Monday, December 31, 2012

Short Fiction Round Up, December 2012

It's the last day of the month, which means it's time for the monthly rundown of "best stories I read this month, but were not necessarily released this month." Yeah!

I usually hate speculative (and non-speculative for that matter) Xmas stories. There's one by China Mieville I really like, but other than that, I can't think of a single holiday story that I didn't find ultimately cloying. But now I guess there are two Xmas-themed short stories I like, now that I've read In the Late December by Greg van Eekhout. An immortal being traverses the universe, giving hope and toys to the remaining consciousness clusters as they are swallowed one by one by the process of entropy. This should be an Xmas standard.

I don't know whether the timing of Your Final Apocalypse by Sandra McDonald was decided because of the "Mayan apocalypse" or not, but it's a far better end-of-the-world story than 99% of disaster porn out there. The cold, clinical POV (my favorite kind) describes an alien intelligence extracting Earth experiences, then leaving them behind like empty husks. The chilling fate of the protagonist is something that will stick with you far beyond the first read. More like this, please, science fiction.

I enjoyed most of the stories in Terry Bisson's collection TVA Baby, but if I have to pick one to feature (and according to the arbitrary rules I just made up, I do), then I'll select the title story, a neat little bit of ultra-violence that follows the escapades of a clearly insane person, with a nod to television culture. Really hilarious in places, like most of Bisson's work. Read it online, then pick up the collection at PM Press.

Earthrise by Lavie Tidhar, over at Redstone Science Fiction, is a very good latter-day cyberpunk story set in a world dominated by a social media web called the Conversation. A collection of tropes -- the outlaw terrorist artist, the domed cities, the uploaded minds -- somehow turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. I have Osama on my reading list for January, and reading this story makes me really look forward to it. Tidhar's prose just sings.

That's it, I'm tired of writing! As always, if you have any stories that you think I should feature in January, please leave them in the comments.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Writes Blog Post

One of the things I hate whenever a tragedy happens (and I don't need to specifically name the tragedy here, because a) you all know which one I'm talking about; and b) it's going to happen again at some indeterminate point in the future, so this is a multi-use blog post, like a greeting card that says "I'm Thinking About You") is the refrain of "don't politicize it!" Because the only thing that makes survivors feel better about the senseless pain they are going through is if people they will never meet tiptoe around and never try to change the parameters in order to help prevent someone else from undergoing senseless pain.

I would agree with not politicizing tragic events if you're directly related to the event in question. If you're actually living in Newtown, you probably shouldn't be railing about gun control today. If you're taking a casserole to a grieving mother, it's best not to drop in a note saying "by the way, what's your opinion on mandatory commitment for the mentally ill?" If you do those things, you are a stone cold asshole.

But if you're on the outside? Yeah, no. It's okay for you to politicize events, and in fact it's your DUTY as an observer to politicize events.

So, here's the particular political axes I've come to grind:

1) Guns. We've had 223 years with free and open gun laws, and we've proven time and again that we can't be trusted with them. So it's time for those laws to be changed. Suckers act like the Constitution hasn't been amended multiple times. We change that thing all the time, whenever we decide that it's wrong to own other people or feel like nobody should have a drink or when we want to drink after all. The original ten amendments aren't unbreakable; in fact, we routinely break most of them all the time! Not that that's a good thing, after all. But it is curious that the same people who talk about the Second Amendment as a sacred right often don't have a thing to say about grand juries or military tribunals or capital punishment. Either that, or people just get bored around the Sixth Amendment or so and stop reading.

"But most gun owners don't commit crimes!" Yeah, and most people who drive drunk get home just fine. Running with scissors is a fun pastime that only very rarely puts out someone's eye. We make laws to protect us from the exceptions, not the rule. If most gun owners wanted to shoot people, the rivers of western Pennsylvania would run red with blood. Unfortunately, sometimes it is necessary to remove a freedom from law-abiding people when the public well-being demands it, and in this case, I believe it has.

And that Constitutional amendment you're all so hot for? Includes the word "well-regulated." Nothing well-regulated about buying a Glock with no waiting period at a convention from a guy with swastikas tattooed on his cheeks.

It's time to beat our guns into plowshares, or maybe small replica guns that we can use as paperweights.

2) Involuntary Treatment of the Mentally Ill. I knew -- knew -- that it wouldn't take more than a few hours for people on my Facebook feed to start posting links to editorials about how mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime, and "we can't know whether Adam Lanza was mentally ill or not" (because killing 25+ people isn't enough evidence to support it, ~*skepticism!*~). I am glad to say that my predictions did not disappoint.

Look, I have "issues" too, but I also believe that people are smart enough to differentiate a person with garden variety depression or anxiety from someone with a serious thought disorder or antisocial personality disorder (i.e. sociopathy, not introversion). Mental illness is a very, very wide spectrum/constellation and pointing out that Lanza or James Holmes or Jared Loughner are or were probably crazy doesn't reflect at all on my feelings about the rest of the 20% (this is probably a conservative estimate) of human beings with a mental illness.

And yeah, I agree with forced treatment, although before we can even start talking about that we need to have a system in place. There aren't enough resources even for the people who want and can afford to get treatment.

But when that system is in place? Then we need to start identifying people with serious mental illness, and implementing medical treatments, both for their good and for the good of others. What causes more stigma, forced treatment or a mentally ill person shooting up a school?

I believe in forcing vaccinations, too. This is no different, it's only different because people choose not to see mental illness as a physical, medical problem. And that's something I think current stigma-fighting rhetoric actually contributes to, not helps (but that's a post for another time).

In closing, The Onion says it best, as it often does.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Short Fiction Round Up, November 2012

I totally suck at blogging regularly, I know. And probably the last thing someone who sucks at blogging regularly should do is start some kind of blog series, but since this is mostly links and I'm only going to do it once a month then maybe it's not that onerous a task. So, without further bloviating, here are a couple of short stories that I really enjoyed reading this month, and maybe you will too! (P.S. Not all of these were published in November 2012 and I'm not going to only commit myself to posting about current stories. These are stories that I read in November.)

First up, "Robot" by Helena Bell. I'd fallen behind on reading Clarkesworld Magazine and for that I have no excuse because it's one of the best short fiction rags out there. And this is one of the best stories I've read in Clarkesworld for quite some time. I'm not sure if the nod to Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" was intentional but I'd like to think it is. Just like the list of dos and don'ts in the Kincaid piece paint a vivid picture of the titular girl's world, the list in "Robot" gives an indirect view of the world that the "robot" (which is not actually what the creature is at all... or is it?) inhabits and of the changes being wrought to humanity due to contact with the creatures. Just a really awesome piece of work.

On the homage front, just today I read "A Game of Rats and Dragon" by Tobias Buckell on Lightspeed and found it an awesome update of the classic Cordwainer Smith story. I got into Smith last fall after a mention of him on another blog. I'd never heard of him, but within that morning I'd read everything of his available online for free, and ordered the best-of collection. Then, the complete collection soon after. If you'd have told me that some of the most whacked-out, mind-bending, truly alien SF ever had been produced by a fucking Golden Age writer, I'd have never believed it. Smith was born too early, and died too young. And Buckell's story puts a modern twist on one of the best of Smith's tales, placing it within the milieu of virtual LARPing. Read it, then read the original, or maybe do that backwards. (For bonus lolz, check out the comments. A few people are quite upset with this story for... not being written by Cordwainer Smith, I suppose.)

"Beneath Impossible Circumstances" by Andrea Kneeland (Strange Horizons), much like Bell's story above, tells you more by what it's not telling you than by what it is. At its core, this is the story of a break-up, but also a break-down, of either society or the natural order or both. I really dig these kind of dystopic stories where you aren't exactly told what precipitated the downfall, just left with the result: a world where the "unreal" is overtaking the "real," and of course all the questions about whether that matters and if so, why? And Kneeland's prose is fantastic: "The sun is a whitehaired girl, fever sleeping and swaddled in a blue blanket." Spec-fic needs more poets, I think.

That's it! Hopefully, check in next month for the best short stories I read in December that I was moved to write about before becoming sick of blogging. And if you have any recommendations, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: STARVE BETTER by Nick Mamatas

I read Nick Mamatas' Starve Better last year and fully intended to review it then, but everyone who knows me knows I hate reviewing things. Especially if I enjoy them and/or find them useful. So let the lateness of this review not be a way to say "this really sucked" so much as "I really suck at writing reviews on time."

Anyway! If you read Nick Mamatas' LiveJournal (and oh, how I wish LJ hadn't deteriorated into a ghost town) you know that he often dispenses bits of writing advice written in an acerbic tone which is a refreshing departure from that given by either commercially-obsessed genre writers or high-falutin', "you'll get your reward in history" literary MFA types. Having gone through a genre-focused MA program, I've obviously heard more of the former types of "advice," and I've gotta say, if this book had been out ten years ago (or I'd even heard of Mamatas ten years ago), I'd have absorbed far less bullshit that wouldn't have led to me pretty much quitting writing for something like four years because it felt like the only way to "succeed" was to sell my soul. (I also probably wouldn't have gotten the MA, but if I hadn't then a whole lot of things in my life would be different so I don't want to traipse too far down that road.)

The book is split up into fiction (with an emphasis on short story writing and sales) and non-fiction and I'll focus on the former, because it had more relevance to me. The title of the preface, "All Advice is Terrible Advice, Plus Other Useful Advice," sets the stage for what you're going to get: someone who's not going to guide you through the wonderful world of spinning yarns for nerds. The opening chapter questions your desire to write short fiction in the first place, giving many reasons TO write short fiction (quick cash, freedom, a greater "hit" of artistic bliss), and just as many reasons NOT to write it (that it's "practice" for writing novels, that it's easier*).

Now, I write short stories, and vastly prefer writing (and reading) them to novels. To me, the short story is the ideal form for genre fiction, and I believe that a lot of genre novels being published today are merely puffed-up short stories. It's also clear when someone who is a "true" novelist is attempting to write a short story, and vice versa. A short story isn't practice for a novel any more than sprinting is practice for a marathon: it's the same basic motions, but nearly everything about the scope, the characterization, the language, etc. is different. Has to be different. So if you're only writing short fiction because you feel you "have" to, just stop. (Same goes for novels. Why I've stopped attempting to write one for now.)

Later chapters go more into the craft of short stories. Mamatas uses the metaphor that short stories are a lot like photography, in that they preserve one moment in time, and are defined just as much by what is absent as by what is present. While short stories often need some backstory to be coherent (in SF/F, it's almost mandatory), the sin of over-explanation can be a story-killer, and lead to something more akin to a family photoshoot than an Ansel Adams composition. Short stories are delicate creatures.

Mamatas continues with a chapter on hooks (yes, they're important, but just throwing a bunch of action at the beginning does not a hook make) and on writing sentences, which includes the forehead-tattoo-worthy phrase "write well; it makes things easier." Two chapters on dialogue--which make a good point that media has tended to make dialogue far more generic and "teen-boyish" than it actually is--are useful reads but I paid special attention to the chapter on scene breaks. I like scene breaks a lot, but they're a hammer, not a seasoning. You don't need to break every time your character gets into a car or goes to the bathroom. It's advice I think I break often (though as Nick might say, all advice is bad advice).

My absolute "favorite" (it seems weird to use that word on a writing-advice book, but whatever) part of the book, though, is the chapter on endings. I seem to remember a similar post being on Nick's LJ once upon a time, but can't find it, but I really think the chapter on endings is worth the price of admission alone. See, stories shouldn't always tie up in a neat little package. Endings should leave you hungry for more, but also give you enough of a meal that reading it doesn't become an exercise is pointlessness. Very often the understated ending is the right one: the "hero" coming to the realization that everything is futile, or that there are mysteries that won't be answered, at least for now. Leave the reader wanting more, but also provide the foundation for that wanting. And all this in a seven-page chapter (did I mention that the chapters themselves are a good example of writing short?).

The non-fiction section of the book, which contains information on how to pitch an article and how to write term papers for <s>fun</s> and profit (Mamatas' widely reprinted "The Term Paper Artist" is included), doesn't have much relevance for me personally (yet) but it's written in the same practical, no-holds-barred style as the first half of the book.

In short, Starve Better is highly recommended, particularly for genre short fiction writers, and people who don't need their head patted every five minutes. If you've ever defined yourself as a "wordsmith," or trumpeted your Nano wins on Tumblr, this book probably isn't for you. If, however, you're someone honestly dedicated to improving your craft, then go pick up Starve Better right now. It's only $5 on Kindle for the best tough-love writing advice book currently in print.

* Ha, ha. Ha ha! Haaa-hha-hee-hoo!!!!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me

Yesterday was my birthday, and while I normally wouldn't have blogged about it (i.e. treat my birthday like everything else in my life), it was also the day my short story Hand of God was posted at the podcastin' webzine PodCastle. Careful, folks, because it's rated R for drug use and disturbing imagery. I kind of want to get that on a T-shirt. Here's an excerpt:

From the roof of his house, Andrew can see everything in the town of
Pandora. Right below is his yard of wispy yellow grass that breaks at
the touch. A little ways down is the dead creek, a stinking, mucky
place. And above him, always, is the hand of God. Briefly, he trains
his flashlight on the underside of the hand, studying the lined,
grayish flesh. Then he stares back toward the outskirts of town,
peering through his binoculars at the mushroom farmer’s trailer.
The farmer makes a drug. Andrew’s not supposed to know about the drug,
and he certainly isn’t supposed to take it. But the farmer’s daughter
goes to school with all the other kids, so word gets around. He must
have mixed a new batch. The townspeople are lined up all the way back
to the old Sunoco station, their headlamps making a broken ant trail
in the ever-present dusk.

Listen to it while boiling an egg, sewing a dog quilt, or even on your daily commute. Just don't become so engrossed that you hit me with your car, okay?

(Also kind of a little psyched my story was posted right after one by Jeff Fuckin' VanderMeer. If you're not reading Finch right now, what the hell is wrong with you?)


Also, I am thinking about potentially maybe going to a (literary) science fiction convention. Maybe! The convention in question is Capclave which is practically local (Rockville, MD), and there's a lot of people there who I've been talking to online for years but have never met in person due to my dislike of going places and doing stuff. But it isn't quite down the street, and I don't drive, so if anyone is commuting there both days from Baltimore and wouldn't mind letting me ride on your roof rack (or if you're really nice, even in the car), send me an email at my last name at gmail. Alternatively, I wouldn't be totally opposed to staying at the hotel if you're a group of three people and need a fourth. I don't talk a lot and I shower so I'd be a great roommate, I reckon.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

So Okay, I'll Update My Damn Blog

It's perhaps typical of the way I conduct my "writing career," and indeed my entire online persona, that as soon as I got to the point where I got a dozen or so hits on this blog a day, I immediately stopped posting. What can I say, other than that updating a non-LJ blog feels way too much like performing in front of a live audience and takes away from the time I spend doing "real" writing.

But anyway: updates! I sold a story to PodCastle, so look for "The Hand of God" to invade your auditory canals sometime in the early fall. This is the first time my writing has been adapted to the form of a podcast. I hope to be in smells by late 2014.

Also, my zine distro is still running (though not accepting any new submissions -- when I'm sold out I'm sold out for good!), so maybe check it out? I'm also probably going to whip up something in time for the DC Zinefest, though I'll probably not be tabling since someone (uh, me) didn't register in time. But I'm easy to spot: just look for the lady with the fresh tattoo of two Jeffrey Brown-inspired cats riding a tandem bike on her right arm.

Some other things I've been doing/reading/etc:
**Read Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium, which is if anything even better than The Devil's Alphabet. Man, if you aren't reading this guy right now you're a chump.
**Reading Robert Jackson Bennett's The Company Man. Remember the kerfuffle on Twitter a few weeks ago about steampunk being fascism for nice people? I only vaguely do, since I mostly use Twitter to keep up with the antics of John Darnielle and DadBoner. Anyway, if you're tired of steampunk about aristocrats this is the cure: Bennett's steampunk is dirty and political, showing us the lives of the crooked company and the corrupt union that fuel a magical city made of gears, gaslights, and wonder. Despite a slow start, recommended!
**Going on a trip to western North Carolina, which included camping in the Blue Ridge. Note to self: next time bring mattress.
**Working on a short story about generation ships, and also misery.
**Eating food, breathing, sleeping. You know, human stuff.

Anyway, see you in a month I guess!


Sunday, May 13, 2012

"The Devil's Alphabet" by Daryl Gregory: Snuggly Soft Biological SF

I first encountered Daryl Gregory's work through the short story "First Person, Present Tense" in an anthology, and thought it was one of the best short stories I've read in months (and I read a lot of the things!). So, naturally, I sought out the rest of his writing. He's a fairly new writer, which is both good and bad: good because there's hopefully a lot more to come, but bad because when I find an author I like I need to read everything they have written ever, and with only three novels and a collection I'll be done with Gregory's oeuvre in a month. But anyway, with that one story selling me on the writer, I looked up his novels, and started with the one that seemed most interesting.

The Devil's Alphabet is present-set science fiction, taking place in Appalachia, that involves themes of evolutionary biology and mind-bending drugs. Seriously, it's like the thing was written just for me. Twelve years before the story begins, the small town of Switchcreek, Tennessee was struck by the non-communicable "Transcription Divergence Syndrome." In practical terms, that means that most of the people of the town began to mutate into one of three creatures: super strong, ten-foot-tall argos; hairless red people called betas (who are mostly female and reproduce through parthenogenesis); and quarter-ton charlies, some of whom just happen to secrete a psychotropic drug through their skin. All the clades, as the groups are called, are as different from one another genetically as they are from human beings, and with the exception of the argos they're fertile, with a desire to spread their non-human genes as far and fast as possible. The main character, prodigal Switchcreeker Paxton Martin, is a "skip," meaning that the mutations passed him over completely... or did they?

Pax returns to Switchcreek for the funeral of his beta friend Jo, after her suspicious suicide. The investigation of Jo's death provides the framework for this story, though this mystery is by no means the only thing going on here. Among the other secrets in Monster Town are an embezzlement of federal funds by the new mayor, the issue of birth control among the early-blooming beta girls, and Pax's growing addiction to his father's strain of "vintage" (the drugs the charlies produce). The book is mostly in Pax's point of view, though it dips into two other character's heads periodically, which I thought made a nice balance.

Halfway through the book the plot takes a major left turn when (SPOILER ALERT) TDS breaks out in Ecuador, and from there the speculation as to what TDS is flies fast and furious, and while no definite answers are given (this being Charmin-soft SF), the most viable possibility is genes being sent from a parallel dimension as part of some kind of multiverse-wide genetic war. The national guard is called out, and Switchcreek is put back under quarantine, and that's when the riots start. Pax must try to break his addiction to his father's sweat (seriously, how awesome is this book?) and do what he can to save Jo's daughters, two "natural" betas who provide insight into just how different the inner world of the changed is from that of humanity.

Another detail of the story I liked a lot: Pax is bisexual, yet this is not remarked upon positively or negatively in any way, which is as it should be but almost never is. It's extremely rare to find fiction about non-straight characters (especially bisexuals) that doesn't make a Huge Deal about their orientation, that treats it just like being left-handed. Romantic/sexual relationships aren't exactly a focus here and it would have been very easy just to make Pax "default straight" but Gregory didn't do that.

The only "problem" I had, which isn't really a problem at all, is that the book seems to be mis-marketed. The creepy cover, the title, and the blurb on the cover (which claims that The Devil's Alphabet "evokes the best of Stephen King"... not that I dislike King per se but this book isn't at all reflective of his style or themes) all seem to be attempting to market this as a Southern gothic thriller, which it isn't in the slightest. The cover doesn't even mention the book's very deserving nomination for the Philip K. Dick Award. I gather that Gregory's other two novels do align more with Southern gothic fiction (being about demonic possession and Haitian-style zombies, respectively), so perhaps this was only the publisher's desire to retain previous fans. Still, I might have passed over this novel completely if I hadn't read "First Person, Present Tense," and that would have been a shame.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Typical Writing Day

I realize that reading about some writer's creative process, let alone a writer who's pretty much an amateur like myself, is probably the most boring thing in creation. But just for kicks, here's a typical writing day for me. Note that this is skewed both by the fact that Rob was up in NYC for the day and that it was spitting rain for most of the day. If those things wouldn't have been true, my day would have looked somewhat different.

9:30 a.m.: Get up. Putter around the house for a few hours. Clean. Realize the house doesn't actually look any cleaner and feel a little dejected. Watch a couple episodes of Portlandia. Yeah, I've watched these all a million times, but what's one more?

12:30 p.m.: Shower. Think about going out. Nope, still raining. Read Slate articles for about an hour.

4:00 p.m.: Shit, it's four already? Is it still raining? Yep, it sure is. Better read some more fucking Slate articles.

4:30 p.m.: Hm, this article is pretty interesting. Sorta reminds me of a certain stock SF conceit that I've wanted to base a story on. I should read more articles on the same topic.

5:15 p.m.: Damn it, I'm going outside.

5:45 p.m.: BRAINSTORM.

5:50 p.m.: Crap, rain's picking up.

7:00 p.m.: Eat. Watch some more Portlandia. Think about writing.

8:30 p.m.: Write 1700 words.

9:00 p.m.: Clean the kitchen, I guess?

I'm a sprinter, not a marathoner. The idea of "writing a little every day," while good in theory, hasn't ever worked for me. It didn't even work when writing the only novel I have ever written and likely will ever write. Some writers invested in "craft" joke about muses and such but honestly? I only write when the mood strikes me, although there are things I can do that will make the mood strike more often, though they're by no means foolproof.

For instance, I've learned that I can't -- absolutely can not -- write when I haven't gotten any exercise. Lately, that's mostly been bike rides (because I ride my bike to work), but walking is still the most reliable way to make the mood strike. Why does walking work the best? Maybe because I don't have to pay attention to traffic, and also because I can have more total control over my mp3 player (oh yeah, that's also an important component of "inspiration"). Don't get me wrong, cycling is still as wonderful as it was when I started doing it a year-and-change ago, but walking is where it's at. I need to start making more time for it.

Smoking also used to be one of the activities that I needed to do in order to get my writing to flow, but I've had to learn how to do without it. That can be hard to do in Hampden where literally everyone smokes all the time, but I think I've taught myself how to not want it so much. (And no, caffeine and especially alcohol are NOT acceptable substitutes for smoking.)

Sometimes I think that if I could write 1700 words so fast, what would it be like if I could keep up that pace for more than half an hour at a time? If I could do it every day? But I know I can't. Because writing isn't the only part of writing that's important. Writing may even be the least important part of writing. Reading the articles, taking the walks, smoking the cigarettes (if you are so inclined)... all of this is also part of writing. And even though I may be a speedy writer when I actually get around to the writing part, I can't speed the rest.

When you look at it that way, I didn't waste today at all! (Although, I kinda did.)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jumping That Bandwagon

So, I got a Kindle.

Some history: when I first heard about e-readers, I thought they were the stupidest thing ever. What, exactly, is the problem with a book? E-readers seemed to be a solution to a problem that didn't exist, which is the worst kind of technology. I also felt like the technology was kind of crappy; in particular it took a really long time for pages to flip. Either the technology has improved or my patience has (not likely), but that doesn't bother me anymore. I got the least expensive, most stripped-down Kindle, both because I am cheap and also because back-lighting hurts my eyes.

A lot of people get Kindles so they don't have to carry around doorstoppers. But I don't read doorstoppers (well, occasionally I do... Infinite Jest was the best book I read in 2010 and I don't care if that makes me sound pretentious), I'm a short story person. And I read a lot of short stories. Between online magazines and collections, short fiction comprises approximately 75% of what I read. I'm told this is unusual for a reader of this generation? I could go into reasons why short stories are a superior art form to novels but honestly, I mostly read them because I have the attention span of a mayfly.

So the breaking point for me was discovering Kindle Singles, and realizing that many of my favorite authors have short stories on Kindle that I can't get elsewhere, except in long out-of-print magazines. There's also free classics, which I'll probably take advantage of at some point, but honestly I'm still hung up on Kindle Singles like whoa.

The very first thing I downloaded was a collection of two short novels by the power team of Jonathan Lethem (who in my opinion is one of the top ten writers working today, and a real inspiration for my own fiction writing), John Kessel (who I've never read), and James Patrick Kelly (who I know mostly through his work as an editor). Both of these stories were published around a decade ago in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and don't appear in either of Lethem's short fiction collections.

The first story, "Ninety Percent of Everything," has a lot of Lethemesque touches, which you'll either love or think is too twee, depending on your tastes. You all know how my tastes run. Short recap: blue space dogs come to Earth to build massive shit piles that sprout diamonds. It does make sense in the end, and while the explanation might be a little too neat for some tastes, I was just thrilled to have a "new" Lethem novella. It's probably most similar to As She Climbed Across the Table in tone, and shares its delightfully screwy science.

The real gem, though, is the second story. "The True History of the End of the World" takes place in a world that seems too good to be true, a world brought to Utopia by that favorite bogeyman of SF writers, cryptically-referred-to-but-sinister-sounding brain surgery. Citizens who undergo the Carcopino-Koster treatment seem smarter and less prone to emotional outbursts, but to the non-treated, they're lobotomized zombies (a conclusion not borne out by the C-K people we see). The story follows a former President who plans to take down the C-K society with the rest of the inmates at his "accommodation farm," but finds out (through a series of character interactions that I won't go into here) that in fact, the "boost" is actually wholly beneficial, and the President and the rest of the inmates are the deluded ones for staring Utopia right in the face and not seeing it for what it is. This story does an inversion I've just never seen before, and is that rarest of finds: a fairly original idea.

Unlike reading on a computer screen, the immersion into whatever I'm reading is truly seamless. The fact that my Kindle doesn't have a touch screen makes it so I don't feel like throwing it across the room every time I use it (hi there, smartphone). I had a little bit of confusion with the directional buttons because I'm basically the least tech-oriented person ever but now I get it.

Will a Kindle make sense for you? I don't really know. To be honest I thought there might be a chance I would hate it and not ever use it, but I haven't picked up a "real" book since I got it. (Then again, I've only had it for a week.) I have a nice backlog of short stories to read now (including the digital version of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is only 99 cents a month and has all the content of the print edition) and I think my readership of online magazines will probably suffer because of the Kindle, because I hate back-lighting so very much. The thing is, stripped-down Kindles are currently so cheap that even if you think you'll only use it a little, you should probably just buy one anyway. (Or a Nook. I'm not a brand snob. Although I do strongly prefer my Kindle to Rob's Nook, either because it doesn't have a touchscreen or because it's a slightly different shape, I don't know.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sometimes You Should Stop at the First Book: My Review of "Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

Recently Requires Only That You Hate, one of the best book blogs that I read (okay, so it's the only book blog that I read), put up a post about why she's done with YA. I may have recently reached my limit with YA science fiction as well, after spending my morning finishing Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, a book that was so disappointing it made me downrate the rest of the series in retrospect, much like the third season of Star Trek to some extent invalidates the previous two seasons. A book that made me have so many strong emotions (most of them negative) that I'm breaking my ban on book blogging to write this! This is really more of a review of the series as a whole, although most of the hate falls to the third book because that's where things really fell apart. So yes, SPOILERS AHOY, although only dweebs care about spoilers.

I picked up the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, because it won the Tiptree Award and I'm trying to read through the Tiptree Award winners because, why not? There's too much on both the Hugo and Nebula winners' list that I know I'm going to hate, so I'm never going to do a systematic read-through of either of those awards. Anyway, TKONLG centers around a religious community that colonizes a planet. When they get there, they discover two surprises: there's a native species on the planet, and they can hear the thoughts of everything in the world... except human women. We never learn why women are exempted from this involuntary telepathy (although I was desperately hoping to learn it at some point), but the effects of this exemption are more important. Men's distrust of women leads to gender segregation in some areas, all-out war in others, and in the main character's community, to gendercide, of the women by the men, although one would think that the tactical advantage of silence would give ladies the upper hand. Not so!

So the book opens with the main character, Todd, who has never seen a woman and is basically waiting to die on this crapsack world with maybe a hundred or so angry men on it. Soon, though, he learns that there's more to the world than just his town, and he meets a girl, Viola, who he believes is less than human because of her lack of Noise, yet somehow feels drawn to help her anyway. We all learn something about sexism, and there's a lot of chase and actions scenes because well, this is YA. The most interesting part of the first book for me was learning about how the other towns on New World "dealt with their women," and I bet it was these glimpses at an extreme (if invisible) sexual dimorphism through the eyes of an innocent person that won this book the Tiptree. It probably deserved it, although I don't know what else was nominated that year.

In the second book things... kinda fall apart, although not completely. The focus shifts toward two groups, the male, town-based Army of the Ask led by the mustache-twirling Mayor Prentiss, and the mostly female, woods-based Answer, who are portrayed as terrorists, although it's a justifiable terrorism. I mean, man, when a megalomaniac takes over your town for no reason other than bein' crazy, and pretty much starts right away with the business of oppressing women, who wouldn't be a terrorist? One of the things that annoyed me about the second book was that the Ask and the Answer are seen as being two sides of the same coin when, no, that's not true at all. AFAICT, the women in the largest town (Haven) were pretty much just chilling, not really being oppressed at all, when crazy old Mayor Prentiss rides in and turns their world upside down. It's hinted that it's only because of the tacit approval of the men of Haven that he's able to accomplish this takeover, but I think again, it doesn't go far enough, whether because Ness didn't want to alienate male readers or because he himself is male.

Third book, though, hoo boy. We've totally abandoned the interesting gender speculation of the first and part of the second book, and it's all about WAR WAR WAR. We also have a new first-person viewpoint character in the person of 1017, one of the Spackle, the humanoid (blah) native species of the planet who, again, have such a strong tactical and population advantage over the Earthicans that in reality this book should have been like five pages long. "There's tens of millions of Spackle to 1000 Earth beings. The end." But because the Spackle aren't a ruthless species (like human men... dunno if this was meant to be the point but that's what I took away from it), there's instead 600 pages of drawn-out battle scenes handled even more awkwardly than the battle scenes in Mockingjay (and that's saying a lot... Suzanne Collins your books are enjoyable in many ways but that city warfare is terrible!). Adding the VP of the Spackle does almost nothing for the book except reinforce that writing non-human characters is extremely difficult and something that almost nobody should try, because 99% of the time it comes off as hokey. That's no different here. Bonus points for the Spackle not being an alien stand-in for Native Americans but they don't appear to have much culture at all. It makes sense that they're monocultural, because a telepathic, quasi-hivemind species wouldn't have developed different religions or languages or rituals (it's also stated that the leader has control over the world-mind), but they don't have much of a culture, period, other than being humanoids who walk like us, ride animals around like us, fire gun-like weapons like us, etc. Writing intelligent aliens who aren't just humans in costume is really fucking hard which is why I don't do it. But hey, at least they're not Native Americans!

So anyway, both the Mayor and the leader of the Answer become pretty cartoonishly evil over the course of this book, and nobody plugs either of them, under the belief that doing so would make them (especially Todd, who is already on the road to evil due to his maleness) as bad as the adults. Uh, what? Dude, at some point, the refusal to kill isn't a virtue, it's a sickness. Anyway, there's a showdown between Todd, Viola, and the Mayor, which involves Todd and Viola flinging each others' names at him in succession, making me think of another character from a series that declined in quality as it went along:


But then came the part of Monsters of Men that I thought was inexcusable, the reason I'm writing this review. 1017 comes upon Todd and Viola on the beach after the Mayor's suicide (spoilers!) and thinks Todd is the Mayor, so shoots him. Todd is established as being dead. 1017 is shown to be devastated over this even though Todd is a member of the species who enslaved him and killed thousands of his people. (But the colonists will be good THIS time! Pinky swear!) Meanwhile, Todd comes back from the dead, and at the end of the book is in a vegetative state that we're led to believe is temporary. So basically, Ness led us down a path where the plot seemed to dictate that Todd HAD to die, he had to die to leave us with the knowledge that war can be so devastating that it can up and kill one of your main viewpoint characters, and then totally ruined that ending. What a freakin' copout, and I daresay it wouldn't have happened in a book not marketed as YA.

So yeah, the plot was disappointing, but so were a lot of other elements. While I don't like to be "that person" who whinges about improper science in my science fiction books, the question about why women don't have Noise gnawed at me and the fact that it wasn't answered was like breaking Rule #1 of creating your science fiction world. It can be a bullshit explanation (and what SF explanations aren't?), but it has to be there, or at least be commented upon. At the end, it's assumed that the men and Earth animals will join with the Spackle in some hippy-dippy communal voice that will create a peaceful paradise lasting for all time... but when Viola asks "hey, what about the ladies?" it's merely hinted that they'll, like, learn how to use Noise. Stop bothering us with your stupid questions, girlie!

Also totally missing from the book is any mention of religion, except that their religion is what caused the colonists to take the oh-so-convenient step of destroying links to Old Earth. It's gotta be Christianity due to the colonists being almost all white and the houses of worship being called "churches," but no link is made between the original religious motivation for colonization and the consequent falling apart of society due to the gendercide and resultant fallout. You know what might have been interesting? Using the church as an explanation as to why it was so easy for the men to overpower the women despite their silent advantage, because paternalistic Christianity taught them to obey men. But that would have unsettled some Christian readers, I imagine, and been too "heavy" for a YA book.

One bright spot is the fact that there are several same-sex couples in this book handled without fanfare, both human and Spackle, although I really wondered how this fits in with the fact that the colonists are supposed to be religious fundamentalists. Perhaps New World was founded by fanatic Universal Unitarians? It's cancelled out, however, by the gender essentialism: my "looking for scientific answers in a YA book" mind originally assumed that all the native species on the planet were one-sex, which would have simplified the mechanics surrounding Noise, but instead the way Noise is handled made it seem like XX human beings were some kind of freaks. I think it speaks to a lack of imagination that the Spackle race has two sexes (although they don't appear to have gender). There are apparently no trans* humans on New World so I don't know how Ness would have dealt with their Noise.

So while I could have recommended the first book gladly, I can't really recommend the series, and unfortunately TKONLG ends with a major cliffhanger. I don't think this book will put me off YA entirely, but I think that this pattern of "excellent first book, okay second book, terrible third book" is something I've seen a LOT in the YA series I've read over the past few years: the aforementioned Hunger Games, the Uglies series. The underrated City of Ember remained at a high point throughout, but it's the only example I can think of right now. So maybe the rule for YA should be, read the first, make up your own ending? That sits a little too close to fanfiction for this extremely infrequent book reviewer.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Another Fiction Publication, and a Distro Update

First update in two months! I am a terrible blogger, especially since this update is mostly to promote my new story "The Hand of God", published by the fine people at On the Premises. A sample:

From the roof of his house, Andrew can see everything in the town of Pandora. Right below is his yard of wispy yellow grass that breaks at the touch. A little ways down is the dead creek, a stinking, mucky place. And above him, always, is the hand of God. Briefly, he trains his flashlight on the underside of the hand, studying the lined, grayish flesh. 

Check it out! And thanks again to my writing group for helping me with edits, I couldn't have done it without you guys.

I have another update, concerning zine business. Starting around a month ago, I have decided to stop picking up new zines or other items for my distro Black Light Diner and sell off what I currently have. What with my own (fiction) writing taking up a lot of my time now, plus working at a near-full-time job, I don't have a lot of energy left for scoping out new zines, writing descriptions, updating a website (you see how well attempting to keep up a website works for me by how often I update here), and staying current on zine culture. I still read zines and I will probably always make them; they fill a writing itch that isn't scratched by either fiction writing or blogging. But I just have way too many projects going right now and have to let something go. So right now would be an awesome time to pick up a stack of zines, especially if you run a distro yourself, since I have wholesale "packs" (bundles of three zines) listed on the site and domestic shipping is free on all orders over $20! Thanks to everyone who ordered something from the distro in its four years of existence. I'm still debating about what to do with the site; it may become a mini-distro for just zines by me, my husband, and very close friends. (And I will probably still be selling off zines months from now.)

As for this blog, if you're a current reader (who doesn't know me in real life), what would you like to read here? I'm not much for book reviews, I don't feel qualified to give writing advice (since my own "methods" are so erratic and non-reproducible), and my non-writing life is pretty boring actually. I'm better at updating my bicycle blog Speeding Pedalcycle because at least that has a theme. So, basically, if there's anything you want me to blog about, or any burning questions you want to ask, ask them? Otherwise, I guess you'll see me the next time I want to promote something!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

She's Such a Character... Or Not

This week I spent some time talking to one of my friends from writing group about the process of characterization. She (along with probably most writers I've known, both in person and over the Internet) sees the characters in her novel as fully formed creations, and will sometimes write stories about them that aren't intended to be put in the novel, or used as stand-alone stories, at all. Ask her what her characters' favorite movies are, or what their fifth birthday party was like, or their deepest sexual fantasies, and she'll know. It's like asking about an old friend.

And I find this fascinating, as I'm just the opposite. My characters don't exist outside the novel. What do they do when the authorial camera isn't on them? How the fuck should I know? Ask me what music the main character of my novel (the one I'm trying to sell) prefers, or what she likes to eat, and I'm like, dude, relevance? Of course, I am 98% a short story writer, and it's more usual there to see characters as mere one-off beings led around by the plot/idea. But as I've said, I think this even about my novel characters, who I should theoretically feel differently about. I know my characters inside and out as it relates to the story, but once they're out of it, they collapse into nothingness. (I've also never been tempted to write fanfiction, for similar reasons; to me the characters only exist inside their "world." I'd be more into writing shared-world fiction, using other people's ideas, but haven't ever done that either.)

I've always been this way, from the time I first started writing. School writing exercises killed me, because so many of them were along the lines of "fill out this survey about your character." As someone who didn't even like filling out Internet surveys (do the kids still do those?), filling it out about something that to me is essentially a plot element was difficult beyond all comprehension. I've never cried when killing a character. I've never felt a flutter when making them fall in love. Even more so, I've never, ever had the sensation of my characters leading my plot in new, interesting directions. I almost wish they would, because that would take some work off of me! But really, I always know where my plot is going, and once I start constructing my plot (and my plot is always fully constructed before I write a word), the characters fall into place like the cogs and sprockets they are.

I don't consider this "writing method" to be a plus, by the way, or say it's the way all writers should act toward their characters. In fact, it probably causes me to be way less prolific than I would otherwise be, if I were the kind of person who could throw caution to the wind and crank out thousands of words of character sketches or bonus materials. It's the difference between a portrait painter and an action painter; yeah, the latter creates a lot of crap, but in the end, they probably create just as much usable material as the one who doesn't waste a single stroke. And they have a lot more fun doing it! But I am who I am.

Now, reading this you might think that I write something along the lines of military SF or other plot-centric genre, where Spock-like characterizations rule. However, this is not so! Those who have read the novel I'm trying to sell have called it out as extremely character-focused, which means I'm probably pretty good at hiding the fact that I don't care about my characters. Or, more likely, that science fiction has pretty low standards for a character's "roundness."

So, writers that read this blog: which way do you go? I really think that I'm in the minority on this one, and I'm a little envious of those who can do it the other way. But I also think it would be hilarious if someday the novel is published, and people started writing fanfic based on it, and caring a lot more about my characters than I ever did. Don't you know, that lady's only a plot element?