Serendipity

You may think I planned this, and it would be pretty damned clever if I had, but it is merely a coincidence. The next story in the book I’m currently reviewing is by Steve Berman, and today is his birthday. Because of that, instead of simply skipping over it (because I’ve already reviewed it as part of his third collection of short stories, Red Caps) I’m going to do this instead:

If you haven’t before now, go check out the review of “All Smiles” by Steve Berman. It’s number 78. Or even better, pick up Red Caps or Wilde Stories 2012 and read it yourself. It’s great.

Next up, today’s review.

Short Stories 365/194

“Color Zap!” by Sam Sommer from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

Here’s a short story that truly is a short story, not a fraction of a novella or novel.

Spencer has a secret: his hair is periwinkle, not beige like that of everyone else on his planet. It’s more than an embarrassment, it’s mortifying, and possibly dangerous, so for his entire life his family has gone to lengths to keep those around them from discovering the truth. But when Spencer reaches his teen years he develops a teenager’s sense of invincibility and superiority, and rebels by refusing to again shave his head or dye his hair. Instead, he keeps his locks hidden beneath hats while they grow out, and then unveils his wild blue hair to a horrified citizenry.

Most people react cruelly to what they cannot understand and therefore fear, no surprise there, but there is one exception to the negativity. A mystery man appears who commends Spencer’s bravery before revealing that he is similarly afflicted (or blessed, depending on your perspective). His name is Gavin. Unfortunately, Gavin melts back into the crowd immediately after making his presence known to Spencer.

Armed with the knowledge that he is not alone, Spencer begins attempting to navigate the beige world while also trying to figure out how to find Gavin and any other people like them. He’s aided in this when, a short while after his big reveal, an invitation arrives.

Spencer faces choice after choice: cover up who he is and hope the beige world will ignore what they now know is true, or take a stand and strike out to find comrades (and, ultimately, to forge a better world)? It’s a lot of fun to watch Spencer make his choices, just as it is to root for his successes, but at the end of the story I’m not left with questions. I don’t wish there was more to the story. The author provides all the information necessary to enjoy his tale, and the moment in time that we’re shown is the one we need to be shown, the critical point in Spencer’s story. Once it has passed, the story is finished, which is just as it should be.

Short Stories 365/193

We are having a connectivity issue. If the format of this is a bit strange it is because I am typing it in via my phone app.

“Hoffman, Godzilla and Me” by Richard Bowes, from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.
This next piece feels like memoir but by all accounts is a fictionalized version of the past. Whatever the case, it has some very interesting things to say about the art of writing fiction.
The narrator relates being approached by an anthology editor at a speculative fiction conference and asked to write a piece for the upcoming volume. To be polite he says he will consider it, then promptly forgets all about the conversation until the end of the weekend. When the younger man corners him again he agrees to contribute, then prays that when the time comes nothing will be needed from him. He has absolutely no idea what he would write for it because he has a phobia about New York-based tales. He loves them, but always fears the one he’s just finished will be his last. He worries that writing about a Godzilla-style destruction of the place will ensure that it is the final one.

It’s not until some months later when he receives an email reminder from the editor that he really begins to think about what to write, and then he comes up blank. All of his ideas seem trite or inane. Meanwhile, we are told some key details about his past and the ability he has to mentally retreat from an unpleasant situation. He ponders what it is that constitutes a tragedy. When he runs into a character from his past the reader becomes aware that various, seemingly unrelated threads introduced along the way have all just been brought together into what, essentially, could be a first person, literary entry to a collection entitled Godzilla Does Manhattan. It’s very nicely done.

Short Stories 365/192

“Thou Earth, Thou” by K. M. Ferebee from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

This story is written in the grand tradition of the sinister movies I used to watch in the afternoons and on weekends all during my childhood, back in the 1970s. Creepy yarns about young couples transplanted from the fast-paced city, looking to put down roots in a seemingly charming, bucolic village or sleepy suburb which of course, always turned out to be the home base for a Satanic cult, or aliens hell-bent on taking over the human race, or a corporation looking to do the same.

Mason and Dunbar are transplants from the city, but Mason still commutes to work there. He loves the city, and would never have left it, but Dunbar was unhappy. He needs wide open spaces and nature, not concrete, at his fingertips. They’ve moved into a house in a suburb, where Dunbar works on his Master’s thesis and fiddles in the overgrown garden, while Mason is off at work in a theatre costume shop. It seems like a fairly reasonable compromise until Dunbar begins digging up bones in the backyard, and Mason starts seeing dark shapes moving beyond the window.

The author built up a marvelous tension, and raised all sorts of questions, but the story ends without answering them. I’m left wanting to know exactly what the threat is and how it came to pass in the first place, and what becomes of Mason and Dunbar.

Short Stories 365/191

“Fairy Tale” by Justin Torres from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

I’ve mulled this brief story for a long, long time, yet still feel that I barely have a handle on it, but here goes. It’s told from the perspective of a youth, and the visceral descriptions capture a fascination with the adult body that’s common to adolescence. The narrator is writing to his absent father, telling him about a curious development in their family: the men have begun to sprout wings behind their ears. The narrator is fascinated by the wings, but his uncles’ reactions are mixed. Uncle Ramon is proud of what, for him, is an indication of virility, though he is careful to cover them up when in public. Uncle Miguel’s wings are much smaller. More than anything else, he’s unsettled by their presence, and covers them even in private. Uncle Gabriel’s wings are smaller still, but also newer, and the family hopes they will continue to grow. That’s curious, considering their treatment of Uncle Tito, who has the largest wings of all. He’s been all but shunned because they disapprove of the attitude he displays concerning his wings. Tito isn’t conflicted or embarrassed by them. He’s comfortable with himself, and even worse in their eyes, he doesn’t hide that fact from his nephew.

There’s a lot going on in this tale. It’s a treatise on sexuality, gender roles, and sexual orientation (the narrator realizes that he feels about wings the same way that his Uncle Ramon says women always react). And, of course, the fact that the narrator’s father is removed dredges up the tension felt between fathers and gay sons.

You get all of that in a handful of pages. It’s astounding.

Short Stories 365/190

“The Arab’s Prayer” by Alex Jeffers from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

I first began to contemplate the idea of doing this short story review project while reading the entries on ‘Nathan Burgoine’s blog last year. I decided I would try to get a jump on things, so I started writing reviews of the collections I was reading. Some of the projects didn’t get very far because I encountered stories that confounded me. This was one such collection, though this piece, which kicks it off, wasn’t the one that stymied me. That’s next, but I figure I’ve had over a year to mull it over. Surely I’ll think of something to say by tomorrow.

Here’s what I wrote then. Note that I decided to leave the last line in although I have since read and reviewed several other stories by the author. What was “I’ll definitely check out more by this author” has become “Alex Jeffers? Oh, good!”

Has the world truly changed so much in the few short years since this “speculative” story was penned that it could strike me as nothing but contemporary? I guess it has, because for the life of me I could not figure out while reading this tale why it was included in this particular volume. I simply took it in stride that the “jinni” with whom the main character was conversing was a Siri-like digital personal assistant, and that people halfway around the world from me should be protesting in the streets on behalf of gay marriage, standing up to the hard line clerics of three of the world’s major religions. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Regardless of its speculative-or-not status, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I liked the main character and found his wants and fears very relatable, yet there were enough interesting details sprinkled throughout that I felt I was continually learning about a perspective different than my own, which is one of the main reasons I love to read.

I will definitely check out more work by this author.

Short Stories 365/189

“Notes of the Founders” by Georgina Li from Like They Always Been Free (Queer Young Cowboys, 2014).

I was leaning this way before reading this piece but am now convinced that, at heart, this author is a novelist. The second longest story in the collection, coming in at forty pages, this is a fully realized world with an interesting history not only of several characters but of the colony they inhabit. I don’t see any reason why the key events which are mentioned here in brief couldn’t be rendered in long form. I feel the same way about several of the pieces in this book, actually. These must be fragments of novels. They must be.

This is the story of the founders of a moon colony appropriately named New Sagan: Niko Miya and Peter Miller. It is told to us through journal entries as well as remembrances by Niko’s granddaughter. It’s a love story at heart, and here I’m not just talking about the magnetic pull between Niko and Peter but also about the way the colony itself is portrayed. This is a love song to the human race’s potential. Nothing is ever made of the fact that Niko and Peter are two men, aside from the fact that they had to resort to using a surrogate to bear their three children, and that, as scientists, they’d hoped for some other solution to that problem. (It is hinted that perhaps they found some measure of work-around, just as it’s hinted that the “Dome skin” that protects the colony, and which was their creation, is possibly alive.) I love that their sexual orientation is a non-issue, just as their (I’m assuming from their names) differing races is a non-issue. The only thing that matters to the members of the New Sagan colony is love and the right to self-determination. We can only hope that this fictional future comes to pass.