You Should Read: Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

Ted Chiang (born 1967) is an American speculative fiction writer. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York and graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, near Seattle, Washington. He is a graduate of the noted Clarion Writers Workshop (1989).

Although not a prolific author, having published only twelve short stories as of 2010, Chiang has to date won a string of prestigious speculative fiction awards for his works: a Nebula Award for “Tower of Babylon” (1990), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992, a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Story of Your Life” (1998), a Sidewise Award for “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), a Nebula Award, Locus Award and Hugo Award for his novelette”Hell Is the Absence of God” (2002), a Nebula and Hugo Award for his novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), and a British Science Fiction Association Award, a Locus Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Exhalation” (2009). (From Wikipedia)

I was sick for five weeks, down with a bronchial infection that my work schedule wouldn’t let heal. I would get up, go to work, come home and pass out again, over and over, until it finally passed. I wasn’t reading, and certainly wasn’t up to coherently reviewing anything.

When I did recover I started reading Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I didn’t used to enjoy short stories, and up until about a year ago I only owned one anthology. Recently I’ve started reading flash fiction, micro-fiction, and more traditional-length short stories, finding the craft in carefully constructed worlds designed to blossom, burn bright, and die within 4,000 words or so. A short story has to be meticulously worded to fit the maximun amount of meaning into the smallest space. Often the best ones tell a second story in the empty spaces, adding to the original tale by the implication of what they left out.

Having read Chiang’s collection, I come close to accepting why he publishes so little and so rarely. His stories are crisp and pure, releasing words the way a melting icicle gives up its essence, drip by drip. There’s nothing tacked on unecessarily, and at the end of each story I was left with the peaceful sense that each tale ended exactly as it shoud have. On the other had, this is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish a book of any length, because I found I couldn’t read more than one story at a time. I would finish one, then need to push it away from me, come up for air. A week would go by, maybe more, before I felt ready to open the book and let myself be engulfed by Chiang’s words again.

My thoughts on the collection as a whole mirror much of what’s already been said about Chiang, so I’ll focus on the stories that stood out to me:

“Tower of Babylon”: From the very first story in the collection, Chiang shows his abilty to thoroughly embody his chaaracters, to know how they move, how they work, how a piece of stone feels under their fingers. He sees the sun in the sky as his characters do, feels the wind blowing, and by knowing these things he can put into words the simplest explanations of how that world works. The stone masons and metal workers who travel to the Tower, construct of legend, suffer mental and physical side effects from existing at ever-increasing altitudes – who thinks of that? It isn’t a thing which the plot hinges on, but a thing which would be true, if the place and the people existed.

“Understand”: What if everything started to make sense to you? Society, language, music, psychology, math, government, violence, dominance, and even murder? The story shows you what that might be like, and the feeling of understanding the potential in that much coherence is at least momentarily overwhelming.

“Story of Your Life”: By far, my favorite story of the collection. It’s a story for people who have loved enough to understand going through all the pain and sorrow and loss of real life, just to feel the good parts again. Like everything else Chiang writes, it also features a sideways look at a real science (in this case, both physics and linguistics) and how that might be viewed differently in a world where the rules aren’t the same as ours. I enjoyed this story for the emotional aspects, the way it made me feel something deep in my chest, and the way it let me empathize with a character I could see, clearly, had no other choice. I was also intrigued by the description of a race of extra-terrestrials that truly was alien, instead of simply a scaly/tinted/tailed version of  a human society.

“Seventy Two Letters”: A weird little tale about homunculi and golems and the secret powers of words. I had to read this twice before I settled into liking it, not because the story was written badly (it certainly wasn’t!) but because the oddity of the material required another look. I actually love golem stories, ever since I was a kid and found out what they were. I always thought of them as being a secret art, whispered about only in silent libraries and dark corners of a temple, not something right out in the open where any kid could learn how to make his clay toys walk. Thinking of that way, it’s obvious how the story should unfold, which is how it does – and another great aspect of Chiang’s writing is that he doesn’t work against the grain of the story. He doesn’t need to rely on twist endings to shock the reader or to make a statement. Simply by showing us a world which works the way he thinks it should, he shows us something worth seeing. No tricks required.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”: It’s the style of writing, in bits and pieces, a journalistic pastiche, that intrigued me about this story. Though I actually found the story to be one of the few in the book which covered already-written-about territory, the way in which Chiang presents it is novel enough to make it work.

I talk about Chiang’s collection in terms of feelings and understanding, because that’s how it affected me when I read through it. I had an emotional reaction to many of the pieces in Stories of Your Life and Others which I hadn’t been expecting, but am grateful for. So many writers can be clever or subtle or quick or brilliant, but how many can be all of those things and affect your heart as well?

Trade paperback/ebook · October 2010 · 9781931520720, Small Beer Press

 

Philcon 2010

It’s been about a week and a half since Philcon, so I’m very nearly overdue for my post-con write-up. Philcon is a local science fiction and fantasy con, here in NJ, and is the first con I’ve attended on the East Coast. Cherry Hill, where the con was held this year, is about a 40 minute drive from my apartment; including a short side trip to pick up a friend, it took me 10 hours to get there. This involved a windy mountain road, a sweet rental car, losing cell service at precisely the wrong time, and an unfortunate dinner in Scranton.

Don Pizarro (my friend, con-buddy, and a contributor to Cthulhurotica) and I got to the hotel too late on Friday night to see much of anything, so we check in and went straight to bed. Breakfast the next morning was coffee and a bacon/egg/bagel at a Panera, and then back to the con hotel to pick up badges and schedules. On the upside Don and I had pre-registered, so we got to skip the line and our badges were already printed out; on the down side the young kid working the table didn’t mention the odd layout of the con schedule, which caused us to get lost later in the day*. Don and I split up (we actually ended up in very few of the same panels together) and I dropped in on “The Shift Back to the Small Presses” which meant to talk about small press publishing but ended up being a conversation between Wildside Press publisher John Gregory Betancourt and the rest of the panel/audience. We talked a lot of PoD technology and the evolution of ebooks, and the panel did change my mind about how we were going to distribute Dagan Books titles. Betancourt acts like a man who’s pretty sure that he knows more than everyone else in the room, without being too cocky about it, and perhaps he does … but I would have liked to hear more from other presses. Part of the problem is that the rest of the folks on the panel were writers and editors and self-publishers, and Betancourt was the only actual publisher**. Neil Clarke sat in front of me and had some good comments; he’s another publisher I’d like to chat with more at another time.

Thus the day began and ended with the most useful panel I was going to attend all weekend.

The rest of the day was spent attending panels, running errands, and getting lost in Camden for an hour and a half because my gps kept missing one important turn. This ended up being a blessing in disguise because I accidently found a wine shop that carries Absente absinthe. (This comes in to play again later on Saturday evening.) Meanwhile Don was meeting Peter S. Beagle, the GoH, and getting stuff signed by Beagle and going to a Beagle reading … and apparently never noticed my quick trip out to find a working atm became a three-hour tour. I did finally get back to the hotel, and started making plans. Simon Carter, a writer friend of ours, was going to come to the con that evening to meet up with Don, and I had to read my zombie erotica story “Mitch’s Girl” at 6 pm as part of the Garden State Horror Writers reading. We settled on dinner beforehand, and Don came along to the reading so I’d at least know one person there – I’ve been a member of the GSHW group for about 6 months now, and I hadn’t actually met any of the other writers.

I needn’t have worried. Dinner in the hotel cafe was mainly a collected of shared appetizers but there was a corned beef sandwich in there I remember being fond of. The reading was well attended for th size of the room we had (small) and the GSHW folks turned out to be warm and chatty. There were 6 readers in all, in a variety of genres (I think mine was really the only “horror”, and my story isn’t actually scary as much as it is erotic; we also had fantasy, steampunk, YA with a talking cat, paranormal romance and lit fic). I got to meet Danielle Ackley-McPhail, who edits a couple of books for Dark Quest (where I still read slush for Neal Levin), Hildy Silverman, who edits Space and Time, and of course Neal, in addition to Gary Frank, Ed Greaves, Jon Gibbs and some other folks from the group. We chatted after the reading, and into Danielle’s launch party for the Bad Ass Fairies anthology series website. The party featured more baked goods than I’ve seen crammed into one room in a long time, as well as a couple of interestingly-dressed folks hanging out before the masquerade. (Don, who has a lovely handmade Dr. Who scarf, couldn’t help comparing it to another man’s Dr. Who-ish scarf, and may even have taken photographic evidence to support his argument that his scarf was better.)

At this point, Don insisted that we attend at least one more panel for the evening, since we were actually at a convention with the stated purpose of doing such a thing. The GSHW folks were sort of insistent that we meet them in the bar for drinks instead. I wavered, then went with Don, and planned to meet up at the bar after the panel let out.

That panel turned out to be “Sexy Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories” which we felt we kind of had to go to, since we both had zombie erotica stories in Rigor Amortis, and we’d been working on Cthulhurotica. This was our first panel we attended together, and we discovered that a) I will talk in a panel discussion if someone asks for input, and b) Don won’t. The three ladies on the panel, after an awkward pause were we discovered that none of them really knew what the panel was supposed to be about, launched in a rousing discussion of Things Not To Call A Vagina. There was a list***.

Once done, we headed out to the bar, by exiting through the room’s doorway and walking into the hallway, like you do. There we found Hildy, who was scheduled to be on a panel on “The Hard Boiled Detective Tradition in Fantasy”, and fairly certain that no one would show up. Never being the sort to leave a damsel in distress, Don and I went to her panel, where it turned out one important person did – in fact – not show up: the other presenter on the panel. The moderator, a charming gentleman, bravely dove in to help out, but his area of expertise was the classic detective in film, and he knew very little about the trope in the spec fic/UF/fantasy genres. Luckily, some more group discussion was had, and I got to introduce new people to Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series. Yay!

And then, finally, the bar. The GSHW guys, it turns out, had been sitting out front the whole couple of hours I was in panels, and had started to suspect we weren’t going to show up. We explained, they forgave, and we wandered in for drinks and to await the arrival of Simon, who was leaving a party at that point and heading over to drink more with us. We got Simon, introductions were made, and the group got exactly one drink order in before the bar closed on us. At 10:30 pm. Is that right? I ask you. We’re writers! But luckily, the evening was saved because I’d stopped by that wine shop earlier in the day … After Simon made me split a free beer with him (Dogfishhead) and I downed my Old Fashioned, Gary Frank went home for the night and the rest of us headed up to the room to break open the absinthe.

It was a thing of beauty. Smooth, flavorful, and subtly strong, it fueled the slow descent into madness that is a bunch of drunk guys trying to play Munchkin Cthulhu for the first time. Simon, that charmer, won with a smile, and it was only afterward we discovered he’d been cheating the whole time – though to his credit, he hadn’t realized it himself. Things eventually wrapped up sometime after two, and we all headed to our beds.

Sunday morning was breakfast (full buffett in the hotel restaurant), contemplating panels, not being able to find anything we cared about, packing, and finally heading back to my house for lunch and family time (were again we played Munchkin Cthulhu, and again we realized Don’s not that familiar with the rules). A lot more driving ensued before I got Don back home to upstate NY, and got myself back home.

Overall the con itself was a disappointment but the people made up for it exponentially. Don P turns out to be a great guy as well as a great writer, Simon is as clever, and as Scottish, as you’d expect from his Twitter feed, and the folks from the GSHW were fun and full of helpful writing/publishing tidbits. We bought books, we chatted up writers, we wandered the dealer’s hall, and I managed to only volunteer to help with another project once the whole weekend. Maybe twice.**** I met so many new people that I could have skipped every panel offered and still the con would have been worth the price of admission.

Footnotes:

* The rooms were numbered in a way that only mattered to the Programming department, and had nothing to do with the room numbers, which were on a seperate piece of paper. Guess which one we didn’t get at the registration table?
** If you’re considering “publisher” to be someone who publishes books by people other than himself.
*** The V, the Triangle, and the Core, if you’re wondering.
**** This is an improvement, for me.

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s AN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT

Synopsis: Everyone in the Bay Area knows about Blind Michael, the unseen, dangerous figure whose Hunt sweeps the Berkeley hills on full moon nights. He’s a familiar hazard of life in the Kingdom of the Mists, and most people don’t waste time worrying about him. October “Toby” Daye certainly doesn’t. She has better things to worry about, like paying the electrical bill on time. So it’s understandable that she’d be upset when Blind Michael suddenly starts taking an interest in people that matter to her, like the youngest children of Mitch and Stacy Brown. (FromSeananMcGuire.com)

I make it a habit to avoid fairy stories because modern interpretations usually lack the pain and fear and loss of traditional fae tales. I don’t enjoy putting myself through misery, but the watered-down and sparklier versions kids read these day are too plastic, too PG, too Disney for me to take seriously. McGuire suffers from no such white-washing. Her fairies are dark, broken, and dangerous. They need humanity as much as they despise it. In the classic style, McGuire’s fairies take what they need when they need it, and few of them worry about how it affects us. They steal clothes, money, blood, and children …

This is where An Artificial Night begins: children are missing. Of course, it’s missing fairy children that get Toby’s attention, but to her credit she doesn’t back down when she discovers that human children are missing too. Chasing down the path of the lost kids takes Toby through one of Oberon’s children and into the realm of another. She endures a changed shape, altered perceptions … she’s hunted, enthralled, beaten, tortured, and abused. It’s a path that only heroes choose to walk, because only heroes are broken enough to throw themselves thoughtlessly into the face of danger over and over again.

Which, of course, is exactly what Toby does, no matter how close to death she comes – and did I mention May, her Fetch, who shows up on her doorstep to usher in that death? Yeah, that happens. By now we’re not so surprised at Toby’s self-destructive behavior, but sometime before the end of the book is the realization that she’s doing this to herself on purpose, and just possibly might want to stop.

McGuire’s third novel in the Toby Daye series makes me cry like a wounded child for the first seven chapters or so. She goes on to present a story much darker than what’s come before for Toby, and one that is arguably her best to date. It isn’t a happy story, even when Toby seems to have found her way back into the light. It is a good story, a complex story, and one I recommend you get your hands on.

I reviewed the first two books in this series as well;Rosemary and Rue is the first and A Local Habitation is the second.

Seanan McGuire, An Artificial Night, DAW Books, 2010. 368 pages. ISBN0756406269.

 

You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)

 

You Should Read: J. P. Moore’s TOOTHLESS

Summary: Toothless is an epic tale of war and redemption set in 12th century Europe. An ancient evil is on the march. An army of demons and undead rampages across the countryside, spreading death and destruction. Judgment has come. The world of the living teeters on the edge of ruin. One knight, a failed Templar, returns to the battlefield to avenge his wife and daughter. The dice are cast against him, and he is slain only to rise in service to the very evil that he hoped to destroy. He is a gifted minion. But life is not done with him yet. (From DragonMoon Press)

Toothless is the story of a zombie hero, if there can be such a thing, set in a medieval Europe devastated by the advance of a demonic army. Riding ahead of this unstoppable mass of death is a plague which strikes any living creature. Behind the plague comes the army of risen undead, pulled from the recently killed soldiers who died trying to defeat it. Toothless is told by an omniscient narrator who gives us the stories of two outcasts: Martin, the dead Templar who’s second life as a zombie with no lower jaw is the subject of most of the book, and Lil, the deformed psychic teen girl who just happens to be protected by the church.

Part of what I love about Moore’s work is that he took a story which, on its surface, seems a little ridiculous, and made it not only believable but gripping. His world is darker and gets darker still with the introduction of a main character that you slowly realize is never going to become a better person. Toothless is a monster. That he may also save world is beside the point. As an exploration of humanity, Toothless is terribly exciting because, freed from the living Martin’s responsibilities, he devolves into a creature who does remarkably bad things, over and over again. At some point the not-yet-dead around him realize his potential as a saviour, and rally around him on his journey to defeat the source of the desolation, but that doesn’t make Toothless a good guy. He still kills, still thrives on the blood and energy he’s washed in with the death of every victim, and is still an unabashed drunk.

He simply aims his talent for murder in the direction of the bad guys for a while.

Moore’s book, which began life as a podcast, is not cheerful, and only barely hopeful. It exists in an alternate history of our own Earth, in a dark age we very nearly can’t climb out of.

I loved reading this book.

I am, admittedly, a zombie fangirl, and I’m always on the lookout for new takes on the decreasingly-original theme. J.P. Moore’s Toothless is startlingly original, with a breadth and depth unusual in a zombie novel, but one that only adds to the feeling of withering melancholy which rises up from this story the way Martin rose up and became Toothless.

Toothless is due out October 31, 2010.

J.P. Moore is @jpmoo on twitter, and the cover artist Scott Purdy is @scottpurdy on twitter