Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.
Today I’d like to talk about three very different stories from the Parvus Press anthology If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, edited by Cat Rambo. I intend to read this whole anthology eventually, but figured I’d take a random sampling just to get me started.
“Green Glass: A Love Story” by E. Lily Yu. This one starts out as a classic SF love story: a man literally sends a probe to the moon to get a birthday/engagement present for his fiancée. But Yu does remarkable things with the story progression from there, revealing both the past and present (and a glimpse at the future) of the theoretically-happy couple. Yu gives us a future where the world has been largely despoiled and the working class are increasingly sicker because of it while the rich just get richer and healthier; everything this couple does to prepare for their wedding is expensive and wasteful just to make an impression. But there’s also the undercurrent that some things may never change: in an age of pre-nups that even designate how many children a couple will have, the woman still gets taken advantage of, gaslit and blindsided. I started out thinking the main characters were a bit unlikeable, grew to despise them for their excesses, and then actually felt a little sorry for the main female character by the story’s end. I think Yu manages to show us that while short fiction usually focuses on one aspect of a dystopian (or utopian, or whatever) society, the reality is that no facet of a society exists on its own and ignoring the bigger picture for the details that benefit you the most will almost always backfire.
“The Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit” transcribed by Steven Barnes. It’s no secret that I love noir in all its forms – hard crime to SF. So it was probably a guarantee I’d love this story by one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. The voice of the narrator/title character is gruff, macho, take-no-prisoners, and yet Barnes also imbues him with more honor and a bit less misogyny than the classic 40s-50s originals of this type. Still, a trope of noir is that the hero gets suckered, at least for a little while, by a beautiful client while ignoring his faithful and loving secretary … and Barnes leans into the trope with skill and subtlety, subverting it by staying true to it almost all the way through the story. All the classic types are here: the femme fatale, the hard-pressed secretary, the questionable businessman, and the links to an earlier case that turn out to be more important than the narrator at first realizes. Culturally, Barnes shows us a future where movements like #MeToo result in every business and personal interaction being filmed by bodycams and the footage securely stored in case of future litigation. The story takes several twists that I don’t want to spoil here.
“The Harvest King (Will Surely Come) by Nisi Shawl. One of the many things that impresses me about Nisi Shawl is her world-building when it comes to alternate (her novel Everfair) or future histories, and the voices she uses to reveal that world-building to the reader. Here, we get the religio-fascist future of a portion of the former United States called “Heartland” shown to us through two very different, equally sycophantic voices. The first voice is that of an American “king,” who has inherited his place from his the previous ruler (who ruled for twenty-one years), and who is now making plans to pass that throne on to the husband of his daughter (whose name happens to be Tiffany) … because in this future even the hereditary throne can’t possibly go to a woman. I’m not sure just how far in the future this part of the story is set. At first, I thought it was very near-future (a daughter/granddaughter named Tiffany), but the other voice Shawl uses – the pages of a Bible section called “Letters to the Oligarchs” makes me think that our present is a dim memory to the “king” who is about to leave his throne. The characters, all unlikeable, refer to slaves and “mud people,” and to ritual sacrifice of living “effigies” to appease the earth and guarantee a good harvest. Shawl wonderfully co-mingles pagan rituals (writ large via monster trucks and harvesters) with the racial purity ethics of a subset of our current population to posit a future where America has turned from democracy to theocracy.