Yee Heng Yeh on stories from the Summer 2023 issue of Fred Coppersmith’s quarterly e-zine
The speculative story is a story of concept. Unlike other genres that may rely on heavy plotting or character studies, the speculative (though it may very well contain these elements) is also expected to introduce us to an unfamiliar world, where logic runs on a different system from the one we’re used to, or where characters spring from a history unlike our own. It is often hard to pin down what makes a concept take off or linger in the mind, but the stories in Kaleidotrope Summer 2023 (free at website; ebooks at Patreon), edited by Fred Coppersmith, may give us a clearer idea.
‘Armageddon Bride’ by Lindz McLeod kicks off the issue strongly with an amusing and imaginative tale of wooing. The suitor here is none other than the Apocalypse. It is a clever personification – it’s hard to imagine this done in any other medium – for the Apocalypse is constantly accompanied by snatches of images, sounds, sensations, and substances: moons, trumpets, wings, brimstone. But what also makes this concept compelling is that it’s couched in the conventions of formal courtship, complete with discussions with the family and a wedding ceremony. This contrast adds a good dose of humour to the proceedings and fleshes out the personalities of even the supporting characters.
Tim Boiteau’s ‘The Mneme’ is another story that thrives on its concept. It centres on the Mnene, a memory demon, which like a virus infects and proliferates throughout the victim’s memories in an attempt to reach their mind door. The story becomes an exploration of the nature of memory – how much we rely on it to build our sense of self and our relationships. How else can the present moment be understood if not in the context of a past? Is a future still possible without knowing what came before? How much can we sacrifice of our memory before what is left is barely worth saving? The writing here seems to draw upon the sensibilities of a sci-fi thriller by having a (literally) mind-bending premise, a clear mission with high stakes, swift pacing, and even a tinge of horror: at one point a character ‘turned backwards, or more properly inwards, for from every angle one could only see the back of her’.
We see sci-fi through a more epic lens with ‘Disparate Points in Space and Time’ by Maxine Sophia Wolff, which has a fascinating concept evoking a philosophy similar to Cloud Atlas’s. The story introduces us to Michael, a young boy in 1328 who later becomes a monk, and Gim, a fighter pilot some indeterminate time into the far future. What exactly connects them? We find out that both have experienced a vision of sorts, hearing a mysterious heartbeat that comes from two places at once. And that in that vision, they see each other. Through this connection, both are transformed, finding a kind of solace in seeing and being seen. It is a profound point: people can be joined seemingly at random, no matter how far apart they are. There is a theory that ghosts are nothing more than figures from a different era that we glimpse through a split in time’s seam. ‘Disparate Points’ suggests that such a phenomenon may be better understood as God – for us, God is each other.
‘Egg / Shell’ by Avi Burton provides a simpler concept, which is striking nevertheless due to its emotional core. Beginning with narration that’s framed as a meditation tape, its use of a second-person voice is playful and engaging, almost forcing the reader into the role of the addressed – symbolising, perhaps, the experience of being forced into a gender role. (‘Egg’ is after all a slang term referring to a trans individual who hasn’t yet realised they are trans.) The narration maintains a facade of guilelessness while conjuring a sinister undercurrent, until the cracks in the narrative are no longer able to contain the real story beating at its heart. The ending removes the mystery and tension that makes the voice works so well, but it is a necessary shift – like the protagonist, the story breaks out of its shell to reveal what it truly is.
‘The Comma: With Her, Bear Is Savage’ by Rachel Rodman is an intriguing story, not least for the way it uses a linguistic quip as a jumping-off point into a more familiar story arc. It extrapolates the well-known joke that emphasises the importance of punctuation (‘a panda eats shoots and leaves’ vs. ‘a panda eats, shoots, and leaves’) – an editing company has been illegally discharging their excess commas into a river, which alters the behaviour of certain species… This taps into something deeper and darker, bringing us into the thematic territory of environmental pollution and also the horror of mass shootings. The arc here mirrors stories of investigative journalism – the characters uncover something terrible and thus bear the burden of delivering an inconvenient truth to the public. We feel for them, and want them to succeed, because we understand their motivations and desires intimately.
I’ve described some of these stories as invoking certain cinematic tropes, but one story that is depicted with an almost cinematic aesthetic is Martín Merino’s ‘The Dream in Roots’, which succeeds through its skilful worldbuilding that doesn’t overload the reader with details. We recognise the procedure of an investigative mystery – a death has occurred, and our protagonist’s job is to get to the bottom of this … Once again, the familiar narrative arc makes it easier to process this strange new world where animals have Awakened, i.e. gained (self-)consciousness on the level of humans. Its cinematic quality lies in its ability to capture a memorable atmosphere – a hazy, rural town where the silence unnerves more than it calms. Details build upon details to tighten the noose of suspense until the climactic reveal, which sends genuine chills down the spine.
Some stories have strong concepts but perhaps fall a little short in other aspects. ‘The Brine’s Embrace’ by Jonathan Louis Duckworth has an interesting conceit. We meet Buddy, who has a mermaid as a lover; by the end of the story, she persuades him to join her for a life under the water. The story throughout keeps an eye on two versions of Buddy, who experience each story event slightly differently and thus have different reactions. By the end, we get two endings: a happy one, which only sharpens the tragedy of the other, not-so-happy ending. But this storytelling device never fully justifies itself, so the effect, while impactful, is not truly satisfying. (As a point of comparison, if Buddy was something like a quantum physicist, for instance, it would make this exploration of dual parallel states more organic to the story’s logic.)
On the other hand, a story like ‘Niru Wallowed’ by Ranylt Richildis may benefit from a more distinctive concept. Elements like Liēr (the god in the story’s world) and heart-skills contribute to the setting’s impressive sense of place and history, but they don’t meaningfully drive the central inquiry of this story, which seems only speculative in the sense that it’s dystopian. But what is dystopian is never really that far removed from our own societies. For the concept to take root and provoke insight, then, the characters need to be more complex, the portrait of oppression more specific. The ending is bleak, but even bleakness should have its point – what does the misery of these characters in this imagined place reveal to us about ourselves? I’m not too sure.
Overall, Kaleidotrope Summer 2023 offers an exciting array of stories with diverse voices and approaches. Perhaps more than anything, these stories have made me realise how I relate to speculative fiction – what is it that we look for in a speculative concept? It may be that, more than any other genre, the speculative should, in some way, shift the way we see the world – our world. Through the unknown and the unfamiliar, we may glimpse a reflection of ourselves. The novelty makes the recognition strike deeper, and we come away with an expanded understanding of the possibilities we may reach: in fiction, and in life. ∎
Yee Heng Yeh is a Malaysian writer and Mandarin-to-English translator. His work is featured on adda, Strange Horizons, Nashville Review, Guernica, and Apparition Lit, among others. He also writes for Penang Art District and Penang Monthly. He is on Twitter as @HengYeh42
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