Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles

So, when I was fourteen, in the midst of spitting out about a story a night, one of the stories I wrote was a little something-something called “The Heretic.” It’s short, just over a thousand words, and I filed it away with the rest of my juvenilia when I reviewed my older stuff back in 2011. Then the call came out, a call for submissions for a new anthology, and I knew exactly what story to send.

Cover - Final

Cover - Final - Back

Yes, really. That’s me next to Spider Robinson, Cat Rambo, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Gregory Benford. I can’t really wrap my head around it, but now, you can. And if you needed more convincing, a full table of contents is right here, at editor Randee Dawn’s website.

A sci-fi anthology about the Beatles. My mother is gonna be so proud.


Why Short Fiction?

My literary friends (and my wife) have all wondered at one point or another: Why short fiction? Why am I so obsessed with short stories, reading them and writing them, instead of working on novels? I had incoherent answers about traditions in SF/F and about sketches in charcoal, but last year, Neil Clarke finally put into words what I wasn’t able to say: “As a short fiction editor, I can be subversive.”

I sent Solarpunk Winters a story called “Glâcehouse.” It’s the story of a Haitian-Québécoise history major, her friend, and her father the ecologist reenacting the Breton myth of KêrYs in a post-independence, post-climate change Québec. And it is subversive comme le diable. For one, I don’t think I could sell that as a novel to any editor in America, just on the difficulty of marketing that to an American readership. And for two, this time, when Dahut opens the locks, the cold and the water flow out instead of in, and it is quite definitely a good thing rather than a black betrayal.

The story I sold to Triangulation: Dark Skies, “Earth Epitaph,” is about two venerable astronomers in Tasmania trying to encode an epitaph for humanity into the Sun itself before a gamma ray burst sterilizes the Earth. They choose the Song of Seikilos, the oldest complete musical piece in the Western world, as the fitting words of the human tombstone. To speak to SF fandom and say “this is ancient, this is not secret, and this is valuable” is almost as subversive as asserting that leaving behind a work of art after the death of the Earth is worthwhile would be to regular folks.

I snuck paradox and pacifism into “Sweat and White Cotton,” criticism of cultural bias into “Preta,” and existentialist space exploration into “No More Final Frontiers.” As radical as Fahrenheit 451 and The Left Hand of Darkness were, some of Bradbury’s most powerful prose is in “There Shall Come Soft Rains” and some of LeGuin’s most condemnatory stands are in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The implicit criticism of smug Golden Age SF present in Neuromancer is explicit (and hilarious) in “The Gernsback Continuum.” Even into the present day, it’s in short fiction like Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience ™,” Ken Liu’s “The Paper Tiger,” and Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” that subversive messages, subversive forms, subversive verse are frothing, bubbling, rattling.

Because some of those subversions catch, and thrive, and slowly become established and become the Establishment. The names and ideas you see printed in F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction this year will be what you see on the new releases bookshelves next year, will be what you see in the theater the year after that, and on television the year after that.

In short fiction, I can write about French North America as if anyone cared. I can call vampires “hungry ghosts” and question why anyone would want to be one. I can imagine the Last Quaker Meeting and let the last few pitiful Friends stand to give ministry, if they remember how. As a short fiction writer, I can be subversive.


Solarpunk Winters (feat. “Glâcehouse”)!

As of today, I can proudly announce that I will be published in WorldWeaver Press’ Solarpunk Winters! Coming January 7, 2020, Solarpunk Winters is the sequel to WorldWeaver’s bestselling Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers.

Glass and Gardens Winter Graphic

My story, “Glâcehouse,” is the story of a father and daughter fighting over the last snow-covered maples under glass, and whether to unlock the door and release them into a post-independence, post-Anthropocene French-Canadian future.

(I knew the story would sell when one of my beta readers told me, “Roscoe, this is the first story you’ve written where I actually cared about Québec.”)

But mine isn’t the only story. I haven’t had a chance to read the others, but based on the back-cover description, they sound amazing.

These are stories of scientists working together to protect narwhals from an oil spill, to bring snow back to the mountains of Maine, to preserve ecosystems—even if they have to be under glass domes. They’re stories of regular people rising to extraordinary circumstances to survive extreme winter weather, to fix a threat to their community’s energy source, to save a living city from a deep-rooted sickness. Some stories take place after an environmental catastrophe, with luxury resorts and military bases and mafia strongholds transformed into sustainable communes; others rethink the way we could organize cities, using skybridges and seascrapers and constructed islands to adapt to the changes of the Anthropocene. Even when the nights are long, the future is bright in these seventeen diverse tales.

The full TOC below. Remember, January 7! I’m buying my copy the minute they go on sale.

Glass and Gardens Winter TOC Banner

“Wings of Glass” by Wendy Nikel
“Halps’ Promise” by Holly Schofield
“A Shawl for Janice” by Sandra Ulbrich Almazan
“The Healing” by Sarah Van Goethem
“The Fugue of Winter” by Steve Toase
“The Roots of Everything” by Heather Kitzman
“Viam Inveniemus Aut Faciemus” by Tales from the EV Studio and Commando Jugendstil
“Recovering the Lost Art of Cuddling” by Tessa Fisher
“Oil and Ivory” by Jennifer Lee Rossman
“Orchidaceae” by Thomas Badlan
“The Things That Make It Worth It” by Lex T. Lindsay
“Glâcehouse” by R. Jean Mathieu
“Snow Globe” by Brian Burt
“Rules for a Civilization” by Jerri Jerreat
“On the Contrary, Yes” by Catherine F. King
“Set the Ice Free” by Shel Graves
“Black Ice City” by Andrew Dana Hudson


The Stars Come Closer: WorldCon 76

image3

[Not a real George R. R. Martin, but one of the four Martin impressionists at large]

As most of you know, I spent this last weekend in San Jose, at WorldCon 76. It’s why I overhauled the blog and restored the Books and Stories page. Right now, I’m gonna talk about why. Why I went to WorldCon, and why I want to bring the stars closer.

My wife used to work for Ten Speed Press. They are definitely not a science fiction and fantasy publisher; their forté is more cookbooks, self-help, and New Age. Our Matron-of-Honor, Abigail Simoun, is a writer in her own right, a seasoned editor, and runs Red Fox Literary, the prestigious children’s/YA agency. Melissa’s confidante, Danny, only has finer taste for hard bop jazz than he does for American literature, his walls lined with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami. When I first met Melissa, she thought I was an arrogant upstart writer and I thought she was a snobbish New York literati type. Turns out we were both right.

All these literati have been, for the last six months, looking up from my manuscripts with shocked and impressed eyes and telling me that it’s high time I got an agent and a publishing deal. Indie is all well and fine, and I intend to continue publishing that way, but even I have to admit that New York can distribute and sell books better than I can.

Even after clarifying that I am, in fact, a commercial writer, and not Haruki Murakami or something, they have stood behind their opinion that my writing is good and needs representation yesterday. And I have to admit, having so many capital-L Literary people who believe in me has been a shot in the arm.

That’s when I found out WorldCon would be in San Jose this year. My round-trip train ticket cost $70. Membership in WorldCon was $250. I phoned up my Aunt Nona in San Jose to have a place to stay. Yes, I said, I think I can do this.

WorldCon is the oldest, and most prestigious, continuously-running literary SF/F con in the world. It floats from continent to continent, city to city, year after year. At the first WorldCon, in New York City in 1939, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury all attended. As fans. While Comic-Con is larger, WorldCon is the industry event of the year if you’re involved in genre publishing.

WorldCon is also where the Hugos, “the Academy Awards of science fiction,” are awarded. Comparing them to the Oscars is a bit imprecise, though, as the Hugos are awarded by the collected membership/attendees of WorldCon, in other words, the fans. Fans assemble the nomination lists and fans vote for the winners. You may remember, a few years back, when the alt-right tried to stage a coup.

I printed business cards and polished my query letter (and stopped polishing when Abi told me what she’d do to me if she found out I accosted an agent at an industry event with unsolicited queries). I practiced my pitch. I annoyed the shit out of Aaron Ochs with publicity questions. I drove pretty much everyone around me up the wall. When a friend called with a job offer, I said “perfect timing – I’m so busy worrying about WorldCon I don’t have any nerves left over to worry about a job interview.”

And on August 16, 2018, Wednesday, I waved goodbye to Melissa as the train pulled out of Paso Robles. I was on my way to WorldCon.

The next four days are kind of a blur. I remember asking Mary Robinette Kowal to sign my notebook, furiously taking notes at N. K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding class, demanding to know how in the Hell Neil Clarke can have a response time of less than forty-eight hours with 1500 submissions a month, shooting the shit in Mandarin with the crew of SF WORLD, realizing with dawning horror as Caroline M. Yoachim talked that I wasn’t revising nearly enough, getting congratulations from Sheila Williams for a sale twenty years ago, making an ass of myself in French, and sitting in Callahan’s Bar with new friends as the world turned upside down.

 

image6

Neil Clarke, Liz Gorinsky, Emily Xueni Jin, Chen Qiufan, Regina Kanyu Wang on Chinese science fiction. Not pictured: invisible sixth member Ken Liu, ten feet tall and made of awesome.

image5

Me with Yang Guoliang, the editor of SCIENCE FICTION WORLD in Chengdu, where Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem was first published.

At the panel “selling strategies for short fiction,” I thought of my half-dozen stories out in the mail, each with at least a half-dozen rejections each, and I asked the panel: “When should I retire a story?”

Caroline Yoachim leaned forward and said: “When you stop believing in it. It doesn’t matter how many rejections it gets, if you look at it, revise it, and still believe in it, send it out again.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. It was the one I needed.

(And on that note, I am retiring “Only the Good Die Young.” Completely. I’m removing it from Amazon and taking down the description from my bibliography. It’s a better idea than it ever was a story, and the moment when that story would have worked is past. I no longer believe in it. I’m retiring it. Thank you, Caroline!)

I must have passed out a few hundred cards to authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and general fans. I collected just about as many. I’ve filled in half my notebook and a ton of comments and marginalia in the program guide besides. I’ve learned a lot about writing and about being a writer, so much I’ll probably spend years processing it all.

But the biggest part of WorldCon 76 wasn’t about me.

nkjemisin0122

N. K. Jemisin

On my way out the door on Saturday night, I met a couple of Chuck Tingle buckaroos who know that love is real.

image4

Pictured: buckaroos.

We fell in together and went out to dinner, and agreed to meet up at Callahan’s for the Hugos the next evening. That evening, Sunday, we sat around our table with new friends and sipped beers, the liveliest table in the bar as the awards ceremony wore on. We were comparing notes on which story or novella we’d voted for and why, making bets on who’d win, cheering Rebecca Roanhorse and Lynne and Michael Thomas and others as they ascended the stage.

All through, one of my new friends kept nervously glancing at the end of the awards program, at Best Novel, muttering “God, I hope she makes it…” and “What if she really did?” I knew what she meant, of course. After the Sad Puppies’ attempt to hijack the Hugos, in 2015 and ‘16, the very Black, very female, very academic, very proud N. K. Jemisin won Best Novel for her amazing The Fifth Season – the antithesis of everything the Puppies had stood for. The next year, she won again, for the sequel The Obelisk Gate. Now, Jemisin’s third book in the Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, was on the shortlist.

And when Joe Pacacio announced that The Stone Sky had been voted Best Novel, Callahan’s went batshit. N. K. Jemisin had pulled off a threepeat, the hat-trick, the power trio, I’ve heard a dozen names for it. Here’s the truth: one trilogy, three years, three books, three Best Novels. It was something no one, no one, in the history of the award had ever done. Not Asimov, not Heinlein, not Gibson, not Stephenson, not Gaiman.

There was laughter and tears, screams of joy and stamping of feet and thunderous applause. Callahan’s shook.

And Jemisin strode up on that stage, resplendent in golden constellations, and she gave this speech.

That was an amazing moment in science fiction. The world turned upside down.

And I’d been there to see it.

I’m still processing a lot of what I saw, and did, and heard, and said. But the big thing is what Ms. Jemisin said: let 2018 be the year the stars come closer for all of us.


New Story! “Hull Down” on Amazon

At last, “Hull Down” is available to read from Amazon!

“The room pulsed around him, its fetid breath almost palpable even through the helmet. The bodies of Commander Wu Suzhen and Major Sam Harris were woven into the wall, a superimposed lovers’ embrace developed in resin and red light. Their shapes were fuzzy; the inside of Matt’s helmet sticky with condensation like his hair was sticky with sweat. His inner ear couldn’t find north or down, his eyes stung and he could taste something salty, but whether blood, sweat or tears, he couldn’t tell.

Why did you live?”

Pvt. Matthew LeWald is surprised when a Navy officer leads his Marines on the Search and Rescue operation. He’s even more surprised to be the only survivor of a mission gone disastrously wrong, when better men than him died left and right. Why did he live? But there are stranger things afoot than war, things like love and things like enlightenment.

The reviewers are saying it’s “not your Dad’s military SF” and calling it “strange [and] haunting.”


2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

2312

I really, really want to like Kim Stanley Robinson. I do. His ideas are beautiful. The Mars trilogy is the most in-depth analysis of Martian terraforming ever committed to print; Mark Watney couldn’t have planted potatoes without it. The Years of Rice and Salt combines a staggering scope (alternate world history, 1300-present) with a thoroughly original structure (following the reincarnations of a jati, a group of souls fated to meet again and again). In my middle-school years, he and Ursula LeGuin seemed to be the only voices for the earth and the wretched of the earth amidst a sea of gung-ho libertarians like Heinlein, Bradbury, and Frankowski.

But then you actually read the book, and your hopes are dashed. His characters are forgettable, his plots meandering, his prose wooden. I can’t remember which initial from Years of Rice and Salt is supposed to be the angry one, I or B. I recall a few passages of Red Mars, and one character because he was a sympathetic Frenchman at a time when we frogs were all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and one because he up and disappeared halfway through the book and I kept wondering when he’d come back.

I started 2312 full of the apprehensive hope that the last twenty years have made a better storyteller of this brilliant, idiosyncratic Author. I’m afraid Anne Rice was correct: we don’t really change, we only become more fully what we are. Kim Stanley Robinson is the Arthur C. Clarke of the 21st century: a consummate idea man who isn’t about to let mere writing get in his way.

2312 is full of absolutely amazing ideas: the Mondragon that has superseded capitalism, leaving “capitalism [as] the residual on Mars, as feudalism [as] the residual on Earth,” the art-world of Mercury and its capitol at Terminator, mutually-hermaphroditic sex, and, of course, the terraria.

terrarium.jpg

“Terrarium” for this style of vessel/colony, hollowed out of an asteroid and filled with biosphere, seems destined to enter the SF lexicon alongside terms like “ansible,” “waldo,” “hyperspace,” and “robot.” And Robinson’s inventive new ideas don’t stop at content, he has some brilliant literary strokes as well: the interstitial lists, extracts, and quantum walks are not only elegantly-presented exposition, they further the feeling of balkanization that Robinson characterizes his future with. 2312 has one of the very, very few examples of future works of art that effectively influences the story without being the focus of it, both Swan’s art installations on Mercury and those of other artists through the Solar System. Speaking of art, he even inverts the Famous Famous Fictional Trek trio near the end and lists “I Met Her in a Phobos Restaurant,” “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” as drinking songs in that order.

But his characters. His plotting. It opens with a funeral and closes with a wedding, in fitting comic theater fashion. There’s terrorist attacks, two survival trials as Swan and Wahram are marooned, a romance that takes you from behind, the possibility of emergent AI turning against their masters, and the secret machinations of various factions…but none of them seem to connect to anything. Indeed, it’s hard to connect much of anything to anywhere. As one not-a-reviewer noted, “Swan Er Hong and Wahram prefer to run away from problems they don’t understand,” and the whole book feels less like a book, less even than a patchwork story, than it does like a picaresque. Our Heroes finish up one adventure (or, more often than not, leave it dangling like the worst Stephenson novel, as they did in Africa) and are whisked off by terrarium to the next one. Which is great! I’ve enjoyed a great many novels exactly like this, and even written a couple myself. Except, Robinson wants us to see a bigger picture and a greater drama to this balkanized novel, and it just doesn’t seem to work.

Which brings me to Swan.

I will probably remember Swan Er Hong a long time, if only because she consistently aroused vague disgust, which is probably not what you want in a viewpoint character. She’s over a century old but behaves like a bratty teenager – a smart one, but still emotionally immature and bizarrely inexperienced. She’s apparently never seen poverty on Earth before, nor been in love (despite a medical history in the middle of the book describing past loves and children), nor even lost a parent. She imperiously declares what is best for whatever planet she’s standing on or in, endangers her friends at least twice, and is generally an unpleasant person to be around and to read about. Her companion, Wahram, by contrast, is merely boring. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre of forgettable characters, Wahram’s phlegmatic plodding is something even Robinson specifically notes as boring. Maybe this is why their romance seems more formal than real: on the one hand, you have the man who’s never perturbed even by losing his own leg, and on the other, the woman who constantly reacts to whatever’s in front of her. What kind of spark could you have there?

Kim Stanley Robinson has never been easy reading. I got that all the way back in seventh grade. But getting through it has always been interesting, even if I argue with myself about whether it was worth it. The sheer scope of Years of Rice and Salt still dazzles me, the meditations on humanity as cultivator or humanity as witness (Green vs. Red) in the Mars trilogy is some of the best philosophy in commercial fiction. Despite the meandering plot and the forgettable characters, despite the mannered prose and the hollow dialogue, I think 2312 was worth it. In 2012, when the book came out, the vision of a future where hope could be found, a future where humanity increases in genetic, cultural, and artistic diversity while still being human, a future where even Earth could be terraformed, was as alien to the omnipresent Singularity or Apocalypse as the liberal-green philosophy of Red Mars had been at the tail end of cyberpunk. Other authors have since taken up the call, dusted off the terraria, grappled with the intersexed and transcender implications, and explored other ways to terraform Earth. We wouldn’t have Sunvault and Reckoning without 2312, we wouldn’t have Ecopunk! without 2312, we wouldn’t have solarpunk without 2312. For that alone, the book is worth it.

(edited versions of this review have been crossposted to Goodreads and to Amazon.com)


Doutor Compaixão

I’ve just (re-)discovered Twitter, and on about the second day, Cat Rambo posted a tweet from the Magical Realism Bot: “A Brazilian math teacher proposes marriage to compassion.” She challenged the world to write a story of it. I took up the challenge. This is the result.

Continue reading