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!