Sunday, November 29, 2015

Selections from the Intragalactic Encyclopedia of Habitable Planets

My story, "Selections from the Intragalactic Encyclopedia of Habitable Planets," came out a few days ago in Kelly Ann Jacobson's new anthology, Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction. I'm proud of the story, which is a Douglas Adams-esque take on a far-future encyclopedia cataloguing various species and cultural practices of the Milky Way galaxy.

But I'm even more proud of the anthology. It lives next to my bed right now and I read a story or two every night before I go to sleep, and dang! My co-contributors can write! I'm happy and humbled that my work appears in such company.

I started working on "Selections" in July of 2014. It began as a writing exercise. The first couple sentences of the first entry, "Sand," just came to me:  
"Two universal laws govern sand. One: every rocky planet that has either wind or liquid water has sand. Two: Sand gets into everything."
So I kept going with it, allowing myself to be silly. My normal fiction mode is more serious; this was the first humor piece I'd written. And once I finished the entries, all of which start with "S," I wasn't sure it would be a story. Who would buy it?

I showed it to my friend Scott Fogg, a regular and valued beta-reader of mine, who liked the entries but said they needed a narrative. I agreed, but wasn't sure what framework might tie them all together.  I didn't want to crib too directly from Hitchhiker's Guide, so I didn't really want the story to be about a journey in which the Encyclopedia gets used. Then my husband gave me the idea of the editors of the Encyclopedia. "What if the story is in their notes on the entries?" As a student of book history, I love learning about the ways in which texts are created--what kind of collaborative labor goes into an edited edition of a play, a medieval illuminated manuscript, or even an anthology. So the idea of telling a story using editorial notes and commentary appealed to the book-nerd in me.

Going in, I had no ideas about the over-arching plot, but once I started writing in the voices of the editors, their personalities were so strong that my story--about the creation of the Galactic Alliance and the discovery of a mysterious object called "The Box"--just came together. The first editor I created was Alyssa Carson, v. 13, an artificial intelligence and the lead editor on the project, whose unflappable rationality grounded the other two characters. She worked as a little name-drop, too, for one of my heroes; the real-life Alyssa Carson is a 9th grade "teen astronaut in training" who wants to be one of the first humans on Mars. I first heard of her because of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls initiative and in my alternate history, Alyssa gets her wish--and a lot more!

The other editors, being material and emotional, are more volatile than Alyssa. The human scientist Mahesh Atwal is intense, earnest, and pretty gullible. I wrote him as a stereotype of academics: really smart but lacking a well-developed sense of humor.

Which leads to some good pranks on the part of the third editor, R’Kaf Ka’Goff Uslav’terben-Jones. R'Kaf is a non-human whose origin, species, and even age are shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that zhe's gender-neutral, well-traveled, and more knowledgable about the galaxy than practically anyone else. Some readers might expect a character like this to be a sage, but my inspiration for R'Kaf was less Yoda, more Q from Star Trek: TNG. Zhe's immature, mischievous, and filthy-minded. I liked the idea of this ancient alien being basically a lovable asshole instead of a fount of wisdom.

The end of the story ... well, it's inconclusive, and it's meant to be. R'Kaf's trickster-nature comes through on the final page either way you read it. The truth of what actually happened depends on whether you take his statements at face-value or as jokes, and whether or not you believe that Alyssa is as reliable as she claims to be. But I'll leave that experience to you.

First page

*Shout-outs also due to Marion Deeds, Dario Sulzman, and Beth Pietrzak, who also read and gave me excellent feedback on this story!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Kelly Link throws a mean sucker punch. Her latest short story collection, Get in Trouble, is calculated to get you — to draw you in under one premise, and then take you somewhere else entirely. It explores modern America through her special blend of genre-busting surrealism. Exploring various landscapes such as rural North Carolina, Florida swamps, and Southern California, Link exposes the inherent weirdness of our everyday lives. She spins out alternate realities based on the already-established facts of our existence, like online dating, personal digital gadgets, and fading television stars.

If there’s a thread connecting these stories, it’s that all of the characters are already in trouble. Whether experiencing the toxic peer-pressure of teenage years, or alcoholism and ennui of early adulthood, or the tension and boredom that builds in a long-term relationship, every character has already found themself in a bind, whether emotional or practical. What is fascinating to watch — other than Link’s inventive magical intrusions — is the way these all-too-human, all-too-familiar characters deal with their problems.

Get in Trouble may be Link’s strongest collection to date. In the past, I relished the more fantastic elements of her writing. But in reading this collection, I was blown away by the bizarreness of normal human interactions. Link is able to twist the lens enough, turn it 33 degrees left, so that we suddenly see how strange — and by strange I mean both fantastic and horrifying — our real lives already are.

In “I Can See Right Through You,” the protagonist, an aging actor in the middle of a sex scandal, is called “the demon lover.” This nod to vampire lore was distracting enough that I didn’t notice until the second read what Link was really showing me. The demon lover is just a guy heading straight into middle-age. Fame is the real weirdness in the story, the thing that makes his life surreal. Like in the following section:
Your fans will: Offer their necks at premieres. . . . Ask if you will bite their wives. Their daughters. They will cut themselves with a razor in front of you.
The appropriate reaction is —
There is no appropriate reaction.
Another story, “Secret Identity,” takes place at a hotel hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and one for superheroes. The presence of superheroes is another of Link’s red herrings, masking the chewy chocolate center of creepiness: the fact that a 15-year-old girl has come to New York to meet a 34-year-old man she met online.

The stories in Get in Trouble sometimes seem meandering. There’s not a lot of identifiable three-act-structure action in these stories; they just seem to float along. At least one of them, “Origin Story,” is just a conversation between two old friends, with some flashbacks. But the submerged lines of plot reveal themselves through the voices of the characters. Link is incredible at nailing different voices, like that of teen girls in “The New Boyfriend.” Immy, the protagonist, thinks about her relationship to her best friend, Ainslie: “Immy’s heart isn’t as big as Ainslie’s heart. Immy loves Ainslie best. She also hates her best. She’s had a lot of practice at both.” Through lines like this, Link exposes tensions that drive the characters to (and sometimes through) self-destructive actions.

At the same time, there’s a lot of humor here. This is another way Link consistently surprises me. She sucks me into a story where the emotional stakes are high, with tension, angst, and untold secrets, and then unleashes zingers like: “Everybody naked, nobody happy,” and Bunnatine’s diatribe about Angel’s “evil pants” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But then, in the midst of weirdness, angst, and sardonic humor, she’ll hit you with profundity to take your breath away, like she does at the end of “The Lesson:” “All loved ones suffer. Love is not enough to prevent this. Love is not enough. Love is enough. The thing that you wished for. Was this it?”

My favorite stories in this collection were “The Summer People,” “Valley of the Girls,” and “Two Houses.” The first, “The Summer People,” was the most straightforward of the stories, and also the most magical. In it, a teenage girl named Fran takes care of a house of fairies in Appalachia, with the help of her friend Ophelia.

“Valley of the Girls” was a challenging read that paid off major dividends once I understood what was happening. It is a doomed love story based in a modern-day Southern California where rich people live a lifestyle similar to that of Egyptian pharaohs, building big pyramids, practicing Egyptian death rites, and even using cartouches around their own proper names.

And the premise of “Two Houses” was thrilling: a mind-bendy ghost story told in space, on a haunted spaceship. It reminded me a little bit of Solaris, if Solaris happened to a group of young women celebrating a birthday party, and made me mad that I didn’t think of it first.

Link is already an icon for people who like weird fiction, which is no small potatoes, but I have a feeling that Get in Trouble is going to be her breakthrough collection onto the mainstream literary scene; the book has blurbs from Alice Sebold, Karen Russell, and Michael Chabon. She deserves it.

I read this as an ARC first, and then listened to it on audiobook (Random House Audio). Whoever casts the voice actors for Kelly Link books does a great job. Just as with Magic for Beginners, this audio recording used a different voice actor for each story, to great effect. The actors made the wry, understated, but distinctive voices of the characters come alive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable listen.

This review originally appeared at, where I gave the book 5 stars. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Shaman's Hut Sings

All the totems in my hut know how to sing, but not everyone can hear. The door lintel was hacked from the heartwood of a spruce in the northern forest; it sings of its life, short summers and long winters under shimmering skies, of its maker, a man cloaked in fur like a bear, and of the guests it welcomes into my home. The carving in the center of the top beam, a great eagle with wings outspread, winks its cracked amber eye each time someone enters, and utters a piercing cry. No one has ever remarked upon it.

When she first steps on the shore of our village, my metal bowl begins to ring. I’ve only heard it make that sound one other time, when I bought it from the traveller from the east, enchanted by its oily brightness, the fine lines etched into its outer walls.. He stroked a feather around its rim and it sounded like starlight. Now the starlight-sound builds and builds, a thin keening that begins in the corner of my hut, traveling outward, past the totems, past my bed and my table, up my hand which is poking the fire, and pushing into my head until it rings, too, struck by apprehension.

Then all the totems sing together at once. By the window, the preserved wing of the flapjay spins as if caught in a cyclone. It casts shadows on the dirt floor like branches and leaves moving together in a wind. The hollow gourds strung from the ceiling thump and rattle together. All of the faces carved into wood--on my bed-post, my table-legs--open their mouths to babble excitedly.

I don’t even need to look up when she enters to see if it is really her, if she completed her quest. The eagle shrieks and the finger-bones in the curtain rub together in glee. She’s here! The crackling of the fire says, She found it. She brought it with her! Then my bowl and all the rest goes silent, as if a blanket of snow fell over every object in my dark hut, muffling everything except for the beating of my heart.

This was a writing exercise for the Iowa Workshop MOOC I'm taking this fall, called "How Writers Write Fiction." This assignment was on establishing a world through setting. But I think this is going into a story now!

Monday, November 09, 2015

Fairy Tale Archetypes: The Trickster

Huehuecoyotl, the Aztec trickster god
“They seek him here, they seek him there…”

This past spring, I taught a class on fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations to undergraduates at the University of Mississippi. We started the semester reading three stories: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rumplestiltskin,” and “Cagliuso” (Straparola’s Italian counterpart to “Puss in Boots”). I chose these stories first so we could talk about trickster figures because, let’s face it, tricksters are fun.

The archetype of the trickster is older than recorded literature. Jack Zipes’ essay “Fairy as Witch/Witch as Fairy,” in his collection The Irresistible Fairy Tale, posits that stories about both witches and fairies may be descended from myths about pagan goddesses associated with the earth and with the feminine energies of both virginity and procreation. When it comes to trickster figures, their descent from ancient gods (and we all know the name of at least one trickster god, thanks in part to Marvel) represents the universal force of chaos — creation and destruction, in one little package.

And that package usually is little, or at least non-threatening. Think of Anansi the spider, Br’er Rabbit, Reynard the Fox, the Raven, the Coyote, Puss in Boots. None of these animals are the top of the food chain. There are few trickster lions, tigers, or bears, because tricksters have to rely on their wits and their cunning rather than on their force.

Tricksters are morally ambiguous. While they like to break the rules, they aren’t all bad or all good. As Terri Windling says in her essay, “Trickster,” at the Endicott Studio Journal of Mythic Arts, they can be culture heroes who save the world, who bring fire or music or storytelling to humanity. But they also trail destruction in their wake, like Pandora and her box, the punishment for Prometheus’s theft of fire.
What tricksters are is greedy. They have big appetites and large ambitions; perhaps they want to swallow the sun, or steal their neighbor’s wife, or climb back up the beanstalk. And almost every time, their greediness is their downfall. It’s the trope of “the biter bit,” in which the sly one lays a trap for someone else, only to get caught in it himself.

We see this theme of greed repeated in fairy tales. Jack—a common name for the English trickster type—can’t help himself from going back to the country of the giants to retrieve the beautiful golden harp, even though he already has a hen who lays golden eggs. For a more ominous example, we only have to look at Rumplestiltskin, who demanded a baby in repayment for the third night of spinning. (What was he going to do with that baby? My bet is that he’s a fairy; fairies are known for stealing children for all kinds of reasons. But Jane Yolen reminds us in her story “Granny Rumple” that the character Rumplestiltskin was, at times, the locus of anti-Semitic propaganda such as myths about child-stealing Jews.)

Their large appetites and penchant for rule-breaking make tricksters a great example of the “carnivalesque” in literature. They embody the subversive energy Mikhail Bahktin described in his theory of carnivalesque: they overturn social hierarchies, making the powerful seem ridiculous and giving momentary glory or victory to the little guy. They inhabit the grotesque body, with its lust for food and drink and sex. And, whether cutting a caper under the desert moon in the guise of Coyote or dancing, Pan-shod, in a Dionysian revel, they love fun.

But — and this is something my students pointed out to me — tricksters don’t usually break their word. While tricksters actively work to deceive, when they make a promise, they usually perform at least the letter, if not the spirit, of the vow.

I think one of the reasons I love tricksters so much is that they are hard to pin down. They can be heroes or villains, the Fool or the Magician. Once you learn about them, you think you see them everywhere. Tricksters are shadowy like that. But they’re crucial to life, too. With chaos come the switches in our DNA that make us individuals; with chaos, the earth is broken and a seed can germinate; with chaos, a droplet of water takes a different path each time it crosses a . . .

(Wait. Is Ian Malcolm a trickster figure? *Reevaluates everything about Jurassic Park*)

Some of my favorite tricksters in fantasy literature are: Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMAN BASTARD series; Mat Cauthon from Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series; and the inimitable El-Ahrairah from Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Most of these figures are male; Windling addresses this near the end of her essay. Maria Tatar posits Katniss Everdeen and Scheherezade as potential female tricksters in her New Yorker article, “Sleeping Beauties Vs. Gonzo Girls.” After our unit on Tricksters, my class studied witches, and I have to wonder if Baba Yaga, with her hut of chicken legs and her unpredictable generosity, is a trickster figure.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

Rooms by Lauren Oliver is a beautiful, and beautifully-told, story about a house and the generations of people who have inhabited it. As the story opens, the Walker family converges upon the house after the death of Richard Walker, ex-husband to Caroline and father to Minna and Trenton. What the living do not realize — at least at first — is that the house also harbors ghosts: Sandra and Alice, two women who lived in the house at different times in the past.

I was nervous to read this book because I do not like being scared, and I especially do not like ghost stories. But the evocative cover — a red expanse with black tree branches reaching in from all sides — piqued my interest. And Lev Grossman blurbed it, so I felt like I had to give it a shot.

Rooms alternates chapters between the different character viewpoints. The tragic but seemingly unrelated pasts of Sandra and Alice unfold at the same time as the ongoing mystery of Richard Walker’s life and death. Was he a good or a bad father? Why did he end life alone, in a house full of objects? And who is Adrienne Cadou, the woman to whom he left money in his will? Family secrets, some long dead and buried, spill out as mysteries are solved. Halfway through the novel, a missing teenage girl enters the plot, complicating thing even further. And Sandra and Alice still have roles to play in the lives of the living Walkers.

The viewpoints of the ghosts were the most interesting to me. Oliver’s metaphysics of the afterlife is fascinating; Sandra and Alice are both embodied and disembodied. They do not exist as human-shaped spirits, invisible or softly glowing or oozing slime. They do not have eyes or ears or appetites; they do not dream. But they can see and feel. As Alice puts it:
"Dying is a matter of being reborn. In the beginning there was darkness and confusion. We learned gropingly. We felt our way into this new body, the way that infants do… Now everything is perfectly clear. We do more than see. We detect the smallest vibrations, miniscule shifts in the currents, minor disturbances, molecules shifting."
The ghosts are presences in the house that see and hear everything without volition: the perfect third-person omniscient narrators, who can tell us that, simultaneously, Caroline is drunk, Minna is weeping, and Trenton is masturbating, each in different rooms. Yet, despite being disembodied, Sandra and Alice are confined to the house and feel its walls and surfaces the way we feel our own skin:
"We hover in the light coming through the windows, with the dust; we spin, dizzy in the silence. We slide across empty dining room chairs, skate across the well-polished table, rub ourselves against the oriental carpets, curl up in the impressions of old footprints."
At the same time as being one with the house, Sandra and Alice have a unique knowledge of each other. They can sense each other’s presence right down to their moods. But the intimate knowledge, the near one-ness achieved by post-life, does not mean that they always get along. Some of Rooms funniest and most poignant moments are when the ghosts comment on each other. Sandra describes Alice as having no sense of humor, saying “I can feel her, wound up tight, like a soda about to explode, like clenched butt cheeks.”

I ended up liking this book a lot and, other than one frightening ghost moment, not scared by it at all. Like the Walkers, Sandra and Alice are just people longing for release from their sins and regrets. The end of Rooms provides every character with a moment of self-knowledge and compassion before granting reprieve for some of its more tortured souls.

I originally reviewed this book for, where I gave it 4 stars.