“The Interruption,” by Debbie Urbanski
I like this one. Good evocation of the main character’s rather unhappy life and (subtly, towards the end) the sense of freedom she finds in being lost. Wouldn’t feel out of place in a literary fiction publication.
I like how Terraform embraces stories that, while only science fiction in a loose sense if at all, use technology or science in interesting ways.
“Owl Eyes,” by Joyce Carol Oates
Around 17.5 pages, 6501 words
I’m not sure how to feel about the ending of this story. Jerald has discovered a new place in himself, a new capacity for action, but it’s hard to know what his adventure will cost him. I’m also not completely sure I buy the suddenness of his change.
I found myself slightly jarred—irrationally—by the mention of an iPad. Something about the language or the setting feels to me like that of an earlier era. Or it might be that the language sounds so very Joyce Carol Oates (I was reading her work before iPads were around) that I’m automatically taken back in time.
“Makeisha in Time,” by Rachael K. Jones
Appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine (subscribe), Issue 20: Time Travel, August 2014; featured in Podcastle episode 345, January 6th, 2015; featured in Cast of Wonders episode 176, August 30th, 2015 and as a Staff Pick for episode 191, January 20th, 2016; also read for StarShipSofa No 414, December 9th, 2015; appeared in the full list of Hugo nominations and so was collected in the first Long List Anthology, published by Diabolical Plots, L.L.C., December 15th, 2015
I remember being impressed but frustrated by this story when I first read it in Crossed Genres. At first I read the ending as another form of suicide, but on a reread I understand it better. Our society has forgotten Makeisha a thousand times. We don’t deserve her. She belongs to a better era, and now she’s going to find one.
This is the type of story that wears its politics, and its political anger, on its sleeve. That limits its depth, I think, but opens the way for more works of fiction exploring the same territory.
“Leg,” by Steven Polansky
Appeared in the New Yorker on January 24th, 1994 (subscribers can read online); read by David Gilbert for the excellent November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1995, edited by Katrina Kennison and guest editor Jane Smiley; reprinted September 25, 2013 as issue no. 71 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, thanks to J. Robert Lennon
An amazing story.
David Gilbert describes the main character’s choice as “incredibly passive-aggressive” and ultimately a mistake. I disagree on both counts. I see Dave’s sacrifice as inspired—by God or by his subconscious, it doesn’t matter which—and I think it does save his relationship with his son. On a rational level, it’s senseless, but on the nonrational level of mysticism or Oedipal tensions, it makes perfect sense. He’s chosen the small gate, the narrow road that leads to life.
For Gilbert, the idea that Dave’s pain can alleviate Randy’s is too heavy-handed, too pat, too “O. Henry-esque.” He sees the story as undercutting its central symbol. I take the symbol at face value. For me, it works because Dave’s sacrifice is so huge, so dark, and so ostensibly casual—almost disinterestedly casual.
One thing that complicates (and perhaps inhibits) my understanding of the story is that I identify completely with Randy. I don’t believe he’s “simply going through adolescence,” as Gilbert puts it, or “simply” anything. I feel that Randy needs to see his father debased (or cut down to size, or any other Freudian double entendre you like) before he can tolerate him. In the end, Randy has to choose whether he needs his father to actually die or just get symbolically castrated.
Maybe Randy will end up resenting having to make that choice. Maybe it ultimately hurts him more. For that matter, maybe Randy overheard Dave’s prayer about him; maybe Dave passive-aggressively let him hear it. I don’t know. I feel like everything may be okay, but I don’t know.
This is one of those stories where it’s possible for two readers to interpret it in completely opposite ways, and yet agree that it is a great, great piece, because it’s so well-made and so alive.
Edited to say how much I love the exchange that starts around here: “Randy began to drift in his father’s direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder.” There are so many ways to interpret Randy’s behavior, for both the readers and Dave.
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison
Appeared in the March 1967 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction (now defunct); won the Hugo Award in 1968
Slightly over 5,809 words (my guess was relatively close this time—5,000)
I’ve always admired this story as a small, concentrated dose of pure horror. It’s also quite funny. Like a lot of funny-horribles, it resembles a well-told joke.
(I say this kind of thing a lot. I guess I’m trying to develop a taxonomy of fictions. Probably futile. Most stories have similar structures; some use them more baldly than others.)
I think Ellison described the ending as an ethically happy one. The main character is in Hell, but he has fulfilled his duty to his fellow creatures.
“Good People,” by David Foster Wallace
Appeared in the February 25th, 2007 issue of the New Yorker (read online here); reprinted in the unfinished novel The Pale King
3,220 words (but only 5 paragraphs)
This story has taken a lot of flak for sentimentality. To me, Lane and his thought process ring true; at the same time I can see why people find it contrived. The prose style is intentionally clumsy. There are odd redundancies like “still and immobile” and, even odder, “it hadn’t brought her comfort or eased the burden at all[,]” where Lane seems to be using his own trite phrase and then tacking on another one he heard in church.
“Good People” seems to get compared to Hemingway‘s “Hills Like White Elephants” often, but the similarity strikes me as superficial and uninteresting. Abortion is a common problem in real life and in fiction; describing a thing without naming it is a common literary technique. The interesting part is when we come to understand, empathetically, why the unnamed thing goes unnamed.
Wallace’s trademark hyper-aware style is muted here (no footnotes, no obvious gags) but still in evidence. His usual agenda is very much in evidence, even in the title: a platitude (She’s good people) transformed into an agonizing moral problem (How can a person be good?). I think it’s been said before, but “What would even Jesus do?” is a line that only Wallace could write—all his variations on “I know this is trite but I mean it,” condensed into five words.
An amateur’s note on narration, point of view, and voice. I think this piece is entirely in limited third person, but not entirely in close third person, if that makes sense. Sometimes when the narration seems to stray outside Lane’s point of view (“he pretended to himself he did not know what it was that was required”), it may just be reflecting his own self-conscious thought process. Other times, the narrator’s knowledge seems to surpass Lane’s: “He knew this without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and liar.” This might be because the narrator has access to what Lane will know in the future (“[…] what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace“).
Of course, the lines quoted above are clearly in Lane’s voice, clumsy and self-lacerating and laden with “that”s and “this”es. That’s true of most of the piece. Occasionally we get a word like “suffused,” which I tend to attribute to Wallace.
Edited to add: A line that sticks with me is “It felt like a muscle he didn’t have.” I think that’s the line.