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?

Dissemination and Political Compromise

In comments at Pandagon, commenter BlackBloc writes:

MIA [a musician] would not have been given a podium by the cultural producers in the first place if she had been seen as fully authentic. By definition, anyone who can get to the heights of popularity that MIA attained is compromised politically. It’s similar to the selection that news or education institutions do, as put forward in Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

I suspect this is true.

One can argue, perhaps, that some of the venues that writers use for dissemination are too small to necessitate political compromise–an excellent argument for the utility of small presses!–but at the same time, usually those avenues don’t provide wide dissemination.

I can only hope that the accumulation of many pieces of politically compromised work can still create change, even though each individual work is compromised. I must hope this because it’s the same argument that applies to activism–few of us are perfect activists in our lives, and if we must compromise in order to exist, one can only hope that the cumulative effect of intentional, well-aimed, compromised action can still create political effects.

(As a side note: the few people I know who compromise very little have to work very, very hard to make their lives match their politics. And while I understand the necessity of compromise, its ubiquity shouldn’t be used to excuse it… “everyone compromises” is not a get-out-of-moral-quandary free card. Compromise is still problematic. And the people who live the politics we’d like to see enacted deserve amazing amounts of respect for their work.)

Moods and Writing

Angry, tense, distracted, depressed, blocked, anxious… there are a lot of moods that can make writing difficult or impossible, or at least there are if you’re like me and a number of other writers I know.

If you are one of those who is not afflicted with moodiness, I pat you on the back, but this post isn’t for you. For those of you who do get depressed, or anxious, or angry, or sad, or distracted, or whatever–how do you deal with writing and your moods? Do you have techniques to keep up your writing? Are you like me, and need to just throw in the towel sometimes?

Inquiring, moody writers want to know.

Articles on Collaboration by William Walsh

At the Kenyon Review blog, William Walsh has been posting about collaborations. Since I’d been posting about the topic over here, he thought I might be interested–and in turn, I thought you might be.

(The descriptions of the articles are in his words.)

A Q&A with Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney about their long-standing collaboration.

A Q&A with Kate Schapira about her new book of poems, TOWN, which is an uber-collaboration with “contributions” from over sixty writers and non-writers.

And most recently, a Q&A with writer Joseph Young and artist Christine Sajecki, including some interesting art and video.


Passive versus Active: DEATH MATCH, or possibly, just a cup of tea

At the invitation of Niall Harrison from Torque Control I’m participating in a blog discussion about N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that has me thinking about active versus passive characters.

Discussions around active and passive characters tend to make me uncomfortable. It’s possible to discuss active or passive traits as value-neutral dimensions, but most often, people seem to want to make judgments about them. Active characters are lauded. Passive characters are considered deficient.

I don’t accept those judgments.

For one thing, I find it awfully suspicious that ‘active’ is a coded masculine trait and ‘passive’ is a coded feminine trait. It seems unlikely to me that it’s just coincidence that the so-called masculine trait is awesome-pants and the theoretically feminine trait is icky.

But more than that, I feel like there’s a coding here that I just don’t agree with–the idea that some people are suitable protagonists for fiction, and others aren’t.

This is an old idea, right? Kings are suitable protagonists! Knights are suitable protagonists! Stories about mill workers? What’s wrong with you?
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I just returned from a trip to New Orleans (or, as a jazz singer reminded us in song, N’awrlins). We arrived in time for French Quarter fest, a jazz festival that got rave reviews from tourists and locals alike–but which I primarily found frustrating because it brought in *so* many people that we had trouble getting out of the French Quarter and CBD district.

On the plus side, jazz in the streets; on the minus side, some drunk asshole yelling “fag” at my husband when he shouldered my backpack-purse for a few blocks.

While we were traveling, I realized how much being a writer inflects the way I take in cities. I want to tour as if I were taking a class. I get suddenly (and briefly) highly organized, and take lots and lots of notes.

How do you travel? Do you do things that you wouldn’t otherwise because you might write about them in the future? Have you done any exceptionally strange things in the service of a potential story? Did you end up using it?


Sorry for not posting much, and the likelihood is that will continue–I normally don’t travel that frequently, but this year is hectic. (Relatedly, I will definitely be in New Orleans, Cocoa Beach, Chicago, Iowa City and Madison over the next few months in case anyone wants to meet up.)

Anyway, I know there was a recent post here about collaboration, and I’ve recently considered starting a couple new collaborations, so I thought I’d talk a bit about my collaboration experiences.

I started writing collaborative work in my dark fanfic days (the fanfic was dark, not the days). Now technically this was role playing, rather than fanfic, so this may not apply to other people’s experiences, etc, etc. However, in the group where I was involved, there was a standard collaboration method.

1) You and your co-writer would go into instant messaging or a private chat room.

2) You would each write out your character’s dialogue, along with whatever reactions they were having. “He lit a cigarette. Damn things. But it was compulsive. ‘No, I’ve never thought about going into command. Why do you ask?’ He struggled to keep his voice light. He surveyed the room, checking to see if their conversation had been overheard.”

3) Your partner does the same. “She coughed after inhaling the annoying ensign’s smoke. ‘Do you have to smoke that?’ she asked, waving it away. ‘I’m sure it’s not allowed in here. Anyway, my point is–I heard there’s an opening for a weapon’s specialist on the bridge.’ She leaned forward, giving him a significant look.”

3) This goes on for pages, and pages, and pages.

4) You mash it all up into one unreadable mess.

5) The good taste fairies cry.
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Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward guest blogging at Booklife Now

Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife Now blog has two very exciting guest writers this week–Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

Nisi and Cynthia are the authors of Writing the Other, a practical text aimed at helping authors write characters unlike them. The book is an excellent teaching tool, full of practical advice, and supplemented with exercises. VanderMeer writes:

I love Writing the Other because it espouses in a very specific and detailed way what I’ve always thought about writing characters, and even about writing minor characters: you need to fully inhabit them. Which is to say, if your characters aren’t going to just be carbon copies of you and your own experience of the world, you need to be able to see clearly through other people’s eyes.

Ward and Shawl teach workshops on the subject, though I haven’t yet had the privilege of taking one. The second best thing is reading what these smart women have to say.

Check out Nisi and Cynthia’s bios, and read their first post on The Unmarked State.

Short story writer takes the long haul

I’ve written dozens of short stories, but I’ve never completed a novel. Oh, I’ve ventured a few, but I’ve never seen them past 15,000 words.

I’m just a short form writer. Poems? Easy to produce. Flash fiction? You got it. Short stories and novelettes? Now we’re talking months of time, but I can manage it. But sixty to a hundred thousand words? Not me.

Not until now.

The challenge: over the next few months, I am going to start and complete a novel.

It is not going to be a good novel. It’s going to be a first novel. It’s going to be full of fits and starts and many failures, not to mention lots and lots of prose that makes me want to weep (not with joy). But I’m going to figure out how this long-form works. I’m going to write a beginning, middle, and end — with a few set-piece scenes in the middle to keep the whole thing going. And it’s going to be fucking long.

Before I haul out on this breathless adventure — one hand carrying a laptop, the other holding a lantern and blue-glowing elvish sword to fend off the grues — I’m making one last pit stop here, in the Land of Generous Writers. Any advice for an inveterate short storyist making the transition to novel length?

Five Recommended Speculative Stories for Indie Readers, 2009

I’ve spent my last couple weeks reading short stories, novelettes, and novellas so that I can nominate for the Nebula and Hugo awards. This is my first year doing either, although I’ve been eligible to vote for the Nebulas for a couple of years now. I’ve made my nominations for short stories, novelettes, and novellas public, along with some recommended reading lists. Here are five stories y’all might enjoy, which you can read online.

Remembrance is Something Like a House” by Will Ludwigsen, originally published in Interfictions 2Every day for three decades, the abandoned house strains against its galling anchors, hoping to pull free. It has waited thirty years for its pipes and pilings to finally decay so it can leave for Florida to find the Macek family.

Superhero Girl” by Jessica Lee*, originally published in Fantasy Magazine – Ofelia was a superhero. She told me so without reserve. “It’s safe for me to tell you,” she said. “I can sense you’re not a villain. Besides, it would be unfair to keep it from you. It won’t be easy, you know, being involved with a superhero girl.”

Reading By Numbers” by Aidan Doyle, originally published in Fantasy Magazine – An oak tree stood in the center of the garden. It reached unending into the sky and its trunk was alive with an army of marching ants, each of them carrying a glowing neon digit. Together they formed the prime number Sujimoto had discovered — a number more than 42 million digits long.

The Mermaids Singing Each to Each” by Cat Rambo, originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine – Niko leaned behind me in the cabin, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of engine and water, “When you Choose, which is it going to be? Boy or girl?”

The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi, originally published in Fast Forward 2My colleagues’ faces flicker gray and pale in the light of their computers and tablets. The tap of their keyboards fills the newsroom as they pass content down the workflow chain and then, with a final keystroke and an obeisance to the “publish” button, they hurl it onto the net.

*One of my former students.

Fucking Funny

Author M. K. Hobson, who claims that her most successful short stories are humorous (which is a damned lie), writes a short blog post instructing the plebes on how to be comedic.

Much of humor is in the choice of words. Words are hilarious. George Carlin did whole *acts* on nothing more than words and word choices. Slang and colloquialisms are a great place to look for humor. There’s nothing funnier than a 41-year old housewife saying “fo’ shizzle.” Ask my 11-year old daughter if you don’t believe me.

And so on, and so forth, and insert illustrations of bananas slipping on their own peels here.

I must, of course, take issue with her assertion that feghoots are the humor writing equivalent of funereal farts. Feghoots are fucking funny, as anyone who has started a round of joke-telling with me while I am drunk can attest. (Yes, I will tell you the one about the shoes.)

Metafiction: A Flame War

This is the Title of a Typical Incendiary Blog Post

This sentence contains a provocative statement that attracts the readers’ attention, but really only has very little to do with the topic of the blog post. This sentence claims to follow logically from the first sentence, though the connection is actually rather tenuous. This sentence claims that very few people are willing to admit the obvious inference of the last two sentences, with an implication that the reader is not one of those very few people. This sentence expresses the unwillingness of the writer to be silenced despite going against the popular wisdom. This sentence is a sort of drum roll, preparing the reader for the shocking truth to be contained in the next sentence.

This sentence contains the thesis of the blog post, a trite and obvious statement cast as a dazzling and controversial insight.