Speculative Fiction

All posts tagged Speculative Fiction

Last year (according to Goodreads) I read a whopping THREE books of fiction.

There was a time (in another life, in a galaxy far, far away) when I never went anywhere without a novel at hand. I’d pull that baby out at stoplights, read over meals, in the bathroom, standing over the printer at work—you know how it is.

Their absence now is an icky symptom of an over-extended life; what time I have for reading—in between parenting, writing, and other madness—is pretty minimal. I DO read for pleasure, but it’s mostly of the online, ephemeral variety, lately. A poem here. A story there. Nothing I can write home to Goodreads about.

While I’m telling you this partly because I have a free writing day for once so OF COURSE I want to spend it lamenting about my lack of time, I also want to make the following point:

My Dear, Darling Authors: when I go to my stack of TO READS and, out all the books I could possibly pick, I choose YOURS to bring with me to a four-hour-long appointment at the salon, it is a complement. Nay, it’s an HONOR. (Diana Gabaldon, YOU’RE WELCOME.)

I feel compelled to make this point because (1) it’s been an embarrassingly long time since I wrote a blog post, and though I have good excuses as to why, I still feel pretty lousy about it, so deflecting the issue by shedding light on the responsibility that authors have to their readers (i.e. me) to NOT SUCK seemed like a good strategy… but MORE IMPORTANTLY (b) I did actually, recently, so honor an author (no, not DG, she’s amazing) who so thoroughly DID SUCK that I feel personally insulted.

Prenovljeni_frizerski_salon_v_Gosposki_ulici_v_Mariboru_1960

Now I have nothing to do but sit here, grumbling, getting high on hair dye fumes. THANKS A LOT, Mr. Terrible Authorpants.

I mean, really. I invested time in this book (not much, it was really bad, so bad that after a dozen pages I almost threw it across the salon. But I didn’t bring another book to read instead, so there’s four hours I COULD have spent reading someone else.) Also, I invested money. Or, rather, my in-laws did—the book was an Xmas present off my Amazon wishlist)—which is kind of even worse.

Anyway. I will not tell you which book sucked so very much. I will not gift this “author” with any attention, even bad attention. But let me tell you this:

There is a reason independent authors and publishers get a bad rap. Yes, yes, yes, there are excellent self-published and small press books out there (I’ve been in some of the latter, and I’m about to wax poetic about the former, so please bear with me). BUT, so very many of them are badly edited, self-indulgent space wasters. There’s no accountability. There’s no gate-keeping editorial staff, no publishing house with an established reputation and at least some marketing dollars and savvy to back an indie author up. Some self-published and garage-published books at least have the decency of using fifth-graders as cover artists to clue you in to how much they suck, but often there’s no way for a potential reader to know if the random indie book they’re about to pay money for/invest time in (or select above all others to lug to their hair appointment) is going to be worth it.

Which is why I don’t buy a lot of indie books. (Could ya tell?) When I do buy one (or download one, let’s be honest, Indies give their books away in promotions all the time) it’s because I know the author, or else the book comes with the recommendation of someone whose judgment I trust.

THIS book, though. What upsets me most about how much THIS BOOK sucked was that it tricked me. I didn’t know it was indie-published. I came across it by expressing interest in similar books on Amazon or Goodreads or some such. It looked good. It sounded good. It was published by a “Society” that sounded Literary and Important and Knowledgeable In Such Things, and had garnered good reviews with words like Intelligent and Challenging and that referenced other Authors I Like.

But, no, this book was overwritten, self-indulgent, purple prosy, dense, badly edited crap which, upon closer inspection, was published by a “Society” of which the author is the “President” and which exists to bring literature to the masses by, like, hosting open mics at a venue the author owns. And stuff.

Oh, and those reviews? The author personally responds to each and every one. Especially the bad ones. At length. (I really wish I’d noticed that before I clicked “Want to Read.”)

So let that be a lesson to you, Good Readers. Or let it be a lesson to me, I guess. Someone should learn something from this experience.

But although I am still feeling ill from the bad taste this BOOK I SHALL NOT DIGNIFY BY IDENTIFYING left in my reading mouth (yes, that’s a thing), I’d like to use the remainder of this space to raise a metaphorical toast to a book far more worthy of your attention.

love in the time
For our recent family weekend camping excursion, I selected the next book in my READ ME queue: LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELLING, by Franetta McMillian, a Delaware author and acquaintances whose work I discovered at a local literary venue. Ms. McMillian has a captivating voice and a quietly stunning performance presence. As many open mic enthusiasts can tell you, lots of people can read fiction to a room full of people, but very few can tell a story. Not to mention, the story she read—THE FALL OF ROME (Gargoyle Magazine, Fall 2014)—was freakin’ awesome. So guess what? I bought her book… and then kept it in my SOME DAY pile for a year and a half before finally breaking the seal and exploring those words. And after my recent experience, I admit, I was wary.

Let me assure, you. Franetta’s got this.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELLING (2013), represents everything good that an independent book can be. Set in the “shattered States” of the mid-to-late twenty-first century, this collection of interwoven stories explores the tenacity of love, spirit and human goodness within one of the ugliest possible imagined futures. Mired in catastrophic global pollution and entrenched economic corruption, McMillian’s eclectic cast of survivors, visionaries, and misfits are surprising and compelling. Her writing is clear, evocative, and—lo! —clearly well-edited. Her storytelling is creatively non-linear, transporting the reader across time and geography in what seems at first a random set of “Quantum Leaps” but eventually reveals itself to be a clever pattern within the novel’s haunting and beautiful mosaic.

My only (only!) issue with LOVE was a bit of chronological confusion which may or may not be iron-out-able but, in the end, doesn’t really matter. (And I can’t remember the last time a book made me go back, take notes, and do the math, so there’s that.) With elements of science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream, McMillian’s stories hold appeal for lovers of genre fiction, yet they also maintain a consistent, resonating literary tenor that, in my opinion, has the strength to cross boundaries and affect a much larger audience. I can see her work fitting in the highest tier magazines or, with luck, backed by Big Name Brick and Mortar Inc. Yet Ms. McMillian embraced the Independent Publishing model, and more power to her. You can see her creative vision in every aspect of the book, from the cover art (her own) to the composition and scope (there’s a sequel, she informs me, so watch for that!) Which, I suspect, was entirely her point.

While I abhor a badly executed self-published book (particularly one masquerading as something else), I acknowledge that there is, absolutely, well-written, entertaining, and important works out there to be discovered. I bemoan the lack of filtering in the modern book market that subjects sensitive souls like me to total, time-wasting dren, but let it be said that there ARE ways to sniff out the good stuff beyond just random point and click. Getting to know the local talent is a big one (and supporting your local artists can’t hurt). Also important? Recommendations by people you love and trust—like, say, me!
So trust me on this one. LOVE is worth it.

With MiniWriMo come round again, I’ve been thinking about what to write this month – which led me led me to look back on what I have written, and, more specifically, how those stories came to be.

head-113927_640Sometimes, stories are NOT born because a mommy story and a daddy story loved each other very much.

Sometimes, story ideas come about fully-formed, like little gifts from fiction heaven. (And isn’t it peachy when THAT happens?)

Other times, it takes a lot of forethought and muscle on the writer’s part – like, conjuring one’s inner Frankenstein to hack and sew words together and scream at the Gods until the Thing takes a life of its own.index

And then, sometimes, the process falls somewhere in the middle. A little prompting, a little “hmmm-ing”, a little pen-to-papering, and then… hey, look. An idea begins to grow.
For me, this often takes the form of a “What If” story.

What If… Bad Was Good?

In April of this year, my flash fiction story, DEFIANCE, appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine.

Issue 11 Cover Preview

DEFIANCE is a fun little piece. Written in late 2012, it predates – I swear! – the Syfy show of the same name. While both the story and the tv show involve alien invasions and pockets of humanity that remain, erm, defiant, that’s pretty much where the similarities end (at least as far as I’m aware – I lost interest in the series halfway through the first season. Sorry Rockne).

In my DEFIANCE, the main character is a soldier in Earth’s resistance against aliens that have enslaved most of humanity. Poised for a sniper attack on the roof of an old elementary school, Jackson recalls his pre-invasion childhood of classroom tantrums and frowny-face notes that made his mother cry. While we learn that it was his inherent defiance that got young Jackson separated from his mother in civilization’s final hour, it was also what spared him from slavery – and presumably it is what helps him thrive in an alien apocalypse.

So how was this a “What If?” Back in 2012, my six-year-old had a disciplinary record that could put any teenaged hoodlum to shame. He is a brilliant child and the apple of my eye, but our boy was (and still can be) a holy terror to his teachers. A year later, he would (finally!) be diagnosed with Aspergers/Autism Spectrum, but at the time the “whys” of him were a mystery. One of the labels bandied about was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is another way of saying “irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome”.

2336528544_12c8c64896_z

irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome

On the verge of seeing my baby expelled from first grade, I spent one afternoon crying into my hands until, when my own brand of stubborn kicked in, I poured myself a glass of suck-it-up and sat down at my computer. “What If,” I pondered, “being a born butthead was a survival skill? What would that look like?” An hour of fevered-typing later, the world of DEFIANCE had taken shape. Murky shape, maybe – it is only 800 words long, after all – but lo, I’d invented a possible future for my son that wasn’t all bad.

 

WHAT IF can offer new ways of thinking about old problems – and conjure up kick-ass stories, too.

 

What If… Left Was Right?

Science Fiction is an especially appropriate Petri dish for “What-Ifs”; it is, after all, speculative by definition. What if we had the technology to…? What would the future be like if ?

My story, GHOST-WRITER (published thiScigentasyWEBheader2s month in Scigentasy) tackles the Sci-Fi challenge of “What If” in a couple of ways. The primary question, dealing with possible technologies, comes from a note-to-self I found while flipping through old files in search for story ideas: [sic] what if someone’s brain hemispheres suddenly switched dominance?

For those of us who aren’t psychology nerds, “lateralization of brain function” describes the different but complimentary personalities of the left vs right sides of the brain. Though the subject has long made my geek happy (google split-brain experiments), I had recently read a book that was a game-changer for me: My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, in which a neuroanatomist describes how her life was enriched by a stroke that disabled her left hemisphere. Free from the constrains of language-labeling and logical thinking, Dr. Taylor describes a world she perceived as free-flowing, creative, and spiritual.

Blausen_0215_CerebralHemispheres
With my, “What If”, inspired by Dr. Taylor, I tried to imagine what it would be like not to lose the functions of one hemisphere or the other, but to have the hemispheres up and trade places – prince and the pauper-style? Would wacky hjinks ensue? Would the body even notice, short of some vertigo, a Matrix-like glitch? The brain is superbly plastic; science has shown that under the right circumstances it can recover from grievous wounds, basically re-wiring itself to restore lost functioning.

It was from this line of thinking that GHOST-WRITER was conceived. In it, my neuroscientist, Carla, has invented a means of restoring function to brain-damaged patients by getting the remaining, healthy hemisphere to annex the dead tissue and graft its own programming there. Though the titular “Ghost-Writer” project is still in its exploratory stage, wrapped up in the proverbial red-tape, an inoperable brain tumor and a pending divorce compel Carla into taking matters into her own hands.

All fiction can be a “What If” playground; as writers, we can pose the question and invent answers within the parameters of any genre. Science Fiction just happens to lend itself particularly well to pushing the boundaries of possibility.

 

What If… Maybe Was True?

For this reason, a lot of Sci-Fi doubles as social commentary: if we can imagine a future or world or an alternate universe with even a minor shift in our cultural norms, what would that look like? Sometimes this socio-political exploration can be overt, with plots that cover the author’s agenda like a dancing green alien’s chemise (*cough* Star Trek *cough*).

In other cases, like with GHOST-WRITER, the questioning can be more subtle. My “What-if” about the brain’s hemispheres was my primary reason for writing it, but because my main characters are gay women, the story naturally raised questions about the future of gender and sexual politics, in particular same-sex marriage (which was not recognizedl in most states in 2011, when GHOST-WRITER was written).

Gaymarriage

So I wrote Carla and Maggie as a married couple –more significantly, I chose not to comment on it. I wanted to create a future where same-sex marriage is not only legal, it’s a non-issue. And I wanted to allow for fluidity, too: when Maggie turns down a date with another doctor it is for emotional reasons – not because he’s a he.

These were little things – I think I said more on the topic by not saying much – but the fact that beta readers were surprised when Carla’s spouse turned out to be a female pleased me, because it means my  take on “What If” here had the power to challenge assumptions.  And that’s, well, something.
What’s great about “What If” is that it inspires us, as writers and readers, to consider possibilities. Not necessarily large or paradigm-changing ones; we should not expect, when we sit down with our laptops or pens, that what we write will save a life or change the world. But, then again, we can always ask:  – What If it could?

What_if_I_ask_for_help

When a friend invited me to participate in an upcoming pulp-inspired “giant monster” anthology, I initially turned him down – something to the tune of “well I don’t… do? giant monsters?” But he asked me to think about it, and I did, and I’m glad. I won’t say too much, as the project is still pulling bits of matter into it’s orbit, but I started with a “what if”, and ended up somewhere I never expected to go:

600px-Mars-Schiaparelli

Mosaic of the Schiaparelli hemisphere of Mars – USGS Astrogeology: Martian Hemesphere Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve decided I like writing to themes. I like challenging my own habits and tropes, trying out my voice to other people’s songs. The resulting arrangements can be very interesting – like…

pagan gods and terra-forming

640px-Sapporo_Underground_Pedestrian_Space_Station_Road01s3

‘Sapporo Underground Pedestrian Space Station Road”’ in Sapporo, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan} by 663highland

 

womena2

From http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/women.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

magic, black-eyed maidens, and destiny –

3003158871_a8a2838766_z

“the goddess” by Eddi van W.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/spiritual_marketplace/3003158871/

 

 

Mercury_helmet_gloves_boots

Mercury Spacesuit – NASA

 

 

 

 

 

 

– on Mars.

 

Speaking of Mars, and playing outside our comfort zones, here are some interesting Red Planet-related oddities I discovered while writing my story:

 

 

942_streamPRINCESS OF MARS – by Chase Toole

Searching for illustrations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, I stumbled across this image by contemporary artist Chase Toole.  I honestly thought at first that it was taken from some 60s pulp cover.  Although the heroine in my story is (mostly) fully dressed, I’m in love with this girl.  Just look at those colors, and contrasts.

 

THE MARS SOCIETY
MarsSociety_logosmall

Featured recently on NPR, The Mars Society is an organization dedicated to “furthering the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet” through “Public outreach fostering Mars pioneers, worldwide support for government-funded Mars research and exploration, and private-enterprise Mars exploration and settlement.”

 

I didn’t know there was such a thing – did you?

Want to sign up?

Or, you could just SEND YOUR POETRY TO MARS and touch the cosmos that way.

2594040178_86c098afbd_m

“haiku” – Monrovia Public Library
http://www.flickr.com/photos/monroviapubliclibrary/2594040178/

 

A part of the Going to Mars Project, NASA has invited citizens of earth (yes, you!) to write  mars-related haiku.  Three global winners will be recorded on a dvd that’s to be sent with the MAVEN spacecraft into – yeah – outer space.
Everyone who participates will get their name on the dvd, at least.  To find out more, visit Going to Mars with MAVEN.

 

 

Want to know more about giant monsters, beautiful (clothed) ladies, and colonies on Mars? WATCH THIS SPACE – there’s more info to come!