Sunday, December 4, 2011

A subversion of stories

I love collective nouns: a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks. The provenance of some collective nouns are easy to figure, others less so. With their mythic ties to Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, I can guess how a group of owls became a parliament. But a murder of crows? They aren’t birds of prey -- those lethally efficient killers of the bird world -- just scavengers. Still, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- the horrific meaning of the word murder, this collective noun is one of the most memorable. Easy to remember. Evocative.

Which is all background for my intended use of this collective noun for stories: a subversion.

Yeah, the word means to overthrow, to ruin and destroy. Not nice words -- as dark, sometimes, as murder -- and not what most writers would choose to describe the painstaking product of their craft. But it fits. Stories supplant and turn things upside down -- even the gentlest and quietest stories. Stories change what we experience (or imagine experiencing) by replacing the felt, the seen, the smelled, the heard, the sensed, the remembered and the said, with a whole new governing system: the written word.

Is there anything more dangerous, more utterly transformative? Not for nothing has literacy (and access to the printed word) long been considered foundational to freedom and the best proof against repression.

Which brings me to the specific subversion of stories I want to write about today.

Crossed Genres Publications (which, I’ll disclose, published one of my short stories a year ago and is slated to publish another story and a novel in the future) is releasing an anthology of short stories tomorrow (Dec. 5). “Subversion - Science Fiction and Fantasy tales of subverting the norm,” and each of its 16 stories, subverts in multiple ways. First and foremost, of course, they are stories. But they are also stories in an already subversive genre (what could be more subversive than swapping our world for another?) and filled with acts of subversion, both large and small. One of the stories even subverts the notion of subversion.

Pretty interesting stuff.

A number of the people included in the anthology are writers whose work I already search out: Daniel José Older, Kelly Jennings, Cat Rambo. Others were discoveries.

Camille Alexa was one of those. Her “And All Its Truths” is a story about a nameless person given up for dead in a prison on another world; a compassionate religious sister; and an act of sabotage worthy (and reminiscent) of the partisans during WWII. Alexa’s story is more Roberto Rossellini than George Lucas, and its images and characters linger long after the story is done. I liked this piece so much I hesitated before reading the rest of the anthology. There have been anthologies that I remember only for one story, good or bad (such as the anthology that contained Geoff Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter”), and I really didn’t want this anthology to be that way.

I shouldn’t have worried.

I’d already read one of Barbara Krasnoff’s smart and well-crafted stories before I started “The Red Dybbuk” in this anthology, so I was predisposed to like it. Like Alexa’s story, there are traditionally understood acts of subversion in Krasnoff’s story about four generations of Jewish women. But beneath the familiar forms of activism is a much more subtle upending of legend and family dynamic. Krasnoff’s writing reminds me just a tiny bit of Grace Paley’s, mostly because the characters are rich and complicated and I’m convinced they have lives off the page as well as on it.

I hadn’t read any of Natania Barron’s stories before I cracked “Pushing paper in Hartleigh,” but now I’m thinking I’ll have to search out the rest of her work. The story is a weird and delightful combination of Western and semi-Elizabethan, in plot, world and character. Though this story, too, has a recognizable act of subversion in the storyline, its real subversion may be that it dares to invite inimical tropes to the party and gets them to play perfectly together. 

Kay Holt’s “Parent Hack” hides subversion within subversion within subversion. In best Sci Fi tradition it takes real world issues -- in this case, absent parents and the shortfalls of the foster care system -- and reimagines them in a future context. The protagonists are two children who want to be brothers, three bots (two of them parent substitutes and a hacker bot) as well as a flesh-and-blood hacker -- and they’re all clandestinely overturning systems, be those code, expectation or actual institution. What’s particularly noteworthy in Holt’s piece is that despite its economy, the characters feel fleshed out, and are intriguingly complex. Worthy of a novel, in fact.

Jean Johnson’s deeply cynical and seamlessly written “The Hero Identity” is, for me, the most distressing of the stories in Subversion. That’s quite a feat in a book whose stories don’t shy away from showing the cruelties we (and our human proxies) visit upon each other. “The Hero Identity” is the subvert-the-subversion story I referred to earlier, and its inclusion in the anthology is sheer brilliance on editor Bart Leib's part. I can’t call this story my favorite -- to borrow a Gollum-ism, it’s tricksy -- but, boy howdy, do I admire its smarts and its skill.

I didn’t want to write about Shanna Germain’s story, “Seed.” Really, I didn’t. This story has the most repugnant of the many cruelties that prompt protagonists to subversive action in this collection of stories. But the thing is, Germain’s a terrific writer. Food, eroticism, cultural disjuncture, something a hair shy of femicide, the promise of revenge -- it’s all in “Seed” and its all laid out with consummate skill. Like Alexa’s story but far more disturbing, this one stays with you long after you’ve come to its close.

Newspaper folks like me know all about shared bylines on articles. It’s easy to do separate interviews and research and pull it into a seamless news story. But how does it work in short fiction? I don’t know -- I’m really asking RJ Astruc and Deirdre Murphy, who together wrote “Scrapheap Angel” for Subversion. This is one of my favorite stories in the anthology, what with its tyranny of depersonalization so well and completely drawn. There’s a lovely irony in Astruc and Murphy’s subversive act, and a gentle goofiness to it. You can’t help but root for it to succeed.

I read Subversion in epub form, but I have to admit, I would have preferred a print copy because -- no matter what the Who song says -- when it comes to this, the new “boss” is definitely not the old “boss.” I miss the feel of paper, the skipping around and the revisits that, for me, are more likely on the page than on the screen.

I know, I know, it makes me a downright unsubversive reader.  I can live with that. Now, if only I could come up with a collective noun ….

Subversion includes stories by: Jessica Reisman, Camille Alexa, Melissa S. Green, Daniel José Older, Kelly Jennings, Barbara Krasnoff, Natania Barron, Kay T. Holt, Jean Johnson, Cat Rambo, Shanna Germain, RJ Astruc and Deirdre Murphy, C.A. Young, Wendy N. Wagner, Timothy T. Murphy and Caleb Jordan Schulz. Click  here for its Goodreads listing and here for its Amazon listing.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is a great review -- thank you so much for the nice word about my story. I really appreciate the thoughtful comments.

    All the best, s.


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