Category Archives: Stories

Tangents

TangentsTangents by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s one simple instruction for the person who imagines she might want to be a writer: read. Marilynn Robinson said it. Steven King said it. I’m saying it too. Are there other careers like that? Probably. Do you want to be a famous composer? Listen. Do you want to be a painter? Learn to see. Do you want to be a writer? Read.

This means it’s going to be important what books are on your shelves, particularly what books are on your “to read” shelf. I know some writers collect books impulsively, simply for the love of books, and they live in wonderful houses bricked up with shelves of books they have no intention of ever reading or that they imagine they one day might get around to reading. There is a certain freedom of genius there. I’m far too rigid for something like that though. The books on my diminutive “to read” shelf I have every intention of (some day) reading. Otherwise why would they be sitting there?

It’s not a very big shelf. (My house isn’t big enough—or at least lacks the shelving—for the other sort of approach.) Which means that when I wander into a huge annual used book sale in the basement of the public library of my home town and can come home with a large bag of books for something like three dollars total, I have to be very careful. I pick. I chose. I collect a large pile of titles that catch my eye, and then I whittle it down to half that.

What do I want to read that might conceivably help me improve my craft? Someone who had donated to this particular book sale had a collection of book club editions of important science fiction authors—most interestingly, anthologies of short stories, including several authors I’ve been meaning to explore: Phillip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber. And this one, a slim volume of eight or nine of Greg Bear’s short fiction.

I was ill when I was reading most of it, recovering from a stomach flu. I’m glad I had already gotten through the first part of the work when the bug hit, otherwise reading the first story in the volume, “Blood Music,” might have hit too close to home: a scientist engineers super-intelligent microbes based on his own cellular structure, and then introduces him into his bloodstream. What happens when a human becomes host to trillions of intelligent beings, when he becomes a galaxy unto himself? What if the galaxy were alive, and we were spreading to fill it, learning to communicate with it? What would it mean when it was time to start colonizing others? I saw glimmers of some of the darker bits of Leviathan’s Wake and its proto-molecule here.

But Bear can also do quite excellent literary fantasy, as the second work—a novella, really—in the volume shows. I had an interesting experience sitting in my yard (this was also before the stomach bug), distracted, trying to read, when one of my older sons stopped in his bike riding abruptly to ask me about the book. What’s it about? It’s a book of stories. About what? And I remember doing the exact same thing to my dad when I was a kid and he was reading some random scifi anthology and then being fascinated with the ideas that unfolded in each summary he gave. But I wonder now how distracted he was in the telling and how many details he had to gloss over, as I did explaining “Sleepside Story,” which is about a young man who has to go live in a witch’s house.

Bear here has created a gritty, magical precursor to Mieville’s New Crobuzon in which a boy is traded as a servant into a haunted, enchanted brothel. The details and dreamlike quality of the story are in wonderful contrast to the exacting concepts of Bear’s hard science fiction (though the language remains sharp in this piece as well—focusing on certain surreal details with almost scientific exactitude). Even more haunting than the setting though are the ideas of what it means to be a prostitute, even a very good one, and what kind of love might it take to free someone of the bonds of the past.

Each piece in this collection is excellent, with the most famous being Bear’s award-winning short story about an Alan Turing-like character who fled Britain secretly instead of undergoing hormone treatment for his homosexuality and his unlikely friendship with a young boy who can see in the fourth dimension. I had read this story before, but this time (and maybe because I was ill and running on very little sleep) I wept like a baby when I finished it.

If I was more thoughtful I’d end this review by tying it back to the beginning and noting some of the things that Bear teaches about the craft of writing through this collection. I’d talk maybe about the way he plays with hard science in his piece on a surprisingly inhabited Mars, “A Martian Ricorso,” or the terrifying implications of quantum mechanics in “Schrodinger’s Plague” or something about the way he creates characters who feel true to life even in Hell in “Dead Run” or in the near-future “Sisters.” But that would be too much work, and beside the point if the point is simply to be absorbing good fiction. Because in this respect, Bear’s short stories are an ideal place to begin.

Shimmer #27

Shimmer 27

Shimmer is a gem, and I don’t say that solely because they’ve given a home to two of my disheveled little pieces. Shimmer finds itself home to a lot of beautiful strays. It’s a speculative fiction magazine that has carved a place for itself for bedraggled bits of wonder, lovingly polished and arranged. I’m proud to be a part of it, especially this, its latest incarnation.

In the introduction to issue #27, the editor writes that all the included pieces all fit together if viewed from the right angle. (She says something like that.) They’re like interlocking puzzle pieces, but you have to cock your head just right to see how the combined scene flows. I like that, because it’s just true enough. You’ll come away from these stories knowing how they fit together, and I’ll come away knowing the same thing. But we’ll probably know differently.

To me, besides the gilded edges of wonder common to whatever Shimmer publishes, what held these stories together was a sense of loss. An ache. Something departed.

We start with Alix E. Harrow’s piece, “Dustbaby.”

No, we don’t. We start with the cover. Judge this magazine by its cover. The watercolors that Sandro Castelli does for each issue are one big detail that holds Shimmer together and makes it work. They’re lovely and lend a haunting consistency to the magazine’s shelf-appeal.

Now, start with Alix E. Harrow’s piece, “Dustbaby.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it an end-of-the-world story, because it’s not among those pieces of ecological devastation or infection or whatever that I’m getting tired of reading. It’s a bit deeper than that, and by that I mean historically richer. We’re back in the Dust Bowl, reimagined. What if the Dust Bowl had been the end, the casting off of a thin crust of tired soil so that something greener and wetter underneath could reemerge? What haunted those hills before our plows passed?

Harrow, herself a historian, does good work here. The images are rich, moving, and disturbing, and we get a reminder that some of the best stories don’t have endings but rather just larger beginnings—part of what’s so much fun about short stories.

(If you like magical apocalypses like “Dustbaby,” you might check out my own “The Crow’s Word,” published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.)

My favorite piece in this issue (and yes, I might even be including my own) was K. L. Owens’ “A July Story.” Who doesn’t love a haunted house? And who doesn’t love a house with a mind, a mute tongue, and rooms stretching backward and forward in space and time? It might sound too much like the plot of an episode of Doctor Who, if “A July Story” wasn’t so steeped in character and place.

What makes this story work so well, beyond simply a compelling idea, are the characters: Kitten and Lana, and the place: the Pacific Northwest. Kitten’s a child of the English Industrial Revolution, torn out of time, marooned everywhere and nowhere. Lana’s a young girl from today. Their encounter, dialogue, and ultimate trajectories make a haunted house story a lot more than you expect. It’s also an especially strong tale because it takes place on a deeply textured backdrop of a particular time and space, which Owens makes clear in the interview following. Highly recommended.

Then you get to read my story, which is called “Black Planet.” I explained about this a bit in my interview in the issue (which you only get if you purchase the entire issue), so I won’t repeat that here. But I really like this little piece; I think it’s among the best I’ve written, and it’s for my sister.

The final piece in this work is the shortest, “The Law of the Conservation of Hair,” by Rachel K. Jones, which reads like a prose poem (and in fact might be in actuality a prose poem) about love and alien invasion and loss. Read it at least twice. Favorite line: “That we will take turns being the rock or the slingshot, so we may fling each other into adventure.”

So what about the common theme? Things get lost in different ways. Land, lives, siblings, and loves. Why do we sometimes feel richer for the loss—or rather, for the expression of the loss?

Do yourself a favor and grab Shimmer #27.

The Crow’s Word

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I try not to put real people in the stories I write, especially not the fantasy bits. That doesn’t go for real places though. “The Crow’s Word” is my latest published novelette, which appears in the current issue of Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. The setting is the town where I went to college and currently reside. If you’re from around here, you’ll recognize several of the places. Those that are not actual places I’ve been to are places that almost certainly exist here nonetheless.

“The Crow’s Word” is a surrealistic piece about a young man, a crow, and Queen Mab. It’s about fantasy bleeding into real life, I think. This story was purchased by the first market I sent it to, which is a personal first for me, though it was mislaid for a while along the way. It’s also my first sale to the InterGalactic Medicine Show, but if the fantastic illustration it garnered is their standard treatment for fiction, I’ll definitely be sending them more pieces. (The artwork is by M. Wayne Miller.)

Check out that guy, his bird, and a fairy queen. Very cool. You can read the story (which is behind a paywall, but supporting the magazine means supporting the writers!) here.

First Fleet #booktrailer

So this is exciting. The folks over at Retrofit Publishing have rolled out the book trailer for my serialized novel, First Fleet. Give it a look! It’s cool enough it makes me want to re-read it.

Part 3, Descent, will be released April 1st and is available for pre-order on Amazon now!

First Fleet

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I’ve dropped some hints before, but here’s the official blog unveiling: the first two installments of my novel, First Fleet, are now available through Retrofit Publishing!

Go to there! See it! They’re doing some pretty exciting stuff over there, and I’m humbled and delighted to be a part of it.

What business have I, you ask, who have never ventured beyond the short story or occasional novella, in writing a novel? I place the blame solely on the shoulders of my editor, who liked one of my published stories enough to contract for a novel based on the premises I started exploring in that first bit. And that first bit, retitled Bones (the awesome cover of which you see above), appears now as the teaser/intro to the novel proper, setting the stage and presenting the initial mystery of the First Fleet. The tone is Lovecraftian horror in space. The plot involves technology used to regenerate soldiers in a war going suddenly very badly.

You can (and should) download Bones. It’s free, and you can get it direct from the Retrofit website or from places like Amazon or Smashwords.

Wake (cover below) is the first installment of the novel proper, which follows the narratives of two women who get entangled in the mystery of the Fleet. I had a lot of fun building these characters and these worlds, as well as the technological systems that support them, and sending them off to solve the Fleet’s mystery. (I talk a bit more about the plot in a recent blog post at Retrofit.)

Besides the process of writing the novel itself, I’ve been blown away by how Retrofit has marketed and promoted this. The editing and formatting has been top-notch, and seeing the covers they designed (capturing perfectly the “old timey” pulp feel of the paperback novels I grew up reading) has been among the coolest parts of the process.

Take a look at the first two installments if you get a chance. If you’re a reviewer and you want a review copy of Wake, please let me know. It’s pulp scifi– with all the pulpy goodness of aliens, catastrophe, military espionage, and space ships you’d expect. If you’ve read my other pieces, you know short-form fiction, veering toward fantasy realism, has been my forte so far. This was an exciting and rewarding (and challenging) departure.

Descent, the second portion of the novel, is done and is due out in April. And I’m working on final edits to the third portion, tentatively titled Memory, as we speak.

Or I will be, as soon as I post this.

And maybe bathe the kids.

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The Wizard’s House

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I like the idea of flying castles. I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (not technically a flying castle) and Castle in the Sky. I love the idea of something so heavy and earthbound given levity, drifting through the sky like a cloud. (There’s a flying castle at the beginning of Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series as well.)

That idea was the germ for writing “The Wizard’s House.” I wanted to play in a landscape similar to that of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (another Miyazaki film). I wrote this piece about a young man and his search for a wizard’s flying house, and then I wrote the second installment, called “The Unborn God.” It was the second installment that was picked up first and ran in an earlier issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, garnering a positive review from Locus. Now the “prequel” has appeared, and you can read it here.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize these stories. BCS publishes “literary adventure fantasy,” and that probably fits pretty well. I might also affix descriptions like “surrealist” or “magical realist” to these. I try to describe the fantastic elements in as concrete, everyday language as possible, as they would appear to the characters. And I’ve had quite a bit of fun with these characters: the timepiece, the wizard, and Sylva.

These were enjoyable stories to write, and I hope you enjoy reading them. My favorite parts are the descriptions of the clouds through which the characters pass on their travels. I love watching the skies from airplane windows; the shifting cartography of clouds and the landscape below. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here.

(Artwork above by Takeshi Oga.)

Drying Grass Moon

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Last week was a good one as far as publication go, as I had two stories go live in two different online magazines. The first appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, a quarterly magazine in which one of my previous stories, My Bicycle, 4500 A.D., appeared a few years ago. One of the cool things about having a story in AE is that each one is illustrated, so I get the treat of seeing how an artist interprets what I had to say. (The illustration above is by Al Sirois.)

I wrote “Drying Grass Moon” on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, which is when a lot of my writing seems to take place: sitting in bed with the kids playing upstairs and my wife napping beside me. Like many of my stories, it was based on a fragment I had sketched out in one of the voluminous free-write files that I try to keep regularly with varying degrees of success. The title itself, an old Native American (I think) designation of one of the full moons, had stuck in my mind. I wanted to play with that image, imagining settlement and abandonment on the lunar surface.

One of the challenges was trying to write about the passage of time on the Moon, about what that would actually look like. The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, so the Earth remains motionless in the lunar sky. Your location on the Moon determines the Earth’s position in your sky, and that position does not vary over the course of the month-long lunar day. The Earth would, however, go through phases in its fixed spot in the sky. I wanted those realities to be the background of the story, as well as the developing reality of exoplanetary discovery and how that might transform the way we view human expansion into our own planetary system.

The twist in the story is about old age, youth, companionship, and– of course– sexbots. I’ll let you tell me whether or not you found it effective. Read “Drying Grass Moon” here.

Polycarp on the Sea

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I still place the blame (or credit) on Gene Wolfe’s fiction for setting me on the literary track that led to the all classical pieces of writing that I should have read in high school, if not before. Until reading Wolfe, it had been possible to enjoy science fiction and fantasy and bluff my way through an understanding of the classical allusions writers made at times. With Wolfe’s writings though, this was no longer possible. I realized I needed at least a rudimentary basis of culture to catch what he was often laying out in his stories– or at least, to try to catch more of it.

So I read, among other things, Dickinson’s translation of the Aeneid. What particularly struck me was the story of Palinurus, the faithful but hapless navigator who was sacrificed at the conclusion of Book V to appease Neptune and allow the surviving Trojans safe passage to Italy. I wrote a story based on this episode, but in the strange evolution of ideas the character of Palinurus was replaced by St. Polycarp.

There are metaphors here, to be sure, and maybe I was even trying to make them: Polycarp at the helm of the early Church, perhaps. His journey toward Rome and martyrdom. Maybe it also had something to do with what other books I was reading at the time and the idea (surely misplaced) that could write about an early church father more easily than an early Latin hero.

In any case, I wrote a surrealist retelling of this episode from the Aeneid with Polycarp standing in for Palinurus. It was short, haunting, and (I thought) poignant–but it was also rather eclectic. Indeed, it wasn’t until Pulp Literature’s call went out for especially unique stories– I think the editors said something about “those stories that you’ve been hiding under your bed”– that it found a home and has now seen print.

And what lovely print it is. The folks who put together the print magazine Pulp Literature make it look easy and elegant. Their latest issue– Winter 2015— is now out and on sale, and if you pick up your copy, you’ll find my Polycarp bit, complete with illustrations.

Doooooo it. Support writers (like me). But more importantly, support the lovely people who collect stories and publish them with such love and care.

What the Elfmaid Brought

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Last week my latest story, “What the Elfmaid Brought,” appeared in Daily Science Fiction. DSF is a professional-paying market that publishes a wide gamut of fantasy and science fiction, primarily very short stories and flash fiction. Each weekday their website features a new story that is also sent out via email to their (free) subscription base. “Elfmaid” was a Friday story, which meant it was visible on the main DSF page for the whole weekend as well.

Sometimes writing stories for me is like pulling teeth, but other times a certain phrase or image strikes me and the entire thing sort of tumbles together. This was the case with “Elfmaid.” The kernel was an idea a friend of mine gave me in a conversation. He offered– in a context I can’t recall– the thought that the elfmaid gives the narrator at the beginning of this story. I liked the idea, and I like books and elfmaids and magic libraries, so I put them all together in this piece. It’s the second short surrealist bit I’ve written about interesting characters walking into my office. The first was about me losing my bicycle. This is about loss too but also about new beginnings. Take a look and let me know what you think. It got some nice feedback on Daily Science Fiction’s Facebook page.

In other updates, the work proceeds apace on my science fiction thriller, First Fleet. The first third of the novel (which will be serialized by Retrofit Publishing) has been accepted by the publisher, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through a draft of part two. I’ve seen some concept artwork from the artist designing the covers, and I’m quite excited. It’s been a fun process but a challenge as well as I’ve never attempted an extended narrative of this length. Stay tuned for more on this project . . .

The Unborn God

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I love to fly. When I get on a plane, I try to get the window seat, and then I spend a good portion of the flight with my nose pressed against the smudged glass studying the clouds. I took a weather course at some point, and I just read a book about the classification of clouds, but I can never remember all the different types or their physical explanations. They fascinate me though, especially the tumbling towers of cumulus that rear up and fall apart like temporary mountains. There’s an entire cartography up there that’s constantly changing and being re-written.

It was vistas like these I wanted to capture in a story I wrote called “The Wizard’s House” about a boy who lives under these skies and finds his way up into them. Then I wrote a sequel to that story called “The Unborn God” that talks about what the boy and the wizard have to do with their floating house. As these things sometimes work out, I sold the second story first, and it appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (my fourth story in that publication) this week.

Give it a look. I had a lot of fun writing it. After you read my piece, check out the other stories in this issue (which is a special double-size issue in honor of it being BCS’s 150th). Richard Parks has a sharp tale of demonic imprisonment and lost opportunities. “The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram is a brief, haunting vision of oblivion. I haven’t had a chance to read Adam Callaway’s piece yet, but his story “Jonah’s Daughter,” which appeared alongside mine in the Sword and Laser anthology, was one of the best and most pleasingly bizarre in that collection.

The prequel to “The Unborn God,” “The Wizard’s House,” is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s been a good summer for sales. I also have a story appearing soon in Daily Science Fiction entitled “What the Elfmaid Brought.” Lest you believe I’m getting too prolific though, here’s a list (in no particular order) of pieces I’m still trying to sell:

“Gold, Vine, and a Name”
“Flame is a Falling”
“The Gunsmith of Byzantium”
“Bone Orchard”
“When Cold Man Went to Hell”
“Drying Grass Moon”
“The Crow’s Word”
“Polycarp on the Sea”

Big news though, and more on which soon: I’ve signed a contract with Retrofit Films to write a novel based on a previously-published short story. The story (retitled and reworked a bit) will be released soon, and then the novel will be published as a series of three novelettes. I won’t say much about it now beyond that it’s a science fiction thriller we’re calling Dead Fleet.

In the meantime, you can read “The Unborn God” here.