Thursday, March 9, 2017

What I Read in February, 2017


February was a bit busy. I attempted to finish reading the collection my story, "Killing the First Gods," appeared in "A Book of Blasphemous Words." At nearly thirty stories, I'm afraid I didn't quite finish the book in time but what I read gave me quite a few more names to follow.


  • A Sack Race to the River by Chris Kuriata. (The Book of Blasphemous Words) This one left a mark. The story of a father who is attempting to save his sons from some awful apocalyptic fate by stuffing them in a burlap sack reminded me of that Bill Paxton movie, "Fraility," but the payoff here is a bit more epic and weird. 
  • Youth Will be Served by Andrew Fox. (Nightmare) In Florida, a leviathan offers youth in exchange for the lives of a few sacrificial elderly. Wrapped up in this is the desire to help those in pain and the inevitability of decline and death. What really came through in this story is the sense of unspoken menace, the constant peril of altruism. 
  • If We Survive The Night by Carlie St. George (The Dark). What if all of the victims of slasher flicks got sent down to purgatory to live out their failings in a quest for redemption. After the initial set up this story sets a deliberate ferocious tone. There are echoes here of Brooke Bolander's "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" and of course "Cabin in the Woods." However, by examining the harsh calculations that drive modern horror films it reaches towards a fuller depiction of human forgiveness. Fun read. 
  • Assassins by Jack Skillingstead and Burt Courtier. (Clarkesworld) Intriguing look at augmented reality entertainment where popular virtual friends can be assassinated by any random heart-broken troll. One of a few stories I've read in recent years attempting to grapple with a world where fantasy, fandom, and human fragility collide in virtual reality.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Death's End by Liu Cixin


Having recently finished the last book in Liu Cixin's instant classic "The Remembrance of Earth's Past" series, Death's End, I can only report a feeling of total amazement and awe. There is so much about this novel that blew my mind, that offered different and better ways of viewing the universe. This novel did what I wish more novels would, serve up a new universe entire, evoking beauty and horror, nobility and disgust, in a timeless monument to unfettered speculation. 



Obviously, in discussing the events of the last of a trilogy books, spoilers are to be expected. I am, however, going to try to avoid discussing much beyond the first 100 pages of the third novel.

I read the translation of this novel, as ushered into being by the amazing talent of Ken Liu. Ken has written of a certain prickliness when it comes to translating work. He makes an effort not to anglicize the source material, not smudging away the occasional difficulties in bringing Cixin's intention into English prose from its original Mandarin. That said, I really did not find myself experiencing much trouble reading this book. Significant groundwork has already been laid of course for this novel - the previous two novels (The middle novel, Dark Forest, was translated by Joel Martinsen) in the series did a lot of the hard work in establishing Cixin's vision of the universe. This novel is the payoff.

A quick recap: during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a Chinese astrophysicist comes across a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence and responds with a message of her own. The intelligence on the other side of this message, the Trisolarians, quickly reveal intentions far from noble, and send an initial response in the form of a swarm of sophons, particle sized computers meant to spy on Earth and stymie any further growth in scientific knowledge. Over the next few centuries Earth tries various measures to prepare for the expected invasion, including the deployment of the Wallfacers, a group of individual human beings attempting to pierce the Trisolarian's blanket of surveillance by developing plans for resistance in the only space free from interference - their own minds. Ultimately it is one of these Wallfacers, Luo Ji, who is able to devise the only workable defense against aliens with technology far in excess of mankind's - dark forest deterrence.

This is an idea which I have been grappling with in one form or another for the past year. I will do my best to explain it as Cixin does in the eponymous novel, the middle book of the series. Essentially, the Dark Forest is an attempt to solve the Fermi Paradox. Given the staggering number of projected planets in our galaxy alone how is it that Earth has no evidence of other intelligences? Cixin's answer is not unique in its basic outlines. Basically, any civilization of sufficient development would realize that the one thing you most want to avoid is discovery by another intelligence. All intelligence is a potential threat to another and without any commonality of culture, language, or basic physiology, that threat cannot be easily minimized. The only alternative is to wipe out the other before they have a chance to do you the same favor. The image Cixin employed is a vast, night-shrouded wilderness, where each civilization is a frightened man with a knife, hoping to escape notice while seeking out others to knife in the back.

The only way to escape this cycle of preemptive destruction is to bring down the retribution of the true powers of the universe, beings capable of destroying entire stars with casual ease. Once the Wallfacer Luo Ji deduces this essential reality, he uses the threat of mutually assured destruction to halt the Trisolarian invasion.

So that's where Death's End begins: a stalemate between the Trisolarians and Earth set up and maintained by Luo Ji (now referred to as the Sword-Holder). After several decades of maintaining deterrence, it's far from clear that the status quo can be maintained much longer. A new Sword-holder, Cheng Xin, is selected to take over for the original. There are fears that this new candidate is not up to the job, and will not be able to convincingly use the deterrence weapon if pushed.

I think that's about as far as I can get without going to much into spoiler territory. I will say that Cheng Xin's decisions are complicated by a gradually unfolding understanding of the universe around Earth. A question introduced early in this book concerns the effect life has had on Earth. A character asks, "Is the natural world really natural?" What really brings Cixin's genius into focus is how he constantly builds upon his speculations. Each simple idea compounds upon the other, each angle of metaphor bringing light, previewing or reinforcing another corner of the universe. Late in the book, Cixin even gives a try at describing the actual powers of the galaxy and succeeds in bringing a terrible new dimension to the horror he is describing.

And yet, when all is said, even though this is one of the bleakest depictions of the universe, and mankind's role within in it, not all is hopeless. Some part of his vision allows for mercy. The utility of this attribute is always within doubt and possibly never fully changes anything, but nevertheless, the simple act of charity and sympathy for others is never completely abandoned. I honestly feel that this is the part of the novel that brings the work from simply being one of the best space operas I've ever had the pleasure to read to something approaching a masterpiece in world literature. Like a series of invented and cleverly structured fairy-tales introduced about half way through the novel, there are interlocking dimensions to Cixin's metaphors - ways that things that seem abrupt and inconsequential initially paint a far more complete picture later.

Another delight to this novel is the way it effortlessly glides through the centuries, deftly painting pictures of each moment of human civilization's response to the Dark Forest. Like a symphony, there are themes and motifs that reappear and transform over time, but the basic tragic outline of Liu's vision always rings through. A novel like this, following a single character on a journey across eons of time, brings to mind such classics as Olaf Stapleton's "Star Maker," and Greg Bear's "Eon."

This is a novel about all the ages of man written for all the ages of man. A week after finishing it, I feel as though I am still within the world of this novel, of this series. It is a vision of the universe so compelling, I suspect it will take other authors years, possibly decades to fully work through the meaning and implications of this work. Highest possible recommendation.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"A Breath from the Sky" Story Announcement!

I am thrilled to share the news my story, "Promontory," will appear in an upcoming anthology of unusual possession stories published by the incredible Martian Migraine Press. The anthology, "A Breath from the Sky,"puts together a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and twenty other atypical stories of possession. Judging from the cover and the list of impressive authors, I'm anticipating pure awesomeness. "Promontory" is a possession story and one of my more overtly horror tales, so I'm overjoyed that it found a host, er, home here. I am sharing the Table of Contents below, as well as a link to the announcement on the Martian Migraine website to provide a sense of what this collection will be about. The cover is amazing, the other authors selected for the collection are amazing, and I have to say, having a story appear alongside a classic tale like HP's "Colour Out of Space," feels pretty darn amazing. I hope to provide more information about this anthology as it becomes available.


A Breath from the Sky: Unusual Stories of Possession will offer the reader just that: tales that subvert and challenge the common ideas of what it means to be “taken over” by something that is not yourself.

Table of Contents:


Intraocular
by Erica Ruppert

Falseface
by Garrett Cook

Shadowmate
by Sam Grieve

Diablitos
by Cody Goodfellow

But Thou, Proserpina, Sleep
by Megan Arkenberg

Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino
by Gordon White

Mandible
by Anton Rose

The Evaluator
by Premee Mohamed

Sonata
by Jonathan Raab

The Monsters Are Due in Mayberry
by Edward Morris

The Colour Out of Space
by H. P. Lovecraft

Skin Suits
by Autumn Christian

Master of the House
by Matthew M. Bartlett

The Stuff
by Andrew Kozma

Promontory
by Morgan Crooks

Viscera
by Sam Schreiber

Echo Hiding
by Rodney Turner

A Thousand Mothers
by Aaron Vlek

Bog Dog
by Seras Nikita

Everything Wants to Live
by Luke R. J. Maynard

We Don’t Talk About the Invasion Anymore
by Leon Chan

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What I Read in January 2017


January was a busy month for me, to put it mildly. I attended Arisia 2017 and sat on a terrific panel about short fiction. I received word of two story acceptances (one listed in a previous post and the other forthcoming). There were also all of the distractions of a world veering somewhere between the "Dead Zone" by Stephen King and a cyberpunk dystopia by William Gibson.


And, of course, I read a whole bunch of awesome short stories, including a few I can recommend below.
  • Wooden Boxes Lined With the Tongues of Doves by Claire Humphrey. (Beneath Ceaseless Skies). When considering stories that revolve around magic, I really respond to writers that can somehow conjure what that magic is and how it works within the tight confines of a short story. To me, magic should feel like magic. In other words, waving wands and intoning spells doesn't really cut it. When magic is done in fiction, the result should feel inevitable. Pull a trigger and a bullet flies. I prize magical inevitability. This story's treatment of magic definitely surpasses that mark. A magician takes an apprentice and makes him a servant to his will, clipping from him all of the things that would free him. This reader left the story with a sense of great loss and terrible awe. 
  • "The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird’s School for Girls" by Gwendolyn Kiste (Mithila Review) Kiste's stories are always a treat - crafted with care and intensity, taking playful swipes at their own concepts. This fun flash piece begins as a list of instructions for students at a very special school for the magically inclined. The story dissolves its own structure by the closing paragraph, ending on a creepy but hopeful note. 
  • Loneliness is in the Blood by Cadwell Turnbull ( Nightmare) My favorite "Nightmare" stories use the trappings of horror and the macabre to tell their own unique tales. Here a vampiric spirit known in the Caribbean as a soucouyant shares moments of its life. The loneliness refers to its own tragic fate, a creature driven to siphon the warmth and life of its victims all the while drifting farther and farther from any connection with the world not purely transactional. 
  • Redcap by Carrie Vaughn (Nightmare) I first read about Redcaps from a giant and grisly book of fairies. Part of the Unseelie Court, Redcaps are notorious for attacking lost travelers, killing them, and dying their eponymous hats with their victim's blood. So from the title and set up of a little shepherd girl wandering afield, I thought I knew where this story was heading. What makes the story worthwhile is how all of these familiar details add up to a very different story by the end. 
  • The Whole Crew Hates Me by Adam-Troy Castro. (Lightspeed) A crewman aboard a ship on a deep space mission awakens to the reality that his responsibility is to be hated and abused by every other crew member. Somehow this simple set up unwinds perfectly over the next 3500 words, never slowing down or losing focus. The scenario is dark but somehow presented with the right note of fatalistic comedy.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Story Announcement!

I am happy to announce that I have a flash fiction piece appearing in the new A Murder of Storytellers anthology, "The Book of Blasphemous Words." The story, "Killing the First Gods," is about a woman in the upper Paleolithic trying to survive in world filled with the ghosts of slaughtered gods. This is one of my favorite flash pieces, and I am very excited to have it appear in such illustrious company. Pre-orders available now. The book will ship Jan. 31st. Thank you to Adrean Messmer for choosing this story!

https://www.amurderofstorytellers.com/shop/pre-order-the-book-of-blasphemous-words

Table of Contents:
A Hole in the Head Reveals the Secret Nature of All Things by Joseph Shelton
Sack Race To The River by Chris Kuriata
Holy Fire by Tracy Fahey
The Order of the Night Moose by Jonathan Raab
Hare Hill by Kristin J. Cooper
The Holy Filth by Tom Breen
Madness by Morrison
Hero Worship by Adrian Ludens
An Adventure in Wootton by Colin Harker
Meant to Be by Kelly Gould
Outer Darkness by Grant Skelton
The Damned by Jake Teeny
Kill Fee by Victor H. Rodriguez
The Blue Ruin of Vicar Junípero, the Throat of Heaven by Rhoads Brazos
Grume by Tim Meyer
The Unearthed Thing by Ben Larned
Tit for Tat by James Dorr
Bust to Dust by Wesley Southard
Hiding from the Rain by Mark L. Groves
The Sign by John Biggs
A Demanding Religion by Darrel Duckworth
The Hunted by Shannon Iwanski
Killing the First Gods by Morgan Crooks
Our Pale Lady Clad In Red by 瓦砾卡夫卡
A Bloody Miracle by Anusha VR
Insiliconation by Eric Reitan
The Annunciation of Josie by Jack Burgos
The Edifice by Lorraine Scheln
Angels are so Beautiful Until They Rust by Jason Howell


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Not Going to Change

So, for the past few days I've been fighting a flu. It sent me home from work and has kept me cooped up in my house with pretty much no break until now. That means that my already weak and compromised anti-cable news system has succumbed to unhealthily amounts of MSNBC and CNN. I didn't watch the Inauguration (didn't see the point) but I watched all the usual talking heads and crowds shots from yesterday's amazing parades.

Awesome signs from Women's March Jan. 21st 2017 (Photo by Lauren Shamitz-Crooks)

I think this is about the place where a person of my particular background and education is supposed to say something like: "well, this was very encouraging but it won't mean anything unless..." or "I wish there had been a more unified theme to the protest so that we can..." But you know what? I think these parades were just about perfect. My understanding of them is that they were conceived as a statement of protest against the man now sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. In Boston, LA, Denver, Anchorage, Alaska, Washington D.C. and all around the world, that point was expressed forcefully, and with great grace and love.

If you are one of those people that asks questions like, "What are they marching for?" then the what I wrote above answers you. If you don't like that answer then you probably aren't going to support the march. Fine. If there's one thing I've learned in recent years, you can't tell people not to feel what they feel. If #MAGA and Trump's blather made you feel inspired and hopeful, I don't expect these few words to change your reaction to his Inaugural Address. On a topic with much lower stakes - Star Wars fandom - no amount of 'oh but it's just like ep. IV' or 'Rei is a Mary Sue,' is EVER going to make me dislike A Force Awakens. You like what you like.

But that goes two ways, doesn't it?

If I look out on a National Mall full of happy and peaceful people in pink pussy hats, people from every background, race, creed, orientation, and politics, and think to myself - that's what I want to see in America, then you're insistence that I "get over it," is simply not going to work. I really don't think you get it.

We LOATHE Trump. We will never accept him as our president. We will fight him. We will resist him. And one day, hopefully soon, there will be a far larger crowd on the National Mall celebrating a woman or man into office who actually deserves to be there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Back from Arisia 2017


I'm back home from Arisia 2017 and other than being completely exhausted I'm feeling very good about the experience.

To sum up my impressions of the panels, experiences, and spectacles of this year's con I guess I'd say the theme was communication.

Me at the "Alien in Aliens" panel, Arisia 2017 (photographer: Lauren Crooks)
During my first panel, Putting the Alien in Aliens with Steve Popkes, Dennis McCunney, and Sonia Taaffe, the conversation centered around this question of communication. In comparison to other panels centered on this topic - the creation and appreciation of truly alien extraterrestrials - the focus here was not so much the biology or composition of the aliens as the limited ability of we poor human beings to understand any potential creature from another solar system. Is this even possible or plausible? Or is communication with aliens one more implausible feature of science fiction we all collectively ignore like faster than light travel?

The elephant in the room, addressed relatively late by the Sonia Taaffe, was the existence of the movie "Arrival," which dealt with these very issues. As I've stated at least twice on this blog, I absolutely adored this movie. Adapting Ted Chiang's original story was not an insignificant task; balancing the conflicting needs of preserving the original themes of the story while finding elements that would translate (sorry) well for the screen.

This movie helps in understanding two things representing best practices for handling the appearance of extraterrestrials in fiction. Firstly, aliens should be very different from humans. How different? As different as the writer can get away with and still tell a compelling story. Secondly, no matter how different these aliens might be, a writer should seek to make some aspect of their existence explicable. If aliens are not explicable, not comprehensible in any way shape or fashion, then their role in a story is different from simply an alien being. They become another force of nature: something to be dealt with or survived. That misses the chance to expand the ability of our human race to empathize with others.

One of the reasons I think the aliens of "Arrival," do succeed is that the movie plays out like a mystery story. The aliens are here and through hard work, desperation, and a little luck, humans are able to understand some piece of what their motive are.

Saturday I went to the Belly Dancing panel to see my wife, Lauren, take part explaining some of the history of belly-dancing at Arisia. This was a great talk, and it's always an incredible experience to see Lauren absolutely kick-ass when describing something she loves. Then, to top it off, I saw her dance in not one but two face-melting performances in the aforementioned Geeky Belly Dance show. She was part of the opening troupe of dancers and then did a hysterical homage to the most recent Ghostbusters! The second people saw the stripes on the costumes, they knew they were in for a show.

Sunday I went to a bunch of panels before heading to the "Preacher, Gone to Television" panel with Hildy Silverman (mod), Randee Dawn, Antonia Pugliese, and Dr. James Prego. One of the joys of being in a panel is having a conversation at length about a single topic. I always find the value of this is not only getting a chance to put into some semi-coherent form, my thoughts on a work of art, but also to learn what other thought of it. In the case of this panel, I left with a bit more excitement for season 2 than I thought possible. The show was not completely successful but when all is said in done, it stands a decent chance of being one of the greats.

I also caught a panel on Star Wars. Scheduled opposite to the Carrie Fisher memorial panel and the line to get into the Masquerade show, it was not as completely packed as I would have thought. The panelists there were all pretty much unanimous in their support for both recent Disney owned Star Wars movies (TFA and Rogue One). Uniform love of Star Wars can be a recipe for boredom in my experience but somehow that was not the case here. Despite the flaws of these new movies, there is a great reserve of optimism about the project overall. I realized at some point during the discussion I really want to see the next movie. I'm excited to find out what happens to Rei, Finn, Ben, and Poe. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, fandom is not the most important topic ever, but it's nice to know there's at least one thing to look forward to in 2017.

I had a couple of Monday panels this year, one on "The Uncomfortable Genre," moderated by Sarah Smith and one on "Short Sharp Shocks," moderated by the incredible Gillian Daniels. I've been on panels with both of these excellent writers and enjoyed the experience a great deal.

The first of the two panels, which also included Dennis McCunney, and Meredith Schwartz, was a strange duck. The description of the panel reminded me of one of my own ideas during brainstorming this summer so I made a pitch for it knowing full-well that what I wanted to talk about might not be quite what the other panelists wanted to talk about. As it turned out, I think it's safe to say none of us were completely 100% on what this panel was supposed to be. Essentially I wanted to talk about Cosmic Horror and Dark Realism and got the chance to do that. Other panelists brought up works that I've not had the pleasure to read but now have on my reading list. I came away from the panel with a few new ideas and a couple of thoughts for the last panel.

"Short Sharp Shocks" which included myself as well as MJ Cunniff, Andrea Corbin, and Keffy R.M. Kehril, is as close to a "Year in Literature" panel as Arisia had this year and it rocked! Part of the reason I like short fiction is that it is an easy and very convenient way to join in on speculative fiction's ongoing conversation. No story exists in a vacuum. Gillian Daniels talked about Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," a story I already intended to use in as an example and I praised last year's "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander before Daniels, who reviewed it in her own bi-monthly column on short fiction in the magazine "Fantastic Stories of the Imagination," did. I wanted to talk up Gwendolyn Kiste's story in Nightmare which Andrea Corbin also raised as an example of short fiction's power to use something like a list to organize a complete story. I left the panel encouraged and excited.

Add to that all of the other encounters and conversations conventions encourage and you're talking about a hell of a weekend. Arisia was a great chance to catch up with a bunch of friends: Matt, Alex, Melanie, Nalin, Ken, John (first year at the convention) and of course Wendee and Dan.

Conversations about science fiction and fantasy stretch back centuries right up until this very moment. The works that I love from the past few years strike me as powerful because they modify, rebut, and address the points of the past. You can't walk away from the past of speculative fiction. You can't pretend that the stories of the past didn't happen. What you can do is update the concerns of the so-called Golden Ages of science fiction for the needs and worries of the present.

Chances are, you like something, in places like Arisia you can find others just as passionate about that thing too.