Reading Short Stories: Liu, Haldeman, Sayers and more

I’m trying to read more short stories and really think about about what works and what doesn’t. It’s been interesting how many modern SF short stories I read that leave me flat and how some venues are more to my taste than others. It makes me feel a little better about rejections, since it’s a great example of an editor and I just liking different things.

Here are some brief notes on stories I’ve read recently. I frankly don’t feel comfortable criticizing living authors, so for the ones by living authors that fall short, I’ll be general. These notes aren’t intended to be comprehensive or a true critical review. There short reminders to myself of my observations, blogged because this is where I capture my notes about writing. I’m going to try to do these posts every week or two to keep them shorter.

In no particular order:

A Clockwork Soldier by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, January 2014.
This story manages to take a well-explored Science Fiction trope, what does it mean for an artificial life to be human, and give it a fresh and moving take. The structure is interesting. It starts with the end, the surprising scene of a bounty hunter letting her captured bounty go. Then we flashback to how the man tells the bounty hunter his story. He creates an interactive game that draws her in and so we have a sort of flashback in flashback but in a much more dynamic way. The story is lovely and brilliant. It was the first thing I ever read by Ken Liu and I’m looking forward to reading more. I understand why he’s so well regarded – the man can write.

Anonymous mid-80’s story
This is the kind of story that is trying very hard to be smart. It is smart, even, and did make me try to sort out the unreliable narrator and the strange possible time travel story. But, ultimately, I felt like the author was fucking with me to prove they could. Plus, it had a bonus of nihilistic violence. It’s the kind of science fiction that made me stop reading new science fiction for fifteen years. (Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog ended the drought.)

Anonymous Anthology Story #1 (By one of those living authors I prefer to let lie.) This story was based on a premise that a reasonably scientific society had never bothered to conduct a basic experiment and so a hero had to show up to bravely discover the truth. While the author had an explanation for why the society had avoided the experiment, I didn’t buy it. Otherwise decent story telling, but left me flat.

Anonymous Anthology Story #2 This story used the stereotype of a greedy corporate society running roughshod over aliens. Kind of like Avatar but the government is perhaps more Southern Baptist. Bored and a little offended.

Manifest Destiny by Joe Haldeman I turned to this reprint in Clarkesworld after some of the above had left bad tastes in my mouth and this story was a great palate cleanser. It’s a reprint from Fantasy & Science Fiction but has only the slightest speculative element. It’s a soldier’s story, set during the Mexican American war. If he were a sailor it would have started, “Now, this is no shit,” like all good sea stories do. Haldeman pulled off a historical shaggy dog story with grace and I enjoyed every minute.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head by Dorothy L. Sayers This is a short mystery story featuring Sayers’s popular detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The heart of the story is really the relationship between Lord Peter and his visiting ten-year-old nephew, known as Gherkins. The first couple scenes establish some facts – Gherkins buys an old book and at a second hand shop, and a man comes to Lord Peter’s flat to try to buy it, which Gherkins declines to do. We know something is up with the book. The third scene starts with breakfast the next day where we see that Gherkins is in a state of bliss at having had a most excellent adventure during the night, and Lord Peter has been elevated from Quite Decent Uncle to that of Glorified Uncle. We then move back to learn what happened during the night.

I stopped to think about why Sayers did this and why it’s so satisfying to me as a reader. I think it has to do with the emotional arc of the story. The mystery itself is just a mystery, but to Lord Peter fans, watching him with his nephew his fascinating. So the breakfast scene heightens the emotional arc and grabs us, even as the mystery is unfolding at a slower pace. If any other Sayers fans out there have other opinions, please do chime in.

The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L. Sayers Obviously another Lord Peter story. This story crystalized for me what a simple format the short story can be: Present a problem and then solve it. Piece of cake, right?

To break it down a little: in the first act she sets up a sympathetic character, a distinctive atmospheric setting in the Basque mountains, and a problem that at first seems merely sad, but quickly escalates to creepy and mysterious. A brief second act introduces the problem to our detective. In the third act we see him act to resolve it, with the mystery finally revealed on the last page. Nicely done.

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker by Dorothy L. Sayers Yes, more Lord Peter. I was having a rough week and Lord Peter is my jam. I found a plot hole and am very pleased with myself. A few months ago a critiquer found a pretty decent sized plot hole in one of my stories. Since then I’ve tried to be a much more critical reviewer of my own writing. Spotting a plot hole in a Sayers mystery I was reading just for fun made feel a bit clever.