Friday, December 31, 2010

Writers of the Future Update

The third quarter winners for this year's Writers of the Future contest have been announced.

Huge congratulations to Australian Richard Johnson and Seattleites Geir Lanesskog and Keffy R.M. Kehrli!

I'm looking forward to meeting the three of them at the WOTF workshop and award ceremony in the spring. Incidentally, Keffy Kehrli received a coveted Story Recommendation of the Week at this blog about a year ago for his excellent story Advertising at the End of the World, so can I pick up-and-coming authors or what?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review Teaser :: The Devil Inside by Jenna Black

cover of The Devil InsideNew on Fantastic Reviews is Amy's review of The Devil Inside by Jenna Black.

From Amy's book review of The Devil Inside :
"The Devil Inside by Jenna Black is book one of the Morgan Kingsley urban fantasy series. There are four more books in this series -- The Devil You Know, The Devil's Due, Speak of the Devil, and The Devil's Playground."

"I thought The Devil Inside would be about a female exorcist battling the Devil. But it isn't, even though it features demons. The Devil Inside is mainly about a heroine running from one bad situation to another while having a titillating sex life."

"The book's first-person protagonist, Morgan Kingsley, is a Philadelphia exorcist, although she only performs two exorcisms in this book. Morgan likes to dress daringly and she has a tattoo, which seems to be the norm for an urban fantasy heroine. Months earlier, bad guys drugged Morgan and got a demon inside her. Slowly she realizes that she is possessed, which is her worst nightmare. But her demon can't do anything initially, because Morgan is so strong...."

To read the entire review -> The Devil Inside

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: As Below, So Above by Ferrett Steinmetz

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Nov2010The story recommendation of the week is for As Below, So Above by Ferrett Steinmetz, published November 18, 2010 at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

If I blurt out the story concept of "As Below, So Above," it will sound silly. And the story would have been silly if not handled so adeptly, right from the opening lines:
Up at the shimmering edge of the sky, where the water met the air, Son spread his tentacles out beneath the terrible shadow of his father. They were waiting for the ships. Son felt the approaching heart-thrum bouncing off the coral-crusted hulls below as the ships crested the painwall.
You don't really know what's going on yet, but you know it's pretty darn strange. Some of the strangeness is misdirection —— water is meeting air in the sky simply because the narrator lives underwater, so to him the surface of the sea is the "edge of the sky" —— but it helps put you in the right frame of mind to take in the real strangeness: our narrator is a giant kraken, who with his father guards the mysterious island home of their scientist creator.

More accurately, the scientist created the father and his late wife, and they in turn created the son. This layer of separation from their creator makes all the difference in enabling the son to begin to evaluate the krakens' place in the world dispassionately, just as the greatest assault yet on their master's hideout begins.

The proof of how well Steinmetz gets you into the skin, er . . . scales, er . . . I just don't fucking know, of his characters is that you really start to care about what happens to the giant-squid father, and about the narrator's potential moral dilemma when he meets the mad-scientist creator. Good stuff!

In the past two years, Ferrett Steinmetz has published about a dozen pieces of short fiction, including two pieces in Asimov's and a story forthcoming in Shimmer. Another name to add to the watch list.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Dragon Dreams on Cardboard Wings and Tiny Scraps of Yellow by Christopher Kastensmidt

My story recommendation of the week goes to Dragon Dreams on Cardboard Wings and Tiny Scraps of Yellow by Christopher Kastensmidt, published November 4, 2010 at Daily Science Fiction.

I typically have little use for flash fiction, because it is so difficult for an author to draw the reader into the characters and events of such a short work of fiction. But every so often, an author does draw me into a short-short story, and I can only marvel at his or her skill in pulling it off.

Remarkably, Christopher Kastensmidt's "Dragon Dreams on Cardboard Wings and Tiny Scraps of Yellow" tells an absorbing story in under 400 words, barely longer than this blog post. All we learn in that length about the main character is that she is a computer programmer working in a cubicle farm. Yet her yearning to escape her mundane existence strikes a universal chord.

In his author notes, Kastensmidt tells us that "Dragon Dreams" was inspired by Leonardo Amora Leite's painting "Meu Dragão I" (My Dragon I), which the artist has graciously permitted us to reproduce here (click for a larger image): Meu Dragão I

Christopher Kastensmidt is an American living in Brazil, who designs video games when he is not writing fiction and poetry. He has co-written a Little Red Riding Hood parody with Jim C. Hines and appeared in various publications including Realms of Fantasy and Every Day Fiction. Judging from "Dragon Dreams," I suspect we will be hearing much more from him in the near future.

Daily Science Fiction is a new site that publishes a story every weekday, at professional rates, and has already featured work by such excellent authors as Mary Robinette Kowal, David D. Levine, Tim Pratt, Cat Rambo, Lavie Tidhar, and Greg van Eekhout. Most but not all of Daily SF's stories are flash fiction (their pattern seems to be to publish longer pieces on Friday), so I'm not their ideal reader, but they got me with "Dragon Dreams."

I highly recommend "Dragon Dreams," and since it won't take you but two minutes to read, what possible excuse can you have for not checking it out?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: When I'm Armouring My Belly by Gemma Files

evolve coverThe recommended story of the week is "When I'm Armouring My Belly" by Gemma Files, from the Edge anthology evolve, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick.

The glut of vampire fiction in the past several years has left vampires too commonplace, too familiar. In evolve, Nancy Kilpatrick has recaptured some of the strangeness of vampires by asking her contributors to imagine the next step in vampire evolution. As a result, the stories in evolve are less predictable than most vampire tales——you never know just what sort of creature will emerge. The authors in evolve are all Canadian and few are well-known (notable exceptions include Kelley Armstrong and Tanya Huff), but the stories are nearly all well-written, and I recommend the book to anyone looking for vampire fiction with a twist.

Despite their originality, however, to me most of the stories in evolve fail to recapture the ominous and disturbing nature of vampires. Through familiarity, the idea of someone sucking the very blood from your arteries has lost much of its power. Without that sense of dread, most vampire stories now feel now like fantasy rather than horror. (The same is true of werewolf stories.)

That's why my favorite story in evolve is "When I'm Armouring My Belly" by Gemma Files. This is a horror story, profoundly disturbing right from the opening line ("Much later, he would recall the exact moment when he finally forgot his own name") and the initial scene of sexual abuse ("Her insides milking him hard enough to bruise all the while, wet and tight and numbing-cold as a close-packed box of snow"). This unpleasant eroticism is far more interesting than anything we get from most of the current crop of dashing, romantic vampires.

For reasons that gradually become apparent, the protagonist of "When I'm Armouring My Belly" has a strange affinity with vampires. He is drawn to vampires and tries to aid them, even though he receives little in return but abuse and contempt. The tables eventually turn, but Files leaves it ambiguous whether the story's outcome is anything to celebrate.

Gemma Files has a knack for unsettling fiction. She is the co-author with husband Stephen J. Barringer of the striking story "each thing i show you is a piece of my death," which was on my Hugo recommendations list last year, and she won an International Horror Guild Award for "The Emperor's Old Bones." Her first novel A Book of Tongues, a weird Western, is just out from ChiZine Publications.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Near the Flame by Erin Cashier

Shimmer #12My story recommendation of the week goes to "Near the Flame" by Erin Cashier, from the recently released Issue 12 of Shimmer magazine. This is the second SROTW to come from the pages of Shimmer, one of the best (and best looking) semiprozines in the market.

Written in the style of an African folk tale, "Near the Flame" is the story of Nygibe (meaning "Near the Water"), later renamed Nygawa ("Near the Flame"), greatest of the Women of Agawa. The Women of Agawa possess the discrete but surprisingly powerful magical talent of telling a story with smoke. Nygawa is conflicted when the new king commands the Women of Agawa to use their magic to help conquer their land's neighbors.
Wasn't this like the stories that she'd learned, the stories that she'd told? Weren't there always battles, and didn't battles always have a losing side? But those stories had just been stories, smoke high in the sky and whispers on the wind. This was life, red and real. As the fighting went on, as they walked south and south and south, whipping the fire before them like a beast, Nygawa realized that just like stories, battles needed ends.
"Near the Flame" is a memorable tale featuring a powerful narrative voice. Erin Cashier is a subtle author, yet the nuances of her writing never distract from the story (a complaint I occasionally have with Shimmer fiction, some of which employs literary techniques too self-consciously).

I am delighted to say Cashier is a fellow winner of the Writers of the Future contest. Among other places, her stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Abyss & Apex, Writers of the Future, Vol. XXIV, and Footprints, with another forthcoming in InterGalactic Medicine Show. Shimmer is a great place to find up-and-coming writers, and Erin Cashier is definitely one to watch.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Writers of the Future

This blog generally focuses on promoting other authors' fiction, but today I hope you'll forgive me a bit of self-promotion.

My story "The Dualist" is a winner of the Writers of the Future contest!

The star-studded judging panel of Tim Powers, K.D. Wentworth, Jerry Pournelle, and Doug Beason picked my story as third-best of the Second Quarter 2010, out of the untold boxes of submissions they get. As one of the top three, "The Dualist" will be in Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII next year, and I will be invited to a week-long writing workshop with Powers, Wentworth, and others.

Appearing in a Writers of the Future anthology is rather a big deal. Past volumes have included early stories by such outstanding writers as Stephen M. Baxter, M. Shayne Bell, Tobias S. Buckell, Mark Budz, Jeff Carlson, Aliette de Bodard, Nicholas DiChario, J.R. Dunn, Nancy Farmer, Marina Fitch, Eric Flint, Karen Joy Fowler, Carl Frederick, Valerie J. Freireich, James Alan Gardner, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Howard V. Hendrix, Jim C. Hines, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Michael Jasper, Jay Lake, David D. Levine, Ian McHugh, Syne Mitchell, John Moore, Jamil Nasir, Scott Nicholson, Nnedi Okorafor, Michael H. Payne, Tony Pi, Ken Rand, Robert Reed, R. Garcia y Robertson, Bruce Holland Rogers, Patrick Rothfuss, Matthew Rotundo, Diana Rowland, Steven Savile, Ken Scholes, Dean Wesley Smith, Martha Soukup, Jason Stoddard, Eric James Stone, Sarah Totton, Mary Turzillo, K.D. Wentworth, Sean Williams, Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland), Stephen Woodworth, and David Zindell. The list goes on, but I think 50 names is enough to make my point. Of course, the list of former winners who did not go on to a noteworthy writing career is even longer, and I have no particular reason to expect to join the former list rather than the latter, but still . . .

To have something in common with all these amazing writers is a huge thrill. It's also strangely unsettling. I have the impression that many of the writers who enter the Writers of the Future contest are young, energetic people determined to become professional authors. I, on the other hand, am a middle-aged fellow who has never thought seriously of a career in fiction, because I never believed I had the talent. I've never even entered the WOTF contest before, figuring that none of my previous feeble efforts would have a chance.

I have always had an absurd hero-worship of professional authors, and so never dared to think that I could do what they do. But in the past couple years I've had the pleasure of meeting some of the local Colorado writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Ed Bryant, and as much as I admire their work, they are actually not fifteen feet tall. They are very friendly and interesting people, but do not seem superhuman at all (but then, I haven't checked Paolo's closet for capes). I still don't imagine I have it in me to write quite like Paolo or Ed -- who does? -- but somehow it's feeling less ridiculous to think of at least publishing some stuff in the same field. I am looking forward to this workshop next year more than I can say.

Congratulations to my fellow winners for this quarter, Patty Jansen and Ben Mann (both Australian), and the winners for the first quarter, Brennan Harvey, David D'Amico, and Ryan Harvey (no relation). Good luck to everyone in the third and fourth quarters of the contest. Hope to see you next Spring!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders by Aliette de Bodard

Age of MiraclesThis week's story recommendation is for "Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders" by Aliette de Bodard, from the September-October 2010 issue of Interzone. Aliette de Bodard is the first three-time SROTW recipient, which will surprise no one who has read her work. Lately I've been trying to teach myself to write decent short fiction, and so I have a mental list of very good authors to read and learn from. Well, de Bodard has moved off that list, onto the list of writers I don't dare try to emulate or I might hurt myself.

"Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders" shows us a fascinating, original setting, where the Aztec Empire has been replaced by a strange, machine-dominated culture that never (quite) existed in our world. (Note that this is not the setting of de Bodard's debut novel Servant of the Underworld, although it could be in the same universe at a later date.) Even better, the story doesn't just use that setting for scenery, but to frame important questions de Bodard would not have been able to convey through a mimetic setting or a conventional medieval fantasy background.

In "Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders," the new god-machine has done away with the sacrifices and brutality of the former empire and its bloodthirsty deities. A mechanical "heirarch" arrives in a small mining town with the last of the old gods in chains, to conduct a symbolic execution of the god, who will only be resurrected for the next stop on their tour. But the ordinary people of this town are beginning to question whether they are any better off under the machine-god, which demands their hard labor in the mines to sustain it. We see the points of view of the old god, the heirarch, and the townspeople, all of whom are conflicted in different ways, but de Bodard offers no simple answers to their conflicts.

"Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders" is set after the time of the Aztecs' human sacrifices, but it prompts us to wonder what sacrifices we are still making, for which we will never be able to atone.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: You Dream by Ekaterina Sedia

Dark Faith cover"We can get over the wrongs we do, but we cannot forgive ourselves for the wrongs done to us, for our own helplessness."

My story recommendation of the week is for "You Dream" by Ekaterina Sedia, from the Apex Publications anthology Dark Faith, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon.

Dark Faith is an anthology of horror fiction involving religion, although in "You Dream" both the horror and religious elements are rather understated. It includes contributions from such excellent authors as Catherynne M. Valente, Gary A. Braunbeck, Brian Keene, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jay Lake, Nick Mamatas, Jennifer Pelland, Tom Piccirilli, Lucy A. Snyder, and Lavie Tidhar. (There is also a limited edition companion chapbook, Dark Faith: Last Rites, with stories by Sara Genge and others.)

Written in second-person, for reasons that do not become apparent until late in the story, "You Dream" follows a Russian woman, perhaps middle-aged now, who was abused in her youth and learned to detach her mind from her body:
You sit up in your bed and want a smoke, and whisper to yourself, It was never sex. Never. It was a defensive reflex, the same as a lizard that aborts its tail and escapes while some predator dumbly noses around the mysteriously wriggling appendage. You'd learned to do it with your entire body, and only the spirit escaped, not watching from the distance, running instead for the hills and the razor slash of the distant horizon.
Our protagonist is haunted by the dream of a young boy from her childhood about whom she remembers little except that he was kind to her. Her fixation with and confusion about this boy tells us a great deal about her, and about all of us.

Ekaterine Sedia's first novel According to Crow flew under the radar, but her next two, The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy of Stone, have been very well received. Her latest novel, The House of Discarded Dreams, is due out from Prime Books in November. Sedia was raised in Moscow, but you would never know it from her wonderfully elegant writing style, of which "You Dream" is a terrific example.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Nine Bodies of Water by Monica Byrne

Fantasy 9/27/10My recommended story of the week is Nine Bodies of Water by Monica Byrne, published today (how's that for service!) at Fantasy Magazine.

Managed by Sean Wallace, Cat Rambo, and an outstanding staff, Fantasy Magazine is one of the best sources of fiction on the web, along with plenty of interesting interviews, reviews, and other non-fictional material. Fantasy has a distinctive style of literary fantasy, of which "Nine Bodies of Water" is an excellent example.

In "Nine Bodies of Water," our protagonist Alba is overwhelmed by a miserable series of ill fortune, followed by an amazing stroke of seemingly good luck. A child's nursery rhyme triggers visions of where the combination may lead. All her possible futures seem unhappy, but it is not obvious what lesson Alba should draw from that. This is a neatly constructed, gracefully written piece, with more underneath the surface than is immediately apparent.

Fantasy tells us nothing at all about Monica Byrne [update: Fantasy has since added a bio for Byrne, as well as an interesting interview], but there are no secrets in the Google Age. Byrne is a Clarion graduate, with stories forthcoming in Shimmer and Electric Velocipede. Which means soon she will be a famous, award-winning author, able to abandon that Master's in Analytical Geochemistry from MIT (seriously) and spend her days just making up stories. And it all started with a coveted SROTW.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Lesson of the Scribe by Holly Schwartz-Coignat

First Line Spring 2010My story recommendation of the week goes to "The Lesson of the Scribe" by Holly Schwartz-Coignat, from the Spring 2010 issue of The First Line.

The First Line is a print magazine, which selects a different opening line every issue and requires each submitting author to begin her story with that line. The magazine is predominantly mimetic fiction, and the few genre pieces are mostly by non-genre authors who don't much know what they're doing. Yet I give The First Line credit for at least attempting first lines that lend themselves to fantastic approaches. That includes the Spring 2010 issue, in which all the stories begin with the line, "Working for God is never easy."

To me, the story that engages with this premise most successfully is
"The Lesson of the Scribe." It tells the poignant tale of a brilliant Hebrew scribe of ancient Jerusalem, whose work is destroyed when the city is overrun by Babylonians. Schwartz-Coignat effectively conveys the bittersweet satisfaction of writing something beautiful that now will never be appreciated, and she nicely ties that into the theological implications of the scribe's story. Looking back on his apparently futile work in the service of God, the scribe wonders if he failed to appreciate the early advice he received: “Know that there is a difference between truth and honesty.”

Holly Schwartz-Coignat is an American living in southern France, whose work has appeared in mainstream publications such as The Battered Suitcase and With Painted Word. According to her writing blog, she has also been experimenting with genre work. I had to laugh at this statement: "It's the first time I've written specific genre fiction, the first time I've really NEEDED a plot, driven characters and action. Not just an internal struggle." Let's hope she develops a taste for writing real fiction, the kind that tells an actual story——it is obvious from "The Lesson of the Scribe" that she has the talent for it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Lost Canyon of the Dead by Brian Keene

cover of The Living Dead 2Two words: zombie dinosaur.

Our first ever zombie dinosaur story recommendation of the week is "Lost Canyon of the Dead" by Brian Keene, from the anthology The Living Dead 2, edited by John Joseph Adams. Even without the zombie dinosaur, I would recommend "Lost Canyon of the Dead" for its terrific voice, simultaneously funny and frightening and nostalgic for the Old West, right from the opening lines:
The desert smelled like dead folks.

The sun hung over our heads, fat and swollen like that Polish whore back in Red Creek. It made me sweat, just like she had. It felt like we were breathing soup. The heat made the stench worse. Our dirty handkerchiefs, crusted with sand and blood, were useless. They stank almost as bad as the desert. Course, it wasn't the desert that stank. It was the things chasing us.

We'd been fleeing through the desert for days. None of us had a clue where we were. Leppo knew the terrain and had acted as our guide, but he died of heatstroke on the second day, and we shot him in the head before he got back up again.
Zombie fiction is all the rage right now, and in "Lost Canyon of the Dead," Brian Keene does it awfully well.

The Living Dead 2 is John Joseph Adams' second big zombie anthology, which might have been overkill except that this volume has a different focus. The first Living Dead was a reprint anthology, collecting Adams' favorite zombie tales from over the years. The Living Dead 2 is predominantly comprised of original fiction, and even the reprints are mostly from the last two years. So this book is a great way to sample some of today's best zombie stories, written at the height of the fad.

The past decade has seen Brian Keene emerge as one of the top names of horror fiction. He has made a closet industry of zombie stories, with a trio of zombie novels beginning with Stoker Award-winning first novel The Rising, stories in no fewer than five recent zombie anthologies, and The Last Zombie comics. Collectors out there may want to grab a copy of his latest book, A Gathering of Crows, since it was published by Leisure Books just before Leisure killed its mass-market line, so copies may soon become scarce.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone

Analog Sept 2010My story recommendation for the week is "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone, from the September 2010 issue of Analog. "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" takes a strong SFnal premise and uses it as the framework for an interesting moral dilemma.

Eric James Stone has become a regular in Analog in the past five years, and has appeared in many other publications, such as Apex, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Jim Baen's Universe. As an aside, he is the only author I am aware of to appear in two different volumes of the annual Writers of the Future anthology. I presume he was a "published finalist" one year, before becoming a full-fledged winner the next year. (The intricacies of the WOTF contest are fascinating to me at the moment, as I am currently a finalist myself.)

Analog (once known as Astounding) is the old gray lady of science fiction magazines. I confess that for years it's been my least favorite of the major magazines, but a couple more tales like "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" could change that in a hurry.

The setting of "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" is the interior of the sun, which is inhabited by "swales" or "solcetaceans," huge plasma creatures who can harness solar energy to create interstellar portals. Harry Malan is sent to Sol Central Station for business——as the site of the portals, the sun naturally becomes a center of commerce——but as a Mormon it also falls to him to serve as president of the local LDS branch, most of whose members are converted swales. (This neatly explains why Harry is on the station and in contact with the swales even though he knows little about them, prompting others to lecture him without it being too obvious an infodump.) Harry's presence is an irritant to attractive scientist Juanita Merced, who disapproves of the Mormons' interference with the solcetaceans.

Harry is contacted by a swale member, Neuter Kimball (literally a neuter, one of the swales' three genders), who fears it has sinned by being forced into sex by another swale. Harry learns that the swales have no laws or taboos against rape, since sex is always physically pleasurable for them and cannot lead to unwanted pregnancy. He determines to persuade Leviathan, the largest and most influential of the swales, to prohibit forced sexual activity. Dr. Merced believes this a fool's mission, but is excited at the opportunity for close inspection of the 38-kilometer Leviathan.

At first I found it difficult to credit that a human religion could have much appeal to aliens of such awesome size and power, but Stone reveals why some of the relatively weak among them are drawn to Mormonism, when Harry relates his initial conversation with Leviathan to Neuter Kimball:
"She told me she is the first and greatest of all swales. Isn't that true?" I asked, suddenly worried that I'd been taken in by a swale con artist.

"She told you?" Neuter Kimball said. "We are not supposed to talk of it to humans, but if she has revealed herself as a god to you, then that is her choice."

"A god? Leviathan is not a god. She's just . . ." I stopped. What was I going to say: an ancient immortal being who created an entire race of intelligent beings? If that didn't fit the definition of a god, it was pretty close. "Neuter Kimball, if you believe Leviathan to be a god, why did you join the Church?"

"Because I do not want her as my god."
Harry's efforts to persuade the swales to adopt an aspect of human morality leads him and Dr. Merced on a fascinating and entertaining journey. Typical of Analog, the characterization does not have great depth, but Stone gives the two main characters enough personality for some amusing banter, and he handles the devout Mormon businessman and the atheist scientist with equal respect. This story should work for readers of any religious background.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer's Day by Lenora Rose

Who the hell is Lenora Rose? How does an author who has never appeared in any publication I've ever heard of suddenly pop out of nowhere with a story as beautiful and powerful and thought-provoking as It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer's Day, in the September 2010 issue of Ideomancer? Could she really be a new pseudonym of Catherynne Valente or Rachel Swirsky, or Ursula LeGuin for that matter?

"It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer's Day" is narrated by a selkie with the gift(?) of prophecy. As he awaits his pregnant lover he foretells what lies ahead of them. The story is told in future tense, not because Lenora Rose is showing off that she can do it, but because that is exactly how this story needs to be told. The protagonist foresees the future, including his own attempts to use his prophecies to manipulate the future, but the best he can apparently hope for is to survive to a bittersweet end:
Or he may come bid me be a man and talk, though even in that possible fate I cannot see what I would ever have to say to him, who will have over forty years of honest love where I have a handful of days.
This is a gorgeously written piece that manages in less than 1,500 words to engage with the implications of being able to see the future in unique and memorable fashion. Here's hoping to see much more of Lenora Rose in our future.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELS

cover of The Windup GirlThe biggest problem with this year's best novel category is that there is only one rocket to go around. I like to see the Hugo Award go to a novel that is unique and memorable and thought-provoking and superbly written. Three of this year's nominees, the Bacigalupi, Miéville, and Valente novels, meet those criteria for me.

Out of a very strong field, my #1 choice is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi is only the third author of the past 25 years to see his first novel nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and The Windup Girl is just the sort of once-in-a-generation reading experience that suggests. The novel combines an absorbing story with one of the most fascinating settings I've ever encountered, Bacigalupi's vision of future Thailand. Paolo Bacigalupi will be one of the leading voices of the SF field (and all of literature) for as long as he wants to be. A Hugo Award would be a great way to urge him on to a very long writing career.

China Miéville's The City and the City also features a tremendously inventive setting, the coexisting cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The way the inhabitants of both cities learn to unsee one another is fascinating and a powerful metaphor for how people manage to train themselves to avoid facing what is right in front of them. I enjoyed this novel throughout, even though the murder mystery plot is not entirely successful.

Catherynne M. Valente writes in a lush, ornate style that I would detest, except that she does it so exceedingly well. Palimpsest is a beautifully written novel, with striking imagery and a great deal to say about love and sex and the barriers that separate all of us. Valente is one of the very best authors in our field, and I am delighted Palimpsest received a Hugo nomination.

For me, whether I enjoy Robert J. Sawyer's work usually turns on if the ideas of a particular book are interesting enough to overcome the clunky writing. The ideas in WWW: Wake, including a blind woman gaining sight as she encounters an emerging intelligence existing in the Internet, would be strong enough to pass that test but they didn't have to, for I didn't find the writing of WWW: Wake clunky at all. In particular, I would not have thought Sawyer up to the challenge of conveying what it might be like for a blind person to gain eyesight for the first time, yet I found those passages in this novel very powerful and moving. Still, Sawyer can't quite compete with Paolo and China and Cat.

I enjoyed Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, a steampunk zombie adventure that has a lot more going for it than that gimmicky hook might suggest. As described in more detail in my review, Boneshaker is most entertaining, even if not tightly written, but does not compare favorably with the other outstanding works in this category. The same is true for me of Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock, about which I will say nothing more, because I must confess the novel didn't catch my interest enough for me to finish reading it.

With the range and quality of works on this ballot, this is an exciting time to be a science fiction and fantasy reader. I wish I were down under right now, to see one of these outstanding authors receive his or her well-earned recognition.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novel
1. Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl
2. China Miéville - The City and the City
3. Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest
4. Robert J. Sawyer - WWW: Wake
5. Cherie Priest - Boneshaker
6. Robert Charles Wilson - Julian Comstock

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM

The Hugo Awards are only a few hours away, which makes this my absolute last chance to declare in advance (barely) what should win, rather than whining about what should have won.

One of the most closely followed categories is Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (i.e., SF movies), even though the creators of the nominees often couldn't care less about the Hugo Awards. More to the point, the nominees often suck.

This year, however, we have a very strong slate of nominees, nearly rivaling the 1983 ballot, which included such classics as Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and E.T. In many a year, District 9 would be my hands-down first choice for the dramatic presentation Hugo, but this year I had to stick it down at #4 on my ballot, in favor of even better films.

Before we get to all that good stuff, however, let's dispose of the one nominee I disliked, the 2009 version of Star Trek. I acknowledge that this movie was entertaining, but I just hated it, largely because I am a big fan of the original Star Trek series. And this movie is emphatically not Star Trek. The one-dimensional characters: not Star Trek. (Compare the moronic Romulan villain in this movie to the Romulan commander in the "Balance of Terror" episode.) The ridiculous woo-woo science: not Star Trek. The cartoonish visuals: not Star Trek. The huge water pipe in the Enterprise's engineering section, the lack of handrails on the Romulan ship (plus knee-deep water--apparently it had one of those huge pipes too, and it froze), the fistfights and swordfights between characters who are carrying phasers, all of that would be at home in a Star Wars prequel or maybe Galaxy Quest but please don't call it Star Trek. The sad thing is most of this could have been fixed with a few lines of dialogue here and there, but the makers of this film didn't care enough to bother. This film is an old-style Hollywood assault on its viewers' intelligence, as bad as any 1950's black-and-white skiffy you can find.

With that rant out of the way, let's get to all the good news. I enjoyed District 9, an intelligent film with something to say about race and class barriers. The film had an interesting look, juxtaposing all-too-familiar slum areas with the visually striking alien creatures. But the movie can't make up its mind whether it wants to pretend to be a documentary——too much of the footage obviously would not have been available to the hypothetical documentary filmmakers——and I think it was a mistake to make the main character such a twit at the outset.

Up is another delightful success from Pixar. The movie features a grumpy old man protagonist and pulls it off remarkably well. And hearing the dogs' thoughts——"I will go get the ball!!! And then I will bring it back!!!"——was worth the price of admission by itself.

Moon is a cleverly written film, with some memorable twists. Sam Rockwell gives an unforgettable performance. The slow pace and grand visuals (despite the low budget) are a marvelous tribute to a prior generation of movies such as 2001 and Silent Running. I especially like the way the GERTY emerges as sort of a converse of HAL from 2001. This is a terrific movie, and I will be happy if it wins the Hugo, even though it is not my #1 choice.

My top choice is the highest-grossing film ever, Avatar. This movie is 37 different kinds of awesome, and I can't believe how blasé many fans of SF literature are about it. Some complain that the film is a rip-off of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World Is Forest and Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe." But to me, for Hollywood to draw inspiration from Ursula LeGuin or Poul Anderson is a very good thing. This film is visually stunning but also intelligent. The storyline may be fairly standard and straightforward, but the movie treats it with enough respect that it works. I can't remember when I last enjoyed a movie this much, and I hope the Hugo voters were not too snobbish to give Avatar the recognition it deserves.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
1. Avatar
2. Moon
3. Up
4. District 9
5. Star Trek

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Amy's bookshelf :: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May

cover of The Many-Colored LandThe Many-Colored Land by Julian May (1981) (cover art by Michael Whelan), volume one of the Saga of Pliocene Exile, is a science fiction book with some mythical aspects more commonly associated with fantasy. It was a 1982 Hugo Award nominee for best novel. I read the book some years ago and remember enjoying the entire series immensely.

In the 21st century Human Polity of the Galactic Milieu a portal is created in France allowing a one-way trip back in time to the Pliocene Epoch five million years ago. For years people -– adventurers, romantics, fanatics, conservatives, social misfits, the broken-hearted -- chose to exile themselves to the past. Many hope to find a simpler world. What they find is not at all what they expected.

There are two races of warring aliens, the tall, elf-like Tanu and the dwarf-like, gnome-like and ogre-like Firvulag. Both have seemingly magical powers called metaphysical talents. The books follow the fate of a group of exiles from 2110 who are split up upon arrival in the Pliocene.

The Many-Colored Land doesn't standalone. This first book in the series mainly sets up the story and introduces the characters. The rest of books in the Saga of Pliocene Exile are The Golden Torc, The Nonborn King, and The Adversary. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELETTES

Eros, Philia, AgapeBest novelette is the most difficult category for me to rank this year. I find three of the nominees outstanding——the Eugie Foster, Rachel Swirsky, and Peter Watts stories——and have trouble selecting between them. The good news is I will be happy if any of them wins the award.

After much deliberation, my top ranking goes to Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape." It is arguably not quite so ambitious as the Foster and Watts stories, but the execution is flawless. The protagonist of "Eros, Philia, Agape" acquires a male robot programmed to develop a personality that conforms to all her desires, yet somehow this proves not enough for a lasting relationship. I recommended this story when it first appeared, and I stand by my assessment that it is a wonderfully subtle meditation on universal issues about identity and love and marriage and family and parenting.

My second choice by the narrowest of margins is "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster. This is a beautifully written story built on an intriguing premise, a world where each person puts on a different mask every morning and subsumes herself within the role that mask represents. The whole society is thus comprised of individuals lacking, or at least unaware of, individual personalities. Not surprisingly, our protagonist(s) ends up questioning this way of life, but Foster's resolution of the story was not entirely satisfying to me.

"The Island" by Peter Watts is perhaps the most intellectually fascinating of the nominees, combining a provocative first contact scenario with the politics on a starship engaged in an eons-long journey to construct wormholes for interstellar travel. But it didn't grab me emotionally as the Swirsky and Foster stories did. Watts is not entirely successful at conveying his protagonist's despair, and he waits far too long to reveal important things that she knew or should have known much earlier.

"Overtime" by Charles Stross is a Christmas entry in Stross' Laundry series, in which superspies battle Lovecraftian horrors despite the constraints of their Dilbertesque bureaucracy. Their high tech office includes, for instance, a rotary phone, because "the NDO's office budget was misfiled years ago and nobody knows the correct code to requisition new supplies." This is an entertaining story that does everything it sets out to do, but is just not as memorable as the previous three nominees.

Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two" is an engrossing story. Griffith does a wonderful job of putting the reader into the skin of a woman falling in love. Add to that the tension from the reader's suspicion that something is not right about this love affair, and the first half of the story works very well. Unfortunately, we then find out what's not right, and the story abruptly stops working. There is no believable reason for the protagonist to have agreed to the elaborate procedure described, and her stated reason for agreeing (she didn't want to feel uncomfortable going to a strip club) is so flat-out preposterous that the whole story falls to pieces.

Finally, Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards Is Missing" is an inoffensive SF locked room mystery, involving a strange disappearance at the wedding of a British princess. There is nothing wrong with this story but neither is there anything award-worthy about it. I can only assume it made the ballot thanks to a certain segment of fans (you know the ones——they talk funny and they nominated every eligible episode of Doctor Who) who are fascinated with the royal family.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novelette
1. Rachel Swirsky - Eros, Philia, Agape
2. Eugie Foster - Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast
3. Peter Watts - The Island
4. Charles Stross - Overtime
5. Nicola Griffith - It Takes Two
6. Paul Cornell - One of Our Bastards Is Missing

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM

A grassroots effort to turn the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category into "Best Doctor Who Episode" was thwarted by the fact that only three Doctor Who episodes were released last year. I'm not sure it was necessary to nominate all three, but at least they are good examples of the form, and the two non-Doctor nominees are strong enough to make this a solid list overall.

Let's dispose of the Doctor first. To my tastes the best of the three nominated episodes is "The Waters of Mars," in which the Doctor encounters a body-snatching alien life form. Its appearance comes at a critical moment in history, and for once the Doctor is convinced he should not interfere. His frustration at being unable to help lends an effective "Cold Equations" feel to the episode, and it is appropriate that the action he finally takes does not turn out as intended.

"The Next Doctor" is also a strong episode. The identity of the "next doctor" makes a nice mystery, although Russell Davies made the right choice in not waiting until the end of the show to reveal the answer. The episode has some strong dramatic moments, despite a disjointed story and the actors hamming it up in typical Who fashion. The King of the Cybermen strolling through 1850's London is an effective ending image, but then Doctor Who was doing steampunk long before it was cool.

Less successful is "Planet of the Dead," which features a nonsensical plot, beginning with perhaps the most egregious example yet of the Doctor just happening to be there when bizarre stuff happens——naturally, he'll be riding the one bus in the history of London to be pulled through a wormhole——and ending with no explanation of why this swarm of nasty critters should open a wormhole to attack Earth but then wait exactly as long as the Doctor required before trying to zip through the hole. Meanwhile, the interaction between the Doctor and wannabe companion Lady de Souza feels forced.

"No More Good Days," the premier episode of FlashForward, combines an interesting premise (thanks to Robert Saywer) with good acting and nice effects. David Goyer's direction is intrusive at times, for example circling the camera around conversing characters until the viewer's head swims, but by the end he managed to build up the tension nicely. This was a solid opener to the series, but we have learned recently that Hollywood TV introduces SF plotlines far better than it resolves them.

By far my favorite of the nominees is "Epitaph One," the made-for-DVD final episode of Season One of Dollhouse. I watched Dollhouse from the outset, and like many viewers I felt the show got off to a slow start and was borderline offensive in its easy acceptance of the deeply immoral technology involved, which it treated initially as just a fun way to produce great prostitutes. Thankfully, by the end of Season One Joss Whedon made it clear that the main storyline would be Echo's struggle to retain her identity and defeat the evil minds behind the Dollhouse. "Epitaph One" showed us how much is at stake, with a glimpse of a future where Dollhouse technology has destroyed civilization. I found the episode gripping in itself, and also a huge step forward for the show, although the second season did not quite deliver on that promise.

Incidentally, because the character of Echo is offstage through nearly all of "Epitaph One," Eliza Dushku's detractors may vote for it with a clear conscience. I'm actually of the minority view that Dushku's acting was a strength of Dollhouse. She was not entirely convincing in all of the different roles Echo assumed, but then it was important to the show that she not be entirely convincing. However Echo was imprinted, we needed to see flashes of the same core personality, a core personality that was confused and uncertain. Perhaps this is a case like William Shatner in the original Star Trek, where an actor's flaws are happily well-suited to the character (I haven't seen enough of Dushku's work to say), but I thought she pulled that off perfectly.

"Epitaph One" was the strongest episode of a show that, despite its flaws, was the best SF on television in 2009.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
1. Dollhouse, "Epitaph One"
2. Doctor Who, "The Waters of Mars"
3. FlashForward, "No More Good Days"
4. Doctor Who, "The Next Doctor"
5. Doctor Who, "Planet of the Dead"

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: GRAPHIC NOVELS

I am no expert on graphic novels, but the point of including this category in the Hugo Awards is to highlight graphic works that should appeal to readers of prose science fiction and fantasy. So as a devoted SF/F prose reader, here is my take on the graphic novel (er, "graphic story") Hugo nominees.

By far the strongest of the five nominees to me is Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? This is a wonderful tribute to the character of Batman, a fitting end to DC's run of sequentially numbered Batman comic books. I'm sure to a long-time Batman fan the tribute comes across even more powerfully, as Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert have deliberately patterned sections of the story after various Batman creators of old. Even ignoring how this volume riffs on the history of Batman, it is a delightful book for its meditation on the significance of any old, oft-repeated tale. It is such a beautifully written story, I suspect most fans could identify it as the work of Neil Gaiman even if his name were left off the cover.

One reason I don't read more graphic novels is that I have long since tired of the superhero concept, in just the way I have tired of vampire stories. So there could hardly be a worse combination for me than Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State, a graphic novel in which a group of superheroes battle Dracula and other vampires. Yet I found it impossible not to enjoy this book. Writer Paul Cornell crafted a strong storyline with many nice touches, such as the opening image of Dracula on the moon, dragging his boot across Neil Armstrong's footprint. I love how Cornell conveys the characters' Britishness, even including a long flashback to a superheroes' game of cricket. The tale is easy enough to follow despite the large extent of backstory built in, and the artwork by Leonard Kirk and several others is wonderfully vivid.

By all reports, and judging by its multiple Eisner Awards, Bill Willingham's Fables, peopled by a huge cast of reimagined storybook characters, has been one of the most inventive series of the past several years. After several books focused on the struggle against the "Adversary," the current Hugo nominee, Volume 12: The Dark Ages, begins a different story arc and introduces a new villain. This volume is somewhat lacking in drama, since the new conflict remains far from resolution by the end, but there are still plenty of clever moments. I particularly enjoyed the appearance of Fritz Leiber's characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

The highlight of Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm is the striking artwork by Phil Foglio (with lush colors by Cheyenne Wright). It's a good thing the book has such strong visual appeal, because the story ranges from jumbled to incoherent. I'm at a disadvantage for not having read all the previous volumes, but I'm hard pressed to see how anyone could care about the dense layers of background information that come into play. The humor is hit-or-miss, for me more miss than hit, although I admit I laughed out loud a couple times. A final strike against this is the abrupt "to-be-continued" ending.

Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary is a long-running webcomic, done in the newspaper style, with a punchline at the end of each strip. Like most comic strips, I find the humor erratic. (The only daily comics that ever struck me as consistently funny were Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, so my standards are admittedly rather high.) While the volume of Schlock Mercenary nominated for last year's Hugo Award had some funny moments, I'm sorry to say the new edition, subtitled The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, did not make me laugh. That doesn't leave much to hold interest, for the story is routine at best (our mercenary heroes deliver a shipment of food to a space station) and takes far too long to develop.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Graphic Story
1. Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert & Scott Williams - Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
2. Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk & Mike Collins, et al. - Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State
3. Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham, et al. - Fables: The Dark Ages
4. Kaja & Phil Foglio & Cheyenne Wright - Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm
5. Howard Tayler - Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELLAS

cover of The God EnginesBest novella is a strong category this year. Even though this is certainly the fiction category with the fewest eligible works published, the voters managed to find six worthy nominees. All of the nominees will have their supporters——several of the nominated authors are popular with the Hugo voters, plus Kage Baker will have a sympathy vote due to her untimely death——but my guess is John Scalzi will win a Hugo for the third straight year, his first in a fiction category.

Kage Baker's "The Women of Nell Gwynne's," a steampunk mystery with a group of prostitute/spies as lead characters, is mostly light entertainment but does have an appropriately dark edge when showing us why some of our heroines would choose this life. The tale features some wonderful dialogue and is great fun to read, but the whodunit does not satisfy and the story feels less complete than the other nominees. My guess is "The Women of Nell Gwynne's" was meant as the first in a series of stories about these remarkable ladies——see for instance my recommendation for The Bohemian Astrobleme——which sadly will now never be completed.

"Palimpsest" by Charles Stross is a time travel story on a very large scale. While it begins with the cliché of a time traveler killing his own grandfather, the tale quickly moves on to grander and more original issues about the fate of humanity over the next billions, even trillions, of years. The folks directing human destiny control time travel technology, although oddly their grand plans mostly involve moving planets around, not time travel. Stross throws plenty of interesting ideas at us, but fails to include strong enough characters to provide the emotional hook to carry us through this type of Stapledonian epic. The main character has very little personality, and his two girlfriends have none at all.

"Act One" by Nancy Kress, a former story recommendation of the week, explores the morality of an attempt to impose genetic modifications on humanity to give everyone a greater sense of empathy. This is a near-future story on a much smaller scale than "Palimpsest," but the superior characterization makes "Act One" more successful overall.

James Morrow is the best satirist in our field, and one of the two best ever along with John Sladek. "Shambling Towards Hiroshima" exemplifies his trademark dry humor. The protagonist is a Boris Karloff-style creature-feature actor, called on during World War II to give the Japanese a demonstation of the damage that will be inflicted, if they don't surrender, by a fearsome weapon the United States has developed: monstrous fire-breathing lizards. Morrow has great fun writing of the B-movie culture of 1940's Hollywood, but he doesn't quite manage to combine this with his serious point as seamlessly as in his best work. The goofy monster movie material takes over the story, while the endnote as to the morality of weapons of mass destruction feels tacked on.

Ian McDonald's "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is the fascinating life story of a genetically engineered slow-aging super-genius who was instrumental, along with his unmodified brother, in the radical transformation of India. In contrast to "The Women of Nell Gwynne's," which suffered because it felt like the opening chapter of a larger unfinished work, "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is impressive because it stands alone very well yet also is a terrific capstone to Ian McDonald's series of stories (as well as the novel River of Gods) set in a future India.

While all the nominees in this category are very good, my favorite is John Scalzi's "The God Engines," the thought-provoking story of Ean Tephe, captain of a starship powered by an enslaved god, captured and harnessed by the god Tephe worships. Not surprisingly, Tephe comes to doubt his faith in his own god, but from there matters do not play out as you might expect. The tale is an interesting blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements.

John Scalzi has emerged in the past five years as one of the field's most capable authors, but at times he relies too heavily on snappy dialogue, rather than attempting something with more depth and emotional impact. "The God Engines" is thus a breakthrough work for him. Scalzi sets aside his usual sardonic humor in favor of original, intricate world-building and a compelling protagonist caught in the teeth of a dilemma from which there may be no way out. All of Scalzi's fiction is entertaining, but "The God Engines" is his best yet.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novella
1. John Scalzi - The God Engines
2. Ian McDonald - Vishnu at the Cat Circus
3. James Morrow - Shambling Towards Hiroshima
4. Nancy Kress - Act One
5. Charles Stross - Palimpsest
6. Kage Baker - The Women of Nell Gwynne's

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review Teaser :: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

cover of BoneshakerNew on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. This book is one of the current 2010 Hugo award nominees for Best Novel.

From Aaron's book review of Boneshaker :
"Boneshaker is a steampunk zombie novel, but much less gimmicky and more accomplished than this label suggests...."

"Boneshaker is set in Seattle circa 1880, but a steampunk alternate version of Seattle largely destroyed when Dr. Leviticus Blue's massive "boneshaker" drill undermined the city's foundations while simultaneously releasing a lethal subterranean gas that renders its victims zombies. Blue was never heard from again after the disaster, but his wife Briar Wilkes and son Zeke - unborn when Blue disappeared but now fifteen years old - scratch out a living in the outskirts of the ruined city, outside the immense walls that hold in the gas blight and zombies"

"Convinced history has treated his father unfairly, Zeke puts on a gas mask and follows an underground tunnel into the city on a quest to clear Leviticus Blue's name. With impeccable teenager logic, he braves the city alone, without telling his mother of his plans. The story begins in earnest...when an earthquake collapses the tunnel, and Briar sets out to rescue Zeke by airship...."

To read the entire review -> Boneshaker

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: PROFESSIONAL ARTISTS

cover of Always ForeverThe five Hugo-nominated professional artists are all outstanding, each in his own way, and we are blessed to have artistic talent like theirs in our field. I don't have the expertise to evaluate the artists' relative degrees of craft and technique, but I can say whose work most catches my attention and most rewards repeat examinations, whose cover art makes me want to read the book just so I can carry that gorgeous cover around.

The two artists who consistently draw that reaction from me are Stephan Martiniere and John Picacio. As much I love every Martiniere cover, I will have to rank Picacio #1 this year, because 2009 saw some of his most striking work yet. Let me call particular attention to his covers for Mark Chadbourn's Age of Misrule series, from Pyr Books (which never disappoints with its cover art). The covers are beautiful individually, but even more memorable for their progression through the series, from the torso of the immense mythical creature on the cover of World's End (dwarfing our heroes in the foreground) to the head on Darkest Hour to finally the Sauron-esque eye on Always Forever. Amazing stuff!

This should take nothing away from the other excellent nominees. Shaun Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia is a terrific showcase of his work, even if it suffers a bit by unfair comparison to his wonderful book The Arrival from 2007. I hate to put Bob Eggleton all the way down at #4, as he has been one of the most reliable artists in the field for many years, but then again he already has nine Hugo Awards to show for that body of work. Daniel Dos Santos is also very good, although his style is slightly less to my tastes than the other nominees. Suffice to say that whoever wins the award will be a very worthy recipient.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Professional Artist
1. John Picacio
2. Stephan Martiniere
3. Shaun Tan
4. Bob Eggleton
5. Daniel Dos Santos

Monday, May 10, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Tipping the Velvet by Rachel Swirsky

This week's story recommendation is for Rachel Swirsky's Tipping the Velvet, from literary zine Pank.

Most folks who see a Toulouse-Lautrec poster of 19th Century Parisian women doing the can-can have one of two reactions: (i) Oh, how wonderfully vivid! or (ii) What’s the big deal about Toulouse-Lautrec again? If you skip over (i) and (ii) and instead immediately sit down to create a story of heartbreak, loss, and betrayal starring a Parisian dancer, that’s a sign you’re a terrific writer.

More people are now aware that Rachel Swirsky is a terrific writer thanks to her well-deserved Hugo nomination for “Eros, Philia, Agape,” but I fear not many realize just how terrific she is. Case in point, I rarely get much out of flash fiction, and I would never expect to get anything out of a non-fantastic flash piece about someone bummed over losing a girlfriend. But in “Tipping the Velvet,” Swirsky takes that mundane set-up and in less than a thousand words brings a Parisian dancing girl in love with a fellow dancer memorably to life:
The music shifts and we set our hands on each other’s shoulders, taking turns leading each other across the planks. Skirts whoosh and rustle, rimmed with lace and red. Men swoon at the sight of our white ankles, but I want more than flesh from you. I want the spice of your breath and the tension of your fingertips and the flint in your ruthless eyes.
The more of Rachel Swirsky's work I read, the more I want to read.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Amy's silent movie reviews :: The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black PirateThe Black Pirate (1926) is an early Technicolor silent movie starring Douglas Fairbanks. In its day, it was a major studio production using a cutting-edge, still experimental technology. The imperfect two-color Technicolor process used predated the much superior three-color process. The Black Pirate is an adventure movie. Even though it has sword fights, action sequences, and several explosions, the pacing may be somewhat slow for modern audiences.

The movie stars Douglas Fairbanks, Billie Dove, Donald Crisp, and Sam De Grasse, and large cast of extras as motley-looking pirates. The Black Pirate was based on a story written by and was produced by Douglas Fairbanks. Running time is 90 minutes.

Pirates take a ship, loot it, and blow up the ship. The lone survivor, Fairbanks, vows revenge. The pirates hide their treasure on the island Fairbanks is marooned on. Fairbanks offers to join the pirates and kills the Captain in a sword fight. To prove himself to the remaining pirates, Fairbanks, now The Black Pirate, boasts that he'll take the next ship single-handed. On the merchant ship that he takes, there is a beautiful princess (Billie Dove).

Fairbanks convinces the pirates to send the merchants back, minus their loot, with a ransom note for the Princess. He also secretly asks the merchants to get help from the Governor. The pirate Lieutenant (Sam De Grasse) is annoyed at Fairbanks usurping his leadership position, changing their pirating routine, and for not allowing him ravish the Princess. The Lieutenant arranges it so that the merchant ship never delivers its message. Fairbanks is caught trying to sneak the Princess off the ship and is forced to walk the plank. But ever resourceful Fairbanks swims to land, gallops off on a stolen horse, and brings reinforcements back to rescue the Princess before ransom deadline. Meanwhile old pirate and comic relief (Donald Crisp) defends the princess from the Lieutenant. The Black Pirate and the Princess fall in love, and Fairbanks' Black Pirate isn't a pirate at all.

Action scenes in The Black Pirate were staged well. Fairbanks cutting the sails was memorably done. I liked how Sam De Grasse played the evil lieutenant in an understated manner, unlike the melodrama of many silent films. Donald Crisp was funny propping himself up with swords and daggers to stay awake. The pirate costumes of the crew and of De Grasse (long blue coat) and Crisp (old one-armed man) were quite good. In contrast, I found Fairbanks' costume of a black low-cut shirt and black shorts anachronistic and frankly ridiculous. But the award for the most ludicrous part goes to the boat Fairbanks arrives on to rescue the Princess, which looks like a cross between a Roman galley and racing scull. The rowers from the boat are wearing what looks like bandoleers and black bicycle shorts, but at least they are clean-cut, unlike the dirty pirates whom they defeat.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Changing Woman by Brandi Wells

Issue #Y'aing'ngahThis week's story recommendation goes to "Changing Woman" by Brandi Wells, from Issue #Y'aing'ngah of Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens, a bizarro magazine.

Bizarro is a surreal and punkish subgenre that can be a lot of fun when you're in the mood for something different. It is deliberately outrageous, with titles like Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere (by Mykle Hansen) or cover images such a woman's naked derrière (Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III). The best bizarro works are not merely absurd, but manage to employ their strangeness to make interesting suggestions about the real world.

"Changing Woman" is that kind of bizarro story, where lots of amusingly odd stuff happens, but there is an edge to all the weirdness. When the title character's eyes slide down her face leaving a huge forehead, it is uncomfortably telling that the husband finds he prefers "the concrete assuredness and structure" of her smooth face, that he starts to wonder if he couldn't fold her whole body into a featureless box. This is a funny and offbeat yet simultaneously disturbing story, a wacky bizarro tale that is also an effective feminist parable.

Brandi Wells is just starting on an MFA, but she has already put out plenty of good work, most of it flash fiction, much of it not fantastic, and quite a bit of it in the form of lists don't ask me why. She has popped up at McSweeney's, Improbable Object, Apt, Hobart, and other places, with hopefully a great deal more to come.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story by Jason Sanford

Tales of the Unanticipated 30We return to Issue #30 of Tales of the Unanticipated for another story recommendation of the week, Jason Sanford's "A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story."

Jason Sanford (not to be confused with Jason Stoddard, a previous SROTW recipient) is well known to Interzone readers, as he has published five stories there in the past three years with two more forthcoming, and I think he will soon be familiar to all genre readers. I've had an eye out for his work since reading his Nebula-nominated "Sublimation Angels," a terrifically inventive far-future tale. "A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story" is a contemporary fantasy, just as good as "Sublimation Angels," but even more impressive for its emotional, lyrical style.

"A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story" is a new take on the changeling story. A Scottish fairy (relocated to Chicago) whose beloved has died places her heart in the body of a dying infant girl human. He monitors her growth and tries to help the girl's felon mother but not much works out quite the way he intends. It is a bit hard to credit that some things would come together quite so neatly as they do in the story, but it is all told with such charm that it works. I highly recommend "A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story." It will amply reward your effort to track down this issue of Tales of the Unanticipated.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: If You Enjoyed This Story . . . by Sarah Totton

Tales of the Unanticipated 30The story recommendation of the week is for "If You Enjoyed This Story . . ." by Sarah Totton, a short short from the recently released Issue #30 of Tales of the Unanticipated.

So Jason Sanford, who wrote the lead story for this issue of TOTU, generously sends me a free signed copy of the magazine (details at his blog), and just to prove myself a miserable ingrate I promptly skip right past Sanford's story and find another story in this issue to recommend -- adding insult to the injury that I have yet to do a SROTW for Sanford's "Sublimations Angels," which desperately deserves one. But at least this furthers Sanford's goal of brining attention to TOTU, an excellent semiprozine created in 1986 by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, published roughly annually, which has printed a trememdous array of authors over the years. Issue 30's lineup includes Sanford, Totton, Eleanor Arnason, Stephen Dedman, Matthew S. Rotundo, Patricia Russo, Barbara Rosen, and many others. If you're an aspiring writer, TOTU is a great place to submit, because editor Eric Heideman reads all submissions himself and often sends helpful comments on the stories he rejects.

Heideman's tag to "If You Enjoyed This Story . . ." is "And now for something completely different...," which is fitting. This story is a Pythonesque absurdist romp. It sort of follows Ernie as he tells a peculiar story to Clarence:
"'And there was a plague upon the land,'" said Ernie, "'And on that day it rained frogs.'"
"You've already read that bit," said Clarence.
"Oh. 'And on that day there was a plague of locusts.'"
"You've done them too."
"Oh.... And on that day the people were visited by a host of ducks."
"Fire-breathing ducks."
"There were fire-breathing ducks in last night's story."
"Those weren't ducks. They were chartered accountants ... fire-breathing chartered accountants."
"Oh. Okay. So that's why they were doing people's taxes."
"And then setting fire to them, yes."
Ernie and Clarence are repeatedly interrupted, however, by the stories' sponsors. And yes, I realize "word from our sponsor" gags have been done to death.

It is fair to say that "If You Enjoyed This Story . . ." is a supremely silly assortment of tired old jokes with only one redeeming virtue: I laughed like hell all the way through. And that's not just because I have a sophomoric sense of humor (although I surely do) -- I read this story out loud to a group of about 16 people and they all laughed. So this is objectively funny stuff, and you should check it out.

Sarah Totton has appeared in such cool places as Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy On-line, Polyphony, Black Static, Tesseracts, and others. And if you don't like oddball humor, I'm guessing most of her work isn't as silly as "If You Enjoyed This Story . . .."

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: SHORT STORIES

Short stories are often my least favorite of the Hugo fiction categories, but this year's slate has a good ratio of two excellent stories (one that I nominated and one I would have if I had read it in time), two good ones, and one lousy one.

My top choice is "Spar" by Kij Johnson, about a woman who escapes a spacewreck in a lifeboat shared by an amoeboid alien, with whom she cannot communicate except to engage in sexual intercourse. The opening line is, "In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly." Kij Johnson is usually an elegant writer, but this story is deliberately harsh. "Spar" is not an enjoyable reading experience, but it is a powerful, memorable story. It has important things to say about gender issues and sexual politics, concepts Johnson could not convey without the SFnal premise. I suspect I will still have strong recollections of "Spar" decades from now, that it will still be coming up in conversation. That is the kind of story I like to see win a Hugo Award.

I read most of the January 2009 issue of Asimov's when it came out, but I skipped "Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh, because the story idea sounded unpromising: young women who have died are kept frozen, in hopes that a rich man will come along to pay for the expensive procedure to revive them, in the future's version of mail-order brides. But McIntosh adds a crucial additional element, that another option for a dying person is to preserve his or her identity in the mind of a survivor. Our protagonist Mira is a frozen potential bride, who previously held her mother's personality, but it was lost when Mira died, to her guilty relief. To be resurrected, Mira must hope to marry a rich older man, even though she is gay, which makes the whole set-up a metaphor for societal barriers against gays. These different elements combine together nicely into a very strong story.

In "The Bride of Frankenstein," Mike Resnick similarly writes of a bride in unusual circumstances. The story is a humorous take on the Frankenstein story, told from the point of view of Victor Frankenstein's bitchy, modern wife, who doesn't understand why he's squandering her stock portfolio for experiments on a hideous creature. Resnick takes the tale in a romantic direction I found quite charming.

N.K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities" is a well-crafted story, which finds an optimistic take on a daunting premise, basically that Murphy's Law has taken utter control of Manhattan. When the Hugo nominations came out, I started to read this, was quite enjoying it, and got well into the story before realizing that I already read it last year. So this is an enjoyable but not at all memorable story, completely the reverse of "Spar." The good news for Jemisin is now I recall why I picked up that copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sitting in my to-read pile.

Last and by far least is "The Moment" by Lawrence M. Schoen, a dreadful piece that has no business on a Hugo ballot. The story is about aliens visiting Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon, but you can't give Schoen credit for that mildly clever idea -- it was written for a theme anthology of stories about aliens visiting the astronauts' footprints on the moon. "The Moment" is a hopeless jumble of sentences like, "The generation ship of Krenn frantically dumped velocity as it splooched from the fuel-efficient but mind-numbing slowness of intramolecular phasetransit back into the normal time-space continuum, less than a cubit above the moon." Perhaps this is meant as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of really bad pulp-era skiffy, but it is that only in the sense that "The Moment" is itself really bad pulp-style skiffy. I actually wrote a long rant for this blog chastising whoever stuffed this turkey onto the ballot, but I think I won't publish it. I googled around and while I can't find much praise for this story, I also don't see that others have disliked it as much as I did. Rich Horton has called it "interesting" and "worth reading," so maybe I missed some redeeming quality.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story
1. Kij Johnson - Spar
2. Will McIntosh - Bridesicle
3. Mike Resnick - The Bride of Frankenstein
4. N.K. Jemisin - Non-Zero Probabilities
6. Lawrence M. Schoen - The Moment

Friday, April 02, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Year of the Rabbit by An Owomoyela

This week's story recommendation goes to Year of the Rabbit by An Owomoyela, a short story just out in the April-June issue of ChiZine.

Early each month I scan through my favorite fiction websites to see which have posted new stories and make a note of the ones I'd like to read -- if I'm lucky I'll eventually get to maybe half of them. The stories that go on the to-read list are generally by authors I know I enjoy or those I've heard a lot about but haven't read yet. Authors I've never heard of are usually out of luck. At best, I might read the first couple paragraphs to see if they grab me. I realize that's terribly unfair -- some stories require an understated beginning -- but I can't read everything. In "Year of the Rabbit," An Owomoyela grabbed me right away:
Tell me about the streetlamps.

It used to be that the sun would go down and the streetlamps would come on and make pools of this wet, yellow light. No matter where you stood, you could see the lights on somewhere. You could run from streetlamp to streetlamp and you could look down the streets and you'd never drown in the dark.

After the Curfew but before the lights started dying, Sara and I used to go to the city's edge—-we'd watch the line where the city lights dropped off, but sitting in our park on the outskirts we still felt that illusion of safety. Maybe it wasn't safety but the thrill of walking so close to real night. We could see the lights of Omaha to the northeast, but between them and us was just dark, dark, a swarming ocean of black. Behind us, too, were all the lights of the city, but we were on the edge.

Sara grew up far from here. When she was a kid, she told me, she ignored her parents' warnings and snuck out of her house to dangle her feet in the lapping Mediterranean. That was before Curfews. Here of course we had no sea, but that was what we were doing. Dangling our feet.
Some will find this story frustrating, because not a lot gets explained by the end, but I thought it worked perfectly. "Year of the Rabbit" is a distillation of all of horror fiction into about 3,500 words. It effectively creates a vague sense of dread that darkness is creeping in and forces us to confront that we don't control our fates, that we can't really understand the world around us, any better than we know for sure what's waiting outside the puddle of light under a lamppost. Great stuff.

"Year of the Rabbit" is only Owomoyela's second published story, with a third forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine. ChiZine provides no bio on the author, and the "About" tab on Owomoyela's website is empty, so I can't tell you much about her (I think it's "her" -- "An" seems to be short for "Anna," but I could be wrong even about that). She is only a year out of the University of Iowa and attended Clarion West in 2008 (with Carlton Mellick III among many others, so that must have been an interesting group). I believe I am the first reviewer to identify her as a very talented author to watch, and so I shall henceforth take credit for her entire hopefully long career.

This is the first SROTW from ChiZine, short for Chiaroscuro WebZine, a consistently solid zine with an emphasis on dark fantasy and horror, which pays professional rates. ChiZine has recently also turned to book publishing with an impressive lineup of titles including Daniel A. Rabuzzi's The Choir Boats, which has been sitting on my to-read mound for too long, and A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files, which I have been anxious to get my hands on since reading "each thing I show you is a piece of my death," which I somehow neglected to post an SROTW for -- stay tuned!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Deutoroi by Samantha Henderson

DeutoriMy story recommendation of the week goes to Deutoroi by Samantha Henderson, from the First Quarter, 2010 issue of Abyss & Apex. This is Henderson's second SROTW, putting her in strong company with Paolo Bacigalupi, Catherynne M. Valente, Aliette de Bodard, Leah Bobet, and Eugie Foster.

Our protagonist Merea is the Thessa, a woman able to communicate (to a degree) with animals, trees, even the wind. As the story begins, Merea is pursued by would-be king Dathan, who needs her to help track down the Deutoroi, the white stag whose blood is necessary to give a king legitimacy in this land. Merea is drawn to this destiny but also fears it will drive her insane:
The Thessa must surrender to madness to find the Deutoroi, and all Thessa went mad in time. That's what she had come to understand after her mother died, and what she most feared. The horror of losing herself in the wind that lashed the tops of the trees, or giving in to the voice that called her from the west, from the Narcos Wade. The horror and delight of it. She heard it in the whispering of the plum trees when she was sent to pick their fruit, in the smell of a breeze that brought her up short, prickling all over.
I just loved this story. The writing is evocative but never ostentatious. It has a simple, pastoral setting, but Henderson hints at fascinating complexities to this world. The tale moves quickly in a predictable direction, yet still packs several surprises. Our sympathies are initially with Merea, hunted and used by Dathan, but we soon learn that Dathan is motivated by a sincere desire to prevent war, and we begin to wonder if Merea is truly blameless or has shirked her responsibilities. A similar pattern unfolds as they begin their hunt for the Deutoroi.

Webzine Abyss & Apex is one of the most reliable free sites for excellent fiction by up-and-coming authors. In the past two years alone, it has published work by Camille Alexa, Marie Brennan, Aliette de Bodard, Vylar Kaftan, Ruth Nestvold, Tony Pi, Cat Rambo, Patricia Russo, Ken Scholes, and Lavie Tidhar, among many others. Go give it a read, starting with "Deutoroi".

Friday, March 19, 2010

Amy's Music :: RIP Alex Chilton

Big StarThis week I was sad to hear of the death of singer and guitarist Alex Chilton. He was 59. Alex Chilton deserves to be remembered for his influential 1970s band Big Star. I love Big Star's pop songs especially "September Gurls" (not a typo, it's truly "gurls") and "Back of a Car" with their ringing guitars. You might have heard Big Star's song "In the Street" as the theme for the TV show "That '70s Show".

Big Star were sadly never commercially successful when they released their albums and in early 1970s. Record company distribution problems and band disagreements hurt their chances. But their innovative, power-pop music went on to inspire many other musicians. R.E.M., The Replacements, Game Theory, and The Bangles are a few of the artists who have acknowledged Big Star as an influence.

Here are some of the lyrics, or a best guess, from "September Gurls":
September gurls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you well never mind
I've been crying all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

September gurls I don't know why
How can I deny what's inside
Even though I'll keep away
They will love all our days

Also, before Big Star, Alex Chilton was the teenage singer of The Box Tops 1967 hit song "The Letter", which begins with the lines:
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain't got time to take a fast train

RIP Alex Chilton.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Aaron's Hugo Recommendations :: Short Story

Here are my nominations (strangely lacking in gender balance) for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of 2009:

Aliette de Bodard, Blighted Heart (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 7/30/09)
Kij Johnson, Spar (Clarkesworld, Oct '09)
Mary Robinette Kowal, Jaiden's Weaver (Diamonds in the Sky)
Margo Lanagan, Ferryman (Firebirds Soaring)
Cat Rambo, Rare Pears and Greengages (Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight)

I think the Kij Johnson story is the only one in this group with much of a chance at making the final ballot, even though (or perhaps because) it is rather a disturbing, unpleasant reading experience. Good luck to all these excellent authors just the same!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Aaron's Hugo Recommendations :: Novelette

Here are my nominations for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette of 2009:

Daniel Abraham, The Curandero and the Swede (F&SF, March '09)
Gemma Files & Stephen J. Barringer, each thing I show you is a piece of my death (Clockwork Phoenix 2)
Eugie Foster, Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast (Interzone, Jan-Feb '09)
Rachel Swirsky, Eros, Philia, Agape (, March '09)
James Van Pelt, The Radio Magician (Realms of Fantasy, February '09)

(Note that the publications listed are the original publications -- several of these stories have already been reprinted.)

Novelette is often my favorite of the short fiction categories, and this year is no exception. This is an outstanding list of stories, and I would dearly love to see some of these on the final Hugo ballot.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Aaron's Hugo Recommendations :: Novella

I didn't get to read that many novellas from 2009, but the small number I read included some outstanding stories. I plan to nominate these five for the Hugo Award:

Nancy Kress, Act One (Asimov's, March '09)
John Langan, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky (By Blood We Live)
Ian McDonald, Vishnu at the Cat Circus (Cyberabad Days)
James Morrow, Shambling Towards Hiroshima (Tachyon)
Jason Sanford, Sublimation Angels (Interzone, Sept-Oct '09)

With the exception of "The Wide, Carnivorous Sky," which is more likly to appeal to horror readers than SF fans, all of these have a reasonable chance of joining John Scalzi's The God Engines on the Hugo ballot. (I haven't yet read The God Engines, but given Scalzi's popularity with the Hugo voters, I am confident he doesn't need my help.)

Good luck to all of these deserving authors!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Aaron's Hugo Recommendations :: Best Novel

If I had to submit my Hugo nominations today, these are the novels I would nominate (in alphabetical order by author):

Daniel Abraham, The Price of Spring
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl
China Miéville, The City and the City
Ken Scholes, Lamentation
Catherynne M. Valente, Palimpsest

I fully expect the Bacigalupi and Miéville novels to make the final ballot, and I would love to see any of the others recognized as well.

Obviously, there are many great novels from 2009 I have not yet read. Given what I know of the authors and what I've heard about the books, these are the five I suspect have the best chance of moving into my list, in the unlikely event I am able to read them in the next ten days:

Daryl Gregory, The Devil's Alphabet
Malinda Lo, Ash
Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia
Jeff VanderMeer, Finch
Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not a Game

I will update if my list changes before the 13th.