Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best books of 2015--my recommendations



The year draws to its close tonight, and I'm joining others with my list of favorite books read in 2015! Fiction, nonfiction, novels and short story collections. . . I didn't read as much as I would have liked (I never do) but these are the ones that stayed most powerfully with me.


Fiction Novels



The best novel I read this year was a hard-to-pigeonhole, slipstreamish epistolary novel self-published in 2013. I first heard of Francesca Forrest when I came across her lovely short story, Seven Bridges, in the archives of the digital magazine, The Future Fire. Pen Pal is her first published novel (I think). It is gorgeous and affecting. These are the first lines:

Dear person who finds my message,
I live in a place called Mermaid's Hands. All our houses rest on the mud when the tide is out, but when it comes in, they rise right up and float.
They're all roped together, so we don't lose anyone. I like Mermaid's Hands, but sometimes I wish I could unrope our house and see where it might float to. . .

Em is the child who places this letter into a bottle and tosses it into the sea. Mermaid's Hands is an imaginary village somewhere on the Gulf Coast of the United States. Em and her people are a fictional cultural minority in the U.S.  with their own sea-based religion, traditions, and identity. They are also a marginalized group with a precarious existence, treated with suspicion and disdain by their neighbors on the mainland.

Em's message-in-a-bottle finds its way to a brave young woman on the other side of the world: Kaya, a political activist fighting for the rights of her own cultural and ethnic minority group. When Kaya receives Em's letter, it is brought to her by her pet crow, for Kaya herself is unable to go to the sea. She is trapped in a prison-house suspended over a live volcano.

 The novel that unfolds is told in letters exchanged between Em and Kaya, as well as in entries from their journals and excerpts of news reports and other outside documents which flesh out their world. This is a beautiful novel of arresting images—Kaya's volcano, Em's floating village—and it flirts on the border between "realism" and "magical realism." Both Em and Kaya's story lines are absorbing and moving, and ultimately intersect. It's a book that tackles complex, real-world issues of culture and marginalized ethnic communities, of identity and assimilation, but it never feels preachy and it always feels honest. As Kaya's political storyline picked up danger and speed, I started to feel impatience when reverting back to Em's point of view. . . but then Em would suck me in with her own intimate, family drama. This is a novel that works on multiple levels. I think it's a novel that would work for multiple audiences. The story is accessible enough for middle-grade readers (who would be Em's age), but complex and resonant enough for adults as well. I keep marveling over how the author was able to pull off everything that she does—how she was able, for instance, to create vivid secondary characters and a delicate, heart-tugging love story in so few words. This book made me cry. This is a book that stays with you.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This book is more generally well known than Pen Pal, to put it mildly. It won and was nominated for a slew of literary awards, and was backed by George R.R. Martin for a Hugo. It's a post-apocalyptic novel, but in a quiet vein. Lovely and elegiac, it moves back and forth through time, following characters just before the great apocalypse that has destroyed the world as we know it (the apocalyptic agent is a particularly deadly strain of flu virus) and after. Above all, this novel set in the ruins of civilization—where people reminisce about electricity and refrigerators and episodes of Star Trek--is an ode to our present day, to the fragile beauties and wonders we take for granted.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (winner of the 2015 Hugo Award)

Remember Golden Age science fiction, as it's termed? Remember the mind-blown awe with which you read the last lines of Isaac Asimov's Nightfall or Arthur C. Clarke's stories? The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu recaptured that for me. This story of alien first contact left me dazzled with vast expanses of time and space and alien worlds. Bonus: the prose (translated by Ken Liu from the original Chinese) is a great deal more graceful than Asimov's workmanlike prose and much of the prose of the American "Golden Age" of sci-fi.


Short Story Collections

Bone Swans by C.S.E. Cooney

Speaking of minds blown. . .  Bone Swans collects five novellas by noted short story writer C.S.E. Cooney; one of them, "The Bone Swans of Amandale" appears for the first time. These are all rich, strange, and utterly beautiful. The titular "Bone Swans" is a mashup of fairy tales—the Juniper Tree plus The Pied Piper, graced with old legends of swan-women and trolls, and narrated by a smart-alecky (and hungry) rat. "How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One" is a wonderfully satisfying retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Other stories are wholly invented worlds. Cooney's stories are filled with wit and humor and horror and beauty, and above all they are filled with heart. One of my favorite story collections ever.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

I'm trying to catch up on the contemporary "canon" of speculative fiction, and at this point I think we can say that Kelly Link is part of that canon. The stories in this collection will reach into your braincase and pull your mind inside out. There's almost no way to summarize a Kelly Link story; she defines her own subgenre of weird. My favorites here were the titular "Magic for Beginners" and "Stone Animals" (the latter is like a John Cheever story of suburban family angst. . . shredded and pushed through the weirdest Filter of Weird that you can—actually, you probably can't—imagine).

Redeployment by Phil Klay

And for my nongenre fiction selection. . . You expect that a critically acclaimed short story collection about the American war in Iraq will be devastating. But you likely don't know how many different kinds of devastating these 12 stories will be. Marine veteran Phil Klay shows an astonishing range here, inhabiting fully a variety of voices: a young, barely-out-of-his-teens soldier trying to find his refooting on American soil; officers in the midst of war; a Marine chaplain grappling with faith as he tries to minister to the soldiers whom he sees spinning out of control; a Foreign Services officer caught up in absurd bureaucracy; and a young Egyptian-American Coptic Christian war veteran who tells his story while attending college at Amherst in the aftermath of his service. These stories are all brutal and devastating and brilliant. . . and many of them are also funny. Bleakly and blackly hilarious. The biting dialogue, the gallows humor and bravado and pain and vulnerability of Klay's male characters (they are all male protagonists) is a revelation. The most harrowing fiction that I read this year.

Nonfiction

The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris

While Klay's short story collection is harrowing fiction, Morris' book is harrowing nonfiction. I read these two books almost back-to-back, and they became companion pieces in my mind. Morris calls his book a “biography” of PTSD, and it is deliberately modeled after another biography of a disease: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s acclaimed The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Like Mukhjerjee’s book, Morris’ work is a deeply researched synthesis of history, science, and personal experience. A former Marine officer, Morris covered the Iraq War as a news correspondent from 2004 to 2007, and himself suffered PTSD in the wake of his experiences there. This is a fiercely intelligent, often infuriating, beautifully written and ultimately moving book. Morris’ writing makes for compulsive reading, and I tore through his pages as though through an airport thriller. The science and descriptions of PTSD therapy may be of particular interest to scientists and clinicians, but the human story at the heart of it all is what moves most powerfully. 

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

I'm not a surfer and I know nothing about surfing. But yes, this is one of the best things I've ever read. As I wrote in an earlier post, this is a book not just about surfing but about questing in general—about chasing pure joy. My in-depth review of this book can be found here.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

This is one of the (many) good things about my mothers' book club: I'm forced to read books I would have never chosen on my own. Cheryl Strayed is most famous for Wild, her runaway best-selling memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I admit that I bounced off that memoir; I could acknowledge that the writing was good, but the narrative simply wasn't one that personally spoke to me or engaged me. Tiny Beautiful Things was different. This book collects highlights of the advice column that Strayed has written in the persona of "Sugar" for the website The Rumpus. The letters from readers are wide-ranging and yet, as "Sugar" points out, they cut to a core of common human interests and needs. Strayed's responses are wise, lyrical, and yes, profound. When the mother of a child with a brain tumor writes in asking whether or not she can believe in God if He gave her baby cancer. . . well, Strayed (who admits that she does not personally believe in God) gives the best, most compassionate and intellectually honest response I've ever seen articulated on this theme. Strayed's responses are little jewel-like essays. In them she reveals pieces of her own life, and in aggregate the advice columns become an unconventional memoir.


Friday, December 4, 2015

December publications!


I am happy to announce two new stories out this month.

"Moon Story" was published in October in the fall issue of Mythic Delirium. It is now available for free reading online as the featured December story. It is a fairy tale about questing, about growing up and letting go, and yes, it takes place on the Moon. A magical Moon of  "snow and ice, of frozen lakes and deep blue shadows." Also bats and rats. The featured poetry of this month, "Star Fishing" by Shveta Thakrar and "Jupiter Dis(mis)ed" by J.C. Runolfson beautifully round out the celestial theme. Read the entire fall issue--it's all great stuff!

My second story this month is "Knife and Sea," a little flash piece in the winter issue of Mirror Dance. This is also a fairy tale, but decidedly darker than "Moon Story." The winter issue of Mirror Dance is always devoted to flash fiction, poetry, and pieces that straddle the definitions of poetry and prose. Darkness and strangeness are threaded through this year's offerings. Again, take a look at the whole issue!

And in other writing news. . . (Sigh). I have stories in queues at various publications, waiting for editors' final decisions. But, of course, I have no control over when those decisions will come or what they will be. I have control only over the writing itself.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

On not writing and the creative life


I came across this piece by novelist Daniel Jose Older on not writing every day. And my heart cheered Yes! Yes. Yes to the nth degree.

Earlier this month I had space in my schedule. School for the kids had started; I had no medical writing assignments in sight. I will write, I thought. Who knows when I'll have this time again? I had nothing to write about. No story in my head. No matter—don't other writers just sit at the blank screen and stuff just pours out of them? Don't they say that if you just sit your butt in the chair and force yourself then the words will come because it's just work and willpower and moving those fingers on the keyboard? Doesn't everyone say shitty first drafts and just keep going and just do it--?

I tried. It was a disaster.

Because sometimes, as Daniel JoseOlder writes in his essay, the story you're working on just isn't ready to be written yet. Because, as he says, "brainstorming is part of writing, too." Every writer is different. But for me, yes, there's a lot of brainstorming and thinking that needs to occur before I ever write a line of a story. I need to know the overall structure; I need to know the major plot points and scenes and where it all ends up. I might not know how it all connects, how a character is going to get from here to there, but at least I know the major points on the map.

I need to know these things before I write.

That time spent thinking and reading and researching? The time spent standing under a long, hot shower? The walks I take, the time that looks like sheer daydreaming? That all counts as "writing," too. It might not look like writing, but it is. It's necessary.

For most of my adulthood, creative writing has been something for the margins of my life. Writing—both the invisible thinking prelude and the physical act itself—have been pushed to the corners, stolen from the hours after the children are asleep and the day job done. It's not been the center, and making it the center actually stresses me out. When I worked full-time in the lab—when I was going through a rough time in my last year as a scientist—writing was an escape. Ideas came bubbling up between experiments, as I waited for a centrifuge to stop spinning or an incubation to finish. The perfect word would come, unexpectedly, as I stared out the cafeteria window.

When I've tried to force the writing—when there's nothing there, but I try anyway because I feel that's what I'm supposed to do that's what a real writer does and I'm building narrative from thin air, with no foundation pre-laid—well, it holds together about as well as you'd expect a house of air to stand.

This is what I did a few weeks ago: I tried to write an unbaked idea and I failed and it was awful. And I played with a few other ideas, but they were all unbaked, unformed, and I couldn't tell which ones were worth anything at all. And I felt panicked, because I had blank space on the calendar and these empty days were a gift; I didn't have anything to do but write, so if I wasn't writing I was wasting time and and proving that I wasn't a real writer at all. 

And then I got an e-mail from a client and I was terribly relieved and I lost myself in a medical writing assignment for 1 ½ weeks.

And this is what I happened while I was focused on my technical writing assignment: a certain story idea kept circling back to me, whispering to me in the interstices of the day. An idea that wouldn't leave me alone. And so I knew, after all, which story idea was perhaps worth pursuing.

This is the way I've written: mulling ideas while going about daily life, earning a living with non-fiction tasks; cooking dinner, folding laundry, bathing children. This is the way I've written: when I felt that a story was ready. When I can't not write any longer because a story or passage or even a blog post is pounding away at the inside of my head, no longer able to be contained.

No, I don't write every day. And I've gone long periods without writing at all. After graduating from college, I didn't write for years as I focused on grad school and becoming a scientist and trying to "make it" in a brutally competitive profession.

But I found my way back to writing. And then I left it again for nearly three years. And then I found my way back.

I like to think that I'll always keep writing now, that I won't leave again. I try to always have something, some project, burning in the background of my mind, no matter how busy the days. But there are still times—like a few weeks ago—when I find myself at a loss, the well run dry. When I feel I'll never have a good idea again. Or when damn it, I just don't feel like writing. When I'd rather go to the park with my family, or take a bike ride with my kids. Stay up and have a conversation with my husband. Live. That's important, too. 

I come back to these sentences that Lev Grossman wrote, one of my writing heroes. In a beautiful essay at Buzzfeed he wrote about how he nearly lost his mind as a 22-year old neophyte writer, convinced of his own genius, who thought that the way to write was to isolate himself like a monk in the wilderness, cutting himself off from everyone he knew so as to dedicate himself wholly to Art.

He lasted six months in his self-enforced isolation before packing it in. He drove back to civilization, got an office job, and wrote his novels alongside a typical working life. And Grossman ends his essay with these lovely words:

"The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back." 

This is what I believe. What I hope. Because I've strayed from writing, again and again, and I hope to always be coming back.




     

Monday, August 31, 2015

On memoir and things I have no experience of—A review of "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" by William Finnegan



I know nothing about surfing. I've never stood on a board. I've never even seen surfing done in real life (I've spent most of my life in the American Midwest. And even when I lived in Los Angeles for college, I somehow never met any surfers).

Yet it came into my head to write a story that involved surfing. So I read a lot. I was interested in big-wave surfing, so I read Susan Casey's book, "The Wave." I read a lot of journalistic accounts. I watched videos online.

And eventually, probably inevitably, I stumbled upon a two-part article in The New Yorker. The article is titled "Playing Doc's Games" by William Finnegan, and it was published in 1992. It is famous among surfers. The surf magazine The Inertia called it "possibly the greatest surf story ever" and a writer at The Surfer described it as "the best written piece (all 39,000 words of it) ever penned about surf culture." 

I am not a surfer. Yet William Finnegan's article on surfing is one of the best things I have ever read. I would recommend it to anyone, surfer or not (Here, click on the link above. Read it now).

Ostensibly, "Playing Doc's Games" is a profile of "Doc" Mark Renneker, a family practice physician and seemingly fearless, hard-charging big-wave surfer in San Francisco. And yet it is so much more. The author is himself a serious surfer, and he becomes entwined in the narrative. He joins and closely observes a small group of San Francisco locals who surf Ocean Beach, a cold, wild, beach break in the heart of the city. He finds himself increasingly drawn into the orbit of the charismatic "Doc" Renneker, who dominates the local surf scene. Yet Finnegan also finds himself rebelling against Renneker's hold, and against the hold of surfing itself. Finnegan loves surfing, but he's wary of the way that surfing seems to tempt him away from the responsibilities of a serious adult life. This ambivalence becomes a major thread of the article, and the story becomes one of obsession and identity, of the author trying to understand what surfing—this seemingly frivolous, sometimes dangerous passion—means to himself and others. There are indelible character portraits, and precise descriptions of the machismo of the surf culture (there are no women surfing Ocean Beach at this time), the complicated "surfing social contract"; the unsaid rules, the rivalries. And alongside all this are the most beautiful, enthralling, thrilling descriptions of rides and waves that I had read up to that point.

Until I picked up William Finnegan's long-awaited memoir, "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life."

Finnegan has an artist's eye for color and light, and a poet's ability to convey what he's seen in precise, lyrical detail. Nearly every time he describes a wave (even in passing) the scene jumps into high-definition clarity. Surfing a then unknown wave in Fiji (before it became famous to the rest of the world), Finnegan describes "a dark, bottle-green light in the bottom of the wall and a feathering whiteness overhead." Watching surfers on a bright day at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, Finnegan writes, "From the beach, the sea is just a blinding, colorless sheet of afternoon glare, intermittently broken by the black walls of waves." In Hawaii, at a break called Makaha, "Some waves, as they broke, went cobalt at the top, under the lip. Others, the big set waves that barreled in the peak, went a different, warmer shade of navy blue in the shadowed part of the maw."

Finnegan's eye for detail extends beyond waves. This book is about his enchantment with surfing, his years as a surf bum circumnavigating the globe in his twenties in search of good waves. It's about the struggle he feels in his thirties, as he tries to reconcile adult responsibilities and a serious career as a journalist with his passion for the waves. . . . and of his changing relationship with surfing as he hits middle age and beyond. But the book is also, just as importantly, about the people he meets both in and out of the waves.

The book opens in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1966. Finnegan has just there moved at the age of 13 with his family. It is here that Finnegan becomes a serious surfer, where he feels himself truly taken with the enchantment of surfing. But as compelling as his education as a young surfer is the description of his education in a Hawaii public school, the culture shock of a Southern California white boy—who had never given much thought to race before—transplanted suddenly into a complicated racial landscape where he is a "haole," or "white person" in Hawaiian pidgin. As a haole, young Finnegan is part of a despised minority in his rough public school, bullied and beaten until he's taken in by the school's tough-acting racist gang of haoles, who give him protection and self-importantly call themselves the In Crowd. And yet at the same time, Finnegan's best friends are the local surfers he's met in the water, a pair of native Hawaiian brothers attending the same school. The social dynamics are sensitively rendered. Finnegan notes that the racism of the haole In Crowd was "situationist, not doctrinaire," and at one point the In Crowd, to the author's surprise, seemingly overnight welcomes Finnegan's native Hawaiian and Asian friends into the fold, including them in their parties, apparently because they've realized that Finnegan's friends are pretty darn cool. (Finnegan's native Hawaiian and Asian friends consider the party invitations and integration to be no big deal at all—it's only Finnegan who finds it a big deal). This is at a time when the leading local private club on the island remains "whites-only." Structural racial privilege in the adult world and dynamics among kids at a public school are clearly not the same.

Finnegan has a keen and thoughtful eye for such social dynamics, which is displayed throughout the book. He has a searching curiosity about the different cultures and subcultures he encounters, a born journalist's interest in other people. The book flashes between Southern California and Hawaii as the Finnegan family moves between these places for Finnegan's father's job. All the while, young Finnegan is surfing. At one point, an amazing session at Honolua Bay convinces him to drop out of college at UC Santa Cruz and simply chase waves in Hawaii. It's the early 70s, and the hippie counter-culture is still in sway. Finnegan and a friend surf Honolua Bay on a big day while high on LSD—an incredible, bonkers scene that is by itself worth the price of this book.

Finnegan's ambivalence about surfing—the push-pull he feels between riding the waves and a seemingly responsible life on land—starts early. He drops out of college, but soon returns. He finishes his degree, gets a stable job as a brakeman on the railroad while he tries to become a writer. But at the age of 25, he decides to embark with a friend for a serious surf trip, "an open-ended wave chase." They start in the South Pacific. They go to Australia and Southeast Asia. Finnegan's friend drops out, but Finnegan himself continues into Africa. All told, he's gone for three years.

If I have one complaint about this book, it's about what was left out. This book concentrates on Finnegan's surfing life, and yet it's clear that he's also led an extraordinary life out of the waves. Somehow, over the course of this narrative, he transforms himself from wild-child-on-a-surfboard to an award-winning journalist who writes for the New Yorker and files serious pieces on politics and war from conflict-torn regions around the globe. He covers war in Mozambique, El Salvador, Somalia; he reports on organized crime in Mexico, human trafficking in Dubai, and neo-Nazis in America. In his twenties, he spends a year teaching in a black school in apartheid-era South Africa, where he has a political awakening and becomes involved in anti-apartheid activism. And yet only the barest mention of all this enters "Barbarian Days." So much is left out. The book flashes forward through large chunks of time, and at times I found myself frustrated with this. I wanted to read this like a novel, to understand William Finnegan as a character. How did he grow from that bullied young boy in Hawaii to the brash, exceedingly adventurous young man we see discovering a new wave in Fiji? How did he settle down afterward? What happened to so many of the colorful characters we see early in the book?

But these are the limitations of memoir. It's impossible to cover an entire life in depth, particularly a life as big as Finnegan's. Choices must be made; the memoirist selects a certain focus, a particular organizing structure. Finnegan's stories about apartheid-era South Africa, Mozambique, and other adventures have been published as separate books and stories. In this book, it is surfing which provides the frame.

Eventually, the book winds to Ocean Beach, San Francisco, the setting of "Playing Doc's Games." More than 200 pages of backstory precede this chapter, and now Finnegan's ambivalence toward Doc Renneker and surfing have added poignancy and depth. We've seen the passion the author has invested in waves, how surfing has ruled his heart for so long.

It's a struggle that's ongoing. In the conflict between work and surfing, work sometimes throws "a hammerlock on chasing waves. Then surfing, ever wily, twisted free." In his forties, married and with his journalistic career in high gear, Finnegan falls in love with a new wave in Madeira (now gone, alas, due to construction of a seaside roadway). He throws ambivalence aside for it, buying for the first time a "gun," a board specifically shaped to ride very large waves. These are some of the most hair-raising scenes in the book, as Finnegan writes in pulse-pounding detail of the times he and friends nearly die in the waves. Yet he keeps on going back.

Finnegan is now in his sixties and still surfing. There is a valedictory feel to the last chapters, the acknowledgement of inevitable physical decline. And yet the last scene is gloriously affirming.

What use is surfing? What use is art, or any non-monetized joy? Surfing has been "distraction" to Finnegan from work and life, yet it's also sustained him in that work. After his worst moments of war reporting, he's sought peace in the waves. He finds surfing  "an antidote, however, mild, for the horror." A surfing buddy of his, a professional ballet dancer as well as a surfer, perhaps puts it best when he compares music to waves and says that it's about "yielding to something more powerful than yourself."

In its review of "Barbarian Days," the L.A. Times raves that this book is ". . . about a writer's life, and even more generally, a quester's life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than anything I've read in a long time." I second that opinion. There are some wonderful chapters on Finnegan's development as a writer here (I wish there were more). But yes, beyond writing or surfing, this is a book about questing in general, about chasing pure joy. And there's also this: for this non-surfer, nothing else I've read—no book or journalistic account—has so closely brought me to that feeling of riding a wave.  




Future Fire Fundraiser! Link to new interview!


The Indiegogo fundraiser for The Future Fire is down to the wire, with only 38 hours to go! Go visit and donate to support daring, progressive, beautiful short science fiction and fantasy!

As part of The Future Fire's 10th anniversary celebration, there is also a new interview with me about my writing.

Friday, August 21, 2015

F**ck Winning


I stumbled across this piece, "Fuck Winning," by Albert Burneko while skipping about the Internet (as you do) and read it, just read it.

Because yes, fuck winning, fuck the tournament system, fuck the ruthless competition/winner-takes-all/Hunger Games that is coming for us all. We don't need to beat down our kids; the world is going to do that soon enough. We don't need to teach them that only "winners" are worthwhile; that life is to be measured in trophies and salaries and prestigious job titles and tangibly shiny medals; isn't the world going to teach them all that without our help?

Here is the passage in Burneko's piece that closed my throat:  

As I write this, my two young sons are running around a grassy field where I can watch them. They have balloons stuffed under their shirts; they are crashing into each other with their big balloon-bellies and making weird monster noises and giggling so hard they can’t speak; the sun is in their hair and their eyes are bright with some anarchic Looney Tunes glee at a game that has no rules and cannot be won or lost. I want them to feel good about everything. I want to celebrate them for existing, to celebrate them for every day some absurd electrochemical miracle keeps their brave hearts beating and wards off entropy for a bit longer so they can wake up and wonder about things, to celebrate them for lighting up the world and for not having accepted its terms just yet.

Yes to this. Yes to all of this.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Celebrating 10 years of The Future Fire magazine--fundraiser for their anthology


Wow. I really haven't been here in a while.

I hope to post something more substantive soon, but for now I will direct readers (all 2 of them?) to a most excellent magazine and to the fundraiser celebrating that magazine's 10th anniversary.

The Future Fire is a speculative fiction online magazine which has been publishing strange and beautiful science fiction and fantasy for 10 years now. As stated in the submission guidelines, the editors are interested in fiction with social-political and progressive themes. Such themes can actually stretch to cover quite a bit, and the stories there often express those themes in subtle and unexpected ways.  I was very very proud when one of my own stories, Disconnected, was chosen for publication in The Future Fire this past spring.

And to celebrate their 10 years in business, the staff at The Future Fire are now running an Indiegogo campaign to fund an anthology publishing a mix of new stories and material with some of the best from a decade of The Future Fire. There are all kinds of cool contributor rewards, too! (including a zombie doll hand-knit to look like you).

To learn more about The Future Fire and their fundraiser, please have a look here.



Monday, April 20, 2015

Vacation, mini-interview, updates




I got back a bit more than a week ago from a family vacation in the San Francisco Bay area. Glorious sunshine, lemon and orange trees, green lawns and flowers in bloom.  Drought? There’s a drought going on? 

Oh, no, it’s going to RAIN! the locals freaked out while we were there. I’m so sorry, but there’s RAIN in the forecast, too bad about RAIN while you’re here on vacation. Rain? That five-minute sprinkle? Ha! My family and I are Midwesterners—you call that “rain?”

A hike by the sea, a stay at Half Moon Bay, and my husband and I were marveling at local flora like Dorothy dropped off by her tornado in the land of Oz. What are these trees? we wondered (wind-sheared cypresses on the coast). What are these orange wildflowers? (California poppies) And these flowering succulents on the beach?

The Internet identifies these as "iceplants." Not actually native to California, although they grow all over the coast.

Iceplants on the beach at Half Moon bay


Visits with family and friends. My youngest holding hands with her baby boy cousin. And snuggles with the newest cousin to join our family, an infant girl who is all fat rolls and edible cheeks and round softness and a heavy, sleepy weight in my arms.

Then back again, from technicolored California to gray skies here in Michigan. The trees are still bare. Spring flirts with us here, peeping out with sunlight and birdsong and then retreating again under veils of rain.

I’m still writing when I can. I’m playing with flash fiction. I finished a flash piece and sent it off to my critique group last night. It’s a dark sequel to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” It’s basically Little Mermaid fan-fiction. LOL.

I’ve been reading heaps. Real, complete books, not short fiction on the Internet. Books on real paper, with real covers. I’ll be writing reviews.

I’m reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities now. It’s strange and beautiful and delightful and keeps making me smile.

                                                    ***
I’m also the subject of a mini-interview by the online journal, The Future Fire. I talk just a little more about my short story, "Disconnected," and current work.

I hesitate to ever call myself a fiction writer in the "real world." But I call myself one here. 



Monday, March 23, 2015

New publication: bio-cyberpunk "Disconnected" at The Future Fire. Story notes included!


My science fiction story, “Disconnected,” is now live at The Future Fire!

It’s a story about protein folding and optogenetics and cognitive augmentations. And it’s also about capitalism, and family, and the enduring need for human connection.

This particular issue of The Future Fire happens to mark the tenth anniversary of the digital publication. That’s quite an achievement, and I am thrilled to be part of it. I haven’t finished reading all the other stories in this issue yet, but so far what I’ve read has been amazing—dark and lovely and sad and moving, original in form and content. I am so honored to be sharing space with this group of authors and artists. Speaking of artists--Miguel Santos’ illustrations for my own piece are wonderful, and showed me something about my story that I didn’t even realize.



STORY NOTES BELOW
  
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The Science


Protein Folding Games

The science in the story is all grounded in real, ongoing research. Online computer games that harness humans’ visual intuition to solve the three-dimensional structures of proteins? Yup, it’s real and the game is called Foldit. Volunteer gamers playing Foldit have helped scientists solve the structure of a viral protein and redesign the structure of an enzyme, leading to publications in the prestigious journals Nature Structural and Molecular Biology and Nature Biotechnology. Some general press coverage of Foldit and the people behind it can be found here and here.

Optogenetics

Optogenetics is hot. It was named "Method of the Year" by Nature in 2010 , and since then it’s just gotten hotter. In brief, optogenetics uses light to control the behavior of cells which have been genetically modified with light-sensitive proteins. This technique is being used to give us unprecedented control of neurons and insight into brain circuits in animal models. An accessible overview is given here, written by one of the pioneers of the field.


Other Science Notes

My description of the electrode arrays at the heart of the “neuromods” in this story owes some inspiration to this article. I also had fun browsing articles at io9 like this

The Story


How does a story come together? Some of my stories start out as images; some start out with a character’s voice. This one started off as an idea.

It was more a vague collection of ideas, really. A sense of being fed up with our hyper-driven, hyper-speed, productivity-obsessed modern lifestyle. I think I read one too many of those “10 Things the Most Productive People Do Before Breakfast” click-bait listicles. This sense of frustration combined with some stories I’d been reading in neuroscience. The idea of the sisters was borrowed from a “realist” story that I’d once toyed with and which died in my head before it ever made it to paper. But I still didn’t have an entry point into the story; I didn’t have the voice.

And then I read this lovely story, “98 Ianthe,” by Robert N. Lee.
Plotwise, Lee’s story has nothing at all to do with mine. But Lee’s story uses a second-person narrative voice to devastating effect. And after I read it, I knew that my story, too, needed to be told in the second-person. It needed the sense of immediacy and immersion that is only possible with the second-person voice. And it also needed a kind of distance, an authorial objectivity, that is possible with the second-person voice but not with a first-person narrator. 

Once I knew the voice, I could write the story. It wasn’t quick (I am a slow writer), and there were surprises along the way, but the first draft was fairly clean. And those surprises that popped up during the writing? Such surprises are one of the best things about writing.




Saturday, February 28, 2015

Short fiction reviews! Favorites from winter 2015


I’ve been wanting to start posting regularly about short fiction. I’m way behind in my reading (what else is new?), but since Christmas I’ve still found pieces that thrilled me, surprised me, made me fall in love. Most of the stories I list here were published in January, and some even earlier… but as I said, I get behind. And I’ve been thinking of a tweet I saw: that if you love a writer’s work, one of the best things you can do is share your love of it in a review. Sometimes I read a story that blows me away, but it seems to get no attention in the SFF community-- not a single tweet or review or mention. So consider this my mentions.


Family and Love


The Absence of Words” by Swapna Kishore in Mythic Delirium

Writer Ken Liu, among others, has spoken of how fantasy literature can act to “literalize metaphors.” Kishore’s story is a perfect example of this: the barriers of communication between mothers and daughters become, in her story, a physical barrier of engulfing silence, swallowing not just words but all sound. The metaphor is deftly realized, truly eerie. And the interactions between the three women in this story—a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter—are sharp-edged and complicated. There is pain between these women, a family legacy of anger. And love unspoken. Kishore’s writing is painful and evocative, and she does not settle for easy resolutions. I loved this story, and I wish it would get the attention it deserves.

He Came from a Place of Openness and Truth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam in Lightspeed

And ohhhhh, this one blew me away. Boy meets boy cute in a haunted house. Except that one of the boys is more than he appears. . . This is funny and sweet and sad and poignant. The voice of the narrator makes the piece. Stufflebeam just seems to nail it: the casual snark of a teenage boy, a voice infused with lightness and humor and adolescent confusion and emotional self-defensiveness. The narrator is discovering romantic love for the first time, and discovering that that love comes in the form of love for another boy. There’s a crazy alien scenario, and a poignant scene where he tries to come out about his gay relationship to unsympathetic parents. The end is wistful, and it’s not clear how our pair of lovers will fare… but that’s the point of growing up, the story seems to suggest. At the end, the narrator thinks “…how it’s never like you think it’ll be, this life stuff, which is something new I’m learning all the time.


Stories in Terraform


Terraform is a new venture publishing short science fiction (2000 words and under) with a focus on near-future sci-fi  "honing in on the tech, science, and future culture topics driving the zeitgeist." “

I have really liked a lot of what I’ve seen on this site. The tight focus reminds me of science fiction’s singular superpower: that it can address contemporary social issues in a way that no other genre can. My favorite pieces so far do exactly that.

 “Four Days of Christmas” by Tim Maughn

Inspired by the author’s trip to the markets and factories of Yiwu, China. It’s the year 2024, and an Internet-connected Santa Claus toy is coming off the conveyor belt in a Chinese factory. This short piece traces the journey of that toy from China to the shelves of a Target store in New York City to its eventual fate 83 years later. Global supply chains, global competition, the enduring life of plastic junk… This was just fascinating.

 “One Day, I will Die on Mars” by Paul Ford

And this was awesome. The Uber-ization of the world. There are three distinct narrative voices in this very short story, yet it all works: an asshole calling Uber for a delivery of cat food to his home; the voice of Uber itself, now a vast artificial intelligence overseeing all Uber deliveries, car rides and jobs; and the voice of an Uber worker trying to deliver that damn bag of cat food through a flooded New York City. This piece is scary-sharp. That poor Uber worker, who thinks he/she is actually going to make it, that they’re a freaking entrepreneur going places within the structure of the Uber corporation, that they will someday make it to Mars. Is this where the world is going? Or are we already there?

Dark Stories with Indelible Imagery


Scarecrow” by Alyssa Wong in Tor

Another love story between teenage boys. But far, far darker than Stufflebeam’s story above. It’s the remarkable imagery that makes this piece—the swirl of crow feathers, a ghost’s revenge, the nightmare that grips a group of teenagers in the wake of disaster. Love suppressed and turned to something dreadful.

The Mussel Eater” by Octavia Cade at The Book Smugglers

This story appeared in the fall of last year, but I only stumbled upon it last week. Beautiful mermaid/selkie/sea maiden creatures just waiting to be tamed by human men? Um, right. This is a dark take on that old myth. Menace pulses from the first line. This is creepy, creepy, horrific and tantalizing and gorgeously written. 




Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nearly 2 am, sleep is a ready sacrifice


Woot, just finished the last lines of my first draft of a 13,555 word novelette.

Longer than I ever meant it to be. Probably unpublishable.

Sleep is a willing sacrifice.