Short Fiction Review: Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones by Alex Dally MacFarlane

screen-captureTitle: Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones

Author: Alex Dally MacFarlane

Publisher: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 121

Date: May 16, 2013

Review:

Spring is approaching a small island community when a young woman, Knowe, ventures to one of the several mounds among the grassy pastures where sheep graze. The contents inside the mounds have remained secret for generations until a cliff rock falls, giving Knowe passage into a secret tomb. Inside, Knowe finds bones and garments among the dirt and is filled with a desire to learn the history of the lives that once occupied the island.

The mound becomes a sanctuary for Knowe. She spends time alone, singing. She only knows parts of the verses, but her song is enough to pique the interest of one of the tomb’s inhabitants, a ghost woman named Tolnait. Of course, this frightens Knowe and she escapes the mound only to return later to satisfy her curiosity. She develops a relationship with the ghost woman, sharing songs and stories.

Outside, near her home, Knowe sings one of Tolnait’s songs and is humiliated by her father as he passes by. The comfort she has gained inside the mound is not provided by the outside world. She is filled with the history and beauty of generations past, but now feels discouraged from sharing it. She is even reticent to tell her story to Bess, the woman who had taught her the first song she learned.

Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones has a poetic style of prose (how appropriate) and succeeds on many accounts. Knowe, who was nicknamed for her inquisitiveness, is the self-conscious artist, convinced that her gifts and stories are so laughable that she is crippled from sharing them. The mound, while being an external reality, reflects her innermost passions — to understand the history of the world she inhabits. In order for her to be truly fulfilled, she must overcome her fears of rejection and reach out to the woman who taught her to sing in the first place. Even if it means suffering humiliation.

This story was an enjoyable read, full of vivid imagery and written with a lyrical voice. The language used to describe the landscape and food gave the island a foreign — almost fantastical — milieu. The setting also provided a sense of timelessness that spanned hundreds of years. I do not have much to lend in the way of criticism. Maybe if the stakes were a little higher. Maybe if Knowe’s character depth was a little greater. But overall, the story provided an intimate portrayal of a woman finding the courage to share what she has been blessed with. Definitely a read worth savoring.

Short Fiction Review: The Man Who Carved Skulls by Richard Parks

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_36_may_2013Title: The Man Who Carved Skulls

Author: Richard Parks

Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 36 (Reprint from 2007 Weird Tales)

Date: May 2013

Review:

“I married your mother for her skull. It’s no secret.”

So begins the story of Jarak, the skull carver. His profession is a noble one — etching images into the skulls of the deceased to forever commemorate their lives in the House of Skulls. Jarak’s son, Akan, takes an interest in his father’s work, hoping one day to follow in his footsteps.

Jarak tells his son how he met his mother and how she ultimately married him in hope of having her own skull immortalized with greater beauty and prestige than any of the other heads on display in the tomb. It’s a vain love story, but both Jarak and his wife, Letis, are happy.

The conflict begins when Jarak’s health takes a turn for the worst and it appears that Jarak’s promise to decorate his wife’s skull will go unfulfilled. She has not the courage to commit suicide and Jarak doesn’t have the heart to kill her. Only Akan can intercede if his parent’s deepest wishes can come true.

At first, after reading this story, I was reminded of the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. Ender Wiggin is faced with a similar dilemma where he must commit a violent act against an alien species for the “piggie” to be immortalized. Card adroitly deals with the subject of conflicting ethics and norms, making this novel superior to its predecessor, Ender’s Game.

In The Man Who Carved Skulls, Akan’s dilemma is not one of ethics, but of cost. Is it worth the cost of losing his own freedom and future so that his parents’ dreams can be fulfilled? There is also a message of love, asking to what extent a person will carry out an undesirable act for the ones he loves.

I found the story to be well-written and thought-provoking. I love situational ethics and the dilemma presented touches on this subject. Where I was a bit lost was with the selfishness of Letis. Not only is she vain, but she is so cowardly that she would rather have her son punished for his entire life than kill herself. Akan, rather than being a selfless hero, becomes a victim. Not even his deed is noble, for all it accomplishes is fulfilling her shallow pursuit.

While my later reflections have mixed thoughts, the story did provide an idea that made me think beyond the last line. Even though the characters were not all that likable, I really liked the premise and overall found it to be a rewarding read.

Short Fiction Review: (R+D) / I = M by Catherine Tobler

cw_80_700Title: (R+D) / I = M

Author: Catherine Tobler

Publisher: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 80

Date: May 2013

Review:

Humans finally have arrived on Mars. Manless expeditions have proven that life no longer exists on the red planet. Fossils show signs of ancient life, but without water, life is unsustainable. Or so we thought.

Tobler’s story looks at these fleshy bipeds known as humans from the perspective of a Martian. The Martian anatomy remains somewhat nebulous — likened to a grape vine in its slender structure and finding sustenance through sunlight instead of water. One particular Martian couple comes upon the vineyard that the humans have started to grow just outside their biosphere. The fruit, unlike most human food, is edible to the Martians and in eating it, they begin to take an interest in the humans.

The male Martian (at least the one who isn’t pregnant) is able to enter the consciousness of a female human and visits her body and all of its organs with an intimacy that is told with a sense of beauty and curiosity rather than horror. This curiosity leads to capture, which at first seems innocuous until they are deprived of the sunlight they need to live.

(R+D) / I = M is more of a pondering on biological life than it is a story that tries to resolve the conflict between the two species. Great detail is spent in understanding the biological structure of humans — as different and strange they seem — and how the organs allow them to live, breathe, and reproduce. I enjoyed the writing and the premise of the story, diverging from the pitfall that most first contact stories fall into. This is not a story of evil humans and how one human gets the other species and tries to restore their relationship. Not all conflicts have a resolution. We agree to disagree or as Tobler writes, “They trespass. We trespass.”

But I must admit, I am stumped by the title. It seems as abstract as the ghosts of Mars, which I suppose is fitting. I never quite understood if the Martians were literally inside the human female or just mentally transplanted. Maybe these creatures are not meant to be fully understood. After all, it took the Martians carefully arranging grapes on a doorstep to get their attention. I wonder what it would take for me to see and understand them.