July’s selection of short stories from Tor include one fantasy, and two other tales which both seem to be children’s literature. Yet seeming can be deceiving, and although probably one might read these to their children with no harm done, this is adult fare.
In “Dala Horse”, Michael Swanwick offers us a fairly short story of a far future, told from the viewpoint of a little girl in Sweden who is told by her parents to run to her grandmother’s house in a nearby town to escape some calamity. Five-year-olds might not understand all that much of what’s happening around them, or how strange and wonderful to the readers are the things they might take for granted, yet which may hold surprising secrets for them. We see some classic Swanwickian elements in this piece, such as extremely advanced technology unobtrusively embedded in seemingly everyday artifacts, in more than a slight return to the universes of Vacuum Flowers and Stations of the Tide.
The story is written with the simplicity and attention to process and detail that are required in a good children’s story. Things start at the beginning and move right along in a way a child could follow, in a linear way with little use of such techniques as foreshadowing or flashback, other than in the conversations of the adults. For adults who have read Stations of the Tide, this story might fill in the blanks on some aspects of that tale, but this piece is good as a standalone. In this future, technology is so advanced that it might seem magical to us although to the little girl it is unremarkable. Apparel and utensils, and even toys, provide information and most of them obey orders. Yet this isn’t a perfect world. As smart as are the tools and toys, there are far smarter and more powerful things, and our little girl discovers that some of them can be very dangerous, far more so than even the worst of human beings, one of which she too closely encounters. It’s a fine bedtime story for the inner child in even the most jaded adult technophiles. Best of all, it has something which quite resembles a happy ending.
Michael Bishop offers us a piece called “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes”, written for David G Hartwell on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Despite Bishop’s impeccable literary talent, which he brandishes throughout the piece, this is one of those works that forcefully reminds me why I’d usually rather read a collection of stories that won or were in contention for the Hugo, as opposed to those which are admired by other artists for the artistry. This is a “symmetrina”, a work made up of thematically linked shorter narratives, in a rather demanding framework of rules regarding length and person. One of the central narratives appears to be a rather lengthy set-up for a shaggy-dog story, and halfway through it, I was expecting that at any moment I’d see a punchline with some pun so atrocious that I’d have to stomp my laptop to death. Fortunately that punchline failed to materialize. Don’t be dismayed, and fail to read it, though this is far less a work for the reader and far more for the other authors, and even discusses to some degree which audience should be intended to be more impressed. This was written in honor of one of the most influential editors of our time, and might be seen more as a carefully crafted gift than as entertainment for folks who are less concerned about style and more interested in plot. If literary technical mastery interests you, this would be a good piece to study.
At the other end of the spectrum of my preferences in literary SF&F, we have “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While”, by Catherynne M Valente. Set deep in Fairyland, the plot is a bit slow to appear in this rather long piece. Yet don’t be in such a hurry to get to the plot. This is the sort of piece you savor like a fine tea served piping hot in the manner of old-school teatime, when it was far less about the tea and far more about the ambience of an hour well-spent in the company of good friends in the garden at its peak on a peaceful old estate.There’s a great deal of fine scene-setting to be done in this story before it can be moved forward, and Valente takes her time to set the stage, lovingly and with great skill.
In this masterful piece, eventually the tea is served and the story is developed apace, about a reclusive young lady who wants nothing more than to study her books and learn her magic in a pleasant isolation. Yet when all of Fairyland is summoned by the King to gather for the World’s Foul and the Tithe, as with all else, she too must attend. During her journey she meets and falls in with some fascinating Folk and even demi-gods and their leonine steeds, all gathering at the world’s fair of Fairyland, the World’s Foul. It’s all the more troubling to her that nobody seems to know, or to be willing to tell her, what exactly is this Tithe. The general consensus seems to be that it will be something horrid but it turns out to be actually worse. How can all of this be resolved?
This is, in many ways, the sort of tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, though set down with far greater detail to literary merits. Valente’s wordsmithery here is exquisite as is her deep and broad knowledge of the Fairy Folk of all sorts. I found it to be slow reading, mostly because I insisted on lingering over every finely turned phrase and well-constructed allegorical element, savoring the magic down to the last drop.