“Shard of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson:
That day, my mother picked me up from school, wearing the yellow sundress and shawl I remembered from our trip with Father the year before. She looked just like she did most days back then—a glamour queen, a movie star (“Just like Lena Horne,” my friend Chloe had once said, “only darker—oh, sorry, Leah!”), but today her beauty somehow had a harder, more defiant edge to it. I could smell the expensive Dior perfume as soon as I opened the door, which surprised me, because my mom was usually fastidious about not getting perfume on her clothes. She was wearing her bug glasses—huge dark things with lenses that bulged out like fly eyes and reflected my face like a fun-house mirror. She had tied a yellow silk scarf around her hair and was taking deep pulls on a cigarette held between two immaculately manicured fingers. Only I knew about the nicotine stains she carefully covered with her special order “forest sable” cream each morning.
Tiffany, a stupid but vicious senator’s daughter who I had the misfortune of sharing a classroom with, suddenly dashed from inside the school, her face flushed.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilson,” she called. Before my mother could respond, she giggled and ran back to three of her friends waiting beyond the door. I could hear them laughing, but I was glad I couldn’t understand their words. They were all fascinated with my mother—the black housekeeper who dressed like Katharine Hepburn and drove a Cadillac, whose daughter’s “light toffee” skin indicated that she might just like her coffee with a lot of cream.
Sometimes I hated those girls.
“Get in the car, Leah,” my mother said. Her already husky voice was pitched low, as though she’d been crying. That made me nervous. Why was she here?
“Ma, Chloe was going to show me her dad’s new camera. Can’t I go home on the bus?”
My mom pulled on the cigarette until it burned the filter, and then ground it into the car ashtray—already filled with forty or so butts. She always emptied out the ashtray each evening.
“Get in the car, Leah.” My mom’s voice was even huskier as she lit another cigarette and tossed the match out of the window.
I sat down and shut the door.
We rode in silence for a while. Despite her shaking hands and the rapidly dwindling box of cigarettes, she drove meticulously, even coming to a full stop at the stop signs. She never stopped at stop signs.
“Ma . . . is something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.
Her fingers tightened on the wheel until her knuckles looked even paler than my skin. “We’re going on a trip, Leah,” she said finally, jamming on the brakes at a stop sign.
“Remembrance Is Something Like a House” by Will Ludwigsen:
Every day for three decades, the abandoned house strains against its galling anchors, hoping to pull free. It has waited thirty years for its pipes and pilings to finally decay so it can leave for Florida to find the Macek family.
Nobody in its Milford neighborhood will likely miss the house or even notice its absence; it has hidden for decades behind overgrown bushes, weeds, and legends. When they talk about the house at all, the neighbors whisper about the child killer who lived there long ago with his family: a wife and five children who never knew their father kept his rotting playmate in the crawlspace until the police came.
The house, however, knows the truth and wants to confess it, even if it has to crawl eight hundred miles.
“Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh:
I wake at night sometimes now, thinking someone is in my house. Abby sleeps on the other side of the bed, and Hudson sleeps on the floor. Where I live it is brutally dark at night, unless there’s a moon—no one wastes power on lights at night. My house is small, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a family room. I lean over and shake Hudson on the floor, wake him up. “Who’s here?” I whisper. Abby sits up, but neither of them hears anything. They pad down the hall with me into the dark front room, and I peer through the window into the shadowy back lot. I wait for them to bark.
Many a night, I don’t go back to sleep.
But the man at my door this morning weeds my garden and accepts my bowl of soup and some flour tortillas. He thanks me gravely. He picks up his phone, charging off my system, and shows me a photo of a woman and a child. “My wife and baby,” he says. I nod. I don’t particularly want to know about his wife and baby, but I can’t be rude.
I finish assembling the doll I am working on. I’ve painted her, assembled all the parts, and hand rooted all her hair. She is rather cuter than I like. Customers can mix and match parts off of my website—this face with the eye color of their choice, hands curled one way or another. A mix-and-match doll costs about what the migrant will make in two weeks. A few customers want custom dolls and send images to match. Add a zero to the cost.
I am dressing the doll when Abby leaps up, happily roo-rooing. I start, standing, and drop the doll dangling in my hand by one unshod foot.
It hits the floor head first with a thump, and the man gasps in horror.
“It’s a doll,” I say.
Before Eugie Foster was taken from us last year, she gave the world hundreds of short stories. We are lucky that she was so prolific, and it’s our loss she died so young when she could have written so many more.
I’ll take the opportunity while I’m linking this story to link to a few others. “Beautiful Winter,” a retelling that appeared in last year’s IGMS sampler, has the very beautiful imagery I associate with her writing. Retellings were often her ouvre. “The Tanuki-Kettle,” a folk-tale-style story set in Japan, was one of my first acquisitions for PodCastle for its warmth and humor. Finally, for those who didn’t see it last year, one of her stories was posthumously nominated for the Nebula Award, and particularly wrenching in context — “When It Ends, He Catches Her.”
Eugie and I were part of the same “Nebula class” (which is only something I call it in my mind, it’s not a real thing). We were both nominated for the first time in the same year and in the same category, and we got to know each other and a bunch of the other first time nominees at the convention that year.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest” won that Nebula Award. Its mix of high concept and colorful images that disarmed readers.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster:
Each morning is a decision. Should I put on the brown mask or the blue? Should I be a tradesman or an assassin today?
Whatever the queen demands, of course, I am. But so often she ignores me, and I am left to figure out for myself who to be.
Dozens upon dozens of faces to choose from.
1. Marigold is for murder.
The yellow mask draws me, the one made from the pelt of a mute animal with neither fangs nor claws—better for the workers to collect its skin. It can only glare at its keepers through the wires of its cage, and when the knives cut and the harvesters rip away its skin, no one is troubled by its screams.
I tie the tawny ribbons under my chin. The mask is so light, almost weightless. But when I inhale, a charnel stench redolent of outhouses, opened intestines, and dried blood floods my nose.
Ted Chiang, as they say, needs no introduction — if you follow the contemporary science fiction and fantasy short story scene. In case you don’t, Chiang is a powerhouse, not only one of the masters of the short form, but also someone whose work can always be relied on to be strong. Is some better than others? Sure. But it all shows his characteristic attention to detail and deep consideration and analysis.
My favorite of his is actually “The Short Story of Your Life and Others,” but alas, it’s not online. Instead I give you this one, to which it was my honor to lose the Hugo.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang:
Ana’s half expecting to see a fantastical landscape when the window refreshes, but instead her avatar shows up in what looks at first glance to be a daycare center. On second glance, it looks like a scene from a children’s book: there’s a little anthropomorphic tiger cub sliding colored beads along a frame of wires; a panda bear examining a toy car; a cartoon version of a chimpanzee rolling a foam rubber ball.
The onscreen annotations identify them as digients, digital organisms that live in environments like Data Earth, but they don’t look like any that Ana’s seen before. These aren’t the idealized pets marketed to people who can’t commit to a real animal; they lack the picture-perfect cuteness, and their movements are too awkward.
Keffy Kehrli is a too-often-overlooked writer. This is my favorite of his short stories.
My parents raised me on a diet of jazz, big bands, musicals, and classical music. I’ve never spent much time listening to more recent popular music. “This Is a Ghost Story” is about Kurt Cobain — but even for me, who has no connection to the source material, it was still intense and affecting.
(By the by, if you like listening to short stories, you might be interested in Keffy Kehrli’s LGBTQ podcast, Glittership.)
“This Is a Ghost Story” by Keffy Kerhli
On a muted television:
He smirks like he’s found the way out of an impossible maze, like he hasn’t a care in the world. Except that if you look in his eyes, you’ll see the breadcrumbs leading right back to the labyrinth. You’ll feel a memory of unrelenting stone walls and know that it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling, being held. Suffocating.
Turn up the sound too late for the question.
He runs cigarette–stained fingers over the stubble on his chin and leans on the arm of the leather couch. He crosses his legs, skinny jeans worn and ragged. He’s still wearing old Chucks with the tread half–gone, even though he could buy a thousand new pairs. He doesn’t wear the Mister Rogers sweaters anymore. Sometimes he still wears dresses for the fuck of it, but today he’s wearing a white t–shirt that looks like his kid doodled on it with four colors of Sharpie. A bloodied stick man holds a shotgun.
He licks his lips, and he doesn’t look at the camera, or at the floor, or at the interviewer’s face. He’s focused on the space between, like it’s a gulf or a fence or a wall. He says, “Yeah, it was pretty rough for a while, you know. I kept saying things were getting better, but really they weren’t. Eventually it was clean up or die, so…
“I started thinking about doing music for other shit, not because I needed the money, but to fuck with people. Then I thought maybe I’d do a Disney soundtrack, but it’d probably end up like in Fight Club where the guy’s splicing porn into kid movies.”
Then the interviewer asks about his kid, and he grins. “She’s great,” he says. “I know that’s not very ‘punk rock’ of me, but whatever.”
What are you looking at? This interview never fucking happened.
It’s the last day of my Making Lemons into Jokes campaign! Thanks to absolutely everyone who has contributed, supported, signal boosted, chuckled, and etc. And there’s still a little time to chip in! There are three stretch goals left —
$850 – A satirical essay by Greg Machlin on the topic of how I, personally, destroyed science fiction.
$900 – I’ll write a silly story based on a prompt that John Hodgman gave SFWAns at this year’s Nebula banquet.
$950 – I’ll write a silly story based on all three of his prompts.
$1000 – I’ll hire a professional to make the whole bundle into something pretty.
It would be nice to hit the last one; I could probably use the help. 😉
I’ve written a bunch about the harassment and the campaign this month. On Ann Leckie’s blog, I talked about why the common advice to ignore trolls isn’t enough. On Mary Robinette Kowal’s, I wrote about some of the threads of oppression that make solidarity personally important to me. On Jim Hines’, I wrote about coping with harassment as a vulnerable person.
Today, I wanted to write a little about the places where the light is increasing.
When I started selling my writing in 2005, if I wrote a story with queer characters, I had to think about where I could send it. Not all markets would publish things that pushed those boundaries. Even editors who had no problem with queer content might have to deal with things like school library distribution, where some librarians (more than do today) believed that “gay” = “sex” = “inappropriate for children.”
These days? I don’t even think about it.
These days, when a young trans writer asks me whether there are people with non-normative genders in the industry, I have instant access to an array of publicly known names like my former student, An Owomoyela, one of the fiction editors of the Hugo-winning Strange Horizons, Keffy Kehrli, a brilliant writer who is also running his own queer-themed podcast, and Charlie Jane Anders, whose beautiful writing has been acknowledged with well-earned awards.
In 2005, a venerated old, male writer grabbed a woman’s breast without her permission, on stage, in front of thousands. The science fiction community was befuddled, tripped over its own feet in confusion, and nothing decisive proceeded.
Now large numbers of pro writers have signed pledges not to attend conventions without harassment policies. Activists like Elise Mathesen, Genevieve Valentine, and Rose Fox, among so, so many others, have stood up to make those policies mean something.
And yet more activists, like Mary Robinette Kowal, Michael and Lynne Thomas, and Mari Ness, have come up with a similar pledge about accessibility policies, to try to extend that energy and protection to disabled congoers.
In 2008, fans of color stood up to be counted, because people didn’t even really believe they were there.
I think most white people know better now. It’s been a long time since I saw someone suggest everyone who said they were brown was a sock puppet.
When I came into the field, I knew a little about post-colonial and Indian diasporic science fiction because of my anthropology classes, and I’d been reading some Japanese fiction in translation. But it’s only been in the past several years — thanks to the efforts of American translators like Ken Liu, and international critics and writers like Charles Tan and Lavie Tidhar — that non-anglophone speculative fiction is being widely read and heard in the United States, leading to the recognition of powerful, non-Western writers like Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang.
Every single moment of progress has had its backlash, of course. When Nora Jemisin came to deserved prominence as one of this century’s most important, emerging voices, jealous graspers harassed her, to try to put her back in her “place.” Elise Mathesen and Genevieve Valentine are still subjected to victim blaming.
But they made a difference. They’re still making a difference.
If my post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog was about why people still need to stand together, then this post is the light side of that. When we push hard, and when we bear the costs of pushing, we can make progress. We have.