My routines are a bit scrappy and all over the place at the moment so short stories are the best way to keep up my fiction dosage. Here are a few I’ve taken in lately.
Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you…
“The Secret Beach” by Tim Pratt, in Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories
“Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous” by Dale Bailey, in Asimov’s magazine, September 2012.
I didn’t have a particular theme or anything in mind for this post, just a bunch of stories I’d read over the past few months and had something to say about. But when I actually started writing about the first two I noticed I was talking about a common theme that was too striking not to remark on. Each is about an unhappy protagonist who breaks out of their lives into a strange place, and finds there wonders and a real chance to change – but their failings are part of them, even in this new world, and so the changes are poisoned or stillborn.
“The Secret Beach” is the second story in Antiquities and Tangibles, a collection by Tim Pratt that I backed in a Kickstarter last year and am finally reading now I managed to find my blasted Kobo. It’s a clever, nasty sting-in-the-tail take on the portal fantasy. Our narrator seems to have been rescued from a bitter, lonely, accomplishment-free middle age when he finds a secret route onto a miraculously beautiful beach that by all reason shouldn’t exist there. There are clues and signs that some magical destiny is waiting beyond that beach… but sometimes magical destinies aren’t ready for the baggage that people bring to them, and sometimes the people enlisted to help a destiny manifest itself aren’t content to be its helpers.
One of the fundamental thrills of a story that brings the fantastical into collision with mundane life is seeing how it transforms: how the world will change by what has emerged into it, how the people will change when they find something that defies the familiar architecture of their world. Once you’ve seen what you’ve seen, nothing can be the same, even if you never see it again. Clive Barker’s characters, for example, often throw themselves into these transformative moments, even when the fantastical thing they’re running towards is almost certain to kill them, simply because every moment after this can only be “mere existence”. Pratt’s take is simple and subversive: what if the transformation doesn’t actually go far enough? If the magical intrusion into our world breaks all our rules, well there must be a chance that we’re going to break the rules of the magical world in turn.
In Dale Bailey’s “Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous” the transition is technological rather than magical, and this time the protagonist knows exactly what she’s in for: she’s paid good money to a travel agent for it. The story follows an unhappily-married couple taking the last stab at salvaging their chilly, brittle relationship with a stay at a time-traveller’s resort in the age of the dinosaurs.
Bailey works more slowly and subtly than Pratt, gradually fading the detail in rather than using the sharp dramatic sting, but Gwyneth and Peter have the same problem as they play tennis, sip cocktails and plan their dinosaur-spotting expeditions. They’ve arrived somewhere wonderful, incredible, and it isn’t working. They’ve brought the weather with them. Their attempts to reconnect with one another are still stilted and painful. Peter won’t open up to the wildness around them and pulls right back into himself; Gwyneth, the main character, finds herself captivated by the land and the dinosaurs (and by the man who’s guiding them out on their travels) but the result is that as she turns toward these new things she turns away from him.
I’m probably making this sound quite soap-operatic, and I admit that while I was reading it I was feeling a bit snarky about it – it sometimes felt a little like one of those overwrought slice-of-life stories about comfortable bourgeois couple fretting over their mid-life crises, with some dinosaurs tacked on. That was doing it a disservice. There’s some very clever, character-driven writing in how the couple’s reactions to their surroundings mirror what’s going on deeper in their heads, which then becomes more powerful for being understated. And the story ends with a cataclysmic event that makes it clear that although the couple might survive, their bank-breaking attempt to restart their lives together was doomed from the start.
…and other stories.
“Luminous” by Tim Pratt, in Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories
“Star Soup” by Chris Willrich, in Asimov’s magazine, September 2012.
Elsetimes in recent reading: “Luminous” is the third piece in Antiquities and Tangibles, a neat little cyberpunk-tinged fantasy about a husband-and-wife team of thieves who have to rethink their careers in a hurry after one of them is bitten by a feral angel. Their new direction is… not what I expected, but in the best way.
What I’m really impressed with in Pratt’s work so far is his perfect sense of timing. The Antiquities and Tangibles I’ve read so far each pick up one of those casual “what if” questions it’s fun to ask about a familiar story going in an unfamiliar direction, and turn it over to see the new story that it reveals. It would be easy to write these stories as largely forgettable one-punchline novelties, or to overdo them and stretch the original conceit too thin. Pratt hasn’t done that so far: these stories are compact, economical and entertaining, with exactly the right rhythm and substance for their length. I’m looking forward to reading more of them.
“Star Soup” is from the same edition of Asimov’s, a twist on the re-contact story where a starfarer comes to visit a world that has gone for too long with no visits from starfarers. The story has a cosy, even fairytale feeling, with the visitor showing himself into a frightened little village one evening and sitting down to prepare a meal of “star soup”, a twist on the children’s story about the clever cook making a pot of stone soup. During the cooking the visitor manages to draw the townspeople out to talk to him, getting them to tell them his stories, soothing their fears and perhaps planting some new hopes and dreams.
Although some of the villagers’ tales have sombre undertones – one tells of bearing witness to the death of a great predatory beast, one has a story of being held hostage by the AI of a wrecked spacecraft – the piece as a whole feels gentle and upbeat, with a hint of steel to the ending: the stranger warns his hosts that if any of them try to stop their youngsters from following their dreams of exploration and travel, he and his friends will know, and return.
That’s a little slice of my latest reading accounted for. Meanwhile, in the other document open in my taskbar, I’ve got my protagonist standing and looking up at a nine-metre door covered in bones. Time for me to go back and step him through it. Catch you later.