Clavis Aurea: A Review of Short Fiction5 min read


The best thing about flash fiction is that it is exactly the right length to read on the subway; underground with no WiFi. When Daily Science Fiction recently announced that they would stop running their longer stories on Fridays, I had to admit I was relieved. Dangling from a crossbar with my fellow commuters packed around me, I always thumbed past the longer stories, knowing I wouldn’t make it before my stop. Flash hits that sweet spot. Really good flash will make my whole day (or ruin it, such as when I was almost hit by a car reading Jess Hyslop’s great “How to Love a Necromancer”).

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s “Space Travel Loses its Allure When You’ve Lost Your Moon Cup” (Crossed Genres #19) is definitely good flash. A woman stuck on a 7–month–long space voyage finds herself suddenly without her moon cup (a futuristic menstrual cup, which apparently is not vastly improved over contemporary technology) and has to find a way to cope under the restrictive circumstances. You don’t have to be a woman to appreciate Wrigley’s sardonic humour, but you might in order to appreciate the special hell that would be going without “support” for 7 cycles.

But the story is more than its scenario. Over three pages, the protagonist transforms from an unfortunate airhead to a complex woman with a sympathetic background through her interactions with the story’s only other character, Sumina, the “straight–laced feminist.” Wrigley manages to do it all with the limited space: suggest a dark personal backstory without letting it define the character, establish a nascent friendship with a few lines of banter, and balance the relationship with a mix of barter and sacrifice. It’s comforting to think the solution to women’s needs in space is simply the support of other women.

“Wishmas” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Daily Science Fiction) is another hilarious near–future for women. It’s Wishmas and Arly sits at the holiday table with her family when they receive an unexpected visitor — a boy. Arly, an expert boy–chaser despite being pre–pubescent — is astounded to see a free boy presenting himself at their door of his own free will. After all, everybody knows the only way to get a boy is to chase them down on your bike, track them to their lairs, and forcibly subdue them.

Only because this is such an absolute inversion of existing power structures are we allowed to laugh at this dark arrangement. Boys are typically turned out of the home at age six at which point they either die or become feral “wild” boys, free to be hunted and captured by women. Caught boys appear to have pet–like statuses, as evidenced by Arly’s Now–Dad, the fourth Dad she has known and apparently a good one. I have to admit to reading about Arly’s boy–catching skills with glee: this is a genuine power fantasy for women. Boys have no obvious social power and are literally just out there, roaming about, free for the taking. Arly’s honing her skills to catch a good strong one. I would be too.

The appearance of the Wishmas guest problematizes the power fantasy. This boy has been lured to the house without tricks or force and is being given the freedom to choose to stay or go. Arly, obviously comfortable with her power, does not approve in the slightest and thinks this is the most foolish way of trying to nab a boy that she has ever heard. Letting a boy choose? Madness! This is brilliantly tongue–in–cheek satire, a future made safely preposterous by real–world power dynamics.

David Cleden’s “Blade” (Betwixt #4) offers a small far–future vignette in which humanity left Earth’s confines millions of years earlier, but thanks to deep–sleep cycles, only a few thousand generations have passed. The “Ageless Ones” live lives distributed over thousands of years divided by long periods of ship–bound suspension, waking only for short periods. On this day, the protagonist and his partner, Helena, are conducting archeology on Earth’s moon, cutting in to a museum left behind millions of years ago.

The story is a moody one, cutting back and forth between the excavation and the protagonist’s musings on their supposed longevity and what it means to be disconnected from temporal things. The protagonist suggests “shipboard simulations” of planet (or moon) life don’t fully satisfy the craving for tactile experiences. With Helena contemplating opting out of the next sleep cycle — a sort of suicide from the protagonist’s point of view — they seek out human relics in the search for something solid.

This is more of a philosophical rumination on the meaning of life than a character piece and therefore tends to be emotionally distant for most of the piece, but the pivotal moment of discovery is well–delivered. The relic and the implied consequences of its discovery illustrate the fleeting nature of physical experience and the permanence of the dream it represents instead. Ideas persist over millions of years even if things cannot, and that is what humanity must draw hope from.

“Matial” by Lou J. Berger (Galaxy’s Edge #9) paints a straight–forward dilemma for the titular character. He is guarding a young woman bound for human sacrifice as part of a harvest ceremony. If she is not sacrificed, the sun will not rise. Despite the dire stakes, Matial notes that this young woman is very attractive, that killing her would be “a waste,” and finds himself questioning his religious convictions.

This is a problematic story from beginning to end. The stakes — that the sun will not rise without the sacrifice — are never taken seriously by either character and therefore the reader cannot credit them either. It is hard to imagine what kind of serious culture would believe the sun would not rise without human sacrifice without a little help from the author, but Berger doesn’t offer much beyond a vague description of a savage culture with cultural indicators — doeskin clothes, raven hair, a communal fire — which are uncomfortably Native American. The 15–year–old sacrifice, Chimalma, calls it “stupid” and this convincing argument — along with her firm thighs, high cheekbones, and marvellous musculature — sways Matial after, presumably, years of loyally adhering to his duty.

Without investment in the story’s stakes, the rest of the story becomes little more than a description of Chimalma’s virtues. Matial attempts to resist the temptation she offers but if he doesn’t believe her death will benefit them, why does he resist her at all? He is not thinking about duty, honour, his people, or the threat of punishment. Releasing Chimalma and escaping appears to be as easy as cutting her bonds and holding open the tent door for her. With no backstory and no desires that predate the ones instilled by the young captive in the “prime of her life,” Matial’s moaning over the shape of her torso and her great skill at picking berries feels baseless. Straight–forward and shallow, this story did little to justify even the tiny amount of space it occupied.

Follow Charlotte Ashley’s bi-weekly Clavis Aurea series on the Apex Magazine Blog!

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Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She reads slush at Lakeside Circus, has reviewed short stories for and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at https://www.once–and–

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