On my other and [far] more popular blog I recently reviewed a short piece of non-fiction so I got to thinking that I could do the same, here, with a short piece of fiction. After all, shortly after I read the article discussed in the link above I read (and then reread) a rather compelling short story, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Under She Who Devours Suns (published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies), that I loved so much that I wanted to do more than just read it but engage with it, albeit in a loose blog post kind of way. At the same time, my appreciation of this short story made me want to reflect on my appreciation of her short-form fiction as a whole and the significance of short-form, as well as the current emergence of a new speculative fiction renaissance and her part in this.
So bear with me, the introduction that precedes the review of the story in question will be overly-bloated due to the aforementioned concerns…
For over a year I have been reading Sriduangkaew’s fiction for reasons that will not be a surprise for people who read my other blog or for those who have read most of the posts on this one. Indeed, when she was first doxxed and the liberal mea culpas began, the dubious political line underlying her targeting was so obvious (pro-tip for those who can’t figure out what political line is in command: if it by-and-large mobilizes the sewage of rightist shitlords beneath a thin veneer of liberal ideologues then it is not progressive) that I wanted to read her fiction that, until then, I hadn’t heard about. This interest was also generated by the fact that I used to read her now dead blog, Requires Only That You Hate, on a regular basis and enjoyed, even if I did not always agree with, her polemical reviews.
[EDITORIAL WARNING: I’m only mentioning this background because I have a sneaking suspicion that, based on some of the weird comments I’ve received on this blog, merely reviewing Sriduangkaew’s fiction will encourage trolling. So for you would-be trolls I am very aware of what you think Sriduangkaew did, I think your analysis is garbage just like your politics, and I’m not going to engage with your concern-trolling comments because I’m very aware that most of you are not interested in challenging your warped view of reality. I think Mixon’s “analysis” is garbage, and there have been those who have demonstrated how terrible her sourcing is, and refuse to conflate polemical reviewing and counter-trolling with “abuse”. As someone who has read thousands of polemics between leftist organizations that span the last century I think this impoverishment of language is close to fascistic. You arseholes, if you lived in pre-fascist Germany, would attack Luxemburg for “abusing” Bernstein and, in the process, salute her murder at the hands of the Friekorps as social justice. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get back to talking about a great fucking SFF story.]
My first instinct was to read her novella Scale-Bright and, since it wasn’t available in dead tree format in any bookstore nearby, used some of my PayPal money to purchase the ebook. [And damn, now that I read and reviewed that article about the alt-right/neo-reaction movement I hate PayPal.] I tend to be a sucker for long-form – not because I think it is superior to short-form but mainly because I use fiction to take a break from my professional development of reading non-fiction academic texts and I want this break in a particular fictional universe to last as long as possible. Moreover, I think quality short-form fiction is very difficult to master, just like it’s difficult for my students to write short papers on complex subject matter. Those canonized or semi-canonized authors whose short-form I’ve consistently appreciated are few: Carter, Borges, Ballard, O’Connor. And in the contemporary speculative fiction scene it’s been difficult to discover an author who is consistently excellent, i.e. who can be precise and limited while at the same time drawing the expansive boundaries of a particular fictional universe. Novelists have it easy: they have hundreds of pages to info-dump, characterize, sketch out a narrative arc; a shitty novel is better able to absorb its errors than a flawed short story… The short-form fictionalist must work much harder than the long-form novelist to achieve passable quality; elegance is immediately required. (And this is why Borges and Carter immediately leap to mind whenever I think of the short-story: they were masters of precision and elegance.)
Although I started with Scale-Bright I found this reading experience partially unsatisfactory. Despite the fact that I loved this novella’s prose and fictional universe I still felt it was missing something vital: at points it was too obscure, on the whole it read like a very promising first book by and up-and-coming author. There was a certain lack that I wanted filled, a promise of something more substantial, which is why I turned to Sriduangkaew’s short-form fiction and, in doing so, discovered her brilliance. Beginning with the short stories written in her fictional Hegemony universe (which I still think should all be published in a single volume) I’m of the opinion that Sriduangkaew is the Borges of the new SFF renaissance.
What do I mean by a “new SFF renaissance”? Simply this: we’re living in a time where SFF literature is being transformed, in large part by marginal and/or radical left voices, and that this is an amazing thing, despite the efforts of those who want a return to a “golden age” that never existed. This transformation is the golden age. In the early 2000s we have the emergence of the so-called “New Weird” with writers such as China Mieville pushing the boundaries of speculative fiction; now this pushing is revealed as an opening for writers such as N.K. Jemisin, Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor, Kameron Hurley, and others to develop a SFF ethos that demands recognition, is not some nerd club of white boys who want to keep their pithy euro wizards and warrior and dragons, and is doing something altogether interesting. Sriduangkaew is part of this emergence because, as I just said, she is its Borges. This is not to say that she will never write, or is incapable of writing, a novel (because I really wish she would) only that her stories are as strong as the long-form leading lights, and are significant as being part of this renaissance, and that more people need to read them as part of a protracted consolidation movement regarding how and why SFF is becoming something better than it was (of course with many significant influential exceptions) in its mainstream past.
So now, with this long introduction in mind, let’s turn to Sriduangkaew’s short story in question, Under She Who Devours Suns. I guess I have to say spoiler alert, a convention that has become hegemonic in the past decade, because I’m going to talk about the story. (I happen to believe that any good review will necessarily include “spoilers” which is why I think this whole spoiler alert business is conventional nonsense.) So go read this short story now before I spoil it for you. It will take less than hour of your time, or maybe more than an hour if, like me, you want to read parts of it again and again.
The reader of this short story is immediately struck by the beauty of its prose. The first paragraph is lush and demands attention; those who would prefer a paired down utilitarian prose of description will wince and cower back into the folds of the “puppies” slates of the Hugos:
By the time Melishem returns to her birth-city Tessellated Talyut, there is little of her that anyone can recognize. Her gaze burns unhuman amber, her bare scalp glistens with meteorite blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints, more delicate and superb than any lace. Her bare feet track salt across the earth, leaving shriveled worms and withered grass in her wake. She has been walking a long time, unresting and unseeing of any sight save her objective.
So we have the story’s protagonist returning to her city, transformed by an as yet undescribed history of exile. Meteorite blood, limbs infected with insects. Decay accompanies her motion. The protagonist is an entropic figure; her history is immediately compelling – how the fuck did she become like this?
Melishem failed to win a duel with another woman, Sikata, that decides the governance of a given polity in this story’s fictional universe. Despite the fact that Melishem and Sikata were close friends who believed their near equality would allow them shared governance, Melishem still lost to Sikata in the duel “with mirror-gun and sliver-knife,” even though it took an exceptional three hours, and so Sikata became the city-state’s guardian and Melishem, rather than excepting defeat, chose exile. She returns after years of honing her skills in the world outside of her homeland so as to return an reinitiate her failed duel. Upon returning, however, she discovers [and this happens within the first five paragraphs of the story] that Sikata is dead. Melishem’s opposite died in a duel to defend Talyut against an enemy; she succeeded in this duel and “purchased… another year of peace,” while Talyut was already reduced to victim warzone, but eventually succumbed to the wounds she had sustained. (And these wounds were “in her shadow,” a vague but gripping description.)
Refusing to accept the death of her double, Melishem requests residence in a city-state under siege by an undescribed enemy. Altered by the vaguely described experiences of her exile, she is something other – more than less than the humanity she had once embraced. A very important narrative fact that is eventually revealed: Melishem can transform herself, alter her flesh.
And refusing to accept that her duel has ended, or that her other cannot compliment her any longer, she uses the abilities she has discovered and mastered in her exile to raise a version of of Sikata to life. At first it seems her motivation for this necromancy is to reinitiate the duel, her very reason for returning, but these motives are unclear. The resurrected Sikata cannot immediately remember her identity; she is simply an approximation wrenched from this fictional universe’s afterlife who, at first, is only certain of the fact that she is a resurrected being. Melishem withholds key information, more interested in placing her in training simulations to ready her for a duel.
One of the many interesting passages of this short stories concerns the conceptualization of necromancy in this fictional universe:
On burnt paper she pins the anatomy of Sikata’s span; in jars and nets of sluggish time she simulates and experiments. She finds that while she could repeat the process, she would—literally—repeat the rest; she can pluck Sikata’s spirit forth again, from the point after her death but before this summoning. What she gets would be a simulacrum, an image copied from a certain moment that will know nothing of what has transpired since. The next iteration might ask different questions, might not say My thanks, stranger in a way that eases the pressure inside Melishem. There is no constant. Sikata-in-fugue is a variable without limits.
Here is representation of the germ of a magical system (one amongst several in fact), intrinsic in all of those lauded “world-building” fantasy ventures, but it passes as a single exciting paragraph. What the hell does this mean for a fantasy system of magic? The prospects are intriguing: the raised cannot remember any identity after their death, even if they were raised before, necromancy is simulated nostalgia.
Eventually Sikata begins to remember herself through the training trials exacted by Melishem whose motives are partially unclear, even to herself: is she developing her other into a warrior who can face her and properly repeat the duel she lost? At the same time it seems that Melishem wants her other to remember, to become a non-sexual lover/friend, despite Sikata’s repeated appeals to locate her wife.
When Sikata’s revelation comes, after enduring a training session where she encounters the ghosts of violence incarnate, Melishem is asked to explain what she did when she fled the city, leaving Sikata to govern and deal with the problem of invasion. Melishem says:
I’ve ranged the breadth of the Occident, fought and crushed their heathen warriors. I hunted demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests. […] I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.
This statement is evidence that this short story could have been a novel while, at the same time, is elegant in its ability to collapse a possible novel into short-form. Demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests – what the hell? What fantasy reader doesn’t want to read pages upon pages explaining these statements, an entire back story of Melishem’s exile? Good lord, I hunger for this kind of story that took up no more than single sentence and ended with the still inexplicable “I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.” Melishem has somehow become other, has transformed herself into an alien creature that is not only capable of raising the dead but can also alter her very self in a hive-like (“her articulated arms murmur with live moths”) manner. What the fuck happened to Melishem in her self-imposed exile? Seriously: I want to know. Good gods, this really should be a novel; its currently obscure fictional universe can easily be adapted into five hundred fucking pages! Sriduangkaew condenses this fantasy universe into a short story, like Borges describing a possible novel.
I will not describe the conclusion, where duty and love confront each other, the way that Melishem’s love of her other is consummated, and how all of this is motivated by various details that hang like Chekhov’s gun on the gorgeous walls of Sriduangkaew’s prose. Despite my disdain for occasional disdain for avoiding “spoilers” I won’t spoil that for you, especially if you’re reading it right now.
Work such as Under She Who Devours Suns demonstrate that we are indeed living in a SFF renaissance, even if there are those who resist and desire to pull us back into a “golden age” that was never that golden and didn’t really exist. While there has always been excellent SFF the genre sections at bookstores and libraries were usually dominated by a sea of mediocre and derivative shit that, for some reason, is still defended by a group of MRA-type nerds who are content with mediocrity. Now things are beginning to change; more interesting work is being published and becoming popular. The fact that some people are pushing back with an eye towards backwards literature is just a sign that the best days of “genre” fiction are upon us.