MOVIE REVIEW: Get Out (Ray Bradbury Award Finalist)

written by David Steffen

Just a few days ago I reviewed most of the Ray Bradbury Award finalists (an award that is held alongside the Nebula Awards for movies), but I didn’t review Get Out because I hadn’t quite gotten a rental of it yet.  Just before the Nebula voting deadline, I’ve watched it and slipped in the review–the voting deadline is tonight!

Get Out is a thriller/horror film written by Jordan Peele and distributed by Universal.  It won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was on the final ballot for Best Film of 2017.

Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) reluctantly agrees to accompany his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to her parent’s isolated rural estate.  Chris worries that her parents won’t be welcoming of a black man dating their white daughter.  He meets her neurosurgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford) and hypnotherapist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who all (unsurprisingly to Chris) make discomfiting comments about Black people.  There are a lot of things that are… off about the Armitages and what goes on on their property.  Their servants (both Black) (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) are oddly intense and hostile toward him, and Missy repeatedly pushes Chris to let her hypnotize him out of his cigarette habit.  One night, when he comes back into the house after sneaking a smoke, Missy catches him alone and seems to hypnotize him, but he wakes up sure it was a dream.  The next day the Armitages have company, a yearly gathering of all their friends, and things only get weirder.

This is a hell of a movie.  Intense.  Very well written, and the actors are all incredible, often acting on at least two distinct levels–trying to put up a reasonable facade for their visitor while other odd behaviors slip through that front.  Even when nothing overtly scary is happening the sense of unease rarely leaves, only waxes and wanes as you try to figure out what is going on with these people.  Particularly great actors are the actors who played the servants, constantly showing these odd little behaviors, saying polite things with eyes and smiles a bit too wide.  And when the movie gets scary it gets Scary.  Not a lot of movies scare me, but this one genuinely had me on the edge of my seat, on an emotional ride with the characters, and not just depending on cheap jump-scares to manage it.  Not every moment of it is dark, there is comic offsets as well, especially from Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) who he calls to talk about the weird stuff going on and Rod constantly throws out freaky theories about what’s going on and tells Chris to get out.

I barely watched this before the voting deadline, but this got my vote.

2017 Hugo/Nebula Award Recommendations!

written by David Steffen

Having previously listing out award-eligible works that were written or published by me, here is my list of works that I think you might want to consider for Hugo and Nebula awards that were not written or published by me.

I’m working mostly from the Hugo Award categories, with a focus on fiction categories.

The Short Story category is the one that means the most to me, so to help suggest more reading for anyone interested, I’ve listed 10 stories instead of 5.

I left out the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, because I know a lot of amazing people on that list and I don’t want to make people feel bad they got left out (but I’m still going to have to pick 5 for my actual ballot!).



The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden, Harper Collins

It Devours by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Harper Collins



“River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey, Macmillan

“The Dragon of Dread Peak” (and part 2) by Jeremiah Tolbert, at Lightspeed



“The Bridgegroom” by Bo Balder, at Clarkesworld

“Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” by Sue Burke, at Clarkesworld

“The Chaos Village” (and part 2) by M.K. Hutchins, at Podcastle

“Owl Vs. the Neighborhood Watch” by Darcie Little Badger, at Strange Horizons

“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer, at Clarkesworld

“Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, at Lightspeed

“That Lingering Sweetness” by Tony Pi, at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, at Clarkesworld


Short story

“How I Became Coruscating Queen of All the Realms, Pierced the Obsidian Night, Destroyed a Legendary Sword, and Saved My Heart’s True Love” by Baker & Dovey, at No Shit There I Was, reprinted in Podcastle

“Unit Two Does Her Makeup” by Laura Duerr, at Escape Pod

“Planetbound” by Nancy Fulda, in the anthology Chasing Shadows, reprinted in Escape Pod

“Infinite Love Engine” by Joseph Allen Hill, at Lightspeed

“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones, at Lightspeed

“Home is a House that Loves You” by Rachael K. Jones, at Podcastle

“Vegetablemen in Peanut Town” by August Marion, at Escape Pod

“All the Cuddles With None of the Pain” by J.J. Roth, at Podcastle

“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim, at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“Texts From the Ghost War” by Alex Yuschik, at Escape Pod



Dramatic Presentation, Long Form


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Lego Batman Movie

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



There are quite a few that I might list here, but mostly I would love to see some award recognition go to my favorite podcasts at Escape Artists: Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders.  For too long podcasts have been thought of in fiction as afterthoughts, but they’ve proven that they can find amazing original fiction and present it professionally.


Editor, Short Form

Likewise, I’d be especially excited to see Escape Artists editors get nods here.  S.B. Divya, Mur Lafferty, and Norm Sherman for Escape Pod (you can nominate jointly).  Jen Albert and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali for Podcastle.  Shawn Garret and Alex Hofelich for Pseudopod.  Marguerite Kenner for Cast of Wonders.

Award Eligibility Post 2014

written by David Steffen

And now the gratuitous award eligibility post–feel free to skip over it if you’re not interested, but figured there might be someone out there who might want to see it. This post covers works by Diabolical Plots and by me personally.

From time to time people ask me if they can nominate the Submission Grinder. In the past, I thought the answer was “no” because most of the awards seemed to be very publisher focused–so the best way I thought to try to recognize the Submission Grinder would be to nominate Diabolical Plots. But there ARE a couple categories the Submission Grinder qualifies for in some awards, so I’ve listed those two first.

And just to be clear, no I don’t really think we have a shot at anything, but I see no reason why I can’t mention what we’re eligible for.

Writer’s Resource/Information/News Source

1. The Submissions Grinder

I wasn’t aware of this award until this year, part of the Preditors and Editors Reader Poll. Someone has seen fit to nominate the Grinder, so thought it would be worth mentioning.


World Fantasy Special Award – Non Professional

1. The Submissions Grinder

Likewise, I wasn’t aware of this award, but it’s another way to recognize the Submission Grinder directly if you want to see it recognized.


Best Short Story

1. “Catastrophic Failure” by David Steffen at Perihelion

2. “Always There” by David Steffen at Lakeside Circus

3. “Unraveling” by David Steffen at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

4. “A Switch in Time” by David Steffen at Perihelion

5. “The Thing About Analyn” by David Steffen at Stupefying Stories


Best Related Work

All of the articles that I’ve written here and in SF Signal are eligible for this category, but I’m not going to list all dozens of them. I’ll just mention the one that I thought was most notable:

1. The Best Podcast Fiction of All Time (at SF Signal)


Best Editor (Short Form)

1. David Steffen (for nonfiction)

Note that although we’ve been reading slush for fiction publication in 2014, we haven’t published any fiction yet, so only my nonfiction editing can be taken into account. And Anthony isn’t eligible this year for the same reason.


Best Fanzine

1. Diabolical Plots

Next year, instead of Best Fanzine, we’ll be eligible for Best Semiprozine because we’ll be a paying fiction market.


Best Fan Writer

1. David Steffen
–For the short fiction listed above, the large number of nonfiction articles here and in SF Signal.

2. Carl Slaughter
–Mostly for interviews

3. Frank Dutkiewicz
–Reviews of Daily SF

4. Laurie Tom
–Anime reviews



Movie Review: Her

written by David Steffen

Back in April I reviewed the Ray Bradbury Award nominees for the years as their deadline for nomination approached–I reviewed all the ones I could get my hands on, but there was one movie that wasn’t yet released on DVD–titled “Her” written and directed by Spike Jonze.

The movie takes place in 2025 in a world that’s very recognizable, but with some differences–holograms being commonplace and artificial intelligence has advanced to stages we haven’t reached yet. The protagonist is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of complete strangers for hire. He has just upgraded his personal operating system–which is more than just an OS in the way that we use the phrase and more of a personal assistant. He chooses for the OS to have a female voice (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen) and she names herself Samantha. He hits it off with Samantha and soon their relationship becomes more than just user-computer. Theodore is lonely, having little personal contact with anyone and clinging to the threads of an estranged marriage which he has been stalling on signing the divorce papers to end. He does have one friend Amy (Amy Adams) who is also struggling with her relationship.

As Samantha gains experience with the world she grows from a basic and functional assistant into a real person with real desires. The physical angle is a complication, of course, since she has no body, but they try things to work that out. Pretty soon, she starts changing as she develops faster and faster.

I quite enjoyed this movie, in large part because I found the relationship very plausible, and the movie even managed to make it seem not creepy (even though it is rather creepy). What I really liked about the movie is that I thought it was one of the better AI treatments I’ve seen in a movie–it was quite sympathetic to her and her situation–what it would be like to process the world at a much faster rate than the humans you’re dealing with, to try to be a facsimile of a person when you’re really not, and so on. I highly recommend it.

Review: Nebula Novelette Nominees

written by David Steffen

And the next category up in Nebula nominees, voted by professional SF and fantasy authors, stories from 7500-17,500 words. As I work my way up in the category lengths I generally enjoy less of the stories because the longer categories could often do with significant trimming.

So I was surprised and pleased after only really digging one of the stories in the Short Story category, that this category did much better.


1. ‘‘Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,” Henry Lien (Asimov’s 12/13)
Suki Jiang, inhabitant of the world of Pearl, has been sent to a boarding school for being willful and disrespectful to her parents. This is the essay she writes about her experiences at Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters. The main measure of worth in this society is ability to perform martial arts while ice-skating on the surface that is made of pearl.

I found the protagonist of this story extremely entertaining, proud to the point of arrogance and focused on her goals even when she doesn’t take much time for forethought before the things she says and does. The story had my vote from an early moment when Suki faces off in martial arts skating against a team of nuns who want to cut her hair as punishment.


2. ‘‘They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,” Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov’s 1/13)
No one knows why the glassmen have come, forcing us to follow their rules and their moralities, punishing with sudden violence any resistance against them. Those who survive have little time to concentrate on anything else but trying to eke out a living from the land under the eye of the glassmen. No one has even seen a glassman in the flesh, because they hide behind their remote controlled devices. One of their rules is that no abortions are outlawed, and the protagonist’s sister wants to find a doctor who will give her an illegal aboriton, but they have to travel some distance to find one while avoiding glassmen who will force her to stay at a hospital to carry the baby to term.

The glassmen in this story were scary and strange enough that their presence in the story carried my like for it. I felt for the main characters and very much wanted them to survive their journey, and was kept guessing what the glassmen really were and what they really wanted throughout.


3. ‘‘The Waiting Stars,” Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky)
This is told as two seemingly separate stories, taking place in a world that will be familiar to her fans, as she has told stories from this world before. One story is about Lan Nhen and her sister Cuc as they go to rescue a damaged mindship that contains the mind of a relative. They come from the Dai Viet culture where ships are controlled by human minds, birthed as mechanical objects from human wombs. The other story follows Catherine, who has been “rescued” from Dai Viet culture by the empire which has tried to give her a new life in the imperial way.

Aliette’s stories have a great deal to say about how cultures interact with each other, not in the war that is often the subject of SF stories, but more in regards to cultural assimilation, imperialism, and the motivations of individuals who are just trying to survive in the boundaries where wildly disparate cultures intersect. She has a real gift for exploring this topic. This is a very good story. It did take me most of the story to guess how the two tales are related to each other, but it was done well. The fact that I placed it as #3 on the list is no insult to its quality, it’s just that this category held some tough competition.


4. ‘‘In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,’‘ Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons 7/1 , 7/8/13)
Millie’s husband George is in the hospital, and he might not be long for this world. In a comatose state, he moves his hand in a drawing motion. Given a pen he sketches the rough blueprint of a structure she’d never seen him draw in all his years as an architect, even the more fanciful conceptual projects he’d drawn in his career for the military. What could it be?

As with the #3 on the list, this one’s not #4 because I disliked it–it was just a tough crowd. I felt like Millie and George were real people. They sounded like great people to know and I was especially interested in the sprawling backyard treehouse of motley design that he put together for his children. I was interested to see where it all turned out and I was fully invested in the story. It was a good story, it just didn’t quite work for me as well as the other ones.


5. ‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/13)
Tian Haoli, the litigation master, is approached by a man carrying a text which has been forbidden by the emperor, pursued by the emperor’s assassins. The man asks Tian Haoli to hide the book for him, and he must then decide what to do.

This wasn’t really speculative fiction. The Monkey King himself was the only pseudo-speculative element, but it seemed pretty clear that this was just a figment of the litigation master’s imagination. The story is based in real tragedy, but I thought it was a little too heavy on message. It was hard to just go along with the story when it seemed the author was just using it as a medium to tell about a historical event that people might not be aware of. I prefer story to be primary, message secondary. As a documentary, I’d want to read more, but as fiction it left something to be desired.


6. ‘‘Paranormal Romance,” Christopher Barzak (Lightspeed 6/13)
“This is a story about a witch. Not the kind you’re thinking of either.” Sheila is a modern witch who specialized in love. Helping a lonely person find new love, helping a person in a fading marriage hold it together, anything along those lines, but she’s never had much luck in love herself.

I didn’t find very much in the story to keep my interest. The opening lines seem to match a pattern I’ve noticed in some recent stories in the last few years which start with some variation of “I’m going to tell you a fairy tale. But not the kind of fairy tale you’re expecting.” I’ve never found this to be a very intriguing beginning, because the format never ends up being much less predictable than the fairy tale it claims to be totally unlike.

In this case, I could’ve used some tension, some goal for the character. She seems content enough doing her everyday work. She’s good at what she does. Her mom continually is trying to set her up on romantic outings, but she doesn’t really seem that concerned about her lack of a relationship. And if she doesn’t seem that concerned, why should I be? But in the end it seems that what the story was about was her finding a relationship, something which she wasn’t looking for at all. Generally a story with a relationship as a major factor shows me that the person really wants a relationship, or perhaps there is other focal tension and the relationship grows from that. This one was neither, and I didn’t think it worked. So, generally, I found the story quite dull and lacking in tension, and I was never interested in the love interest, and it didn’t really matter to me whether a relationship started or not because the character didn’t seem that concerned.


Interview: Ken Liu

interview by Carl Slaughter
introduction by David Steffen


If you’ve kept up with science fiction publications in the last few years, you’ve probably at least heard the name Ken Liu. Dozens of his stories have been published just in the last couple of years in the biggest and best SF publications out there today, including F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction… The list goes on and on. He won the Hugo for “Mono No Aware” this year. He won the Hugo and the Nebula for “The Paper Menagerie” last year, one of my personal favorite stories I’ve read in years. I just read a fun story by him on the Drabblecast titled “The Call of the Pancake Factory”, about a representative of a certain supercorporation amusement park happening to cross paths with a cult of Cthulhu–great story. He’s on a roll, and showing no signs of stopping. He’s a great writer and you should check out his work if you ever get a chance to read it.


You’ve been getting an awful lot of stories published the last few years. Did you build up an archive or have you just been a really busy guy lately?

For the longest time, I wrote very slowly, and so there never really was much “inventory.” But I’ve been writing at a somewhat steady, faster pace for the last four years. The more I write, the more ideas I seem to have. So that has worked out well.


How do you maintain quality and quantity? Natural talent, hard work, long hours, disciplined lifestyle, or some combination?

I think over time, I’ve learned to do a better job of picking out which story ideas seem cool but won’t work, which ones are good for flash pieces, and which ones are good for longer development. That has helped to reduce the number of stories I have to trunk.

I’ve also learned to work better under deadline. Knowing how long it takes me to finish a story and polish it to the point where I’m satisfied with it builds confidence, and that makes it easier to take up new projects and plan them into my schedule.


What’s your day job? How do you find time for family, the office, and the keyboard?

I used to be a programmer, became a corporate attorney, and now I work as a litigation consultant for high-tech patent cases, which sort of combines my areas of expertise. It’s very interesting, stimulating work, and probably helps with giving me story ideas.

I have two young children at home, ages 3 and 1. As anyone with young children knows, they severely constrain your writing time. I’ve learned to be better about time management and use the little writing time I do have more efficiently. For example, I try to do some drafting on my commuter rail ride every day.

I can’t say I’ve got it figured out. My novel revisions are going much more slowly than I’d like, partly due to the lack of uninterrupted writing time. But plenty of writers have figured out such a balance before, I just need to keep on working on my process and improve it.


Some author’s sell to the same two or three markets or half a dozen markets. You’ve been selling to every market under the sun. What’s the explanation? Diverse material? Looks better on your resume? Just like to shop around?

I enjoy working with different editors. Every editor has taught me something new. And I do write a wide variety of stories, so some stories might be a better fit with F&SF while others might work better at Analog. Not every editor likes everything I write.

I also like being exposed to new readers through new markets, so being published in multiple markets has worked out well for me.


You’ve been winning and being nominated for a lot of awards. Mike Resnick said about awards, “When you walk out of the convention, nobody on the street knows who you are.” This in contrast to, for example, the Oscar. How has winning famous awards affected you personally? How has it affected your career? More sales? More fan mail? Invitations to speak at conventions? Requests for interviews?

I can’t say it has affected my personal life significantly — I did get a lot of congratulations from my friends and co-workers, which made me very happy. I think the stories that were nominated got more readers, and of course I’m happy about that.

Career wise, since I don’t have a novel, I can’t point to any concrete sales boost from the awards. I do think some of the translation deals I’ve gotten were due to the awards — if nothing else, they help with name recognition, especially overseas.

Unless people ask about the awards though, I just don’t think about them much. I’m very grateful to have been nominated and to have won some of them, but what keeps me writing isn’t the desire for awards, but to write stories that I want to read myself.


You’ve been concentrating on short stories. What does the novel horizon look like?

I’m working on a novel, an epic fantasy of sorts, set in a secondary world created by my wife and me together. The setting is an archipelago, and there are magical creatures, gods, and lots of fanciful machines based on ancient Chinese mechanical engineering. The plot is loosely adapted from the historical legends about the founding of the Han Dynasty, and some of the cultural aspects are derived from classical East Asian elements.

The first draft is done, but there’s a lot of rewriting left still.


What about the screen market? Any queries to or from Hollywood to buy or write scripts?

I do like scripts, and want to get better at writing them. But there’s not much of a market for them unless you’re in Hollywood, so, for now, I’m focusing just on narrative fiction.


What’s the market like for science fiction in China? Aren’t they more into traditional fantasy? You know, beings with magical powers. Personification of animals, like the famous Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” (Or is it more accurately translated, “The Journey West”?) Is there a market in China for traditional science fiction? Biotechnology, space travel, etc.

I’m not an expert on the Chinese science fiction market, but from what I’ve seen, science fiction does very well there. Of course, China is a very big country, so even if only a small percentage of readers are interested in science fiction, the absolute numbers are going to be big. Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, for example, sold some 400,000 copies, and that’s a hard science fiction first contact story. (I’ve been engaged to translate the first book of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, into English, and Tor Books will be publishing the book in the US in 2014.)

A lot of my writer friends in China — in science fiction, fantasy, and slip-stream — seem to have many more readers (even if they don’t all have novels out yet). And even my own stories, translated into Chinese, seem to have generated more feedback than they received in English. So I’d say the market is very healthy, overall.


Besides China, how are overseas sales going?

I have a Japanese collection coming out from Hayakawa Publishing in 2015, and I’ve sold a few reprints to markets in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Sometimes I get a chance to work directly with the translators, and that’s always such a pleasure.


You have all your stories critiqued on the Critters Online Workshop. How has that affected your writing and your sales?

I haven’t used Critters for most of my fiction for a while now. Over time, I’ve developed a circle of beta readers (several of whom I met through critters) whose opinions I trust, and it’s just more efficient to get their take than to go through critters, especially when I’m under tight deadlines.

I think Critters taught me, above all, how to figure out which critiques are helpful and which ones are not. When you’re relatively inexperienced as a writer, there’s a lot of benefit to getting a wide range of opinions because they help you figure out who your target audience is. Learning to ignore opinions from people who aren’t in your target audience is a difficult lesson because our natural tendency as writers is to try to please everyone. But that’s impossible, and it’s better that you learn this lesson earlier rather than later.


Any advice for aspiring writers?

Listen when other writers share their process and try their techniques out, but don’t be surprised when most of them don’t work for you — but also be prepared for the possibility that a few will. You won’t know which is which until you try them though.



Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.


His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.


Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.


The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Podcast 2012+

written by David Steffen

Beneath Ceaseless Skies continues to be a great source of fiction set in a secondary world. This list encompasses all of their podcasted stories since my last list in March of 2011, about 38 episodes. Keep in mind that they only podcast about half of their stories, so check out their text if you want to get the full backlog.

On to the list!


1. The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant
My favorite short story for several years, my definite #1 pick for award season. The story of a girl going through rites of passage of her culture’s religion while coping with the death of her father. Great philosophy, and a good story well told.

2. Mr. Morrow Becomes Acquainted with the Delicate Art of Squidkeeping by Geoffrey Maloney
So much fun, this reminded me of a Drabblecast episode. Interacting with alien squid creatures in Victorian period.

3. Worth of Crows by Seth Dickinson

4. The Ascent of Reason by Marie Brennan
Another story set in Driftwood, where dying worlds go as they disappear.

5. A Place to Stand by Grace Seybold


Honorable Mention

Cursed Motives by Marissa Lingen

Review: Nebula Novelette Nominees 2012

written by David Steffen

On to the next category of the Nebula awards, the Best Novelette, which covers fiction between the word counts of 7,500 and 17,500 words. Generally I’m not a big fan of novelettes because to me they feel like short stories that have overstayed their welcome. Even though they can be more than twice as long as a short story I rarely feel like they have more meaningful content than a short story and so the story is just diluted in a larger space. It’s an awkward length, I think, not enough room to spread into more plot arcs like a novel would do but too long for the appealing conciseness of a short story.

But if I’m going to read some novelettes, I may as well read the ones that other people nominated for the Nebula award. They’re supposed to be the cream of the crop, after all. So, here goes. I’ve read all 7 of the nominees and rank-ordered them based on preference.

Nebula Award for Best Novelette

1. The Waves by Ken Liu (Asimov’s 12/12)
Maggie Chao is a resident of a generation ship headed for a distant colony that will take 400 years to reach its destination. She’s settled in for her leg of the journey, raising a family that will take her place, when they receive a message from Earth with the formula for eternal youth. Eternal youth, while attractive, poses its own difficulties in an enclosed environment where all of the resources have been scheduled and rationed precisely to allow them all to survive to their destination. And this isn’t the only major change to their lives as they continue and as they land to make their colony. Technology has been developing on Earth while they traveled, and a singularity has already passed by the time they land, and it may not be the only one.

This story had a very Golden Age feel to me, in the best way possible. There were characters, and I liked those characters, but what really made it memorable to me was the progression of technologies from start to finish, each one being kind of its own stage of worldbuilding. It evoked a really nice sense of wonder that kept me interested and happy to be reading it. The main story is interspersed with Maggie telling different mythical Creation tales, each of which ties into events in the main story in interesting ways.


2. The Pyre of New Day by Catherine Asaro (The Mammoth Book of SF Wars)
Hypron is a telepath with withered legs who lives with his brother Oxim on the bleak muddy landscape of a frontier planet called New Day. They’d come here with other colonists to this terraformed world to make a life for themselves, but were abandoned by the founders of the colony when the terraforming failed, and the atmosphere turned more and more toxic. As more and more colonists died, Hypron’s telepathy proved a major weakness for him as he was forced to live through each person’s grief as their loved ones died. But he and his brother have survived, eking out a life here by working together. Until the day that Oxim is killed by pirates, leaving Hypron alone on their tiny home in the middle of the mud sea and with no way to get food, to call for help, or transport himself away.

Meanwhile, Soz Valdoria finds him by chance. She is a Jagernaut, one of a class of technologically enhanced human rumored with a vicious reputation as monstrous killers. Her ship needs maintenance after battling a monster in the mud sea, and she needs a place to dock it. She too is a telepath, and she follows Hypron’s grieving thoughts to his home and docks her ship there to do her maintenance. She befriends Hypron. Soon the pirate ship that killed Oxim returns, and Hypron and Valdoria have to work together to survive.

I liked both characters in this story quite a lot. I really wanted them to survive. The worldbuilding was interesting, and the story well written. The main flaw I saw in this story was the power-balance didn’t lend itself well to providing the story with tension. At the beginning of the story when Hypron realizes he is alone and without any conceivable way to survive, there is absolutely nothing he can do but contemplate suicide to make his end more quick. While I felt for the guy, there wasn’t much tension in that inevitable fate from which he has no power to escape. When Valdoria shows up at just the right time, she of course turns Hypron’s chances completely around, but she is so capable that when the pirates show up again I never had the slightest doubt that she would take them out. So again, I never felt a lot of tension.

But the story has plenty of good things going for it.


3. The Finite Canvas by Brit Mandelo ( 12/5/12)
Molly is a medical doctor on the barely habitable old Earth, which has been abandoned by most of humanity. Her clinic is supported by a donor, but she’s barely scraping by to get herself in food and clothes. A woman walks in to her clinic, named Jada, hard in body and mind, a wanted assassin and member of a crime syndicate fleeing pursuit here. Her body is covered in stylized scars, each marking one of her kills. Off-planet she would have an artist do the scarring for her, but there is no such luxury here on old Earth. She is here to ask the doctor to give her a new scar to commemorate Jada murdering her partner. In exchange, Jada will pay her money that Molly sorely needs for medical treatment, and give her a story.

I enjoyed this story. I really felt that both characters were real people, who find common ground despite all their differences. Jada tells her story as Molly adds to Jada’s scars. I really was enjoying this story until the ending, where it takes a sudden turn that for me came out of nowhere. Judging by the story’s text, this turn was meant to be understandable and justifiable, but I didn’t find it that way. The ending made me wonder what exactly I had missed in everything that came before it that made that ending work, wondering if I’d missed the point entirely.


4. Close Encounters by Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
This story tells of events later in the life of Buck Nelson, one of the cheerful and vocal alien “contactees” of the 1950s and 1960s. Once very vocal and happy to share his stories, he’s withdrawn from the public eye over the years. A reporter, Miss Hanes of the Associated Press, knocks on his door and tries to get him to talk again. He rebuffs her, but she’s persistent, and eventually she talks him into talking with her about his stories about alien contact with the alien who called himself Bob Solomon and their travels together to the moon, Mars, and Venus. He’s been telling stories for so long after the contact that even he doesn’t remember which ones were true. The date is nearing of the annual picnic which he used to invite people to join him in stargazing in the hopes of Bob Solomon coming back.

I liked Buck a lot, a colorful salt of the earth kind of guy. His interaction with Miss Hanes was very entertaining. Likeable characters are a definite plus, but though there was an ending that tied things up, I felt like the story in general was kind of meandering and too slow to get where it was going.


5. Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky ( 8/22/12)
Renn never learned great skill in art, but she did develop a skill in magic that allows her to paint things perfectly at the cost of destroying the artistic subject. Her former teacher, the great artist Lisane de Patagnia is dying–she has not given Renn her estate, but she has insisted that Renn paint her with magic. This is a practice forbidden due to the fatal consequences, but she wants to leave something behind that will become her legacy and Renn’s when she and Renn are both gone.

Lisane collected student lovers like trinkets, using them and discarding them when they disinterested her, always in pursuit of someone. Renn was one of her lovers, but so were others, including Orla who is receiving Lisane’s estate.

This is a story of loss and of grieving, and of finding your own place in the world. It was well-written, but I found that I couldn’t relate to any of the characters enough for the story to really have an impact. Lisane is selfish to the point of sociopathy, pursuing her art and her carnal desires in the most selfish possible way, with utter disregard for the well-being of those she tears apart in the process. And the students who flock to her become such doting doormats with utter disregard for their own well-being that I couldn’t relate to them either.


6. Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron ( 1/4/12)
Sisters Brigid and Sinead are mourning their brother Ian. Ian was a fan of pulling pranks, and now that he’s gone the sisters have started to pull pranks on each other in escalating fashion. They begin to see visions of their brother, and they realize that he always manifests during an act of a prank. Does he manifest because they are evoking his spirit in pulling pranks the way he would have? Or is he trying to stop them? Or something else entirely?

I didn’t really care about what seemed to be the central questions of the story, why the pranks brought their brother around. And in the end I didn’t really care about any of the characters. A story about grieving is a great way to emotionally connect with me, but mixing it with childish and malicious pranks leaves me not liking any of the characters. By the end I didn’t care what happened to any of them.


7. Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 8/12)
Joseph McCarthy has become President of the United States and life is good for everyone. Yes it is good, as defined by the goodness measures laid down by President McCarthy, everything from the war effort to the structure of the family unit. Never mind the radiation and the widespread impotence or the government choosing your occupation. The story is told as alternating propoganda videos by the McCarthy administration and two children who are trying to find their place in this world.

I felt like I should like this story. For those who may not know, Joseph McCarthy was the US Senator who singlehandedly started the Red Scare, lying his ass off to convince people that Communists were infiltrating us, thousands of spies acting as normal American families. Anyone could be a Communist spy, and you had to keep vigilant and report the slightest odd behavior. But McCarthy never showed any evidence of this in our world, and eventually was disgraced because everyone came to the conclusion he was lying.

McCarthy as President is a great premise for a dystopian future. Even I (who generally doesn’t have interest in politics) can’t help but extrapolate from that basic premise to something really terrible.

I generally liked the sections of this story that were told as editing notes on propoganda tapes. I’ve always liked stories that felt like “found” documents, and this had that feel. The propoganda feel gives an uneasy overpatriotic ring to this part of the story, very creepy.

But the “honestly” told parts of the story bothered me. I mean, bothered me in a way that meant I didn’t like it rather than the seat-squirming involvement in the propoganda sections. I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly why, but it meant that I didn’t like the story in the end. The closest I’m able to put it to words at this moment is that the “honestly” told parts of the story felt somehow even less genuine than the things that were clearly meant as propoganda. The over-the-top propoganda videos seemed to have been meant as a cautionary tale, and these other sections were meant to show the real life behind the propoganda, a life that isn’t so great. But to me these other sections didn’t ring true, to the point that they feel like propoganda directed at me and authored by Valente, using the obvious propoganda to try to drive me toward believing the other part is authentic when it really just felt like a more subtle propoganda to me. And, I mean, the main message I can detect there isn’t a bad one, that McCarthyism is a scary thing and that it’s a good thing that it didn’t sweep the American mindset and stay there. But the way that it’s told makes me want to distrust every part of the story as more propoganda, and that means that everything is so disingenuous to my gut feelings that there’s nothing of meaning here to me. In the end, this story just ended up just leaving me irritated.

Review: Nebula Short Story Nominees 2012

written by David Steffen

This is the first, and quite possibly the only, year that I’ve been eligible to vote for the Nebula Awards. The Nebula Awards, for those who don’t know, are one of the biggest awards of science fiction fandom. This is the one voted by members of Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America, as opposed to the fan-voted Hugo awards.

So to make the most of it, I’m reading as many of the nominees as I can find to do before the voting period ends. Here are my rankings of the Short Story category in order of preference from favorite to least (for the voting I pick only one, but to flesh it out as a full review I found this helpful). The Short Story category covers all speculative fiction stories of 7500 words or less.


Nebula Award for Best Short Story

1. Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain by Cat Rambo (Near + Far)
Tikka works as a Minor Propagandist on the fantastical Planet Porcelain, where all the residents are all made of varying qualities of clay or porcelain. She is one of the very few of the lower-class variety to find employment in an upper-class region. Having spent so much time writing top five lists intended to attract tourists to the planet, much of the story is told in a numbered format as she is used to structuring her thinking that way. She meets an off-world stranger, and forges a connection with him.

This was first published in Cat’s excellent Ace-Double style dual anthology. A solid and emotional connection with the character, with an interesting setting and occupation. I really felt for her.


2. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld 6/12)
A very interesting setting, set in Longevity, a world which has been recently conquered by a galaxy-spanning Empire. The war is over, but the conflict continues as the Empire sends tourists through to absorb the culture. The biggest element of this absorption is a technology called an immerser, which all of the Imperials use heavily to interact with their world, acting at its most basic level as a translator but altering perceptions of reality in everything you do. To deal with Imperials at all, the locals have to user the immersers as well. It’s a battle to maintain your own beliefs and perceptions in the face of reality overlays.

This was published in Clarkesworld, where I first heard it on their podcast. It’s a solid story, well written. The worldbuilding in this one was especially good.


3. Robot by Helena Bell (Clarkesworld 9/12)
Written as instructions to a domestic robot that also acts as a medical aid. The instructions make it very clear that this robot is meant to follow these instructions very closely. The robot is meant to eat the narrator’s dead flesh as a disease eats away at her. This one sided conversation has all kinds of nuances that you are left to unravel on your.

This was published in Clarkesworld, where I heard it on the podcast. There are some seriously creepy undertones that seem to suggest there’s something deeper. I’m not sure I was ever able to fully unravel them. It served as an interesting puzzle, especially trying to understand the narrator’s motivations and personality only from her instructions. It’s very well written, and has some definite emotional connection. The reason I didn’t rank this one higher is that I didn’t feel there was any character or plot arc–nothing changed. I enjoyed it for sure, but to pick it as my favorite story of the year it has to have something more.

This story also seriously needed a better title. Single-word titles, when the word is from the dictionary, are often not very evocative. But this is the least evocative title I think I’ve ever seen. I saw this on a suggested reading list for the Nebula, and I knew I must have heard it on the Clarkesworld podcast but the title brought back absolutely no memory of the story. I’m sure I’ve read dozens of stories in the last year that involved some kind of robot, and I didn’t have any recollection which one it would be.


4. The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species by Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/12)
This is written as a sort of documentary of the writing and reading habits of interstellar species, a half dozen or so very interesting ideas.

Ken Liu is a great writer. He wrote last year’s “The Paper Menagerie”, which was a well-deserved winner last year. This story showcases some of Ken’s great creative thinking, but to me it read more like a set of outlines that he never got around to making into stories. Among other things, there are no characters, just alien races. They’re great ideas! But I’d rather read the stories, instead of the outlines. To pick something as the best story of the year, I want a plot and characters.

This was published in Lightspeed, where I heard it on their podcast.


5. Fragmentation, Or Ten Thousand Goodbyes by Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 4/12)
The story of a dying mother and her son Rico who wants to preserve her in some fashion after. They can create digital uploads of people who can live in virtual environments. He is trying to plan ahead for her death, planning an environment for her simulacrum to live in.

This story has a good emotional core, and there is a character arc. I felt like I should have enjoyed it more. It seemed to me like the core idea (which was referred to in the title) was meant to be deep and philosophical since the entire story focused around it, but it never really spoke to me.

This was published in Clarkesworld, where I heard it on the podcast.


6. Nanny’s Day by Leah Cypess (Asimov’s 3/12)
A story that takes place in a future where anti-bioist parenting movements are the norm. Working mothers turn for more and more of their childcare to their nannies. After a landmark case kicks up the anti-bio-ist movement that says that biological parents should have no priority over custody of their own children, encouraging the child to choose who he/she wants to be their guardian. Parents have become paranoid, to the point that no one keeps nannies for more than a few months at a time. The protagonist is a mother who suspects that her nanny is going to try to make a grab for custody.

This was published in Asimov’s, and Leah posted it to her website to read for free. I didn’t really care for this one. It had a character arc, and a plot arc, which are definite pluses. But it just felt very preachy to me very early on, a lecture more than anything, and that feeling never went away. It was well written, but it was just so heavy on message I just couldn’t get into it. Not the story for me.


7. Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream by Maria Devahna Headley (Lightspeed 7/12)
This story is about… Well, if you know what it’s about, feel free to let me know. A… love story between a magician and a witch… I think.

This one was published in Lightspeed, where I heard it on their podcast. Quite frankly, I found this one completely incomprehensible. Each section switched the style, often speaking in hypotheticals, changing the details of the situation. I was never really sure what was happening or why in the hell I’m supposed to give a damn about anything that’s happening. Everything changed so frequently that it wasn’t exactly a plot or character arc, but more like Brownian motion twitching in any and every direction. Clearly I didn’t get this one at all, and it’s not for me.




My Hugo/Nebula Picks 2012

written by David Steffen

In the previous post I suggested my own Hugo/Nebula nominated work. This post has the purpose of sharing my picks for these categories other than our own work. I welcome any and all to post in the comments with their own suggestions.

I’m a bit of an odd duck in my reading habits, in that I ready only a small niche of the types of stuff out there, but I read that very deeply. Almost all of my fiction intake comes from fiction podcasts, which are all Short Story categories, but are often reprints from previous years which are not eligible. I do read novels, but have not read any written in 2012 yet, because I am a slow read and because I re-read the entire Wheel of Time series that pretty much took all year, in preparation for the 2013 release of the final book.

Which is to say, most of the categories that I’ve voted for I am very well read in, but I just left off those categories in which I have not read at all, or haven’t read enough to have some solid picks.

Best Short Story Hugo and Nebula

This is the category I’m most interested in, covering SF/Fantasy/Horror fiction of 7500 words or less.

1. The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

2. Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain by Cat Rambo (Near + Far)

3. All the Painted Stars by Gwendolyn Clare (Clarkesworld)

4. Devour by Ferrett Steinmetz (Escape Pod)

5. Worth of Crows by Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)


Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) Hugo

Best dramatic presentation of 90 minutes or longer

1. The Hunger Games

2. Game of Thrones Season 2

3. True Blood Season 5

4. The Avengers

5. Wreck-It Ralph

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) Hugo

Best dramatic presentation of less than 90 minutes.

1. “Digital Estate Planning” –episode of Community

2. Devour–Escape Pod

3. The Dead of Tetra Manna–Dunesteef

4. The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward–Drabblecast

5. The Music of Erich Zann–Drabblecast


Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation (Not a Nebula)

Related to the Nebulas, but not a Nebula itself, this seems to combine the long and short dramatic forms used in the Hugo.

1. The Hunger Games

2. Game of Thrones Season 2

3. True Blood Season 5

4. Wreck-It Ralph

5. “Digital Estate Planning” — Community


Best Editor (Short Form) Hugo

Editor of short fiction.

1. Norm Sherman (Drabblecast)

2. Scott H. Andrews (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

3. Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld)

4. John Joseph Adams (Lightspeed, various anthologies)

5. Bruce Bethke (Stupefying Stories)


Best Profession Artist Hugo

1. Michael Whelan (especially this Analog cover)


Best Semiprozine Hugo

This is the most complicated category to define. It is not a professional market, which means that neither of the following are true: (1) provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or, (2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner. In addition, it generally has to pay contributors in something other than copies of the magazine, or only be available for paid purchase.

I’m not totally sure that all of the ones that I’ve picked here are eligible. There might be others that I’m ruling out as not being eligible that are. This category confuses me. but these are my best shot at nominations for it.

1. Drabblecast

2. Escape Pod

3. Beneath Ceaseless Skies

4. Pseudopod

5. Stupefying Stories


Best Fancast Hugo

This is a new experimental Hugo that might get voted in as a permanent one. It is split off from the Best Fanzine Hugo, but must be an audio or video presentation. I’m not totally sure that Toasted Cake qualifies, since they do pay a few dollars per story, but I thought it was low enough that it might be considered as more of an honorarium and let me nominate it.

1. Journey Into…
see my Best Of Journey Into… list for examples.

2. Toasted Cake

3. Beam Me Up
A science fiction radio show and podcast–how cool is that?


John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)

1. Jake Kerr
I very much enjoyed his Old Equations on Lightspeed, for one.

2. Mur Lafferty