This week I returned once more to Tor to look at another piece of short fiction. I was especially intrigued to read a story by Jeff VanderMeer, since he’s actually been on my radar for a while as one of the editors of The Weird. Side note that his wife, Ann VanderMeer, also edited The Weird, as well as some of the other Tor stories I’ve read for Short Tuesday thus far, plus edited this story as well, which adds a whole different layer of interesting. You can read the short story for free here…
I’ll be honest—I’m a bit flummoxed by this story! It documents one man’s interactions with an alien force that has engulfed the Earth; the narrative focuses more on the MC’s discovery of the world and the realization of what is happening than on any kind of plot. The aliens are of the parasitic variety, rather than laser gun toting sort, and the focus throughout is on the natural progression of the parasite—what happens to Earth’s flora and fauna, as well as how the parasite (called the “story-creature”) physically and mentally manifests itself in the MC.
And while I stood there in the shadows of the moonless night, beyond the street lamps, beyond the circling moths and with the nighthawks gliding silent overhead…while I stood there and pleaded, the story-creature sprouted out of the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds.
There are many instances throughout where it’s difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, which adds to the story in my opinion. With a kind of Lovecraftian flair, the MC is presented with beings and creatures that don’t really make sense, and all he can do is relay what’s happening as best he can based on his human capacities. At the same time he is uncovering truths about himself; contact with the alien parasite has changed him in irreparable, unexpected ways.
I think this is the kind of story that really needs a few reads. The prose has such a driving momentum that you kind of can’t help reading onward, even as your brain is trying to parse what’s happening, so I felt like there was quite a lot I was missing. Even so, I like to think that there would be so many unknowns in the event of actual extraterrestrial contact that this story conveys that uncertain feeling exceedingly well. Who knows—maybe I’ll read through it again sometime and see how the story hits me a second time around.
I’m a huge fan of Stranger Things, so was immediately intrigued by Emily Henry’s When the Sky Fell on Splendor, which is obviously referencing the TV show with the cover. The alien component as well was interesting, since I’ve heard multiple people in the YA publishing sphere mention how aliens just kind of aren’t a thing for some reason, even though vampires, werewolves, mermaids, and their ilk have all had a turn in the spotlight. I #amwriting an alien book right now (lol, how cringy can I make this post? 😀 ). Even though my book’s more New Adult than YA, anything new even tangentially related to aliens right now is interesting to me, even just from a market research standpoint.
So I was pumped to read this book… and then it fell a bit flat for me. Something about the prose wasn’t connecting with me—perhaps too many details and flashbacks (oh, the many flashbacks!) that distracted from the main action. There are also too many characters in the MC’s friend group; I’d have cut at least two or three of them out. I understand that Henry was trying to illustrate how the unfortunate history of their town had influenced everyone a bit differently, but it was too many people to keep track of; I had to frequently backtrack to figure out who everyone was again. If there had been fewer characters, perhaps we could have seen more depth with the character development. A smaller, more careful approach is pretty much always going to be better than a scattershot method.
Huge, ending ruining spoiler incoming…
It turns out there aren’t even any aliens in this book. The cover’s basically a total lie; instead we discover that the entity the characters encountered in the beginning of the book is the soul of someone in the town. This fit with the navel gazey feel of the book, but I still felt a bit lied to as a reader. If I see an alien spacecraft on the cover, I want actually aliens, dammit. Don’t give me that huge tease, then only serve up misdirection. It was disappointing, rather than surprising. That was the point at which my three star review dropped down to two, since I felt it was kind of a betrayal of the audience.
So this is a sad pass for me, despite some fun moments throughout.
I feel a bit like Jenna Marbles right now. “We-put-out-new-videos-every-Wednesday-slash-Thursday-SUBSCRIBE!!!!” Sometimes life happens, and you run a little late. This week it was health stuff… But I’m here now and ready to rumble. 🙂
So this week I returned yet again to Tor.com to check out their original fiction. I was intrigued by this story by Lavie Tidhar, since I have a passion for and academic background relating to the Chinese language and culture, so “Yiwu” it was. You can read the short story here…
I liked this story… okay. I appreciated the focus on environmental details in the story, but there were just so many of them that it gave an overall jumbled effect.
The air smelled of hot leather, shoe polish, fried garlic, knockoff Chanel No. 5 perfume, uncollected garbage, frangipani and the recycled air blown out of a thousand air conditioners.
Used a bit more sparingly and with greater care, these details could have done a great job setting the scene (I’m thinking specifically of Haruki Murakami, who’s an expert at this sort of thing), but here the narrative felt cluttered by details that gave the impression they were only there to grant exotic flair.
The sparse plot, too, I was only halfway invested in. Once we got to Esham visiting the lottery office, I was getting a bit excited, since it seemed like we were going to get a chance to peek at the wizard behind the curtain. I was definitely wondering if everything thus far was some sort of virtual reality… and maybe it is? But the author shields us from garnering any further truths, which just left me a bit frustrated. I wanted more of a concrete look at the realities of this mysterious world, but the simple ending just left me a bit annoyed. So I’ll give this three stars for some nice imagery and the tantalizing feeling of being just about to see the cogs that are making this world tick… But overall I just wanted more substance.