Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

This week, I've found two stories with interesting takes on the topic of difference.

The first is a sweetly wry fantasy. On Not Going Exctinct by Carol Emshwiller (published at Strange Horizons) that captures wonderfully the natural adolescent sense of difference that we all, to one degree or another, feel as adulthood burgeons. I suspect that writers – neurotic types, by and large – feel it somewhat more keenly than most others, even other creative types, although I suppose any calling that requires one to think too much encourages it. The quest to find a place or a group where one belongs is a powerful story that will strike a chord of recognition with many readers. The narrator's efforts to discover her "secret talent" rang a particular bell of recognition for me.

In keeping with this sense of adolescent searching, Emshwiller says something important about how subcultures work, about how we make connections with like-minded people. It evokes the hope and fear that persists around exposing something important about yourself, something that could be met with either crushing indifference or terrifying hostility. This story is about all those differences – from just being a nerd (surely we all recognise that one) to being gay or simply being a creative and thoughtful person in a dreary, lumpen world of literal minded arseholes. Being a fantasy, it heads to another place that has its own satisfaction. It's a really terrific story that combines this sense of universal recognition with a delicious genre gloss, and it speaks to all the strengths of fantasy. Highly recommended!

Dione by Jess Kaan (published at Aberrant Dreams) is another fantasy of difference, but this one heads into horror and madness rather than the weird acceptance of Emshwiller's tale. It starts with a sensitive portrayal of childish confusion as the adults behave in ways that seem at odd with the easy platitudes that adults hand down, then builds nicely from confusion and tension to an atmosphere of menace and genuine, gory horror. It ends on a note of fateful pessimism that characterises the best short horror. Horror novels usually have to build to a more positively cathartic release, but in the short form, horror is at its strongest when underlines the malevolent emptiness of existence. This story definitely delivers in that regard.

This is a translation (by Sheryl Curtis) and I think the prose shows that oddly fragile stiltedness one often finds in translation. I have read a great deal of translated material over my life (including, ironically, a few Fantomas novels), but this slightly unsatisfying quality of the prose – the sense that something is being said that is just out of reach of the reader – is why I generally prefer to stick with original English.

In a story like this though, it works to its advantage. On Not Going Extinct shares this slightly stilted tone, which gives both a timeless, exotic timbre. I love this slightly jarring, eerie quality. It's a hard thing to do without being a little bit (or a lot) pretentious, but both these stories nail it.

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