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Short Speculative Fiction: “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” by Nike Salway

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015 | Posted by Learned Foote

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This is the marvelous sort of story that never quite allows you to form a picture in your head, because it’s always contradicting itself. It seems to exist on three (or more?) levels at once, strange images super-imposed on each other. On the one hand it seems a story of everyday modern life, Facebook and all, told with keen emotional resonance.

There’s for instance, this passage from a mother’s perspective when her daughter has an abortion:

“And afterwards, her daughter wanting ice cream and to sit by the river and watch the waterbirds dancing in the shallow water. Alice had rested her head on Clara’s shoulder, curled her feet up under her bottom like a child. Her breath had smelled of milk and sweet biscuits, and her hair of antiseptic. It is the last time Clara can remember her daughter wanting to be held.”

This passage sounds the sort of thing you could read in any mainstream fiction magazine, rich in sensory detail and lived-in experience.

But no. It’s firmly of our genre. Do you want to discover for yourself the speculative element, which slowly and imperceptibly bleeds into the tale? Go and read this lovely tale by Nike Sulway for free at Lightspeed, here. Then click on for the full review with spoilers.

So the striking thing about this story about Clara, an everyday woman who deals with friends, lovers, and children … is that the main character seems to be a rhinoceros. There’s a hint of this, in the opening quotation of the story which quotes from the ancient Rhinoceros Sutra, an ode to solitude.

But aside from this sutra, there’s not much hint that our main character is a rhinoceros, until we start seeing sentences like this, halfway through the story:

“She flicks her ears a little to clear away the flies.”

And then — yes — it seems to be that the main character is a rhinoceros, just as she’s a human woman, just as she’s living on the savannah, and also perhaps on a spaceship facing the extinction of her species due to the inescapable Cold Equations (this story picks up that SF trope, along with its nod to SF writer Karen Joy Fowler).

But I can’t simply picture her as a rhinoceros, for these two images are perpetually superimposed:

“They would graze in the savannah, or stand side by side in the kitchen, making bread and listening to Belle’s daughters talk about their lives.”

The marvelous effect of this superimposition, thanks to its subtle introduction, is that it never feels jarring. Rather, as readers, we’re slowly invited to question the impressions we’ve formed of this character whose emotions we’ve already begun to feel. How does it feel to be a rhinoceros? How does it feel to be anybody who’s not ourselves?

Does it matter if being a rhinoceros is a metaphor for being a solitary human? Or if being human is a metaphor for being a rhinoceros? Or if a spaceship scenario is the only way to imagine what it’s like to be a member of an endangered species?

We feel the emotion, so why does it matter how we identify with this impossible fictional character? She holds us at a distance, from grasping even a basic concept of who or what she is. In this paean to solitude, with its deep undercurrent of exhaustion with all the petty spiteful relationships we embroil ourselves in, some level of distance from Clara feels right–she recedes from us, and we watch her go without reproach.

Either way it’s lovely writing and it hits the reader emotionally — and even as Sulway summons these emotions, she also asks us to think about these emotions and just what it means to experience them in in a narrative that’s so openly announces itself as unreal—as a piece of invented fiction.

A strange and lovely tale!

Black Gate covers all the major fantasy magazines. Check out the Black Gate November Fantasy Magazine Rack here, and all our current magazine coverage — with updates on 30+ ongoing publications — is here.


Learned Foote’s last Short Speculative Fiction review for us was “Tragic Business” by Emil Ostrovski.

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