Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova Title: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells
Author: Ben Bova
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I’m going to out myself right now by revealing my lack of true geek cred: before I started reading this book, I’d never heard of Ben Bova. In fact, my knowledge of most of the Golden Age sci-fi authors is pitiful. Asmiov? All I’ve read of him is I, Robot. Arthur C. Clarke? Nada. Sturgeon? The only novel of his I’ve read is More than Human.

The point is that my knowledge of the sci-fi greats is painfully limited, and Ben Bova’s work fits comfortably within that void. So learning that he used to be the editor for Analog magazine – and that he used to read every story that crossed his slush pile – got my attention.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is Bova’s attempt to teach struggling sci-fi writers the nuts and bolts of story writing so that they can get out of the slush pile. In it, he breaks down story craft into four key elements: character, background, plot, and conflict. Each section is broken down into three chapters: one on using the element in theory, one with a short story showing the element in action, and a third one analyzing the short story in question.

The final portion of the book is devoted to analyzing the differences between novel writing and short story writing, and explaining how the publishing industry works. Considering that this book is nearly 20 years old, the information about sci-fi markets and submission practices is outdated, but the advice about planning, research and story craft ring true.

Despite this, this book is not without its problems. The chapters earlier in the book on theory were much more engaging than the short stories or the ones discussing the element in practice. In particular, the chapter on character theory contained a piece of advice I found so revelatory that when I had a chance to talk to Ben Bova at Ad Astra early in April, I told him how much it meant to me, and how it gave me a completely new way to think about a character I was working on.

He was lovely in person, by the way – a complete gentleman.

The book’s biggest weakness is the stories that Bova includes to prove his points. I’m not quite sure what to think of them – the best way I can describe them is that they exhibit a simplicity and naïveté (especially the story of the young boy running away from home in the hopes that aliens can cure his leukemia, and yes, I am being totally serious here) that seems like it’s dialed straight from the 50s, post-war optimism intact. Considering Bova’s age and background, they probably were written then. But I can guarantee that if stories like those crossed my path in the slush pile, I wouldn’t give them a second chance.

Ultimately, The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is a very handy reference book for speculative fiction writers of all stripes – perhaps I’m just too much of a black-hearted cynic to enjoy Bova’s fiction, even if his non-fiction is sound.

 

Book Review: Returning My Sister’s Face by Eugie Foster

Title: Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice
Author: Eugie Foster
Publisher: Norilana Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

Eugie Foster is a writer I’ve encountered through the podcasts that I listen to. I won a free copy of Returning My Sister’s Face through the “Crossing the Streams” contest that she participated in, along with a host of other authors.

About the book: Returning My Sister’s Face is a collection of short stories that revisits or reinvents tales from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean folklore. Some stories are retellings of fairy tales both Asian and European, like “The Tiger Fortune Princess” and “Shim Chung the Lotus Queen.” Others are stories that offer completely new takes on events in East Asian history, like the longest story, “A Thread of Silk.”

What I liked: The book was a good introduction to East-Asian folklore, although Foster did tweak some elements in her reimaginings. There is also great attention to detail, especially in discussing religious rituals and the shades and shapes of clothing; these added a wonderful sense of texture. The content of the story “Returning My Sister’s Face” is macabre enough to match its gruesome title, and others in the collection deal with supernatural beings and betrayals in a similarly memorable fashion. Foster is willing to insert new themes into the folklore, though, as “Year of the Fox” is a tale of both wily animal spirits and lesbian attraction. My favourite in the collection is “The Tanuki-Kettle.” In it, the heroine is active instead of passive, and the main character, Tanuki, a Japanese trickster-spirit similar to Coyote in Native American folklore, is clever and resourceful. I wish I had a tanuki-shaped teapot of my own, now!

What I disliked: Many of the stories made use of terms from other languages that it took a while for me to understand in context. In particular, the story “Honor is a Game Mortals Play” assumed a knowledge of Japanese demon-hunting terminology that I don’t think many readers know off-hand. More frustrating, though, was the fact that in a significant portion of the stories, the heroines within them fell in love with the men who crossed their paths almost immediately. I realize that this is a problem infesting European folk stories as well, but they were still noticeable. This is part of why I liked “The Tanuki Kettle” so much – instead of immediately falling in love with the first eligible male she ran into, the heroine berated him for his arrogance.

The verdict: I’ve been somewhat wary of other stories of Foster’s that were aired on both Podcastle and Pseudopod. However, I loved some of the stories in this collection, and appreciated the introduction to East Asian folklore that it afforded me.

Up Next: The Bone Spindle, by Anne Sheldon

Short Story Roundup

In February, I posted a list of some of the podcasts and short stories I’ve enjoyed recently. I’ve listened to a whole lot more in the interim and subscribed to even more feeds, so here are some additional recommendations. The ones in bold are my favourites, and the ones I most highly recommend.

Source: Podcastle

Podcasts of fantasy fiction. My favourite of the 3 Escape Artist podcasts.

  • The Ghost of Christmas Possible, by Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw
  • Limits, by Donna Glee Williams
  • A Window, Clear as a Mirror, by Ferrett Steinmetz
  • Their Changing Bodies, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
  • Lavanya and Deepika, by Shveta Thakrar
  • Destiny, with a Blackberry Sauce, by David J. Schwartz
  • Urchins, While Swimming, by Catherynne M. Valente
  • A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet, by Garth Nix
  • In the Stacks, by Scott Lynch
  • The Rugged Track, by Liz Argall

Source: Escape Pod

Escape Pod has recently been giving PodCastle a run for its money. They introduced a new person to handle their feedback segment, and he’s a great improvement over their old feedback presenter.

  • Revenants, by Judith Tarr
  • Surviving the eBookalypse, by Randy Henderson
  • The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived, by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
  • Devour, by Ferrett Steinmetz
  • Overclocking, by James L. Sutter
  • Counting Cracks, by George R. Galuschak

Source: Pseudopod

Pseudopod is still the Escape Artists podcast that gives me the greatest trouble. There are good stories, but I find a lot of them are overwrought or just not engaging.

  • The Poor Girl Taken by Surprise, by Gemma Files
  • The Stink of Animosity, by Rob E. Boley
  • To My Wondering Eyes Did Appear, by Larry C. Kay
  • A Study in Flesh and Mind, by Liz Argall
  • The Burning Servant, by Steven Saus

Source: Daily Science Fiction

Daily Science Fiction – short stories in your inbox every weekday. Despite the title, they deal in all forms of speculative fiction, not just SF.

  • Biomass, by Alexander Stanmyer
  • Magic Enough, by Chuck Von Nordheim
  • Angry Child, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • The Steel Throne, by Eric James Stone
  • The Age of Three Stars, by Kenneth Sehneyer
  • The Pencil of Truth, by Shamus Maxwell
  • In Her Arms of Dresden Pale, by Damien Walters Grintalis
  • The Prisoners, by D.K. Latta
  • Nilly, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • Bus Ride to Mars, by Cat Rambo
  • The Procedure, by L.E. Elder
  • The Princess of the Perfume River, by Aliette de Bodard
  • Genie Electric, by Andrew Kaye
  • The Way, by Frank Dutkiewicz
  • Insomnia, by A.G. Carpenter
  • The Heartless Light of Stars, by Aliette de Bodard
  • Memories of My Mother, by Ken Liu
  • Godshift, by Nancy Fulda
  • Frog/Prince, by Melissa Mead
  • Offering Solace, by Jamie Lackey
  • After, by C.L. Holland
  • Nameless, by Mari Ness

Source: Toasted Cake

Toasted Cake is a new podcast by Tina Connolly. I first read her stories through DSF, but she’s also a gifted audio presenter. Her voice is pointed and distinctive. Toasted Cake specializes in flash fiction – a nice little bite of cake to whet your appetite.

  • Health Tips for Traveller, by David W. Goldman
  • The Ballad of Delphinium Blue, by Samantha Henderson
  • Mount Rainier Considers its Mental Health, by Spencer Ellsworth
  • Please Return My Son Who Is in Your Custody, by Helena Bell
  • Again and Again and Again, by Rachel Swirsky
  • Shatter Shatter by Sean Markey

Source: Cast of Wonders

Cast of Wonders is a newer podcast hosted by Graeme Dunlop, who also narrates audio fiction for some of the podcasts listed above. CoW is like Podcastle in that it does fantasy fiction, but it aims to be more all-ages friendly. How they define “all-ages” is unknown to me, because some of their stories involve sex, violence, and even drug-dealing.

  • A Suitable Pet, by Abigail Hilton
  • A Proof of Unicorns, by Elizabeth Creith
  • Damnation, by Chris Stamp
  • Alienation, by Katherine Sparrow (a 2-part episode)
  • Same-Day Delivery, by Desmond Warzel
  • Saved, by Arin Greenwood (a 2-part episode)

2012 Reading challenge, book 7: Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Title: Carnacki the Ghost Finder
Author: William Hope Hodgson
Publisher: N/A (public domain)
Rating: 2 out of 5
Format: eBook

Note: I downloaded my copy of Carnacki the Ghost Finder from Project Gutenberg. The edition I read contained only 6 stories, not 9.

This is the second anthology that I read this year, but it probably won’t be the last. All of the stories in it revolve around cases of supernatural occurrences that the main character, Carnacki, has been asked to examine, so they’re a neat mix of paranormal horror and Holmsian mystery. I was first introduced to Carnacki through Podcastle‘s production of “The Gateway of the Monster” and read the anthology on the strength of that story. Unfortunately, “Gateway” is the strongest work in it, and establishes a template that the subsequent stories follow very closely:

  • Carnacki invites his friends over for dinner, and they wait in anticipation for him to talk of his latest escapade. He starts speaking only after he’s had his meal, and entertains no mention of the topic beforehand. He then starts talking, and this monologue forms the body of the story.
  • He describes both the opening circumstances of the case in great detail and his firsthand experiences of the strange phenomena he’s been asked to investigate.
  • He examines the physical surroundings of the location and remains stumped.
  • He then sets up his equipment and faces the strange occurrences head-on, but those experiences generally put him in danger.
  • His equipment proves instrumental in saving his life and providing a crack in the case, as more often than not, he discovers a small but telling detail that allows him to solve the mystery at hand.
  • Carnacki’s narrative returns to the present day, where he answers any remaining questions his guests have and then sends them home.

Notable in all of the stories is Carnacki’s constant use of the word “queer” to describe things (sometimes as frequently as three times on a single page) and the rhetorical questions he repeatedly asks his listeners in order to make them empathize with him. Questions like “Do you see?” and “Can you understand that?” are liberally deployed in order to make his listeners comprehend the fear he felt during his investigations. Despite these tics, the stories hold up remarkably well in terms of pacing.

However, I was mightily disappointed by the fact that the majority of the mysteries ended up having a non-supernatural basis. There are six stories in total. In two of them, it turns out that while there are ghosts haunting the house in question, it is actually other people who are behind the supernatural situation Carnacki has been asked to investigate. In another two, it turns out that there are no ghosts at all.

All of this makes the “Ghost Finder” part of the title a sham. The collection was marred by the predictability of the routine mentioned above, and by the Scooby-Doo-like nature of the non-ghost stories. Of the six works included in Carnacki the Ghost Finder, I enjoyed “The Gateway of the Monster” and “The Whistling Room”  the most and would place “The Searcher of the End House” in the “honourable mention” category, but the other three were frustrating.

Next up: Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress

2012 Reading Challenge, book 6: Dead Men Don’t Cry

Title: Dead Men Don’t Cry
Author: Nancy Fulda
Publisher: CreateSpace/Independent
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

I first heard about Nancy Fulda’s work through Escape Pod‘s recording of her short story “Movement.” It was a haunting, sad piece with such an expressive reading that I was awestruck. It appears that others agree since the story was recently nominated for a Nebula award.

Dead Men Don’t Cry is an anthology of her short stories. Instead of following the “like/dislike” format of earlier book reviews, I’ll discuss each story individually and then provide an overview.

Pastry Run: I’m a sucker for funny stories, so this was a pleasant opener to the collection. Space travel is normally treated with such solemnity in science fiction that it’s nice to see Fulda popping the balloon and showing us the more mundane possibilities it offers. Like, say, a daily run delivering fresh pastries to the moon. The space travel technology described is fairly standard, but the absurdity of it all is polished to a high sheen when you add elements like traffic jams and impatient old French ladies.

Dead Men Don’t Cry: Political intrigue abounds between extra-terrestrial colonies and Earth, now an aggressive home world. An assassination attempt has been made on an ambassador from Earth on the eve of a controversial peace treaty. However, the would-be assassin’s protege, a high-ranking bureaucrat, believes in his now-dead mentor’s innocence and has been tasked with uncovering the truth. It’s not a bad story, but I felt like I was being introduced to too many characters and too much information too quickly.

Blue Ink: Jason is a 6-year-old boy nervous about being cloned. Is the procedure painful? Will people forget about him in the cloning chamber? Most importantly, will his clone be happy doing all of the menial tasks that he won’t have to do himself? All Jason wants is to meet his clone and talk to him. But when Jason wakes up from the cloning procedure, things aren’t quite as he expected… This is a good short story with a realistic-sounding main character, interesting technology, and more than a smidgen of class commentary.

Backlash: Is changing the events of the past ever justified? In this story, the main character is (unsuccessfully) hijacked by his older self from 40 years in the future to prevent a terrorist attack and the eventual collapse of the United States. This story was the weakest of the collection – it contained too much technobabble about the technology that would make this type of time travel possible and too much action for me to feel fully immersed in it. It might have worked better if it had been given room to breathe in novella form.

Monument: A very short but evocative piece about how the human race destroyed its first – and so far only – chance of contact with an alien species. This story displays a great depth of emotion despite its length.

Tammi’s Garden: Tamela is a young girl in a lush garden. Tammi is a young girl in a warren of subterranean caverns. Tamela lives in an intellectual world without deprivation or emotion. Tammi lives in a world where the walls are crumbling and poisonous gas is leaking in, but at least she has her mother’s love. Tammi/Tamela has to choose which world she ultimately wants to live in. An interesting story, but I’m still not quite sure whether the memories Tammi/Tamela experiences are of other worlds, the future vs the past, alternate timelines, or wishes from the subconscious, which I think was Fulda’s intent.

All Praise to the Dreamer: Earth has been invaded by the Zollners, a sentient species with the ability to detect psychic echoes and a painful aversion to the psychic residue caused by death. They offer stability and security in exchange for the souls of children destined for greatness – such children are taken from their families and given to the Dreamer so that the Dreamer may shape the future. Sharon is one of the people who first acquiesced to the Zollners upon their arrival, but now that they have come for her child, she finds she must make the ultimate sacrifice to protect him. This story is short and sharp, with an ending that makes sense in context, but is shocking nonetheless.

The Breath of Heaven: The Three Laws of Robotics are turned on their head in this story of a group of robots that kill a human settlement not because of flaws in their programming, but flaws in the directives which they’ve been given – flaws which now manifest in their quest for an ideal human operator. The protagonist robot, Sacia, now has to reconcile her newfound sense of awareness and self-preservation with her search for an ideal operator. Think of HAL 9000, but with an appreciation of beauty, movement, and the subtleties of reincarnation. This is one of, if not the, strongest stories in the collection, and presages Fulda’s growing skill – reading this story, it is not surprising to see the connections between its strong and elegant prose style and that of “Movement.”

Ghost Chimes: In Alicia’s world, death is not an impediment towards getting involved in the affairs of others – especially if they are those of your orphaned but now adult daughter. Alicia’s mother, a devout Catholic, gave up her chance on the Afterlife by undergoing a neural procedure that would allow her to remain on this earthly plane after she died. When she was 10, Alicia needed her mother’s care, but now that she’s all grown up, she resents her mother’s constant intrusions, and has to figure out how to gain her independence. This story has an interesting concept, but it rang hollow to me – I lost my own dad when I was young, and I’d leap even now, as an adult, at the chance to see and talk to him. This story mines a very strange vein of humour that I felt was at odds with the character’s circumstances.

The Man Who Murdered Himself: This story examines the central element of “Blue Ink” – human replication – but inverts one of the circumstances of the first story. In “Blue Ink,” clones were imperfect replicas of a perfectly normal person. But here, the person being replicated is already imperfect – a man with a painful infliction who is hoping to use cutting-edge technology to reform his misshapen body. Based on the title, though, I’m sure you can guess the ending. This one is just as sad as “Blue Ink,” but for entirely different reasons.

A New Kind of Sunrise: Fulda takes us to a planet with dramatically lengthened day and night cycles – it rotates so slowly that the land bakes to a crisp in the sun, and is deathly cold at nighttime. The only habitable portion of the planet is the thin band of clouds that rotates across it as twilight approaches, bringing rainfall and rejuvenation.

Mikaena is a nomad travelling with her tribe underneath the planet’s rotating band of cloud cover when she finds a young man near death on her tribe’s caravan route. He claims to be from the northern polar region of the planet, where a great Brotherhood protects the ancient scientific secrets of its original colonizers. However, this Brotherhood has forsaken its duty of helping all of the planet’s inhabitants, and it is the young man’s goal to make a new settlement – to Colonize the Day – and spread the Brotherhood’s knowledge far and wide. Mikaena finds herself drawn to the young man and his new ideas, but accepting them means moving beyond the practices of her tribe and facing her father’s disapproval.

This is the longest story in the collection, and one that is ripe for a full-length novel treatment. The characters themselves are a tad too familiar – the young man who disrupts the status quo, the young woman torn between love and tradition, the stern and unaccepting father, the wise healer woman – but the physical characteristics of the world itself are so fascinating that I want to hear more.

Overview: Now that I think about it, one of the themes that plays throughout the stories – most evident in “All Praise to the Dreamer” but also visible in almost every other story – is the conflict between freedom and security.

Throughout, these stories ask us what price we’re willing to pay for our safety. That alien ship may be full of unknown biological threats, but is it really worth it to destroy our only chance of interacting with another form of sentient life? What risks do we entertain when we try to change the events of the past? Should we sacrifice the souls of a small number of our children to ensure the stability of the future? Is it worth it to live in a world of intellectual pursuit when you can’t feel love or fear?

This is a great story collection full of clear yet thoughtful prose. The stories within range from humorous to poignant to macabre, with side stops to analytical and hopeful in between. While this collection rarely reaches the heights of emotion offered by “Movement,” these stories bring up a host of meaningful questions and ideas.

Next up: Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson