Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction

People sometimes say a writer is supposed to love all their literary children equally, but the truth is that we’re inevitably more proud of some stories than others. Among the fifty or so short stories I’ve sold, one of my favorites is “Daughter of Necessity,” which (as you can see at that link) got utterly gorgeous artwork from the folks at Tor.com — gorgeous enough that a print hangs at the top of the staircase down to our den.

It’s been reprinted twice, once in the 2014 Tor.com anthology, and once in the Book View Cafe collection Nevertheless, She Persisted (for which we’ll be doing an event at Borderlands Books on February 10th — look for more details on that soon!) And now it’s going to be reprinted again, in another Tor.com title, Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction. I’m more pleased than I can say that with ten years of short fiction to choose from — including award winners — “Daughter of Necessity” made the cut as one of the forty tales they’ll be including in this lovely hardcover volume. Check out that link for the full Table of Contents and options for pre-ordering! It will be out in September of this year, for the tenth anniversary of the site.

Spark of Life: Wendy Nikel on THE CONTINUUM

Super-competent protagonists can be a lot of fun — but sometimes it seems like there’s a cap on how much fun they can be. When the character is ready for everything, has a skill for every challenge and a solution for every problem, there’s never really any uncertainty about how it will turn out. Which is why our Spark of Life guest this week, Wendy Nikel, looked for a way to put her super-competent heroine out of her element, into a situation where she’d really have to stretch to win.

***

Wendy says:

cover art for THE CONTINUUM by Wendy NikelI’ve always been fascinated with time travel stories, so when I sat down to write THE CONTINUUM, I knew that was what I wanted this story to be about. It was the third of November when I’d decided I wanted to try my hand at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when I started writing that day, I had little more than the premise and a few key scenes to work off of.

My story, I’d decided, would be based on a short story I’d written a few months earlier about a time traveler returning home from a vacation in the past. Only instead of focusing on the time traveling tourist herself, I wanted this story to be about the people who work at the travel agency, whose responsibility it is to bring them safely back to the present from their adventures. So I started writing about Elise, a professional time traveler who jumps around through time, helping out clients who get into sticky situations on their vacations to the past. I settled in to pen an adventure about her dangerous rescues, perilous circumstances, and the struggle to protect the space-time continuum as she travels about in history.

But I think I knew, deep down, that Elise was a little too good at her job, a bit too skilled with blending into the past eras where she frequented. She was the James Bond of time travelers — always having a Plan B in mind, never losing her cool. She knew more than anyone else around her and was able to think her way out of any tough situation. And while those stories can be fun for a while, my subconscious realized it’d be a more interesting story if she was taken out of her element and presented with a situation that really challenged her and where she wasn’t confident of her success.

Before I really had time to plan out where the story was going next, she was being sent on a mission where she wasn’t going to be able to rely on her knowledge of the past and familiarity with historical customs. She wasn’t just going to be able to call upon her research or prior experiences. She was going to be sent somewhere new, where she’d never been before, and that was going to be the true test of her meddle:

Elise was going to be sent into the future.

Once I realized that’s where the story was taking her, the rest fell into place: the connection to her previous mission that takes place in the opening chapters; the internal conflicts that she faces; and the lessons she needed to learn about herself, her work, and time travel. For a skilled time traveler, the past is too predictable, too “safe,” and with the shift to the future world, I opened up for myself a chance to explore the unknown — for Elise, for myself, and for my readers.

As of January 23, 2018, THE CONTINUUM is available in ebook and print formats via World Weaver Press! (LINK)

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From the cover copy:

Elise Morley is an expert on the past who’s about to get a crash course in the future.

For years, Elise has been donning corsets, sneaking into castles, and lying through her teeth to enforce the Place in Time Travel Agency’s ten essential rules of time travel. Someone has to ensure that travel to the past isn’t abused, and most days she welcomes the challenge of tracking down and retrieving clients who have run into trouble on their historical vacations.

But when a dangerous secret organization kidnaps her and coerces her into jumping to the future on a high-stakes assignment, she’s got more to worry about than just the time-space continuum. For the first time ever, she’s the one out-of-date, out of place, and quickly running out of time.

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and elsewhere. For more info, visit wendynikel.com or sign up for her newsletter HERE and receive a FREE short story ebook.

New Worlds: Mountains

Our jaunt through the physical landscape of your invented world continues with a discussion of mountains and how people relate to them: as resources, mythical loci, places of danger, boundaries, and more. Comment over there!

This short story GOES UP TO ELEVEN

I recently finished my first short story of the year, which doesn’t yet have a title I am satisfied with, but which is destined for publication in Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters II, once the Kickstarter behind that link successfully funds. (It’s a quarter of the way there after one day, so odds are good.)

Drafting the story was interesting, because it’s been a while since I wrote something where my constant reminder to myself was GO BIGGER. In some ways “The Şiret Mask” last year, I suppose, but that was more caper-style ridiculousness. When it comes to sheer world-wrecking destruction, I think I have to go all the way back to In Ashes Lie, with its Great Fire and the battle between Prigurd and the Dragon in St. Paul’s Cathedral. But when the theme of your antho is kaiju, well, sheer world-wrecking destruction is very nearly an entry requirement.

(“Very nearly” because you could probably write a really interesting story about kaiju not trashing cities — something much quieter and more personal — and in fact I hope somebody in the lineup for this anthology does so. But that story is not my story.)

As for my story: it’s riffing off the microsetting I wrote for Tiny Frontiers: Mecha and Monsters, which was called “The Grand Prize,” and is basically what happens when somebody hands me the prompt “kaiju and mecha” and my brain immediately pairs that with high school science fairs. The short story takes place at the Twentieth Annual Metzger-Patel Genius Prize tournament, and that’s all I’ll say right now — except to remind you that if you want to read a story about teenaged robotics and bioengineering competitions gone massively overboard, you should back the Kickstarter today!

“Can one use a dragon to light a candle on Shabbat” and other important questions from Lady Trent’s world

My husband, to me: “You probably want to see this.” <sets his laptop down in front of me>

Me: <reads the best tumblr conversation I’ve seen possibly ever in my life>

Seriously — “Can I use my pet dragon to light candles on Shabbat?” is an actual debate religious leaders would have to have in Isabella’s world. Because they have dragons, and a sizable percentage of Anthiope is Segulist (i.e. Jewish), so that scenario is a thing that could actually happen. Probably has. And now I’m regretting that I’m not conversant enough with Judaism to write a short story that is entirely about Segulist magisters arguing over something like using a pet dragon to light a candle on I don’t think I ever came up with a replacement term for Shabbat (it would run from sunset on Eromer to sunset on Cromer, i.e. Friday-Saturday, but there ought to be another word for it). I had enough trouble writing “The Gospel of Nachash”; this would be harder, especially since I don’t think I can ethically yoink the things people said in that Tumblr thread for my own commercial purposes, and figuring out how to turn it all into a workable story would require me to go beyond what’s there into the wilds of stuff I don’t even know enough about to ask the right questions.

<wanders away from half-finished blog post for a while, thinking>

<comes back>

Okay, screw it. We’re doing this thing.

And I do mean “we,” because I am actively soliciting ideas from people who know Judaism better than I do, that you’re willing to let me use to write a Lady Trent story about religious debates concerning the proper role of dragons in pious Segulist life. I have no idea what form this is going to take; right now in my head it reads like a “Dear Abby” column, with some magister who is here for all your dragon-related religious queries, but it would be hard to give that enough shape to pass for a short story rather than just a novelty piece. Really, I can’t plan the story itself until I know what material it’s going to be built around, because that will probably suggest to me a context for why and how and of whom the questions are being asked.

So toss me some suggestions, people. Other than using a dragon to light a candle on Shabbat (probably a sparkling or a Puian fire-lizard; I don’t recommend desert drakes for the purpose), what other questions might come up? I know enough about kosher laws to be pretty sure dragon meat does not qualify, assuming you would even want to eat it, which you probably would not. After that, I don’t know what would be interesting to consider. Any thoughts?

Eyvind Earle (and Jumanji)

This weekend I went to an exhibit of art at the Walt Disney Family Museum up in the Presidio, on the art of Evyind Earle — a man most of you have probably never heard of (I hadn’t), but who did the backgrounds for the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. I had no idea what I would think of the rest of his art, but I figured, hey: if nothing else, I’ll get to see some of his work from that movie, which I knew was lovely.

The rest of his art is gorgeous.

He worked in a number of different media, ranging from black-and-white scratchboards to oils. As with so much physical art, reproductions don’t do it justice; the tiny images on that website don’t even do it a tiny fraction of a shred of a shadow of justice. His oils and serigraphs often use very intense color, coupled with a strong chiaroscuro effect, and he had a fascinating knack for combining clean, geometric shapes with fine detailing that makes some of the images almost seem to glitter in person. One of the signboards had a quote from when he was working on Sleeping Beauty that really summed up both his approach and why it appeals to me so immensely:

“I wanted stylized, simplified Gothic. Straight, tall, perpendicular lines like Gothic cathedrals . . . I used one-point perspective. I rearranged the bushes and trees in geometrical patterns. I made a medieval tapestry out of the surface wherever possible. All my foregrounds were tapestry designs of decorative weeds and flowers and grasses. And since it is obvious that the Gothic style and detail evolved from the Arabic influence acquired during the Crusades, I found it perfectly permissible to use all the wonderful patterns and details found in Persian miniatures. And since Persian miniatures had a lot in common with Chinese and Japanese art, I felt it was OK for me to inject quite a bit of Japanese art, especially in the close-up of leaves and overhanging branches.”

Mashing all those influences together explains the balance of simplicity and detail that runs through so much of his work, not just the material for Sleeping Beauty (which I liked, but wound up being eclipsed by his independent work, at least for me). We liked it so much that when we’d gone through the whole gallery, we went back to a few of the rooms just to look at our favorite paintings again — and then I went straight to the shop and dropped fifty dollars on an art book of his ouevre, because I wanted to be able to look at it again. I would have bought prints if they’d been selling any, apart from a couple of framed images priced at a thousand bucks apiece. I wish his estate was selling anything in the price range of normal mortals, but they don’t appear to be. (The guy at the museum shop admitted it was their mistake not to sell the concept art of Prince Philip facing off against Maleficent in sizes larger than schoolchild: how did they not realize that was a thing adults would throw money at???)

And then we had lunch followed by an exhibit at the De Young on Teotihuacan followed by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle followed by dinner. It was a busy day. Jumanji was even better than I hoped it would be, and I have to give massive kudos to the big-name actors for channeling the mannerisms of their young counterparts; Jack Black in particular committed 110% to playing a self-absorbed teenage girl in the body of, well, Jack Black. Karen Gillan did an American accent well enough that I didn’t even think until after the movie about the fact that she’s not American, and I cannot imagine anyone other than the Rock in the lead role, because the number of actors who can pull off both the over-the-top machismo of a video game character named Dr. Smolder Bravestone and the neurotic twitchiness of a weedy teenaged nerd is fairly small. I recommend it to anybody who could use a few hours of laughing their ass off right now.

Yuletide 2017

Yuletide!

This year I asked for and received a fic for the Mummy movie series (the ones with Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser, not the more recent thing with Tom Cruise). I got “Alicanto,” by someone who chose to remain anonymous even after reveals, which introduces Evy and Rick to the idea of the Chinchorro mummies of South America.

My assignment was to write for the movie Clue. I produced “But here’s what happened . . . later”, set ten years later, with the various guests of Hill House receiving new letters inviting them to dinner — and that’s about all I can say without spoilers!

I also wrote three treats, as is my wont. “Found-hope” is a follow-up to the TV series of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; I think it also works for the novel, but it’s been long enough since I read it that I can’t swear to the continuity. “Eleven Echoes” is a look through the life of Tacroy from The Lives of Christopher Chant (with major spoilers for same). And “In Fair Verona, Where We Lay to Rest” is again a follow-up, this time for Romeo and Juliet, where the living are still haunted — quite literally — by the ghosts of those who died.

I’ve had relatively little time and brain to read the collection myself after the first day or two, so if you have things to recommend to my attention, please do link them here!

Books read, late November and December 2017

Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett. Continuing my desultory wander through the Discworld books. This one was about fairy tales, which entertained my folkloric brain, and about the nature of stories, which I inevitably eat up with a spoon. I’m not sure the attempt to work in voodoo-style magic was entirely successful, but I do appreciate that it was there.

Vassa in the Night, Sarah Porter. So, you can generally separate urban fantasies into closed (only a few people know about the magic stuff) and open (everybody knows about the magic stuff). This book . . . laughs in the face of that separation. It is a world where people don’t admit to the existence of magic, but also don’t bat an eye at the fact that there’s a store called BY’s that dances on chicken legs and kneels down for you to enter when you sing their advertising jingle and if you’re caught shoplifting, the proprietor will decapitate you and stick your head on a spike in the parking lot. They may complain about the fact that the city’s health inspectors don’t do anything about the rotting heads, but they never question the underlying premise. Which makes for a very weird narrative dynamic — but not an unsuccessful one, if you can go along with it. So: a retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful with a very damaged protagonist and a lot of family issues to sort out. Recommended if you like that kind of thing.

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Largest Museum, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Nonfiction about the Getty Museum and its history of buying black market antiquities (which makes it clear that the Getty is FAR from the only museum with this problem; it’s just one of the few to face prosecution as a result.) In many ways the content was intensely frustrating, because it’s this whole sequence of “well, you’re an improvement on your predecessor, but AUGH could you stop it already with your own problems.” The second guy in charge of acquisitions at least wasn’t committing blatant tax fraud? But he bought wholesale into the narrative that museums weren’t feeding the black market, they were nobly rescuing artifacts that would otherwise vanish into private collections. And then his successor, Marion True, showed a remarkable ability to talk out of both sides of her mouth on the matter, simultaneously championing better practices while also turning a deliberate blind eye to all the things she was warning against. I really don’t know what to make of her, because she genuinely did lead the charge to improve things at a time when everybody else was still talking out of only one side of their mouth (the one excusing it all), but at the same time, ye gods, the hypocrisy. She’s the one person who basically refused to talk to the book’s authors, which contributes to the ambiguity of “what the hell were you thinking?”

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. A collection of texts related to Inanna, including her descent into the underworld, the death of Dumuzi, etc. Interestingly, it includes not only the scholarly translation and notes on same, but more speculative and personal theorizing on the meaning of the texts. This sometimes wanders close to the edge of New Age territory, but not, I think, in a way that leaves the evidence behind.

Redeemer, C.E. Murphy. I may make a blog post about urban fantasies and their settings with this and The Coroner’s Lunch as my exemplar texts, because if you asked me, do you want to read a novel about an organization of demon hunters and the young woman with an inborn gift for defeating demons, I’d yawn. Doesn’t matter how interesting your approach to the cosmology of demons and their slaying is; I’ve just read too much of that for it to hold much interest anymore. But when you take that story and set it directly after WWII, where your protagonist is literally named Rosie and worked in a factory riveting airplanes together, and she’s worried about losing her job and the independence it gave her because all the men are coming home and reclaiming the workplace, and the love triangle happens because she hasn’t seen her boyfriend in three years and they’ve both been massively changed by their wartime experiences and the other guy in the triangle is grappling with the fact that he was sent home early after trashing his leg for life . . . now I’m interested. Because now you’re showing me something new, something I haven’t read or watched a dozen times before.

The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, Carlos Hernandez. Short story collection. I received it as a Christmas present and finished it about two days later, which is a good sign. These stories mostly feature Cuban-American protagonists and freely mix science-fictional ideas with more magical realist material. I found it helpful to keep Google Translate open on my tablet while I read, not because you have to know what all the Spanish means, but because I liked to add that context where my own remembered vocabulary fell short. My favorite story was probably “More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give,” about a man going back to Cuba in an attempt to find and speak to the ghost of his mother, who died heroically during the Cuban Revolution, except that I feel like the story cut out early, going for the funny ending line rather than closure. Fair warning, though: these stories feature quite a lot of dead mothers, and also one story that, while hilariously funny (it literally made me laugh out loud more than once), can be read in a kind of disturbing dubious-consent light.

The Night Orchid: Conan Doyle in Toulouse, Jean-Claude Dunyach, trans. various. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, ever since I met Jean-Claude Dunyach at Imaginales in France (he’s the one who provided me with ebooks of this and another collection). Although his afterword says that he writes science fiction because he thinks the world is a wonderful place, many of these stories are pretty bleak: there’s a lot of stuff about memory and its loss, alienation of both the psychological and literally “aliens from outer space” sort, and hackers or AIs who have thoroughly lost comprehension of the world of the flesh. The most cheerful story is probably the title piece, which is a very nineteenth-century tale featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger and a beast that likes opera.

These last two titles in my year’s reading made me realize: I do much better with single-author collections than I do with anthologies. There’s generally (though not always) more of a unified feel to them, which tells me that despite what I might think, I apparently respond more to authorial voice than to subject matter when it comes to keeping my attention focused on a single book.