Aurealis #122, edited by Stephen Higgins, is an enjoyable instalment of Australia’s leading speculative fiction magazine.
This issue comprises three stories, an editorial, a bit of historical literary criticism, a short interview with Victoria Schwab, and a lengthy section of reviews—a substantial amount of content for the relatively low price.
Here, I’ll only be commenting, spoiler-free, on the fiction. My current approach is to past the contents into my bullet journal and use a coloured highlighter to assign my opinion of the story. Red highlight is a bad rating, no highlight is a readable one, while yellow indicates good and green indicates fantastic.
The three stories in #122 are all science fiction.
Getting Home by P.K. Torrens follows a homesick scientist studying a medical mystery concerning aliens on a planet of what is probably Proxima Centauri. Overshadowing her work is an unreasonable, to say the least, military commander. The mystery is intriguing, the viewpoint character a bit miserable but still engaging, and the stakes are involving enough to make it a compelling read. If I were to complain, it would be that the military commander is a little one-note. That said, not intolerably so or beyond the reasonable bounds of human character. I gave it a yellow highlight, but with green around the edges.
Serine by Shan Drury is a space opera. Seline and her pseudo-AI sidekick investigate a structure in orbit around an out-of-the-way planet. Likable characters and amusing dialogue make for an enjoyable read, and there is ample suspense and surprise from the investigation. This is another one that got the yellow highlight but tinged with green.
Tigers of Mars by Conor DiViesti involves a traumatized veteran of a future war undergoing an unconventional therapy while juggling guilt and altered relationships. It’s well-written and has thematic depth but, for some reason I can’t pinpoint, I didn’t engage with it. However, I still judge it worth a solid yellow highlight. Good, but not to my taste.
Prehistoric is a collection of thirteen science fiction short stories edited by SJ Larsson, themed around humans and dinosaurs coming into contact in generally bloody ways. Overall, it’s not a bad collection. I admit to a fondness for dinosaur stories, and there are some good ones, here.
People who aren’t prone to dinosaurs, military science fiction, or monster stories might find themselves struggling. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a greater variety of dinosaurs, as T-rex, various raptors, and ankylosaurs tend to repeat throughout. And some of the stories don’t do fantastic service to the inclusion or depiction of female characters, in my opinion (though some do).
My present system for quick-reviewing short story collections is to copy and paste the contents page into my bullet journal and use coloured highlighters on title and author to indicate my feelings about a particular story. Red is bad. No highlight stands for a story that’s readable, neither bad nor good. Yellow is good. Green is fantastic.
Using that system, Prehistoric earned no red or green from me. The tally stands at:
I view that as a ration justifying the purchase price.
The stand-out story of the collection is Alan Baxter’s Jeremiah’s Puzzle, which I won’t spoil but does have a T-rex action set-piece that would be splendid committed to film. (I’m thinking very natural Doctor Who adaptation.)
Also in the upper range of the good category:
Operation: Severn, William Meikle Extinction, Rich Restucci Closure, Tim Waggoner
Others getting the yellow highlighter of general goodness:
Apex, Jeff Brackett The First Man On Earth, Geoff Jones Lost Island, David Wood Mantle, Rick Chesler
As I say, the remaining stories were not at all bad. I count “readable” as praise of any story’s chief virtue rather than damning faint praise. For a between-Jurassic-Park-movies fix of human on dinosaur survival of the fittest clashes, Prehistoric fits the bill well
The first thing I read after deciding to put writing aside for a month of revivifying recreational reading was The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Thirteen, edited by Jonathan Strahan.
According to the introduction, this is the final volume in this anthology series. Colour me sad. This has been my favourite of the annual “best of” anthologies. I can and will follow Jonathan Strahan to his subsequent projects, but I’ll miss this one.
The anthology is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of 29 stories published during 2018 gathered into one volume. My tl:dr review would be: it’s excellent; read it.
My longer review won’t be too much more substantial. I didn’t have time to take mountains of notes and deliver a vast, sweeping report. I just transferred the contents list to my bullet journal and, as I read, I left a highlighted the title of a good story in yellow and a great story in green. If the story were just fine, but not that special, it stayed unhighlighted. No stories ended up warranting a possible red highlight for actual badness, happily.
How did the anthology go?
Technically, three of the stories I rated as “fine” left me cold. I didn’t finish them. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to red highlight them. They were clearly well-executed short stories. They weren’t “bad”—just not to my taste.
Even so, it seems to me that 69% of stories in a volume being good to great is a solid hit rate, and the rest were, I stress again, nevertheless overwhelmingly an enjoyable read. I’d account myself very satisfied, overall.
Naming names, I would say the outstanding fantasy story in the collection is Garth Nix’s The Staff in the Stone. It was a really engaging high fantasy that crammed an awful lot of what’s good about that genre into a small space.
The outstanding science fiction story, for me, was Simone Heller’s utterly brilliant When We Were Starless, which was brilliantly written, sad, and hopeful.
Special mention for transcending categories of goodness has to go to Ursula LeGuin’s short Earthsea story, Firelight—which was wonderful and sad for many reasons.
Other recipients of the green highlight of general greatness were:
Mother Tongues, S. Qiouyi Lu
The Woman Who Destroyed Us, S. L. Huang
A Brief and Fearful Star, Carmen Maria Machado
Field Biology of the Wee Fairies, Naomi Kritzer
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies, Alix E. Harrow
Okay, Glory, Elizabeth Bear
The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society, T. Kingfisher
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, Zen Cho
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth, Daryl Gregory
All of that said, I can only repeat my earlier summary that the anthology was a splendid year’s best, well worth the reading and your recreational dollar.
So, I’m writing a novel with fierce and determined intent. (Or with a healthy dose of fake it until you make it. Hopefully, that’ll add up to the same thing.)
Right now, I’m focused on pulling together data for my honours thesis, which means my writing efforts have been a) slow and b) dedicated to organising the novel as I would any other project. I’ve been reading up on novel writing to give myself some idea of how the process will (or should) differ from writing short fiction. I’ve also been looking at different software or online writing tools that might help.
Those I use, or plan to use, I’ll discuss here. I figure, a few mini-reviews of such toolbox items might be useful to others, and will certainly be useful to me when I (eventually) reflect on the process of having written the novel and compare my expectations for various tools and methods against actual outcomes.
This post, I’m going to discuss two sources of writing information that I’ve found very useful and return to often—Brandon Sanderson’s novel-writing lecture series on YouTube, and a fantastic book on writing by Patricia Wrede.
Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series
Brandon Sanderson is one of the leading lights of modern epic fantasy. His Mistborn series is the very exemplar of what I would like to write in terms of genre, style, length, and devotion to world-building. He’s also a writing machine—and if you don’t believe me, glance at his website, where the header features a graph of how close to completion his four concurrent projects are!
There are worse people to learn from!
Evidently, Brigham Young University agrees, as Sanderson lectures there on writing speculative fiction. While it’s difficult not to experience pangs of envy that there are university students learning their craft from Brandon Sanderson, it’s mollifying to know that an entire semester of these lessons has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube for the greedy eyes and ears of those of us not so blessed.
They can be found on the Camera Panda channel and it’s well worth subscribing and revisiting them often until you’ve learned all you can from them.
Each lecture covers different parts of the writing process, from ideas, through structure, outlining, and character development, to writing, editing, and the business of writing. Sanderson’s method for developing an idea is relatively simple but flexible, and explicitly seeks to find the original and cool in your novel-to-be. His discussion of the business is practical and rooted in his considerable experience as a bestselling novelist.
Conveniently, the information accompany each lecture lists the details of topics covered in that video, plus where in the run time those topics can be found.
Hand on heart, it is an astonishing resource for people wanting to write a novel.
Wrede on Writing, by Patricia C. Wrede
Patricia Wrede has written a good many enjoyable fantasy novels, but may be best known for her brilliantly entertaining YA fantasy series The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.
At the risk of hinting at my vast age, I first encountered Patricia Wrede on Usenet, where she frequently posted writing advice to the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition. Wrede staunchly defended the idea that there were no writing rules, only guidelines, and that the standard wasn’t whether something broke a “rule” but whether it worked. Then she would provide a host of different methodologies so those reading her advice could pick what worked for them. While Usenet has atrophied with the rise of social media, a good chunk of her advice from that time has made it into her book, Wrede on Writing.
The book is divided into sections, from the basics, through the “not so basics,” to expert guidance on the business side of things.
Every single chapter is a gem. However, I do have a favourite. Her discussion of viewpoint is a masterpiece of clarity, detailing every major form of viewpoint and how to use it. Each explanation is accompanied by a short scene which recounts the same characters experiencing the same event using that particular style of viewpoint. If there’s a more lucid and edifying description of viewpoint anywhere, I’ve never encountered it. If you’re still at the stage of wondering about viewpoint, or simply where you want or need a refresher sometimes, it’s worth the price of the book all by itself.
Of course, it’s also well-worth spending time on her blog, Six Impossible Things, which is similarly a fount of writing wisdom.
Honours has been gruelling in some respects. But having cleared the assessment decks enough to take a day off, figured I’d watch the new Wonder Woman. By posting a few thoughts about it here, I help mitigate the neglect of my blog that study has also fostered. Ha. (Though I also put them on Facebook, so apologies if you see them twice.)
Full disclosure: Wonder Woman is my favourite superhero and always has been. So I’ve been keen to see the movie but a little nervous about its execution. Well, it was great. I loved it. Gal Gadot owned the part. The World War I setting was inspired and used brilliantly. Seriously, the OTT CGIgasm climax needed 90% less CGI (hint: in a movie with the dangers of war in modernity as one of its themes, a middle-aged white guy in a suit is way more threatening than one more rehash of Sauron-in-Armour) and 25% more logic. But it wasn’t enough to ruin the movie… though more than enough, I think, to exclude it from Oscar consideration, as people debate that. Had the climax had the feel (and the ability to inspire feeling) that the No Man’s Land sequence had, maybe I’d be shouting for an Oscar nomination, but not as it is. Regardless, deeply pleased I watched it.
Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…
Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.
Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.
As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”
Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.
For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.
Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.
We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.
I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.
And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.
There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.
This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.
It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.
Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.
I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.
Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.
Alan Baxter’s anthology Crow Shine has recently been nominated for an Aurealis award for best collection, and when you read it it’s easy to see why. It’s a bloody good read, start to finish.
There are nineteen stories from the dark end of the speculative fiction genre, mostly horror, but with a smattering of weird and urban and dark fantasy. Character, time period, geographical setting, and supernatural element are richly varied, so no mid-anthology ennui here. Indeed, the collection starts well and only gets better as it proceeds.
For my money, the closest thing to a weak story is Punishment of the Sun, which, while engaging, I felt lacked clarity in its underlying events. But it’s still a pretty high low, and its surrounded by gems.
Tiny Lives is such a pristine and moving example of shorter short fiction that I read it several times to see what I could learn from it about writing. The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner is a brilliant eldritch pirate story, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a highlight. Darkest Shade of Grey is like a lost episode of Kolchak: the Night Stalker, but with extra added humanity. A Strong Urge to Fly is pure Tales of the Unexpected, with some beautiful, atmospheric prose in the descriptions of the town of Beston-on-Sea. The Old Magic is a moving story of longevity and power. Among these highs, the final story, The Darkness in Clara, in which a woman struggles to make sense of her partner’s death, still manages to stand out as exceptional. Again, moving and humane, with a point to be made about how we harm each other and ourselves.
Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was nominated for the Nebula award, and his Tor.com novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps picked up the 2016 Crawford award. You’d expect his newest novella from Tor.com to be pretty marvellous, and it is.
At first glance, A Taste of Honey is a fantasy story in which a young nobleman of Olurum finds first love with a Dalucan soldier, and pursues that love despite religions proscriptions against homosexuality and the violent disapproval of his family. Once the gods put in a brief appearance, and turn out to be transhumans rather than divinities, the genre shifts slightly to science fiction. And the story unfolds into a beautifully told examination of how our choices shape our lives.
The intense and risky love affair between Aqib and the foreign soldier Lucrio is skillfully handled. Tension arises from the Dalucan’s inability to fully understand the need for secrecy (coming, as he does, from a freer society) and from Aqib’s feverish, giddy surrender to first love leading him to take risks that he otherwise mightn’t. As the narrative shifts in time between younger and older Aqib, other kinds of love enter his life, and new perspectives on the romance emerge.
Wilson’s prose is lovely. His worldbuilding is relatively simple, but a novella doesn’t require the vast, sprawling world that a modern fantasy mega-tome might, and what is there is appealing. For me, the gods were a highlight—human but wonderfully strange and a little perilous in their casual power. The subplot concerning Aqib’s wife, the Blessed Femysade, makes plain how even the slightest touch of very great power can disrupt a life simply by opening up new choices.
The ending is surprising and satisfying, and you can’t ask much more than that. Highly recommended.
The iconic tripods rampaging across the cover tell you fairly succinctly that The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter is an authorised sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds. I’m normally indifferent to new authors revisiting old wells (pardon the pun). Moreover, The War of the Worlds is among the first science fiction novels I read and it so thoroughly blew my mind that I re-read it until my copy disintegrated. I expected to be disappointed by The Massacre of Mankind and I doubt that I’d have bought without Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover. As it turned out, I enjoyed Baxter’s sequel.
Briefly, the novel reports the events of the second Martian invasion of Earth thirteen years after the first. The narrator of Wells’s novel is reduced to a minor character named Oliver Jenkins, while the narrator of The Massacre of Mankind is his sister-in-law, the journalist Julie Elphinstone. When the Martians return, they have adapted their biology and technology based on their first experience with Earth and this time they have their sights set on the whole planet.
Baxter does an incredible job of building the post-Martian world as an alternate 1920s inflected by humanity’s first encounter with aliens and their efforts to adapt abandoned Martian technology. There are fun cultural details such as Charlie Chaplin’s being famous for his portrayal of a character based on Wells’s Artilleryman. And there are grim historical alterations such as World War I becoming Germany’s long solo war against Russia using Martian technology acquired from their increasingly militaristic allies, the British.
If the novel has a flaw, it would have to be pacing. The early part of the book moves quite slowly as it sets everything up. An exacerbating issue throughout the novel is its nature as journalistic memoir written after the fact by Miss Elphinstone so that even impactful scenes from which she’s absent are delivered as dry reportage.
But once the Martians put in appearance, the book becomes gripping. They’re portrayed as cunning and well-prepared conquerers and some of the set piece scenes of Martian attacks on cities around the world are marvellous—particularly, for me, Constantinople and Melbourne.
I suspect the ending will divide people, but I found it acceptable. In some respects, the ending isn’t the point. The point was to revisit for the twenty-first century Well’s critique of Imperialism—that just because you believe there’s a ladder of creation it doesn’t mean you’re standing on the top rung—and he does that skillfully.