Tuesday, November 8, 2016

What I Can Control

"Worry about what you can control," I tell my students, over and over.
Today I wait for the people of my state--people who have always been kind to me and forgiving of my foibles, people who give generously to charity and serve their communities and nation abundantly--to make a horrendous mistake. To endorse for the Presidency a man whose values are utterly alien to their own. To drop a dookie on America's civic lawn.
I cannot control their behavior. I can control my own. I can recognize that my own frequently-expressed contempt for these people and their cultural and religious norms has been a contributing factor in their decision--that I have made it difficult for people to want to share a nation with people like me.
I can recognize that I have been dismissive of the pain caused by the disintegration of the American working class under the pressures of globalization. That I am largely insulated from the very real costs incurred by economic and social progress, and that others are paying the price for my moral and physical comfort.
I can recognize that, as someone who broadly shares the values of the American cultural elite, I could stand to be a bit less superior about it, and that tolerance is often a virtue which I apply selectively.
I can recognize that, for a guy who talks a lot about persuasion, I'm often not very good at it. And that I talk better than I listen. 

I'm not a fan of"safe spaces" as a concept, but I think it's probably time for me to recognize that there need to be arenas in American life where people can come together without feeling like they're under psychological assault. We need those spaces, at this moment, more than we need my personal political and moral preferences.
I will work towards reconciliation, and I'm OK with being held to that. Feel free to blow the whistle.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Silent Screams



The book is an unusual one thematically, as its hook is “socially conscious dark fiction”—which is to say, horror and near-horror stories with an emphasis on disadvantaged protagonists.  On the surface, this would put it outside of my comfort zone both as a writer and reader.  I have no particular fondness for horror in any medium (I find it generally gratuitous and artless and it very rarely scares me) and, while I care about social justice conceptually, I am accustomed to seeing issues of “social consciousness” approached in a preachy and adversarial manner that turns me off.

I was therefore surprised when the editors of the work elected to accept my contribution to the anthology, “A Boy and a Soldier.”  My story is a further fleshing-out of Fabrice’s journey to freedom in the company of his child-soldier companions and disembodied advisor, as first chronicled in "The Commander".  This tale is more adult in tone, focuses more extensively on Fabrice’s human allies and adversaries, and goes to darker places.  I wouldn’t categorize it as full-on horror so much as straightforward fiction with dark elements.

I don’t know why the Fabrice stuff sells so much more readily than the rest of my work; if I did know, I’d be a better writer.  Perhaps it’s because it’s more action-forward that most of what I write.  Perhaps it’s because Fabrice is a more immediately sympathetic and admirable protagonist than most of the conflicted, messed up people through whom I speak.  Perhaps the voice is more distinctive, or perhaps we Americans just love us some cultural appropriation.  In any case, it’s a solid story of which I’m proud.

And then I read the whole collection, and I’ll just be damned if my story isn’t maybe the weakest thing in it.

These are STRONG stories, my people.  Rich, visceral, imaginative, well-crafted and emotionally resonant, right across the board.  My initial concerns about the genre approach and possible political angling of the book were blown right out of the water.  These aren’t just horror stories, but stories of every type and style—everything from lit fic to heroic fantasy, seasoned with dark elements but not overwhelmed by the desire to “get dark”.  They’re enjoyable reads in which the nasty side makes you think, as opposed to grossing you out.

Nor are these predictable defenses of progressive orthodoxy against the usual cultural straw-men—there’s a variety of perspectives included, everything from standard feminist to stridently anti-abortion.  The stories have points to make, but they’re never artless in doing so.  The touch of the authors is deft, the allegories clear but subtle, the victims worthy of sympathy regardless of one’s position on the political compass.  If you come away from this screaming about “SJWs”, I daresay the problem is with you, not with the book.

Parenthetically, I will add for the benefit of the high school speech instructors among my readers that there is some very intriguing prose/DI material herein.

I can’t guarantee you’ll love everything in the book, but I’ll bet you respect damn near all of it.  And there’s enough really good writing here that predicting your individual favorite is probably next to impossible.  For me personally, three pieces stand out.



-“THE MAIDEN WITH THE CLOCKWORK HANDS” by Rachel Strnad.  This tale, apparently set in an alternative 19th century, places a monster hunter from the Pacific Northwest and his motley companions aboard a most unconventional vessel, and turns them loose in search of two quarries—a man with a fondness for silence, and a beast that makes Moby Dick seem tame.  In doing so, it creates a subgenre all its own, a sort of paranormal-infused steampunk.  I’m not overly fond of paranormal OR steampunk, yet Strnad’s world is much better than the sum of its parts; it’s utterly captivating, revealing its wonders and the mechanics of its technological, natural, and pseudo-magical systems in stages.


-“A PRESENTATION TO THE IMPERIAL SOCIETY OF MANCERS” by Stephen S. Power.  Clinical detachment is a prerequisite to successful science and to human progress generally, yet to sever ourselves from our emotions makes us in some respects less than human.  It’s from this dichotomy that the traditional take on the “mad scientist” springs.  Here, the author yanks us in an unexpected direction, creating a world of heroic fantasy into which technology is being slowly introduced, ala Terry Pratchett.  Pratchett, however, never dreamed up a narrator as soul-sick as the twisted bastard Power offers as the author of this scientific journal submission.  Utterly revolting, and disturbingly insightful.


-“RAW” by Shane Simmons.

Oh, sweet Jesus.  Where to begin with this thing?

I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a fan of traditional horror; that I don’t find it scary and that I often find it manipulative.  Well…this IS traditional horror.  And I suppose that, in technical terms, you’d have to call it manipulative.  But HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, did it ever succeed at manipulating me.

It’s about a mobster who visits a restaurant.  More than that I will not reveal, because it would spoil the “fun”, and because I’d rather not think about it any more than I have to.  Suffice to say that, over the course of eighteen pages, I twice had to get up from my computer and go do something else for a while.  This is not a story for the sensitive or the squeamish.  I am neither, and this story WRECKED me.

I hesitate to say that a story in a small-market collection is the best piece of horror fiction I’ve ever read.  That doesn’t seem like it ought to be true.  But I can’t recall another ever having as visceral an effect on me. 

Shane Simmons, you sick f*ck.  You’ll win awards for this.





There’s more, folks.  There’s much, much more.  Twenty-six stories in all, each with a unique style and a particular way of providing a voice to society’s victims.  Every cent you spend on this anthology goes straight to the Salvation Army, to help some of those victims pick themselves back up again.  But believe me, it’s primarily for your own sake that you’ll want to buy this one.  It’s great.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Dear Publisher,

I have received you recent rejection notice.  It is extremely well-written and imaginative, but I'm afraid it's just not what I'm looking for right now.  Consequently, I'm going to have to publish my short story in your magazine/anthology/website/newsletter/loose sheaf of crumpled notebook paper anyway.

Please bear in mind that even an excellent rejection letter will not meet the tastes of every writer.  As I'm sure you're aware, I receive MANY rejection letters, and can only accept a small percentage. I am confident that you will find a home for your work very soon with another reputable author.

Best wishes going forward, and I hope you will bear me in mind for future rejections.

-Steve DuBois

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Sharp Ends" by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie has a reputation as one of the grimmest, darkest, most brutal figures in modern heroic fantasy.  His debut effort, the First Law trilogy, opened up readers to characters with deep-seated psychological flaws, empires which were not so much led as jerked in varying ineffectual directions by competing political factions, and utter ambiguity as to who might be the hero or the villain.  After a brief and mostly successful sojourn in Young Adult literature, he has returned to the world of his original fantasy novels, and seems to be seeking to make up for lost time.  Sharp Ends offers up all of the sex and violence his YA Shattered Sea trilogy couldn’t, with a few dollops extra to spare.  With Abercrombie, that’s very much a good thing.


THE GOOD AND THE GREAT:

*VIOLENCE!!!  If there’s anybody writing who’s better at portraying graphic violence on the printed page, I don’t know who it might be.  Abercrombie’s battle scenes are brusque, direct, and precise; the action is smooth and visceral, playing out in continually imaginative and surprising ways.  His style is more hyper-realistic than strictly realistic, which is a bit of a surprise from an author who confines himself so rigidly to realistic motives in his descriptions of human behavior; his point of view characters have always had a capacity to absorb damage or evade blows that verges on the superhuman, and here he goes even bigger, with characters occasionally plucking arrows from midair and the like.  The important thing is that it works.  It works like all hell.  Abercrombie is a very rare author in that he can alter his use of violence to suit the tone of the story, from horror to disgust to ennui even to outright comedy.  If there’s an objection to be offered here, it’s that violence seems to be a lot more “fun” than used to be the case in Abercrombie’s work.  Previous entries consistently kept careful track of the emotionally stunting effect of violence upon its practitioners; this time out, both old characters and particularly new ones seem to be pretty comfortable shrugging off the disembowelments they impose upon others, with the notable exception of old favorite Bremer dan Gorst, who appears to be headed in the opposite direction.  In any case, readers who don’t care for violence should steer well clear.

*PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHT.  Abercrombie’s point-of-view characters are consistently complex and intriguing.  Every action that takes place in an Abercrombie story proceeds realistically from the motives of the participants; there is rarely anything forced or any need of a plot McGuffin.  People don’t always know what they want, let alone what’s best for them, and even those who get what they want often find that maybe they didn’t want it after all.  Abercrombie understands both at an intellectual and an intuitive level the many ways in which we disappoint both ourselves and others.  And yet…for all that Abercrombie is celebrated for his grim, dark style, he understands joy and satisfaction equally well.  His characters change and grow; they experience wonderful friendships, achieve impressive things, are celebrated for what’s best in them (though not perhaps as often as for what’s worst in them).  Some may call Abercrombie grim; I call him insightful.

*DIALOGUE.  I maintain that readers don’t want characters that talk like real people; they want characters who talk the way they WISH real people talked.  Well, here are those characters, in great numbers, spouting quote-worthy quips left and right.  Everyone will have a particular favorite, I suppose; of the members of the author’s rogue’s gallery represented herein, I’ll opt for the autistic henchman Friendly and the newly introduced Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp.

*FRITZ LEIBER LIVES!  Abercrombie’s newest revelation, and the best reason to publish this book, is the partnership between the aforementioned Javre, a human wrecking machine and creature of insatiable appetite, and Shevedieh, a master thief who’s never happy unless she’s miserable.  The two of them have a distinct Fafhrd/Grey Mouser vibe going, and a series of short stories is EXACTLY the right manner in which to keep them moving forward together; we’re presented in Sharp Ends with a series of adventures spanning fourteen years of common history, and there’s plenty of room for Abercrombie to fill in blanks with more stories later on.  Two of the Jav/Shev stories, “Skipping Town” and “Two’s Company,” run neck-and-neck for the best thing in the book.  This is fun, fun stuff.


THE MEH:

*POUNDING CONCEPTS INTO THE GROUND.  Yes, Shev, we get it, you’re a lesbian.  It’s not necessary to remind us every third page (and hey, Joe, whatever happened to "show, don't tell", wink wink, nudge nudge).  By the same token:  the “sidekick” gag is very, very funny when it’s first introduced, then gets worn out through repetition--Abercrombie uses it to suggest that Javre is subtler than she appears, but in this case I'd prefer more subtlety from the author as opposed to the character. 

*INACCESSIBILITY.  There is some stuff in here that fans of Abercrombie’s early work will absolutely ADORE but which will completely confuse anyone who hasn’t read the antecedent work.  Notable on this score is the opener, “A Beautiful Bastard,” which provides some very, very revelatory context for the relationship between Salem Rews and Sand dan Glokta (the single greatest character Abercrombie has ever created, and one who I’d love to see get more attention).  It’s impossible to imagine, though, that people who haven’t read the First Law trilogy will get anything out of the story.  The same is true of the last story, “Made a Monster,” which explores the history of Abercrombie’s most popular character from the perspective of an antagonist.  For those familiar with how their relationship ends, the story makes sense.  For an outsider, though, I have to think that there’s not much satisfaction to be gained here.  If you’re having a banquet of Abercrombie, treat “Sharp Ends” as the dessert rather than the appetizer.

*HARD TIMES ALL OVER.  This worked, mostly, as a stand-alone story in George R. R. Martin’s “Dangerous Women” anthology.  It doesn’t work here.  It PARTICULARLY doesn’t work in that it rewrites the dynamic between Shev and supporting character Carcolf which Abercrombie has spent the past hundred and fifty pages establishing.  And no, an “unreliable narrator” isn’t sufficient to explain the differences as they’re presented here.  I’m guessing that Abercrombie wrote this story first, had second thoughts about who Shev was, and wrote her team-ups with Javre later on, then felt compelled to include this story in the volume anyway.  It was the wrong decision.

*COLLECTIONS OF TICS MASQUERADING AS CHARACTERS.  This isn’t really a weakness in Abercrombie’s writing so much as an offshoot of his strengths.  We see so much depth in his point-of-view characters that some of his less developed secondary characters come across as more two-dimensional than they otherwise would.  Carcolf falls into this category.  If we’re being completely honest, Javre does as well, at times, but Abercrombie is clearly having so much fun writing her that the reader won’t care.


OVERALL:  

It’s Abercrombie.  It’s the First Law.  Nobody else does the stuff he does as well as he does it.  Of COURSE you’re gonna want to read it.  My advice, though, is to read it last.  If you haven’t already, go buy “The Blade Itself” and work your way in the direction of this book.  You don’t, after all, begin at the Ends.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Briefly, regarding the hype machine

I've now posted favorable reviews of over half the short stories in One Thousand Words for War.  One might think I was hyping the book or something.  One would be right.  I've been included in a very fine YA anthology; I'm proud of that fact and you, the discriminating consumer, DESERVE TO KNOW about this VALUABLE BUYING OPPORTUNITY!!!

A couple of you have backchanneled me regarding the twin questions of overkill and credibility.  These are understandable concerns.

I recognized fairly early on in the process of "professionalizing" my writing that the publishing industry had some sketchy corners to it.  I make reference to a few of them here, including the general emphasis on writer "platforming" as a mechanism for increasing sales.  Originally this meant sales of the author's own books; increasingly the expectation is that authors will shill for other books in the same genre and from the same publisher.  No, those author blurbs you read on back covers are not all coming from writers who enjoyed the book in question, or even who necessarily read it.

Fortunately for me, this realization came at roughly the same time as the realization that I'm not an elite writing talent.  The latter realization frees me in certain respects:  I don't need to worry about a failure to be dishonest costing me millions of dollars, because I'm not going to be making millions of dollars in any case.  I don't need to trade in my integrity, because I have nothing to trade it for.

To that end, I promised myself three things early on:

1.  I would never write anything I didn't want to write.
2.  I would never allow fear of public or professional approbation to prevent me from writing anything I wanted to write.
3.  I would never publicly misrepresent my feelings about my own work, or that of others.

The single greatest benefit of not being a full-time professional writer is that I can adhere to those three principles with a clear conscience.  I am free to, for instance, mercilessly ridicule Bartolo Colon.  And I am free FROM saying positive things I don't mean about other people's work.  You are unlikely to see me publicly criticize other people's writing or professional conduct unless there's a VERY good reason.  This is less out of concern for professional consequences than it is a manifestation of the golden rule; I don't want other writers to do it to me.  In general, if I think something I've read is average or below average or godawful, I simply won't make mention of it.

You may, however, depend upon the principle that when I endorse a book or story, here or elsewhere, I do so out of sincere admiration.  I will usually try to provide the reasons for my endorsement, and those too will be sincerely meant.  You may or may not share my impression of the work, but I won't be trying to foist it on you out of any ulterior motive.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Alien Truce" and "In Other Words"

             If there’s anything teenagers understand, it’s being misunderstood.  Two of the stories in One Thousand Words for War, Nori Odoi’s “Alien Truce” and Lisa Timpf’s “In Other Words” appear on their surfaces to be simple, well-crafted tales of alien-human misunderstanding.  Lurking herein, though, is some very sophisticated thematic material, particularly as pertains to the process by which ideas become words, and vice versa.

Historically, science fiction narratives have taken for granted that many human characteristics would be true of technologically advanced aliens as well.  They’ve been portrayed as bipedal, for one thing, because that makes it easier for an actor in a rubber suit to portray them.  More subtle is the assumption that alien communication would function as it does for most terrestrial species—through the use of ambient pressure changes in the atmosphere which are sensed by vibrating membranes in the receptor organs of the recipient.  Or, if you prefer: by making noises.  There’s no logical reason this would need to be the case; at least as much meaning could be conveyed by, for instance, pulses of light, or exchanges of pheromones, or by means that human beings wouldn’t even recognize as sensory.  Innovative sci-fi authors might throw telepathy at the reader, but it’s rarely well-explored; there’s seldom a credible biological explanation aside from some kind of question-begging concept of a “hive mind”, and generally the characters and reader experience telepathic communication in the form of words spoken directly into the brain--except in italics—which is weird, given that the brain should have no need for the spoken representation of the idea when the idea itself is directly accessible.

In portraying a difficult and complex negotiation between humans and aliens, Odoi springs two surprises.  Neither is without precedent in science fiction, but each is innovative and unusual where modern YA is concerned.  The first is her separation of consciousness from the communicative act; she suggests a trance state that involves what amounts to a dream shared by both discussants.  Odoi’s background in poetry proves important here as she conveys to a reader an exchange of pure thought, ideas in their essence rather than reduced to their signifiers.  Secondly, Odoi presents an organism that evolves in symbiosis with another species, a critter which apparently exists solely to facilitate this form of communication.  Odoi’s version is considerably cuddlier that Douglas Adams’ famous “Babel Fish,” which bodes well for plush toy sales when the movie version comes out.

While Odoi fiddles briefly with the familiar trope of a “universal translator,” Timpf’s “In Other Words” places the concept at the center of the story.  Unlike Odoi’s aliens, who are so different from humans that they are initially unrecognizable as a sentient species, Timpf’s are similar enough to humans that the two species are able to project their own flaws and foibles on one another.  This makes for a situation ripe for misunderstanding—especially if some of the players involved don’t wish for understanding to be achieved.

Where Odoi dwells in the mystical aspects of sharing ideas, Timpf is more concerned with the mechanical details by which meaning is constructed.  A veteran of writing of all sorts—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—Timpf uses the failure of a translating computer to illustrate sophisticated ideas about how we seek to understand one another.   In doing so, she demonstrates that where the sharing of words may fail, the sharing of experiences may still succeed.  Early reviews of the anthology have ranked Timpf’s story very high among the stories herein, and it’s easy to see why—she has a rare ability to make complex concepts comprehensible, and enjoyable, for young readers.

           Both Nori Odoi and Lisa Timpf provide fun, imaginative reads that open the door to discussions of language, comprehension, and meaning.  Their work may involve aliens, but it's anything but alienating.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

One Thousand Words for Kishotenketsu

                Kishotenketsu is technically a form of storytelling as opposed to a genre in itself.  Developed in East Asian societies, the process involves a story progressing through four stages:  Ki, in which characters and settings are introduced; sho, in which the plot develops but no radical changes occur; ten, a “twist” often involving a radical departure from the original setting or a transition to a previously unexplored topic; and ketsu, a conclusion tying the original plot to the twist and resolving the story.

                In most respects, this story form isn’t utterly alien to western readers.  There are a couple of points of departure, however, that can be a little bit disorienting.  The first is the radical potential of the ten.  Done clumsily, or even in many cases when done correctly, the ten presents itself as a complete non-sequitur, a “WTF?” moment that disrupts the linear progression of the plot which western readers are accustomed to.  It’s hard to do well, but the payoff is potentially immense; think in terms of the perspective shift that occurs at the halfway point of Gone Girl.  Cathy Bryant’s “Maverick”, which I examine here, is an example of kishotenketsu in which the ten is of paramount importance.

                The second point of departure lies not in what’s present, but in what’s absent.  Specifically:  it is theoretically possible to execute a story in the kishotenketsu form without conflict of any kind.  When they asked for stories for One Thousand Words for War, editors Hope Erica Schultz and Madeline Smoot challenged contributors to consider integrating kishotenketsu traditions into their stories, including, potentially, crafting a war story without war in it.

                As with most challenges in my life, I took one look and ran screaming in the other direction.  At this stage in my development as a writer, I have no metric by which to evaluate my work except for Number Of Creative Stabbings; any story I’d craft without conflict would be as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar hog.  And yet, several of the anthology’s authors did manage the trick, and with considerable √©lan and emotional impact.

                This, however, presents me with a problem as a reviewer.  Kishotenketsu is in many cases almost all plot, and highly twist-dependent.  To describe such a story is, to a considerable extent, to spoil it.  I will, therefore, confine myself to saying that I admired:

·         “Unexpected Guests”, in which Laura A. Ring draws upon her considerable experience as a professional ethnographer to create a tale of a Pakistani village legendary for its hospitality, and a trio of visitors who have good reason to wear burkas.  Her experience with the culture she’s describing is evident in the details; her voice is original and striking.

·         “Eighteen Roses”, in which Ameria Lewis portrays a teenage friendship dramatically transformed by technology.  This one isn’t subtle, but sometimes subtlety isn’t what you want in a story.  The twist is emotionally resonant and the relationship between the girls feels inauthentic and authentic by turns—which is, in this case, a compliment.   The cardinal rule of anthologies is that every story should be someone’s favorite, and I have no doubt that this story will be the favorite of many young female readers.

·         “Strands of Grass,” concerning a fantasy kingdom with a distinct flavor of medieval Japan, and a girl general’s recollection of her father’s lessons.  Renee Whittington’s previous published work has been exclusively poetry, and she writes here with a poet’s sensibility—every word precisely selected for maximum impact, and with attention to the music of language.  A grassy plateau is “a cake fallen on one side”; the unbound hair of funeral attendees “tangles about us in a flurry, as wild as grief can be.”  This story, perhaps more than any other in the anthology, demonstrates the tonal variety that kishotenketsu can offer—here, the ten is comparatively unimportant, and the plot mechanics are entirely secondary to the lyrical beauty of the language.

·         “Another Sunset,” less a short story than a series of snapshots, from prolific author Anne E. Johnson.  Johnson uses kishotenketsu to celebrate the virtue of stillness, the choice to observe rather than to act.  Johnson’s skills as a writer compliment her theme; her great gift lies in the portrayal of visual imagery, and her prose is vivid and descriptive, whether applied to a sunset or to other, less common phenomena.

Not everyone can write kishotenketsu, but everybody ought to know about it.  I feel fortunate to share an anthology with writers as adaptive, as creative, and as distinctively skilled as these.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Maverick"

                 The Bulwer-Lytton Prize is one of the most unusual awards, and one of the most sought-after, in all of literature.  Every year since 1982, tens of thousands of writers from all around the world have taken up the challenge “to compose the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels.”

     In 2012, Cathy Bryant offered this:

“As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, noting as she did the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodecids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.”

                It was no contest at all.  Ms. Bryant took top honors, and was thereby recognized for one full year as The Worst Writer in the World.  Four short years later, she’s slumming with the likes of me as a contributor to One Thousand Words for War.  How the mighty have fallen.

                The Bulwer-Lytton is one of twenty different literary prizes Bryant has won in the course of publishing dozens upon dozens of short stories and full length works of fiction and non-fiction.  She is, by a comfortable margin, the most decorated contributor to the book.  The passage above will give you some idea as to why; it takes a hell of a writer to write that badly.  Bryant’s gift is the ability to catch lightning in a bottle—to cram maximum literary impact into the shortest possible space, be it serious or humorous, or some combination of both.  A Mancunian with a very British literary sensibility, Bryant is what you might get if you shoved Douglas Adams into a trash compactor until he was compressed to roughly one cubic foot in size.

                Bryant’s distinction here is that she’s the only contributor to take the concept “One Thousand Words for War” literally.  Her contribution, “Maverick”, is a work of flash fiction—the emerging literary form that challenges authors to cram an entire story into a few hundred words.  Flash fic is a queer beast, but it’s not hard to see how it evolved.  The birth of online communications has created a marketplace in which millions scream simultaneously for attention; this means that attention spans have shrunk at the same time that presses have faced increasing competition for shrinking publication space.

                Flash fiction is extremely difficult to do well.  There is no space for preliminaries or for scene setting.  The characters, world, and plot must be introduced, the conflict established, the action built, the conflict resolved, and the curtain brought down in roughly the length of time it takes the reader to watch a TV commercial.  For the same reasons, a good piece of flash fiction is extremely difficult to review without giving the game away; to describe it is, functionally, to repeat it.

                Suffice to say that “Maverick” is a very, very good piece of flash fiction, particularly in its accessibility to young readers; a more ideal instructional resource for introducing the genre you’ll never find.  Bryant sets up an utterly crazed conflict scenario best summarized as “Ghostbusters in Vietnam,” creates a sense of place through the dialects of her characters, establishes the roles and personalities of her main protagonists—and then unleashes a hellacious plot twist, shattering the expectations of her readers like an ice cube under a hammer.  And then she’s out the door, leaving you to paste the remains of your cranium back together.

                I’d say more, but this post would wind up longer than the story it’s reviewing.  You’ll not get more bang for your buck as a reader than “Maverick” offers.  It truly is work worthy of the one-time Worst Writer in the World.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Mechanika"

                Norilsk is a real place.  Located above the Arctic Circle in the deepest reaches of Siberia, it is the northernmost city on Earth with at least 100,000 residents.  The average temperature is below freezing for nine months out of the year, and the city is snowbound for upwards of 250 days annually.  It is not a place where human beings should exist.  Historically, it has served two purposes:  as a center for the extraction of plentiful mineral deposits, and as the de facto center of Stalin’s gulag system of forced labor.  It is one of the coldest, one of the most polluted, and one of the most dangerous communities on Earth.  And it is difficult to know exactly what goes on in Norilsk today; since 2001, the city has been mysteriously closed to all non-Russians.

                Mara Dabrishus’s “Mechanika,” technically a work of dystopian fantasy, could just as easily be classified as urban fantasy given the pervasive way the city itself looms over the entire narrative.  Snow piles up at the base of candy-colored tenements.  Buses full of exhausted workers belch diesel fumes as they lurch pointlessly from one razor-wire encased checkpoint to another.  The polar twilight looms over all, broken only by the hollow glow of the ubiquitous ultraviolet lamps which are the only visible evidence of the authorities’ interest in keeping the citizens alive, so that they may continue to work in the mines. 

The title of the story refers to a particular location within Norilsk, but it might just as easily refer to the city itself, or even to its citizens.  The entire edifice is a single, soulless machine.  The only virtue recognized is efficiency; Dabrishus is careful to show how even those characters who have not been completely broken by the system have been colored by the all-consuming emphasis on maximum return for minimum energy.

                Most pervasive of all is the cold, “seep[ing] into the bones” of the community’s haggard occupants, numbing them to their fate and to one another.  In scene after scene, we find characters fleeing emotional awareness, seeking refuge in alcohol or harder drugs, or simply closing themselves off mentally.  This same numbness characterizes the ambiguous authorities of the story—this is not the cartoonishly evil government of Panem, but rather, an unfeeling bureaucracy dedicated exclusively to the maintenance of a machine.  Dabrishus places us in the same position as her characters, dispensing information about the state in meager spoonfulls—there are ambiguous references to an “old era” and “new era”, to labor strikes and nationalist rebellions.  Of particular interest is Dabrishus’s choice to transplant the Stalin-era NKVD into an environment marked by modern technology such as flash drives and cell phones—as a result, the totalitarianism she creates isn’t linked to a particular era, but timeless, and the reader is left unmoored, with no historical context to anchor to.  We share the protagonists’ sense of disorientation, of isolation.

                Dabrishus’s most daring decision of all is to infect her protagonist, Zoya, with some of this same numbness.  In a genre marked by wildfire heroines who can’t be controlled or tamed—by, to be frank, a hundred carbon copies of Katniss Everdeen—Zoya is something very different.  Zoya has spent her entire life in the cold, both in literal and figurative terms, and has been particularly shaped by her interactions with an emotionally absent mother who has been shattered by the system.  Zoya has never in her life laid eyes on a growing tree.  There is still a spark within her, but we catch only fragmentary glimpses of it—in tiny gestures of kindness to people who have nothing left to offer her.  More often, we see her huddle away from that which might make her vulnerable, from commitment to a cause or to a person.  Her rebellions are, for the most part, rebellions of inaction, of refusal to engage or to comply.  Her primary instinct, shared with those around her, is to escape from pain.  Ultimately, the “war” in this story is within Zoya—the instinct to flee versus the decision to engage.  The way this struggle marks her character puts her head and shoulders above most dystopian heroines in terms of psychological complexity.

I’ve already remarked on Dabrishus’s ability to craft a haunting big-picture environment, but her single greatest gift as a writer lies in what she does when she pulls the camera in tight.  There is mastery in the tiny details here.  The neglected carpet of a tenement hallway, worn through almost to the poured concrete beneath.  The way a knife blade, warmed in candlelight, casts flickering penumbras against the walls of an underground chamber.  The way a bloody microchip clings to the discolored linoleum of a sink.  The single cracked tooth in a sailor’s mouth.  Dabrishus strings beautiful sentences together with as much skill as any bestselling author you’d care to name.

“Mechanika” has not been foregrounded in any of the preliminary reviews of A Thousand Words for War.  I don’t know why.  It's arguably the best story in the anthology.  After reading the proofs, I went out and immediately researched Dabrishus’s background.  It turns out that she specializes in YA equestrian fiction, and that her work in that genre has been exceedingly well-reviewed.  So:  if you’re into horses at all, for heaven’s sake, go here and start buying things.  For my own part, I’m looking forward to Dabrishus taking on additional projects outside of that genre; she is, very clearly, an author who can write about anything.

Friday, April 8, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Beyond the Promised Land"

                Eternity is a long damned time.  Human beings have a difficult time maintaining interest in a sixty-minute television program (or, to my sorrow, in a 90-minute speech class).  It seems, therefore, that an “eternity in paradise” would be a serious challenge even for an infinitely powerful supreme being to design.  Infinite interest requires infinite variety; otherwise, after the first million years or so, even heaven itself would become a hell.

                Darrel Duckworth’s contribution to One Thousand Words For War is “Beyond the Promised Land,” a story based on the ingenious idea of taking Valhalla seriously.  Scandinavian mythology has experienced a mini-vogue among young adults lately, partially as a result of the portrayal of the Norse pantheon in the Marvel movies, and partially as a result of popular gaming titles such as Skyrim and The Banner Saga.  Duckworth is at home in this milieu, demonstrating familiarity with the relevant mythology as well as an eye for fine detail such as period-appropriate Viking weaponry.

                Duckworth’s protagonist, Jond, dies young and strong in battle, and finds himself elevated to Valhalla, where he wars by day and feasts by night.  Initially rejoicing at his fate, Jond subsequently discovers that these orgiastic pleasures grow stale after the first few thousand repetitions.  Not to worry, though—Valhalla proves to be more complicated than it seems, and to hold complexities and mysteries unknown to the lore-masters of Midgard.

                Reading Duckworth, I find myself reminded of one of my favorite novelists, Joe Abercrombie.  Abercrombie burst upon the epic fantasy scene with his First Law trilogy, a set of (very) adult novels demonstrating a genius for the portrayal of violence and a deep-seated understanding of human flaws and frailties.  He subsequently attempted to broaden his audience with his Shattered Sea trilogy, a series aimed at young adults and featuring a setting somewhat similar to medieval Scandinavia.  The Shattered Sea books are very fine, but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of frustration to them; one senses the author wanting to cut loose with some seriously grim insights, but limited by his target audience.  The work bulges and strains beneath these constraints like an overstuffed sausage.

                Duckworth has some of the same talents as Abercrombie—particularly his gift for writing action—but seems much more at home in YA than Abercrombie does.  Perhaps the most impressive stylistic element of the story is the way Duckworth begins with rip-roaring descriptions of Jond’s bloodlust, and then ratchets down the intensity by notches as the nightly battles repeat themselves endlessly.  His protagonist’s ennui is mirrored in the writer’s style, until we too find ourselves wondering what else there might be to be discovered in this afterlife, what might lie beyond the fog-shrouded portal in the Great Hall.  Where Abercrombie feels like he’s bursting with secrets that he’s afraid to tell us, Duckworth stands alongside the readers gazing with us into the unknown, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

                I’m often told that it’s exceptionally difficult to get teenage boys to read books, that the pleasures of gaming and the demands of masculinity have ensured that the YA market will be dominated by books targeted to female readers for the foreseeable future.  Certainly the bestseller lists contain evidence of this.  Darrel Duckworth doesn’t give a flip.  His work is unapologetically targeted to a male audience.  But Duckworth isn’t out to confirm the archetypes of male YA—he’s out to challenge them.  Working within the constructs of an action narrative, Duckworth subtly weaves a critique of toxic masculinity, of the whole “warrior code” with which young men are raised.  Here is an antidote to such corrosive models of “manhood” as Donald Trump or John Cena.  Here is an author eager to show young men that there are—to paraphrase Duckworth--more ways of being a man than they have been promised, more than they have dreamed.

                Readers of this blog will already be aware that I have a weakness for narratives which concern themselves with the infinite, with the concept of higher intelligences and purposes for humanity that transcend life itself.  My own unpublished novel, Axis of Eternity, deals with these questions, and above all with the dichotomy between perishable flesh and the intangible aspect of human beings which longs for permanence.  Duckworth tackles those same questions, and does so with considerable style.  His is a story that will stay with me for a while—and, I think, with young readers as well.

Friday, February 12, 2016

One Thousand One Hundred Twenty Four Words For One Thousand Words For War

                One Thousand Words for War is an anthology of nineteen short stories for young adults.  The theme is, unsurprisingly, conflict, both at the societal and the individual level.  It involves wars both external and internal, and a few situations in which the central conceit of the story is the absence of conflict.

                I’m on hype duty for the book, of course, as I’m one of its authors, and I can do so without apology.  I do need to acknowledge at the outset, however, that this is not some sort of George R.R. Martin-edited all-star ensemble of genre masters cranking out Hugo-worthy work at every turn.  This is sort of the literary equivalent of the NBA D-League All-Star Game.  We’ve got established authors with broad-based indy followings, like Susan Bianculli and Valerie Hunter.  We’ve got writers with excellent reputations in niche genres, like Mara Dabrishus and Anthony Cardno.  And then we’ve got semi-pros like myself, who shut our eyes tight, swing at the pinata as hard as we can, and hope to knock free an odd Jolly Rancher or Bit-o-Honey.  None of us is Gillian Flynn, but none of us suck, either.  Our work was picked from an enormous entry pool by professionally respected editors.  Make no mistake, this bunch can string together a sentence or two.

                So.  If this isn’t necessarily going to be the next Harry Potter, why would you wanna drop your hard-earned $9.95 on it?  I mean, apart from your desperate desire to own the complete set of DuBois works?  I’ve read through it a few times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a good story collection, but a GREAT classroom resource.  Let me count the ways:

1.  DIVERSE PROTAGONISTS.  If you believe that it’s important for every kid to see himself or herself represented in literature, you won’t ever do better than the editors have done here.  Protagonists Nordic, African, Arabic, Latin American and Asian, straight and gay, cisgender and trans.  Got a few role models for your aliens or alien-wannabes, too.  No gingers, though, because to hell with them. 

2.  ACCESSIBLE MATERIAL FOR ALL READERS.  Writing YA forces an adult to strike a tough balance.  You’ve got to talk to teens without talking down to them.  As an author, you’ve got to remember who you were while still remaining faithful to who you’ve become.  I would add “you’ve got to produce something that’s fun to read while still possessing literary merit,” but a quick glance at the YA bestseller list demonstrates that while literary merit is often helpful, none would dare call it necessary.  That having been said, quality YA hits a note that nothing else in your classroom will quite be able to match in terms of creating new readers and stimulating tentative ones.  I think most of the authors in this anthology did a pretty good job of finding the sweet spot, and I suspect that even kids who don’t read willingly will find something they’ll connect to.  Edgar Allan Poe can’t promise you that.

3.  EXPLORATION OF CONFLICT AS A LITERARY DEVICE.  Most readers know conflict when they see it, but educationally speaking, it’s sometimes a hard target for in-depth exploration.  I don’t know that my own classes ever got too far beyond the “five basic literary conflicts” trope.  One Thousand Words For War comes at conflict from all directions, sequentially and simultaneously, and the short, easily-readable selections allows for teachers to compare and contrast different approaches within a single class period.  Of particular note are the experiments in the East Asian subgenre of Kishotenketsu—stories from which conflict is entirely absent.  Want your kids to understand conflict?  Show them what happens when it’s gone…

4.  NOVICE PROSE PIECES OUT THE WAZOO.  Speech coaches in particular will be intrigued by the use of these stories as competition prose pieces.  I don’t know that there’s necessarily any tournament-winners in the batch (though you never know), but most coaches will already have those.  What you have here is a set of pieces uniquely accessible to, and tailored to, the transitional skills of novices.  Plenty of descriptive action and opportunities to portray mood changes; clean action arcs; vivid and distinct characters; as mentioned above, characters suitable to all genders and ethnicities, with some pieces that will specifically reward the ability to portray a specific accent or dialect.  Here is your chance to get your new interpers out to tournaments with a minimum of fuss and a chance at reasonable success.  And to that end…

5.  TEACH YOUR KIDS TO CUT (BY) THEMSELVES!  Do you feel the same vague sense of disquiet I do at the ubiquity of competition-ready cuttings by Ken Bradbury and Don Zolidis?  Do you feel a creeping guilt at the idea that kids never have to learn to cut a piece anymore?  Come to us for absolution!  These pieces are ideally designed to enable you to teach your novices how to cut a selection.  Virtually all of the selections possess easily identifiable plot arcs and can be easily cut down to seven minutes by a minimally competent human.  Most students will also be able to clearly identify themes, which will enable them to write functional introductions.  I think there’s still value in teaching kids how to narrow a larger piece of literature down to its narrative essence, don’t you?  These pieces make that an achievable task.  Even your kids who don’t walk away from forensics as tournament winners will come away as more attentive readers and better literary analysts for the exercise.

6.  ACCESSIBLE AUTHORS WHO KNOW THEIR CRAFT.  Yes, your kids can write fan letters to John Green and J.K. Rowling.  No, they won’t write back—or, if they do, they won’t sustain a dialogue.  They’re not bad people, I’m sure; it’s just that the size of their fan bases render meaningful access impossible.  These, on the other hand, are emerging YA talents who can and will answer questions intelligently, and who in many cases append their author websites to their work for exactly that purpose.  A kid can dream of being Lauren Oliver, but a kid can realistically imagine being one of us.  We’re real, flesh-and-blood human beings who demonstrate that you can be whatever else you want to be AND a published writer at the same time.  We’re not the brightest stars in the literary heavens, perhaps--but you can reach up and touch us.

Oh, yes indeed.  Your English or competitive speech classroom needs One Thousand Words For WarGet ye to Amazon and put in your pre-order for our pending May release.  Review at your leisure over the summer, crank out some lesson plans, and release it on your unsuspecting teens come fall.  Refuse us at your peril, educators!