What I’ve Been Reading Lately: Short Fiction Edition

I don’t read a huge amount of short fiction, but I read a lot more than I used to, usually stories I see linked on Twitter and save to the Pocket app. For the last couple of years I’ve taken to sharing each story I read on Twitter myself, but today I felt like collecting some of my recent favourites into a post.

Before I get to the links, though, I had a thought to share. I found myself thinking this morning that most of the really great short fiction I read, while it’s SFF genre, centres not the genre concepts or the plot, but the relationships between characters, romantic and otherwise. And it occurred to me that this is, in part, what the Sad Puppies were reacting against, way back in the early years of that kerfuffle.

Larry Correia’s stated purpose in starting Sad Puppies was to get award nominations for “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic[tion]”. The second half of that has gotten plenty of attention (there is indeed a large part of this which is a reactionary response to the increase in inclusive and diverse works being recognised for awards, for which see Foz Meadows’ excellent breakdown of where they’re getting it wrong), but it’s more to the first part my thoughts went today. In addition to the diversity backlash, the Puppies often set up a conflict between this “unabashed pulp action” and the supposedly more ‘literary’ work which was appearing on award ballots. And it seems to me that this part of it was about exactly what I observed above: the stories they object to are the ones that do not place action or cool SFnal ideas at their centre, but the interpersonal relationships of characters; where character and relationships are the main throughline and focus.

It does feel like there has been a popular shift toward that kind of fiction in recent years (in novels also – look for example at the popularity of The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Justice), but it’s hard for me to make a solid claim on that. The short fiction market has changed dramatically with the growth of online publishers, and many people – myself included – just did not read much short fiction before that change. I also can’t say what short fiction the Sad Puppy supporters have been reading now or in the past, but having been exposed to their complaints on and off for the last few years, it certainly seems like part of the trigger for their lashing out was seeing award-nominated stories which had their focus in a different place from what they were used to.

Personally, I’m one of the apparent majority who is very much enjoying these stories. Even the weirdest of weird SF is about people in some sense, and human relationships and emotions are a familiar point for readers to hold on to while experiencing the utterly unfamiliar. In addition, SFF concepts are and always have been a great tool for exploring ordinary human issues, whether large-scale social concepts, or just the way two people relate to one another. The small stuff is just as important as the large, and (IMO) can be a vehicle for more emotionally poignant stories.

I guess I’m just not in it for the action.

Anyway, that (long) tangent aside, let’s get to the story recommendations. I can’t say all of these will fit the type I’ve referred to above, but I can say that I greatly enjoyed every one. These have all been read in the last month or so, mostly while I was on holiday (when I did a lot of reading in airports and on planes). Listed in alphabetical order.

Android Whores Can’t Cry, by Natalia Theodoridou, in which a reporter visits the Massacre Market, where people engage in illicit trading of evidence of the government’s atrocities (and then things get much weirder).
Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat, by Pear Nuallak, in which an agender art student struggles with their place at a demanding school.
Infinite Skeins, by Naru Dames Sundar, in which a parent searches through infinite alternate worlds for their missing child.
Meshed, by Rich Larson, in which a talent scout has to convince a young athlete to have a “nerve mesh” installed, but his father objects.
Morrigan in Shadow, by Seth Dickinson, in which the question is posed of whether achieving victory is worth making monsters of ourselves.
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley, in which a darker and weirder take on Star Trek transporter tech is used for war.
When Your Child Strays From God, by Sam J Miller, in which a mother sets out to find her son, who has taken a strange new drug.
Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy, by Saladin Ahmed, in which three brothers are trapped in another man’s story, robbed of their own name and nature.

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Testament by Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan’s Testament is a reworking of the Gospel story from the New Testament of the Bible; in the book Duncan takes the original text, remixes it and intercuts it with his own additions that put a new spin and interpretation on the story, creating a weird SF narrative that uses the Bible’s own words to criticise the history and teachings of the Christian church, offering up a Testament that is “anarchist, socialist, atheist, revolutionary”.

To aid with this reinterpretation, the author deliberately removes familiar words and terms from the text, eliminating two thousand years of baggage while cleaving to the basic meaning of the original language: the “son of man” becomes the “everyman”; Heaven is “Aeternity”, God is “the Worker”, “the Sublime”. The words Pharisee and Samaritan are avoided; “demons” are often called instead “fouled inspirations”. It’s clear that Duncan doesn’t want you bringing with you all the assumptions and loaded meanings learned from the Church’s teachings of the Bible. Jesus himself is called Joshua – a name much closer to his actual one than the word we use, which has been translated and altered through Greek, and Latin, and English.

The most radical reworking of this otherwise familiar story is in the narrator, unnamed at first, who is referred to variously as “the Judean”, “the student that Joshua loved”, and eventually “Eleazar”, “Eli”. This character, anonymous at first, turns out to be an amalgamation of several – he is Judas, who is also Lazarus, the brother of Mary Magdalene; ultimately he is the Messenger who appears at Joshua’s tomb, and even, perhaps, the risen Joshua himself. It is in this character’s narrative addendums to the Biblical text – addressed to a “lover of the Sublime”, as the Gospel of Luke is addressed to “Theophilus” – where the science fictional elements lie; the story eschews any fixed sense of time and place, offering a Gospel narrative that takes place throughout the two thousand years of church history, in a Roman Empire that never ended, a history where the church became the Empire Joshua opposed. Roman soldiers appear with swords and armour, or with assault rifles and jackboots. Pontius Pilate is a Roman governor, a Nazi officer, a talk show host. Testament provides us with a Joshua who sees Aeternity, sees everything that will be done in his name, and offers the narrator, the student he loves, that same sight, the vision of his work continuing – and continuing to be necessary – across the millennia that separate then from now, existing in all times at once. Or it gives us a madman closed up in a modern flat, cutting up Bible verses and adding his delusions to create his new Testament for a new age.

It’s a work I suspect would take a deeper knowledge of the Bible to fully appreciate; a familiarity with original texts, the history of its translations, and with the Apocrypha (particularly, it seems, the Gospel of Thomas). I’m not familiar enough with the text to see all the places where Hal Duncan has made changes, excisions, and insertions; I’ve read the New Testament perhaps once or twice, idly, without a lot of interest. The writing in the Bible can be rather dry, and that’s a flaw which gets carried over to Testament, relying as it does on many passages from that text. I got rather sick of parables at one point. Where the book becomes interesting is in the places where the narrator’s insertions force significant reinterpretations of the Biblical text, a recontextualising that sometimes entirely transforms the meaning of something Joshua says or does. The novel is perhaps strongest in the final few sections, where the narrative becomes more personal and focused through the story of Eleazar’s resurrection, the last supper, the betrayal, and Joshua’s trial and crucifixion.

I found this a difficult book to read, to be honest, and it took me a lot longer to get through than most novels do. Much of that was due to the aforementioned dryness of the Bible’s text. But despite the difficulty, I found it a very fascinating study of the way the Bible’s source text can be interpreted and reinterpreted to find something between the lines that’s far more radical and interesting than the official narrative.

Reading Statistics 2014

I was thinking of skipping my annual look at the stats of my reading in 2014, but today I read this article from Book Riot on reading diversely, and decided to go ahead and post some stats again.

This is based on the books in this post, and includes The Godless, which I began in 2014 but only finished yesterday. I’m not posting Excel graphs this time, just dropping the numbers.

Total books read: 25
Year of Publication: 2011 (1), 2012 (1), 2013 (10), 2014 (13)
Most common genre: Epic Fantasy
Most common author nationality: USA (20, 80%)
Books by non-male authors: 17 (68%)
Books by non-white authors: 4 (16%)
Books with non-male PoV characters*: 22 (88%)
Books with non-white PoV characters: 17 (68%)

*I have included one book in this count in which the gender of the protagonist is never specified.

It is interesting to note that this is the first year of tracking these numbers where the number of books I read by female authors was higher than the number by male authors. In the past it has been very much skewed in the other direction. I feel like the sample size is too small to really read much from these numbers, but I can say that I think representation in terms of race and gender within the books I read this year was pretty good. Obviously there was a strong lean toward white authors, however, which is something to think about.

I would have included sexuality of characters in this post, however I have not tracked those details and found I couldn’t decide where to place things from memory alone. Sexuality of authors seemed like it might be a little too personal to dig into.

Quick Thoughts On What Was Wrong With “Deep Breath”

Now, I’m mostly going to be echoing what a lot of other people have been saying about last night’s new episode of Doctor Who, and many of those people will have said it better than I do.

Before I get started, let’s get this out of the way: I enjoyed the episode, and I think Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has potential. I do criticise Doctor Who fairly often, but once again: I like the show, as the fact I’m still watching it shows. I do think it’s worth looking at why Doctor Who attracts the criticism it does, though.

I’m skipping over the boring, trivial issues – yes, the episode has some really dumb plot points, but it’s a rare episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t, and in fact the rare TV show these days where dumb things don’t show up now and then (Orphan Black, I’m looking at you…). The issues worth noting concern the way the episode treats women.

It’s not so much about what Steven Moffat put in the script, but about asking why it was included.

A big deal was made in “Deep Breath” about Clara having difficulty adjusting to the new Doctor – and Madam Vastra outright accuses her of only being with the Doctor because he was young and good looking. This means that a significant part of the episode is spent on Clara having to explain that she isn’t and never has been interested in young, pretty men; the implication being that it would be wrong if she was with the Doctor partly because she found him attractive. The question is, why would that matter at all, and why is it relevant to the episode, to the point that they put this much emphasis on it? Why did Moffat feel the need to have Clara challenged on the issue of being attracted to the young Doctor, and have her accused of rejecting the new one because of his age?

The thing is, Vastra’s reaction to Clara and the subsequent interrogation seems entirely unwarranted. Yes, Clara is confused and upset by what has happened to the Doctor – she doesn’t know how his regeneration works, and he’s suddenly turned into a very confused old man. Vastra’s hostility to Clara comes when she asks the perfectly valid question – for someone in her situation – of how do we fix him?

Later, we have the scene where Strax, where he gives Clara a physical examination with some kind of alien device. The question again is why this scene was necessary. It’s another excuse to get some jokes out of Strax’s complete ignorance of human biology and lack of social graces, but beyond that it serves no purpose other than to make some jokes about Clara’s body, and one about female aging in particular. There’s also a bit about Clara’s subconscious being full of images of muscled young men doing things that may or may not be sports. While I do not object to the depiction of Clara as someone with a sexual side in itself, in the context of the rest of the episode it comes out as another attempt to belittle her for her sexual attractions. I’m only glad the scene managed not to have her react as if she were ashamed herself of those thoughts.

And finally there is the way Madam Vastra was depicted in the episode. Vastra is a lesbian, married to her “maid”, Jenny, and the episode takes every opportunity to use her to objectify the other two women in the cast. In the middle of a murder investigation, we see her having Jenny pose in a revealing outfit for what seems to be a portrait – but oh ho ho, she’s really tricked her wife into posting in her underwear for no reason, isn’t that hilarious. (Not really, no.) There are also repeated references to Vastra, a happily married woman, being attracted to Clara – including Clara accusing Vastra of thinking she is shallow just because she is attractive. Immediately after Vastra’s abuse of Jenny’s trust to get her to pose barely dressed is revealed, Clara walks into the room, and Vastra attempts to get her to take her clothes off also.

The scene’s only purpose in the episode is to laugh at Jenny’s expense and depict Vastra as a woman who eagerly objectifies other women. Anything relevant to the larger plot happens after this part is over.

Now, I think the key point to make here is that these latter two scenes are both played for laughs, and it’s very easy for people to just let those things slide when you do so. If something is portrayed as a harmless joke, a lot of people will gloss over it, and not realise the issues at play. Even minor things like these, though, are problematic because of how they normalise certain jokes and behaviours. Objectifying women is funny, women having water retention is funny, oh, ha ha, this young woman can’t stop thinking about young, attractive men, isn’t she silly. Funny how the show doesn’t do any of this stuff with male characters.

And the former scene I mentioned has its own whole host of issues, for the way it implicitly criticises women for liking the Doctor – which would probably include Doctors Smith, Tennant, and Eccleston – in part for being good looking. Given the large female fanbase of the show, this has not been well received.

Once again, I am not condemning Doctor Who. I just think the people making the show, particularly writer/showrunner Steven Moffat, need to ask themselves questions like why they’re including these jokes, and at whose expense they are being made.

(These quick thoughts have not been as quick as I intended.)

The Hugo Awards 2014

So the Hugo Awards were handed out on Sunday, and I was there for the ceremony. Despite some of the controversy about the shortlist – which I’ve spoken about before but won’t go into now – the results were pretty pleasing.

Ancillary Justice continued its clean sweep of the major awards – it has now won Hugo, Clarke, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, and Kitschie Awards, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick award, and made the Tiptree Award Honors List. It’s pretty much the most successful novel ever published in the genre in terms of award wins. And there’s a sequel out soon, so expect to see that making a pretty big splash.

I was very happy to see John Chu and Mary Robinette Kowal take home awards for their stories, but I was a little more surprised by the Stross win – Equoid was a good story, but in my mind the category was between Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White and Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ Wakulla Springs, and the panelists on Friday’s discussion of the short fiction ballot at Loncon3 had suggested the same. Looking at the full voting figures, it turns out Wakulla Springs wasn’t even close.

Kameron Hurley was a big success this year, taking home Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work for her essay “We ave Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative”. That essay may have also played a part in the victory of Aiden Moher’s A Dribble of Ink in the Best Fanzine category. As I said back in my post about my votes, I had been very uncertain of what the “best” work was in the Related Work category, because it’s so hard to compare the different things; but Hurley’s work is one I can get behind winning the award.

Going through the full statistics is one of the more interesting parts of the Hugo Awards announcements; it’s always enlightening to see the actual numbers behind the results. Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form was always going to draw my eye, as I like to spot where the Doctor Who votes go as each entry is eliminated. “The Name of the Doctor”, among the worst episodes (that nevertheless made it onto the ballot), received the fewest votes for 1st place and ultimately ranked 5th. Interesting to note that of the 83 who ranked it 1st, 50 ranked “The Day of the Doctor” 2nd, and 6 listed no other preference after this one episode. Most of the votes for “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot” similarly went to “The Day of the Doctor” or “An Adventure in Space and Time” when it was eliminated. The key here, though, is that it looks like almost as many people ranked Game of Thrones below their first choice Doctor Who item; that and the 2nd place votes of half the Orphan Black fans kept “The Red Wedding” in the lead.

The nomination details can be pretty interesting too; not only can you see what almost made it (The Shining Girls, Locke & Key, and Joey Hi-Fi were very close to the ballot in their respective categories), you also get to see just how low the bar is for nomination. While it takes about 100 nominations or more to get onto Best Novel, the Short Story that went on to win the award had only 43 nominations. All but one of the Best Graphic Story nominations received less than 40 noms (Saga was miles ahead with 164). And fully half of the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form list received less than 50 nominations. (The really awful Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor”, was itself only 3 nominations short of the ballot, at 35.)

And looking at these numbers, I actually feel encouraged. Not because it’s a good thing they’re low, but because it means that the things that got onto the ballot that maybe weren’t very good, well, they actually weren’t that popular in the first place. It takes surprisingly little to get something on the shortlist, but once on there, it’s quality that tends to win out, as the wins for Ancillary Justice and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” show. So I find myself wanting to keep taking part, and to encourage others to do so. I want to be one of those numbers, to bring the numbers required upward, and in so doing maybe to help make what’s on the ballot better reflect what’s good in the genre*.

I have nominating rights to next year’s Hugos, as a member of Loncon3. I might decide to buy a supporting membership to Sasquan, so that I can vote on the awards and also for Helsinki to host in 2017. Whatever I decide, I will be taking part on some level next year.

* I realise I sound like I’m trying to prescribe what other people should like, here. I don’t intend to fault people for enjoying what they enjoy; I just think it’s possible, for example, to like Doctor Who while acknowledging that it’s pretty often badly written and not on the same level as other eligible works. I enjoy watching Doctor Who; I just don’t think it’s great television.

Reading Short Fiction

My reading habits have changed a little recently, in that I’ve started to fairly regularly read short fiction. Usually I spend all my reading time on novels; I’ve had a few magazine subscriptions (Electric Velocipede, Weird Tales, Fireside Magazine), but what always happens is after a few issues I start putting them to one side and never getting back to them – I still have years-old issues, unread. I get the Tor.com newsletter and follow them on Twitter, but rarely visit the site directly.

What’s happened now, though, is that I started collecting links people share on Twitter. I’ve been doing it for a while with articles, but now whenever a piece of short fiction is mentioned I save that link in Pocket, too. It can take me a while to get round to reading these – I usually do it on a train ride into Newcastle two or three times a month – but I’ve been really glad to have read this stuff I would have missed otherwise. I’ve only read some of Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s stories because I saw links on Twitter, and now I know she’s one of the best writers out there right now.

The interesting thing to me is that deliberately keeping up with publications – whether print or online – has failed for me, and I’ve found myself now reading stories where the venue is irrelevant, where I’m barely aware of which site is hosting the piece I’m reading. I read individual stories, not publications.

Obviously I realise that kind of reading behaviour is bad news for the sites in question – particularly when I do so through an app that mostly just pulls the text and images from the body of the page and leaves out everything else, such as ads. I know I want to support sites that are providing me with this content, but I’m not inclined to want to visit all of these pages on a regular basis and see what’s there – I’ve grown accustomed to just having certain ones picked out and directed my way by names I trust (ie, writers and other book people I follow on Twitter). So I have a conundrum there.

There’s a panel at Loncon3 on the Friday called A Reader’s Life During Peak Short Fiction which looks at things like how people find short stories and pick out what to read in the current environment. It looks like an interesting one, and I’ll be looking forward to it, and looking for insight to apply to my own habits here. Of course they’ve scheduled it alongside the Diversity in Comics panel, which I’ll be disappointed to miss, but oh well.

I’ve rambled on long enough without reaching any conclusions. Now I have to get to sleep. Less than two weeks to go until Loncon3!

(I’m going into Newcastle on Saturday. I wonder what stories I have saved up.)

Past Writing

For some reason I’ve found myself reading through old posts on the blog. I’ve come across some pieces of old flash fiction (one very short, one longer) I’d forgotten I ever wrote. They may or may not be any good, but I wasn’t mortified by reading them (which is a good start), so I thought I’d link back:

A Whole New World (Aug 2006)
Words (Sep 2006)

I can’t seem to write at all these days. Or can’t bring myself to try.