I’ve always liked short fiction, its sometimes called the lifeblood of SF, and I discovered a good proportion of my favourite authors through their short stories.
Most recently this has meant newer writers like Catherynne M Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, etc. but for now I want to think back. I want to talk about some older stories, those I have had years to absorb but haven’t forgotten. Stories perhaps unknown to the new generations of review bloggers as they naturally focus on the new.
I’m not saying these are the best stories ever, nor necessarily even my favourites by the authors here, but they are stories that had an impact. Stories I still remember years after. And stories I think you should read.
Down at the end of Clinton Street – Rafael Alvarez (2000)
A half-century after he found love nibbling pig knuckles down at the end of Clinton Street, Orlo Pound’s ashes lay in a candy tin the scavenger had rescued from the mud room of a Holy Land rowhouse.
If you know Alvarez at all it’s almost certainly from his work on The Wire (much of the dock workers background in Season 2 came from Alvarez, who quit as a Baltimore Sun writer to work on ships.) What you have missed are the stories of ordinary wonders in the lives of the working class people of East Baltimore, that matrix of Greek, Italian, Hispanic, East Europeans and more that Alvarez calls the Holy Land, and in particular the stories about the clandestine love affair between Orlo & Leini.
With elegant sketches Alvarez brings to life a changing city whose people live, love and die together. In the food, music, and religion Alvarez finds the heart of a city, and mourns it as he celebrates it.
No matter that it took fifty-two years — from Coolidge to Carter — for Leini to be seen with the junkman in any way that could not be construed as coincidental.
Like a poet Alvarez chooses exactly which details create a whole picture and utilises the rhythm of his prose to make those pictures move. Orlo & Leini is a wistful, joyous romance in half a dozen short stories. It’s the forbidden romance of the junkman and the Greek girl, and the explicit love of Alvarez for his hometown.
His Vegetable Wife – Pat Murphy (1986)
In my first ever issue of Interzone, issue 16 Summer 1986, one story made an immediate impact for its shocking biology. As time passed though, it wasn’t Michael Blumlein’s ‘The Brains of Rats’ that I came back to but Murphy’s story.
Described in SFEye by Karen Joy Fowler as ‘nasty’, its the story of an isolated farmer on an alien world who purchases seed to grow a wife. Murphy carefully tells how the Wife grows, from shoots to seedlings, developing form and life.
Unfortunately, as is the way in such fables, things don’t go as expected, and the man restrains and then beats his Wife. The word is deliberately not used by Murphy, but then the man rapes the Wife.
He struck her on the back and shoulders with his belt. Her cries and the sight of the pale sap excited him and he made love to her afterwards.
‘His Vegetable Wife’ may not seem a subtle story, being brief, with minimal worldbuilding, but Murphy makes her point in delicate language, and 25 years later I’m still thinking about it.
More on short fiction following soon…
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