August 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my August 2022 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post. Also, as usual, this post is long, so the rest is below the cut…

Parts of this will very likely end up in other posts in the future, when the ideas gather enough weight (see, for example, Purgatorial stories). A few of the themes emerging (and re-emerging) this month include:

  • Character conviction and commitment, and striking from a purer version of oneself
  • Comeuppance
  • Joy in work, and doing the work
  • What one does with inevitabilities
  • Digitally-preserved personalities
  • The role of (literal and metaphorical) mirrors
  • Rituals
  • Mixing technologies and divinities
  • Food and loss and memory
  • What monologues reveal
  • What constrains the length of a short story
  • Borrowing and adapting shapes
  • What causes a story shape
  • Voice, and voice vs shape
  • Where does the tension/friction come from in passive, calm and upbeat stories
  • What structure reveals about the story-behind-the-story

Background and related posts:

And so, to begin…

  • Matrimonial Quest at Luna Prime and Other Existential Dread” — Deka Omar (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — Zahra submits herself to the aggravation of a lunar single’s mixer and her judgemental e-chaperone, but external protests interfere with her plans), 3019
    • the grind — put-out — alarm
    • stay true — act true — unwelcome consequences
    • pained — irritated — furious
    • controlled — failure — out of control

Something I like about the shape of this story is its progression into the unwelcome (if humorous) consequences of having tried to be on one’s best behaviour (socially and ethically).

It also veers merrily off its apparent course in the last third, giving the story a caper-ish feel, linked amusingly back to where it began by the fixed focus of one (sort-of) character. The story doesn’t lean too heavily on that character (the e-chaperone), but it does demonstrate the usefulness to both comedy and a tangent-loving plot of having a character with an unwavering personality/obsession/focus to act as throughline/pivot/anchor.

  • Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect” — John Wiswell (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — two demons experiment on a small town to prove that their existence does not depend on human belief) 2,732
    • pompous — unsettled — abject
    • certainty — resisting doubt — horror
    • door — suspicion — understanding
    • cool — warmer — too close

This story represents a very different version of doubling-down on one’s convictions — here, involving arrogance and comedically gruesome comeuppance, instead of principles.

It has a hint of that Gothic door-opening shape, although very much from the other side, and with a less equivocal ending than the classic shape.

In terms of comeuppance, there are echoes in the academic folly and disbelief of Devan Mihesuah’s “Tenure” (see here in the June post). Mihesuah’s story deals with more serious matter, but you can see the shape of someone committed to a (bad) course of action which leads to a bad end.

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This story is a dramatic monologue — leaning into the dramatic with the stage directions clearly implied (and occasionally explicitly signalled) by the recorded speech, the unspecified but distinctly present noises-off.

As I mentioned in relation to Vanessa Fogg’s “Fanfiction for a Grimdark Universe” (see here in the March notes), a monologue reveals a lot about what a story is doing — its limitations mean you can see the joints and tendons and the effort required to shift a narrative through its gears.

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  • “Currant Voices in a Convection Oven” — Sarah Ramdawar (Augur Magazine #5.1, 2022 — after Trinidad and Tobago are lost to the sea, Molly recreates her mother’s recipe in a baking competition and listens to the voices of the food) 852
    • determination — holding tight — opening hands
    • certainty — externalities — certainties
    • ambition — opposition — strong peace
    • joy in work — cautions against joy — joy in time

A very short story in which very little dramatic happens — except that the quietness within life is itself dramatic, and there are swirling tensions (the rising sea, the competition, risks taken) which create friction by NOT being the focus of story or character.

It would have been very easy to write this scene as a vignette, a slice of life, but this is certainly story-shaped. There is a billow and fall and rise of mood, there is a finality to its conclusion, a lingering note. Steps are taken, rest (in motion, in anticipation) achieved.

It’s a very short piece, and to a degree that’s achieved by the built-in space of time of the event it covers (knead, adjust, put in oven). The shifting moods and inputs dig out room within that.

  • The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” — CM Fields (Diabolical Plots, 2022 — after being damaged in a crash, an android built for grand loves realises what has been done to it, and takes action) 2,242
    • grand passions — tended flame — conflagration
    • belief — realisation — fury
    • beauty — ugliness — glory
    • obey — review — stride
    • glories — cruelties — ravaging
    • belief — realisation — fury
    • romance — behind facades — reinvent

The progression here reminds me of that in Marika Bailey’s “Daughters with Bloody Teeth” (see here in the March notes). The base situation is not the same, but there are echoes: the removal of a veil, the becoming more purely oneself, and then striking from that position.

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Elements of that also appear in Nhamo’s “Before Whom Evil Trembles” (see here in the February notes) — another righteous flame/burning indignation/coming into power story.

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And here in “The Twenty-Second Lover…” you can also see some of the constraints keeping a story short. There are a lot of illustrative (gorgeous) flashbacks, but they only deepen the mood, and are not plot as such in themselves. Whatever its ornamentation and justification, the story is limited to being about the point of realisation and the immediate next steps. A longer piece — a novella or novel — would run past histories into subplots, trace consequences, allow for aftershocks, etc.

NB. One of several reasons I keep linking and comparing stories, is that occasionally I’ve tried to achieve a specific effect, and it’s been useful to look at a group of stories which succeed in that, and note what the mechanics seem to be.

For example, with “On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford“, I was trying to capture a mood of wonder, but kept skewing into horror. So I tracked the shapes of a group of stories that feel wondrous to me, trying to ID the type of patterns they shared. And since I have the same problem in both directions, I collated a bunch of Gothic (vs horror, vs fairytale, etc) shapes to work out why pieces I was trying to make creepy kept turning out heartwarming.

In both cases, it wasn’t a copying of a particular story structure or shape. It was more… looking for the particular key or chord progression, and seeing if I could transpose that into what I was already doing. E.g., “wonder” often involved either a plateauing/disappointment and then a shift into a new/integrated/unexpected/expansive state, or an accelerating joyful momentum, or both. “Gothic/spooky” needed to lean more into the residual unsettling (vs charm or absolute threat).

So if I were trying to get a story to feel like righteous fury, and it wasn’t, I might look back at these examples and note where I could use e.g. a shift from viscera to glory, or the function of some form of snapshot review of injustices. Or the presence of literal flame (or something else that could do the same job).

The same would work in a picture — a person lit up phoenix-bright in flames could be a deity, even an avenging one; but if they stand among viscera or their feet are filthy and their hems ragged and marks of mistreatment are on them, *then* you have the sense of retribution.

  • There Are No Monsters On Rancho Buenavista” — Isabel Cañas (Nightmare Magazine, 2022 — a man sets out to prove the woman his cousin is courting is not all she seems) 739
    • suspicion — confirmation — overtaken
    • disbelieved — proof — too late
    • jealous — gory — punishment
    • evasion — confrontation — satisfaction
    • pursue — catch — caught

A nicely contained (it’s a very short story), classically satisfying evasion/comeuppance story-shape.

Here are a couple related story-shapes to compare.

First, “Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect” — John Wiswell (see notes above). You can see the cool confidence in one’s own rightness, and then the drastic overshooting of the goal.

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Second, Devon Mihesuah’s “Tenure” (see here in the June notes). There’s less initial pursuit in “Tenure”, although the complacency and double “oh no — OH NO” is there.

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Third, Shaoni C White’s “Consigned by Moonlight” (see here in the April notes) is a comeuppance story, but with more of a puzzle-shape, so the reader doesn’t see the consequences coming in the same way:

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Considered as a retelling, “There Are No Monsters” starts from some of the presumptions of the original tale, and then shuts them down smartly. One character is in the known story; the other has her own plans for how it should play out.

  • Witchbreaker” — Leah Ning (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2022 — a team of witchbreakers try to care for their families while fighting witches who warp time) 6,371
    • cavalier — damage — desperation
    • pull away — wrestle — hold
    • certainties — risking — valuing

This story and its shape are unrelated to the comments above BUT the first thing I noticed is that it also starts off from a position of somewhat cavalier certainties and individualism, before kicking off in a different direction. This is a story where those certainties aren’t criticised or punished — although they are re-evaluated, as part of life moving on. To that extent, it deals with questions of maturity and aging and life.

Interestingly, while this is not a story-of-a-life story, and doesn’t do that trick of shrinking 90% of a life into less than a third of a story, it does actively compress OTHER people’s lives. Literalising that impression of life happening while someone’s away at work.

I do enjoy that fantastic take on looking at an idea or a saying and asking, “what if that was happening literally, though?” and then running the consequences through.

Of course, it’s why editing fantastic genres comes with its own sets of traps — dangers of figurative language that’s perfectly functional anywhere else — and why (as an illustrator) I often need to go back to clients and double-check ambiguities around words like “appears”.

The last Leah Ning story I read was “Pull” (see here in the February notes), and my comment about that applies here, too: “it’s a finality without complicity… mortality is inevitable; you choose what to do with that fact”.

  • The Warm Equations” — Michael Swanwick (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a scientist on Mercury is certain his superior intellect can rescue him from his damaged vehicle, without outside assistance) 2,492
    • hold — strive — release
    • limitations — exceeding — limits
    • assumptions — testing — understanding
    • arrogance — self-satisfaction — letting go

There’s an interesting offset in the moods here. Purely objectively, you could describe what’s going on as e.g., “disaster — physical constraints — human element“. But they are experienced through a mood in counterpoint: disaster is seen through a self-satisfied arrogance, etc.

“The Warm Equations” has a different shape to the last Swanwick I read, “The Very Pulse of the Machine” (see here in the July notes), but shares some echoing structures/concerns. Connection, determination, competence, crashed surface vehicles…

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It also demonstrates a way to keep a story short by simply focusing on one very specific small life-lesson, and not chasing out too many of the wider consequences.

And in that, it’s also a very gentle variation on a comeuppance/lesson-learned story (see discussion above). The lesson IS learned.

  • Taming the Land” — Aaron Emmel (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — uploaded personalities overseeing a terraforming project run into opposition) 2,824
    • motion — constraint — breaking bounds
    • disruption — communication — separation
    • bewilderment — purpose — decision
    • thwarted delight — argument — pursuit of own ends

The story fits intriguingly into some recent conversations about relationships to land and the draping of stories over land. But it’s also a less-common take on the digitally-preserved personality (and simultaneously on the AI-becoming-its-own-person).

See for example notes on the stories below, and the comments on several of them after “The Stars above Eos” (see here):

  • “The Stars above Eos” — M Darusha Wehm (March notes)
  • “Hello from Tomorrow” — EC Myer (April notes)
  • “Proof by Induction” — José Pablo Iriarte (February notes)
  • “Homecoming is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self” —Isabel J Kim (March notes)
  • “Boundless” — Miyuki Jane Pinckard (March notes)
  • “All Us Ghosts” — B Pladek (February notes)
  • “The Book of the Blacksmiths” — Martin Cahill (February notes)
  • “Sheri, At This Very Moment” — Bianca Sayan (February notes)

On the AI front, it’s worth comparing “Taming the Land” to Nic Lipitz’s “The Office Drone”  (see here in April notes), in terms of a consciousness pursuing its own development and happiness — with a similarly (although not identically) equivocal position as to where your sympathies should lie.

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And I’d previously mentioned “The Office Drone” in relation to H Pueyo’s “A Study in Ugliness” (here in the April notes), where I noted the Gothic mirroring in that, and the literalisation of confusion over where sympathies (and the individual) lie, which “Taming the Land” does, too.

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Something about using the mirror (metaphorical or literal) to break the reader’s certainty of connection to a character, while also troubling the character. Anyway, there are distant shape-echoes here. The “hopeful — stubborn — self-sufficient” structure of “Office Drone” picks up the clinging-to-freedom-of-movement in “Taming the Land”. The “transgressions — grotesques” of “A Study in Ugliness” are there if you flip the POV.

Another point about the shape of “Taming the Land” — the degree to which it is structured as an obstacle in an existing path. It’s the story shape caused by a pebble or a pothole or another diversion in an already-established progression.

  • “Sin Eater” — TM Hurree (khōréō 2.2, 2022 — the protagonist, running a struggling sinner-restaurant, begins to have doubts about the sources of his ingredients) (mid-length)
    • depressed — worried — resigned
    • concerned — anxious — beyond
    • half-hearted — realisation — certainty
    • cut-corners — conviction — courage
    • ignorance — knowledge — justice
    • bleak (situation) — bleak (system) — bleak (choosing)

You can see in those patterns that gaining knowledge/taking control doesn’t exactly save the day (for the protagonist). But there is a relief/release in taking that control, making the choice. And a consistency in the character.

Sometimes you can see a clear line from the kernel of an idea to the shape of the story. This one sort of sidles in. Which is a pleasing experience.

Also — or part of the above — the big realisation isn’t directly about the ‘power’ in the story. Rather, it’s about something the ability allows to be revealed. The author is pushing the consequences of the world a step further before flowing it into a story.

  • The Tourist” — Em Liu (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — an alien falls in love with Earth’s cultural exports, and travels in hopes of meeting its people) 958
    • affection — patience — peace
    • attraction — anticipation — worry
    • anticipation — anticipation — anticipation
    • discover — learn — wait
    • love — love-in-action — edge-of-grief
    • across time — passing time — time passed
      Or, moving the focus out from the character’s experiences:
    • quirky — endearing — aching

That last shape echoes the movement of the story — a physical approach. It’s also a story that’s *barely* story-shaped. It could be a vignette, except it goes just far enough to suggest an ending, with just enough clues to hint at what that ending might be.

I instantly wanted to pair it with Victoria Zelvin’s “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes” (see here in the March notes), both with its similar bare finality and because they could belong to the same world. Last time I discussed “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes”, it was in relation to another “sitting in my tin can” story (Nathan Slemp’s “Storm Wolves” — May). Which “The Tourist” mostly is (well, perhaps a “on getting out of my tin can” story), and also explicitly references.

Reading “The Tourist” besides those two equally brief stories, it’s worth noting that while it isn’t strictly a “coming to terms with” story, it is definitely about a situation the protagonist is (depending on the robustness of their optimism) going to have to come to terms with.

Also, referring back to “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes”: Although the sense of something being off comes at a different point in the story, “The Tourist” shares a sense of fragility, reassurance, connection, and a (threatened) peace in the face of something larger and unexplained.

  • The Czar of Smiles” — JL Royce (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — in a semi-virtual world, a girl is accused of intellectual property right infringements in her facial features) 2,033
    • anxiety — defence — strength
    • weakness — mockery — power
    • threat — humiliation — rearrangement

Those first two moods in each shape suggest a can’t-take-any-more/comeuppance/backlash story structure. But this is a story shape that, rather than developing into blazing justice, relies on a re-evaluation of what is valued.

A similar shape with a realignment of choices would be a story about/for a world view. I’m thinking back to ML Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse” (see Story Shapes & Extrapolation for those notes).

If it ended a rearrangement of what is known, you’d get a trick story (or a joke story, if played for humour). Compare Shaoni C White’s “Consigned to Moonlight”.

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  • Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat” — DaVaun Sanders (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a policeman who thought he could change the system from the inside meets a boy learning a different code and reconsiders his own choices) 2,037
    • guilt — place — loyalties
    • complicity — connections — choice
    • worry — anxiety — certainty
    • facade — awareness — open
    • path — crossroads — powers

Code and language and power, and one of those less common stories that blend tech and the numinous successfully (or attempt it at all)

A previous example was Maria Dong’s “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” (see here in the February notes).

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“The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” used a shape echoed in Eugenia Triantafyllou’s “My Country Is a Ghost” (see here in the March notes) — rituals bracketing an unsupported reality.

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In its way, “Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat” does something similar, moving between rites.

There’s something in there about the rites of technology. But all three stories deal with conflict and loss between cultures/traditions/communities.

Cassandra Khaw’s “Love, That Hungry Thing” (see here in the March notes) was another story that blended technology and the numinous. And looking at all these stories together, there’s again that question of what will/can humans rely on gods to fix, and what do deities represent, and what meaning do they give to the works of human hands.

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Also, all these stories also have shapes that deal with some form of overreach or failing, and then a final (possibly hopeful) correction.

In summary (for now), an interesting set of patterns emerges from these stories — gods and loss, communities and migration, overreach and correction, technology and deities.

  • We Can Make Death Work” — Cassandra Khaw (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — the bereaved narrator, married into a family of culinary necromancers, tries to cook a meal that will bring their spouse back) 1,702
    • helpless — breaking — mending
    • stalled — bewildered — understanding
    • alone — supported — connected
    • try — taught — seeing
    • perfection — insufficiency — fullness

A coming-to-terms-with-loss story, of a sort, and a not-quite-magical food story. The food acts as a support and catalyst to that processing.

Consider also Allison King’s “The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” (see here in the July notes), which shifts the potential magical-food focus to the human associations of less obviously remarkable flavours.

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“We Can Make Death Work” is doing something different with its materials, but both stories follow that pushing through of expectation and memory to a deeper reassurance and certainty.

Compare also Aun-Juli Riddle’s “Sorry We Missed You” (see here in the April notes), which puts more actual magic and added memories into the food itself, but still has that circling, inward journey into deeper memories.

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And for completeness, refer back to L Chan’s “Thirteen Goes to the Festival” (here in the April notes), for a story that approaches both coming to terms with death and the hunger of ghosts for life from the other side.

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Something particularly interesting about Khaw’s story: that central section is largely addressed to/supported by/informed by a third character — the lost beloved’s younger sister, who is also bereaved, but also filling the less-common role of a *younger* mentor. Coming-to-terms-with-loss stories often lean into the solitary feeling of bereavement (even where the loss is shared), and this approach opens up the centre of the story a little, in interesting ways.

The last Khaw story I read was “Love, That Hungry Thing” (March notes). It has a very different shape, but charmingly I think the titles could each work pretty solidly for the other story.

  • Agu Uno” — Chibueze Ngeneagu (Omenana Magazine, 2022 — the narrator pilots an intruder into a palace in pursuit of an initially undisclosed goal) 2,299
    • tense — threatening — gleeful
    • tricksy — mockery — progress
    • loss (apparent) — mastery — confidence
    • pleased — toying — delighted

Ngeneagu keeps this story small by giving no backstory, details of the wider world, or broader implications — although a lot of that could be built or assumed or imagined from what is shown. Also the protagonist — or the avatar of the protagonist — doesn’t speak.

Therefore, much of the delight of this approach (which is very effective for limiting the word count) is that what the reader is given to work with is mostly attitude expressed through physicality, and the glee of the narrator.

I also really like it as a take on a competence-plot. It’s so marionettishly theatrical, so puppet-show-ish in its pantomiming, and the narrator is so *pleased* with their ability, and it all works out — although you don’t know what the end-game is until the end.

The first apparent big setback happens right near the beginning. There’s trickery there, but it sets the reader up for the possibility of failure. Along with that, the big push-back/tension of the story comes from that opacity of goal.

It has a fun voice, which combines really well with that physicality. I have a general feeling that stories tend to lean into either voice or physicality — perhaps because the combination *is* powerful. I could imagine an attempt veering easily into slapstick.

[Note to self for future searches: also Afrofuturism, environment, drones, futurism]

  • Heart-Eater” — Tania Chen (Apparition Literary Magazine, 2022 — a disgraced medical student thinks he’s discovered a miracle, but when it goes wrong, he seeks help outside of university science) 3,000
    • reckless — hubris — consequence
    • supplication — folly — inescapable
    • meddling — awakening — fleeing
    • rejection — fascination — horror
    • transactional — visceral — consumed

A classic bad-idea story shape for a play on a classic bad-idea story type. Keeping to that time-honoured progression lets the author really lean into the settings and visceralities.

The story begins quite near its end, then flashes back to the beginning and works forward (impliedly recounted by the protagonist, relevant to its literary connections). This has the effect of lining up several examples of the first mood, so that the mood of supplication (or recklessness/transaction/rejection) appears in several guises before the story moves on to the next, central stage.

As a mental exercise, try reshaping the story as purely linear. It would begin more in a mood of lashing out, progress through hubris, and end in bloody horror. That initial sense of action and determination would, I think, have made the protagonist more sympathetic (which is definitely not the point!). But as written, he is abject and spoiled and cringing, even as he unleashes and descends into horror.

  • If There May Be Ghosts” — Matthew Olivas (Bourbon Penn, 2022 — the recently bereaved narrator listens to their mother receiving updates on the discovery and treatment of a haunting in their grandmother’s house) 3,473
    • so it is — exasperations — let it be
    • fine — [minor] irruptions — fine
    • spooky — creepy — settled
    • encountering — arguing over — dealing with
    • overheard — avid — keeping

This story is a reported account of a series of reported phone conversations summarising a sequence of events. This means the visceral details are in the background, the reactions to them in the middleground, and the narrator’s decisions on what to do with that in the foreground. It could have been *just* a creepy story — or a creepy anecdote. It could have been a humorous piece — the narrator’s mother’s exasperated reactions to the update’s she’s being given. But that foremost, reflective layer mellows & deepens the effect of both into something elegaic. In those various dot-point attempts at describing the story-shape, you can see the different facets, and how they layer.

Given “If There May Be Ghosts” involves ghosts, etc., it is worth noting that it does follow a literal “door opened, things through it, door closed but suspicions remain” Gothic shape. But the mood is sometimes at variance — spooky things happen, but the outer layers of the narration aren’t spooked. Those who are spooked regard the problem as more settled than the narrator who now has a lingering (even wishful) curiousity about the supernatural.

And to the slight degree it is a coming-to-terms-with-loss story (this shapes the whole, but delicately), it is a less common treatment — more of overhearing something that unexpectedly gives comfort, and holding to that.

  • Muyum, A Transgression” — Evelyn Araluen (This All Come Back Now, 2022, first published in Overland, 2017 — a ghostly figure returns to and passes through the layers and hauntings of a place) 2,786
    • door — door — door
    • dazzle — distress — enchant
    • arrive — shift — swap
    • haunting — destruction — affection
    • breathless — strike — wisdoms

The “door — door — door” is because it is a haunting, and described as Gothic, and I wanted to see how it related to those shapes. You *could* read it as a door opening, something arriving, and then a lingering sense (of hope more than unease), but that would require forcing a reframing and perspective change.

The voice in this is glorious (Evelyn Araluen is a poet), diffuse and glittering as it shapes a story on the air.

  • Relocation” — David Bowles (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — the planned relocation of the population of an isolated planet is interrupted by a mysterious woman with a long track record of historical interventions) 2,962
    • irruption — revelation — persuasion
    • the strange — the wondrous — the work
    • slam door open — demonstration — acceptance

Something neat with the shape of this story is the way persuasion/acceptance/effort are interleaved in the final section. It’s a fairly upbeat story, and even the skeptics get broadly on board with what needs to be done. So the last movement is really that sense of “the work” rather than “work“.

  • The Miraculous Account of Khaja Bairaq, Pennant-Saint of Zabel” — Tanvir Ahmed (Strange Horizons, 2022 — an oppressor is resisted by a miraculous flag and the downtrodden) 5,419
    • origins — quest — burn
    • once — future — if not now, when
    • eyes — heart — purpose
    • see — seek — rise
    • miracles — prophecies — banners
    • kindle — disillusion — enflame

It’s a story-of-a-life story, in that it follows the Pennant-Saint from awakening to vanishing. That through-line gives shape and purpose to the antecedents, histories, peregrinations, quests and glimpses of other lives, while also letting the author keep those relatively brief. There are many little histories and biographies that could have spun off into subplots, but while the story looks around wide-eyed, and never seems relentless in its focus, it knows what tale it’s telling.

In terms of revolution stories, it is not a perpetual-revolution story shape, but a necessary-purpose shape. Awakening, catching fire, burning up. There’s a hint of passing-the-torch in there, except that the character of Zareen Taj is active before and alongside the pennant.

And that makes sense, because the story is very concerned with the necessity for the miraculous to touch humanity, and be touched by it, if it’s to be any sort of a useful miracle at all. While the miracle here is a banner, the story is explicit that it is one among many (less obviously miraculous) flags being prepared. All of this makes the story interesting not only alongside the revolution stories, but also when viewed against the intervention-of-the-divine stories.

Cross-referencing some other stories with a similar shape:

“Six Steps to Become A Saint”, by Avi Burton (see here in the June notes). This also shares a certain told/fable/fabulous quality in the phrasing.

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“Sía”, by Liz Huerta (see here in the March notes) — a *very* different, rather more gleeful/hilarious/comeuppance-y story, but with a definite raconteurishness to it.

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“Phosphorus” — Victoria Schanoes (see here in the January notes). This also has a focus on resistance and flame, and a luminous, wavering history.

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The common thread of that “tales of the marvellous” mode, in very different voices and eras, is interesting. It emphasises the fable (as in lesson) structure of this story shape (which also both fits it into a tradition of short stories and helps keep it short).

And there’s an interesting question there about story shape vs story voice, and how the two interact, and whether some varieties pair particularly well, and whether some pairs call each other into being — and whether that’s learned or inherent, and what happens if you lean into or push back against those associations.

I had a lovely discussion with Tanvir Ahmed about structure and narration and trickster-voice and carnivalesque narration after reading this story. That side-thread starts here: https://twitter.com/tnvyrahmd/status/1562040859247497216

  • Nothing is Wasted” — Séan Padraic Birnie (The Dark Magazine, 2022 — a shape-shifting predator waits in a bar) 2,366
    • uncertain — certain — wavering
    • weary — competent — risk
    • hunger — history  —consume
    • experience — pattern — habits
    • recognition — evasion — recognition

Looking at the structure this way highlights a particular focus of the story. It looks like a story about (horrific) proclivities and abilities and a career of destruction, but structurally it’s more about inabilities and becoming or remaining a creature of nostalgia and habit.

As a result, the real twist-in-the-gut is less what is being done, and more what *isn’t* — an unwanted concern about some of the narrator’s personal choices and risk-taking.

Further, it demonstrates a way a story focussed on a habitual behaviour can become roughly circular, and very self-contained — history only relevant as it intensifies the cycle of behaviour. The world-building is focussed through that lens, the moods through which the story shifts describe that pattern, and the tension and final lingering note is generated by the in/ability to break the cycle (and the potential consequences of that).

  • Women Making Bees in Public” by Alexandra Erin (Medium.com, 2016, collected in First Dates, Last Calls, 2019 — the narrator and the titular bee-maker attempt to discuss free will, while being interrupted) 6,878
    • approach — converse — fall into step
    • rocky — perched — flowing
    • evade — hold back — outpace
    • meet — like — relate
    • obstacles — feeling out — reach understanding
    • hold to self — hold to interest — hold to other

I read this story because the author was tweeting about its structure, specifically that “the structure of the story is the interruptions“, and I was interested to see what a three-moods reading of it would show up.

What particularly interested me in the story is that — for a story which is essentially about a single conversation — almost all of these shapes and moods are about movement. This makes sense. A story shaped by interruptions implies something being interrupted, and in this case it is a flow of conversation, of ideas, of relationship, of physical progress.

The bulk of the story is a conversation (or an attempt to converse) about free will — and the movement complements that, since choices must be made in motion, and motion is made by choices.

Two shapes (“meet — like — relate”; “evade — hold back — outpace”) thread through each other, and I like the opposition: meeting in the midst of evasion; holding back while reaching towards; drawing near while leaving behind.

  • Passion” — Alice Munro (The New Yorker, 2004 — after a cosmopolitan life, a woman from a more limited background returns to the location where the course of her life changed) 11,283
    • reaching — wondering — realising
    • surprise — longing — expectation
    • wish — yearn — recognise
    • past — suspended — rushing
    • hunger — hunger — hunger

This slight change of genre was for similar reasons to the story above: other people have talked about the structure of “Passion”, and I want to be able to compare notes.

It’s a tense story, while being a suspended remembered sequence. And a lot of that tension comes from that suspension — a sense of reaching not only for something but for somethingS that are forever out of reach. A chance, the past, an idea of passion, a burning star.

So that “hunger — hunger — hunger” progression both shifts and folds endlessly in on itself. And that mood does alter as the story presses on it — from something inchoate and unattainable to something almost within reach, to something obtained but somehow not satisfying.

Once I stopped and looked at the shapes, separate from genre mode and content, I was reminded of the (vastly different) “Nothing is Wasted”, by Séan Padraic Birnie, above

Screenshot of linked tweet

There are echoes there, if you treat the moods loosely. That sense of hunger, and what has been tasted in the pursuit of it, and what is consumed without changing the consumer’s reality. Or that sense of weary experience, and elusiveness, and understanding.

I’m not saying to read “Passion” as a shapeshifting vampire story, but reading them alongside each other reveals a lot about inchoate longings and food that does not ultimately change unsatisfying realities.

Also, these are mostly fairly passive moods. The protagonist longs, and hungers, and sort-of moves towards what she wants, but only to a point of resistance. But past a point, she doesn’t resist what happens to her. It’s an interesting way to move her through the story and world.

Looking back at my notes, there are a couple other story-shapes this brings to mind. In Nadia Shammas’ “The Centre of the Universe” (see here in the February notes), the very active heroine (also trapped, in a different way, by the realities and imbalances of her world) becomes ravening.

Screenshot of linked tweet

Shammas’ heroine triumphs more briefly, if more completely, and with greater satisfaction — interestingly, this story also ends with a more privileged character choosing to exit the scene, in a very different way.

In B. Pladek’s “All Us Ghosts” (see here in the February notes) there is an echoing tension between the made world and the wished world and the path and world made by choices, and the rejection of affection for something that feels (for now) more substantial.

Screenshot of linked tweet

The artificial worlds of the Pladek and Shammas stories are very interesting to compare to the dream of the Traverses’ apparently perfect life.

And a final cross-comparison: Erica Ruppert’s “The Golden Hour” (see here in the June notes), with the enchantment of the golden glow and the bewitching, compulsive effect it continues to have, and the hollow note, and in its own way, the trading of brothers.

Screenshot of linked tweet
  • One More Fairytale” — Carol Scheina (Cossmass Infinities, 2022 — a mother working on a portal research risks losing her augmented soldier daughter) 1,808
    • ominous — desperate — attaining
    • hold — lose — seek
    • love — love — love
    • dreams — realities — create (A via B)
    • expectations — untenabilities — reframe
    • home — work — new place

It’s *about* telling stories rather than *being* a retelling — the narrator perceives it as such, but it’s more about going after the fairytale. But it does contain a model for that pursuit: expectations, untenabilities, reframing.

The location-based moods (home, work, new world) brought up that intertwining of work and family and obligation, and then using all of that to achieve escape. Which is an interesting entanglement — not the primary emphasis but contributing structure and means and motivation.

In terms of the intertwining of tech/SF and fairytale roles and expectations, it made me think back to Margaret Dunlap’s “What Sleeps at the Heart of Aurora Station” (see here in the May notes).

Screenshot of linked tweet

The shapes are different, but you can see that use of expectation/assigned roles — in the case of “What Sleeps at the Heart of Aurora Station”, that achieves the end. In “One Last Fairytale” it sets up the obligations.

  • Bliss” — Katherine Mansfield (The English Review, 1918; Bliss and other stories, 1920 — a young woman preparing a modern dinner party is overtaken by delight, which she attributes to love) 4,891
    • anticipation — anticipation — anticipation
    • light — ornament — scatter
    • diffuse — focus — refracted
    • expectation — gathering — rearrange
    • veil arranged — veil billows — veil twitched aside
    • the stage — the players — (behind) the curtain
    • baseless joy — joyful uncertainty — tumbling certainties
    • physical — intellectual — mismatched
    • wonder — order — false note
    • energy — direction — directed

(I’d spent the day at a symposium on modernists, which led to me reading this story.)

Also, I should have been able to distill those into one tweet, but I wasn’t terribly awake yet. There are, however, a few commonalities: light; staging; anticipation. And that makes sense, because this story (given the last question of the text, “Oh, what is going to happen now?”) is very much the play before the play.

And there’s a sense of staginess to it, which is something I love, but a staginess made by the characters themselves; and questions of art, and making it, and failing to make it, and succeeding in making it but treating it as the same as life…

  • Singing the Ancient Out of the Dark” — RJ Theodore and Maurice Broaddus (Lightspeed Magazine, 2022 — a reckless archivist crashes through to land on an isolated planet, and find out what has happened to its population) 4,095
    • reckless — fascinated — bewitched
    • crash — walk — fall
    • glee — determination — assimilation
    • exposure — infection — course
    • superior — intent — enfolded

And getting more metaphorical, you could shift “exposure — infection — course” back to, e.g.,

  • infection — onset — progression, or
  • fever — hallucination — delirium

— because there’s never really any possibility that the archivist might have avoided her fate — her course (metaphorical and literal) was already set, she was absorbed by an idea, and the rest followed.

The story is about discovery and mystery and mysticism and space travel, yes — but its shape is that of inevitability, and with a progression both inevitable and dogged.

And that’s the end of the August 2022 short story reading notes.

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

  • Matrimonial Quest at Luna Prime and Other Existential Dread” — Deka Omar (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — Zahra submits herself to the aggravation of a lunar single’s mixer and her judgemental e-chaperone, but external protests interfere with her plans), 3019
  • Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect” — John Wiswell (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — two demons experiment on a small town to prove that their existence does not depend on human belief) 2,732
  • Currant Voices in a Convection Oven” — Sarah Ramdawar (Augur Magazine #5.1, 2022 — after Trinidad and Tobago are lost to the sea, Molly recreates her mother’s recipe in a baking competition and listens to the voices of the food) 852
  • The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” — CM Fields (Diabolical Plots, 2022 — after being damaged in a crash, an android built for grand loves realises what has been done to it, and takes action) 2,242
  • There Are No Monsters On Rancho Buenavista” — Isabel Cañas (Nightmare Magazine, 2022 — a man sets out to prove the woman his cousin is courting is not all she seems) 739
  • Witchbreaker” — Leah Ning (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2022 — a team of witchbreakers try to care for their families while fighting witches who warp time) 6,371
  • The Warm Equations” — Michael Swanwick (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a scientist on Mercury is certain his superior intellect can rescue him from his damaged vehicle, without outside assistance) 2,492
  • Taming the Land” — Aaron Emmel (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — uploaded personalities overseeing a terraforming project run into opposition) 2,824
  • Sin Eater” — TM Hurree (khōréō 2.2, 2022 — the protagonist, running a struggling sinner-restaurant, begins to have doubts about the sources of his ingredients) (mid-length)
  • The Tourist” — Em Liu (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — an alien falls in love with Earth’s cultural exports, and travels in hopes of meeting its people) 958
  • The Czar of Smiles” — JL Royce (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — in a semi-virtual world, a girl is accused of intellectual property right infringements in her facial features) 2,033
  • Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat” — DaVaun Sanders (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a policeman who thought he could change the system from the inside meets a boy learning a different code and reconsiders his own choices) 2,037
  • We Can Make Death Work” — Cassandra Khaw (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — the bereaved narrator, married into a family of culinary necromancers, tries to cook a meal that will bring their spouse back) 1,702
  • Agu Uno” — Chibueze Ngeneagu (Omenana Magazine, 2022 — the narrator pilots an intruder into a palace in pursuit of an initially undisclosed goal) 2,299
  • Heart-Eater” — Tania Chen (Apparition Literary Magazine, 2022 — a disgraced medical student thinks he’s discovered a miracle, but when it goes wrong, he seeks help outside of university science) 3,000
  • If There May Be Ghosts” — Matthew Olivas (Bourbon Penn, 2022 — the recently bereaved narrator listens to their mother receiving updates on the discovery and treatment of a haunting in their grandmother’s house) 3,473
  • Muyum, A Transgression” — Evelyn Araluen (This All Come Back Now, 2022, first published in Overland, 2017 — a ghostly figure returns to and passes through the layers and hauntings of a place) 2,786
  • Relocation” — David Bowles (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — the planned relocation of the population of an isolated planet is interrupted by a mysterious woman with a long track record of historical interventions) 2,962
  • The Miraculous Account of Khaja Bairaq, Pennant-Saint of Zabel” — Tanvir Ahmed (Strange Horizons, 2022 — an oppressor is resisted by a miraculous flag and the downtrodden) 5,419
  • Nothing is Wasted” — Séan Padraic Birnie (The Dark Magazine, 2022 — a shape-shifting predator waits in a bar) 2,366
  • Women Making Bees in Public” by Alexandra Erin (Medium.com, 2016, collected in First Dates, Last Calls, 2019 — the narrator and the titular bee-maker attempt to discuss free will, while being interrupted) 6,878
  • Passion” — Alice Munro (The New Yorker, 2004 — after a cosmopolitan life, a woman from a more limited background returns to the location where the course of her life changed) 11,283
  • One More Fairytale” — Carol Scheina (Cossmass Infinities, 2022 — a mother working on a portal research risks losing her augmented soldier daughter) 1,808
  • Bliss” — Katherine Mansfield (The English Review, 1918; Bliss and other stories, 1920 — a young woman preparing a modern dinner party is overtaken by delight, which she attributes to love) 4,891
  • Singing the Ancient Out of the Dark” — RJ Theodore and Maurice Broaddus (Lightspeed Magazine, 2022 — a reckless archivist crashes through to land on an isolated planet, and find out what has happened to its population) 4,095

6 thoughts on “August 2022 Short Story Reading Post

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

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  3. Pingback: Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: October 2022 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

  5. Pingback: July 2022 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

  6. Pingback: November 2022 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

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