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Monday 14 August 2006

Of Empires and Chains, Dark Forest Lakes, Lost Kafkas, Apocalypse Fugues, and You: A Field Guide to Recent Short Story Collections

by Matthew Cheney

The phylum of book known as the short story collection has, in the past few years, proved itself strong and resilient within the general landscape of what usually gets referred to as science fiction and/or fantasy, that archipelago of amusement parks prominent on the map of our literary dreams. The traveler to these regions will find that one of the most impressive things about short story collections within the SF world is their variety. Continued evolution requires constant mutation, and the short story's penchant for variability allows it to be one the more adaptable forms of fiction, allowing it to persist if not thrive within the constantly changing landscape of literature.

Ours is a time of extreme morphological variability among short stories, and therefore among short story collections. To the casual observer, such variability may be overwhelming and may obscure some of the more interesting features of the contemporary short story. Here, then, is a guide to ten recent collections, and some of their distinguishing characteristics.

Fugue XXIX by Forrest Aguirre (Raw Dog Screaming Press)

This collection houses a few of the stranger and more perplexing specimens that we will be noting. While such creatures may attract the sustained interest of only the most adventurous readers, nonetheless there are items here that reward the attention of even casual fictionologists. The horror story sub-species is particularly well represented, both with small, evocative sketches and with denser, more complex narratives. The uncertain traveler, sampling this carnival of oddities for the first time, might do best to start with some of the more traditional fictions, such as "The Universal Language of Silence" (a creepy tale) or "The Color of Laughter" (a cute science fiction story), which will begin to prepare the reader for the intellectual pleasures of the more substantial, less traditional pieces of fabulation scattered elsewhere in the collection.

The Chains that You Refuse by Elizabeth Bear (Night Shade Press)

Within the little bivouac in the SF community that houses the vagrants known as Critics, Elizabeth Bear is generally seen as a "popular" writer, while Forrest Aguirre is seen as an "experimental" writer. Examining The Chains that You Refuse alongside Fugue XXIX, however, we discover how problematic such labels can be, because there is nearly as much variation of form and style within Bear's collection as within Aguirre's, and certainly as much concern with language, culture, and history. Bear is somewhat more given to turning on the machineries of plot than Aguirre, but less than might be expected, and her stories travel as far and wide through the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror as his do, ingesting subject matter wherever it presents itself, of whatever type seems most ripe: the poets Christopher Marlowe, John Keats, and Allen Ginsberg ... American folksongs ... Norse mythology ... asteroids....

Flashing the Dark by Bruce Boston (Sam's Dot Publishing)

Here is the smallest order of story on display — forty stories, one hundred pages — but one shouldn't be tempted to underestimate it because of that. Once again, we see a considerable variety of form and style, although, as with Elizabeth Bear and to a lesser extent Forrest Aguirre, a preference for straightforward, declarative prose. But there is a story here composed mostly of dialogue (as there is, with Bear, a story told mostly as a play), a story incorporating a recipe, and a number of stories explaining curses. Within these stories are some very fine sentences, a few of which are oddly amusing (e.g. "During the elongated years everyone stretched.") One of the distinguishing marks of this collection is that it contains a shaggy flea story.

Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro (Small Beer Press)

Alan DeNiro's stories contain some of the most fascinating evolutionary mutations and adaptations of any of the items discussed here. As with most of the other collections, the sentences in these stories are simple and direct, but the wonder of them lies in their configurations, the seemingly infinite variety of structures they fit into. Even in the lesser stories, the ones propelled more by their own cleverness than any musculature, each word has weight and luster. It's enough to make an observer believe in the theory of "Intelligent Design", because the design of these tales is so deliberate, so unique that one begins to believe they did not evolve from anything, that they are a kingdom unto themselves, born whole and complete and perfected. Nonetheless, a close observation shows echoes of progenitors — remarkable as it may seem, a number of these stories contain traces of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, of futures past and futures still to come.

I Live with You by Carol Emshwiller (Tachyon Publications)

For many years now, Carol Emshwiller's stories have sauntered quietly through the landscape of literature, hanging out in the happy valley of SF just as often as on the banks of the mainstream. They are resilient creatures, and as alluring as they may seem from a distance, observers must not grow complacent, because these fictions have fangs. There is a certain pattern of behavior with Emshwiller stories — they frequently concern themselves with matters of gender and equality, with women more often than not struggling against irrational and violent men; they are seldom specific in their geographies and ecologies, preferring to reside within the vague territories of parables; they communicate with short sentences that combine to create a faux-naive tone, rendering the unwary reader vulnerable to quite a surprise in the end. I Live with You continues the Emshwiller lineage, collecting stories that have many similarities to other Emshwiller stories, which means they are quite different in their structure and effect from most of the other stories roaming around in the world.

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford (Golden Gryphon Press)

Do not let the title of this collection fool you into thinking everything is sweet within. There is sweetness, yes, but there is also a complexity of vision and experience infusing the heartiest of these stories, a complexity that captures the struggles, hopes, disappointments, and sorrows of human beings who know that happiness is momentary, loss is inevitable, and yet life is worth living. The language these fictions speak may seem lyrically ordinary, the kind of language spoken by good friends and amusing uncles, the language of storytellers and prestidigators, but more often than not these stories know they are stories, they revel in their own words, creating sentences that soar then circle back on themselves with a quick and invigorating bite to the tale. Items such as "The Empire of Ice Cream" and "The Weight of Words" bring a melancholy metaphysics to the fantasy of everyday life.

In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss (Prime Books)

The easiest way to recognize a story by Theodora Goss is to listen for its singing. It is usually a pleasant sound, ethereal and gentle, yet containing a subtle energy and sly ability to provoke. Like the stories of Jeffrey Ford, these are tales that have evolved from a long lineage of storytelling, though here the lineage is the one of bedtime stories and folktales and ballads rather than the tradition of barfly raconteurs and loquacious relatives at family reunions. Once again, many of these stories revel in their own artificiality, their own existence as stories — "The Rose in Twelve Petals" is one justly-celebrated example — while many others are consumed with the power and effect of storytelling itself, for good and bad, as with the sad and lovely "Pip and the Faeries". Some of these stories are still trying to figure out their own mutations, and so occasionally their caudal limbs seem a bit too long or a bit too short, or not placed at quite the best point for adaptive benefit, but nonetheless, these are beautiful stories to behold.

Last Week's Apocalypse by Douglas Lain (Night Shade Press)

These stories roam around in their cages and look out at the world with an unmistakably paranoid expression. They feed on pop culture and conspiracy theories, then excrete them as balanced and often quite haunting narratives full of paradox and perplexity. Many of these stories are composed of talk; they chatter more than they sing, but their chatter, while sometimes insane, is still fascinating. These stories know they are spectacles, and they resent it, but there's nothing else they can do. They are not an evolution from science fiction, they are an evolution from reality, the natural selection of quotidian details into an amalgam that feels science fictional, until the observer looks away and sees that reality doesn't make any more sense than it does in these stories, that 1984 is a year that returns again and again, that headlines can create magic and money and mayhem, that Jesus is for sale and everything from sentences to cultures to identity itself is constructed, a fiction. These stories don't need to resort to parable to scare you, they just tell you what happened yesterday and let you think it's all sci-fi.

The Lost District by Joel Lane (Night Shade Press)

While this book is also published by Night Shade Press and the author's surname is a homonym of Douglas Lain's, even the most casual observer will find it difficult to confuse the stories of one with the stories of the other. Though Douglas Lain's tales can be horrifying in their implications about the realities of our contemporary lives, Joel Lane's stories are more conspicuously "horror stories" — dark fantasies that present disconcerting and even terrifying moods and environments, all emitted in a rich but direct prose. Lane's stories live in post-industrial urban nightmare ecologies, the places in Britain where rot is both physical and psychological, where desire is the flatmate of death and sex is its own kind of decay. Bootleg videos summon bootleg ghosts, lamplight glitters from the windows of derelict houses, and men visit prostitutes to kiss their ice-encrusted wounds. Such material may not appear obviously nutritious, but Lane's stories thrive on it.

Kafka in Brontėland by Tamar Yellin (Toby Press)

Tamar Yellin also writes about Britain, and does so just as hauntingly as Joel Lane, but in an entirely different way, toward moods less of terror than of longing and wistfulness. Local taxonomists might hesitate to classify some of these specimens as science fiction or fantasy, but there is such an undercurrent of mystery and mythos to the tales collected here that such a classification seems justified, because though most of these stories live on the outer borders of what we define as the literature of the fantastic, they most certainly belong to the literature of the enigmatic and beautiful. These are stories infused with Jewish life and legend, stories that suggest more than they reveal, stories where the past is as palpable as the present and words serve as the cartilage between then and now. Observers will note the brooding seriousness of the tales, but should not be misled into thinking that the stories are depressed; on the contrary, they are stories that care as much about life as those of Jeffrey Ford, but their approach to it is more stoic and reserved, an attitude that suits their small frames well, allowing them to be among the wisest of the creatures we have studied.

Even a cursory visit among these stories will reveal the animal to be remarkably healthy. There is still a vast amount of information to be discovered and experiments to be conducted, but new discoveries continue to be made daily. Natural habitats for individual short stories are disappearing rapidly, but small-press collections have proved to be a viable way of preserving literary diversity. The short story particularly thrives when given attention, and so the continued interest of specialists and the general public should be encouraged.

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