majority of Valentine’s posts are priceless.
The passive-aggressive relationship between Brenda and her boss is particularly brilliant. Their banter is sharp and smart, revealing through all its apparent inanity, thus we have a handle on these characters quickly… though neither one is as transparent as readers are led to believe to begin with.
Furthermore, Valentine manages to pose a provocative question before “Captain Justice Saves the Day” is done: a deliberate oversight disclosed during the grand finale suggests we may do more good by working with evil than against it.
Andd perhaps there’s something to that. Even mad scientists need validation, I dare say, and as our next story shows, this can of course come from outwith the workplace. It can come from our families, and from our friends.
But what happens when those folks who support the bad guys themselves need support?
Why, they club together, of course!
“The Mad Scientist’s Daughter”
by Theodora Goss
In an exclusive locality of London live six such souls, all of whom have been affected—psychologically for starters—by their association with a miscellany of monstrous men.
Miss Justine Frankenstein, Miss Catherine Moreau, Miss Mary Jekyll and Miss Diana Hyde need no further introduction, I imagine, but less familiar, to me at least, were Mrs. Arthur Meyrinck (née.Helen Raymond)—the daughter of Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan—and Miss Beatrice Rappaccini, from the celebrated short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Having been shunned by society, these woebegone women have finally found acceptance in the company of one another, and in “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” World Fantasy Award-winner Theodora Goss relates the circumstances that led to their gathering together, and gives readers an affectionate account of their daily lives as ladies of leisure, after a fashion.
In short sections entitled “How We Live and Work,” “What We Talk About,” “The Stories We Tell” and “Our Plans for the Future,” we learn these very things, and in the eight remaining chapters, various other incidental details emerge.
And that’s pretty much the plot of Goss’ short.
Why, then, did I find it so satisfying?
There’s a simple answer, actually: character. I absolutely adored the author’s depiction of the club members—especially the poisonous beauty Beatrice—as real people rather than an assortment of monsters touched by madness. However odd the habits of each individual, however abhorrent her behaviour, it’s all par for the course in this sanctuary or sorts. In forming what passes for a family, they have practically normalised the supernatural.
Though the ladies do luxuriate in this, they cannot entirely escape the long shadows cast by their crackpot fathers. Of course they may come and go from the house near Regent’s Park as they please, but beyond its bounds, the mark of the mad scientist is again upon them:
“We all have the mark, but in different ways. Mary, our golden-haired English girl, sits too still, is too placid for human nature. If you sit with her long enough, you will start to become nervous. Justine, willowy, elegant, is too tall for a woman, or even a man. Diana, lively and laughing, suffers from attacks of the hysteria. She will, suddenly, begin to pull out her hair, cut her arm with a dinner knife. Once, when she was younger, she almost bled to death. Beatrice, beautiful Beatrice who moves through the house like a walking calla lily, kills with her breath. When we gather together for dinner, she sits at the far end of the table. She has her own dishes and places, which Mrs. Poole collects wearing gloves.
“You could, I suppose, call us monsters. We are frightening, aren’t we? Although we are, in our different ways, attractive. When we walk down the street, men look, and then look away. And then perhaps look again, and away again. Some of us don’t leave the house more than we have to. The butcher delivers, and Mrs. Poole goes to the grocer’s. But not even Justine can stay inside all the time. Something we have to just, you know, get out. Go to the library, or the park. Personally, I’m sorry that veils are going out of fashion.”
“The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” is a gently affecting examination of identity, essentially: a tastefully restrained study of how who we are—and how happy, or sad (or mad) we feel—can follow from the way we see ourselves as opposed to the differing images others have of us. It’s a little insubstantial, I suppose, but Goss’ fantastic grasp of character more than makes up for her short story’s meandering narrative.
Unlike “Captain Justice Saves the Day,” which is original to the anthology we’ve been discussing today, “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” was originally published in two parts on Strange Horizons in early 2010, and it’s still available to read for free over there if you don’t already own a copy of The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. Though you surely should: terrific as they are, these two tales hardly scratch the surface of all that it has to offer.
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 about books, too!