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Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Letters to Tiptree

|| Science fiction and fantasy writers, editors, critics and fans celebrate Alice Sheldon's 100th birthday in a series of letters, recognising her work and trying to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago.

Comes in Twelves: Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson—best known for her award winning queer books including Written on the Body and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—has collected a set of twelve stories, paired with twelve anecdotes and recipes, inspired by the Christmas season. Christmas Days is attractive and color-printed, a blue and silver treat, and reflects the holiday spirit quite admirably.

It isn’t often one sees a Christmas book of this sort from someone other than, for example, a cooking television celebrity. It’s somehow immensely weird and pleasant to pick up one that is about queer families, aging, and making home from the exact same sort of genre but obviously quite different—given our narrator.

[A review.]

Whatever Walked There, Walked Alone: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

December 14, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s birth. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of her most memorable novels and short fiction.

The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps the most-researched, most-written-about of Jackson’s longform works. Published in 1959, the novel follows four people—Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, and our protagonist Eleanor—as they attempt to summer at Hill House for the purpose of doing research on its reported supernatural phenomena. Eleanor is a sheltered but damaged woman; she spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother, recently deceased, while her sister married and started a family of her own. Even as the novel begins, she’s still under the thumb of her sister and her brother-in-law, living off of a cot in their home. The trip offers her an opportunity to escape, to become something—except the house that awaits is a monstrous place.

Stephen King, in the introduction to the edition of the book that sits on my shelf, notes that “it seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” It’s hard to debate the claim that this is a deeply significant text in the field: it’s a certain thing that critics and readers alike have found themselves caught up in Jackson’s novel for decades, anxious in the grip of Hill House’s bad geometry and the complex currents of gender, sexuality, and isolation that run underneath.

[Read more]

Space Sublime: Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The latest original anthology from Jonathan Strahan, Bridging Infinity revolves around “engineering problems” with grandiose solutions: it’s quite literally the science fiction of ideas, envisioned by some of our contemporary short fiction writers. As Strahan notes, early pulp science fiction “was founded on a belief that problems are solvable,” and this anthology seeks to explore the “engineering sublime,” the sense of wonder, that the genre offers in terms of envisioning huge solutions to equally huge problems.

With this introduction, one might expect the stories—all from writers whose names are quite familiar; not a one of these contributors is anything less than well-known—to be entirely thought experiments. Some are, to be sure, but still others take sideways approaches to the concept of the sublime in the technical: the engineering solutions are awesome in the traditional sense of the word, but the stories are often about the people creating those solutions and their human lives as well.

[A review.]

Nights in Mexico City: Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexico City does not allow vampires within its borders—but that doesn’t necessarily keep them out. Atl, a vampire whose lineage traces back to the Aztecs, finds her way into the city while on the run from the rival gang of European vampires who executed her family. Domingo, a young man who makes his living sifting garbage for a rag-and-bone man, meets her and her genetically modified Doberman on a train. She’s desperate enough to make him an offer: payment for blood. She has no intention of drawing him in to her life, but they prove to be better matched than either initially suspected.

Certain Dark Things is Moreno-Garcia’s second novel, following the well-received Signal to Noise (2015). An urban fantasy set in a lovingly crafted Mexico City, the novel is a refreshing take on the tropes of the genre: the female protagonist is supported by a tender, fairly innocent, dedicated man, and the romantic tension is complicated significantly by their being from different species. Furthermore, it isn’t anglocentric in its approach to mythology and the supernatural.

[A review.]

Alt-History Queer Memoir: Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea is a prolific writer in fields ranging from keenly-observed memoir (Valencia, Rent Girl) to young adult fantasy (Mermaid in Chelsea Creek); she’s got toes dipped into several pools. One uniting thread in her stories is queerness, and another is the bittersweet sharpness of her prose. The most recent book—Black Wave—straddles those genres and tones, though: a startling, engaging, and incisive novel, it explores a metafictional alternate past with a protagonist also named Michelle. As the brief flap copy says, “It’s 1999. The world is ending.”

The experience of reading Black Wave is immersive and eerie, a version of our own world that feels abruptly and dangerously close to home in its coast toward oblivion. It’s a fantastic mélange of tropes and techniques: the observation and intuition of queer fiction, the cutting praxis of science fiction or alternate history, the intimacy of memoir, and the experimentation of metafiction. In short, it swept a hand down the keyboard that is my emotional range.

[This was a satisfying occurrence, to say the least.]

Series: Queering SFF

Balancing Act: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s novel, Range of Ghosts, begins the Eternal Sky trilogy, set in a world inspired by 12-13th century Central Asia (also featured in her 2010 novella Bone and Jewel Creatures). The book follows a set of exiles and outcasts from different kingdoms who come together as war and strife throw their previously settled societies into chaos. As civil war flames across the steppes, political intrigues unsettle royal dynasties elsewhere, and at the center of it all a murder-cult, an offshoot of the Uthman religion of the Scholar-God disavowed by its own society, sows discontent and infighting along the Celadon Highway with the intent to snap up all of the weakened kingdoms at the culmination of a great war.

Temur, a grandson of the Great Khagan, and Samarkar, once-princess of the Rasa dynasty and now a wizard, are the focal characters of the novel, which revolves around the developing political situation as much as it does their personal growth, relationships, and journeys. This is a complex fantasy, a tapestry woven of characters, intrigues, action, and epic—in the real sense of the word—conflicts that are only just beginning in Range of Ghosts. Those epic conflicts of religion and empire are reflected in the skies themselves; overhead, the heavenly bodies reflect the primacy of a ruler and a given faith. In the steppes, under the Qersnyk sky, there are moons for every one of the Great Khagan’s sons and grandsons. The skies of Rasan are different from the skies of the Rahazeen; what floats overhead—and what doesn’t—is immensely significant, and foregrounds the grand scale of the battles being waged.

[Read more]

An Echo in the Mind: The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan, an artist whose oeuvre spans a variety of mediums but who primarily works in the fantastic genre, has just published a collection of photographs of sculptures based on the Grimm’s Fairytales. The handsome collection, small enough to carry and big enough to appreciate at length, is called The Singing Bones. Tan is not the first artist to tackle these stories, not by generations and continual fistfuls of illustration and reenactment, but sculpture isn’t the traditional medium.

With introductory material written by Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes, the reader had a good sense of the project before delving into it. Gaiman addresses the emotional resonance of the pieces in his foreword—how it makes him want to put the stories in his mouth, like a child does. Zipes addresses the history—the Grimm brothers, their publications, and the traditional of illustration that made those publications as popular as they are today.

[A review.]

Haunting Grounds: As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended is Robin Talley’s third novel, following Lies We Tell Ourselves and What We Left Behind, and it’s her first in a speculative vein. As in her previous work, As I Descended is a young adult book with queer girl protagonists; in this case, Maria and Lily are a couple at an exclusive boarding school, but aren’t public about their relationship. This is, however, just one of the conflicts in the book—which is perhaps best described as “lesbian boarding school Macbeth,” complete with ghosts, predictions, and the twists of a traditional revenge-tragedy.

Maria is in need of the coveted Kinglsey Prize, a full scholarship ride to a university of her choice, to be able to attend college with Lily after their graduation from Acheron. However, Delilah—the most popular girl in their class—is at the top of the prize list, even though she doesn’t need the financial support at all. Maria and Lily, with the help of spirits that Maria can communicate with, hatch a plan to knock her down a peg. The problem is that the ghosts might not be as neutral or helpful as our protagonists would like to believe.

[A review.]

Transformative SFF: Transcendent, edited by K.M. Szpara

For the first time, joining their annual “best of” collections of lesbian and gay sf, Lethe Press will be publishing Transcendent, an annual collection of the best transgender sf: stories centering on trans characters as well as stories that occupy a trans subjectivity. K.M. Szpara is the editor for this first volume, which collects stories from a variety of writers and initial publications—including folks like Nino Cipri, A. Merc Rustad, Benjanun Sriduangkew, and Bogi Takács.

As a critic, there are occasional moments where it’s difficult to sort one’s response to a text out from objective considerations of skill, style, and merit and subjective intense pleasure at the fact that it exists. The metaphor I tend to use is: the book slammed down on all the buttons of things I need and here we are. So, I read this one twice to give it a fairer shake.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

The Monster Next Door: I Am Not a Serial Killer

IFC Midnight and director Billy O’Brien have brought Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer to life on the screen, starring Max Records and Christopher Lloyd. Our protagonist, John Wayne Cleaver, is a teenage sociopath attempting to keep his life together and himself in check with the help of his therapist and small-town associates. This is, of course, until a rash of serial murders begin in his town—and there’s something more or less than human behind them.

When the novel was originally published—six years ago—I found it reasonably compelling and entertaining, as evidenced by this review. It had some narrative hiccups but a strong use of voice and an engaging internal conflict for the protagonist; overall, I thought it was decent. So, when I had the chance to scope out an adaptation from IFC, I thought: why not?

[A review.]

Mundane Horrors: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s recent contribution to the Tor.com novella imprint, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, takes the reader into the dreamlands of Lovecraft to tell a very different type of story. Vellitt, our titular protagonist, is an older woman, a scholar—and she is tasked with fetching one of her young charges back from the waking world, where she has gone with a lover, himself a dreamer in their lands. Except, no surprise, it’s hardly that simple.

There are two things that make me appreciate a twist on the eldritch weirdness of Lovecraft in contemporary fiction. First, the text has to address the political and social issues of the source material—get clever with it, subvert it, acknowledge the racism and sexism. Second, the text has to contain the same hair-raising discomfort and cosmic horrors that draw readers like myself to Lovecraft to begin with.

Kij Johnson does both. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a strong novella as Lovecraftian fiction and on its own.

[A review.]

Underwater but Above Water: Drowned Worlds, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The most recent Solaris anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, Drowned Worlds, explores the futures we might encounter given our rising oceans, our collapsing ecosystems, and our unwillingness to stop the precipitous sink into the sea. Containing original fiction from folks like Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders, Nalo Hopkinson, and Sam J. Miller, this anthology is a quick, engaging, immersive read.

With a distinct political message, too, it’s an interesting reading experience: science fiction in its overtly didactic mode (though it is always, by virtue of asking the “what if” question, didactic to some extent). I appreciate dipping my toes into this vein of speculation, and these stories do a solid job of balancing their big ideas with their characters to make good stories.

[A review.]

Sprawling with Stories: The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The editorial duo of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have produced several stellar collections and anthologies in recent years. The pair show a distinct skill in creating themed retrospectives; their feminist science fiction project, Sisters of the Revolution, is one such contribution to the field that jumps to mind. This time around, they’ve taken on a much larger task: a retrospective of the twentieth century in science fiction, defined broadly and with enthusiasm.

There are several compendiums of science fiction out there—the Wesleyan and Norton anthologies, respectively, are oft-cited and regularly used as benchmarks of “the genre” in short fiction. However, The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection is a strong contender to displace those thanks to its broad scope, its international inclusiveness, and its academic eye to context and confluence. Vintage Books is producing the massive but affordable tome—and compared to the high price point of retrospectives from academic presses, that’s a significant bonus.

[A review.]

Back with a Fresh Look: The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks, seventh in Charles Stross’s ongoing Laundry Files series, once again takes us to the urban-science-fantasy-Lovecraftian-potential-apocalypse, this time from the perspective of Alex Schwartz—the young PHANG (read: vampire) who survived the nastiness at the end of the fifth book after having been drafted into the Laundry’s service. Alex has been given the task of checking out a bunker to repurpose for the Laundry up in Leeds, but things take a turn for the worse when he meets Cassie—and when an alien race of hominids who already ushered in their own tentacle-horror-apocalypse decide to come calling to our world instead.

Stross has been tackling a set of tropes for each of the books in this series, to great effect, and this time we’re up against elves. Pointy-eared, feral, terrifying, psychotic elves with a violently hierarchical society given to the enforcement of social rank through brutal magic. In short: they aren’t very nice and they do not play well with others. Turns out the overload of math-driven space-time horrors isn’t the sole threat facing humanity in the dawning days of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

[A review.]

Passions in Dust: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Trade is embargoed in the Victorian England of Dan Vyleta’s Smoke—because the religious aristocracy of the country are invested in keeping their narrative about Smoke, which rises from people on commission of a “sin,” paramount. This narrative keeps the rich on top and the poor on the bottom; in reality, the wealthy use various means to hide their Smoke. Thomas and Charlie meet at a boarding school designed to tutor them in controlling their Smoke as members of the upper class—but there’s far more at work here than just boyhood squabbles.

Times are changing, and various figures on the political and scientific scene are attempting to alter the rulership and social mores of the country. Our protagonists, along with Livia, a young woman whose family is bound up in the very heart of the struggle, must uncover various plots and make their own decisions about the path to righteousness—for themselves, and for their nation. It’s Dickensian in intent and fantastical in scope, but it’s also a novel about young people on the cusp of adulthood.

[A review.]