Saturday, April 9, 2016

What I Read in March

This post is a little delayed this month due to a busy schedule of revisions, revisions, and more revisions. For the most part, my reading this month was taken up in reviewing the Cyclopean Issue #1. My own story, "The Mystagogue" was the lead-off story and I was curious about the other work appearing within the issue. I wish this magazine a long life because they put together a collection of work that truly gets me excited for the stories they find.


  1. After the Big One by Adam Rothstein. (Motherboard) My lead off recommendation is this multipart multimedia fictionalized account of the Big One - a megaquake on the Cascade subduction zone. After a 9.0+ earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Oregon struggles to survive. This is an amazing project really - taking the stuff of summer block busters and making a story both specific, epic, and consequential. Rothstein brings considerable moral focus to bear on the aftershocks of the disaster and the lack of preparedness that virtually guarantees a horrendous loss of life. 
  2. Old haunts  by Dominic Stabile. This was my favorite story in the Cyclopean Press issue. The concept of the story - husbands grappling with a house that both imprisons and rejuvenates them -is interesting and I appreciated the sincerity of Stabile's character development. The way the story lingers over the lives and conflicts of the characters was appealing and worth emulating.
  3. The Little Girl That Came From The Sea by Gwendolyn Kiste. (Kraxon Magazine) I like stories I can't get out of my head and this one fits the bill. A simple, spare tale about a pair of siblings who discover on the shore of an ocean an unearthly child, a girl born of the sea speaking a strange language. In the space of a few pages, Kiste weaves elements of Aphrodite, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, and Little Mermaid into a spooky dream-like mediation. 
  4. Them! By Joseph Rubas (Cyclopean). Rubas channels a fairly convincing imitation of Stephen King to tell this lurid, enjoyable story of an alien invasion. Cyclopean Press doesn't shy away from longer stories, giving authors the chance to develop and complicate their worlds.  
  5. Seven cups of coffee by A.C. Wise. (Clarkesworkd). A beautiful story of two women brought together by time travel, desire, and unfinished coffee. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Mid-point of 2016 Primary Season


At some point this morning I realized I could easily spend an hour or two trying to tweet out my reactions to the state of politics right now. Then I remembered - I have my oft neglected blog for such impulses.Basically one thing strikes me at this point in 2016. The Republican Party - all of it - has no business being in government. If the best the GOP honchos can do is suggest Ted Cruz is the lesser of two evils than we are looking at an institution that has reached and passed its sell-by date. Cruz is not fit to be president. As demonstrated by his shut-down scheme, he is not fit to be a senator. His suggestion that patrols should be conducted of Muslim neighborhoods is exactly the kind of policy proposal his father left Cuba to escape. 'Nuff said.That said, Trump has been able to do the one thing I thought impossible - make me mildly sympathetic towards Ted Cruz. So, here I go: comparing the relative hotness of candidate wives, threatening to expose information about said spouse, and just generally going after loved ones of a candidate's family is wrong. Simply wrong. It's the kind of thing that should relegate The Donald to the same dark, windowless room Mel Gibson currently inhabits.
Instead the carnival continues.I glanced through an article yesterday suggesting Trump, if elected president, would outsource his Supreme Court nomination process to the Heritage Foundation. That's his 'oh-so-sly' way of getting establishment types to his corner, I suppose.  I imagine his pitch as going something like this:"Okay, you don't like me. You don't trust me. But I know what you folks like, okay? Conservative judges. Very, very conservative judges. I'll get my best brand development - er, vetting committee - on this ASAP. I'll have the best words for whatever judge I pick. Tall. Conservative. Hates women. Conservative.  Loves the constitution. You're going to love him. Trust me."Does anyone seriously think Trump's approach to nominating a Supreme Court Justice will be in any way different than how he chooses any other part of his branding empire? You love Trump steaks, you'll love Trump Scalia!Bigger question. Why exactly does Mitch McConnell think he's going to get a judge he likes from Trump rather than Obama?For the moment the Garland embargo holds, even as McConnell's levy keeping the waters of reason from reaching the U.S. Senate continues to crumble. This whole episode - however it turns out - reminds me of how much I'm going to miss President Obama when he leaves office. Another president, confronted with McConnell's intransigence would fume, throw a tantrum, or give up. Obama simply presses forward.

In general, I feel like that's nearly always the right approach. Confronted with the insane, the boorish, the irrational, you can't join the tantrum. You make it clear what's going to happen and then you start walking ahead.

Monday, March 7, 2016

What I Read in February

Another month of excellent reading to recommend to you, this time leaning heavily into the sci-fi side of things. As always, don’t think of this as a full-on review post or anything. These are merely a sampling of stories I read and enjoyed.


Strandbeest Tail by Morgan Crooks 2015


  • Baby Bird by Gwendolyn Kiste. (Tryptich Tales) Tryptich is an interesting market. They only publish three works at a time, and each echoes the other in some thematic way. Kiste’s offering is a dark fairy tale grounded by the friendship between two misfits in a southwestern town. What puts this story on the list for me is its spare and evocative prose, the way the relationship between the girls and their secret fall into place with the absolute minimum of description. 
  • Sober Kevin is a Bitch by HL Fullerton (Tryptich). I don’t think speculative fiction has quite reached the bottom of the multiverse concept and here’s a story that finds a clever take on multiple versions of a person in communication. The concept of this story, that certain versions of yourself want to help all the others is somehow very sweet and endearing. A concept that could have easily been mined for some dystopian pathos, here offers a very reassuring message about the possibilities of a single human life.
  • The Manatees by Heather Kamins. Beautiful story in Betwixt, a market I’ve often found excels in this kind of exploration of alternate realities. Girls pass back and forth rumors of the significance of visits from manatees. Only when the aquatic mammals do finally visit the unnamed narrator does she understand what her friends have actually been talking about. 
  • The Fixer by Paul McCauly (Clarkesworld) An interesting look at a nearly omnipotent AI gene-engineering a new race of hominims to live on an alien world. Finally discovered by an even more powerful artificial mind, the narrator of the story mounts of a fierce and sympathetic defense of the indefensible.
  • Charlotte Incorporated by Rachel K. Jones. Good stuff. Future of brains in jars slaving away for a chance to buy perfect bodies. This story was one part heart-felt philosophical thought experiment and one part Grant Morrison anarchy.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Boskone 2016

Boskone was this weekend and I was determined to see as many Saturday panels as I could. I felt that pinch of too many awesome things to take in and not enough time to do them all. As a consequence, sometime around 4 pm, I noticed I was hungry. Not peckish. Not ready for a gnosh. Hungrrrrrrry.

I left the panel I was in early and walked down Westin’s atrium, considering vague possibilities. I wondered if there were food trucks at Boskone (no, sadly), or maybe I could go across the street to the burger joint. Was it worth sitting down at one of the restaurants? Even as I considered these abstractions, my feet were already on their way to Starbucks. Arriving in line, still mulling possibilities, my hand reached out and snagged one of these soggy paninis they keep in the juice and drink shelves. “Well, that’s strange,” I thought to myself, “I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy a panini today. I wonder how much one of these things are?"

“$11,” the barista informed me.

“Oh, I see,” already thinking maybe it would be better to get a scone or something.

Instead the panini snatched some cash out of my wallet and leapt into the barista’s hands.

A few moments later, peeling the package open, I chided myself. "I really could’ve waited for some decent food. Now I’m stuck with this disgusting, greasy, late-in-the-day panini I didn’t even want."

I took one reluctant bite and I have to say, when you are hungry, a soggy panini can be the most delicious thing ever. I fell upon that sandwich like a starving dog. I briefly considered eating half of it and then wrapping up the rest for later. What I did was find a dark corner while I messily devoured every last tongue-scorchingly hot, greasy bit of that panini. 

Okay, end digression. I had a lot of fun at Boskone. I was great to catch up with friends. I saw Gillian Daniels and N.A. Ratnayake tearing things up in media and science panels respectively. From the discovery of gravity waves, to the expanded understanding of our own solar system, 2015 was a very big year for science. I saw the fan-made “Star Trek New Voyages” episode 'Blood and Fire,’ which aside from pacing issues is a perfectly watchable Star Trek episode that happens to feature an all new cast. The back story of this episode is that it was meant for Next Generation as the fulfillment of Gene Roddenberry’s promise to include gay characters in the Star Trek Universe. Behind-the-scenes politics blocked this episode from coming together and instead it found new life adapted for the fan-made original series. It’s free to watch and worth the effort to track down.

Towards the end of the evening I finally got a more or less respectable meal, catching up with N.A. Ratnayake over a few drinks. I’ve already talked up his first novel “Red Soil Through Our Fingers," but it was enormously inspiring to talk about the struggles of finding one’s voice in writing fiction. Writing is at once one of the easiest things imaginable and one of those most terrifying. At some point, during the process, you’re going to be alone with all of your fears of inadequacy and humiliation. You’re going to have to face the fact that everything you’ve written down is completely ridiculous and trivial and has been said a million times already. Then you’re going to think back to an $11 panini and somehow find the strength to keep going.

Thanks Boskone! I will see you next year. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Red Soil Through Our Fingers by Nalin Ratnayake

+Nalin Ratnayake's Red Soil Through Our Fingers surprised me. First off, it’s pretty short as far as epic tales of Martian colonization go, certainly a quicker read than “The Martian,” and quite bit shorter (obviously) than say Red Mars. Having met and talked with the author before I expected something like Kim Stanley Robinson's take on the planet: sweeping explorations of an entire planet and its evolving society through hundreds of years, a cast of hundreds drawn into revolutions, political movements, and the Herculean task of terraforming an entire world.




Ratnayake is not writing a prequel, sequel, or side-quel (still not sure if that’s a real thing) of Red Mars. His use of Mars and references to the ravaged Old Blue of future Earth bring Stanley to mind, but Red Soil is very much its own literary creature. The closest I could describe this as being is perhaps the novelization of Red Faction as written by a very cogent and sober Philip K. Dick. The overall plot concerns the motivations and origins of a Martian revolution against corporate tyranny. Wars and rebellions on Mars are as much a part of its literary tradition as the dust and cold and Ratnayake vividly describes. Like PKD, Red Soils characters are decidedly blue-color, with pragmatic motivations and anxieties.

The story begins with the modestly prosperous farmer Mahela trying to keep himself on the top of the heap in the competitive and risk world of Martian agriculture. His success is jeopardized first by a serious accident involving a new, rabble-rousing farmhand Ashok and then by a series of suspicious crop failures. Mahela comes to realize that on a world like Mars, inhabitable only through the will and ingenuity of people, tyranny is baked into the fabric of his life. One thing that I appreciate about Ratnayake as a writer is his use of characters as the driving force of the plot, rather than vice versa. After initial set-up, the action flows naturally from crisis to crisis.

One of the critiques of this book mentions it is message fiction and it certainly is that. I’m mostly okay with the concept of message fiction, even heavy-handed messaging, as long as it’s in the service of a decent plot and characters. I’m happy to report that Red Soil Through Our Fingers certainly meets that criteria. For a short novel, a surprising depth and complexity emerges from Red Soil’s inhabitants. The tight focus on a few characters helps keep the action moving and free of annoying digressions. The theme of engineered existence extends through the book, the possibilities and perils of human beings’ control of nature revealed in ways both grand and subtle.

I think my biggest reaction after reading this story was a desire to read more. The world that Ratnayake summons into being is one still sadly underrepresented in genre fiction; a future that is proudly, irreducably multi-cultural and multi-polar. Readers entering into Red Soil looking for another Heinlein parable of American triumphalism are going to come away disappointed. 

Ratnayake embraces the hard SFnal side of things, with periodic info dumps about the machines and processes required for survival on Mars. In aesthetic terms this meant the novel reads like prose, not poetry. I don't mean that as a criticism: Red Soil's characters are pragmatically prose sorts of people and the tone works here. However, I'd love to see follow-ups to this work explore the less quantifiable aspects of human societies. I'm currently reading Ian McDonald's Luna novel and his marriage of gritty science with messy human extracurriculars is illuminating.

Still, this a book with its own stark charms. Without giving too much away, Ratnayake’s Mars is not a place where victory comes cheap or without cost. Mars is a dry, nearly airless world filled with impossible vistas and ancient human conflicts.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

All the News

After yesterday, I feel like I'm in the middle of a really good West Wing episode, where there are at least three incredibly tense plot threads running simultaneously and then an earth-shaking revelation drops in the last few minutes.


How can you even begin to process what happened yesterday?

Within a few hours, Justice Antonin Scalia was discovered dead in a resort, Mitch McConnell announced any potential Obama nominee would be blocked, and there was an absolute clown derby of a Republican debate.

I don't think it is much of a reach to say that Scalia's death is the single most important development in the politics of this country so far this year. Yeah, the New Hampshire results were shocking, this is life-altering.

It is really difficult to watch certain news channels and see this man described as "a man with a good sense of humor." Leaving aside the fact that this man's public utterances betray an especially caustic and demeaning form of 'humor,' this man was a cancer on the Supreme Court and this country. The sad thing is that apparently a great many people on both sides of the aisle, while sipping wine at dinner parties, didn't see this man for who he is. A monster, as my friend Nick Mancuso (@Nick_Mancuso ) put it.

What other word could you use to describe a man who would rather see an innocent man die if that's what a court decided, even if the evidence later exonerates him? That's not a conclusion or an inference. That's something Antonin wrote.

Scalia is famously the intellectual prime-mover behind "originalism," the idea that the Constitution of this country is a set and immutable document. Moreover, the meaning of any passage of the Constitution must be what the Founders meant at the time it was written. Scalia might defend this idea as stating no law is constitutional unless it exactly matches the divined intent of the founders. In plain English, just about everything in the past century from Affirmative Action, privacy, abortion rights, and campaign finance reform is out-of-bounds except through the amendment system. Although certainly Scalia's intellectual gymnastics brought him to the occasional heretical idea, make no mistake. Scalia should not be understood as some conservative prophet, preaching the true word to a fallen society. He existed as a creature of the Republican establishment in their project to maintain power, make money, and marshall the passions of this country's embattled theocratic minority.

I'm going to leave this here as a nice (and relatively restrained) summation of all the wonderful reasons to celebrate this toad's early demise. A day has passed, Scalia's body has reached room temperature, and it is time to have an honest accounting of the damage he did.

Unfortunately, Scalia managed to die at one of the most inopportune times possible. We are in the midst of the most vituperative campaign I've ever lived through. The Republican party, shattered into half a dozen warring camps, has decided to put their own petty self-interests above fulfilling constitutional duties. It's hilarious how Republican always manage to find reasons why everyone should follow the Constitution except them.

Look, let's get this straight. The Constitution is pretty clear about what happens when there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The president nominates a replacement and the Senate votes on whether or not to approve them. In recent years that process has become more contentious. Arguably that's a good thing. Supreme Court Justices serve for life and as we saw with Scalia, exercise an out-sized impact on this country. The days when Anthony Kennedy could receive 97 votes to zero for confirmation in a Democratic Senate are long gone. Recent appointments have been enormously controversial and contested events and I think that's the way it should be.

But they were contested.

For the Majority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, to preemptively block ANY nominee from Obama is beyond outrageous. It demonstrates, unequivocally, that the power structure of the Republican party no longer has any interest in governing this country. They want to maintain their grip on a country that rapidly running out of their kind of voter. This not the action of a confident and responsible political party. This is what happens when old, fearful men get a glimpse of a future without them.

And let's be clear, the past eight years have been more than a glimpse of that future. Barack Obama was the first president of an America that is only now coming into focus. He was elected by a coalition of the young, hopeful, and rational sections of this country. He was opposed by personifications of our national id.

Think that's an overstatement?

Witness the train wreck of last night's Republican Debate.


Can't turn away can you?

The debates have been one of my favorite reality TV shows since they debuted this summer, filled with more desperate and insane schemers than this year's Bachelor. I wish they had cut the numbers of contestants earlier because it got hard to tell them apart but now we're down to six and the lifeboat mentality is truly setting in. None of these individuals should get anywhere near the Oval Office, but watching them savage each other like deranged ferrets is just fun. Who would have thought that most coherent argument against conservatism and Republicans would appear within a Republican debate. We had Trump blasting W for 9/11 far more effectively than any Democrat I've ever seen. Rubio called Cruz a liar. Cruz looked like he was going to punch someone. Everyone looked like they wanted to punch Cruz.

I mean, I get it. If you have only a casual interest in politics, the Kabuki theater aspect of debates can grate. You want them to just say what's on your mind. You want them to get rough. You want those responsible to get punched in the mouth. You don't care about who actually would make a good president. You want to be on the winning side.

So, we have six men who really ought to know better shouting at each other for two hours. I'd be worried except every time one of these things happen Trump has gotten a little closer to being the Republican nominee and losing to WHICHEVER Democrat wins our primaries. That's not even looking at the Electoral College. That's before people realize what's at stake with the Supreme Court. Yeah, anything can happen in nine months. I still like our chances.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What I Read in January 2016

New Year, new collection of awesome short fiction to peruse. As always, this column is meant to shine a spotlight on a few stories I really enjoyed from the previous month. Clarkesword, in particular, had a selection of great stories. 
  1. Extraction Order by Rich Larson. I loved his short story (also published in Clarkesworld) 'Meshed’ and I also loved this. Intense gritty military sci if. Not sure I fully buy the standard alien spore threat but the atmospherics here make the whole thing work. 
  2. Everyone Loves Charles by Bao Shu translated by Ken Liu. Amazing Chinese novella. “Everyone Loves Charles” the kind of story Philip K Dick might right if he grew up with social media. In a near future of transorbital races and live-streamed experiences, a wise-cracking playboy provides entertainment and inspiration for a young shut-in. Bao Shu’s style is talky but always fascinating, incorporating corporate conspiracies and sincere romanticism within the same page. Probably one of the best of these translations from Storycom.
  3. The Dark Age by Jason Hurley. This charming heart-felt hibernation story appears in Lightspeed Magazine. An astronaut preparing for a generations long journey to the stars learns that he will be a father. The cruelty of this scenario is softened somewhat by the depth of the emotions on display, the sincerity of the pain. The way Hurley carefully handles the details of the story, the notes of characterization and cues to the passage of time, walk the reader into the heart of the story almost before they realize what's happening.
  4. All the World When It is Thin by Kristi DeMeester.  My favorite story from the most recent issue of The Dark. Beautiful work with some of the themes of Shirley Jackson’s “We Always Lived in Castles.” Here a strong weird fiction element tells of a family knitted together in tragedy and town torn asunder by that loss.
  5. Maiden Thief by Melissa Marr. All sorts of bleak things going on in this one from Tor.com. Very little magic but enough fantastical overtones to create a sense of otherworldly menace. Not particularly suspenseful because we have a good idea of the identity of the Maiden Thief by the beginning of the story. But still there’s enough mystery here to draw the reader along. Very effective.