“Exhalation”, by Ted Chiang (2009) K

Date Read: 8.11.09
Read In: Night Shade Download
Reviewer: Kakaner

Exhalation is one of those special gems of short fiction that comes along only once in a while. The story belongs in a pocket of science fiction that not many people write in, and really stands out from the usual space fiction, sci-fi/fantasy meld, dystopia, or cyberpunk. It is about a world encased in a chromium bubble, in which the inhabitants are walking, living metal machines that survive on argon air, and one doctor sets out to discover the truth about their bodies.

The prose is fresh yet straightforward, very fitting for a scientist narrator. It’s also one of those stories that never drags but only continuously draws you in. I think the best part about Exhalation is its own “temporal ambiguity”– you really can’t tell if it’s supposed to be futuristic sci-fi, an AU, space fiction, or perhaps even “historical” sci-fi, and this quality lends the entire story a delicate air of surrealism. The conclusions drawn at the end by the doctor also indicate that this account, although short and delivered by one man, has serious implications and ramifications against the backdrop of the universe. Yet despite all the positive attributes, I didn’t feel an incredible emotional connection to the story. Perhaps it was the very precise narration, but I definitely felt like an observer instead of a participant.

I can’t say yet whether I believe this was the right choice for the 2009 Hugo Short Story winner. I feel like I understand one of the main reasons why it won, and that would be the cleverly crafted hard science fiction of the story. It’s been hard to find hard sci-fi like that of Exhalation in contemporary sci-fi. With cyberpunk on the rise, despite what I suspect to be at least half its readership having no background in cryptography or computation theory,  I think it’s been a while since people have found truly great and accessible science fiction. Chiang’s fiction is logical, with great attention to detail, and the technology in his story is definitely based on science while still allowing every person to understand the mechanics of his world, and it is this accessibility makes Exhalation real and relatable. I am going to read the other Hugo nominations for a stronger basis of comparison.

Go to:

Ted Chiang

“Behind the Mirror,” by Yoon Ha Lee (2007) E

Date read: 8.10.09
Read in: Coyote Wild
Reviewer: Emera

Yoon Ha Lee’s flash fiction (I did a word count out of curiosity – 223) “Behind the Mirror” is lovely, sad, and unsettling, and has one of the most memorable single lines I’ve read, that could be a poem all by itself. The story has an appropriately vanishing feel to it, a sort of silvery evanescence. I found one paragraph a little overwritten, which is troublesome in such a short piece, but it doesn’t really hurt the story as a whole.

“Behind the Mirror” appears in the first issue of online speculative fic/poetry quarterly Coyote Wild. Take a minute out of your day to enjoy Lee’s story. (That’s why I love short fiction – you can pop one in here and there so easily.)

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Yoon Ha Lee

“Urchins, While Swimming,” by Catherynne M. Valente (2006) E

Date read: 8.5.09
Read in: Clarkesworld, Issue 3
Reviewer: Emera

Catherynne Valente‘s short story “Urchins, While Swimming” left me wide-eyed and breathless. It’s a simple, sorrowful, beautiful story, filled with unforgettable imagery and lyrical language. It’s about love between mothers and daughters, and falling in love, and the Russian rusalka myth. (Unless you already know it, you might not want to read it until after you’ve read the story.)

Below, a few of my favorite lines:

“The stars were salt-crystals floating in the window’s mire.”

“Artyom ate the same thing every day: smoked fish, black bread, blueberries folded in a pale green handkerchief.”

“…she did not say we drag the lake with us, even into the city, drag it behind us, a drowning shadow shot with green.”

For this story, Valente won the 2007 StorySouth Million Writers Award for Best Online Short Story; very cool, and deserving. Kakaner also lent me her copy of Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden this weekend, and now I’m even more excited to start it.

Also, since both of us are so partial to short fiction, we’ll probably be inaugurating a secondary review index for short stories alone, which will require a monumental amount of effort, but hopefully be rewarding.

Go to:
Catherynne M. Valente

Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Date Read: 2.17.06

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Looking for Jake is Mieville’s first published short story collection, containing tidbits of every lustworthy genre– weird and urban fantasy, sci-fi, noird, horror, and of course, baslag. The collection is an extremely welcome contrast to Mieville’s previous works– one, his first novel, and the other three a sprawling epic trilogy. Mieville definitely clings (and I suspect will always cling) to the urban setting, which in my opinion, is the best type of backdrop to broil all types of conspiracies, folklore, and war. In the case of suspense and horror literature, I feel the urban setting also lends itself very well to relatability, and while you as the reader might find yourself soaring to distant lands and imaginations with high fantasy, urban fantasy brings the weird and excitement directly to you. My reactions to the stories in this collection range from indifferent to eyes-glued-to-the-page drooling– here I have some thoughts and mini-summaries of each story:

Continue reading Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Anna, by Isaac Marion and Sarah Musi (2008) E

Date Read: 2.2.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book anna

Anna is the wistful tale of a young ghost who falls in love with a human boy. When I first stumbled upon Isaac Marion‘s short fiction online, it was one of the stories that most enchanted both Kakaner and me. In 2008, Marion self-published a 50-edition print run of Anna, with illustrations by Sarah Musi.

I love the size and feel of the book, especially the old-fashioned font and heavily textured, off-white paper cover. There’s something very individual-feeling about self-published books, and with their slight imperfections, you somehow you get more of a sense of the author, and of the effort that went into making the book. Instead of it being A Copy of a Book, it’s A Book, if that makes any sense.

Musi’s ink illustrations are delicate, charming, and perfectly suit the feel of the story with their elegant, expressive minimalism. Her elongated forms, fine linework, and use of negative space struck me as being faintly Gorey-esque. The story unfolds simply and gracefully, with quiet gravity. The details of Anna’s existence as a ghost are particularly captivating: my favorite moment of the story might be when she sinks into a mountain, seeking the comfort of its solidity.

As of July 2009, about 25 copies of Anna are still available for sale on Marion’s site. You can also see previews of the text and art at the same link. I treasure my copy, so if you’re at all tempted, I would buy one while you still can.

Go to:

Isaac Marion
Isaac Marion’s fiction online
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion [E]
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion  [K]

M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007) K

Date Read: 7.4.07

Book From: Borders piracy

Reviewer: Kakaner

M is for Magic is a collection of short stories written for children. I had been eagerly anticipating the publication of this collection because I find Gaiman’s writing tends to come across warmer and his characters more relatable in his children works (Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, etc.).

I am sorry to say that this collection was sorely disappointing. First of all, I had already seen about half of these stories in other collections, for example, “Troll Bridge”– for the third time– and “Sunbird”. The first story in the collection, “The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds”, was abysmal. It literally hurt me to read it. It was incredibly contrived, and each paragraph seemed to end with a terribly joke or pun. To top it off, the story was also filled with sexual innuendos written in a childish manner, a clear attempt to transcend the boundaries of the age bracket of the genre through clever humor. I couldn’t believe I was actually reading children’s literature or Gaiman’s work for that matter.

“The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds” certainly spoiled the rest of the collection for me. There was no spark and nothing remarkable in the rest of M is for Magic. Despite the overall lackluster appeal of this collection, I still have great respect for Neil Gaiman and am still looking forward to his new works.

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Neil Gaiman

100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995) E

Date Read: 6.1.09

Book From: Personal collection (purchased via BetterWorld Books)

Reviewer: Emera

100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories (ed. Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz, & Martin Greenberg) and I have a history that, like its title, is long and sordid. I first found a battered paperback copy on my fifth-grade teacher’s bookshelf and brought it home with eager trepidation. After reading two or three stories, I got so scared that I brought it back to school and put it back on the shelf. Then, in my typical fashion, I furtively picked it up back off the shelf about a month later and, over the course of the next three or so months, methodically scared myself to death on a regular basis. A++ judgment abilities, as always.

Several of the stories stuck in my head very firmly, and in high school I actually fantasized several times about sneaking back into my middle school expressly to steal my teacher’s copy for keeps. (Yeah, I need better hobbies. But what was the probability of anyone but me reading a book like that anyway?) So egged on by niggling remembrances of moonlit magnolias and glasses full of blood imbibed at spas, I finally ordered a copy of my own (no dust jacket, sigh) from BetterWorld Books this past winter, although I knew that the majority of the book was probably dreck. Continue reading 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995) E