Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around, we discussed Christopher Barzak’s new collection; this week, I’d like to get back to some recent magazines—namely, the July and August issues of Asimov’s, edited by Sheila Williams. The July issue included four novelettes and three short stories; August, however, included a novella, three novelettes, and only a single short story.
Of those, the pieces that stood out to me the most were “The Art of Homecoming” by Carrie Vaughn and “Today’s Friends” by David J. Schwartz from the July issue, as well as “The Ex-Corporal” by Leah Thomas from the August issue. While each issue also contained stories in universes familiar to readers of Asimov’s (a Rick Wilber piece in July and a Kristine Kathryn Rusch in August), the stand-alones were the offerings that caught my attention the most.
“The Art of Homecoming” by Carrie Vaughn follows an interstellar diplomatic negotiator on a mission-failure-related “vacation” as she visits her sister, the sister’s wife, and the wife’s twin on their farm. It’s a quiet story revolving around issues of personal drive, changing life needs, and intimacy. What I appreciate about this story is that it runs counter to much of the other fare in Asimov’s, where the story would likely be about the diplomatic mission and the mission failure. Instead, Vaughn focuses on the individual story of what happens during downtime and how a person might question their life decisions or career path during a moment of instability. The failure is just a catalyst for the time to think, and the protagonist Wendy needs that time: she has a sister to think about, and her sister’s family—which would welcome her in—on their comfortable farm, on a lovely planet, out of the way of danger and adventure.
However, though this is a story deeply bound up in personal interactions, internal narrative, and thinky-bits, it’s not at all slow or self-absorbed. The characters in the piece are lively and feel authentic. Their lives are pleasantly and realistically banal—even the diplomatic negotiator’s. There have been battles, and there have been exploding droids on alien planets, but during “The Art of Homecoming” it’s all about relationships and self-reflection. After reading plenty of stories about the battles and the explosions, I found it centering and enjoyable to immerse myself in a narrative about regular people doing regular things, managing their relationships and lives in a far-flung, space-faring universe. I’d also note that I appreciate the alternative family structures that are simply unremarkable in this world: the sister is married to a woman, they live with that woman’s twin brother, and the brother donated genetic material to help them have a child. And the protagonist and the brother have had a past relationship, as well.
Alternately, “Today’s Friends” by David J. Schwartz is another atmospheric, fairly intimate piece, in this case exploring what it’s like to live on an Earth also inhabited by vastly more capable aliens who have the ability—and tendency—to invade human minds and force them to replay/relive experiences. Where “The Art of Homecoming” is sedate and pleasant, and offers insight into family and drive, “Today’s Friends” is eerie and upsetting in its focus on trauma and ineffable forces—though it also has an intriguing ending that adds depth to the seemingly one-note nature of the colonizing aliens. Again, this is a story that is removed from a grander narrative. Instead it’s driven by an individual and that individual’s unique, small view of an awful experience they cannot reasonably grasp or come to terms with.
That intimate perspective is what makes the story—which isn’t necessarily a fresh idea on its own—work on an affective level. It’s provocative, particularly in the end when the protagonist discovers the man at the diner who was taken apart and put back together “fixed” (no longer an alcoholic, happier, physically healthier) by the aliens. Throughout the story, the Grays have seemed cruel and capricious: beyond bothering to understand the humans and birds they treat similarly, wreaking havoc on their brains to share their experiences. However, that last little bit throws a wrench into the too-easy narrative the protagonist has become a part of in his own trauma, his flight from the city, his job, and the chance of being victimized by a Gray again. In the end, “Today’s Friends” is an intriguing counterpoint to “The Art of Homecoming.” Both are intimate stories about individuals rather than grand circumstances, but they’re tonally worlds apart. I enjoyed the juxtaposition and the different emotional registers they work in for the reader.
Lastly, of the August issue, is Leah Thomas’s “The Ex-Corporal.” This story is one of those pieces that is as interesting as it is not-quite-all-together-yet; while other stories in the August issue were more balanced or polished, Thomas’s is the one that lingered with me the longest. In it a young woman deals with her father, a man who has epilepsy, after his body is possessed by an ex-corporal from a war-torn universe who’s a total monster. She has to play caretaker to her younger brother while defending herself from the man wearing her father’s face, and eventually triggers a seizure in her father’s body to give him an opportunity to return.
The elements of truth in the story—the introductory paragraph notes that Thomas’s own father had epilepsy and was himself a science fiction fan—are what gives it its depth. The relationship between the father and his children as he uses science fictional narratives to explain his epilepsy is emotionally evocative, and the closeness between them makes the ex-corporal’s abusive monstrousness even worse for the reader. (It does, perhaps, edge into over-the-top occasionally; why would he feel the need to kill the boy’s kitten, exactly?) On the other hand, as with the kitten incident, the logical consistency of the plot is perhaps less complete. Yet, I can’t help but remain engaged by the story of the father adapting to his epilepsy and explaining it to his kids through stories and fantasies, trying to help them understand as best he can and not worry too much. That’s the gripping part, and it is rendered with loving, careful detail. That is what makes me look forward to seeing further stories by Thomas, particularly ones driven by strong characters and their interactions, which she renders skillfully at points here.
And that’s it for recent issues of Asimov’s. It’s an interesting magazine, publishing a range of stories and authors—still one to keep an eye on, for new readers and those who’ve been around as readers for years.
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.