Friday Read! “The Migratory Patterns of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow

In a future where birds are extinct, genetically modified men take their motorcycles around the country to perform dances that remind people of the migrations that once took place.

Katherine Sparrow is one of my classmates from Clarion West 2005, and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. In addition to her lovely and lyrical short stories, she also writes young adult novels which center on the theme of collective action. These days, she’s publishing urban fantasy on Amazon (though I must admit I haven’t read it — sorry, Katie!). Katie also conducted my wedding so I admit I’m rather partial to her. 😉

The Migratory Patterns of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow:

Bird, Graffiti, Hauswand, Wall Painting

The inexorable pull to move south grows. The sun hums to me all day long that it’s time to go, go, go. The night sky is even more persistent–every constellation in the big Montana sky makes arrows pointing south. My appetite increases and I develop a layer of fat on my belly. My senses grow more intricate–smells carry layers of meaning, gnats and mosquitoes become visible everywhere I look, and the normal sounds of human civilization hurt my ears with all their chaos.

And now my eyes have changed. The cornea and pupil widen so that the white is barely visible. A mercy that the genetic modifications left me normal eyes for summer and winter, but when it changes, it is unsettling for everyone. My vision increases three-fold. It is the last sign that it is time.

“Your eyes look funny,” Marion says. My wife drops her fork onto her plate and starts to cry.

This is another sign, as real and inevitable as all the others.

“Josiah, don’t go this time. Stay here. Stay safe. We’ll manage, somehow.” She cries harder. Marion is beautiful when she cries. She breaks my heart every time. “Why won’t they ever leave you alone?”

Read here.

Friday read! “Searching for Save Leia” by Sandra McDonald

Sandra McDonald is one of my favorite working short story writers. Her humor is often both warm *and* sly, her satires sharp but empathetic. She has some amazing funny and irreverant stories about drag queen astronauts and sexy robot cowboys, but one of her other favorite topics to lampoon is Hollywood.

“Searching for Slave Leia”–as you might expect–is one of the latter. Sandra McDonald hits a perfect point where humor and metafiction let her really dig into human emotion. Also, Star Wars.

Searching for Save Leia” by Sandra McDonald:

Princess Leia cosplay marked for reuse from Wikipedia -- Anaheim, 2015 A slip, slide, falling through icy coldness, white noise like TV static. A breeze of hot buttery popcorn. Giddy laughter, sweaty bodies, fanfare music over the intercom, and what’s this? A ten-foot-wide movie poster of young, pale, undernourished Carrie Fisher, posed seductively in a gold metal bikini with a collar and chain around her neck.

You’d bet she didn’t have her period the day they took that picture. No Kotex pad safety-pinned to her underwear, no feeling bloated and yucky down there. You wish you’d taken more aspirin this morning. You hope you don’t stain your shorts in front of the hundreds of fangeeks jammed in the lobby of the Charles Cinema here in the middle of Boston. This is 1983, that is Slave Leia, and through some supernatural stroke of luck you have become a time traveler, because last you checked it was 2013 and you were perimenopausal and you were having a fight with Trevor, again, on the set of your latest series.

Your best friend Karen sloshes her soda against your arm and says, “Shit, hell, sorry!”

You look down at your white knee socks, cut-off shorts, and baby blue Empire Strikes Backt-shirt. It’s amazing the fashion police ever let you out of your house. Karen’s wearing a yellow Han Solo shirt and white shorts and wooden sandals, the kind that are supposed to tone your calves. Her hair is teased up two inches. You have a mullet.

“Sheila?” she asks, face creasing. “You okay?”

“Yes, fine,” you say, because the first rule of suddenly displaced time travelers is to fake it until you figure out what happened. It worked for Scott Bakula in every episode ofQuantum Leap except the mental hospital episode—always one of your favorites; speaking of which, there’s an awful possibility: maybe you’re in the psych ward. Goosebumps ripple under your white bra, the one that always chafes your back. After twenty years of working together, Trevor has finally driven you into a complete nervous breakdown.

Read here.

Princess Leia cosplay photograph marked for reuse from Wikipedia.

Friday read! “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim

One man watches the world evolve as he passes, sleep by sleep, into the future, trailing after his generations of descendants.

I really like this story and its strange futures. It isn’t taking itself seriously as a prognosticator. Rather, it’s talking about emotion, identity, and human experience, with a meta-textual tongue-in-cheek. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe played with the same ideas around the same time. Kim’s story is more accessible, with a lighter touch and humor.

You should check out more of Alice Sola Kim‘s work, too.

hwang illustration

 

Hwang’s Bilion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim:

When Hwang finds a time that he likes, he tries to stay awake. The longest he has ever stayed awake is three days. The longest someone has ever stayed awake is eleven days. If Hwang sleeps enough times, he will eventually reach a time in which people do not have to sleep. Unfortunately, this can only come about through expensive gene therapy that has to be done long before one is born. Thus, it is the rich who do not have to sleep. They stay awake all night and bound across their useless beds, shedding crumbs and drops of sauce as they eat everyone else’s food.

Whenever Hwang goes to sleep, he jumps forward in time. This is a problem. This is not a problem that is going to solve itself.

Read here.

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.

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.

Friday Fiction Recommendation: “Marsh Gods” by Ann Leckie

Of course, I am fond of a great deal of Ann’s work, but I have a special place in my heart for “Marsh Gods.” It’s simple, but evocative and smart, and it has a diatryma skull in it.

A diatryma skull.

One of these skulls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s friends with a little girl.

I’m a fan of Ann’s fantasy universe in which gods must be careful to speak the truth, lest they lose their power. I hope we get longer work in it someday, or at least more. (Publishers: Hint, hint.)

Read “Marsh Gods” at Strange Horizons, or listen at PodCastle.

Voud had escaped the house before dawn, climbing up the ladder and onto the roof, across the neighbors’ roofs and down to the edge of the water, where she had caught three decent-sized frogs. She had tried but failed to catch a fourth, the bullfrog she’d heard honking hoarsely away somewhere on the bank; her sister-in-law Ytine would be dismayed at her muddy tunic, but there was no help for it. Now, her prey struggling in her bag, she went to ask the gods a question.

It was late enough in summer that she could go on foot, over the causeway. The shore of the gods’ island was muddy and cypress-shaded, but as she climbed, the trees cleared. At the edge of the trees, she stopped and dropped her bag on the ground. “I have questions,” she called. “Frogs for answers!” Insects trilled; the frustratingly elusive bullfrog honked. Voud sat on her heels—it didn’t pay to be impatient with gods—and watched the sky lighten.

Eventually a brown crane came wading along the margin of the island and walked with careful, backwards-kneed steps to where Voud sat. It kr-kr-kr-kred and then said, “Good morning, little girl.”

 

“I’m not a little girl! I’m ten!”

 

The crane took two steps backward, flapped its wings. “You have frogs?”

 

Voud picked up the bag. “Three.”

 

“They’re small, and weak. One question.”

 

“They’re perfectly good frogs! Three frogs, three questions.”

 

“Well. Before you start, I’m going to warn you—not every god would, by the way—not to ask me any questions that are impossible to answer, or that are ambiguously phrased. You’ll just be wasting your frogs if you do.”

Favorite Fiction Recommendation: “Magic in a Certain Slant of Light”

I met Deborah Coates when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa. She and I were in a writers group together with a lot of other people. We called it Dragons of the Corn.

Deb writes beautiful magical realism, fantasy and science fiction. At one point, she was tossing around the term “rural fantasy.” Her prose is lovely, and the moods she creates are delicate and pervasive.

“Magic in a Certain Slant of Light” is one of my favorites of her short stories. Take a look at the beginning:

magic in a certain slant“If you could wish for something magical, what would you wish for?” Jeff asks Nora as he enters the kitchen.

Jeff has been gone all day, helping a friend fix the plumbing in his basement. There’s no “Hello,” or “How was your day?” Just Jeff, in the doorway, asking about magic. “It can’t be about yourself,” he continues. “I mean, like making yourself immortal. Or about world peace. It has to be—”

“Talking dogs,” Nora says.

Jeff smiles in that way he has that seems to change his face. He’s wearing faded jeans and a sweatshirt that’s been washed so many times its cuffs are all unraveled; it’s a change from pin-striped suits and crisp white shirts. “You know, Dexter made a dog talk once and it didn’t work out like he figured it would. That dog was annoying.”

“Well, I don’t know how to tell you this”—Nora chops onions under running water, then transfers them to the frying pan on the stove—”but I don’t rely on Dexter’s Laboratory for my scientific knowledge.”

“Talking dogs are not scientific.”

“Yeah, magical.” Nora turns the heat up on the pan and looks through the cupboards for the spices that she needs. She swears that they’re never where she put them, no matter how often she returns them to their proper place. “That’s what we were talking about, right? Magic? You tell me, what would you wish for?”

“Zeppelins,” he says without hesitation.

“Uhm, zeppelins actually exist.”

He stands in the kitchen doorway, slouched against the frame, and she knows that he will leave her. There is something in the way he looks, a shadow in his eye, that wasn’t there yesterday or even this morning. And it almost kills her, like being stabbed right through the heart, because he’s the only one she ever really loved.

“Zeppelins,” he says, crossing to her and putting his arms around her waist from behind as she turns back to the stove, “are a collective figment of the imagination.”

“Zeppelins are totally possible. Plus, you can ride in one.”

He kisses the back of her neck and it feels like the soft brush of sun-warmed honey. “Bring me a zeppelin,” he says. His words murmur against her skin as he talks and she can feel his smile through the small hairs along the nape of her neck. “Then I’ll believe you.”

“Bring me a talking dog.”

You can read the story at Strange Horizons, or listen at PodCastle. Even if you don’t, I hope you consider checking out the rest of Deb’s work.

By the way, since the story involves talking dogs, I may as well show off a picture of Deb’s. The photograph is from Deb’s site, taken by Rachel Ritland.

Deb's dogs

 

Fan art: My Goodbye to Old Man’s War

My favorite part of the Old Man’s War series is listening to Scalzi tell stories and make jokes. He has a clear and polished voice and a great sense of comic timing which are disarming to “listen” to, on his blog or in his books.

Because John’s books are easy reads, and his prose relatively simple, I’ve heard people call his prose “transparent.” I think I’ve said it, too, actually. But on reflection, Scalzi’s prose is not transparent–although it’s easy to read, it’s also calibrated to catch the reader’s attention at one point, distract at another, deliver a punchline at a third. The prose isn’t just a mirror you look through to get to the story. It’s a calculated part of the reading experience.

I think of John Scalzi as belonging to a category of “storytelling” writers–writers whose authorial voices are the disarming strength of their work, like Neil Gaiman and Ursula Vernon.

A few weeks ago, I wrote Scalzi and asked if he had any directions for drawing a picture of Old Man’s War’s main character, John Perry. Scalzi said he’d imagined Perry with Caucasian features, but otherwise, I should go for it. I didn’t even manage to follow that trivial note.

In case you haven’t read the series, the main character, John Perry, is an old man who is uploaded and reborn into a fit young body in order to fight a dangerous space war. A fit, young green body.

That’s right. Kermit said it first.

It isnt easy being green

It isn’t easy being green.

Thank you. I’ll be here all night.

 

Favorite Fiction Recommendation: “This Strange Way of Dying” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I was occasionally, informally reading slush for Giganotosaurus at the time this story came into the inbox. I read Moreno-Garcia’s version of a maiden and Death, and recommended the delicate prose and imagery to Ann Leckie who eventually made the purchase.

It begins:

Creative commons, from wellcome, see information in file name.Georgina met Death when she was ten. The first time she saw him she was reading by her grandmother’s bedside. As Georgina tried to pronounce a difficult word, she heard her grandmother groan and looked up. There was a bearded man in a top hat standing by the bed. He wore an orange flower in his buttonhole, the kind Georgina put on the altars on the Day of the Dead.

The man smiled at Georgina with eyes made of coal.

Read here.

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.