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Shiny Shorts: Ghosts in the Machine, Far From Home

It’s a new year, which means a whole new crop of short fiction to enjoy! January is off to a fantastic start, with new issues of magazines bringing forth haunting, beautiful stories. The month is only half over, but a few stories have already caught my eye, boding well for a year of wonderful fiction. Three of these stories feature characters far from home, longing for what was lost, or making their own way in the world, forging new paths and new futures. The other two explore the blurred line between technology and the supernatural, bringing back lost voices, and finding justice.

Fireside January 2020 CoverGreen Tunnels by Taimur Ahmad in Fireside Magazine packs an emotional punch in a very short space of time, telling the story of Alice, a young girl growing up among the stars who is trying to recapture the feeling of home.

Dad reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slightly battered picture. He holds it gently, like it is a flower that might bruise if touched too carelessly. He stares at the image for a long moment. His shoulders ease downwards, the subtle tightness in his body unwinding just a bit.

Alice barely remembers what it was like to feel the sunlight on her face, or breathe in the scent of green grass. Much of her longing is reflected from her father, which is part of what makes this story so effective. Alice sets out to recreate a garden in her room, nurturing flower and plants and mushrooms grown in a lab, transforming them from something functional into something beautiful. She does this as much for her father as she does for herself. With deep empathy, she recognizes his longing, and also the change just seeing a photograph of growing things brings about to his mood. While Alice’s father holds out the hope that they might go home one day, on some level, Alice seems to understand that they will never return to Earth, and home must be something they carry with them, paradoxically helping her father let go of the past by memorializing it and making it anew. It’s a beautifully-written story, and Ahmad does a wonderful job of infusing it with loss, longing, and hope.

Familiar Face by Meg Elison in Nightmare Magazine presents the simultaneously chilling and comforting idea that facial recognition software might allow the dead to communicate with those they left behind. Annie recently lost her wife, Cara, and is coping with her grief as best she can. Her roommates support her, and the caring network Elison depicts is wonderful to see. As Annie tries to process her pain and find a way to move on, the camera in their home begins insisting that it sees a familiar face at the door – Cara’s.

Annie stepped forward and opened the door anyway. She didn’t believe Cara would be there. She didn’t believe she had seen what she had seen. There was nothing on the doorstep. Fog swarmed in the streetlights and droplets of it landed on their parked cars.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Cara’s death wasn’t ordinary, but that she was the victim of violence. The facial recognition technology built into the home’s security camera becomes the key to unraveling Cara’s death, and giving Annie a sense of closure and justice, if not peace exactly. Elison leaves it up to the reader as to whether Cara’s ghost is actually haunting the machine and Annie, or whether it’s merely a means to allow Annie to get in touch with her intuition and process her loss. Leaving enough room for either interpretation makes the story all the more powerful, and takes nothing from the eerie and atmospheric encounters Annie has with Cara’s ghost. The characters’ use of signing, and the way they adapt it into a highly-personal mode of communication adds an extra layer of poignancy to the story. It’s refreshing to see cameras and facial recognition software depicted as a means of broadening communication – and highlighting that communication isn’t limited to speaking aloud – rather than being painted as the big bad in a speculative story, especially one with horror overtones.

Miss Karami’s Academy for Time-Warping Ladies by Kat Otis in Kaleidotrope Magazine sets a very different tone than the first two stories. It is charming, cheeky, and above all, fun. It still deals with a character far from home, as Elzbieta finds herself exiled to Miss Karami’s Academy for warping time in an un-lady-like way. It’s not that women shouldn’t manipulate time, only that they should do it within certain socially-acceptable boundaries, a skill Miss Karami purports to teach her students. Of course, there’s always wiggle room, and the students of Miss Karami’s, Elzbieta and her twin sister Ryska among them, find a way to get firmly up to no good while putting on the face of innocence and making the stuffy Chronology Protection Agency look foolish to boot.

I suppressed a grin as I warped threads to slow the cup’s flight, then carefully plucked it out of the air before it could hit something and shatter. Miss Karami had sworn to me that manners were an effective weapon, when wielded properly—it looked like she was right.

The story presents a different angle on the idea of being far away from home allowing a character to establish a new life. Rather than mourning home, Elzbieta is more cranky than anything else, but she quickly discovers a new kind of freedom and the ways in which the very rules set to bind and limit her can be twisted to her advantage. Otis plays with the idea of women’s power lying at least partially in their tendency to be underestimated, and their ability to use society’s perceptions of them against that same society. It’s assumed Elzbieta, Ryska, and the other students of Miss Karami’s couldn’t possibly be clever enough to stage a cover-up, thus they must be just what they appear on the surface – up to mischief, but only the frivolous and silly girlish kind. Elzbieta and Ryska are delightful characters, the tone of their banter and interactions is perfect, and I would happily read more stories set at Miss Karami’s school.

Uncanny January February 2020 CoverMy Country is a Ghost by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Uncanny Magazine returns to a more melancholy and bittersweet take on the loss of home. In the process of immigrating to a new country, Niovi is forced to leave her mother’s ghost behind.

Foreign ghosts were considered unnecessary. The only things they had to offer were stories and memories.

Niovi had prepared herself for this, and yet she had hoped she wouldn’t have to leave her mother behind.

She gave the necklace to the impassive woman and let herself drift down the aisle as if a forceful gust of air ushered her away.

Niovi underestimates just how much of an impact cutting ties with her ghost will have on her. More than ties to her mother specifically, her mother’s ghost is a link to her heritage, her traditions, an entire life she’s leaving behind. Food and cooking play an important role in the story. Niovi struggles to prepare food for the Saturday of Souls, finding herself at a loss without her mother’s guidance her, and finding her relatives back home of no use either, seeing her as “other” and almost a traitor now. Triantafyllou perfectly captures the idea of a character caught between worlds. Niovi is trying to build a better life for herself, pursue opportunity, but fears that to do so, she will have to let go of who she is – assimilate as a ghostless person with no ties to her heritage and home. However, over the course of the story, Niovi learns there is balance to be had, she can move forward while still carrying the past with her, honoring her family, while still building a future for herself. This story is at once heartbreaking and filled with hope, and a gorgeous exploration of what it means to leave home and find a new one.

Fiyah 13 CoverThe Transition of Osoosi by Ozzie M. Gantrell in Fiyah Magazine is a novelette that once again blends technology and the supernatural. Mal is a young, black Choctaw man, thus a citizen, but not considered a “True American”. He is followed by cops, under suspicion, and constantly at risk of losing his life simply for existing in the world. He’s also an extremely skilled hacker, and along with his best friend Machine, he sets out to enlist the skills of the Anansi, a top-tier hacker collective who manifest themselves as African gods.

Still shaky from the turbulent introduction, I concentrate on the leader, the one who’d first spoken, and offer my thanks. He waves it off with one of his eight hands. His avatar wears the form of a dark skinned, handsome man with long dreads tipped in gold. Bulbous shades hide his eyes. Steel plates feather along his ribs in shades of iridescent black-blue.

With the Anansi’s help, Mal believes he can bring a measure of justice to the world, and change the way non-True Americans are treated. Change requires sacrifice however, and the Anasi ask Mal how far he is willing to go. He says he will gladly give up his life, but simply willing to be a martyr for the cause is too easy. To effect real change, Mal will have to transform himself, betraying those he loves, and giving up everything that made him human.

The blend of cyberpunk aesthetics with African mythology is brilliantly done, strongly hinting at the possibility that Mal is dealing with actual gods, and not simply very talented hackers. The exploration of empathy and the idea of sacrifice is also beautifully done, as Gantrell looks at the role technology might play in creating a kinder world. Mal and Machine’s different approaches to this idea set them up in opposition while working toward the same goal. Machine creates a VR experience which in essence summons the ghosts of water protectors in North Dakota, immersing the viewer so completely that it actually manipulates their emotions. Where Machine sees this creation of empathy as a voluntary process, Mal sees the potential to create a kind of empathy bomb, giving people no choice in having the pain they’ve caused turned back on them.

The story is wonderfully written, presenting justice and change as a double-edged sword. In order to win, Mal must lose part of himself, but is it worth it for the greater good? According to the ToC, this novelette is Gantrell’s debut publication, and what an incredible start. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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