SFM: El-Mohtar, Miller, Cooney, Pullman, Bear, Valente

Short Fiction Monday: Here are some of the stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. This week we continue focusing on 2015 Nebula-nominated short fiction, along with some other stories that caught our attention.

“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (2015, free on Lightspeed magazineKindle magazine issue), nominated for the 2015 Nebula award (short story)

Madeleine is in therapy after the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s. She and her therapist, Clarice, are discussing the loss of her mother and the odd side-effects from a clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug that Madeleine has taken part in. She finds herself intensely reliving moments from her childhood, triggered by small sensory moments in her day. But soon Madeleine notices a girl her age in her memories—a girl she had never met.

Thus begins a psychic romance story about growing up, grief, and finding joy again. As Madeleine and Zeinab get to know each other in their memories, each is convinced that the other is only an imaginary friend. But what they have feels more real and lovely than anything in their daily lives. They are, like most new loves, filled with “the strangeness of their meeting, of enjoying each other’s company.” When Clarice insists that Madeleine receive more aggressive treatment for her new hallucinations, Madeleine is thrown into despair, a sense that “there is no one left here for her, no one.”

This story is clever and heartbreaking in the best of ways. I related to Madeleine’s feeling as though she was “a mess, a bowl’s worth of uncooked spaghetti,” and her desire to stay in her dreams with her friend. I also liked the way the story portrayed the relationship between the therapist and the client. When Madeleine expresses the wish to stay in her memories, Clarice questions her about it, and Madeleine thinks:

“This is what she hates about Clarice, this demand that her feelings be spelled out into one thing or another: isn’t it obvious that she both wanted and didn’t want to? From what she said?”

As someone who has experienced therapy, that quote rang true to me. But it also rang true as a reader. Sometimes the experiences of characters are both/and, rather than one thing only, and it’s up to the readers to decide what is true in a story and what isn’t. Luckily, the happy, hopeful ending of this story does not leave the reader in ambiguity. ~Kate Lechler


“When Your Child Strays From God” by Sam J. Miller (2015, free at Clarkesworld, Kindle magazine issue). Nominated for the 2015 Nebula Award (short story)

“When Your Child Strays From God” is the story of a mother, Beth, searching for a son who didn’t come home last night. A good, churchgoing woman, wife of the pastor, she assures the reader that she has a good attitude. To find her son she must enter the terrifying world of the drug called spiderwebbing. The curious thing about spiderwebbing is that people who take the drug sourced from the same drug-processed spider web share the same hallucination, even across large distances. By taking a drop from her son’s store Beth enters his drug-addled imagination, a world filled with dinosaurs and imaginary friends. She knows that the risk of a spider-burst hangs over them, in which the minds of every person linked in the web are permanently broken. It is a risk she is willing to take if it will lead her to him.

I enjoyed this story immensely. First, there’s the tone. In general, Beth speaks directly to the reader but sometimes she imagines that she is writing the church newsletter and speaks to her “fellow congregant, beloved pastor”. She is gently mocking, often humorous, occasionally giving way to un-Christian like expletives that are charming in their bitchiness. Her foray into the world of hallucinatory drugs is often laughable but also scary. Her primordial motherly instinct makes her a heroine.

Then there’s the fact that Miller has successfully created a short story with multiple levels. On one level lives the physically terrifying, the squid-shark monsters of hallucinatory nightmares. On a deeper level Miller explores the real monsters – the monsters in Beth’s mind that she must explore if she wants to find her son. There are also mezzanines in-between.

Finally, Miller can turn a phrase. His prose is rich with metaphor but never forced. I particularly liked his sustained comparison of the teenage boy and a bellicose nation. On sneaking into his room Beth says:

To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

And later:

I summoned him up as the smiling little boy he had been before puberty caused him to declare independence, defy us as righteously and violently as America spurned its colonial overlords.

Miller’s ending was unsurprising and at first I felt this as disappointment. But then maybe that’s the point. Beth has been blind to the source of her son’s antagonistic feelings, but it should have been obvious if she had only looked. Because of this the bystander can guess at the source of the problem without much effort. The more I thought about it, the more I realised this to be true.

All in all, a most worthy nominee for the 2015 Nebula award. ~Katie Burton


The Bone Swans of Amandale, C.S.E. Cooney (2015, free at Mythic Delirium, included in Bone Swans short fiction collection), nominated for the 2015 Nebula award (novella)

This Nebula nominee in the novella category is an imaginative retelling of the Pied Piper of Hameln folk tale, intermingled with elements from the Grimm Brother’s less well-known story “The Juniper Tree,” in which a murdered boy’s spirit inhabits a juniper tree and inspires a bird to sing the boy’s grisly story. The Swan Folk, who are shapechangers, are being hunted and killed by Ulia Gol, an ogre/giantess who has the townspeople of Amandale in her thrall and has been elected mayor of the town. Ulia Gol used twenty children of Amandale as Hunters to kill the Swan Folk (after having exterminated the local Fox and Trout Folk), bury them beneath the magical juniper tree and, with tears and song, changing them into bone musical instruments.

Maurice of the Rat Folk, still nurturing a hopeless crush on his childhood friend Dora Rose, the last of the Swan Folk, is determined to stop this travesty and save Dora Rose. They pay a visit to Nicholas, a musician who has a magical pipe gifted him by the Queen of Faerie, and hatch a plan.

“Maurice the Incomparable has a plan. The role of Nicolas promises to be quite small this time. Just a song. Just the right little song. Or the wrong one. The wrongest song of all.”

The Bone Swans of Amandale, told from the humorous and earthy point of view of Maurice, does a capable job of fleshing out the Pied Piper tale and giving it a few twists. As well as the allusions to “The Juniper Tree,” there are some references to Faerie in this tale that add an intriguing layer to the plot. It’s a little weak on Maurice’s choices toward the end, failing to adequately explain or justify some controversial decisions that he makes regarding his own fate and that of the ordinary rats who will heed the piper’s call. The final fate of the hapless child Hunters is perhaps unduly harsh, though fitting in the context of the tale.

This tale is true to the its fairy tale origins in its tone, in the sometimes fatal consequences of choices, and in the characters, who are realistically flawed in ways that are true to their natures as ogre, rat, swan and human. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Collectors” by Philip Pullman (2014, Kindle and Audible)

I picked up “The Collectors” at Audible for a couple of bucks. It’s produced by Audible Studios and is wonderfully narrated by Bill Nighy. It’s 32 minutes long. There is also a Kindle version for 99c. As I was reading this story, I didn’t realize it was related to Pullman’s popular HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy. I have not (I’m embarrassed to say) read those books yet, but “The Collectors” makes me want to pick them up soon.

The story takes place on a bitterly cold night at Oxford in 1970. Two academic art collectors are discussing a couple of pieces of art: one is a painting of a young lady with an inscrutable facial expression and the other is a bronze statue of a scary-looking monkey. These two pieces would seem to have nothing in common with each other, yet there is a mystery that connects them.

I had a hard time believing that one of these academics was so willing to quickly suspend disbelief (I can’t say more without spoiling), but I enjoyed this story nonetheless. It’s really eerie and has some great imagery. ~Kat Hooper


Hardfought by Greg Bear (1983, Kindle and Audible), 1983 Nebula winner (novella).

I finally got through Hardfought, the Nebula Award-winning novella by Greg Bear, after three or four false starts over the past year. Each time I tried, the dryness of the narrative would make my mind begin to wander and I’d soon be completely lost, realize I had no idea what was going on, and have to start over. In Greg Bear’s far future, humanity is at war with an ancient alien race. The story is about a curious girl who has been bred and conditioned to fight. As she speaks to someone else who is caught up in this war, she learns about human history, herself and her enemies.

Bear’s future universe is unrecognizable and even the post-humans who inhabit it hardly seem to share our own history, culture, ethics, or even language. Though I’m always up for a challenging read, I had a hard time connecting to Bear’s world and his characters. As the story progressed I began to recognize how clever it was and to appreciate some of the ideas presented — how it’s impossible to hate what you know, the importance of knowing history, and warnings about dehumanizing enemies — but at that point it was a little too late to feel fully invested. However, I can see why other readers may feel differently and I understand why Hardfought won a Nebula Award.

Hardfought was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in February 1983. I listened to the audio version published by Audible Studios and read by Ray Chase. It’s 3 hours long. ~Kat Hooper


The Long Goodnight of Violet Wilde by Catherynne M. Valente (2015, free at Clarkesworld magazineKindle magazine issue)

In a world where there are seven fantastical countries named after the colors of the rainbow, where food and animals and skin color are shades of your country’s color, and where sorrow and kisses and death may mean different things, depending on the country, young Violet Wilde, with eyes the color of grape jelly and hair the color of raisins, lives in the Country of Purple:

I got myself born like everybody else in P-Town: Mummery wrote a perfect sentence, so perfect and beautiful and fabulously punctuated that when she finished it, there was a baby floating in the ink pot and that was that. You have to be careful what you write in Plum Pudding. An accidentally glorious grocery list could net you twins.

Violet grows up chatting with watercolor unicorns and loving a boy named Orchid Harm. But when tragedy strikes due to a run-in with, um, time-squirrels, the grieving Violet wanders through the spectrum, from one color-themed country to another, accompanied by a living, tangible sorrow that constantly (and rather ominously) expresses its love for her.

Catherynne Valente is known for whimsical, fantastical stories, like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but her whimsy went into overdrive with this novelette, at the expense of coherence and plot. Some of the imagery really is wonderful, but it’s never-ending, image heaped upon confusing image, and much of the story doesn’t really make much sense, beyond being a fantasia about love and grief. I felt like I was reading an LSD trip: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, in novelette form. ~Tadiana Jones


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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KATIE BURTON, who joined us in September 2015, is a solicitor in London and now an aspiring journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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4 comments

  1. Katie, I was eager to read your review of “When Your Child Strays From God.” As I expected, you liked it much more than I did. While I loved the imagery and the narrative voice of Beth, I found the story to be predictable. My disappointment in an obvious ending did not fade with time. I thought the message of the story was heavy-handed; “There’s a new drug and intolerance is bad! Some churches are hypocritical!” Clearly, though, the author’s turn of phrase and technical style do carry the day, and I am out of step on this one (and not for the first time!)

    • Marion, I definitely see where you are coming from here, and as you say it was the style that won me to a much greater extent than the plot or the message. I must admit I was very close to giving it 4 stars but because I enjoyed it so much I had a spurt of generosity (which is rare because I’m normally stingy!). I’m very glad you commented as now readers can see that there are very different views on this one.

  2. I also read “Madeleine” and “When Your Child Strays From God” this past week but didn’t like either story as well as Kate and Katie did, so I truly appreciate the additional insights they’ve offered regarding both stories, particularly Kate’s comment about how much of the therapy portions of “Madeleine” ring true, given her personal experience with it.

    Personally I would give “Madeleine” 3 1/2 to 4 stars: I thought the story was predictable (I called the ending and the twist, if it is one, the first time Zeinab appeared) and the SFF aspect with the drug rather weak, but that was compensated for by the fine writing. I was really pulled in with each vividly described flashback.

    I’d rate “When Your Child Strays From God” 2 1/2, maybe 3 stars, because of, again, the predictability factor and because I think it relies too heavily on the overused trope of an intolerant and cruel religious leader who alienates his family–a too-easy target. The spiderwebbing drug experience was the most interesting part of this tale to me.

    It’s very interesting to compare the drugs that play a rather similar role in both stories.

    • I didn’t enjoy Madeleine that much either Tadiana. The concept was interesting but as you say I could see where it was going and got quite bored by the characters. The fact that I read both stories in one sitting probably influenced my high rating for “When your child Strays From God”. I tend to put weight on how much I enjoyed something and can be forgiving of overused tropes (although I agree they were present in both).

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