Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to another installment of Women to Read. In this month’s column, I have a little bit of everything to recommend – a novel and three short stories, covering near-future science fiction, contemporary fantasy, and horror.
Katie Williams is the author of adult and young adult novels, and short fiction. My recommended starting place is her latest novel, Tell the Machine Goodnight. (Disclosure: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher.) The novel is near-future SF, which takes a light touch with the speculative elements. The world it describes could be our own, with a few notable advances in technology. Chief among these is Apricity, a machine that tests a person’s DNA and tells them what to do in order to achieve happiness. After a simple cheek swab, the machine provides three recommendations, which might be simple (put a warm blanket on your bed), strange (cut off the top of your left ring finger) or life-altering (cease all contact with your brother).
There are believers and non-believers.
Pearl believes. She works at Apricity, administering tests. Her teenage son, Rhett, is a non-believer and refuses to even take a test. Like any mother, Pearl worries for her son. She wants him to be happy, to the point of near obsession. Rhett was recently hospitalized for an eating disorder, giving Pearl even more reason for concern. In her desire to do what she thinks is best for Rhett, she ignores his wishes, and secretly administers an Apricity test while he’s sleeping. The results come back blank, save for an asterisk, a result which usually means the key to someone’s happiness is something so terrible, Apricity refuses to report it.
Tell the Machine Goodnight is structured like a nested series of short stories, one flowing into another, and each allowing for a deep examination of a particular character – Pearl, Rhett, Pearl’s ex-husband Elliot, his new wife Val, and others. Williams uses the structure to good effect, exploring different ideas of happiness, how people seek it, react to the idea of it, or actively run from it. Perhaps more than happiness, each of the stories is ultimately about control. Pearl seeks to control her son’s behavior, thinking to protect him. Rhett tries to control his life through the food he consumes or doesn’t consume. Pearl’s manager tries to control his employees in order to appear more powerful, and so on. This raises the question of whether happiness can be seen as a form of control, or perhaps whether being in control leads to happiness. Either way, here the two are inextricably entwined.
Tell the Machine Goodnight is a quiet novel, and a profoundly human one. It’s in-depth character studies/slices of life provide the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own relationship with happiness – do they have it, and what would they give up to obtain it? Would they cede control to a machine in order to be happy, and would that happiness be real? It’s an intriguing novel that asks interesting questions without bogging down in them.
Erin Roberts is a fiction and non-fiction writer and an Associate Editor at Escape Pod. My recommended starting place for her work is “Snake Season“, a deeply creepy story recently published at The Dark. Full of truly haunting and eerie imagery, the story follows Marie, pregnant with her second (living) child, and being haunted by Sarah the ghost of one of her previous children.
The way of things was this: you had a child and hoped it would be unbent, unbroken. You fought through the bitterness as your baby turned into a monster, eyes bulging out of a head no bigger than an overgrown tomato, arms and legs growing long and spindly like untamed weeds in a widower’s garden.
Sarah turned out “wrong”, with a small, lolling head, bulbous eyes, and unnaturally long arms that drag on the floor. Marie’s other children turned out wrong too, but by contrast, her surviving child, Junior, is almost unnaturally perfect. Even so, Marie fears for him, as she fears for her as-yet unborn child.
Throughout the story, Roberts plays with both the idea of the unreliable narrator, and the idea of gaslighting. Marie’s husband sends the conjure man to look out for Marie while he’s away at work. The conjure man gives Marie a leather bag to wear around her neck, claiming it will protect her and her children, but Marie doesn’t trust him and suspects him of trying to do them harm. Meanwhile, Marie’s husband seems to trust the conjure man more than he trusts his own wife, and perhaps with good cause.
Reality and truth are both illusive in the story, making it all the more effective. Is something supernatural at work, or is Marie suffering from a break with reality? Is grief affecting her, or deep down, did she never want children? Elements of “Snake Season” are reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with a ghost child returning to haunt its mother, the line between love and violence blurred, and the idea of a being that isn’t malicious, but primal and therefore threatening. The imagery throughout the story is evocative, making it a satisfying and chilling ghost story at the same time as it explores relative truth and the potential real-life horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood.
Juliana Goodman is a YA author with two novels in the works. My recommended starting place is her recently-published story “Furious Girls” from Fiyah Magazine #6: Big Mama Nature. As the title implies, it’s a story about anger. Amberjack has Fury inside her, and in the grip of strong emotion, things around her tend to catch fire. At age five, she accidentally set the family Christmas tree on fire. As a teenager, she unintentionally harms her sister.
I was fifteen when I set Cassia on fire. Not her whole body, just her hair, that thick luscious hair that grew full and proud down to her shoulders. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is what I tried to explain. She had nothing to do with Christian kissing Margo behind my back. But when that anger bubbled up inside me as I stood facing the mirror in our bathroom, Cassia made the mistake of touching me.
Amberjack is sent to the School for Furious Girls. Under the watchful eye of Miss Babs, Amberjack and other girls like her are taught to control and channel their rage. Amberjack’s roommates Ariel, Galia, and Brizo are more inclined to revel in their own though, and plan to sneak into town to take revenge on the ice cream parlor that refused to serve them, and whose owner spit on them. Amberjack agrees to go along, but only when the others promise to stop by her house on the way. Amberjack still believes she can go back home, but even though her family embraces her, and Cassia doesn’t blame her, her parents make it subtly clear she isn’t welcome anymore. Amberjack is heartbroken, but when a massive storm threatens to destroy the town, she learns there might be something the Furious Girls can do to stop it. However in order to help her family, she needs to convince the other girls that the town that rejected them is worth protecting.
“Furious Girls” is a powerful story of rage, family, and friendship. Using the tropes of speculative fiction, Goodman examines the way women and girls’ anger – specifically black women and girls’ anger – is perceived as dangerous and destructive, something to be locked away and suppressed. At times, it is reminiscent of Senaa Ahmad’s story “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” reviewed in an earlier installment of this column. Whereas the girls in Ahmad’s story allowed themselves to be made into weapons, the girls in Goodman’s story have no choice regarding their destructive power, except in how they react to it and use it. It’s a lovely story, full of emotion, and one that ultimately offers a note of hope at the end.
Ada Hoffmann is an author, PhD student, and creator and writer of the Autistic Book Party review series, which aims to help readers find better representation of autistic and neuro atypical characters in fiction. As part of her push for better representation, her own work frequently features autistic characters, including my recommended starting place, “You Have to Follow the Rules” published in Strange Horizons.
Annalee’s mother brings her to a science fiction convention, insisting Annalee will have a good time and make new friends. However, right from the start, the convention is too loud, full of people bumping into her by accident, and a few people touching her deliberately even though she doesn’t like to be touched. Amidst the overwhelming strangeness of the convention itself, Annalee begins to see even odder things, including doors in the floor and ceiling marked DO NOT ENTER, and a mirror-like wall through which she can see another convention, neither of which anyone else seems to be able to see.
Everybody in the reflection had space to swing their arms. Everyone was a fairy or a space captain, with trailing flowers and white pupilless eyes. Half of them were children. Bad children, too–rocking, scratching, staring into space, or biting their nails, things Mommy told Annalee never to do.
The attendees of the other convention can cross over to Annalee’s convention, including a young girl dressed as a Jedi who eventually begins passing Annalee notes. The notes tell Annalee about the world on the other side of the mirror where no one will tell her how to behave. She can cover her ears or rock if things get too overwhelming, and no one will touch her unless she says it’s okay. There are different rules to follow there, but not the same confusing rules Annalee is used to, the ones that make no sense to her. Annalee is tempted – the world beyond the mirror seems custom built for her – but it means leaving her mother behind, leaving her with a difficult choice between her own private happiness, or finding a balance that allows her to be happy in a world that frequently overwhelms her, but contains people that she loves and love her, like her mother.
Hoffmann does an excellent job of skirting the line between reality and fantasy, leaving it open for the reader to decide how much of what Annalee sees is in her head, and how much of her choice between two worlds is a metaphor. The world of adults, and the rules they expect children to follow can often be baffling. To Annalee, with her very literal way of thinking, it is even more so. Similarly, Annalee’s mother seems unable to see things from Annalee’s point of view, even though she loves and cares for her. “You Have to Follow the Rules” is many things – a story about the joys of fandom, and finding a place where you belong; a story that touches on the experiences of an autistic character navigating the world; and a story about people with very different ways of thinking finding a way to meet in the middle, bridging their worlds through the bonds of family and love. All these elements come together seamlessly, making it a lovely tale.