Tor.com content by

Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Queering SFF: The Art of Collecting Short Fiction

Lethe Press has been a consistent source of queer speculative fiction for more than a decade now, with an ever-expanding catalogue of writers from diverse and engaging backgrounds. In fact, some of the earliest Queering SFF posts I wrote for Tor.com included an interview with the owner of the press, Steve Berman—and a review of Wilde Stories 2010, his annual best-of gay sff collection. I was twenty years old at the time and I’d been reading Wilde Stories since I was a teenager, hungry for openly marked queer content. In the intervening years, Lethe’s reach has expanded to include lesbian and trans years-best collections, multiple Lambda awards for novels and short fiction alike, and so forth.

However, this year’s edition marks the final release of Wilde Stories. In honor of that long run—and to give a sense of the delightful breadth and depth of queer short fiction the press is producing in 2018—I thought I’d do a review roundup of three recent collections, all published in the past six months, including the last volume of the series that brought my attention to Lethe in the first place.

[Onward.]

Series: Queering SFF

Blood Relations: My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede has her fair share of concerns in life: a declining familial fortune and social position, a frustrating job as a nurse in a large hospital with an irresponsible staff, a lack of romantic prospects, and a gorgeous but immature younger sister who has an unsavory habit of murdering her boyfriends. However, these problems don’t overlap until the afternoon Ayoola comes to visit Korede’s workplace and picks up the handsome young doctor Korede herself has feelings for—bare weeks after her most recent violent indiscretion and subsequent body disposal.

My Sister, The Serial Killer is a high-tension, hideously comedic work of literary horror fiction, a memorable debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Korede’s role as a terse and smart narrator who also happens to lack self-awareness creates a fascinating dual experience for the reader, one that allows Braithwaite to deliver scathing social commentary in scenes her protagonist coasts past without comment or is herself at fault in. The mundane realism of the text—social media, crooked traffic cops, the dichotomy of being wealthy enough for a house maid but not enough to avoid working—makes the ethical questions of murder, consequences, and justification for protecting a family member that much sharper.

[A review, some spoilers.]

Disaster Management: The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

Mhari Murphy has been stepping delicately through often-capricious, often-brutal matters of state under the New Management until she’s tasked with the creation of an organization resembling the unfettered Laundry of decades past. The United States has, apparently, wholesale forgotten its President; furthermore, their diplomatic channels have gone eerily, threateningly dark. Not for the first time, something rotten is afoot across the pond. Mhari’s clean identity record, no past fieldwork, makes her an ideal candidate to tackle the problem—though she’s not so sure of that.

The ninth book in Stross’s Laundry Files, The Labyrinth Index, follows Mhari and a motley band of agents to America with the intention of undermining a potential coup of the entire US government by the Black Chamber—also known as the Nazgûl—under the aegis of their own ancient horror. It’s grim business from start to finish, as state- and spycraft so often are in Stross’s novels.

[A review, mild spoilers.]

An Important Thing to Learn: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black is the debut collection of Syracuse-based writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, gathering twelve pieces of short fiction spanning from 2014 to now. These stories mingle the mundane and the extraordinary, the exaggerated and the surreal, all for the purpose of commenting on pivotal, often horrible moments in contemporary American culture. The collection is cutting from start to finish, a deep stare into the sociocultural abyss shot through with bleak humor.

From a gruesome timeloop tale whose protagonists are children to a metafictional riff on the danger of creating lives via prose, Adjei-Brenyah prods at tropes and expectations to create affective and moving stories exploring, above all, the “violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day in this country.” It’s a haunting, unforgiving debut that pushes at genre boundaries in the service of art and criticism.

[Read more]

Whatever Walked There, Walked Alone: Revisiting Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps the most-researched, most-written-about of Jackson’s longform works. Published in 1959, the novel follows four people—Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, and our protagonist Eleanor—as they attempt to summer at Hill House for the purpose of doing research on its reported supernatural phenomena. Eleanor is a sheltered but damaged woman; she spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother, recently deceased, while her sister married and started a family of her own. Even as the novel begins, she’s still under the thumb of her sister and her brother-in-law, living off of a cot in their home. The trip offers her an opportunity to escape, to become something—except the house that awaits is a monstrous place.

Stephen King, in the introduction to the edition of the book that sits on my shelf, notes that “it seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” It’s hard to debate the claim that this is a deeply significant text in the field: it’s a certain thing that critics and readers alike have found themselves caught up in Jackson’s novel for decades, anxious in the grip of Hill House’s bad geometry and the complex currents of gender, sexuality, and isolation that run underneath.

[Read more]

40 Years of Women’s SF: The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek

The Future is Female! is a historically-oriented anthology collecting sf written by women that spans from the early pulps to the cusp of the New Wave. All but one of the stories included were originally published in contemporary magazines, an editorial choice emphasizing the fact that women have from the start been major commentators, taste-makers, and artists within genre fiction. These stories also illustrate that the field has contained speculation on the social sciences, on gender and race and culture, from its inception. After all, to speculate is to ask “what next?” and the moment of answer is inherently political. Yaszek’s efforts here fill in a historical gap and offer an argument at the same time.

As she explains in her introduction, she sought to collect pieces from American women writing from “the launch of the first specialist genre magazines in the 1920s” up to “the emergence of self-identified feminist sf in the 1970s.” The table of contents is arranged chronologically, charting out that evolution and the conversation between the stories included. The earliest, Clare Winger Harris’s “Miracle of the Lily,” is from 1928; the latest stories are a set of four from 1967-1969 that offer a stunning and pointed signoff: Kate Wilhem’s “Baby, You Were Great,” Joanna Russ’s “The Barbarian,” James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives.”

[A review.]

Growing Older, Growing Wiser: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

Originally published as a webcomic (2016-2017), Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam is a fantastical queer coming of age tale. The dual narrative follows Mia across two significant portions of her life, first during her freshman year at the boarding school where she meets Grace, and second, five years later, when she begins her first adult job out of school. She joins a crew who reclaim and restore architecture across the reaches of space: Alma and Char, who are married, as well as Jules and Elliot who are closer in age to Mia. There’s more to the friendly ship’s crew than Mia would’ve guessed at first, though, and a surprising shared history leads their new-made family down a risky but important path.

The chapters alternate in time, developing young Mia’s relationship with Grace while simultaneously exploring her relationship with the crew and, in the end, bringing those two threads together. With as much reflection as it has action, On a Sunbeam takes the reader on a quiet, thoughtful journey through all different shades of love as well as the risks worth taking for it. It’s a meditative and domestic project, human above all even while showing people’s rough edges.

(Some spoilers below.)

[A review.]

Life for Death for Life: Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

Strange Grace is a standalone young adult novel from Tessa Gratton (also author of recently-released The Queens of Innis Lear) set in a town that knows no lasting hardship due to a pact with the devil. Illnesses pass in a night; wounds heal without infection; babies are born healthy with safe mothers; crops thrive under perfectly timed rains. However, the pact is upheld by the sacrifice of a young man every seven years to run the devil’s forest and see if he comes out victorious. The sacrifice of one allows all to live peacefully. None are forced—the trial is an honor.

Mairwen Grace is the only daughter of the town’s bloodline of witches, linked to the forest as her ancestors were before her, all the way back to the woman who made the original bargain. The witches form the liminal border between forest and town, life and death. However, when the bargain falls awry only three years after the last sacrifice, Mairwen and her closest companions, Arthur and Rhun, have a duty to determine the cause—whether they agree with the true nature of the bargain or not.

[Read more]

Dig to the Insides: Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis

Abbey Mei Otis’s first long-form collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories, is a powerful debut volume published by the perennially impressive Small Beer Press. The book contains twelve stories with publication dates spanning the past eight years, including “Sweetheart” which appeared on Tor.com in 2010. Otis’s fiction has a dynamic blend of contemporary and speculative approaches, diamond-edged and furious in her exploration of power, oppression, and grief.

The titular story also serves as a statement of themes: outsider or abject characters; viral, haunting, gruesome physicality; hunger mixed with passion and crooked adoration; cataclysm before-during-and-after. It isn’t a pleasant or simple experience for the audience. The bodies in Otis’s short fiction are subject to a grim though often lyrical brutality, one step too far for comfort at all times, and their suffering does not generally lead to a positive outcome.

[A review.]

The Book as Archive: An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

Collecting the column series that ran from 2010-2013 on Tor.com, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 contains Jo Walton’s original year-by-year exploration posts, brief essays on select nominee novels, and occasional threaded comments from regular contributors such as Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, and Rich Horton. The result is a hefty, handsome hardcover that physically archives a digital experience. The crossplatform hybridity of the book is in and of itself fascinating and makes for a dragonfly-in-amber effect on reading.

It is not, then, a nonfiction book about the history of the Hugo awards (though of course it also is) but the archive of a conversation that has historical and critical resonances, a “personal look back” that doubles as a valuable reflection on an otherwise insufficiently documented moment in time. Since the original column ran the field has also lost David G. Hartwell (2016) and Gardner Dozois (2018). Their contributions here are preserved from the changeable digital medium, their voices in conversation surviving for future audiences.

[A review.]

This is a Call to Arms: The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang

Third in the Tensorate Series, The Descent of Monsters is the record of an investigation conducted by Chuwan Sariman into the gruesome destruction of the Rewar Teng research facility by one of its captive creatures. Sariman is a foul-mouthed Tensor of foreign background whose role in the Protectorate has never been secure. Married to a pirate and motivated via an internal sense of justice rather than an external set of politics, she’s not cut out to conduct a cover-up.

Though it’s clear that’s what’s expected of her.

However, the presence of Rider and Sanao Akeha at the corpse of the escaped creature complicates matters for both Sariman and the Protectorate. The Investigator is determined to get to the bottom of the realities hiding behind the façade of Rewar Teng, though it means becoming an outlaw herself.

[A review, minor spoilers.]

Every Day was Another Body: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

Nyxnissa so Dasheem—ex-soldier, ex-assassin—is a disreputable and legally questionable bounty hunter, hurtling toward her own demise by way of as much whiskey and as many poor choices as she can manage. Apocalypse Nyx collects five original stories about her, four of which were previously published on Hurley’s Patreon for subscribers. All of the stories in Apocalypse Nyx take place prior to the events of God’s War (2011) and often gesture toward latter events in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, sometimes with grim foreshadowing.

The world of the Bel Dame Apocrypha is as compelling as ever: biotechnological warfare, magic-oriented bugs on all surfaces, collapsing social order, matriarchal control, the list goes on. These novellas, however, are more concerned with action-adventure than continued development of the milieu—each follows one job that Nyx takes on for herself and her crew, from start to finish.

[A review.]

Stories to Live Within: The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

A sudden outbreak of tornadoes devastates Ellie Frame’s small Ohio town one spring morning, killing more than ninety people—including her best friends and her boyfriend who were trapped at the high school while she was skipping classes. However, those who were lost in the storm still linger, their ghosts haunting the town and their loved ones, unable to move past the liminal space Newfoundland has become.

The Gone Away Place collects the testaments of Ellie, her parents, and various ghosts as she tries to make sense of her own survival in the face of unfathomable destruction.

[The Gone Away Place is more of a meditation on loss than it is a novel.]

Anybody Could Write a True Story: Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The sea off the coast of New England has gone foul with the poison of a fallen star. Ptolema, an agent of the same sort as the Signalman but employed on a different shore, must unravel the chess game in action around her to resolve a potential apocalypse. The pieces in motion include a pair of psychokinetically gifted twins separated by a sinister doctor at the behest of a rival agency, the devouring filth of the tainted sea, attempted assassinations and misplaced pawns.

These singular figures—the Signalman, Ptolema, the doctor Twisby—and their vast, invisible agencies are a horror equal to those from out of space. However, their interventions might also be the one thing keeping our species afloat on unkind cosmic waves.

[A review.]

Out of Many: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Blackfish City is Sam J. Miller’s second novel, the first for adult readers. In a post-climate-collapse world, the floating city of Qaanaaq is a social and technological marvel marked by vast disparities in wealth amongst its populace, ruled in large part by artificial intelligences and mysterious shareholders. The city is on the cusp of upheaval, though, as a viral disease ravages its population without control and the availability of real estate continues to cramp tighter and tighter. However, when a strange woman comes to the city riding an orca whale with a caged polar bear at her side on a mission of revenge, the results will change the entire structure of Qaanaaq.

The reader experiences the novel through various narrators: Kaev, a journeyman fighter working odd jobs for his crime boss ex-lover; Soq, a slide messenger whose gender is an impossible to categorize project and whose motivation is the potential destruction of Qaanaq; Fill, a rich young gay man who is desperately empty of purpose and drive; and Ankit, a political canvas worker for an Arm manager whose campaign is failing. These disparate voices, strung together across the domains of Qaanaaq, unite against odds when faced with a shared foe.

[Read more]

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