Friday, July 29, 2011

Memories of Cheong Fun (Steamed Rice Noodles)

The Men of the Dragon counseled hate. Jia saw the stains in the scarred earth, a black raw belly eating magic, leaving her people empty. She strutted at the memory of Honored Teacher Chen who'd complimented her conjuration. He was too kind saying her power would equal the Emperor of Sky's adepts away from the magic eaters. Her magic was simple.

Her village, Ordos, held beauty. She saw it in the half-finished statue of Buddha, his skull open to the sky, as if his soul had ascended to bardo awaiting his next life's journey. A pair of finches nested in the ear's scaffolding.

"Miss." Mr. Dog held a nicked knife to her throat. Three Mr. Cats surrounded her. One, blackened by mother earth's mines, rubbed his thumb over his finger pads. "Coin."

Jia dipped into her purse, two iron coins showing through the threads. She placed the coins, they would've bought her dinner, in the boy's hands carefully, like a butterfly. Her breath conjured a smile from the goons and the boy behind her dropped the knife away. They scattered.

Magic might not feed her stomach, but it could hide the hunger. She skipped towards home and her studies.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fiction Rave: Ken Liu, a Menagerie

I usually try to recommend a single story on my Monday fiction raves, but this week you get a trifecta, all themed around the same author. I initially encountered Ken Liu's stories in F&SF with his story "Literomancer" (it's available free through Suvudu). But the story I planned to rave about is Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie", which I listened to on PodCastle. The reason I enjoyed both of these stories is similar. They create a fantastic sense of art, Chinese culture, and fit in one of the genres I enjoy, magical realism.

"The Paper Menagerie" is set in the United States, but melds cultures when the protagonist's father marries a Chinese woman who he sees in a mail order bride catalog. The story captures the clash of cultures and mixes into this a sense of wonder where she creates origami creatures that can live and breathe.

The story captures both the clash of cultures, but also is a great window into aspects of Chinese culture (similar to the Literomancer which has the daughter of a Westerner stationed in China as the protagonist). Menagerie captures life through origami and blends this into ancestor worship and more deeply the difficulties of growing up in children finding distance from their parents.

This is a sad story, and it doesn't spoil the story since they tell you that at the beginning of the podcast. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and recommend it.

As a bonus, as I was finding the links for this entry, I discovered that another one of the PodCastle episodes I'd recently heard was by Ken Liu. "State Change" doesn't touch on Chinese culture, but it has a deft touch with magical realism. People's souls in this world inhabit everyday objects, the protagonist has to nurse hers in an ice cube. I loved how the protagonist learns about life and taking risks.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Waiting to Starve

A wrongness underlaid the mix of sea and rich guano. The exposed rock was soot stained with fragments of bone and burnt feathers clotting the landscape. Capac closed his eyes, breathing in power from the guano to power his inner sight. The stone walls preventing the bird droppings from rushing into the Pacific's surf appeared as a ghost mirage. The trail beside the wall exuded sour traces from thin cracks in the rock.

Capac was a harvester and not one of the elders with their stolen knowledge from the sages able to wield the guano's full power. Guañape Norte Isla whimpered and the village would whimper too if it lost the guano harvest. He knew the stories of the beasts whose touch poisoned the rock. He wished one of the elders was here, but their people had a saying. He who waits to be fed will starve.

Cormorants rocked on their perches. Instead of flying away, they bobbled with milky eyes watching Capac. They lacked the strength to cry. Inner sight caught glimmers of their life source drained from their beings, staining the rock, smoking to coat the air with a bitter fume. Poachers.

He worked his way close to the sea where a boat bobbed, protected from the worst of the surf to sidle close to the rock. A quilted blanket covered cages on the ship's deck. Capac cursed that he couldn't call the storms. Wind and waves would break the poachers' boat and their bodies.

A hand grabbed Capac, lifting him, his feet twitching in midair. He stared into the eyes of the beast. A man-shaped creature with a dozen tentacles instead of a mouth. Nightmares from the west.

The beast's words bubbled as if spoken through blood. "Thief."

Capac was not the thief. These beasts were, consuming the Guany Cormorant and the Peruvian Booby. Their appetites would denude this rock. "This is our land. Our birds."

"Leave. Your crimes can be forgiven."

Capac nodded. Let them believe he would leave. He would stay. He refused to starve. When the beast set him down, he scrambled for the boat. He'd destroy the cages, force them to leave without capturing any of the birds.

The beast's kick caught him in the ribs and he twirled through the air, crashing into the sea. It was darkness underwater. The sound of the surf disappeared and Capac felt peace.

No. He fought the water, but the swells rolled him against the rocks, battering his body. Anger flowed through him and he closed his eyes, the othersight casting the underwater into an inverse image. The sea shifted and bubbled and boiled. He passed out.

Capac awoke to wonder if he'd passed to the afterlife. But no, his bruised body was wedged into the rocks and he saw beside him, a smashed cage floating like driftwood.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Writing of: Antimatter Rose

My entry in Jason Evan's Clarity of Night "Elemental" Short Fiction Contest has been posted. Read it here, if you haven't already, and then come back to read about the behind-the-scenes.

Applied physics is a fun field where collaboration on a paper can run into the hundreds of authors. When I was still in academics, I worked with one of these collaborations on a grant to fund a high-energy particle detector. In preparation for the grant, I was invited to visit Fermilab.

Fermilab hosts several accelerators, including the Tevatron, which when I visited may have been the highest energy supercollider in existence. I visited before I had a digital camera, and now I regret not having better memories of that time. Fermilab was in the process of deploying upgrades and therefore it wasn't active when we visited, but this had advantages. Because there wasn't active acceleration, the lead physicist on the project guided us on a tour of the facilities.

Years later, I remember it looking like an underground railroad. Pipes lined the elliptical track to curve into the distance. It had a astronaut quality to it, reminding me of Star Trek ships in spacedock, crayola red and yellow pipes against gray rock, fluorescent lights illuminating everything. At the time, I never dreamed of writing, and therefore didn't try to capture how it looked while my memories could be trusted.

The Economist recently ran an article, "Antimatter of Fact", about how researchers at CERN had created anti-atoms as it existed for fifteen minutes before annihilation. The researchers were attempting to determine why there seems to be more matter than anti-matter.

Memories of my trip to Fermilab must have simmered in my subconscious and with a dash of news, and Jason Evan's image, my story was born. I hope you have enjoyed this behind-the-scenes that ended up longer than the actual story.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fiction rave: Gwendolyn Clare and Inspiration

My short fiction recommendation for this week is Gwendolyn Clare's "Perfect Lies" that appeared in Clarkesworld magazine. I occasionally read about how someone discovers that another author has written a similar story to what they wanted to write. One that possibly used a similar sense of inspiration. That happened with Gwendolyn Clare's story; however, I'm amused how the idea used for the inspiration can morph into an entirely different story.

"Perfect Lies" involves an alien delegation that instead of speaking use facial expressions to communicate. The idea of micro-expressions plays a significant role in the story. I'd first heard of micro-expressions in a radiolab show and my mind ran with rich thoughts of stories that could be written. However, my story would've ended up significantly different than Gwendolyn Clare's story.

I liked the premise, but it was the conflict and the main character that made this story sing. She's been cursed by an inability to show her expressions. This has been a handicap and makes her distant from most other people, but it makes her perfect as an ambassador to these people who can read humans easily. She can tell them perfect lies.

Friday, July 15, 2011


An endless plain of grass, clawed blades scratching at the sky, stretches beneath a never-ending twilight, a greenish-blue darkness that suffuses the land as if a bitter pall has settled over the world. Eva hovers over the cast-iron cauldron. The wind catches the gray straw of her hair. At her feet, the fire's copper glow lights her child's cheeks.

"Horn, hoof, and tail. Talismans of the mighty triad." Eva sprinkles a dash into the cauldron, which bubbles and pops, spitting trails of fluid to sizzle the grasses black.

"What is a witch?" The girl's hands clutch at the knots in her hair.

"Where did you hear that?"

The girl wilts under Eva's glare, hands stroking through ashes, as if she can bury herself and be forgotten.

"Speak girl." Eva has done much for the girl. Has protected her all these years from the others. Has created this land beyond the world of suffering. Has sacrificed her loves, her desires. She trembles and tries to hide it from Glinda. No sense frightening the girl.

"The man."

"The man?"

"He comes in sleep. His forehead scarred."

"Scarred how?" Yet, Eva doesn't hear the answer. Her own thoughts drown the girl's voice. She knows it is Luc. Star scar on his forehead. His seed was necessary. Yet, what sense did men have never to learn their place. It was a simple deal. A transaction. She had dealt fairly with him. He has no right.

"What is a witch?"

Eva knelt beside her daughter, caressing the girl's cheek, noticing the grime. It is all Luc's fault. "It is a hateful name that others call us. We are the Devins-Guérisseurs, seer-healers. It is a name for what you will become. It is a name for me. You must not listen to the dreams."

"But." Yet she says no more.

"Sleep, my dear. Let the horn of the unicorn protect you, the hoof of the stallion speed you, the tail of the pegasus advance you. Sleep calls."

Eva stirs the brew with her paddle. She dredges her memory for the spells, and whispers the incantation. Smoke bubbles from the cauldron. Luc's body appears like a genie from black smoke.

"The girl tattled."

"None of your business. We had a deal."

"You didn't tell me."

"Would that have changed anything?"

A whisper of power whisks Glinda from where the child sleeps into the warlock's arms. "Seed for healing is one thing. Seed for making, another."

"It does not matter. I do not need you."

"My heart rends, but that is an old wound. I know this in you. But, what about her."

Glinda's eyes open. She grabs a handful of Luc's beard. "Tail!"

Eva sees the smile on her daughter's lips. She wants to tip the cauldron, end the spell, exile Luc outside his body. She can provide Glinda everything she needs. But, the child's smile fills the emptiness that has haunted the girl's edges. "Horn and hoof and feather."

"So we have a deal?" Luc asked.

"No more hiding in dreams. You will accept my summoning."

"Your heart softens."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fragments: Ed Schubert & Living Life

Over on Magical Words, Ed Schubert discussed "How to Get Books Published". He ends with a wonderful line:

Relax. Have fun. Make friends.

I'd add: work hard. I see it as more than a formula for getting published, but rather a formula for success. Sure, I could assume luck but the above rules seem much more controllable.

The common theme in the books Ed Schubert has books is networking, but not the high-pressure horror stories of stalkers at conferences, but the slow ways we build relationships over time. It is these relationships that in the long term matter. This advice is as important in my dayjob and my life as it is in my writing.

Everyone finds different routes to success, unfortunately, I seem to choose the hard routes. In swimming, I never developed a smooth effortless stroke, but powered myself through the water with brute force and sheer determination, not setting any records, but providing stalwart performances.

I worked hard, but it was more than that. Spending hours in a pool requires friendship and fun. I remember the coach opening the doors on a cold winter morning, and turning off the lights so that we swam in the fog. I remember water polo.

Years later while swimming with a Masters team, I remember the blue moon swims and the friendships one develops with the other swimmers in your lane. These were the people that pushed me to succeed. If it hadn't been for the fun, friendships, and hard work I would not have won a Most Improved Swimmer award.

How to live your life: relax; have fun; make friends; work hard.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Fiction Rave: Robert Silverberg & Academic Citations

I first read Robert Silverberg and his Majipoor series in an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin that invited authors of epic fantasy worlds to create short stories in their worlds. Robert Silverberg's story stood out in the anthology and although I haven't read St. Valentine's Castle, an out-of-print copy waits in my toread pile.

Since then, I've read a short story by Robert Silverberg in F&SF, but didn't like it as much as I had the one in the anthology. However, I recently came across "The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn" published by Subterranean Press's online magazine and this story had everything that attracted me to the first one. It touched on themes close to my heart and provided a further exploration into Majipoor. The theme of this story concerns the edges of academic research and commerciality.

Much of the story concerns two young academics who come to a backwater town hoping to make their name, and strike a find that proves to be earth-shattering (or Majipoor-shattering). However, the problem comes when the preeminent researcher on Majipoor decides to take a primary role in their research. The find becomes his. The central conflict in the story depends on how the young academics come to terms with this appropriation.

My history in academics is part of why I find this interesting. As a graduate student, there was one woman in our program who'd left another graduate program to join ours because of hard feelings over attribution of research. I remember this because of the rarity of this in computer science. Unlike some sciences, most graduate programs value collaboration of professor and student and therefore students always get the first-author position on papers. I did have a professor travel to Puerto Vallerta to present a paper I wrote at a conference, but at the time I wasn't part of his research program, so I wouldn't call that taking my credit (my name was first on the paper and if I'd decided to switch areas earlier I'm sure I would have been presenting.)

This theme occurred recently when a friend posted on Facebook to ask whether she should be concerned about her boss taking her work and not citing the work that she'd done. This seems to be common in the corporate structure, actual credit is rarely attributed, yet the good managers find ways to promote their employees regardless.

But I digress, I liked this story because of the theme and because I can't help enjoying the scope of the world that has been created, and the smooth way he manages to juxtapose the rich history and the confines of a novella (especially, for someone such as I who hasn't read the novels).

Friday, July 8, 2011

Guest Post & Freebie The Shaking of the Ossuary

My #fridayflash for this week, Caldera Rats, is a guest post on the Xeroverse Missing Pieces blog. John Xero has been running a week-long xeroversery celebration of flash fiction. Check it out.

A repost of my entry for last week in Lily Child's Friday Prediction, "The Shaking of the Ossuary" is included as a freebie below. It is a fun competition and I urge you to check it out.

The Shaking of the Ossuary

The players:

Ba'al Ob: The Ossuary's one-eyed Captain

En-dor: Chief Engineer

Circe: Bone Mate

The scene:

En-dor and Circe intertwine on the boneroom's floor in morphing kamasutra poses. The bones pulse blood.

Ba'al Ob: "En-dor, what treason s-stalks?"

En-dor's thrusting ceases. "Where're you?"

"Damned divination s-system's down. No visuals. S-skin's vibrating, vacuum beckoning. What have you done?"


"Is that C-Circe I s-smell?"

"My captain."

"The enchantress is mine. Die traitor."

"Wait--" En-dor detangles himself and caresses a finger against the engine's optic cavity. "The skull's split."


"I'll save the ship, but I earn my life and Circe."

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Faeries of Gidropark

"Mommy, mommy," Andriy blathered. "I want to see the circus."

Olek hated the way his brother, Andriy, used mommy. Especially when Mommy had that faraway look she got when the whiskey bottle sloshed, her eyes rolling all googly as she watched daddies wading across Gidropark's beaches. She raised the bottle for another gulp.

Olek punched Andriy. "Shush," Olek whispered. "You'll make it worse when she's like this."

Andriy kicked sand, the grains blown over his mother, calling attention to the two of them. "I'll be good at the circus. Mommy can stay. I'll watch Olek."

She teetered, unable to get the money into Andriy's hands, the bills blowing into the wind. Andriy chased the cash. Mommy had barely looked at them.

Olek followed his brother through a depression in the park, large cement slabs lining the edge of the hill like an overrun outdoor amphitheater, tufts of weeds poking through the edges of the cement. Tires were half-buried around a stump.

Andriy pushed Olek and he fell into the grass. "Stay here."

"You promised mommy."

"You didn't want to disturb her."

"But --"

"No buts. "

"But you've got money for both of us."

"Money for me and cotton candy."

"I'll tell mommy."

"Like she'll care."

Andriy was right, if he told mommy, she wouldn't do anything. She'd barely be able to take her eyes off the waves, off the daddies, off the fact that she'd been abandoned. Unfair. Olek watched the clouds pass. Fluffy wolfs, bears, and guns chased across the sky.

Olek poked at the stump, covered with a layer of leather protecting the rings from the sky. It looked like a tiny stage and Olek crawled onto it.

The world became black. "Hey!" Olek yelled. The color came back, but the grass looked more vibrant, like the day after rain. A figure moved towards him, but he couldn't focus the images into a single man. The man was upside down. Olek stood on his hands.

A faery floated through the air, glowing balls in his hands, juggling them, his hands moving so fast they became a blur. Another lady did the splits, one hand in the grass, her legs splayed across the sky, her wings spread wide. After she finished stretching, she moved through the air in smooth arcs. The first faery floated to join her and they moved like a rope-less trapeze.

Someone pushed Olek from behind and he fell off the stump.

"Whatcha doing?" Andriy asked.

"I thought you were going to see the circus."

"I did."

Olek climbed back onto the stump, he wanted to see the faeries who moved through the air. It was better than the circus would've been. Andriy grabbed Olek's wrist and pulled his brother back to the beach, where mommy sat slumped on her towel.

"Circus was fun," Andriy said. "Wasn't it Olek."

Olek hated his brother. "Yeah, especially the trapeze."

"The trapeze?" Andriy asked.

Inspired by Yelena Yemchuk's photographs of Gidropark.