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Short Stack: Of Elephants & Monsters; Of Tombs, Scientists & Mars

We’re in a golden age of novellas, and what’s not to love about that? Novellas are the perfect, not-quite-bite-sized read, just right for a plane ride, a long train commute, or a few blissful hours to yourself to sit down and devour a story in one go. Assuming you’re looking for a few more books to add to your TBR pile, because who isn’t, I have recommendations for you! That’s another nice thing about novellas; they’re slender enough that you can sneak them into your towering book stack without anyone noticing it getting taller. Right?

Prime MeridianPrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was released first to backers of the novella late last year, and will be available for wide release in July. It made the 2017 Locus Recommended Reading List, which also makes it eligible for a Locus Award (voting closes soon, but there are still a few days left to make your voice heard), and it was picked up for Gardener Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction.  All with good cause; it’s a fantastic novella. Mars lies at its heart, and the intersecting stories of two women orbit around it. For Amelia, Mars is in her future. At least she tells herself it still could be, though every day her dream of leaving Earth and going to the Red Planet seems to be getting farther away. She’s broke, with no funds to buy her passage off planet, and barely enough money to make ends meet – living with her sister, selling her blood for cash, and working as a rent-a-friend, providing companionship and conversation for those with the means to pay. One of Amelia’s clients is an aging actress, and for her, Mars is in the past. Hers is a cardboard Mars though, the stuff of Hollywood magic and movie dreams. Both women’s stories are stories of longing, and both provide a thoughtful reflection on the distance between perception and reality, whether it’s the perception of a desired object/person/place, or the outside perceptions placed on people, telling them who they should be. Neither woman’s life is what she hoped; time, expectations, and responsibilities weigh them down, but both are still working to achieve escape velocity, even if their trajectories aren’t the ones they planned. It’s a lovely and poignant story, full of genuine emotion, and for all that it is a novella about reaching for space, it is grounded and full of humanity.

Gods Monster & the Lucky PeachGods, Monsters, and The Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson, released in March, is set in the future, post ecological disaster, as humanity is just starting to recover. Banks and corporations run a complex economy, moving around debt and human capital. Plague babies, those who survived the ecological disaster, have modified bodies that might give them extra limbs like an octopus, or the powerful legs of a gazelle, and the ability to control their heart rate, adrenaline, and just about every other autonomic function. Oh, and time travel is well within humanity’s grasp. Minh and Kiki are part of a team chosen to travel back to 2000 BC to perform an ecological survey of the Tigris and the Euphrates in hopes of reclaiming the rivers in their own time. While the company that holds the monopoly on time travel technology swears up and down that time lines collapse the moment travelers leave to return to their own time, thus making it impossible to accidentally fuck up the future, both Minh and Kiki have their doubts. The timeline they find themselves in certainly feels real, as does their ability to impact it. They aren’t merely observers, they are part of events, and those events include a king who believes it is his destiny to kill monsters. Kiki and Minhwith their inhuman-looking limbs, their egg-shaped ship, and technology that looks like magic, appear just like the sort of monsters in need of killing.  Against this backdrop, Robson does an excellent job of setting up interpersonal conflict. The time travelers are pit against each other, and their environment, and it is a joy to watch each character evolve and grow in their attitudes and relationships over the course of the story. The structure is clever, with two timelines converging on a single point, adding to the level of tension, and the world-building is fantastic.

The Clockwork TombThe Clockwork Tomb by E. Catherine Tobler is the fourth, and second-to-last (noooo, I’m not ready!), book in the excellent Folley & Mallory Series. This time around, we find the adventurous pair in Egypt, exploring a tomb referenced in Eleanor’s father’s journals. Despite not being the first to enter the tomb, Eleanor and Virgil have made it farther than anyone else. The tomb presents them with a series of puzzles, leading them deeper into the maze of its interior until they aren’t even certain they’re still in the mortal realm. Not only does the tomb cause them to doubt their sense of place and reality, it forces them to doubt themselves, testing their relationship and the strength of their wills in new ways. As with each new entry in the Folley & Mallory series, The Clockwork Tomb brings Eleanor a little closer to unraveling the mystery of her family’s past, and the truth of what happened to her mother and her grandmother. It also deepens Folley and Mallory’s relationship, as they come to know themselves and each other better, learning to trust each other completely in order to survive. Like the books that came before it, The Clockwork Tomb is full of rich, lush, descriptions that puts the reader right alongside the heroes on their adventure. Tobler perfectly balances action, romance, and mystery, to deliver a highly-satisfying read. I love these books as books, and at the same time, they’re full of so many wonderful visuals I keep hoping that someone will make them into movies.

Little Homo Sapiens ScientistThe Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang is at once an inversion of the story of The Little Mermaid, and a meditation on the nature of sentience, and an examination of cultural biases and the problems they cause in the field of ethnography. Most people insist on thinking of the atagati as mermaids, or sirens. They’re an aquatic peoples, certainly, and their language sounds to human ears like singing, but they are nothing at all like the fanciful stories we tell about mythical creatures with human upper halves and fish tails. They are a sentient race, with a deep history and culture of their own, and they have no place inside the boxes humanity tries to cram them into. This is the conflict at the core of The Little Homo Sapiens Scientists. Dr. Cadance Mbella is one of the few humans who has managed a rudimentary understanding of the atagati language, and even then, there’s so much about them she doesn’t know. Almost everyone else around her seems unable to let go of their preconceived notions about what the atagati should be, insisting on seeing them through the lens of human culture. As a result, they dismiss them as a lesser species based on their own inability to understand them, or assume – like humans – their prime interest must be in attack and conquest. When the military captures an atagati who calls herself Aioëe, Caddie is roped into being a translator, interrogating the atagati so the military can better understand their supposed enemy. Caddie finds herself confiding in Aioëe, feeling a connection that may or may not be one-sided. She helps Aioëe escape, but she can’t stop thinking about her, and all she doesn’t know about the atagati and longs to learn. She hears a rumor of a man who has harnessed medical technology to transform humans into atagati, however the procedure leaves them unable to communicate, and with only a short time to live. Caddie decides to risk it, hoping against reason that she’ll be able to find Aioëe again and, even voiceless, make herself understood. The parallels to The Little Mermaid are obvious, but Hunag up-ends the traditional story by de-centering humanity, making it something to be left behind, instead of the ultimate goal the hero desires. Through the lens of two species coming into contact, the story challenges the colonial mentality of assuming cultural superiority, and confronts the problem of looking at others through a framework that doesn’t match their lived reality. It’s a beautifully told story, with thoughtful underpinnings, and packs a punch.

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, published in January, brings together the imagined mythology of elephants, and a take on the true history of the Radium Girls who unwittingly poisoned themselves painting matches and watch dials with luminous paint, leading to their slow and painful deaths. Topsy, a former circus elephant, famously publicly executed after killing a spectator, is part of a long, matrilineal line of elephants stretching back to prehistoric time. She carries the memory of her people, in stories passed down from mother to daughter, including the horrors visited on elephant kind by humanity. The latest horror is humans teaching elephants to wield paintbrushes so they too can paint clock dials with luminous paint, consigning them to the same terrible fate as the women already rotting from the inside out. With the various threads it weaves together, The Only Harmless Great Things is a story about stories. Narratives shape our lives, define us as a people, help us make sense of the world, and are sometimes used as a survival mechanism, both literally and figuratively. Tricksters of old steal and seek and horde stories to build power and sometimes to save lives, and in modern times, tricksters of another kind deploy stories to get their way, increase their wealth, and offload their problems. Bolander weaves these threads together seemingly effortlessly – the myths told by the elephants, the story of Topsy , the story of Regan, one of the Radium Girls, and the story of Kat, a translator who, years after the Radium disaster, is tasked with telling a story that will redeem the public image of elephants by convincing them to become the guardians of irradiated land, even after everything humans have done to them. The language is stunning, the kind that guts you and leaves you breathless, and the story is both utterly satisfying and leaves you craving more.

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An Interview with Brooke Bolander

Brooke Bolander was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Brooke’s author bio…

Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, Tor.com, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards, much to her unending bafflement. She can be reached at her website (brookebolander.com) or on Twitter @BBolander

Welcome and congratulations on the publication of The Only Harmless Great Thing! Without
giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing is my weirdo prose-poem alternate history novella tribute to two really terrible, mostly forgotten bits of ephemeral American history: The 1903 public execution by electricity of Topsy, an abused circus elephant, and the deaths of the radium girls, factory workers employed in New Jersey and Illinois to paint watch dials with radium-laced dye. Nobody bothered telling them that the paint was toxic, and none of the girls suspected a thing until, one by one, they began to sicken and die of radiation poisoning. In the universe of the book, things work out a little differently for all involved. Bonds are struck and terrible choices are made—choices that will also have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future. It’s a book about anger, and injustice, and women, and friendship. It’s about stories–how they shape narratives and who gets to shape those narratives. It’s about coming together, solidarity in anger and in the fight.

Also: Wooly mammoth folk tales. I can never forget to mention the wooly mammoth folk tales. If you’ve been dying to read a wooly mammoth folk tale, boy have I got the book for you.

Since the book is rooted in events that actually occurred in the early 20th century, what kind of research did you do to inform your writing? What drew you in particular to that time period, or to the story of the radium girls and Edison’s experiments with electricity?

I’m a history student slash historical buff, so a lot of this was already rattling around in my head, looking for a way out.

The late 19th/early 20th century is such an odd period; industrialization rattling on at an ever-increasing clip, making the lives of many better while crushing the poor and the marginalized to feed the altars of Our Sainted Lady Progress. So many things we’ve come to rely on in modern life were invented then. So many of our problems now come from callous decisions made around that era, broken, unsustainable, exploitative systems cemented in on which our own personal Omelas teeters and sways. Want to understand why things in the States are splintering the way they are now? Trace the cracks and fissures back to the period after the Civil War and go from there. You can do that all the way back to the beginning–the systems this country built itself on were always, always rotted through–but recently I was watching a documentary on New York at the turn of the last century and it was remarkable how much you could pinpoint at that nexus leading to where we are currently. The same systems that gave us the freedom of the automobile belched pollution into the air, necessitated the creation of the assembly line, and tore highways through urban neighborhoods with a callous disregard that’s breathtaking. There’s very little we have now that didn’t come with a price. The rich and the powerful wrote the tunes we’d be dancing to on down the decades.

So I think about that a lot, especially recently for, y’know, reasons. The exploitation of the radium girls was just one case in a long, long line of horrible incidents around that time: The matchgirls who came down with fossy jaw in London, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, and the radium girls of New Jersey and Illinois. The first two were such public outrages they sparked protest and change; the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 was a reaction to the growing number of fossy jaw deaths, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 (the doors to the factory floors were locked from the outside to prevent union organizers from reaching workers; a fire broke out and 146 women, mostly young immigrant girls, burned to death) led to slightly improved factory safety standards and the organization of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. But until recently, the radium girls had been mostly forgotten. Their deaths sparked no grand revolt or reform. The lawsuits against their employers were stalled and put off long enough that most of the girls were dead before it was all settled. The best they could hope for was a payout for their families and the shutting down of the factories so that no more women would come to such an end. Nobody taught their story in schools; the only monument that stands to mark their passage was erected in Ottawa, Illinois after a schoolgirl learned what had happened and, horrified at her community’s silence over the matter, fought and pressured for a statue.

The past deserves telling. Even the nasty parts. Especially the nasty parts. If the stories aren’t told, they die, which is also a big theme in the book.

And Thomas Edison, as usual, has been credited with yet another accomplishment not his own, having precious little to do with Topsy’s death. She, like many a ‘performing’ elephant before and since, was so ill-treated she finally snapped and killed a man, at which point the Forepaugh Circus sold her to Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, owners of Coney Island’s Luna Park. Her handler there was an alcoholic. There were more incidents, some involving the police, none of them really her fault. Eventually Thompson and Dundy decided to get rid of her, and what better way to both take care of the problem and promote their soon-to-be-opened park than with a public execution?

The confusion arises from Edison’s penchant for frying animals during the War of the Currents and the fact that the film crew sent to record the event were from Edison Studios. Edison was a terrible guy who deserves everything bad smeared across his name, but the Current War had ended fifteen years earlier, and Edison Studios took no direction from the man himself on who or what they filmed. As far as anybody can tell, he never even knew Topsy existed. She, like the radium girls, was simply another victim of a brutal, uncaring system. Her death served no purpose, for good or ill.

Your short fiction has been multiply award nominated at this point. Do you remember the first nomination, how you found out about it, and what you did to celebrate?

That would have been the Nebula nomination for And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead in early 2016. SFWA calls you for that one, on the phone; I believe I was standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn when they rang, and for once I actually picked up. I’m pretty sure I said “thank you” a whole lot, got off the call, and went to go stare at a wall in a daze for the next half-hour. I was coming off a pretty rough winter, a bad time, and it just made everything extra surreal. I felt a little like Neil Patrick Harris in the final shot of Doctor Horrible.

But thankfully everything seemed to pick up from there, at least personally. Hearing that I’ve been nominated for something has never gotten any less weird, though. “You mean people LIKED that? … That much? Good lord, really?”

Completely switching gears for a moment… At the time this interview is being written, the background image of your twitter account is a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. How great is that movie? It’s sort of a perfect storm of things that shouldn’t work together, but they do, and can never be replicated. (I may be a touch obsessed.) What is you favorite thing about the movie? Favorite character? Seriously, how freakin’ great is it?!

Bless you a thousand years for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favourite movies if not my absolute favourite. It is great in so many ways I don’t even have space to go into them all here. It’s absolutely ridiculous that it’s so damned good, but I’ve been watching it since I was 7, and it just keeps getting better the older I get and the more I learn and learn to see. It’s a movie that never should have gotten made, a logistical nightmare both in the level of special effects needed and the constant wrangling to keep both Disney and Warner Bros and every other company with a character in the damned thing happy. And who the hell pitches a comedy/all-ages noir based on the same concept as an unmade Chinatown sequel with a Robert Moses figure as the villain, razing a marginalized community to the ground to build his precious freeway?

(True story, folks; it had the working title Cloverleaf and was going to go into the sordid land grabs that made the Los Angeles highway system possible. Considering how The Two Jakes came out, this was probably the best case scenario.)

My favourite thing about it is how deft and tight the storytelling is. It’s a movie that never bothers infodumping about this bizarre world it takes place within when a shot of a photograph on someone’s desk or a single line of dialogue will do. We learn about Eddie Valiant almost entirely from his interactions with others. From Dolores and Lt. Santino we get that he used to be a great guy and an A+ detective, but unresolved grief over his brother’s death has turned him into a reactive, alcoholic mess taking muckraking jobs just to pay rent. From a really beautiful, wordless montage panning over their desk, we learn that Eddie and Teddy started out with the LAPD before hanging up the shingle on their own with Dolores to become respected PIs. The camera deliberately scrolls backwards chronologically through Valiant’s past until it ends on a shot of Eddie, Teddy, and their dad together in the circus–a single frame explaining why Eddie and Teddy were so open to taking Toon cases in the first place, how bitter and damaged the loss of Teddy has left his now-humourless brother, and, finally, how Eddie knows all those cool clown moves he makes use of in the finale. How the hell do you tell that much in ONE FRAME?! Cinema has its own language, and that entire scene rings like ‘cellar door’ to me.

And of course, none of this would work without Bob Hoskins acting his entire ass off, taking everything almost as seriously as his role in The Long Good Friday (Eddie, as you may have already guessed, as my favourite character). The scene where he has to confront his unaddressed PTSD over Teddy’s death and go back through the tunnel to Toontown–again, almost wordlessly; this is a movie that knows when to keep quiet–lives or dies on Hoskins’ ability to emote, and boy does he bring it. The acting on display would be phenomenal in any film; here it’s absolutely jaw-dropping. Watch: He’s nakedly terrified. He breaks out in a sweat, probably remembering in vivid detail his last visit there. He goes to take a drink of bourbon for courage, but stops with the bottle halfway to his lips. Slowly, like a light has just gone on, he lowers it, considering the label like he’s never really seen a bottle of Wild Turkey before until this moment. No, you see him decide, finally, I’m goin’ in there clean. He pours the contents into the gutter. He’s still terrified, but something has changed. And it’s not even sudden, this epiphany! The entire movie has been building to it. Once he takes Roger under his wing, he never takes another drink. He’s tempted, but the bottle always stops halfway.

… Also it’s still a really fucking funny movie. And I have gone on way too long here about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, sorry. You did ask!

There’s no such thing as going on too long when talking about Roger Rabbit! However, topic hopping again, you studied History and Archeology at University. Has any of that background made it into your writing thus far, or do you think it might in the future?

I think it informs everything I do or write in some fashion or another. Being a student of history means you have that much more of an informational back catalogue to dig into when you need a subject to write about. So many interviewers have asked me how I learned about these things, and it’s very strange because an awful lot of the time they’re already sitting around in vials in my head, waiting for a moment to react with something. “BREAK GLASS TO RECEIVE STORY.” History is nothing but stories interlinked, after all.

Now that The Only Harmless Great Thing is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I’m currently working on a fantasy novel. I have always been working on this novel. Presumably I will be working on this novel until we go all the way back ’round the horn and start relaying stories solely as an oral tradition again, at which point the entire damn endeavour will be moot. Story of my life.

Besides that, though, I have an upcoming novelette at Tor.com about (what else) extinct animals and the end of the world. I swear up and down that my next piece will be about kittens on fluffy duvets and nobody will die or be angry, ever. Honest.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for having me! And for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Because Who Framed Roger Rabbit, y’all. Forget about my book: Go re-watch it. Seriously.

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