First reviews of my latest story, “That Lucky Old Sun”

In January, Apex Magazine published my short story, “That Lucky Old Sun”, to my great delight. You can read it online for free, here. (You can also buy the whole issue for Kindle here.) If you haven’t read it yet, be warned that there are minor spoilers below.

I was nervous before “That Lucky Old Sun” came out; it’s the longest short story I’ve published to date, and it plays with an old SF trope in a way that readers might either love, or hate, or not notice at all. You can never tell until a story ends up in the world and out of your hands. I was more nervous because this story is important to me. They all are, of course, though some of what I write is fun, some is dark, some is about projecting the future – I’m usually pushing at the edges of what I can do in a story, but the boundaries I’m pushing aren’t always the same.

In classic, golden age SF, we have these grand stories about building rockets, escaping doomed worlds, blasting off into space with limitless potential in front of us. I could write that again a hundred times, and who would question it? We know that tale. We’ve all read it. With this story, I wanted to talk about the people who get left behind. Not the rocket scientists or astronauts or the child looking out the porthole at a dwindling blue marble that used to be his home. Just regular, everyday people. Families. Neighbors. Small town folks, faced with things much bigger than themselves.

I am so happy with how it’s been received.

Amelia Crowly said:

This really gave me chills.
I love the way it *seems* to set the scene at once, only to become darker and more intriguing as the story progressed.

On Twitter, @robertired said:

It’s amazing. Subverting old school sci-fi is something that should be done more. Congratulations.

@ScottMBeggs said:

Beautiful short story from (via ). Uses the familiar to deliver the unexpected.

@MariaHaskins called it:

Wonderful, creeping-up-on-you #scifi

And @LaurenLykke said:

Just read and LOVED your story in !! Got me all teary-eyed!

Over at Tangent Online, Kevin P. Halett said:

Carrie’s “end of the world” science fiction story is time and world ambiguous, telling this often-told story from a new perspective. The protagonist is a small girl, innocuously spending what could be her last day with her loving mother, who knows what’s coming. The author touchingly portrays the mother’s loving patience and the girl’s innocence in this easy to read tale.

Telling the story from the little girl’s perspective made it darker and more compelling. I found the writing engaging from the very beginning and it continued to hold me even though I could guess where it might end; a pleasing new variation on an old theme.

Lastly, and with the most spoilers… At Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur said:

………….okay then. Yeah, this story is a bit dark, a bit…well, a bit very dark, about a child, Melanie, and her mother as they sort-of wait for the end of the world. The setting is vaguely futuristic and also rather dystopian, a place where people are judged based on their skin but not exactly the way that they are now. Here it’s not exactly race it seems but something in the blood that changes the skin’s color and might do other things to it. Whatever the case, it means that there are vast systems in place to try and “contain” it, mostly by reporting on neighbors and living in a police state and it’s an all around not-good scene. And yet the “problem” persists and so the government decided to just bomb everything. Bomb it all and then return to reclaim the wiped slate. And that the story follows a mother and her daughter on this day is bleak as fuck, but also I rather enjoyed it. There is something to be said about this, that this is where fascism leads, that this is where intolerance and bigotry lead. That there are “understanding” people who are just part of the problem and that everything is built on hate without reason, hate because that’s all it is, and in the end it tears everything apart, tears families apart and lets the central lie of the story fester and burn like the fires of the bombs being dropped. Because a large part of the story is the absence of the father, who is “pure” and who has the chance to survive. It’s a wrenching story and a sad one, very much worth reading but maybe prepare some cat videos for the aftermath. Indeed.

What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:

 

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HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.

Continue reading

You Should Read: DEATHLESS by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European culture: the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. Valente’s take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever peasant girl to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, that will bring Russian myth to life in a stunning new incarnation. via Amazon

Let me be up front and tell you that I won this novel from Valente herself, last year, in a Twitter contest that basically amounted to stalking her over the Internet. Or, to put it another way, by identifying what hotel she was staying at from a picture of a stuffed leopard. Being the fastest at googling images of hotel pools near the convention her Livejournal post from the week before said she was attending won me the book.

Which is three ways to give you the same information – that I won the book instead of buying it – and you can decide for yourself which interpretation works best for you. In the same way, DEATHLESS is an interpretation of classic Russian myth, mixed with factual history, and woven together with the story of a willful girl who likes to be spanked. It doesn’t pretend to be an entirely original story, and you’ll be disappointed if you expect it to be, but if you can read it as a retelling, and look for where it is the best and prettiest retelling possible, you’ll find the beauty of Valente’s book.

It is one of those novels that is so well crafted you don’t see where the seems were sewn together. It takes bits from a couple of different places, and you’d expect it to be jarring in spots, but it isn’t. It’s possible to sit down with it one evening, read all the way though, and put it down at the end without having been kicked out of the story by bad writing or a missed connection with its disparate pieces. I know, because I did just that, reading it through in one shot. It’s lovely and it’s good and it’s absolutely worth reading.

My only complaint is that I may know too much to be the right audience for this book. Because I grew up on fairy tales (Russian stories being some of the best and most-read because they had the best art) and my favorite time in history is the period between 1900 and WW2, and in college I studied world history and fairy tale structure and art and cooking and  … I’m the wrong audience for this book because nothing in it surprised me. It didn’t feel novel, and I suspect it should have. For me it was like looking over photos from a trip I’d taken a few years ago and finding that the camera had better resolution than I remembered – there’s nothing new in the images and I have a comfortable familiarity with the subject matter, but they’re prettier than I’d expected.

If you’re not familiar with the history and fantasy that Valente mixes in this book, I think you’ll enjoy it very much. If you are, pick it up anyway, and read it on a cold night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket with a hot cup of soup nearby. It will feel to you then like listening a much-loved story being retold to you by a favorite grandmother.

I don’t think we give enough credit to the amount of work it takes to write a book like that, by the way. In a thousand different little ways, DEATHLESS could have failed, and it doesn’t. Familiar or not, it’s lovely. How often can you say that?

Free Fiction: Annabelle Tree

This story was originally published last year in Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction, an anthology to benefit tornado relief (click on the link to buy it).

Annabelle Tree

The tree grew up around her as she sat at its base, day after day. It had been a sapling when her parents bought the house by the creek, and it made the perfect backrest for Annabelle-the-child. She sat very still, her chubby three-year-old hands clasped together, arms tight around her knees, as her father sat alone on the creek bank. He waited for a fish to appear on his line, and she waited with him.

“I don’t want you sitting all day out on the ground,” her momma had said after the second day faded into evening and Annabelle once again walked into the kitchen with a dirty bottom.

“Yes, Momma,” she’d replied quietly as her momma brushed her off with a hand broom and quick, hard strokes. Her momma sighed.

“There’s no use. That dress is ruined.” Annabelle was given a hot bath, a cold supper, and sent to bed without a story. She wrapped her arms around Mr. Bunny and listened to her parents’ raised voices float up through the floor boards until she fell asleep. The next day Daddy couldn’t fish because he had to work on the house, as it was “in no fit state for people to see,” Annabelle’s momma had said, and there were church people that wanted to come over for a house warming. Annabelle liked the church people, who’d come over to their old apartment with ambrosia salad and fried chicken and Mrs. Cramble, who wore flower print dresses and had thick, soft arms, would give her great big hugs and extra helpings on her plate, and Momma never complained. Annabelle followed her Daddy around all afternoon, holding the tin bucket with his hammer and nails in it, and when he needed one or the other, she’d lift it up as high as she could, and he’d reach down into the bucket and take what he needed. Sometimes he’d smile at her too. Continue reading

You Should Read: Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT

I find myself wondering what genre Aimee Bender’s work falls into. Perhaps not all of her writing, but this collection of short stories. It is literary in the sense that she writes with an eye to the experience of having read her work, in addition to telling a story. There are elements of weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and other hints of genre in the stories, as if her writing is a bumper car and she’s bouncing off the edges of genre, trading paint. There are whispers of genre, where she never comes right out with it.

Like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, nearly all of her protagonists are women. Is it feminist fiction, then? I don’t think so, no more than anyone else who writes a female main character could be labeled as such. Her women are by turns lost and needy and heartbroken and seeking male approval and inappropriately sexual (and, also, sexy and smart and loving and warm and witty). It’s a collection of stories about a range of people who happen to be, mostly, women.

There is an intimate quality to Bender’s stories, as if we’re being let in on secrets. We’re reminded of the time that we, too, were empty or lost or aching to be touched, and it seems that we can only be reminded of those feelings by someone who has been there as well. Bender reads as a comrade. A fellow wounded soldier, marching on, because the only way is forward.

I think Bender falls under that umbrella we’re calling “magic realism” these days. You can determine the difference between magic realism, fantasy, and paranormal*, by the reaction of others to the weird events which are occurring. In a fantasy setting, magic occurs naturally. It may not be everywhere, but the world at large is not surprised by its existence. It is a thing that happens.

A paranormal or weird fiction story also features creatures or powers or events, such as a haunting or a mutant child or a werewolf running loose. However, society deems this strange. Government agencies get involved, or the townspeople hide the weird out of fear of reprisal. Everyone knows this should not be.

In a magic realism story, a weird thing happens, and everyone thinks it’s wrong, but no one does anything about it. The weird event serves to teach the main character something or to unsettle the reader. It doesn’t change the world but it may change the life of one little girl.

Bender’s collection is full of these stories. A woman whose boyfriend devolves, taking the evolutionary path back to the ocean. The authorities don’t get involved. He isn’t taken by a research center. His friends and coworkers stop calling to ask about him because she asks them to stop – simple as that. She watches him become ape, baboon, turtle, salamander, and yet, the story isn’t about his change. It’s about her discovery of what she can live with, and what she can’t – a theme I see time and time again in Bender’s work. In another example, a woman gives birth to her own (elderly, previously dead) mother, and the obstetrician, once he gets over his surprise, sends them all home. The story here is about letting go of the people you’ve lost, and the consequences of not letting go enough. It isn’t about the impossibility of having given birth to a full grown woman. That’s just the thing that happens in the midst of everything else.

I loved this collection. It’s another one that I have to pause while reading, to come up for air. Each story is its own moment and has to be felt as an individual experience. They’re moving, carrying themselves forward, taking you along for a stroll. You can’t stop the effect it will have on you once the story has started, and I’m certain that’s a good thing. It’s important to be powerless in the face of your fiction sometimes. We need to let go. It refreshes our brains and reboots our spirits and we can carry on with our own lives, a little changed, a little bit bigger than we were before. “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt” is a walk worth taking.

* I would argue that you can use “urban fantasy” instead of “paranormal” in most cases.