Tying up old plot lines

There is a lot of noise amid the right-SF social media sphere currently. It’s very free form and the broader cause is that in mainstream SF&F communities there has been the recent cases of some very prominent and well connected men being held accountable for the way they have been treating other people (earlier coverage). Although post-Puppies, the world of right-wing science fiction claims to have separated and living an idyllic SJW-free life, in reality ructions in mainstream SF&F are felt keenly in the breakaway bubble. The problem they have is working out a clear position. On the one hand various authors they dislike are having a bad time of things but on the other hand, powerful men are being held accountable for their actions against women. Bit of a tricky dilemma and hence we get to see various diversions attacking the ‘wokeness’ of mainstream SF&F (e.g. Dave Freer recently).

Another recent example is Cirsova magazine. Cirsova was, in many ways, a better attempt by the right-wing SF&F community to challenge their energies into something a bit more positive i.e. an on-going story magazine. Up until recently, it had largely avoided outrage marketing techniques. However, that changed on June 29 with the unintentionally funny announcement that they had declared that the SFWA was a terrorist organisation (File 770 coverage). Cirsova’s stance on terrorism had been notably absent during their long association with Vox Day’s Castalia House despite Day’s infamous support of convicted terrorist and mass-murderer Anders Breivik. (“Virtue signalling” could be the term for it if we could find any virtue signalled…)

I draw two big inferences from this:

  1. This is another example of the diversions I talk about above
  2. Sales/income must be bad for Cirsova. There is always a grift with right-wing SF&F. Always, and this is classic outrage marketing. [That observation got me instantly blocked on Twitter by Cirsova…]

On the second point, right-wing SF&F publishing has been contracting. There are still some big sellers (i.e. Larry Correia) but in the time since the Puppies stormed off with their own football from the field, Castalia House has stopped publishing new science fiction and Superversive Press has closed, various at attempts at alt-SFWA have fizzled and Sarah Hoyt is claiming she can’t get published by Baen any more. There’s still a right wing audience out there but it’s just not big enough to maintain a large number of authors and outlets and much of it is catered to by more generic military SF provided by less partisan groups like LMBPN.

On the first point…well the SFWA statement on Black Lives Matter was June 4. Cirsova’s counter-terrorism unit didn’t make its deceleration until twenty-five days later i.e. not until mainstream SF&F was having its own ructions and right-wing SF was trying to find a way to join in.

Let’s throw in a few other bad actors (n both senses of the term). So I was watching a video by Jon Del Arroz…that’s never a good start to a story nor is it something I would recommend. Anyway, JDA’s video was about another charmer Richard Fox. Remember Richard? Fox got a story nominated for a Nebula award courtesy of the 20booksto50K/LMBPN slate in 2019 (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/nebula-shorts-going-dark-by-richard-fox/) and then had a bit of a melt-down in the comments section here partly when people noticed the similarity between him and a Goodreads commenter called “John Margolis” who wrote racially abusive comments to people who gave Richard bad reviews on Goodreads.

Fox would go onto behave in even more odd ways (to put it politely) https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/09/15/authors-behaving-badly-episode-1234543-richard-fox/ accusing Mike Glyer’s File 770 of “piracy” because it had a link to the SFWA public Nebula reading list to a PDF of his story that he had uploaded. No, that made no sense but it was enough for the axis of Jon Del Arroz and Larry Correia to try to spin into a scandal.

Where was I? Oh!…a video by Jon Del Arroz. [Here for reference but seriously, it’s just trolling. You can skip it https://delarroz.com/2020/07/01/nebula-award-nominated-author-pulls-story-from-sfwa-anthology-because-of-their-racism/ ]

JDA was proudly announcing that “Nebula nominated” author Richard Fox was withdrawing his story from the Nebula Award anthology (yes, that story mentioned above) in solidarity with Cirsova. Notably, Fox’s author Facebook page and author website say exactly ZERO about this brave stand against ‘terrorism’. It’s not something Fox wants his regular readers to know but…well he’d like some of those Dragon Award votes from the people who are most likely to vote in them.

Long story short: various right wing science fiction people are generally agitated by the fact that some specific male SF authors (who happen to people they don’t like but are also powerful men…so a bit of a dilemma) are being held to account because of misogynistic behaviour and so are finding various random ways of acting out.

Blogiversary: Greatest Hits

Five years of all this nonsense but what nonsense were people reading and when? I’m down here in the archive stacks of Felapton Towers and blowing the dust off the weird old filing cabinets to find out. These posts are just the numbers-game hits rather than special favourites and often other factors drove the traffic to them.

2015

The first year out for the blog and Puppy-kerfuffling was already in full on kerfluff.

2016

2016 was the year that the unreality field started spilling out everywhere.

2017

2017 was dominated by Rabid Puppy shenanigans. In particular Vox Day’s spoiler campaign for John Scalzi’s new sci-fi trilogy.

2018

I was downloading a report from an online database the other day and I was entering a date range. I wanted to cover the whole set of records which started in 2011. So I picked 2011/1/1 as the start date and that day’s date which I typed as 2018/5/8. What? I think my brain stopped updating the year and I’ve been stuck in 2018 ever since.

The reality dysfunction was going full-on as world politics got even stranger. Meanwhile this blog was forced into self-referentiality as I got caught up in my own Sad Puppy kerbungle and then later became a Hugo Finalist.

2019

At the very start of January 2019 I considered winding down the blog. Later I decided to post something every day. I’m fickle. Surprisingly, it was the Nebula Awards that drove traffic to the blog.

2020

The year isn’t finished yet but it started on fire and followed up with a global pandemic. This is a first-quarter list but I think some of the themes for the year are clear…

Yet another alt-SFWA

We’ve covered attempts at creating alternatives to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America before but the face behind the latest attempt has a better track record of getting things done. Craig Martelle (who you may recall from the LMBPN/20Books kerfufle) has announced a new organisation called The Independent Alliance of Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors https://iasfa.org/join-iasfa/

“The Independent Alliance of Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors (IASFA or Indie Alliance for short) aims to be a professional organization for working authors with a singular focus on helping its members sell more books through a philanthropic approach to reader engagement.”

The group aims to recruit writers publishing independently:

“Membership in the IASFA is reserved for science fiction or fantasy authors of all genres who are actively self-publishing or who are working towards that goal. Members have access to our private forums, professional support services, and reference archive.”

Currently the organisation is being operated financially by Craig Martelle’s company (e.g. the donation page states “Funds will be collected by Craig Martelle, LLC who will immediately transfer all donations to the IASFA.” [archive link]) but it “may eventually become a 501(c)(3) charity (where donations are tax deductible)”

As with any of these things, it’s a matter of wait and see. Martelle has demonstrated the capacity to actually get organisations off the ground (unlike previous attempts). Membership seems to be broadly open to anybody published at Amazon (the membership overtly asks for an Amazon author profile, presumably if you eschew Amazon you can’t get in?)

{Thanks to Cora Buhlert for pointing me to the website]

Nebula Shorts: A.C.Wise – How the Trick is Done

The story starts with the on-stage death of a Las Vegas magician when a death-defying catch-a-bullet act does not go as he expects. From there the story backtracks to the events and people involved in the magician’s life and death.

‘Here’s the secret, and it’s a simple one: dying is easy. All the Magician has to do is stand with teeth clenched, muscles tight, breath slowed, and wait. The real work is left to his Resurrectionist girlfriend, Angie, standing just off stage, night after night, doing the impossible, upsetting the natural order of the world. Her timing is always impeccable, her focus a razor’s edge. Her entire will is trained on holding the bullet in place, coaxing the Magician’s blood to flow and forbidding his heart from simply quitting out of shock. Death can be very startling, after all.’

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/how-the-trick-is-done/

The early reveal that there are people with genuine magical powers in the glitzy world of stage magic re-shapes expectations and colours our understanding of the magicians and his interactions with others.

The magician’s (former now deceased) assistant, the magician’s girlfriend, the magician’s stage manager, the magician’s rabbit (whose name isn’t Gus): the cast of characters find themselves orbiting the magician’s life and in the process lose some of their own agency and at times their names.

Unanswered by the story is whether the magician also has some magical power that he is unaware of but without a doubt the trio (if we exclude the rabbit) are bound to the magician by either love or a sense of obligation while the magician himself is casually uninterested in their lives or well being.

Meg, Angie, Rory lose identity around the Magician (who stays nameless in the story) just as his rabbit has lost its correct name and more than once loses its life.

‘Rage widens cracks in Angie she hadn’t even known were there. She can see what will happen next, Rory fluttering to the ground in the Magician’s wake like a forgotten card. There’s already forgetting in the Magician’s eyes, his mind running ahead to the next show, the next trick, the thunder of applause. Angie makes fists of her hands. She wanted better for Rory. She wanted him to be better. She wants to have been better herself. Smart enough to never have fallen for the Magician’s tricks, clever enough to see through the illusion and sleight of hand. Angie meets Meg’s eyes.’

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/how-the-trick-is-done/

Death, opportunity and the traps of loyalty that tie people to others who don’t value them play out amid genuine magical powers that also are metaphors for greater potential. This is a sad but narratively strong story with a central villain whose primary crime is their own self-centredness rather than active malice.

Very impressive.

Nebula Shorts: Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms

A coastal town is besieged by storms and chosen people from the town use the names of storms to gain power over them. But what happens when people become the weather or the weather seeks out people?

‘Long before Lillit and Varyl and I were born, the Mayor’s son shouted to the rain to stop before one of her speeches. And it did. Mumma’s aunt at the edge of town yelled back lightning once.
The weather struck back: a whole family became a thick grey mist that filled their house and didn’t disperse.
Then Mumma’s aunt and the Mayor’s son shouted weather names when storms approached. At first it was frightening, and people stayed away. Then the Mayor realized how useful, how fortunate. Put them up at the Cliffwatch, to keep them safe.
Then the news crier, she went out one day and saw snow on her hand—a single, perfect flake. The day was warm, the sky clear, trees were budding and ready to make more trees and she lifted the snowflake to her lips and whirled away.
The town didn’t know what to think. We’d been studying the weather that became smarter than us. We’d gotten the weather in us too, maybe.’

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/a-catalog-of-storms/

Sila and her sisters make their lives amid the personal battle between the storms that attack the town and the people who become weathermen to hold off the attacks. In the process of becoming weathermen, they cease to be entirely people any more.

My desire for puns makes it too hard not to call the story ‘atmospheric’ and the story captures a melancholic sense of the town with its trade in storm catalogs captured on unusual articles (brass hinges, stitches in the hems of curtains) and its loss of people either as victims to predatory storms or as they turn into weathermen.

However, as a whole, the pieces just really didn’t fall into place for me. I’ve read the story several times and I usually find that these style of stories (where the setting and circumstance take the whole story to really grasp) often click into place on the second reading. Unfortunately, this one really didn’t do that for me. It is full of ideas & images and those stick with you but I didn’t get a sense of place or setting or really character but rather fragments not unlike a dream you can’t quite remember.

This is not a story that I find mysterious why other people like it. The prose is well executed and that dream-like quality and the air of sadness has a beauty to it. However, it just didn’t hang together for me and even writing this review I have to keep revisiting because the piece doesn’t stick in my head.

Nebula Shorts: Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

I love stories that play with non-narrative forms to tell stories and I also love short stories with self-explanatory titles, so Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island is off to a roaring start for me before I started the first paragraph.

It does exactly what it says on the tin and is styled as a series of excerpts from books about the eponymous cannibal women of Ratnabar Island, an island somewhere in the Indian Ocean (either part of the Andaman Islands or close to them). The excerpts are from fictional books ranging from 1904, to 1943, to the present day and represent accounts from different view points. The more recent books include reflections on the history of the island by descendants of immigrants (forcibly taken) from the island.

‘9. Gaur, Shalini. “We Can Never Go Home.” Hungry Diasporas: Annual Humanities Colloquium, May 2008, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
“We know Ratnabar’s coordinates. Aerial reconnaissance has confirmed people still live on the island. But how do I set foot on its shores, with my English accent and my English clothes, and not have them flee from me in the terror that was taught to them in 1891? Where do we go, descendants of stolen ones, trapped between two islands and belonging on neither—too brown for English sensibilities, too alien now for the home of our great-grandmothers? How shall we live, with Ratnabar in our blood but English on our tongues?”’

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/ten-excerpts-from-an-annotated-bibliography-on-the-cannibal-women-of-ratnabar-island/

At one level we have a sketch of an island, encountered by British explorers in 1891 who had an encounter with the inhabitants who appeared to be only women. Some children were taken and one was enrolled in a British school were there was an incident…

Published in the Horror & Dark Fantasy magazine Nightmare, the story dabbles with its horror and speculative elements. It strongly implies that Ratnabar’s women were not only ritual cannibals but gained powers from eating human flesh. The clash between their culture (and powers) and the modern world plays out in hints and fragments among the excerpts.

It is very nicely constructed. As such styles of story are, it maybe unsatisfying if you want a clear revelation or a distinction between rumour, folklore and what is true within the context of the story. You can choose to read it as having no speculative content at all, after all a description of any group of people will include rumour and folklore both external and internal to the society. I think that ambiguity helps exacerbate the themes playing out in the story. The shifts in tone, voices and writing style also is very effectively done:

‘None of us could have foreseen what she and Emma Yates whispered into each others’ ears behind closed doors as they planned their foul feast.’

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/ten-excerpts-from-an-annotated-bibliography-on-the-cannibal-women-of-ratnabar-island/

Folklore, the relative power of women in different societies, the clash of the modern and pre-moden viewpoints and the alienation of diaspora communities all play out in the accounts. Genuinely impressive.

Nebula Shorts: Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing

Magic and history collide in this revenge fantasy in which a grandmother encounters a brutal colonial empire and responds with the only power she has.

‘A slight frown creases her brow as she watches him; his eagerness for everything doll-related is a bittersweet reminder of what used to be. Where once it was common for children to gather gawking at her while she worked, or for villagers to stop by the house and ask her about taking on so-and-so as an apprentice, it’s now been years since anyone has. Today’s young people have other things they want to do with their lives, things that do not require them to spend decades hunched over with needle in hand, nor pay ever-increasing levies and taxes.’

http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/and-now-his-lordship-is-laughing/

There is a timeless aspect to the story that matches the central character’s role as a matriarch tied to tradition, experience, skill and wisdom. Apa turns the ever versatile jute into wonderful (and magical) dolls, working even in the twilight despite her age. The dolls are so wonderful that the regional lord of the colonial empire covets one of Apa’s dolls as a gift for his wife.

But this is not any time nor any empire. It is Bengal in 1943, the world is at war and a horrific famine is descending on the region. Systemic colonial mismanagement had undermined the capacity of the region to feed itself and the economic impact of World War led to further food shortages and inflation. An intentional military policy of depleting or destroying rice reserves to deprive a potential invading Japanese army also helped set the stage for a devastating famine. When the famine hit, millions died across Bengal from starvation and disease. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_famine_of_1943 )

‘Despite what Apa had always thought starvation would be like, the hunger isn’t even the worst part. The pangs don’t last as long as one would imagine; by the fourth day they’re almost entirely gone. It isn’t even the weakness, terrible as that is. No, it’s the lethargy, the constant feeling that nothing matters, not food, not movement, not brushing away the flies circling overhead and settling on one, unwilling to even afford one the dignity of being truly dead before they move in. It’s the sense of lying there, waiting to shut down, but being unable to do even that, as the mind refuses to accept what the body is telling it, that this journey has come to an end.’

http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/and-now-his-lordship-is-laughing/

The very real horror of history shifts in the story to a story about an old woman taking what power she has and using it to enact a more specific horror of her own and those who have abused their position and authority.

At turns lyrical, horrific and melancholy, the story follows an inevitable arc as Apa experiences heart-wrenching loss and social destruction. Harrowing but also elegantly written, the story itself has an uncomplex narrative that enables the emotional impact to be centred. I haven’t read anything before by Shiv Ramdas but I’m very eager to.

Nebula Shorts: Karen Osborne – The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power

Ritual cannibalism crops up twice in the Nebula short story nominees but in the first example it is the consumption of nano-bot filled blood that passes on memories from one generation to next. Karen Osborne’s story combines two perennial tropes: the tradition of a sin-eater who by eating a ritual meal takes on the sins of the recently dead and that of a generation ship whose population have developed their own ship-based culture.

“My destiny was always this: to drink the sin-cup and to hold the sins of the captains in my body where they cannot harm our people on their journey to Paradise. I can stand in the cathedral under the wheeling stars until my feet give out, or pray until my throat shreds with the effort, but truth is truth. The captains must be sinless. They must lead our generation ship with confidence, with a mind tuned to moral truth. Our new captain, Bethen, is responsible for the hundred thousand lives that breathe inside the hull and all the lives that will come after. Someone else must take her family’s sins upon herself, lest the dead walk and breach our hurtling world to black vacuum. Someone else must rock themselves to sleep, white-knuckled, licking spittle from their lips, so Bethen can lead.
That someone is me.”

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-dead-in-their-uncontrollable-power/

The spaceship called the Feenix is ruled by a hereditary chain of captains. Each captain retains many of the memories of their predecessor but not all of them. Those memories that they would rather forget (the failures, the ugly compromises and the brutal acts they ordered) are passed onto a hereditary chain of sin-eaters who live among the lower classes of the ship. This is whole process is dressed up within the rituals of religion, as is their very journey to a world they call Paradise, as if the living inhabitants are themselves the souls of the dead.

The story operates on multiple levels. It works very neatly as a classic generation-ship story, with the people trapped inside a spaceship having to face uncomfortable revelations about their journey. Along side the literal use of memory to aid command, there is a broader metaphor with how different social groups remember history. As a new captain says late in the story:

‘“My sin-eater,” she says. “You see a massacre. I see a victory, a necessary one. Yet, I—” She falters. “I only know that it was a victory. I feel happy about it. I feel… the rush of power he felt, the certainty that it had to be done. Not what was done. It makes me sick to not know, to only suspect—”’

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-dead-in-their-uncontrollable-power/

Massacres and deaths and failures of government are remembered differently. Official history skips over details and terrible acts are recast as victories or erased completely, while the folk history or the traditional history (particularly that of indigenous people in the wake of colonisation) remembers the trauma of the events that have been hidden.

Surprisingly, this is a far more positive and optimistic story than the setting or events suggest. Confronting the truth leads forward and the story has a strong sense of hope to it. The generation-ship setting gives the story an older feel that gives it a sense of SF-stories from older decades while retaining a modern sensibility.

I was impressed by the craft and the plot of the story that neatly balances the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Nebula Shorts: A.T.Greenblatt – Give the Family My Love

The first of my Nebula Finalist short story reviews is AT Greenblatt’s space faring letter home.

“Sorry to do this to you, Saul, but if I don’t talk to someone—well, freak out at someone—I’m not going to make it to the Library. And like hell I’m going to send a message like this back to the boys on the program. You, at least, won’t think less of me for this. You know that emotional meltdowns are part of my process.
850 meters. I should have listened to you, Saul.”

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/greenblatt_02_19/

An astronaut on a distance planet sends a voice message home to her brother that recounts her current experience and explores their shared past and personal differences. More conventional and less ambitious than last years And Yet... the story imagines a journey to an alien library. While the technologically advanced aliens will provide passage to the distant planet where the library sits, the final approach has to be made by a visitor’s own efforts (aided by their own technology). We first meet the astronaut as she makes her way painfully across the inhospitable surface to the mysterious library. The opening would almost work if it simply stopped at the point where she reaches the library door, with her environment suit failing and with no guarantee that the librarians will let her in…

The story continues and we learn about the environmental disaster back on Earth and the hope to find research to help the planet. The twist is that the research is all from Earth, that the solutions to the problems were all found in the past but suppressed or lost.

I find that I don’t have a great deal to say about the story itself. It’s fine. There are no big flaws but no big surprises. The tension for me drained out of the story once she is in the library and the various parts (the alienness of the library, the quest fro Dr Ryu’s research and her relationship with her brother) didn’t really pull together for me.

There are some lovely ideas here, in particular the library and the roaming aliens who collect things for it. The writing is engaging enough that even though the story fell flat for me, I still found it readable. However, overall not a compelling story for me.

The Next Few Days Are Nebula Shorts Days

Scattered among Picard and Doctor Who reviews will be reviews of the Nebula Finalist Short Stories. Just like last year but without the odd interruption from a shouty man.

The finalists are: