Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fragments: A Democracy of Readers

Jill Lepore wrote an article in The New Yorker, "Dickens in Eden"; where she talked a lot about Charles Dickens, and a little about Dickens Camp in Santa Cruz.

I skimmed this article, largely because, although I've performed that Dickens Fair, I'm not interested in Dickens Camp. However, I was intrigued by the article's statement that Dickens felt oppressed by his readers. The article explains that book reviewing began in the 18th century as a response to a large number of books being published. However, as literacy improved and the cost of books decreased "a democracy of readers rose up against an aristocracy of critics".

I think the book industry is again at a crossroad of change. The issues may be somewhat different and I think in particular they include the idea of gatekeeper. People have claimed that with the advent of e-books the need of gatekeepers has decreased. People can make their own decisions about what is good or not, and that allows someone who is fond of an unpopular genre to continue to find books they might like to read. An intriguing concept, especially when anyone can read a sample of someone's work before buying.

Yet, I find the current maturity of the publishing industry not yet sufficient to support this idea. Samples can indicate that an author has mastered line-level writing, demonstrate their voice, and showcase a couple scenes. It can't indicate the ability of the author to develop character arcs, weave a story into a satisfying ending, or even necessarily give you an idea whether the author kills off characters.

This new publishing world has social networks such as Goodreads, and even the online bookstores provide reviews. Yet, they aren't what drives me to read a book, or at least consider sampling it. Recommendations by people I know, and articles on blogs are the typical way I hear about stories.

I guess what I'm left feeling with after all of this is that we may have a democracy where readers choose who is the effective victors, but we come from an environment where someone -- traditional publishing, an algorithm on booksellers website or social network -- picks our candidates. What I'm interested in is what drives the grassroots. To me a democracy of readers means the readers must be involved in the early stages as well, at least if we're going to remove gatekeepers.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Fiction Rave: Josh Rountree & Samantha Henderson's Dust Angels

My taste in fiction runs towards beautiful, surreal worlds. I want sensual worlds ready to give that come-hither glance, and I'm one of those shallow ones satisfied by a superficial world, willing to agree not to scratch too hard at the surface of the bizarre world. Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson deliver one of these beautiful worlds in "Escaping Salvation" published in Realms of Fantasy. However, the world isn't really beautiful, it's post-apocalyptic with the scarcity of water and life lying at the whims of dust angels scouring the plains. It satisfies me as world takes my breath away.

The story is told in first person, and Lizzy's character and voice shine. The story needs to get across a lot of back story in the way this world works. Dust angels have ravaged the world and we follow the scavengers who seek out these angels to kill them before they fully form. Body parts harvested from the angels before they return to dust can be used as implants, assuming one's willing to take the chance of succumbing to the angel's will which might remain within the limb. Lizzy weaves her tail with that of the way the world works and her voice makes the telling of the world a pleasure to read.

According to Orson Scott Card's MICE categorization, I'd call this a mileau story. It's not quite the classic form because Lizzy and her brother are part and parcel of this world, but most of the story starts when they enter Camp Salvation, and well, you'll have to read it to see whether they escape Salvation. However, it fits for me because Lizzy must discover more about her world as she spends time within the camp.

A word of warning, Lizzy never shies from swearing, but that feels right in character for this gritty angel-killer.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Flight of the Son's of God

Noam was no UFO crazoid, sure the West Virginia hills were filled with them, but that didn't mean every Tom, Dick, and Harry had to believe in UFOs. He wasn't all that god-fearing either. Some people find the years as they age make them want to believe in an afterlife, but Noam saw too much depravity out there, and that made him doubt. He wasn't a hermit either, but found the quiet of the hills made the writing faster. So it was all the stranger he was the one that made the discovery.

He'd always been a curious man, only way a man could have published over forty books, and when those lights shone outside his cabin, the whole Earth shook as if the Hindu's world-snake Sesha stirred, making the world quake. But, that didn't stop Noam.

His back fifty was a nearly impossible to traverse, tree-covered realm, but when he saw the lights descend, like columns of colored glass, until all was left but a glow over the dark leaves, he grabbed a flashlight and would've hitched his bloodhound to a leash, but the dog just quivered into a ball and wouldn't go anywhere. Wasn't like his friend to act this way and that made Noam even more curious.

He'd walked his property, plenty, so even though the brambles fought his every step, he was master, and made his way through, and on the far side of the ridge, his flashlight no longer shone on wooden thorns blocking his way, but fresh tilled earth where something had scarred the ground.

The lights no longer glowed bright on the thing, but he saw something like a skyscraper, sitting in his valley. It wasn't like no skyscraper he'd seen in New York, sure, it was weathered, and whatever it was made out of had turned black, like steeples he'd seen when the acid rain discolored the stone, but no skyscraper he'd seen, had stained-glass windows up the side of it. And as he circled the thing, he got a clear feeling it looked a little like one of those shuttle ships. Course, NASA had abandoned that program, either that, or maybe the government had secrets and that might explain the difficult to conquer debt.

In between some of the windows, he found what looked like it might be an entrance. Arcing over the panels were the words, Nephilim's Fuga. Perhaps, Noam was the best man to discover this, he wasn't sure what to call it yet, thing. Biblical passages were fertile ground for the horror writer. And one would pick up a bit of latin. Still he had no idea why there'd be a flight of the sons of god. Course, some had attributed Nephilim to fallen angels and others to a reference to aliens.

Another man might have left then, but Noam was mighty curious and what could he do anyways, say he saw some weird thing on his property. No, better to investigate. He pounded on the door with the butt of his flashlight, but just felt cold. He pushed on the panels and they moved inwards.

Inside, it was dark, and his flashlight shone against the sides of the place. He couldn't understand why this thing had flown in the air, he seemed to be stepping on marble and even someone with almost no science background like himself, knew that was no proper material for a spaceship. Something creaked above him. He pointed his flashlight into the dark, and illuminated what could only be a nave, the space soared so high the beam of his light couldn't pierce its depths. Marble columns rose into the darkness.

Through a door in the back, he found another room, and even for someone like him, someone who could imagine horrors, and pour them onto the page, he found his blood curdling when he saw the walls filled with alcoves containing skeletons on either side of him. They were packed in close like that French place. But, curiosity's got a way of weaning one of fear, and he moved forward through the dust shrouded hall.

A light gleamed from the other side of the doorway. Noam had come all this way. It'd be a shame if he ran away scared now, so he pushed the door, and when he saw the shape on the other side, a skeletal, mummy-shaped thing, cloth rags falling down the sides, bones showing in its face, he dropped his flashlight.

But, the thing just curled its fingers and motioned to him. He swallowed, amazed to still be counting himself among the living. And realized, whatever that thing once was, it didn't want him. The jaw was wrapped around with cloth, kind of like that ghost in Scrooge. For some reason, that vanquished some of his fear. It motioned him forward, and pointed at books lying open on the table.

A writer's got to read, but there ain't much time, so he learns to read fast. Noam skimmed through that book real quick-like. He then looked at the reliquary and nodded his head. "I don't doubt I can get the Pope. You stay right here, won't be but a fraction of a moment compared to where you've been."

Noam returned to his cabin, guessing he wouldn't get any time to write in the near future. World was going to be a different place when they found the Middle Ages had had space technology. Catholic Church was going to be even more different, back then they'd believed the sun circled the Earth. Could they handle the fact their ship found life on another planet?

Written based on Icy Sedgwick's photo prompt.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fragments: A Riot of Technology

The economist had several articles on the riots in Great Britain and one of these, "The Blackberry Riots", discussed the way technology makes it easier for people to protest and/or riot. In particular, they talked about the Blackberry, with its Blackberry Messenger (BBM) that allows one to send messages to one or more people for free.

The article discusses how one British MP has considered suspending BBM. Closer to my home, people have protested the San Francisco BART subway system's decision to disable cellular service within their underground stations. Supposedly, this was done to make it difficult for protesters to coordinate their actions.

Both of these strike me as more whack-a-mole actions than something truly productive. While BBM may provide an easy to use application for coordination, there are plenty of alternatives. Similarly, I don't believe disabling cellular service is actually going to achieve the goals of disrupting protests, maybe initially, but I expect the future to bring ways of handling mesh networks that relay signals between Bluetooth networks to allow routing directly between cell phones instead of the carriers networks.

I don't condone the violence and rioting, but the reaction seems to be naïve. As if we could just get rid of our technology to return to a golden age of peaceful protests.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hugo Rave: Software Objects, Emperors, and Nails

The Hugos were awarded this weekend at WorldCon and although I did not attend the convention, I did read all of the stories and vote. My congratulations to the winners, they were all good stories. I already briefly in the referenced one of them last week. I briefly raved previously about my favorite of the short fiction nominees, but evidently it wasn't everyone else's favorite.

Best novella: Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects

This is a beautifully realized near future story that captures the wonder of artificial intelligence and virtual reality that combine to allow virtual furbies that have as much intelligence as children. The story captures a real sense of the excitement of software startups and what happens when upgrades are necessary and even worse when hackers violate the system. Thought provoking and heart-wrenching at times.

Best novelette: Allen M. Steele's The Emperor of Mars

Books bring magic to our lives and sometimes a sense of escape when life becomes too much. This Martian outpost has the grittiness of hard science, but when time and space collide to take away those we hold dear, the story explores how we deal with grief.

Best short story: Mary Robinette Kowal's For Want of a Nail

An accident that happens just prior to the beginning of the story drives the unraveling of a mystery and what it means to those revealed. The story takes place on a generation ship traveling through the stars and doesn't focus too much on the suspect, but rather on the interesting intertwining between the families traveling and their AI helpers. [Note, Mary Robinette Kowal is selling a $0.99 ebook that provides her original draft and her process in editing this towards the final version. I haven't taken a look at this, but it sounds intriguing.]

Friday, August 19, 2011


Conspiracy theories have a way of coming true. Antony knows you must eliminate them before they become flies on a Maine beach in summer, suffocating. But every agent owes his family the sloughing of his identity, every country rots if it asks too much. Home. Time to leave his anxieties in the Lincoln Continental.

Bills and letters scatter around Lisa like satellites. Antony pecks her cheek.

Lisa lifts a manila envelope. "Addressed to Agent Splotch."

"Must be one of the guys." You work hard, you bond, you get nicknames. They called him Splotch for the burn scar on his cheek.

Inside, Lisa finds a taped and bubble-wrapped cylinder. No note. She unwraps it, and two green toy soldiers scatter to the table.

Antony pales. He remembers the lifeless eyes of their suspect. In his files, he'd claimed toy soldiers killed his parents. Antony wants to throw them out, irrationally afraid, conspiracies croaking in summer evening.

"What's wrong?"

Devon, their five-year-old perpetual motion machine, twirls into the room, grasping a soldier in each hand. "Toys!"

Antony uses his good cop smile. "Nothing."

"Work?" She doesn't like all the hours he works.

"Just one of the guys having fun." He needs to believe that, keep the conspiracies from coming true.

She stares, eyes toying with the lie. Dimples appear as she lets it pass.

She helps him make dinner. They eat steak with a porcini mushroom glaze except for Devon's share. On the fireplace's mantle, Antony thinks he sees something move, but the living room's too dark and perhaps it's just shadows. They give Devon his bath, read him a story, put him to bed. His neck prickles during all of this, but nothings there. He holds Lisa's hand while they play chess until she retires to her book in bed.

He has time for little work before bed. The green plastic of the soldier's bayonet drips black where it stands on the edge of his briefcase. Antony retreats. The soldier leaps into the air, as if snowboarding down the leather case. Darkness smothers the room.

Lisa screams and is soon echoed by Devon. The darkness is shattered by burning flames, soldiers everywhere. There'd only been two in the envelope. Antony flings the lampshade away and uses the body of the lamp to brush away the soldiers. They swarm towards him. He struggles to the bedrooms, throws Devon over his shoulder, and pulls Lisa's ash-slick arm out of the house as the flames consume it, green plastic melting onto the cement driveway.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fragments: FanFic, Your Characters, and Blogs as Produce

Edmund Schubert blogged "Fan Fiction – Marketing Genius or Child-Molestation?". It's an interesting article. Edmund Schubert admits that he might be one of the authors who might permit fan fiction. However, he understands those who don't appreciate it. In particular, he makes the following argument against fan fiction:
"...there aren’t hundreds of thousands of people who want to take over the lives of my children, and those who want to make them have sex with farm animals (and other even odder stuff that happens in fan fiction) get sent to jail;..."
Although, I cannot validate his concern, it reminds me of what happened in Ted Chiang's "The Lifecycle of Software Objects". This story was nominated for a Hugo this year and the central promise are AIs created by a company that slowly learn and live inside a virtual environment. However, hackers break into the system at one point and make clones of the software objects and these are used by even more questionable groups in obscene manners. Effectively, resulting in clones of the software objects undergoing the same thing that's talked about in Edmund Schubert's argument above.

I would have posted the above comments on the Magical Words blog, but I tend to read blogs after their freshness date expires. Dean Smith uses the metaphor of produce to describe the book industry. Whether or not that is a valid analogy, the same idea applies to blogs. Although, posts exist on them forever -- at least until the author deletes them --, conversations only occur while the post is fresh.

I could force myself to read blogs every day and if I don't get to them a certain day, don't read articles published that day, but I'm not willing to skip to the front of the queue, and I'd rather read the articles on my time instead of when they were published.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fiction Rave: Leah Bobet and If All the World Was Roses and All the Seas Were Love

I haven't read much short fiction this week, and this morning nothing had stood out. I thought I might be using my "safety" story -- a story I've raved about on facebook -- so I'd have a fiction rave. However, although I found Leah Bobet's "The Ground Whereon She Stands" difficult to begin, I'd started this at least a week ago, I found the story magical. You can find it in the June issue of Realms of Fantasy.

Sometimes, I find beginnings hard, and it may be I don't like the story itself, but sometimes, the story counters whatever it was in the beginning that kept me outside the story and I find the tale lingering, leaving a sensuousness, and consuming my thoughts. This is one such tale.

Alice has a way with plants and the visual, textural, and olfactory way that layout captures this is a sensual feast. Yet, the premise of giving flowers and having it go awry, so that the receiver, the protagonist, sprouts all manner of living things provides a fabulous world on which the story is hung. However, what makes this story stick is the way it pursues the deeper theme of the difficulty of declaring love.

If you have the opportunity to pick this story's fruit, may you savor every word.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Story Forge

The man beneath the crows cage stared at the brand smoldering upon my shoulder, burning a hole through my overdress. His cloak was thick with dust. He didn't look like a barbarian. One must be careful.

"This the road to Birchy?" His voice rolled like tundra wind over berry brambles.

My mouth moved like a foreign thing, like the flames embedded in my brand. I told him it was, introduced myself, and offered to accompany him. My weak arm, and good one now that the dominant had been branded, shook. Could I not control myself?

"Lord Ooffin's falcons," he swore, his voice no longer sweet. "Lilya, my apologies. I didn't mean to use the warbler's song. My name is Yonas." He made the king's sigil with his fingers.

I prostrated myself, bowing my head. The king's storyteller mustn't see our fear. Once my heart quelled, I stood. "What brings you north?" I blushed, but he didn't seem to notice.

"Fear, the ur-men, and desecration."

"Does the king send his knights?" Only they could fight the barbarians.

"No." Yonas didn't meet my eyes. "Your arm, the ur-men do that?"

I nodded. He placed a palm against the burns, his fingers cool, whisking away the barbarian's heat.

In the village square, we found Valborn, graybeard and chief elder. I told my news. Fear spread amongst the villagers, a crowd gathered.

Yonas waved his arm. "Build the flames of Valpurgis."

Night fell as we brought armloads of birch to burn in the central square. We sat on the cobblestones. Yonas told stories of the barbarians and Lord Ooffin's knights. The valiant battles. He told stories of villagers working together, fighting off the barbarians.

I shivered. The images he showed us in the sky above the bonfire were impossible. We couldn't defeat the barbarians.

His stories continued, variations on a theme. He told of the snowflake rolling down a cliff and melting on a barbarian's nose. We fail because we allow the barbarians to confront us one at a time. But if we acted together, like a cliff of ice, we could conquer the barbarians. He ended his tale with a flourish, an avalanche falling from the sky, dousing the bonfire.

The bonfire's ashes twinkled. Valborn offered space at his house for Yonas and myself. Yonas slept in the bed of Valborn's youngest son, who joined me on the great room's floor.

The stomping of barbarian wardrums woke us. Yonas called us to stand against the barbarians. I'd lost my husband and firstborn to the barbarians. I had nothing else to lose. Only Valborn and three other graybeards joined us outside the city.

More than a score of the barbarians faced us, their axes gleaming in the torchlight. Already turf houses burned. Our rakes and staffs felt thin.

A bear-skinned man's eyes glittered gold. "You challenge us?" He cast his hand throwing burning brands. One landed on my other shoulder.

Yonas used his sweet voice, but it turned rancid as it flowed over their ranks. The barbarians boiled, a roiling, seething mass. An axe bit into a greybeard, blood spurted.

Yonas called for us to flee. Birch branches slapped my face. I still smelled the barbarian's oily stench. But, they'd stopped chasing us. Black smoke filtered into the forest.

"The youngsters don't listen," said Yonas. He placed a hand on my burning brand. His eyes were sad. "I need an apprentice."

"Me?" I only knew how to farm.

"You will do."

"I can't." The smoke must be confusing him.

"It is a hard life, a demanding life, but the forge will mentor you."

"Can you not do this yourself?" I asked.

"One listens to one's peers, I am not, but you are. You have no responsibilities, you are perfect."

The barbarians had burned my farm. Branded me. I owed my husband, my dead child. I bowed my head. "Show me."

Yonas led me deep into the forests, following no paths, climbing into the craggy ridges, crossing the treeline. We donned bearskins and climbed Mt. Eya's slopes. Behind us, smoke dotted the landscape where villages smoldered. I slipped on the ice, sliding down the glacier towards a crevice of blue ice.

I screamed, twisting, turning, wedging my hands into the cliff. I slowed myself, but didn't stop. A stone precipice pierced the snow, wind shearing it sharp. I reached for it, the rock sliced into my hand. Blood stained the snow.

The white feathers of an ice-owl flew past, diving below me. I crashed into something, feeling feathers against me, coming to a stop at the ice crevice's ledge. My body entwined with Yonas.

"Where did you come from?"

"Stories have much power," said Yonas. His voice shook, he'd aged, his hair as white as the snow.

We continued. As we neared the peak, the ice melted and we climbed black rock as we neared the crater's rim. Lava boiled beneath us. I raised an eyebrow. "The story forge?"


"How can I learn?"

"Stay." Sadness overwhelmed him. He dove into the lava and his body became a burning spector like the magic of his tellings above the bonfire. It flowed in a stream, his essence falling like a waterfall into me. His voice joining with mine in a chorus that sounded like wind skipping across a lake.

I had much to do.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fiction Rave: Michaela Roessner and Fresh Legs for Fairy Tales

One of the women in my writing group has been writing new takes on fairy tales and she was fretting that there weren't markets for her stories. However, when she said that, I realized that I've read many fairytale reboots recently, including two separate takes on Hansel and Gretel. My favorite was Michaela Roessner's Crumb, published in the November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

One of the things I dislike in fairytale reboots is a lack of place. They feel distant, relying on clichés like a witch's cabin in the woods that pull on one's memories of the fairytale when I was young, but lack the power of freshly imagined worlds. As if borrowing from the fairytale means they can emphasize character or plot and skip on world building in the name of efficiency. I'm sure some readers appreciate this. I'm not one of them.

Michaela Roessner succeeds because of the rich way she reimagines Hansel and Gretel and sets this as an urban fantasy. In some ways, there is a meta-theme running through her story speaking to the myths that push and prod us into preordained roles and that provides a nice frosting for her crumbs. Her story isn't available online, but if you have the chance, this is one fairytale with fresh legs.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Old Man's Will

Dirty panes scattered a dismal light across the basement floor. It was lucky the French Quarter occupied high ground. Before the rigs ran dry, incandescents would've lit the space, but instead Jorge's men worked to feed the living computers before the light failed. Tourists -- who knew why they came here after the world failed -- and dead-enders occupied the stretchers in manufactured comas.

"It won't work."

Jorge looked away from the stretchers. "It's got to." Old man didn't have a right dying and leaving his only wealth encrypted. It was said some places out west still had power, solar and wind, but why leave his home for the desiccated places climate change had regurgitated. The French Quarter's humidity bred spores so thick they qualified as vegetables, and at least some of the bayous weren't salted.

"Your dad's money was in stocks and bonds. Worthless these days."

"Not all. Not all."

"Don't matter. The fall came quickly, no one could have preserved computational capacity other than us. You could save humanity."

"Daniels, quit your nattering." Jorge was proud of his second-in-command, but sometimes the man needed to seal his trap. Daniels hadn't seen the spiteful look in Jorge's old man as he took the password key to his grave. Jorge tapped his brow. He had the encrypted message encoded in sleepers, waiting for the key.

A boy, a crisscrossed scar like a caterpillar on his cheek, ran into Jorge's office. "Sir, we've got a key." The boy carried an agar plate with the biomolecular input modules.

Jorge pricked his finger before dipping it into the sample. DNA chains, engorged with microscopic xor gates, mixed with his blood, entering his bloodstream as they consumed the sugars and replicated. Finally, Jorge would have the old man's secrets.

The boy's face whitened. "You'll end up like one of them." He pointed at the stretchers."

"No faith." Jorge wiped the sweat from his brow. He was feverish. "Brainstem interfaces allow me to integrate the data in the key, in the origin message, and all will be made clear."

The room oozed and Daniels caught Jorge. He laid his boss on the desk.

Jorge stared at the ceiling, his old man's memories becoming his, losing himself, feeling the old man's horror as their microbes fed on the world's oil. No, this could not have been his fault. He kicked once, memories consuming him, leaving him comatose.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fiction Rave: Geoffrey A. Landis' Sultan

The last couple weeks I have read all of the short fiction nominees for the Hugos so I'd be prepared to vote. One thing I discovered is that I either love or hate novellas, and it usually comes down to the ending.

Geoffrey A. Landis delivers the goods with "The Sultan of the Clouds" (Asimov has made a PDF available for free). I initially doubted I'd enjoy the story. I was hoping for a fantasy, partially because my reading tastes seem to run contrary to the genre in which I'm writing, and because the title made me think fantasy as well. Instead, it opened on Mars and I wasn't looking forward to what seemed like it would be a hard science story.

However, although I think it would qualify as hard science, it had a number of steampunk touches and a sense of wonder that was reminiscent of some of the worlds that Dan Simmons created in his Hyperion series. My favorite touch was the idea of kayaking in floating vehicles through Venus's clouds.

This is thought-provoking fiction at its best. Worlds of wonder mixed with an unusual social arrangement (braided marriages) and a mystery lying at the heart of the story. Highly recommended.