Introduction to an askance Personal Anthology

I wanted to craft a personal anthology of speculative fiction, but that proved impossible. There is no more speculation in fiction. Or rather, there is only speculation.

I won’t list our shared moments of bewilderment that have defined the past decade-ish, because we’re sick of reading about them, and because I simply don’t have to. You know ’em. The dictators, the diseases, the technologies. Though shocking global events are not unique to the 21st Century, our own ennui, our ability to process that shock into something ambient, might be. And I now find that I look at fiction that deals with impossibilities and implausibilities differently than I might have done in another period, in another life. 

When I had a chapbook published by Tangerine Press in 2021, my brilliant editor Michael Curran kept returning to the same word to describe a particularly strange story of mine: askance. I liked it. It didn’t specify premise or plot of voice, but only a mood, a cinematographic glitch, and the phrase has stuck with me.

These stories share that glitch: A dog is shot into space, and there, we are given the soft observations of a gracious mind. A questionnaire wants to know if you enjoy alternative music, before you find yourself gazing into a dark basement. And in a time when science-fiction was made up largely of steel blasters and pulpy vixens, ‘The Anything Box’ reminds us of the precarity of childhood, and the duty we have move through the world with compassion, even when that world hurls perplexing new objects our way.

So here it is, my anthology of what might once have been called speculative, now perhaps para-speculative, or, rather,  askance fiction. Some of the stories sit within the parameters of traditional sci-fi and some are far from it. But each has helped me feel understood in a world which defies understanding. 

‘The Veldt’ by Ray Bradbury

Do you remember when you were a child and you encountered, for the first time, a piece of art or writing that left you shaken? Not just moved, but a little disturbed. For me, that feeling was always coupled with secrecy, a belief that if my parents knew something had gotten under my skin it would cause them undue worry. The first time I remember feeling this was with (as any astute member of the literati might guess) A Goofy Movie. In the 1994 animated film, there’s scene where father and son face their own mortality as their raft veers toward a waterfall, and in the moments before their presumed death, they are left only with their love for one another and a bald and desire to survive. (Pretty goofy if you ask me!) I insisted on returning to see it in the cinema again and again, until something of that semi-shameful fixation had released its grip on me, and I probably got really into Polly Pocket or something.
The next time I felt that morbid fascination was after reading ‘The Veldt’We’d been made to read Dandelion Wine in my middle school English class and it was so goddamn boring it became a bit of a family joke among us. My dad – a sci-fi obsessive – made it his mission to give us different, better Bradbury. Before I knew it there was a copy of The Illustrated Man in my hands, and in the collection’s opening story, ‘The Veldt’children grow increasingly immersed in their home VR unit, which places them in a rendering of the African plains. The simulation becomes more and more real, until the story-perspective shifts – to the childrens’ parents – and, uh…yeah it gets pretty grim. 
What felt stirring and secret to me wasn’t ‘The Veldt’s implied violence, but rather that an unhappy ending could enrich a story. And in early adulthood, when traumatising oneself with disturbing prose is sort of the name of the game (the time Less Than Zero ruined Christmas is a story for another time) I’m grateful for ‘The Veldt’ and Bradbury’s gentle ushering into the world of weird fiction.

First published as ‘The World the Children Made’ in The Saturday Evening Post, September 1950. Collected in The Illustrated Man, Doubleday, 1951 and widely anthologised, including in Collected Stories Volume 1, Harper Voyager, 2008, and The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Everyman, 2010

‘Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre’ by Seth Fried

Oh my God this story is so fucking funny. 
It also grapples with that implausibility thing, and mankind’s unyielding tendency to normalise and to acquiesce. Seth also worked with Michael Curran, coin-er of askance, and I’m honored to be in the same catalogue as this absolute crackerjack of a bizarro storyteller. 

First published in One Story 124, Fall 2009, excerpt available here. Collected in The Great Frustration, Soft Skull, 2011

‘Introduction’ to The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

This is not a standalone short story, but the opening pages of Yoko Ogawa’s cult novel, which depicts a world where an authoritarian government is able to collectively delete items from the mind of its citizens. This intro exists as its own cohesive work, and at the risk of sounding controversial, the rest of the novel feels like an afterthought to this gorgeous, poignant tableau. A young girl comes to learn that her mother is not only immune to the erasures of memory that everyone else in their world experiences, but that she’s been hoarding the ‘deleted’ objects (a bell, perfume, more) in hidden drawers. 

First published by Kodansha, 1994. First English translation by Pantheon/Harvill Secker, 2019

‘The Anything Box’ by Zenna Henderson

My dad read this story out loud to my family while we were driving from our home in the north Bay Area to visit family in Ogallala, Nebraska when I was seven or eight years old. I remember the fugue we’d been in, driving for days across empty beige land in Utah and Wyoming, start to dissolve as I became captivated by the unsettling story: a teacher in a small town finds that one of her sweet, quite students has come into possession a box which holds visions of the viewer’s deepest desires. Of course, things become complicated when the box goes missing, and the teacher must grapple with duties to children, the cost of escapism, and the question of whether anyone, regardless of age, is entitled to innocence. 

First published in the Magazine Of Fantasy and Science-Fiction, 1956, and collected in The Anything Box, Avon Books, 1977

‘Fishtank’ by Bindu Bansinath

‘Fishtank’ is a story about systems. It’s hard to say more about it, in part because the story is so heartbreaking, but more so because of its elegance. Its economy. Several weeks after reading it I learned that was a teen when she wrote this, which makes that clarity of vision, her masterful absence of exposition, all the more moving. 

There’s something undeniable about each exhalation of this story, and in just over ten paragraphs its author manages to use that instrument of askance: a final scene that the reader doesn’t see coming, but is, of course, the only ending there could possibly be. 

First published in Smokelong Quarterly, September 2013, and available to read here

‘Laika’s Dream’ by John Haskell

I tried so hard to be into the zombified-carnage-apathy vibe of the Brat Pack, Ellis and narcotic wastelands and all that, before I fell in love with the ‘McSweeneyites’. It’s a funny term for those in and around the orbit of Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s in the early Oughts, and their now-nostalgic brand of tender lucidity, especially because John Haskell’s debut collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock was not actually published by McSweeney’s. And yet it feels like a crowning jewel to that scene and that oeuvre, and ‘Laika’s Dream’, included in the collection, allows us into the mind of the real Soviet dog who went into space in 1957 and, as anyone with access to Wikipedia might know, never came back. 

When I think of this story I think of awe and homecoming, and the vastness of space as a very warm blanket. It’s generous and heartbreaking and course-correcting for a young writer like I was then, who was looking for a way into emotion and could never quite reach lift-off. (Get it?)

Listen to Laika’s Dream on Studio 360, New York Public Radio. First published in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Pan Macmillan, 2003

‘Night Guard’ by Jack Vening

A few years ago I took a seminar by the brilliant multimedia artist Season Butler on ‘Reimagining Dystopias’, where I was introduced to Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of defamiliarisation, and his (or was it first Novalis’s?) axiom: “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” It really rocked my world, which is a little odd because I was a full-grown adult calling myself a writer by that point, and the feedback I got from friends and respected peers was: Wait, you really hadn’t heard of that before? Wow don’t tell people that.

In ‘Night Guard’ a caretaker provides a taxonomy of wealthy children’s peculiarities and patterns, and paints a picture of the slippery, anarchic game which is childminding: Julie was squinting at my phone, from which she was streaming videos of civil unrest at tremendous volume. I gathered she was terrified of being injured in a terrorist attack. Occasionally she screamed. The waiters looked at her like she was a crow I’d taught to speak by feeding it meat out of my hand.Jack Vening is one of the funniest people on the famously crowded Internet, and I waited too long to dive into his fiction, which is so, so good at delivering that defamiliarisation thing. Once he has a collection I’ll keep it within arm’s reach, especially while temping, or when the shrieking children from the school near my house flood the street and hold me hostage in the late afternoon.

Published by The Nervous Breakdown, August 2019, and available to read here

‘Rusties’ by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu

I’ve often heard that when doomsday comes we’ll all be rushing to riff on it. Put our glib little depression humour spin on it. i’m about to get crushed by a comet, classic pisces behavior tbhlmao. That kind of thing. 

I’ve occasionally seen this flavor of voice depicted in prose, and ‘Rusties’ brings something related to it, but far more artful. It’s a gorgeously thrilling sci-fi story with action and twists, but also a groundedness in a fully-formed vision and thought-patterns, even while its hero is ushered into a robot apocalypse. Dotted with likes and what the heck?s, relationship politics, and the annoying ubiquity of social media bleeps, it feels distinctly modern and also true to the heart of classic sci-fi. 

Rusties are traffic robots installed in cities like Kinshasa, Lagos, Nairobi, and Cairo who strengthen local economies by troubleshooting urban roads. When they start to simultaneously undergo upgrades, and be harvested for interior parts, a cascade of social and technological tumult unfurls. It reads, somehow, like your favourite action film and your favourite shoegaze novella: 

Rusty Ndege and I had a bond. Ever since that day when I was five. It would sometimes play my favorite songs and even update itself about new interesting tid-bits of news and gossip so it could chat with me. We’d had whole conversations. Sure, people noticed. That’s why Kevo called it ‘The Tin Man’ and joked that I was the heart it had been looking for.   

First published in Clarkesworld, Issue 121, available to read here and listen here

‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’ by Jamil Jan Kochai

Having just finished The People in the Trees, I’m wary of stories that end with an announcement of love. They’re out to get you. More specifically, they’re out to scar you. And although Kochai’s narrator is a vaguely menacing, unseen presence in the life of one family, whose members battle paranoia (is it though?) and the debilitating pain of both lived and inherited trauma, a love does indeed emerge, and certainly must be spoken. 

But unlike stories within the whole ‘trauma-plot’ discourse, every beat of this story is syncopated in a way that loosens the reader’s grip on what they’re seeing, and – more importantly – how they’re seeing. That device does something really interesting to the reader, which I won’t give away here, but I’ll say that ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’ should be required text for anyone trying to break out of their own patterns; both in terms of crafting fiction, and in terms of relating empathetically to strangers.

First published in The New Yorker, 8 Nov 2021, and available to subscribers to read here

‘That Boy’ by Reneé Bibby

I picked up Issue 1 of Splice in Burley Fisher, one of east London’s most beloved indie bookshops, and whenever I find myself in spaces like that, I tend to move toward my homeland: America, and often the west. Maybe it’s subconscious. But I latched onto Reneé Bibby straight away. Her story describes a biracial man’s hair speaking aloud in his daily life, bringing into contrast the way he’s grappled with his own blackness, particularly in his majority-white workplace. The mag includes an introduction to the story, in which Dana Diehl describes Bibby as something of the beating heart of the writing community in Tuscon, Arizona. It’s a loving tribute to an unflinchingly potent voice: nowhere is a shlocky Twilight Zone reveal of the talking hair in question. It’s there from the first line, a natural and tesselative companion to the story’s protagonist and his complex personal history in an inherently, occasionally invisibly, discriminatory national ecosystem. 

“You’re fooling yourself if you don’t know that everything is about race,” the hair said.
Kingston pointed at his hair. “I’m picking up fresh razors on my way home.”

First published in Splice: Anthology #1, 2019. An excerpt is available here

‘Pillar of Salt’ by Shirley Jackson

In my early twenties I made a bad decision: I followed a boyfriend to New York, a city where I had no job and almost no friends, from London, where things had sort of started happening for me. I assumed, at 22, that things happen everywhere, so the plan seemed faultless. What followed was a time so bad that I developed a sort of cottonmouth when I tried to articulate the pain. In ‘Pillar of Salt’ a couple visit Manhattan from their quiet New Hampshire town, and wife Margaret begins to experience bouts of hallucinatory anxiety as she clashes with the city, seeing danger  and collapse (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) atop balconies, on shorelines, and in the throes of chic parties. Of course, her husband experiences none of this. 

It’s got Jackson’s trademark grotesquerie, and her unmooring of characters from the realities in which they’ve become comfortable. But it’s also a fuck you to the idea that a place’s inherent ‘badness’ requires explanation. There are notes of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in it, but also something more terrifying: that the claustrophobia and madness of a locked room like Gilman’s might bleed into the vastness of The Greatest City In The World™.

I wish I’d read ‘Pillar Of Salt’ two weeks into my time in New York, rather than many years after I’d started the exhausting process of re-emigrating to the UK. But the way in which fiction can step in for you, to unburden you of the responsibility to rationalise your interiority, is something timeless. And that’s nice. 

First published in Mademoiselle, 1948, collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 1967

‘The Role of Music in Your Life’ – a questionnaire by Five Dials

I co-teach a module on digital fiction with a friend who is one of the most intelligent people I know, and we disagreed about whether to include this in the syllabus. I was pro, she was con, in part because undergrads don’t want to do questionnaires, and half the battle with young students is getting them on-side. 

But I find the eeriness of this type of experimentation to be exciting beyond words (of course it’s not really a questionnaire), and the text-based adventure nerd in me has a hard time believing anyone wouldn’t become enthralled in this ‘story’. Give it a go.

(Note: I reached out to Penguin Random House for any information about who authored the questionnaire, but received no response. Cue spooky synths.)

First published on Five Dials in 2016. It’s available here