by Gillian Daniels
“Those” by Sofia Samatar (Published March/April 2015), Uncanny Magazine.
A piece in direct conversation with Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” and other, haunting colonial excursions into the “unknown.” Sarah is a 19th century Black woman who keeps house for her white, English father. In his rambling stories about his youth abroad, he recounts his work as an overseer in the Sudan. While there, he met Sarah’s mother, a native nurse from a local convent, and had a separate encounter with a creature that he describes in vague, terrifying, and “dark” terms.
“Those” is about dissociation, the subtle and unsubtle ways we dehumanize one another. Besides a dream Sarah has midway through the story, the main speculative element is heavily implied to be invented by her father as a way to explain his own fears and insecurities regarding race and cultures he doesn’t understand. The themes inquire into the nature of the mysterious, shapeless monsters that crop up in narratives of Westerners journeying into exotic countries. What are writers writing about when unknown beasts emerge from the depths of foreign lands? What are readers reacting to? In the wake of the Hugo slate nomination controversy this year, I’m more interested than ever in exploring genre tropes with new, thoughtful fiction.
Sarah’s father speaks to her fondly, dancing around her skin color and his wife’s origins while describing the disapproval his friend George felt at the match. He unquestionably feels affection for her. Still, he doesn’t hesitate to claim he’s “all she has” or send her on errands as if she were a servant rather than a daughter. To him, she’s a character in the ongoing story of his life. Samatar offers a wholly satisfying read while examining what happens when an anonymous woman of color gets a chance to frame the story.
The language here is deliciously evocative. Descriptions are rooted at the previous turn of the century, lingering over dinners and trips to Egypt. But Sarah’s domestic life style, especially when she goes to collect lilies for George’s funeral, is less “Heart of Darkness” and more Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” It hits the beats and quiet realizations of Modernist fiction. Sarah comes into her own with one of these quiet realizations, unpacking what her father’s directionless anecdotes and what they mean to her.
“Thousandfurs, Or The King Who Wanted To Marry His Daughter” by Mallory Ortberg (Published April 2015), The Toast.
Mallory Ortberg specializes in the surreal, irreverent Internet humor one reads during a slow day at the office. Her Texts From series, collected in Texts from Jane Eyre, has literary characters and historical figures alike utilizing contemporary technology to communicate their discontent. Among her other pieces, Ortberg scours Wikimedia Commons to put together lists of the best and most ridiculous paintings. She’s a smart comedian for the information age.
But Ortberg’s Children’s Stories Made Horrific series has a very different flavor to it. Like a well wrought joke, it pushes against a reader’s assumptions and then throws her out of her comfort zone. Ortberg subverts stories like “The Little Red Hen” and “The Frog Prince” by breaking open the essentialist roles of the characters and the ideas behind the morals. Why, for example, would a princess owe a life of companionship to a frog because he retrieved her golden ball?
“Thousandfurs” is one of my favorite fairy tales. The best known of the original texts is an inverted Cinderella, for the most part, in which a princess escapes marrying her father with a cloak sewn from a thousand furs. She soon ends up working as a servant to another king, eventually attracting his attention during the course of three balls she attends in three beautiful dresses. They marry and, eventually, the princess reconciles with her father on more neutral terms.
Ortberg’s adaptation stays true to much of the incestuous source material but takes a more logical path. In the world of the fairy tale, a king can order his own daughter to marry him without serious repercussion, after all. A woman’s beauty turns her into an object that can be owned rather than a person who might have her own desires.
The whole series is worth checking out and touch on themes that aren’t for the faint of heart. Like the much lighter Texts from Jane Eyre, I’d love to see these posts collected into a printed book. The audience for it may be a little more specialized, but these dark, compelling stories should be treasured.
“To Preserve Humankind” by Christina Nordlander, (Published May 2015), Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, ed. Peter Öberg; Affront Publishing.
When robots meant to serve human needs gain the ability to think for themselves, there tends to be one of two outcomes in most science fiction. Either the robot looks to continue to help those she serves or she decides to overpower them. The service droid who’s the main character of this story drifts between the two options, discovering that the best course of action might be a combination of the two.
As a Maid with a capital “M”, our artificially intelligent heroine still feels loyalty to her privileged owners. She still comes to the conclusion that life for her and her brethren would be better off without humans randomly and needlessly eliminating them. The idea of mass slaughter seems distasteful, even if her owners haven’t done her any favors. Her answer to the problem is chilling and calculated but, to her, compassionate.
Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep is a Swedish anthology that contains a number of dark science fiction fables. Most tread familiar ground. “To Preserve Humankind” hits similar themes, as well, but comes at it from a direction I found oddly endearing in its naiveté without being sentimental.
“Let Baser Things Devise” by Berrien C. Henderson (Published April 2015), Clarkesworld
A quirky, near-future setting complete with a midlife crisis in the style of lit fic. Well, mostly. Pierre reflects on his childhood and wonders about the point to it all. The twist, however, is that Pierre is an intellectually-augmented (or “uplifted”) chimpanzee. Now that his superior intelligence has been recognized, he’s been granted “personhood” by the government. Then he goes to the moon with a sentient robot, Tsuki. Because why not?
“Let Basers Things Devise” works because it takes its characters seriously but not so seriously as to deny the awkward aspects of an animal endowed with human reason. Pierre’s memories of sleeping in trees with a troop are comforting to him but stand in contrast to his job and research. He’s caught between the “civilized” world which Clockwork Corp has forced onto him and the desires he’s cultivated in his childhood. In short, he’s about as human as one can get: unsure about the adult world while remembering his upbringing with both longing and fear.
It’s interesting to see a piece where such an enormous speculative element — an animal given higher intelligence and synthetic vocal chords to express it — is commonplace. Even the moon mission Pierre volunteers for seems like an everyday undertaking. Maybe the technology feels detailed and real specifically because it’s treated so casually and with such a gentle humor.
Turns of phrase ground the action without sacrificing eloquence: “The moon crept out and blued the world as the tide reached Pierre, and he didn’t begrudge its work upon the names in the sand.” With this careful prose employed through out, our hero is not an object of ridicule or a despairing Frankenstein’s monster, but a person learning how to adjust to circumstances so absurd, they’re almost mundane.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.