Friday, December 23, 2011

New Story Published :: "The Truth About Mother" in Arcane

ArcaneMy latest story, “The Truth About Mother,” has just been published in the anthology Arcane, edited by Nathan Shumate, now available at Amazon. "The Truth About Mother” is a horror/ hardboiled mystery/ political satire story. This is not currenly a lucrative sub-genre, but thankfully Nathan Shumate has eclectic tastes. Arcane includes 30 stories, mostly horror and dark fantasy by such excellent, up-and-coming authors as Gemma Files and Milo James Fowler. For more details, see my author blog.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books

battle booksAnnouncing the FANTASTIC REVIEWS BATTLE OF THE BOOKS!!!

We are trying something new (and hopefully fun) for 2012. All of the review copies we receive at Fantastic Reviews will be placed into 16-book brackets, and we will have a March Madness-style playoff. The winner of each bracket will be reviewed at Fantastic Reviews, and our favorite of all the winners will be the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books Champion.

Click here if you're curious why we decided to host a tournament of books.

Click here for all the details of how this Battle of the Books will work.

WHY a Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books?

1. GUILT. We receive an awful lot of review copies of books, more than we could possibly review, and we have been reviewing fewer books recently. This is because I (Aaron, FR's primary reviewer) have had work and family conspire to reduce my free time, and I've been devoting more of the free time I have to my own writing (which also means most of my reading lately has been short fiction, as I try to teach myself how to write short stories). We are well aware that the publishers sending us these books are on tight budgets, and we feel we either need to stop accepting review copies or find some way to help publicize the books we receive even if we're not going to review most of them. Many bloggers do "books received" posts for this purpose, but the Battle of the Books seemed like a more interesting and unusual way to promote all these books and their authors.

2. NEW AUTHORS. At Fantastic Reviews, we love to publicize talented new authors. We've been able to do that recently as to short fiction with our Story Recommendations of the Week, but we haven't been doing as much to spread the word about novels by new writers. The Battle of the Books will prompt us to discuss new writers whose books come to us, and will give them at least a fighting chance at being reviewed.

3. POSITIVE REVIEWS. Having some of my own stories published this past year has taken away my enthusiasm for writing scathing (or even lukewarm) reviews, for two reasons. First, I've been learning just how difficult this writing thing is. Second, I worry that readers may take any negative comments to mean I think I could have done better. Through the Battle of the Books, I'll end up mostly reviewing books I really enjoyed, while the negative responses will be limited merely to a paragraph on why a book's opening pages didn't grab me.

4. LEARNING EXERCISE. I've focused my writing on short fiction so far, but in the present market, novels are where it's at. If I'm going to stick with writing, before long I need to work at novel length. A strong opening is crucial for selling a novel and for attracting readers. So reading the openings of many different books should be a useful exercise.

5. SOMETHING DIFFERENT. It just seemed like fun.

Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books :: The Rules


Every 16 review copies we get will be placed in a bracket.

For the first round, the Fantastic Reviews judge (usually me, Aaron Hughes, but sometimes Amy Peterson) will read the opening 25 pages of both books. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading (not necessarily the better book -- how would I even know that after only 25 pages?). The winners advance to the second round.

For the second round, I will read through page 50. The winners advance to the semifinals.

For the semifinals, I will read through page 100.

For the finals, I will read through page 200.

The winner of each bracket will be read completely and reviewed at Fantastic Reviews.


Brackets.We will name four "seeded" books that we're especially looking forward to, with each seeded book placed in a different quarter of the bracket. (So you are welcome to send us your self-published book, just know there's a good chance you'll be playing the role of Prairie View A&M to Catherynne Valente's Kentucky.)

Right to Add Books. We reserve the right to add into the tournament "wild cards," i.e., books that we picked up on our own that we feel inclined to add to the mix. Even if we don't enter them into the tournament, we reserve the right to review other books in addition to the tournament winners, including tournament non-winners -- so if we love both finalists in a bracket, we may review them both.

Right to Decline Books. While our intention is to include all the review copies we receive, we reserve the right to exclude particular books. This is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror site, so if you send us something outside those areas, we may deem it unsuitable for our audience. Also, if we get swamped by self-published books, we may decide to choose the ones that look most interesting, rather than entering them all.

Format. Any printed copies of books sent to us for review are automatically entered. Audio copies sent on CDs are also eligible. Electronic copies are not automatically eligible. We have the right to add e-books as wild cards, but mostly we won't, because (i) the two people who run this site are book collectors who love books as physical objects, and (ii) the biggest reason we're doing this is guilt over all the resources publishers have been putting into printing and shipping us review copies that we've been ignoring; e-books sent to us carry no such guilt burden.

Collections & Anthologies. Single-author collections are eligible. With collections, we will not read from page 1, but will skip first to any previously unpublished stories. Anthologies are not eligible for the tournament; however, we still welcome anthologies, and original stories in them remain eligible for Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week.

Page Counts. We will count the pages we read from the first page of the story, ignoring blurbs, introductions, dedications, quotes, etc. So if Chapter One begins on page 11, for the first round we will read through page 35 -- and if a chapter ends on page 37, we will probably finish that chapter.

Tournament Dates. Brackets will be dated by the copyright date of the books. If we receive an advance copy of a book previously published in a limited edition, which we never saw, we can pretend the previous edition never happened. Also, we reserve the right to fudge the dates.

Judges' Discretion. All judges' rulings are final. This competition is built around inherently subjective criteria. You are welcome to post on the blog why you disagree with a judge's ruling. But there is no right of appeal.

Submissions. Feel free to send review copies for the tournament to:

Amy Peterson
Fantastic Reviews
P.O. Box 5415
Englewood, CO 80155

If a street address is needed (such as for UPS or FedEx)

6855 S. Dayton St. #5415
Englewood, CO 80112

Monday, November 07, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The License Plate Game by Samantha Henderson

Bourbon Penn #3This week's Story Recommendation of the Week goes to The License Plate Game by Samantha Henderson, from the November 2011 issue of Bourbon Penn. I will confess I never heard of Bourbon Penn, until they attracted my attention by publishing a Samantha Henderson story. I seem to be one of Samantha Henderson's ideal readers, as I've enjoyed everything of hers I've read and given her a Story Recommendation of the Week three times. She joins only Rachel Swirsky and Aliette de Bodard as three-time SROTW recipients.

"The License Plate Game" starts out as a simple tale of a young girl's vacation with her mother and best friend, which started out great fun but somehow turned sour:
The drive home is interminable. You've listened to the good CDs too much, and what was delightful has become boring, and your Mad Libs are marked up, and you're surprised you ever thought them funny. Jillian looks out the window, bored with you, and you know on the first day of school she's going to turn away from you with that superior look and whisper to Margaret Lanhelm, and they'll laugh as if everything was a joke that you've no hope of understanding.
This first part of the story strikes a universal chord, underscored by Henderson's choice to write the piece in second person.

The fantastic element comes in late in the tale, and Henderson keeps it vague just what's happening. The focus of this story is on the kind of everyday resentments that might lead someone to make the sort of terrible choice demanded in a fantasy story. "The License Plate Game" is a nicely written, thought-provoking piece.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review Teaser :: White Cat by Holly Black

cover of White CatNew on Fantastic Reviews is Amy's review of White Cat by Holly Black.

From Amy's book review of White Cat :
White Cat by Holly Black, book one of The Curse Workers, is a dark twisted tale, a YA fantasy noir. It's a fast reading, modern-day fantasy which I, as an adult, can highly recommend.

This is the first book I've read by Holly Black. She is best known as the co-creator (with artist Tony DiTerlizzi) of the bestselling children's series The Spiderwick Chronicles....

The setting of White Cat is in and around New Jersey. This isn't your typical urban fantasy because there are no supernatural beings to battle or to romance. No vampires, no werewolves, no zombies. There is magic, but isn't called that, it's called "curse work". Only a small minority of people are curse workers. Curse work is banned in the USA and it's controlled by a handful of Mafia-like worker families.

There are seven kinds of curse workers: luck, emotion, physical, dream, memory, death and transformation. Some types, such as luck, are more common. People can be worked with a brush of a bare finger, so in this world, everyone wears gloves....

To read the entire review -> White Cat

Thursday, November 03, 2011

New Story Published :: "The Burbles" at The Dream People

My latest story, “The Burbles,” has just been published on-line in Issue 36 of The Dream People. “The Burbles” is the first Bizarro story I've attempted to write, so I’m vey excited to have it appear at The Dream People, a respected Bizarro publication. In addition to my piece, Issue 36 of The Dream People includes a story by Cat Rambo, one of the best new authors to emerge in the past few years (her collection Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight is excellent), an interview with outstanding mystery and horror author Joe R. Lansdale, and much other goodness.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Glen Duncan Is A Dick

[The following screed reflects the opinions of contributor Aaron Hughes, and not necessarily the views of the Fantastic Reviews Blog. It concerns an issue about which Hughes is perhaps a tad oversensitive, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.]

I've never met Glen Duncan, so I don't know if he's always a dick. What I know is he made a dick of himself with this review in the New York Times. Duncan reviewed Zone One by Colson Whitehead, a new zombie novel by a respected mainstream author.

Duncan begins his review: "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star." In this analogy, genre fiction is the porn star, sexy but stupid, while the intellectual is Colson Whitehead. Much more to the point, the intellectual is Glen Duncan, also a mainstream author who has dabbled in genre tropes, particularly in his most recent novel The Last Werewolf and its forthcoming sequels (which have made him Britain's second most successful fantasy novelist named "Duncan," behind Hal Duncan). Glen Duncan's review is in large part a self-serving complaint about the mistreatment "literary" novelists receive when they write genre. So, for example, when Duncan warns Whitehead that uncultured Amazon reviewers will fail to appreciate his intellectual approach to zombie fiction, we can safely infer that Duncan has been closely studying his own Amazon reviews.

Let me offer a counter-analogy to Glen Duncan's porn star comparison. Glen Duncan fancies himself an intellectual, so we'll picture him as a college professor. And since he doesn't see anything wrong with dropping casual references to women as mindless bimbos, let's place him in the 1950's. Duncan is at a faculty party when the new associate professor arrives with his wife, so gorgeous and shapely one might say she looks like a porn star. Duncan enviously snickers to the other tenured professors in the corner about what hot sex the new guy must be getting, but he never speaks to the fellow's wife long enough to realize she is the smartest person in the room.

In his review, Duncan snickers that knuckle-dragging genre readers will balk at Whitehead's use of terms like "cathected" or "brisant." He makes a point of dropping fancy terms of his own -- I had to scratch my low brow at his reference to "ludic violence." But China Miéville, arguably the most important British fantasist of the current generation, doesn't shield his genre readers from his extensive vocabulary. If Duncan hasn't read Miéville, how about J.G. Ballard and Thomas Disch, British authors who were using lots of them big words in their genre fiction before Glen Duncan learned to stop sucking his thumb? Duncan's assertion that authors must dumb down their language to satisfy genre readers is demonstrably false, and only reveals his own appalling ignorance of the genre he is currently writing in and writing about.

(As an aside, Colson Whitehead doesn't seem to share Duncan's insulting and condescending attitudes. He recently admonished literary purists asking why he would write genre fiction, "Don't be such a snob." So we should try not to hold Duncan's deplorable review against Whitehead.)

I will grant Duncan that genre readers have less tolerance than "literary" mainstream readers of aimless meanderings in their fiction. In his review of Zone One, Duncan is untroubled to declare that the book has no plot, and he snidely dismisses anyone who might dislike this as suffering from "limited attention span." But could it be that genre fans are simply more discerning readers? The strength of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genre is that most of its authors seek to combine an effective writing style with an engaging story. And once you become accustomed to books that tell a good story, you can quickly lose patience with those that don't.

A few days before Duncan's obnoxious review, the New York Times published a more thoughtful review of recent genre fiction by Dana Jennings. Jennings correctly identified Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" as one of the most powerful stories of the past decade. "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is a ghost story by a genre writer, but I would be surprised to learn that Glen Duncan has ever in his career written a passage as beautiful or thought-provoking.

Of course, not all genre fiction holds to this level. A few authors have found great commercial success despite clunky prose, by keeping their stories moving along and usually by including plenty of sex. But a great many science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors take a far more literary approach to the genre. And the readers who enjoy their literary genre fiction are in many cases the same readers who made Glen Duncan's Last Werewolf a success. If Duncan would like the sequel to earn out its advance, he had best hope that his readers were too busy watching porn to read the New York Times this weekend.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: "Run," Bakri Says by Ferrett Steinmetz

Asimov's December 2011 My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "'Run,' Bakri Says" by Ferrett Steinmetz, from the December 2011 issue of Asimov's. This is Steinmetz's second SROTW.

Authors have been writing stories inspired by video games since I first began reading science fiction in the 1970's, and for far longer than that they've been writing fiction to illustrate the dehumanizing effects of war. Yet in "'Run,' Bakri Says," Ferrett Steinmetz manages to do both in an original and powerful way.

In an unnamed battlefield in the War on Terror, Irena is desperate to rescue her brother, captured by American soldiers, before he reveals to them what he has invented. She uses the invention to try to save him, but its effects are not predictable. The inexorable progression of the rescue attempt is both poignant and disturbing.

I don't want to reveal the way the brother's invention works, for fear of spoiling how the story unfolds, but I will say it involves a subtle form of time travel. And so I'm most annoyed the story came out at the same time as my story Random Fire, thus entirely overshadowing my own attempt at writing a fresh time travel story.

"'Run,' Bakri Says" is not a pleasant story to read, but you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Story Published :: Random Fire at Abyss & Apex

Illustration for Random FireForgive a moment of self-promotion, but I have a new story called Random Fire just posted in the 4th Quarter 2011 issue of Abyss & Apex. This story has a rather unusual structural element to it, but one you might miss if you read quickly. I am very anxious to learn how many readers catch the gimmick, and what they think of it.

This is my fourth published story, with two more forthcoming. It's making me feel almost like an actual writer. Heck, I even have a perfunctory author page. Man, I better go write something . . .

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Ray of Light by Brad R. Torgersen

Analog December 2011An alarming trend over the past few years has been the dismal tone of most new science fiction. Gene Roddenberry credited the success of Star Trek to the fact that it offered viewers hope for the future. While there is plenty of excellent new science fiction today, not much of it is very hopeful. It's as if a few years' economic slowdown has defeated our collective abilities to imagine a better future.

My story recommendation of the week is for "Ray of Light" by Brad R. Torgersen, from the December 2011 issue of Analog (cover art by Bob Eggleton), which lives up to its title, a ray of light in the gloominess of 21st Century science fiction.

"Ray of Light" starts out well within the parameters of the dark style currently in vogue. The story is set some twenty years after aliens entered our solar system and scattered a cloud of small mirrors inside the Earth's orbit, depriving our world of most of the sun's light. Max Leighton and his teenage daughter Jenna are two of the small group of remaining humans, struggling to survive at the bottom of the frozen oceans. Early on, Max flashes back to when Jenna was four and asked why they didn't live where it's dry and sunny like the characters on Chloe and Joey, her favorite pre-catastophe kids' show:
People were dying all over the world when NASA and the Navy began deploying the deepwater stations. The Russians and Chinese, the Indians, all began doing the same. There was heat at the boundaries between tectonic plates. Life had learned to survive without the Sun near hydrothermal vents. Humans would have to learn to live there too.

And we did, after a fashion.

I explained this as best as I could to my daughter.

She grew very sad, a tiny, perplexed frown on her face.

"I don't want to watch Chloe and Joey anymore," she said softly.
Max and the other adults in this deep-water society work hard to keep everyone alive, but in their hearts they have lost hope for the future. Jenna and her young friends will need to teach them (and us) a lesson about maintaining the determination to reach for a better tomorrow. It makes for a moving reading experience.

I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Torgersen at the Writers of the Future workshop -- he was a winner the year before with his excellent story "Exanastasis," which you can find in Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVI. Brad is a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, and looked sharp in his dress uniform at the WOTF ceremony. Since winning WOTF, he has become a regular in Analog. His story "Outbound" was the AnLab winner as Analog readers' favorite novelette of 2010, and I certainly won't be surprised if "Ray of Light" makes him a repeat winner.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: In Apprehension, How Like a God by R.P.L. Johnson

My story recommendation of the week is for "In Apprehension, How Like a God" by R.P.L. Johnson, the third SROTW I'm permitting myself from Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII. The gorgeous illustration is by Dustin Panzino, reproduced here with his kind permission.

"In Apprehension, How Like a God" was this year's WOTF Gold Award winner, and a most worthy champion. (But not necessarily the only story that would have been worthy -- I'm glad I didn't have to vote on that.)

The story is set in a future where the internet has been superseded by the aethernet, which allows everyone to see images and information superimposed over everything around us using the Higgs field, a quantum field permeating the universe. (The Higgs field is a real physics concept, but not yet known to have all the properties described in this story.) Our protagonist, Detective Conroy, must investigate a murder at the monastic "Academy" in Uganda, home of the AI "nodes" that superimpose all that information onto the Higgs field. Conroy soon learns that the Academy is working on improving the nodes so they can "read" the Higgs field as well as "write" onto it:
Now I was the one feeling sick. "You're describing a machine that's as close to omniscient as makes no difference."

"Omniscient," the Arch-Mage weighed the ancient word. "I suppose so, within certain practical parameters of storage, processing capacity and power consumption. But in any case the project is at an early stage."
Hopefully it's not giving too much away to say that the murder relates to someone's attempt to gain control of the aethernet, control that would give you the power to change the reality being experienced by anyone you choose. The savvy reader can guess that Detective Conroy will be subject to such a reality shift, which not only makes his job difficult, but also proves an effective metaphor for his personal turmoil since the death of his daughter.

"In Apprehension, How Like a God" (the title is from Hamlet) is a great example of effective post-cyberpunk science fiction. It has all the interesting techy speculations of a future where we simultaneously co-inhabit the real world and a consensually visualized virtual world. But at the same time it is a strong story on an emotional level, with none of the coldness or smartassery that pervaded much of the original cyberpunk subgenre.

In addition to Writers of the Future XXVII, Richard Johnson has appeared at AlienSkin Magazine -- you can find that story here -- and he has another story forthcoming at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, with hopefully many more to follow.

Let me conclude by emphasizing one more time, all of the WOTF27 winners are excellent. For purposes of SROTW, I've limited myself to three stories that especially spoke to me personally, but another reader might as easily have three different favorites. I read quite a bit of short fiction, and I keep a running list of my favorites of the year. So far I've read well over 100 pieces of short fiction published in 2011, and most of the WOTF27 winners are currently on either my top ten novelette list or my top ten short story list. That's some high-quality writing, and I am proud to be in a table of contents with every one of the other winners.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: What You Singing About? by T.J. Berg

I don't often give my Story Recommendation of the Week to flash fiction, but even at less than 200 words, What You Singing About? by T.J. Berg, from Daily Science Fiction's August 2011 lineup, really worked for me.

You've wondered what to give someone who has everything. Well, "What You Singing About?" answers the question: What does someone who has everything ask for in a deal with the devil?

Our protagonist is a happy person, with a good wife and children. In fact, that's all we know about him -- the only other characterization comes through his diction. So what would a very happy person most need? T.J. Berg's answer to that question is good fun, layered with irony.

Tracy Berg is an American now researching in Scotland. She has had fiction in Talebones, Electric Velocipede, and Tales of the Unanticipated. Here's looking forward to much more.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Medic! by Adam Perin

Medic! illoMy story recommendation of the week is for "Medic!" by Adam Perin, from Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII, the second of the three SROTW's I'm permitting myself to give to fellow WOTF27 winners (even though all the other winners are deserving). The illustration is by Gregory J. Gunther, reproduced here with his kind permission.

While all the Writers of the Future winners are exceptional in different ways, to me "Medic!" is the single most successful WOTF27 winner at creating a distinctive voice. The first-person narrative perfectly conveys the main character's brusque but conflicted personality, right from the opening lines:
Some guys go insane from being buried alive. I always get drowsy.
Our protagonist Sergeant Silk is a convict who was paroled because his skills as a medic were desperately needed in a bloody interplanetary war. He can go home to his fiancée if he survives long enough to save 1000 soldiers. He's currently at 995.

Adam Perin does a nice job of understandably presenting a far-future medic's difficult job. More importantly, "Medic! is a superb character study. Sergeant Silk is skilled at his work, he takes no shit from anyone rank be damned, and he is barely holding a lid on his tumultuous emotions. His story makes for gripping reading.

After sampling a host of different professions (including emergency medical technician), Adam Perin is now a diplomat with the U.S. State Department. "Medic!" is his first professional fiction sale. We'll let him retire when he gets to 1000.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

Asimov's Oct/Nov 2011My story recommendation of the week is for "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson, cover story of the October/November issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (cover by Paul Youll).

The past few years, Kij Johnson has been winning awards with short parables, such as the delightful "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," the disturbing "Spar," and the delightful-but-then-disturbing "Ponies." "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" is quite different from those pieces -- longer and more deliberate, less flashy -- but similarly rewarding.

Kit Meinem is in charge of building a massive bridge over the great river bisecting the empire that employs him. This has never been done, because the river is covered in "mist." Mist is a misnomer; this layer is lighter than water, but still dense enough to support boats on its shifting surface and strange varieties of "fish" beneath. The "fish" are poorly understood, especially the largest and most dangerous, which the locals unimaginatively call "Big Ones."

The huge undertaking will demand all Kit's skills both as engineer and politician, as he tries to maintain the support of the locals. Kit becomes fascinated with the ambivalent reactions of the local ferry operators, the beautiful Rasali Ferry and her brother Valo. The bridge will put them out of work (compelling them to change last names), but then again it may save them from their profession's customary early death -- each ferry crossing is a hazardous trip.

The huge bridge symbolizes Kit's desire for meaningful interpersonal connections, but Johnson employs the metaphor delicately enough that it's never annoying. At novella length, Johnson is able to coax the relationships between her characters along gently, in a way that proves most satisfying. For example, halfway into the story, Kit and Rasali have spent a fair bit of time together but it's not clear how close they have become. Then, while Rasali is on the opposite bank, Kit sees one of his bridge workers killed. Kit first worries how the townspeople will react, then flashes back to a university instructor talking about how Kit relates to people:
You're good with people, I've seen it. You like them. . . . But inside the framework of a project. Right now it's your studies. Later it'll be roads and bridges. But people around you -- their lives go on outside the framework. They're not just tools to your hand, even likable tools. Your life should go on, too. You should have more than roads to live for. Because if something does go wrong, you'll need what you're feeling to matter, to someone somewhere, anyway.
When Rasali returns to Kit's side of the river, she immediately helps him to express his own grief over those who have died under his command, and we realize, even if he does not, that Kit now has someone to whom what he's feeling matters.

The science fictional aspects of this story mostly stay in the background, and some readers may find the tale lacking in drama, but I don't think it would benefit from extra explosions or action sequences. This a story of believable characters, who experience real confusion and pain, and I grew to like them very much.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Weird Moves at Weird Tales

Weird Tales, Summer 2011Ann VanderMeer has announced that she will no longer be editing Weird Tales. Apparently Marvin Kaye has purchased the magazine, intending to edit it himself.

I find this decision most unfortunate and, I must say, rather weird. Weird Tales had become a much more interesting magazine under Ann VanderMeer and her staff, an intriguing blend of high fantasy, dark fantasy, absurdism, even a little science fiction. It's had a gorgeous look with Mary Robinette Kowal as art director and interesting features under non-fiction editor Paula Guran. I wasn't the only one who was impressed -- the magazine just won its first Hugo Award two years ago.

VanderMeer says the first issue with Marvin Kaye as editor will be "Cthulhu-themed," which suggests the new direction will be a big step backwards. Perhaps there's still a large untapped market for H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard pastiches, although the ongoing struggles of Weird Tales to stay afloat since the 1950's suggest otherwise. But as much as I love the old pulp version of Weird Tales, it seems to me that writers have already had plenty of time to add to the Cthulhu mythos and explore Conan-style sword & sorcery. I suppose I shouldn't pre-judge what Marvin Kaye plans for Weird Tales, but his initial decision to jettison the current excellent staff does not bode well.

I just subscribed to Weird Tales for the first time this year, but now I highly doubt I'll be renewing that subscription.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee by Patrick O'Sullivan

The story recommendation of the week is for "Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee" by Patrick O'Sullivan, from Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII. The striking illustration is by Meghan Muriel -- you can see more of her amazing portfolio, along with news of her upcoming projects, at her Facebook page.

So I had decided the stories in Writers of the Future 27 should not be eligible for SROTW since, having spent nine days together with all the other WOTF27 authors, I am far too deeply biased to evaluate the book objectively. But I just can't help myself. This book include some of the best works of short fiction I've read in the past several years, and I want them included in the SROTW honor roll.

The most I can do is limit myself to three of the stories that particularly speak to me. This should not be taken to suggest anything at all negative about any of the other WOTF27 stories, every one of which is written at a very high level (excluding my own, which I can't comment on), and I am proud to appear alongside all of these talented (and super-nice) new authors. Two of them, Keffy Kehrli and Jeff Lyman, have already received story recommendations for non-WOTF pieces, and I suspect they all will before long.

So with that disclaimer, we begin with Patrick O'Sullivan's "Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee." "Maddy Dune" is Patrick O'Sullivan's first published story, but it is so imaginative and beautifully written, I am certain we will see much more outstanding work from him in the future (which hopefully he will tell us about at his web page).

Maddy Dune is a part-human, part-"spectral hound" girl adopted by human stepparents, who have been teaching her magic. She does not fit in well in polite society, but she hopes success in the big spelling bee will help. Maddy lives in a world where "spelling bees" have nothing to do with whether "i" comes before "e."

Most of the tale takes place on the stage of an auditorium, yet this is a tremendously vivid and engaging story. I enjoyed this piece from start to finish, and I read it to a group in my office who loved it as well. You need to find a copy of Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII and read "Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee." And then, since you have the book anyway, why not check out some of the other stories?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Gingerbread and Ashes by Jaelithe Ingold

Arcane #1My story recommendation of the week is for "Gingerbread and Ashes" by Jaelithe Ingold from Issue #1 of Arcane Magazine.

"Gingerbread and Ashes" is told from the point of view of Hansel, many years after he and Gretel encountered their witch. Now Gretel has disappeared, and Hansel returns to the witch's gingerbread house, on the hunch that Gretel has been drawn back to the scene of their famous story. If that sounds like a formula for a charming or silly tale, guess again. "Gingerbread and Ashes" is marvelously creepy and disturbing.

Hansel and Gretel have had a bitter go of it since their famous adventure, for none of the villagers wished to believe their story. The remains of the gingerbread house serve to remind them of their lost innocence:
My ebony walking cane helps me to totter along the dirt. Peppermint sticks once formed railings along the toffee-colored path, but both are now gone. Licked away by the forest.

We discussed it once. Whether the gingerbread house should have vanished when the witch died. If the house was enchanted, if its survival depended upon the witch, then it should have long melted into the forest floor.

But the house remains far beyond the witch's lifetime, which means something else is at work here.
In the gingerbread house, Hansel encounters a ghostly presence, or perhaps two, and sorting out who is who makes for an engaging story. On a metaphorical level, "Gingerbread and Ashes" is a powerful examination of how difficult it is for children who survive a traumatic experience to move past it and have a healthy adult life.

Arcane Magazine (subtitled "Penny Dreadfuls for the 21st Century") put out a call for the kind of stories H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith might be writing today if they were still around. The stories editor Nathan Shumate has selected are mostly dark, but in an interesting variety of ways, including the odd tongue-in-cheek piece. But I'm biased, since I have a story forthcoming in Arcane (one of the tongue-in-cheek ones), assuming the magazine finds enough support to keep it afloat.

I've never met Jaelithe Ingold and I know almost nothing about her, but apparently her work appeals to the same editors mine does. She and I have both appeared in Linger Fiction this year, we've both sold a story to Arcane, and we both have stories forthcoming in Abyss & Apex. Here's hoping she sells to Asimov's and F&SF very soon!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Hanged Poet by Jeffrey Lyman

Hanged Poet art by Nicole CardiffMy story recommendation of the week is for "The Hanged Poet" from the June 2011 issue of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. I am deeply biased on this one, since Jeff Lyman was one of my fellow winners of this year's Writers of the Future Contest, but this story is far too good for me not to recommend. Anyway, it's most appropriate for Jeff to get a recommendation from a fellow WOTF winner, since the entire June issue of IGMS is made up of stories by former WOTF winners.

The protagonist of "The Hanged Poet" is General Veritas, a military leader who helped build an empire, but now has been unwillingly retired by the emperor. As he travels alone to the nearly-forgotten homeland of his youth, he comes across the body of a hanged woman:
She was a young woman, small, pale-skinned as all northlanders were, and long dead. A weathered shift of gray wool hung down from her shoulders. Her hands had been bound behind her back, and her bare feet dangled at the height of his chest. The toes the dogs had not worried over were black with frost. . . .

She swung slowly after the dogs' last attentions, and her rope creaked. He would cut her down to keep the noise from bothering him while he slept.

"May I share your tree tonight?" he said, then joked, "Maybe later I'll hang myself beside you."

Her eyes snapped open, eyes washed-out blue like the winter sky. Veritas leapt back, stumbling on a branch beneath the snow.

"I wouldn't mind some company," she said in a dry voice, like leaves skirling across cobblestones. "But I don't think you want to rest up here. It's going to get cold when the sun sets."
The hanged woman is a long-dead poet, in a world where poems can effect powerful changes. General Veritas has already had poetry greatly change his life, and the hanged poet promises at least one more alteration to come.

The tale is told mostly through dialogue between the two characters, exquisitely written dialogue that gradually reveals the characters' fascinating and cleverly interrelated backstories. This is a story in which almost nothing happens onstage, and yet Lyman manages to make it all feel dramatic and satisfying. Outstanding work!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Limits of Bioinformatics and the Problematic of Meaninglessness: A Case Study by David Hollander

Cousin Corinne's Reminder #2My story recommendation of the week is for David Hollander's "The Limits of Bioinformatics and the Problematic of Meaninglessness: A Case Study," from Issue #2 of Cousin Corinne's Reminder.

Cousin Corinne's Reminder is a mainstream literary magazine, but it also includes comics and photography, and if Hollander's story is any indication it is open to genre work. David Hollander, author of the book L.I.E. and various short fiction, is a mainstream writer who has occasionally flirted with genre. In particular, his story "The Naming of the Islands" from McSweeney's was reprinted in Best American Fantasy: 2008, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

"The Limits of Bioinformatics" is unqestionably either science fiction or fantasy, depending on whether you deem its protagonist an alien or an angel. The unnamed protagonist (toward the end he is designated "TK421," a little Star Wars in-joke) arrives on Earth with a "time fractalizer," which allows him to live many years in a single day of his life span. Armed with a healthy supply of Wellbutrin, he is assigned "Experience Project 23DX9: The Problematic of Meaninglessness."

With each years-long day, the protagonist tries a new approach to the problem of meaninglessness. Monday he explores sex and love, marrying a woman named Penelope and living with her until exposure to him kills her. Tuesday he tries physics, Wednesday religion, Thursday art, and so on. Of course, he finds no easy answers.

The story is a nice framework for Hollander's philosophical exploration of what gives life meaning. It begins from a very cynical viewpoint. For instance, Penelope builds her life around a partner whom we know for a total fraud:
Penelope knew only his Mission Identity, and not the dynamic and multifaceted Explorer he truly was, and so what she loved was not him and what he was she could never love. This, he realized, was not particular to his case.
But later in the story, as the narrator struggles to find any other source of meaning, he looks back fondly on his faux-marriage, and the cynicism starts to melt away.

I was initially annoyed at Hollander's overtly tongue-in-cheek approach to his fantastic material, as if assuring mainstream readers that he doesn't really go in for that sci-fi stuff, but he won me over with his clever writing and his thought-provoking philosophical ideas. Genre and mainstream readers alike should find much to enjoy and to think about in "The Limits of Bioinformatics."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Signing Books Like a Real Writer Would

On Sunday, June 26, at 3:00 p.m., I'll be signing copies of Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII at the Broadway Book Mall, at 200 S. Broadway in Denver. Appearing with me will be Erik Jean Solem, one of the winning illustrators; J Alan Erwine, local author whose new book is Red Moon Rising; and Laura Givens, Red Moon Rising's cover artist.

The event is hosted by Ron & Nina Else of Who Else! Books, who are the nicest couple you could ever hope to meet. Their little shop has hosted some of the best authors in the world -- Connie Willis was there last weekend, for instance, and Ken Scholes will appear there tonight -- but they are also kind enough to provide a forum for local wannabes like me.

So if you happen to be in Colorado and are interested in the Writers of the Future Contest, or you like to support local aspiring writers, or if you just want a free slice of cake (provided by the extremely generous, supportive folks at the Denver office of Dorsey & Whitney LLP), drop by and check it out!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Aaron's Take on the Russ Pledge

SF Signal ignited a debate with yesterday's "Mind Meld" post on the "Russ Pledge," which was Nicola Griffith's suggestion that everyone "pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women's work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed."

The debate stemmed from the fact that when The Guardian asked readers to name their favorite science fiction novels, the readers' list was dominated by male writers. (It was originally suggested that only 18 of 500 writers mentioned were women, but commenters on the SF Signal thread quickly discredited this calculation. A more plausible tally showed that 20 out of 160 authors named were women, or 12.5%.) Pro-Pledge commenters found this appalling and some accused any defenders of the status quo of sexism. Anti-Pledge commenters quickly took offense at being labeled sexist.

As is often the case with these Internet slugfests, I disagree with both sides.

The pro-Pledge side of the debate begins from an invalid assumption, that gender imbalance when people name their favorite books translates to existing gender bias in the SF/F field. When you ask people their favorite book, they will take that to mean their favorite book ever, which tells us very little about what they are reading and enjoying now. It is an unfortunate fact that for most of the history of the SF/F genre, there was a gender disparity among the authors. As a result, most of the all-time classics of the field were written by men. We may expect that lists of readers' all-time favorite works will reflect that disparity.

That does not necessarily mean that gender bias remains pervasive in the field. I suspect reasonable measures of readers' current favorite works would show far less disparity. For example, this year's Hugo ballot includes 10 works of fiction by women and 9 by men. The genre seems to have made commendable progress in this area.

Meanwhile, the anti-Pledge side of the debate is bristling at a suggestion that strikes me as entirely innocuous. What could be the objection to mentioning works by women when discussing science fiction and fantasy? You would have to circle pretty far out of your way to avoid doing that.

When I make story recommendations on this blog, I apply only one bias: I am particularly on the lookout for good stories by newer authors and from smaller publications, which readers might easily overlook. I pay no attention to the authors' gender (or to their race or religion or sexual orientation, etc). Yet to date I have given 39 story recommendations to stories by women, compared to 23 to stories by men (including a number to writers who are black, Asian, trans-gender, etc). There are just that many excellent new female writers out there.

So on the one hand I don't think it's instructive that my list of all-time favorite SF/F works is a male-dominated group (which it is, although it certainly includes some women authors, beginning with Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Connie Willis). Nor can I see any difficulty with pledging to mention women authors when discussing SF/F, given that they are such a vital part of the field today.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Final Writers of the Future Update

I've been at the Writers of the Future workshop all week, which has been great fun and a terrific learning experience. K.D. Wentworth and Tim Powers have done a wonderful job as the primary instructors, and multiple outstanding authors have guest lectured (and regaled us over drinks and at last night's picnic) -- including Kevin J. Anderson, Doug Beason, Gregory Benford, Eric Flint, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Yoji Kondo (aka Eric Kotani), Rebecca Moesta, Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch -- with still more to come. This is such a remarkable experience, any aspiring authors out there owe it to yourselves to take a shot at this contest.

My fellow winners are a tremendously talented group, not to mention a bunch of very nice folks. It was a huge thrill to see the illustration for my story done by Illustrators of the Future winner Frederick Edwards, which is just perfect. And Cliff Nielsen's cover art for the anthology is outstanding.

If any of you are bored and want to see some of the award ceremony, it will be Sunday at 6:30 p.m. West Coast time, streamed live at the Writers of the Future web site. (There's also a blog there with many photos and with Jordan Lapp & Tim Powers scurrilously questioning my integrity.)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Trojan Girl by N.K. Jemisin

Weird Tales Spring 2011The story recommendation of the week is N.K. Jemisin's "The Trojan Girl."

This is our second straight SROTW to come from the Spring 2011 issue of Weird Tales, which has held to a very high level of quality under editor-in-chief Ann VanderMeer and her excellent staff, including Mary Robinette Kowal as art director. One thing I like about the current staff's approach to Weird Tales is the diversity of stories they are publishing, including high fantasy, dark fantasy, absurdist work, even a smattering of science fiction.

"The Trojan Girl" starts out as a werewolf tale, but soon shapeshifts into a science fiction story about rogue artificial intelligences. The protagonist Meroe is the co-leader of a pack of programs, which inhabits the "Amorph," a future version of the Internet using direct brain interfaces. The story tells of their hunt for a new inhabitant of their world, whose astonishingly pure code they hope to scavenge. As the story title suggests, there is more to her code than they realize.

Jemisin's focus is on the mood of the piece, not the underlying technologies. She tells us only fleetingly of the nature of this electronic wolfpack, but it is enough to satisfy. Jemisin does a marvelous job of generating sympathy for her powerful yet childlike characters:
In the Amorph, there were times that passed for night--periods when the Amorph had an 80% or greater likelihood of stability, and they downclocked to run routine maintenance. In these times Meroe would lie close to Zoroastrian and touch her. He could not articulate what he craved, but she seemed to understand. She touched him back. Sometimes, when the craving was particularly fierce, she summoned another of their group, usually Neverwhen. They would press close to one another until their outer boundaries overlapped. All their features, all their flaws, they shared. Then and only then, wrapped in their comfort, would Meroe allow himself to shut down.

Sometimes he wondered what humans did, if and when they had similar needs.

N.K. Jemisin was a Hugo nominee last year for her short story "Non-Zero Probabilities," and is on this year's best novel ballot for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I like "The Trojan Girl" even better than those award-nominated works.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Augusta Prima by Karin Tidbeck

Weird Tales Spring 2011My story recommendation of the week is for "Augusta Prima" by Karin Tidbeck, from the Spring 2011 issue of Weird Tales.

Karin Tidbeck is a Clarion graduate who has published various work in Sweden, but only recently turned to writing in English. "Augusta Prima" is the first story of hers I have seen, but several others are forthcoming. It is clear from "Augusta Prima" that Tidbeck has a wonderful facility with the English language.

Title character Augusta is a denizen of a very strange and decadent fairy world. The story begins with her participating in a most violent version of croquet. She stumbles upon a human corpse, takes the man's gold watch, and soon begins to ask very uncomfortable questions, such as: Why do the hands of the clock move when there is no time in Augusta's universe? She brings her questions to a powerful djinneya:
"I would like to know the nature of time," Augusta said. "I want to know why time can't be measured properly here, and why everything moves around."

The djinneya laughed. "Your kind doesn't want to know about those things. You can't bear it."

"But I do. I want to know."

The djinneya raised her thin eyebrows. "Normally, you are tedious creatures . . . I believe this is the first time one of your sort has asked me a good question. It's an expensive one, but I shall give you the answer. If you really are sure."

"I have to know," said Augusta. "What is the nature of the world?"

The djinneya smiled with both rows of teeth. "Which one?"
It is apparent from early in the tale that Augusta's curiosity may prove dangerous, but the turns in the story are unpredictable and interesting.

This is quite a short piece, but I enjoyed it very much, and I look forward to much more of Tidbeck's work.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The House of Nameless by Jason Fischer

Writers of the Future XXVIThe story recommendation of the week goes to Jason Fischer for "The House of Nameless," from Writers of the Future, Volume XXVI.

Since I learned I would be in Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII I've been reading stories from previous volumes, and let me tell you it is an ego-expanding experience. Most of these stories are really good! The story concepts are almost always terrific, and the writing is generally at a high level. Certainly some of the stories seem flawed to me, but even with those it is easy to spot the qualities that impressed the judges. Historically, the Writers of the Future Contest has produced many top-notch professional authors, and I am certain that will hold true for several of the past couple years' winners.

Last year's anthology, Writers of the Future, Volume XXVI, includes a number of tales that impressed me very much, especially the stories by Alex Black, Simon Cooper, Tom Crosshill, Jason Fischer, Laurie Tom, and Brad R. Torgersen. (I hope no one will take that as a negative comment on any winners I haven't mentioned -- as I said, even in the stories that don't work for me personally, the authors' talents are obvious; you don't rise to the top of a pile of several hundred submissions without some skills.)

Of all these excellent stories, my personal favorite is "The House of Nameless" by Jason Fischer, a strikingly original piece written at a very professional level. Told from the point of view of Raoul the Minotaur, "The House of Nameless" shows a struggle between various powerful gods, but it is not quite like any such story you have read before. The gods inhabit a bizarre and pliable universe, and most of them are determined not to return to the universe we know, which they refer to as the "One-Way-World." Key to the struggle over whether to return to the One-Way-World is the god "Nameless," who was deprived of his identity in punishment for a serious crime he is expected to commit some day.

Fischer does a wonderful job of blending bizarre story devices with anachronistically mundane elements:
But there was enough vinegar left in the old god to keep the ship at bay. Try as it might, The Cheerful Misogynist was grounded, straining against Yahweh's invisible hand.

Raoul and the others were out, rappelling down ropes or gliding on dreamt-up wings. There were enough holes in Yahweh's fence that they could slip through on foot.

Imogen was back to khakis and a T-shirt, and for some reason had the remote control for Raoul's entertainment center in her hand.
This story is great fun to read all the way through. "The House of Nameless" sheds funny or thought-provoking concepts at breakneck speed -- given the level of detail, I am not surprised to see that Fischer has written other work in this universe. The spirited pace does not not allow for elaborate characterization (which I suspect is why this story did not win the Gold Award for last year's contest -- Laurie Tom's "Living Rooms" focuses more on the main character and her emotional struggles), but the gods involved are quirky enough that they don't blend together.

Like all WOTF winners, Australian Jason Fischer is new to the field, but already he has appeared in numerous publications, including Apex, Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, among many others, and he has been nominated for the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards among other honors. I believe he has a long and successful writing career ahead of him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window by Rachel Swirsky

Subterranean Online Summer 2010I was late to the party on this one. The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window was already a Nebula Award finalist by the time I read it, and I suspect it will soon be a Hugo finalist as well. But it's too good not to recommend, albeit belatedly. This is Rachel Swirsky's third Story Recommendation of the Week, joining Aliette de Bodard as the only authors to receive three SROTWs.

Published in the Summer 2010 issue of Subterranean Online, "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" is a fantasy novella, with elements of SF since it takes us far into the future (or a future).

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" begins with the death of the title character, Naeva, a powerful sorceress. As she dies, she consents to have her spirit captured so she can be summoned after death, a decision made from misguided loyalty to her queen.

At first, Naeva is a pawn in a struggle between the queen and a potential successor. But the ages begin to pass, and Naeva is subject to summoning by an ever stranger succession of future generations. Naeva does not take well to being an ancient oracle, and many of those who summon her come to regret it. Naeva has contempt for most of the futures she glimpses, sometimes for good reason and sometimes due to her own prejudices. For example, she is absolutely unable to accept future societies where men are permitted to practice magic.

Finally, she is summoned by a very advanced future society attempting to catalogue all past knowledge. Even though Naeva is primitive by their standards, she remains a powerful sorceress with a force of will that may prove too much for the future.

It is difficult to extend a story over such a large span of time and keep the reader engaged, but Swirsky manages it admirably. Her writing is compelling throughout, and Naeva is a fascinating character. The thread of Naeva's story pulls you along despite the necessarily episodic story framework.

I read several excellent novellas from 2010 -- including strong work from such outstanding authors as Paolo Bacigalupi, Ted Chiang, George R.R. Martin, Paul Park, and Robert Reed -- but "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" is my favorite of them all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

StoriesNobody who reads this blog needs to be told that Neil Gaiman is a pretty fair writer, but just in case anyone missed this one, the Story Recommendation of the Week is for "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman, from the original anthology Stories, edited by Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.

The first-person narrator of "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a very small but very dangerous man. He hires Calum MacInnes as a guide to take him to a mysterious cave in the black mountains on the Misty Isle, where a fabulous treasure awaits them. They converse on the journey, in beautifully written passages like this:
I thought about it. "Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths, that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. It does not matter where you come from. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take."

Calum MacInnes looked down at me and said nothing. Then, "You are wrong. The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one only, and that way is treacherous and hard, and if you choose the wrong path you will die alone on the mountainside."
In the course of their conversations, we learn the two have reasons to fear and despise each other. Their past, and the nature of the treasure they seek, will lead them to some terrible choices.

Gaiman coedited Stories, an anthology designed to highlight the storytelling talents of a wide variety of authors from different genres. It includes a number of excellent writers, but none of them could hope to surpass the storytelling skills of Gaiman himself.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Iron Oxide Red by Gwendolyn Clare

Daily SFMy story recommendation of the week is for Iron Oxide Red by Gwendolyn Clare, posted at Daily Science Fiction in March 2011.

The first-person protagonist of "Iron Oxide Red" is an artist who discovers that when she cuts herself while painting, she bleeds paint. (I am saying "she," but unless I missed something all we know of the person's gender is that the protagonist is attracted to men, so it could as easily be a gay man.) What's more, the paintings with her blood-paint are her most powerful work, and she feels compelled to keep discovering new colors from different parts of her body.

For the first portion of the story, I feared Clare was satisfied just to show us the neat idea of a painter who bleeds paint. But by the end of the story, she effectively uses that concept as a springboard to examine deeper issues about the nature of art, and the artist's need to immerse herself compulsively in her own work in order to bring it to life.

Gwendolyn Clare is a very recent arrival to the genre scene, but has already appeared in such prestigious publications as Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Abyss & Apex. "Iron Oxide Red" is a well-written, thought-provoking piece from another new author to keep an eye on.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Crawlspace by Stephen Graham Jones

The Ones That Got AwayPutting together my Hugo ballot reminded me there are several top-notch stories from 2010 for which I neglected to do a Story Recommendation of the Week. We will begin to rectify that with "Crawlspace" by Stephen Graham Jones, an original story from his 2010 collection The Ones That Got Away, published by Prime Books.

"Crawlspace" is the first-person narrative of Gabriel, a working-class fella whose best friend insists his infant son is telepathic -- the kid cries every time the friend reads a horror novel. It sounds silly enough that Gabriel would dismiss it, except he had some telepathic tendencies himself as a child, and by the way Gabriel has been sleeping with his friend's wife. He really, really does not want to think through the implications.

This is the story of a man who has painted himself into a little corner of hell. His descent into paranoia and unbearable guilt makes for an emotionally harrowing reading experience.

Perhaps best known for his novel Demon Theory, Stephen Graham Jones (not to be confused with anthologist Stephen Jones) combines an off-beat sensibility with a down-home yet hardly simple writing style, somewhat similar to Joe Lansdale. Jones has been a nominee for the International Horror Guild Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, and The Ones That Got Away is currently up for the Stoker Award. Even so, I suspect there are many more readers out there, both genre and mainstream, who would enjoy his work if only they gave it a try.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Aaron's 2011 Hugo Recommendations :: Best Short Story

And we finish off the fiction categories with my nominations for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, along with a few of my other favorites.

Aliette de Bodard, Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders (Interzone, Sept-Oct '10)
Aliette de Bodard, By Bargain and by Blood (Hub, Jan '10)
Samantha Henderson, Deutoroi (Abyss & Apex, 1st Qtr '10)
Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk (Subterranean, Spring '10)
Lenora Rose, It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer’s Day (Ideomancer, Sept '10)

Leah Bobet, Mister Oak (Realms of Fantasy, Feb '10)
Erin Cashier, Near the Flame (Shimmer #12)
Brian Keene, Lost Canyon of the Dead (The Living Dead 2)
An Owomoyela, Year of the Rabbit (ChiZine, Apr-June '10)
Ferrett Steinmetz, As Below, So Above (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nov '10)
Sarah Totton, If You Enjoyed This Story . . . (Tales of the Unanticipated #30)
Brandi Wells, Changing Woman (Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens #Y’aing’ngah)

This listing is probably academic -- unlike the other categories, my nominees for short story seldom make the final ballot (probably because many of them come from semiprozines and fanzines that aren't read widely enough to garner nominations). From this group, the Rajaniemi story is the only one with much chance at a Hugo nomination. Aliette de Bodard may get nominated, but probably not for the two stories I've chosen -- "The Shipmaker" is the more likely contender. Good luck to all the above just the same!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Aaron's 2011 Hugo Recommendations :: Best Novelette

Here are my nominations for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette, along with some near-misses.

Neil Gaiman, The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains (Stories)
Stephen Graham Jones, Crawlspace (The Ones That Got Away)
Geoffrey A. Landis, Marya and the Pirate (Asimov's, Jan '10)
Jason Sanford, A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story (Tales of the Unanticipated #30)
Eric James Stone, That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made (Analog, Sept '10)

Joe Abercrombie, The Fool Jobs (Swords & Dark Magic)
Kage Baker, The Bohemian Astrobleme (Subterranean, Win '10)
Aliette de Bodard, The Jaguar House, in Shadow (Asimov's, July '10)
Aliette de Bodard, The Wind-Blown Man (Asimov's, Feb '10)
Jim Hawkins, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter (Interzone, July-Aug '10)
Robert Reed, The Long Retreat (F&SF, Jan-Feb '10)
Sarah Totton, A Sip from the Cup of Enlightenment (Animythical Tales)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Aaron's 2011 Hugo Recommendations :: Campbell Award for Best New Author

Technically the Campbell Award is not a Hugo Award, although I couldn't tell you why that is. It's voted on alongside all the other Hugos, and I've actually read enough excellent new authors recently to make Campbell recommendations this year.

Here in alphabetical order are the new authors I am planning to nominate. I'm also listing in parentheses a story I particularly enjoyed by each one, to give you a place to start if you care to check out their work:

Gwendolyn Clare ("Iron Oxide Red," Daily SF)
Keffy R.M. Kehrli ("Advertising at the End of the World," Apex)
Malinda Lo (Ash)
Ferrett Steinmetz ("As Below, So Above," Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Brad R. Torgersen ("Exanastasis," Writers of the Future, Vol. 26)

Except for Malinda Lo, all of these authors have to date focused on short fiction -- I confess I haven't read some of the new novelists who have been getting a lot of buzz, such as Lauren Beukes and Dexter Palmer -- and they all do it so well I would love to see some of them on the ballot.

UPDATE: I was poking around other folks' recommendations on the web, one of which suggested Malinda Lo for the Campbell. She is not on the Writertopia list of Campbell-eligible authors, but I can't figure why not -- I believe her first genre publication was Ash in 2009. Ash was an outstanding novel, so I'm adding her to my Campbell list. Unfortunately, that means someone else has to be bumped, so apologies to Monica Byrne, who still has a great future ahead of her.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Aaron's 2011 Hugo Recommendations :: Best Novella

Listing alphabetically by author, the five novellas I'm planning to nominate for the Hugo Award are:

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Alchemist
Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Paul Park, Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance
Robert Reed, A History of Terraforming
Rachel Swirsky, The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window

"The Alchemist" was very recently published in book form by Subterranean (which also boasts the Chiang and Swirsky stories -- a great showing for that small press in this category), but is eligible for a Hugo this year because it was released on audio by Audible in 2010. The same is true for Tobias Buckell's "The Executioness," set in the same universe, which I also strongly considered nominating. Other near-misses for me were "The Mystery Knight" by George R.R. Martin and "The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis.

All of my choices except the Robert Reed piece are current nominees for the Nebula Award. My tastes don't usually align so well with the Nebula voters, and you will see much less overlap in the other categories.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Aaron's 2011 Hugo Recommendations :: Best Novel

Hugo nominations are due in just a week, so it's past time to list my favorite SF/F of 2010, starting with best novel. These are the five novels I'm planning to nominate:

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Aliette de Bodard, Servant of the Underworld
Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven
Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death
Catherynne M. Valente, The Habitation of the Blessed

I expect the Bacigalupi novel to make the final ballot, and I think the others all have at least a chance at nomination, except perhaps Servant of the Underworld. (If de Bodard is nominated this year, it will be for one of her outstanding pieces of short fiction.)

As usual when selecting novels to nominate for the Hugo, I am dismayed to realize how many books from last year by some of my favorite authors I've yet to read. If I could stop time and read everything I'd like to before the nominating deadline, these are the ones I think would be most likely to elbow their way onto my list:

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail
Greg Egan, Zendegi
Ian McDonald, The Dervish House
China Miéville, Kraken
Connie Willis, Blackout/All Clear

Whether you agree with any of my choices or not, I hope you find time to nominate by next week.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book Review Teaser :: The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

cover of The Habitation of the BlessedNew on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente.

From Aaron's book review of The Habitation of the Blessed :
In a sense, Catherynne Valente's work doesn't much need reviewing. No one has to tell you it's terrific - just open it up and weird and amazing things will leap off the page at you. The Habitation of the Blessed is beautifully written from the opening lines:
I am a very bad historian. But I am a very good miserable old man. I sit at the end of the world, close enough to see my shriveled old legs hang over the bony ridge of it. I came so far for gold and light and a story the size of the sky. But I have managed to gather for myself only a basket of ash and a kind of empty sorrow, that the world is not how I wished it to be.
If that passage grabs you the way it did me, then you need to read The Habitation of the Blessed. Because there is a great deal more like that in store for you:
When a book lies unopened it might contain anything in the world, anything imaginable. It therefore, in that pregnant moment before opening, contains everything. Every possibility, both perfect and putrid. Surely such mysteries are the most enticing things You grant us in this mortal mere - the fruit in the garden, too, was like this. Unknown, and therefore infinite. Eve and her mate swallowed eternity, every possible thing, and made the world between them.
Catherynne Valente's use of language is consistently exquisite....

...The Habitation of the Blessed is loosely based on the medieval legend of Prester John, a Christian king once thought to rule a strange land somewhere in the Orient. Valente joins a diverse group of modern authors who have written of Prester John, including Robert Silverberg and Umberto Eco - he has even appeared in Marvel comics.

To read the entire review -> The Habitation of the Blessed

Friday, March 11, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Movement by Nancy Fulda

Asimov's, March 2011The story recommendation of the week goes to "Movement" by Nancy Fulda, our second SROTW from the March 2011 issue of Asimov's.

This is a short but very powerful piece, the first-person narrative of Hannah, a young woman with "temporal autism," experiencing the passage of time differently from most humans:
[My parents] are not calm and quiet like my brother. They are sweaty from the night air and speak in tense sentences that all jumble on top of each other. If they would bother to wait I might find words to soothe their frantic babble. But they do not know how to speak on my time scale. Their conversations are paced in seconds, sometimes in minutes. It is like the buzzing of mosquitoes in my ears. I need days, sometimes weeks to sort my thoughts and find the perfect answer.
Hannah's condition prevents her from having "normal" interpersonal relationships, but it also allows her a unique perspective on the fast-changing world around her and contributes to her exceptional dancing and cognitive skills. Her parents are considering a medical procedure to undo Hannah's condition. Her mother asks her if she wants this done, but of course Hannah cannot answer right away.

This tale has a strong set-up, raising difficult questions about what is most important in life. Reminiscent of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Fulda's narrative does a wonderful job of getting us inside the mind of her unusual protagonist. The story is also spiced with interesting speculations about the implications of new communications technology.

But what makes "Movement" especially memorable is the outstanding ending. In just a few paragraphs, we learn Hannah's decision, we understand why it is so important to her, and we are heartbroken to realize it is unlikely she will be able to make her wishes understood.

"Movement" is an award-caliber story, and clearly a major breakthrough in the career of Nancy Fulda.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: "I Was Nearly Your Mother" by Ian Creasey

Asimov's, March 2011My story recommendation of the week is for "I Was Nearly Your Mother" by Ian Creasey, from the March 2011 issue of Asimov's.

Here is a 10,000-word story in which the main character never much does anything but talk, yet I found it fascinating reading. The protagonist of "I Was Nearly Your Mother" is Marian, a teenage girl living with her grandparents, because her mother died four years earlier and her father is in prison. She has come through these trying circumstances with admirable composure, but there are hints that her mental state remains fragile.

Then arrives on her doorstep an unfamiliar version of her late mother. This woman (who refers to herself as Della) has traveled from an alternate universe, where she aborted her pregnancy then came to regret the decision. Della assumes that Marian will instantly accept her as her lost mother, even though it is obvious from her behavior that she knows nothing at all about parenting, but of course Marian's reactions are far more complicated than that.

Marian is a flawed character and her para-Mother is deeply flawed (she pays for her alternate universe excursions through multiversal drug deals), but Creasey presents their flaws with sympathy. For instance, Marian is well on her way to an eating disorder, but Creasey shows this as a believable manifestation of her distrust of a world that has betrayed her: "She hated being told that weight didn't matter, when it so obviously did. It was just another way that adults lied, pretending the world was different, pretending that the fake surfaces didn't eclipse anything real that might lie underneath."

Creasey nicely develops alternate universes as a metaphor for how we all have choices to regret, we've all strayed from the path that would have worked out best for us:
Marian thought about the world Della came from, just one of an infinite range of worlds where things had happened differently -- mostly gone wrong in various ways. It felt like there was one real universe, a shining summit where everything happened as it should: a needle-thin pinnacle, surrounded by endless swampy lowlands full of bad decisions, unlucky accidents, and damaged people. As you slogged through the mire, could you clamber up to some better state? But how, when you couldn't see the landscape of probability? You'd find yourself flailing inevitably downward to your doom, confronted with far more wrong options than right. And everyone else in the world plummeted down too, dragging you with them. Even if you did the right thing, you had no control over other people's mistakes, their car crashes and jail sentences. Every time you slept, the world fell a little further during the night.
Even if we could travel between universes, that wouldn't relieve the need to come to terms with our own mistakes or the mistakes of those around us.

Clearly a new writer to watch, in the past five years Ian Creasey has had ten stories in Asimov's -- including "Erosion," which was chosen for multiple year's best collections for 2009 -- and has appeared in other top-notch magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Postscripts.

To my tastes, Asimov's has been a bit uneven for the past few years, but the March 2011 issue is excellent, reaffirming the magazine's position as the premier source of short fiction in the field. I'll recommend another story from the March issue next week.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Beauty Belongs to the Flowers by Matthew Sanborn Smith

Beauty Belongs art by Yuko ShimizuMy story recommendation of the week (only the third one since December, but "Story Recommendation of the Month" would sound stupid) goes to Beauty Belongs to the Flowers by Matthew Sanborn Smith, posted in January at

Most of the stories I recommend here grab me from the opening line, and often I start composing an SROTW post in my head halfway into the story. It didn't happen that way with "Beauty Belongs to the Flowers." I found the piece well-written from the outset and Smith's future Nagasaki nicely imagined. But the story of a young woman's unrequited love did not grab me at first. I felt the love story could as easily have been set in the present day or even Victorian England; it seemed to me disconnected from the futuristic setting.

Sometimes it's nice to be completely, gobsmackingly wrong.

By the end of the tale, Miho's love story proves wonderfully revealing of this all-too plausible future Nagasaki. In this future, young people are so tied into the "feeds" to the video strips over their eyes that our protagonist Miho transmits a photo of someone she just met at a party to a friend, rather than simply pointing him out. Smith conveys the feel of this future through some wonderful imagery, such as an advertisement overlay to Miho's feed, by which a huge version of Aimi, the anime-dream-girl robot, seems to be emerging from the bay like Godzilla.

This society values the artificial above the natural, so Miho only feels sad for the misguided old man who tells her a real flower is more beautiful than a man-made one. Naturally then, when the narcissistic young man Miho loves falls instead for a shiny new Aimi model, it doesn't occur to Miho to tell him to grow up. Instead, she wonders how she can be more like a robot. Her solution to the problem is memorably disturbing.

I urge you to check out "Beauty Belongs to the Flowers," and if it doesn't grab you at first, keep going -- you'll be glad you did.

The only bad thing about "Beauty Belongs to the Flowers" is it led me to Smith's blog, where I read that he named his protagonist after the lead singer of Cibo Matto, and now I will have "Know Your Chicken" bouncing through my head for the rest of the day. Oh, well, small price!

I am glad to see publishing more fiction by promising new authors, rather than just promoting its existing corps of novelists. Matthew Sanborn Smith's fiction has appeared at ChiZine and GUD, among other publications. He's also big into podcasts, at StarShipSofa and his own Beware The Hairy Mango. He has vowed to write nearly 900 more stories in the next ten years, so we will either be seeing much more of him or he will soon be institutionalized.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review Teaser :: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash cover artNew on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of Ash by Malinda Lo.

From Aaron's book review of Ash :
"Ash by Malinda Lo is a beautifully written novel, combining modern sensibilities with the elegant, wistful voice of a fairy tale. Published as a young adult novel, but equally enjoyable to adult readers, Ash is a loose retelling of the story of Cinderella. The set-up is roughly the same: the untimely deaths of her parents leave Aisling, Ash for short, in the care of a cruel stepmother and nasty stepsisters (although it turns out one of the sisters isn't so bad when you get to know her), who treat Ash as a servant. Her hopes for escape rest on assistance from the fairy world."

"From there, however, the details of the story bend in a decidedly un-Disney direction. For one thing, while there is a grand ball hosted by a charming prince who must choose a bride, it gradually becomes apparent that Ash is drawn instead to Kaisa, the King's huntress."

"Some have described Ash as a lesbian version of Cinderella, but I think that does the book a disservice. It is first and foremost a vividly imagined expansion of the Cinderella story, with a mysterious and ominous analogue to the fairy godmother, and a wonderfully realized protagonist who takes a far more active role in her own story than the traditional character. The fact that Ash is attracted to the King's huntress rather than the prince is only one of many ways in which she defies her fate and others' expectations...."

To read the entire review -> Ash

Monday, January 31, 2011

Story of the Week :: Losing Your Grip at Linger Fiction

I won't cheapen the Story Recommendation of the Week by giving one to myself, but I will at least pause to note that my story Losing Your Grip has been posted in the February 2011 issue of Linger Fiction. Check it out!

This is my third fiction sale, and my second publication, since Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII isn't out yet. Will there be more???????

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writers of the Future Field Completed

The Fourth Quarter results for the Writers of the Future contest have been released -- apparently the judging for this quarter was hurried along to accommodate moving the award ceremony up to the spring, so this quarter's finalists were deprived of the pleasure of waiting month after agonizing month for their results.

Huge congratulations to Jeffrey Lyman, Patrick O'Sullivan and Adam Perin. I'm looking forward to meeting you at the Writers of the Future workshop this spring.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review Teaser :: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey cover artNew on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal.

From Aaron's book review of Shades of Milk and Honey :
"It's refreshing to see a fantasy novel based on Jane Austen that takes Austen seriously, rather than merely as fodder for a goofy parody like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and all its imitators. Shades of Milk and Honey, the first novel by Campbell Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal, is part fantasy, part romance, and all Jane Austen homage. It should appeal to every Austen reader and to anyone who enjoys light fantasy or romance; zombie fans may stay away."

"Shades of Milk and Honey takes place in an alternate version of Regency England, where one can learn to use "glamour" to create impressive optical illusions, such as bringing indoors all the images and sounds of a beautiful garden complete with birds and waterfalls. In this universe, glamour is nearly always employed for artistic effect and seldom used for military or commercial applications. British society as a whole is little changed by the existence of glamour...."

To read the entire review -> Shades of Milk and Honey