“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?

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New Story: If Only Kissing Made It So

“If Only Kissing Made It So,” my story about boys kissing and possibly time travel, is live at Cast of Wonders today, narrated by Max Gladstone.

Yes, that Max Gladstone. To say this was a pleasant surprise would be whatever is more under than under in understatement. I’m just saying: the email listed the narrator, and then I did a few double takes and at least one “wait, for real?” I did not do a spit take, because I am professional and have composure. And also I wasn’t drinking anything.

Also also: Gladstone knocks it out of the damn park. So.

It’s appropriate to get an awesome surprise as this story finally makes its way in the world, since that’s what this story was.

I’ve talked before about my decade and change of writing nigh-on-nothing. “If Only Kissing Made It So” is the primary exception. Before I finally managed to drag myself back into the thick of things, I made a largely abortive attempt several years prior.

Attempt is probably a mischaracterization. It suggests there was a lot of maturity and willpower. The first draft of this story was more what happened when my story brain crossed its arms and refused to eat anything because oh my god that is so groooossss, and I told it dessert was available if it would just try one bite of everything on the plate.

I pretty much never go into a story without expectations for what it might be, but this time I did. I sat down, set a timer for twenty minutes each morning, and wrote whatever the hell came out. I think the first day or so wasn’t even narrative. I vaguely recall things like “what am I even doing this is stupid” and “you will never write anything else, no you shut up” on those pages. Eventually, after much eye rolling and sighing and assorted other protestations from my story brain that it hated all of this and I couldn’t make it change its mind, we got to “If I’d known Lucas Medina had rung the doorbell, I would have thrown on a good shirt.”

No, that isn’t the first line of the story now, but part of that is because I had no idea what the first line was, because I didn’t even know what the story was. Lucas showed up, and there was awkward interaction and trying to tamp down on crushing and then, eventually, story brain looked up and said oh wait, what if we did this. And I tried not to smile visibly when story brain started eating like macaroni and cheese wasn’t the only acceptable meal.

As I mentioned, this wasn’t the triumphant return to regular writing it sounds like. When I finished the first version of this story, I subbed it to exactly one market. When that editor failed to marvel at the wonders offered, story brain went to its room, slammed the door, and sulked for several more years while Lucas and Marty sat abandoned on my hard drive.

Though, obviously, we did eventually reach a day when story brain came back out to play. And when it did, and Submit All The Things Dammit brain joined in, “If Only Kissing Made It So” got to see daylight again, and now it’s made friends with the lovely folks over at Cast of Wonders.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s not too late. click on over and join the loop.

Story About Not Letting Go Returns

Hey, so happy surprises in the new year. “Blood and Water,” my story that dropped from Cast of Wonders in May of last year, is back again as a 2017 Staff Pick. It’s always nice to get another spotlight, and Marguerite Kenner’s new commentary is the kind that gives me all kinds of writerly warm fuzzies.

If you didn’t have a chance to read / listen before, now you’ve got a second chance and more options. Huzzah!

Monsters On the Internets

So I fell off the wagon with doing story posts, but in a turn of good luck, “Drowning Joys,” from the second issue of Aliterate recently made its way to the Aliterate site, so for anyone who didn’t buy the issue, it’s new to you, which is an excuse I’m fine exploiting for some new wonk.

The origins of this one are, honestly, pretty simple: I wanted a story where no one wondered for a minute if that jerk who walks around telling people to smile was, out of the gate, the villain, because fuck that dude. The problem is that the story I started with wasn’t much of anything: smile-guy wound up eaten after asking the wrong person to smile, the end. Cathartic, sure, but it didn’t really serve as much more than some dark wish fulfillment.

But then I thought, well, what if smile-guy is the monster? I mean, all the smile-guys are monsters, but I mean the kind of monster entire cultures write warning stories about. A vampire seemed obvious (smile = teeth = fangs, you get the idea). And since smile-guys are a breed one hopes is maybe dying out, I wanted a monster that didn’t get quite as much pop culture play.

Enter Callum the Kelpie, sexy murder horse with more swagger than he deserves and a history of judging humans for failings he may be just as full of:

Still, when a wild stallion’s coat and mane are fine and strong and carry a whiff of the river far from shore, you’re courting death to touch his hide as well you are to eat dark berries when you can’t tell black nightshade from deadly. If you’re eager enough to survive, you learn the difference. If you’re not, then it’s hardly fair to ask the world to write clearer signs for you.

And by maybe I mean pretty much guaranteed. He’s still opens up with that damn “give us a smile” line, after all.

There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.

Suddenly Free Fiction

Mike Allen has posted five stories from Clockwork Phoenix 5 online for free. Including my own contribution to the volume: “The Wind at His Back.”

I’ve already talked about this story, so I’ll keep things short. Set in what I’ve been calling the Tallverse – a weird western world where tall tales and folklore are real – this is the story of Benito Aguilar, small town sheriff and former tornado wrangler who just wants to live a simple, happy life with his husband Casey. It’s a story about living with your past, about the strength of acceptance and community. It also has tween giants and snakes that put themselves back together and magic fruit trees and storms with souls.

And now, you can read it start to finish all for free. So if you’ve got a second, click on through and take a look.

With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.