Here we are in February, the shortest month, but just because there are few days, there’s no excuse to slack on reading fabulous fiction.
My recommended starting place for Kali Wallace’s work is First Light at Mistaken Point from the August 2016 issue of Clarkesworld. It’s a story about fractures – the ones that develop in families mirrored by the ones that can develop in memory, or even in reality. Charlie returns home for her mother’s funeral and to help her sister Cath clean out their mother’s house. Simultaneously, she’s dealing with a crisis at work. The manned mission sent to Mars has suddenly gone silent. The ship is still there, they can see it, but they can’t communicate. Then a message comes back, an unintelligible burst of sound, followed a few days later by a second garbled message 47 seconds long. It’s just long enough to make out voices, but not what they’re saying, or who is speaking. One voice seems to be Harris, leader of the mission, though one member of Charlie’s team claims it sounds more like Dr. Rivers, who was pulled from the mission at the last moment and is at home with his family. Charlie’s lover, Lisa, is also on the mission, and her voice can be heard in the background. The more Charlie listens to the clip, the more she convinces herself that the voices are saying Everything is fine. As the story unfolds, it plays with memory and the idea of branching realities. An eeriness underlies the narrative, a never-resolved sense that something is terribly wrong. It’s not a quite a ghost story, but it is haunted. When Charlie plays the clip for her sister, Cath distinctly hears Everyone is dying instead of Everything is fine. As Charlie tries to unravel the message, she’s also trying to unravel her own family history. She and her sister grew increasingly distant over the years – Charlie accusing Cath of giving up on her dreams, and Cath accusing Charlie of being too wrapped up in her work to ever let anyone in to her life. Charlie is also dealing with guilt over not visiting her mother more often, and never telling her family about Lisa. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s implied that Charlie was unwilling to admit to herself the strength of her feelings for Lisa and kept her a secret as a distancing mechanism. Wallace pairs Cath and Charlie’s differing memories of their childhood and even more recent events with the branching possibilities of what is happening on the shuttle. The early debate over the voice on the tape being Dr. Rivers or Harris is the first hint that two realities may be unfolding simultaneously. Dr. Rivers both is and is not on the ship. Everything is fine, and everyone is dying, two equal possibilities held in uncertain balance. With the possibilities presented, the story can be one of hope, or one of despair. Wallace handles both subtly, leaving it up to the reader to choose their own meaning. Family, space travel, the risks of loving someone – whether a family member or a romantic partner – are all wrapped into a kind of multiple choice ending make this an excellent starting place for Wallace’s work.
Next up, my recommended starting point for Chesya Burke is Walter and the Three-Legged King, which is the opening story in her collection Let’s Play White. (And since you’re already there, I heartily recommend continuing on to read the rest of the collection. All the stories are fantastic, and I particularly enjoyed The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason, which closes out the collection.) In Walter and the Three-Legged King, Walter is a man with a rat problem. He’s a man with a lot of other problems, too. He’s out of work, and his shut-in white landlord who was given his job by his uncle hassles Walter for rent while passive-aggressively suggesting Walter’s inability to find work is his own fault. Walter knows the system is rigged against him. The ingrained racism in America makes it harder for him to find a job as a black man, something his landlord can’t understand. On top of all this, Walter can’t get rid of the damned rat in his apartment. After staking the rat out, he finally manages to catch it briefly, just long enough to get bitten, and tear off one of the rat’s legs. The next morning, he wakes to find the three-legged rat staring at him, and talking to him. The rat invites him to play white, telling Walter he has to acquiesce, and everything will be okay. Walter is justifiably freaked out and flees his apartment. Outside, looking ragged and disheveled from his harrowing experience, Walter sees a white woman trip. When he tries to help her up, she screams and accuses him of trying to rob her. After finally convincing the police to let him go, without an apology of course, Walter returns home to find the rat waiting for him. Walter decides to finally acquiesce, as the rat says, and they play white, putting on well-refined white voices, the voice Walter admits he uses for job interviews, and telling each other the world is fair and fine and there’s nothing to complain about at all. The encounter works a kind of sympathetic magic, but not the best kind. Walter finds a job as a doorman, but as the rat implied with his invitation, it means giving in. Walter has to conform to the racist system, or let it tear him apart. Walter and the Three-Legged King isn’t a cheerful story. It pulls no punches in pointing out the inequalities built into the system, as well as pointing out the privilege white people have in being blind to them. The story is brutal and effective, flipping the helpful talking animal trope into something sinister and disturbing, and making an excellent starting place for Burke’s collection, and her work as a whole.
Moving on, my recommended starting place for Karin Lowachee’s work also happens to be one of my favorite short stories from 2016. A Good Home, which appeared in the People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is the story of a Tawn, a veteran who takes a decommissioned android designed for war into his home. Now that the war is over, there’s no place for either of them, and the government has set up an adoption program for the androids they can’t legally destroy. Tawn’s mother disapproves of and fears the android. Similarly, his neighbors are unnerved by the way it stands at the window all day, staring out at the street. Mark, as the android is called, refuses to speak. As a fellow veteran, Tawn can tell he’s experienced trauma, and has been scarred by the war. He does his best to reach out to Mark, reading to him from war novels like The Red Badge of Courage, and All Quiet on the Western Front, when a thunderstorm triggers Mark’s PTSD. They begin playing Scrabble together, which allows Mark to communicate without actually needing to speak, laying down tiles to spell out words like SAD, LOST, and COMPANY. A Good Home is a story about survivors, and about the casualties of conflict who must go on living every day in a world that no longer needs them, and would prefer not to see them as they are a reminder of the inconvenient truths of violence and war. Tawn and Mark are both cogs, part of war’s machinery, but Tawn is determined not to let that machinery grind him down, or grind Mark down either. It’s a touching story, but bittersweet as well, never letting the reader forget the situation – war – that ultimately brings Mark and Tawn together.
To round things out, my recommended starting place for Darcie Little Badger’s work is The Famine King from the January-March 2017 issue of Mythic Delirium. Irene suffers from sleep paralysis. As a child, she wakes one night, helpless and unable to move, and sees the face of her neighbor, Mr. Botello, at her window. He speaks to her of hunger before vanishing, leaving an eerie imprint of his face behind. That same night, Irene’s mother is wakened by sirens, and they see emergency vehicles swarming outside Mr. Botello’s house. In the morning, they learn that he murdered his wife and child before killing himself. As an adult, Irene sees a trailer for a movie called The Famine King while sitting in the bar where her friend Az works. It’s a movie about a wendigo, a father who devours his family during a snow storm. At the library where Irene works, people come in droves to check out books on the wendigo and cannibalism, inspired by the movie. A history of cannibalism haunts Irene’s town. In 1908, the Fiddler brothers were famous, one for butchering his wife and children for meat, the other for strangling people he believed to be wendigos, starting with his wife. Irene herself repeatedly dreams of being strangled, and dreams of the ghost of Mr. Botello. Her dreams, her town’s past, and the fictional account of real crimes all blend together. The fascination with cannibalism spills over into the real world. Irene catches sight of a vegan friend of hers at a burger restaurant, eating what clearly looks like meat and imagines it is vat-grown from human cells. A woman is attacked in a bus shelter, with the implication that the man who attacked her bit her ear. Irene sees the ghost of her mother walking the streets, mentally framing her mother’s death as an act of cannibalism. Irene starved her with a need for attention, for comfort, and literally through breastfeeding as a baby until her mother had nothing left for herself and died. Hunger, devouring, and consumption echo throughout the story to chilling effect. Irene’s guilt over her mother’s death pairs with the accounts of men murdering their families and the legend of the wendigo. In Irene’s case, a child – herself – is a parasitic creature, draining her mother and subsuming her life, the next generation literally taking the prior generation’s place. In the historical account and the wendigo legend, it is the opposite, fathers devouring their children to gain themselves a bit more life against the threat of starvation. The story calls to mind Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, about a baby murdering its parents, a metaphor for children taking over their parents’ lives. It also calls to mind fairy tales such as The Juniper Tree, and Snow White, which feature wicked mothers and stepmothers fearing their children taking their place and thus murdering and consuming them, or feeding them to others. It’s a powerful theme, one that speaks to the fear of aging, and the cycle of life. The idea of sacrifice, willing and not, plays out in the story, as well. A cow has no choice about becoming meat, but what about a willing human? The story is unsettling and effective, layering dread through patterns echoed through history, fiction, mythology, and the events of Irene’s life. All of this makes it an excellent staring place for Darcie Little Badger’s work.
Speaking of women to read, readers of this column may be interested in the upcoming anthology Problem Daughters edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael, and Djibril al-Ayad, which is currently running an IndieGoGo Campaign. The anthology’s focus is intersectional feminism, with speculative fiction by and about marginalized women often left out of mainstream feminism, including women of color, queer women, disabled women, and sex workers, among others. It looks to be an excellent collection, so please do check it out!
I’ll be back with more Women to Read in March. In the meantime, please leave your own suggestions for fantastic work by women in the comments.