Short Stories

Starlings by Jo Walton | Review

35909363Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction author. She is the winner of the John W. Cambell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, The World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004, and most famously known for her Nebula and Hugo award winning novel Among Others (2011). Most recently, the Thessaly trilogy has been completed and published as an omnibus containing The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity: A Novel.  Starlings is the first collection of Walton’s shorter works and it will be published by Tachyon Publications on January 23, 2018 (Kindle) and February 23 (Paperback).

In the introduction to Starlings Jo Walton writes:

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories…I had published nine novels before I figured out short stories…so that career advice for writers isn’t necessarily the way it has to work. Funny that…Writers are different and write in different ways and there is no off-the-peg writing advice that works for everyone.”

Walton knows her craft so well that even on works she says she “never found easy,” or “recently figured out,” she still manages to amaze and inspire.

Starlings is a mix of short stories, poetry, and even a play. This work is an accumulation of all the side projects Walton has been working on for seventeen years. I am a big fan of seeing an author in different moods, and at different skill levels across several years within the covers of the same book. This work is playful and experimental. Each short story, play, or section is followed by an afterword by Walton where one often encounters the words “experiment,” “exercise,” or “challenge.” Reading this collection felt like watching a wizard at the cauldron having fun with new spells.

At several points short stories are really just “poems in disguise” as Walton puts it. Her use of language is highly atmospheric. There are imagined letters between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, an encounter with an alien told from the perspective on an 89 year-old woman whose memories are slipping, as well as poems containing myths, legends, and familiar characters. My absolute favourite short story in this collection is “On the Wall.” This story was previously published for Strange Horizons back in 2001 and it’s a retelling of Snow White, pre-Snow White (character) told from the point of view of the magic mirror. In this tale we come to know how the magic mirror came into existence, gained consciousness, and how it came to the possession of who we now know as the Evil Queen. The mirror’s voice stayed with me several days after reading this short story:

“I do not know how long it was before I learned to reflect people. People move so fast, and must always be doing…I learned not merely to reflect them but to see them and to understand their words and commands…what I liked best was hour upon hour of contemplation, truly taking in and understanding something.”

Even the mirror, with all its abilities and magical power, feels inadequate and incomplete.

“I am a failure. I can only see what is never what is to come”

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fantasy, Jo Walton’s previous works, or wants to try shorter works before committing to longer ones. Many thanks to Tachyon for sending me a copy for review.

 

Invisible Planets | Book Review

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Jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. Photograph of spiral galaxy M81 (detail) by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage team.

Invisible Planets is a 2016 TOR publication. The thirteen short stories had been previously featured in short story publications like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com. The short stories are written by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. All the stories are translated by Ken Liu whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” is the first work of fiction, of any length, to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and who also translated The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy written by Liu Cixin.

Each author’s stories are preceded by a brief biographical note on the author. At the very end of the collection there is a series of non-fiction essays on Chinese Science Fiction. I have never read any contemporary Chinese literature. Like most people in the West, I was introduced to a few translated fairy tales, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and translated philosophies like I Ching, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. We are missing out on much of China’s contemporary artistic output due to lacking translated works. As a reader, I feel embarrassed for how little I know of China’s contemporary literature in general, let alone specific genres. I had only heard of Liu Cixin because of the Three-Body-Problem which I still have not read. Ken Liu urges the reader in the introduction to read the stories as they are without trying to morph them into what we think Chinese literature should be. He writes:

“Given the realities of China’s politics and its uneasy relationship with the West, it is natural for Western readers encountering Chinese science fiction to see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics…I would urge the reader to resist such temptation. Imagining that the political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous.”

He continues:

“Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”

For instance, Liu urges us not to read Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” as a critique of the Chinese education system and the labour market. As I was reading the story I couldn’t help but smile through several parts like this one:

“I sat next to Pea by coincidence. I was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese literature; he was a graduate student in the biology department. We had nothing in common except neither of us could find jobs after graduation.”

I think that problem is quite universal right now. This thought is prevalent here in the West as well. That is just a small example of the warnings Liu gives us when reading contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in translation. Read it like it is, and don’t think of any of it as a critique of China alone.

I found the stories to be varied in content. Qiufan’s science fiction is more about dialogue and character with very subtle airs of science fiction, while some of the later stories are hard science fiction, or futuristic. This book is an introduction to Chinese Sci-fi and it’s well-put together. Bits of non-fictions, introductions, and summaries contextualise the sci-fi stories and give the reader a good overview of Chinese Science Fiction.

I would strongly recommend this to anyone interested in exploring literature from a different country, expanding one’s horizons (quite literally for some stories), and for those interested in Science Fiction. I have personally become mesmerised by both Ken Liu and Cixin Liu that I am very much looking forward to reading their other works.