Monday, January 31, 2011

Short Fiction Monday

As I mentioned last week, Abyss & Apex's latest issue converted perfectly to work on my Nook.

First thing worth pointing out is that my friend Lindsey Duncan has a story in there, "Twice Given." It's a story of a priestess's sister and the deep bond they share. (She also has a poem out this week in Strong Verse: "A Thousand Strips of Parchment.")

I haven't read the entire issue yet, but another story from Abyss & Apex that I really enjoyed was J. Kathleen Cheney's "Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy." It's the story of a mermaid who disguises herself as human, and about seal-people/selkies, about an industrializing city spreading out into the water, and about the intrigue of mysterious, sinister forces. I have to admit that if someone had said it was a story of mermaids and selkies, I would have been hesitant about it--fascinating as the folk tales of selkies may be, I've seen a lot of stories based on those tales, and they often seem to follow very closely to the same pattern. This one does not, and the story as a whole feels very fresh and alive.

Darby Harn's "News Right Fresh From Heaven" in Fantasy last week also stood out for me, a story about poetry and apple children.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Science Fiction article on Slate

I'm a frequent reader of Slate.com, so I was interested to see a science fiction article there today. It goes by the grandiose title "The Purpose of Science Fiction" and is by Robert Sawyer. Huh, I didn't realize there was only one purpose...but ok. Still cool to see an SF article there.

Except...not. The basic argument is that the essence and ultimate reason for SF is to prepare us for the future so that when things happen, when technology and new discoveries change our world, we won't be caught completely unprepared. Don't get me wrong, I think it's just peachy when one work or another happens to have that effect for some readers regarding this technology or that. But is that really it's main purpose? Seems a pretty limited mindset to me.

I know I've pointed before to Ursula LeGuin's essay that appeared as a forward to her science fiction classic The Left Hand of Darkness, but it's worth mentioning it again. I don't have it before me, so I won't quote verbatim. The gist of the article is that science fiction, for all its superficially futuristic appearance, really has nothing to do with the future. A science fiction writer claiming to predict the future is a charlatan, and even one claiming to predict a possible future if things continue XYZ...meh, that's not what it's about. What a science fiction writer does, LeGuin argues, is tell you about today, about her place in history, his life, what it's like to live here, now. And, ultimately, what it is to be human on a more universal level, as well. If they take a slant-wise, futuristic path to explore that, or a steampunk corridor, or a winding medieval road, or a completely mundane-seeming city street like the one just around the corner...well, that's all surface.

From the article,
George Orwell's science-fiction classic Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn't a failure because the future it predicted failed to come to pass. Rather, it was a resounding success because it helped us prevent that future.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first half of this quote, but disagree with the second--it was a resounding success because it told us something of the fears and dangers of the day...and fears and dangers that may have changed in many ways but remain a part of what it is to be human today as well, and into the future. Science fiction doesn't fail or succeed based, either, on whether it comes true nor whether it prevents something from coming true. It fails or succeeds based on the same metrics and rubrics and aesthetic approaches that we take toward judging any work of literature, or any art.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Using my Nook for short stories

I mentioned a month ago that I'd bought a Nook (hurray for credit card reward points!). I'm not going to go into a lot of the review kinds of details that you can easily find elsewhere. It's a good ereader for what I use it for, and I've been pleased with it.

One of the reasons I wanted to get an ereader was with the idea of reading the stories from places like Strange Horizons when I'm not at my computer--I could save computer time for writing and forums and such, and take those ezines with me to read when I couldn't be here at my computer. When I learned that the Nook has a basic web browser, I thought that'd be perfect. There wouldn't even be the hassle of converting files or anything.

Well...not quite. The basic web browser is a pain to use and not the least bit friendly for reading stories. So I had to convert the files after all. One way to do that is simply copy and paste into Open Office and safe the story as a pdf. That works, but I also got to discover the fun of Calibre to download and convert the web pages into epub format. Calibre downloads the rss feed and converts it into whatever format you want, but sometimes the rss has to be tweaked to work properly. So here are a few things I've discovered while playing around with this:

Calibre works great with Fantasy and Lightspeed. I have it scheduled to download the past week's updates every Monday morning. I had to tweak the format slightly for Fantasy's rss, because it was initially showing up with a black font on a dark background, but that was an easy fix. Abyss & Apex also worked great when I had Calibre convert its latest issue just the other day.

The rss for Beneath Ceaseless Skies only gives you the summaries of the stories, with links to the full text. There are fixes for that within Calibre, but BCS has each issue as an epub download already, so it's easier to just download that instead of using Calibre.

I'd have to play around with the recipe for downloading Clarkesworld some more to get that to work--the rss gave the pages with the audio as well, not a terrible thing but would be nice to get it to skip those pages. It also, this month, gave the entire texts (and audio pages) of the entire past year's worth of stories, because of the readers poll, which linked to them all. That'd actually be pretty cool for someone who hadn't had a chance to read it throughout the year...but it did make for a pretty big file. That wouldn't be a dilemma other months, of course. The biggest problem, though, was that the format didn't transfer very well, so I couldn't read the full lines. I think I could pretty easily fix that, but I'm thinking for now, at least, that for a zine that comes out with an issue once a month, it'd be better to just save and convert them manually.

Strange Horizons has no rss feed to subscribe to (that I know of), so I have to convert those manually. I'm pretty sure I've seen reports that a major upgrade is in the works for Strange Horizons' site, so I imagine that will be an option some point.

Some places I haven't taken a look at yet for, except to manually convert some myself, are Tor.com (I doubt they'd have an rss just for their fiction, and a full rss to their site would overwhelm me), Subterranean (also has an rss, but it's site-wide, it appears, not just the ezine), Chizine (which is going through a site redesign to be unveiled in April), and Ideomancer (has an rss, but that's next on my list for testing out).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Short fiction Tuesday

I love the opening line of last week's story from Fantasy, "Ghost Girl" by Lauren Beukes:

You think of a city as a map, all knotted up in the bondage of grid lines imposed by town planners. But really, it’s a language—alive, untidy, ungrammatical. The meaning of things rearranges. The scramble of the docks turns hipster cool and the inner city’s faded glamour gives way to tenement blocks rotting from the inside. It develops its own accent, its own slang.

The stories that especially stand out from this past week (well, as in I read them this past week--they're actually a bit older than that) were from Lightspeed. First, a few weeks ago it featured a story by Ursula LeGuin, "The Silence of the Asonu." It's a reprint, one that I'd read before, but I always love to return to her stories. It's about as far from plot-driven as stories usually get, so I won't try to give a summary of the events, but it's about a people on an alien planet who seemingly lose the (give up the) ability to speak, or communicate in any way, as they grow to maturity.

And two weeks ago, Lightspeed's story was Corey Mariani's "Postings from an Amorous Tomorrow," which was incredibly powerful. It begins with a future that shades toward parody of social networking, in which people receive augmented brains in order to be able to connect, communicate, love, and be in love with millions of people at once. The opening goes:

As of this second there are 3,236,728,909 people over the age of four living in the world, all of whom I am intimately familiar with. Of these, there are 876,852,003 that I love, and one that I am currently in love with. In ten years, when I am twenty, I hope to love everyone on the planet as Gordon did once for almost two minutes. He is my hero.

From there it takes a dark and heart-breaking turn that's only made more powerful by the light tone of the beginning. A most excellent story.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Feel free to mock me...

So, my NaNo novel summary that I posted a few weeks ago had one word that was wrong. See, the novel was already beginning to show glimmers of itself over a year ago, and I wrote a short story that was meant to take place long before the novel but in the same setting, to help solidify some of those images. In that story I included various references to factory smoke.

A factory. I had this image of a sprawling, early industrial factory, something like this:
Well, I started questioning if that was the image that people would get from the word "factory." If it were a steampunk novel, then probably, but it didn't seem to conjure that image for me as I was doing my last minute, pre-November planning. I started thinking that what I wanted was more along the lines of a coal-burning power plant (especially a particular one alone I-80 up in Cheyenne), mashed up with an oil refinery and a grain elevator, and other such industrial complexes.

Power plant didn't feel quite right, either, so I decided to call it the Refinery. Except...this was the scramble before NaNo, remember, and somehow when I wrote that down, changing "Factory" to "Refinery," I mixed the two words together instead of changing it, and ended up with "Refectory."

And I kept writing that throughout November. NaNo doesn't give time to question yourself. By the time November was done, I had convinced myself that a refectory really was some sort of general word that encompassed all the things I was picturing. It wasn't until mid-December (when my characters actually arrived there) that I paused to question myself. The dictionary shocked me. A dining room in a monastery? That's not what I wanted! The image had become so ingrained that it took me awhile to trust that I hadn't somehow been using some secondary definition or something.

Nope. Refinery it is. Or maybe I'll go back to Factory--I love that picture of the sugar factory that was just a little ways south of here. But not Refectory.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Short Fiction Wednesday...plus Happy New Year!

I've been traveling (and recovering from travels) but now I'm back. I hope everyone had good holidays and wish everyone a happy new year.

I'm still behind the most recent short fiction, but I've been catching up, and two that I read during my travels especially stood out for me for their interesting settings.

Matthew Johnson's "Holdfast" in Fantasy Magazine tells the story of a land where rhymes and simple spells--and most importantly, knots--hold real power, if performed correctly. Even more, it's the story of a person who has chosen that his deeply magical connection to his land is more important than whatever acclaim he might earn by leaving the place and becoming a famous wizard. I could see Wendell Berry enjoying the story, though I can't say I could see him writing it, per se.

"A Bounty Split Three Ways" by Peter Kovic (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) is a well-realized story of a country bumpkin sort who has decided to become a bounty hunter in order to pay a wizard a fee he'd promised, knowing he had no way to pay. No one thing stood out for why I enjoyed this story, but I just liked how it all worked together.

Looking up the link to that one, I remembered another Beneath Ceaseless Skies story that I'd read earlier while traveling and enjoyed a lot: "As Below, So Above" by Ferrett Steinmetz. This is the story of a squid (always good to get the cephalopods involved), the story of a monster whose job is to protect an evil wizard, written completely from his point of view and with his understanding of who and what humans are.