Review of “Omphalos” by Ted Chiang

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This alternate reality novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was released in the author’s collection Exhalation, published 7 May 2019 by Knopf. This review contains spoilers.

Dr. Dorothea Morrell is an archaeologist working on a dig in Arisona. She is scheduled to give a public lecture in the Chicagou area on how tree rings and other artifacts date the creation, which goes well, but afterward she finds evidence of the illegal sale of museum relics. With only a post office box address to go on, she lays a trap for the thief and catches Wilhelmina McCullough, daughter of Nathan McCullough, director of the University of Alta California’s Museum of Natural Philosophy in Oakland. Wilhelmina explains that she is not really a thief, but she feels the relics not being displayed should be in the hands of the faithful, especially considering the huge crisis of faith that will be coming soon. Her father is in possession of evidence that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Can Dorothea’s own faith withstand this knowledge?

In case you’re wondering, omthalos is Greek for “navel,” and this story is a play on Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, by Philip Henry Gosse, published in 1857, where the author tries to reconcile the events of the Biblical Genesis with the evidence of science. In Dorothea’s alternate world, tree rings and ridges on clam shells stop at a certain point, the Atacama mummies have no navels and someone is carving the Yosemiti Cathedral into a cliff face in California. The date of the creation is clear. Faith is clearly a huge part of everyone’s existence, and the narrative mostly comes from Dorothea’s conversations with God. The number of stars is limited, and the center of the universe turns out to be approximately at 58 Eridani. This is a catastrophe on par with Copernicus’ observation that the Earth actually revolves around the sun and not the other way around, meaning that humans aren’t really the navel of creation. In this case, it looks like the inhabitants of 58 Eridani are, instead.

This story is satire, a gentle but fairly direct questioning of Western religion, and as such, I can imagine it might be offensive to some readers. I’m personally disappointed that the story didn’t give us any real glimpse of God’s chosen people out there at 58 Eridani. Dorathea wonders where that leaves us. Just an accident, I guess.

Four stars.

More Shameless Self Promotion

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Here’s another story that I sold last fall that’s now out in an anthology. This is Wolfwinter from Deadman’s Tome, collected and edited by Jesse Dedman with cover art from Damascus Minceman. The collection is novella length at 88 pages, and includes nine stories of the weird and wonderful. My story leads off: “Possession” a gothic tale of werewolves and dark secrets.

Please check it out! Again, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads would be appreciated.

Wolf Winter

Shameless Self Promotion (Somewhat Delayed)

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I need to take a moment here to squeeze in some self-promotion. I listed some story sales last fall, and the online sales appeared right away, but one of these got the full treatment as a high quality paperback/ebook anthology. This is Afromyth, Volume 2, collected by bestselling writer N.D. Jones, edited by J.S. Emuakpor, and published in March 2020 by Afrocentric Books. It’s available from booksellers online and at least by order from your favorite brick and mortar bookstore. My story is novelette length, about demons in modern Africa. It’s titled “The Investor.”

This looks like a great read. If you haven’t already, please support Afrocentric Books (and me!) through buying a copy. If you can do a review on your website or on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be great, too. Thanks to all!

Afromyth2

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Winners!

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Here’s something I meant to post a while back. I left a space for it and then didn’t get it posted. Since I’m running so far behind on it, I guess I should add some commentary to make reading it worthwhile.

First, the tie here in short fiction is interesting. This is a juried award, and there are 5 judges, which is supposed to mean there won’t be a tie. I read elsewhere that this was a unique situation, but actually there was a tie last year, too, in the Best Novel category. That means the results are a clue about how the judges come to a decision. It suggests that rather than blind ballot, the judges discuss the finalists and come to a consensus decision on who should be the winners. Not that this matters a whole lot, but it does offer some insight into their awards process. The end result ends up being fairly diverse, which suggests the judges took this into consideration.

Next, I don’t see much intersection between this award and the Dragons, even though the Dragons have 5 possibilities for a fantasy win. Presumably this is because the finalists in the Dragon’s didn’t submit to the (strongly literary) World Fantasy Award for consideration. I would have expected Little Darlings by Melanie Golding, for example, to compete well in the WFA.

Last, I’m glad to see Polk’s novel win a major award this year. Although her novel is low key and a fantasy romance, it still addressed some important social issues. I enjoyed her writing style, and I’ll try to get the sequel in the queue for a review when it’s released in February.

Interestingly, Barnes & Noble did a roundup of major awards (minus the Dragons) and pronounced The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) the big winner this year with three awards, and Martha Wells and P. Djèlí Clark in a tie for second place with two awards each for Artificial Condition (Tor) and “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” (Fireside Magazine). That means science fiction did somewhat better than fantasy this year in these particular awards.

Anyhow, for anyone who hasn’t seen the list, here are the WFA winners:

Best Novel: Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending“ by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 8/18)

Best Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed 10/18) and “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny 3-4/18)

Best Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing, by Irene Gallo, ed. (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Collection: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell (Saga)

Best Artist: Rovina Cai

Special Award – Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)

Special Award – Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Sales!

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Happy Thanksgiving to all in the US!

I have to give myself a little pat on the back here, as I’ve been really productive this fall. I did some painting and made a decent profit at a local art show. I also got my butt in gear and submitted some stories, so now I’ve got sales that will be appearing in upcoming books, magazines, etc. Here’s the list, so please check them out!

“Zombie Love,” a short poem to appear in Liquid Imagination at the end of November 2019.

“The Investor,” a dark fantasy short story to appear in the anthology Afromyth2 from Afrocentric Books in 2020.

“The Mending Tool,” a steampunk erotica short story to appear in the anthology Sensory Perceptions from Jay Henge in 2020.

“Wine and Magnolias,” a lesbian romance short story to appear in Mischief Media: A Story Most Queer Podcast

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Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Finalists!

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The World Fantasy Convention where the award is presented takes place October 31 – November 3, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. Two finalists in each category are chosen by previous convention attendees and the other three are added by judges. The panel of judges for 2019 is international, including: Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas and Tod McCoy. This year there’s a noticeable overlap between the fiction categories here and the Nebula and Hugo finalists I’ve already reviewed. I’ll start up some reviews of the rest in the fiction categories right away. I don’t know if I’ll get to the anthologies and collections.

NOVEL
In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
Witchmark by C. L. Polk (Tor.com)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)

NOVELLA
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)
The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018)
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION
“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine, July 2019)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed, October 2018)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny Magazine, March-April 2018)

ANTHOLOGY
Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler (Ate Bit Bear)
The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books US/HarperVoyager UK)
Best New Horror #28, edited by Stephen Jones (Drugstore Indian Press UK)
Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (Saga Press)
Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo (Tor.com)

COLLECTION
The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (Saga Press/Head of Zeus UK)
Still So Strange, by Amanda Downum (ChiZine Publications)
An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, by Andy Duncan (Small Beer Press)
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Phantom Limbs, by Margo Lanagan (PS Publishing)

ARTIST
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
Jeffrey Alan Love
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL
C. C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Irene Gallo, for Art Direction at Tor Books and Tor.com
Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)
Catherine McIlwaine for Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition (The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford)
Julian Yap, Molly Barton, Jeff Li, and James Stuart for Serial Box

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL
Mike Allen, for Mythic Delirium
Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine
E. Catherine Tobler, for Shimmer Magazine
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Review of Hidden Histories edited by Juliana Rew

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This is Juliana Rew’s 25th themed anthology of short stories, a collection of alternate secret histories that range from fantasy to science fiction and various slipstream combinations in between. There are 28 stories in this collection, all original, and written by international crew of authors, followed by a little clutch of flash fiction stories. This collection runs 276 pages and is published by Third Flatiron, which publishes digital science fiction and fantasy anthologies and other projects, with print editions also available.

It’s always hard to review a collection of short stories, as it’s not something you can summarize in one easy paragraph. Let me say that Juliana Rew is reliable to find good quality stories without the heavily political messages that often run through SFF and fantasy these days. These stories are quick reads, interesting and often touching in the way they express the theme. Each author has taken an event from history and imagined how it might have happened and what might have gone on behind the scenes. Standouts for me this time include the following: Jimi Hendrix meets an alien that influences his music; a commander flies a secret shuttle mission as part of the Cold War; a Native American researcher gets strange results when she extracts DNA from an ancient bone; the patriot John Wilkes Booth writes letters to his mother; ancient sentinels try to save humanity from itself; a Nazi wonderwaffen project continues on long after the death of its authors; and from the flash fiction at the end–strange tourists try to order pizza in Eugene, Oregon

On the not so positive side, the story length here means the stories are less well developed than they could be. Many of these could have benefited from a longer treatment.

Authors include: Bruce Golden, Matthew Reardon, Brenda Kezar, Kai Hudson, Brian Trent, Jonathan Shipley, Dantzel Cherry, Edwina Shaw, Dennis Maulsby, Michael Robertson, Mike Barretta, Ricardo Maia, J.D. Blackrose, John A. Frochio, Arthur Carey, Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, Elizabeth Beechwood, Robert Dawson, James Chmura, Tony Genova, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Simon Lee-Price, Shannon McDermott, Jennifer Lee Rossman, H. J. Monroe, Evan A. Davis, Tyler Paterson, and A. Humphrey Lanham.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Patterns in the Nebula finalist list

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I had mentioned in the comments section of my announcement of the Nebula finalists that I thought recent shifts in the makeup of the SFWA membership had led to changes in the ballot. To clarify, this is the sudden appearance of indie press military/hard SF on the finalists list when it had been recently trending (as in most awards) to primarily female and fantasy nominees. As it turns out, some other people noticed this pattern shift, too. In the last few days, there has been a huge and embarrassing battle raging on Twitter about a recommended reading list posted before the vote at 20booksto50K a self-publishing writers co-op. Although the post stated that this was NOT intended as a slate, it was still taken that way by some readers who claimed it had unfairly influenced the results.

Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos (apparently still suffering from PTSD acquired from their experience with the 2015 Hugos) challenged the list on Twitter and demanded that the finalists whose stories had appeared on it withdraw. Author of the post Jonathan Brazee immediately issued an apology and offered to withdraw his novella from consideration. Other nominees hunkered down in horror and kept their mouths shut, as did the SFWA Officers and Board of Directors. However, Sri Lankan writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, angered by racist accusations that he cheated because he couldn’t otherwise make it as a POC, stepped up to fight it out. Welcome to the SFF community Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Bellet and Yudhanjaya eventually kissed and made up on Twitter, but not before fairly serious damage was done to both their reputations.

I’m sure no one knew who Yudhanjaya was before his name appeared on the Nebula finalist list. For folks still in the dark, he is an established novelist and a hybrid writer, with both traditional and self-published works. His novelette “Messenger” with R.R. Virdi appeared in the anthology The Expanding Universe 4, and scored 15 recommendations on the 2018 Nebula reading list, plenty of votes to get the nomination without any slate. So, this comes off like another case of bullying successful POC writers.

See File 770 for a roundup of posts on the issue here and here. See Yudhanjaya’s blog here about this enlightening experience with the Nebulas so far.

Moving on to some other observations, once you get to looking for patterns in the Nebula finalist list, then there are at least a couple more that show up. I had meant to discuss this after the reviews, but since it’s been pointed out on other venues, this seems to be a better time. The dominance of certain traditional publishers on the list is troubling, for example, Tor. In the categories where Tor publishes (novelette, novella, novel) about half of the finalists this year were released by Tor. I’ve discussed this issue in the past, and the most likely explanation is the system of promotion, which includes give-aways, recommended reading lists, and reviews and recommendations in elite publications. I really almost think I could predict the finalists from a review of these promotions, and the same choices tend to appear in the Hugo Awards. The promotions determine what books everyone has read, so they become the award-winners, too.

The last pattern that shows up in the Nebulas is the inclusion of SFWA insiders on the list. This year, four members of SFWA Board of Directors out of five appear on the list of finalists, including: Sarah Pinsker, Andy Duncan, Lawrence Schoen and Kelly Robson. According to the rules, officers are ineligible for Nebula nominations because of their administrative access, but board members remain eligible. Mary Robinette Kowal, in line for president next year, is also a finalist. When asked about this on the SFWA forum, board members brushed it off as inconsequential.

There are also some patterns in the themes and styles this year, but I’ll get to that in my wrap up after the reviews.

Congrats to the World Fantasy Winners!

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As usual, I’m running behind on this. The winners seemed to run heavily to dark work and horror, as was suggested by the list of nominees. For diversity, fiction winners include African American, Asian, LGBTQ and Jewish writers, plus the international Theodoridou. Special congrats to Tachyon, a smaller publisher which has done very well recently in the awards cycles.

NOVEL Winner (Tie): The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Spiegal & Grau) and Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit)

LONG FICTION Winner: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION Winner: “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons, Dec. 18, 2017)

ANTHOLOGY Winner: The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman (Tachyon Publications)

COLLECTION Winner: The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen (Tachyon Publications)
ARTIST Winner: Gregory Manchess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL Winner: Harry Brockway, Patrick McGrath, and Danel Olson for Writing Madness (Centipede Press)

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL Winner: Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, for FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS: Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Wollheim

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