“strange and seductive stories”

Sofia Samatar reviews Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” and her other stories in the LA Review of Books:

The trope of the woman with the ribbon around her neck is an urban legend familiar to many American kids, exchanged at slumber parties or summer camps in the spooky glow of a flashlight. “The Husband Stitch” is full of tales from this genre, pressing lightly through the dominant narrative. There’s the one about the couple in a parked car who listen to a radio broadcast about a hook-handed escaped killer, only to hear the scrape of his hook on the door. There’s the one about the girl who takes a dare to spend the night on a grave, plunges a knife into it to prove she was there, and then, having pinned her own skirt to the ground, dies of fright. Freud’s definition of the uncanny — something familiar that ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light — helps explain the urban legend’s relationship to “The Husband Stitch.” While the narrator tells of sexual awakening, marriage, and adulthood, the ribbon around her neck (which she will neither remove nor explain) recalls the terrible buried knowingness of childhood. Campfire chillers draw their energy from the fact that everyone knows the ending will be horrible, and the teller knows exactly how. In choosing this form for “The Husband Stitch,” Machado represents heterosexual marriage as a horror story whose ending we all pretend we don’t know.

I found “The Husband Stitch” good enough to nominate it for the Hugo, but I hadn’t noticed how much Machado used actually existing urban legends in her story. The urban legend genre is a lot less known on this side of the pond and I hadn’t encountered the examples she apparantly gave in her story. Interesting.

Sofia Samatar is a thoughful, thought provoking reviewer and Carmen Maria Machado’s work is strong enough to reward such reviewing.

(One of the side effects of the whole Sad Puppies mess is that it swallows up a lot of fandom attention that should be spent on making our fandom and science fiction more diverse and open, leaves less room for new initiatives to get attention. Therefore I’ve decided to write one positive post showcasing some book, project or thing that makes science fiction more diverse.)

Butcher fails where Bellet and Kloos succeeded

Jim Butcher is currently one of the most popular fantasy writers in the world, with several series being NYT bestsellers, as well as having a television series made out of one of them. Not quite George R. R. Martin level, but getting there. He’s nothing like Annie Bellet or Marko Kloos, two much more modestly successfull writers, except in one thing: all three got on the Hugo nominations list thanks to the efforts of the Sad Puppies.

Where they again differ is that Bellet and Kloos, after some soul searching, decided to withdraw their nominations. It’s hard to overstate how difficult that must’ve for them, seeing as how these nominations may be the only time they’ll actually get on the shortlist. Consider: in any given year there are only twenty places open for a professional writer, five each for Best nobel, novella, novelette or short story, while anywhere from 1000-1500 eligible novels are published each year and ghu knows how many eligible works in the other categories. You have to be an incredibly good or well known writer to have a shot at being nominated, let alone be nominated more than once. Yet they gave up these nominations because they knew they way they’d gotten them wasn’t fair.

Not so Butcher though, somebody who on his own merits could have a stab at the Hugos. He’s kept radio silence all this time and when asked point blank, this is what he said:

I’m not sure whether his stance is naive or calculating. His presence on the Puppies ballot from the start was clearly intended as a shield, a way to give some credence to the idea behind the slate(s), that popular works have no chance at the Hugos and really, we’re only suggesting those works we really really think are worthy of a Hugo. By neither withdrawing nor speaking out against the Puppies, Butcher gives tacit approval to their slate voting, validates their political beliefs because surely this means Jim Butcher himself thinks he can’t win a Hugo otherwise?

The same goes of course for all those other nominees used as shields: if you don’t withdraw, if you don’t speak out, I don’t care that you were put on the slate involuntarily or without your knowledge, you’ve given your retroactive consent. By your actions you help support this partisan political attack on the Hugos and I will judge you for it.

UPDATE: you know who does get it right? Black Gate.

The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison

Cover of The Goblin Emperor


The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison
502 pages
published in 2014

One of the dirty little secrets of book reviewing is that the circumstances under which you read any given book can massively influence how you feel about it. Since I read the first half of The Goblin Emperor on a sunny Thursday afternoon while drinking a nice IPA sitting at an Amsterdam terrace and the other half sitting in my garden on the Friday afternoon following, drinking an even nicer IPA, it’s no wonder I feel quite mellow about it. But in this case I would’ve enjoyed it even had I read it during one of the grey, dull, wet afternoons that you normally get in Amsterdam in early April. This is a great novel and well deserves its Hugo nomination. It’s also the sort of novel you can’t help but read fast, a true page turner.

The Goblin Emperor at heart is a very traditional power fantasy, about the boy of humble origins who becomes emperor by happenstance and now has to very quickly learn how to survive in a world of political intrigue he’s completely unprepared for, filled with people who either want to manipulate him or replace him with a better figurehead. It’s one of those fantasy scenarios other writers can write multiple trilogies about to get to that point, but Katherine Addison has her goblin hero confirmed as the emperor within five pages, the rest of the novel being about him getting to grips with his new job, woefully inadequate though he feels.

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Wolfhound Century — Peter Higgins

Cover of Wolfhound Century


Wolfhound Century
Peter Higgins
303 pages
published in 2013

Despite buying more books than’s probably good for me, I still keep a library membership and thanks to that I still end up finding science fiction or fantasy writers and books I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Case in point: Peter Higgins Wolfhound Century, which I saw lying on the pile of new fiction books near the entrance and whose cover drew my attention. Reading the back cover blurb and the first few pages was enough to take a punt on it. They confirmed what the cover artwork seemed to suggest, that this was a fantasy novel inspired by Soviet Russia, not a setting you see much in fantasy.

The protagonist, investigator Vissation Lom, is the classic honest cop in a totalitarian system and his honesty has of course made him enemies. Nevertheless he’s one of the best investigators in Vlast, which is why he has been summoned to the capital Mirgorod by the head of the secret police. He is to stop and catch Josef Kantor, a terrorist protected by powerful forces from within the Vlast security apparatus itself. Without ties to any of the political factions in the capital or the security services, Lom is hoped to have a better chance at getting Kantor.

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Reaper Man — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Reaper Man


Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett
287 pages
published in 1991

Even before rereading the day after pTerry’s death, Reaper Man was mired in grieving for me. Because I reread it in 2012, the year after Sandra’s death, when I had fallen back on Pratchett’s Discworld series as comfort reading, something to lose yourself in and forget for a while. And then I hit Reaper Man, in which DEATH has been retired by the Auditors for having become too human, has to find a new living as BILL DOOR and a fragile, predoomed romance starts between him and Miss Flitworth, the never married widow he ends up working as a farmhand for. It’s a novel about death and life and humanity and the essence of it is captured by what DEATH argues at the climax of it:

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?

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What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?

The news is no less shitty for being expected. Terry Pratchett, long suffering from early onset Alzheimers, has died. I’d been worrying about it ever since he pulled out of the Discworld con last year. I’ve been crying ever since I heard the news, coming in from an after work dinner with co-workers.

It’s hard to underestimate the impact he has had on my life, through his books and his fandom. The humour came first of course, shining through even the idiosynchronatic Dutch translation; the deep humanity came later. And then, in 1997 pTerry came to the Netherlands for a book signing in Rotterdam and I came into contact with alt.fan.pratchett fandom, people who are still friends almost twenty years later. There was Usenet and meetups and irc and Clarecraft Discworld Events and Discworld Cons.

And then there was Sandra.

We met on lspace IRC in spring 2000, mutually annoying each other (in what turned out to be a flirty way), then getting to talking each evening on the phone, then she came over just after Christmas 2000 and that was that. We spent the next two years travelling to and from each other’s homes, until in 2003 she moved in with me. Cue seven years of bliss, or at least domestic comfort, all thanks to Terry Pratchett.

But that’s not the best thing Terry Pratchett did for Sandra and me. The best thing he did for her was to help her die at a time of her own choosing. It was watching his documentary when she was in the middle of a two year battle with failing kidneys and the side effects of receiving a transplant. Talking it over afterwards she admitted that she had been thinking of wanting to die herself, of thinking that there would be a point at which she felt her life would no longer be worth living, that she had to give up the battle.

In the end, she of course did. She had been afraid that if and when she died, it would’ve been in pain and fear, not at a time and place of her own choosing. Terry Pratchett’s documentary gave her the strength and conviction to do put an end to a struggle no longer worth fighting, when she still had the ability to do so with dignity and on her own terms.

That was the greatest gift he could’ve given her and me, but I’ve never found the words to thank him for it.

Hugo Noms: Fan writer & fanzine

Just in time before the deadline closes, let’s talk a bit about potential candidates for the Hugo’s best fan writer award:

First for consideration is Deidre Saoirse Moen, for her work in uncovering and investigating the child abuse of Walter Breen & Marion Zimmer Bradley in fandom, a story that waited fifty years to become fully public. She’s not the only one who had been pushing this story last year, but she was the impetus behind getting what “everybody knew” out in public and making it undeniable. It’s not a happy fun story and I do have the feeling some segments of fandom are less than happy with her for doing this, but it’s an important bit of fan history that was previously swept under the carpet and it illuminated the deep dysfunctionality of some corners of fandom. Something that’s sorely needed especially today, as fandom attempts to belately welcome those who want to be fans but by reason of gender, race, sexual or gender orientation found themselves less than comfortable in it.

Similarly, James Nicoll has also been adept at peeling back the foreskin of ignorance and applying the wirebrush of enlightenment to fandom, being an amplifier both of inconvenient truths and an (unpaid) publicist for worthwhile ventures that otherwise might have escaped my knowledge. His critical attitude towards much of what happens in SF fandom makes his opinion on what is worth looking into that much more important. His recent reviewing site is also a good example of how he has helped shine a light on the more neglected corners of fantasy and science fiction.

The same can be said of Ian Sales, for his SF Mistressworks project, showcasing overlooked works by female writers that should be in the Gollancz Masterworks series. (Full discloser: I review for it). But I also like his own personal writing outside of it, on his blog and on Twitter, like James, that of a critically engaged fan.

Natalie Luhrs may call her blog Pretty Terrible, but it’s far from it. Her fan writing these days consists mainly of link posting and writing on Twitter, but don’t underestimate the power of a good link roundup. She has also been actively pursuing some of the nastier stories in fandom last year, one of the people who with e.g. Moen helped keep the MZB saga out in the open, as well as the Wiscon/Frenkel debacle and far too many other scandals. She has helped keeping fandom honest.

Abigail Nussbaum is one of those people whose opinions I always want to argue with, not because they’re wrong but because they’re consistently smart and well reasoned and I still disagree with them and they make me think more about why I like something she doesn’t or vice versa.

The same goes for Ethan Robinson, who is often wrong, but interestingly wrong.

Fanzine wise, Europa SF is a great project that deserves more attention, attempting to provide an English language portal for the European (continental) science fiction scene(s). In a world so dominated by American and British concerns, any counter to it is welcome.

The other fanzine I like to nominate people will probably not know, is Chaos Horizon, attempting to “make sense out of awards chaos” and predict the Hugo/Nebula winners. Whether they succeed is not the interesting part, but just getting some scientific rigour to this whole awards business is sorely needed.

Campbell Nominations

The Campbell Award for Best New Writer is not a Hugo award but is awarded together with it. Unlike the Hugo, writers have two bites at the cherry as you are eligible for nominations in the two years after your first professional sale. My list therefore has the best writers from the eligibility list at Writertopia eligible for the second year in a row:

  • Carmen Maria Machado
    I read two of her short stories in my SF marathon and liked both of them, she has a somewhat more literary bend than is the norm within science fiction and deserves some recognition for it.
  • Helene Wecker
    I just wish I’d read The Golem and the Djinni in time for last year’s Hugo Nominations.
  • Bogi Takács
    A writer with a lot of potential and I want to read more of e’s fiction.
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew
    Despite the revelations about her being the blogger behind Requires Hate, I still like her fiction and think she is one of the brighter talents on the SF scene currently.
  • Usman Malik
    I read two of his short stories in my SF marathon, which were almost good enough for a Hugo nomination, were it not for the stiff competition from others.

Hugo Noms: short stories

The clock’s ticking, but you still have time to read and vote for these stories as your Hugo nominations:

Alyssa Wong, “The Fisher Queen.” F&SF, May/June 2014.

“The Fisher Queen” is perfect, already a Nebula nominee and deservedly so. It’s a story about a fisher girl from the Mekong delta who one day learns the truth behind her father’s joking that her mother was a mermaid. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a feminist fairy tale.

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Floating Girls: A Documentary.” Jamais Vu 3, September 2014.

A very simple story about an unexplained wave of girls, well, just floating up into the air and the indifference with which it is greeted. It feels very much of the moment, a response to things like GamerGate and such.

Kelly Sandoval, “The One They Took Before.” Shimmer #22, November 2014.

An urban fantasy story that looks at what happens after you get back from fairy land. It reminded me a bit of Jo Walton’s Relentlessly Mundane, about the same general emotions of loss and bitterness, but in a different key so to speak.

Rachael K. Jones, “Makeisha in Time.” Crossed Genres #20, August 2014.

Almost impossible, but Rachael K. Jones has managed to write a novel time travel story, of a woman who keeps getting pulled back into the past to lead entire lifes there, only to return to the exact method she left, her family and friends none the wiser, and how she adapts to this. A great story.

Xia Jia, “Tongtong’s Summer.” Translated by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, December 2014 (originally in Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded, Wyrm Publishing, 2014).

Xia Jia writes about the impact of high technology on everyday life and here tackles a very contemporary subject, the use of robots to help an aging population cope with day to day life. In this case Tongtong’s grandfather, in his eighties but still working at the clinic every day until a bad fall, has to come live with them, so Tongtong’s mother could take care of him. Because she and her husband both work, Tongtong’s father brings home a robot, an Ah Fu, to help them. Which isn’t actually a robot, but a tele-operated machine run by an intern for the company Tongtong’s father works for: real robots don’t work and full time carers are too expensive.

Hugo Noms: Novellas & novelettes

I never quite know how to spell novelettes or how they differ from novellas; somewhat of an awkward length. Only the first story is a novella according to the Hugo rules.

Rachel Swirsky, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap).” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

A brilliant story about a daughter and a father and how they cope with her impending death. I’d call it a 21st century Helen O’Loy if that wasn’t a creepy sexist bit of sentimental shite and this isn’t.

Veronica Schanoes, “Among the Thorns.” Tor.com, May 7, 2014.

Re-imagining a horribly anti-semitic Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Carmen Maria Machado, “The Husband Stitch.” Granta, October 28, 2014.

A very meta, very allegorical, feminist sort of fantasy story.

Yoon Ha Lee, “Wine.” Clarkesworld, January 2014.

A great space opera sort of science fiction story, with a trans protagonist.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star.” Tor.com, July 20, 2014.

You could argue that this isn’t science fiction, but this is a story that concerns itself with everything science fiction should concern itself with in the 21st century.

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth.” Tor.com, May 14, 2014.

A Lovecraftian story that refutes Lovecraft’s racism.