embrodski

Apr 162019
 

For the use of my book club, plus whoever else would like a linked list. These are the short stories and novelettes that are up for a Hugo, and also available free online. This year, that’s all but one.

This is the first awards season since I predicted No Print Magazine Will Publish a Hugo-Winning Story Again. Since no print magazine even got a nomination this year, I’m not wrong yet. :) We’ll see what future years bring, though. Of note is that one of the nominees isn’t available free online! While I didn’t specify that as a criteria in my post, it surprises me nonetheless. The whole reason I predicted print magazines are out is because they cannot be shared like online stories can, and thus can’t capture enough attention-share. While Bolander’s story is online at Tor.com — the current clearing house for online commercial SF — I would’ve thought that the paywall would prevent achieving the number of readers needed to make the nominations. It’s a shame I won’t get to read it. :(

 

BEST NOVELETTE

BEST SHORT STORY

Mar 292019
 

Every now and then I post a reminder about my ongoing novel. In the most recent chapter:
Despite a burgeoning famine and chaos in the streets, the emperor will not see his week of revelry and gladiator games interrupted. But he gets more than he expected when a demonic embodiment of Pride materializes in the Colosseum.

Read it as it’s being published at WhatLiesDreaming.com

You can also vote for it up to once per week via this link to Top Webfiction.

And, for those waiting to get it all at once, the full version will be purchasable in early July!

Mar 262019
 

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: Having infiltrated their ruling elite, Baru begins working to destroy the nation that conquered her homeland.

Book Review: I’ve been a fan of Seth Dickinson for many years, so I was expecting something pretty good from him. I read the prologue and I was not disappointed! Good stuff! Then I read the first chapter, and I put the book down. And I went and got a drink, and then another one, and ended up just drinking way too much that night, and not coming back to the book for a couple days. Because I realized while reading it that I will never, in my life, write anything this beautiful and this moving… and it’s kinda crushing.

I don’t want to over-hype the book, because nothing kills a story like insane expectations that no work in the real world could actually meet. But this is astoundingly good writing, and gorgeous prose, and I love it. It’s the first time I’ve read a middle-book in a series that I liked more than the first book.

As always, Dickinson does a great job of bringing you into the mind of the protagonist. You don’t just feel her emotions, you follow her thought patterns. Everything is translated into the logic of economics and capitalism. He explains what a hash-function is, in a fantasy setting, in a way that is both easy to understand AND completely in-character for the setting, AND is a moving and relevant part of the story, which I wouldn’t have believed was possible if I hadn’t seen it done myself. Without ever saying anything about the modern era, Dickinson says a lot about neoliberalism and the Molochian forces grinding away our humanity.

And in the occasional chapters where he goes into a different character’s POV, Dickenson shows us the world from their startlingly-different but instantly relatable view. I was surprised how quickly and intimately I felt my perspective on what was happening change by having it presented in such a viscerally relatable manner. Dickenson is a master of putting himself (and the reader) in the mind of someone different and also correct in their way. Call it steel-manning or call it true empathy, it’s awesome either way.

The biggest issue with this story is the large cast. There are a LOT of people who matter, with many existing relationships, and some of them with multiple names. It was sometimes hard to remember who was who. I recommend taking quick notes. It is absolutely worth it.

One of my favorite books now. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was as thrilled with this book as I was. Dickenson doesn’t coddle his reader, and expects you to put in effort. One fellow club member said he’s almost like Peter Watts in his attitude of ‘Keep up or drown, I don’t have time to talk-down to you,’ except “not as bad as Watts.” :) I don’t think they meant it as a compliment, but…

Another member felt that Dickinson was a bit over the top in some respects, and absolutely relentless in others. Be ye warned – the title of this book is accurate. Baru is not called “The Monster” without reason. If you do not wish to feel the things that would drive a monster, this probably isn’t a good read for you. There is nothing gratuitous, but there is a lot of Grim here. I, of course, love this. And there is absolutely a point to it, it is worth taking this journey. But I can see how it could be overwhelming.

Given the beauty of the prose, and the interesting twists that will spark conversation, and the things the author is saying/implying about what we value today and what we sacrifice in the pursuit of it… this makes for a lot of good talking. It’s work, and it’s not easy to read, which probably makes it a harder sell for book clubs. Check in with your group first to make sure they’re up for a harder read. Nonetheless: Recommended.

Mar 252019
 

In my previous post Guys, Take A Knee, I had several people express confusion as to what I was talking about. I turns out I’m taller than average, and most people cannot take the action I was recommending.

I realize that, at nearly 6’3”, I am statistically taller than average. But aside from rare occasions when my tallness is being called on for a specific purpose, I never feel tall. I simply feel like a standard-issue human.

Back when I was overweight, I never felt fat either (surprisingly, that came after I lost the weight). I just felt… normal.

I have two exceedingly short friends who both have told me they never feel short. They feel like they’re on par with everyone else, and are surprised to see themselves in pictures standing next to taller people and being significantly smaller. Or about the rare rude shocks of being reminded of their shortness when a typical task for everyone else is beyond their reach.

I wonder if this is a similar phenomenon to the Typical Mind Fallacy? They don’t seem like they’re the same, as TMF often is a result of the fact that no one is explicit about their mental processes (most of the time), and since we can’t read other people’s minds we can only assume they work similar to ours. TBF doesn’t have that problem, since we CAN see our bodies, and how they compare to others nearby. How the heck would one miss the fact that they are taller/shorter than most people around them? But they seem to both tap into a sort of invisibility-of-the-self, a lack of awareness of oneself as a distinct thinking unit (or physical object). I am not a body in the physical world. I am not a brain running a prediction engine. I simply am.

I think this is also why I can never remember what the protagonist of a story is supposed to look like. They become the Invisible Self, a Me by other means, and so physicality drops away.

Except, of course, not everyone is like that, as another commenter pointed out. It’s fascinating that there are so many ways to be human. :)

Feb 222019
 

To be clear: I agree with this pic+caption and love everything about it. :) I’m speaking of not-this.

In most *written* secondary-world Fantasy, and far-future Science Fiction, race doesn’t much matter. Because those worlds aren’t contemporary, and written word is a non-visual medium.

First, a character’s race certainly matters in stories set on our world (or a recognizable facsimile) any time in the past, present, or near-future. Race matters a lot in the real world, it has major impacts on a character’s life and experiences that are very pertinent to the reader. A black character in a Urban Fantasy is still dealing with hostile social forces, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and common stereotypes. A Hispanic kid in a cyberpunk world still has to deal with similar issues. These things inform who the character is, and how we relate to them, because these are forces we experience (or at least are intimately familiar with) in our real lives. Describe a character by their race and we internalize and remember it. Simply the fact of how they look has shaped their lives in ways the reader will be familiar with.
In a secondary or far-future world, this is not the case. In a world where the ruling majority have dark skin and people with light skin are the foreigners… so what? Or one peoples have straight hair, the others kinky. Or one peoples have folded eyes, the others not. Or mix and match, and alter other features as well. It doesn’t really matter, because there are no social or experiential implications to any of these traits for the reader. We aren’t immersed in the politics and culture of the non-contemporary world. We may be told that “the flat-nosed people oppressed the sharp-nosed people for centuries,” but there’s no emotional history that goes along with literally living our entire lives in a world like that and seeing the consequences daily. Of seeing photos of men murdered in the street.*
These things can make for cool cosmetic differences, sure. It’s boring to have everyone look the same, and mixing it up can give each group a distinctive flair. But it doesn’t mean anything on an emotional level. And I’ve found that, for that reason, I very quickly forget a character’s racial characteristics in any non-contemporary novel.
In one novel, set in the very far future, the protagonist was introduced as black. Ok, great. A hundred pages later this was mentioned again, and I was surprised. I had forgotten his skin color. In large part, because it didn’t matter. It had no effect on the story, as humanity had advanced beyond such prejudices (and had better things to be prejudiced about). I don’t really have visual representations in my memory of any character that isn’t on the cover of a novel, so if it doesn’t matter in other ways, it fades from memory quickly. When I was reminded of his race again, about 150 pages after that, I was surprised again. Doh.
I’m reading another novel, in which the character’s racial features are mentioned a fair bit more often, and do matter somewhat. But when they aren’t specifically commented on, my awareness of them disappears. It’s hard to keep track of what the various racial groups are in that world, what they look like, and how they interact. And you can’t tell who belongs to which group just by looking at them, because they are physically invisible except in any paragraph where the author is describing them. To be completely honest, I kinda wish they were over-the-top exaggerated features that really stuck out in memory. Like pointy ears. Or horns. Or scaled skin. Or short & stocky & fond of beards. Different skin tones and eye-shapes is hard to keep track of once the cast of characters is greater than three.
Secondly, a character’s race does matter–even if it’s not story-relevant–in any visual medium. That’s why it’s good to have the multi-ethnic cast of a Star Trek, or the new Star Wars. It’s why the non-whiteness of the Avatar: The Last Airbender characters is refreshing. Even though their races explicitly don’t matter (except perhaps to separate people into teams), we see them every second they are on screen. Humans do update on fictional evidence. Seeing someone with dark skin treated like an equal does matter on a visceral level. Even in a completely fantastical setting.
Sadly, the written word is not a visual medium. You only see that which the author is talking about at the specific moment. And unless they’re talking about a person’s racial characteristics, they’re pretty invisible.
So, while race doesn’t need to be left out, I don’t think it’s nearly as important as writers seem to think it is. Unless the character appears on the cover, or the work is optioned for adaptation into a visual medium later, it doesn’t make much difference for non-contemporary settings. I guess in the end this doesn’t matter, except for making me grumble about people thinking they are being progressive when in fact nothing is being accomplished, because the medium they work in isn’t a visual one.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
(As an aside, while I have trouble remembering a character’s physical characteristics, you can tell me their sexuality once and never mention it or any effects of it again, and I’ll never forget. I’m not sure if this is common among humans, or if I’m much more sex-interested/motivated that most?)

*For this same reason, race does actually matter in contemporary settings. Hermione could certainly have been black as written. Not a single word would need to be changed in the books. But, unless English culture is drastically different from American culture, it would mean something different *to the reader* for a black character to have her story. For her to go through seven years and never have anyone comment on her skin color, or make assumptions based on it, or treat her dismissively because of it, says a lot about the society she is living in. The reader would have noticed, and would have inferred things about wizarding society. I’m fine with a re-imagining of Hermione as a black character. I’d actually be really interested in seeing that, it sounds awesome. But to pretend that she could have been black all along without it changing anything about how the story is read is disingenuous.
Feb 072019
 

UBO, by Steve Resnic Tem

Synopsis: A number of ordinary men are abducted and forced to relive the crimes of infamous psychopaths in recent history as part of a bizarre research project.

Book Review: After I finished it, it took me several days of thinking about this book to decide how I felt about it.

It is exceptionally well-written, as one would expect from a long-time, award-winning author. When I read this book, I really felt like I was in the UBO facility. I could see it and feel it around me. But it’s very dark. Like, ugly dark. Many parts of the novel made me feel ugly reading them, and I wanted to purge myself afterwards. Which is also good writing, just not a trip some people want to take.

The thing is, when you get to the end, you’re left wondering, what was all this for? In the penultimate chapter the protagonist gives an answer to that question, but it’s not a satisfying one, and it seems to be contradicted by the final chapter of the novel. And that final chapter… wow. It’s like emerging from underground after being trapped in a collapsed mine for twenty-one days and finally seeing the sky again.

In the end, I think every reader will have to come give their own meaning to this story. For myself, I view it as treatise on depression. The entire book up to the last chapter is what living with depression is. Everything is crumbling and dirty and rotting. All of humanity is wicked, and you are literally unable to gather the will to fight it due to subconscious sabotage. Merely existing is an ugly act. And one keeps asking oneself – why? What is all this for? Why are we enduring all this, what’s the point?

Why am I reading this?

And then the final chapter gives you your answer. It gives you the bloom of color that keeps you going, in spite of it all. Because there is some beauty out there that’s worth it.

I kinda like books that makes me think for days before I know if I like them or not. And I have a long history with depression. So in the end, I’ve decided I love this novel.

In fact, looking back on the past couple years, it seems that I’ve really liked all three horror novels we’ve read. I never read horror, because I associated it with torture-porn and sadistic grossness. But maybe I’m a horror guy at heart? And I should be reading a lot more of it? Something to ponder.

In the meantime: Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review: There’s definitely quite a bit to talk about here. The book is very open to interpretation and imposition of meaning. But as someone pointed out, people often force meaning onto unpleasant and awful things, perhaps in an attempt to make the experience have some value aside from just suffering. “If you were unavoidably hit by a baseball bat every day, you’d find meaning in it…” and so forth. And much of my book club did not think the payoff of having this book to ponder over was worth the price of having to read through depictions of being a killer. I think this is certainly not a good choice for people with certain sensitivities, so I can’t give it blanket recommendation.

But on the other hand, I would have never picked this up myself, because I thought I hate horror. I only read it because it was part of the book club reading, and I’m so glad I did. If you do pick it for a book club, it’s probably best to warn people beforehand. I’d give it a recommendation for provoking discussion, but only with caveats and some knowledge of your members’ personalities.

That being said, if you are me or sufficiently like me, read this!

Jan 162019
 

If you’re like me, then:

1. For the past 15+ years you’ve either lived alone or with a housemate whose level of dirtiness tolerance is much higher than your own, and thus you are the primary/sole cleaner of common spaces,

and

2. You urinate via external genitalia.

Sometimes when I use a public restroom I see cute signs over the toilets or urinals that say “We aim to please! You aim too, please!” As a often-cleaning person (trait A) I absolutely sympathize with these signs. However I’m pretty sure the people who place them don’t have experience urinating with external genitalia (trait B). My penis is, perhaps sadly, not a precisely crafted piece of rigid machinery. It’s a floppy, biological pee-tube. Its physical characteristics vary widely based on temperature, excitement, and recent storage conditions. It sometimes hides subtle kinks or pinches that are not apparent from sensation or visual observation. And there’s no way to “set it to true.”

What I’m saying is, when first one lets loose to pee, ain’t no damn way to tell what’s gonna go where. You just point in a direction, hope for the best, and quickly adjust if expectations don’t match reality. If that’s possible… On occasion a weird pinch will get you a sorta split-stream effect, and adjusting for one makes the other go haywire, and oh god, why is this happening, what did I ever do to deserve this??

This isn’t normally the case, of course. 97% of the time you point, the urine goes basically were you expect, and everyone’s happy. But those other 3% can be a killer.

But even that’s not entirely true. Because even in those 97% of the times that go according to plan, there’s splash. Have you ever let a garden hose trickle from waist-height into a shallow pool of water on the ground? Or held a straw-full of soda a foot over your almost-full glass and then let the liquid drop into the glass? Imagine that effect for 21 seconds. A toilet bowl is deep enough to catch almost all the tiny flying droplets that splatter everywhere… but not quite all. There’ll always be a few little buggers with Olympic aspirations making a leap for freedom that get up onto the seat or rim, or sometimes even further. (This is why carpet in a bathroom is the most disgusting idea known to man. Yes, even worse than pineapple on pizza).

I’m sure that for marking one’s territory far and wide, external genitalia was a godsend. But in the modern era, it is the undisputed inferior way to pee.

And yes, while in theory one could sit to pee like our internal-genitalia’ed brethren, very few people do so.

First, it’s weird. Sitting is what I do to poop. When I sit down on a toilet but I don’t have to crap, my butt gets confused. “What am I doing here?” it asks. “Should I go now? Is it my time? I’m not ready, but ok, here I go…” and the rest of me is all “Wait, no, goddammit! It is not your turn!” And then there’s just chaos.

Second, it’s slow. I gotta take down my pants and undergarments, and turn around, and lower myself, before I can even start. And then I have to do the whole thing again in reverse. Ugh, such a pain. Ain’t no one got time for that.

Third (this is gonna sound kinda sexist, but dammit, I’m stuck in this same patriarchal bullshit as all the rest of you so don’t judge my socially-instilled bad instincts) it feels girly. I know girly isn’t bad. I know this is a stupid emotional reason to not do something that makes sense. But I still live in a time/place where I’ll be looked down on and thought less of for sitting down to pee, but not for spraying urine all over the bathroom stall. Or at least, looked down on less.

But there is one action that solves all of these problems. One blessed act of physical strength and dexterity that turns one from a hated pest to a noble defender of virtue. I speak, of course, of Taking A Knee.

First, Taking A Knee is not weird. There is no confusion with any other common actions, unless one is in the enviable position of being knighted frequently, or in the unenviable position of owning a pair of shoelaces that will not stay tied. Either way, not your butt’s problem.

Second, it’s basically just as fast as standing and peeing. Ok, there’s a split second of extra action required, but it’s barely noticeable. Kneeling has been the preferred way of getting closer to ground for Men of Action since time immemorial, due to how quickly and efficiently one can go from standing to kneeling and back again. It’s literally closer to the starting-spring position of a sprinter than standing is. Should an enemy kick down your door while you are kneel-peeing, you are in a perfect position to launch right into an up-the-wall-flip emergency parkour move to turn the tables on them.

Third, it’s manly as hell.

And it solves all the problems of peeing with a squishy meat hose! No matter how that urine stream bursts forth, when you’re starting out at the same level as the toilet’s rim it’s nearly impossible for the pee to travel up and over it. And being mere inches away from the porcelain means it never gains enough velocity to splash more than a smidgen.

Obviously you don’t want to do this in public bathrooms, where everyone else has been peeing on the floor and your knees will be soiled. But in your private dwelling, doing this will save you a ton of cleaning and unpleasantness. My life has been much improved by this simple fix. And if you are at the private residence of someone who you like, and who’s bathroom looks well-kept, consider kneeling at their place too. They’ll thank you for it later. Except, only in their head. Not literally, out-loud, to you. That’d be weird.

You’re welcome.

Dec 212018
 

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar

Synopsis: An Alternate Universe fic where the Jewish state is created in Uganda in 1903 (actual thing that came close to happening).

Book Review: I didn’t like it, mainly for personal reasons.

First, the writing style was unbearable. I know I lean purple in my taste. I like flowery, lyrical writing. I love everything Catherine Valente touchers. I even enjoyed the overwrought gothic style of Twilight. Unholy Land is the opposite of that. The prose is utterly flat. It just lies there, dead on the page. Like so:

“He said nothing. His breath was labored and it was loud in the room. The room was underground. The walls were strong.”

or

“The sunlight was white on the hills.”

It made reading difficult, because I was so bored my mind would wander. I had to force my attention back to the page. I guess he was trying to do the spare Hemingway thing, but it didn’t work out well IMO.

Second, he had lots of cool things that were briefly introduced, but never did anything. Like introducing the kabbalistic Tree of Life as a map for travelling between the various realities, and using kabbalah to twist them. But it’s just a hint and then it’s dropped and it’s frustrating as hell to be teased in this way. It gives the distinct impression that Tidhar thought “This would be cool if it was ever developed, so I’ll just drop it in,” but doing so without developing it or thinking about it just makes it feel shallow and tacked-on. Pointing out a part of you world to say “This could be really cool if this thing was done!” only highlights how lame it is in comparison since that thing wasn’t done. It would have been better off not introduced at all. At least IMO. Again, my complaints about this book are personal-taste in nature.

Thirdly, Tidhar goes to pains to point out–from within the text–that this novel is just pulp trash and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s a “Haha, only serious,” kinda thing, because obviously he does want it taken seriously, he has some serious things to say. Which is fine. Pulp can say serious things. But when on more than one occasion the author lampshades how trashy and pulpy the novel is, so you can just ignore anything that doesn’t make perfect sense because none of this is Serious Literature anyway, it infuriates me. Genre Fic has long had Serious People looking down their noses at it, saying it can’t say anything of substance because it’s not Real Literature. For Tidhar to buy into this and perpetuate it, especially as an excuse to preemptively deflect criticism, soured me on the novel. If you’re gonna say serious shit, say your serious shit, and don’t go making excuses and abasing yourself before the EarthFic Snobs who’ll never accept you anyway.

That being said, there are a few parts in here that really do shine. When Tidhar does decide to get philosophical he does so really well. The blurring of identities when you switch between realities was fascinating. His portrayal of someone trying to escape from themselves is great. I enjoyed his use of 1st/2nd/3rd person and the way it allowed him to seamlessly transition between viewpoint changes, although I think it was a bit of a wasted opportunity… he could have done more with it.

And the theme is one I love. The theme comes down to “You can change details, change circumstances, but ultimately that doesn’t solve anything. Because the problems are bigger than some details. The problem is within the person. No matter how much you change things, people stay the same, and so will their problems.”

But… well… I’ve seen this theme done before. And done far better. Tidhar shows us one alternate reality, and how things repeat even when the circumstances are different. He hints at others. There’s a book that shows us this process occurring again and again, with the same cast of characters, repeating the same tragedies over at least a half-dozen universes, in a half-dozen different bodies. But always the core people are the same, and nothing is different because the fault is in them, to the point that they can be reified into god-like archetypes and myths that span millennia and societies. It’s not a fair criticism of Tidhar’s book to say “I read a different book that did this better,” so I apologize for doing so. But I’m just not that impressed with Unholy Land since I have Vellum to compare it to.

In short, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: As a book club book, this went pretty well. Despite its flaws, it does have several things to say, which will prompt discussion. Since the things I disliked about the book were primarily personal taste things, most other people didn’t dislike those things. But I hold to the idea that most of what this novel does have to say is pretty surface-level, and the novel doesn’t seem to aspire to the levels it should or could (…and very consciously so). It’s better than your average book in terms of book clubs and discussions, but it falls short of a strong recommendation. I suppose… Mild Approval, If You’re Curious.

Dec 172018
 

The problem with blind judging for an award is that sometimes awards are given to people we don’t like.

The Parsec Awards announced their 2018 winners yesterday (edit: link removed, as the page has been taken down). I have been a two-time finalist myself, in 2015 and 2016. One of the things I really appreciate about the award is that it is judged blind. This means that someone like me, who has a relatively small audience, can still potentially win if I put together something really good. I love that it’s based on artistic merit rather than popularity/fame.

I understand why publishers generally don’t read submissions blind. They are in the business of selling novels and/or stories. The name of a well-liked author on the cover of a magazine or book will sell more copies. This is an important consideration, because paying rent is important. Likewise, the name of a hated person who is being shunned or boycotted may sell fewer copies, and may even hurt the publisher’s brand.

But on the rare occasions where money isn’t important (like an award) and it’s feasible to pull off (unlike something that involves the artist directly, like acting), I really like it when things can be blinded. I would prefer for all art to be judged just on it’s artistic merits.

One of the winners of this year’s Parsec Awards is apparently a horrible person. I don’t know who, I don’t keep up with these sorts of things. But their awards committee is being flooded with emails about this person’s reprehensible behavior, and based on the tone of the email I received, they are very worried. They’re asking for time to figure out how to handle the situation.

I think they should let the award stand as it is. I don’t know what the circumstances or allegations are. I understand that it’s possible the award went to an actual violent rapist. Maybe a murderer. But the award was not presented based on the person, it was presented based on the artwork itself. It is unfortunate, but sometimes really awful people make really great art. People who you wouldn’t want breathing the same air as you, predators who should be kept under watch at all times.

That doesn’t change that the art is great. People who are unaware of the monstrosity of the creator may still enjoy it. Ideally, that would be how this art is always enjoyed — without recognition of the artist.

I am glad that blind awards exist. To withdraw an award after the blinding is removed insults the entire process. It says that there is no such thing as artistic merit for its own sake, that in the end everything must be subject to the courts of popularity and politics. Don’t remove one of the few blinded areas that are left. Let the award stand. Sometimes bad people will get an award. This is a price that is worth paying for this thing to remain in existence.

UPDATE: They aren’t withdrawing the award. Hooray!