Top Nine Online Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories from 2011 That You Should Read

The top nine online genre stories from 2011 that you should read:

Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders – Two psychics, one who believes in free will and one who believes in determinism, finally meet for their preordained relationship which lasts the titular six months and three days. Sharp characterization and detail work; the science fictional element and the writing of the characters weave together to create a narrative that is both emotionally and intellectually intriguing.

Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro – A woman receives notice that her husband is coming home from war injured–actually, just as a pair of hands. An evocative way of physicalizing some of the conflicts, ambiguities and turmoil surrounding PTSD and returning soldiers.

Three Damnations: A Fugue” by James Alan Gardner – Three characters circle each other, locked in loops that their follies prevent them from escaping. Smart and funny.

The Axiom of Choice” by David W. Goldman – Goldman uses the choose your own adventure format to explore issues of philosophy and mathematics. There have been a number of choose your own adventure-type stories in the past few years; this is my favorite. It evokes character and detail–and futility and hope–in a way that most of the stories fail to. The story incorporates its metafictional element rather than relying on it to do the characterization and storytelling by rote.

Valley of the Girls” by Kelly Link – In a far future, dilettante girls play at being Egyptian pharaohs. Kelly Link always creates strange, surreal worlds, and this is one: clever, bizarre, intriguing.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu — The script of a false documentary tells the story of a Chinese-American man who invents a limited method for time travel and uses it to illuminate atrocities that the Japanese committed against the Chinese in World War II, and delves into the political and emotional fallout of that technology. This story was incredibly moving to me; it affected me on a visceral level, propelling me through reading the very dark material. Despite the unconventional format of the story, characters are delicately portrayed through interviews.

Houses” by Mark Pantoja – When all the people die, what do the integrated AIs running their houses do? The story is funny, but not only funny; it’s also a genuinely interesting read.

The Migratory Patterns of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow – After the extinction of birds, men ride motorcycles from town to town, doing dances to imitate birdflight. An interesting world. Poignant and beautifully written.

Work, with Occasional Molemen” by Jeremiah Tolbert – A man who is embroiled in his family’s strange politics yearns to escape. This story is very dark, but also very unique; it’s got some of the bitterness of Dorothy Allison, but with a detached, dry cynicism that renders the world it portrays ludicrous even as it remains bleak.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu – Sometimes someone writes a story about the elaborate civilizations created by cartographer wasps, whose hives are miniature maps, and how they oppress the anarchist bees, and how their cultures clash, and what grows out of that conflict, and sometimes that story is absolutely brilliant.


Life is Unjust.

Several days after my 29th birthday, I find that I am doing an unreasonable amount of pouting.

I am pouting because I have failed to transform into various famous people.

Famous people I am not:

Amanda Palmer
Stephen Sondheim
Bernadette Peters
Poe (singer/songwriter type)
Audra McDonald
Angela Lansbury
Lynn Nottage
Timothy Near
Tony Kushner
Lanford Wilson
Christine Baranski
Carol Burnett
Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer

The list continues in this vein for quite some time.

Interestingly, I don’t find myself particularly jealous of other prose fiction writers. Octavia Butler will always kick my ass up and down the page, but that’s okay. She’s just made of gold-plated awesome, and I’m fine with that.

If this were a serious post, I would meditate on how I’m not jealous of writers because I am one, because I know what that path looks like. I would recall how I was 22 when I first heard the Dresden Dolls and just about to graduate from college and living in a beautiful beach town that was drenched with sun, and the world seemed like that beach town, opening onto an ocean of possibility. And now that I am 29, choices have been made and options severed. And while I always knew I was never going to be Bernadette Peters, it was less clear then what I *would* be.

As this is not a serious post, I will end on this: Damn it, universe. It is completely unfair that I am not, currently, Amanda Palmer. That’s right, universe. I’m calling you out for being kind of a jerk.


Losing Control

One of the first pieces of advice I ever got about novel writing from someone who knew what they were doing was, “You’re going to have to be willing to lose control…”

She gave that advice to our whole novel-writing class, but she repeated it to me in particular several times. As someone who tends toward short stories, and sometimes toward poetry, I want to have control over every. damn. word.

But novels are bigger than that. I end up choking myself off into very nicely written lyrical sections that can’t connect with anything of greater breadth.

I was reminded of this when I picked up an old teacher’s book on playwriting which advised novices not to adhere to rules they’ve built up in their heads about how plays should look. The kind of thing he meant, he continued, was personal rules, things like “each act must contain three scenes” or “no scene can have fewer than four characters in it.”

As I attempt to write in novel length, as I try to give up control, I realize how many of these rules I have. In short stories, they give me some advantage. Writing with a rule like “each section can be no more than 300 words” turns the writing into a kind of game, gives me an experimental form and structure to react to. I enjoy setting rules like that for short stories, and changing them from story to story.

But it’s a different process, this novel thing. Giving up control… I don’t like that. It’s not my native habitat. But I’m going to learn how to do it. I’m going to take control of losing control. Or something like that.

How do you balance control and writing? Do you switch between poetry, short stories, and novels? Do you disagree with the premise that novels require less control than shorter forms?

Is any blog post that ends with asking questions forever going to be too reminiscent of this?

Borders becomes even more liminal; small presses and micropresses affected differently?

I was just talking to a science fiction small press publisher about the effect that this news may have on their publishing model.

To sum up the article:

After a drawn out process that began at the end of last year when it missed payments to top publishers, Borders Group has given in to the inevitable and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy… Borders said it will close approximately 30% of its current store base, about 200 stores, within the next several weeks… According to Borders, the financing should enable Borders to operate the stores that remain open in a “normal course”… The announcement made this morning was foreshadowed last night when it implemented an ordering freeze and Ingram, its lifeline to the publishers, stopped shipping books. Publishers are on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars…

The most obvious problems stemming from this seem to concern mainly small press publishers who have national distribution. I was wondering how small press publishers who don’t have national distribution (and I think a number of the contributors/commentariat at this blog are involved in non-national small press publishing in some way?) think this news will affect them. Positively? Negatively? Not at all?

With just chain around, nationally distributed small press publishers may have to be more conservative with the kinds of work they put out, to make sure that it can get picked up by the remaining chain. Do micropresses anticipate that change in small presses rippling out to them?

A few online SF/F recommendations with broad appeal, 2011

I’ve been reading like crazy because it’s award season. I wanted to share some links that I thought people might like.

I feel like it was a really good year for published sf/f. I found lots of stories I’m enthusiastic about, and lots of new authors. Discovering great new fiction and great new authors is one of life’s pleasures, I think, so I’m eager to share!

Flying in the Face of God” by Nina Allen – My favorite novelette of the year; I’m really pleased it’s online. About alienation and the way people change, and how it is that some people go and others stay.

The Life Cycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang – This stunning novella considers the invention of artificial intelligence not as something that changes the world, but as something much more mundane–sentience that humans would abuse or ignore, the way we abuse or ignore zoo animals. Intensely detailed, immensely fascinating.

The History within Us” by Matt Kressel – I’m not sure how this one will come across to readers who aren’t steeped in the science fiction tradition. I’d be interested to know whether the themes come across, or whether it’s just confusing. Anyway, I recommend people check it out, it’s weird and strange and wonderful, and of particular interest for the way it deals with genocide and memory. I reprinted this in the anthology of the decade’s best science fiction and fantasy that Sean Wallace and I edited this year.

On the Banks of the River Lex” by N. K. Jemisin – Death wanders an empty New York.

Ponies” by Kij Johnson – Short, intense burst of surrealism.

Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim – Funny, interesting, unusual. Time travel shown through a series of broken images.

The Ghosts of New York” by Jennifer Pelland – Contemplating how views of 9/11 have changed and are changing.

Surrogates” by Cat Rambo – A science fictional look at alienation in marriage.

Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu – Science fiction tropes applied, via metafiction, to outsourcing. Very smart fiction, intricately layered characterization.

Of course, Locus Magazine has its own list, and I found this one from Jason Sanford interesting.

Writing and Mortality

A year or two ago, an article made the rounds which had collected ten pieces of writing advice from a number of famous authors. Some of the advice was irritating, some was true but banal, some was presumably profound, and some were amusing for their own sake.

One piece of advice that got picked up and repeated was the idea that if you were working on a project, and found out that you had six weeks to live, and then would be willing to set aside the project, it was the wrong project.

I really dislike that advice. It seems to me that it originates from the same place that makes writers say things like “a real writer *has* to write” or “any writers who can be discouraged, should be.”

First of all, if we take a class or race or gender analysis, of course this is an easier thing for people who are reasonably well-off, or not mothers, or part of the dominant culture to say. They’re going to have a lot of advantages in not getting “discouraged.” Everything from bias in the system to more concrete and nameable problems like poverty and being the caregiver of small infants and so on.

But even ignoring that, I don’t think the idea that writers *have* to write has much traction. I don’t have to write. I have to eat. I have to sleep. I might miss writing. I don’t *have* to do it.

I feel like saying “I *have* to write” is a way of absenting oneself from agency over the decision, consciously or subconsciously. Writing is a risky career choice and one that doesn’t always yield a lot of concrete reward or social approval. But if one pretends it’s not a choice, then one doesn’t have to worry about those things, or at least not in the same way. It’s not their fault that they aren’t making more money; they *have* to write. They don’t have to doubt themselves; they had no choice. Likewise, how could you be so cruel to doubt them when this is something they must do to survive?

Art is cool. But it’s not bread.

And if I had six weeks to live, I would want to spend as much of them with my husband, family and friends as I possibly could.

I had to think about this recently because I came a little close to dying. Not as close as other people have been. I don’t want to make too much of my experience. But it changed the way I was looking at my life, and inevitably, it changed the way I was looking at my writing. For a while, I was viewing myself and my future with tunnelvision, as if I didn’t have a future to write in.

There were things I regretted about that. I wished very much that I would have been a better person. I wished I had experienced more. And sure, I wished I’d written better things, which in my framework of thinking about things would make me a bit of a better person (although I have to emphasize that I don’t think basing one’s self worth on one’s achievements is a *healthy* metric), and it would mean I’d had more experiences.

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E-readers e-rock

This summer, I bought a kindle. I bought it because I had a large amount of reading to do–submissions for a book I was editing, award reading, review reading, and so on–and the kindle was starting to make sense. I was excited for its potential as a research tool, particularly, for when I’m stuck on stories and need to get some in-depth information on Dachau or Elizabethan watch-making or the Daughters of Bilitis and online sources aren’t working out for me.

It turned out the research application isn’t as useful as I’d expected–it’s usually so much cheaper to buy a used paperback of a research book than to get it on the kindle that I generally go that route, assuming the research books I want are even available on the kindle.

What I wasn’t expecting, though, was how much the kindle has facilitated a return to my pleasure in reading. I didn’t expect to enjoy reading on the kindle. I had a lot of romantic notions in my head about the feel of paper books, the smell of them, the comforting turn of the page–I thought that moving away from all that into something that seems as, I don’t know, disembodied? as the kindle would distract me from enjoying the words.

But ultimately, it turns out the words are a lot more important than the media through which I consume them. Reading on the computer has always annoyed me a bit because it sometimes causes me headaches, but without the backlight, the kindle e-ink removes that problem, and suddenly I’m a convert.

During and after grad school, I read a lot less for pleasure than I had before. I burned out a bit, partially because of reading for school, and partially because at the same time I started editing, which tied a lot of new reading to my job. I’m not a magazine editor anymore, so I’m not reading fiction for work in the same steady way, and that’s given me a little more space in my life for reading.

And the kindle makes it easy to pick up books I have casual interest in, books that aren’t going to explode my world or upend my paradigms, but that are simple and fun to read. I love explosive, topsy turvy books, but I also think there’s room in the world and my life for books that are just kind of fun and pulpy, and the kindle makes it easy to access those without having to figure out a way to wedge them onto my over-crowded shelves, where Silly Werewolf Book can’t possibly compete for a permanent location with, say, Morrison’s Beloved.

Just for the record: I understand that the kindle’s record of dealing with publishing companies isn’t always awesome, and that their file protocols kind of suck. But it seemed easier to find programs online that could take e-books I purchase and convert them to kindle files, than to find e-books I buy in kindle format and break them so they can be read on other readers. Having access to the largest range of books was my priority in purchasing. Also, we can tie multiple devices to my amazon account, and then I and the other readers in my family can all share books, even if we’re non-local, which is seven kinds of awesome.

Anyway, I was surprised by how much I’ve really enjoyed my e-reader on a personal level. Are other people out there trying them out? Do you still resist them? Have you tried them and found that having paper in hand really does make a concrete difference for you?