An Interview with Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory CoverKaren Osborne was kind enough to drop by to talk about her debut novel, Architects of Memory, which is officially out today, and which my alerts inform me is on its way to my mailbox right now. I can’t wait! To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Karen’s author bio.

Karen Osborne is a Nebula finalist, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Fireside, Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for her work on a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.

Welcome, Karen, and congratulations on your novel! Without giving too much away, would you care to tell folks a bit about Architects of Memory?

I began Architects of Memory purely to rekindle my love of writing after months of hustling in the content generation mills after I lost my job back in 2015. The book quickly became serious and deliberate and terrifying and just plain fun to write, and I highly recommend that anyone struggling with writing a novel simply lean in and embrace all of the elements that make you feel thrilled as an artist, no matter how ordinary or how strange.

Architects is the story of Ash Jackson, a terminally ill, indentured salvage pilot putting her life back together after losing everything in the war with the inexplicable alien Vai. It’s not easy—her new company, Aurora, can never know she’s sick, or they’ll stop considering her a good investment and she’ll never see her new love, ship’s captain Kate Keller ever again.

When Ash finds an alien weapon in a dead starship near the war’s last battlefield, she and her crew stumble into, and I’m gonna quote from the logline so I don’t give away spoilers, “a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that threatens to turn Ash into a living weapon.”

So Architects draws all of the gorgeous tropes I’ve loved in space opera all my life—found families, truly alien aliens, complicated relationships, twisty wild macropolitics—as well as a bunch of questions I had surrounding how corporations and corporate-adjacent entities like nonprofits and megachurches might metastasize in the future. After all, Elon Musk has already intimated on Twitter that workers interested in going to Mars could pay their fare with work once they arrive…

It also centers on what I consider to be the important healthcare question of our time: what’s more important to a society, a person’s productive valuation to the economy or their intrinsic worth as a human being? When I started writing Architects of Memory, I never thought that we’d be having this conversation in our society on this kind of macro level. We’re all talking about “personal responsibility” to keep us safe because our public health system has completely broken down. We’re just going along with the abdication of the U.S. government’s public health responsibility like it’s normal. We’re putting immigrant workers and grocery workers at risk of death just so we can eat meat and paying them with lip service. Ours is absolutely a world that Ash Jackson and the Aurorans would recognize intimately, and I definitely wish it wasn’t.

In addition to your novel, you’re also a prolific short fiction author. You have a particular talent for creating rich, secondary worlds and stories that feel epic in scope within just a few thousand words. Would you ever consider writing epic fantasy at novel length? And on a related note, do you find it difficult to switch back and forth between science fiction and fantasy, or are you equally comfortable in both worlds?

I certainly plan to. Writing careers are slippery beasties at the best of times, and you never really know where you’re going to go next, but I do have a synopsis and outline ready to go for at least two epic fantasies when it becomes time to write them. One is the novel version of “The Two-Bullet War,” which was published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in mid-2019. I’m extremely excited to get my hands dirty with gunslingers, ancient mountain sorcery, democratic revolutions, and secret marriages. So there’ll be cars and telephones and guns, but also that epic feeling I know I certainly crave while reading fantasy.

I honestly can’t wait to do the worldbuilding. Most of my science fiction centers around stories that rely on the claustrophobia and physics of being in space—moon bases, tiny starships, shuttles and the like—which is a milieu I’m extremely comfortable writing in after focusing on it for so long. The Two-Bullet War will need me to build this wild, complicated, huge world, with a specific ecology, a complicated political system, and more characters than I’ve ever dealt with in a piece this long before.

I suppose it makes me a little nervous to switch, but I think writers always are, and should be, just a little scared of their next book. I think that fear is both healthy and helpful. I think it sharpens our abilities, keeps us on our toes, and makes everything just that much better.

I wanted to talk a bit about “The Bodice, the Hem, the Woman, Death”, which is one of my favorites among your stories. I love the idea of people carrying the souls of their ancestors around in their jewelry, and the way you use fashion to reveal aspects of the main character’s personality, and her relationship with her mother. Where did the seed for this story come from? Do you have any ties to the world of fashion that informed this piece?

Fewer ties and more baggage! I actually have a lot of baggage when it comes to fashion, and that’s exactly where the story came from. I was teased relentlessly for my looks in middle and high school and then spent most of my adult life in a plus-size body, working low-paying but wonderful journalism jobs where conservative dress was more than required. I didn’t think fashion had anything to say to me, which is definitely where the main character of “Bodice” also starts. There were years of my life where the only place I could get appropriate clothing was the clearance rack at that one expensive plus-size mall store, and in the early aughts, everything they sold made me looked like a walking baked potato.

My outlook completely changed once I started freelancing again in 2017, and I was no longer working with clients that needed me to be in business dress. Designers had finally gotten the message that plus-size women were human beings that didn’t want to look like potatoes or wear 1028384832 cold-shoulder tops. I started following Instagram personalities like Katie Sturino, began bleaching and dyeing my hair, and started buying the clothes I’d always wanted to wear when I was younger but could never find for my size—skull sweaters, long maroon dusters, chunky boots. I taught myself to sew, and that’s where I learned all that vocabulary for “Bodice.” And suddenly, with all of these new experiences under my belt, I had to ask the question: who was Karen Osborne if she was allowed to look awesome?

It sounds gauche and conceited and vain but finding out has made me more confident and happy. I’ve grown as a person and feel better in my own skin, and I didn’t have to stoop to self-hate or guilt or self-excoriation to do it. I’m not hiding in the corner anymore like society wants fat people to do. I’m taking selfies!

So that’s where this story comes from. It’s partially why Lia sews the travelling-dress for her mother: fashion is a cage for Lia, but it’s the way her mother, whose worldview is more limited, expresses herself and feels freedom. It’s only in respecting each other’s worldviews—Lia in making the terrible traveling-dress, and her mother in donning it—that they’re finally able to leave the house where they were both trapped. And, of course, their jewelry reflects their society and their journeys in very much the same way.

(I think I should mention here that shopping with my own mom is always a total blast.)

As for the souls in the jewelry, that one’s directly mapped. I own some pieces of jewelry from my maternal grandmother, who died when I was sixteen. I think of her every single time I pick them up. She was very special to me, and I wonder sometimes what she would say about how I turned out. So those pieces were the inspiration for the entire soul-economy in “Bodice,” which I hope I can write about again down the line.

You refer to yourself as a “visual storyteller”, which strikes me as accurate. You’re a photographer as well as an author, and your prose itself is very visual and evocative, almost cinematic at times. Do you see your work as a photographer and your work as an author informing each other, or are they different creative spheres in your brain? On top of all that, you’re also a musician. What role, if any, does music play in your writing and photography?

Karen Osborne Author HeadshotNice catch! I spent several years as a wedding videographer in Orlando, and it absolutely changed how I write. Modern wedding videography is the most exhilarating and exhausting thing I’ve ever done, and it basically requires you to be the director, lead camera, second camera, sound mixer, boom operator, and gaffer all at once, while never flubbing the first take—ever.

As a wedding videographer, you have to be omnipresent and omnipotent. You’re hypervigilant, hearing everything, watching everything, taping everything, knowing where the light is, knowing what the DJ or the presider is doing next, knowing where Uncle Joey is with his iPad so you don’t step on his toes, knowing which accessories the bride wants featured and which relatives were just invited so Aunt Patty stopped complaining and—you start noticing things you don’t notice in “real life,” and that absolutely trained my writing eye to notice the little details, too. Photography—especially news and portrait photography—is similar. It’s all about telling an entire story in one frame. You have to be both economical and incredibly creative all at once. Harnessing that aesthetic is a delightful challenge for a writer.

My relationship to music is similar. There’s a reason so many writers put on soundtracks before diving into their novels. Music is a language like English or Japanese or C++, and the more you pay attention to how to tell a story in lyrics and notes and orchestral swells, the easier you’ll find sentences and paragraphs. The structure of a novel is very much like the structure of a symphony, for example, and anyone who’s been to a folk festival has witnessed a master class in economical storytelling. I’ve spent most of my life playing the violin—when not in a pandemic, I fiddle with a ceilidh band—and music is a delightful warm place to return when things get tough.

Switching gears, you currently reside in the Baltimore area, a which seems to have a very active speculative fiction community. Do you think there’s something about the area that attracts speculative fiction writers and readers? What spots do you like to bring guests, or recommend to people visiting for the first time? Are there any particularly fantastical or weird spaces in the city that have inspired your fiction?

Baltimore is weird. It’s a great city. It’s the most American place I’ve ever lived, full of wonderful art and unbelievable contradictions and wild disparities and activism and people that care deeply about their communities. I haven’t actually written about Baltimore yet—I still feel, in many ways, like I have a lot to learn before I can, because the city is so complicated. Living here is more affordable than any of the other places I’ve been. I think artists, writers and musicians have a lot more room to breathe, to worry about art instead of rent, and it shows in all of the great stuff going on.
Because there’s art. So much art. One of the things that non-Baltimoreans don’t always know is that the city is covered in murals! There’s community theater of all kinds—tons of places to hear music, a rock opera society, an orchestra, a film district—and the support system for book culture continues to grow. There are tons of indie bookstores—The Ivy, Greedy Reads, Bird In Hand, Atomic Books, Red Emma’s, The Book Escape and more.

So I’d probably take a person new to Baltimore on a morning bookstore crawl, then stop by the Visionary Art Museum in the afternoon, which is a wonderful space dedicated entirely to self-taught and folk artists. For dinner, it’d be tapas at Clavel in Remington, followed by a jaunt across the street to WC Harlan, a candlelit speakeasy, or perhaps, chili fries at an Orioles game.

One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Being an event videographer is kind of like being a social engineer—we make wedding days look perfect, even if it wasn’t. You can really say that we’re—ha ha, and just so you know, I didn’t plan this phrase at all—the architect of the client’s memory. We remove familial discord and create familial bliss. We “forget” to tape the bouquets that aren’t perfect, and if you spend the day frowning or grumbling or annoyed, you’ll most likely get left out unless you’re on a client’s must-film list. I have removed unwanted family members, made unhappy brides look adorably nervous, chosen clips that make the groom look adorably hilarious rather than regrettably drunk, et cetera.

Since I’m a documentarian and not a director, I tend to stay unnoticed while filming. This allows the family to really be who they are, and for you to observe the way the family actually functions when they’re not performing for an audience. While editing, you spend hours with that family, watching them hug and laugh and celebrate and snipe at each other, and you really feel like you get to know them. It was a fabulous way to learn how people tick.

(You do need to be careful when delivering the project—despite the forty-odd hours you just spent editing the video, to our client you’re still just a stranger that showed up, said hello, then disappeared into the woodwork for the rest of the day. It’s such a weird dynamic. If you say things like “oh, my God, your Uncle Hugo has the most amazing drunk facial expressions,” you’ll sound like a complete psychopath, even if it’s 100% true.)

And yes, I’ve tried to weave that job into my written work! I wrote a wedding video horror story at Clarion, but I haven’t been able to move it out of tropey rejected territory into anything saleable. Someday I’ll figure out how to do it, when my abilities catch up with my ideas.

Now that Architects of Memory is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I’ve just turned in the sequel, Engines of Oblivion, and it’s a really wild adventure that builds on the events of the first book. There are more Vai, more Natalie Chan, more corporate shenanigans—well, more of everything, really, turned up to 11. The book should be out during the first quarter of next year and is currently available for pre-order, so you can basically get both books at once.

Other than that, I’d like to encourage readers to support debut authors during this time—and purchase their books from their local indie bookstores! It’s so important that our indies survive the pandemic, and they can only do that if we continue to support them.

Buy more books you say? I can totally get behind that. Thank you for stopping by!

Thank you very much for having me!

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Shiny Shorts: Monster Summer

October isn’t the exclusive domain of monsters. Maybe it’s because I just finished re-watching  Gravity Falls, with its perfect summer of monsters, but monsters and summer seem like they should go hand in hand. After all, sometimes the oppressive heat makes monsters of us all, and we need a reminder of the chill of autumn creeping in. While not all of these stories are shiver inducing – some are more tragic, while others speak of hope – they all explore different facets of classic monsters.

Fiyah 15 CoverThe Black Menagerie by Endria Isa Richardson in Fiyah Issue #15 features shape-changing creatures, but the true monster of the story is fear itself, and what happens when people try to control that which they don’t understand.

Alta has lived in San Francisco for a very long time, longer than a single human lifetime. Her house, which bears a plaque identifying it as The Black Menagerie, is filled with all manner of animals, just as her body is covered with tattoos of animals, which she calls her siblings. She has been called by many names over the years, including witch. Her specialty is fear, drawing it out of one body and into her own, cultivating and tending it. Depending on perspective, she might be tending that fear and taking it into herself to protect others, or she might be honing it to use as a weapon.

She is no stranger to what fear can do to a body. She knows how to pull fear from people, ride it out of them–because fear needs to be kept and her body can keep it better than ours–but it has always been a choice, a relationship. Rituals are followed; roles are acknowledged. A door or a window is left open, and thus she is invited to complete the haunt.

The story is beautifully-written, full of evocative language and imagery as it explores humanity’s relationship to fear. Do we view fear, or the object of our fear, as an enemy, something to be caged and kept at bay? Or do we view fear as a companion, a healthy emotion ultimately keeping us safe? Are we willing to learn to walk beside our fear, understand the thing that makes us afraid, and cultivate a respect for it, or do we ultimately let fear make us destructive towards ourselves and others? Alta’s role as a woman, and as a Black woman specifically, plays into this dual-sided exploration of fear. How she is perceived often depends on who is looking. Fear of the “other” and dehumanization of women and Black people are themes threaded through the story, with parallels drawn to animals and the way they are treated by humans throughout. Alta is self-possessed and comfortable in her own skin; it is those viewing her from the outside who are the problem. They are the ones who ultimately weaponize their own fear, seeking to turn it against Alta simply for being a confident Black woman. A thread of sexuality and desire runs through the story as well, tied to the idea of comfort in a body versus the attempt to control, possess, or shame women for their sexuality. What is monstrous is in the eye of the beholder, and like many of the best monster stories, “The Black Menagerie” holds up a mirror to show us that what and how we fear says more about ourselves than it does about the things that frighten us.

Baba Yaga and the Seven Hills by Kristina Ten in the July Issue of Lightspeed is also set in San Francisco, and sees the titular witch of Russian mythology coping with the modern world. After a life (or more) of feeling unappreciated, Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut takes off on its own, forcing her to go in search of it. Along the way, she finds herself contending with roommates for the first time in her life, and seeking the advice of modern day magicians.

Why San Francisco? Baba Yaga needs help—serious help, magical help—and she knows San Francisco to be a place of magic. The city built on seven hills. Vehicles that drive themselves. Eyeglasses that hold alternate universes. Buildings that stay standing when the ground beneath them splits in two. If anyone can help her, they will be in San Francisco.

In the course of her search, Baba Yaga learns that magic doesn’t always look like spellcraft. Sometimes it looks like community, and making sure those around you feel loved and are fed. Magic potions aren’t always brewed up in cauldrons, sometimes they are baked into pot brownies to serve as a peace offering, take the edge off anxiety, and ultimately bring people together. Marketing can be its own form of magic, as can technology, leading an old witch to consider new perspectives, including kindness to roommates, even and perhaps especially, if your roommate also happens to be your house.

It’s a charming story, and sticks mostly to the light side of things, though Baba Yaga does occasionally still find herself with a craving to eat children. Ultimately, it is a story about turning over a new leaf, learning to see things from another person, or house’s, point of view. San Francisco is lovingly described, making it a character in its own right, vibrant and full of life, and possessing its own unique brand of magic, the way certain cities do.

The Dark August 2020 CoverBobbie and Her Father by Gillian Daniels in August’s issue of The Dark gives off a distinct Frankenstein vibe. Bobbie is a young girl who we first meet sitting on the couch, watching TV, a normal enough activity, but from the start there is a sense of something off. Bobbie isn’t allowed to open the door to strangers, which is normal enough as well, but what isn’t normal is that Bobbie has never interacted with another human other than her father. Naturally, she’s curious, and when one of her father’s co-workers comes looking for her father, Bobbie can’t resist opening the door, the first step to her world coming disastrously undone.

He stitches her up with clear thread, as if one more scar on her face would somehow be painful to her. One less scar wouldn’t give her the ability to dance or go outside. It will just be another line on her skin when she looks in the mirror and brushes her hair before bed, alone for hours in the dark, pretending she sleeps the way he sleeps.

Add to the idea of Frankenstein’s monster the awkwardness of being a pre-teen girl, cut off the from the world, and therein lies the story’s true monstrosity. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, Bobbie is a created thing, born of her father’s hubris, and much like Frankenstein’s monster, she is ultimately an innocent, a victim of the circumstances of her creation. Bobbie is stronger than any human, constantly having to be aware of the dangers of her own strength. She is deeply lonely, and merely wants to be loved, and that is her tragic downfall. The story is by turns heartbreaking and frightening, and while it is not without its death and gore, at its heart, it is a story of monstrous loneliness rather than monstrous rage. At the end of the day, Bobbie is like any other child, trying to find her place in the world, wanting be liked and understood and to form a connection with another human being, proving she too deserves to be considered part of humanity.

Slipping the Leash by Dan Micklethwaite published by PodCastle is a unique take on a werewolf story, one that may or may not actually contain a werewolf at all. The story is short, hovering just around flash length, but it packs in a lot, including war-related PTSD and family trauma. Aloysius “Louie” Proctor only wants to play music, but he knows he shouldn’t. He supposed to be content with being a family man, working a job he hates, keeping his head down and staying away from devilish things like smoky clubs and hot jazz.

All of these rules, these enforced expectations, they bristle the hairs on the nape of his neck. They carry him back to patrols in the forest, with gunfire and mortars, and the bark of trees splintering close to his head. Ears always ringing. Nose always streaming with the cold and the fear. Teeth always chattering, chewing through cigarettes before they caught light. And he couldn’t re-spark the Zippo, because what about snipers? Couldn’t retreat or go AWOL, because what about Freedom and what about God? What about whatever his daddy would say?

But despite what he knows he’s “supposed” to do, music has its hooks in Louie, exerting a pull as sure as the moon. There’s a crackling energy and rhythm to the prose that evokes the music Louie so wants to play. Micklethwaite perfectly evokes the tug-of-war beneath Louie’s skin, desire versus duty, true self versus the person he’s been told he should be. Werewolf imagery is effectively employed here, giving the story a sense of urgency, a sense of something buried rising to the surface. Is Louie truly monstrous, or is he simply slipping out of his day-to-day skin for a few brief and glorious moments of freedom?

In tangentially-related news, with the return of Apex Magazine next year, my Words for Thought review column will be coming back as well. Hopefully, in the interim, you’ve enjoyed Shiny Shorts. The year isn’t done yet, and I may post one or two more columns here as the mood strikes me, and either way, I’ll be on twitter shouting about short fiction and hopefully helping people find new stories to love. Happy reading!

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No Man’s Land Review

No Man's Land CoverNo Man’s Land is a new novella from author A.J. Fitzwater, published in June by Paper Road Press. Set in North Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand during WWII, the story follows Dorothea “Tea” Gray, whose brother Robbie has gone off to war to be a sapper. Wanting to do her part, Tea joins the Land Service, and takes over Robbie’s former job shearing sheep and working on the MacGregor farm. Tea is joined by three other Land Service girls, Alison, Carmel, and Izzy, and a young man named Grant whose illness kept him from joining the service.

On the day she arrives at the farm, Tea is followed by a strange, shadowy dog, and her feeling of something odd going on only builds from there. Her senses are heightened, and she hears her brother’s voice in a way she becomes increasingly sure isn’t just her own inner monologue or wishful thinking. Grant and Izzy are secretive around her, as if they know more about Tea than she knows about herself. She hears a persistent hissing, like something calling to her, especially when she’s around water. She also experiences sensations, sights and sounds, she’s certain don’t belong to her, and might just belong to her brother Robbie on  distant continent in the midst of war. While trying to understand what’s happening to her, Tea still has to contend with daily life, the exhausting work of the farm, and not drawing the ire of Mr. MacGregor. Contrasted with the mundane world of the farm, hidden just beneath its surface, it seems there’s a whole other world waiting for Tea. Sometimes it seems as though there’s another being inside of her, one that frightens her, and that she can’t entirely control. Further complicating matters is Tea’s attraction to Izzy. All her life, Tea has been taught that a woman loving another woman, or a man loving another man is unnatural, not to mention illegal. Tea’s conflicted feelings strain her relationship with Izzy, who could be Tea’s closest ally, helping her understand the power within her, and her true magical nature.

A border collie, mostly black with a scattering of white on the bib and paws, yelped and skittered. Her shadow! It wasn’t male after all. The look the dog cast back at Tea made her shiver for a third time. The familiar-strange scent hit Tea, making her flinch. It was a scent she thought she’d only dreamed, one she associated with starlight, fresh-turned soil, warm cotton.

No Man’s Land is gorgeously-written, wrapped in beautiful cover art by Laya Rose Mutton-Rogers. Fitzwater has a real gift for prose and sensory description, which they deploy to great effect, creating a sense of breathless disorientation around the ebb and flow of nature, the magic within Tea, and the chaos of war. The language is the kind that snaps you up and gets you lost in the best of ways, but at the same time, the characters, especially Tea, keep the story grounded. We get snippets of Grant and Izzy’s perspectives as well, but for the most part, we’re in Tea’s head, right alongside her as she experiences frustration – from her mother unpacking all her practical clothes and filling her suitcase with clothing designed to help her catch a husband, to the way the men on the farm goad her and tease her and expect her to fail at “men’s work”, and her conflicted feelings about Izzy and the growing power she discovers within herself.

Need and desire are an underlying current in all of Tea’s thoughts and actions – not just physical desire, but the desire to be respected, taken seriously, and to do something that matters, especially when it comes to the war. With her brother so far away, Tea feels helpless, made worse by the fact that she feels trapped by the box of expectations placed around her as a woman. She wants to break out, forge her own way in the world, but at the same time, she’s afraid. All her life she’s been taught there’s a natural order to things – magic belongs in stories for children, and women are meant to be wives and mothers and nothing more. Even though Tea doesn’t truly believe either of those things deep down, she’s been conditioned to accept them. The war forms a backdrop, but the conflict in the novella is far more personal, as Tea wars with herself, and what she’s been taught to believe about the world versus the larger possibilities of who she is allowed to love, who she is allowed to be, and what she’s allowed to do with her life.

No Man’s Land brings to the forefront women’s history, and the kind of stories that often go untold in war narratives, shifting the focus from soldiers on the front line to those doing vital work back home. Farm labor is just as important to keeping the world turning, but history often overlooks jobs considered “menial” or “women’s work”. The novella also touches on queer history and rights, particularly in the epilogue taking place years after the war. Tea’s self-discovery is rooted in history and a personal journey, but soaked in the magic and wonder of the hidden world existing alongside ours. It’s a lovely book, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy right now.

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Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion CoverDominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora edited by Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald brings together an incredible group of authors, spinning tales of near-future science fiction, post-apocalyptic worlds, distant and mythic pasts, and more, imagining what might be, and what never was. The anthology officially comes out in August, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek.

As the title states, the common thread binding these stories is Africa and the African Diaspora, but the stories themselves range across the genres and sub-genres of speculative fiction, from horror, to fantasy, to science fiction, and everything in-between. A wide variety of voices and styles are on display here, and there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The editors assembled a strong collection, with several stories that were true standouts for me.

“Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila is a charming and touching story of a robot dog programmed with sentience by his former owner, who finds himself scooped up as salvage. With only the ghost of the old woman who was his former charge as his companion, he must plot his escape or risk being scrapped for parts. Red_Bati sees himself as a human trapped in a robot dog’s body, and at its heart, the story is a very human one as Red_Bati copes with feelings of obsolescence, abandonment, and searches for his place in the world.

Once his battery ran down, he would freeze and that would damage his e-m-data strips. Though these could be easily and cheaply replaced, he would lose all his data, all the codings that made him Red_Bati and not just another red basenji dog, all his records of Granny. He would die.

“A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore explores the idea of inherited memory, and the ethics of gene editing. The story touches on how easily history can be lost, especially Black history, by looking at whose stories get preserved and told, versus whose stories are forgotten because they’re merely “ordinary” people. Moore raises complicated questions about how science might be deployed to pass skills and knowledge from generation to generation, and how easily the ability to do so might be exploited and corrupted.

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city save for the occasional Category 5 hurricane. He has a sixth-grade education but he has always held some kind of paying job. However, if you ask him a question in German, he will answer you without hesitation in an accent reminiscent of the region around Heidleberg.

“Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies edges into horror territory, with an unsettling story of a son who finds himself drawn into the family business of grave-robbing and body harvesting, despite his best efforts to escape and make a life for himself elsewhere. When he sells pieces of a corpse from an unmarked grave, he finds himself haunted by the remains of his father, and he must confront his choices – his guilt over leaving, his decision to return, and his unwitting breaking of taboo.

There are mud tracks on the floor tiles that he didn’t notice before. They run from the door, but don’t end at Max’s feet at the entrance to the kitchenette. The TV’s light is insufficient, so Max squints to follow the tracks, which he notices are odd because while one is a complete footprint, the opposite foot has most of the sole with no trace of toes.

Davies effectively harnesses truly chilling imagery to ultimately tell a story about family, responsibility, and being caught between a sense of duty, and a desire to make one’s own way in life.

“The Satellite Charmer” by Mame Bougouma Diene feels epic in scope as it follows the transcendence and evolution of Ibrahima, who throughout his life has felt a strange connection to the mining satellite stripping and exploiting his people’s land. The writing is lovely, and the story’s structure itself mirrors Ibrahima’s journey, opening into something larger as the tale progresses, the language shifting to hold the reader at a greater distance as Ibrahima increasingly loses touch with his humanity and becomes something more.

The beam was death: he knew that; but to him it was life, in a way he couldn’t quite understand. His senses heightened when it dropped, turning the clouds a deep red, every action anticipated by just a fraction. The future was not so much ahead of him, but already waiting for him to reach out and touch, if only he could break out of his body. Sometimes it almost felt like he could; that if he took a step forward and over the cliff to certain death he wouldn’t fall.

“Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald closes out the anthology on a strong note with a powerful tale of a woman repeatedly denying the expectations placed upon her, and refusing to play the role others would assign her. Like “The Satellite Charmer”, the story has a post-apocalyptic feel, and follows the transcendence and evolution of one character, Imade, as she becomes something more than human. A small group of people survive the fallout of nuclear war in Africa and develop powers as a result; the sacred charge to survive leads them each to make difficult choices according to their beliefs, however Imade alone refuses the idea of destiny, and refuses to be used as a vessel for the survival of her people. The story explores of power, the expectations placed on men versus women, and like “Sleep Papa, Sleep” the weight of  tradition and society versus personal freedom.

She felt the blowing of a chilled wind, but Mama Inkiru’s wrapper did not stir in the wind. Mama Inkiru sailed slowly to her, and now she realized why everything seemed to hazy to her, why the wind had no effect on her, why she cast no shadow: Mama Inkiru was dead.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora is currently available for pre-order. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this fantastic anthology and reveling in the wide variety of wonderful speculative tales within!

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Way of the Laser Review

Way of the Laser CoverWhat might crime look like in the future? Will a terrifying bot tell us we have 20 seconds to comply before blowing us to smithereens? Will replicants hunt each other across bleak, neon-soaked cityscapes? Will crimes be prosecuted before they even occur on the advice of vaguely creepy mediums floating in vats of goo? The Way of the Laser: Future Crime Stories edited by Eric M. Bosarge and Joe M. McDermott brings together eighteen all-new stories by authors including Julie C. Day, Paul Jessup, EN Auslender, Patrice Sarath, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, and Marie Vibbert, among others offering up their own answer to this question. It’s not a matter of whether humans will continue to commit crimes in the future, but how will we do it, why will we do it, and how  technology and good old-fashioned intuition will factor into solving those crimes?

The authors have a wide variety of answers, providing fresh takes on crime tropes from heists to the quintessential English country murder. Algorithms are employed to pinpoint likely suspects in Patrice Sarath’s story of miners looking to make one big score that will solve all their financial problems, while clones come into play in Mur Lafferty’s whodunnit, complicating the question of inheritance and whether a murder has even occurred at all.

One of the most affecting stories in the collection is EN Auslender’s “Kalopsia”, which despite the futuristic touch of targeted advertising beamed directly at potential consumers, feels very of the moment. It concerns a woman named Angkasa, whose very existence is made illegal through unjust immigration laws, and her story is heartbreaking and hits very close to home in the current political environment as she struggles to simply survive while constantly being bombarded by ads for things she can never afford to buy.

When she dared peer through the wintry onslaught at the maelstrom of cars lined up and stuck in the road, barraged by bullets of ice, Optotrex’s holographic ad glowed in purple and blue hallows, stinging the rain and ice that fell through with holy desire. It bade her with a 20 meter tall male swimsuit model to see through the storm at the one true way: Optotrex would see for you if you saw your way to Optotrex.

In “Speculative Execution”, Julie C. Day offers up a tale full of slick and stylish prose and excellent worldbuilding that at once feels futuristic and echoes the smog-filled streets of old London with its mudlarks and rag and bone men scrabbling at the edges of society to make a living. Automatons and AI ghosts haunt the streets, and no one is ever truly un-watched or alone.

Dim light from a waning gibbous moon, along with orange-hued streetlamps, illuminated the glass-paned storefronts. The face of the human automaton in the Spirit Mother display window seemed equal parts arch and menacing rather than simply blank, something about the rivets running along the circumference of its hairless metal skull. Something about its heavy metal eyelids and thin metallic lips. And then there was the “Reserved” sign that hung around its bare metal neck.

“Our Lady of Turquoise Country” by Monica Joyce Evans takes place in a virtual game world populated by AI gods that wear the aspects of Egyptian and Aztec deities, which is at times reminiscent of Tad Williams’ Otherland series. Evans’ story feels epic in scope, while being relatively short in length, and packs and emotional punch as the protagonist is given a second chance to save a virtual child and help her grow.

Another standout in the anthology is “Sister Thrush” by Marie Vibbert, where the protagonist is drawn into a shady underworld by his hacker kid-sister who has paid the price for her crimes and is now on the run in the form of a mechanical bird. The story offers several clever twists, while also being a touching story of family caring for each other and fighting for each other while simultaneously frustrating the hell out of each other.

With a wide array of stories imagining the way crime might occur, be prevented, and solved in the future, this anthology is well-worth the read for SFFH authors doing what they do best – speculating about what changes the future might bring, and more importantly, examining the humanity at the core of those changes.

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An Interview with Paul Jessup, Julie Day, Patrice Sarath, and E.N. Auslender

Way of the Laser CoverFour authors from the anthology Way of the Laser edited by Eric M. Bosarge and Joe M. McDermott were kind enough to drop by today to talk about their stories and the future of crime. Welcome Paul, Julie, Patrice, and E.N.!

Let’s start off with brief introductions. Would you all mind telling us about yourselves, and without giving too much away, a bit about your story in the anthology?

PJ: Hi all, I’m Paul Jessup, I’ve been slinging words for dosh for about two decades now in the genre scene, give or take a handful of years. I’ve got books! Books you should read. Weird, strange surreal world breaking brain bursting books. My story is a story that was inspired by some recent news about biobags, and their use in incubating premature infants. I won’t go into more than that, let’s just say it’s a bit of a twist on the heist genre and leave it at that.

JCD: Julie, here! I am a human currently very attached to my home. I’m also a writer—mainly of short fiction. Among other things I have a collection that came out a couple years back—Uncommon Miracles, a novella—The Rampant—that is a current Lambda Award finalist, and a charity anthology I’m editing—Weird Dream Society—that we’ll be releasing soon. All proceeds will go to the migrant and refugee advocacy organization RAICES.

Okay, so this is the thing. I am terrible at describing my own stories. So I’m going to cheat and quote a couple of lines from “Speculative Execution.”

In the decades since Limm and his Revenant Energy Corporation, Driesch had become a special city, the home and birthplace of fully realized AI. Dead & coded entertainers worked alongside theater projectionists and group effects specialists, Limm-Glass was pressed against a client’s exposed, living flesh. Modern entertainments included vibrations of emotion and physically transferred information, alongside those perennials, sight and sound

PS: Hi, I’m Patrice Sarath and I’m a writer from Austin, Texas. I’m the author of the Gordath Wood series and the Tales of Port Saint Frey, as well as a Pride And Prejudice sequel called The Unexpected Miss Bennet. I write SFF short stories as well, and my stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Digest and others. My story, “Spider,” is a heist story about a group of asteroid miners who plot to steal an asteroid, and the cop who tries to stop them.

E.N.: I’ve always had a bit of an obsession about the future of mankind and technology, probably from spending too much (or not enough) time watching every Star Trek show growing up. Oddly enough, my story Kalopsia is unlike other stories I’ve written given its focus on a future too close to our present and a reality that many don’t realise already exists.

What drew you to the anthology’s theme, and to the particular aspect of future crime you explored in your story? How did you go about envisioning the ways crime might change in the future in terms of how it’s committed and how it might be solved?

PJ: Mostly it was just kismet! I had the idea for the heist story, and around the same time this anthology started doing it’s Kickstarter. I knew the editors were great editors, and I wanted to work with them, so I set out writing that story.

JCD: “Speculative Execution” is the most science fictional story I’ve published to date, though I have a novella I’m working on that is also tech influenced. TBH, I like to write whatever I haven’t written before. So writing a crime SF story seemed exciting—at least until the deadline loomed. Over the last few years, a number of my stories have dealt with the disintegration or loss of self. It’s terrifying and in an A.I. world its also far more complicated than our current experience. Something about the tech world I envisioned and the way that could affect the divide between living/ non-living really appealed to me. It also made for some interesting ideas around crime! (No spoilers.)

PS: I have always wanted to write a good old-fashioned heist story, and so when Joe (J.M. McDermott) invited me to contribute a story for this anthology, I was really excited. “Spider” is a prequel to my murder mystery on a space ship, called “Murder on the Hohmann.” There’s nothing new about greed or revenge, but I wanted to play with these eternal human conditions in a far-future environment.

E.N.:Initially I wasn’t certain that my story would fit in since it doesn’t follow a typical ‘future crime’ story a la the Julie Mao/Joe Miller story in The Expanse or a Blade Runner-esque crime, but then again, law is a line that doesn’t necessarily tiptoe the edges of morality. Is robbing a bank morally wrong if the bank laundered money for cartels? Crime will only ever be defined as the law allows it, unless some sort of Minority Report system is put in place, in which case there’s no outrunning Tom Cruise.

Now, an individual question for each of you…

Paul, your story “Halo 13” plays with the trope of the creepy AI who just has your best interest at heart. Why do you think the caring AI who takes things to the extreme makes such a compelling character, and particularly, such a compelling villain? What made you want to explore the trope in your story?

I think it’s a timely character as well, which is what makes it so compelling. Right now, we have AI doing so much for us, it doesn’t feel like a huge stretch to go from AI telling us what ads to show us to AI trying to take care of everything. It’s creepy, and it feels like that’s the way we’re going, and nobody is stopping to ask, “hey, is this right? Do AI’s even really predict as well as we think they do?”
I mean, since most AI’s are just blackboxes that even the coders don’t understand, we’re giving them a lot of power over our lives and choices and freedoms. For what? There is no exact proof that what they suggest is exactly what we want, and a lot of times the end results are laughable. So, on one hand it seemed to me this was the way things were going, and it terrified me.

But that was only one piece of the puzzle. I think the best villains are ones that have personality, that seem to be tragic in their own ways. So I felt like I had to really get into her head, and that’s what came out was this story. Her need to be a mother, to care for the babies she sees as being her property, it just felt so tragic and heartbreaking and yet a little insane as well. Like she was unravelling, because they obviously weren’t her kids after all, but she felt like it, and that made her act irrationally.
And add in the idea of drones, an AI without any center who lives on the internet, that can see everything you do and turn any computer into a weapon against you? It’s unsettling and terrifying to me, and perfect for a story like this.

Julie, I love the way the world you created for “Speculative Execution” feels simultaneously old and new. There are echoes of 19th century London with its Rag and Bone Men, Mud Larks, and roving gangs of pickpockets, but at the same time the world feels very slick and futuristic with its Glassed ghosts and constructed Tin Men. How did you go about building the world for your characters, and making it feel real and lived-in?

Usually I spend a lot of time world building while I’m writing a story. In this case, that wasn’t the case at all. I spent many weeks—far too many weeks—working on a fantasy world for a role playing game that didn’t get off the ground. I loved the world and the various conflicts embedded within it, but I didn’t feel any real spark to write a piece a fiction. It was all too known to me. Then came this anthology and the joy of layering tech over the existing world just felt *right.* Having a draft world that I’d documented and mapped also made the writing go so much faster. I’ve never written a story of this type in so little time. Less than a month to the final form of a story is unprecedented for me. I’m actually thrilled at how this happy accident of old project-new project led to something I feel could be a series of stories.

Patrice, I love the way you expanded the heist/one-last-big-score trope in “Spider”. I was particularly intrigued by the way space station technology is used – the AI algorithm finding connections between people, and the use of increased gravity to pin down everyone but the cops. Were there any particular influences or inspiration that sparked this story? What sort of research did you do in terms of extrapolating and adapting technology as it might exist on a space station into something that could be repurposed for law enforcement?

PS: I wanted to play with a couple of ideas for my setting. One is that of the company town. How would an asteroid mining station out near Jupiter be managed and governed? Well, the corporation would control everything. I created a legal structure of a Corporate Citizen Entity and gave the Bifrost Corporation the right to control everything and everyone on the station. Well, the next step was to create the way that was actually managed, and that was the station AI. But AIs are notoriously slippery as they are learning environments, and humans are very slippery as well, as we just don’t do what we’re told to do.

Creating the mining technology and protocols was loads of fun as well – how exactly do you mine an asteroid and get the resources out of the asteroid and back to Earth? I read about investment companies that are seeking to build and monetize that technology in order to make a killing. We have companies right now that are the predecessors to my Bifrost Corporation.

And finally, creating a solar system where humans now occupy two planets – Earth and Mars – and what that means for politics, economies, and all that good stuff.

E.N., your story, “Kalopsia”, feels terrifyingly of-the-moment, with a very light, speculative/futuristic touch. I appreciate the way you offer a different take on crime theme. Rather than a story about someone overtly committing or solving crimes, you examine the way government systems essentially criminalize the very existence of immigrants, rather than helping and protecting a vulnerable population. It’s an important story to tell, and I wonder if you could talk a bit about what it means to you to tell this story, and where the inspiration to examine that aspect of law enforcement came from?

E.N.: My non-literary life involves work and research with refugees, about their lives and struggles both after their escapes from the horrifying situations back home and their efforts to re-establish a sense of normalcy wherever they arrive. There’s an obvious governmental pushback against refugees in many countries because of a fear of ‘blowback’, i.e. riling up those who might be more xenophobic or nationalistic who fear that they (the nationals) might somehow lose their livelihoods or their cultural identities because of refugees. Not to elicit any world leaders by name, but this is shown by a stated preference for ‘Christian’ refugees rather than Muslim ones in some countries, and the general rhetorical bloviating that comes from other governments that go so far as to violate their own laws in order to keep refugees, no matter how small a number, outside their borders. So my story’s protagonist is someone who contains the qualities I’ve found in many with whom I’ve spoken, and is someone who has to contend with a far more authoritarian/Orwellian bordering regime. Many of the more subtle technological tactics used by law enforcement in the story are already being utilised today in various countries, and we for whom the fear of it does not apply consider it mundane even when we can view the repercussions of it in plain sight.

Back to the group questions. Going on a bit of a tangent, but still sticking with the topic of crime, what are some of your favorite crime shows, books, or movies? Alternately (or additionally) who are your favorite fictional detectives, or fictional criminals? Who would you most like to sit down with and hear about their favorite cases/capers?

JCD: One of my kids loves The Gilmore Girls as in she can recite entire scenes. I have a similar relationship with Hercule Poirot and the TV series Poirot. Cozy mystery shows are my pre-bed comfort food. I’ll never be allowed to care too much for those that happen to be murdered and the detective(s) are the best of reliable old friends. I also loved the series Sherlock. I believe both shows were produced by the BBC? Perhaps there’s something in my interest in period crime stories and how my own crime story turned out…I hadn’t noticed the connection until now. In terms of sitting down and listening, a criminal caper will win every time…as long as the storyteller isn’t *too* terrifying in person.

PS: My two absolute favorite crime series are The Closer and Breaking Bad. Favorite detective? Columbo. Absolutely.

E.N.: I’m a sucker for a detective protagonist with very obvious issues. Along with some of the movies/TV I’ve mentioned (BR, Minority Report, The Expanse), Sherlock Holmes is always a reliable read. James Ellroy probably crafted some of the most memorable crime fiction of the 20th century and is a dizzying writer to boot. Batman, despite his predilection for punching his problems away, is a detective at heart (The Long Halloween may be the best Batman story, in my opinion). Psych, while not as serious as my previous examples, is a nice play on the Holmes/Watson dynamic and is utterly hilarious. As a more unconventional crime movie, Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) is a fantastic film concerning the Stasi their spying operations on state dissidents. Timecrimes is another fantastic film that if I say anything about it I might give the whole story away. Gattaca, one of my favourite films ever, is another unconventional crime movie that should be required viewing in schools. Oddly enough the one detective I’d like to sit down with is DC hero

The Question, an esoteric and somewhat obfuscatory character who’s changed over the course of his (and subsequently her) existence. He began as a Randian figure and evolved in Denny O’Neil’s Zen and Violence, and was portrayed by the ever fantastic Jeffrey Combs in Justice League Unlimited as a Fox Mulder-type conspiracy buff who was also a brilliant detective.

PJ: Oh, now that’s a tough one! Of course, you’ve got the Coen brothers crime films like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men that are fantastic, and comedies borrow heavily from the crime genre, like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Raising Arizona. And David Lynch also takes a lot from crime fiction in everything he does, and then twists it around and adds a dose of surrealism. It’s really hard to pick my favorites, the list can go and on and on and on.

My favorite fictional detective has to be, of course, Agent Dale Cooper. You can’t deny the man has style.

If you were casting yourself in a crime story, would you see yourself as the clever criminal mastermind pulling off the perfect scheme, or the brilliant detective who catches the criminal?

JCD: I’m closer to the Miss Marple tangential-talker who throws a wide enough net to pull seemingly disparate clues together.

PS: Hah, Shane Harris, my cop in “Spider,” has so much of me in her. So I guess I am the dogged cop.

E.N.: I’d be both, because the Evil League of Criminals (trademark pending) decided to clone the most brilliant detective in the world in order to have the most brilliant criminal in the world. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse, or more accurately, cat-and-cat. I’d also be every member of the Evil League of Criminals (trademark pending). Everyone is me. It’s a confusing story.

PJ: The clever criminal, for certain. I don’t enjoy much detective fiction, but I do love me some crime stories. There is just something so interesting about seeing down on their luck criminals try and make it for one last gig, and seeing everything fall apart right in front of them (or pulling it off with style and panache).

Finally, in addition to your story in this anthology, what else do you have coming up, or what else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

JCD: Well, I mentioned the anthology the Weird Dream Society, which has taken up a lot of my time for awhile now. I’m really proud of that book, the authors are fantastic, and what we’re trying to accomplish with its publication. I’m also working on a couple of short stories and a shortish novella called Every Thought a Sin, which involves murals whose paint is infused with genetically engineered microbes, photosynthesis, climate change, and eye scooping (which is even worse than it sounds).

PS: I’ve got a few exciting opportunities but nothing that can be revealed yet. I’m looking forward to readers’ reactions to “Spider” and the rest of the anthology – the stories in here are definitely loads of fun and very thought-provoking!

E.N.: Beyond spending this pandemic quarantine time enjoying the comforts of my bathrobe and exploring the depths of my limited culinary abilities, I’m currently revising a giant novel about AI, human cybernetics, and human life in the age of ‘human evolution’, writing another about space stuff, and churning out short stories when I’m procrastinating with the novels. Somehow I get work done too.

PJ: So much stuff! I am constantly working on short stories, and nonfiction. Really, I need to update my website with so much that I’ve got coming out recently. I’m also working on a weird generation ship novel with organic technology and AI’s based on chaos magic. I’ve also been working on a few video games you can see at: https://cupofstars.itch.io/

Thank you all so much for dropping by!

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Pride StoryBundle Interview: Andi C. Buchanan

Capricious Gender Diverse Pronouns CoverIn connection with the Pride Month StoryBundle, I’ll be posting short interviews with some of the contributors throughout the month of June. Catherine Lundoff and Heather Rose Jones will be hosting interviews as well, so keep an eye on their sites too!

Last week, I posted an interview with Craig Laurance Gidney. Joining me this week is Andi C. Buchanan, Editor of Capricious, a wonderful speculative fiction magazine based out of Aotearoa New Zealand. The special Gender Diverse Pronouns Issue is included in the Pride StoryBundle, which contains “Sandals Full of Rainwater” by A.E. Prevost, one of my favorite recently-published stories, and one that continues to stick with me long after reading.

Could you tell readers a bit about the Capricious SFF Gender Diverse Pronouns issue in this StoryBundle and how it came about?

Absolutely! It’s Issue 9 of Capricious and the first special double issue, and it includes 10 science fiction and fantasy stories that all use gender diverse pronouns. Some are explicitly about gender – others include characters who use these pronouns, but whose gender is mostly incidental to the story.

When I say gender diverse pronouns, I essentially mean those that are used irrespective of gender, or to signify gender in ways different to he/him/his and she/her and their translations. It includes singular they, other established pronouns sets like Spivak or sie/hir, and some of the authors’ invention.

It came about partly because I wanted to read more of these stories, partly because authors found some editors prejudiced against them, and partly because I know some people are genuinely not used to a range of pronouns – and I think a great way to become used to them is to read stories.

I’m really happy with how it turned out and I’m hoping to edit a second volume along similar lines at some point in the next few years.

What is your favorite part of the editorial process at Capricious SFF?

I love reading submissions – I don’t have slush readers so while I will sometimes get second opinions on stories I read everything myself. It’s exciting to find new or new-to-me authors with something interesting to say.

I also really enjoy searching for artists and artwork. Some of our covers are commissioned, others use existing work. Finding the right fit for the issue – and my determination to have something different on every cover – has been a challenge, but it’s also fun to look at possibilities, and has introduced me to some amazing artists, including Laya Rose who created the cover for Issue 5 as well as this issue.

What other books or stories do you have out that readers of this StoryBundle might enjoy?

My novella From a Shadow Grave was published last year by Paper Road Press. It’s a queer time travel/historical/urban fantasy story, inspired by a real murder and local ghost story.

My published short stories include Girls Who Do Not Drown (Apex, 2018) about murderous sea horses, island life, gender, and solidarity (and which comes with a warning for suicidality and trans/misogynist violence), Henrietta and the End of the Line (Translunar Travelers Lounge, 2019) which is about a lizard girl who lives on a squid train, and Blaze (Vulture Bones, 2018), a story about young people who live beside a lake of fire.

I’ve also published some short non-fiction, including Design a Spaceship in Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue.

Aside from your own work, what are some of your ow favorite queer reads you would recommend to folks?

I find it so hard to choose at this point; there have been so many amazing releases recently. I love JY Neon Yang’s Tensorate series and think the latest, The Ascent to Godhood, may be my favourite, which is a high bar. Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside both embraces and subverts cosmic horror, and includes a powerful sapphic relationship. Ida by Alison Evans is at once a science fictional exploration of the decisions we make and a delicately crafted and vivid portrayal of early adulthood. The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, is powerful, unsettling, and yet gentle. Lastly, and just released, is AJ Fitzwater’s No Man’s Land which is a queer historical fantasy set in Aotearoa New Zealand during World War II.

Thank you, Andi!

As a reminder, Pride Month StoryBundle lets you pay what you wish for an awesome bundle of queer books. For a minimum payment of $15, you can get all 11 books in the bundle. You can also choose to help support Rainbow Railroad with your purchase. Please do check it out, and stay tuned for more interviewers with StoryBundle authors!

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Pride StoryBundle Interview: Craig Laurance Gidney

Spectral Hue CoverIn connection with the Pride Month StoryBundle, I’ll be posting short interviews with some of the contributors throughout the month of June. Catherine Lundoff and Heather Rose Jones will be hosting interviews as well, so keep an eye on their sites too!

First up is Craig Laurance Gidney, the author of A Spectral Hue, which is a gorgeous and haunting novel about the power of art and community, and the ability of art to literally transport the viewer to another world and transform the way they see.

Without giving too much away, could you tell readers a bit about your book in this StoryBundle?

A Spectral Hue is a contemporary ghost story about outsider artists that features an all-black, all-queer cast.

I love the way color and art suffuse a Spectral Hue, and the way the events occurring are seen as a haunting by some, and a calling together to a place of sanctuary for others. Could you talk a bit about the inspiration behind the novel and how it came together?

I was inspired by a particular type outsider artist, like Henry Darger and Madge Gill, who created their work with an almost religious devotion, or viewed their artwork as messages from other realms.

What other books or stories do you have out that readers of this StoryBundle might enjoy?

I’m looking forward to reading Andrea Hairston’s Will Do Magic for Small Change. I adored the first novel set in the same world, Redwood and Wildfire. I love the complexity of her writing, and the way she mingles Science Fiction, Folklore and Blackness. (I also enjoyed Catfish Lullaby and recommend it highly).

Aside from your own work, what are some of your favorite queer reads you would recommend to folks?

More people should know about the trans author Gabriel Squalia. Her novel Viscera is so disgustingly beautiful, full of body horror and weird magic and humor. Full of sentences and imagery that sear.

Thank you, Craig!

The Pride Month StoryBundle lets you pay what you wish for an awesome bundle of queer books. For a minimum payment of $15, you can get all 11 books in the bundle. You can also choose to help support Rainbow Railroad with your purchase. Please do check it out, and stay tuned for more interviewers with StoryBundle authors!

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Read the Rainbow 2020

Pride Story Bundle AuthorsThe Pride StoryBundle is here, and I’m delighted to once again be a part of it! This year’s bundle includes my Nebula-finalist novella, Catfish Lullaby, alongside a fabulous collection of queer books at a pay-what-you-wish price. If you choose to pay at least $15, you get all 11 books included in the bundle, and you can also choose to have a portion of your purchase support the Rainbow Railroad, a wonderful organization that helps LGTBQIA+ individuals escape persecution and relocate from countries and areas where they are unsafe due to their identity and/or sexuality.

As I’ve done in past years, I wanted to once again put together a Pride Month recommended reading list to help you queer up your summer TBR pile. As an extra happy bonus, several of my recommendations happen to be included in the Pride StoryBundle! And now, on to the recommendations…

General Resources

As always, the Lambda Literary Awards is a great place to look for queer reading recommendations across all genres including speculative fiction, poetry, romance, non-fiction and more. A list of this year’s finalists and winners can be found here.

Author and reviewer extraordinaire Bogi Takács focuses on QUILTBAG+ fiction and in particular own voices work in eir reviews, and eir website is a wonderful resource for adding more queer titles to your TBR pile. E also has a Patreon with monthly book-buying guides and more.

Author and reviewer Charles Payseur offers monthly Queer SFF Short Fiction round ups through his Patreon , another great source for your shorter fiction needs.

Author Xan West/Corey Alexander’s website is another excellent resource for queer fiction with a focus on romance, erotica, and kink, featuring various fiction rounds ups and useful links and resources.

Novels, Collections, and Anthologies

A Spectral Hue CoverTranscendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by Bogi Takács. This series continues to impress, gathering the best trans speculative short fiction of the year in one convenient place, and helping to highlight stories that readers might have missed. It’s always a wonderful collection and a great way to potentially discover new-to-you authors.

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurence Gidney. Conveniently part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle, this novel is simultaneously gorgeous and eerie, positing art as both a haunting and a sanctuary, depending on your perspective.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by A.J. Fitzwater. Also conveniently part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle, this is an utterly delightful collection which recounts the daring adventures of one incredibly dapper lesbian capybara pirate and her gallant crew. Joyous and queer, full of found family, romance, and excitement. You can read a fuller review of the collection here and my interview with the author here.

Capricious 9: Gender Diverse Pronouns Issue edited by Andi C. Buchanan. I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again since it’s also part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle and because it’s always worth highlighting this wonderful collection of stories exploring diverse pronouns and identities in a speculative fiction setting.

The Rampant by Julie C. Day. This novella is a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards and offers a fresh take on the apocalypse as best friends Emilia and Gillian try to bring about the Sumerian rapture rather than prevent it, while dealing with their own various losses, griefs, and their budding romance. A more detailed review of the novella can be found here.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling. I’ve recommended it before, and I’ll recommend it again – a tense and claustrophobic sci-fi/horror novel, which finds Gyre, a caver, alone on a dangerous expedition with only her handler, Em, for remote support. In addition to being an excellent sci-fi horror novel, the novel provides a fascinating exploration of unreliably characters and power dynamics through the growing attraction between Gyre and Em.

Pet CoverGamechanger by L.X. Beckett is an epic, sweeping sci-fi novel that explores climate disaster and recovery in both the real and virtual worlds, and features a wonderful rivalry to romance relationship. A more detailed review can be found here.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. A powerful YA/Middle Grade novel that explores the concept of monstrosity hidden in plain sight, along with the monstrous nature of angels. Reviewed in more detail here.

Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. A novel with a richly-built world featuring living generation ships, unforgettable characters, dark secrets and impossible choices. I’ve loved everyone of Drayden’s novels so far and this is no exception.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri. The debut collection from a masterful short fiction writer. You can read my interview with the author here and my review of their collection here.

I could go on and on, but how about some short fiction to mix things up? I do love a good short story, and these are some fantastic ones!

Short Fiction

Familiar Face by Meg Ellison. A haunting short story that explores technology as a means of communicating with ghosts, as well as touching on friendship, loss, and grief.

Clarkesworld Issue 154 CoverForgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea by C.L. Clark. A gorgeously-written secondary world fantasy where the protagonist is faced with the painful truth that she may have to lose her lover in order to save her.

Rat and Finch Are Friends by Innocent Chizram Ilo. A lovely and bittersweet story of friendship, budding romance, and characters who are forced to hide their true selves in order to survive.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time by Alex Yuschik. A beautiful and twisting story of love, loyalty, friendship, time-travel, and sacrifice.

Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart by Sam J. Miller. A story exploring monstrousness through the lens of classic cinema brought to life.

The Devil Squid Apocalypse by Alex Acks. A bad-ass musician helps save the world from invading squid monsters with the power of music. What more could you want from a story?

These are just a few of the many wonderful queer reads out there that can help bulk up your summer reading list. On that note, since one can never have too many recommendations, what are your own favorite queer reads, long or short? Drop them in the comments and share the summer reading love!

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Shiny Shorts: Second Chances and New Perspectives

Here we are coming up on the end of May, which seems hard to believe. At least in this corner of the world, spring is upon us. Flowers are starting to bloom, leaves are getting greener, and everything is  bursting with color and life. At the same time, we’re not quite out of the dark and the world is still in a precarious state. It’s a good time for self-care, and stories and art are exactly that. In that spirit, I offer up five stories mixing melancholy with hope. They are bittersweet and occasionally frightening. They deal with liminal spaces, change, and coming to see things differently. They are about second chances and new perspectives, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Apparition 10 CoverThe Bear Wife by Leah Bobet in Apparition Literary Magazine is a take on the animal bride trope about seeing a person for who they are and not what anyone else expects them to be. Sanchez has been living with Betty Nosemaskwa since July, and now that winter is coming on, things are starting to change. She’s sluggish, slow, and sleeping most of the time. Dishes are piling up, the laundry is going undone, and the locals – something Sanchez is not – have repeatedly suggested the best thing for him to do is steal her bearskin, take control of her, and shape her into a proper bride.

He couldn’t have said when she faded. Between the rolling heat of August and the September leaves, before the snowstorm, she had already retreated to the house, and then two rooms. Before he could trace what had come over her, if it had entered by window or door, she took to her bed and stayed there, and he was here, coping with the remains.

It’s the way most animal bride tales go. A skin is stolen, and one party in the relationship is forced into a shape not their own, made to change to fit the other party’s worldview until something breaks and the whole thing falls apart. Sanchez, however, insists it’s not like that with him and Betty. He puts aside his fear – after all, a bear is a powerful creature that could destroy him – and he puts aside any thought that things could be easier if he followed the locals’ advice. Sure, he could have an “easier” woman, but then that woman wouldn’t be Betty anymore. So he meets her on her terms, instead of dictating his own, caring for Betty and trusting in her and their relationship even as she fully transforms in preparation for her long winter hibernation.

It’s a beautiful, touching, and quiet story, and can – at least to my mind – be read as a metaphor for someone coping with depression, or a neuro-atypical person who under other circumstances might be asked to be the one to bend and fit a neuro-typical world view. The story works perfectly on both levels, as the inversion, or refutation, of the typical animal bride story, and as a push-back against the world asking certain people, generally the most marginalized ones, to change, bend, and confrom, instead of shifting to accomodate them. Whichever way you choose to read the story, it’s a lovely one.

We Are the Flower by Claire Humphrey, a PodCastle original, is a bittersweet ghost story. MC comes across an exact replica of her bike down to the stickers and a tag with her initials on it. Every detail is so much the same that she knows it has to be her bike, despite the fact that she’s currently riding hers, and that the bike in front of her has been painted white and decorated with flowers – a sign that it has been turned into a memorial to commemorate a rider killed in traffic.

That’s what you do when someone dies in a bike accident. You paint their bike white and you set it up where they died. On rural roads people set up roadside crosses. In the city, you make a ghost bike.

That’s what you do when someone in the cycling community, a frequent rider, a bike lane advocate, dies. Someone like me. That’s what you do.

I said it like twelve different ways to myself, and it didn’t feel real.

Only it did feel real, because of some things like how I didn’t really know how I’d come to that corner that day, or where the other version of my bike had gone, or why the fuck I’d turned into a bird.

Once she’s accepted her death, MC is left to figure out why her spirit – occasionally in bird form – is still around. Is she meant to avenge herself, forgive the people in her life who did her wrong, or is there some other unfinished business she’s meant to attend? The anchor point in her post-life, the person she finds herself continually returning to, is her housemate Chris, who’d she’d only just realized she had romantic feelings for right before she died. In fact, she’d been planning to tell Chris as much on the day she died. “We Are the Flower” is both a love story and a ghost story, bitter for the fact that MC and Chris will never get the chance to see how their relationship might have grown, but sweet for the fact that MC is given a chance to see it blossom in a literal sense through one last moment of contact. Chris saw MC truly in life, respected her and understood her in a way no one else did. That ability to see her clearly, and the connection they formed, extends to the ability to see her clearly after death as well, if only for a moment, giving MC the chance to resolve her unfinished business and move on.

Driving with Ghosts by Clara Madrigano in The Dark shares an initial set up with “We Are the Flower” as the protagonist encounters a vehicle that shouldn’t be there, in this case, her grandfather’s Packard Hawk, the car he had when she was young, even though her grandfather is long dead. The car was both a source of joy and pain for Marina; she loved going for rides with her grandfather, but also suffered abuse at his hands while they were alone on the road together – a trauma she has locked away and never shared with anyone.

Many times, while at Penn and, later, in New York, I Googled a particular combination of words: ghosts, cars, loved ones. I never found what I was looking for, an experience exactly like mine, but I found a lot about women and cars. Women who accepted rides from strangers and were never seen again. Women who accepted rides from men they knew and were never seen again. Rides you could book in a serial killer’s car, the real deal; the people who ran the business would even lock you in the car’s trunk so you could live the full experience of the female victims.

Marina sees the car again as an adult as she’s fleeing an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Mark. There’s a certain lure to the car, and Marina is tempted more than once to accept its invitation and climb into the passenger’s side – whether to confront her grandfather, or merely escape, she isn’t sure. The car becomes the link between Marina’s past and present in more ways than one as she comes to terms with two abusive men in her life and the way they both made her feel powerless. The car, both ghostly and real, reflects the complicated nature of Marina’s relationship with both her abusers, a combination of desire and pain, freedom and captivity, and the way they took her love and used it against her, making her doubt herself and taking away her sense of control. Marina ultimately finds a way through her trauma to reclaim her power, given a chance through this haunting to confont her past and seize the wheel to steer her own destiny.

Fiyah 14 CoverUniform by Errick Nunnally in Fiyah Magazine is an utterly heartbreaking story about a soldier who has essentially become a ghost haunting his own life. In order to help his family, Patrick joined the Marines at age 17, signing over his body to be transformed into a living weapon. Now that the war is over, Patrick is trapped. He can’t go back to the person he used to be, and doesn’t know where he fits in a world that no longer has a “use” for him.

On the street, pedestrians crossed out of his path at their earliest opportunity. A targeting matrix flashed over the scene in front of him, doing the only thing it was good for without a weapons system to command: snapping photos. Faces everywhere captured his attention. He wanted to forget his face, but the longing for that vestige of humanity haunted him with the pre-data memory of what he looked like, who he wanted to be.

Patrick withdraws from his family, and from almost every aspect of daily life, other than occasionally riding the subway in an attempt to connect with some shred of his former self. Everywhere he goes, however, he finds himself feared and reviled by the very people he fought to protect, who now see him as an abomination. Until a little girl grows curious about him and asks whether he’s a robot, giving him a second chance to reconnect with his humanity, moments before a tunnel collapse puts the entire subway in danger.

“Uniform” is simultaneously beautiful and brutal, and absolutely had me tearing up by the end. It’s a story that speaks to trauma, and the way soldiers are made into part of the machinery of war, literally in Patrick’s case. Sometimes, the most painful and terrible aspect of war comes after the fighting, when soliders are asked to return home to a “normal” life when they have had their humanity stripped away in order to become more perfect killers, and then are expected to re-integrate into a society that can see them as nothing but dealers of death and violence. Patrick is insulted, called names, assaulted, and suspected of causing the very accident he seeks to save his fellow passengers from when all he has ever tried to do is protect the people he loves, and it is absolutely wrenching to see him suffering, knowing his situation is all too real. However, there are moments of joy in the story as well as Patrick forms a connection with the little girl on the subway, providing a spark of brightness against the story’s powerful exploration of loss, grief, trauma, othering, duty, sacrifice, and what it means to be human.

Smilers by Chip Houser in Bourbon Penn is an eerie yet surprinsingly poignant zombie story. It’s told from the perspective of Aiden whose older brother Zach is doing his best to protect him from learning the truth about what’s happening to those around him.

Aiden rests his chin on the back of the living room couch, watching his older brother mow down zombies in ZomPlex. The zombies grab at Zach’s avatar, mouths moving like they’re chewing. Aiden’s not sure if they’re supposed to be hungry or angry or both. Their facial expressions don’t match any of the cards from the game he plays on Tuesdays with Ms. Hampton. Zombies don’t make a lot of sense to Aiden, but that’s okay, lots of things don’t make sense to him; he’s barely seven.

Outside of Zach’s game, the zombies in “Smilers” aren’t ravenous flesh-eating monsters. Whatever is affecting people started with the oldest among the population, and it’s steadily working its way down to the youngest, allowing Aiden to stay innocent and oblivious for as long as possible. Instead of turning them into ravening creatures, the transformation turns people into empty, mindless things, esmiling in a way that looks wrong and painful, caught in a loop of whatever they were doing when they changed – whether it’s texting a friend, like the cashier at the corner store, or perpetually reading the same page of a newspaper, like Aiden and Zach’s father.

Aiden reads as neuro-atypical, with his own way of processing emotions and the way people express them. He’s been told that smiling means happy, so if the people around him are smiling, everything must be okay, right? Aiden’s main priority is getting his brother to take him to the pool. He knows he’s not allowed to go alone, and besides sometimes there are bullies. Aiden finds it easier to deal with bullies and the world in general when he’s his true self – safely inside the wolf masks that lets him sneak and howl and be strong and unfraid. It’s a disguise that allows him to see himself more truly, even if others don’t fully understand him.

The relationship between Zach and Aiden is touching, and painful at the same time, as it’s clear to the reader and Zach what’s happening, even if Aiden doesn’t fully realize it. The image of the empty smilers is a truly unsettling one, and there’s a growing sense of dread as the world narrows and the plague closes in. At the same time, there’s a sense that some part of Aiden does know what’s going on, and yet rather than give in to fear, he embraces joy and innocence – his brother’s last gift to him. Rather than bend to the world, he shifts his perspective to see only the good things, like a pool all to himself  and no bullies to stop him jumping off the high dive board over and over again. Rather than letting the world change him, and conforming to its rules, Aiden remains fiercely and fully himself until the very end.

As always, I’d love to hear your own recommendations for short fiction you’ve loved, whether it be old or new. Take care of yourselves, stay healthy, and happy reading!

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