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.
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.
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.
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.
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 élan and
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
·“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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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