Monday, February 28, 2011

Awards Season!

I'm home sick today, but apparently a squidgy stomach has given me a clear head--I admit that I've read all the 2010 fiction that I'm going to. I'm just going to have to suck it up and do my awards voting and nominations based on what I've read so far. So with some extra time on my hands, I've decided to do my Hugo nominations and Locus Awards voting today. This is going by Hugo categories--I figure the fiction categories overlap, and in the non-fiction/anthology/collection categories I don't have too much to say anyway. But here's what I've got.


I focused so much on short fiction in 2010 that of all the novels on the Locus Recommended Reading list, I've only read 3 and a half. (The half was Mieville's Kraken, which just didn't work for me and I didn't finish.) And I think I've only read about six 2010 releases in total. So I'm pretty much leaving those categories alone when it comes to the Locus awards. However, for Hugo nominations I feel free to nominate books that I want to read, since I generally manage to read all the fiction on the Hugo shortlist. So here are five books that I want to read this spring:
  • The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
  • Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

Here I'm getting more into my comfort zone. By far the two best novellas I read this year were:
In the category of "haven't read yet but want to:"
All things I've read, and it was hard to narrow down to five:
Others I could have easily added:
Looks like I'll be doing a lot of typing over at the Locus poll--most of these aren't on the Recommended list.

Short Story

Again, all read & hard to narrow down:
Others I'd be happy to see nominated:
Looks like I'll mostly be skipping Best Related Work and Graphic Story this year. Also both the Dramatic Presentations - I'm glad to let other people tell me what I should be reading/watching in those categories.

Editor, Short Form
The above represent the short fiction magazines that I enjoyed most in 2010, as well as some great anthologies and collections. I'll again leave Editor, Long form to those more knowledgeable than I.


I've been keeping track of artwork that stood out to me as well this year:

I can't swear that all of these qualify, but through the year they have become my must-reads:
Fan Writer
Why yes, that is my peer group. Why do you ask? :p

Campbell Best New Writer

I'm never sure about the eligibility for this one--who's to say that an author that's new to me didn't have one sale five years ago that disqualifies them now? But here are a few names:
And that's it for me, putting a cap on 2010. As always I wish I'd read more, but there was some fantastic stuff that I did read. If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos (member/supporting member of Aussiecon 4 or Renovation) the deadline is March 26th. The Locus award voting (open to everyone, but subscriber votes count double) is open until April 15th. Please make your voice heard!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

New Lovecraftian Fiction

It’s always nice to see a new short fiction market come online. Through SFSignal’s Free Fiction round-up, I spotted Lovecraft eZine’s debut issue and decided to take a look. I see from their submission page that they pay $50 per story, nothing to sneeze at. However, to put it charitably, it may take this magazine a few issues to find its feet. (To be fair, I thought the same thing about Lightspeed’s first issue, and they’re already producing award nominees.) All these stories have merit, but some extra TLC in the editing process would help them really stand out.

Issue #1 has four stories, starting off with “Sledding and Starlings” by Bruce L. Priddy. This was a nicely atmospheric piece about a couple who (for no good reason) decide to go sledding in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm. Despite an ominous flock of starlings, they have fun for awhile until the wife disappears in an even more ominous fashion, sending the husband into paroxysms of grief and madness. The main problem I had with this story came in its final paragraph, which uses the “I did not think about the thing that did not happen” structure heavy-handedly to let us view the wife’s disappearance retroactively. Between deconstructing the syntax and using a late flashback to depict the story’s climax, this served to severely distance the reader from the scene, diminishing the horror of it.

“Rickman’s Plasma” by William Meikle was a story with a great premise that I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish. The premise is a nice blending of Lovecraftian magic with sf. The titular Rickman is trying to use his Dream Machine to capture the zeitgeist of the city, but he’s getting nowhere. With a flash of inspiration he points it to deep space instead, and begins to create a hypnotic and driving groove complete with a ball of plasma, and overlays it with his dreams. The plasma takes on a life of its own and starts eating people, starting with Rickman. Two policemen come to investigate. The death of one of the cops is particularly horrific, although my suspension of disbelief was shaken when her partner is unable to stop the elevator doors from closing and is forced to watch her death from the elevator door’s window. Generally speaking even the crappiest elevator won’t close the doors with an obstruction in the way. But no matter, the death was distractingly gory! Moving on!

Unfortunately, the story becomes increasingly distanced after that. The narrative viewpoint draws back to the city police as the plasma eats some city blocks off stage. It eats the cops, it eats the National Guard. I put the story down for good when the viewpoint is removed again, to the national level, as the plasma eats the state of New York, off stage. This scene shift is accomplished using exactly the same words as the first shift, which is distracting and a bit silly and once again distances the reader from any ongoing horrors the story might contain. I can see where the technique could be used to establish rhythm and ramp up tension, but here it struck me as artificial and jarring. So I’m afraid this story didn’t work for me.

“The Brown Tower” by John Prescott is the story of two young men investigating a spooky tower in a spooky small southern town. It really hits its stride at the end, as they face the consequences of poking their noses into the unknown, at night, armed only with lighters. The unspeakable horror is effectively sketched rather than shown, and the ending is genuinely gripping. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of awkward phrasing and dialog to get through before we get to that point. This bit was almost a deal-killer for me:
“Its rather unsettling isn’t it?” Mark said, but made no inclination of opting out of not entering the tower.

I can easily forgive typos, but the double negative ends up meaning the opposite of what the author wants it to mean here. And the rest of the dialog has a bad tendency to jump around in tone:
“I wonder what’s up there,” Lane said and pushed the accelerator pedal to its max.
Mark moved in his seat, drank a little from his coke can and eased forward to get a better view of the monument. “I have always wanted to check that place out. I think it’s been here since the town was founded, or that’s what my grandpa told me. I asked him about it a couple times when I was still in grade school.”

Just the inconsistent use of contractions skews the tone: given the “what’s up there” comment, I’d expect the next sentence to start “I’ve always...” instead of “I have...” Skipping between informal and formal dialog is definitely jarring.

“The Crane Horror” by Bruce Durham is a strong historical story with elements from both Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. It ends this issue on a high note. The story is set in the late 1700’s (I believe) and the formal tone of the prose is appropriate and consistent throughout. It reads quite smoothly, which can be a challenge when evoking a historical tone. The shipwreck of a French ship on the shores of the great lakes brings horror to a nearby farmhouse. The narrator is a corporal in the local garrison, in love with the daughter of the homeowner. Despite his best efforts he cannot save the house or its people from the monstrous horrors of the lake. For Lovecraft fans, there’s a hint tying this story in with the overall Cthulhu mythos. Definitely well done, and raises my hopes for Issue #2.

By the by, I also wanted to mention that the artwork is pretty darn good throughout. It definitely adds to the atmosphere and continuity of the ‘zine. They’re all provided by an artist going by mimulux, for whom I’ll be keeping an eye peeled in the future.

Edited to add: Reflecting on this issue in the clear light of morning, it's a very woman-unfriendly collection isn't it? I mean, look at the stats:
  • 4 stories = 4 male authors
  • Story #1: one female love interest, disappeared/killed
  • Story #2: one female neighbor, killed off-stage; one female cop, killed bloodily on-stage
  • Story #3: Zero female characters
  • Story #4: two female characters; mother killed off-stage, female love interest driven irredeemably insane
  • Stories passing the Bechdel test: None
The overall effect is like a big psychic "No Girlz Allowed" sign on the front isn't it? It's interesting to note that as of last month, Weird Tales, the magazine that originally published Lovecraft, is now going strong under an all-female editorial staff, making Lovecraft eZine #1 feel all the more anachronistic. Still, this is easily fixed in later issues, so I'll continue to look forward to the next issue with interest.

Monday, February 21, 2011

More Numbers: 200 Short Stories

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been reading a lot of short fiction. This has been partly for my column in Salon Futura (column #6 is here). I've kept up with the spreadsheet thing, although I've consolidated it into 1 sheet and moved more of my note-taking out of my Moleskine notebook and onto Evernote. Thanks to all this, I know that I have now hit 200 stories, and I thought I'd update the numbers here.

[Caveat Emptor, same as the first: this is the most biased possible set of numbers. It only tracks stories that I've read, and specifically stories that I've finished. I skip a story if it doesn't grab me. So these numbers inevitably reflect my own taste. But there is an underlying field out there, and my own proclivities can only distort it so much. Elements here consist of a huge number of subjective classifications, based on nothing more substantive than my own whim. Also, I've been limiting my reading to venues that I can read in a convenient electronic form.]

Here are the genres that I've seen:
SF 108
Fantasy 76
SF w/ some F 6
Horror 3
Alt hist 3
Mainstream 24
This round skewed towards sf because of a couple of anthologies that I read for other review venues, each of which was sf-specific.

Protagonist gender:

Male 95
Female 83
Less perfectly matched than the last time, possibly because of the late skew towards sf. Other protagonist categories:

Child/Teen 20
Transgender 3
Gender Undefined 4
Alien 6
Ghosts 2
AI/Robots 2
The number of stories passing the Bechdel test perfectly doubled to: 40.

I've also found 34 protagonists that are human and identified by non-white ethnic markers.

I'm also keeping track of POVs, but there's nothing terribly shocking here:
1st 81
2nd 3
3rd lim 75
3rd omni 31
3rd mult 8
More interesting are settings. Of those stories set on Earth:
Earth's past 21
Earth Present 42
Near future 51
Mid future 24
Far future 17
A few more far future tales this time, although again that was skewed by a specific anthology.

How about physical settings? We're still sticking pretty close to home:
America 68
Earth 39
Generic Fantasy Earth 25
We've got 47 stories taking place in some sort of space setting, including extra-solar planets, space stations, etc.

Finally, I've been keeping track of some tropes. Here are some of the most common:
Violence 64
Aliens 40
Happy Ending? 32
Shape-shifting 25
Biotech 20
Gods/Goddesses 20
Ecological damage 19
Politics 17
Religion 17
Mythical beings 16
Magic artefact 15
So that's what I've got so far. I feel a bit odd about the themed anthologies skewing the data, but they are equally part of the field. I definitely feel the need to read a fantasy-oriented one (maybe Zombies vs. Unicorns) to even things out.

Once again, here are the venues from which I've been getting my short fiction. Let me know if there are other places I need to be looking!

Strange Horizons
Fantasy Magazine
Abyss & Apex
Expanded Horizons
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Port Iris
Crossed Genres
Basement Stories
Subterranean Online
Daily SF
Weird Tales
Brain Harvest
Midnight East
Absent Willow Review
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine
Albedo One
Kenyon Review
Electric Velocipede
World SF Blog
Icarus [Much easier to access now that it's available through the Wizard's Tower Press eBook store]
Destination: Future [Anthology]