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WDSF Review: “A Word Shaped Like Bones” by Kris Millering

The second tale in Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Ficiton edition comes from Kris Millering called “Words Shaped Like Bones”.

Art by Li Grabensetter

Art by Li Grabensetter

The first page grabs the reader by the throat: an artist (the MC) is sharing the confinements of a spaceship with an unidentified dead man.  Maureen is headed to the alien world of Hippocrene to share her sculptures with a blind species, taking a couple of years of subjective time to get there.  Talk about a long dark night of the soul! (And if the mysterious dead guy hadn’t grabbed me, the aliens–speaking in tongues (har-har)–and their world–the English major in me gobbled up the Hippocrene reference right up–certainly would have.)  I loved how Maureen projects her internal state onto her environment–no easy authorial feat when the environment is limited to the inside of a spaceship, but Millering handles it deftly.  Who knew a decaying body could be so expressive?

Also, Millering had me immersed in the sensory details, probably because she didn’t rely solely on visual imagery.  In an interview, Millering discusses the inspiration for the story, how she wanted to work with a character who’s primary mode was touch, and she has certainly crafted a sublime story around that desire.

My early predictions for the unexplained presence of the corpse fell along the lines of Ursula LeGuin’s SF: something about the mechanics of space travel twists and shatters reality.  Then I thought that, since the aliens’ language handles causality differently than human language does, Maureen has somehow “gone native” (also a rather LeGuin-ish approach) and that started to get me excited. Well, I was wrong–and a little disappointed with the real reason we don’t know who the dead man is and why he’s there.

I think I was disappointed because it seemed a bit of a cheat, or maybe it was because I had already done something similar in a story for Abyss & Apex.  Be that as it may, the story has stuck with me, and it got better on the second reading when I knew where it was going and so could enjoy the tale for what it was and not what I wanted it to be.

Like Seanan McGuire’s piece, this one is in present tense, as is the third one (I looked ahead).  I don’t mind present tense, but I always notice it–oh, look, the author has chosen present tense; I wonder why s/he went with that?  If I don’t get a justification for it early on, it tends to hold me half-out of the story until I find one.   For “Each to Each” I figured the rationale was that the narrator, as she was not exactly human any longer, was caught in an alternative state of being and consciousness.  You could probably say the same for this piece too.  After all, traveling alone in a confined space with a corpse could have that effect on a person.



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