This week I’ll be doing a special: recent QUILTBAG Jewish short-form writing! Three novelettes / novellas that came out in the past year or so, in wide-ranging genres: science fiction, urban fantasy and contemporary romance. Enjoy 🙂
Medic to the Hivemind by Kayla Bashe. Torquere Press, 2016
A note: This story was originally published by QUILTBAG publisher Torquere Press, which shut down shortly afterward, leaving many authors unpaid. The novelette is currently not available for purchase, and the author is looking for a new home for it – she says suggestions are welcome!
This is a science fiction F/F romance story about Tash Blumenthal, a nerdy young Jewish woman who crashlands on a planet occupied by an aggressive hivemind-creature. Tash manages to escape with the aid of Soleil, a stranger who’s helping her over her commlink… but when they meet in physicality, it turns out the situation is not quite as it seemed.
The actual escaping is not shown in detail – beyond the initial scene that establishes what happened previously, most of the story occurs on the rescue ship that came for Tash. I was a bit confused by the beginning, I felt it could have been expanded with a few more scenes – but I also liked that in this way, the two main characters already came to the story knowing each other and having a preexistent relationship.
When the novelette got into its swing after a bit of initial roughness, I ended up really enjoying it. This is one of those cases where the plot has so many of my favorite themes, it is hard for the writer to go wrong – alien groupminds! Jittery nerdy protagonist who runs around somewhat bumblingly and goes on long rants about her field! Suddenly Jewish things! Etc. But the execution also worked out in favor of the story, which was a relief. The frantic pacing, which worried me at first, was absolutely in keeping with the protagonist’s character as a young brash woman who runs around while being confused and agitated and yet cheerful and enthusiastic. I seldom see this type of character who is also kind of like me. (Another QUILTBAG Jewish writer and coincidentally my spouse, Rose Lemberg also has some characters like this, but it’s a rarity.)
Along these lines, I really really liked that the protagonist was allowed to rant about her scholarly interests, because whenever that happens in most other stories, usually the other characters shut it down very rapidly – even in science fiction, where there is usually more infodumping than in other genres. I am a person who likes to rant about their scholarly interests, so this was something I could really identify with. This was also portrayed as a plus in the developing romantic relationship between the two women, which I almost never see. And it was more presented as a personality characteristic about how one approaches socializing, than as a writing device to give the reader an infodump: “For one brief, perfect moment, their lives had touched; Tash sharing the scientific beauty of her world, her quirky jokes. Letting Soleil soothe her fears.”
I also really enjoyed the hurt / comfort dynamic that was one of the main themes of the story, with Soleil having gotten Tash through a lot of very traumatic events of her escape (mostly not shown) just by talking to her on the radio. It was an unexpected bonus to also have hints of D/s: “If anything, I am hers.” (Oh yes please can I get a sequel?) I liked that they explicitly discussed that there was more to their relationship than just the previous, situation-driven hurt / comfort: “What I mean is, I don’t love you because I was scared and you comforted me, or because I was alone and you helped me survive. I love you because you’re the bravest, most amazing person I’ve ever met. And it is kind of a plus that you laugh at my jokes.”
There is a big plot twist that is probably quite guessable from how I have been going about this review (ROT-13: Fbyrvy vf cneg bs n abaivbyrag fcyvagre snpgvba bs gur nyvra uvirzvaq) and it creates a lot of tension, but as the story is not very long, it is resolved fast. I really liked that the plot went this way, subverting some of the tropes that I was worried about re: groupminds (ROT-13: anzryl gung tebhczvaqf ner nyjnlf rivy.)
It was also interesting for me to see how telepathy was presented very matter-of-factly. Even in SF stories which have hiveminds explicitly labeled as such, there is often a “gasp! telepathy!” moment, which always throws me out of the narrative, because wouldn’t it be just a regular occurrence in such a setting? Here the protagonists’ psychic link is presented as a Why Of Course thing, and the tension has more to do with whether they want to keep and maintain it.
Similarly, the protagonist being Jewish was also presented as something that’s definitely there and adding to the characterization – at one point it was used to evoke a specifically heimishe feeling, which might go past non-Jewish readers, but I appreciated it and felt that it added to the romance. But Jewishness was by and large not problematized – neither was queerness, for that matter. Tash was simply Jewish and a woman loving women, and the main conflicts had little to do with these identity aspects. I really like it that now this can be a Thing in QUILTBAG Jewish fiction, because especially if you read older short fiction work by other authors (say, from the 1980s-90s), it is usually very heavily identity-focused and I like more variety. The week’s stories will also have more variety!
I enjoyed that what was problematized was – among other things – research ethics related to coming into contact with hostile aliens, and simple researcher greed to be the first. I got a laugh out of how the protagonist dealt with the situation – oh the valuable research data!
Overall I was glad I read this novelette – I think a sequel or even a prequel of similar length would also work quite well and flesh out the parts that were a bit underspecified or elided. The ending hints at a quite action-packed continuation, but I don’t know if anything like that is planned at all.
A small interesting detail at the end: I kind of guessed the hurt / comfort theme from the title, but I did not guess that (ROT-13) vg jbhyq or gur uvirzvaq pbzsbegvat gur zrqvp naq abg ivpr irefn! Well played 😀
Source of the book: I got an ebook copy from the author after querying her for it (I heard about the queer Jewish themes). I have known her online for quite an amount of time.