Monday, August 24, 2015

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: CHAFFS by Douglas P. Lathrop

Every dystopia actually reveals the writer's anxiety about the present. In Chaffs, Douglas P. Lathrop follows the Tea Party movement to its natural conclusion: a fascistic nightmare state that slaughters people of color, tortures queer people in reeducation camps, and spies on its citizens, all for the glory of the "Fourth Great Awakening," headed by President Muldoon, a cult of personality leader whose framed picture hangs in every home.

The narrator, Tyler Treppenhouse, knows there's something odd about himself, that he doesn't quite fit into the rigid masculinity required of all males of his world. But it's not until he meets handsome skater boy Casey that he realizes the truth: he's gay, and in America after the Fourth Great Awakening, that means he might as well be dead. As their relationship develops, Tyler gradually learns that his world is built on horror upon horror, and he must make the ultimate sacrifice to save Casey's life: becoming a mole at a reorientation center. Yet, queer folks aren't the only ones who suffer under the Muldoonian regime, and during his mission Tyler learns that the resistance is bigger than he ever thought possible.

For all the talk about diversity, there really doesn't seem to be that many gay protagonists in YA fiction, and very few in YA science fiction*. Actually, I can't think of any right now, though I'm definitely not as well-read in YA as some folks. The love story which drives the plot feels raw and true, and Tyler's gayness isn't a tacked-on identity. Nor is it the kind of gay love story that's written to be titillating to straight women; there is a lot of sex, but it's all necessary to the plot, and in a world where either of the main characters could die at any moment because of their love for each other, the sex carries a lot of emotional weight.

The setting of Chaffs also hits much closer to home than most dystopias, there is the real sense that this could be our world (and if you don't think that, then you must have not been around in the 2000s). One interesting quirk is that aside from weaponry and surveillance, technology has been pushed backwards, so there's no Internet, no smartphones. Much like North Korea, the Muldoonian government tries to stifle revolution by isolating people from one another. Queer people who came of age before the Internet might also find this especially true to life. Tyler's isolation from any sort of queer community, his feeling like he's the only gay person in the world, was something that really resounded with me. LGBT rights are mainstream now, and even in the most rural areas gay teens can find some kind of community. But twenty years ago this wasn't true at all, especially in small towns, and the confusion of not knowing what you are and the fear of being found out all felt very honest to me. Even if I never had to deal with fascist shock troops, I still grew up at the tail end of a period where queerness just wasn't discussed except as a slur. It Got Better, but if you came out (if only to yourself) before the turn of the century, you don't forget what it was like back then. As a gay man a generation older than me, Lathrop was clearly mining some personal experience here.

Lathrop was an excellent writer, with a knack for believable dialogue, well-detailed description, and tightly-paced plotting. Sadly, this is his only novel, as he died last year. A truly great loss, as I think Chaffs was only the beginning to a great career. It's available from Amazon now, and I'm guessing there will be an electronic version as well. Whether you're queer or straight, an adult or a young person, this is a book that wins both on its politics and on being a fast-paced adventure into the heart of a sinister alternate America that could have been... and could still be, if we're not careful.

*Or adult science fiction, honestly. Especially gay males. I know there are exceptions, and I know things are changing rapidly, but... publishers still gotta cash in on that straight male nerd demographic. But that is an article for another time!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"States of Emergency" Is Live!

My insane short story "States of Emergency" is live on Shimmer! Here's an excerpt:

The house always wins. So does the Autonomic SmarTrak DwellingUnit 3.0. 
Step inside. Allow the polished servo-mechanisms to lift you up, float you through the air like a luck-kissed cherub. Spin the wheel. Roll the dice. Make merry. Have another scotch. Ante. Raise. Call. 
Later, when the lights go dark and the thrill of winning is gone, sink into the luxurious honeycomb of the fully furnished basement. Order some room service. It’s on the house.

I spend a lot of time in the shower thinking about stories, which I found out is actually a pretty common thing. This story, though, was a first in that it was inspired by the shower, or more specifically the new curtain we bought at Fred Meyer when we moved to Portland.

For a couple of months, I amused myself by imagining all the terrible, personalized fates that could befall residents of the fifty states. Then I wrote them down, because why not? And from there, a story was born. It's fragmented on purpose, can be read in almost any order, and is pretty wacky. Hope you enjoy!

Also, I haven't mentioned it yet because this blog is severely neglected, but I'll have a short story out soon in Clarkesworld. Yes, after an eight-year gap, I'm finally going to be in Clarkesworld again. It's an unabashedly political story about drones and full luxury communism, and I can't wait to share it with the part of the world that reads short stories.

Friday, July 3, 2015

New Stuff!

Issue #26 of Shimmer is out! This issue includes my story "States of Emergency," an insane travelogue set in an altered America:

In a no-tell motel just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone.

This issue also contains stories by Lavie Tidhar, Roshani Chokshi, and Cat Hellisen. My story will be online in August, but if you want to read it now, go grab a copy.

Meanwhile, some rad folks had some nice things to say about "Bucket List, etc." Over on, Brit Mandelo calls it "a nice brief punch of feeling," while K. Tempest Bradford at io9 Newsstand named it as one of her stories of the week. What are you waiting for? Get the full issue of Lightspeed's Queers Destroy Science Fiction now!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Destroying Science Fiction, One Flash Story at a Time

The special "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" issue of Lightspeed is out, and my story's in it! Along with a lot of other awesome stories! Check out "Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind" as part of the free content, or better yet buy the issue and unlock stories by Sarah Pinsker, Rose Lemberg, and many others. I really enjoyed "Emergency Repair" by Kate M. Galey, which you can also read for free.

I've been having a hell of a time finishing stories lately. Over the past month I've started at least five different stories, three of which were variations on a single theme. Sometimes, no matter what you do, a story just won't gel and none of these were working. They were technically good, but felt lifeless. Protip: if your own stories seem lifeless to you, then they definitely will seem that way to an editor.

Most of my stories written in the past two years have been plotted instead of pantsed (improvised) and I've become kind of an evangelist for plotting. However, I think plotting was strangling these stories. They were just sort of limping along from one scene to the next, and while I probably could have "fixed it in post," all of them eventually became chores to write. (And also, five stories. Kind of hard to care about any individual story when your focus is so divided.)

So I started fresh. I reread a few stories that had inspired me in the past and were close to the tone I was trying to set down, figured out the narrator's voice, and just started writing. The new story has pieces in it lifted from the five different stories, but it's really its own thing. It's perhaps a little similar in theme to stuff I've already done, but hey, lots of writers run to similar themes (including some of my all-time favorites). I wrote 1700 words in the first session and plan to finish the story in a second session today or tomorrow, to achieve maximum freshness. I hope this story gels! I think it will. It feels like it will, even if I already see a whole laundry list of tweaks I'll need to tend to.

Not really sure why I felt the need to document this. Perhaps it's just a way to keep myself honest?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

New Stories: Intergalactic Medicine Show, Cats in Space

IGMS story art by Andres Mossa
My short story "The Species of Least Concern" is now available to read at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show... if you're a subscriber. But hey, check out that art! This is a somewhat hard SF story about agribusiness run amok and deceptively adorable artificial animals, featuring a disabled protagonist in a futuristic corporate-controlled Kansas. It'll be temporarily unlocked for subscribers in two months, but if you want to read it now, subscribe! I hope to have story notes for this one in a bit.

And because these things always come in clumps, the short anthology Cats in Space, which includes my story "A Slow, Constant Path," is now available in hard copy from Paper Golem Press. See link here. What happens when human beings revolt on a spaceship staffed by talking robo-cats with electronic brains? Obviously, nothing good. Also includes stories by Jody Lynn Nye and Beth Cato, among others.

In other writing news, I am thirty percent of the way through the final ever pass through my novel. (Well, not counting the passes an agent or publisher will do. Let's not even think about those.) It's an excruciating process, to put it lightly. But so near the end(ish)!