Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In the last installment, I talked about Beneath Ceaseless Skies #144; this time around, I’d like to discuss a couple of pieces from the second issue of Interfictions Online, published in October of last year. I enjoyed this biannual journal’s first issue (discussed previously, here) and I continue to be interested in seeing what sort of work they’ll highlight, so even though it’s a bit late, I did want to spend some time on this issue before the third comes out.
Of the handful of stories published in the issue, there were two that I found particularly compelling: “The Mechanism of Moving Forward” by Nikki Alfar and “The Presley Brothers” by Molly Gloss. Both are historical stories told at a slant, speculative in off-center and slight ways. The first is set in late 1800s Japan, in the ending years of the sakoku ban, while the second constructs an alternate history in which Elvis Presley’s brother lived—thereby significantly altering the course of his life and career.
Nikki Alfar is a well-known writer from the Philippines whose work I tend to find pleasant and engaging. “The Mechanism of Moving Forward” is no different: it’s a light story, perhaps even classifiable as a historical romance, concerned with the courtship of two young people amidst the political and social intrigues of the man who is both the girl’s father and the boy’s teacher. The story is also delightfully well-researched and grounded in its facts and “real life” characters, while still playing a good narrative game with the figures in question.
“The Mechanism of Moving Forward” is a story that plays with tropes, as well. For example, the scene that opens the story—Kei shocking Hisashige by being naked at her meeting with him on her return home—is textbook. So, too, is Hisashige’s stammering response of embarrassment and intrigue. However, where the story then goes with their romance is not typical. I appreciated how her father and Kei both are constrained by propriety to have her marry within their class, despite her relationship with Hisashige; it’s not presented as traumatic or torrid, just as a fact of life that isn’t pleasant. And then we get one more shift from the typical narrative when, in the end, Kei’s father masterminds, without ever saying so directly, a way for the two young lovers to be together though they can’t marry officially.
That use of language and misdirection is one of the pieces of Alfar’s story that struck me as well-handled. The relationship to propriety, language, and identity that exists in the culture of the late 1800s in Japan is rendered without a sense of the exotic; the one Western character, Titia, is presented as a bit frustrating for her inability to grasp the delicacies of communication. In a story driven by dialogue, character relationships, and politics, the language that people use to imply and to request and to survive is a vital part of the whole picture—one that Alfar handles well.
The actual plot—preventing her father’s assassination using a sort of body armor based on the classic karakuri ningyo—is also entertaining, manipulating facts and history to tell a story about an inventive and brave young woman protecting her family. And doing so with what is effectively a period-appropriate mech, let’s just be honest: something I feel like I’ve seen too much in recent steampunk stories (of which this is thankfully not one) but which is handled here with more deftness too.
Also historical but in a different direction or manner is “The Presley Brothers” by Molly Gloss, a writer whose work is often mundane in focus and speculative in its small but significant dislocations from that mundane, normal world. This piece is in the same vein, using artefacts from various interviews, publications, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction to build a life narrative of what it would have been like if Elvis’s bother Jesse had survived birth.
It’s an understated piece, truly. The point in the end seems to be that their lives diverge into parallel worlds, parallel possibilities, where Jesse takes on parts of the life that the Elvis of our time had and Elvis is able to live to an older age and continue with a successful career. There’s also a strong undercurrent of spirituality and emotion, connected as the twins felt they were, and considering that all of the artefacts of this story come after Jesse’s death. I particularly appreciated the sense of Elvis as an old man, of his complicated relationships to race and class and music, of what the world of music might have been like with a different path set out in front of him.
There’s also the focus that comes in, at the end, on writing and communication: the letters that the brothers wrote to each other almost every day of their adult lives, that Elvis continued to write after Jesse’s death, are a source of great emotional depth after the initial hook of the piece. For a story that could just be a thought experiment about alternate-universe Elvis—admittedly, not something that sounds up my alley—Gloss manages to shift the tone of this piece to a more reflective, affective one dealing with loss, family, and love across time. The manipulation of textual forms also makes this impact even stronger, playing as it does with our sense of disbelief more than a flat narrative might. The interviews, critical quotes, and write-ups are presented as factually real, giving a distinct impression of authenticity to the emotional undercurrents of the piece in the process.
These are both good historical pieces, though they’re quite different in every other way. The Alfar is light and pleasant, while the Gloss is quiet and contemplative—but, really, what I appreciate is how each is manipulating the terms of what counts as speculative, what crosses boundaries of genre and style. That’s part of the reason I’m keeping an eye on Interfictions Online generally: that project, that sense of boundary-crossing. I like to see what sort of work comes out of it, and these stories were certainly worthwhile.
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.