True Detective: masculinity, misogyny and monster myths

I have just finished watching True Detective and I intend to discuss it below in a way that will require I give a spoiler alert right here. There’s been a lot said recently about spoilers after a certain someone at a certain royal wedding met a certain fate and the internet went nuts and those people who didn’t want a 15 year old book spoiled for them were understandably upset. So though I don’t intend to deliberately spoil anyone’s enjoyment of True Detective, I’ll probably say something that might. Fair warning then. Spoilers ahead.

For a long time I have held The Wire to be my favourite TV show of all time, and I think there’s a fair stretch of daylight between The Wire and whatever is second. I thought Dexter was a challenger at around the time of Trinity, but it fell away quickly and it fell hard and by the end I hated that dead-beat, lumberjacking cop-out. Oz would be up there. I never quite caught the Breaking Bad addiction to the same extent as many friends did, but it’s clearly very good. Ditto Sopranos. Ditto Deadwood. Then there’s the next tier down where sits the likes of Lost, Walking Dead, first season of Heroes, etc.

True Detective I think is my new 2nd, and it’s closer to The Wire than any of those others came. It is the most stunningly beautiful cop procedural I have seen. The cinematography, the long-shots, the tracking shots, the aesthetic of landscape and urban decay and the people eking out lives of misery and quiet desperation… magnificent. Both leads are tremendous (and the support cast too, but more on that soon), each shed a weight of their parodied past and shouldered instead the gravitas and depth required in a series that relied a great deal on strong performances from its dual protagonists. They delivered. They delivered in spades. Harrelson is great, brooding, childish, petulant, aggressive, assured, fragile, by turns. He inhabits all of these contradictions and owns the physical changes Marty undergoes across the span of 15 years. McConaughey is astounding, and in his ’95 iteration particularly he is nearly unrecognisable but for his voice. I kept having to remind myself who I was watching, and he kept dragging me away from that guy and immersing me in the character.

That guy...

‘That guy’…

But what I feel truly set the series apart from other odd-couple, buddy cop, bromance, procedurals was the philosophical positions expounded by these characters. In his nihilism, his philosophical pessimism, his unflinching honesty-to-self, Rust Cohle brought some interesting ideas to the small screen. The most quoted – most quotable – of these has inspired Tumblrs and Sub-Reddits and all manner of internet discussion, dissection and debate. “Time is a flat circle” explores Nietzsche’s theory of infinite recursion – the thought that most terrified him, among all of the terrifying thoughts he offered. References to “The Yellow King” and “Carcosa” made an 1895 collection of short stories an Amazon best-seller.

Those whom I have read dissatisfied or critical of the series complain that after introducing this apparent profundity, this depth of philosophy and thought, this supernatural sense of myth… the finale is unconcerned with addressing those loose ends. I personally don’t think that was a problem. If this is to be understood as a story about Rust and Marty, then their story is told, and wrapped-up, in the finale. It is in some ways a surprising ending, perhaps in that it is so adherent to the buddy-cop formula, perhaps in that it draws a positive conclusion from a previously pessimist world-view, perhaps because it is so deliberately unconcerned with all those things that had the internet speculating, but it is a completion of the narrative.

Questions do abound though:
Who was the King in Yellow? Why was everyone so afraid? Why is the corpse of Errol’s father left just staked out like that? How did the murders go so long unrecognised? What was the role of the Tuttle family? What consequences await the governor? Why was this done in the first place? What religious or spiritual significance was attached to it? The spiral? The ability of DeWall to see Rust’s soul? What is the ‘mask’ Rust wears?

There’s been several articles and posts  about the conclusion. I can see why some feel the need for a more encompassing resolution to these questions, but I think that misunderstands the main theme of the show . This series was not entitled, “The Yellow King”. This was “True Detective”. Rust and Marty are our focus. It is their tale, and with the denouement in the hospital it is completed (although Lauren Davis’ examination of the conclusion as a supernatural victory for the Yellow King was most interesting).

The more complex criticism, and I suspect the more valid, is in the way True Detective treats women.
Kameron Hurley summarised the concerns as I understand them on her website, and her writing forced me to go back to the series and examine just how much I had read it through the lens of straight, white, cisgendered, male; examine just how different it might look through a different lens.

There were several occasions where the series explicitly explored the nature of masculinity. When, having seen only the first two episodes, I was asked by a friend what the series was about, “masculine roles” was my answer. In ep 2

Marty talks about how he differs from his father, how he faces his burdens – is expected to face is burdens – differently. He reveals himself as a man struggling to adapt to a world of shaken patriarchy. His concept of what it means to be a father, a husband, are shown to be hopelessly out-dated. Indeed he uses these concepts to rationalise the most egregious behaviour. His infidelities, he claims, are essential for him to maintain a healthy marriage. As the series progresses he loses control of himself, his family, his wife. The women in his life were all possessions, which he guarded jealously. His wife. His daughters. His mistress(es). He – as he tells Rust – likes to mow his own lawn. When these things are threatened he responds with violence, often shown to be an impotent violence that he knows he cannot realise, at least against those that matter. Against Maggie and Rust he backs down, or in the one fight scene with Rust he knows he cannot win – later accusing Rust of arrogance for holding back. Against ‘lesser’ men (and against boys) he gives his violence fearsome rein. Against women too, slapping his daughter, choke-hold on his wife, he is as much an aggressor as a protector. His insults against women who he feels have wronged him are all sexual. His daughter a ‘slut’, his unfaithful wife a ‘whore’, his mistress a ‘bitch’ whom he will ‘skullfuck’. Marty is a simple man, and undeniably a misogynist.

Rust is different, and less simple, but still has a deeply flawed view of women. Rust is motivated by a woman in the fridge, in this case his daughter. Subsequently he disassociates from women. He is reluctant to engage at all with Marty’s family, and surprised to find it less terrible than he’d feared. He accuses Maggie ‘what have you done’ immediately after their infidelity. He encourages a woman suffering Munchausen’s-by-proxy to suicide. He shows little compassion for the women and girls at the trailer-park ‘bunny ranch’, and what compassion Marty shows he mocks. ‘Is that a down payment?’ (That he later turns out to be correct only serves to endorse the view. Marty’s desire to protect an innocent falls away when he has a chance to be ‘despoiler’. Women, even ‘saved’ women, remain whores, to be bought).  Rust is a misogynist also, even if not as overt. He knows this. He knows that he is not a good man, but believes he is necessary to keep the other bad men from the doors of innocents (women and children – whom no one else seems to miss). He knows he is a dangerous man. He sets himself up as a protector of women and children, though he cannot have either in his own life.

Whether this means that the series itself is misogynist, I’m less certain. I can see the argument, though I’m not entirely convinced. True Detective fails the bechdel test . Maggie is given a role in the narrative (as interviewee) only after they can no longer interview the men, and then she’s only interviewed about the relationship of the men to each other (and what her role in its fracture might have been). Her own arc has some moments of strength and independence, but these are undermined by that final scene of her, with obedient daughters, showing up to offer Marty redemption. That it is too late for that, that he is not redeemed by his delayed heroism, is his tragedy, not hers. The one moment in which Maggie does seize some agency is in her decision to have sex with Rust. Even this, a brief glimpse of her as a decision-maker, as an agent, is in service to the show exploring the relationship between the men.

And yet perhaps that’s the point. Willa Paskin, at Slate, accepts that “mistresses, prostitutes, corpses, or some combination thereof…” and yet argues that this is deliberately so, that this ignorance of women is a thematic decision. If it is then it’s an important theme perhaps too subtly played out. True Detective shows the monstrous acts of men: abduction, rape, pedophilia, dismemberment/corpse display… It gives us at the end the catharsis of our (flawed) heroes pass through the labyrinth and defeat the monster at its centre. Errol is clearly a monster. His monstrosity is foreshadowed clearly by Rust in his interview.
And yet what True Detective then ignores is all of the other men in that video, all the others who allowed this to happen, the society that meant women and children could go missing unnoticed, that police would not even search for a child if the orders came from above that they shouldn’t.
It’s this monstrosity, the monstrosity of the normal male, the quotidian masculine assumptions of power and privilege, that are the truly terrifying, and I wonder if by giving us an obvious monster to kill True Detective didn’t distract us from the horror of all those ‘normal’ men who participated and facilitated. It’s something Rust is himself concerned by, expressing his regret on his hospital bed. marty though is satisfied. ‘We got ours,’ he says, and for him that’s enough.

Near where I live a woman was walking home – a short walk, and familiar, along a well-lit and heavily trafficked street – when she was taken by a man, raped, murdered, hastily buried. The man was caught and convicted, sentenced, is imprisoned for his crime. He had a history of sexual violence and that he was free to commit this rape and murder on an innocent woman sent shock and outrage through the community.
As I was drafting this post I became aware of something which the husband of that murdered woman wrote. Despite what he had suffered, despite the genuinely nightmarish monstrosity of the rapist who took his wife from him, this man still has the courage and perception to see how dangerous the myth of the monster is.
Some violence against women is perpetrated by monsters, by Childress and his ilk, but much of it – the overwhelming majority of it – is perpetrated by men like Marty, and perhaps like Rust. Manly men, who struggle to find their place in the world and struggle to understand how to relate to women, or how to cope in the absence of women, or how to curb their desires. Men with double-standards and short fuses and a view of women as possessions or playthings. These men are the real dangers.

And so the one ardent criticism I have to level at one of the best television series I’ve ever seen, is that we too easily identify with, accept, and forgive, the monstrous behaviour of bad, dangerous men.


On arrogance, self-doubt, and sucking at stuff.

Tonight I did some writing and it was hard, and sucky. Just bad, sucky writing that sucked.
It took me an hour too and there wasn’t very much of it. It was so bad it made me wonder why I was bothering to write anything at all.
This is the response that I came up with:

Perhaps any act of writing — perhaps any act of art — must start from the basis of emulation, at least insofar as to say ‘here is a thing which I appreciate, and I believe that I can create something of its ilk. I can create something like this, even something better than this.’
For me the stimulus was (and I mean no disrespect to the author here) Raymond E Feist‘s Magician. On my second or third reading of that book, still a teenager, I started to see that I could parse its structure. I realised that it had form, function, and I peeked behind the curtain to see not the players upon the stage presented to me but the craft that had gone into building that stage and showing those players.
My first efforts them were deeply emulative. As Neil Gaiman said, ‘most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.‘  (Have you heard that keynote speech? No?! stop reading this and go watch that now, then come back. I’ll wait…)
I lay no claim to having created anything the equal of, certainly not the better of, Magician. At some point though, as a cocky teenager biting off more than he could chew, I believed that I could. It may be that I yet can. My understanding of the process is deeper now, more nuanced, and still requires a degree of self-belief that spills over into arrogance in order for me to maintain the effort required.
There is a very strange dichotomy at play between the swaggering arrogance (and examined objectively it can be nothing else) inherent to the belief that I can craft narrative from thin air, that I can create prose which communicates emotion to a reader I have never met and do not know, and the depths of despair that haunts and preys and lunges upon the writer, and the artist, at unexpected times.

Self-doubt. What a son-of-a-bitch is self-doubt. Here you are, going merrily along, assured of your own brilliance,  reading over the words you just put down and wondering how you managed to write so wonderfully, and then one day… One day you just get an hour to yourself with something to write and crack your knuckles and get started… And you realise it sucks. All of it. What you’re writing now sucks. What you wrote yesterday sucks. Everything you’ve written so far sucks. In fact the entire concept sucks. Why are you writing this thing at all? This sucks. You suck.
This is what happened to me tonight, and in the past this would have sent me off into other things and I would have shelved the writing and come back weeks or months hence and started anew.
This is what self-doubt does. It takes something you’re doing, smears it in sucks, shows it to you, and aims to make you so revolted that you flee. It has conquered me in the past.

Not this time.

This time I recognise this phase for what it is. I have discovered — with thanks to social media and generous, honest writers who’ve shared their travails as well as their triumphs — that this is a common part of the process for even those successful, professional writers, and undoubtedly artists in all media and form. It is important to make mistakes (you watched the Gaiman video above, yeah? Good).  You must give yourself permission to suck. You must, as Kameron Hurley implores, persist.
So I shall.
I took some time away from the Work In Progress to get these thoughts down for two reasons. The selfish reason being that by writing them here I am at least writing something, and in the process of writing them I have reinforced their value for myself. The second reason is more altruistic. Surely there are others out there who have hit this same point and not had the strength or the support or the advice to go on. If you’re there now and you’re reading this, chin-up, fist-bump, I’ve been there too, and others have, even the best have.

The difference, I believe between the best and the rest, between the successful and the unsuccessful, is that the best, the successful, kept writing even when it sucked, and they fixed it later. So that’s what I’m going to do. 


In the Supermarket (2014)

In the supermarket things are getting restless.

People shuffle in the queue for the self-scan machines, glaring passively, harrumphing at no one in particular, but pointedly and with feeling.

At the self-scan machines things are little better. Toes are tapped at tardy assistants. Red lights blink. Calm mechanical voices ask for items to be added or removed from the bagging area. Shrill human voices imprecate.

There is a man – short and sullen, overladen with fruit – who cannot pay for his rockmelon. An assistant finds it for him. It is under M, because it is a melon.

‘I have complained about this before. It is a rockmelon. It belongs under R.’

‘Not much I can do about it sorry.’

‘There is. You can record my complaint. I want to make an official complaint.’

Together they look to the complaints counter. It is oppressed by the crowd that has gathered there. Its defenders are inadequate, soon to be overwhelmed.

The assistant shrugs.

The sullen vegetarian snarls, his teeth clacking and his eyes all a-spark.

‘I’ve complained about this before. It’s not good enough. It’s a waste of your time and mine.’

The assistant shrugs.

The vegetarian’s eyes bulge. Veins rise on his neck, at his temples.

‘Excuse me,’ says a tall woman. Her body is a work of art, and a canvas. Lean and pretty. Coloured inks on her arms, her thigh, her décolletage. ‘There’s three machines not working.’

Red lights are blinking over the three machines.

‘Just a minute,’ the assistant says.

From somewhere in aisle three there’s a predatory howl.

The queue for the machines surges.

A display of produce crashes to the ground, shattering glass and spilling preserves and spreads marked down for quick sale.

At check-out number seven there’s a young girl’s scream.

At the complaints counter the splintering of wood and a panicked cry.

A fist in thrown.

Teeth spill, skipping across the polished floor.

A head strikes a counter with a wet crack.

There’s the smell of blood and violence in the air.

The vegetarian leaps upon the assistant, bears him to the ground where others rush in with boots and stomping feet for them both.

Someone tries to climb the bread aisle, to safety, but the whole thing topples and they fall into the surging mob.

Men are vaulting the complaints counter, clawing at their victims, bursting throats between their teeth.

I take my receipt and the goods I’ve purchased. I step away, through the automatic doors, past the buskers splintering their guitars against each other, past the collisions and chaos of the car park, to my car.

Best to get home. The kids will be wanting their dinner.


Tolerance, boycotts, and the separation between art and artist

Originally this post had been meant to coincide with the release of the Hollywood adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”.  I have subsequently added to it, and it is now quite long.  I would welcome any responses to the questions I pose.

5212-6484647364-ender

In the lead up to Enders Game there had been controversy, and calls for a boycott, on the basis of Card’s strongly held and strongly expressed views about homosexuality, homosexuals, and the law (and apparently just his “goddamn lunacy”).

 

Now I haven’t seen the film, and it has been about two decades since I’ve read the book, so I don’t want to broach here the topic of whether the material reflects Card’s views (if it does my adolescent-self didn’t pick up on that consciously, but then my adolescent-self had no real concept of LBQGTI realities, heteronormativity, or cisgender).  Nor do I want to discuss the quality, or otherwise, of the film or its source. What did interest me in the discussion is the way that our knowledge of the artist’s personal views and politics influenced the way we received the text.

I got distracted, as happens, and missed the launch of the film (which premiered and screened and disappeared without too many waves of praise or condemnation) and shelved the issue, thinking I may have missed its relevance. Then Shia LaBeouf was in the news, and now Woody Allen, and while the issues that caused the controversy which now surrounds each of these men and their art are vastly different in nature, the core issue of interest spans all three:

Can we / should we judge art by what we know of the artist?

(I will discuss each in turn and try to speak sensitively, particularly regards Dylan Farrow, but I do here want to give a trigger warning on discussions of child sexual abuse, just in case).

Now in posing that question, I accept as a baseline assumption that we do. I know I do. To take one example: I won’t listen to Chris Brown songs because, a) domestic abuse, and b) they are terrible. Yet despite Roman Polanski’s history I can still appreciate his version of Macbeth.
I assume others experience these same reactions.

Orson_Scott_Card_at_BYU_Symposium_20080216_closeup

When Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game was soon to be released as a film many groups (such as Geeks Out) called for boycotts, or stated that they wouldn’t go to see the film, as a form of protest against Card’s homophobia.  Tyler Coates responds directly to this call, accepting that Card was a homophobe (or at least that Card had published an article in 1990 which contained homophobic material), yet disagreeing with the boycott. In doing so he explicitly separates the art from the artist. He allows that we can accept that Card is homophobic, without the entailment that his book, or the film based upon it, are themselves homophobic.
Card also responded to the boycott. His call for those who accused him of intolerance to now show him tolerance was a classical repositioning argument, calling for tolerance of intolerance, hoping to tangle his opponents in a syllogistic web. Chuck Wendig dismantles it in his own NSFW-because -sweary-words way on Terribleminds, and explains why he is boycotting. He also makes the point the the division between the art and the artist is “thinner than we like to think.”

For myself, I didn’t boycott the film per se. I didn’t see it though, so perhaps the controversy did enough to turn me off it. I felt a boycott would punish so many other people than Card, the actors, the director, the studio, the crew, etc. I expected that most of these people would not have shared Card’s views, some or many of them were likely themselves victims of Card’s prejudices, and yet their incomes or careers may have depended to some extent on the film’s success. But on the issue at the core of what I wanted consider – on the separation of the artist from the art – I ended up persuaded that a homophobe could produce a book which not only was not itself actively critical of gays, but that was ironically a tale which might empower the LBQTGI reader. In much the same way that Charlton Heston could portray a character in Ben Hur who was intended to be gay without realising that he was, or the way Charlton Heston could portray a human as the victim of an ape hunting party while being a leader in the NRA.

Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece from Think Progress gave four options for how to approach the situation of Ender’s Game. It is the fourth that I chose:
4. Commit to a discussion: All of these actions are useful to do in private. But whatever you decide in relation to Ender’s Game, talk about it. Talk to the people you would normally go to genre movies with, but whose invitations you’re turning down this time. Talk about it when you decide to go, and explain why you’re making the decision—but also why you’re taking offsetting action. Speak about this from a place of conflict if that’s what you’re feeling, as a genre fan, if that’s what you are. Ethical consumption is a difficult thing to do. And exposing that difficulty and those contradictions, and that they’re part of your process as a consumer, is perhaps the most important thing any of us can be doing, whether we swipe our credit cards or not.

And so in that spirit:

Shia

Shia LaBeouf

I honestly have lost track of what the hell is going on here. LaBeouf plagiarises Daniel Clowes, and later apologises, but then it turns out his plagiarism apology was plagiarisedat some point there was an apology written in the skythen they go back that he had plagiarised an email about his father and what it meant to be a man, then he retires from public life, then people are so confused they think maybe the whole thing is performance art, and then Shia agrees that -yeah, it’s performance art, and he plagiarises his explanation of plagiarism as performance art, and by now he’s a meme (because everything will eventually be a meme).
Among all of this ranting and confusion LaBeouf has offered up the explanation that there is no artist, there is only the art, that all art is plagiarism, that authorship is censorship, and other meta-post-modernist theories that seem to have given him the justification for taking another person’s work and without credit passing it off as his own so that he might profit from it.
In that regard at least there needs to be a connection between the artist and the art, if not one of ownership then at least one of authorship. Once that connection exists then, as a consumer, I must be aware that my support of a work of art is support for its author, for its creator. Financial support certainly, but support beyond that also for the whole edifice of artistic expression, for the whole system that allows for people to survive, to thrive, as a reward purely for their capacity to create.

Woody Allen

And so to Woody Allen, who by any measure has thrived as a result of his Hollywood successes. He is in the midst of an award season that will honour him for a lifetime of creating art. 
The allegations he currently faces are not new, indeed they have passed the statute of limitations apparently by over a decade. When they were first made an investigation was undertaken which did not find enough evidence to continue. 
I know little of this case in its specifics, and that through the lens of media. Certainly I am not qualified or able to assign guilt or to suggest that I know the truth of the allegations.
I did read Dylan Farrow’s open letter though (here, with a reminder that it frankly discusses the abuse she alleges), and it was a difficult thing to read. I have not personally been the victim of sexual abuse, but I know victims, I have spoken with victims about their experiences and the feelings that arose from those experiences. I made enough of a connection between Farrow’s description in her open letter and the cases I know personally to form a storng personal opinion.  Enough to make me query the ethics of supporting Allen’s art.
Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin, both among those mentioned by name in the letter, have each spoken about this being a matter for the family, and not for outsiders. Allen himself has repeatedly in the past, and again in recent days, denied the accusations. Yet with Mia Farrow, and Dylan, and further tweets from Ronan Farrow (Dylan’s brother, Mia’s son – and possibly Woody’s) being made so publicly how can we as consumers be expected to remain clear of the situation? Either we discontinue support for Allen, on the basis of these allegations, or we continue to see his films – knowing that his profile in Hollywood brings Dylan further anguish –  in an act of either explicit or tacit support for him.
The ethics of this decision, and the ethics of Hollywood‘s decision(s) to either continue their awarding of Allen’s work or to distance themselves from the art created by a tainted artist,  are difficult. Ultimately they must decide if awarding his work, and him as the creator of that work, in any way endorses his character. I suspect it need not, but the realpolitik of the situation may not allow that cold rationalism to stand.

For myself, as a writer, I have no such dark skeletons in my closet as homophobia, plagiarism or sexual abuse allegations. I do though have strongly held political and social views. Many of these will have opponents who equally strongly hold their diametrically opposed views. This makes starting out as an writer feel sometimes fraught. I wonder will the art I create be assessed and enjoyed independently of me. I suspect that’s an easier thing to be assured in when you have no public profile, but we all now have the public profile of social media. I re-worked my name so that my writing would not be immediately obvious to a casual search of my name. I am strident in my views on my personal Facebook, but muted on Twitter where I try to maintain a more neutral and professional presence. I wonder if this self-censorship is even necessary. I wonder whether revealing my political beliefs will alienate potential readers.
Why this fear? Because I have experienced the phenomenon as a reader:

Some months ago I saw the twitter stream of an author I was considering reading (or at least adding to my long to-be-read list). I don’t remember the author’s name now. A few tweets was all it took to remove that author from my list of future reading, because I found that she supported many social-political view-points with which I disagreed.

Was I unfair in that? Should I have given the books a chance to speak for themselves without being coloured by my view of the author’s politics? Would I have read the books if I hadn’t seen that author’s personal views? Would I be disappointed if a potential reader was lost to my speaking out on an issue that I believed in.
In all three cases I am almost certain that the answer is yes, yet not for a moment have I regretted the decision I made.
The flip-side is likewise true; I have actively sought out the books of authors whom I have come to realise might share my interests and socio-political beliefs. For writers still seeking to make their way, to find their niche, to find their audience, I believe that there is an important lesson in that.


Reading: Short Stories 2014

Recently I set myself a goal to read 100 short stories this year. To record my progress toward that goal I’ll post here the stories I’ve read (with a link where appropriate) and a one sentence review of my immediate thoughts.

January:

“A Letter from Your Mother” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley in Daily Science Fiction (DSF) was a good little flash fiction in epistolary form that used one voice to develop two well realised characters and the relationship between them.

“The night my Dad became English” by Joseph O’Connor in the Irish Independent was a reflective piece from a son to his father, which touched on issues of family, identity, nation-hood and those decisions we make in our lives which shape who we are to be.

“In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah Tolbert in Lightspeed Magazine mixed a lot of stylistic and genre ingredients – some quite new, others a little cliched – into an interesting near-future sci-fi about our place in the universe.

“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge in the Lightspeed Magazine was a Fantasy piece exploring the meaning of divinity and the role of the deity in societies. It had a number of imaginative elements in its world, and was stylistically like a parable or myth more so than a modern narrative.

“After the Trains Stopped” by J Kyle Turner in DSF was a great story about an Artificially Intelligent (and empathic) factory.  It developed its central premise (and character) well, but for me its greatest strength was the creeping Horror element.

“The Next Generation” by Michael Adam Robson in DSF was a short sci-fi in the old-school sense of a scientist struggling with the moral implications of his invention. It runs along a relatively predictable path where the creation surpasses its creator, and the last line lays on the moral a little thick.

February:

“Baby Feet” by Rene Sears in DSF was a sci-fi invasion story told from an interesting perspective. I really engaged with the character and her circumstances. Unfortunately the ending came in thick lumps of expository dialogue.

“Saltcedars” by Shannon Peavey in DSF was an alternative world fantasy with an interesting central concept. The world was nicely built and the main character realised. It was well crafted and structured, right until the final sentence, which I think dropped with a clunk and robbed the ending of some of its power.

“Mermaid” by Jonathan Schneeweis in DSF was the second mermaid-related story I have read in the last few weeks, and I think the better of the two, despite – or perhaps because of – being less complex. There is some foreshadowing which is a little too obvious, but the turn in the narrative was good and the recurring motif of the counting of ribs was a nice way to tie it all together.

“The Seventeen Executions of Signore Don Vashta” by Peter M Ball in DSF was an excellent tale of an unlikely friendship between a man who would not stay dead and the man who was once his executioner. In the interests of full disclosure, I know Peter through a friend. The quality of this story though should speak for itself. The narrative voice is engaging and the development of the relationship between the characters very well handled.

“The Devil as a White Swan” by Jane Ormond in Machines Will Not Give Change (a print anthology produced by Cardigan Press) is a more Lit-fic flash fiction about a gift given by an insensitive man and the relationship break-up that precipitates. It’s a flash fiction piece, at about 500 words, and opens with a strong tone, but I found the first person subjective a little suffocating and the inner monologue was hard for me to relate to.

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M. Wanak in Strange Horizons was a story about the ways we can change our lives. The central premise seemed initially to be quite limited, but Wanak took it into such interesting dimensions. The narrator, and the narrator’s mother, worked well together to give opposing perspectives on the phenomenon of the spiral staircases, and the style made palatable what might otherwise have been heavy-handed symbolism. It took me a few false starts, but I really enjoyed this one.

March:

“Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in Strange Horizons was amazing. The story is NSFW, tracing the life of the narrator through her sexual encounters, but not graphic. Machado allows the back-story to come through gradually, seeping into the tale and growing – dare I say spreading – until it overwhelms. I sat a moment after reading this and just appreciated it. Really a great piece of writing.

“Walking Home” by Catherine Krahe in DSF had a well-realised protagonist whom it was easy to empathise with. The fantasy elements were minimal and had little direct influence on the plot, but there was a sense of the setting being second-world and the world building was revealed gradually to have depth and texture. It seemed to take a while to get going, and to end abruptly, but I enjoyed it.

“Litany of the Family Bean” by Gemma Files in Strange Horizons is not actually a short story, it being filed under poetry, but I include it here because it did feel as if it had narrative qualities and the setting and characters I found fascinating. The use of language early in the piece was evocative and drew me in. The shock value of the opening  fell away quickly, replaced by a curiosity which wasn’t quite sated. Always leave them wanting more, I suppose.

 


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