Sunday, March 22, 2020

Faces


Faces are difficult.

I teach teenagers the art of public speaking. Most of them can, with prodding, master the fundamental mechanics of putting a speech together—assembling an argument, enhancing its credibility and clarity with supporting material, designing a “hook” at the beginning, and so on. Delivery of the speech is another matter. They’re perfect little chatterboxes in social situations, but when placed at the front of the room, with all eyes on them—no more eyes than they’d encounter at the lunch table, really—they often clam up and dissolve into squirming jelly.

It’s the faces, of course. The way a person narrows their eyes, a tiny flare of the nostrils, a tightening of the skin around the cheekbones—every little shift and twist conveys new information, and we’re trained from birth to recognize and react to it. And for someone who’s at a vulnerable age, terrified of the judgment of their peers, to have to deal with all of the difficult mechanics of giving a speech—and then to look up and see dozens of faces, each one projecting data with the intensity of a high-pressure fire hose—it’s often too much to bear.  No wonder they retreat behind their scripts! Much safer to smoothly read meticulously-crafted sentences off a notecard than to live in that terrifying moment of seeing and being seen!

I was a pretty decent public speaker even in adolescence, and developed rapidly once I made it an area of specialization. I’ve come to believe that may have something to do with my apparent position on the autism spectrum. I have always had a great deal of difficulty with faces—recognizing them, correlating them with names, understanding when they send me cues that I’m being offensive. I now think that this was my superpower as a developing public speaker. I never feared to look people in the face because I was largely blind to the sentiments those faces were expressing. I could just focus on getting my message across.

And yet, I came to realize as time went by that the ultimate goal of any really good public speaker was to achieve a sense of genuine connection with the audience, and to move past the process of “performing” into one of sharing genuine meaning. At its top level, public speaking isn’t about projecting information, it’s about exchanging information. The speaker initiates the conversation, yes, but is also receiving continual nonverbal feedback from the audience. Unspoken questions are asked. The best speakers use their eyes to listen for those questions, and seek to and answer them. Audiences broadcast emotions, and the speaker seeks to surf those emotions and to guide them. The audience’s faces are both a map of the terrain the speaker is traversing and a scoreboard assessing the speaker’s performance. And the “boss mission” of public speaking is to learn to love those faces—to look people in the eye not because you have to, but because you want to, because that is what makes the experience of speaking enjoyable.

Which brings me to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the weirdest situations I’ve faced (ahem) as a teacher.

Like thousands of other schools throughout the world, mine is moving classes online. Teachers are learning to master the use of new remote-learning technologies that allow us to teach kids who aren’t physically proximate to ourselves. There are some disciplines, particularly lecture-intensive ones, where this will probably work pretty well. Others, maybe not so much. God knows how phys ed is gonna operate.

Speech education, though, is going to a uniquely weird place.

As I write this, I’m sitting in front of the desktop computer monitor from which I will be teaching next week. The setup isn’t meaningfully different from your cell phone, I suppose; my web camera is positioned directly atop the monitor. So, when I teach, I’m going to be looking at the faces of my students on the screen, and they’ll be looking at mine, and those of their peers. But here’s the rub:  in order to maintain the appearance of eye contact, these quaran-teens will need to be looking not at the faces on the screen, but at the camera lens above them.

A paradox: the moment the speaker dares to look the listener in the eye, the listener sees the speaker look away.  After spending the first nine weeks of the semester training students to look at, and to enjoy looking at, the faces of their audience, I will now have to train them to specifically avoid that habit.

And I find myself wondering about the long-term consequences of this kind of social distance. I wonder what sort of speakers we will become if we learn that communication is the art of dodging the listener's face. I stare at the future through a glassy lens, and I worry. For all my lack of social aptitude, I have thrived in the proximity of my audience, in the realization that they are, like me, beasts of temperate flesh. I fear a world in which they devolve from that form into shapes on a screen, blobs of color in a black expanse.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Four Novels that Shaped Me

I've been invited by the prominent poet and editor Cameron Mount to share four novels that shaped me. He made the offer in a tweet, and I gather that the idea was that I respond in the same channel. But I'm me, so I'm choosing to overthink the question.

The first thing that I'm overthinking is what question I'm actually being asked. It would be easy to identify four favorite novels. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that most of my favorite fiction hasn't influenced my own in any meaningful way. I adored the work of Douglas Adams as a teen, and I would love to be able to write like him, but I know damn well that I can't.  (And neither can anyone else; people need to stop trying.)  I made a conscious effort to write a story like Terry Pratchett at one point--the story is "The Rule of Three", and was published in the anthology Strange Economics--but his wry sensibility and subtle profundity doesn't infuse my work. I admired Catch-22 but I have no particular gift for nonlinear narratives or for portraying the inhumanity of bureaucratic processes. I loved The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but I never developed the balls to pursue moral libertarianism to the extent Heinlein does and I don't have his imagination for alternative social systems. I don't have the capacity for the world-building of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire or the epic sweep of Stephen King's The Stand, though King's novel The Long Walk, which he wrote as a teenager, narrowly missed this list.

Yet even after recognizing the difference between "enjoyed" and "was influenced by" doesn't quite address the question.  As Brad Porter points out via Twitter, "shaped" is not quite the same as "influenced". The former term goes deeper. It implies that the novel didn't just inspire imitation, but fundamentally affected my worldview in ways that were later reflected in my work.

With those precepts in mind, here's my best shot at answering Cameron's question.



1.  Thieves of Light (Photon:  The Ultimate Game on Earth) by Michael Hudson

I have been a milquetoast since early childhood. Even so, every adolescent seeks to expand his or her horizons to some extent. My version of an "adventure", in my pre-teen years, was to walk a mile or so from my suburban home to Brookwood Shopping Center. I would, of course, do it the dangerous way, abandoning the paved sidewalks in favor of the dark, wooded area surrounding the Shunga-Nunga Creek.  I'd pick up a pack of mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and a glass 16-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper at Dillons Supermarket, then head for the stationary store, where I would purchase pretty much any piece of paperback fiction they happened to stock on the shelves that day; I think my primary purchasing criterion may have been brightness of the colors on the cover.  I'd then proceed to the creek, where I'd lay out on the bank, chow down on candy, and read my book in the mid-afternoon sun.

I am confident that at least 50 of the books I read were Choose Your Own Adventure mini-novels (or the inferior "Which Way" knockoffs), but those mostly blend into an indistinguishable morass in my memory. Sorry, Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery. Then as now, there was a buttload of cheap pulp to be experienced; I dived in head-first, indulged in some pleasant escapism, shoved my purchase into a cubbyhole in my bedroom, and in most cases never thought about it again.

One of the many, many books with which I spent an afternoon was Michael Hudson's Thieves of Light. I do not remember it well, and in order to write this piece I had to do some digging even to figure out what the title was. As best I recall, it was sort of a laser-tag version of The Last Starfighter--teenager discovers that the combat game he's super awesome at is actually training for a real galactic war, and his Mad Skillz identify him for recruitment as the new Chosen One, selected to go to war for the fate of the Earth.  We've seen it before and we'll see it again; even Ernest Cline recently and regrettably chose to walk this dark path.

I'm sure the book was fine. I have only one solid memory of it, though. I opened the front cover of the book thinking of writers as some sort of exotic species of alien experts, practitioners of a wonderful art which was impossibly remote from the little stories I sketched out in class.  By the time I closed it, something had changed.  There's a lot of stuff like this on those shelves. Most of it's more fun than it is brilliant. Somebody's producing it. There isn't any real reason that somebody couldn't be me.

I didn't come back to that idea for about three decades. But this is the first distinct memory I have of experiencing it.


2.  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

This was probably the single work of fiction I enjoyed most between the ages of 10 and 18. It's possible that, in terms of pure joy, it's still #1; we never quite commit to fiction with the same intensity once we reach maturity, do we?

I re-read it a couple of years ago while waiting for Ana Duvernay's ill-considered movie adaptation.  It was, of course, a completely different experience as an adult. And I discovered, as I read it, that I had picked up more from L'Engle than I realized.

People: this book is a justly celebrated masterpiece, but we have lost track of the fact that it is also crazy batshit insane.

I did not remember Meg Murray--the viewpoint character--as being so violent that she had to be removed from school for the safety of the other students.  I remembered Charles Wallace as a bit of an odd duck, not as this bizarre amalgam of borderline-scary cognitive capacity and Christlike kindness.  And Calvin--well, I remember him as being sort of there, but I think that must have been mental scar tissue, because from a writing perspective Calvin is just plain broken. He speaks sentences that no human being in history has ever spoken, or ever would speak; the closest syntactic equivalent is probably the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Jay Gatsby. These three heroes are then plunged into a universe full of winged centaurs singing gospel hymns, mystic teleporting crones one of whom used to be a star (not a celebrity, but an immense ball of incandescent hydrogen in outer space), furry tree-things named "Aunt Beast" bearing bowls of healing porridge, and disembodied throbbing brains operating evil Stepford Civilizations which can be overcome only through the Power of Love.

Folks, this book is off the charts nuts, an impossible synthesis of hippie sentimentality, ludicrous pseudoscience and unmistakably and overwhelmingly Christian cosmology--it borders at times on being a religious tract. And, folks: it WORKS.  It WORKS LIKE ALL HELL.  And the reason it works is that Madeleine L'Engle commits to the whole thing one hundred percent, and doesn't back away from any single one of her bizarre characters or plot decisions. Having a rational person try to "edit" this book would utterly ruin it--as indeed it did when Duvernay and Disney tried to update and improve the story by making it a paen to self-belief featuring the loving guidance of Oprah Winfrey.

And you know what?  I write like L'Engle.  Not as well as L'Engle by any stretch of the imagination, but she and I do share one positive quality: shamelessness. Like L'Engle, I will write the story I wanna write, without regard to whether there is the slightest chance of a publisher picking it up or a reader considering it comprehensible or sane.

And so you WILL get stories from me about Amish space colonies, and Benedict Arnold fighting Genghis Khan and Rasputin in a sword-and-planet afterlife, and magically-enhanced urban professionals escorting a Kennedy baby to Dallas to be inaugurated as God-Emperor, and sentient treasure hoards and corrupt corporate elves who snort gold dust like cocaine and books that turn people gay and all kinds of other madness that takes weeks to write and months or years to sell, if it sells at all, when it would be much, much more rational of me to study up on functional metanarratives and write my stories using sane, functional mechanics.

I could be a better writer, but I'm not. Madeleine L'Engle broke me.



3.  The Book of the SubGenius by The SubGenius Foundation (primarily Doug Smith writing as Ivan Stang)

We all get a little bit unhealthily sure of ourselves in college, and paradoxically, we also become amenable to persuasion by people in authority. I suppose it's part of being a New Adult. We spent fourteen years or so in awe of grownups, with their vast and unfathomable knowledge of the world, which we sort of assumed that would magically be instilled in us via osmosis at some point prior to our eighteenth birthdays.  Then we spent four years being increasingly disappointed by, and angry about, the fact that these people in fact had access to no hidden store of knowledge; they'd been making it all up as they went along.  And now WE'RE the adults, and we know goddamn NOTHING, and that's terrifying, because if we don't know, maybe nobody else does either, and there's no sane force behind the steering wheel.

So: we become attracted to certainty. Maybe it's the certainty of our college professor railing about the evils of capitalism.  Or, in some cases--though not as often as used to be the case--we do a deep dive into religion, either that we grew up with or some newfound alternative. Or maybe adopt some kind of political orthodoxy. Or maybe we just flat-out join a cult. Anything to avoid the terrifying prospect of universal incompetence; there's got to be some solid rock somewhere that we can cling to.

As a freshman in college, I ran across The Book of the SubGenius in a Borders bookstore in a shopping mall in Des Moines. I'd had a glancing interaction with the teachings of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs prior, but I'd considered them juvenile.

And I wasn't wrong, exactly.  Because there's plenty of sardonic, too-cool-for-school smirking at True Believers within the teachings of Ivan Stang's pipe-smoking guru, and a fair amount of stuff that's funny at the level of a fart joke. 

But here's the thing, though: farts are funny.

Farts are damned funny, and people really DO commit themselves 100% to doctrines that are at best 2-3% more insane than SubGenius doctrine, and those people really DO gain meaningful power in society and enact policies that really DO immiserate and kill thousands or millions of people, and that isn't funny at all.  And "Ivan Stang's" response to that wasn't to critique it directly, but instead to lean into the madness.  He built a pseudo-comic, pseudo-serious Frankenstein's Monster out of bits of Scientology and Christianity and Lovecraft and Jim Jones and 1980s New Left politics, and he incorporated it and called it a religion and gave it its own pipe-smoking Christ figure and a sci-fi cosmology and creation myth and a set of religious principles that celebrate a sort of enlightened laziness called "slack" and demand that true believers schism at the first opportunity.

It is the single most impressive work of fiction I've ever encountered.  My young adult novel borrowed from it, up to, and perhaps past, the point of plagiarism.

I sort of flabbled and wobbled my way through a brief infatuation phase with SubGenius philosophy during which I was pretty insufferable, in the way college kids often are.  I bought the ordination card and everything, and declared myself capable of performing weddings (with or without the consent of the participants; indeed, without even their knowledge. A great many of you are going to hell for adultery.). I stopped talking about it so much after a while, but that ordination card is still in my dresser drawer somewhere, and it's presumably as valid as it ever was.

And now I write fiction.  And recently, when I was asked to finish the sentence, "All my stories have...", I struggled mightily for an answer.  And I think the truest conclusion I can offer is, "...a problem with consensus."

I have always been contentious; being in a room where everybody agrees sets my teeth on edge, because people who agree get self-righteous, and self-righteous people do that whole "certainty" thing that college kids do, and that "certainty" ends up directed at the people who reject the conclusions of which the self-righteous are certain. And then people end up dead. And so my stories, and the characters in them, test ideas, and the consensus that forms around them.

This is not the wisest approach for a working writer. A professional will always, by definition, be better served by catering to a consensus than by attacking it. Consensus is where the money is. But I fear consensus, and what it can do. I learned that from J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, and from Ivan Stang.



4,  The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I think it's fair to say that our most recent literary influences exercise disproportionate impact, isn't it?In my case, I started writing at just about the same time I started reading Joe Abercrombie.  I haven't realized, until very recently, how this has created some problems for me.

I don't apologize for being an Abercrombie fan.  The so called "King of Grimdark" is just flat-out awesome, providing the most complicated and nuanced characters I've encountered in contemporary fiction, regardless of genre.  Moreover, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I think the bleakness of his work is somewhat overstated by critics. The claim that his characters never learn or grow is simply factually untrue; Jezal dan Luthar and Caul Shivers both walk away from their character arcs as wiser men, if not happier ones.  Nor does virtue (always) go unrewarded; look at the Dogman, who is arguably the most sympathetic character in the First Law trilogy and eventually prospers thereby.  Even Sand dan Glokta (a reprehensible human being) and Ardee West (a broken human being) achieve what is probably the greatest happiness of which they are capable when they change their behavioral pattern and make a pivotal decision with someone else's interest in mind.

That said:  yeah, Abercrombie's pretty damn grim.  His work involves people with profound character flaws acting on those flaws, thereby producing horrible results for themselves and others.  And I admit that I find this grimness pretty fascinating. I dug George R.R. Martin's subversion of fantasy tropes in A Storm of Swords and elsewhere, and found it interesting to see Abercrombie double down on his work, and in his quest to show how unhappy people end up unhappy.

And so, I wrote a whole bunch of stories involving some pretty wretched people, and some other people who were maybe pretty okay but made some bad decisions and had awful things happen to them. And after a while, I started to wonder why nobody wanted to read my stuff all that much, and why I couldn't motivate myself to write more.

And here's the thing.  It turns out that, mostly, people don't enjoy reading work that makes them miserable!  I know, shocking, right?  And it wasn't until I started lining my work up with a possible collection in mind, and assigning it a rating between 1 (grim AF) and 10 (zip-a-dee-doo-dah), and looking at those strings of low, low numbers all in a row, with no relief, that I began to realize just how dark I had allowed things to get.

So: Abercrombie shaped me, no doubt. But maybe I needed to learn that you can't really please readers being Joe Abercrombie unless you have the psychological insight of a Joe Abercrombie.

So perhaps I'll be looking to produce work that doesn't make the reader want to slit their wrists. Next time you see me discuss my inspirations, you might find work of a different tone.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Glory That Was Broadswords and Blasters

Broadswords and Blasters is probably done. Editors Matt Gomez and Cameron Mount have announced a hiatus following the release of issue 12, and indications are that the stresses of putting out a quality magazine, on top of their other full-time jobs and family lives, have proven too much of a strain to endure.

We're losing a lot of fiction markets these days. A lot of ink has been expended on pro markets like Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, and Apex, which went under as their editors faced the same brutal grind--and unworkable balance sheets--that Matt and Cameron did. But the loss of BS&B hurts more, at least for me.

Matt and Cameron were rare among editors in that they always went out of their way to make writing fun for everyone who came into contact with them. Facing down the usual barrage of hundreds of submissions per issue, they prided themselves on offering actual reasons for rejection to everyone who didn't make the cut--a standard which virtually NO market meets. Their social media feeds, both as individuals and as the BS&B entity, were always full of appreciation for authors and for other markets, as well as grim honesty about the downside of the job--the scads of submissions from people who plainly didn't read the guidelines, the impossibility of meeting Amazon's formatting requirements, the pain that comes from laboring mightily to put out a quality issue and seeing less than a dozen people pay for it. Following their feeds was an education, and a reminder that I would never have had the gumption or the work ethic to do what they did.

But following them was also a joy. There were the Follow Friday promotions, with shout-outs to their published writers that sparked weekly GIF wars.  There were the posts on the magazine's blog celebrating the best of mass-market pulp. And there was that greatest of all joys for a writer-seeing one's work in print, seeing the quality of the other stuff that made the grade, and knowing that keeping company of this quality meant you'd achieved something.

I reviewed a couple of initial issues of BS&B because I felt that was an appropriate gesture of thanks to a periodical that had taken a chance on my work. I liked those issues. I liked them so much, in fact, that I ended up purchasing, reading, and reviewing them all, except for the ones in which my writing appeared. It was a market marked by rock-'em sock-'em action, stylistic experimentation, diversity of setting and concept, and often by just full-on WEIRDNESS. I think I was the first reviewer to call Matt and Cameron the "mad scientists of modern pulp," and they were that in the very best sense of the word.

The high points for BS&B were very high. If you want an introduction to the mag, I'd recommend Issue 5, which includes L Chan's "Petals, Falling Like Memories," one of the best stories every to appear in New Pulp, along with several other excellent stories and what was probably my favorite of the trademark cover illustrations created by the talented Luke Spooner.  A second high point is, actually, the new issue, number 12.  Although I can't post reviews of it as per my personal policy, there's some STOMPIN' pulp herein, including J. Rohr's magisterial "Riding The Rails", a mortal lock for my year-end best-of list.  You'll find my own work in Issues 4, 8, and the aforementioned Issue 12.

The mad scientists will be moving on now to other pursuits.  But in our hearts, and on our shelves, the beautiful monster they created shambles on.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

For Your Consideration: My Published Short Fiction of 2019

I wrote some pretty kick-ass stuff in 2019, if I do say so myself.  And I do, indeed, say so.

January kicked off with "Screaming Timmy Must Die", my take of prepubescent supervillain hijinks, in Broadswords and Blasters:

Calvin, Dennis, and Nancy watched from atop the jungle gym. “I would run any risk,” Calvin intoned, “to be rid of this vermin. I swear this vow: from this day forth, no smile will crease my lips, nor shall my voice be raised song, while Screaming Timmy’s heart yet beats.”  
“Would that I had a knife, that I might open his throat!” Dennis exclaimed. 
“To class, my boys,” Nancy muttered, as the three of them clambered down.  “And be watchful. Be ever alert to the arrival of the maiden called Opportunity. And should she grace you with her presence, do not hesitate to strike...”


Strange Constellations published "Wipeout," a tale of perfect persuasion and human extinction set in the world of high school policy debate:
The debate final is underway, the arguments unraveling under flickering fluorescent lights, and Connor’s shirt sleeve is unraveling with them.  His clothing is threadbare, the sleeves of the suit he outgrew two years ago riding up his forearms, revealing a frayed left cuff, a missing button.  Whenever his hands are left idle, they return to the cuff, picking and plucking nervously.  It’s amazing, over time, how the wear accumulates, how much thoughtless damage is done.


My flash piece "Appropriate," a reflection on what it might for schools of the future to take cultural appropriate seriously, hit the airwaves via the Centropic Oracle podcast:

The poster bore an image of a tiny kitten dangling from a clothesline, hind legs kicking desperately against the abyss.  HANG IN THERE, the caption read.  Horatio Salazar, Westside High School Appropriations Officer, had hung the poster in an attempt to reassure the students who were summoned to his office.  Occasionally, it even worked.  Xinyu loved that poster, Salazar thought, back when she was Consuela.  Back before her third strike.  A sweet girl.  But she should have known that piƱatas originated in China, and that they only became “Spanish” through cultural appropriation.

The Arcanist picked up "Kill the Umpire," in which Little League Baseball goes transhuman:

The pitcher for Watkins Widgets must have had parents with actual honest-to-god paying jobs, because he’d had some splicing done.  The thing dangling from his shoulder was more tentacle than arm—it had suckers on it and everything--and when he brought it around in an arc, the ball shot forward and dipped over the outer edge of the plate at the knees. The umpire’s laser marked the ball’s path, and on the back end of its titanium carapace, the red light lit up with a buzz. Strike one.


The kills keep coming, as Tell-Tale Press published "Killing Time," a flash take of postmortal ennui:

Hal lounged on, the clock marching towards lunchtime, a fading ache in his hip where the rifle had kicked.  His eyes flitted to the ever-expanding freeform statue Ro Radhakrishnan was welding out of what had once been the corner streetlight; to the ornate stucco mural spreading lazily across the Mendozas’ south wall, and to the gaping hole in the curb where the neighborhood’s last hydrant had stood before somebody’d uprooted it for scrap.  At length he stood and gripped the porch-rail, gazing up and out at the limitless sky, free of clouds or contrails.  At the marginally-functional remains of suburbia.  At the slow, steady deterioration of the elaborate infrastructure that had once been necessary to keep people alive.  At an intricate spiderweb that had become a cobweb.

Arguably my highest-profile sale to date was "Cravings," which landed in Compelling Science Fiction in December. It's a futuristic police procedural, an investigation of distributive justice, and a love letter to my hometown:

Ninety miles an hour down 435. Sleek, compact, self-driving vehicles on every side. In the middle of it all, me wrestling a police cruiser into any gap I can find, with the grumblings of my partner’s stomach almost drowning out the electric motor.
          I sometimes feel like I’m the only remaining human in Kansas City with a driver’s license. Every time I take manual control of a car, it’s worse. The comp-cars adjust seamlessly to the ebb and flow of traffic, but no algorithm prepares them for Lieutenant Max Simmons. Horns blare as I lurch down the road, and to hell with them; the day I can’t out-drive a circuit board is the day I turn in my badge. Everyone in this town has become a passenger, post-Rawls. I’m entitled to feel, every now and then, like there’s somebody at the wheel.

There’s more to come in 2020. January brings the grimstick weird western “The Professionals” from Broadswords and Blasters and the demi-human totalitarian fantasy “The Laughing Folk” from On Spec. In February, experience life among the Space Amish in “Prodigal” from Planet Scumm. In April, discover the extraterrestrial origins of the werewolf legend in “Shift” from J.J. Outre Review. Plus, my story of rogue climatology “Don” will be free to the public for the first time at Silver Blade, and the aforementioned Centropic Oracle will be putting out the audio version of “Wipeout”.

Point is: I rule and you should nominate me for all the awards. And Happy New Year, everybody!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

For Your Consideration: My Favorite Pulp Stories of 2019

You can't handle the New Pulp.

There's just too much of it, for one thing. There's something like a dozen publications with a pulp focus, and new ones springing up like weeds, all of them churning out action-focused stories in a zillion different subgenres, from crime fic to cyberpunk to sword-and-planet. That's to say nothing of the novels prominent genre authors churn out, or the free-floating stories on blogs or subscription sites.

At one point there was an embryonic movement to create a jury prize for modern pulp. As far as I'm aware it never gained traction. How could it? I mean, who reads a sufficient fraction of the genre output to serve as a juror? And how do you compare a Burroughsian retro-fic novella to a tech noir flash piece?

I can't make any reasonable claim to speak for New Pulp as a whole, but I do think that I read more widely in the genre than do most reviewers. In 2019 I purchased and read over a dozen issues of seven different publications, as well as assorted pulp stories at sites that don't offer up their pulp in chunks. Having followed the movement for a while, it's apparent to me that all involved are getting better at producing quality fiction. Editors are cranking out issues that blow their offerings from a couple of years ago out of the water. Reports from multiple markets suggest that the number of submissions is increasing dramatically. As a result, bad stuff doesn't make it into print nearly as often anymore; the ceiling in terms of story quality is rising, but the floor is rising faster. The core authors in the movement are doing their best work ever; new stars are emerging, and established authors from other genres are dropping in for a piece of the action. It's a great time to be a pulp reader.

This is my celebration of the best short-form pulp fiction I read in 2019. Call it a year-end awards post if you like. My influence is minimal, but I genuinely believe that every story on this list is worthy of any award anyone would care to throw at it.


CAVEATS:

1.  I'm defining "New Pulp" as fiction with a visceral focus. Stories with a strong literary element are not excluded from my definition of pulp, provided that the visceral part of the story is foregrounded; Poe, Lovecraft, and Doyle would be considered pulp authors under my definition.

2.  This list considers short-form fiction only and independent publishers only. Baen and Tor don't really need a pat on the back from me.

3.  As mentioned above, I read only some of the New Pulp that was published this year. I don't call this "The Best Pulp of 2019" because I'm not in a position to make that judgment. I don't thing anybody is.

4.  All decisions are subjective. My tastes run strongly towards speculative fiction. There was, for instance, a lot of gritty crime fiction that I read this year which I could recognize was of high quality, but which didn't ring my bell, because I just don't swing that way.

5.  If your story isn't on the list, that doesn't mean I disliked it! Even my issue reviews tend to leave out fiction I enjoyed, as I focus on three or fewer stories per issue. This list is several degrees more exclusive even than that, and cutting it to a manageable size was excruciating.

6.  List is alphabetical by story title. Ranking them proved impossible for me.



MY FAVORITE PULP STORIES OF 2019

*THE BOOK HUNTER'S APPRENTICE by Barbara Doran (Cirsova v2 i1)*

There's different ways to approach cultural diversity in literature.  I've read some modern work, especially YA, in which authors attempt to shoehorn a pastiche of superficially diverse characters into the narrative as if they were casting a 1990s Benetton ad. I'm also told, by writers both famous and obscure, that there's a real fear among mass-market authors that to engage in representation of cultures other than one's own is to risk one's career, that the safe thing to do is to "stay in your lane."  I find New Pulp's attitude far healthier. Writers are expected to research thoroughly and to represent respectfully, but exploration is encouraged. Readers are invited to experience the world as a place full of wonder, and to value the many different ways of being human. The atmosphere is one of bridge-building, of imaginative empathy.

I don't know a thing about Barbara Doran's ethnicity, but a glimpse at her Amazon author page reveals that she traveled the world as the child of a military parent, and her catalog is full of modern and historical fantasy exploring the interaction of East Asian and American perspectives.  Here she offers a tale set in pre-modern China, wherein a kitchen slave with an inexplicable talent for teleportation accompanies a mysterious bookseller in a quest to steal a tome of wondrous power. The story is an intricate puzzle-box with more twists than a dragon's tail. Her familiarity with, and respect for, the storytelling traditions of the culture echoes in every sentence. Doran has taken me to a world I would not otherwise have a chance to visit, and I'm grateful the experience.


*CAMERA OBSCURA by Rex Weiner (Broadswords and Blasters #9)*

Rex Weiner has been to the mountaintop. He has published work at pro rates in national periodicals and has even had his stories adapted as a major hollywood movie. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who's felt validated by his active participation in the indy pulp scene this year. If a writer of Weiner's stature feels like hanging in our company, we must be doing something right.

Weiner published widely in New Pulp this year, including a number of noteworthy crime fic pieces featuring police inspector Skull Snyder. To my taste, though, this was his best work of 2019. "Camera Obscura" sends a hotel developer to a decaying former plantation on the Baja coast of Mexico, then charts his degeneration as his perception and principles slowly become backwards and inverted. A literary piece with a deliberate pace, the story offers subtle flavors of Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe.


*THE ELEPHANT IDOL by Xavier Lastra (Cirsova v2 i1)*

A fascinating authorial experiment--a story told entirely from the perspective of a blind character. The master thief Auger invades an opera house in pursuit of a diva’s love trinket--but in seizing it, arouses the supernatural wrath of her would-be lover.  Having unraveled his own reality, Auger will require all of his skills to escape—and will discover that in a realm full of sights unfit for human eyes, his disability may prove an advantage. Lastra's ability to portray action without using visual imagery is impressive. He takes his readers on a fascinating journey into unexplored realms of human perception.


*HER NAME WAS LARCENY by CW Blackwell (Pulp Modern v2 i4)*

I mentioned above that, in general, I'm not a fan of gritty crime fiction. Part of the reason is that I often feel like authors pack the grime into the story in order to serve audience expectations or as a sort of internal competition to see Who Can Get Nastiest. I have never felt that way about the work of CW Blackwell. In his work, the ugliness isn't a prop or a patina; it flows outwards from the motives and decisions of his characters. And in Larceny, the story's antagonist, Blackwell has crafted the character of the year, a tornado on two legs who tears through town after town, committing transgressions small and large,  leaving a trail of dumbfounded cops and chintzy statuary behind her.  Blackwell is always great with dialogue, but he exceeds himself here; the story is propulsive enough on its own merits, but the repartee adds a welcome note of levity that keeps the pages turning.


*THE LIVING TEXTS OF SILDEEN by Benjamin Chandler (Broadswords and Blasters #11)*

An antique dealer's principles are tested by an encounter with a young fugitive. The moral arc of the protagonist makes for an interesting story in itself, but there's two other major reasons to love this one.  The first is the author's ability to string together beautiful sentences; the prose is just gorgeous.  The second is the story's magic system, or rather, its lack of one.  I often find that fantasy stories both inside and outside of the New Pulp genre are confined by reliance on the tropes provided by magic systems in existing properties.  When I encounter a new magic system, as in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles or Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, I'm often impressed.  Chandler has done these authors one better by more or less throwing out the rules entirely.  Marosh's shop is a carnival of exotic wonders in which any item--a needle, a comb, a tattoo--may hold secret properties accessible to a knowledgeable user. I want to read more stories set in this world.


*MODESTY by Albert Tucher (Pulp Modern v2 i4)*

One struggle pulp writers sometimes face is how to make a protagonist simultaneously formidable and vulnerable.  We know that our mythic swordswomen and steely-eyed space rangers are going to overcome most obstacles, so how to convey a sense that the odds are stacked against them?  Well, by golly, Albert Tucher's found a way.  In "Modesty", hard-nosed and sharp-witted sex worker Diana Andrews finds herself on the run from serial killers. While naked. As in: completely bare-ass naked, from start to finish.

Placing the reader perspective squarely in Diana's shoes (stiletto heels, natch) keeps the prurient elements from overwhelming the story, and keeps the reader's focus on the action and character beats. I was reminded of the mid-sixties film "The Naked Prey," which places an African safari guide in Diana's position.  As with that film, I walk away impressed with the protagonist's resourcefulness and a bit curious as to how long I'd last in the same situation. Best guess: roughly sixteen seconds.


*THE SPIRIT OF ST. GEORGE by Damascus Mincemeyer (Storyhack #4)*

World War One fighter aces battle dragons over Colorado.

I will repeat that.

WORLD WAR ONE FIGHTER ACES BATTLE DRAGONS OVER COLORADO.

One of the great things about pulp is that sometimes an awesome story concept is enough to elevate a story all by itself. This is, needless to say, such a time. Mincemeyer doesn't merely rest on his core concept, though. He has painstakingly researched 1920s aviation and fills the page with fascinating detail. He lards the text with alt-historical references and inclusions of figures both famous and obscure.  He stacks the odds against his protagonists, then delivers a thrilling action climax, while layering the whole thing with subtle wit.  This is adventure pulp at its finest.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Winter Wonderlands


For a guy who writes sporadically at this point, I still seem to be landing a fair number of publication deals. There will be a number of stories both new and old landing in print and podcast form this winter, with more pending.  Here's the lowdown on what's set in stone so far.

The biggest news is that my first sale to a periodical recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will hit the net in December.  CRAVINGS, a tale of forbidden barbecue and distributive justice set in a near-future Kansas City, will appear in Compelling Science Fiction in December of this year.  This is one of my most-revised stories, starting life under a different name as a tossed-off submission to an obscure literary contest and wending its way through eight drafts and 20+ rejections before finally selling to probably the highest-profile magazine I ever submitted it to.  I don't understand what happened with this story, but I'm grateful it did.  As is commonplace for magazines that pay pro rates, this one will be paywalled, but keep an eye on social media for news of its release.

DON, in which a climate-scientist Don Quixote does battle with modern windmills, made the cut at Andromeda Spaceways earlier this year and has since been chosen for their Best of 2019 anthology.  I've also reached agreement for a free version to be published on the web, but the publisher went silent almost immediately after accepting. We'll see what happens there.

KILL THE UMPIRE, a very short piece which explores Little League baseball in a posthuman future, will be posted for free viewing at the Medium site The Arcanist in November.  The Arcanist was also the venue for my cyber-cowboy piece Finger last year, and is in my opinion one of the most underrated fiction sites on the web; in terms of quality they hit WAY outside of their weight class.

PRODIGAL...ah, what to say of Prodigal?  A biblical allegory set in an Amish space colony, this one was my wayward literary son for a long, long time.  It was rejected with scorn and laughter by every venue you've heard of and some you haven't...and then, when I thought hope was lost, it was picked up by Planet Scumm for release this winter.  You'll have to pay to read this one, but you really ought to.  PS is a pure delight, a sort of literary-pulp hybrid with an absolutely fantastic sense of humor about itself, and a quietly dazzling list of author credits.  If I were editing an indie, I'd want it to be very much like Planet Scumm.

And then there's WIPEOUT, which I still regard as the best short story I've ever written.  A deep dive into the worlds of high school debate and voluntary human extinction, it was first published under a creative commons license and is freely available on the net.  And yet, suddenly, everybody seems to want a piece of it...the subscription site The New Accelerator picked it up for distribution in mid-September, and the ultra-professional podcast The Centropic Oracle has purchased the audio rights, with publication date pending.

There's more in the quiver as well.  Those wonderful indie pulps are all opening their doors to submission in October, and I'll be sending them a couple of pieces of which I'm very proud, including a Baen Adventure Fiction Contest finalist.  I'm also marketing a dark fantasy piece about soccer, an utterly insane piece of paranormal fiction inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, and I'm investigating possibilities regarding a certain YA novel long thought to be dead.

It seems that the game keeps pulling me back in.  And who'd have it any other way?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

On not writing

When an author concludes a story with the words "The End", it rarely means THE END, at least not from a reader's perspective. The reader is going to read more stories. And in almost all cases, the writer's gonna write more.

The words "The End" signal an interregnum. An interruption. The sad, sweet finale to a particular adventure that the author and the reader shared.

It's too early to know for sure. But it seems increasingly likely that I have reached an end where semiprofessional writing is concerned, at least for a while.


*


I don't know if most readers fully understand exactly how long the delay between the creation of work by an author and the publication of that work can be. My own stories have, in some cases, spent more than two years on the market before hitting print. It's like starlight. When you look into the night sky, you are examining the light that was produced four, or ten, or fifty, or a thousand years ago. It may well be the case that the star that you are looking at burned out decades or even centuries ago; yet from your perspective, it still shines. And the "new release" you read from your favorite author might be last year's work, or the work of five years ago. People change in that amount of time. The author who wrote that story is gone.

I've got good work hitting the market in the weeks and months ahead. Soon I will be posting here about the most deeply personal short story I've written, which will be published on a prominent free internet site. I will also be breaking the news of my greatest single professional success as a writer, both in terms of dollars earned and in terms of likely readership. Other new stories will be appearing in periodicals where I've seen print before, and some in new markets entirely.

It will seem like I've been productive. But I haven't completed a story since July 23. It's possible my star has exhausted its fuel.


*


It's not writer's block. The problem isn't that I don't have ideas. The problem isn't the lack of a plan as to how to do the work. It's no longer a matter of me not knowing what I'm doing. On the contrary. The problem is that I know too much.

Over the last five years, I have learned what it takes for me to write a high-quality short story, and I have learned what happens when I expend less than my best effort.  I've seen, through interaction with professional writers, what "the writer's life" actually entails, in terms of daily input and output; in terms of grinding at the keyboard and in terms of schmoozing with other human beings.

I can no longer lie to myself about the nature of my talent, or about the requirements of being a real writer. The evidence is accumulating that I'm reasonably good at this, and that I'm improving with practice. But the inputs that good writing requires are also becoming more clear. To produce really good work, one must sit down and wrestle with the material for a matter of weeks (in the case of a short story) or years (in the case of a novel). There are no shortcuts. Anything less, and the work will be less than the best version of itself.

In the beginning, I enjoyed cranking out short stories at what some writers call "pulp speed", and watching them find markets. I still feel that sense of pride when I receive those acceptance letters.  But the rejections produce more shame and guilt than they did before--because having experienced success as a professional writer, I know that I'm capable of it. And now I know that the failure of a story is frequently the product of my failure to commit to it; of my having settled for "good enough".

Good enough isn't good enough anymore. I can't accept it from myself, or look forward to it. If I'm in, I have to be all-in.

Now when I contemplate the prospect of sitting down at a keyboard, I find myself seeing the task not as a joyful outpouring of ideas, but as a commitment. I know that I'm going to have to sweat and bleed to make the story what it's supposed to be. I know that my best efforts are still going to get it sent back at me, sometimes with disdain and sometimes with apathy, by people whose judgment I respect. I sit down at the keyboard with a clear view of the mountain in front of me. And the task intimidates me in a way it didn't when I started, when I could just grin about the crazy idea the Story Elves put in my head and go charging merrily up the slope.


*


What a privilege to be able to write fiction as a hobby, instead of for a living.

Hunter S. Thompson, a genius with a thunderbolt in his pen, once wrote of the pure hatefulness of having to meet a certain word-count in order to get paid. Almost everyone who's produced fiction, from Gutenberg's day to this, has been reliant on the success of that fiction in order to eat. What a nightmare that must have been! For a growing and developing writer to have faced hunger and privation as the cost of imperfection, with no realistic hope that things would ever be different!

I'm blessed to live in an era in which even dilettantes like myself can achieve a measure of success while doing the work part-time.  I can sit down at the keyboard and write at my convenience. As, indeed, I have. As I hope I still will, someday, when I can work up the gumption.

But the writers of a previous generation were driven in a way I don't have to be. When failure means starvation, you work or you die. For every Charles Dickens or Joseph Heller, there must have been thousands who went hungry, sick, and dead in pursuit of artistic success.We will never know how much human wreckage was produced in order for us to read A Wrinkle In Time or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. I'll never have go through that meat grinder, thank God.

When I confront the amount of commitment it takes to turn an idea into a story, I don't experience it as a necessity of survival. I experience it as a choice. I could write today, or I could play a video game on Steam, or to grade papers, or read something someone else has written.  And regardless of what choice I make, I will be employed tomorrow, and I will live a climate-controlled, antiseptic-surgery-secured existence in conditions that the richest men on earth a century ago would consider luxurious. The luxury of laziness is available to me, as it is to many of us. It's the gift of our foreparents, the product of generations of pain and toil. I embrace it gratefully. But I also recognize that, for lazy bastards like myself, it does rid the creative process of its urgency.

There are people who are DRIVEN by art, who MUST CREATE. And there are others who can create, or can choose not to, on a daily basis. I'm one of the latter, thank God. But the creative process rewards those with the drive to chase it. And it may be the case that I simply lack that drive. Or that I have misplaced it somewhere along the way.


*


I wrote some time ago of the professional inadequacies that led me to write Axis of Eternity. I wrote about not being a great teacher, and about hoping I might be great at something else. I have, in the years since, discovered that I am the same sort of writer as I am a teacher: a good one, with moments of greatness. But I am probably too interested in too many other things to ever fully realize my potential in either venue.

In the last year or so, I've gotten back on the beam, teaching-wise. I have new goals, and a plan to achieve them, and I'm seeing results. I'm getting more daily joy from the craft of teaching and from the small victories. Younger Me would not in any way understand the sort of educator I've become. But Younger Me didn't always understand things as fully as he thought, and was kind of a dick besides. At any rate, a lot of the creative energy that I once reserved for my side-hustle is instead expended on my day job.

I have a couple of cool story ideas, and a pretty clear idea of what the finished product would look like. And I stare up the slope at what really bringing those worlds into existence would require of me if I did it in the right way. And my mouth screws into a grimace. And I close MS Word, and I open Steam, and I vanish into one of those convenient worlds somebody else created for me.

I haven't completed a story since July 23. And it feels like maybe I won't for a while.


*


I tell myself that I need not close the door entirely, that I can come back later. My brain rebels, knowing that it's necessary for a writer to write every day, that the muscle slackens when you don't use it. I think about the quality of the writers with whom I'm competing for publication space--and instead of inspiring my competitive urge, I find myself intimidated. I look at my catalog of twenty published stories--and the pride doesn't drive me on, it makes me complacent.

So, maybe: The End. I don't know. We'll see. But, just in case: thanks to all of you who have put up with this little side-hustle of mine. To those who've published the stories. To those who've humored me by reading them. To those who've even enjoyed them a bit. To those who've given me a pat on the back, or who've merely resisted the urge to piss on my parade.

And if it's The End, well...there's a couple of cool postscripts coming your way. Several stories yet to drop, including my favorite. More stories still on the market. And my greatest professional success is, as I mentioned, yet unannounced. So keep watching this space. Even if the last rockets have left the ground, there's still one last burst of fireworks coming.

*

[Update:  within three weeks of writing this, I completed two more stories.  So much for the melodrama.  The Magic Brain Goblins are some weird and unpredictable little bastards.]