This morning, The New Yorker heralded the arrival of Speculative 9/11 Fiction with trepidation, calling the trend “unsettling.” The article is partly a commentary on how fiction of any kind deals with traumatic, culture-shaping events, and partly a review of the new anthology In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post-9/11 World (edited by Douglas Lain). In it, Joshua Rothman talks about how we’ve arrived at a “a transition in the legacy of 9/11.” It’s no longer Too Soon, and soon the 9/11 video games and romance novels will roll in.
I think we passed the Too Soon point long ago; but, even if we hadn’t, science fiction and fantasy writers have always been quicker to start the cultural processing of traumatic events because we can couch them, parable-like, in worlds and times far away from our own. Hell, Richard Bowes’ “There’s a Hole in the City” was published just four years post 9/11.
That’s not to say speculative fiction about a traumatic event can’t still be upsetting to read, even fully divorced from the actual event as my own story, “Until Forgiveness Comes,” is. Because fiction comes from the same place as memory and emotion. The best SF stories are often about working through trauma and deep emotion, drawing on the deep wells within their authors—even when they’re not strictly biographical.
The stories in this week’s roundup are like that. They’re not about 9/11, but they are about loss, desperation, processing, and coming out on the other side... or not.
Glaciers Made You by Gabby Reed | Strange Horizons
There are words laced through the skin that peels from my sunburn. In a tiny, cursive script the color of freckles, it reads like fragments of poetry.
The peeling skin is otherwise normal: transparent, sloughing off in clumps and strips, easily destroyed. I’m impatient with it, pulling at it where I can. It’s difficult to be certain, but I think that the words continue in sequence no matter where I read from next. From my neck:
to Mt. Deception thr
And then my shoulder:
h the moraine
snow blue as
My sister won’t believe me.
“Why would I want to look at your dead skin.” She pushes my hand away.
“Ida, just look, just, just look.” The fragment is delicate, draped across my fingertip.
“God, you’re disgusting.” She looks. “That’s supposed to be words? That’s miniscule.”
“Look at it this way.” I twist so the text runs left-to-right under her eyes. We’re sitting at the edge of the basketball court that centers the spokes of our apartment complex. A grey squirrel, still as the grave, sits like another spectator five feet away. Its flat, dark eyes are on us.
“Bonnie, why are you doing this?”
“I’m not doing it.” I shoulder closer, push the fragment closer to her face so she’ll really see. Ida leans away and throws her palms up between us.
“It’s summer break, okay. Just like, use this time to practice not being a freak.”
She tags into the game when our cousin Will taps out. He collapses in her spot next to me, July-sweat smell and limbs so long his knees reach his ears when he folds his legs up.
“What’s up, Bon-ton,” he says. Papa called me that. Will’s huffing air hard. I don’t show him the skin.
I look hard in the mirror that night, but the words aren’t there before the skin peels off. It isn’t there if it peels off on its own, either. I have to pull it, and then the words come. I pull off the edge of my collarbone and it says ipped and grieving. Just below that, two fragments come off to make the phrase peaks like wisps.
The thing that struck me about this story as I listened to the podcast is how deft Reed is at creating gorgeous word pictures. Every evocation is spot on, not too purple, but poetic in a way that allows you to see the image in your mind even if it’s not the exact image she saw in hers. When paired with a character and a narrative that are both engaging and heartbreaking, you get a story of sublime beauty. Highly Recommended.
photo credit: Flickr
The Closest Thing to Animals by Sofia Samatar | Fireside Fiction
I have a habit of meeting people right before they get famous and don’t need me anymore. I met Rock Morris two weeks before his book came out. I met Cindy Vea when she worked at the bakery. Her hair straggled out of her ponytail and neither of us would have guessed you could even be a full-time blogger. Six months later, I emailed Cindy to remind her about the panel we were putting together for the Conference on Negative Realism. She never wrote back. I met Nadia Barsoum the year before she started growing peppers. She kept saying her knee hurt. We thought it was the fog.
The day I met Hodan Mahmoud, I was home with a cold. I’d been cultivating it for a few days, staying up late, leaving my house with wet hair every morning, and coughing a lot at work to make my throat sore and let people know I was coming down with something, and finally it had paid off. I was lying under blankets, pleasantly woozy, preparing to sleep, really sleep, when I heard something crashing and banging around outside the window. It lasted so long, I got up to see if dogs were in the trash, and there was Hodan digging around in it with a stick.
I pushed up the screen and leaned out. “Hey!”
She looked up. “Hey.”
Hodan always has a vague look, sort of drowsy. She was wearing a green bandana over her hair, and a stained trench coat with the belt tied instead of buckled. I immediately felt embarrassed. I thought she was homeless. I’d never stop a homeless person from going through my trash.
“Hey,” she said, “I know you.”
“Um,” I said, but then I realized she was right: we’d gone to the same college. Now I was even more embarrassed, and also sort of panicked, because you should probably invite an old classmate up for tea, even if she’s turned out homeless.
“I’m sick,” I blurted. “I’m home with the flu.”
“That sucks,” she said. She sounded genuinely sorry. “Am I making too much noise?”
“No, it’s no problem. I mean. Are you — is there something special you’re looking for?”
She didn’t seem flustered. “Not really,” she said. “Just checking.”
The main character’s desperation pours out of this story. And while that’s not an emotion I want to swim in forever, it’s one that many people can empathize with, even as they back away from how much it resonates with moments of their own lives. With this story, Samatar plucks at the secret thoughts and desires we all harbor, lays it out on the page with a fictional person, then gives you the choice of whether to engage or not.
art credit: Galen Dara
Chasing Comets by Brian Trent | Crossed Genres
“You think there are aliens, Dad?”
“Somewhere, sure. Maybe some alien plankton, or fish-like analogues, swimming on a Jovian moon.”
“Or a Saturn moon,” he reminds me, and quickly spouts the latest probe fly-by discoveries about Titan, mystery moon wreathed in a dense fog atmosphere and with liquid oceans sloshing over its surface. Sammy sits lotus-style on the floor, resembling a tiny, scientifically-minded seven-year-old Buddha. “You think we’ll ever find out for sure?”
“Perhaps many years from now.”
He nods thoughtfully. For a moment he’s somewhere else, his eyes focusing on a distant point of tomorrow’s calendars. “I want to be an astronaut,” he says suddenly.
It’s the first conversation we’ve ever had about what he might want to be. Sammy is seven years old. As far as I know, he still thinks summer vacations last an entire year.
I raise an eyebrow. “An astronaut, huh?”
A smile splits his face. “Before my hair turns gray!” And then he vaults off the rug as if launched by a spring, dropping the controller, and rushes to the window. “It’s snowing, Dad! You promised!”
“Okay,” I say, rising from the couch and going to get my keys. “Let’s go.”
The other week one of the commenters quibbled with the use of “speculative fiction” as a term for science fiction. I still maintain that spec fic is a perfectly good umbrella term for SF, F, & H and that no, all fiction isn’t “speculative”. However, if any story deserves the term applied to it, it’s this one. Is it actually science fiction, or is it spec fic? Either way, I found it touching and saddening in equal measure.
photo: Comet Hyakutake by Bill Ingalls
K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction author, media critic, issuer of the Tempest Challenge, and author of “Until Forgiveness Comes,” reprinted in In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post-9/11 World. Follow her on Twitter, G+, Tumblr, or her blog.