So we made an enormous thread of SFF discussion on FB last night… which mainly led to me seeing a huge pile more books I need to read (like my list wasn’t long enough). However, one of them was free on Kindle (but in the good way, not the self-published way), and not very long… so I gave in. Good shout.
Skipping right over the story for a second though, what I most enjoyed about this was the author’s note at the end, where she explains what she was doing with the story, and how a lot of people seem to think she’s doing something different. Now, I’m not the hugest fan of death of the author, I think it’s fair to say, and so to have a little testament to what the author was actually trying to do… I find that really interesting. For her, this was a story in which she exorcised some of her disgust about the notion of botflies, and what they do to humans (which I can completely sympathise with, because the thought absolutely horrifies me too). And when I finished reading her note, I almost wanted to go back and reread the whole thing, which would have been doable since it’s not particularly long, and see how her intentions pushed through into the story. I may yet do so, but I thought it was more valuable to write down what I thought of it first… mostly lest I never get round to it. But also because I did see a lot of what she talks about in that note in the story, so I don’t really need to re-engage with it to talk about it.
Anyway, on to the actual content. I really, really enjoyed this. It does a lot of things I tend to enjoy anyway, and then does them well. As with most short stories that are any good, it does a great job of dropping you into the middle of something and building up the exposition sort of…. passively? Because there’s no space to do it more overtly, the author has to be cleverer about how they create their world for you, and so it comes through in subtle points and off hand comments, rather than long, descriptive passages. And I always enjoy that. And Butler has done it well. You know immediately that you’re in an SF story, off-world and among aliens, and you very quickly know the political realities of the setting, simply from normal-seeming internal monologue of the narrator. Because the writing isn’t directly about setting the scene, and to some extent the exposition, the context, isn’t important. The story is here for just this tiny vignette in Gan’s life, a pivotal moment, not for all the things around it. Because it’s a story about a choice, and about love and ownership and power dynamics… and these are such universal themes that we don’t need the context. Butler has given enough to root the choice Gan makes in reality, and to give us a realistic sense of his horror and his emotional state, so we can understand the fullness of that choice… but nothing extraneous, nothing that distracts from the emotionality of that choice. But because we focus on their emotions around this one event, her characters are, in such a short space, incredibly believable. She’s whittled them down to the key things we need, without robbing them of a real sense of humanity.
And I really liked that. It works beautifully as a short story, and says a lot for her as a writer (of whom I’d somehow never heard before, no idea why) that means I’ll definitely be seeking her out in future. I can definitely see why it won a Nebula.