Review: Lightspeed Magazine, Aug 2012; Issue # 27

I’ve recently subscribed to several great magazines (including Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Fireside). I’ve always bought individual issues when I could but I made the move to yearly subscriptions as soon as I could afford to. Well, not afford, not quite yet, but as soon as I could be sure I could no longer afford not to.

Why am I trading eating Ramen more than once in a while for a chance to read some short stories? Partly because I firmly believe that a writer needs to be, first, a reader. Partly because I want to make the transition from someone trying to break into this industry to someone who’s in this industry, and being well-informed as to current trends in genre fiction makes me a better publisher too.

Since I’m getting to read these magazines more regularly, I’m going to start reviewing them as I get to each one. First up: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue #27, which I read this week.

This month’s ebook-exclusive novella is “A Separate War” by Joe Haldeman, and I wish it wasn’t the first piece in the magazine. Because I loved Forever War, and read it more than once (including dissecting it for a class on Science Fiction in Literature), I was well aware of who the main character in this novella was, her connection to the novel, and what was going to end up happening to her. That was what pulled me out of an otherwise well-written novella in Haldeman’s classic military sf style: if you read the novel, and you remember who she is, you know where she’ll end up. This story, then, isn’t about sharing something new as much as it is about filling in a gap from a background character’s off-screen life. Probably fascinating to some people. I didn’t love it.

Next was an excerpt of Kitty Steals the Show, the “new Kitty Norville novel by bestselling author Carrie Vaughn”. It’s typical urban fantasy, starring a werewolf named Kitty (ha ha! get it?) and a horde of vampires and cute boys and leather pants. I tried to read it but ended up skipping over it.

Then came the feature interviews (which I’ll talk about at the end).

The first original short science fiction story of the month was “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Nebula and Hugo award-winning author Ken Liu.
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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?

Books You Should Read: Etgar Keret’s THE NIMROD FLIPOUT

I got loaned a copy of this book last week, and since its owner was a little nervous about parting with it (not that I would damage it, but that I might love it and not ever want to give it back), I moved The Nimrod Flipout to the front of my queue and read it right away. It took most of the week, since Keret’s stories seem innocuous enough but have an odd depth that rises up to smack you a few minutes or a few hours after you finished each one, so I couldn’t read the collection in one sitting.

There is no complexity to his word choices. There are a few fantastic elements, enough to get him into the “magic realism” genre label, but even when they appear the story isn’t about the thing that happened as much as it is about the people it happened to. The collection is full of tiny stories, short stories, moments in time that span a page or three and no more. Keret tells you everything you need to know in simple words, short sentences, and normal-seeming anecdotes. Yet his writing is so moving, so emotionally true.

The secret to his power as author is that he tells stories a certain kind of person will resonate with. Disconnected, sad, lost, unloved, or unloving? These stories are for you. That isn’t to say that a person who was genuinely happy and had always been so wouldn’t be able to grasp the beauty of Keret’s work. At least, I think they would still get it. Since I don’t know anyone who’s never been hurt, who’s never wondered if the relationship that they were in was really love or was it instead a matter of convenience for one of them or the other … I feel safe in recommending this book to everyone.

Most of his main characters are male but not exclusively and when Keret writes women he does so with the understanding of a man who’s known real women, loved them, and saw their good qualities, rather than a man who’s writing only the fantasies of women he wishes he knew or the worst-quality nightmares of women who wronged him. There are more than a couple of men who’re in marriages that aren’t quite working for them, or watching their friends about to get married to women they wouldn’t have picked, but even then Keret shows where these women were loved, once, before things went sour, and you can usually see where the husband plays a major part in the failure to stay in love. He writes mostly men, it seems, not for any reason other than he is one, and he has male friends, and he knows their stories.

There are cab drivers honking at young women in order to not think about what they’re really afraid of, and men in love with women doing odd things they don’t quite understand (like sunbathing nude on the lawn or turning into a hairy fat guy at night) but who nonetheless love them. There are talking fish – who, granted, might talk more if they weren’t so depressed  – and love dwarves and suicidal soldiers and shrinking parents that fit in your pocket, but the stories never seem to be about that. They’re always about the people these things happen to. They’re about us, really, deep down, and the things we see after Keret reminds us.

More classic scifi: RA Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY

20120423-204008.jpg Tomorrow, at dawn, you are going to be shoved through a doorway that opens into a world you have never seen. You do not know if the world you are about the enter will be tropical or arctic, desert or jungle. You may emerge in a dawn-history swamp snarling with giant reptiles; you may slither on the ice of a world gaunt beneath the fading light of an aged and lonely sun…

Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons* in 1955, TUNNEL IN THE SKY is part of Heinlein’s “young adult” series of books. Since the accidental discovery of gate travel, an overpopulated Earth was shipping its hungry citizens off as quickly as it can, colonizing the Universe (or dying, trying). A degree in an off-planet career path, like colonial lawyer or emergency doctor or expeditionary leader, would mean the difference between being a subordinate, a working-class member of the group, or someone trusted with a leadership position.The bulk of the characters in the book are 17 or 18 years old, with a few in their early twenties and a few more about 15. The only adults are shown, briefly, at the bookends of the story. A group of 100 or so students, from three high schools and one college, are about to take the final exam in their Outworld survival course. With no one to guide them, they’re on their own – and the price for failure is death.

Instead of surviving for ten days and being called home, the kids find themselves waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Eventually they gather together to make a new society for themselves, since the old one seems to have forgotten all about them. Though there are elements of Lord of the Flies, this is a kid-friendly book, and Heinlein keeps the death and gore down to a warning level. You see enough to take their predicament seriously, but not enough to turn this into horror. In fact the narrator, Rod, has an easy-going way of talking and thinking that keeps the story from becoming too scary and helps propel it into an adventure story. Think Swiss Family Robinson, instead.

How does the book, 57 years old, come across to a modern reader? Continue reading

You Should Read: Ray Vukcevich’s BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS

The 33 stories in this collection are bite-sized samples of weird worlds we never quite inhabit but suspect are out there. The style has much in common with the Karen Joy Fowler and Aimee Bender collections I recently reviewed, but Vukcevich has a tendency to break the story down further, stripping away all of the befores and afters until only the singular moment remains. He does the Gallagher thing with the sledgehammer and the watermelon but only actually shows the wet, pink, bits dripping off the plastic-covered woman in Row 2, Seat 6. All of the rest you have to guess at, but given the parts we do see, the context is clear and the rest of the audience can be imagined, if necessary.

Some of my favorites from the collection are:

  • “Grocery List” – this is nothing more than a hand-scrawled grocery list for things like tofu and beer and blunt objects and poison and apologies. Wait, what? Read it again. Somewhere in between those words scribbled down the page is a story.
  • “Over Here” – the author notes that this story was originally written for an anthology. The structure of the book was that it was entirely made up of stories to honor a little girl who’d been hit by a military convoy truck in Iraq. The editor of that antho was a soldier who’d been there when it happened, and wanted to find a way to bring some closure to event. Vukcevich responded by giving us his trademark weird self, talking about anime characters and clavichords, but also turns the dead girl’s ghost into a superhero and gives her a best friend. The story is kind and affectionate and more than a little sad.
  • “Human Subjects” – what if aliens took over our brains and made us do stuff? You know, in the name of science. And what if you had met a girl that turned your head inside out and made your heart dance and she had an alien too? This story is the answer to that question.
  • “Wages of Syntax” – Vukcevich plays with PoV here, showing us three different main characters in a single short story, but it works. Fate, language, romance, and rubber ducks.
  • “Cold Comfort” – It takes a certain kind of lonely to pretend to be a freezer.
  • “Fired” – Vukcevich writes as much science fiction as he does anything else, but this is one of the few set in the far future. Space liners, augmented dating, and alien fire women, all making it very hard for one man to get lucky.
  • “Gas” – It’s hard to fit into society when your breath can actually kill people, but when your choices are “give up” or “make it work”, what can you do? Mixes in music, gas mask performances, and the things we do to find the right husband for our offspring.
  • “Glinky” – I loved this story. Noir and children’s television and the ability to change your world one step to the left at a time.
  • “Love Story” – one of my favorite pieces. I, too, want to have lived a good, long, life, be old with someone I adore, and scandalize the children.
  • “Some Other Time” – Again, Vukcevich shows you the results of a tragedy, the effects it has as the sorrow leaches into your daily life and the things you do to forget the pain. The story just happens to take place on an alien world, with a handful of colonists struggling to survive, but the act of being a parent – even a bad one – remains the same.
  • “Strong Suits” – Ah, traumatic brain injury, and the relationships we have with our lover’s clothes. Read this, and then think about what your significant other’s wardrobe means to you.
  • “Tubs” – Strip a man’s life down to one room, some torture, and a bathtub full of cold water, and this might be what you end up with.

The stories in this collection are short, quirky, quick to read, and almost all of them will make you think sideways for a moment. I’m so glad I read it.