shining the spotlight on short story collections
I arrived on a ferry made of gull cries and good ocean fog, and stepped from the liminal world into Jack London Square, down by Oakland’s fine deep-water port. I walked predawn, letting my form coalesce from local expectations, filtered through my own habits and preferences. I stopped at a plate glass window downtown by the 12th street train station and took a look at myself: dreads and dark skin, tall but not epic tall, clothes a little too raggedy to make robbing me worth a mugger’s time…
From From Around Here, by Tim Pratt
“Smaragdine”, “pococurante”, “vivisepultre”, “autochthonous”, “appoggiatura”. All words that are difficult to spell, pronounce or hazard a guess at their meanings. Also, members of the list of words that were spelled correctly to win the America Scripps National Spelling bee over the past few decades. Most of them would not be in the vocabulary of even the above-average reader – and were alien to my spell-checker – so setting twenty-one authors the challenge of twisting a story from one of the words would necessarily require some imaginative thinking. Logorrhea is the anthology of those stories.
When I began reading, I wasn’t familiar with most of the authors, save Michael Moorcock, whose name I had heard but whose work I had never read. I began with the first story, The Chiaroscurist, by Hal Duncan, inspired by the word “chiaroscuro”. This is the longest in the book, a beautiful tale of art, love and religion. Moving on to Lyceum, by Liz Williams, who titled her story with her allotted word, it was obvious from the first paragraph, with mentions of a creature’s “back-face” and names like “the Murn” and “Karqum”, that this was science fiction.
After I had read the stunning Eczema by Clare Dudman, a moving meditation on death, identity and itching involving crow-women, I skimmed the author bios and found many mentions of Nebula and Hugo awards and Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. When I noticed that the book is published by Bantam Dell science fiction and fantasy imprint Spectra, the penny dropped. I am not a regular reader of sci fi and fantasy, but I continued with interest, expecting tales of aliens, far-off planets and hobbit-like creatures, which characterised my only encounters with these genres prior to Logorrhea.
Well, needless to say, all my preconceptions were shattered. One of my favourite stories, From Around Here, by Tim Pratt (from the word autochthonous), for example, is a fabulous – in all senses – story of a visitor to a town who questions local inhabitants in order to ferret out the source of local violence and bad energies. While there is a supernatural element, this was not science fiction as I thought I knew it, rather something teetering on the brink of magical realism or speculative fiction. No starships, no alien commanders. Just great writing and no limits to the imagination.
When I read the opening lines of Crossing the Seven, by Jay Lake, my heart sank. “When Halycone was queen in Cermalus the blackstar first came into the sky.” Oh no, I thought, alien worlds, strange names. But as I continued reading the story, involving a lowly tradesman who is suddenly catapulted into the role of messenger of the blackstar and has to undertake a mythic journey, its humour caused me to laugh out loud. This may have been another world, but issues of interpersonal relationships, class, violence and cultural misunderstandings are universal.
The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics, by Daniel Abrahams, was another favourite, a tale of the high and mighty outfoxed by a lowly money-changer who is forced to surmise the value of more than just currencies. Matthew Cheney’s The Last Elegy is a moving story of love, death and transsexuality.
Other stories use their words to inspire tales of the music of the almost-dead, the killing of a beloved wife by her husband, a man whose body is covered in scales,and dream messages from a dead brother. There are a number of stories which were less successful, among them Michael Moorcock’s A Portrait in Ivory (from the word “insouciant”), which seemed to me a pretty standard fantasy tale from the Lord of the Rings school. After I had realised that most of the writers write science fiction and fantasy, this set the bar higher in terms of imaginative “use” of the prompt word, and some of the contributors to Logorrhea failed to rise to the challenge as creatively and magically as their colleagues.
This anthology opened my eyes to a far wider definition of science fiction and fantasy and has inspired me to seek out more work by these talented and imaginative authors. It is a shame if this book is relegated to a genre-specific shelf; this is wonderful writing and story-telling at its best.
About the reviewer: Tania Hershman is the editor of The Short Review. Her second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, is published by Tangent Books.