Short Stack: Of Elephants & Monsters; Of Tombs, Scientists & Mars

We’re in a golden age of novellas, and what’s not to love about that? Novellas are the perfect, not-quite-bite-sized read, just right for a plane ride, a long train commute, or a few blissful hours to yourself to sit down and devour a story in one go. Assuming you’re looking for a few more books to add to your TBR pile, because who isn’t, I have recommendations for you! That’s another nice thing about novellas; they’re slender enough that you can sneak them into your towering book stack without anyone noticing it getting taller. Right?

Prime MeridianPrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was released first to backers of the novella late last year, and will be available for wide release in July. It made the 2017 Locus Recommended Reading List, which also makes it eligible for a Locus Award (voting closes soon, but there are still a few days left to make your voice heard), and it was picked up for Gardener Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction.  All with good cause; it’s a fantastic novella. Mars lies at its heart, and the intersecting stories of two women orbit around it. For Amelia, Mars is in her future. At least she tells herself it still could be, though every day her dream of leaving Earth and going to the Red Planet seems to be getting farther away. She’s broke, with no funds to buy her passage off planet, and barely enough money to make ends meet – living with her sister, selling her blood for cash, and working as a rent-a-friend, providing companionship and conversation for those with the means to pay. One of Amelia’s clients is an aging actress, and for her, Mars is in the past. Hers is a cardboard Mars though, the stuff of Hollywood magic and movie dreams. Both women’s stories are stories of longing, and both provide a thoughtful reflection on the distance between perception and reality, whether it’s the perception of a desired object/person/place, or the outside perceptions placed on people, telling them who they should be. Neither woman’s life is what she hoped; time, expectations, and responsibilities weigh them down, but both are still working to achieve escape velocity, even if their trajectories aren’t the ones they planned. It’s a lovely and poignant story, full of genuine emotion, and for all that it is a novella about reaching for space, it is grounded and full of humanity.

Gods Monster & the Lucky PeachGods, Monsters, and The Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson, released in March, is set in the future, post ecological disaster, as humanity is just starting to recover. Banks and corporations run a complex economy, moving around debt and human capital. Plague babies, those who survived the ecological disaster, have modified bodies that might give them extra limbs like an octopus, or the powerful legs of a gazelle, and the ability to control their heart rate, adrenaline, and just about every other autonomic function. Oh, and time travel is well within humanity’s grasp. Minh and Kiki are part of a team chosen to travel back to 2000 BC to perform an ecological survey of the Tigris and the Euphrates in hopes of reclaiming the rivers in their own time. While the company that holds the monopoly on time travel technology swears up and down that time lines collapse the moment travelers leave to return to their own time, thus making it impossible to accidentally fuck up the future, both Minh and Kiki have their doubts. The timeline they find themselves in certainly feels real, as does their ability to impact it. They aren’t merely observers, they are part of events, and those events include a king who believes it is his destiny to kill monsters. Kiki and Minhwith their inhuman-looking limbs, their egg-shaped ship, and technology that looks like magic, appear just like the sort of monsters in need of killing.  Against this backdrop, Robson does an excellent job of setting up interpersonal conflict. The time travelers are pit against each other, and their environment, and it is a joy to watch each character evolve and grow in their attitudes and relationships over the course of the story. The structure is clever, with two timelines converging on a single point, adding to the level of tension, and the world-building is fantastic.

The Clockwork TombThe Clockwork Tomb by E. Catherine Tobler is the fourth, and second-to-last (noooo, I’m not ready!), book in the excellent Folley & Mallory Series. This time around, we find the adventurous pair in Egypt, exploring a tomb referenced in Eleanor’s father’s journals. Despite not being the first to enter the tomb, Eleanor and Virgil have made it farther than anyone else. The tomb presents them with a series of puzzles, leading them deeper into the maze of its interior until they aren’t even certain they’re still in the mortal realm. Not only does the tomb cause them to doubt their sense of place and reality, it forces them to doubt themselves, testing their relationship and the strength of their wills in new ways. As with each new entry in the Folley & Mallory series, The Clockwork Tomb brings Eleanor a little closer to unraveling the mystery of her family’s past, and the truth of what happened to her mother and her grandmother. It also deepens Folley and Mallory’s relationship, as they come to know themselves and each other better, learning to trust each other completely in order to survive. Like the books that came before it, The Clockwork Tomb is full of rich, lush, descriptions that puts the reader right alongside the heroes on their adventure. Tobler perfectly balances action, romance, and mystery, to deliver a highly-satisfying read. I love these books as books, and at the same time, they’re full of so many wonderful visuals I keep hoping that someone will make them into movies.

Little Homo Sapiens ScientistThe Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang is at once an inversion of the story of The Little Mermaid, and a meditation on the nature of sentience, and an examination of cultural biases and the problems they cause in the field of ethnography. Most people insist on thinking of the atagati as mermaids, or sirens. They’re an aquatic peoples, certainly, and their language sounds to human ears like singing, but they are nothing at all like the fanciful stories we tell about mythical creatures with human upper halves and fish tails. They are a sentient race, with a deep history and culture of their own, and they have no place inside the boxes humanity tries to cram them into. This is the conflict at the core of The Little Homo Sapiens Scientists. Dr. Cadance Mbella is one of the few humans who has managed a rudimentary understanding of the atagati language, and even then, there’s so much about them she doesn’t know. Almost everyone else around her seems unable to let go of their preconceived notions about what the atagati should be, insisting on seeing them through the lens of human culture. As a result, they dismiss them as a lesser species based on their own inability to understand them, or assume – like humans – their prime interest must be in attack and conquest. When the military captures an atagati who calls herself Aioëe, Caddie is roped into being a translator, interrogating the atagati so the military can better understand their supposed enemy. Caddie finds herself confiding in Aioëe, feeling a connection that may or may not be one-sided. She helps Aioëe escape, but she can’t stop thinking about her, and all she doesn’t know about the atagati and longs to learn. She hears a rumor of a man who has harnessed medical technology to transform humans into atagati, however the procedure leaves them unable to communicate, and with only a short time to live. Caddie decides to risk it, hoping against reason that she’ll be able to find Aioëe again and, even voiceless, make herself understood. The parallels to The Little Mermaid are obvious, but Hunag up-ends the traditional story by de-centering humanity, making it something to be left behind, instead of the ultimate goal the hero desires. Through the lens of two species coming into contact, the story challenges the colonial mentality of assuming cultural superiority, and confronts the problem of looking at others through a framework that doesn’t match their lived reality. It’s a beautifully told story, with thoughtful underpinnings, and packs a punch.

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, published in January, brings together the imagined mythology of elephants, and a take on the true history of the Radium Girls who unwittingly poisoned themselves painting matches and watch dials with luminous paint, leading to their slow and painful deaths. Topsy, a former circus elephant, famously publicly executed after killing a spectator, is part of a long, matrilineal line of elephants stretching back to prehistoric time. She carries the memory of her people, in stories passed down from mother to daughter, including the horrors visited on elephant kind by humanity. The latest horror is humans teaching elephants to wield paintbrushes so they too can paint clock dials with luminous paint, consigning them to the same terrible fate as the women already rotting from the inside out. With the various threads it weaves together, The Only Harmless Great Things is a story about stories. Narratives shape our lives, define us as a people, help us make sense of the world, and are sometimes used as a survival mechanism, both literally and figuratively. Tricksters of old steal and seek and horde stories to build power and sometimes to save lives, and in modern times, tricksters of another kind deploy stories to get their way, increase their wealth, and offload their problems. Bolander weaves these threads together seemingly effortlessly – the myths told by the elephants, the story of Topsy , the story of Regan, one of the Radium Girls, and the story of Kat, a translator who, years after the Radium disaster, is tasked with telling a story that will redeem the public image of elephants by convincing them to become the guardians of irradiated land, even after everything humans have done to them. The language is stunning, the kind that guts you and leaves you breathless, and the story is both utterly satisfying and leaves you craving more.

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