May 2022 short story reading post

Photo of notebook with handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my May 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

Parts of this will very likely end up in other posts in the future, when the ideas gather enough weight.

Background:

  • See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for detail.
  • Each dot point is one possible three-mood shape — one way of reading the shape of the story.
  • I use “mood” very broadly.
  • Very often I am working my way back to well-known maxims from first principles — it’s me studying story structure in real time.
  • The tiny descriptions of each story are notes to jog my own memory.

Previous posts:

I’ve recently posted about how I select these stories. Lists this month’s stories are taken from include Quick Sips Reviews 2021 Recommended Reading List and Alex Brown’s “must read” posts on Tor.com for January 2022 and February 2022.

So, to begin…

  • Min Zemerin’s Plan” — Katharine Addison (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — when her employer dies, a governess consults a witness for the dead to discover what is to become of her charge)
    • world and its workings — working within it — tweaking it
    • concerned action — observe intervention — moving with consequences
    • on offensive — defensive — affection
    • seeking — following — following through
    • efficient — self-contained — opening

I’m delighted by that first dot-point shape. That sense of a person working within their world — not breaking it but gaining competence in it — is something I love. I even wrote about that aspect for Meanjin: The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World. And many people who’ve been recommending Addison’s The Goblin Emperor to me (this story is in that world) have done so on the basis of our shared affection for books with that dynamic.

I also like that the structure isn’t one of escalating effort and complication. Rather, it involves an initial effort, and then riding out its consequences. That’s not passive — rather, it involves a character holding their nerve and NOT getting to rest after that first effort. It gives an intense, earnest quietness, suiting a story with at least three variously intense and earnest (but kindly) characters.

And I also like that pattern of duty and determination being allowed to open just slightly at the end to reveal (to the characters’ own faint astonishment) the affection behind their actions.

I also like the idea of just opening on the plan existing and being acted on. The title might suggest a longer set-up, but within 1.5 sentences the plan exists. And there is no opposition that is unanticipated, or worse than feared. The resistance of the story is all in the way the world is set up; the effort required is endurance and kindness. And therefore it is a portrait of a world and of how people might move through it.

  • To Exhale Sky” — Shingai Njeri Nagunda (Baffling Magazine, 2021 — a narrator with the ability to inhale and transform sorrow deals with the illness of her beloved)
    • an ability — delight — relaxation
    • live — admire — exhale
    • a trick — a treasure — understanding
    • hold on — look to — look up
    • gift — fear of loss — give

It’s a coming-to-terms-with-(anticipated)-loss story, and I like how it does that by paralleling a gift and a fear of loss — except that that initial gift is NOT what is actually threatened. But the gift is affected by the fear.

There’s a sense of offset and balance to this approach.

It’s a different use of that transference/parallel approach compared to (for example) the structure of Iona Datt Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind” (see here in the February notes). There, the loss was displaced from a person to a world and language. But here the tight hold, the breathing-in, is applied to person and gift (and world).

  • A Body in Motion” — William Alexander (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a space courier charted with mentoring a juvenile AI stumbles on something they should not have, and must think quickly)
    • petty — mature — expanding
    • juvenile — capable — independent
    • parental — encouraging — following
    • anxious — watchful — distressed/proud
    • pieces — clues — conclusion
    • avoid — dragged in — grasping hold

It’s an AI story, and I really like the set-up of AIs needing to be embodied and raised to a degree of maturity. It’s a different take with different consequences, vs e.g. being left to fend for and invent themselves from ill-considered clues, with mixed results.

It’s interesting to compare “A Body in Motion” to Nic Lipitz’s “The Office Drone” (see here in April notes), a story in a very different setting, and with a rather different edge of (a)morality/warning — and yet there are echoes to the story-shape.

Screenshot of linked tweet

What happens if something young and hopeful/restless is given the opportunity to learn, and what lessons they will take from that?

It’s also a coming-of-age-story from the point of view of parent/mentor, which is therefore also a reflection of the release/letting go story-shapes.

  • XY” — Lucy Zhang (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a woman dealing with her brilliant, controlling, aging parents finds their first attempt at designing a perfect daughter)
    • what was — your place — a door
    • careful perfection — detritus — options
    • dutiful — forgotten — oneself
    • shadow — mirror — approach
    • knowledge — conduct — connection

The themes of “XY” — AIs, parenthood, training, quasi-familial relationships, maturity, embodiment vs disembodiment — are very similar to those of “A Body in Motion” (above), although the stories, settings and shapes are dissimilar.

In shape, “XY” reminded me of “A Study in Ugliness” (see here in April notes). The moods aren’t the same, but exist on the same spectrum. What you could and should and fail to be, what exists outside/before/beside that, the opportunity to touch that mirror-self and step through.

Screenshot of linked tweet
  • Breath” — S A McKenzie (All Worlds Wayfarer, 2021 — a journeyman clockworker who gathers breath from the dying to power the Imperator’s mechanical soldiers falls in love with a guard)
    • obedience — spark — consequences
    • contentment — desire — desire acts
    • intellectual — personal — combined
    • daily actions — taking action — handed upon

Something interesting here is the passing-off of agency, so that earlier actions, abilities, desires & objects of desire are set in motion, and then sustained (for ill and good) by the protagonist. Even their later actions are the consequence of earlier rather than present intent.

It’s a different mechanism to “Min Zemerin’s Plan” (see earlier in this post), but interesting to compare where the motivating decisions/thoughts sit in the story, and where a character acts vs rides out consequences.

Compare also “Consigned to Moonlight” (see here in the April notes), which feels as if a protagonist is acting until the end, but actually follows characters being acted upon by actions taken by a departed character.

All these stories are dealing with end-of-life intentions, perhaps not coincidentally, and two with literal wills.

  • The General’s Turn” — Premee Mohamed (The Deadlands, 2021 — a prisoner of war is forced to take place in a cruel and elaborate masquerade, but the person controlling the game begins to get involved)
    • cruelty — restlessness — nihilistic joy
    • pride — ambition — oversetting
    • tormenting — taunting — aligned
    • wind — bite — turn
    • decadence — intrigue — something new
    • pageant — strategy — daylight

It’s interesting to compare this to Shaoni C White’s “Diamond Cuts” (see here in March notes), another tale of cruel ritual pageantry, although the story is driven from a different side of the stage.

Screenshot of linked tweet

Both achieve a similar closed-in effect, although “The General’s Turn” felt to me slightly more claustrophobic — perhaps a combination of the apparent purposelessness of the ritual and more awareness of the outside world?

But both end on a clear sense of an abrasive, potentially catastrophic (on very different scales) opening of doors.

The theatre as a cocoon within which things are broken down and remade, and all the ritualistic implications of that.

  • An Ōgama Tale in Seven Voices” — Betsy Aoki (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a beautiful spinning demon haunts a bridge and preys on a village, and a hunter arrives in pursuit, and more than one world is implicated)
    • creeping horror — violence — intention
    • purposeful — opposition — balance
    • predation — recognition — others’ desires
    • gathered — in tension — twined
      and (see notes below)
    • anchor tale begins — flashes of outside interference — wider implications

The passing-off between voices is interesting here — the sections aren’t vignettes but build on and from each other and are roughly sequential, with a bit of overlap, but there are hints and clues threaded between separated sections.

It made me think of Tashan Mehta’s “Rulebook for Building A Universe” (see here in April notes), but not in shape. In mythic mode + physics-of-worlds, perhaps. And that should then (for reasons discussed after “Rulebook”, above) suggest, e.g., Cooper Shrivastava’s “Aptitude” (here in January notes) and “Nonstandard Candles” (here in March notes), but doesn’t.

Perhaps this is because there’s more viscerality here? Literal viscera, yes, but also an anchoring in the reality of the world of the myth, like “Rulebook”, whereas “Aptitude” and “Nonstandard Candles” grow the other way — from physics/science-fiction into myths.

The latter progression (science to myth) doesn’t need to anchor itself so thoroughly at the beginning (there’s a veneer of the ‘real’), and then lets go of that gravity, unfurling into myth. The former (myth to science) needs to first build a mythic world and then grow it into something that sustains a multiverse.

Considered as a species of retelling, “An Ōgama Tale in Seven Voices” doesn’t literalise or reskin a story-type, but has its cake and eats it too. The base story is true, but its implications and uses are made much, much wider-reaching.

So the retelling-specific shape would be:

  • anchor tale begins — flashes of outside interference — wider implications
  • The Lake, the Valley, the Border Between Water and Wood, and the End of Everything” — Watson Neith (Translunar Travelers Lounge, 2021 — a couple who own a spell shop and struggle with demands on their time are called out on an emergency to help an earth spirit in trouble)
    • worries — urgency — relief
    • work — calling — understanding
    • small concerns — vast ones — knowing place/abilities
    • frazzled — tangling — talents

Although a problem must be dealt with in this story, it’s not a story structured around solving a problem. It is more about understanding a problem (or two) and making choices accordingly, to deal with it in the future. Moving things forward a degree, accepting a next step that was already suspected…

So the big intrusive problem, in its scale and urgency, focuses the characters’ more day-to-day considerations as well as giving perspective (in the sense of scaling them up vs reducing).

  • Cadaver Dogs” — B Narr (Nightmare Magazine, 2021 — kids on bikes go into the woods, although something is devouring children from their town)
    • thrill — dread — desire
    • oppressed — terrified — liberated
    • gruesome — grotesque — inverted
    • ominous — immediacy — viscerality
    • wondering — finding out — knowing
    • warned — disregarding — other side
    • fear — horror — wanting

That “bad — worse — turn-through” structure is a great short horror shape.

There are echoes between this story and H Pueyo’s “A Study in Ugliness” (here in April notes) — not just a similar type of grotesque, but also aspects of the story shape:

Screenshot of linked tweet

The initial situation is untenable (immediate genre-horror arrived earlier in “Cadaver Dogs”, the existing domestic situation is more obviously bad in “Ugliness”). Then the protagonists are lured by the horror/beyond (in the trees, through the mirror). And then — for better or worse — the horrific is not beautified but becomes more attractive than the normal.

And the lingering horror, beyond visual descriptions, lies in whether or not the horrific is redeemed for the reader, now that the everyday is irreparably compromised (if only by a character being willing to choose the horror over it).

The story-shape is a close cousin to tales of repression and self-liberation, of escape and portals — a relationship clearer in “A Study in Ugliness” with its clear portal fantasy allusions.

Anyway this was gruesome and I loved it.

And I *think* that takes me through all the easily-accessible short stories in Quick Sip Reviews 2021 Recommended list.

  • Ribbons” — Natalia Theodoridou (Uncanny Magazine, 2022 — in a country where wishes and curses are real, on the eve of deployment to war a man wonders what it means that he still has an enchanted ribbon tied around his throat, even after transitioning)
    • worry — restless — poised to fly
    • categorising — losing — prised loose
    • pattern of days — missed step — changed order
    • fear — loss — stretch out/exhale
    • legends — home to roost — chances
    • enough? — fates — redefine

A take on the are-things-the-way-they-must-be story. “Ribbons” is not a horror story (although there are horros in it), but compare the horror stories “Cadaver Dogs” (above) and “A Study in Ugliness” (here in April notes, and screenshot of shape above) for a related — if transposed — shape:

  • untenability — accentuated — lean into what was dreaded.

As a retelling (this time, a multiplicity of partial retellings around a central retold tale) — it both renders the myths and fairytales true and asks how much of that truth comes from how we’ve repolished and retold them quietly to ourselves.

If enchantment (magic, multiplicity, curses, possibility, change) is possible, can it ever really be categorisable or predictable? Wouldn’t that be the same as a world without hope or transformation or delight?

The story is not at all Diana Wynne Jones-esque except in that appreciation of unpredictable enchantment and the question of the difference between curses laid on you and ones you continue to hold, and what might happen (good or ill) if you look it in the face.

It’s also a story of everyday, unmagical life and concerns happening within an enchanted world, and that’s another style of story/retelling with a fascinating effect: the degree of metaphor, the honouring or persistence of the mundane, what can only be solved by magic vs what can’t be even then vs what shouldn’t be.

What, of all that there is to fear, are you most afraid of?

What, of all that there is to love, do you hold most dear?

Making things metaphorical, transposing, concentrating them — that’s one way to examine a question. But adding even more options, diluting and de/re-contextualising a situation is another time-honoured way. And I think that’s what shows up in this type of setting.
*(not diluting as in weakening, but as in putting it in a solution for ease of testing)

Very beautiful phrasing, too.

  • Beginnings” — Kristina Ten (Fantasy Magazine, 2022 — best friends plan their future, but a man in their town doesn’t think they fit his view of the world)
    • anticipation — edging forward — taken apart
    • incipience — plans — lash out
    • coiled — winding tighter — unsprung
    • not yet — but soon — except
    • where to from here — getting there — arrival (and closing options)

This is a story that tells you where it’s going and then proceeds to go there. Compare, for example, Katharine Addison’s “Min Zemerin’s Plan” (see notes earlier in this post). But in that case much of the tension is from whether the plan will work and how the characters will be affected by it. In “Beginnings” the ending is known.

The impetus of the story in “Beginnings” is from:

  1. the offset between the promise of the initial position and the explicit warning of the ending,
  2. the doubt (created by the fairy-tale stylings) as to whether that will really be the end, and
  3. a sense of inevitability, also created by the fable-style.

Like “Ribbons” (above), “Beginnings” also blends aspects of a recognisable everyday with fairytale events and stylings. But here they fail to heighten or loosen reality. What causes the ending is the inevitability that the myth brings, the cruel inability of the fantastic stylings to redeem the grinding reality, the weight of reality adding grimness to the end of a fairytale — even the gravitational pull of the fairy-tale a character tells himself.

The tales repeated to oneself cause anxiety but also hope and options in “Ribbons”. In “Beginnings” they shut down what could have been another story (one the reader sees the beginning of while the characters are only beginning to acknowledge it). The longer-told tale, the tale with greater violence at hand, warps and crushes others into its pattern.

Anyway, whoever told me this story is great was correct. Terrible as it is, Kristina Ten used the particular power of a short story writer (and a fable-shape) to keep it SHORT. Longer would have been much weightier & bleaker — this brevity was angering & therefore energising.

  • Clay” — Isabel J Kim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2022 — where people are fired from clay in an exacting industrial process, a courier takes a message to a man who believes the process is misguided)
    • the way things are — alternatives — a new understanding
    • placid — off-kilter — urgent
    • accepting — resistant — personal
    • happy enough — sullen — desperate
    • the world — efficiencies — the right question

This has such a subtle, strong emotional build, which is all the more affecting because the story shapes are close to some of my favourite science non-fiction shapes. I.e.:

  • the way we know things are — how wrong we were — the way we now theorise things might be!

It’s not a direct adoption of that shape, although you can find it in there, compressed and stretched within those larger moods.

That scientific-discovery shape can be quite thrilling on its own. But while “Clay” uses that impetus, especially for its final sequences, the story does not advertise itself as one of discovery. It’s told instead from the point of view of someone initially content enough with the world, and then grumpy about further enquiries. The protagonist does not consider themselves personally involved until near the end, although it’s obvious to the reader that something is amiss.

I love an apparently uninvolved or passive observer-narrator anyway, as well as a character who pays attention and gets invested/involved against their will, and the shape of “Clay” is a lovely example of how snd why that works.

So from the perspective of a reader, the story-shape could be:

  1. narrator too accepting of a flawed world
  2. narrator resists example of someone modelling revision/repair/revolution etc
  3. narrator, thrown by personal concerns, brings those together with lessons unwillingly learned & effects/aids change

It’s a resistant-protagonist story, but also a budging-an-apparently-intractable-issue story approached obliquely.

  • Dissent: A Five-Course Meal (With Suggested Pairings)” — Aimee Ogden (Lightspeed Magazine, 2022 — events from the narrator’s experience of dissent, resistance and consequences, structure like a menu)
    • murmurs — escalation — patience
    • dread — fight — bide
    • treasure — (help) slip away — hold
    • prepare — follow-through — consequences
    • defend — rescue — wait

This story is not so much a series of vignettes as freeze-frames (or tiny chapters) that together give a time-lapse view of a fight and a life and a movement/world. They build directly from what went before and don’t narratively pretend to stand alone. Each course on a menu plays a particular role in the progression of a meal, after all.

The five courses do however each follow a particular structural conceit (menu description and pairings). This list-structure highlights the chapter function of each part, setting it aside in time and contrasting it with the others. The sub-structure of each section (evocative taste, event, evocative flavour) brackets each time period neatly. Those sensory details could have been embedded in the scene. But here they concentrate attention on a vivid moment, a sense-memory.

The menu-structure is an interesting choice. Sense memories, consumption, the sense of something constructed and inflicted. And of course the progression through 5 courses, giving the sense of something ritualistic or cyclical or pre-ordained.

Compare, Sarah Turi Boshear’s “A Short Story in Seven Looks” (see here in March notes) which uses the segments & progression of a fashion show. There’s a discussion of a few other list-stories in that post after ”Seven Looks” (and elsewhere).

I do like how the various conceits of different types of lists allow stories to be dramatically compressed.

Considered as a story-of-a-life, or at least the adult part of one, “Dissent” again uses the bulk of its words on front-loading early events. The long tail of the character’s life is concentrated and put into a final payoff. I haven’t drawn any conclusion about this yet, but it’s an interesting pattern in a number of stories that cover a lot of time.

And considered as a resistance/revolution story, that cyclical/imposed shape is interesting. Also that the protagonist is never not prepared to dissent (there’s a build of state violence but they’re prepared from the start).

The story itself doesn’t appear cyclical in the constant-fight way. There’s relief here. But the structure and the desire to play a certain role in (future) events, the giving over to another for temporary safe-keeping, the willingness to wait, the sense that losing so many years was worth it — that suggests it does belong to the constant-revolution stories.

  • Itoro fe Queen” — Maurice Broaddus (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — in the Muungano space-mining hub, a newly-crowned Queen deals with a disaster that threatens what her people have built)
    • work with — dawning grief — wrest back
    • disrespected — scale of responsibility — hold/demand respect
    • how got here — what has achieved — how held
    • awareness — assessment — conclusions

A simple but effective shape (not of growth but assertion/action-in-power, the demonstration of a position beyond the merely ceremonial), which forms the central spine that supports the world-building.

It is not the same shape as LD Lewis’ “From Witch to Queen and God” (see here in April notes), which is also an establishment-of-position story. But the shapes are related.

Screenshot of linked tweet

The initial violence of “From Witch” is redirected. Then there is a central transitional passage. And finally an underlining of position (achieved in “From Witch…”, acknowledged in “Itoro fe Queen”).

“Itoro fe Queen” is particularly concerned with the history of its world and situation. So if you take the reading that the story-shape is “how got here — what has achieved — how held”, that can to varying degrees describe either the backstory or the immediate character journey.

  • Free Coffin” — Corey Flintoff (Fantasy Magazine, 2022 — an elderly widower decides to acquire a coffin left out with the large trash, but a neighbourhood boy claims to have seen it first)
    • desire — persuasion — realisation
    • covet — possess — be possessed
    • acquire — transport — storage/destination
    • opposed — conciliatory — predatory

This story has two characters and interpretations dancing around each other, and all those different readings of the story-shape apply pretty well to either character. It feels very neat in the story, and this sort of dual shape is a particularly tidy way to balance the sort of story which is either ambiguous about its characters positions relative to each other, or in which roles are gradually exchanged.

Tonya Liburd executed a similar manoeuvre (with a different story-shape) in “10 Steps to a Whole New You” (see here in March notes), which shared some related mythology. It’s something to do with mirrors and the Gothic, perhaps.

Interestingly, while “10 Steps…” leans into emotion, “Free Coffin” keeps the reader at arm’s length — the emotions are there and understandable but I felt warned away from being too sympathetic. I realised this when I saw I could have been a bit more interior with the story-shape, which would have made it more particular to the characters. e.g.

  • narrow focus — preening — alarm
  • offended — warily curious — self-satisfied

But while either three-mood shape would be accurate, for me they suggest a story that aligns the reader much more closely with a side. Instead, “Free Coffin” gives the effect of being a neighbour watching with mild impersonal curiosity from behind the curtains, which is of course consistent with the story’s setting and what makes the events possible.

Also, the story-shape of “Free Coffin” is a particularly short sharp Gothic/horror/inversion/reversal shape. The misreading or over-reach or “oh no” shape.

It’s SO simple and linear (and without a lot of elaboration seems best-suited to quite short stories) that it’s interesting to see how authors vary it. There’s a classic converging/crossing happening in “Free Coffin”, a little misdirection & question re who/what is the monster.

I think the structure often appears in jump-scare, flash, and urban-legend style stories, but I have to go back and check that assumption.

It also gets into other story shapes. E.g. “A Study in Ugliness” (see here in April notes) pulls the realisation back a little earlier and lets the character lean into it.

Screenshot of linked tweet

“Cadaver Dogs” (see earlier in this post) pulls it back so early that it’s just “suspicion — realisation” and then the third mood is the consequences.

Screenshot of linked tweet
  • Component Parts of a Belated Apology” — AnaMaria Curtis (Fireside, 2022 — the narrator calmly visits her extended family, hearing their apologies about her mother’s childhood, and collecting the grim souvenirs)
    • grim — gruesome — calmly desperate
    • sedate — methodical — dedicated
    • beginning — continue — complete
    • small slices — deep cuts — deep/cool grief
    • concerning — alarming — sympathetic

I haven’t seen a three-mood story shape where all three moods are the same for a while, but this comes close. (The final hospital scene shifts the gears.)

But the majority of the story is a sequence of variations on a theme/event. And this means that as well as the micro-shifts in details and reactions, you get an establishing sense of what’s going on and then a doubling-down on it: “beginning — continue — complete”.

The repetition of the act and the maintenance of the narrator’s intention keeps changing the emotion and meaning of both action and intention. You could imagine a version which ended with the casket scene rather than the hospital scene — it would be a different story and point, but those repetitions create a sort of articulated through-line, which would still bend into a complete story shape.

  • “From Earth to Io, With Love” — Adelehin Ijasan (Fiyah #21 — when the protagonist’s teleportation goes awry, they discover more about the process than they were meant to)
    • mundane — horrific — reset
    • cautiously trusting — desperate — furious
    • ‘civilised’ — violence — reaction/adjustment
    • the set — behind the scenes — correction
    • the promise — the mechanics — perpetuation

This was the second story in a row to make me go “argh!”. A short story can get a lot of mileage out of a good visceral reaction.

(Aside: Now I’m curious about whether purely visceral effects could sustain a repeated-mood story shape, as discussed above. I suspect an emotional component is best suited to it.)

Anyway, this story shape is a solid little roller-coaster: “false sense of security — wild ride — shaking up into misleading sense of security“.

Regarding the notes following “Free Coffin” (above), imagine — as a thought exercise — a version of the story that ends with the reveal/horror. I suspect it would need to frontload the emotional work with the pets, to make the human aspect more of a horrific tragedy.

But this shape is reminiscent of a Gothic shape: door (decision to make the trip) — thing through it (metaphorically knowledge, literally the protagonist) — door closed but lingering unease remains (here, the unease is pushed out of the story onto the reader rather than being experienced by the character).

It’s intriguing to see the difference in effect between closely-related short story shapes. Here, although this is not a story that ends in a twist (the reveal starts about 1/3 in), the fact that the reader is pushed out the end with an emotion/lesson not shared by the character makes it FEEL like having read a twist story. That “augh!” effect.

The loneliness of the [twist/shock/alarm] ending.

Anyway, it’s interesting to note where a reader enters into a character’s experience/mood, and where there’s a forced separation.

  • Seven Times Seven” — AC Wise (Kaleidotrope, 2022 — two friends/lovers summon an uncanny creature to free one of them from their hateful father, but it goes wrong)
    • gritty — anguished — torn
    • panicked — enthralled — coming to
    • trapped — pain — choosing
    • gripping — tearing — pulling free
    • the curse — the wish — the damage done

Broadly it has that sort of switchback shape: “where we are — how we got here — what that means“. I’ve made notes on that shape before, eg following Nate Southard’s “The Blisters On My Heart” (see here in February notes).

Screenshot of linked tweet and the tweet after it

In “Blisters” that structure created the sense of a closed-loop, and noirish inevitability. Here, interestingly, it still has some of those characteristics (the night-time drive, the panic, the hint of deaths and crimes).

In a short piece, that you-might-be-wondering-how-I-got-here shape seems to lend itself to claustrophobic effects more than to capers (possibly capers benefit from a longer, chaotic flashback).

But “Seven Times Seven” treats the story-shape differently. The broad shape is maintained, but the story moves constantly back and forth between memory, reality and hallucination/illusion. The process of realising the looping shape and the necessity of a final choice becomes the way to make the choice and escape the loop. Interestingly, this makes the story even more of a loop (the final return), while making it feel less inevitable (the hope).

That hope and chance of escape, distinct but tenuous, relieves some of that claustrophia — this might have been a purgatorial story otherwise. The night sky and biting at the one you love and the sense of stories eating themselves brings it close.

To the extent this is a retelling of a legend(s), it’s also worth comparing to the retellings-that-are-catalysts-for-non-magical-stories. (Last commented on re “Ribbons” and “Beginnings”, above.) Here the mythic interaction is the story, and deeply affects the current situation — it’s just not (and never was) the initial cause or answer.

It’s a retelling as detour and complication.

(And therefore again, as per “Ribbons” and “Beginnings”, it is about the effects of the stories we tell.)

  • Storm Wolves” — Nathan Slemp (Flashpoint SF, 2022 — a cursed/changed tank crew behind enemy lines confront a suspicious survivor)
    • situation — hesitation — decision
    • players — conflict — being realistic
    • reconnaissance — debate — grim delight
    • weariness — scuffle — direct own natures

This is a very short flash piece. That tipping point between vignette and short story continues to be intriguing. “Storm Wolves” sails very close to the wind, and could extremely easy be the opening scene to a medium-short story.

However it unquestionably is story-shaped, however brief. You can leave it there and walk away feeling you’ve read a story, a complete moment, however the events continue to play out. Compare the notes following Victoria Zelvin’s “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes” (see here in the March notes).

(Both begin as “sitting in my tin can” stories, amusingly.)

But while “A Sunrise…” is a coming-to-terms story (or maybe a breathing-through-it story), “Storm Wolves” is broadly a having-come-to-terms-with-it story, but one where the practical application is still being worked out/decided on. Which is the brief plot.

Anyway, it’s interesting to look at these flash-fiction story-shapes and see what can fit in (or be implied in) that length.

  • The Elements of Her Self” — Kiyomi Appleton Gaines (Nightmare Magazine, 2022 — a young woman found in a stalk of bamboo is pursued relentlessly by a man who covets her)
    • peace — pursued — grim
    • evading — anguish — determination
    • holding out — under attack — incremental resistance
    • the tale — the turn — the next tale
    • dutiful — horrified — biding

An interesting story-shape here, and one which I think relies very much upon the story being a retelling — the distinct feeling that the story is meant to go another way, or at least that it is often told as going another way.

It starts very much in that expectation — the told-tale, the dutifulness. The central part is (consciously) chopped and jerky, with memories and violence and realisation and loss shuffled through each other. And then it becomes a time-lapse of images as the protagonist suffers through and begins to take hold of herself in a new story.

Those very frequent scene breaks operate like an accelerating strobing effect. The constant (the central moving image within the zoetrope) is the protagonist, holding onto herself, putting herself back together, starting again.

As a thought-exercise, consider following that pattern with another story. Pick a tale and a theme to concentrate on (e.g., individual autonomy, in this story). Break the story at a key point — have it go ‘wrong’ and get worse. Follow the theme upwards again from there. Can the story be redeemed? Does it go another way? Does it become about something other (smaller, larger) than the original tale? About survival, or relentless oppression, or holding on to something?

This is the retelling-tradition of making fairy tales even MORE problematic.

  • The Night the River Meets the Sky” — Lina Rather (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — at midnight, a contemporary woman is able to meet with her daughter, a river goddess)
    • affection — maintenance — chill
    • desired mystery — precarious normalcy — repressed accusation
    • deliberate — careful — grim
    • await — touch — part

Again, a very short story, contained and limited by an allotted window of time. This is an effective way to keep it so short: just one moment, and the word-length allotted to backstory is necessarily abbreviated so as not to disproportionately weight it.

And the three-mood shape is also similarly contained: rather than a sequence of big emotions, it is a progression/decay of an initial frail mood. So it becomes a story about a bare minute(s?) and what can happen to an initial affection/desire for reassurance in that time.

Although of course it manages to encompass the history of that relationship, and the past and future of a community.

  • What Sleeps at the Heart of Aurora Station” — Margaret Dunlap (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — on a tangled, cobbled-together space-station, a survivor discovers what powered the dead ship at its heart)
    • hungry — startled — determined
    • failing — curious — alarmed
    • seeking — finding — reaching
    • stirring — surfacing — waking
    • hints — tale — play assigned roles

A straightforward shape, but with two interleaved strands gradually trading importance.

And as much as I like wild shifts and unexpected directions, I enjoy the way those slim logical progressions of moods (stirring — waking — acting) can both support and clearly set the scope of a very short story.

To the extent it’s a retelling, my first thought was to refer back to Betsy Aoki’s “An Ōgama Tale in Seven Voices” (see above), but the common approach isn’t structural — it’s the use of a myth or tale (specifically one involving spinning) as a literalised metaphor for some aspect of science (interdimensional vs faster than light travel).

And so, as I said above, the story gets to have its cake and eat it too.

  • A Lie in the Sand” — Devin Miller (Metaphorosis, 2022 — an apprentice bard must work out how to cross a beach of haunted sandcastles)
    • problem — solution — lesson
    • puzzling — lulling — joy
    • grumpy — thinking — acting
    • pieces — assembling — whole
    • complaining — attentive — good(ish)

A classic (but not in fact all that common), clear problem-attempts-solution story. Perhaps one reason the shape is so clear is that it’s specifically ABOUT being set a problem to solve. Which is why there’s that secondary shape moving from digging the heels in and sighing, to applying oneself, to the delight of competence. It’s a story about learning your trade. (Specifically a creative trade and skills, in this case, but this story-shape would work equally well for others.)

Some lovely moments and lines and character interactions, too.

It’s interesting to compare this to GV Anderson’s “The Lay of Lilyfinger” (see here in the January notes), also about creative apprenticeship, but that shape echoes the creative process more (instead of the learning process) although the gathering-weaving-display shape could apply to both stories.

  • Eight Arms to Hold You” — Angela Teagardner (Cast of Wonders, 2022 — an octopus schemes to escape his tank in a lab, with a very specific purpose)
    • determination — perseverance — satisfaction
    • intention (scheming) — apparent aim (scheme 1) — real aim (scheme 2)
    • smart — dexterous — clever

A very little story, and deliberately light, and the primary opposition to the main character is merely the practical impacts of his plan once it’s set in motion. And that works: the character’s cheerful determination attracts & repays investment. And that very slight redirection in the plot — the elaborate plan being in fact in the cause of a different, real main goal — is very satisfying in a story this size.

It could very easily have been an A-to-B story. A longer story might have become Rube Goldberg-esque. But instead it bounces neatly off a wall and into the basket.

That very slight misdirection — not a twist, but the problem being solved in the foreground being not perhaps quite the same one as the story is ultimately concerned with (or variations on that) — is very pleasing. “A Lie in the Sand”, above, does this in a slightly different way.

  • Intimacies” — Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (Strange Horizons, 2022 — a hippocampus father encounters a human man with very different ideas on the right way to raise children)
    • certainties — uncertainties — new equilibrium
    • uprooted — return — return
    • proud — isolated — affectionate

A lovely story-shape fora story about experiencing and incorporating a disruption and a multiplicity of views.

It doesn’t have the same story shape (awkwardness — proliferation of options — harmony) or way of blending things as M. L. Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse” (see Story Shapes & Extrapolation for those notes), but there are echoes.

There’s also a steady hand on the reins, here — it’s a story resolutely about intimacy *not* sex, and the discomfort and power of that.

Every so often you hit a story where you can see the author has steered a very precise course. Sometimes it’s to make a point or achieve an effect. And sometimes it’s simply a choice of language that gives the sense of a mature and steady authorial confidence, which for some reason I associate with kaiju stories (unrelated to “Intimacies”, but discussed in the notes after Lauren Ring’s “One Hundred Seconds to Midnight”, here in the April notes).

  • Loom” — Solomon Uhiara (Dark Matter Magazine #8, 2022 — in a future where memories can be backed up, the narrator (and his mother) seek to understand his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s)
    • care — worry — preparation
    • reach out — observe — accept
    • clues — disappointment — resignation
    • observing — understanding — larger context

This is the sort of story (dealing with a grandfather’s Alzheimers) that is often a coming-to-terms/acceptance story (less often a rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light). But “Loom” pulls the rather interesting trick of letting you think it will take that path, and then pulling back and showing you that the usual end-point has already been achieved. In fact, what we have been seeing is a layered, cyclical, only gradually deteriorating stability.

A story in which change is not achieved makes for an interesting way to manage worldbuilding: that fixed point of the story tilts slightly to show facets of the world.

I’d like to come back and consider the shape of this one a bit more, because for all of the almost-static progress, it is also about moving forward through time, with all that’s gone before. And therefore there is some resonance with the shapes of revolution & chronic pain stories.

  • Rider Reviews For FerrymanCharon” — Guan Un (Translunar Travelers Lounge, 2022 — trip reviews for a ferry ride attract the attention of the ferryman’s boss)
    • overview — complications — double down
    • rules — bending them — bending more
    • chinks — loopholes — cracks
    • stuffy — irritating — aggravated

While never quite showing Charon’s side of things, this story nevertheless manages to give an impression of Charon being something like a cat that makes eye contact and pushes things off the shelf. Curiously, the last story I noticed that character trait in was Alix E Harrow’s “Mr Death” (see here in February notes), also about a psychopomp.

Screenshot of linked tweet

“Rider Reviews for FerrymanCharon” is a story with many voices, each of their reviews offering (as reviews do) less a vignette than the implication that an event happened.

Those small parts are linked in a few ways. The recurring attempts by the failed rider offer an amusing connection. But the owner’s replies (and escalating aggravation) provide the main structural through-line, responding to each segment (review) and (off-page) taking disciplinary action.

As a retelling, the story functions mostly through allusion — familiarity is not required (the format and actions taken provide sufficient context) but deepens the entertainment.

The story also approaches its retelling(s) by gathering thematically related stories and unifying them into one story. The story becomes about the connection between the tales rather than the individual tales (see also, for example, Malcolm Devlin’s “The Knowledge”, in the February notes).

And of course there’s the structuring conceit of how a very old story might play out through modern technology/platforms. (That approach always raises interesting questions of what is mythic and what the mythic can survive, narratively.)

Unlike some others structures, that structural conceit doesn’t come with an inherent/implied narrative structure. (See, for example, menus, as in Aimee Ogden’s “Dissent: A Five-Course Meal (With Suggested Pairings)…” above, or fashion shows as in Sarah Turi Boshear’s “A Short Story in Seven Looks, in March notes.) But in such a short story, it combines nicely with that very simple “situation — misbehaviour — escalation” pattern, to give just enough of a shape to be a story.

And that’s the end of the May short story reading notes.

All stories read in this post (with internal links to the first place they’re discussed)

  • Min Zemerin’s Plan” — Katharine Addison (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — when her employer dies, a governess consults a witness for the dead to discover what is to become of her charge) 3,488
  • To Exhale Sky” — Shingai Njeri Nagunda (Baffling Magazine, 2021 — a narrator with the ability to inhale and transform sorrow deals with the illness of her beloved) 1,106
  • A Body in Motion” — William Alexander (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a space courier charted with mentoring a juvenile AI stumbles on something they should not have, and must think quickly) 3,550
  • XY” — Lucy Zhang (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a woman dealing with her brilliant, controlling, aging parents finds their first attempt at designing a perfect daughter) 1,966
  • Breath” — S A McKenzie (All Worlds Wayfarer, 2021 — a journeyman clockworker who gathers breath from the dying to power the Imperator’s mechanical soldiers falls in love with a guard) 4,923
  • The General’s Turn” — Premee Mohamed (The Deadlands, 2021 — a prisoner of war is forced to take place in a cruel and elaborate masquerade, but the person controlling the game begins to get involved) 7,592
  • An Ōgama Tale in Seven Voices” — Betsy Aoki (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a beautiful spinning demon haunts a bridge and preys on a village, and a hunter arrives in pursuit, and more than one world is implicated) 2,944
  • The Lake, the Valley, the Border Between Water and Wood, and the End of Everything” — Watson Neith (Translunar Travelers Lounge, 2021 — a couple who own a spell shop and struggle with demands on their time are called out on an emergency to help an earth spirit in trouble) 4,432
  • Cadaver Dogs” — B Narr (Nightmare Magazine, 2021 — kids on bikes go into the woods, although something is devouring children from their town) 2,279
  • Ribbons” — Natalia Theodoridou (Uncanny Magazine, 2022 — in a country where wishes and curses are real, on the eve of deployment to war, a man wonders what it means that he still wears a curse associated with women, even after transitioning) 4,236
  • Beginnings” — Kristina Ten (Fantasy Magazine, 2022 — best friends plan their future, but a man in their town doesn’t think they fit his view of the world) 1,560
  • Clay” — Isabel J Kim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2022 — where people are fired from clay in an exacting industrial process, a courier takes a message to a man who believes the process is misguided) 6,020
  • Dissent: A Five-Course Meal (With Suggested Pairings)” — Aimee Ogden (Lightspeed Magazine, 2022 — events from the narrator’s experience of dissent, resistance and consequences, structure like a menu) 724
  • Itoro fe Queen” — Maurice Broaddus (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — in the Muungano space-mining hub, a newly-crowned Queen deals with a disaster that threatens what her people have built) 2,803
  • Free Coffin” — Corey Flintoff (Fantasy Magazine, 2022 — an elderly widower decides to acquire a coffin left out with the large trash, but a neighbourhood boy claims to have seen it first) 3,473
  • Component Parts of a Belated Apology” — AnaMaria Curtis (Fireside, 2022 — the narrator calmly visits her extended family, hearing their apologies about her mother’s childhood, and collecting the grim souvenirs) 3,003
  • From Earth to Io, With Love” — Adelehin Ijasan (Fiyah #21 — when the protagonist’s teleportation goes awry, they discover more about the process than they were meant to) (mid-length?)
  • Seven Times Seven” — AC Wise (Kaleidotrope, 2022 — two friends/lovers summon an uncanny creature to free one of them from their hateful father, but it goes wrong) 4,256
  • Storm Wolves” — Nathan Slemp (Flashpoint SF, 2022 — a cursed/changed tank crew behind enemy lines confront a suspicious survivor) 765
  • The Elements of Her Self” — Kiyomi Appleton Gaines (Nightmare Magazine, 2022 — a young woman found in a stalk of bamboo is pursued relentlessly by a man who covets her) 1818
  • The Night the River Meets the Sky” — Lina Rather (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — at midnight, a contemporary woman is able to meet with her daughter, a river goddess) 883
  • What Sleeps at the Heart of Aurora Station” — Margaret Dunlap (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — on a tangled, cobbled-together space-station, a survivor discovers what powered the dead ship at its heart) 2,332
  • A Lie in the Sand” — Devin Miller (Metaphorosis, 2022 — an apprentice bard must work out how to cross a beach of haunted sandcastles) 3,220
  • Eight Arms to Hold You” — Angela Teagardner (Cast of Wonders, 2022 — an octopus schemes to escape his tank in a lab, with a very specific purpose) 1,288
  • Intimacies” — Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (Strange Horizons, 2022 — a hippocampus father encounters a human man with very different ideas on the right way to raise children) 4,066
  • Loom” — Solomon Uhiara (Dark Matter Magazine, 2022 — in a future where memories can be backed up, the narrator (and his mother) seek to understand his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s) (mid-length?)
  • Rider Reviews For FerrymanCharon” — Guan Un (Translunar Travelers Lounge, 2022 — trip reviews for a ferry ride attract the attention of the ferryman’s boss) 504

13 thoughts on “May 2022 short story reading post

  1. Pingback: May 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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