Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

The whacky title of Insect Girl Climbs to Paradise (by Phil Harris and published at Flurb) hides what is quite a measured and understated, even quite traditional, SF story. It's a vividly evoked slice of dystopian life – the bleak, rain-swept landscape provides a fitting contrast to Mary, a young girl who decides to escape from her situation as best she can. Mary's plan of escape is ingenious, and we invest a lot in the character as she assembles the mechanism necessary to execute it. The subsequent climb over the wall is fraught with danger and excitement given a real kick by having gone through the process of getting it all together with her. We really want her to make it, and there's real tension here.

The whole story is wonderfully done. We're not given any extraneous detail here -  Mary's the character, and we stay fixed in her point of view right up until the very end. It's shame we had to break out of her point of view at the end there, as I think it does put a perhaps unnecessary crack in the otherwise laser-like intensity of the piece, but I see why Harris did it. It's a decision, really, the sort of thing we're always presented with as authors – how best to push the visions of the story without resorting to telling the audience. Sometimes, breaking the point of view is the only way.

This week's other story is the 2010 Nebula Award winner, Spar by Kij Johnson (published at Clarkesworld). This story gazes with unflinching intensity at the experience of being marooned in space on a life boat with a weird alien. Once again, it admits only the most limited and necessary detail from outside it's single, intense spotlight. I can easily see how this story won a prize like the Nebula – there's not a single word out of place, not one line that speaks to things outside the story's central concerns. It's a short and real winner, and there's really no excuse not to go read this one!

Kij is another writer who I've met over the course of my aimless and wandering life, by the way. She was a tutor at the University of Kansas workshop for writers of science fiction when I attended in 1995, and I had a great time with her and Chris McKitterick and the other attendees over the fortnight I was there. Just by the by.

Anyway, it's vintage week at Short Fiction Wednesday, as these are both terrific stories I think both these stories work so well because they embody the idea of fiction as exploration, rather than  education. Neither of these stories wants to tell us anything, as such, just to show us events in as true and focused way as they can. From this we can draw our own conclusions, although what they may be the authors leave us to decide for ourselves.

That's the magic of fiction: it lets us explore and experiment, to imagine things without having to say what they are or why they interest us, to intimate and hint rather than have to express explicitly what we feel or think. It lets us try thoughts on, see how they fit and put them aside. The best fiction is not a puzzle to be unlocked, but a mirror that shows a part of ourselves.

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