reading, Uncategorized

Brother and Sister

Last night I read the most beautiful story about giant robots. It’s “Metal Like Blood in the Dark,” by T. Kingfisher, aka Ursula Vernon, currently published by Uncanny Magazine. (Spoilers below.)

I’m not sure if I’d ever read anything of hers before now, but this story was so, so good. It’s clearly fairy-tale inspired, with elements of Hansel and Gretel and other stories, but is set on a burned-out mining planet and its asteroid belt somewhere in space. It features a kind old professor who makes two robot children but must leave them for the sake of his health. They go out on their own to wait for him to come back, but fall prey to another machine much more predatory and deceptive than they are. Sister (who becomes the viewpoint character) must learn to think differently and change parts of herself in order to save her brother and escape their captor.

This story is masterful. I am trying to learn the art of short fiction (as you may have noticed), but since I’ve always worked and thought mostly in novel form, it’s something I’m having to pick up in bits and pieces. One thing I really realized lately was that if you want your story to sell, you really need a sympathetic and well-drawn protagonist and a clear, winnable (or losable) conflict. A story without these elements can be impressive, but it won’t be loved. (And don’t we all want to be loved?)

Kingfisher’s Brother and Sister are massive machines who bore through the earth and fly through the sky like insects, looking for metals to eat, and they love their father very, very much. They care for each other, make sacrifices to protect each other, and learn life lessons through the course of the story. If automata can be imbued with that much humanity in the hands of a master, then any character can pull at the reader’s heartstrings if written with enough care.

The other thing is that the writing is just exquisite. Every phrase is cut like a gem, and every image sings. I had to stop and stare at the screen and marvel when I read the line “…while Brother drank starlight from Sister’s fingers.” Reading, I wondered glumly if I could ever get to that level, and how Vernon herself learned to write like that. Then I visited the author’s website and saw that she’s incredibly prolific, having written nineteen books for children, nineteen books for adults, and two different webcomics (one winning multiple awards), which she also illustrates. That’s not counting the short stories. So that’s how, I guess.

As one of the vast majority of fantasy writers who are 1) not prolific and 2) completely unknown beyond friends and family, it’s hard to avoid glum comparisons with writers like Kingfisher/Vernon, or Gaiman, or N.K. Jemisin, or any of the Hugo/Nebula regulars. I don’t know, it’s like an ambitious amateur baseball player looking wistfully at someone who got a major-league contract at nineteen: even if I could go back in time and do everything differently, I’d never be where they are. But there’s really nothing to do about this, and you can give up or keep writing whatever the result, so I guess I’ll (slowly) do the latter.

Anyway, this wasn’t actually meant to be a glumpost. I actually did want to recommend the story I just read, and to say I’m looking forward to reading more by this author. And if you like fairy tales and sweet stories set in space, then I recommend you check this story out, too.

3 thoughts on “Brother and Sister”

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