Filter House

Filter House: Stories
Nisi Shawl
Aqueduct Press, Paperback, 288 pages, August 2008

Call Nisi Shawl’s first collection of stories slipstream, call it speculative, call it curvy fiction for the straight-ahead twists – they’re all grounded in experience. In Shawl’s stories, calling upon an African goddess is no more speculative than hailing a taxi, and following a bird to enlightenment is as normal as talking to your mother on Sunday. In Shawl’s realities, imagination is a force to be reckoned with, and the universe teems with life and spirit and desire.

Filter House is aptly named. A filter house is the structure secreted by a minuscule sea creature (an appendicularian, for the curious) that filters the sea for the wee beastie’s food. Food, dwelling, the implied hearth and heart that is fed – all these describe Shawl’s stories. Her characters are closely observed and gain quick traction in the friction of the real.

The real, here, is animated, alive, and Shawl’s sentences weave a rhythm that gives voice to (secret?) desires: for divine intervention, for allies and challengers in rocks and trees and dragons, for love and imagination to be made simple, practical and transcendental. Her stories’ trajectories are wonderfully entertaining, but her sentences are magical. Through dialogue and observation, Shawl frequently pierces the veil separating reader and writer, bringing her characters delightfully to life.

“Wallamelon” is a coming-of-age story with a twist: instead of letting go of childhood fantasies, in this case of the Blue Lady, an American incarnation of the Yoruba goddess Yemaya, Oneida discovers the protective certainty of the Lady as she grows older. Shawl captures the changes of two adolescent girls, Oneida and her friend Mercy, through deft use of a Detroit-flavored black English and the quotidian details of girlhood. In “Momi Wattu,” a mother resists shaving her daughter’s head even though hair harbors lice infected with a virulent plague. Set in a post-apocalyptic near future, water is precious and fathers have gone missing. Staying close to the details of the mother-daughter relationship, Shawl injects pieces of a bigger picture that chill and unnerve and leave us with an uncertain hope as the narrator says, “I felt the waters of relief pool up and over me.”

Shawl is obviously a voracious reader of science fiction and seems to have the many facets of this most capacious of genres at her fingertips. She writes a multi-light-year space odyssey, “Deep End,” but again with twists: the characters aren’t heroic explorers but rather prisoners; they aren’t in cryogenic sleep but rather cycle through periods of consciousness. Shawl’s keen sense of justice and her adamant anti-colonialism always ride just beneath the surface of her stories. Never didactic, Shawl possesses the gift of a true storyteller: the ability to let the warp and weft of plot and character do her moral work for her.

Filter House is published by Seattle’s Aqueduct Press, one of several independent publishers leading a renaissance in science fiction publishing after the unethical trade practices of big-box bookstores bankrupted many small publishers in the 1990s. Most of the stories in Filter House were previously published in magazines (Asimov’s notably among them) as well as anthologies (including Dark Matter, previously reviewed). This resurgence in the science fiction publishing field has opened the door to many fine writers who might not otherwise see print, especially short fiction writers. Shawl is a leader in this new wave, and we owe Aqueduct a tip of the hat for gathering these stories and getting them between two covers.

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