Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around we talked about two recent novelettes from Lightspeed (one by Christopher Barzak and one by Ken Liu). In this installment, still looking at the wide world of short fiction periodicals, there are a few more stories I’d like to draw a little attention to: “Stage Blood” by Kat Howard, “Karina Who Kissed Spacetime” by Indrapramit Das, and “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu.
When I say recent, of course, I’m being slightly generous: the Chu story was published on Tor.com in February, while the Howard and Das pieces are both from this past summer (in Subterranean and Apex Magazine, respectively). But as the season nears for recommended-reading (and awards ballots) I’ve been doing some brushing up on pieces from earlier in the year. These were the ones, out of the bunch, that I most wanted to chat about this week.
For once, I’m not going to try to make connections between these three stories. Though I often like to group pieces by “theme” or some more ambient sense of “these are doing similar work,” there’s also something to be said for just talking about three interesting pieces of short fiction from various different magazines. (Not everything is an anthology—but there are these habits you develop when you critique a lot of anthologies…)
Kat Howard’s “Stage Blood” is one of those stories that I can best describe as a handsome failure—intriguing and well written, with prose that packs an evocative punch, but ultimately lacking in terms of its overall effect and form. It’s a story that has a poetic more than a narrative structure, of course. Little is directly revealed; implication and image are the vehicles for meaning. Howard’s stories often work this way, and I’m regularly satisfied by them.
However, while the trio of images that this story revolves around—the swords, the blood, the glass coffins—are all sharp and eerie, they don’t quite provide the sort of scaffolding that can hold up the emotive arc of the piece. The central problem is that the characters, in particular the magician at the center of the drama, are never entirely realized—even as images themselves. They’re left flat, invested with far less meaning than, say, the coffins. I wanted a great deal more from the conflict between the woman and the magician than comes across at the end, which doesn’t have the punch that it seemingly intends do, even with the ominous final lines.
All the same, though I wouldn’t call it a great story—it doesn’t come together, or stick its landing, well enough for that—it did linger with me. Because those images I’ve mentioned before are evocative and eerie, and they do linger in the mind’s eye. I wish that they had slightly more heft, but regardless, “Stage Blood” is an attractive, lyrical piece that takes little time to read and does offer some chewy scenes to think over.
“Karina Who Kissed Spacetime” by Indrapramit Das is another short piece—I would almost describe it as slight, in the positive sense. It’s a pleasant and resonant piece, one of the gentler and more emotionally driven stories that I read in my short-fiction-binge. It uses a science-fantasy sort of frame: when the protagonist kisses Karina, a friend and fellow student, one winter night, time fractures—the protagonist (never directly given a pronoun, so I’ll use third-person) can see all of their own futures, if that kiss and the ensuing short-lived romance happen or not, if they die alone or not, et cetera.
This is a conceit that works well, in the short space, to allow Das to work out the significance of short-lived relationships, of moments spent in time, and that none of these moments—despite loss, despite the future, despite the past—are wasted. That this story is also working in terms of a young person’s first experience of romance and sexuality gives it a second level of resonance. Though the relationship will end in all forms, the protagonist would rather have it—would rather know what it’s like, and embrace that knowledge—than not have it. Just because it will hurt doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
Tons of stories are about the grand tragedy of lost love, or the happily-ever-after of a fated couple. But I appreciate seeing one about the importance of a short relationship that was a gateway, a door into the future, a way of seeing possibilities—and also valuable for its own self, for the pleasures it offered and the ways of loving it created. It’s not a big challenge to read, and it’s not provocative. It’s just—and this is a good thing—a short, sweet story about self and others, the future and the contours of experience well-spent. (I will say that I suspect we’re supposed to read the protagonist as a young man given certain cues—the mention of marriage, the phrase “other boyfriends” at the end—but I appreciate the story more for the “no pronouns” bit and would like to keep it that way in my mind.)
Then there’s John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” which is, I suspect, a story that will crop up in a few year’s best roundups—particularly those with a queer bent. This one was my favorite of the handfuls of stories I’ve been reading to catch up. It’s a coming-out story, in a way—the complicated, later-in-life kind—and it’s also about the cross-cultural conflicts and familial problems that the protagonist is dealing with as a gay Chinese man.
The central conceit of the story—that water will fall on you from nowhere if you lie—is the catalyst for the protagonist telling Gus, his boyfriend, that he loves him, which brings around the “coming out to family” discussion and the family holiday conflicts. It’s also, despite being totally surreal, made entirely believable by the way the narrative and the characters handle it. I never stopped to question its reality, because no one in the story does, either. It’s just a factor in life. That union between the fantastical element and the real, personal conflicts of the characters—the protagonist’s difficulty communicating his feelings, his fear of losing his family, his dislike of his abusive sister, and so on—is excellent.
More than anything, I appreciated the depth of the emotional range in the story. Gus isn’t just a long-suffering perfect potential husband, and Matt isn’t merely your stereotypical “repressed and going to ruin his relationship” closeted gay man. There’s conflict within and between each of them, rendered in a believable way. But there are also solutions, and Matt is trying so very hard to make things work and to be brave in the face of fear and potential loss.
There are a lot of coming out stories in the world, sure—but this one is great. It’s solemn and intimate, containing a full emotional range and the quiet sometimes-painful and sometimes-brilliant reality of queer life, cultural conflict, and problematic family politics. And the rain that falls on you from nowhere, acting as catalyst to the whole bunch.
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.