Friday read! “Cup and Table” by Tim Pratt

Cup and Table” is my favorite of Tim Pratt’s stories–and it has a lot of competition. To explain how much competition, let me tell an anecdote about the audio magazine I used to edit, PodCastle.

I was no longer on staff when this happened, but at one point, the editors I who took over after I left received a letter. That letter complained of how many stories about lesbians were in the magazine, arguing that PodCastle should just be called LesbianCastle. One of the editors deviously ran the numbers and found that, proportionally, they did not actually run that many stories about lesbians. However, they did run a surprisingly high percentage of Tim Pratt stories. A percentage that, in fact, exceeded the percentage of stories about lesbians. He suggested that they call themselves PrattCastle instead.

By the time those events occurred, I was gone and many other stories by Tim Pratt had been bought by successive editors. But I did publish my share, including an audio version of this one.

I greatly admire Tim Pratt and his ability to write swift, smart prose that flows fast through action that seems unpredictable, and yet is often perfectly crafted. “Cup and Table” is emblematic of how smart his fiction can be. I also recommend his collection Hart & Boot.

Cup and Table:

Tim-Pratt-Cup-and-table_lg_Dara_Lightspeed“Sigmund stepped over the New Doctor, dropping a subway token onto her devastated body. He stepped around the spreading shadow of his best friend, Carlsbad, who had died as he’d lived: inconclusively, and without fanfare. He stepped over the brutalized remains of Ray, up the steps, and kept his eyes focused on the shrine inside. This room in the temple at the top of the mountain at the top of the world was large and cold, and peer as he might back through the layers of time—visible to Sigmund as layers of gauze, translucent as sautéed onions, decade after decade peeling away under his gaze—he could not see a time when this room had not existed on this spot, bare but potent, as if only recently vacated by the God who’d created and abandoned the world.

Sigmund approached the shrine, and there it was. The cup. The prize and goal and purpose of a hundred generations of the Table. The other members of the Table were dead, the whole world was dead, except for Sigmund.

He did not reach for the cup. Instead, he walked to the arched window and looked out. Peering back in time he saw mountains and clouds and the passing of goats. But in the present he saw only fire, twisting and writhing, consuming rock as easily as trees, with a few mountain peaks rising as-yet-untouched from the flames. Sigmund had not loved the world much—he’d enjoyed the music of Bach, violent movies, and vast quantities of cocaine—and by and large he could have taken or left civilization. Still, knowing the world was consumed in fire made him profoundly sad.

Sigmund returned to the shrine and seized the cup—heavy, stone, more blunt object than drinking vessel—and prepared to sip.”

Illustration by Galen Dara at Lightpseed Magazine. Read here.

What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love

What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” began with a dream. For a while, I was writing dream stories, such as this one and “How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth.” It hasn’t happened lately. Maybe my sleep habits have changed. The stories just seemed full-formed–but odd. Vanilla scent was vivid in the dream, for some reason.

What Lies at the Edge of a Petal is Love

Lynch Albert Young Woman Holding Flower“After the wedding, Ruth moved into the Victorian mansion on Jack’s vast, rural estate. She brought only two bags. One was full of clothes. The other she unpacked like a devotee arranging an altar: an assortment of vanilla-scented lotions, deodorants, soaps, moisturizers, scrubs and splashes.

Every morning, Jack watched Ruth stand by the pedestal sink in her white silk robe: rubbing, dabbing, spraying, powdering, and anointing. When she emerged, he took her hand and inhaled her from soft wrist to slender shoulders.

Jack had met Ruth only two months earlier, during his obligatory annual visit to his relatives in the city. Ruth was also visiting the city, on doctor’s orders; she suffered from a pair of charmingly old-fashioned diseases, malaise and neurasthenia. Her physician believed they might be cured by exposure to the warm southern climate, so Ruth’s mother, an old family friend, had arranged for an extended stay with Jack’s aunts.

Both Ruth and Jack felt out of place in high society, never sure which fork to use and whether or not it was polite to dab one’s face with a napkin between courses. “Being a person is so much work,” Ruth confided. Jack was forced to agree. He fell in love with her slender paleness like the stalk of an exotic plant; with the way drops of water lingered in her hair after she swam in the lake, like dew; and, of course, with her exquisite vanilla scent.”

It was an honor to appear in the first issue of The Dark and to be listed on Locus recommended reading list, 2013. The title nods to William Carlos William’s 1923 “Spring and All:” It is at the edge of the / petal that love waits.

Read here.

Friday Read! “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu is one of the most gorgeous, surprising and strange stories I’ve ever read. Some stories just seem to wing free of convention, to follow an unexpected trail to something excitingly new. Sometimes Carmen Maria Machado does that. Sometimes Kelly Link.

Lily Yu masters the technique in this beautiful story, made even more striking by the fact that she published it so early in her career. In recognition of this piece and her other first publications, she won the Campbell Award for new writers in 2012.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees:

Wasp March 2008 Polistes dominula European paper wasp wikipedia

For longer than anyone could remember, the village of Yiwei had worn, in its orchards and under its eaves, clay-colored globes of paper that hissed and fizzed with wasps. The villagers maintained an uneasy peace with their neighbors for many years, exercising inimitable tact and circumspection. But it all ended the day a boy, digging in the riverbed, found a stone whose balance and weight pleased him. With this, he thought, he could hit a sparrow in flight. There were no sparrows to be seen, but a paper ball hung low and inviting nearby. He considered it for a moment, head cocked, then aimed and threw.

Much later, after he had been plastered and soothed, his mother scalded the fallen nest until the wasps seething in the paper were dead. In this way it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.”

Read here.

“I will be wild. I will be brutal. I will encircle you.”

A few people have made graphics featuring a quote from one of my short stories. I’m including two of them below, which take the quote and make a narrative out of it (using movie images), which is neat. It’s awesome that anyone did this at all, but if I’m going to call out one extra awesome thing, it’s the fancy typesetting in the first set.

The quote is from my short story, “A Memory of Wind:”

I will be wild. I will be brutal. I will encircle you and conquer you. I will be more powerful than your boats, and your swords, and your blood lust. I will be inevitable.

“A Memory of Wind” is a retelling of the Greek myth about Iphigenia, whose father, Agamemnon, sacrificed her so his army could sail to Troy. The classic Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis tells Agamemnon’s story of struggle as he decides whether or not to kill his daughter. There’s a modern play that tells the story from Clytemnestra’s perspective–Iphigenia’s mother and Agamemnon’s wife–and it’s very good. I figured Iphigenia needed a story from her own perspective, too, so I wrote “A Memory of Wind.”

Iphigenia’s story is terribly depressing since she is betrayed (and killed) by her father at a young age. She doesn’t have much opportunity to change her fate. “A Memory of Wind” tells the story from after her death, when she has been changed into a wind powerful enough to blow the ships to Troy.

The thing that interests me about this quote is that, in context, it’s actually an expression of Iphigenia’s futility. When Artemis transforms her into a wind, and she fills with that power, she has a moment’s mad fantasy about avenging her murder. That’s this quote. But the fantasy is abruptly cut off:

But no, I am helpless again, always and ever a hostage to someone else’s desires. With ease, Artemis imposes her will on my wild fury. I feel the tension of her hands drawing me back like a bowstring. With one strong, smooth motion, she aims me at your fleet. Fiercely, implacably, I blow you to Troy.

So there’s an irony in the quote’s original context.

However! Pull it out of the context, and it’s a perfectly cromulent expression of power, anger, and resolve.

So, at some point, someone pulled the quote out of the story. Maybe they saw its potential for being empowering and that’s where the context shift happened. Or maybe they posted the quote somewhere–and then people who haven’t read the story would, of course, see the powerful and angry side of it.

So, basically, this is all really cool. First, some people made fan art of a thing I did — awesome! Second, pretty pictures! Third, I get a nifty shift in perspective.

From hermiohes:

1 wild

I will be wild. I will be brutal.

2 encircle

I will encircle you and conquer you.

3 powerful

I will be more powerful than your boats, and your swords, and your blood lust.

4 inevitable

I will be inevitable.

 

From reyoflights:

1 wild

I will be wild.

2 brutal

I will be brutal.

3 encircle

I will encircle you and conquer you.

4 powerful

I will be more powerful than your boats,

5 blood lust

and your swords, and your blood lust.

6 inevitableI will be inevitable.

The difference between draft 1 and draft 12ish of “Love Is Never Still”

I thought it might be interesting to look at a passage from my most recent story, “Love Is Never Still,” as it existed in the first and last drafts. By the time I actually publish a story, I’ve often forgotten what the first draft looked like exactly.

Stages of drawing Galatea. Based on this painting: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pygmalion_and_Galatea_(Normand).jpg

Stages of drawing Galatea. Based on this painting.

When I sat down to write “Love Is Never Still,” I did it in one unrevised chunk, so I actually have the text I wrote as I wrote it. It is, as I sometimes warn my beta readers, “hot off the brain presses.”

 

Draft one:

The Sculptor

I should not have wished her living, that lithe creature whose limbs I had freed from their marble enclosures, whose rounds and slopes had shaped beneath my chisel. She was delicately colored, like the palest of women, and when I ran my hand across the plump of her arm, she was smooth and cold.

I thought that, if she were only flesh, we could embrace. I had wanted her that way through every moment of carving. When I put down the tools and regarded those around me, I saw scars and poxes, rotting teeth, and all the other innumerable perfections nature works on even the most fit bodies. I knew I was sculpting perfection that no woman could match who was borne through flesh and not through stone.

A man may design many things in his life—his home, his career, his presence in the world. Yet men are denied the greatest challenge of all, to create the embodiment of his desire.

With every chip, I imagined the woman she would be. Not only the striking features of her face, but the way she would see me, her literal maker, with awe and humility and measureless gratitude. I would be all to her, god and husband, as Zeus and Apollo and the others are to their mortal wives.

Galatea was flawless to my eye. And if, later, I discovered she was flawed, it was I who had to answer for it.

I prayed for her life, and Aphrodite granted it. They say the goddess of love is warm-hearted, but I have not found her to be kind.

Draft twelve of the first section (the draft which appears in Uncanny Magazine):

The Sculptor

Through every moment of carving, I want her as one wants a woman. I want this lithe creature whose limbs I’ve freed from their ivory enclosures, whose rounds and slopes are discovering their shapes beneath my chisel. She is delicately colored like the palest of women, and when I run my fingers across the plump of her arm, she is smooth and cold.

When necessity requires I set down my tools and leave my estate, all I see are marked bodies. Cooks and merchants, sailors and slaves, rich men and prostitutes—all wear scars and wrinkles and poxes and rotting teeth.

I am sculpting perfection no woman born from mortal flesh can match. I lift my hands to her bosom. Her ivory is soft beneath my palms. I fear I would bruise her if I pressed too eagerly.

Thoughts:

  • Draft 1 is surprisingly cogent, which is probably because this is the first section. The later stuff, written as I was getting fatigued, is likely much less coherent.
  • Also, the first couple paragraphs were originally a poem I was trying to write, so I did work on the words there (although they had line breaks in).
  • There are a lot of ideas in draft one and they bounce around too fast from one subject to another. I have a tendency to do this. It shows up especially in my poetry where I have trouble slowing down to unpack a single image. It shows up in my first prose drafts, too, and I have to put in some effort to bat it back. I remember what Marilynne Robinson told me: that it’s okay to be slow, and try to let each moment be itself.
  • Although it appears I cut a huge amount, I actually displaced a lot of it. The final draft has a version of the first two paragraphs from the original. The third, fifth, and sixth were shuffled down to later places in the story where they would work better. The only paragraph that went entirely is the fourth, in which the sculptor fantasizes about being godlike, because that wasn’t the character I eventually ended up writing. The sculptor who pictures himself as a god and Galatea as a supplicant is nakedly ambitious and exploitative in a way the sculptor in the story is not.
  • Related to the fact that I had a lot of ideas bouncing around, I note that the original draft is long on shiny abstract statements and short on images and movements. That’s why the paragraphs could be detached and placed elsewhere so easily. They are good emotional turns and character moments to steer the plot and pacing one way or another, but they need anchors so they don’t feel empty.
  • And related to both of those, the problem with the hodgepodge of abstract statements is that there’s no coherence to the narrative beneath them. Why does it flow from one paragraph to another in the way it does? The paragraphs aren’t connected terribly; I can see why one thought led to another while I was writing. But it’s better* when you can make the structure underneath a section like that a strong, moving force–something that goes in a straight line instead of circling itself, repeating incidents, themes, or arguments.
  • The main fix for all of this was to pare down the number of concepts I was trying to get across to just what needed to be in the first impression of the story–he is carving her, and he is obsessed with her. I gave it a through thread (“I want her, and this is why.”). Then I moved from the abstractions into a physical moment when he moves in to touch her. (The bruise thing is from Ovid – “he fears he then may bruise her by his eager pressing.”) That gives me a physical anchor for moving into Galatea’s point of view. Moving into her perspective so quickly also means that I immediately set up the rhythm of multiple points of view, and establish her perspective as being of equal importance to the sculptor’s.
  • There’s a lot of subtler linguistic stuff, cutting words–especially redundancies–and toning down a bit on drama, particularly by cutting that fourth paragraph (“awe and humility and measureless gratitude”–thanks, we get it.). And a lot of reorganizing. My essential philosophy is that prose can be complex and also feel (relatively) easy to read as long as you get it down so that it easily flows from one sentence and concept to the next. I reorganized this piece a *lot* as I revised, particularly because a major component of the revision was attempting to rebalance the strength of the Galatea and Aphrodite arcs.

Flashback to 2008: “Marrying the Sun”

For a while, I was linking weekly (from my twitter and facebook) to stories of mine from the past decade. I let it lapse, but I thought I’d pick it up again on some Mondays. So:

Marrying the Sun,” published in 2008 by Fantasy Magazine.

I wrote this story because of a prompt from Vylar Kaftan. She gave me the opening line:

The wedding went well until the bride caught fire.

I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology since I was a kid, which might be why my first, strange thought was to pair the burning bride with the Greek sun god, Helios.

marked for reuse from this site: http://moonstarsandpaper.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.htmlBridget’s pretty white dress went up in a whoosh, from train-length veil to taffeta skirt to rose-embroidered bodice and Juliet cap with ferronière of pearls. The fabric burned so hot and fast that it went up without igniting Bridget’s skin, leaving her naked, singed, embarrassed, and crying.

Of these problems, nudity was easiest to cope with. Bridget pulled the silk drape off the altar and tied it around her chest like a toga.

“That is it,” she said. She pried the engagement ring off her finger and threw it at the groom. The grape-sized diamond sparkled as it arced through the air.

Gathering up the drape’s hem, Bridget ran back down the aisle. She flung open the double doors, letting in the moonlight, and fled into the night.

The groom sighed. He opened his palm and stared down at the glittering diamond, which reflected his fiery nimbus in shades of crimson, ginger, and gold. His best man patted him on the shoulder—cautiously. The bride’s father gave a manly nod of sympathy, but kept his distance. Like his daughter, he was mortal.

“Too bad, Helios,” said Apollo.

The groom shrugged. “I gave it my best shot. I can’t keep my flame on low all the time. What did the woman want? Sometimes a man’s just got to let himself shine.”

I don’t do a lot of humor, but with that opening line, what can you do?

I workshopped this during my last semester at Iowa where it got good reception from the other students. No one seemed to mind much that it was fantasy. I really do think the boundaries are dissolving–which I love, because I hope it means more people will be able to find more fiction they’re excited about.

Also, that means it’s been 8 years since I graduated from my MFA. Weird.

This was one of my first breakthrough stories, though the big breakthroughs–“Eros, Philia, Agape” and “A Memory of Wind”–came out the next year. Jonathan Strahan picked it for his Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 3.

If you read it, I hope you enjoy.

 

Kind Words for My Stories

Thank you to the reviewers.

Quicksip reviews writes about “Love Is Never Still:”

It’s mythic in its scope and in its characters but there’s also something deeply human about it (something that can be said about a lot of Greek mythology, I suppose), something that shows how love can lift up and love can shatter. The characters are compelling even as they are presented in breathes, brief touches that become a tapestry of longing and violence and design. The two storylines balance each other quite nicely, showing love as pursued, and women especially as objects that aren’t really considered people, are there to be fought over or prayed for.

John Wiswell writes about “Between Dragons and Their Wrath:”

No short story has haunted me more in the last month than this. The dragons are a metaphysical terror, casting a shadow of mutations across the landscape of two absolutely lovely characters. With scenes whipping by, each has a punch, even in the last line.

Reviewing The Nebula Showcase 2015, Craig Owen Jones writes that “The Nebulas are not about elitism, but about giving a platform to good sci-fi stories.”

As usual, there’s much here of worth. The winner of the Best Short Story category, Rachel Swirsky’s ‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love’, is a moving and elegiac tale of lost love. Elegantly expressed and formally perfect, it builds delightfully to its poignant climax.[.]

 

 

New to the Net: “Monstrous Embrace”

Continuing my theme of reporting late on my news–for the first time, “Monstrous Embrace” is online in print, courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.

The first line came to me in one of those strange, clear moments:

The_Perilous_Compassion_of_the_Honey_Queen_by_Carrie_Ann_BaadeI am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.

Listen to me, my prince. Tomorrow, when dawn breaks and you stand in the chapel accepting your late father’s crown, your fate will be set. Do nothing and you will be dead by sundown. Your kingdom will be laid waste, its remnants preserved only in the bellies of carrion birds.

There is another option. Marry me.

The voice on this story was driving. It forced me rapidly through the story. Although I did a lot of revision later, I wrote the whole first draft in a few fluid hours. That’s rare enough for me to savor.

You can also find an audio version at PodCastle.

New Story: “Between Dragons and Their Wrath”

February is always one of the busiest months for me. This February was so busy that I didn’t remember to click “post” on the entry I’d written about my new story in Clarkesworld Magazine, “Between Dragons and Their Wrath.” I wrote it with my former student, An Owomoyela.

Fourteen-year-old Domei lives in a world jagged with the dangerous, magical scraps from someone else’s war:

Henri Rousseau, Il Sogno, cropped

In the forest, scales are most common. If they cut you, the cut will never stop bleeding.

If you step in a place where a dragon has defecated, food will stream through your body, and you will always be hungry. If you pass a place where a dragon breathed fire, your skin will forever blister and heal and then blister again. If you touch a dragon’s blood, you’ll go mad.

As for me, I was harvesting scales. With a scale, you can till the land faster than anyone using an iron hoe. You can butcher meat in a tenth the time it takes to use a knife. There are good things about dragon leavings, and for those good things, I usually get paid enough to eat.

Scales are common. Everyone knows about those. It was something else that got me.

This story began with a draft An wrote years ago. Last summer, they handed it to me, and I worked on the plot and characters. It was interesting starting with material that wasn’t mine, trying to understand the inside of the story enough to be able to continue and enhance the work that’s already there. I don’t think of An and myself as particularly similar writers, but I think we may approach structure the same way. It’s easier for me to put myself intuitively into their stories than it has been for other people I’ve tried this exercise with. (I do hope that some of those attempts will lead to other published stories also.)

Another excerpt (almost totally written by An):

red dragon cropDuring the war, the Andé slaughtered a big dragon the size of a mountain. They dropped its liver and gall on Hizhang. Bile poisoned the earth, poisoned the air, poisoned the people and the children of the people, and is still poisoning them now. People born in Hizhang have probably never seen a dragon, but they don’t need to.

Every dusk, the cows start lowing from Hizhang. But there are no longer cows in Hizhang.

You see, we were lucky.

The story is also available in audio, narrated by Kate Baker.

Favorite Fiction Recommendation: “Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam Troy-Castro

Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam Troy-Castro, originally published in 2011, was honored with a Nebula nomination. The story was one of my picks as well as that of the membership at large. It’s a disturbing story, no doubt about it. At the time, I wrote (rephrased somewhat to make the writing sharper):

A war widow receives bad news from the front: her husband is dead. However, they’ve managed to save his hands, and only his hands… It’s dark, intensely written, and intimately and compassionately characterized

From the story:

Her husband’s hands came home on a Friday. Rebecca had received word of the attack, which had claimed the lives of seven other soldiers in his unit and reduced three others to similar, minimal fractions of themselves: One man missing above the waist, another missing below, a third neatly halved, like a bisected man on display in an anatomy lab.

The Veteran’s Administration had told her it could have been worse. The notification officer had reminded her of Tatum, the neighbor’s daughter so completely expunged by her own moment under fire that only a strip of skin and muscle remained: A section of her thigh, about the size and shape of a cigarette pack, returned to her parents in a box and now living in their upstairs room, where it made a living proofreading articles on the internet. That’s no life, the notification officer said. But Bob, he pointed out, was a pair of perfect hands, amputated from the body at the wrists but still capable of accomplishing many great things. And there was always the cloning lottery. The chances were a couple of million to one, but it was something to hope for, and stranger things had happened.

Around 2011, there was a strong trend of stories about processing PTSD. It’s still a theme now, but it was even more dominant then. At 6,000 words, it’s a lot of emotional impact in a small space.