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Issue 16, October 2014
Edited by: Brian J. White
Cost: Free to read online
Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.
The online magazine is simply but attractively designed. Fireside’s logo is crisp and appealing, the default font large and legible. The artwork is eerie and wonderful, though frustratingly unattributed (that I could find). I did run across a few layout and dead link issues, but it seems the site was redesigned just prior to the issue’s launch so I’m sure it will improve with time.
Of the three stories—one short and two flash—my favorite is the flash by Hillary Jacques, The Cutting Yield. It’s a deeply dark, post-apocalyptic bit of mood evocation that I thought was really creepy and fun. Kind of just right for the week before Halloween, you know? The light thematic touches of drastic sea change in a world undone by human hands, the kind that is unthinkable to the modern reader but might be casual necessity in other circumstances, is really well handled. There is a bit of ambiguity to the ending which I’d be interested to see if other readers interpreted the same way I did.
Alexandre Stone’s The Work is also enjoyable; I particularly liked the way it used language to give sweeping hints at the setting and character relationships without weighing down the story. Tension is critical for short-short stories and this one has it in spades. Admittedly, I’m not sure I could tell you what really happens in this story; perhaps that’s the price paid for that implied world-building that I liked. I did enjoy the hints at a cyclical aspect to this: I got the impression the creation, revival, and escape had happened before and it’s pretty clear they would happen again. Sometimes flash fiction can feel like an excerpt from a much longer work; the kind of thing I used to see on the inside cover of mass market SF novels. I think those are fun, but I’m not sure they ever really stay with me. Even now, half a day after originally reading The Work, I’m struggling to remember any real details from it. Something about sigils? Anyway, fun piece, full of great tension, but I think just crossed over that line between “left me wanting more” and “didn’t give me quite enough.”
The highlight from this issue, since we’re exempting She Wolf And Cub, is Testimony, by Jennifer Mason-Black. Note that above I said my favorite story from this issue was The Cutting Yield and yet Testimony is the highlight. If you’ll indulge me a subtle distinction, the reason for this is that Testimony is the most conversation-worthy, but I had a small issue with it. I’ll get to that in a second.
At its core, Testimony is a touching and emotional story about friendship and loss. Ms Mason-Black’s gorgeous prose bookends the story of two young girls growing up, forming a bond, establishing rituals and being affected—in that bubble-protected way of childhood—by the outside world. The way the story weaves the relationship between the two girls—the narrator and her friend Jilly—it feels like there is much more to it than actually appears. There are only a couple of scenes between the girls, really, and some additional details that make it ring really authentic. The economy on display here, which is no less emotionally effective than if it were belabored, is really striking. When Jilly gets sick and the narrator tries to find a magic spell that will cure her, the sense of childish hubris and a sort of sub-surface desperation really comes through. The nature of the narrator and, more importantly, of Jilly when that desperation turns darker, is wonderfully revealed.
Then layered over the top of this, Testimony adds the speculative element, a cautionary case study on the cult of scientific progress. There is a rich vein of cynicism that flows through this aspect, where a new technique for placing the terminally ill into suspended animation is developed and presents itself as the only option for Jilly’s parents. The parallels between the narrator’s solution and Jilly’s parents’ is deftly handled, and I think in a way this is why the story derails a bit in the final scene break. There is a speechifying element, almost proselytistic, to this final stanza. I think, in retrospect, this was the intent of the whole piece (exhibit A perhaps being the story’s title), but to me it only really came through at the end and it felt jarring by that point. I will say that the final sentence is devastating, pitch-perfect, and even if that last sequence was necessary just to get to that moment it would be worthwhile (I’d argue it’s not, but it wouldn’t be a very vehement argument).
And in the end, this story is the highlight because my mind keeps going back to it. Whether I liked the tonal shift of the end or the piece’s broader moralizing isn’t really pertinent. It affected me, and it raises points that are worth discussing. There is a cultish view of science in many Western cultures; the idea of waiting out the clock to get to some more perfect moment in humanity’s future history, of dodging tragedy perhaps, is not viewed with very much scorn. Maybe it should be. That seems to be what Ms Mason-Black’s narrator is proposing. From a story perspective I might have preferred the exercise be left for the reader; for the thought exercise, I can see that taking a firm stand cemented the idea more firmly in my brain. Usually this kind of polarizing aspect happens from ambiguous or open-ended stories. Interesting to see it, from my perspective, go the other way.
So overall, Fireside’s October 2014 issue (number 16) is definitely a recommended read. The editor’s note is short and basically overviews everything in the issue, plus highlights the shift to free-to-read. It looks like they are working off a previous Kickstarter right now and ongoing support is being pushed through an ebook subscription (not available as of this writing), a Patreon, and Amazon/Paypal recurring contributions. They also have links for one-time donations.