Our weekly exploration of short fiction, old and new, available on the internet.
“Alexandria” by Monica Byrne (Jan. 2017, Fantasy & Science Fiction Jan/Feb 2017 issue)
They were travelers, though of the domestic sort. After their terrible honeymoon, they’d never left Kansas again.
Monica Byrne is a playwright and fiction writer who won the James Tiptree Award in 2015 for her novel The Girl in the Road. “Alexandria” starts slowly, maybe a little bewilderingly, with Beth, an older woman living alone on her Kansas farm, thinking about the death of her husband Keiji. Interspersed with a record of Beth’s days are a few quotations from documents in the future. At first, it’s hard to see how the timelines will reconcile, but rest assured they do.
Beth’s marriage to a Japanese-American was seen as scandalous, and fifty years later it still is. Her closest neighbors have been after her to sell them the successful 500-acre farm that she can no longer maintain, and to their surprise, Beth agrees, with one startling condition.
Byrne uses simple observations, flawlessly described, to impart the wealth of life; the feel of soil under an old woman’s foot, the alignment of tomato slices in a sandwich. These details bring Beth’s world to life.
This is a deep and quiet story. Byrne’s details paint a full, three-dimensional picture of a marriage; a husband who is not physically demonstrative in public, in-laws who never set aside their suspicions of him, and the love Keiji and Beth feel for each other. The honeymoon is a metaphor. They wanted to see the lighthouse at Alexandria … but it was no longer there. There are two things in the story that were never seen during Keiji’s lifetime, and the lighthouse was one. Beth’s final decision, her tribute, is also an act of defiance in a way. It becomes, unbeknownst to her, a beacon through the decades. There is a science-fictional aspect here as the future storylines and the present storyline converge. I was expecting an interesting story with a lighthouse at its center; I got a powerful meditation on the nature of love. ~Marion Deeds
“Caligo Lane” by Ellen Klages (2014, free online at Subterranean Press, reprinted and free online at Tor.com). Anthologized in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Nine.
In early 1940’s San Francisco, when the Golden Gate Bridge had only recently been completed, Franny, a cartographer who creates highly unusual maps, lives on Caligo Lane, a hidden street made more evasive by magic, and generally found only by accident. Her home is filled with maps, both those she makes as well as those on which she follows the malignant news of World War II.
One day a postcard is delivered to Franny from her homeland (much delayed; the postman has difficulties finding Caligo Lane as well). On it are only a set of geographic coordinates. Franny needs to make a new map, creating a magical escape route for those in need, at great cost to herself.
The secret of ori-kami is that a single sheet of paper can be folded in a nearly infinite variety of patterns, each resulting in a different transformation of the available space. Given any two points, it is possible to fold a line that connects them. A map is a menu of possible paths. When Franny folds one of her own making, instead of plain paper, she creates a new alignment of the world, opening improbable passages from one place to another.
Once, when she was young and in a temper, she crumpled one into a ball and threw it across the room, muttering curses. A man in Norway found himself in an unnamed desert, confused and over-dressed. His journey did not end well.
Much of the rest of the story is spent following the detailed description of the process of creating this map. What could be dry takes on an unlikely beauty of its own, as mapmaking and origami and the San Francisco fog combine to create a magical work of art that consumes life as well as rescuing it. It’s a haunting and heartfelt tale of love and loss as well as creation.
Ellen Klages described her creative process in Subterranean Press, where this story was originally published, as a combination of an idea about a cartographer witch and a concept from China Mieville’s novel Kraken, with its “descriptions of impossible origami and folding objects into forgettable space.” The magic of the San Francisco setting and Franny’s origami-like maps are enchanting, contrasting effectively with the ominous backdrop of the war and the Holocaust. ~Tadiana Jones
In this poignant short story, brimming with secrets and cruelties, William’s Uncle Sholert hoards secrets, literally, in small wooden boxes. He lines the boxes with the tongues of doves that he feeds by hand, suddenly catching them, snipping out their tongue and then releasing the bird, telling William that they won’t retain any memory of it. William was sent by train to live with Uncle Sholert and is trained in the making of the boxes and the feeding of the birds. It is wartime, and many men in their English town of Beaconsfield are joining the military. William wishes to join these dashing young men going off to war ― at least until he begins seeing the baker’s daughter, Lily O’Reilly. He barely notices that Uncle Sholert seems taken with Lily as well.
This story, like “Caligo Lane,” has the flavor of an earlier time, apparently during one of the world wars, when men marched valiantly off to war, and a woman becoming pregnant out of wedlock was a shame to her and her family. Uncle Sholert’s magic is cruel in so many ways ― the mistreatment of the trusting doves is just the start of it ― but I felt for his choices as well as the plight of the other characters. It’s a touching, well-told story. ~Tadiana Jones
I read a lot of short stories and have a bad habit of only reviewing the ones I enjoyed. In fact, being rather fickle with my time, I often don’t get much further than the first few paragraphs of the stories I sense I won’t enjoy. So it’s always an exciting feeling when I know straight away that I’ve found a good ‘un.
“So Strange the Trees” is a simple love story set in a violent setting. Gunter Alquen, Presiding Officer of the Place of Blades in the city of PameGlorias, is out walking with his friend when he catches the eye of one of Parasheeva’s blossoms. These veiled woman have dedicated their lives to the God Parasheeva and have vowed never to have relations with a man. Poor Arquen falls instantly and dramatically in love and, though it is entirely out of character, knows he must pursue the lady whose eye he caught.
“So Strange the Trees” is a complete acceptance of the idea of love at first sight. Despite the terrible consequences of a breaking the laws of Parsheeva, Arquen knows he has no choice but to pursue his love whatever the cost. I enjoyed this single-minded passion ― maybe the festive season is making me romantic.
The sweetness of the love story is set off by the griminess of the setting. There is humour in the way Alquen flicks so easily from the violence of his day job (overseeing bloody sword fights) and the constant murders in the streets to his panic over which flower to present to his lady. We don’t learn a great deal about the dangerous world of PameGlorias, which is a bit of shame. But even so the author cleverly gives the impression that it is a fully-developed world. “So Strange the Trees” feels like a snapshot that could fit nicely into an epic novel. For me, there was just enough of the nasty PameGlorias to serve as an entertaining contrast to the sweet story of Arquen and his blossom. ~Katie Burton
In this more light-hearted short story, we enter the WILD CARDS universe, originally based on a role-playing game, developed into a story concept by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, and now shared by some thirty authors. In this alternative history, an airborne alien virus that was released after WWII has spread worldwide. The virus kills 90% of the humans who come into contact with it and mutates the rest, with 9% (the “jokers”) developing useless and/or repulsive deformities and just 1% (the “aces”) gaining superpowers without an adverse effect on their appearance.
Miranda, known as Rikki, lives in Jokertown, a community on the outskirts of New York City where Aces and Jokers have gathered to live among their own kind and avoid the stares and prejudices of natural people (the “nats”). Rikki’s parents both have the wild card mutation ― her mother is a woman with an octopus’ bottom half who delights in startling sightseeing nats who come into the convenience store where she works ― so she inherited her wild card gene from them. Rikki has superspeed, but she’s burdened by a whippet’s shape, with a miniscule waist and barrel chest, as well the mongoose-like fangs that led to her nickname.
Rikki and her group of teenage friends, all jokers as well, are restless within the safe confines of Jokertown. So Rikki talks the group into taking an excursion to Central Park, which they’ve never seen before. It’s an amusing tale, a little slight and predictable, but charmingly told, and given some depth by the group’s universal desire to spread their wings, despite their fears of trouble from those who aren’t like them. And the unusual (semi) superpowers of Rikki’s group of friends are captivating. ~Tadiana Jones