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When he got to the coast, the sun was setting, and the brightness blinded him. He drove down a rattling road to get to the sand. There were waves still, white and green and blue, and he made a sound he wasn’t expecting to make. He thought about red oceans and orange caverns.

Maria Dahvana Headley's "Solder and Seam" follows the journey of an alien revolutionary, living on a quietly post-apocalyptic Earth as a farmer, as he steers a wooden whale to the sea. It's a real weird story; part of the New Weird subgenre I adore, and yet became a little estranged from in 2015. Is it even called the New Weird anymore? I'm so out of touch.

There are plenty of anthologies and reading lists for the New Weird, but so far I've resisted exploring beyond a few odd stories and China Miéville's novels. While I'm ready to love New Weird, stepping further out into its strange world has always felt a little risky to me. It feels like SFF's equivalent of the more experimental, deconstructive side of lit-fic. Now, I grew up on a diet that included a lot of lit-fic, and I learnt fast that if a book was championed as 'experimental' or 'groundbreaking' 90% of the time it would turn out to be a trap; a pit of misogyny scantily covered by beautiful words. Seeing a whole SFF subgenre referred to with those kinds of phrases I worry I'm about to take another fall.

Cue me clinging to Maria Dahvana Headley's work forever from now on. I read Headley's 2014 story "If You Were a Tiger, I'd Have To Wear White", at the beginning of 2015, after seeing it featured in El-Mohtar's Rich and Strange column. In 2014, Renay wrote Hey Short Fiction, Why So Complicated? which talked about her desire for a community to help her navigate short fiction, and I've been searching for the same thing myself. El-Mohtar is not just one of my favourite short story writers (why yes, I am going to be talking about "Madeline" at some point) but one of my favourite critics of short fiction. Hurray for community and recommendations!

"If You Were a Tiger, I'd Have To Wear White" is a completely bizarre and satisfying piece of fictional journalism about a hack who visits a fading wildlife park for animal stars of stage and screen. It's originality, and committed oddness, made me realise just how much I miss mixing up my reading by visiting the truly weird side of SFF; the side of the genre which happily casts off any kind of self-imposed, "sensible" fantastical restrictions. "If You Were a Tiger, I'd Have To Wear White" pushes the reader to accept that they don't understand what is happening - they can't fully understand what is happening - and that the magic behind the existence of this animal park will never be openly acknowledged or "solved" by the story. It is a story that leaves the reader puzzled, moved and desperate to read it again to uncover exactly how it casts its spell.

"Solder and Seam" also encourages the reader to accept the fantastical without searching for an explanation. In this story, the dead become moving tattoos on a person's body. A wooden whale is suddenly sentient. The mechanics behind these SFF details are never fully clear. The reader is also never provided with any explicit, on the page worldbuilding which explains why the alien protagonist has sixteen fingers, or how the technology used to disguise his real appearance works.

This approach to storytelling is not about willfully breaking science fiction rules without reason. "Solder and Seam" is not the prose form of a nonsense poem. Instead, the story veers away from exposition and logic building but focuses on other areas of the story like the writing style. Just as every story ever written picks and chooses how the way it is built will affect its readers, "Solder and Seam" simply has other priorities besides explaining its world. And by refusing to focus on explaining its world, the story surprises readers into taking a different approach to their reading. Trying to judge "Solder and Seam" using a Dungeons and Dragons style measuring stick will just leave readers frustrated, and so they are prompted to examine whether this gorgeously written story is broken or whether their way of assessing SFF can be expanded.

So, you could say there is an entire lack of worldbuilding in "Solder and Seam". And yet the story exists in a world (and provides memories of another world) full of texture and substance; a world that feels graphically and emotionally real. This is entirely down to Headley's skill at creating images and assembling them in vivid passages:

There were windfarms around him, and oil wells. He could see their spigots pouring out the black blood of dinosaurs, and at the horizon, the mills gobbled the sky, grabbing it bit by bit, tugging it out of place and chewing it. The sun had developed a ring of red around it, and one day a flock of geese fell out of the clouds, each one of them nothing but bones and feathers. He harvested their skeletons and added them to the whale, feathering the inside with their wings.

Weird SFF like "Solder and Seam" can be frustratingly opaque and deliberately resistant to providing a path for readers to follow. However, if done well a piece of New Weird aesthetic can be its own self contained pleasure. I read "Solder and Seam" and I felt the apocalyptic Earth, the consequences of the revolution, and the alien's emotions because the writing is so full of evocative imagery:

'He had a heap of green bottles and one of purple, a smaller one of blue. He had a pile of tin cans dating from the middle of the last century, before most of the world had fled the world, some of them swollen with poison. All these things were going into the whale’s body.'

In fact, the emotional content of the story is made diamond hard by being compressed into short paragraphs full of short sentences that portray worlds of meaning:

He’d overthrown a government and gone on the run for thirty years. No one knew his real name. He’d been married twice to women who thought he was somebody else. He had a son he’d lost track of. He was that kind of father, and maybe he was that kind of man. It was hard to say. No one ever thought of themselves that way, but statistically, it had to be true that some people were exactly what they thought they weren’t.

And I guess that's part of the appeal of the story for me - all this emotion. "Solder and Seam" is built out of emotional writing. However, it also understand the importance of restraint in portraying emotion; when to put it's heart on the surface and when to use imagery to build in coded emotion.

All these feels written into the story make it a perfect piece of literature for me. Let's face it, while I think science is the fascinating web we build our lives from, I'm never going to be the SFF reader who approaches and evaluates fiction with an eye on hard scientific reality. I like emotions. I like characters. I sometimes even like plots. I like writing that is built with an eye to making readers feel. I am the SFF reader Short Fiction and The Feels is worried about. And, I legitimately cannot bring myself to care because I get to enjoy stories like "Solder and Seam". Discussions about the fate of the genre look poor and dull when compared to a story so delicious.

"Solder and Seam" by Maria Dahvana Headley is available to read for free at Lightspeed Magazine.

Supplementary Material

Amal El-Mohtar's Rich and Strange column reviews "If You Were a Tiger, I'd Have To Wear White"
Author Spotlight - Maria Dahvana Headley


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