Slipping: Stories, Essays & Other Writing collects just over a decade’s worth of short fiction by Lauren Beukes. The 21 short stories and 5 non-fiction essays collected here showcases both her growing talent as author and her keen ability to transform the mundane trappings of the everyday into something unsettling, extraordinary and thought-provoking. Her fiction manages to deal with real issues in unusual and disconcerting ways; Beukes is not afraid to shine a light into the darkness we wilfully try to ignore in order to expose the hard truths hidden in the nooks and crannies of our daily lives. The themes she tackles covers the gamut of modern life - exploitation, the effect of social media on our lives, identity, relationships, censorship and social injustice.
The first story/poem in the collection, Muse, sets the tone of what is to come. In just 65 words Beukes manages to perfectly capture the essence of what it is like to be a writer (or any creative pursuit). Where everything you produce takes a bit of your lifeblood with it into the greater world.
The gloves arrived in the mail in a box lined with tissue paper.My favourite story in the collection is undoubtedly the title story, Slipping. Competitive athletics is used as a test bed for experimental human augmentations. For the athletes recruited from underprivileged backgrounds it is a chance of a lifetime provided they are willing to push themselves to breaking point. The exploitation of the athletes hidden behind a facade of helpful promoters and concerned doctors is unnerving. Pearl doesn’t quite release that they don’t care as much for her as for the tech she embodies.
There was no return address.
They were elbow-length. Lace-up. Finest suede.
Muse-skin, the attached note said.
These will get you unblocked, the note said.
It was only when she put them on and sat down to write
That she realized there were fishhooks in the fingertips
That drew blood with every keystroke.
“Tomislav twists off the valves on either side, unplugs her stomach and eases it out of her. He sets it in a sterile biobox and connects it to a blood flow. By the time he turns back, she is already spooling up the accordion twist of artificial intestine, like a magician pulling ribbons from his palm. It smells of lab-mod bacteria, with the faintest whiff of feces.”Other highlights from the collection included:
The Green: Unskilled workers are used as disposable labour to harvest an alien biome. A tautly written science fiction story filled with strange alien life. Dark and gritty with an ending to die for.
Smileys: A protection racket takes an unexpected turn. A beautifully nuanced description of life in post-apartheid South Africa with a keen eye for all the social issues at play.
My Insect Skin: A completely harrowing tale of loss. It will tear your heart to shreds.
Easy Touch: The tables are turned on a 419 scammer. Deservedly so.
Dear Mariana: An obsessed stalker leaves a farewell note to her ex. A simple premise executed expertly to send chills down your spine. Utterly disturbing in the best way possible.
Unaccounted: A chilling take on the treatment of prisoners of war. If the prisoner is an alien do they deserve human rights? Who is accountable for their treatment?
Dial Tone: A sad tale about the lonely desperation of someone trying so desperately to connect.
And lastly there is Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs: A completely bonkers otaku adventure that is an insane homage to anime and Japanese culture. Bizarre and fun!
The inclusion of five non-fiction essays/articles were a rare treat. I’m far more familiar with Lauren Beukes’ fiction so it was interesting to see her more journalistic side. It’s clear that her time as journalist shaped her in many ways, providing her with both the keen observer’s eye and the story ideas that makes her such an accomplished fiction writer.
There are two essays that stood out. All the Pretty Corpses deals with the murder of a family friend and the total failure of the justice system. This tragic incident is what sparked the idea for The Shining Girls – “At least in fiction, unlike real life, you can get justice.” On Beauty: A Letter to My Fiver-Year-Old Daughter ends the collection on a hopeful note with a lesson we should all live by: “Real beauty is engaging with the world. It’s the courage to face up to it, every day. It’s figuring out who you are and what you believe in and standing by that. It’s giving a damn.”
Slipping is a stunning, diverse collection of genre-spanning short fiction by one of South Africa’s best speculative fiction authors. The stories are gritty, disconcerting and thought-provoking. These are stories with impact; stories that will make you think and alter your perspectives. Stories that will make you sit up and take notice. While this might be a slim volume it packs one heck of a punch! If you are a fan of Lauren Beukes then this is an absolute must have.
The Rating: 7/10 (Very Good)