Tor.com tipped their hat to the holidays this December by giving readers a strange and wondrous Christmas story from respected science fiction authors Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn. (Two additional Christmas stories, which were originally featured in 2009 and re-posted for this holiday season, are not covered here.) The other short fiction appearing in December is just as exciting: a new story from Ellen Kushner, which fills a gap in the history of beloved characters; a piece about a young boy’s friendship with his neighbor that shows how quickly we are willing to turn against anyone and anything different and unknown in order to protect ourselves and the ones we love; and a selection from a new collection of Jewish science fiction that combines Jewish folklore and a love story.
The first story to appear on Tor.com in December was “The Man with the Knives” by Ellen Kushner, which fits into the world created in her classic “fantasy of manners,” Swordspoint, and its follow-ups. This companion story appeared earlier in 2010 as an illustrated chapbook, produced by Temporary Culture as a limited edition, and Tor’s version includes two illustrations by Tom Canty that weren’t featured in the chapbook.
“The Man with the Knives” is a lovely, sad romance between an isolated healer and the physically and emotionally broken man who arrives on her doorstep. It is a story about love, but more than that, it’s a story about healing. The writing is beautiful, poignant and at times devastating, especially for fans of Kushner’s Swordspoint novels, who will recognize these characters and may find answers and perhaps even closure within the words of this story.
In “Sweetheart” by Abbey Mei Otis, we see a young boy’s friendship with his alien neighbor, Sweetheart, through the eyes of his mother. Sweetheart has antennae, mandibles, and gills, and at one point the narrator realizes that, despite referring to Sweetheart as “she,” she’s not even sure the young alien is a girl. But her son, Paxton, loves Sweetheart in the fierce, unconditional way of children, her alien nature not strange at all to him. She is simply his best friend.
Exploring race relations through the presence and impact of an alien species is not a new concept in science fiction, but the voice of Otis’s story makes this offering stand out. It’s a lyrical voice, its rhythm drawing strength from colloquial speech patterns and a mother’s love and desire to protect her son. Otis effectively uses the tricky second-person perspective here, putting the reader in Paxton’s mother’s place, making her story your story. It’s a deliberate choice on Otis’s part, considering the story’s subject matter—a way to directly ask the reader what they would do in the nameless narrator’s position.
“The Dybbuk in Love” by Sonya Taaffe is from a new collection called People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction, published by Prime Books (December, 2010). “The Dybbuk in Love” is, as suggested by the title, an unconventional love story between a contemporary woman and the dislocated soul of a man who died in 1906. (According to Jewish folklore, dybbuks are homeless souls capable of possessing the living.) The writing occasionally bogs down in dense descriptive passages, but it also contains many moments that cause you to stop and simply enjoy for a moment the way the author has put words together. But it’s the story’s atmosphere that sticks with you long after the last sentence—melancholy and reflective, perfect for a relationship that is more a haunting than a romance.
Tor.com’s Christmas offering this year is “The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree,” a dark and magical collaboration from award-winning authors Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn. This tale begins in a delightfully creepy fashion, with a troupe of menacing elves entering the home of a sleeping family through their mirrors, and includes a talking dog, comic books, traveling through the stars, and a heroine’s quest. Humor, violence, magic. Christmas is merely a setting for “Trains,” a starting place. As the story builds—each layer increasing in dreamlike strangeness—it becomes a discussion of the nature of the coming-of-age we all experience, couched in a question of reality. The writing itself is compelling, making the story’s only flaw the possible confusion caused by its surreal nature. But then, that’s rather the point.