“Shard of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson:
That day, my mother picked me up from school, wearing the yellow sundress and shawl I remembered from our trip with Father the year before. She looked just like she did most days back then—a glamour queen, a movie star (“Just like Lena Horne,” my friend Chloe had once said, “only darker—oh, sorry, Leah!”), but today her beauty somehow had a harder, more defiant edge to it. I could smell the expensive Dior perfume as soon as I opened the door, which surprised me, because my mom was usually fastidious about not getting perfume on her clothes. She was wearing her bug glasses—huge dark things with lenses that bulged out like fly eyes and reflected my face like a fun-house mirror. She had tied a yellow silk scarf around her hair and was taking deep pulls on a cigarette held between two immaculately manicured fingers. Only I knew about the nicotine stains she carefully covered with her special order “forest sable” cream each morning.
Tiffany, a stupid but vicious senator’s daughter who I had the misfortune of sharing a classroom with, suddenly dashed from inside the school, her face flushed.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilson,” she called. Before my mother could respond, she giggled and ran back to three of her friends waiting beyond the door. I could hear them laughing, but I was glad I couldn’t understand their words. They were all fascinated with my mother—the black housekeeper who dressed like Katharine Hepburn and drove a Cadillac, whose daughter’s “light toffee” skin indicated that she might just like her coffee with a lot of cream.
Sometimes I hated those girls.
“Get in the car, Leah,” my mother said. Her already husky voice was pitched low, as though she’d been crying. That made me nervous. Why was she here?
“Ma, Chloe was going to show me her dad’s new camera. Can’t I go home on the bus?”
My mom pulled on the cigarette until it burned the filter, and then ground it into the car ashtray—already filled with forty or so butts. She always emptied out the ashtray each evening.
“Get in the car, Leah.” My mom’s voice was even huskier as she lit another cigarette and tossed the match out of the window.
I sat down and shut the door.
We rode in silence for a while. Despite her shaking hands and the rapidly dwindling box of cigarettes, she drove meticulously, even coming to a full stop at the stop signs. She never stopped at stop signs.
“Ma . . . is something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.
Her fingers tightened on the wheel until her knuckles looked even paler than my skin. “We’re going on a trip, Leah,” she said finally, jamming on the brakes at a stop sign.
“Remembrance Is Something Like a House” by Will Ludwigsen:
Every day for three decades, the abandoned house strains against its galling anchors, hoping to pull free. It has waited thirty years for its pipes and pilings to finally decay so it can leave for Florida to find the Macek family.
Nobody in its Milford neighborhood will likely miss the house or even notice its absence; it has hidden for decades behind overgrown bushes, weeds, and legends. When they talk about the house at all, the neighbors whisper about the child killer who lived there long ago with his family: a wife and five children who never knew their father kept his rotting playmate in the crawlspace until the police came.
The house, however, knows the truth and wants to confess it, even if it has to crawl eight hundred miles.
“Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh:
I wake at night sometimes now, thinking someone is in my house. Abby sleeps on the other side of the bed, and Hudson sleeps on the floor. Where I live it is brutally dark at night, unless there’s a moon—no one wastes power on lights at night. My house is small, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a family room. I lean over and shake Hudson on the floor, wake him up. “Who’s here?” I whisper. Abby sits up, but neither of them hears anything. They pad down the hall with me into the dark front room, and I peer through the window into the shadowy back lot. I wait for them to bark.
Many a night, I don’t go back to sleep.
But the man at my door this morning weeds my garden and accepts my bowl of soup and some flour tortillas. He thanks me gravely. He picks up his phone, charging off my system, and shows me a photo of a woman and a child. “My wife and baby,” he says. I nod. I don’t particularly want to know about his wife and baby, but I can’t be rude.
I finish assembling the doll I am working on. I’ve painted her, assembled all the parts, and hand rooted all her hair. She is rather cuter than I like. Customers can mix and match parts off of my website—this face with the eye color of their choice, hands curled one way or another. A mix-and-match doll costs about what the migrant will make in two weeks. A few customers want custom dolls and send images to match. Add a zero to the cost.
I am dressing the doll when Abby leaps up, happily roo-rooing. I start, standing, and drop the doll dangling in my hand by one unshod foot.
It hits the floor head first with a thump, and the man gasps in horror.
“It’s a doll,” I say.
Before Eugie Foster was taken from us last year, she gave the world hundreds of short stories. We are lucky that she was so prolific, and it’s our loss she died so young when she could have written so many more.
I’ll take the opportunity while I’m linking this story to link to a few others. “Beautiful Winter,” a retelling that appeared in last year’s IGMS sampler, has the very beautiful imagery I associate with her writing. Retellings were often her ouvre. “The Tanuki-Kettle,” a folk-tale-style story set in Japan, was one of my first acquisitions for PodCastle for its warmth and humor. Finally, for those who didn’t see it last year, one of her stories was posthumously nominated for the Nebula Award, and particularly wrenching in context — “When It Ends, He Catches Her.”
Eugie and I were part of the same “Nebula class” (which is only something I call it in my mind, it’s not a real thing). We were both nominated for the first time in the same year and in the same category, and we got to know each other and a bunch of the other first time nominees at the convention that year.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest” won that Nebula Award. Its mix of high concept and colorful images that disarmed readers.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster:
Each morning is a decision. Should I put on the brown mask or the blue? Should I be a tradesman or an assassin today?
Whatever the queen demands, of course, I am. But so often she ignores me, and I am left to figure out for myself who to be.
Dozens upon dozens of faces to choose from.
1. Marigold is for murder.
The yellow mask draws me, the one made from the pelt of a mute animal with neither fangs nor claws—better for the workers to collect its skin. It can only glare at its keepers through the wires of its cage, and when the knives cut and the harvesters rip away its skin, no one is troubled by its screams.
I tie the tawny ribbons under my chin. The mask is so light, almost weightless. But when I inhale, a charnel stench redolent of outhouses, opened intestines, and dried blood floods my nose.
Ted Chiang, as they say, needs no introduction — if you follow the contemporary science fiction and fantasy short story scene. In case you don’t, Chiang is a powerhouse, not only one of the masters of the short form, but also someone whose work can always be relied on to be strong. Is some better than others? Sure. But it all shows his characteristic attention to detail and deep consideration and analysis.
My favorite of his is actually “The Short Story of Your Life and Others,” but alas, it’s not online. Instead I give you this one, to which it was my honor to lose the Hugo.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang:
Ana’s half expecting to see a fantastical landscape when the window refreshes, but instead her avatar shows up in what looks at first glance to be a daycare center. On second glance, it looks like a scene from a children’s book: there’s a little anthropomorphic tiger cub sliding colored beads along a frame of wires; a panda bear examining a toy car; a cartoon version of a chimpanzee rolling a foam rubber ball.
The onscreen annotations identify them as digients, digital organisms that live in environments like Data Earth, but they don’t look like any that Ana’s seen before. These aren’t the idealized pets marketed to people who can’t commit to a real animal; they lack the picture-perfect cuteness, and their movements are too awkward.
Keffy Kehrli is a too-often-overlooked writer. This is my favorite of his short stories.
My parents raised me on a diet of jazz, big bands, musicals, and classical music. I’ve never spent much time listening to more recent popular music. “This Is a Ghost Story” is about Kurt Cobain — but even for me, who has no connection to the source material, it was still intense and affecting.
(By the by, if you like listening to short stories, you might be interested in Keffy Kehrli’s LGBTQ podcast, Glittership.)
“This Is a Ghost Story” by Keffy Kerhli
On a muted television:
He smirks like he’s found the way out of an impossible maze, like he hasn’t a care in the world. Except that if you look in his eyes, you’ll see the breadcrumbs leading right back to the labyrinth. You’ll feel a memory of unrelenting stone walls and know that it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling, being held. Suffocating.
Turn up the sound too late for the question.
He runs cigarette–stained fingers over the stubble on his chin and leans on the arm of the leather couch. He crosses his legs, skinny jeans worn and ragged. He’s still wearing old Chucks with the tread half–gone, even though he could buy a thousand new pairs. He doesn’t wear the Mister Rogers sweaters anymore. Sometimes he still wears dresses for the fuck of it, but today he’s wearing a white t–shirt that looks like his kid doodled on it with four colors of Sharpie. A bloodied stick man holds a shotgun.
He licks his lips, and he doesn’t look at the camera, or at the floor, or at the interviewer’s face. He’s focused on the space between, like it’s a gulf or a fence or a wall. He says, “Yeah, it was pretty rough for a while, you know. I kept saying things were getting better, but really they weren’t. Eventually it was clean up or die, so…
“I started thinking about doing music for other shit, not because I needed the money, but to fuck with people. Then I thought maybe I’d do a Disney soundtrack, but it’d probably end up like in Fight Club where the guy’s splicing porn into kid movies.”
Then the interviewer asks about his kid, and he grins. “She’s great,” he says. “I know that’s not very ‘punk rock’ of me, but whatever.”
What are you looking at? This interview never fucking happened.
It’s the last day of my Making Lemons into Jokes campaign! Thanks to absolutely everyone who has contributed, supported, signal boosted, chuckled, and etc. And there’s still a little time to chip in! There are three stretch goals left —
$850 – A satirical essay by Greg Machlin on the topic of how I, personally, destroyed science fiction.
$900 – I’ll write a silly story based on a prompt that John Hodgman gave SFWAns at this year’s Nebula banquet.
$950 – I’ll write a silly story based on all three of his prompts.
$1000 – I’ll hire a professional to make the whole bundle into something pretty.
It would be nice to hit the last one; I could probably use the help. 😉
I’ve written a bunch about the harassment and the campaign this month. On Ann Leckie’s blog, I talked about why the common advice to ignore trolls isn’t enough. On Mary Robinette Kowal’s, I wrote about some of the threads of oppression that make solidarity personally important to me. On Jim Hines’, I wrote about coping with harassment as a vulnerable person.
Today, I wanted to write a little about the places where the light is increasing.
When I started selling my writing in 2005, if I wrote a story with queer characters, I had to think about where I could send it. Not all markets would publish things that pushed those boundaries. Even editors who had no problem with queer content might have to deal with things like school library distribution, where some librarians (more than do today) believed that “gay” = “sex” = “inappropriate for children.”
These days? I don’t even think about it.
These days, when a young trans writer asks me whether there are people with non-normative genders in the industry, I have instant access to an array of publicly known names like my former student, An Owomoyela, one of the fiction editors of the Hugo-winning Strange Horizons, Keffy Kehrli, a brilliant writer who is also running his own queer-themed podcast, and Charlie Jane Anders, whose beautiful writing has been acknowledged with well-earned awards.
In 2005, a venerated old, male writer grabbed a woman’s breast without her permission, on stage, in front of thousands. The science fiction community was befuddled, tripped over its own feet in confusion, and nothing decisive proceeded.
Now large numbers of pro writers have signed pledges not to attend conventions without harassment policies. Activists like Elise Mathesen, Genevieve Valentine, and Rose Fox, among so, so many others, have stood up to make those policies mean something.
And yet more activists, like Mary Robinette Kowal, Michael and Lynne Thomas, and Mari Ness, have come up with a similar pledge about accessibility policies, to try to extend that energy and protection to disabled congoers.
In 2008, fans of color stood up to be counted, because people didn’t even really believe they were there.
I think most white people know better now. It’s been a long time since I saw someone suggest everyone who said they were brown was a sock puppet.
When I came into the field, I knew a little about post-colonial and Indian diasporic science fiction because of my anthropology classes, and I’d been reading some Japanese fiction in translation. But it’s only been in the past several years — thanks to the efforts of American translators like Ken Liu, and international critics and writers like Charles Tan and Lavie Tidhar — that non-anglophone speculative fiction is being widely read and heard in the United States, leading to the recognition of powerful, non-Western writers like Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang.
Every single moment of progress has had its backlash, of course. When Nora Jemisin came to deserved prominence as one of this century’s most important, emerging voices, jealous graspers harassed her, to try to put her back in her “place.” Elise Mathesen and Genevieve Valentine are still subjected to victim blaming.
But they made a difference. They’re still making a difference.
If my post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog was about why people still need to stand together, then this post is the light side of that. When we push hard, and when we bear the costs of pushing, we can make progress. We have.
RS: I’ve been reading your Raadchai stories for eleven years now (Yeah, eleven years. Let that sink in.) and I know the gloves and tea were in them by the time I started reading. Were they part of the initial germ of the Raadch, or if not, how did they evolve?
They weren’t part of the initial germ, but they got into the mix pretty soon after that. And I’m not sure where they came from or why they stuck–it just kind of worked for me somehow.
Which is how a lot of things are when I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll see someone say, like, “Oh, and this detail here, this is obviously Leckie doing this profound intentional thematic thing” and I’m like, no, actually, it was shiny, or else it made the story work the way I wanted it to, but I am not going to speak up and spoil the impression that I was actually doing this very sophisticated thing!
RS: Tell everyone the story of the tea Vonda.
So, Clarion West has a party every Friday night of the workshop. And I turned up to the first one and I walk in (actually into the front yard of the house where it was) not knowing anybody, and this woman comes up with a plastic bag full of yarn and says, “Here, I make these for the students every year. Take one.” So what they are is these crocheted…objects. Our class mostly called them “scrunchies” or “scrunchy things.” If you were to crochet a couple chains and then join them to make a small loop, and then do a dozen or so double crochets in the loop and join the first and last ones to make a flat circle, and then every round after that make two double crochets in every double crochet, after a few rounds you’d have a scrunchy thing. Mine was mostly a sportweight yarn that was white with a strand of what looked like silver tinsel in it, and then it was edged with a round of single crochets in red.
Anyway, so I picked my red and silver and white scrunchy thing and I thanked the nice lady and she went off to give one to another student and someone leaned over and said to me, very quietly, “That was Vonda McIntyre,” and I nearly fell over. Vonda McIntyre! Gave me a scrunchy thing she had crocheted herself! I put it on my desk in my room where the workshop was.
And so then, while I was working on the story that eventually became “Night’s Slow Poison” I needed a creature. Building creatures can take quite a while if you take your worldbuilding seriously, which I generally do. But I needed something fast, and I looked up and there was my scrunchy thing. “Right,” I said, “you’re my creature. What to call you?” And thus the tea Vonda was born.
RS: Do you have a picture of your tea Vonda?
I don’t! I know it’s in my office somewhere, I ran across it the last time I cleaned the whole office, but Mithras only knows where it is now. Probably under a huge pile of beads and yarn.
RS: I do not have a picture of my tea Vonda. Maybe I’ll find it when we clean our office.
Hahaha clean the office. The very idea. I don’t know about yours, but that would be a big project here in my office.
RS: I love your fantasy world in which gods must always speak the truth, and suffer penalties when they lie. Can you describe it more fully and talk about how you came up with it?
I actually designed that world for “The God of Au” and then found that I could use it for other things.
I did a lot of reading on various topics, and ended up fascinated with the very…I guess I’ll say “contractual” nature of some pagan Roman religious practices. Like, you’d make an offering and you would be careful to describe the terms of your offering very specifically so there was no misunderstanding. “I give you the wine I pour out on the ground” rather than “I give you this wine” which could, if you squinted, mean all the wine in the amphora, or from the harvest, right? Or when praying to a god or asking them for something, they’re sometimes very careful about names and identities. If you clearly needed to propitiate *some* god (there’s a plague, or a string of misfortunes, or some ill-omened event but there’s no information about which god might be the one to go to) you’d make an offering to something like “the god who’s concerned in this, whether they’re male or female or neither, by whatever name they answer to” (that’s a very loose paraphrase, not an actual quote of any inscription). In fact, such a dedication occurs in “The God of Au.” Or, like, there were certain ceremonies that had to go off as specified, and if there was one detail wrong they had to start over from the beginning, because the deal was it had to happen a particular way. So if, say, it was a procession during which the officiating priest couldn’t be contaminated by seeing something–let’s say a dog–during the procession, well, instead of having to start over every time a stray dog turned up, they’d put blinders on the priest in the procession so even if the dog was there, he wouldn’t, you know, see it.
I found that really interesting, in part because of the way it implied the assumption of the very real presence of gods, and the potential for a very direct relationship between people and gods, and for gods’ very direct actions on the world, in a way that makes perfect logical sense if in fact gods exist and they consider themselves bound by contracts in that way. It was a small step from there to “gods are bound by their own words.”
Which is essentially the premise of the universe–not much different from the world we live in at all, but for this one thing–multiple gods exist, and their power comes from the fact that whatever they say is true–even if it wasn’t before they said it. Of course, a world that has such beings in it is going to be very different from ours, even if everything else is basically the same.
RS: Have you considered writing a fantasy novel? Do you have an idea for it?
I have! I have some faint scratchings of an idea. It would take work to develop those into an actual novel, but I would really like to do it some time.
RS: What is the best kind of tea?
The kind that tastes good to you! Right now I’m enjoying different oolongs, but there aren’t many kinds of tea that I just don’t like. Well, I’m not a rooibos fan. (Well, let me amend that, I’ve got a green rooibos blend that I was given as a gift and I like that one a lot. But generally, not a rooibos fan.)
RS: For the past several years, you’ve been making spectacularly gorgeous woven bead jewelry. Can you describe a couple of your favorite projects? Pictures please!
Oh, wow. I’m not sure I’d say “spectacularly gorgeous,” but. I’ve got a few necklaces I’m very proud of, and I got into doing pins for a while (for maybe obvious reasons), which are nice because they’re small and finish quickly. Beadweaving can take such a long time! I’ve got a freeform peyote necklace that’s been in progress for a couple of years, sheesh, I really do need to finish it.
I’ve posted pics of some of the pins on my tumblr:
I’m kind of proud of that one, though it’s mostly bead embroidery and polymer clay. The cuneiform allegedly says “the goddess Innana.” I know “the goddess” part is right, that’s that star-looking thing on the left, it’s the determinative for gods. (alone it can also mean “star” or “sky” and you now have almost the entire extent of my knowledge of Sumerian.)
These are just kind of playing around. In colors I hardly ever use, actually, but I walked into the bead store last winter and was so tired of gray, and they’d put a bunch of beads those colors up front and I was like ‘I need the bright colors!”
There are more, and I did bunches and bunches of little triangles. I did the necklace in my author photo! And also the necklace and purse I wore for the 2014 Nebulas and Hugos! I’m not sure I have pictures of all of them, though.
RS: New fans may or may not know you as someone who was the assistant/associate editor at PodCastle for several years, and the founder and editor of Giganotosaurus Magazine. What do you get out of editing? Do you see yourself taking up another editing project?
Maybe! I enjoy editing, but it does take up a very similar part of my energy as writing does, which is why I handed off the editing of GigaNotoSaurus to Rashida Smith (who is doing a fabulous job).
Part of what I’ve learned from editing is how to look at something that isn’t working for me and think of effective ways to fix it. I wasn’t doing the fixing myself, but I think I got better as time went on at identifying things and coming up with workable suggestions for the writer. And of course, sometimes the writer’s reply would be “No, actually, I think this other thing will work better” and it would! That was something I felt I could bring back to my own work, that would make it better.
Also, honestly, it is genuinely fun to buy stories, to say “Yes, give me the story I want to publish it!” And then even more fun to have it go out into the world and maybe see people read it or talk about it. Most of the credit goes to the writer, and rightly so, but there’s just something…I don’t know, parental? about publishing stories.
RS: Should dinosaurs have guns?
Yes. Yes they should. Especially if their technology has gotten to the point that they’re mounting expeditions to Mars.
RS: What is your least favorite way to end an interview?
I..don’t know? I don’t think I’ve had an interview end badly. 😀
I’m a big fan of science fiction that takes vivid, strange images into the future. I think, actually, I always have — and if you look at a lot of classic SF, that’s what it’s doing. That’s obvious when reading someone like Stanislaw Lem, but I think it’s still true about folks who we consider more traditional now. It’s just that some of the weird images they used have been carried on in the conversation so far now that they’ve become standard, and have lost their newness. Stories like this, and space opera by people like Yoon Ha Lee, bring a contemporary disjunctive strangeness to the genre. I look forward to seeing what happens when the next generation gets bored with it.
If you like odd surrealism and lyrical writing, Maria Dahvana Headley is worth perusing.
“The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headley:
By your first anniversary, the world’s stopped making paper, and so you can’t give 3your boyfriend the traditional gift. You never would have anyway, regardless of circumstances. You’re not that kind of girl. You pride yourself on your original sin. It’s the hot you trade in.
So you give him the piece of your skin just beneath your ribcage on the right side, where the floating ribs bend in. It’s a good part. Not the best. You’re like a food hoarder who pretends her larder’s empty, all the while running her finger along the dusty ledge that leads to the trick shelves that hold the jars of Caspian caviar. You’ve always been the kind of liar who leans back and lets boys fall into you while you see if you can make them fall all the way out the other side. You want them to feel like they’ve hit Narnia. You traffic in interdimensional fucking, during which they transcend space and time, and you go nowhere. When they fall in love, you Shun & Break™ them. Their poor plastic hearts are Pez dispensers topped with copyright violation Mickey Mice.
Your boy’s not falling for this shit. He simply refuses. He sees through your methods. You met him in a bar on the night of the first apocalypse, just prior, and both of you somehow lived through the night.
He clocked you from moment one, when you bought him a drink and brought it to him, fresh lipstick on your mouth, altering your walk to cause him pain. He drank it. He then took the cherry out of yours and drank your drink too, looking at you the whole time like he was a prime transgressor who was going to rock your world until it broke.
“You gonna try to make me love you now?” he asked. “That your thing?”
“Brother,” you said, taken aback by the way he’d just needlessly whacked the rules of flirtation, “I don’t even know you exist.”
Five days left in May, and five days left until the end of the “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” fundraiser.
Thanks so much to Jim Hines for hosting me at his place today! I talked a little bit about how to be an individual coping with harassment when you’re someone who’s vulnerable.
As of yesterday, we’ve reached $700, and the audio book stretch goal!! Unicorn glitter!!
Just a bit more to reach $800, and original cover art from Barry Deutsch!