Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. As I’ve paid attention mostly, so far, to magazines that publish electronically, in this installment I’d like to take a look at some stories from the past two issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (January/February and March/April). Three stories in particular stood out above the rest: Ken Liu’s “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel,” Michael Reaves’s “Code 666,” and “What the Red Oaks Knew” by Elizabeth and Mark Bourne.
These are very different pieces, in terms of tone, arc, and focus. Ken Liu touches on issues of human rights and memory, Michael Reaves give us a scary story with EMTs, and the Bournes offer a tale of vital, elemental forces at work in a world one step away from our own. (There is a pleasant variety available in the stories of F&SF, though more would be better, particularly in terms of authors: while having regulars is certainly fine, and most publications end up with them, it can become a touch repetitive if the same folks appear again and again over a few issues in a row.)
Ken Liu’s “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is an alternate-history piece in which the Japanese government and the American government, after WWI, agree to build a tunnel spanning from country to country under the Pacific. It’s an end-run around the spreading Depression of the period and a way to cement world powers. The story itself, however, is of one of the last surviving diggers who helped construct the tunnel and his romance with an older American woman who has come to stay in Midpoint City, underneath the ocean, as well as his memories of complicity in the brutal abuses of human rights that helped complete construction of the tunnel.
Liu’s story is a short, effective piece that weaves together the narratives of the spreading Civil Rights movement in America and the older protagonist’s decision to speak, in some way, his own knowledge of the ugly secrets that are kept underneath a veneer of civilized development. The parallels of speech/silence and their implications in this story have great consequences; for example, I’m particularly interested in the use of fake historical documents, textbooks, etc. to round out the story. Some of these texts point towards the possibility of unethical labor standards during the tunnel’s construction, and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the protagonist were to share his story more widely. But, his small act of revelation is itself important. The story’s closing message—that saying something of the truth, refusing to keep the lie, is vital for a better world—is one that is familiar. Nonetheless, Liu’s evocation of it here through a simple story of a man, a woman, and a moment of honesty is touching and memorable. (The horrible scene of the protagonist’s memory is, also, deeply believable: it is not necessarily evil people who do evil things, but people who have no other choice, or who have become unintentionally complicit in a system of oppression.)
On a very different note, Michael Reaves’s “Code 666” is a spooky story, starring EMTs, weird ghosts, and ferrying the dead over to where they need to be. While it’s the sort of story that readers will find as familiar as a comfortable blanket—of course, at the end, he’s becomes the ferryman!—it’s made fresh and fun by the realistic gallows humor of the EMTs and the narrative’s investment in their lives. The tone is at turns punchy and eerie. The title itself is illustrative of the tone of that; it’s pretty hard to use “666” in a title without a touch of over-the-top-ness. (I would have said irony, but the protagonist’s brief lecture on it to his associate reminds me that I shouldn’t be so loose with the term.) Reaves’s story provides a breath of fresh air between denser pieces in the magazine: it is exactly what it needs to be, without slipping into dull repetition, and serves to entertain quite admirably.
Finally, “What the Red Oaks Knew” is one of the most engaging pieces contained in either recent issue of F&SF. Taking the young-people-down-on-their-luck trope in hand—yes, there is a bit of “manic pixie” going on in both directions, but I find that character type functional for certain sorts of stories—the Bournes tell an intriguing tale of family lines, raw magic, and deep country. The protagonists, Jimi Bone (whose real name is Eddie Chun) and Pink, are the particular sort of hard-luck kids that always star in these sorts of urban fantasies; however, setting this piece in the woods of Arkansas gives it a different tone than most. I appreciate that, despite her initially waifish pixie status, Pink is the one who works the mystery out, saves the boy, and fixes the problems they’ve caused by smuggling a Chinese dragon into the woods. Jimi’s attempt to rewrite himself as more bad-ass than he is, and his eventually recognition of himself and his identity by the end, also offer a more intimate and personal edge to the story—as does Pink’s transformation of the man who trapped her mother, a wood sprite. The voice is well-rendered and consistent, the world is given just enough depth, and the story is familiar without relying too heavily on cliché. Overall, a pleasant read that catches the attention quite thoroughly.
One further note, however: of the two issues in consideration, I was surprised by how many of the stories were simply not up to par—mediocre work by authors who generally do better seemed to be a theme, as did stories driven by a humorous but ultimately overworked concept. While I certainly don’t expect to like every story in a magazine, it does come as a bit of a disappointment when the majority strike me as dull, or obvious, or overwrought—especially in a prestigious and long-running publication. I have hopes for better as the year progresses.
Lee 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.