Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Guest Post: Funny Thing by Curtis Chen

Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from debut novelist Curtis Chen. Coming out June 21 from Thomas Dunne Books, it's a SciFi spy romp aboard an intergalactic cruiser, starring an agent with a pocket dimension... in his pocket. But writing about foiling terrorism emerged from events that shaped so many of us, including 9/11. Curtis now shares with us how tragedy gave him inspiration to brighten our world. Over to Curtis!

SPOILER ALERT: If you’d rather know absolutely nothing about my debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo before reading it, STOP and save this blog post for later!

September 11, 2001, was an awful day for me, as I imagine it was for most Americans. It took me a long time to deal with it. I didn’t cry until two days later. I didn’t write about it until the week after, and I stand by what I said then: Murder defies reason.

The good news: 9/11 directly inspired the plot of
Waypoint Kangaroo, wherein hijackers attempt to crash an interplanetary cruise spaceship into Mars to start a war. (In my future history, the Martian colonies very recently won their independence from Earth after a brutal conflict, and there’s still plenty of bad blood between the two worlds.)

The bad news: That particular inspiration also made much of the first draft very dark and depressing—i.e., at odds with the protagonist’s trademark snarky humor—and I struggled to balance those two elements over many subsequent rewrites. I wanted Kangaroo to not take himself too seriously, but I wanted the stakes to be real matters of life and death.

The other thing I didn’t do in the first draft was delve into any of the villains’ motivations. At the time—only five years after the towers fell—I still didn’t want to give the bad guys a voice. This was before Obama, before Snowden, before
Zero Dark Thirty, and I hadn’t yet processed my own feelings about the state of the world. Besides, it was much more fun for me to imagine the activities that might be offered aboard an interplanetary pleasure cruise than to conceive of how mass murderers would carry out their plans.

But, as I like to say,
writing is cheaper than therapy. Revising my manuscript and getting feedback from others made me more willing to engage with my own feelings and explore why people do the things they do, both in fiction and in real life. We’re all capable of extraordinary good and unspeakable evil. We all get to choose, every single day, whether we push toward the darkness or the light—and how we behave while doing it.

Examining why my villains would do such awful things also helped illuminate why my heroes would want to stop them. It’s not just about maintaining the status quo--in fact, it’s the bad guys here who are trying to undo recent social progress. (That’s not relevant to current American politics at all, nope nope nope.)

In the end, I learned that it’s possible to be funny in just about any circumstance. Of course, hitting the right tone for a given scene is like walking a tightrope, and the balancing act never gets any easier—hence the old showbiz adage “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” I won’t claim I mixed humor and drama as well as, say, the movie
Dead Man Walking (capital punishment + nuns = LAFF RIOT j/k), but I do hope readers enjoy spending time with Kangaroo. Even if he is suffering the worst vacation ever.

#

Once a software engineer in Silicon Valley, CURTIS C. CHEN now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel WAYPOINT KANGAROO, a science fiction spy thriller, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books on June 21st, 2016.

Curtis' short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, the Baen anthology MISSION: TOMORROW, and THE 2016 YOUNG EXPLORER'S ADVENTURE GUIDE. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers' workshops.

You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of every month. Visit him online at: http://curtiscchen.com

Monday, June 13, 2016

Bathroom Monologue: What If Captain America Isn't Alone?


It wasn’t just Captain America who joined Hydra. Was it weird to you that in seventy years of continuity, Cap never mentioned his fascist leanings, and always stopped Hydra from taking over the world?

Then it’s going to be super-weird when Sam Wilson and Sharon Carter join Hydra, too, plus three quarters of the Fantastic Four. Ben Grimm brings an iPod Shuffle and plays smooth jazz just a little too loud during roll call.

The thing is, having all these new recruits doesn’t make Hydra more effective. In fact the number of missions per fiscal quarter drops. Every time they take a vote to raid some young democracy, the measure is voted down in favor of getting drunk and ordering Five Guys. The TEAM HYDRA Facebook Wall is quickly covered in Bernie Sanders quotes and funny cat memes.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

John’s Convention Schedule

Nerd Convention Season is picking up, so it’s time to figure out where we’re going. Last summer got kind of ridiculous for me, so I’m scaling back travel a bit to focus on my health, and finishing a certain novel.

A note particularly for newer con-goers: I know being new sucks. You don’t know anybody, you feel like every attempted conversation is butting in, and you don’t know what the big events are. So if you’re going to any of these cons and don’t know many people, comment on this post, or tweet me, or shoot me an e-mail. Hell, if you see me chatting with a crowd in the lobby, come on over and I’ll introduce you to the conversation. I know how awkward it is standing on the outside of a ring of people. I’m happy to make these spaces more inclusive.

4th Street Fantasy. June 17-19, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I’ve only gone once and this might already be my favorite con in existence. There is one track, and all ~200 attendees go to the same set of panels. Panelists dig deeper into the craft of storytelling than most cons, and the conversation rolls over from panel to panel, since everyone knows anything brought up earlier. For its small population, it attracts a high percentage of professionals, many of whom like to drunkenly sing in the cafe after midnight.

Readercon. July 7-10, Quincy, Massachusetts.
After years in Burlington, they’re moving to a new space that’s hopefully a little less cramped. ReaderCon attracts brilliant writers like Kelly Link, Ken Liu, and Elizabeth Bear, who pontificate generously on panels and at the bar. This is the only con I'm doing this summer where I'm not on panels, so I'll take this one more laid back. I'll be fun to watch everyone freak out over Guest of Honor Tim Powers.

WorldCon, August 17-21, Kansas City, Missouri.
Ending the summer with the big one. This will be my first WorldCon as a panelist, and my first WorldCon with the Rabid Puppy fights going on. People come from around the world, which means seeing more old friends than any other time in the year. I also hope to get some writers together to sneak out for a movie at some point...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Great Things I Read in May (2016)

There were too many good pieces of writing in May. As a result I only finished one novel and two non-fiction books (well, that and copious editing of my own work). I don't regret a moment of it, though it does mean my Favorites list is pretty bulky today. Bulky, and still incomplete.

Short Stories and Flash Fiction

"The Middle Child’s Practical Guide to Surviving a Fairy Tale" by Mari Ness at Fireside Fiction
-Meta on fairy tales is past its Best-By date, and yet Ness has a great steamlined take on them. Here we sympathize with the older (and usually less attractive) sibling in fairytales, the one that usually exists to die horribly as a warning, as a tragedy, or as plot fodder. Over her list of thirteen items, Ness points out the warning signs and tropes you must avoid to survive someone else's magical journey. Being supporting cast is hard. You might as well try to live through it.

"The Rogue State Next Door" by Vajra Chandrasekera at Unsung Stories
-It takes him six paragraphs to establish a cutting satire and vision of the world. It's an uncomfortable story about how the President tries to negotiate with another nation sharing his border, which is apparently so powerful his entire country fears them, and the President won't look through the fence at it. It gives a vaguely surreal vibe akin to Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, inviting you to wonder if this is a superpower, or some evil alien mega-entity. I kept the tab open to re-read it every week this month. It's like instant fiction: toss this in your imagination and it expands to the fill the container.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

X-Men is My Star Wars


Star Wars or Star Trek? My answer is X-Men. Because I grew up with them, I like my SciFi Extra-Special-Implausible. Not growing up with Star Wars, I confess to never “getting it.” When the Prequels landed, I was unfazed. They were just another trilogy about a Mary Sue with his cast of not-as-special-people who were important because he knew them. They weren’t as well made, but they were clearly the same model. Today, the greatest thing about Force Awakens is watching other people get so much out of it.

I told you that to tell you about ADD. In my lifetime ADD became ADHD, then became a "myth," a thing doctors made up for money, or lazy people made up as excuses. The current scorn for its sufferers is garbage. I have it, and have since childhood - the same week I received medication, my grades skyrocketed. Even then I struggled with reading. Superhero comics, with their mixture of art and the written word, were a huge part of introducing me to the desire for literacy. Here, nothing was more invigorating than X-Men comics, and particularly Wolverine.

So half my readers just closed this article because, ugh, another Wolverine fan right?

The rest of you: hold on for four more sentences.

Because he became particularly meaningful to me at Age 13, when medical malpractice put me in full-body pain for the rest of my life. As opposed to Superman’s invincible skin or Batman’s eternal dodging reflexes, Wolverine feels every blow. He’s shot, stabbed, even eviscerated, and the good artists captured that the pain registered on his face. He could survive anything, but only win by powering through the pain.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Great Things I Read in April

Well, this is late. I've been sacked by a bronchial affair, one truly pesky insurgency that's left me lucid for less of this week than I wanted. I'll do my best to keep this round-up comprehensible. Like at the end of every month, I'm collecting a list of excellent short stories, flash fiction, and journalism. This is probably a little less complete than usual on account of it feels like my furniture is floating. All the stories and articles below are free and can be read just by clicking the link.


Short Stories and Flash Fiction
"Deportations to Begin" at The Boston Globe
-Allegedly this fictional front page of The Boston Globe hurt Donald Trump's feelings. The Globe is an unusual outlet for Speculative Fiction, and yet that's inarguably what this is: speculation on what a Trump presidency will mean for immigration, abuse of law, and the economy. Balder than 1984, and a far sight more likely in its ugliness.

"Foxfire, Foxfire" by Yoon Ha Lee at Beneath Ceaseless Skies
-This belongs on the syllabus for Fantasy classes next year. I love the language. I love the worldbuilding. I love that two paragraphs in, you realize you aren't just hearing this from a human civilian, and not in a clunky line like, "I was born a vampire," but subtly, with, "Better to return to fox-form, surely, and slip back to the countryside..." I love the narrator's indignant place in the society, not utterly helpless, but feeling the pressure of what's coming and expected. Whenever you can establish your world enough that the characters can push back against it in favor of how it should be without it all feeling contrived, you've created a genuine Fantasy. Here the fear of tigers and tiger-sages, and the rush of evacuation, is all potent. It's a story that I thought was going to be shorter, and then was sad to find ending so soon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Foreign Tongues" is live at Flash Fiction Online!

What if an alien visitor wasn't as reliant on sight and sound as we are, but rather wanted a taste of our culture? Would you mind an alien tasting you? And would you taste polite to them? Those are some of the questions behind my latest story at Flash Fiction Online, "Foreign Tongues," about an alien explorer that finds earth and thinks ice cream is our best ambassador. The humans? Well...

By bizarre coincidence, this is the third story Flash Fiction Online has published from me in an April. The third comedy, too. So the amazing people at Flash Fiction Online put me on the cover. But they didn't just put my name on it or an author photo. No, no. They painted a tribute to "Sun Belt," "Alligators by Twitter," and the latest story.

I couldn't be more tickled by this. I'll have to take their editors out for ice cream. It's what civilized explorers do.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Great Things I Read in March


If I can say anything about reading in March, it's that my Favorites List is probably incomplete. Between illness, family emergencies, travel, and rebuilding my computer from scratch, I have forgotten an obscene amount of data this month. It's been easier to forget a good story because I read so many this March. While everyone else was (somewhat justifiably) freaking out over Donald Trump steamrolling the Republicans, I kept finding wonders from around the world. Here are a few of them.

Fiction

"Your Orisons May Be Recorded" by Laurie Penny at Tor.com
-A story that treats angels as switchboard operators for prayers. Our narrator is an experienced, ancient being who's been demoted a few times given their extreme fondness for human men. They keep screwing human men - and falling in love, but there are centuries of sexual indiscretions too. Once they married a country pastor. The scenes are quick and spry, the tone ceaselessly funny, resigned to their place in the cosmos, but also wry. It's the most fun I've had with a "fallen angel" story since The Screwtape Letters.

"The Curse of Giants" by Jose Pablo Iriarte at Daily Science Fiction
-The story about a giant growing up. Already you're envious of Iriarte's inspired premise, but it can be read literally or allegorically, about the abusive forces you encounter as you grow into your own strength and bravery. For something so short, the ending has a hell of a punch. And it hits back, too.

"Opening Move" by Xin Rong Chua at Flash Fiction Online 
-A striking slice of life piece of a struggling chess player, who's managed to escape the Girls category and instead plays in the Open. But that puts her up against the top-rated player in the entire league. It's a flash packed with milieu.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Stop Calling Fiction a Lie

What's the difference between lies and hyperbole? Lying is wrong, but hyperbole is the worst thing ever.

One pernicious hyperbole is that fiction is a lie. The truth is that fiction is untruth, and if that confuses you, welcome to my job. My grandfather believed fiction was a pack of lies, and even tried to talk me out writing the one time he drove me back home from Liberal Arts college. Over burned toast and runny eggs, he argued that someday society would recognize that novels and movies were feeding us falsehood and that we should only deal with facts and non-fiction.

That's what I hear when people joke about writers as high-paid liars. If anything, the lie is that most of us are paid very much. Lies and fiction are two kinds of untruth that are little alike.

Lies are non-consensual. You speak misinformation under the assumption the other person doesn't know better. Your kid doesn't know there isn't a Santa Claus, but you want to fool him, for fun, or to get his mind off a chronic illness. The IRS doesn't know how much money you've hidden under the table, and you want to deceive its agents to get away with paying less. A lie is your decision without the informed agency of the other person.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Kryptonite or Bad Writing: What's Superman's Real Weakness?

The more I hear people wishing Batman would take down Superman, the more I believe it comes from a greater hatred of power than of its abuse. The current popular iterations of Batman are of a tyrant building his kingdom, an autocrat ruling Gotham with an iron fist, an angry billionaire of unchecked privilege and brutality. Somehow Superman is the one labeled overpowered and unrelatable.

People keep saying he's invincible and therefore a bad character. But Superman's weakness isn't just Kryptonite. In the biggest comic event of all time, the mofo was straight-up beaten to death in a fist fight.


His weaknesses include magic, mind-control, various diseases, other Kryptonians, and the bajillion other aliens that are just as powerful, or more powerful, but are dicks about it. He's vulnerable to super-sharp weapons, the light of a red sun, pretty much every energy weapon I've ever seen. He can be out-smarted, caught by Green Lantern rings, or Black Lantern rings. And there are always nuclear weapons. If he has a greatest weakness, it's probably the emergencies of normal people who he constantly puts his own life on hold to assist. That's why I like him better than Batman. Increasingly, Batman is a fantasy of punishing someone, where Superman is a fantasy of helping someone.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Crediting the Idea Factory

Last night I was doubting my imagination. I'd just finished a new short story, which was the conclusion of a premise I came up with fifteen years ago. My last three short stories were ideas I'd had for decades. Weary from pain, I worried the only ideas I had left these days were the creations of my younger self.

In my malaise, I started backing up my computer so I could rebuild it this weekend. My writing folder was full of unfinished drafts that I had to open to recognize. They were tens of thousands of words of plots, many I'd created in the last couple months but had been so busy I'd forgotten I'd written.

The idea factory was still open. It just wasn't getting credit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Post: Great and Terrible - 8 under-used, seriously scary monsters


Today I'm proud to present a guest post from author Tam MacNeil, who's just launched her paranormal thriller Salt and Iron. It's about the youngest member of a monster hunter family trying to make his way in the world - while the world is crawling after him, looking for a bite. To commemorate to the book, Tam wants to introduce us to some of her favorite monsters that you've probably never seen in a novel or movie before.

Monsters are one of my favourite things. Like pantheonic gods they often represent some aspect of human life - fear of mortality, personification of tragedy, unutterable pain, or mental illness. They are expressions of the uncertainty of human existence, which makes them familiar, and that is part of what makes them so proudly horrible. -Tam MacNeil

Gashadokuro - Japanese

One of my old Greek History professors once told me, “History is a body count,” and she was right. Anywhere you’re standing, odds are good somebody’s spilt somebody else’s blood, either through murder or neglect. Well, in Japan there seems to be some social anxiety about that, because Japan has the gashadokuro, the colossal ghost-skeleton.

Usually to be found stalking the unwary traveller with a broken-down car or hurrying home through the countryside at night, gashadokuro are voracious ghosts made up of the bones of those who died violently or of starvation. "Ravenous" is an inadequate little word for these colossal creatures, which are said to devour anyone found on the road at night.

Since they’re said to be invisible, the only way to know if there’s a gashadokuro in your vicinity is by a sudden ringing in your ears. What do you do when your ears start to ring? Run. And hope you’re running away from the monster.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Great Things I Read in February



February is one of those months when I'm grateful to do lists like this. I've been so busy with healthcare problems and editing that, until I checked the list, I thought I hadn't read anything special. Life can get so busy that it's easy to forget all the great art that flies by.

As usual, I'm collecting great short fiction and non-fiction that's free to read on the web.

Fiction
"Between Dragons and Their Wrath" by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky at Clarkesworld
-No short story has haunted me more in the last month than this. The dragons are a metaphysical terror, casting a shadow of mutations across the landscape of two absolutely lovely characters. With scenes whipping by, each has a punch, even in the last line.

"43 Responses to In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nato" by Barbara Barnett at Daily Science Fiction - I love stories that creatively use unusual real world formats, and here's a story told through a Comments thread. It's a bunch of believers who might be experiencing a haunting, since one of their dead friends seems to have shown up and is poking at their insecurities. It can't help but be funny and creepy at the same time, which is hard to pull off, especially with such limitations. Masterful work.

"Lotus Face and the Fox" by Nghi Vo at Uncanny Magazine
-Two god-masked figures pull off a little robbery in the dead of night, and it keeps up its creative enthusiasm from there. It feels flash-length despite being longer because of energetic pacing and a lovely handling of its world.

"Ars Longa, Amor Brevis" by David Twiddy at The Sockdolager
-Two pretentious master-artists bicker over their accounts of a calamity that their magical arts *may* have brought about. A fine use of homunculi! I actually beta read this story, but it's only grown stronger since the version I saw in 2015.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Bathroom Monologues Movie Awards 2015

It's almost March 2016, so of course we're all talking about the best movies of 2015. If all the griping on Twitter is any indication, I'm once again happy to have skipped the Academy Awards. Naturally I disagree with some of the winners. More naturally, I don't understand what some of the categories mean. But nothing shall dissuade me from telling a sizable democratic body of people who devote swaths of their lives to film that their mass conclusions were wrong. Here we go.


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