Thursday, February 28, 2013

Deb Taber's Necessary Ill

 It's the last day of February, and a second shipment of the two books scheduled for March release has arrived here. So it's my pleasure to announce today the release of Deb Taber's debut novel from Aqueduct Press, Necessary Ill. This intriguing and enthralling tale has already garnered a starred review from Publishers Weekly (which also ran an interview with Deb about the novel) and blurbs from Suzy McKee Charnas and Rebecca Ore. As you may have noticed, Aqueduct doesn't publish all that many novels, so you can probably guess at our excitement to be launching this one. Both the print and e-book editions are available now at They'll be available elsewhere some time in March.

The man slices Jin’s shirt open with his pocketknife, then stops, staring at the blank, bare chest.
“Never thought it would make such a difference,” says the second man, twisting Jin’s arm at a painful angle so that he, too, can see the smooth skin, unbroken by anything so unnecessary as a nipple.
A woman runs up hollering, waving a shotgun in the air as the first man claws at Jin’s belt. The rest of the street is suddenly empty.
“Get off of her you perverts! If you lay one finger…”
She sees Jin and stops…
Jin,the neuter protagonist of Necessary Ill, begins the novel as a designer of plagues intended to set the world back into balance—a balance of population and resources, creation and destruction, choice and certainty—a balance more important to it than any individual life, including its own. Sandy, a young woman thrust violently out of her farm life into the dispassionate science of neuters like Jin, discovers her own need for balance—a balance of safety and adventure, art and science, self-protection and love. But Jin and Sandy find that human life is full of change, and as the world is thrown off balance for all, each questions their ruling assumptions and must learn to see in new ways for the survival of friends and enemies alike.

"Necessary Ill offers hopeful glimpses of alternatives to the current cultural barrage of post-Apocalyptic savagery and regression to warlordism, writes Suzy McKee Charnas. "Along the way, the reader finds an in-depth exploration of what a human society minus sex hormones might be like. It’s also a startlingly inward look at a character that is basically a serial mass murderer and also a hero capable of change. A stimulating read with a refreshing slant on the core problems of the modern world; and if you want to know what Mr. Spock's interior life might really be like, you really should meet the protagonist, Jin.”

Rebecca Ore writes:

Like M. J. Engh's Arslan, in Necessary Ill we identify with what in other books would be the antagonist: an abused child now grown up, neither male nor female, with the harsh amorality of a child and a beyond-human intelligence, whose whole energies are calculations about resources, about how those of us who are female or male reproduce, and reproduce, and reproduce until the world wears out. Who's the hero in a world where humans outbreed their resources?"

"Skillful pacing, unpredictable twists, nail-bitingingly tense moments, and an adroit resolution make this an unusual and engrossing addition to the post-apocalyptic genre."
  —Publishers Weekly, Jan 28,2013 (starred review)

"The author speculates about how individuals and society might evolve if sex wasn't such a potent part of the human personality. Some readers may find the sometimes dispassionate discussion of mass murder a bit unsettling but no one should find fault with the prose. Not the cheeriest book I've read this year but one of the more thought provoking."
  — Donald D'Ammassa, Critical Mass, Jan 12,2013 (read the whole review)

 Asked by her Publishers Weekly interviewer about inspirations for her invention of her society of neuters, Deb writes:

The first inspiration was the fact that there are, in reality, human beings born without specific male or female sex characteristics, although I took several fictional leaps with the science of the neuts’ anatomy, biology, and abilities. In Western culture, these people are surgically and chemically turned into females, usually as early as possible, and may never be told that they were born as anything other than female. Basically, our gender is defined as “male” or “not male,” based on the presence or absence of one specific sex organ, a perspective that is based in culture, not biology. A part of the neuter society in the book is a rebellion against that, a separate place where the neuters can be who and what they are, according to their biology rather than social constructs.

I also drew upon the interactions between the introverts and extroverts I’ve observed and interacted with all my life. As a highly introverted person, I wanted to try to show the beauty of the experience of aloneness in the Home Cavern world and the comfort that it has for its inhabitants. But the artist’s cavern enclave is there to balance that with the warmth of a much more affable community. It’s the balance of the contradicting aspects of human nature that drew me to explore both worlds.

Finally, the underground societies of both the artists and the scientists are based on my love of caves. I first went to Carlsbad Caverns when I was eleven years old, and I spent the whole walk through the caverns in awe of this huge, fantastical world, where there is so much more that is hidden than is revealed. I imagined undiscovered creatures living just beyond the cavern walls and through the tunnels that were closed off to the public. Once I had the idea for the neuter society, I knew I had to set it there. As I researched the book, I went back and took a wild cavern tour so I could experience firsthand the type of journey Jin and the others make every time they leave or come home, or move from one part of the cavern system to another. I’ll be talking more about this aspect on Mary Robinette Kowal’s “My Favorite Bit” blog feature on March 5, 2013 (

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Throwing flaming bottles into the chinks of the masculine world machine

Yesterday, reprinted from the Boston Review a lengthy, interesting review essay by Elizabeth Hand titled Femininjas: Women in fiction fight back. Referencing Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See," Hand writes:
What women do in the books mentioned here doesn’t consist of survival so much as sabotage. They throw bricks and rocks and flaming bottles into the chinks of the masculine world machine, then pick up a gun and fire into the turning gears. If rape and other sexual violence, religious servitude, and the politically determined inaccessibility of contraception can be seen as acts of war, stories like these may not just be a means of escapism. In the mind’s eye, they might be weapons, to be picked up, opened, and deployed.
She remarks, "One would think the critics had never seen a woman in pants before, let alone one who can hold her own against the patriarchy. And perhaps they never have, in which case introductions are a couple thousand years overdue..."

She's absolutely right that women retaliating with violence is an old theme. What that last paragraph of her essay, quoted above, does, though, is suggest some sort of approaching critical mass. Medea, after all, symbolized male fears of what a woman betrayed might have it in her to do. Full on attack of "the masculine world machine" suggests something else entirely.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New e-book editions from Aqueduct

Aqueduct Press released two new e-book editions today.

Richard Bowes's The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others (Conversation Pieces Vol. 35) is available in both mobi and epub formats for $5.95 through Aqueduct's site. For a description of the book, see yesterday's post here.

We're also bringing out an e-book edition of Rebecca Ore's Gaia's Toys, which is otherwise out of print, originally published by Tor in 1995. Gaia's Toys is a tale of eco-terrorism set in a dystopian near future of gene-manipulation, medical nanotechnology, and environmental damage; an examination of the risks of overpopulation and uncontrolled technological expansion. This action adventure story is filled with theoretical political ideas. The main characters are a collection of misfits whose lives are linked together through a scientist’s experiments in ecological reconstruction: a species of giant mantises that treat their anxiety stressed human companions with tranquilizing pheromones; and bioengineered wasps drawn to human anger and conflict in order to sting the offenders into a sleep state. Humans manipulate earth's creatures as if they were toys while the bio-altered creatures transform us.

Here's the 1995 review from Booklist:
Thanks to its brilliant, macabre vision of America's not-too-distant future, Ore's new novel puts her squarely in the ranks of such leading-edge sf talent as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The twenty-first century she imagines brings--along with bioengineered nanoviruses that keep the rich perpetually young and mandatory cyberspace brain hookups for the poor (for human brains, it turns out, are cheaper than computer brains for running menial programs)--a ruthless caste of eco-terrorists whose latest strike wipes out a score of oil refineries with a miniature nuclear bomb. One terrorist named Allison, aka Mattie Higgins, is nabbed before the explosion, interrogated with high-tech brain probes, and cleverly drafted as an undercover infiltrator for the government. Her new objective: to catch an outlaw gene-tweaker who is breeding insects capable of drugging humans into pacifism. Using three ingeniously different points of view, Ore fuses slick and absorbing storytelling with sophisticated speculative science.

The e-book edition is available in both mobi and epub formats for $7.95. You can check it out here.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Richard Bowes's The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others

Myth is the sea on which the Fantasy story floats.
Legend is the wind that drives it.
Its place of birth is the Fairy Tale.

I'm pleased to announce the release of the first book in Aqueduct Press's spring 2013 list, The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others by Richard Bowes, the 35th in our Conversation Pieces series. Rick has won the World Fantasy Award twice, and the Lambda Award (for his excellent Minions of the Moon) and been nominated several times for the Nebula.

This collection of modern Fairy Tales, their Fantasy offspring, and their legendary ancestors presents eight of his stories including “The Lady of Wands,” in which a Fey cop tells her story, that appears here for the first time. Also original to this book is Rick's afterword, “A Secret History of Small Books,” which traces the path of Fairy Tales as a refuge for women, gay/lesbian writers, and LGBT readers from the sevententh century on.

This collection also includes “Seven Smiles and Six Frowns” a story of the evolution of a Fairy Tale; “The Cinnamon Cavalier,” a Fairy Tale variation a critic has called, “The Gingerbread Man, writ large,” and “The Margay’s Children,” a modern take on a “Beastly Bridegroom” tale; “The Progress of Solstice and Chance,” with its complex sexual relations and invented pantheon of gods, the outrageous situation and characters of “The Bear Dresser’s Secret,” and the “The Lady of Wands,” set in a fairy/mortal demimonde; and two Arthurian tales, “Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” and “The Queen and the Cambion,” in which the eponymous queen, though famous, is not Guinevere.

 Aqueduct is selling it for $9 at We'll be releasing an ebook edition soon.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

WisCon 37 Programming

Just a quick heads-up: the WisCon Programming sign-up period is open. You have until March 17th to sign up. If you're attending WisCon this year and haven't yet made contact, now's the time. Information about programming can be found at

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Awards galore!

It's the awards season, & shortlists and awards are flying madly about.

First off, I'm proud to say that Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient, which Aqueduct published last year, was short-listed for the 2013 Crawford Award, which is given to a fantasy author whose first book was published in the last 18 months.

Karin Tidbeck's Jagannath: Stories (Cheeky Frawg Books) was the winner.
Rachel Hartman's Seraphina (Random House) was the runner-up.
Remaining on the shortlist was:
Saladin Ahmed for Throne of the Crescent Moon (DAW)
Roz Kaveney for Rituals (Plus One)
Kiini Ibura Salaam for Ancient, Ancient (Aqueduct Press).

 Today the ballot of the Nebula Awards was announced. I'm happy to say this includes quite a few Aqueductistas and friends of Aqueduct.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)
Ironskin, Tina Connolly (Tor)
The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Drowning Girl, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc)
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
“The Stars Do Not Lie,” Jay Lake (Asimov’s 10-11/12)
“All the Flavors,” Ken Liu (GigaNotoSaurus 2/1/12)
“Katabasis,” Robert Reed (F&SF 11-12/12)
“Barry’s Tale,” Lawrence M. Schoen (Buffalito Buffet)

“The Pyre of New Day,” Catherine Asaro (The Mammoth Books of SF Wars)
“Close Encounters,” Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
“The Waves,” Ken Liu (Asimov’s 12/12)
“The Finite Canvas,” Brit Mandelo ( 12/5/12)
“Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” Meghan McCarron ( 1/4/12)
“Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia,” Rachel Swirsky ( 8/22/12)
“Fade to White,” Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 8/12)

Short Story
“Robot,” Helena Bell (Clarkesworld 9/12)
“Immersion,” Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld 6/12)
“Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes,” Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 4/12)
“Nanny’s Day,” Leah Cypess (Asimov’s 3/12)
“Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed 7/12)
“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/12)
“Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” Cat Rambo (Near + Far)

And finally, there's Galactic Suburbia's Award, now in its second year. In case you have forgotten, this is an award for activism and communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction in 2012, and is thus very dear to Aqueduct's heart. I have the list from Culturally Disoriented (for which, thanks, since Galactic Suburbia hasn't yet posted the list and I listened to their podcast in the bathtub and thus couldn't take notes myself):

Winner: Elizabeth Lhuede for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Lhuede created the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge to respond to the inequity in women’s work being read, reviewed and treated seriously in Australia. In the lead up to 2012, Australia’s National Year of Reading, Lhuede decided to do something to help redress this imbalance and raise awareness of Australian Women’s Writing. Lhuede created the AWW to encourage people to examine their reading habits, and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women throughout 2012.

Honours List: 

Kirstyn McDermott, for the creation of the female stick figure in an episode of her podcast, the Writer and the Critic (episode 19). McDermott pointed out that the standard stick figure is not inherently male nor female, and so created a female stick figure – which looks exactly like the male stick figure, but with a female stick figure after it – bringing attention to the idea of the male as default.

Julia Rios for her podcasts and discussions about moving beyond the 101 – feminism 101, sexuality 101 etc.

Genevieve Valentine for starting the discussion about sexual harassment at SF/F conventions. Specifically, for blogging about how the Readercon Board ignored its zero-tolerance harassment policy when she reported being sexually harassed by a Big Name Fan.

The phenomenon of (and the arguments AGAINST) the Fake Geek Girl - specifically, for the spectacular responses to (mostly) men complaining about Fake Geek Girls. There were too many posts and responses to choose just one for the shortlist, but the discussion around whether women can be “real geeks” has been fascinating conversations on the internet.

Jim Hines (returning nominee!) for his modeling of how SF/F covers portray women in unrealistic ways. Hines brings attention to the issue by trying to replicate the poses himself – and recently used his posing to raise lots and lots of money for the Aicardi syndrome foundation. Humor and fundraising and feminist social issues, all at once!

Anita Sarkeesian for her TEDx talk, where she discusses her experience of the internet harassment she experienced as a result of her kickstarter project Tropes v. Women in Video Games.

The Hawkeye Initiative - a tumblr that brings attention to the way women are portrayed in comic book art. In the Hawkeye Initiative, people redraw comic art that depicts women in horrible ways… with Hawkeye – thus transposing the pose from the female body to the male body, and showing how ridiculous the poses are in the first place.

Seanan McGuire for her blog post Thing I Will Not Do to my Characters, in which she discusses why she will never write her female characters being raped. This was a response to a fan saying that if McGuire doesn’t depict her female characters getting raped, it wouldn’t be realistic.

Liz Bourke for her Sleeps With Monsters column on

The Girl Who Wrote a Letter to Hasbro about how if she picked a female character in Guess Who, it was really easy for her opponent to win because there were many more male characters than female characters on the board. Led to some really important conversations about gender issues in board games for children.

Geena Davis for her activism and analysis in the field of children’s television, and more specifically for a speech on gender equality in children’s television.
An honorary mention for the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for her speech against misogyny in parliament this year. 

And to Culturally Disoriented (which, since this annotated list comes from the very modest Culturally Disoriented, I have no further information about).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rachel Swirsky's 2012 Novella Recommendations

As noted in my previous entries, I read approximately 540 pieces of short fiction this year. I read all of: Asimovs, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Eclipse Online, Giganotosaurus, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Subterranean and Tor, as well as several anthologies. (I will probably continue reading during the next few weeks, and if I find anything remarkable, I will post about it.)

To begin the entry, I'm going to list, without reviews, the novellas that are on my ballot, followed by those I recommend. Below, I will post the reviews.

"After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall" by Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
"African Sunrise" by Nnedi Okorafor (Subterranean)
"Katabasis" by Robert Reed (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
"Murder Born" (excerpt) by Robert Reed (Asimovs)
"The Emperor's Soul" by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon)

"All the Flavors" by Ken Liu (Giganotosaurus)
"A Seed in the Wind" by Cat Rambo (ebook)



"After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall" by Nancy Kress (Tachyon) - The earth is destroyed by an apocalype--the fall. This novella follows two timelines simultaneously: one after the fall and the other before. They intersect during the fall, as one might expect from the title. The story follows two perspectives. The first is a boy born after the fall to one of the few survivors, his body severely impaired from radiation damage. The aliens who saved the few survivors from the disaster (it's unclear whether or not they caused it) have provided a time travel portal for him and the other members of his generation to go back in time to before the fall for short periods of time so that they can bring back resources and babies that they will be able to raise to strengthen their population. The other main character, who is a professor who lives in the before, notices a mathematical pattern to kidnappings and store robberies, the footprint of the time travel. The two characters finally meet when the boy travels back in time to a moment during the apocalypse, to where the professor is waiting for him. I really, really liked this novella, especially the bits set after the apocalypse. Kress is always a fine writer, but she's pulled out some extremely good characterization here. Many of the characters are sharply characterized, but especially two in the after--one, the boy's mentor who he is in unrequited love with, and two, the boy himself, who is a vivid portrait of an adolescent in troubled circumstances, his emotions volatile, his desires unquenchable, his beliefs and needs and wants shaped by his post-apocalyptic childhood. The thing I disliked about this novella is that there's a strong hint at the end that the story is meant to be read as an "the earth will get you" magic environmentalism thing, and that really doesn't work for me, because it's just sort of random and it's such an obvious fantasy element in a story that's otherwise science fiction... meh. But "hard" SF writers sometimes pull that sort of weirdness, and I just kind of have a "ignoring that bit; it's fairly minor anyway" receptacle in my brain, and the story is absolutely worth it for its many sterling elements.

"African Sunrise" by Nnedi Okorafor (Subterranean) - This novella expands on Nnedi Okorafor's short story "The Book of Phoenix" that appeared in Clarkesworld in 2011. A genetically altered girl has been confined to a corporate building for all of her life, along with others who have been experimented on. After one of her friends dies, she decides to escape and discovers that she possesses phoenix-like powers of fire and regeneration. The life-giving energy that radiates from her body produces a fantastic growth of plantlife that crumbles the building where she was raised and reaches out to sprawl across the city center. The main character flies away, following her instincts, knowing that she has the ability to greatly improve the world if she can find her way. As always, it's nice to see smart and well-written Africa-centered fantasy/science fiction of the sort that Okorafor so ably writes. There's a sense of magic and hope in this story that doesn't feel sentimental, but instead seems to suggest a radical re-imagining of the world. The detail of the character's life and her interactions were more interesting to me than the fantasy plot itself; in particular, there was a lovely scene in an Ethiopian restaurant early on that's stuck with me.

"Katabasis" by Robert Reed (Fantasy & Science Fiction) - This is one of Robert Reed's Great Ship stories which I admit to being a total sucker for. They take place on an enormous ship that's on an interminable mission through space. Passage is expensive; its inhabitants are nearly immortal. Humans run the place, but it's full of life that is variously alien and artificially intelligent. Basically, this story has all the "ooooooo, awesome" of space opera without the boring bits; Reed successfully portrays an immersive setting that feels alien and unknown. In this story, there is a small planet-like habitat deep in the great ship, built by long-gone aliens to simulate their world. It has immensely high gravity, and it's become a challenge for humans (and others who are not adapted to the high gravity) to take on trying to hike the "planet" without enhancements, as a test of mettle. They take along a single high-gravity-adapted porter. The story is about one such porter and the contingent that she ends up traveling with. The story of their journey is interwoven with the story of how she came to the ship. Alien weirdness abounds--if you like that sort of thing, it'll probably scratch all the right itches, or at least it does mine.

"Murder Born" (excerpt) by Robert Reed (Asimovs) -- Yes, Reed again. This is an Idea story of his which are hit-or-miss for me. I like this one less than his great ship stories, but it still worked for me. A new technique for execution is invented and, to everyone's surprise including the inventor's, it does something totally bizarre (and totally not actually science fiction at all, but rather a thought experiment in the vein of It Just Works, Shut Up And Let's Go With It, which is fine with me, really)--when the murderer disappears into it, it brings back all the people he's killed. The conceit isn't totally logically consistent about what counts as killed and some other science things, but whatever, it's a Thought Experiment, Just Go With It. The thought experiment bit is interesting. There's also a kind of stitched on adventure plot that was readable but ordinary. It's now been a year since I read the story so my memory of it has faded significantly; it's marked with a quite high rating in my database, but mostly what I remember now is talking about its flaws with people, so that's what's stuck in my mind. I think what I liked about it was the way in which it examined a number of different situations within the thought experiment. I'm happy to engage with thought experiments on a purely intellectual level from time to time; it's a long tradition; you don't read Candide for the characters.

"The Emperor's Soul" by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon) - In a world where it is illegal to do so, a woman wields the magic of forgery, able to produce soulstamps that will change the substance and history of an object, allowing it to become something other than what it is. An ordinary urn can be stamped with the essence of an ancient vase and become one, although the stamp will remain and, if it is removed, the urn will become ordinary again. After committing a series of forgeries of important artifacts, the main character is jailed, and offered her freedom and her life only if she will help the emperor's advisers to achieve a dangerous, illegal, and excruciatingly difficult task -- to endow the braindead emperor with a soulstamp that so closely approximates his own mind that his personality will be indistinguishable from the original. This is a fun and clever, straightforward fantasy, with all the pleasures of a rougish main character who is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of people who will kill her. The process of the magic is described in reasonable detail which I grooved on; it's a fun magic system. It's even better when Sanderson describes the process of simulating the emperor's soul, merging the described magic with ruminations on memory and personality. Several of the main characters take on good dimensionality, including the emperor, who is only marginally on the page.


"All the Flavors" by Ken Liu (Giganotosaurus) - The first thing you need to know about this novella is a total mess. It's not actually a novella. It's the notes for a novel. The next thing you need to know is that it's the notes for a really *good* novel. There are moments of brilliance in this that rival or exceed any of the novellas I'm nominating. So: Bad Ken! I want to read the actual novel! Write the novel, Ken. Anyway, this is a story of an Idaho girl who is befriended by Chinese miners when they move into town, and how she learns their stories. I wrote a slightly longer review here.

"A Seed in the Wind" by Cat Rambo (ebook) - As I mentioned when reviewing one of her short stories for my 2012 recommendations, one of my favorite things about Cat as a writer is that she is able to paint really vivid, original world-building imagery with just a few well-chosen details. This novella is another excellent example of that talent. It's set in a world that's shaped like a tube, with all of its civilization built on outcroppings that protrude from the walls, and in tunnels that burrow into them. The main character, a boy who grows up next to the edge of the abyss, finds himself drawn into the lure of its unknown. As a small child, he watches an unusual natural event, in which the top of the tube opens to allow seed drifts to fall past their town and into the depths. The event moves him deeply and he becomes obsessed with watching things fall, and often throws objects that are dear to him into the darkness. The rest of his dissatisfied life is much like that of those seeds: he drifts, uncertainly, moving ever downward into a shadowed unknown. He leaves his home town to go and meet his grandparents, but is equally dissatisfied there, and then becomes addicted to various substances, spiraling further downward. The world-building detail is often exquisite, especially at its most disjunctive and surprising. There were also times when the story seemed to lose its impetus and become repetitive. I also felt unsatisfied by the ending; after following the main character's life for so long, I wasn't satisfied by leaving him abruptly, even on a strong image, especially when it didn't seem to have either a clear implication for what would happen next, or create (as would work equally well) a poignant thematic resonance with the main character's arc. My analysis of this may simply be too shallow, however. It's a lovely piece that I strongly recommend reading.

"To Be Read Upon Your Waking" by Robert Jackson Bennett (Subterranean)
"The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future" by Jay Lake (Subterranean)
"Let Maps to Others" by K. J. Parker (Subterranean)
"Sudden, Broken, Unexpected" (excerpt) by Stephen Popkes (Asimovs)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rachel Swirsky's Novelette Recommendations, 2012

As noted in my entry on short stories, I read approximately 540 pieces of short fiction this year. I read all of: Asimovs, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Eclipse Online, Giganotosaurus, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Subterranean and Tor, as well as several anthologies. (I will probably continue reading during the next few weeks, and if I find anything remarkable, I will post about it.)

To begin the entry, I'm going to list, without reviews, the novelettes that are definitely on my ballot, those which I'm considering for my ballot, and those which I highly recommend. Reviews will follow, along with shorter reviews of recommended novelettes. At the end of the post, I'll list other novelettes I found notable.

As always, there are many more novelettes that I read and enjoyed, and that deserve recognition, than I can list.

Definitely on Ballot
"Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous" (excerpt) by Dale Bailey (Asimovs)
"Fade to White" by Cathrynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld)

Possibly on Ballot
"Swift, Brutal Retalliation" by Meghan McCarron (
"The Finite Canvas" by Brit Mandelo (
"Aftermath" by Joy Kennedy O'Neill (Strange Horizons)
"Hold a Candle to the Devil" by Nicole M. Taylor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Highly Recommended
"The Ghosts of Christmas" by Paul Cornell (
"Firebugs" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Eclipse Online)
"The Indifference Engine" by Project Itoh (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE)
"Tattooed Love Boys" by Alex Jeffers (Giganotosaurus)
"Unsilenced" by Karalynn Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Waves" by Ken Liu (Asimovs)
"Golden Bread" by Issui Ogawa (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE)
"Scry" by Anne Ivy (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"Small Towns" by Felicity Shoulders (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
"Static, and Sometimes Music" by David Schwartz (Unstuck #2)
"Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Giganotosaurus)
"Astrophilia" by Carrie Vaughn (Clarkesworld)


Definitely on Ballot

"Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous" (excerpt) by Dale Bailey (Asimovs) - I hadn't heard of Dale Bailey before reading this story; when I was finished, I immediately looked him up and wrote him a fan letter. I read this very late at night when I had insomnia and it took me in completely and was unexpectedly intense and wrenching. In this story, a couple with a troubled marriage spend more money than they can afford to go to a resort in the Cretaceous. They are supposed to see the dinosaurs together, but the husband displays little interest, and the wife disconnects from him, finding more passion in the ancient sights. I found the characters and emotional journey extremely vivid and well-wrought. The science fictional backdrop intensified the emotional story. It's not an original emotional journey--especially in lit-fic--but it was a very good treatment. This story doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of review love, perhaps because reviewers weren't interested in the kind of emotional journey that is classically the domain of literary fiction. But I loved it. (Tolbert's "The Yeti Behind You" which I published in PodCastle explores a similar thematic link between extinction and emotion, although from a less character-intense space.)

"Fade to White" by Cathrynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld) - Like Valentine, I think Valente is having an amazing year. This story just dropped me flat. It was probably my favorite piece of fiction published this year. Read it. Read it. Read it. In this novelette, Valente creates a dystopian world that might have occurred if the world had ended in the 1950s. Its retro feel--enhanced not only by the character development and setting, but by cleverly placed interludes that contain scripts from commercials--allows Valente to comment on the cultural heritage of the 1950s, both in our everyday lives and, particularly, in science fiction. By looking at the breakdown of that world--as so much classic SF does--from a modern perspective, she deconstructs the assumptions of the era and of its stories in an intelligent, striking way. The story isn't easily reducible to its politics, though; Valente clearly establishes the characters within her world and follows their unsettling stories with a relentlessly clear eye.

Possibly on Ballot

"Swift, Brutal Retalliation" by Meghan McCarron ( - This exquisitely well-written story is about two little girls whose brother has just died of cancer. His ghost appears when they play pranks on each other. Like many of the other novelettes I'm passionate about this year, this story thrives on its intricate characterization and the way in which its speculative content highlights the characters and emotions. The family in this story is described intensely and unflinchingly with finely woven POV shifts and sharply observed family dynamics. It's a chilling, bitter story in many ways, and reminds me of the work by an MFA classmate of mine, Jenny Zhang, who created obsessive, clear-eyed family portraits through fragmented POVs. It also has shades of Klages's clear, non-nostalgic eye for the good and bad of childhood, as well as shades of Kelly Link's use of mystery in the voice.

"The Finite Canvas" by Brit Mandelo ( - A woman who was exiled from her home in space has ended up on earth where resources are scarce and people live without modern conveniences. She works as the local doctor, barely able to scrape together enough money for medicines, let alone to cure her worsening breast cancer. Her circumstances worsen when another refugee comes to earth, an assassin who is being chased by the government, and who recently killed her partner. The assassin promises money to the doctor if the doctor will scarify her arm in memorial of her last kill. "Finite Canvas" weaves both women's stories with the present as they're falling in love. Mandelo is a writer to watch, I think. Her stories are incisive and her characters have an unusual edge. She's exploring themes of gender, but also themes of passion--its tangles, its brightness, its viciousness. Of writers I enjoy, I think her writing most reminds me of Nicola Griffith's.

"Aftermath" by Joy Kennedy O'Neill (Strange Horizons) - O'Neill is another writer who's new to me, and this is one of the few zombie stories that I've really liked. It's about the process of reconciliation that occurs after the zombies recover and how they reintegrate into society. The novelette intelligently references and builds on real-world situations like the post-apartheid recovery in South Africa. Mending the sociological rifts left by genocide or other atrocities requires a sort of willful social blindness, a denial of what has happened. In the novelette's case, the zombies did not have control over their actions, so the story necessarily removes the question of responsibility for the atrocities, which does make the reonciliation process less intense than it is in real life. Nevertheless, I think O'Neil intelligently explores the ways in which people act to protect themselves psychologically: denying what has happened, denying what they did, the ways in which the socially mandated silence creaks and cracks. There is a sentimental element here, but it didn't overwhelm the story for me.

"Hold a Candle to the Devil" by Nicole M. Taylor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - Another writer who is new to me. This is a story woven through multiple POVs of a woman who is inheriting the bawdhouse where she works from the woman who took her in as a young child. She is learning the craft of protecting her workers with magic, which she must use when one of them is attacked by a client. The story doesn't tread any new conceptual ground, but I quite liked the voice, and particularly the way that the unusual but careful structure allowed it to develop with a vivid emotional tone, which has now (months after I read the story) distilled for me into a mix of melancholy and dread.

Highly Recommended

"The Ghosts of Christmas" by Paul Cornell ( - A woman develops the technology to project herself mentally backward into the past or forward into the future, but only to watch from her own perspective what has happened. On the day when she is about to give birth, she is the first person to test the new technology, and she witnesses a string of her past Christmases, and another string going into the future as she divorces her husband and uncovers her uneasy relationship with her daughter. This story felt deeply endowed with personal emotion (which makes sense since Cornell recently became a father) and I was particularly struck by the kinds of details that Cornell employed in establishing the characters' relationships.

"Firebugs" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Eclipse Online) - A future in which clone groups are raised with established personality patterns, e.g. a group of six Chloes who are all raised with the same personality profile, and in which the clones are kept together as closely as possible so that they will develop as few diverging experiences (and thus traits) as possible. The main character is part of an experimental clone group that would establish a new personality. Consequently, they're under close supervision to see whether they will be approved. The main character turns out to have a propensity toward arson that would scuttle her group's chance and so she has to figure out how she can proceed without endangering her sister/twins. I usually find Hoffman's work charming, and this was no exception. It's a fun plot to follow and an interesting world/question posed.

"The Indifference Engine" by Project Itoh (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE) - After a truce is declared in a war-torn African country, the two factions from the civil war are unable to reconcile. Child soldiers who have never known anything but the conflict are unwilling to stop fighting. An American NGO experimentally treats many of them so that they can no longer visually tell the difference between their tribe and the other, but this solution proves simplistic and inadequate. I thought this was an interesting and politically intriguing way of engaging with contemporary political situations that are often ignored in western literature (although I have no idea how they're treated in Japanese literature).

"Tattooed Love Boys" by Alex Jeffers (Giganotosaurus) - A tattoo artist is able to change a person's sex, desires, and life story by engraving them with different tattoos. The main character, who starts out as a discontented girl who is attracted to gay men, eventually is turned into a man, and her whole relationship with her brother changes. Really smart and weird play with gender. Fun, strange experiments, written lightly, with tongue a bit in cheek, the kind of thing you want to watch because you want to see where the author is going to dart next.

"Unsilenced" by Karalynn Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - This is a strangely beautiful story wherein an empress whose father has just died makes a deal with a mage so that she can take over her father's power along with his throne. In order to accomplish this, the mage steals the voice of another magic-worker for her, and with the voice comes the gift of prophecy. The story's not entirely coherent which is a point against it, but it's particularly lovely, and has the sense of being longer than it is, not in terms of feeling boring or overdone, but in terms of feeling as if you're experiencing so much that it must be longer. Imagistic loveliness reminds me of Tanith Lee.

"The Waves" by Ken Liu (Asimovs) - Humanity reaches a post-human state--but it's not without complications. On a generation ship where the stores are calibrated carefully to support only a certain number of people, is it moral to choose immortality when you know that means your kids can never grow up? When the generation ship lands, they find that uploading is possible, and enhanced consciousness, and traveling through space in waves. The story documents the different choices that people make. Mostly an idea story, but I was willing to let the ideas and the images wash past.

"Golden Bread" by Issui Ogawa (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE) - A soldier from a colonial empire lands on an asteroid where people attempt to live without significant expansion or consumption. He is convinced that the differences between their cultures is caused by genetics, but eventually, they demonstrate that it is not. There's some (a lot of?) heavy-handedness in the theme here, but I really enjoyed it a lot, partially because of the description of the asteroid, and the characters who people the story. While the writer tilts his hand to force the theme, the characters' reaction to living in that world seems true to me, and the main character's reaction to the epiphany seems emotionally real.

"Scry" by Anne Ivy (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A wife has always scried for her husband and served him well, but nevertheless, when he is sieged, he abandons her to the enemy because he has no way to hide her acid-burned face. Rather than committing suicide as her husband no doubt wants, she goes to the alien enemy and offers to serve him in return for a stay of execution. The character and world here are nice and it's a fast-paced, well-rendered epic fantasy that, like "Unsilenced," feels fuller than its word count would seem to allow. However, it didn't quite transcend its well-worn territory for me. A fully enjoyable, well-done story.

"Small Towns" by Felicity Shoulders (Fantasy & Science Fiction) - A miniature girl (a Thumbelina analog) is born to a seamstress during a war. After the seamstress dies, the miniature girl is sent to the mother's hometown; however it was recently destroyed by a natural disaster that killed her grandparents. The girl discovers a miniature town that was built by a toymaker to look like the one that was destroyed. She moves into the model houses and eventually meets him. I just thought this was charming, imagistically, and I really enjoyed the voice that Shoulders used to tell the story.

"Static, and Sometimes Music" by David Schwartz (Unstuck #2) - Schwartz is another writer I'm starting to watch. This surrealist novelette places a corporate building under a literal siege by its creditors. The story wanders between genres, swinging from contemporary satire to surrealism to epic fantasy. Schwartz has a disarming ability to establish the reader on what seems like solid ground and then break it down, changing the rules completely, and building up another seemingly stable space which he then also breaks down. The rules are constantly changing and yet the disorientation is never unpleasant; there's always a sense of being tossed about by a confident, playful hand. There are shades of Vandermeer here ("Secret Life") but as I write this review, I realize that what it really reminds me of is absurdism as it manifests in playwriting, e.g. Ionesco's The Chairs.

"Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Giganotosaurus) - In this piece, Sriduangkaew rewrites a story from Chinese mythology, casting the hero Houyi as a woman. I really grooved on this retelling, both because of the way that it developed as a story, and also because of the interesting gender plays.

"Astrophilia" by Carrie Vaughn (Clarkesworld) - Set in the same world as Vaughn's Hugo nominated "Amaryllis," this is the story of a love affair between a weaver who has been adopted into a new house after her old one has dissolved, and a would-be astrologer. Vaughn is very good at these peaceful, almost pastoral science fiction stories, and I like their quietness and character development.


"After Compline, Silence Falls" by M. Bernardo (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A colony of ascetic monks confronts hunger as their supplies drain. Each sins by eating more than his share, but only nettles himself with his sins, rather than trying to resolve them communally. The story is complicated when a wraith made from hunger begins attacking the monks' stores. This is well-written and well-structured. The monster story doesn't do anything surprising for me in itself, but I liked this for the voice, setting, and the emotion behind the conclusion.

"The Stone Witch" by Isobelle Carmody (UNDER MY HAT) - A woman who hates kids is seated next to a young girl on an airplane. When the plane crashes, she's pulled into an alternate universe where, in order to save the girl's life, she takes her as a familiar. Honestly, I read this story near the beginning of last year, and I have strikingly little recollection of it. My notes suggest I really liked it a lot at the time. I think it was one of those fun, let-it-all-go adventure stories.

"Join the High Flyers" by Ian Creasey (Asimovs) - A former runner is genetically modified so that he has wings and can fly. He joins a clan of other bird-men and ascends into the sky, revealing the competitive culture of the bird-people. This was really just intense and strange, and it was a lot of fun to discover the unusual imagery and world-building. I also like stories about flying people; sue me. But seriously, it was pretty and fun.

"Close Encounters" by Andy Duncan (Pottowatomie Giant) - One of the original "alien abductees" has been trying to hide from reporters ever since the moon landing has made his story seem like a joke. He still believes it is real, though, and is forced to interact with the outside world again when a reporter coaxes him into talking about the old days. The character is interesting, with Duncan's wonderful skill for voice, and I was mostly happy to go along with an interesting read. I didn't like the way that it resolved--which I've seen several times before and which seems indulgent to me--but I'm not sure what ending would have managed to avoid cliche of some sort.

"Hive Mind Man" by Eileen Gunn and Rudy Rucker (Asimovs) - The funny story of a woman who takes in a deadbeat boyfriend who has endless projects that he wants to accomplish with new technologies. This is another story about the anxiety produced by changing technology (there were a number of these in Asimovs this year, and generally speaking, they don't speak to me), but it's also just charming and very amusing and full of fun eyeball kicks. The story feels light and energetic and just sort of runs along at a jovial speed, grinning.

"Old Paint" (excerpt) by Megan Lindholme (Asimovs) - The story of a family and its sentient car. After a virus gives independence to the AIs in cars, a woman lives vicariously through her old station wagon. Good detail and characterization; the whimsy of the premise ameliorates the serious tone. I enjoyed it despite being divided about the story: on the one hand, the "what if cars could be sentient" motif felt stale... but on the other hand, I liked the way that it created an effect of nostalgia for the past, and I also liked the relationships between the characters.

"Possible Monsters" (excerpt) by Will McIntosh (Asimovs) - A failed minor league baseball player returns home after his father's death and discovers that an alien monster has taken up residence in his childhood home. He makes an uneasy home with the creature, only to discover that it has given him an unwanted gift--the ability to see his possible future selves walking, like ghosts, through the town. Nothing profoundly new here, but McIntosh is a very talented writer, and it's interesting to watch his take on this unfold.

"The Contrary Gardener" by Christopher Rowe (Eclipse Online) - In a world that has reacted to environmental devastation by enacting strict rules limiting consumption, a woman has broken all the social rules by figuring out ways to increase her yield above the government-mandated subsistence level. Her father who is part of a group that hates the current government--and its artificial intelligences--tries to recruit her and her gardening skills to their cause. The main character's acerbic personality and love for gardening come through in the story, and the world itself is interesting.

"Mirror Blink" by Jason Sanford (Interzone) - Sanford writes science fictional worlds that have really striking, unusual imagery, so that there's a sense of combining surrealism with hard science fiction with metaphor that I really love. This story--about a post-apocalyptic world wherein humanity is ruled by capricious alien beings that limit their knowledge and periodically burn whole towns--had many of the signature Sanford elements; my favorite was that one could look into the sky with a telescope and discern moments from history, strung up like stars. For some reason, it didn't transcend itself for me; I did like it a lot, but I felt something was missing.

Notable Novelettes
"Juggernaut" by Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
"The Sweet Spot" by A. M. Dellamonica (Lightspeed)
"Fake Plastic Trees" by Caitlin Kiernan (AFTER)
"In the Library of Souls" by Jennifer Mason-Black (Strange Horizons)
"Golva's Ascent" (excerpt) by Tom Purdom (Asimovs)
"Missionaries" by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimovs)