Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Over the last two installments, I talked exclusively about the big June special issue over at Lightspeed Magazine (“Women Destroy Science Fiction!”)—so, this time around, I thought I’d shift attention to another recent publication: Clarkesworld #94 (July).
There were two stories in this issue that I found particularly compelling, one by N. K. Jemisin (“Stone Hunger”) and the other by Yoon Ha Lee (“The Contemporary Foxwife”). Both of these writers are familiar names, fairly well-discussed in the field, and their Clarkesworld stories this month make a solid case for why that is: they’re powerful and well-illustrated narratives that offer an engaging worldview.
Also, hey, more speculative fiction by women. I sense a trend.
As for the stories themselves: “Stone Hunger” by N. K. Jemisin is a second-world fantasy piece about living after the (or, an) end of the world—the place for hunger, for revenge, and for belonging as well. It follows a young girl who’s searching after the stone-controlling man who destroyed her town and her family; in the process, she’s been leaving havoc in her own wake, consuming cities and ruining lives—until she tracks him to a city that turns out to have several more people like her, with magic, trying to make a life.
I like the moral ambiguity of this story quite a bit, the sense that what must be done according to one person is rarely a black and white decision according to a broader ethical agreement. The protagonist is seeking her revenge, but in doing so is acting as the man she’s hunting did in the first place. As she acknowledges in the end, after she kills him and must decide what to do with her life next: someone will come for her, too, that she owes a debt of dying to.
The world, here, is also pretty fascinating. The balance of apocalypse and survival, the end of the world not really ending much of anything, is neat. I also liked the stone-eaters, and the otherworldly manner in which they survive and progress through the otherwise human world. Their motivations are opaque, but disturbing nonetheless; they are monsters among monsters. And in a city with twenty-three humans with supernatural gifts, that’s a useful check and balance system, or so it seems.
Jemisin does a solid job constructing a world with enough (but not too much) detail, enough (but not too much) character motivation, and enough (but not too much) action/conflict. It’s a handsomely crafted piece that does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it with flair and skill. I rarely see second-world stories that work as well as I’d love them to, but Jemisin is in no danger of disappointing here. There’s a good sense of each person in the story having interiority and a life outside of it, much as the world seems expansive despite the small chunk we actually see. It all pulls together well in the end, balancing action and individual internal conflict quite nicely.
And then there’s another engaging and well-crafted story, a good companion to “Stone Hunger:” Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Contemporary Foxwife.” Lee’s story is a balance of sf and fantasy, placing the mythological figure of a foxwife on a space station amongst young college students. Our protagonist opens the door one day to find a foxwife asking if she needs his services, and sort of accidentally agreeing. Though he seems to be quite magical—he can manifest objects, he does chores traditionally, people forget him as soon as they leave the apartment—he also has a very real set of needs and desire that are difficult for him to meet in the world as it stands.
I found this story charming and pleasant, dealing as it does with the intrusion of something supernatural into a scientific future—and doing so in a playful but also somewhat painful way. The foxwife has certain habits and has known certain ways of being that are his own; they don’t fit, however, with the world’s idea of identity or self-interest or how things should be done. It’s an interesting way of looking at a mythological individual whose purpose is to be a “wife” in a rather classical sense, but who also wants to be filling that role.
Bringing me along to the thing I found most comforting about the piece: the background gender stuff. There’s an attention to pronouns, performance, and role here that is subtle but thorough. For example, the protagonist’s roommate uses a singular “they,” and when the foxwife is introducing himself the protagonist uses an “alt” version of the “you” pronoun so as not to offend—only to be told that he’s a “boy foxwife.” The switch-up of roles and performance, here, with the young composition student and her boy foxwife—that’s something I really enjoyed.
And, again, it’s pretty subtle. This is a gentle piece, about feelings and making a relationship, that also skirts around and touches on issues of consent, culture, and the combination of old ways and new—paper letters and spectacles, old fox-creature stories, versus life on the station where the apartment makes tea rather than the person. I liked it, and I found it a warming piece to read. The world’s got depth and also a lightness of affect that I enjoyed.
Overall, both of these stories are solidly executed, satisfying, and handsome in the prose department. Together, they bolster an already-good issue of an already-good magazine to a great one; I highly recommend giving it a look. As for me, I was thoroughly pleased with the reading experience of Clarkesworld #94, much like I have been with most of their publications in the past. And, as always, I look forward to the next one.
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.