Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around, which was a few weeks ago, we discussed the second issue of Interfictions Online—specifically, stories by Nikki Alfar and Molly Gloss. So, this week, I thought I’d turn to a more recent publication: Lightspeed Magazine, which for June has produced a special issue titled “Women Destroy Science Fiction!”
This issue is huge—seriously, there’s more than 850 pages of material. It’s got tons of stories and essays, some as part of the free fiction that will go up throughout the month and some as part of the ebook version that can be subscribed to or purchased. There are familiar names all over it: Seanan McGuire, Amal El Mohtar, N. K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Maureen McHugh, Charlie Jane Anders… I could go on. There are also a host of names unfamiliar to me but who I suspect I’ll be looking for in the future.
And since it’s so big, I’ll be devoting two Short Fiction Spotlights to it—which barely even scratches the surface, really.
For this week’s installment, I thought I’d talk about one short story and two pieces of flash fiction: “A Word Shaped Like Bones” by Kris Millering, “Salvage” by Carrie Vaughn, and “See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES!” by Tina Connolly. “A Word Shaped Like Bones” is the first piece in the June issue, already available online, while both “Salvage” and “See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES!” will be available to read free on the Lightspeed site on June 17th—though all the pieces are currently available, as noted previously, in the full (and totally worth buying) ebook collection of the issue.
Kris Millering is a writer whose work I hadn’t encountered before—a Clarion graduate, according to her bio, who has published some prior work at magazines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies. That’s part of the fun of such a large themed special issue: finding fresh voices, discovering a writer whose work is new to me. It also felt like an appropriate start to the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” special for me personally, all things considered in the debates about visibility, increased publicity, and the presence of women writing sf.
Millering’s story, “A Word Shaped Like Bones,” is an interesting tone-setter on its own as well. It’s a rather lush and grotesque piece that perhaps overplays its hand a bit in the end, but nonetheless provides a compelling experience for the reader. In simple terms, it’s set on a long space journey wherein an artist/ambassador watches a body decompose alongside her during the trip until it’s nothing but bones that she can make art out of. It turns out, of course, that the body was her husband who attempted to stop her from taking the trip and whom she accidentally killed during the argument—and that the whole trip was meaningless, as the aliens have moved on from wanting her art during the time-slippage of the journey.
The strongest part of this piece is without a doubt the prose, specifically the descriptions of putrefaction and decomposition paired alongside the descriptions are art-making and the isolation of the protagonist’s daily life. In these arenas, Millering paints us a thorough and thoroughly disturbing canvas. I found the occasional direct mentions of the protagonist’s real physical horror to be all the more powerful for their scarceness, bolstering the vivid and terrible descriptions with bursts of interiority. This is a space trip that is nothing but awful: from the beginning brutal mistake (that we learn about at the end) to the isolation of the journey to the crushing conclusion that it was all for nothing. Art is not so permanent or significant after all; the world is a fickle and fragile place.
There were also little asides that I found interesting but that I didn’t think came to fruition or had enough meat on them, particularly those about how gender had moved from hidden to performatively visible again in the protagonist’s time. It’s a potentially fascinating avenue that doesn’t get much attention, and therefore feels a bit displaced or attention-grabbing, at odds with the tone of the rest of the piece. Perhaps if there had been more of a gesture toward the connections with commerciality that the protagonist ties to art, those details about gender’s evolution would have felt more a part of the tale itself. (Not that I don’t love gender-fucking, but the briefness of the mention felt like a crooked puzzle piece where it appeared here.) The twist is also fairly obvious, but I suspect that for many a reader—as for me—the “whodunit” aspect isn’t nearly as important as the lushness of the descriptive journey from death and decay to art.
Another piece that deals with death in space and the specter of mortality, this one flash fiction, is “Salvage” by Carrie Vaughn. Brief and engaging, Vaughn’s piece is a slice of life vignette dealing with one small spaceship’s discovery of the dead crew of another ship—one that has a fuel accident. The captain and two of her crew members explore the other vessel, a morbid but necessary task, to discover what happened to the sister-ship; in the end, it brings the two crew members closer and reveals a moment of intimacy to the captain.
The tension that runs through this piece is ultimately a very human emotional tension, one that translates well and believably to the inhospitable field of space exploration—the awareness of mortality and the quiet horror of a death that one sees coming, not by violence but by poor luck. It makes the characters feel and seem very small, in a very vast and cold world, but their comfort is in one another. It’s a different sort of piece from Millering’s: less flamboyant in its horror, more intimate, and closing on a higher note—one of the potential for connection in the face of the deep dark night, that sort of thing. Plus, it’s pretty lovely, and very effective at its short length, something I don’t see as much of as I’d like.
There were several other quality flash pieces, too, but the one that stuck out to me the most is the last one I’ll talk about today: “See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES!” by Tina Connolly. Even briefer than Vaughn’s, this story is about a child joining an alternate-universe-hopping mission to rescue other worlds, so as to be a hero like their father and to escape their abusive stepfather in the process. (I say “their” because though it seems likely that the protagonist is a young boy, it’s a little unclear—and I like that about this piece.)
It’s a piece that on the surface feels rather playful: a quiz about what can be killed with a list of weird objects and a long-form essay answer that the protagonist must fill out in the application are quite silly. The end context, though, is anything but: the protagonist ends up having to fend off zombie squirrels with a bat, something that is harder than they’d anticipated, and thinking about their absentee father coming back to rescue them from the abusive stepfather.
The mix of the spontaneously weird and the brutally mundane makes this short piece a solid one. It certainly was the bit of flash fiction that stuck with me most from the whole group. It’s only a few pages, but it only needs a few pages to make its point delicately and with unflinching clarity.
All three of the stories I picked out of the issue for this first batch seem to be dealing with their patch of darkness, the uncomfortable bits of real life that shine through in speculative scenarios and even the seemingly-fun world of childhood adventuring. This is perhaps one of the themes that comes through in “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” as a whole—a concern not just with the shiny concept but with the real, human experiences that roll out as a consequence of the concept. Nothing is easy or simple, in these stories, but it is important.
Next installment: more stories by women writing sf!
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.