WSFA Small Press Award

My novelette “Fairest of All” is a finalist for the WSFA Small Press Award! “Fairest of All” was first published in the Jubilee issue of The Future Fire in 2019, and it is one of the most personal short stories I’ve ever written. It’s an #ownvoices fairy tale in which a triad of non-neurotypical characters – two of them changelings,all of them ill-suited to either the human or the faerie realms – find each other and help each other escape abuse.

The winner of the award will be announced at Capclave in October. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet read “Fairest of All,” it’s available for free online in The Future Fire’s archives.

(Trigger warning, though, because I really mean it about the “abuse” part.)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 61: Displacement

Today’s Book: “Displacement” by Richard Ford Burley.

The Plot: Jamie, a teenage punk at an elite prep school, develops a mysterious illness – and wakes up having transformed into a perfect copy of his dead twin sister. As he and his friends try to cope with whatever just happened, the truth about Jamie’s body – and his sister’s – connects to a series of conspiracies far stranger than they ever could have guessed.

Autistic Character(s): The author, as well as a girl in Jamie’s class named Tina – more on her later.

Although I mostly enjoyed Burley’s previous book, “Mouse,” I really had no idea what to expect going in to this one. The “boy wakes up in a female body” trope is one that many trans readers rightly view with suspicion. Fortunately Burley, who is nonbinary himself, approaches the topic with nuance. And while gender is a major part of Jamie’s character arc throughout the book, it quickly transpires that there are far wilder things afoot than a gender transition.

To get the gender aspect out of the way, though – Jamie, who soon takes the more androgynous name Leigh, is realistically confused and upset as he adjusts to a body that causes dysphoria for him. He sticks to he/him pronouns throughout the book, and experiences some of the microaggressions and awkward moments that are realistic for a trans boy at a not-very-progressive upper-class boarding school. These moments are handled with nuance and care, and they don’t take over the story. Meanwhile, as Leigh adjusts to his new social role, he starts to realize that he might not have been fully comfortable as a boy either, and that it might be more accurate to call himself nonbinary.

The big, cosmic, weird shit aspects of the story don’t really begin to come together until halfway through, but they’re worth the wait. Fortunately the time spent waiting for them – as Leigh and a plucky, punky group of school friends hang out together, start a band, play pranks, deal with gender feelings and so on, and as mysterious messages from an ominous entity called “Betza” begin to arrive – is entertaining enough in its own right. I won’t spoil what turns out to be going on, but it involves secret weapons, alternate universes, runaway AI, and nanotechnology… just for starters. Even given the strangeness of the incident that starts out the story, Leigh and his friends are in for a much wilder ride than they know.

Autism isn’t foregrounded in this story, but the group of friends accompanying Leigh on his adventure includes an autistic classmate named Tina. I really like how Tina is written – she might be one of the best examples of an autistic secondary character / sidekick, seen through non-autistic protagonists’ eyes, that I’ve ever read. She’s quiet and mousy, but she loves the same music as the main characters, and she asks to join the band that they’re starting; as soon as the main characters hear how she can play the bass guitar, she’s instantly one of them. She’s clever in a realistically autistic way – noticing small details, at several points, that the others miss – without being turned into a cleverness plot device. The main characters notice her differences, but they’re genuinely happy to have her around.

There’s another minor character who reads as possibly autistic to me – a prickly computer scientist named Faye, who’s happy to spend all of her time alone in a lab developing her pet project instead of bothering dealing with humans. But we don’t see enough of Faye to make me confident saying it for sure.

Overall this is much more a story about gender, otherness, family bonds, and friendship than a story about autism – but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, and well worth picking up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Richard Ford Burley, “Hello, World” (The Colored Lens, Summer 2016)
[Autistic author] An AI prototype named Alice has to be raised by human parents before her mind is complete. When her human mother dies unexpectedly, her human father fights to keep custody of a robot daughter he’s grown to love. This story is all from Alice’s point of view, and while it’s not an Autism Story, Alice is written in a way that make the parallels between her and an autistic character very plain. She works hard to learn the meaning of human facial expressions and of questions about preferences and feelings. Alice matures over time in a naturalistic way which resists being read as a story of “healing” or “overcoming” – she’s simply gaining knowledge and skills in a loving environment. [Recommended-2]

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Robin M Eames, “The moon under water” (overland, 233 summer 2018)
[Autistic author] This is an intertextual meditation on the role of disability (and the origins of ableism) in human myth and fantasy. There’s a character who uses a wheelchair and is also described as “tapping her fingertips… in anxious patterns” in a way that might or might not be meant to evoke autistic stimming. But this character’s exact possible diagnoses are not the point – the point is the poetic and incisive way that Eames weaves the different narratives together, changing their details here and there to expose what is normally left out, and it’s really well done. [Recommended-2]

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Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of You” (Nightmare, Issue 84, September 2019)
[Autistic author] A nicely creepy horror story about a VR game called “Vore,” which is what it says on the can. The game fulfils a fantasy that seems strange, but harmless at first – until its aftereffects settle into the players’ brains in ways they can’t undo, and the question arises of where this game came from, exactly. Fans of creepypasta and non-linear narratives will enjoy this one. [Recommended-2]

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Amber Bird, “who i am” (Fireside, November 2019)
[Autistic author] A short, sweet love poem in which the narrator compares zirself to a river. I really like this one. [Recommended-2]

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RB Lemberg, “To Balance the Weight of Khalem” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #300, March 26, 2020)
[Autistic author] The tale of a genderqueer refugee student, a manta ray shapeshifter, a spherical city that hangs in the air, and a magical onion. This isn’t Birdverse, but its lushly detailed descriptions have a similar feel. The descriptions of food in particular will make readers hungry. [Recommended-2]

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Ashley Deng, “Dégustation” (Nightmare, Issue 94 – July 2020)
[Autistic author] The protagonist in this one isn’t technically an autistic person – she’s a member of a family of fungus people disguised as humans – but the ways she is treated by normal humans, and the careful, painful way she works to figure out what they expect of her, map so precisely onto common autistic experiences that I can’t help but call it an #ownvoices autism story. It’s also a subversion of the “secret aliens/monsters among us” trope – they are among us, but they’re just regular people trying to fit in. In the end, the protagonist learns to savor her unusual gifts for their own sake, instead of waiting for an ableist human’s approval. [Recommended-1]

THE FALLEN cover reveal

Look at this amazing cover for THE FALLEN! This is the much-anticipated sequel to THE OUTSIDE, and it’s forthcoming in July 2021.

For more about THE FALLEN, check out the official cover reveal on Tor.com here.

Broken Eye Books Kickstarter!

You might remember that, in the spring, my short story “Back Room” was published on the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Broken Eye uses a Patreon-first publishing model, in which Patreon backers get to see the stories first, and they’re later collected into anthologies.

“Back Room” was for an anthology called “Cooties Shot Required” – themed around Weird stories, written for grown-ups, but with children as the central characters. My take on that theme involved two non-neurotypical sisters getting lost in an overwhelming store at the mall – which turns out to be much bigger, and much stranger, than they supposed.

Broken Eye Books is now kickstarting their ninth anthology, “Whether Change, The Revolution Will Be Weird.” And “Cooties Shot Required” is involved with this Kickstarter in several ways:

  • By pledging US $12 or more, you can get both “Whether Change” and “Cooties Shot Required” as a kickstarter reward – to my knowledge, this is the first time the full “Cooties Shot Required” anthology has ever been available for purchase. $40 will get you both anthologies in paperback, and $70 will get them to you in hardcover.
  • Plus, if the Kickstarter reaches its $15,000 stretch goal, both anthologies will open to unsolicited submissions. You could be TOC-mates with me! (Not to mention the other wonderful names who’ve already written “Cooties Shot Required” stories – including Brandon O’Brien, Sheree Thomas, and Damien Angelica Walters.)

I’ve worked with Broken Eye Books before, in their “Ride the Star Wind” anthology (which contains a short story set in THE OUTSIDE’s universe) and really enjoyed the experience.

So if Weird short fiction, children, and revolutions are your thing (and, honestly, who can say in times like these that revolution isn’t their thing?) and you have budget to spare, then definitely check the Kickstarter out.

NEW STORY: Melting Like Metal

Melting Like Metal is out in this month’s issue of Lightspeed. This is a new short story in THE OUTSIDE’s universe, from Enga Afonbataw Konum’s point of view.

If you ever wanted more of Enga’s own feelings about her abilities & disabilities, about Akavi and Elu, about Nemesis and the missions she goes on for the Gods, and even a hint of her backstory, it’s all here – including some twists.

If you haven’t read THE OUTSIDE and don’t know who Enga is, this story should still be newcomer-friendly for you. Prepare for Evil Space Opera starring a non-speaking autistic badass cyborg who’s ready to wreck some heretics – along with maybe other things.

(Content warning for a lot of stuff about meltdowns, restraint/seclusion, and ableism generally)

Cool Story, Bro: favorite spec fic from January – April

In January and February I was exhausting myself with work-related reading and didn’t have a lot left over for enjoying speculative fiction. But in the two months since, I’ve found myself drawn to stories about identity and self-discovery. Here are a few good ones:

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John Wiswell, “Gender and Other Faulty Software” (Fireside, April)

This is a story about a genderqueer space explorer and a spaceship with gender dysphoria and it is completely freakin’ hilarious.

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Brendan Williams-Childs, “The Wedding After the Bomb” (Glitter & Ashes anthology; I read it in Catapult)

For those of us who want stories of hope, in the form of imperfect, organic, adaptable carrying-on in the face of apocalyptic events, this story hits the spot. It tells the story of a genderqueer person who braves the Canadian wilderness to travel on foot, on a route that skirts the edge of a nuclear explosion, to their lesbian friends’ wedding. The depictions of queer community and its complexities in this one are just really good, and what the protagonist learns about themself and their place in the world is very satisfying.

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Maria Romasco-Moore, “The Moon Room” (Kaleidotrope, Spring 2020)

This is the story of Sasha, a strange amorphous being disguised as a human, who doesn’t remember her own origins and is obsessed with uncovering them. There’s also a lot of fun stuff about analog photography and drag shows. Sasha’s quest to understand herself is an obvious metaphor for being trans, and the story works really well on that level, but it’s also written vividly enough to work on a surface level – or to serve as a metaphor for other, less obvious hidden identities. The last line is utter perfection.

*

Millie Ho, “Hungry Ghost” (Uncanny, Issue Thirty-Three)

I have tried and failed several times now to put into words what I feel about this poem. It’s good? It’s about death and letting go, but it’s much more than that.

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C.S.E. Cooney, “For Mrs. Q” (Fireside, December 2019)

This is top-tier sapphic love poetry, passionate and specific, drawing a sharp portrait not only of the charismatic woman who is loved, and of the effect she has on the narrator, but of where that love fits into so many other things. It bursts out like the bright red cardinal from its own first line. I’ve liked Cooney’s poetry for a long time, but she’s outdone herself with this one.

Philip K. Dick Award Livestream

The 2020 Philip K. Dick Award ceremony will be streaming live tonight at 7pm PST! The streaming link is up on Norwescon’s web page; you can see it here.

The livestream will include a video of me reading a dramatic scene from THE OUTSIDE, as well as similar contributions from the other nominees.

I hope some of you will be watching along!

Back Room

My short story, “Back Room,” is up now on the Broken Eye Books Patreon.

“Back Room” was solicited for an anthology of contemporary weird fiction involving children, under Broken Eye Books’ Patreon-first model – Patreon backers will get the fiction almost immediately, and eventually it will be collected in book form. Having previously contributed to the “Ride the Star Wind” anthology, I know Broken Eye Books does quality work.

“Back Room” is the story of two non-neurotypical sisters who get lost in a store at the mall, which goes much further back and into much weirder store-like dimensions than either of them anticipated.

The feeling of being overwhelmed and disoriented in retail spaces is a common one for me and no doubt for many autistic people. The Lagoona Beauty Boutique in this story is very loosely based on Lush, but I want to stress that I have nothing against Lush in particular – I am overwhelmed by almost every store and this one simply happened to be quirky and distinctive enough to be easy to write about.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Mr. Try Again” (Nightmare, March 2018)

[Autistic author] When Merc does straight-up horror, they do NOT fuck around. This story will make your skin crawl. It involves a gruesome monster who eats boys and imprisons girls, a girl who got away from him, how she lives as an adult with her trauma and the things she has been made to do – and how she responds when things come full circle and she returns to confront the monster again. It’s really effectively done, and the imprisoned girls get their revenge in the end. [Recommended-2]

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Bogi Takács, “Continuity Imperative” (The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol 7. No. 1, 2017)

[Autistic author] A short poem about the attempt of an engineer to fix an injured biological spaceship. Visceral and urgent, easily capturing the engineer’s desperation. [Recommended-2]

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Brendan Williams-Childs, “Schwaberow, Ohio” (Meanwhile, Elsewhere, 2017; I read it reprinted on Medium)

Walt, a trans autistic teen in the rural Midwest, deals with dysfunctional, ableist caregivers and with the political spectre of invasive neurological treatments which are becoming increasingly common as “cures” both for autism and for gender dysphoria. This type of story and setting are a hard sell for me but Walt is a kind of autistic protagonist we need to see more of – not only for his transness but for his cultural position (he’s a confused, working-class boy in the country, not any kind of STEM genius) and for his difficulties with expressive speech. The narration is matter-of-fact and shows the atypical patterns of Walt’s thinking and the wrongness of the dismissive ways he’s treated, along with an alertness and thoughtfulness beyond what is apparent to the other characters.

The story is of course anti-cure, but I am slightly uneasy with how the cure theme is handled. Walt’s unwillingness to be cured is based mainly in a knee-jerk horror of the idea of brain implants coupled with strong dehumanization of public figures who do have them. He’s right to be horrified by non-consensual neurological treatment, but the dehumanization angle bothers me, especially when it lumps in other forms of assistive cyborg technologies along with the brain implants. I don’t think that this is a story that would come off well for readers with prosthetic limbs, for instance. [YMMV]

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Richard Ford Burley, “A Study in Pink and Gold” (Abyss & Apex, June 2019)[Autistic author] This is the story of a painter and a group of aliens, called “Drifters,” which have mysteriously appeared on Earth and are unaggressive but difficult to communicate with. The painter’s patient, careful observation of them on their own terms leads to a strange, lifelong cross-species friendship. There’s no overt autism in this story, but the wordless and peaceful interactions between human and alien in the story will ring true to many autistic people’s experiences, either with each other or with other kinds of people and creatures; or, for some, it is a kind of interaction we long to have. [Recommended-2]

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Yoon Ha Lee, “The Mermaid Astronaut” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 27, 2020)

[Autistic author] A delightfully gentle retelling of The Little Mermaid in which a mermaid grows up longing to explore the stars, and a team of aliens arrives willing to grant her wish. I like the way Esserala’s family supports her in her dreams and the way she isn’t pushed into any artificial conflict between her home culture and the spacefaring culture she joins, nor into any need to change or silence herself for a love interest. The inherent difficulties of space travel, even when everyone involved is kind and helpful, provide enough conflict to carry the story by themselves. [Recommended-2]

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Rita Chen, “Strangleknot” (Liminality, Spring 2020)

[Autistic author] An affecting and vivid poem about ongoing trauma, pain, and the way words and memories get stuck in the body. Many autistic readers will be able to relate to the feeling of not being able to let one’s hurts go, no matter how one tries. [Recommended-2]