Content warning: CSA
While I was in France, I read yet another short story collection, this one in French. Entitled Contrepoint, it was edited by Laurent Gidon, published by ActuSF, and distributed for free with the purchase of other books from the publisher. The idea behind the anthology was to showcase stories without conflict. That is, “stories in which there is neither war, nor conflict, nor violence” (my translation). When I first read this, I wondered about the editor’s definition of conflict, since I think most stories, even if they avoid violence or antagonists, involve some degree of conflict, if only internal (but maybe this is my Western bias). I suspected some of the stories would still qualify as containing conflict, according to my definition, but I was intrigued by the goal of the anthology. I was also amused by the fact that most of the author bios before each story talked about whether the author was accustomed or unaccustomed to writing the kinds of works that would fit this particular collection. The allegiances tended to be extreme: for one author, practically all her stories were conflict/violence-free while for another, this was his only story ever that could possibly fall into that category.
Now it might be that I’m not well-versed in French SFF (I haven’t read much more than Léa Silhol), but the stories in Contrepoint were some of the weirdest, most bizarre things I’d ever read. The first story, “L’Amour devant la mer en cage” by Timothée Rey, left me pretty bewildered, although the ending seemed sort of sweet. (What did these entities look like? What were they?) “Le Chercheur du vent,” by David Bry, I would say is a story without conflict, though for me that meant it wasn’t quite a story. “Petits arrangements intra-galactiques” by Sylvie Lainé was sort of cute, but I found the drinking of delicious orange fluid from the aliens’ popped boils to be just too weird and off-putting. “Nuit de visitation” by Lionel Davoust was one of my favorite stories in the collection, but I wouldn’t say it was without conflict, insofar as the main character wrestles with regret. (Plus, references to WWII?)
I didn’t quite understand “Tammy tout le temps” by Laurent Queyssi, but I liked what seemed to be the love between the two characters. However, this story involved flashbacks of child sexual abuse, and it was hard for me to see how that didn’t count as violence in an anthology that was supposed to be violence-free. “Avril” by Charlotte Bousquet was simultaneously one of the strangest things I’ve read and another of my favorites in the collection. Cyborg falls in love with reanimated mummified woman? “Permafrost” by Stéphane Beauverger really confused me because the whole premise was about warring tribes, and even if those wars weren’t on the page, the story itself was definitely not violence-free. “Mission océane” by Xavier Bruce was the last of my favorites in the anthology; it was lyrical and mysterious. Finally, “Semaine utopique” by Thomas Day was…all about the narrator’s struggle to think of a story idea that could fit the anthology’s criteria. So, very meta. But also one of the first things the narrator thinks is, Oh, they said no violence, but at least they left us sex! So, yay, I guess? The narrator proceeds to describe a number of activities in his daily life that were very distasteful to me, so the whole thing left me pretty perplexed.
Anyway, while it was interesting to get a taste of a bunch of French SFF authors’ work, I was also interested in the concept of the anthology. What would stories without interpersonal conflict and violence look like? I was a bit disappointed by the execution in Contrepoint, but I went on to reread a beloved book that I think is a perfect example of what I believe the ActuSF collection was going for. This book is The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams. Isabelle had lent it to me a few years ago, and I’d loved it, and while in Paris I reread her copy.
The Braided Path is an expansion of the short story “Limits,” which you can read to get a feel for the lovely writing and wordlbuilding. The book is set mainly on a vertical world: a series of villages extending from near the mountaintop to the ocean below, connected by a single path that wends its way up and down a cliff face through different climes. There is exchange between the villages, but only barter, no money-based commerce. The villages are on a dialect continuum. In the higher villages, some consider the sea a myth, and in the lower villages, people hardly believe in snow. The main characters are Len, a widowed rope-maker who eventually journeys far lower on the world than what she thought her limits were; Cam, Len’s son, who never finds his limits and travels over the top of his vertical world to encounter new societies and languages; and Fox, Cam’s friend-turned-lover who gives birth to their daughter after his departure and formalizes a partnership with Len while she figures out her way in life.
Maybe now is the time for a spoiler alert?
To me, The Braided Path succeeds at what Contrepoint was trying to do: it is a novel where no one ever harms anyone else, where no one is malicious, where no one hates. That doesn’t mean there’s no conflict at all: all three main characters struggle with whether to stay or go, when they find themselves settled in a place but then a change comes along to disrupt the status quo. Fox isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life and sometimes feels restless. One thing I love about the world is that Fox is allowed to figure out what to do with her life at her own pace, even at her age (a young mother!). The people who love her will always take care of her (as everyone is cared for), even if she hasn’t settled on a vocation yet. I guess the world is utopian. When Cam and Fox are finally reunited, all isn’t rosy between them, and it’s clear they’re going to have to work through Fox’s anger toward Cam and the confusion each of them feels. But in general everyone always acts in good faith, and when conflicts, whether internal or external, do arise, loving people are around to encourage working through them in a healthy way. That sounds didactic, but it’s not; I wish I could convey how gentle and warm this whole book is.
Given how conflict-free The Braided Path is, you might think it would be boring, but it manages to be engrossing. And it’s also supremely comforting. If you want to read about good people being kind to one another and gradually choosing their paths in life–and embracing change and unimagined possibilities–without any harsh pressure or impatience from those around them, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Hi, again, Eleanor. Six months until the The Night Field comes out, and it’s causing me to look back at folks who’ve given kind attention to The Braided Path and Dreamers. I was startled to see by your bio how many touch-points our lives have had: part of my growing up was near Annapolis, linguistics (my dissertation was in pragmatics), and the spirit-stuff (I’m a Quaker.) Wish you lived around here. But, to the point—I was considering asking you whether you would like to review The Night Field for your blog, but then I saw that you teach at Grinnell and it made me wonder whether the book might be a good one for the college’s common read program, Cover to Cover, as it grapples with current ecological and ethical issues—but at the arm’s-length provided by fantasy. If you are interested in trying to make some mischief together, you can reach me at email@example.com
That’s exciting that The Night Field comes out this year! And it’s always nice to discover other linguistics Ph.D.s among fantasy writers–there seem to be a surprising number! With respect to Grinnell: Cover to Cover isn’t actually a common read program; it’s more of a small group book discussion program with the president. I think only 12 people get to participate in the discussion for each book. We once had a common read program (or at least we did one year) because the year I arrived the selection was The Book of Unknown Americans. I’m not sure what happened to that initiative. In any case, if I come across a good opportunity, I’ll let you know!
Thanks, Eleanor! And if you are interested
Thanks, Eleanor! You are a writer yourself?
Yes, I write middle grade and YA fantasy and also publish short fiction occasionally 🙂
Hi, Eleanor. I was just searching for myself online, trying to find a link to an old article, and instead I found THIS, your lovely and perceptive words. I just wanted to thank you for lifting my book up to the attention of others—there is no greater gift you can give an author.
You might be interested in knowing that, when I realized that I was writing a book without evil or even much in the way of human brokenness, I worried. Conventional wisdom is Don’t Do Than—It Will Be BORING. I actually experimented with writing a scene with some human nastiness. But the book didn’t want it. So I followed the inner guidance. (I don’t actually know where my stories are going until I get there.)
I seem to be in a process of moral degradation. My first book, The Braided Path, had no evil at all. My second book, Dreamers, had one serious bad guy and one moral coward. And my third book, The Night Field—just sold to Jo Fletcher Books—tackles an entire evil social/agricultural system. So what comes next?
If you’re interested, find me on Facebook either as The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams, or for the more personal connection, as Donna Glee.
Thank you again for visiting my odd little worlds and opening them up to others.
How lovely that you came upon this post! Thank you for writing your wonderful book! And congratulations on the new sale 🙂