The Tangled Bank is Out Now!

The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, & Evolution is out now!  This anthology of tales of evolution celebrates Darwin’s 200th birthday and includes my story, “On the Entropy of Species,” not to mention great fiction and poetry from Carlos Hernandez, Christopher Green, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Anil Menon, and a slew of other writers from around the globe. It’s edited by Chris Lynch, my Clarion South-mate and co-author of our collaborative story, “This is My Blood.”  Chris is fast proving that he’s as skilled as an editor as he is as a writer.  The book is not only packed with great fiction, but is also visually stunning, framed by images like this one and by a series of haikus from Sean Williams, each inspired by a different chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species

You can download your copy here for only $4.99 (U.S.). Or, if you want a free taste, check out “Darwin’s Daughter” by Christopher Green here.

Recommended Fantasy & SciFi On the Screen from 2009

Part 3 of my recommendations of great SF from 2009 – fantasy & scifi on the screen, including film, television, and other miscellaneous forms of dramatized entertainment. (Just wait until you see the miscellaneous.)  These are the works that I’ve nominated for the Bradbury Award (basically, the Nebula Award for Dramatic Presentation – technically not a Nebula, but it’s pretty Nebula-like since it’s nominated on voted on by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America).  Some of my recommendations pretty much follow the mainstream, others less so:

  • Up: One of my favorite Pixar movies to date, write up there with Wall-E and The Incredibles. So many things I loved about this.  The fact that a cranky old guy is the hero (not just a colorful supporting character).  The fact that many laws of physics are defied but no one cares because it’s awesome.  (E.g., I’m no expert, but you probably can’t walk around pulling along a house held aloft by hundreds of balloons as if it were a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.)  And the fact that the metaphorical, character, and plot arcs all come together so beautifully.
  • Doctor Who – “The Waters of Mars”:  I’m a recent convert to Doctor Who and this special was one of the strongest from the show.  I love that they’re pushing David Tennant’s Doctor to such challenging new places before he takes his final bow. And, as they’ve done in many Doctor Who episodes, they’ve taken something ordinary – water – and made it disturbingly horrific.
  • Pontypool: This independent film is sort of a sophisticated zombie apocalypse story.  The premise is that you are infected with insanity not by a blood or saliva, but by the English language itself – certain words carry the virus.  Wonderfully original surreal science fiction horror.  If you can find a way to see it, then do so.
  • District 9:  Despite some drawbacks, this was one of the most sophisticated and thought-provoking pure science fiction movies to come out in a while.  Broke a lot of new ground for SF on screen. 
  • Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” Music Video:  Yes, Lady Gaga.  This is a ground-breaking pop music video akin to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and like “Thriller” it is firmly rooted in the SF genre, drawing on traditions of horror, science fiction, and surrealism.  In five minutes Lady Gaga makes a stonger artistic statement than James Cameron does in 162 minutes of Avatar. I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, so I may need to write an entire post on this one…

So those are my personal top five dramatic presentations in SF from 2009.  The new Star Trek movie was also entertaining, but not much more than that – and I do hope for more than just entertaining when it comes to Trek.  Despite my swipe at Avatar, I found that entertaining too, and I was very happy any time I was watching luminescent alien landscapes in 3D.  But the story and characters were just not interesting enough to put it in my personal top five. This year’s Harry Potter movie was my favorite to date and probably would have made my top five if there weren’t such other good contenders this year. 

 I also am waiting to catch up on Season 4 of Doctor Who before watching David Tennant’s final appearance, otherwise that one might have made it too.  Similar note for Torchwood: Children of Earth and Moon – heard they’re both excellent but haven’t seen them yet.   And, lastly, oh how I wish the last episode of Battlestar Galactica had been even worth considering for a nomination, because it was a really awesome show up until that disappointment…

Still to come: recommended books, and possibly a note on why we should enthusiastically embrace Lady Gaga as a member of the science fiction community.

Novelette Recommendations from 2009

Continuing with my recommendations of high-quality speculative fiction from 2009, here’s my personal list of recommended novelettes.  As with the short stories, my reading hasn’t been anywhere near comprehensive, but these are long-short-stories I read this year that have really stuck with me:

  • The Gambler,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, Fast Forward 2.  Interesting near-future tale about a reporter trying to cover stories of extinct butterflies in a new media world that’s only concerned with the dating life of the latest pop culture icon.  Definitely a near-near-future story, but Bacigalupi’s characters and prose make this one a keeper.
  • I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A queer (in both senses of the word) and haunting Phillip K. Dickish tale that blurs the line between speculative fiction and autobiography. 
  • The Score,” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Interfictions 2.  Highly original story of a rock star/peace activist, whose death leaves behind a complicated legacy for his friends and allies.  Not to mention the intermittent cameos his ghost keeps making.  Told in the entertaining form of blogs, emails, instant messages, and transcipts.
  • A Wild and Wicked Youth,” by Ellen Kushner,  The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.   High fantasy tale of swordsmanship and youthful friendship against the backdrop of a richly detailed and convincing feudalistic world with a rigid class structure. 
  • Eros, Philia, Agape,” by Rachel Swirsky, Tor.com.  This story provides all the joys of a classic Isaac Asimov robot story, but updated for the 21st century with wonderfully sophisticated characterization, prose, and social insight on the complexities of possession, love, and individuality.

More recs coming soon!

Short Story Recommendations from 2009

It’s that time of year whenst folks are reflecting back on 2009 and thinking about nominations for awards and the like.  Thus year, for the first time I’m actually participating in Nebula and Hugo award nominations, a task I am leaping into with both gleeful abandon and a deep weight of responsibility.  These are some of my favorite SF short stories from last year:

  • Superhero Girl,” by Jessica Lee, Fantasy Magazine.  An original twist on the superhero story, masterfully woven with ambiguity.  This is Lee’s first published story, and it’s an impressive debut.  Audio version also available at Podcastle
  • Clockwork, Patchwork, and Ravens,” by Peter M. Ball, Apex Magazine.  Wonderful steampunk tale with a memorable clockwork narrator. Not surprisingly, Peter recently picked up an Aurealis award for this one, one of several strong pieces from him this year. (BTW, for those keeping track, this one clocks in at just under 7,500 words, just missing the novelette category.)
  • Interviews After the Revolution,” by Brian Francis Slattery, Interfictions 2. An elite international circuit party in the midst of revolution and music in Latin America, told in the form of a documentary.  Everything Brian Francis Slattery writes seems to be brilliant.
  • Marsh Gods,” by Ann Leckie, Strange Horizons. Domestic strife, warring gods, and ancient covenants.  Brilliant world-building.  Audio version also available at Podcastle.
  • Reservations,” by Christopher Green, Expanded Horizons.  Lovely magic realism story.  Chris had a bunch of great pieces this year but this is the one that most sticks with me.  
  • The Film-makers of Mars,” by Geoff Ryman, Tor.com.  This brilliant story only served to fan the flames of my secret crush on Geoff Ryman.  Did I say that out loud?

For short-shorts, I highly recommend The Daily Cabal, which has a steady output of quality short-shorts from Dan Braum, Jason Fischer, Angela Slatter, Jeremiah Tolbert, and others.  One of my favorites this year was Fischer’s “Inventory,” a story in the form of a classic 80s adventure game.  GO READ.

Interesting that my list has a fair bit of overlap with Rachel Swirsky’s recent recs, which more than anything probably reflects that we have similar tastes. 

Many great stories came out this year, and these are just a few of the ones that have really stuck with me. – not at all exhaustive, especially considering there’s tons of great stuff out there I haven’t even read! 

Coming soon: novelette, novella, and book recommendations, plus my controversial recommendations for the year’s best SF on-screen.

E.T. Rewatch

Last night I was hanging out with my cuz, searching for a movie to watch amidst the labyrinth of on-demand menus, and he mentioned he’d never seen E.T.  And I was all, “You’ve never seen E.T.!?” and so we immediately ended our search and purchased it for the very reasonable price of $1.99.

I was probably 7 or so the last time I saw the full movie, and it was fascinatingly familiar yet new.  I remembered most of it in surprising detail, but my experience of it was through entirely different eyes – kind of like going back to your old elementary school as an adult.  To pick an obvious example, I remembered Eliot’s high-school-age brother and his friends as being “big kids,” unknowable giants to my 7-year-old eyes.   As a kid, I was completely terrified by Eliot’s first meeting with E.T. in the backyard, when they both get scared of each other and run off.  I also think I completely missed the whole divorce theme that looms over the whole story – or at least I didn’t remember it at all until re-watching.

Mostly, though, I was just amazed at the storytelling – so emotionally powerful, effective – and economical!  Not one minute of the movie is wasted: Spielberg spends a few minutes setting up that E.T.’s stranded and establishing the characters in Elliot’s family, and then goes straight to their first encounter, and while he’s building their friendship makes sure he also plants the seeds for the confrontation with the scary guys from the government.  As soon as he’s established that E.T. and Elliot have a psychic link and that E.T. wants to phone home, the bad guys show up and E.T. gets *really* sick *really* fast and we jump straight to the satisfying climax. 

They just don’t make movies that tight anymore.  I feel like if E.T. were made today, it would be three and a half hours long, would start with several scenes presenting a detailed picture of life on E.T.’s homeworld, and would also include a romantic subplot for Elliot. Plus at least three epilogues of E.T. and his buddies in space and Elliot and his family having dinner and God-knows-what-else.

In any case, this one holds up, to say the least. If you haven’t seen it since you were a wee lass or lad, it’s definitely worth seeing again – it’s a different but equally wonderful experience.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is More than Fun

For Christmas, my fab sister gave me Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (Okay, she gave it to Hassan, but she knew I’d read it too.)  Bechdel is the author/artist behind the successful and hilarious comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Fun Home is her autobiography in graphic form. 

The main thrust of the story focuses on her relationship with her father, an English teacher who is obsessed with the historic restoration of their gothic revival home.  His hobby makes the family’s home a bit like a museum – both in its archaic beauty and its stifling atmosphere.  Dad seems more interested in restoring the shingles to their former glory than he is in showing any affection for his kids.  In college, Alison comes out to her parents.  She prepares herself for rejection but gets something possibly even more overwhelming: she learns her father has had affairs with men, including her former babysitter.  A few months later, as she’s still processing this new understanding of her family history, her father dies in what may have been suicide.

It mean some like these are spoilers, but all of this is clear within the first few pages.  Alison unfolds the narrative of her family not-quite-chronologically, going back and forth in time, creating a picture that grows more complex and fascinating with each new detail.  At some point, I think I may haveto re-read the book just to get a better understanding of how she structured it. 

Bechdel is an exceptional master at using the combination of words and pictures, for maximum, astoundingly efficient effect, as in the image below.  She tells her story with honesty and skill, and along the way draws on everything from the Icarus-Daedalus myth to Stonewall and James Joyce.  And on the final page she manages to bring her non-linear narratives together in a way that added yet another layer of complexity to her story and was also deeply moving.  Go forth and read it – you won’t be disappointed!

Listen to Tio Gilberto at Podcastle

I’m excited to announce that the podcast of my story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” is up at Podcastle.  It’s interesting – and a bit odd – hearing someone else read a story I wrote, especially this one, which I’ve read aloud a couple of times.  I like the casual tone Brian Lieberman reads the story with, which is a great match for the narrator’s voice.

I wrote this story at Clarion South, and was partly inspired by a story by Lee Battersby, one of our Clarion instructors.  His story, “Through Soft Air,” was a ghost story about a man haunted by the ghosts of his fellow soldiers who died at war – a haunting that his children and grandchildren can’t understand, coming from a generation for whom the war is only history, not memory. 

It got me thinking about the way that an entire generation can be haunted by ghosts – of a war, a holocaust, an epidemic. There’s a wide gap between the generation haunted by those ghosts and the generations that follow, who just haven’t lived through that same overwhelming loss.  As a gay dude who came of age in the 1990s, I’d felt that type of gap with my older gay friends and mentors, whose lives  had been so deeply shaped by the early years of the AIDS epidemic.  Thinking about that generation gap was the seed for this story.

Have a listen!

2009 How it Went

In emulation of the inimitable Christopher Green, I thought I’d post some stats on how I did toward my writing goals in 2009.

I sent out 27 submissions this year.  Pretty modest compared to Mr. Green’s 75, but a personal best for me.  (In previous years I sent out no more than 20 subs.) The increase is mostly because I kept my New Year’s resolution to keep my completed stories in circulation. The rejections came in and I sent them back out – amazing how that helps to keep things rolling along!

I sold five stories – three new stories and two reprints.  Given that in 2007 and 2008, I sold, um, one story per year, this is definitely a record for me.  My acceptance rate was about 18% if you count the reprints, or 12% if you only count the new ones.  Either way, that’s ridiculously high for me considering my rate has been 0-5% up until now.  I think this is mostly because I had a streak of good luck, with several stories hitting the right markets at the right time.  I doubt I’ll be able to keep up that kind of streak in 2010. But, hey, very cool that I met my secret goal of selling five stories this year, even if I had to cheat a bit by counting reprints.

Of the stories I sold this year, on average they were rejected by 5.3 markets before they found a home.  There’s a widely quoted stat out there that the average story is rejected something like 20 times before it sells.  If that’s true (and it seems about right), 5.3 seems pretty good.  Either way, like Chris said, the clear lesson is not to be demoralized by a rejection or two.

In terms of actual writing, my goal was to finish five stories and I finished three.  I have a fourth one that’s close to done and another that I finished a draft of this year, so I was sort of close on this one. I had also hoped to finish the first half of my novel, and finished maybe a quarter of it.  All in all I’m not going quite as fast as I’d like, but I’m definitely doing slow but steady productivity, which I feel pretty good about considering what a hectic year it was and that my day job demands way more than 40 hours a week. 

Just to finish the rundown of how I did on my New Year’s resolutions:

  • Reading on subway: I kept this one, mostly, and did a lot more reading this year than last year. My unwritten goal was to read three books per month, and I came pretty close to that – it looks like I’ll be at about 34 books at the end of the year. 
  • Blog posting: My goal was 100 blog posts, and it looks like I’ll hit 54 or so.  Very hard to do any blogging when things get intense at work, and then so often when I do have free time I think I should be writing fiction instead of blogging.  I may just have to accept that I’m not going to be a super-active blogger any time soon.
  • Swimming: Totally flunked this one.  Really do need to get back to it, though – hopefully in 2010…

So all in all, of seven 2009 goals, I largely hit three, made decent progress on a couple others, and totally missed two.  Not too bad all in all…

More 2009 wrap-up and 2010 goals soon to come!

Another Story Coming Soon

I recently got word that a story of mine will be published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a very cool zine published by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link at Small Beer Press.   LCRW is like the sacred madre patria for writers of weird stuff, so I’m pretty geeked out to have a story published with them.

I first wrote this particular story at Clarion in response to my mates’ saying that I needed to write more concrete, sensory details. “Ha!” I said, “I’ll write a story so filled with concrete details that it can only be titled ‘Concrete!'”  Alas, the story ended up being a surrealist story that demanded to be re-titled “This is Not Concrete.”  Ah, well…

Will post more when I know when the story will find its way into the wild.

Agatha Christie Oh How You Make Me Angry

OK, so I just finished reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and it made me oh-so-angry.  (In case either of the two other people who still haven’t read this 100-million-copy-selling book happen to be reading, I’ll try to leave this spoiler free.)

Simply put, no writer should be allowed to get away with writing a mystery in which you narrate from the internal point of view of all the characters and yet still manage to surprise the reader as to who the culprit is.  It’s clearly cheating!  And, yet, you go back and re-read the parts that made you think what you thought, and then you realize, oh, that’s how she did it, it actually wasn’t cheating after all, and then that only makes you angrier…

The technique that she seems to use again and again, to such great effect, is deflection. She puts the answer right in front of you, but arranges such a carnival all around it that you assume that can’t possibly be the answer, until, oh wait, it is.  Which makes the conclusion as superbly satisfying as it is frustrating.  Curse you, Agatha!  And please teach me how you do what you do.

(Side note: there are also all sorts of things going on in the book around race, class and gender – some of which is conscious and much of which probably is not, but that could be a whole dissertation unto itself.)