I asked each of my fellow short-listed authors for the 2013 Sunburst Award if they would be kind enough to write a piece for my blog. Here’s this week’s piece by Derryl Murphy.
His novel Napier's Bones, which he describes as “a peripatetic math-as-magic urban fantasy/hard science fiction story,” was nominated last year for the Aurora Award for Best Novel. The short story collection Over the Darkened Landscape (Fairwood Press) is Derryl's fourth book and is nominated for a 2013 Sunburst Award.
The Sunburst Award jury says: "In this wonderful collection, Derryl Murphy ranges over the whole territory of speculative fiction, from hard SF to magical realism and back again. He is particularly adept at mining history in stories that twist and tweak reality, turning it into the thought-provoking “what if?” of great speculative fiction. Whether he is writing of a society where government cutbacks have created an interesting way for private citizens to make money, a legendary artist’s battle with an equally legendary creature of myth, a town where growing old is the exception rather than the rule, or a poignant phone call between a husband and wife separated by a distance that can never be crossed, Murphy’s stories mix fantasy and horror, the extraordinary and the everyday, to stunning effect."
Buy Over the Darkened Landscape at Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-CA/ebook/over-the-darkened-landscape
To Make a Long Story Short
by Derryl Murphy
It’s an odd feeling to have a book of short stories on the same Sunburst Award short list as four novels. It’s not like they’re apples and oranges, of course, but there are plenty of people out there - my wife among them - who feel that short fiction generally doesn’t do the trick for them, that it doesn’t tell a complete enough story. (Although let me note as an aside that my wife does read my short fiction, and sometimes she even gets it. “Last Call” made her cry, as it did its original editor and the artist who supplied the illustration for the magazine in which it appeared.)
Like it or not, though, short fiction is by its very design not set to do the same thing a novel does. The character development is, by necessity, presented in a different fashion, for one thing. It’s no less effective if done right, of course, but there is a shorthand readers and writers of short fiction come to recognize.
Now, not all short fiction is created equal. The shortest story in Over the Darkened Landscape is fewer than a thousand words, and the longest is over eleven thousand. The snippet that is “Clink Clank” obviously doesn’t give me the room to stretch that the novella of “More Painful Than the Dreams of Other Boys” does. But that’s part of the fun for me. I don’t write much short fiction anymore, but I do still find it enjoyable, and an interesting challenge.
While I don’t do it with all my short fiction, I do sometimes try to break my stories into little chapters, to give the reader a sense of the novelistic. And, yes, as a cheat so I can move freely between scenes without having to worry about writing that bridge. We all have our crosses to bear.
But mostly it’s because I like to imagine that these little snippets - or longer snips, to coin a term - have a life beyond what you read. And that is precisely what drives my wife so crazy. It’s not so easy, nor so important, to wrap up the narrative of a short story so that it finishes in one neat and tidy package. Questions often remain, and I for one am fond of those questions.
Yes, sometimes you can make everything neat and tidy. I won’t give much away, but to refer again to “Last Call,” I think by the end there is no doubt that this is the same happy place to end the story no matter if it’s 2400 or 120,000 words long.
I also find it’s easier to be relentlessly depressing in shorter bites. In my previous collection, Wasps at the Speed of Sound (11 stories of ecological SF - if you squint just right - that is about to be reprinted by Five Rivers here in Canada), I was accused of being just a little down. To quote from one review: “The effect of such savagely pessimistic stories in one concentrated dose is depressing as all hell, and by half way through a reader might be excused for wondering: if that's Murphy's view of the future, why does he have kids? Why isn't he hanging from a rafter some place?”
But wait! There’s good news! The stuff I write isn’t always so down and depressing, and there are indeed stories in Over the Darkened Landscape that may even make you feel good about yourself. Not always, of course, as I do have a reputation to keep, but they are there. Some laughs along the way, even.
Unlike Wasps, this new collection is not thematic in any way. It’s a mixture of science fiction and fantasy and (kinda) horror and what I suppose you could call slipstream, or weird fiction. I’ll readily admit that the state of the world has me feeling somewhat cynical about things, which when one is writing science fiction stories with an eco/enviro bent can make it easy to misplace the rose-coloured glasses.
But the stories of Over the Darkened Landscape often came from someplace different; the world can’t always be on the verge of ending in my fiction, and while, as has been noted by one of my editors in the past, loss seems to play a large role in my stories, I don’t think that makes me much different than a whole passel of other authors. Loss is a factor in every life, it’s a conflict, internal or external, that can give a story meaning, give it play, give it emotion.
So can joy or love, of course. But I don’t play as well with those.
But Derryl! I hear you cry. You’re babbling on and on and telling us practically nothing about the stories in the book.
Yes, well, sorry about that. I do tend to wander off on tangents. Exploratory conversation can be great fun if you’re willing to go along for the ride, or it can be brain-blisteringly numbing. I can only hope you’re with me, not agin me.
So here, as a favour to you, are elevator pitches for each and every story, guaranteed to be as spoiler-free as possible (the last four, incidentally, all involve real or possibly apocryphal moments in Canadian history, or with historical personages. With a minor sprinkling of the fantastic of some sort. So there is that to consider. I call them my “Magic Canada” stories).
Goes on a tour out in space
At the culture of our land
Yes, some things have changed
Tired old astronauts
Landlocked and suffering
Given a last chance
Voyage to the Moon:
Climbing the beanstalk
A fairytale astronaut
Giant on the Moon
A final call home
What do you say at the end
When they’re your last words?
The Cats of Bethlem:
A true story of
HG Wells and Louis Wain
Antiques Roadshow told me so
More Painful Than the Dreams of Other Boys:
A former child cop
An adult now, feeling lost
Back to solve a crime
The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake:
In rummage sale books
A boy finds old memories
Not his, come to life
A child hears noises
Mom and Dad need some money
Hey kid. Come down here.
Based on true events
When my grandpa was up north
Ghosts might be made up
If Louis Riel
Had some magical powers
Some things might have changed
Over the Darkened Landscape:
A Prime Minister
In our time but not in his
Solves crimes with his dog
Ancients of the Earth:
Cave men and mammoths
Amidst the Yukon Gold Rush
That was some meal
Truth be told, I think you’ll find the stories in the book more entertaining, more thoughtful, more full of adventure and whimsy and despair and joy than you do my feeble and flailing attempts at haiku. I feel very privileged that the judges thought so, not only so much that they were willing to honour this book alongside four other fine books, but that they even used the pejoratives “wonderful” and “stunning.”
Which, if it had been a collection of poetry, I think you can guess how that would have turned out.
For more information on The Sunburst Awards: http://www.sunburstaward.org/2013-sunburst-shortlists