short stories

    Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Books 2023, 14) 📚

    I’ve been meaning to read this since I read a review of it back when it came out, in 2017. So, six years on, I finally did.

    It’s surprisingly slight, given all the fuss and praise. I wasn’t familiar with Saunders before reading that review, but he is famous for his short stories. I’ve read a few of those since — at least one during my MA — and they’re fine, but to my mind tend to suffer from the problem that many short stories have.

    I’ve mentioned this here before, though seemingly only once. Often, when I read a short story — even, or perhaps especially, by one of the supposed greats of of the form: Carver, Hemingway, even Chekhov — I’m left thinking, ‘So what? What was the point of writing that, and why did you leave it where you did?’

    However, I recognise the skill that it takes to conjure a life, a character, in few words. And Saunders makes good use of that ability here. Because the story is not very much about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even that much about his son, Willie, who is the one who is actually in the ‘bardo’, a place where souls wait after death in some schools of Buddhism. Rather, it’s about some of the other souls that are trapped in the same Washington graveyard. We get a whole host of compressed backstories.

    And we get altogether too many quotes from books and articles about Lincoln and the death of his son. I haven’t investigated to see whether these are from actual Lincoln biographies, histories of the American Civil War, and so on, or they are cleverly invented by Saunders. (This Wikipedia article suggests it’s a mixture.) But I found them much less interesting than the stories of the dead souls. A few would have been fine, for background, but it feels like they make up about half the book.

    More stories about the dead, please.

    Not-Exactly-Books, 2014, 5: What Has Gone Wrong With Short Stories?


    (Is there such a thing as a “postamble”, I wonder?)

    After reading the previous novel I decided it was high time I caught up on some short-story reading. I had several months of Interzone backlogged, for example.

    Trouble is, it seems that short stories have lost their way.

    I know, that’s ridiculously sweeping. Obviously any such perceived change is far more likely to be in me, than in all recent short stories. And yet, I feel sure that short stories used to be more interesting. So could it be an age thing? Perhaps, but let me first describe what I think it is that’s wrong with them.

    In short: nothing happens.

    In slightly longer: too many of what people are presenting (and selling) as stories are in fact not really stories at all. They are little more then scenes, vignettes at best. There’s nothing wrong with such pieces of writing per se, of course. They can be powerful, evocative, enjoyable… but they’re not stories, it seems to me.

    In a story, something has to happen; something or someone has to change. And too often in my recent reading, they don’t. Or if they do, it’s in a way or to a degree that just doesn’t compel, enthuse, excite.

    The BSFA Awards 2013 Booklet

    I should discuss some specifics, and with the recent1 announcement of the BSFA Awards, what better stories to pick than the four that were nominated? The BSFA very helpfully curates and distributes a booklet containing all the nominated fiction (also reproductions of the nominated artworks, and this year for the first time, extracts from the non-fiction nominees). Conveniently, this booklet arrived during my short-story-reading period, and I read it straight away, to give me the chance to actually vote, for a change.

    How disappointing it was.

    By now we know that the lead story in the booklet, “Spin”, by Nina Allan, won the short fiction award. So I’ll deal with it last.

    "Selkie Stories are for Losers", by Sofia Samatar.

    Our unnamed first-person narrator hates stories of selkies, and swears she’ll never tell one. Why this might be something that she is called upon or tempted to do seems to be related to her forebears: American, her family background is Norwegian. She grew up with selkie stories. As time goes on there is the suggestion that her mother is one of the changeling creatures.

    However, the story is good because of the characterisation. It’s the shortest of the four, but has the strongest, most interesting characters. Well, character: our selkie-story-hating narrator. As the story starts she is working as a waitress and falling in love with a co-worker, Mona. And from there it’s a love story with a slightly-weird background, and always the sense that something related to the selkie myths is going to happen.

    There’s a good review of it on Martin Petto’s blog, actually. I pretty much agree with that.

    "Saga's Children", by EJ Swift

    This is an odd story about a solar-system-famous astronaut, Saga, who has had three children by three different fathers in different places. She took no part nor much interest in their upbringing; and none of them knew the others existed until they were adults.

    Saga summons them to meet her at a station in orbit around Ceres, and something happens.

    But not much, as I was complaining above. The telling is unusual: throughout, the children refer to themselves as “we”, but when they discuss their various careers, for example, they list all three of their names; none of them refers to themselves as “I”. In other words, it is first-person plural.

    But this has a distancing effect; we don’t really get to know any of the three. And a mystery happens and is not resolved, and we’re left none the wiser as to Saga’s motivations, or what the children will do.

    I should just let Martin Petto do this for me, because his take on this story. too, is very accurate.

    "Boat in Shadows, Crossing", by Tori Truslow

    Maybe I should just let Martin deal with this one, too. On the other hand, he is annoyed by it in ways that didn’t bother me. It was, in fact, my favourite of the four, and the one I voted for first in the BSFA Awards (“Selkie Stories are for Losers” second, and no others).

    Why was this the best? An intriguing, mysterious environment, an immediately-compelling narrator, a problem to solve, a world – or at least a city – to change.

    "Spin", by Nina Allan

    “A retelling of the Arachne myth”, we are told. It turns out that I didn’t know the Arachne myth, and that makes a difference.

    We are in something like modern-day Greece – people use iPads, for example – but time is out of joint: the currency is the Drachma, and there are suggestions that ancient events actually happened within living memory. And the protagonist’s father is a dyer, and all mentions of his trade imply that modern chemistry is all but unknown.

    We start with the protagonist leaving the family home – running away, it feels like, though she is an adult – and making a new life for herself in another town. She gets a job, and practises her art of weaving in her spare time.

    A mysterious old woman speaks to her enigmatically.

    Her art soon earns her success and some recognition.

    But some people – one woman in particular, with a sick son – think that she has a power, that her images can influence the future, if not cause it. It emerges that her mother was executed (or murdered) because she was believed to be some kind of witch.

    She strikes up a relationship of sorts with the sick son (who may not be very sick at all), and we think we begin to see how things are going.

    But then the old mystery woman is back and our hero is looking at some spiders on a bush and feeling weird and it’s all over.

    What? What the hell just happened?

    It turns out that Arachne was a weaver who claimed to be (or was) better than Athena, and got turned into a spider as a punishment. So there you are.

    I’ve liked several of Nina Allan’s stories before this, but this one just doesn’t cut it for me; and I find it hard to believe that in all the science fiction (and fantasy) in all the world, there wasn’t a better short story published in 2013.

    (My namesake Petto didn’t review this one, but instead posted a link to a review of it that no longer exists.)

    Maybe I’m just grumpy cos on the rare occasion I’ve get round to submitting my own stuff, it’s been rejected.

    Anyway, there we go. Back to novels.

    1. Recent when I first drafted this, maybe… ↩︎