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.

"Project Earth is leaving beta" by J.W. Alden at Nature
-A full flash story about our wonderful planet and all the bugs that went into programming it. We've all joked about patch notes for the universe (I even have a Bathroom Monologue about it), but Alden pulls it together with the accessible form of a videogame patch notes list. It's set apart by some particularly clever patches, like the fix for Dreams.

"The First Snow of Winter" by Caroline Yoachim at Daily Science Fiction
-An exemplary piece of flash following the misadventures of a generation ship that picked a colder landing place than its cargo had anticipated. Instead of beautiful spring, they're out in the tundra. The adults are facing certain catastrophe, and their children are facing the first snowball fight in the planet's history. Where those two fates convene is one heck of an ending.

"They Said The Desert" by A.T. Greenblatt at Beneath Ceaseless Skies
-There is so much to love about this one, even in the opening paragraphs of each scene, which blend fabulism with profane flippancy. Here is a desert where ghosts may roam eternal, and the laws of physics have bent, narrowing or expanding it with time distortions. Here also are people who are tired of this shit, aiming guns at power converters and illusions, just trying to survive the heat and superstitions. Jade has to make it across this blasted place, and she's followed by a particular ghost. It's far from a traditional Horror haunting.


"China Says Please Stop Hiring Funeral Strippers" by Te-Ping Chen and Josh Chin at the Wall Street Journal
-It might be crass, but this should be an inspiration to worldbuilding. Most Americans' stereotypes of modern China don't allow for something like a class of people who hire exotic dancers to attract "more mourners" to come to funerals. It's fascinating beyond the idea that the national government would step in to try to keep a social practice more respectable, and that people found such unusual means to advertise the dead. When I see items like this, it reminds me to keep worldbuilding diverse, because values are never universally followed. If you're going to make up events in a made-up culture, it should be as interesting as the stuff that happens in our real world.

"Seeing Isn't Required to Gesture Like a Native Speaker" at the Association for Psychological Science
-We all gesture and emote as we talk. As writers, we struggle to compensate on the page for how people use the language out loud. Here's a study suggesting gesturing even more inexorable than we thought: people who have been blind since birth, and have never seen gesturing, still gesture like sighted people. More specifically: they gesture like the people they've been talking to, picking up the gesticulation equivalent of accents. Gesturing has regional habits we pick up on, even if we don't think we see them.

"Who Will Debunk the Debunkers?" by Daniel Engber at FiveThirtyEight
-As long as I've been skeptical, I've been skeptical of skeptics. I was a shitty teenager who would disbelieve anything popular based on the first bit of contrary evidence. But the contrarian mindset often leads to an end of consideration - disbelief that might be useful calcifies into its own form of belief, self-selecting only the data that supports it. The article goes into the history of bad debunking, and popularizing "contrary" points of view that wind up false, like spinach not having much iron, or vaccines leading to autism. These are scientifically demonstrated falsehoods that are difficult to pry out of the minds of adherents. It gets harder when the believer is an educated skeptic, intellectually susceptible to what the article calls "supermyths," complex beliefs designed by academics that run counter to base thinking. Why? Because "smart" routinely look down on normal people's ways of thinking, and are quicker to believe what sounds like it comes from their group's ways. It's one of the dangers of in-group thinking, because anything popular can be patterned to cloud the minds of the very group you're trying to serve. The article is a disturbing exercise in self-doubt.

"What Happens When 20 Christians Pastors Visit a Mosque for the First Time? This." by Ben Irwin at the Preemptive Love Coalition
-Not a cheap Buzzfeed listicle, but the account of twenty pastors who wanted to better know what the Muslims in their area went through. More robust than typical open-faith dialogues, they were exposed to the heavy scrutiny that leads to senses of cultural isolation. One hopes it's the start of something. Waging peace is harder than it should be.

"I am a 5-Time Spinal Surgery Survivor for Scoliosis and a Newly Published Author! AMA!" AMA with Kathleen Sawisky at r/IAmA
-The whole AMA (Ask Me Anything, an informal Reddit interview tradition) is worth reading. I'm highlighting this answer on how to best treat friends and family who've undergone major surgery, Sawisky has had fine major spinal surgeries and speaks from horrible experience with how long after surgery that complications can still hit you, even just psychologically or chemically. What to do for a loved one in such a condition? Be patient, and pay attention to what is shifting in their lies.

A Comment on "Coke Has Suspended All Production in Venezuela" by mannyrmz123 on Reddit
Recently Coca Cola removed all production from Venezuela, which is odd because companies like Coke want to be absolutely everywhere. The government didn't actively force them out, and there was no major controversy or protest to spur it. So why did they go? Enter this Reddit comment, which does a better job of explaining Venezuelan history since Simon Bolivar than any formal article I've ever seen. It's awkward putting a Reddit comment on my recommended reading list, yet it's a brilliant essay on how Coca Cola feels out economic climates, and how the country has hit its darkest period. You'll notice several Venezuelans responding that it's the best history they've read.

"Five Signs Your Story Is Sexist - Against Men" by Chris Winkle at Mythcreants
-An insightful critique of some particularly garbage tropes of how men are depicted, from the lone male badass with no close relationships, to effeminate men almost only ever appearing as villains. The best entry is on how frequently male characters divided either into Winners or Losers, rather than with a robustness of ability and inability, and rounded value.


  1. The one about the pastors is interesting.
    Sexist against men - I bet someone has protested that book.

  2. Loved the hints to surviving fairy tales. And yes, peace is a whole lot harder than it should be. Sigh.


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