Friday, July 10, 2020

Review of Slipping by Lauren Beukes

Different strokes for different folks, and different values for different authors, some get by on quantity over quality, while others vice versa. I think it’s fair to say Lauren Beukes is in the latter camp. Progressing and improving noticeably over the course of a decade via a small handful of novels, she proved her work as a journalist translated to writing fiction, and has since produced one of the best horror/fantasy novels of the 21st century, Broken Monsters. But throughout writing novel-length fiction, Beukes likewise sharpened her skills with short fiction, sometimes extremely short fiction. Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing (2016) collects almost everything Beukes has published in short form, plus a few unpublished extras.

Setting the tone for the collection is its first entry, the poem “Muse”. It lets the reader know that what is about to come will cover the spectrum of velvety smooth to bloodily visceral, realistic to speculative. And the second story, the title story, “Slipping”, quickly makes good on the promise. A story about post-human Olympics that retains its human heart, it tells of a poor African who has been biologically altered to participate in the +Games. The story’s elements can be gaudy, but Beukes keeps the motivation real, all the way to its unexpected conclusion.

A poetic spot of flash fiction, the vignette “Confirm/Ignore” tells of a young woman and her relationship with social media that feels more commentary than fiction. Given the rhythm and melody, I can’t help but wonder what this piece would look (and read) like laid out as poetry. In “Pop Tarts” Beukes wonderfully captures the absurdity of reality tv in the tale of a celebrity who gets more than she bargained for one night on the town. Horror-sf with a stron anti-corporation current flowing through it, “The Green” highlights the potential ways that companies could exploit the laborers—the nightmares of the industrial revolution transferrable to extra-terrestrial settings. “Parking” tells of a parking cop’s infatuation with a lady who regularly parks in his zone. While the attraction is initially about how she looks, the two eventually meet.

If flash fiction is roughly a paragraph or few in length, what then to call a story in 144 characters? Twition? That would then make “Litmash” a collection of twition. Another mini-collection of twition (though not strictly limited to precisely 144 characters), “Algebra” is the methodical breakdown of a relationship told via nibble-sized pieces of text in alphabetical order.

My personal favorite story of the collection, “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs” seems a Beukes’ tribute to Murakami written with the pen of Catherynne Valente. Written in fast-paced, colorful, tight verbiage, it tells of a neo-punk mecha girl, and the attack on Tokyo that leads her to its dark underground. Utterly fantastical (and fantastic), this little gem kicks open the doors of the imagination—with whale penis leather boots (yes, you read that correctly). “Easy Touch” is a story about the 419 scams that do or did often derive from Africa—from the point of view of the fraudster. Unfortunately, the story feels more superficial than relatably human.

In the story “Smileys”, a poor woman on the train is confronted by an equally poor would-be guerilla fighter offering protection whether she wants it or not. The difference between the two: perspective on live and let live. The boring take on “Princess” is that the story is a modern retelling of “The Princess and the Pea”. The exciting take is: a sexually charged, wannabe celebrity discovers something between her legs that not even her handmaid knew about. Both takes result in a newfound princess. Incohesive stylistically, the previously unpublished “Tankwa-Karoo” is an over-the-top look at a raver that highlights humanity’s penchant for making mountains of molehills.

A story that feels as though it was based on real-world happenings, “Exhibition” tells of a gallery opening turned on its head—flirting with humanites until jerked by the ear into realities. The imperfection of art may be considered beautiful, but so too social discontent? Less a story and more a warning, “Dream Patrol” is about a half-secret government watchdog org that belies the worst fears of the Patriot Act—with a touch of Charles Stross. More political vignette than military sf, “Unaccounted” by Lauren Beukes shifts the tone of the anthology. Beukes describes an army outpost on an alien planet along the same lines of the US occupation of Iraq or any other similar situation, the edginess of the exposition its calling card. 

In the end, Slipping is a very solid collection. Beukes’ sharp, minimalist style cuts to the bone, meaning she can accomplish more in a sentence or two then some writers can in a paragraph or two. As such, the stories clip along, each a dynamic, colorful slice of some setting that sharpens its blade on the stuff of society and the individual. This is undoubtedly a collection where readers’ favorite stories will vary widely, the quality quite consistent yet highly varied in form. Complaints are oddly that some of the ideas feel like they would have had even more impact to be fleshed out a little more—a novelette or novella instead of a brief short story.

Unless otherwise noted, the following are the seventeen stories collected in: Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writings:

Muse (poem)
Pop Tarts
The Green
Easy Touch
Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs
Dear Mariana
Riding with the Dream Patrol
Dial Tone
Ghost Girl
All the Pretty Corpses (essay)
Inner City (essay)

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