The Best of Strange Horizons 2018

written by David Steffen

Strange Horizons is a freely available online speculative fiction zine that also publishes nonfiction and poetry.  Their editors-in-chief are Jane Crowley and Kate Dollardhyde.  Their senior fiction editors are Lila Garrott, Catherine Krahe, An Owomoyela, and Vajra Chandresekera, and their podcast is edited, hosted, and usually read by Anaea Lay.  They publish a variety of styles of stories and have regularly attracted award nominations in recent years.  All of the stories and poetry in the zine are published in the podcast.  In 2018, Strange Horizons published about 50 stories .

Stories that are eligible for this year’s Hugo awards are marked with an asterisk (*).

The List

1.“The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” by Margaret Killjoy**
Hacker uses compromised drones to harass high-level executives of world-wrecking corporations, but is accused of murder.

2.“Some Personal Arguments In Support of the BetterYou (Based On Early Interactions)” by Debbie Urbanski*
This is a really interesting point of view piece, in favor of the “BetterYou”, a copy of yourself that fits some definition of an ideal you who joins your family.

3.“Variations On a Theme From Turandot by Ada Hoffman*
Very meta-story about evolving permutations of a play repeated over and over.

4.“Copy Cat” by Alex Shvartsman and K.A. Teryna*
What could a cat do to keep its home after its owner dies?

5.“Venus Witch’s Ring” by Inda Lauryn*
Make a deal with a devil, and the bargain is never what you expect.

Honorable Mentions

“The Trees of My Youth Grow Tall” by Mimi Mondal*

“Dying Lessons” by Troy L. Wiggins*

“Her Beautiful Body” by Adrienne Celt*

Award Recommendations 2018

written by David Steffen

Here are some recommendations for selected Hugo and Nebula categories. (Note that I’ve listed them in alphabetical order, rather than order of preference, and have listed more than the 5 ballot options when possible). I don’t think I’ve read any eligible novels this year, so that category is not represented.

Best Novella

“Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gillman, in Clarkesworld Magazine

Best Novelette

“A Love Story Written On Water” by Ashok K. Banker, in Lightspeed Magazine

“A World To Die For” by Tobias S. Buckell, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“The Last To Matter” by Adam-Troy Castro, in Lightspeed Magazine

“Dead Air” by Nino Cipri, in Nightmare Magazine

“Hapthorn’s Last Case” by Matthew Hughes, in Lightspeed Magazine

“The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” by Margaret Killjoy, in Strange Horizons

“To Fly Like a Fallen Angel” by Qi Yue, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“House of Small Spiders” by Weston Ochse, in Nightmare Magazine

“Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“Master Zhao: An Ordinary Time Traveler” by Zhang Ran, translated by Andy Dudak

Best Short Story

“After Midnight at the ZapStop” by Matthew Claxton, in Escape Pod

A Scrimshaw of Smeerps” by Shannon Fay, in Toasted Cake

“Variations on a Theme From Turandot by Ada Hoffman, in Strange Horizons

“Secrets and Things We Don’t Say Out Loud” by José Pablo Iriarte, in Cast of Wonders

“Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“Hosting the Solstice” by Tim Pratt, in PodCastle

“Marshmallows” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“The Death Knight, the Dragon, and the Damsel” by Melion Traverse, in Cast of Wonders

“Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions)” by Debbie Urbanski, in Strange Horizons

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form / Ray Bradbury Award

Ant-Man and the Wasp

The Incredibles 2

Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, for Nintendo Switch

A Wrinkle In Time

The Best of Strange Horizons 2016+

written by David Steffen

Strange Horizons is a freely available online speculative fiction zine that also publishes nonfiction and poetry.  Their editor-in-chief is Niall Harrison.  Their fiction editors are Lila Garrott, Catherine Krahe, An Owoyo, and Vajra Chandresekera, and their podcast is edited, hosted, and usually read by Anaea Lay.  They publish a variety of styles of stories and have regularly attracted award nominations in recent years.  All of the stories and poetry in the zine are published in the podcast.  This list covers all of the stories published since the last Best of Strange Horizons list posted here on November 9, 2015.  In that timeframe, Strange Horizons published 52 stories.

Since last year they have upgraded their website so it looks all shiny and new.

This year they added a new feature when they reached a fundraising goal to add Spanish translations.

Stories that are eligible for this year’s Hugo and Nebula awards are marked with an asterisk (*).

The List

1. “The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R.” by Benjamin C. Kinney*
Story of hauntings from the point of view of the ghost, who in life had been a researcher, as she tries to research her own non-corporeal state.

2.  “Das Steingeschöpf” by G.V. Anderson*
A story of a new member of a sculpting guild, sent to repair one of the ancient living sculptures known as Steingeschöpf.

3.  “The Witch’s Knives” by Margaret Ronald*
The story begins as a woman ends a long quest to rid her husband of a curse that has made him into a beast.

4.  “We Have a Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You?” by Rebecca Ann Jordan*
Non-human POV as an alien (the last of its species) that’s primary sense is taste.

5.  “Water, Birch, and Blood” by O Horvath and Sara Norja*
A woman abruptly remembers her childhood trip to a portal world, and tries to find her way back.

Honorable Mentions

“Tigerskin” by Kurt Hunt

“Dragon-Smoked Barbeque” by M.K. Hutchins*

“Timothy” by Philip Schweitzer*

 

 

Best of Strange Horizons Podcast

written by David Steffen

Strange Horizons is a freely available online speculative fiction zine that also publishes nonfiction and poetry.  They publish a variety of styles of stories and have regularly attracted award nominations in recent years.

All of the stories and poetry in the zine are published in the podcast.

History

When Mary Anne Mohanraj founded Strange Horizons in the year 2000, online publications were often looked down upon in many circles as inferior to print magazines–not getting much attention come award season and that sort of thing.  Since then the attitude has shifted greatly and many of the award honors every year go to online publications.  I believe Strange Horizons is the oldest of those online publications that regularly draws that kind of honor, and Strange Horizons has done a lot to turn around fandom’s opinion about online publications.

Mary Anne Mohanraj was Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons until 2003.  Susan Marie Groppi was Editor-in-Chief from 2004 through 2010.  The current Editor-in-Chief is Niall Harrison and the current fiction editors are Julia Rios, An Owomoyela, Catherine Krahe, and Lila Garrott.  There have been other fiction editors in the past, but I’m honestly not sure where to find a full list.

Strange Horizons is a nonprofit organization in the US and is run entirely run by volunteers so that all the money goes toward licensing the publication rights for the content.  Most of their funding comes from their annual fundraising drive, which ended a few days ago.

One of the rewards for reaching goals in their 2012 fund drive was to start producing a fiction podcast, which began publishing in January 2013.  Anaea Lay is the host and also narrates most of the stories.  There is also a poetry podcast if that suits your fancy–I am focusing on the fiction podcast here because I don’t understand poetry well enough for my opinion to be of much value.  Since then, all of Strange Horizons stories also appear on the fiction podcast.

Best Episodes

1. “The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link
Wonderfully weird story of two siblings waiting on a strange planet for their parents.

2.  “Broken-Winged Love” by Naru Dames Sandar
Story of a dragon parenting a child with a damaged wing.

3.  “The Suitcase Aria” by Marissa Lingen
A castrato magician hunts an opera house murderer.

4.  “Why Don’t You Ask the Doomsday Machine?” by Elliot Essex
From the POV of a machine that outlasts civilization after civilization.

5.  “Din Ba Din” by Kate McLeod
Living days completely out of order, often years apart.

6.  “Such Lovely Teeth, Such Big Teeth” (part 1 and part 2) by Carlie St. George
A modern story of Big Bad Wolves.

7.  “What We’re Having” by Nathaniel Lee
A skillet serves the food that we’re having tomorrow.

8.  “ARIECC 1.0” by Lillian Wheeler
POV of AI meant to help people with traffic and weather issues.

9.  “Among the Sighs of the Violencellos” by Daniel Ausema
A very interesting and evocative mix of fun elements, including fantasy hero tropes.

10.  “Significant Figures” by Rachael Acks
Alien masquerading as human tries to protect Earth from other aliens. My favorite character is a waffle iron.

 

Honorable Mentions

“The Innocence of a Place” by Margaret Ronald
Cool epistolary tale trying to piece together evidence of a mysterious series of events that happened in the early 20th century, with a historian’s notes on the subject.

“Dysphonia in D Minor” by Damien Walters Grintalis
A world where music is used to build things, and a story about the people who do this as an occupation.

“20/20” by Arie Coleman
Time travel is used to change the result of medical treatment plans that turned out to be incorrect.

“The Visitor”  by Karen Myers
Very cool alien POV and its first contact with humans.

“Never the Same” by Polenth Blake
A sociopath who has learned to function even in a society that scans for sociopaths and treats them differently tries to make a positive difference in an SFnal world.

 

Interview: Jeff Carlson

Jeff Carlson Jeff Carlson was a shortlister for the Campbell, a finalist for the Dick, and a first placer for WOTF. He is the author the alien Frozen Sky series and the post-apocalyptic Plague War series. His latest novel is the post-apocalyptic Interrupt. His short stories have appeared in Asimov’s and Strange Horizons. His short story collection is Long Eyes. His stories have been published in 16 languages.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: I listened to a podcast of “Topsider” on StarShipSofa. I was very impressed with the writing. So clear and efficient. Every passage is relevant, every sentence is in the right place, every scene is vivid. How did you learn to write so well? Did you attend a workshop? Do you have a ghost writer? Do you have an army of editorial assistants hidden in your basement combing over every word, every line, every paragraph? Are you an alien sent here to intimidate us human writers with your superior skill? Or do you just have a natural gift?

JEFF CARLSON: The truth is I’m the evil pod clone host of the poltergeists of Hemingway and Eliot. Every word is pure gold. Kneel before me, you fools!

Aha ha ha.

Thank you. No, actually I’m just an obsessive freak who fell in love with the spare, evocative styles of authors like Joe Haldeman, John Varley, Connie Willis and Spider Robinson right as I was coming of age as a fledging writer myself. Short story collections like Dealing In Futures and The Persistence of Vision made a vibrant impression on me. At their best, Haldeman and Varley could pack more human complexity into one sentence than some writers accomplish with a full page.

Most of their works are dated now. The science and the geopolitical scenarios in their books can seem alien to 21st Century thinking†which isn’t a bad thing if you enjoy the “what if” sense of wonder on which science fiction is built. Seriously. Go read the Worlds trilogy or Steel Beach or Bellwether or Night Of Power. Those books are mind-croggling even if there’s not an iPhone in sight.

Early in my teens and twenties, I did attend a lot of conferences and book signings, soaking up as much as I could from established authors. I joined a local writer’s group. I have a B.A. in English Lit. Mostly I read a lot and wrote a lot. Trial by fire.

I came up the once-traditional path in writing. When I was fifteen, I cranked out a sprawling, million word epic novel. It was pretty bad but it had heart. Then I got serious, buckled down, and began writing short stories. Of course I tried to emulate the minimalist, shock-ya story arcs of Haldeman and company. It’s a real challenge to squeeze an entire plot and character development into the space of forty pages, especially if you’re also introducing new worlds and explaining futuristic science and weapons tech. Each story was also a different opportunity to play with voice or POV.

In time, I began selling short pieces to small press publications, then to semi-pro and finally to full-on professional magazines with glossy ads and comparatively nice pay rates. Then I wrote a new book. Landed an agent. Sold the book in a minor bidding war. I think some people still become writers that way even now after the e-revolution.

What I should add is that in the process, I learned everything I could about editing. Some of this education came through studying what the magazine editors and the staff at Penguin did with my manuscripts. Other tricks I learned through sheer repetition.

The brain is a muscle. You can strengthen it.

From first draft to final proofs, I read Plague Year more than forty times. The sequel, Plague War, I read thirty times. The third book in the trilogy, Plague Zone, I read twenty times. By the time I got to The Frozen Sky and Interrupt, I was reading my books fifteen times. I don’t know if I’ll go less than that, but I hope I’ve streamlined the process. I’ve learned to avoid some mistakes.

Oh, just to clarify: “Topsider” is an excerpt from The Frozen Sky, and Sky and its sequels are self-published. Yes, I have beta readers. No, there are zero professional editors involved. These books are essentially a solo act. I’m working without a net, although I have surrounded myself with a small squad of keen-eyed volunteers as well as paid masterminds like the cover artist, Jasper Schreurs, who’s a freaking genius.

 

The Frozen Sky includes a lot of science and several fields of science. Astrophysics, biology, geology, pharmacology, AIs, computer hacking. How much research do you have to do for all that science to be feasible and accurate? Or do you have a rolodex of consultants on speed dial?

I read a lot. I remember what I read. The bulletin board on my office wall is layered in a madman’s stack of print-outs and clippings. Oh, and I have this thing called the internet, ha ha. I’m constantly jumping online to reach how granite is formed or what’s the capital of Finland or because I need to examine the molecular structure of hemoglobin. As a sci fi guy, I’m also fortunate to know any number of real-world engineers and scientists. I pester them from time to time.

 

Frozen SkyThe aliens in The Frozen Sky are intelligent, but they look a bit like squids, they don’t speak and they don’t have sight. Why not bipedal aliens like Vulcans or Klingons or Romulans with vocal cords and eyes?

Because I’m not constrained by a production budget! Ha. “Let’s glue some ears on him. We’ll glue some forehead thingies on them. Okay, we’re done.”

Star Trek is good fun but limited in presentation. That’s the beauty of being a novelist. The medium requires the reader’s imagination. Yes, I direct the action, but hard sf readers are smart readers. They want to be strangers in a strange land. So I can say, well, I have this claustrophobic three-dimensional low-gravity environment like the mazes of an ant farm inside Europa’s icy crust. What would kind of creatures would evolve here? Six-foot-tall bipedal creatures like people? Heck no.

 

The aliens have a math system and hieroglyphics type alphabet. Have they invented the wheel yet? How technologically advanced are they?

Man, I can’t tell you that! You’ll have to go deeper into the ice!

 

The novels of The Frozen Sky are told through the POV of Alexis Vonderach, one of the European astronauts. Why not the POV of a member of a different team like the Chinese or the Brazilians? Why not the POV of one of the aliens?

Great question. I have written novels with multiple POV storylines like Interrupt or the Plague Year trilogy†but for The Frozen Sky, the setting is already so complicated, I wanted to ground the story as best I could.

Also, I really like Vonnie. She’s smart and brave and capable and resilient. Does she have her weaknesses? Yes. She’s very human. I felt like staying within her mind was a necessary focal point. The catacombs inside Europa’s “frozen sky” are a bizarre and horrific environment. Adding more storylines was too much.

Having said that, an early draft included some chapters from the POV of an alien. Holy cow, was that a chore! These aliens are really strange, am I right? Trying to convey their thoughts in English was like dropping acid at the bottom of a Vegas swimming pool with Hunter S. Thompson, three tigers, a box of cookies and leaking SCUBA masks while reciting a Latin mass with the pope on your waterproof phone to Snooki as she’s driving drunk in downtown L.A. through commuter traffic. Did you follow that? I don’t know what it means, either. That’s just an approximation of how convoluted it felt trying to write from inside the brain of a sunfish. Whoa, Nelly.

I hope I managed to convey their very foreign way of thinking in their dealings with Von and the other human characters. The transcripts of their sonar calls and body language were incredibly fun to write. Also, I love comparing so many of things we take for granted with the pure, straightforward existence of my alien tribes.

 

If there was an alien main character, what would he be saying to his friends about Earthlings? Kill them and feed them to our offspring. Perform an autopsy on one of them. Steal their technology. Maybe they’re causing all the geological instability.

Examples one, three and four are reasonable. Number two doesn’t sound like the sunfish because, well, they’d just eat yaâ€

 

In the recent movie Europa Report, people travel to the same moon and encounter a similar alien. Then it turns into a body count horror movie as the squid picks off the entire crew. Instead, you have the two species interacting. What type of issues do they face trying to communicate with each other and understand each other’s cultures?

I haven’t seen Europa Report because I know I’d be disappointed. My book was first. More important, movies tend to suffer from the exact same problems you laid out for Star Trek and from the necessity for a body count.

That’s not to say The Frozen Sky doesn’t include sex and violence. Heck, the first 100 pages are basically one big chase scene, and among my favorite haters of all time is a lady who chastised me for using this novel to depict human beings as “just rutting animals with no purpose other than to destroy everything in sight with the exception of a few enlightened yet rutting souls.”

Hee hee. The oh-so-graphic depictions of sex in The Frozen Sky amount to a few interested glances between the heroine and her crewmates, one deep kiss, and an erotic thought or two from her POV.

Do I believe sex and violence are not only central to the human condition but also go hand in hand? God, yes. Look at what we consider entertainment. Look at the geopolitical scene. Every problem we have , pollution, racism, religious strife, war, disease , can be traced to overpopulation and the pressures between various groups or nations. Now that’s a nuts-and-bolts view of an extremely complex planet. We could spend our lifetimes connecting the dots. It’s easier to simplify everything to a basic dogma of “We’re right, they’re wrong,” but that easier view is part of what makes life harder on everyone in the world.

If sexuality makes you uncomfortable , if you think it’s scary or forbidden , I’d like to suggest that you have an immature sense of reality. Where did these seven freaking billion people come from if raw desire isn’t a major element of human motivation?
If greed , if destroying everything in sight , isn’t another major element of human motivation, why are our cities and slums expanding while the forests disappear and the oceans fill up with trash and poisons? Why are we fighting ancient wars over worthless deserts except to control everything we see? Granted, the oil in select areas of those deserts is valuable, but doesn’t that further prove my point? Is killing people for religious or racial differences better than killing them for energy sources?

Anyway. Too much coffee for me again this morning.

From what I see, we’re barely able to communicate among ourselves. Human beings cheat and lie and hurt each other. We have so many forms of insanity. Developing The Frozen Sky, I thought “Why wouldn’t intelligent aliens have their own delusions and conflicts?” Those fallacies would make it even harder for people and aliens to communicate.

 

Your work has been translated into 16 languages worldwide. How big of a chunk of your sales comes from foreign markets?

Never as much as I’d like. It is really, really fun to see my stories in languages I can’t read with new titles and new cover art. The experience is a mix of dÃ’ jÃ’Â vu and that awesome, twisty sense of “What if?”

When a foreign edition appears, it’s like having written an all-new book without having put in the work because those publishers have their own translators and artists. Every now and then a new magazine or a new novel shows up on my doorstep and I examine it with a smile, imagining how it reads in Spanish or Czech or whatever. Less frequently, I get fan mail from someone overseas, occasionally in broken English but usually in more grammatically precise English than my own, which is even more of a pleasure. Over time, I’ve struck up e-friendships with readers in the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, you name it.

My job description is I sit alone in a room with a laptop listening to the voices in my head. It’s spectacular to hear from real live people who enjoy the books.

 

A lot of novelists continue to write short stories to keep their name out there. They have bylines on the cover of Asimov’s two or three times a year. They get nominated for multiple Hugos and Nebulas. They get top billing at conventions. You chose not to go that route. What was the reasoning and how has that worked out for you?

Ha! Is that a trick question? I would love to be nominated for Hugos and Nebulas and receive top billing at conventions. I didn’t choose not to go that route. I haven’t been invited!!!

Regardless, I don’t know that bylines in Asimov’s equate to Hugo nominations and GOH slots at the big cons. I’ve had three stories with Asimov’s, and Penguin took out a lovely full-page ad in the magazine to promote Plague Zone, which was seriously cool. Also, Sheila Williams is a gracious, witty, hard-working genius and a pleasure to work withâ€

†but these days I write very little short fiction because I have a family and a mortgage, and short fiction rarely pays well. Equally important, as a reader I prefer to sink my head into a good novel and stay with the characters for a while. Most people are the same way. Hence the pay rates for short fiction. There’s just not as much demand for short stories.

I’m totally overwhelmed with my life in the real world plus my own writing / editing / research / etc., so my choice is to write a chapter of the next book rather than a short story. I only have so many hours in the day. Having said that, surprise! I recently accepted an invitation to contribute to a new anthology, and I have two more pieces of short fiction in progress. It’s just a matter of carving out enough minutes to get to everything. I definitely need some Carlson Clones.

 

Big open-ended questions: After the ebook revolution, when have you opted for self-publishing and what was the result? When have you opted for traditional publishing and what was the result?

Late in 2010, I self-re-e-published the original short story of “The Frozen Sky” on Kindle, Nook, and iTunes. It sold 40,000 copies.

I’d always wanted to develop it into a novel. The setting is literally as large as an entire moon. That’s plenty of room for new storylines, surprises and reversals. So I moved this project to the front burner. Going solo involved any number of new learning curves, but, again, I’d been paying close attention to the game while working with Penguin for the Plague Year trilogy.

Late in 2012, I self-published the all-new The Frozen Sky: The Novel. To date, it’s sold 37,000 copies. For a hard sf novel, that’s a very strong number, better than a mid-lister would expect with a Big 5 publisher in NYC. Color me excited. Japanese rights recently sold to Tokyo Sogensha, and our hope is the book’s success will lead to more interest overseas and in Hollywood. Let’s face it. It’s a cool idea, and far better executed than Europa Report.

If I had to pitch The Frozen Sky in a few words, I’d say: “This story is Pitch Black crossed with The Thing, and it features a strong female lead in impossible situations.” Also, it wouldn’t demand a massive budget, more like Lucy than Prometheus.

As for the many forms of publishing in our brave new e-world, these days I’m sort of climbing back and forth over the fence. Traditional publishing was good to me, and I’d happily accept the right deal. In the meantime, Interrupt was published by 47North, one of the new Amazon imprints stocked with top editors and publicists who were headhunted out of New York and released from many of the usual corporate restraints. They’re wild-eyed e-pirates on the laser’s edge of the future, man! Working with 47North was a delight. The book did well. You can’t really say 47North is a traditional publisher because their focus is ebooks, but the process was similar and I take pride now in being a triple hybrid , a traditional, a new model, and a self-published writer.

 

What comfort level have you reached as an author? Do you have liveried servants, do you still mow your own lawn, or somewhere in between?

Uh, yeah. Someday I hope to become such a jaded bigshot that I float in a pool lazily dictating my lunatic visions to a super model while legions of butlers and maid polish the silverware and fold our all-organic silk wardrobes. Hasn’t happened yet. I’m still barely making an honest wage in part because the money’s up and down. I have fat months. I have lean months.

But it beats working for the man!

 

Hollywood used to be into spaceship sci fi. Now they’re into alien sci fi and post-apocalyptic sci fi. You’ve got both. Any feelers from Hollywood?

Paging Steven Spielberg†Paging Mr. Spielbergâ€

 

Which actress would you chose to play Von?

Someone who’s smart and bright-eyed. Quick of wit and quick in combat.

 

Got any advice to aspiring writers?

Get a job, hippie! Bwah ha ha ha.

No, seriously: writing is a sketchy way to make a living. It takes a lot of work (which you can control) and some luck (which you can’t control), so the main thing is to put butt in chair and grind away. Try not to make yourself too crazy. Use the crazy to drive you. A little monomania never hurt anybody. Finishing a novel can be a long, hard marathon, which is why I always recommend starting out with short stories. It’s a joy to finish something, and each short story can be a different experiment in voice or pacing. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Move on. Work hard. Read a lot. Improve.

I suppose those sound like slogans, but there’s truth in slogans. Very few of us are the magic wunderkind who simply writes a perfect book and hits the bestseller lists. Most of us labor at our craft for years. We always labor at it. That means you need to enjoy the work. Write because you love listening to the voices in your head. Write because language and imagery and the human condition are fascinating to you. The work isn’t always fun, but should be satisfying.

That’s my five cents. If you don’t take satisfaction in the challenges you set for yourself, you’re doing it wrong. Enjoy the solitude. Enjoy the thinking. Believe me, when you get an email from Moscow or Dallas or Poughkeepsie informing you that you’re a genius, it’s worth the hours spent.

 

Carl_eagleCarl 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.

Interview: Ann Leckie

LeckiePhoto-160x240Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice swept the awards. (See the list below.) The sequel, Ancillary Sword, is due in October 2014. The third novel in the trilogy will be titled Ancillary Mercy. Lecke is a Clarion West graduate, former VP of SFWA, founder of GigaNotoSaurus, and former slush editor for Podcastle. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Subterranean Magazine.

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU’RE A CLARION GRADUATE. WHAT DID YOU LEARN AT CLARION THAT MADE A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?

ANN LECKIE: I learned a *lot* at Clarion West. It would have been difficult not to. But I think there were two things that made the biggest difference.

One was something that, when I say it, maybe sounds kind of trivial. But it was so important. Which was, that before I went, I knew that I wanted to write, and I had been writing–of course, you have to send a sample of your fiction with your application. And I had written two novels (now trunked, fortunately) and several short stories, and had been submitting those short stories. But I was hesitant to say, “I’m a writer.” I would, when asked, kind of hedge. “I’m trying to write.”

After six weeks of being with people who took my work seriously, who all assumed that of *course* I was a writer, I went home feeling like I could take my own work seriously now. Not that I was holding back, or not taking it seriously before. But the “gosh should I really be doing this, am I wasting my time, what if I’m not really a writer?” part of my internal critic was gone, which psychologically freed me up to push harder and be more confident in my work. This might not be a big deal for some folks, but it was really important to me.

The second thing is maybe also a bit odd. So, our week six instructor was Michael Swanwick. Who is awesome. I mean, he read every single story each of us had applied with and also every single story we’d turned in during the entire workshop, and gave us critiques on every one of them. This is an amazing commitment, an incredible gift to us. And he’s Michael freaking Swanwick, right? So when he critiqued the story I’d turned in for week six, he gave me all kinds of fabulous advice, much of it very specific, and I noted it all down and was all set to revise the story according to his advice. Because, seriously, it was, no question, excellent advice. How could it not be?

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it was excellent advice for an entirely different story. Not the story I’d written, but the story he’d perceived in the shambles that was my first draft. And I said to myself, “Self, you can’t actually take any of that advice. Instead, you need to rewrite the story in such a way that Michael Swanwick would not have misread it.”

That story turned out to be my first genre sale, my first pro sale, and my first appearance in a Years Best anthology. And the vitally important lesson Michael Swanwick taught me was that sometimes you ought to ignore even the very best advice. Even if it comes from Michael Swanwick. Maybe that sounds trivial, too. But anyone who’s been faced with several, possibly contradictory critiques of a story will probably know how incredibly useful that knowledge is.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: FROM THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANCILLARY JUSTICE AS A SHORT STORY UNTIL YOU SOLD THE NOVEL MANUSCRIPT WAS, WHAT, 10 YEARS? WERE THERE TIMES DURING THAT DECADE WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER FINISH THE BOOK OR THOUGHT IT WOULD NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH TO SELL?

ANN LECKIE: Oh, merciful Unconquered Sun, yes. Pretty much the entire time I was working on it, plus the entire time I was querying agents. I’ve come to think of that as the normal emotional background of writing, actually.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU WERE WORKING ON THE MANUSCRIPT WHILE YOU HAD YOUNG CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE. HOW DID YOU MANAGE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME?

ANN LECKIE: With some difficulty. At first, I would write in the few hours a day that my toddler napped, while my older child was at school. When he stopped napping, I signed him up for morning nursery school and wrote then. Once both kids were in school full time it got easier, though I’d made my life a bit more complicated by taking a job as a lunch lady. I wasn’t able to finish Ancillary Justice, though, until I quit that job and had school hours to myself. It would have been a zillion times harder if I’d had a full-time day job to handle. I’ve been really, really lucky.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: ANCILLARY JUSTICE SWEPT THE AWARDS. ANY IDEA WHAT THE APPEAL OF THE STORY IS THAT MADE IT SO POPULAR?

ANN LECKIE: I honestly don’t. Well, I did sit down to write a kind of story that I thought I’d enjoy reading. I threw in things that appealed to me–heck, I crowbarred them in. I was working the whole time with the assumption that it would never sell so I might as well please myself. I guess there are other people out there who like the same kinds of things I do!

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU HAVEN’T DONE SHORT STORIES IN A WHILE. TOO BUSY WITH NOVELS?

ANN LECKIE: Pretty much, yes! Though I’d like to do more short fiction some time.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH GIGANOTOSAURUS AND WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR TIME THERE? WHAT ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT POD CASTLE?

ANN LECKIE: I started GigaNotoSaurus because I’d inherited a bit of money, and I felt that there weren’t enough places publishing longer fiction. I’ve been really pleased with how it’s turned out: in its first year, two stories I published were nominated for Nebulas, and another one the next year. And I published some amazing work by amazing writers, like Zen Cho’s “House of Aunts” or Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon.” Or Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Winged City.” Or…I could go on.

Podcastle–when Rachel Swirsky became editor of Podcastle (that was before PC had even started running) she asked me if I’d like to read slush for her. And I said yes, because it seemed like it would be fun. And it was! I also did some episode intros, and narrated some stories, which was also great fun. When Rachel was ready to step down, she asked me if I was interested in editing, but I was already setting up GNS, and felt two editing gigs would be too much. So I stayed on slushing for Anna and Dave when they took over.

I enjoyed it very much, but I’ve stepped down as slusher there, and turned over my GNS editing duties to Rashida J Smith, because noveling right now is taking up a lot of brain space.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT PERSPECTIVE DID YOU GAIN DURING YOUR TIME AS SECRETARY OF SFWA?

ANN LECKIE: There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes at a volunteer organization. Orgs like SFWA continue to exist and function because of the hard work of folks who actually have lots of other things to attend to, and they spend their free time doing that hard work. And it’s easy for members to think of the Board (or whatever the org equivalent is) as “them” to our “us” but really “they” are us to begin with. I’ve come to be a bit more patient with how slow some organizational decisions are, and how easy it is to think a particular issue or procedure is just a matter of immediately doing one particular thing, when really it’s more difficult and complicated than that, for reasons that aren’t necessarily visible to me.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: GOT ANY ADVICE TO ASPIRING SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS?

ANN LECKIE: Yes! Don’t give up. Be willing to take criticism, be willing to reconsider what you’re doing, but once you’ve decided on what you’re doing, do that. Don’t worry about what someone told you editors want or don’t want, don’t worry about whether your work is marketable, don’t worry about lists of “rules” that tell you not to use second person or never to use adverbs or whatever. Just do it, and do it as awesomely as you can at that particular time in your life, and trust the universe for the rest. And when it’s done, send it out and try to forget about it, and start working on the next thing. And speaking as a former slusher–when you submit, always read and follow the guidelines!

 

Ancillary Justice won the following awards:

2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Golden Tentacle for best debut novel of 2013.
Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of the year.
British Science Fiction Association BSFA Award for Best Novel of 2013.
Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Locus Award for Best First Novel.

The novel was also nominated for the following awards:

Shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award.
Tiptree Award Honor List for 2013.
Finalist for the 2013 Compton Crook Award.

 

Carl_eagle

 

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.

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.

 

Review: Nebula Short Story Nominees

written by David Steffen

You can find a full list of the 2013 Nebula nominees here. This is a review of the short stories nominated this year for the Nebulas, which are chosen by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

1. ‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,” Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)
The story of an interplanetary colonist from Earth who traveled with her husband with the expectation that they would be able to return in ten years, but a pathogen keeps them from returning. Their daughter, born on the colony, has never seen Earth and has grown up with her mother’s stories of the old world. This story has roots in the experience of immigrants here on Earth, but is all the more heartfelt for the differences rendered by SFnal treatment.

Top notch. Not much else to say, just go read it. This is easily my pick for the category.

 

2. ‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,” Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
Old Earth isn’t worth preserving anymore, most people say. It should be broken down into its component materials for the further development of New Earth. But not everyone wants to evacuate the planet. For people who have spent their whole lives there, raised their families there, that’s a difficult and painful transition to make.

Not a bad story. I felt for the character, but it was a bit maudlin for my tastes. There is conflict, certainly, but nothing that the character can do anything about so the story just kind of happens around him. Not bad, but just not my cup of tea, I guess.

 

3. ‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,” Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
This is told as though it were one of those audio tours you can sometimes get at museums to walk you through the exhibits in some meaningful order. It steps through an artist’s works from the beginning of her career to her death, examining how her technique changed with events in her life, in particular in the representation of loved ones who had died.

I found the technique for this one served to only increase the distance between me and the character so that she’s a historical figure of little importance to me rather than really immersing me in the story. It was very faithful to its medium–I would enjoy listening to this in headphones as I walked around an art exhibit looking at each of the works as it’s described. But on its own, without the actual art having been created and shown to me in parallel, it reads pretty much like I’d expect a museum tour to read without being able to be there or look at anything–kind of interesting but very prolonged and all of the most interesting stuff is not onstage. I found some of the discussion questions after each painting rather annoying because so many seem to be based around the writer of the audio tour not really paying attention to the quote the author herself gave about why some figures are drawn differently than others. If Mr. Schneyer hired an artist to make the paintings that go along with this story and presented them together, I’d happily buy the ebook for that.

 

4. ‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
This story starts out with the whimsical hypothetical in the title, as spoken by a woman to a friend she loves dearly, and continues on to give real life reasons why she is pondering this whimsy.

The characters read as real once the story got to the story, but I found all the hypotheticals more irritating than entertaining or illuminating. If A, then B. If B, then C. If C, then D. A story this short shouldn’t feel too long, but to me it does. Eventually the story gets to the actual story behind the hypotheticals, but by that time I was just impatient for it to be over.

 

5. ‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
A girl’s mother leaves her family behind. The girl thinks the circumstances imply that her mother is a selkie (a mythical shapeshifting creature that could turn into a seal by pulling on her sealskin, but would be trapped in human form if that skin was stolen).

Most of the body of the story is the girl criticizing the tropes of selkie stories, which I wasn’t very interested in, partly because I haven’t seen enough selkie stories to really say whether her tropes are actually accurate or not. While some of the circumstances of her mother leaving match a selkie story, I didn’t see any really strong evidence that that was the case, so it just seemed to be a story about a neurotic fixation caused by family trauma. The family trauma, perhaps I should’ve felt moved by, but it happened before the story started, and rather than confront the real situation she spends all of her time obsessing about selkie stories.

Not my thing, I guess.

Interview: Tom Greene

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

tomgStrange Horizons editor Julia Rios, in an interview with SFWA, said of Tom Greene’s “Zero Bar,” published last year: “It knocked my socks off because it brought up so many things I’d experienced in my own life.” Greene recently sold “Another Man’s Treasure” to Analog. Greene has a Bachelor in English, a MFA in creative writing, and a Ph.D. in English literature. But he struggled for thirty years to discover why his stories were being rejected and how to write marketable fiction. In this interview with Diabolical Plots he explains what he learned in the process. “Zero Bar,” probably Greene’s best story, was significantly revised at the request of the above mentioned Rios. Greene explains why he didn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to these suggestions. He also shares some profound insights into why vampire stories are so popular and why the vampire myth has endured in fiction for so long.

 

YOU TRIED FOR 30 YEARS TO WRITE MARKETABLE SCIENCE FICTION. YOU SAID YOU DISCOVERED ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO HOW TO WRITE WHAT SELLS. WHAT DID YOU LEARN AND HOW DID YOU ADAPT?

Well I started trying to write science fiction and fantasy back in about 1984, and I got my first actual sale in 2011 and my first SF sale in 2012. That’s all year after year, hundreds of rejections. And for all those years I was completely clueless about why no editor was interested in what I wrote. My teachers and family members seemed to like my stories, and I was good enough to get into and graduate an MFA program, but no publications. Not even one.

So I did what a lot of newbies do and blamed the industry, as if there’s some kind of conspiracy of publishing insiders striving to keep new writers out (actually the truth is that most editors are desperately looking for talented new writers).

Some people tried to help me, but I wasn’t ready to hear those lessons because I didn’t accept that the problem was with my stories. So I rejected any suggestion that it was my writing, and I became the stereotypical sulky, failed writer and wore a beret and smoked clove cigarettes and drank a lot of red wine at parties.

What was actually happening is that for the first 25 years or so, I was writing stories about characters who weren’t very interesting doing things that nobody cared about. I think a lot of newbies fall into the same trap: unlikable characters in linear plots. Sometimes I had good ideas, and sometimes not, and it wasn’t that the stories were always bad, but even the best ones just weren’t interesting for most readers to read. So editors would send them back with comments like “some good ideas, but not for me,” which was puzzling.

The turning point came when I heard about Critters and joined in about 2008. I’m not the first one to say this, but the really great thing about online workshops is not that you get to read some good fiction, but that you get to read a lot of bad fiction, fiction that is as bad as your own. So after the thirtieth or fortieth time that I had to read a story about characters who weren’t very interesting doing things that I didn’t really care about, it dawned on me and I was like, “Hey, these are just like the stories I write!”

Some of us are just slow learners I guess. In a way, It’s a really good thing I didn’t make a sale in all those years, because that would have just reinforced the error.

 

THE OPENING SEQUENCE AND ENDING OF “ZERO BAR” WERE SIGNIFICANTLY ALTERED BY STRANGE HORIZONS. WHAT HAPPENED IN THAT PROCESS?

My wife is a professional editor, so I was lucky enough to go into the situation already knowing what editors actually do. Editors are not gatekeepers or adversaries to writers (it seems many writers tend to think this way). The editor is the person responsible for making the publication as good as it can be in terms of what their readers want. Good fiction editors read a lot, and they get constant feedback about the choices they make from a huge group of readers. So that gives them expert insight into what makes stories work for their readers.

Also I worked on and off over the years as a curriculum and technical writer. Nothing teaches you how to not be ego-invested in your work like writing manuals for bank software. Professional writing is all collaborative, so you work with editors and marketers and graphics designers and so on. Primadonna writers don’t last long in that environment. You learn quickly that the person who wrote the document is just one voice in making the document work,and usually also not the most important voice.

So in fiction, it’s like the author is the expert on his or her vision of what the story wants to be, and the magazine editor is the expert on the audience and the characteristic voice of that particular publication. So you work together to make the story the best story that it can be for that particular audience and publication.

So when Julia Rios, my editor at Strange Horizons for this story, offered to give me feedback and make suggestions for improvements to my piece, my reaction was more like, “Wow, so you’re going to offer me a service that I would ordinarily have to pay hundreds of dollars to a freelance editor for, and then you’re going to pay me? Cool.”

The process was very much like what would happen in any professional writing environment. My editor sent me notes on where she thought things weren’t working, and I rewrote those parts (actually I typically write multiple alternate versions of fixes and send them all). Then we’d go back and forth with more changes until we were both satisfied. It was hard work, but in my opinion the story is much improved. If anything, Julia was much *more* respectful of my opinion than I’m accustomed to from non-fiction writing.

 

DID YOU WRESTLE WITH THE THOUGHT THAT THIS MIGHT BE YOUR MOMENT AND THAT YOU MIGHT HAVE TO COMPROMISE TO REACH A PRO MARKET?

After my Critters revelation about why my stories were failing, making the changes necessary to reach a pro market didn’t feel like a compromise. When I’m the reader, I like to read stories that are engaging. So as a writer, the last thing I want to do is burden other readers with stories that they don’t care about.

So far at least, I get to keep my ideas, my themes, and my message (if any) in my fiction without compromising. The changes I’ve been working on learning are in putting my own conceptual stuff into a story that people might be actually interested in reading.

 

YOU LECTURE ON THE VAMPIRE GENRE. SHARE SOME INSIGHTS WITH US.

There are a lot of precursors out there and some controversy, but the completely modern version of the vampire myth was actually invented by Stoker right at the end of the 19th century, and it was one of those magical moments in the history of genre fiction when some random guy (he was actually a theater manager, not an author) just happened to strike on exactly the right symbol to represent exactly what people were afraid of in his society at that time. The British Empire was coming apart, there was a lot of free-roving anxiety about the growing independence of women and the diminishing role of the aristocracy, the anonymity and social isolation of growing cities, the influx of foreigners into London†So a supernaturally-powerful aristocrat from a foreign country who preys on women by sexually liberating them and lurks around city streets–it’s just exactly right.

It’s the same kind of thing we see whenever some new genre hits it big–cyberpunk representing the fears about the Internet that people had in the 80s, all those giant bug movies in the Cold War, Steampunk now, and so forth.

The thing that’s unusual about vampires, though, is that the myth has a kind of persistent flexibility that allows it to speak to people across a variety of generations with only some minor changes. So vampires remain popular because their mythology can be repurposed to fit whatever people are currently afraid of. So, Eastern-European aristocrats in the 1930s, Hippie Atheists raise Dracula in one of the Hammer films from the 60s, Anne Rice and her AIDS-era handsome male vampires lurking around the alleys of New Orleans in the 80s, waves of illegal vampire immigrants invading human society in the True Blood series…

Don’t ask me in a short interview to explain Edward Cullen, though. I could write a whole monograph on that one. Probably I should.

 

YOU HAVE A BACHELOR IN ENGLISH, AN MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING, AND A PH.D. IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. HOW DID YOUR ACADEMIC BACKGROUND AFFECT YOUR VIEW ON WRITING FICTION? WHAT DID YOU LEARN THAT HELPED AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN THAT YOU HAD TO UNLEARN?

The major advantage of formal education in literature for me was that it forced me to read a bunch of stuff that I never would have picked up otherwise, the canonical works of literature in English. I don’t have the kind of personality that would have resulted in my reading Milton or Richardson or Sterne without a deadline and a paper hanging over my head.

Being exposed to all that stuff really does change your brain, I believe. It really does shape your sense of aesthetics and your understanding of history and culture in the English-speaking world and the big themes that authors have been dealing with since the invention of writing. But also it broadens your sense of what is possible and what has already been done, seeing what other people have done.

But of course we’ve all seen the studies that show that the more school you attend, the worse you do on creativity tests. It’s impossible to know if I would be more creative without it, I guess. But I did always prefer to focus on the wonky, forgotten corners of literary criticism: folklore, magical realism, Jungian psychology, vampire myths, men’s fraternal organization, semiotics, Victorian adventure fiction. I had good teachers early-on who taught me that you can carve out your own space in literature studies and you don’t have to
write another tired old paper on “Hamlet’s left toenail” as one of my teachers put it.

When I draft fiction, I try to follow my emotions with where I think things should go. But it happens pretty regularly that when I’m revising afterward, that I’ll have an intellectual insight, like “Of course she needs to spill the ink on her hands in this scene, because that’s what happens in Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ and the ink represents blood.” So I think it helps the ultimate shape of the way things turn out, and hopefully doesn’t interfere too much with the creativity.

And the education, of course, allowed me to go into teaching, which is not only my dream job, but also actually rewards me with extra time and resources when I successfully do my creative writing work.

My MFA in creative writing I have to treat separately because, for me, that experience was a failure in a lot of ways. I mean, I was not the best student either because I was still in a place with my writing where I wasn’t ready to hear that the problem was with me. But also, it seemed my program wasn’t set up to teach me a lot of basic fundamentals of writing that might have helped me. And my program focused primarily on mainstream, literary fiction while I was doing much more speculative stuff. So most of my colleagues’ comments in workshops started with the phrase, “Well, I don’t really read science fiction, so…” and that just reinforced my belief that I was misunderstood, rather than that I needed to change things about my writing.

It was mostly pure luck that Samuel R. (Chip) Delany happened to be teaching in the Comp Lit department at my MFA school, and that I was able to persuade him to sponsor an independent study for me, and then later to be my thesis advisor. I learned a lot from him.

So I usually warn people to modulate their expectations about MFA programs. As a speculative fiction writer in a mainstream literature program, there was a constant tension for me during those three years between the pressure I felt to write for the grade in the workshop (i.e. realistic fiction) versus where I felt my fiction ought to go. Then afterward, because of my bad experiences, it took a couple of years to really find my direction in writing again.

 

YOU WRITE ABOUT VAMPIRES AND ZOMBIES, BUT YOU ALSO DO SCIENCE AS IT AFFECTS SOCIETY AND SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS AND PERSONAL DECISIONS. “ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE” SOLD TO ANALOG, WHICH EMPHASIZES HARD SCIENCE. DO YOU HAVE A SPECIALTY / PREFERENCE?

My favorite stories to read are the ones that are kind of mythic: that is stories about individuals confronting experiences that are transformative or unknowable on a scale that’s outside of the normal human realm. Orpheus in the underworld, or Psyche and Eros. It’s possible to do this kind of story in a realistic setting–“Moby Dick” or “Heart of Darkness.” But science fiction, fantasy and horror give you a bigger canvas and more colors to play with in constructing mythic-scale stories.

Scholars who write about SF agreed a long time ago that science is the symbolic magic of the technological age–that science serves the same function in SF stories that flying carpets and magic potions serve in fairy tales. Similarly in horror, there’s a wide consensus that zombies are closely associated with the plight of anonymous industrial workers, and vampires have represented a whole slew of cultural fears from Stoker’s original British Imperial anxiety up through the current rash of sparkly abstinence-vampires.

So on some level it’s all myth-making. Rewriting fairy tales with new symbols, and I feel pretty feckless about using whichever symbols I think will work.

I do really like hard SF, though, and I always give those ideas priority when they come up (which I wish were more often). I feel like the whole Enlightenment idea of rationality as the solution to human problems is both important and endangered. So anything that expresses that ideology in a positive way is maybe part of the way forward.

 

ANY NOVELS IN THE WORKS?

Like most SF fans probably, I have tons of accumulated notes on some settings for possible novels, and I hope to get there eventually. But I still feel like I have years of hard work ahead of me on the rudiments of storytelling in short fiction before I’ll be ready to seriously take on longer projects.

 

ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS?

I can tell you what seemed to make the biggest difference for me (in chronological order).

1. Accept that if none of your stories ever get published year after year, it’s almost certainly a problem with your writing. Join an online workshop (I like both Critters and Online Writing Workshop ) and read all the weak stories to find out what is weak about your own stories. Pay particular attention to critiques from people who tell you why your stories suck, because they are trying to help you.

2. Get away from the idea that your stories fail because of language problems. For many years, I thought that tweaking my words around or writing in the “style” of this author or that author would make my stories publishable. But a failed story can’t be made to work by changing the language.

If the story is good and the writing is competent, nobody really cares about the style. Something that happened to me after my big revelation is that I started simplifying my language. Something we learn in technical writing: to be simple and clear is hard work. I think it was a big improvement, stripping away the verbal distractions and focusing on the story.

Also, actual language problems are amazingly easy to fix. Pick up a copy of Browne & King’s “Self Editing for Fiction Writers.” This book explains in specific detail about the amateurish mistakes that we all make as newbies, and how to clean them out of your prose. Browne & King are freelance editors who do this stuff for a living. I’m teaching a creative writing class at my college this Fall, and this is the textbook for the class. This is the book I wish I’d had when I was 17 and decided to try to be a fiction writer.

3. Work on diagnosing and fixing the specific problems that make your stories fail. My stories were all about unlikable characters (when readers say “unlikable” they actually mean flat or uninteresting) going through the motions of linear, contrived plots. I used to put all my focus into engaging the intellect of my readers, and paid no attention to engaging the reader’s emotions.

The best book that I’ve found specifically about how to engage reader emotions is Donald Maass’s book “Writing the Breakout Novel.” Maass is not an author; he’s a literary agent. Therefore he really knows more than most authors about what readers enjoy, and explains it very clearly and in practical terms. Maass makes a persuasive argument that if you want to engage reader’s minds, you have to engage their emotions first. This is what I wish somebody had told me in my MFA classes.

4. This isn’t true of everybody, but for me, I have to write every day. No exceptions. Holidays, traveling, birthdays, puking up last night’s hangover– If I miss even one day, it takes me at least two or three days to pick up the thread of where I left off.

When I write every day, this really helpful thing happens where my brain continues working on what I’m writing during the downtime. So if I stop writing on Tuesday because I don’t know what comes next, it cooks around in my unconscious for 24 hours so that when I sit down Wednesday, I typically know what’s supposed to be next. If I wait until Thursday, it’s gone.

I used to think that I didn’t have time to write every day. Over many years of not getting very much written, I discovered that you *never* have enough time to write. Waiting for that ideal job or that vacation or that relative to die and leave you a trust fund doesn’t improve the situation any. I sincerely believe that if I won the Powerball today and quit my day job, I still wouldn’t feel like I had any time to write. The only way to get enough time to write every day is to actually write every day. Somehow, when you actually do it, the other stuff that used to fill that time magically becomes less of an issue.

When you write every day, the economy of scale really gets on your side. If I had started writing every day 30 years ago (instead of 3 years ago) even at my current slow rate of about 750 words a day, that’s over 7 million more words that I would have written by now. Most of it would have been crap, but the nice thing about writing is that even writing crap helps you write better as long as you learn from it.

And a final word: Probably the advice you most expect from somebody who started finally getting some things published after 30 years of failure is something like, “Be like me, and don’t give up.” But actually, my best advice is, “Don’t be like me! Wasting years of writing time.” If your stories are not getting published, then there’s a reason for it, and the most likely reason is that your stories aren’t good enough to publish. Figure out why, and fix it now.

 

Carl_eagleCarl 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.

Review: Hugo Semiprozine Nominees 2013

written by David Steffen

Semiprozine is one of those Hugo categories that’s a little hard to understand. They can’t be professional magazines, where professional means that either the magazine provides more than 1/4 the income of any person or is owned/published by an entity that provides more than 1/4 the income to any one person. And it has to pay its contributors or staff in something other than copies of the magazine, or is only available for paid purchase.

As it happens, all five of the semiprozine nominees are magazines that I’ve read before. Here are my rankings of them.

1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies
I am so excited to see BCS get a well-deserved Hugo nomination. They are a great magazine focusing on secondary world fiction. If you like worldbuilding, BCS is a great place. The stories are free to read, and they do audio podcasts of about half of their stories, which is where I get most of their fiction. I’ve submitted to and read BCS from their inception. They’re the newcomer to this batch of markets, but they’ve kept consistent quality throughout their run.

They published one of my favorite stories I’ve heard in years, titled “The Three Feats of Agani” by Christie Yant. I was very disappointed not to see that story on the nomination list.

2. Clarkesworld
Clarkesworld seems to be the award season favorite, and there’s no mystery why. My reaction to Clarkesworld stories tends to be a little bi-polar. The stories that I like I absolutely love, but the stories that I dislike I really really dislike. They’re publishing three stories a month these days, and have plans for a reprint section, and possibly a 4th original story as well. Things are going well and they are ever expanding. They podcast every story which makes it easy for me to keep up. “All the Painted Stars” by Gwendolyn Clare was one of my favorite stories of the year.

3. Lightspeed
One of John Joseph Adams editorial efforts, Lightspeed puts out two fantasy and two science fiction stories every month. They’ve consistently drawn some award nominations in the few years since they launched. I listen to every story on the Lightspeed podcast. They have some really good offerings. Check out “Monster, Finder, Shifter” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

4. Apex
I have trouble keeping up with Apex’s offerings, because they don’t podcast their stories. But I’ve never been disappointed.

5. Strange Horizons
I hear that Strange Horizons is getting a fiction podcast. I’ll let them build up a few episodes, and then I intend to be a steady listener.