RogerBW's Blog

Cultural Artifacts, MaryAnn Johanson 10 April 2021

2021 SF, fantasy and horror anthology, 30 very short stories.

A disclaimer first: MaryAnn is a friend whose film review site I've been reading with enthusiasm for over twenty years. I didn't pay directly for this book, but got it as a benefit of being a supporter of her work in general. She knows I'm going to give an honest review and, thank goodness, I really enjoyed this collection.

These stories are described as "flash fiction", not a form I know well, and they average a bit over a thousand words each; often that means there's no real room for plot. Sometimes what we get is scene-setting that suggests what the "real" story to follow might be; sometimes it's a slice of life; sometimes it's a story that deliberately never quite starts, with a feeling that if only things had aligned a tiny bit differently it could all have been so much better. And sometimes it is a miniature piece of conventional fiction with beginning and middle and end.

I'm reminded of Yuriy Shakov's Russian Tarot of St Petersburg, for which all the images were painted not on the usual canvas for photoreduction but at their actual intended size. Conventional tools of characterisation and plotting leave too wide a trail to be useful here; one has to hint and make reference and suggest, using just a word or two here or there in place of a paragraph of description. Sometimes it fails and only the broad strokes come through, and we veer too close to cliché; more often it works, and by the end one knows who someone is as a person.

There's also not as much room as one might like to develop a distinctive voice, but even the downbeat stories have a basic optimism to them that I find welcome: yeah, maybe one day this thing will be so much part of ancient history that it's not even understood any more. Maybe we won't learn as much from that as we should, but still we'll be around and learning. There's always a sense that there's more out there than we can see though this tiny hole into the world, and leaving the reader wanting more is certainly better than leaving them wishing you'd had a more aggressive editor.

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