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Changes

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As I mentioned, I moved recently. The reason I needed to leave my beloved flat was not just the constant accumulation of books but the birth of my son. That event also occasioned me changing my surname so I could share his. On one level, this is simple: you just send off a form and a cheque. On another, it is a thorny tangle of beaucracy and identity. Changing over to Martin Petto on my work IT and HR systems was simple, as was changing my multiple social media accounts. Other things took longer which is why 14 months later by wallet still contains cards with a mixture of names on them. Hardest of all, however, was working out what to do about my ‘professional’ name (don’t laugh). Having spent over a decade writing under my old name, I found it hard to make a clean break so you’ll probably have noticed that I’m still reviewing as Martin Lewis. The rough rule of thumb I had adopted (until very recently) was that I’d keep Lewis for ‘old things’ and use Petto for ‘new things’. To my surprise, one of those new things has turned out to be this:

Rite Of Spring

So yeah, I am one of the contributers to Pandemonium: The Rite Of Spring, the latest chapbook from Jurassic London. This foray into fiction has obviously been met with some gentle teasing from fellow critics but it does open up some further questions of identity. For example, it is not uncommon for it to be suggested that critics are wannabe writers or that ‘those who can, do’. I’m not a wannabe writer, I am actual writer, just one who chooses to write non-fiction rather than fiction. So a part of me feels like a traitor to the fellowship of critics and mourns the loss of the armour of my purity. But a bigger part of me doesn’t give a shit. My story, ‘Letter From the President Of The British Board Of Film Censors’, was an experiment for myself (less formal than this one but an experiment nonetheless). It was fun to write and I hope it is fun to read. If not, here is some Phil Ochs:

Written by Martin

8 April 2014 at 10:58

Hugo Nominations – Best Novella, Best Novelette & Best Short Story

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Once again, I must confess to dereliction. I can count the genre short fiction published in 2013 that I read in 2013 on the fingers of one hand. I’ve read considerably more in the last two months or so but nowhere near enough. Luckily, there are better curators out there:

Nussbaum opens her post by saying:

They also reaffirm my belief in the vibrancy and relevance of the genre short fiction scene. I don’t know another genre in which ordinary readers habitually get excited about short stories the way that SFF readers do, and in which those stories are an integral part of the conversation surrounding the genre. I certainly don’t know another genre in which short fiction venues are proliferating–whether it’s online venues or original anthologies (often funded by Kickstarters). Far more than the best novel category, it seems to me, the short fiction categories give us a glimpse of the genre’s present state – and of its future – which is why it’s so important to me that they represent the richness and diversity of what’s being published.

I’m not sure I quite agree. There is obviously something unique about the speculative fiction short fiction landscape and worth cherishing. But whilst short fiction is part of the conversation, the discourse remains dominated by novels. At the moment, short fiction strikes me less as a glimpse into the genre’s future than a parallel universe and that is where I think the Hugos and the other short fiction awards have a role in shining a spotlight, amplfying the conversation and bridging the gap.

Best Novella

  • Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press)
  • Black Helicopter by Caitlín R Kiernan (Subterranean Press)

I was also planning to nominate ‘The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books) but he’s done that himself and saved me the bother.

Best Novelette

I’ll confess I spent more time looking for a tweet from Howard Mittelmark suggesting that a novelette was “an omelette with a little book in it” than I did actually reading them. I think it is a silly term and, like several Hugo categories, is not in common usage outside the genre. Compare and contrast, for example, the Wikipedia article for novelette with those for novella and short story. Then wince a bit at the way SF shoves itself into the latter two.

A counter-argument for retaining the category put forward by Nussbaum is that “the short fiction categories, with their wider perspective and lower stakes, give a better snapshot of the field and its interests” than Best Novel. I would agree that removing Best Novelette and having five slots for novels, five for novellas and five for short stories would leave the awards unbalanced. My solution would be to have a ten slot shortlist for stories up to 17,500 words (there’s probably an argument for having ten slots for Best Novel too).

Best Short Story

With the above in mind and given I haven’t finished reading yet, here are ten short stories I enjoyed:

You will notice that almost all of these stories were published in small online magazines. If you are less of a purist than me, you might consider these venues for Best Semiprozine.

Written by Martin

26 March 2014 at 08:32

Posted in awards, sf, short stories

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2013 Nebula Awards – Short Story

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I should have written about ‘Spin’ by Nina Allan for the BSFA Award short story club by now but I moved house a couple of weeks ago and my copy is packed in a box somewhere. So I’ll be waiting for the awards booklet to be send out to BSFA members before continuing. I used the pause to have a look at the recently announced short story shortlist for the Nebula Awards (all available online) to see if it had any likely contenders for my Hugo ballot. The short answer is no.

This is not to say it is all bad but whilst there are two very good stories on the list, they are no use to me. The first is ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sophia Samatar which I’ve already written about. The second is ‘If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love’ by Rachel Swirsky which contains no speculative elements whatsoever.

Next we have two examples of RUMIR that awards should weed out but instead tend to elevate. ‘Selected Program Notes From The Retrospective Exhibition Of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer’ by Kenneth Schneyer is a slipstream story told through the medium of the title, a frame that exists solely to conceal the fact the doesn’t get any further than feeling very slightly strange. Meanwhile ‘The Sounds Of Old Earth’ sees Matthew Kressel pretending to be Mike Resnick by writing about a dude who neglects his family because of nostalgia but gets a hug in the end.

Finally, there is ‘Alive, Alive Oh’ by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley. This is less a story than a scientific experiment to see how much much contrivance and sentimentality can be crammed into 3,000 words as possible. “Sad and beautiful”, say the comments; “devastating and brilliant”. It is a pile of shite of ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ proportions (though not actively offensive in the same way). It is a problem for SF that stories like this regularly get through the slush, the fact they make it on to award shortlists is a travesty.

Oh well, I’m sure the Hugo shortlist will be better…

Written by Martin

10 March 2014 at 15:46

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‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ by Tori Truslow – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ was originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #113.

Usually I would say read the story before reading this post. This time, I’ll say read the story but then read this Short Fiction Snapshot from Abigail Nussbaum before reading on. Done? Okay.

First impressions are important but they can also be deceptive. Most of the commenters on Nussbaum’s piece – myself included – had a strong negative reaction to the opening paragraph of Truslow’s story but ultimately liked the whole thing. So let’s the skip the horrid tweeness of the introduction in which we are told we are reading a story (told by someone within Truslow’s story) and move onto the meat.

The meat turns out to be a story within a story within a story. A bunch of indolent young men, attended by a servant, are whiling away the evening telling each other tales. Chief amongst them are brothers Cail, “clever and dutiful”, and Jerrin, “lazy and stuffed with dreams” (Truslow pre-emptively lampshades this conveniently broad characterisation by having having her narrator note: “You know how brothers are in stories”. These metafictional insertions are an unwelcome but defining characteristic of the story.)

But it is not the brothers who are the heart of the story but there servant. Truslow nicely sketches both their indulgence for their employee (“Bue poured their cups full to the brim, and served himself too, as none had forbidden him.”) and the limitations of this (“You’ll do it,” said Jerrin, bored of joking. “Or I’ll have you sent back to your swamp, where you can practice your wit on the crabs.”) This beneficence extends to allowing him to tell his story.

But ‘he’ is not right; or rather, ‘he’ is not solely right. Bue was a country girl from a family of fishers who discovered an unexpected talent for magic. “And her parents thought, and conferred, and spoke to their cousins and their neighbors, who all agreed: a girl with such a talent could marry well.” So far, so traditional. But Bue’s response and, more importantly, her parents’ reaction is not:

Bue’s smile was not a delicate thing but a big rash grin when she said, “why should I be a girl?”

And her parents were not hard people. “Ah, is that how it is?” said Bue’s mother, who had seen her nodding at shrines to the double-god Kam. “It’s a week till Crossing, isn’t it?”

“Go as our son, then,” said her father. “If you find yourself happy, well enough. If you change your mind, come home for the Carnival, and we’ll send you back as our daughter.”

This easy, happy fluidity of gender is the story’s great strength and allows Truslow to pursue a new type of fairytale that looks forward rather than back. Unfortunately she then spoils the effect of this passage by making her narrator lecture the reader:

Have I confused you? Oh, to be telling this tale in my own tongue! They say a bad workman blames her tools, and maybe so, but your language throws up strange borders. Understand: to her parents, Bue was a daughter, but to herself? Neither “he” nor “she” is exactly right, and nor is any third word. But these are the words you understand, so I’ll do what I can with them.

No, I wasn’t confused, I was impressed; now I’m simply annoyed. Anyway, Bue travels to the city, where she uses her “haunt-tricks” and a bit of typical fairytale trickery to tame a ghostwood barge belonging to the brothers’ father. Truslow is probably at her best both in the language she uses to describe magic and the description itself (my favourite neologism, however, is “night-tired” for hung-over). Bue then finds a fairytale princess in a tower to be rescued which is prettily managed, if fairly familiar.

As the story heads to its conclusion, Truslow again swerves off to tell another story. This time it is ‘The Wandering Lovers, or How Kam Married Theirself’, the origin story of the god of the Crossing. But why? This sort of background explication is entirely unnecessary when over the page we have a much more direct and affecting depiction of the outcome: “They saw a stranded Carnival boat of young boys with painted ladies’ faces, striking parody poses, all but one making themselves giddy laughing at each others’ antics. The last of their number simply peered at her new reflection in a puddle and smiled; her friends didn’t laugh at her.” On more than one occasion, ‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ is a story that would have benefited from being told true. Like many of its characters, it wears a mask but is at its best when we can see its face.

Written by Martin

21 February 2014 at 13:39

Posted in sf, short stories

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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ was originally published at Strange Horizons

One of the odd things about SF short fiction – and one of the reasons for this feature – is that so much of it is published but so little is written about it. And when short fiction is written about, it is usually in the listings format that goes for comprehensive coverage of as many stories as possible over analysis of individual stories. As an example, here is how ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ (a story which was voted the best of 2013 by readers of Strange Horizons and was subsequently shortlisted for the BSFA Award) was described by the two biggest short fiction reviewing venues when it was first published:

“Told in short back-and-forth sections, this one is a typical SH story about love and commitment, with the selkie tale standing in as a metaphor.”

Lois Tilton’s short fiction column for Locus Online.

“Sofia Somatar’s storytelling style owes a debt to Kelly Link’s magic realism, but lacks that author’s emotional wallop. A quick read that gets a little lost in its own naval gazing and one non sequitur too many, but your mileage may vary depending on your taste for quirk.”

Jared L Mills reviewing for Tangent Online

It is hard to write about short fiction. It is particularly hard to write about short short fiction (‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ is 3,000, a thousand less than ‘Saga’s Children). But surely if it is so central to our genre, we need to collectively get a lot better at it? (I’m including myself in this.)

So, a selkie is a mythical creature that looks like seal in the water but once on land, having shed its skin, appears to be a human. There is something inherently a bit naff about selkies, something Samatar gestures at with her title, and Tilton is right that here they function primarily as a metaphor (you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to read this as an entirely realist story).

The sentiment of the title is voiced by the narrator in the opening paragraph: “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.” It is a great opening, immediately capturing the protagonist’s voice whilst also flagging the irony and metafictionality of the story. She’s eighteen, trying to understand her mother’s sudden disappearance on top of already trying to understand herself.

This second half of the story is reflected in the lovely relationship she forms with fellow waitress Mona, something that might be a burgeoning romance or might be platonic intimacy: “I’ve never kissed Mona. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I keep deciding it’s not time. It’s not that I think she’d freak out or anything. It’s not even that I’m afraid she wouldn’t kiss me back. It’s worse: I’m afraid she’d kiss me back, but not mean it.” If, like Mills, you can read any of this stuff without getting walloped by emotion then perhaps you need re-calibrating.

Equally, it is hard to spot the supposed navel-gazing and non sequitars. This is an extremely cleverly and precisely composed story; each short paragraph overlapping and amplifying the themes of the others, fluidly and without attracting attention. I guess this is part of the trouble with reviewing such fiction: if you take it apart, will it still work? The beauty of the story certainly isn’t broken by examination but I’m not sure it can be spoken either.

Written by Martin

14 February 2014 at 16:29

‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)

You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.

So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.

‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.

This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?

The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.

That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.

Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

‘Zirn Left Unguarded, The Jenghik Palace In Flames, Jon Westerley Dead’ by Robert Sheckley

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This story is actually from the earlier ‘Draftees (1960s)’ section of the anthology (despite being published in 1972). I skipped over it at the time because I didn’t really have anything to say about it. It still don’t but it seems appropriate to return to it immediately after Michael Moorcock’s contribution. It is a three page compressed novel that is satirical where Moorcock is sincere. The editors quote Brian Aldiss to the effect that this story finished off the up until now endless saga, written finis to those mighty tomes, killed the entire literature dead.” Well, nice try. Still, as a nail in space opera’s coffin, it is considerably more impressive and effective than Michael Kandel’s attempt.

Quality: **
OOO: **

Written by Martin

20 July 2013 at 14:03

‘Lost Sorceress Of The Silent’ by Michael Moorcock

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Published in 2002, this story has nothing in common with contemporary space opera and, as the title suggests, instead harks back to the science fantasy of Leigh Brackett and Clive Jackson. So the first sentence is: “They came upon the Earthling naked, somewhere in the Shifting Desert when Mars’ harsh sunlight beat through thinning atmosphere and the sand was raw glass cutting into bare feet.” The protagonist is referred to by his full name through out, imbuing it with an air of Chuck Norris-esque comic bombast: “To call Captain John MacShard a loner was something of a tautology. Captain John MacShard was loneliness personified.” Silly, romantic, obsolete, it is not a pastiche but a slice of time-slipped pulp straight from the source.

Quality: ***
OOO: *

Written by Martin

19 July 2013 at 09:25

‘Space Opera’ by Michael Kandel

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What better way to return to The Space Opera Renaissance than with a story entitled ‘Space Opera’? Except, of course, it isn’t space opera. Instead, it is an obvious joke: what if, like space opera was opera about space? So Kandel gives us a lengthy synopsis of an imaginary opera with occasional critical asides, as if one were reading a tedious entry in a poorly written overview of the field.

Hartwell and Cramer describe Kandel as “the sort of SF writer who perceives the odors of contempt and literary class prejudice that still hang in the social air when the term space opera is used in literary circles, and leaves the room.” An arse, in other words. They go on to say that the story “poke[s] fun at the absurdities of opera and of space opera” but I didn’t notice this. The only thing I found enjoyable about this story was Kandel’s ill-advised name for his aliens which gives rise to lines like this: “A chorus of bints sings of the forthcoming invasion of the Dalminian Empire.”

Quality: *
OOO: *

Written by Martin

17 July 2013 at 12:40

‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Stranded on the moon, a group of American astronauts watch with horror as the Cold War turns hot and the Earth begins to tear itself apart. Painfully aware that reserves of food and good will are running low, they begin experimenting with a new technology in the hope that it will somehow allow them to find a new home.

First in a series of four self-published novellas, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains offers an unusual but compelling combination of immaculately researched hard sf and literary fiction. Central to the book’s strangeness is that, despite drawing on two very different literary traditions to tell his story, Sales makes no attempt to integrate the prose styles associated with these traditions. This collision of styles results in a series of arresting passages where beautifully formed and intensely poetic images loom up unexpectedly from a fog of numbers and acronyms. Initially quite unsettling, this discordant style proves highly effective once Sales begins exploring similar tensions within his characters. By juxtaposing the inhuman and technical elements of hard sf with the humanistic and lyrical elements of literary fiction, Sales suggests that his characters may well be burying themselves in the technical aspects of their jobs in order to escape from feelings which, though perfectly human, have no place amidst the square-jawed heroism of the American space programme. This ambivalent attitude towards the character of Apollo-era astronauts also provides the basis for an unflinchingly brutal assault on the myth of the ‘right stuff’. In fact, it is hard not to think of science fictional archetypes like Robert Heinlein’s Capable Man when Sales takes all the machismo and patriotism of a Sixties astronaut and forces it to decay into a hideous radioactive sludge of pride, resentment and petulant sentimentality.

Though packed with invention and fleeting displays of true literary grace, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains is a somewhat unbalanced piece of writing. For example, while the experimental juxtaposition of different prose styles is successful on the whole, Sales does occasionally lose himself in technical detail, resulting in readers having to pick their way through needlessly dense thickets of acronym-studded exposition. This sense of imbalance is also evident in his tendency to lavish attention on world building while expecting readers to fill in the gaps when it comes to characterisation. Particularly annoying is the way that Sales ends the book with both a bibliography and a potted history of his fictional space programme when those pages might have been better put to better use unpacking the human elements of the story. Thankfully, though undoubtedly a source of frustration, these imbalances prove relatively unproblematic when weighed against the scope of Sales’s ambition and the adroitness of his execution. The Apollo Quartet promises much but in order to deliver on this promise Sales must learn to trust his instincts as a literary stylist as the muse of technological correctness is only holding him back.

This review originally appeared in Vector #271.

Written by Martin

28 March 2013 at 15:44

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