In a lot of more literary speculative fiction, the monsters are allegorical. Familiar creatures can be taken as shorthand for particular themes – unicorns for innocence, dragons for power and so on – in order to invoke a complex cultural history with the clever insertion of a symbol. There is a lot of this in short fiction, often to save the writer word count in her worldbuilding.
It’s neat trick, but there’s something awe-inspiring about a really original monster. Unique morphology, cool abilities, and novel aesthetics go a long way on their own, often providing the hook in an otherwise familiar plot. Of course, even better is the strong, character-driven story with crazy, beautiful monsters in it as well.
In a lot of ways, “A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L. Hannett (The Dark #8) is a work of typical, if well-done, maritime magical realism. We have the good old b’ys working hard at their labours, poor but hardy folk. They live and die by the mercy of the sea, drink a lot, know all their neighbours. The sea is, of course, a powerful and mysterious force in their lives, and simple folk plus mystery often equals magic.
Hannett harnesses these tropes and turns them all around. In her almost-Newfoundland, it is the women – called mermaids, though they are humans – who go out to sea for seasons while their men wait for them at home. They have been pirating rather than fishing. But Billy Rideout’s girl Beetie comes back with more than just loot – she’s gotten a baby from the sea as well.
Going to sea to get a baby is not uncommon in Billy-Rid’s world. The suggestion of ocean-blood runs in the veins of many of his friends and neighbours. But Billy-Rid wanted his own child, and though he tries to do right by Guppy, the unnamed merbaby Beetie has brought back, he can’t quite get his head around the idea that it isn’t his.
Hannett’s use of mer-creatures as a symbol of fatherhood is utterly original and really very clever. Guppy isn’t a conventional mermaid, owing more of her physiology to the seahorse than any other creature. In seahorse society, too, it is the male of the species who bears and rears the young. Billy-Rid walks through his duties with Guppy but fails to connect with her. That he was unable to get Beetie with child is a mark of failure, a sign of weakness. Everybody seems to love Guppy, but he can only tear himself up about whom she really belongs to and how she was fished. Even performing the duties of fatherhood, he fails to feel like a father.
Despite an ending ambiguous enough to be puzzling, Hannett’s rendering of a maritime culture where men are nurturers and supporters feels completely natural, told in her usual energetic, eclectic prose. The role of the father in a child’s early life is something we don’t talk about a lot and taking seahorses as a model is both innovative and strange. It’s wondrous and it works.
Zen Cho is similarly reinventing familiar tropes with her story “Monkey King, Faerie Queen” (Kaleidotrope Spring 2015) This imagined meeting between Sun Wukong, a trickster/god figure from the Chinese tradition, and the Faerie Queen from the northern European tradition takes its players out of stories centuries old, but describing faeries familiar to a mostly white, English-speaking audience through the eyes of a Chinese god displays them in wholly new and freshly-imagined terms.
One of the very fun things about faeries is that no two are ever very much alike and artists like Brian Froud and Charles Vess have given us to expect anything and everything from them. But Sun Wukong nevertheless has a unique view of the barbarian faerie folk dressed in “strange, ill-fitting garments.” They have “nasty pale faces with large tapir-like noses” and speak “strange tongue, making a noise like wo-wo-wo.” The queen herself has never looked more surreal, though below Sun Wukong’s cheeky description we recognize the more familiar figure described by Edmond Spencer as, essentially, England’s Elizabeth I.
Sun Wukong, being a god, is not in much danger from the faerie folk. He interprets their casual malevolence as humour or, at worst, bad manners. But there is still dark magic in fairyland that rears a very ugly head when Sun Wukong decides to intervene on behalf of a human woman trying to retrieve her stolen son. Cho’s Faerie Queen is not as silly as Sun Wukong makes her out to be, and over the course of a lively, riotous battle we see her take forms that range from the awful to the terrifying. The battle between the two god-like beings is as epic and boundless as it should be. The story is fun and vivid – a good time spent.
“Planet Lion” by Catherynne M. Valente (Uncanny Magazine #4) is an over-the-top work of science fiction about technological deployment gone terrifically awry due to the unique qualities of planet Bakeneko’s resident feline megafauna population, the titular lions. Told in part through a series of reports from humans interested in Bakeneko and in part through an experimental narrative from the point of view of the awakening lions, “Planet Lion” is a challenging story filled with big ideas and cunning use of language.
As the story opens, one of the lions (who can network with other lions, becoming a self of many) begins to call herself Yttrium and to have impulses beyond her usual ways. Words and concepts that are clearly human are starting to trickle into the lions’ use, but are being integrated into their otherwise lion-ish minds. Lions find themselves suddenly compelled to build, to form military units, to play out the dramas of human personal lives; and yet their narrative remains alien. They are still lions (giant, green, three-gendered, six-legged marsupial lions, but still lions.)
Ironically, the brief interludes where humans report on their part in the weird catastrophe on Bakeneko are harder to decode than the reactions of the lions themselves. Politics, technology, and context are mostly lacking from these sections, which are too brief to communicate much about human civilization in this epoch. The lions’ world, on the other hand, is rendered in vivid detail. Valente shifts back and forth between singular and plural pronouns as the lions network, lose each other, reform, and share information. We come to know the visceral sensations of eating, mating, family, and pain from multiple points of view, sometimes simultaneously.
In less deft hands, it might be disorienting, but instead we’re immersed in an animal’s constant present tense. We have to guess at the nature of what has befallen them, but the exact details are not the central focus of the story. This is better understood as an insightful exploration of alternate forms of consciousness or sentience. I have some quibbles about the ecology of this planet, but ultimately the sheer power of storytelling on display here overwhelms any complaints. This story is delightfully bonkers, a real masterwork of imagination. Brava!
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.