You Should Read: Fireside Magazine, issues 1 and 2

I hadn’t been reading much the last few months. My to-read list piled up around me. I culled my bookshelf, pulled out a couple of bags of things I could live without because either I had them digitally or I was probably never going to get around to it, but that list kept getting bigger. Recently I stopped in the middle of something else, thought about what would make me happy at that moment, and realized I can’t be happy if I’m not reading. I mean, I always knew that, but I can’t remember the last time I stopped reading long enough for it have an effect on me…

I’m better now that I have a book in my hand.*

Back in September I subscribed to digital versions of several magazines. One of those, Fireside Magazine, was new, and I caught the first two issues:

The debut issue of Fireside has four shorts stories — Press Enter to Execute by Tobias Buckell, To the Moon by Ken Liu, Emerald Lakes by Chuck Wendig, and Temperance by Christie Yant — and a comic — Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas, written by D.J. Kirkbride and Adam P. Knave, penciled by Michael Lee Harris, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic. – from the website

My favorite pieces were the stories by Buckell, Liu, and Wendig. Liu’s was first, and To The Moon is one of the best things I’ve read from him in a while. Liu always has intelligent plots, and he thinks his ideas through to their logical conclusion, instead of relying on a shiny new idea to carry the story without the framework of logic. However, I haven’t always been able to connect to his work. To The Moon combines the writing quality we’ve come to expect from Liu with an emotional exploration of truth vs what’s right, and the result is unforgettable. Loved it.

Wendig’s story, Emerald Lakes, is part of his ‘Atlanta Burns’ stories, which I haven’t read, but it works as a stand-alone piece about a young girl in a bad place. I am just getting into Wendig’s fiction, though I’ve been a fan of his non-fiction essays and blog for a while. He’s got a gritty style and puts all of the dark things out into the open, easily, casually, like dropping a filleted carcass on the table and walking away without an explanation. It’s going to have an effect on you, that’s for certain.

Buckell’s contribution is Press Enter to Execute, an alt-future tale of hitmen who take out not political figures or drug bosses, but spammers. You know, the people behind the email spam you get flooding your inboxes each day. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it because the premise seems weak and there isn’t much to the story except the way it’s told, but Buckell tells it well. It’s worth checking out to see how he takes a single idea and expands it into a whole story. It’s entertaining, and we all need entertainment.

The second issue of Fireside has stories by Stephen Blackmoore, Damien Walters Grintalis, Kat Howard, and Jake Kerr, and a comic written by Brian White, drawn by Steve Walker, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic.

My favorite pieces were Grintalis’s Scarred and Blackmoore’s Rhapsody in Blue. I’m used to be a fan of horror but once you read enough of it you see there are very few original ideas left. Someone has a dark secret, wants to be violent, is chasing someone, or running from someone, and there’s always a conflict with something unreasoning … it’s all the same. The best you can hope for is to read a piece that is well-written. It sounds silly but there is so much terribly written horror in the world, it’s easy to give up on the genre. Scarred is another “inner-conflict crazy person does violence” kind of story, but you can’t dismiss it as just that. Grintalis has a way of embodying her characters, so that if you understand being off kilter, being tempted to do horrible things, the story makes sense to you. And if you’re lucky enough to never have felt that way, you’ll catch of glimpse of that unsettled frame of mind. It’s worth a read.

Rhapsody in Blue Shift is a science fiction story with a classic space opera feel. It’s definitely the type of story I’m always going to give a chance, and I’m glad that I did. The name is a play on both George Gershwin’s 1924 musical composition and a blueshift (a decrease in wavelength usually caused by relative motion toward the observer). That should give you a pretty good idea of what the story is about, or at least what inspired it, but what makes it special is the main character. Blackmoore puts a low-grade employee of a space liner into the middle of an emergency and throws in a backwater upbringing to make the kid seem less bright than you might have hoped. Mark Twain meets Robert Heinlein, which is to say that it reminds me of Heinlein’s YA stories, especially Starman Jones. It was a fun way to end the second issue!

A successful Kickstarter has already been run for the third issue of Fireside, and I can’t wait to read it. Click on the images to buy each issue now!

*Not a print book, most days, but my Nexus 7 loaded with ebooks. I love living in the future.

 

Writer Wednesday: A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with a spouse, a stripey cat, a spotty cat, and a very short dog. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed,and The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4, among others. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology(www.grumpsjournal.com), an online publication of fiction and art generally dedicated to all things multi-legged and creepy-crawly. You can find her online at www.acwise.net, and on twitter as @ac_wise.

1.    What is your favorite of your published works, and why?

Well… My favorite work is usually the one I haven’t written yet, but is currently setting my brain on fire. Or the one I’m deep in the middle of, slinging words hither and thither like an irresponsible maniac. Among the works actually published, I find it harder to choose. There are pieces I think I like, but haven’t read in a while, so it may just be a factor of looking back with rose-colored glasses. With the more recent works, I have a certain fondness for ‘Final Girl Theory’ and ‘Venice Burning’. That said, as a general rule, I try to avoid re-reading my stories once they’ve been published.

2.    You started publishing your work in 2004. Has the state of the publishing industry changed since then? Anything you prefer about being a writing now? Anything you miss?

I think online publications have gained more respectability since I started publishing. They were already well on their way with publications like Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, and ChiZine (know as Chiaroscuro back then), but I think the advent ofClarkesworld, Tor.com, Lightspeed, and its predecessor Fantasy Magazine, really tipped the balance in making online publications widely acceptable and desirable. In addition to the rise of online publications, I think the widespread acceptance of electronic submissions is more prevalent these days, which is definitely an improvement. In terms of things I’ll miss… I’ll always lament the loss of Story House Coffee. Not only did they print my first-ever professionally published story, but they printed it on a freakin’ coffee can label. Coffee! Fiction! It’s so many things I love all in one place. What more could a person want?

3.    What market would you most like to be published in, and why? What do you think has kept you from breaking in there so far?

I’ve been lucky enough to have my work published in the majority of publications I admire – Strange Horizons, ChiZine, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and (forthcoming) Lightspeed, among others. Something I aspire to is being invited to contribute to an original anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. I adore her work; it was, and continues to be, a major inspiration and influence on my writing. I distinctly remember an ‘ah-ha’ moment reading the fairy tale anthologies (Black Thorn, White Rose; Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears, etc.), which she edited with Terri Windling, where I thought: Yes. This is what I want to do with my life. I want to write stories like these.

 4.    You often talk about your super adorable corgi. What other people, creatures, or activities help keep you relatively sane in a field known for breaking aspiring writers?

My cats ‘help’ in their own way. Mostly by insisting my lap is the absolute best place in the world to be as soon as I settle down to write, which means the laptop needs to be shoved out of the way, and chin scritches need to be administered NOW, or else. In the realm of things that are actually helpful, my family has always been incredibly supportive of my writing, which definitely helps, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet other writers along the way who help keep me sane(ish). Or, who are at least willing to listen to me rant and moan when sanity abandons me for warmer climes.

5.    In your, well, let’s call it “free time” you also co-edit the Journal of Unlikely Entomology. How did that project come together? 

The short answer is: It started as a joke, which rapidly turned into, ‘Hey, we could actually make something of this.’ The longer answer requires finding me or my co-editor at a con and buying us a drink. (No, I’m not trying to scam free drinks, how dare you suggest such a thing!) In all seriousness, even though it did start as a joke, I take my role as co-editor of the Journal of Unlikely Entomology very seriously. It’s also given me a whole new appreciation for the multi-legged critters that share our world. In a way, bugs are much like zombies, the ultimate blank-slate monster. It’s the story the author tells around theme that counts and one can tell some incredible stories around bugs. There’s an amazing wealth of symbolism and mythology to do with bugs. We get the question ‘why bugs?’ a lot, but, really…why not bugs?

6.    How does being an editor affect your writing?

Heh. It makes me more conscious of time management, for one thing. It also gives me a new appreciation of the submission process. I’m far more patient with response times than I used to be. It also helps me take rejections less personally. Ultimately, I hope it’s allowing me to build better instincts, and helping me avoid clichés, slow openings, and all the other things that annoy me when I encounter them in the slush pile.

7. What are currently writing on? 

Theoretically, I’m working on a novel. (Ha!) It’s based on my short story ‘The Thief of Precious Things’, which appeared in Ekaterina Sedia’s Bewere the Night anthology. At any given time, I also have a handful of story stories brewing. And there’s always editing to keep my busy.

Thanks for stopping by! Looking for other Writer Wednesday interviews? Click on the links to read more about Ken Liu, Claude Lalumière, and Mercedes M. Yardley.

Writer Wednesday: Mercedes M. Yardley talks Beautiful Sorrows

There is a place where sorrows pile up like snow and rest in your hair like cherry blossoms. Boys have wings, monsters fall in love, women fade into nothingness, and the bones of small children snap like twigs. Darkness will surely devour you–but it will be exquisitely lovely while doing so.

Mercedes M. Yardley’s Beautiful Sorrows is an ephemeral collection encompassing twenty-seven short tales full of devastation, death, longing, and the shining ribbon of hope that binds them all together.

I was pleased to get a chance to interview my friend Mercedes M. Yardley about her new collection, Beautiful Sorrows. She kindly answered a few lingering questions I had about Las Vegas, writing horror, and vegan cooking:

1. How has living in Las Vegas affected the kind of stories you want to tell?

MMY: Vegas helped introduce me to a different dark side of humanity than I saw in my home town. Of course we had a lot of the same issues there, but everything was on such a personal level. If somebody was hurt or arrested or killed, it affected the entire area. It’s much more nameless here in Vegas. Sometimes I feel like I’m practically stepping over dead bodies on my way to the grocery store. It makes me want to explore the more anonymous, detached aspect of horror.

2. What’s the most beautiful thing about writing horror?

MMY: I think the beauty is in the fact that horror is universal. We all experience fear. We’re all afraid of something. Maybe it’s ghosts, or monsters or men. We’re afraid of losing our children or being brutally rejected. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t feel fear. You can’t say that about empathy or love. Our vulnerability makes us similar, and that is beautiful.

3. What was the easiest part of writing the stories in this collection? What was the hardest?

MMY: The easiest part was the writing. Writing is such a joy. The hardest part was the writing. Writing can be such a struggle. Some stories came very easily. “Edibility” and most of “Stars” just flowed. But “Black Mary”, which I think is one of the strongest stories in the collection, was certainly difficult for me. It was originally published in Robert Duperre’s The Gate 2, and I think I may have apologized when I turned it in. I’m very proud of the story now, but it took a bit of a toll on me. The same with “The Quiet Places Where Your Body Grows”, which is another favorite.

4. You’ve often talked about being a very visually oriented person. Do you see the imagery in your head before it gets written into your stories, or do you have to imagine what your stories would look like after you’ve constructed the plot?

MMY: Usually I sit and write without any idea of the plot, or maybe just a starting idea. “A girl is destined to be murdered” was the idea for one novel, and I uncovered the rest of the story chapter by chapter as I wrote it. Then I can imagine it. My current WIP, though, came as a very clear image. I was listening to Placebo’s “Follow the Cops Back Home” while driving, and I saw this scene where two weary people, a man and a woman, were having a conversation in the middle of a country lane. Whatever it was about, it was broken. Finished. Whatever happened was more than they could bear. Then they slowly started walking back home. The entire novel sprang from that idea. In fact, Azhar from “The Quiet Places Where Your Body Grows” may be the man in this scenerio. I’m not sure yet.

5. How do you find time to write between raising three children, taking care of the house, being active in your community and church, and – one assumes – occasionally sleeping?

MMY: Sleeping is the first thing to go. Absolutely. It difficult to find the time, and right now I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life. I want to sleep, and I want to laze around and watch TV. But do I want it more than writing? Would it fulfill me more as a person to get a few more episodes of D. Gray-man in there? It’s about priorities. My family is absolutely a priority. My faith is absolutely a priority. Writing is a priority, and my husband is great to watch the kids and let me write. Some of the other stuff can fall. I take turns. Today the house sparkles and I got some great writing related projects finished, but I haven’t started dinner yet. And most likely won’t. Peanut butter was created for a reason.

6. You recently started cooking more vegan meals around the house. What’s your favorite recipe?

I’ll tell you if you share some more of yours! And thanks for the ones you’ve given me! I have two favorites that we use quite a bit, and what’s even more convenient is that they’re on the internet. The first is this delicious pineapple quinoa cashew stir fry from Veganomicon. (http://www.food.com/recipe/Pineapple-Cashew-Quinoa-Stir-Fry-309239) It’s absolutely delicious. My other favorite is the Barley Bean Bowl from the Skinny B*tch cookbook. (http://gazingin.com/2010/12/06/barley-and-red-beans/) It’s so refreshing.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mercedes.murdockyardley

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mercedesmy

Mercedes’ blog: www.mercedesyardley.com

BEAUTIFUL SORROWS is available on Amazon and at the Shock Totem store at www.shocktotem.com

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.

Adding It All Up

As a  writer I often get asked when I’m going to publish a novel. For many people that’s the big step forward, the symbol of legitimacy, like getting a record deal or a major gallery show. I’d love to say that I’ve been working on a novel but the truth is that I haven’t. I’ve got ideas and done some research and there’s a few chapters each of a couple of different things, but I haven’t finished a novel, no. What I’ve been doing is writing short stories.

There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s simply the route less glamorized. There are some award-winning writers who’re very well known for their short story collections (Ted Chiang, for instance). But in order to say that a bunch of short stories equals having written a novel – and, more importantly, having sold a novel – I’d have to publish, for money, a number of short stories whose word count equals an average novel.

Which in some ways is harder.

I went through my sales in the last 20 months, which is how long it’s been since my first paying sale in 2010, and here’s what I’ve got:

1. “Mitch’s Girl”, Rigor Amortis anthology, Oct 2010 (1100 words)
2. “Call Center Blues”, Daily Science Fiction, Nov 2011 (861 words)
3. “Monsters, Monsters, Everywhere,” Crossed Genres Magazine, Dec 2011 (3625 words)
4. “Dancers in the Dust”, Goldfish Grimm, Mar 2012 (1475 words)
5. “CL3ANS3”, Eldritch Chrome anthology, due out Fall 2012 (4230 words)

Total: 12,361 words

I’m only counting the stories I sold for actual cash money. There are other sales in the last year + that were not to paying markets, including a personal favorite, Annabelle Tree, which I donated to a charity anthology. I’m also not counting the two stories (equaling about 9000 words) that I have out to markets which have contacted me to say that they’re likely to buy them. I don’t know for sure, so they’re not going on the list.

Still, five paying sales in less than two years is pretty good for a new author. I got a pro-rate sale in there (which got me an SFWA membership) and another that sold for nearly $200. But look at how many individual sales that is. At this rate I’ll need to sell 30 to 40 different stories in order to make up that 80,000 word average novel length. I have to sell EIGHT TIMES what I’ve already sold. This means working with another 30 editors, submitting to at least another 30 markets (and getting accepted), waiting for contracts and edits and delays. All of that is why selling a collection’s worth of short stories can be harder than selling a novel once.

At least now I have a goal. I don’t have to feel bad that I haven’t written and sold a novel yet, because I’ve already sold an 1/8th of one. The hardest part is the beginning, right?

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.

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: THE 1977 ANNUAL WORLD’S BEST SF anthology

I picked this up at a library book sale a year or so ago, and promptly forgot all about it. If I had read the table of contents, I would have sat down and read the book immediately. Joanna Russ! Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”! Tiptree! It wasn’t until I bought new bookshelves and rearranged my collection that I realized what my spare dollar had gotten me.

  • Introduction (Donald A. Wollheim) – Is pretentious too strong a word to use for this guy? From his intro to the blurbs he puts at the beginning of each story, as if having to defend why he chose to reprint it, he comes off as thinking his readers don’t know as much as he does, which is always off-putting (and usually wrong). Ignore him.
  • “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss – I thought this story worked a little too hard to make a point about the ways in which we fail as humans today, by showing what the future (65,000 years into the future) version of us would think of us. The current us is a long-dead specimen, an ugly point on the physical evolution of humanity, a museum piece. From this perspective, future-human sees our flaws and waxes philosphical about them. The story did bring up some interesting ideas about umwalt and the potential for humans to be influenced by outside sources; I’ll file some of them away for later.
  • “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (John Varley) – I liked this quite a bit. The odd things throughout the story were suitably explained by the end, and I can see it as a precurser to a lot of cyber-fiction I like from more recent authors. Fun settings, from the “Kenya Disneyland” on the moon to the world the main character creates for himself in his head.
  • “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” (Michael G. Coney) – The narrator here is hard to like. He’s telling an anecdote from his youth, but he doesn’t have positive things to say about anyone it. He essentially just bitches about his old friends until we catch up to him in present day, where he has an opportunity to reconnect with one of the people he’s been talking about – but chooses not to, on the grounds that they have nothing to say to each other. So, we just have to listen to you bitch, and there’s no character arc, no resolution at the end? Eh.
  • “The Hertford Manuscript” (Richard Cowper) – Maybe if I cared more about HG Well’s Time Machine, or hadn’t already seen/read a million adaptations from that story, I’d have been more impressed. This goes along with a few others as being probably innovative in 1977, but boring today. It’s not badly written but the framework of the story – an old book handed down by a dead aunt with a secret inside – wasn’t original even in 1977.
  • “Natural Advantage” (Lester del Rey) – Wonderful. It presents aliens as the main characters, with Earth/humanity as an outside force that is met and re-met, but doesn’t go on the journey. It has a little of that “humans are teh awesome and will always win” propaganda common from the time, but it doesn’t overwhelm the heart of the tale. The way that the aliens cherish humanity is what gives the story its emotional weight. To be seen, from the outside, as worth remembering, worth missing … that feeling makes the last paragraph of the story work.
  • “The Bicentennial Man” (Isaac Asimov) – I’d seen the movie but hadn’t read the story until now. I liked it! I can see why it was so influential, and it’s one of those classic tales that, if you like robot stories, you’re going to want to have read.
  • “The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” (Barrington J. Bayley) – This story tried to do so much. It introduced several novel ideas, but in the end the author chose the easy out of tossing the main character into a void so none of the science had to be explained, or, you know, work. It felt lazy.
  • “My Boat” (Joanna Russ) – Like Coney’s story, this one has a narrator recounting an incident from his teen years, but not only is the anecdote far more interesting (even though it coves many of the same themes, including a male friend leaving him to spend time with a new female) but it also has a conclusion that leaves the reader hopeful and enchanted. It’s one of the best pieces in the book.
  • “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (James Tiptree, Jr.) – I had to try to forget everything that came after this story because by now I’ve seen it redone a hundred times, but looking at it by itself, it’s quite good. It has a very strong opinion about the (assumed) primal dominance of men and the utopia of a women-only society, which I don’t actually agree with, but the philosophy is present inside of strong storytelling. There are definite bad guys but there’s also a mostly harmless guy to show the range of male personalities, instead of simply writing them all off. I’m also not sure if I agree with the idea that the main society in the story would actually have slowed way down the way it did, but I liked that the author took the future to the logical conclusion for the rules she set for it. Bonus points for logical follow-through, always.
  • I See You” (Damon Knight) – I rarely like second-person perspective, but it fits the story here. The author alternates between 2nd per, talking to you, and third-person, talking about the inventor of a device which changes people’s perspective, and is what makes the way he talks to you make sense. It isn’t the best story in the collection but it is a solid way to end the book. Definitely recommend to people who are interested in that kind of PoV shifting. The science isn’t as novel as the storytelling, but with an author this deft, it doesn’t need to be.

Overall, there was more to like than dislike, and at least half of the stories stood the test of time. If you see it, read it.

Note: My personal library has a decent-sized stack of “classic” science fiction, most of which I’ve read. There are a few recently acquired works, like this one, which I hadn’t read until this week. They range from truly “classic” era SF (40s and 50s) to late 70s “it’s not new so it’s old and it’s kind of important so we’ll call it classic“. I will continue to review the modern titles which I think you should be reading, but I because I think it’s important to know the books which influenced contemporary writers – including myself – I am going to start reviewing the older books too. You can find them under the classic fiction tag.

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.

You Should Read: Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES

I read something new because I liked a previous book enough to get another by the same author, or because I want something fun and quick enough to shut my brain off for a few hours and the cover (or blurb) suggest to me that this book will be worth the risk, or because it was suggested to me as a “must read” by someone I trust (though there are very few of those). Fowler’s collection of short stories was one that was recommended to me, and I am now in the position of both appreciating the suggestion and passing it along to you.

I’d read at least one of her stories online, the one about the woman whose daughter is dating the vampire, which is called “Younger Women” and can be read online for free. That story was wonderful. That story isn’t in this book, having been written after, but you can see the bones of it in what Fowler has done before. The subtlety of a story told without any unnecessary bits shoved in to make it this genre or that. The hint of sadness that is visible but presented as if the bearer isn’t sure yet whether they have reason enough to be sad, and are leaving up to you to decide for them.

There are times that she takes inspiration from other stories, mostly fairy tales, but instead of retelling them she shows you the most important moments of someone who was only peripherally affected by the story you might have heard before. “Halfway People” does this, with its swan brother and the woman who knew him for a short time; “The Dark” does it too, with plague and rats and the piper that always hangs around where those things intersect.

Some of the tales she retells aren’t yet fantastical enough to interest Grimm but are, at least in the US, just as well known. Fowler gives John Wilkes Booth a literary half-life with both “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only”, the second being (I think) her most “genre” story of the bunch, when you figure out the twist I don’t plan to spoil for you.

According to Wikipedia there is some controversy over whether Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” deserved the Nebula award it won, on the grounds that it was neither fantasy nor science fiction and therefore didn’t meet the genre requirements for the award. I can’t say whether it should have won under that criteria, because it didn’t feel like either of those things to me, but I have been thinking lately that both sf and fantasy are settings, not genres, and real genres are things like “adventure” and “romance” and “thriller” and “alternate history political intrigue”. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the setting is because the story is moving and beautiful and questioning its own sadness, as Fowler’s stories tend to do.

And if it must be genre, in this instance, we can call it alternate history (because what is told is a fiction that never happened exactly that way in real life) or feminist pulp adventure tale (because it is most definitely that) or literary fantasy, because what happens in the story is not magical but is fantastical. Good enough for me.

I liked every story in the book. I thought “The Pelican Bar” was cruel in that it revealed something heartless and yet unsurprising – the way people can abandon the children they don’t understand. It was brilliant in that it didn’t falter in the telling. No words out of place or misused, no sentiment awkwardly stuffed in without need. But then I think all of her stories are the same way, which is why I adore Fowler’s writing, and this book, and these stories.

“Always” made sense, again. We must all have those moments where we slow down, quiet our internal selves, and feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. How else can a story about living forever seem so familiar? “The Marianas Islands” had the same sense of comfortable relation, as if the narrator is a distant cousin telling family tales we’ve heard before but weren’t there to experience first hand.

My favorite, in that it was heartbreaking and immediately grabbed me and made me cry, was the final piece in the book, “King Rat”. It reads as if it’s non-fiction, and I know that I could look it up (the Internet is full of facts like these) but I wouldn’t want to know if it wasn’t.

Reading the book took most of a day because, like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link’s work, Fowler’s stories are too much to read without pausing in between like a marathoner grabbing water every few miles. He’d never make it to the end without refreshing himself and neither should you barrel through a collection like this without stopping to let your brain breathe. At 200 pages, it’s hardly long, but certainly long enough.

Go, read. I’d hate for you to have missed out on knowing what it feels like to have read it.

* Note: I bought my copy from Small Beer Press, and you should too.