“Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead,” by Carmen Mario Machado

from Help Fund My Robot Army!!! (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5.
van Swanenburg

Here’s a promising guinea pig for the anthology dud thesis, coming, as it does, from one of those hyper-specific collections. Broadly, the anthology dud idea is simply that the chances are higher that any one story from an original, themed anthology will be 1-2 clicks off the mean in quality on account of said anthology, given their propensity to be undercooked, over-dependent on conceit, and a product of necessity rather than inspiration. Such congenital hurdles, in combination with the already groan-inducing theme of mother anthology – all stories must appear as crowdfunding/kickstarter pitches – might seem to fatally hamstring any story from its conception. It’s to Machado’s immense credit that she manages to overcome these odds even partially. Her story takes place in a world where people can visit the land of the dead as tourists, and a girl named Ursula who needs funds for an expedition therein to retrieve Olive, a lost sister. The story succeeds for several reasons, the least of which is not her soft-pedaling of the funding frame, shuffling the setup quickly offstage and letting her story underneath do the heavy lifting.* Likewise important are Machado’s economy, and her deft touch with a twist most could probably see coming. The economy was evident not simply in length, obviously, but in terse, interspersed allusions to broader emotional depth and history. A single aside about Ursula’s failed marriage grounds her depression more artfully than dwelling on it openly ever could. And that deftness: the abrupt scream of Olive on the couch when found; and *spoiler alert* condemning Olive alone, when despairing Ursula had already voiced her own wish to die. Impressive control here. Outside of this story, I can’t help but be interested in Machado’s status within the broader literary landscape, as it’s a sort of proxy case for making sense of the genre’s current standing and its own placement with the border of contemporary fiction. For, you see, Machado is famous. Or relatively famous, you could say—she was a finalist for the National Book award, with a spot on the Slate readalong podcast in her pocket (as clear-cut a case for middlebrow acceptability there can be). She is, in other words, as famous as someone with a story in the Help Fund My Robot Army!!! anthology could likely be. Probing exactly why she has transcended the genre ghetto into the hallowed halls of litfic respectability will likely reveal something about both ecosystems in the process. Of course, I need to read much more of her work, but at first blush I detect nothing here – in tone, emotional command, subject, or style – wildly distinguishing her from an army of similarly talented female sf writers still toiling in the pulp mines. My hunch is the most cynical, but also the most the obvious when considering the difficult work of separating the wheat from the chaff in artistic (read: subjective) spaces, regardless of genre: credentials. And the Iowa Writer’s Workshop packs a hell of a punch, no? An Iowa imprimatur stamps a big ‘She’s Okay’ on the stuff, alerting editors at the New York Times, let’s say, that the kickstarter-story girl is fine and not weird (as I’m sure many of those occupying neighboring bylines on collection still are) and actually very good and okay to consider. And so it goes.

* I’d imagine this is one of the keys to anthology success—i.e. retrofitting, as inconspicuously as possible, an extant story to the barest essentials of the theme.  

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