Blogging Brilliant Stories

I read a lot of literary journals. When I fall head-over-heels in love with a story, I’ll blog about it. Here.

Blogging Brilliant Stories: “Karina Who Kissed Spacetime,” by Indrapramit Das, and “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” by John Chu

First of all, I owe this blog post to Brit Mandelo, whose recent Short Fiction Spotlight hit my RSS reader with perfect timing, considering that my New Year’s Resolution was to READ MORE SHORT STORIES!! Which comes with a corollary commitment: to TALK about the stories I read, especially when they’re amazing, and to do that on my blog as a way to shout out awesome shit as well as force myself to put into words what works for me in great stories, which often make sense on an emotional level but not always on a verbal one. I tore right into Brit’s suggestions, and my life was much enriched.

So, borrowing Brit’s thunder, I’ll do two stories here, instead of my usual one, and hope that’ll kickstart my “Blogging Brilliant Stories” for 2014.

In 2012 I read and loved Indrapramit Das’s “Weep For Day,” in Asimov’s, so my eye is always out for more stuff from him (also, he’s a Clarion West grad, so we are telepathically linked through the Greater Clarion Collective Hive Mind). When Brit hyped Karina Who Kissed Spacetime (originally in Apex) I checked it out right away. It’s a beautifully imaged, richly felt flash of feeling and scene, capturing the adolescent head-rush joy-agony of first love so marvelously that it almost feels like the speculative element (the protagonist’s first love is capable of shattering the spacetime continuum and sending him dancing through time) might just as well be an expression of a young person’s euphoric hyperbolic way of seeing the world and experiencing emotion. That’s what I think great spec-fic should do: use ridiculous lies to dramatize and underscore something fundamentally true about the human condition; in this case, the worldbending intensity of teen love.

John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” is a near-perfect SFF story, using a totally fresh and wacky SF conceit (one day the laws of physics change and ice-cold water falls on you from nowhere when you tell a lie; also, attempts to game the system and equivocate may result in permanent insanity) to explore and illuminate the relationship between two boyfriends as one of them grapples with whether & how to come out to his parents. Phenomenal set-up of both the “magic” system and the characters; I was totally crushed out on the boyfriend. Then we travel home for the holidays, as the main character resolves to finally tell his parents what’s up. There’s a level on which its protagonist’s family drama, struggling to come out to his parents even as his sister is constantly blocking them from being alone with them, becomes a little comedy-of-errors, but I’m not sure that’s a demerit. I think it speaks to the strength of the story that it can so robustly deploy all the complex ramifications of a new and exciting speculative concept and then move on to use it to explore some fascinatingly real interpersonal dynamics. So even if the family nuance elements didn’t always work for me personally as well as the relationship between the narrator and his boyfriend, they do work. I suspect that, as someone who is IN an intercultural gay marriage, those moments of family tension and terror and magic and wonderfulness might in fact have worked too well for me.

A final note on “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” – sometimes you see the ending coming, and it ruins the story. BUT sometimes you hope the story will end a certain way, and when it does it’s a wonderful thing. That’s what happened with this one. I won’t spoil it, but there was a point 3/4 of the way through where I thought “ooooooh it would be so awesome if THIS THING happened,” and THAT THING happened, really nicely.

So, here’s to excellent stories, and reading more of them in 2014, and talking about them, and blogging about them. And oh yeah writing them too maybe.

Blogging Brilliant Stories: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” by Ken Liu

I read this story over the summer and fell utterly hopelessly in love, and I’ve been meaning to do a blog post rant about its awesomeness ever since.

The full text of the story is available online, here. Go. The story will convince you of its perfection far better than I could. I’ll wait.

This is a time travel story. It’s a story about the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930’s-40’s, and about the medical testing lab in Pingfang District, which many call the Asian Auschwitz, where thousands of Chinese were murdered in the course of unspeakably horrible “experiments.” And as the story says, “at the end of the War, General MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces, granted all members of Unit 731 immunity from war crimes prosecution in order to get the data from their experiments and to keep the data away from the Soviet Union.” If for nothing more than its comprehensive capsule history of this ugly era, “The Man Who Ended History” is worth reading (… really, I gotta say, the authorities at Pingfang were light years ahead of the Nazis when it comes to dreaming up truly horrific things to do to the human body).

Of course no matter how awesome its speculative conceit is, or how important and weighty its subject matter, no story can truly live and breathe without great characters with complex relationships, and “The Man Who Ended History” has those. I loved the time I got to spend with Evan Wei and Akemi Kirino; I found Wei’s dilemma and its ultimate “resolution” very moving.

There’s also a ton of really detailed stuff exploring problems of continuity and consistency between the current governments of China and Japan, and their counterparts of the era of the Pingfang atrocities. I adore that shit, and this story does it so well.

But here’s the heart of why this story rises above “great” and becomes “brilliant,” in my book.

It’s my firm belief that science fiction/fantasy is the only language in which we can discuss human suffering at the staggering scope of genocide. Genocide is the stuff of nightmare; it’s a suspension of all the rules that human beings live by, and we can’t actually attempt to understand it by exploring a fictional world where those rules still apply.  Godzilla is the only way to get our heads around Hiroshima. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is the window through which we can watch American slavery.

That’s what “The Man Who Ended History” does, and does it in ways that convince us, whether or not we know anything at all about China-Japan relations in the present or the past, that the little-known atrocities at Pingfang are absolutely essential to understanding what it means to be human.