Tag Archives: science fiction

Shimmer 2015

cwyu3qbxeaiil6g-jpg-large Shimmer 2015 edited by E. Catherine Tobler

My rating: nine out of ten badgers

Shimmer is a magazine that publishes stories that might eat you alive. Some of them almost certainly will. Once a year, the editors put together a lovely physical collection of all the stories that have appeared in the online magazine, and as a contributor this year I was lucky enough to find Shimmer 2015 in my mailbox a few weeks ago. I waded in, knowing something about what Shimmer produces and happy to read more of it. Be warned though: if you’re looking for some light snacks, some fluffy fiction to help pass the time, this is not it.

These stories are real. They’re written with passion and razorblades. They have dark hearts, and they bleed. They might make you bleed as well.

The stories in this collection were a reminder to me that any time I think I have a handle on this writing thing, I need to go back to school, to shut up for a little while so I can have my heart torn out and handed back to me on a plate by other writers who are much sharper, smarter, and more alive than I am. Seriously, after reading these stories, I feel like my own are consistently written in crayon—or at best, smudgy pastels. (To be fair though, I’m quite proud of my piece that appears in this collection and feel it holds up pretty well, but that’s an exception.)

Shimmer is one of those rare markets that has a firm handle on exactly the sort of writing it wants to publish: science fiction and fantasy, ostensibly, but tending toward speculative fiction on the urban or dark end of the spectrum, with an iridescence that shades toward black. More than this tone though, a common thread in these stories is that they’re build not only on great ideas that would find a home on the pages of any fantasy or science fiction magazine but around characters that are alive in cultures or contexts outside your own tidy existence and that these characters and their perspectives bring a passion to their tales often missing from other more mainstream venues.

The opener for the volume, Malon Edwards’ “The Half Dark Promise,” provides an excellent example of this and a taste of what’s to come throughout the collection. On its surface, this story is about a girl with certain powers facing off against a monster in the dark, but it is clothed in the reality of a Haitian immigrant on the streets of Chicago. The language, the thoughts, the blood that flows through the story is that of Otherness and reality despite the fantasy premise. A similar example from early on in the collection is Alexis A. Hunter’s “Be Not Unequally Yoked,” which again takes a straightforward fantasy trope—the tale of a changling—but puts it in the context of an Amish coming-out story, Otherness turned on its head twice and shaken up a bit and again made real through its characters.

There are a few stories in the collection that could be considered more straightforward fantasy, but even these are done with a rich quality of content and tone, making them stand out in any collection. Of these, my favorites included “Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E. O’Keefe, in which O’Keefe creates an incredibly foreign but plausible world based on names and scents in a matter of pages. Another favorite because of the way it plays with nineteenth-century history of astronomy is “The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace (and I hope Wallace tells us more about the Southern Star elsewhere).

Again though, what the stories in Shimmer 2015 do best is to take compelling ideas and clothe them in something more, a twist or a perspective that makes them land like a punch to the gut. “Monsters in Space,” for instance, by Angela Ambroz, is a piece about the naïveté of love against the politics of mining oil on the moons of Saturn. Likewise, “You Can Do it Again,” by Michael Ian Bell, is a gritty story of time travel that’s also about poverty, drugs, and the pain of a lost brother. “Good Girls,” by Isabel Yap, one of the most beautifully jarring works in the collection, is a monster story that’s also about friendship and girlhood and what it means to try to be a good when you are by definition one of the most frightening creatures imaginable.

I could go on: these are stories that are more than good. They illustrate what strong story-telling looks like today: taking fantastic or gorgeous ideas (like the idea of an illness that gradually turns you into a city in “Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw) and using it to hit you with the things you need to be thinking about (in this case, mortality and aging gracefully and love in the twilight of life). Then there are those that just push in the knife and twist it, like the absolutely eviscerating “Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale,” by Sunny Moraine, which takes the line from The Princess Bride song and pushes it to its darkest, most troubling conclusions—a story that literally eats you when everything bright in the world is gone.

I have a student who wants to be a writer, a young woman with a lot of passion who wants to put some of these into stories. I think I’m going to pass along my copy of Shimmer 2015 to her, because it’s a great example of the hardest thing about writing great fiction: you can’t just have good ideas and you can’t simply present those ideas in a compelling manner. More than this, especially today, you have to bring a voice and a passion—a perspective, usually in the person of one of your characters—to this whole endeavor that makes it come alive. Sure, some stories might survive on the merits of their ideas alone, but as Shimmer shows, the stories that come to life and grab you by the throat are the ones in which the characters carry you outside yourself with their own perspective, so you can see the world and all its incredibly, iridescent darkness and beauty, through their eyes.

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.

Threads: A Neoverse Anthology

Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1 by Aaron Safronoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neoglyphic is in the business of creating new ways to tell stories. It’s a transformation a long time in coming, the creation of media that unites story-telling, music, graphics and interactivity. Perhaps it’s been underway for years in the video-game industry, but it hasn’t yet carried over into electronic reading platforms. What I mean is this: prose itself is reaching the place where it can be transformed, for better or for worse. Publications are looking for submissions that blur the line between creator and audience, that find creative ways to use the now-fluid electronic medium to make stories more interactive. Again, some video games have been doing this very well for years, but they remain a specific platform and niche. Neoglyphic, it seems, is working to bring this transformation to story-telling itself, to transform how readers (not just players) engage with text.

To do that though, they have to position themselves as purveyors of story. They have to assemble writers and narratives, and they have to show that quality story-telling—with all the editing, advocating, and disseminating it entails—is part of what they do and what they do well. To this end, Threads: A Neoverse Anthology was born. Neoglyphic cast the net out for stories, and the anthology was their wide and varied catch.

What they caught was a school of strange fish, some frightening, some lovely, all of sleek and flickering hues, all from different depths and of different shapes and sizes. The stories in this volume, in other words, are of a huge variety. They range widely in polish and style and run the gamut from literary realism to psychological horror, from golden age scifi to technological thriller and on to lighthearted fantasy. (Full disclosure, this anthology includes my contribution, “Gold, Vine, and a Name,” which I will not be discussing below.)

Many of the stories feel like pieces of larger works (and the editor explains that this is indeed the case for some of the stories—that they are stand-alone chapters from novels, for example). This increases the feel (whether intended or not) that the work is meant to function as a patchwork showcase of sorts, of a collection of resources Neoglyphic can draw on in their quest to take storytelling in new and different directions. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but there’s the sense here of launching, of piloting some new projects to see where they might go or how they might develop.

The anthology was organized around a contest, and the first three stories appearing in the collection are ranked in prize order. After that, the stories are alphabetical. This may have been to ensure the rest of them were treated equally, but it meant there wasn’t editorial freedom for structuring the flow of the anthology by giving the order of stories some organizational structure. What the book lacks in unified flow though, it more than makes up for in the artwork Neoglyphic created to accompany each story and tie them together. Each story has an introductory illustration by the same artist, and the cover (recreated as a full two-page spread at the conclusion of the volume) brings elements of each tale together in a dynamic mishmash that makes the collection of narratives leap off the page.

Some of the stories in this collection were especially striking on a first read. For example, Chuck Regan’s “Dysphoria” (the third-place winner) presented a grippingly horrific vision of a near-future alternate reality awash in chemicals. When most of the world has forgone a physical existence for a virtual one, a market has arisen to create and produce new psycho-chemical experiences. But who’s actually in control: the emotive artists creating them or the corporations selling them? “Say When” by Pamela Bobowicz and “Hotel Marietta” by Sabrina Clare were other stand-outs, literary pieces that look at issues of loss and how families (biological or adoptive) come together to cope. There’s a certain level of the saccharine in some of the works of the anthology, but these two do an excellent job of treating issue of the heart with earnestness and skill.

There’s great fantasy here as well: “Vanni’s Choice” by David A. Elsensohn and “Stormsong” by Tessa Hatheway, for instance, are solid and satisfying. In the first, we follow a thief breaking into the magical fortress of an enemy sorcerer and the choice she must make once she realizes the nature of what she’s been hired to steal. Elsensohn did such a great job building a world and a character in a manner of pages I wanted to follow Vanni directly to her next heist. Likewise, Hatheway’s “Stormsong” is a straightforwardly haunting tale of hubris and deep water.

“A Knight, A Wizard, and Bee— Plus Some Pigs,” by K. G. McAbee, is another fantasy piece in this volume that stuck out. The plot is straightforward—a knight arrives to slay a powerful wizard—but the tone and style is in the tradition of Terry Pratchett, and the humor makes it come to life. Like Vanni, I want to follow Bee and her new master across a few more pages. If a goal of the anthology was to generate readers for new adventures, McAbee and Elsensohn succeeded.

There were several good pieces in the anthology, but there was one that stood out above the rest. (No, I’m not talking about my contribution.) This was Katie Lattari’s “No Protections, Only Powers,” which the author admits in the introduction was written as an attempt to channel Stephen King. A young girl dabbles in some harmless witchcraft and makes a new friend along the way. In the background though, there are much darker things afoot. What makes this story so devastating is the way Lattari balances the details of suburban life and the shadowed view of a surly teenager but then makes those shadows hide genuinely frightening details that only become clear later on. Things are left unsaid or only alluded to, and the story becomes exponentially more chilling by its conclusion. Lattari has stepped into something deep in this one.

Where some anthologies have an overriding theme that ties the contributions together, this one has rather an overriding purpose: to tell and celebrate stories. It gives the work something of a patchwork feel, but it also means that whatever your tastes, if you have an appetite for short stories you’ll certainly find something in here to satisfy.

A Story about Gene Wolfe (and me)

This is the story about how Gene Wolfe saved my life. The summer before eighth grade, a summer that is now almost twenty years past, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What followed was a long chemotherapy protocol that involved lots of complications and secondary infections, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and extended hospital stays. Not the way you plan to spend a good portion of junior high school.

In the midst of this I retreated ever more into books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. I had always been a big reader, but being sick gave me an additional excuse to lose myself in secondary worlds. I was particularly fond of long, multi-volume epics like Shannara and the Wheel of Time. Eventually I heard (maybe through the Science Fiction Book Club?) of this author called Gene Wolfe who also had a few multi-volume epics. I asked my mom if she could go to Borders and try to find some of his stuff.

At that particular time, the only books she could find were the two pocket Tor paperbacks of Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. So I was dropped directly into the middle of the Whorl, with Silk captured and Auk stumbling around in midnight tunnels beneath the city. It didn’t matter. I was instantly enthralled. There was something about the characters themselves: Quetzal, Inca, Auk, Chenille, and of course especially Silk. Suddenly every other fantasy novel I was reading seemed childish.

The character of Silk and his relationship with the Outsider resonated with a Christian pre-teen who felt very much on the outside of everything at the moment. I moved directly from the second half of the Long Sun to the omnibus edition of the New Sun (the SFBC edition that had all four volumes in one) and read it through twice in a row. I hadn’t experienced literature like this before, and I was reading Severian’s meandering travels in the midst of some pretty heavy medication. I remember reading chapters and then going back when my mind was clearer and wondering how much I missed or how much I was simply too ill to have captured entirely. I started keeping a notebook— my first— of words, clues, and gorgeous phrases I wanted to capture.

When the first two volumes of the Long Sun were released as a combined trade paperback, I was thrilled. I think they were the first book I ever ordered online, and I don’t know if I’ve ever waited to read a novel with such anticipation. And then there was the Christmas where Gene started it all over again, and I received On Blue’s Waters as a gift. I forced myself to read it slowly, bit by bit, buying time before the rest of the Whorl books were released.

I don’t know if these books literally kept me alive during my encounter with leukemia (and subsequent secondary malignancy of Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But I know they were very bright spots in an otherwise very dark time.

And then I discovered Wolfe’s short fiction, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I’d still need to get a career and do something that would earn a living, but I realized the thing I’d measure myself by. I had always wanted to be a writer, but Wolfe’s stories brought this into focus. They showed me what it meant to tell a story that had beauty and depth. They gave me something to emulate and something for which to aim.

I started writing.

I haven’t really stopped. The cancers went into remission, and I finished high school and left for college. The writing endured, always being worked on in the margins of my time as much as possible. College became graduate school, and the writing intensified. I began a correspondence with Gene and what had been imitation and emulation became to a certain (small) extent a mentored process. Finally, after graduate school (round one), the constant stream of rejections turned into a few acceptances. Then a few more.

Now, with almost twenty short stories published and one novel I’m still a very, very long way from the output or the quality of the Wolfean corpus. And whether I achieve anything like his depth and his beauty remains to be seen, though I no longer attempt to emulate him quite as sharply as I used to. So it was rewarding to read a review of my first collection of short stories that said things like this:

“There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age- anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.”

And then of my novel: “The world-building in First Fleet is truly top-notch . . . rich and complex. ”

Sound familiar?

So I owe Gene’s writings a lot, almost as much as I owe Gene for writing them. I’ve come a long way from a hospital bed and meeting Patera Silk for the first time. But I’m still writing, still trying to infuse wonder and awe into what I do.

Mysterion

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My love for science fiction was born on the beaches of Lake Michigan. As a kid we would get a cabin on the long white beaches of the lake’s eastern coast, and my dad always had a thick paperback in hand to read while me and my sister played in the sand. I can remember one book in particular just by its cover: Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. I would stare at those covers and wonder at what sort of things must lurk between the covers. If I had to trace my love for science fiction to one point, that would be it: wondering at the covers of the books my dad read at the beach.

It’s a tradition I’ve continued, and one I appreciate even more now that I’m a father: taking a good paperback along to read on the shores of Lake Michigan. If you’re going to fill long days, you need a good page-turner that’s consistently compelling without requiring too much processing power. Last year the perfect beach book was The Martian. This year, because I was taken with the first few episodes of The Expanse on Syfy, it was Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of the series upon which the television show is based. And like last summer, it turned out to be the perfect choice.

James S.A. Corey is the author, but the name is actually a front for a creative team of two, one of which is George “Game of Thrones” Martin’s assistant. I haven’t read any of the Game of Thrones books (or seen the series), so I can’t say whether Leviathan Wakes brings some of the scale of Martin’s sensibilities of politics and peril into a scifi milieu, though there is certainly a good portion of both in the mix.

The authors themselves explain their goal of the novel as to situate in a specific science fiction landscape: they wanted it to function as a bridge between far-future and near-future scifi, between fiction that explores our first steps into the solar system and those that already assume humanity’s place on a much larger galactic stage.

Call this then a mid-future science fiction epic. Humans have colonized the solar system and splintered into three distinct groups: Earth/Luna, Mars, and the Belters. Corey does a good job painting the cultures and sensibilities of each group (though Earth takes a more minor role here than it does in the television series), and the considerations of humanity would develop both biologically and sociologically in the asteroid belt and outer moons of the solar system is handled deftly, adding to characterization and tensions rather than distracting from the overall plot.

Political tensions are already high between the three groups, and when a water carrier bound to the asteroid belt from Saturn’s rings is destroyed by what appears to be a Martian warship, the entire solar system tips toward war. The threat and eventual unfolding of this war is the background for the major mystery that plays out, and though the conflict is not as Machiavellian as portrayed on the TV series, the scope and implications of the war– what all out-conflict would mean in regions already as marginal and inhospitable as the outer solar system and the threat of even the simplest weapons rained down a gravity well on the inner planets– effectively keep tensions ramping up throughout the novel.

But the work isn’t a political war story. It’s more straightforward and gripping than that. It’s a mystery, and one the resolution of which has implications much wider than the solar system alone. It starts with a single missing person, and the narrative spirals out from there, following two characters with chapters alternating between their perspectives even when their trajectories eventually intertwine. Holden, the executive officer of the destroyed ice frigate, believes the solar system should know exactly what’s happening, even as that knowledge pushes political factions towards war. His character pairs well against the other main character, Miller, the world-weary detective on Ceres whose missing person case goes deeper than he could have imagined. Both soon find themselves, along with the remnant of Holden’s crew, alone in a solar system at war, trying to stop a resurrected alien threat.

Like I said, it was an ideal beach book, and I tore through it in a matter of days. The action flagged in only a few places, and there were enough major twists– and some surprisingly dark ones, as when the heroes learn the true nature of the threat they face when it’s unleashed on an inhabited asteroid– that the reveals felt significant. The characters were likable and well-rounded, and their varied idealisms or lack thereof played against each other well. My only complaint was that the support cast felt in comparison pretty one-dimensional. As competent and even badass (for lack of a better term) as Holden’s female counterpart, Naomi, and Miller’s missing girl turned out to be, both women characters in the novel felt like little more than the inspiration needed to motivate and support the heroic guy characters. In this respect, it felt a bit embarrassingly like a novel for men written by men.

Besides that wrinkle, Leviathan Wakes reminded me to a surprising extent of my own novel– surprising because I had never read anything by Corey when I wrote First Fleet. Both books have an underlying edge of horror, and both treat the science in the story accurately without being overwhelmed by detail. Both start with missing ships (though mine starts with an entire derelict fleet). I wouldn’t say this if it wasn’t true, but similarities in feel, scope, and even tone can allow me to tell people now that if they liked The Expanse, they should probably check out my work. And if they liked Leviathan Wakes but want something in that vein with strong female protagonists, they should definitely check out my work.

It might even be good on the beach.

The Man With the Aura

The Man with the Aura: The Collected Short FictionThe Man with the Aura: The Collected Short Fiction by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who is the weirdest writer? Obviously that’s a huge question, and the answer will be contingent on both your definition of the word and the scope of who you’re reading. There are probably more than a few unpleasantly strange or shockingly bizarre authors writing fiction right now, though mainstream publishing seems to do a pretty good job of shutting them out for popular audiences. But if you were looking for an author who managed to squeeze in for a while and who isn’t so much macabre or grotesque (though he is certainly that more than occasionally) and rather more like just wonderfully, rollickingly weird, you wouldn’t have to look farther than R. A. Lafferty.

Lafferty is a puzzle, and I’ve written about him on the blog several times before without getting into much deeper analysis. (If you want deeper analysis, check out Feast of Laughter.) I keep writing reviews about him as though I’m writing for an audience that’s never read him. That’s okay though, because that audience is still far too large, and Lafferty seems to bring out the evangelizing tendencies of his readers.

Lafferty’s work– which flourished in scifi and fantasy magazines at the weird height of the New Wave– doesn’t so much straddle all the borders of speculative fiction (horror to fantasy to weird western to science fiction) so much as it seems blissfully unaware that such borders exist. His stories are tall tales, whether set in outer space, the far future, or the living room. They create lumbering, larger-than-life characters with a language more akin to a Native American story-teller (which is why his work does so well read aloud) than prose satisfied with sitting quietly on the page.

The problem with Lafferty though is that you have to look for the guy. His collections are out of print and hard to find. His novels are hit and miss at least on a first read. What’s rescuing him from obscurity at the moment– besides the eloquence and enthusiasm of devotees far more well-spoken than me– is yet another obscurity: the small press. Centipede Press to be exact, which is in the process of releasing all his collected works. (I’ve reviewed volume 1 previously.)

So what does one find in this second volume? For one thing, don’t worry if it’s the only volume you can find, as the stories appear in these collections in no particular order or chronological progression. This volume (like the first) is a grab bag so that, as the editor explains, a reader new to Lafferty can experience him as readers in the sixties, seventies, and eighties did: a large, bright voice stumbled upon in stories scattered through magazines and collections of the decades in no apparent order.

The volume itself is a significant, lovely edition, polished enough to give Lafferty a worthy place on the shelf yet weird enough to fit the contents. There are, however, still some editorial mistakes (or teases). For example, in the section listing first publication info for each story, there’s story listed that doesn’t actually appear in this volume. (The first story slated for volume 3?)

What about the stories themselves? What does one stumble upon in this collection? Wide open vistas. And jokes. In fact, looking down the list of the table of contents for this volume, I’m struck that this might be a common theme here. Not that these stories aren’t serious or well-written, but rather that each of them (or at least most of them) contain a central hidden hook, something that you only catch looking at you and winking when the story has wrapped up. I can’t tell you the punchline for each story (and in at least one of them I simply didn’t get the joke) but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.

“Land of the Great Horses” is a good place to start. It’s a mosaic tale, told from a variety of perspectives, including a fictional encyclopedia article, about the reappearance of the lost homeland of the Romany, shot through with Lafferty’s celebration of language. Then there’s “Ride a Tin Can,” which combines music with folk anthropology to give a tragic, grotesque, and hilarious first contact story against the background of economic exploitation in the worse sense possible. Another favorite in this collection is “Hog-belly Honey,” which illustrates Lafferty’s unique ability to combine aspects of hard science fiction with a homespun, raggedy narrative voice and give it all the feel of genuine folk medicine and showmanship. Finally, I loved the piece “Great Day in the Morning,” which pokes fun at some of the assumptions of the modernist paradise but doesn’t flinch to go all the way and take such assumptions to their ludicrous conclusions.

I saw a spectacularly disheartening graphic the other day that proposed to break the art of the story down to its component pieces, outlining the different types of general characters and plots and settings like you’d pick them off a menu and use to build your own narrative value meal. The graphic also reminded helpfully of the basic narrative arch: the character experiences conflict or a problem, this conflict goes through climax and resolution, and then the story ends with the character changed in important ways. This is all useful enough, but Lafferty is the sort of writer who reminds that to do really interesting things it’s better to just ignore helpful narrative flowcharts altogether. Or rather, Lafferty turns the narrative flowchart on his head, because it’s not his characters experiencing this arch– it’s his readers.

You start a Lafferty story and immediately realize something is off or strange. This isn’t the world you were expecting. The sense of uncertainty grows as you read it, but you’re drawn along by his voice. And then at some point you abruptly get it: the concept or the punchline or the up-side-down world snaps into focus and the reader (never mind the main character, who might well be dead, dismembered, or eaten at this point) leaves the page changed in important ways.

Yet even that approach is a model Lafferty can discard whenever he sees fit. Some of the stories are simply straightforward and lovely, like the pseudo-biographical piece, “Gray Ghost: A Reminiscence,” which is in the strain of the very best Bradbury. Another, the final in this volume, is a post-apocalyptic tale that may be Lafferty’s world building at the most compelling I’ve seen. In the space of a short story he spins out a tiny kingdom, characters, and ecological tangles that seem in some respects as contemporary as The Hunger Games and as haunting as Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

I continually find when I reach the end of reviewing a book by Lafferty that I haven’t really done it justice. Well, then you read some of his stuff and try to explain it. Or rather, imagine this. Imagine a man who no longer exists, maybe your great-grandfather or maybe the person you always hoped your great-grandfather was. Someone a little strange but who has been places you never have (because most of them no longer exist either) and who tells spinning, staggering stories with the voice of an older generation. Someone who has one foot in the American West with its tall tales and the other in the technology that was sprouting like mushrooms at the height of the Space Race. And this man tells stories, and no one ever told him how he was supposed to tell them, so he tells them like he wants.

There you go. Lafferty is a little bit like that imaginary man, raised to the third power, at least.