Cool stories from July and August

Late, and short – the last month or so seems to have gotten away from me, as months often do – but here are my favorite short works that I read over the summer.

Caroline M. Yoachim, “Carnival Nine” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #228, May 11). A story about a world of wind-up toys who only have a certain number of “turns” per day. The metaphor for disability is so apt that at first it almost feels too on-the-nose, but by the time the story settles into the complexities and difficulties of its characters’ adult lives, it’s become compelling and really good.

Maddie Phelps, “Ocean Heart” (Strange Horizons, July 3). I have trouble expressing what I think about this one – a poem about boundaries and pressure, about choosing what we make of ourselves, about knowing one’s own depths. It’s good.

JY Yang, “Waiting on a Bright Moon” (Novelette, Tor.com, July 12). Gorgeous and vicious, this is the story of a rebellion against a space-empire that turns queer women into magical transportation devices. There is magical singing, and space wizards, and characters in desparate circumstances finding love where they can. (And – be warned – the most grisly execution scene I’ve read in a while.) A story of the risks people take and the meaning they find for themselves in the face of intense oppression.

Announcing MONSTERS IN MY MIND

I’ve kept this under wraps a little too long, but it’s definitely happening.

In mid-October I will be launching my debut collection, MONSTERS IN MY MIND, with NeuroQueer Books.

This will be my first book-length published work. (My agent assures me that, for the purposes of publishing novels, my first novel will still be considered a debut work. I made this deal before I signed with her.) It will contain dozens of the short stories, flash stories, and poems that I’ve published since I first began to write for publication, as well as four new full-length short stories, one very scary new microfic. and six new poems.

NeuroQueer Books is a very small outfit, but there are some very good people there who really “get” me as an author. MONSTERS IN MY MIND is, accordingly, a small project – I have no illusions that it will make me wealthy, etc – but one with a lot of love in it, and one that I am tremendously excited to be about to share with my friends and fans.

There will be a book launch party during Can*Con 2017 in Ottawa – exact time TBD as Can*Con finalizes their schedule – with a reading, delicious baked goods, and some awesome monster-plushie and stim-toy door prizes, so if you are in the area or were considering going there for Can*Con already, please do stop by.

The launch date is only a month away, and so very soon you will be seeing more on this topic, including a TOC reveal, a cover reveal, more about the launch party, notes on the stories and poems in the collection, as well as a song pairing for (at least) each full-length story. When pre-order and/or plain normal order options are available, I’ll be posting here about that as well.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 37: Mirror Project

Today’s Book: “Mirror Project” by Michael Scott Monje, Jr.

The Plot: A wealthy businessman tries to build a robot body in which to resurrect his dead wife. But the AI consciousness that arises is not his wife, and is horrified by his coercive attempts at making her into something she isn’t.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

Let me just say this up front. This is a friggin’ terrifying book. It’s a book from the point of view of a protagonist who spends almost the entire book imprisoned by people who control her so completely that they can turn off her limbs, consciousness, and senses at will – and who don’t at all have her best interests at heart.

Just how terrifying and potentially triggering this book is will be obvious to anyone who reads the blurb. It’s important to note that it’s actually less awful than I was afraid it would be. It’s not written exploitatively, for shock value or titillation. It’s actually written quite well, and with a constant focus on what the protagonist is thinking and planning, how she is using the limited agency allowed to her to cope and push back against her situation. There are no rape scenes (although the threat of rape, and other violations, hangs constantly over the protagonist’s head). There is no tropey, SFnal mind control of the type that often happens in stories where a person can be reprogrammed (although the protagonist IS gaslit, constantly, by everyone). We know that the protagonist is eventually going to escape, because the book opens with a framing story in which she is narrating her origins to someone who downloaded a program of hers. These are small mercies that made “Mirror Project” a lot easier to get through than it could have been. It is still a TERRIFYING BOOK. I cannot stress this enough. I had a slow and difficult time getting through it, because AAAAAAAAA.

Yeah. So.

If we put aside these emotional concerns then there is a lot to admire about “Mirror Project”. There is a calm, unflinching groundedness to the way the book describes the protagonist’s situation, the options available to her, the reactions she has, and the choices she makes.

(I am having intense difficulty describing the protagonist with a name. The author refers to this series as the “Lynn Vargas universe”, but Lynn is the name of the dead wife that the protagonist is built to resemble, not the protagonist herself, so I cannot bring myself to refer to her that way. I am also not convinced that she/her pronouns are correct for this protagonist, but alternate pronouns are never mentioned or used in the book, so here we are.)

The author has obviously put thought and research into situations of imprisonment and isolation and their psychological effects. The people who the protagonist encounters during her imprisonment are also interestingly portrayed. Some are completely unreasonable; some have some sympathy and do some kindnesses for her, but still ultimately aren’t on her side; at least one is clearly unaware of the scope of what’s been done to her, and is manipulated into actions that harm her anyway.

Interestingly, there is one, small, blink-and-you-miss-it mention of autism in the book. This is in a scene where two characters are intensely gaslighting the protagonist and telling her that she does not have real volition and her actions are not real actions; they are “autism-like” behaviors. This small mention, I think, is very telling of where this kind of story might be coming from, and what it might mean for its author. Autistic people are not generally put into robot bodies and told that they are someone’s wife, but institutionalization and dehumanizing medical control is something that happens to a lot of autistic people, and abusive relationships are another thing that often happens. If you somehow merged those two nightmares together, “Mirror Project” is probably what you’d get. I don’t know much about the author or their history and don’t want to presume, but “Mirror Project” reads to me like the kind of book that is by and for survivors. It’s also an interesting angle on the ethics of strong AI, of the kind that an autistic author might be uniquely positioned to make.

Anyway, this book is going to be intensely triggering for many readers. But it does what it does very well. If you’re the kind of reader who likes reading respectful depictions of intense trauma, who feels seen and understood by that kind of story instead of wanting to run to the hills, then this book is for you. I’m glad that it’s out there. And now I’m going to go hide under a blanket and try to never think about it again.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Michael Scott Monje Jr. I bought an e-copy of this book and read it on my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 36 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Alyssa Hillary, “Where None Have Thought To Go” (self-published, 2014)

[Autistic author] An autistic person named Mendel makes friends with a planet of sentient AI and becomes a cyborg. Along the way, he makes a decision that could change how the people around him think about autism.

This is a really interesting concept but the execution confused me. For instance: the other protagonist, Trevina, is surprised to hear that Mendel is not neurotypical; but only a few minutes later in the same scene she is thinking sophisticated thoughts about how difficult it has always been for him as an autistic person to operate in an NT world, without any indication that anything about these thoughts might be new. Soon afterwards, Mendel is justifying big decisions by saying that people have always refused to believe he can think – yet people close to him had no idea he was not NT until that day.

These parts of the story would work better for a character with a different diagnosis and treatment history, to such a dramatic extent that I wondered if the author had changed their mind about the character partway through writing and forgot to correct it – or if there’s something about how people are treated in this SFnal world that we’re not being told. As it is, despite some attempts at explanation, the motivation behind most of Mendel and Trevina’s actions remains opaque.

(Also, minor gripe: AI goes into Mendel’s brain and turns him into a cyborg without his informed consent, and no one including Mendel has more than a vague passing issue with this. Please don’t do that.)

I feel like, with a thorough edit, this would become a good story that has interesting things to say. I do like the way that the cyborg and AI characters’ minds are depicted. It’s certainly not a story that fails, in the sense of being insulting or dehumanizing, the way many NTs’ stories do. But the writing is so slapdash that most of its conceptual value gets lost in the shuffle. [Not Recommended]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “Puppetry” (Accessing the Future, April 2015)

[Autistic author] A war story about a soldier with a computer system in her brain that can take over her physical actions, and how she and her fellow soldiers manage a mutiny. Buchanan’s protagonist is not autistic, but has severe dyspraxia. The army’s system allows her to plan movements that look normal – but also prevents her from running away or taking any other initiative, even as basic as helping a wounded comrade without permission. Autistic readers will relate to the clever things the story has to say about cures, normalization, control, and autonomy. There is also an interesting thread about the accessibility implications of terraforming, which is something I hadn’t considered before. [Recommended-2]

*

Suvi Kauppila, “Wither and Blossom” (Samovar, March 27, 2017)

A story about a person who returns to the fantasy world that they and their autistic sister shared when they were young. I am not sure how I feel about the death themes in this story; the autistic character dies young of what is implied to be a suicide, although the adults in the story chalk it up to “wandering”. Most of the adults in these characters’ lives are quite ableist, and it’s only the narrator who takes the time to communicate with their sister and to share her world. It’s very easy for young dead disabled people in this type of story, as with tragic queer narratives, to be handled problematically. What saves this one for me is how the narrator genuinely values their sister, even when the people around them don’t. Their shared world is not merely a beautiful sad memory; both it and the sister herself are things that the narrator actively works to return to, even years later. The eventual success of these efforts presents the autistic sister as someone who both needs the NT narrator and has something to offer them, and whose world just might be more beautiful and real than the ableist “real” world. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Bogi Takács, “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus” (Clarkesworld, April 2017)

[Autistic author] A story from the point of view of a sentient octopus, many generations after humans “uplifted” octopi and helped them communicate using a psychic interface. Of course, the humans were not completely benevolent when they did this – they wanted to use the octopi for something, and to use other humans as well. There are no autistic characters in this story, but it’s a story that interrogates the ethics of “animal uplift” tropes as only a story by a neurodivergent author could. [Recommended-2]

*

Richard Ford Burley, “I Fight Monsters” (Strange Horizons, May 8, 2017)

[Autistic author] A poem about a monster-slaying, Beowulf-like hero who is gradually becoming monstrous himself. There’s a lot of play with sound, rhyme, rhythm and alliteration in this poem; I would recommend reading it aloud. The descriptions of monsters and violence are visceral without becoming gratuitous, and the ending is well done. [Recommended-2]

Everything Is True: A Non-Neurotypical Experience With Fiction

Uncanny Magazine is Kickstarting Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and they were kind enough to solicit a personal essay from me. The essay is up now as part of the Kickstarter campaign, and will also appear in the Destroy Science Fiction issue itself.

For the last few weeks, it’s been crunch time in one of my most important projects at school, which means I’ve had very little time to devote to promoting this Kickstarter as it deserves. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t seem that they need my help; the project is already funded, and they are working on stretch goals. Still, if you haven’t seen the Kickstarter already, I would advise you to check it out and donate if you can. Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is something I’ve wanted to see since the Destroy series first started, and I know it’s in good hands with Uncanny’s editors.

Personal essays are whole different ball game from stories, poetry, or book reviews. I found this one rather difficult to write. I’m still not sure to what extent it hangs together and to what extent it’s just a bunch of rambling about my childhood and the nature of reality. Still, I’m really pleased by the response I am seeing on Twitter and elsewhere; hopefully it will continue to be enlightening for some and helpful for others.

Autism News, 2017/07/16

Law enforcement news:

Media and reviews:

Australian politics:

Canadian politics:

Jobs:

  • M. Kelter interviews Art Shectman about Ultra Testing, a tech firm that hires autistic employees
  • Another company, EY, is also getting into the business of autistic hiring

On stereotypes and prejudice:

Misc:

Sad Things:

Cool stories from May and June

May and June, June especially, have been incredibly busy months for me, but I’ve still managed to read a few things that I really liked.

Vajra Chandrasekera, “Merrick” (Liminal Stories, Issue 3, spring/summer). An extended meditation on totalitarianism, grief, mental illness, and the anxieties that come with all three. It reads at the beginning like it might become an exploitative mental illness story, but instead it blossoms out into this strange, sad, sensitive thing in which the mental illness is only one of many problems and not nearly the worst, and vulnerable people just muddle along through all of it as best they can.

Gabriel Noel, “If I Told You” (Strange Horizons, March 20). A sharp, gorgeous poem about race and survival and fear. Also flowers.

Karolina Fedyk & Elzbieta Glowacka, “Of Iliaster” (Liminality, Issue #12, summer). A visual poem about queer love, knowledge, and wonder. I haven’t seen a poem in comic format before, but having seen this one, I’m sold. Absolutely gorgeous.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 36: So You Want to Be a Robot

Today’s Book: “So You Want to Be a Robot: 21 Stories”, a collection by A. Merc Rustad

Autistic Character(s): The author, among others!

“So You Want to Be a Robot” is a collection of speculative short stories – mostly fantasy (or sci-fi of the extremely fantastical variety), mostly dark, and mostly queer.

Rustad is the author of an essay called “I Don’t Want Your Queer Tragedy“, so it’s interesting to examine the collection in that light. Queer, trans, and nonbinary characters are thick on the ground in virtually every story, and are written with variety and respect. Most of them have strong, close, passionate relationships. Most of them, despite the darkness of many stories, get happy or hopeful endings.

It would be a mistake to view this as a light-hearted collection, though. Rustad is not an author who’s ever shied away from themes of monstrousness, abuse, or sacrifice. Several stories, particularly “Tomorrow When We See the Sun”, and “Winter Bride”, are not for the squeamish. Body horror and mutilation are common themes, as are protagonists living as the prisoners of seemingly omnipotent, sadistic beings. Some of these stories are so dark that it would be unrealistic for readers to ask for a happy ending; the glimmer of hope at the end is sometimes only a sense that the protagonist managed to accomplish something important before the night closed in.

But the collection isn’t all darkness either. Some stories, like the Nebula-nominated “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, are positively celebratory – often in explicit defiance of mainstream tropes, anti-queer or otherwise, that dictate what can and can’t be celebrated. Even in the darkest stories, love and community, including their queer varieties, aren’t devalued – they are vital to what the protagonists are doing.

Most of these stories are familiar to me as someone who follows Rustad’s work, but having them together in one book puts their shared traits into greater focus. Unapologetically being full of queer and trans characters is one of these traits, as is an intense sense of longing and loyalty, and the use of suns and other really bright lights to signify evil. So is a sheer density of invention that reminds me of Catherynne M. Valente or Yoon Ha Lee:

But let’s say you don’t get eaten by the roses. The circle you find yourself in next is a lightless tower that goes downward and never up. Chains spun from hanged men’s gurgles crisscross the stairs that don’t really exist. Beware of the ivy along the walls, for it grows on memory, until your mind is choked and full of leaves, and roots dig out through your skin and you forget why you came, and you sit there forever, and forever, and forever, and…

As for autism, Rustad’s writing isn’t as focused on this aspect of their identity as on their gender or sexuality. But a few stories do have autistic characters. I’ve previously reviewed “Iron Aria” and “Under Wine-Bright Seas” here, both of which are good stories with trans protagonists who read as autistic and have expressive speech difficulties.

A third story with an arguably autistic protagonist is the collection’s final entry, “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps”. The protagonist of this story, Tesla, both falls in love with a robot and longs to become one themself. They express their feelings through lists, some of which make it clear to me that Tesla isn’t neurotypical:

  1. 1. Pretend you are not a robot. This is hard, and you have been working at it for twenty-three years. You are like Data, except in reverse.
    2. (There are missing protocols in your head. You don’t know why you were born biologically or why there are pieces missing, and you do not really understand how human interaction functions. Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.)

I feel guilty claiming Tesla as an autistic character when “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” is so emphatically about other things. But it’s a deeply moving story about identity, dysphoria, depression, validation, and community, and it’s easily my favorite in the whole collection.

Overall, this is a very strong collection of stories that go well together. If you like what you’ve seen of A. Merc Rustad’s work online, you should definitely pick it up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: A. Merc Rustad is someone I consider a personal friend. I asked them for a review copy and received a physical copy of their book from the publisher for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This novella was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

How to fix the disability representation in “Wonder Woman”

The buzz around “Wonder Woman” has been so exciting to me, but because I’ve been so busy this spring, I had to wait a month before I saw it in the theatre. For the most part, it lived up to the hype. Wonder Woman is an amazing character, the movie on a craft level is beautiful and compelling, and so much of what it’s doing is empowering and good.

The Wonder Woman movie falls down, though, when it comes to disability. Dr. Poison is a villain who could have been complex and intriguing, and a foil against Wonder Woman’s goodness. Elena Anaya’s acting is vulnerable and on-edge in a way that consistently suggests there is more to the character than we see. But instead of actually developing that character, the movie relies on her facial disfigurement as a shorthand for both her evil and her pitiability.

Better minds than me have already explained why this is a problem. If you want some explanation in that vein, I would recommend this Teen Vogue article (which also shouts out to several other movie villains).

But I decided that I wasn’t content just to call out the problem – I wanted to talk about how the problem could be fixed.

One option, of course, would be to make Dr. Poison non-disabled. (A quick check in the Wikipedia suggests that her comics incarnation is not disabled, and wears a mask for other reasons.) This is a totally valid option and would definitely make the movie less problematic. But it also feels to me like a lazy fix. Once a movie is out where the character is disabled, asking to make her non-disabled feels tantamount to saying that you can never have a disabled villain. (Or, worse, that you shouldn’t try to write disabled characters at all, lest something like this be read into them.) I don’t quite believe that; what I believe is more nuanced.

(Full disclosure: my novel draft contains a hero and a villain who are both #ownvoices disabled. I have some skin in this game.)

So, if someone gave me a magic pen that could magically make any edits to this movie that I wanted, here’s how I would fix the disability representation in Wonder Woman.

Needless to say, there are some MAJOR WONDER WOMAN SPOILERS below the cut.

Continue reading “How to fix the disability representation in “Wonder Woman””

Autistic Book Party, Episode 35: A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power

Today’s Book: “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power”, a novella by Rose Lemberg

The Plot: A stranger arrives in the court of the Old Royal of the Burri Desert.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

“Portrait” is  set in the intricate fantasy world of Birdverse, in the same series as many other stories and poems I’ve reviewed here, but it stands well on its own. Its plot is a romance, although a romance of a very atypical type.

The Old Royal, an ancient and powerful person who rules a desert city and teaches at a magical school, is our protagonist. The Old Royal is effectively immortal, thanks to their connection to a magical star which prolongs their life and reincarnates them, with most of their memories, when they die. A young person, the Raker, arrives in the Old Royal’s court – but the Raker is not like the other people who flock to the Old Royal’s school. Extremely powerful and with a force of personality that utterly dominates most people, the Raker leaves a wake that confuses and concerns the Old Royal’s court. Perhaps it’s only the Old Royal themselves who can tame him – if the assassins that are rumored to be in the area, or the mysterious ghost who appears when the Raker sleeps, don’t get to them first.

(Readers familiar with Birdverse may recognize the Raker as a younger version of Tajar Kekeri from “Geometries of Belonging.”)

The Old Royal and the Raker have a sizzling attraction to each other that I can only describe as sexual, and they act on that attraction. But there’s no sex in the story, in the sense of anything involving genitals. Instead, the scenes between the Old Royal and the Raker are properly described as BDSM – except that BDSM practitioners in real life don’t have the kind of magic that can pierce someone’s skin with magic deepnames or turn you into a giant bird that flies around. These scenes manage to be wildly imaginative while also conveying intense desire and intense pleasure.

There’s also surprising depth to the kink in this story. Many nuanced issues around consent and negotiation are portrayed, including the question of whether and how someone as powerful as the Raker can ethically pursue relationships. Both characters make mistakes with each other, and then are quick to talk out those mistakes and fix them, which is basically my favorite romance trope ever.

Two other aspects of the romance provide refreshing representation. The kink in the story isn’t held to a perscriptive idea of what dominant and submissive partners should do: the Old Royal and the Raker are both tops, who negotiate complex and fulfilling interactions without either one psychologically submitting to the other. I also liked the way the Old Royal’s gender is handled. They’re gender fluid and undergo a magical gender transition every few years. They also preside over a festival where they help other trans denizens of Birdverse to do the same. In a very nice touch, Lemberg manages to make this aspect of the Old Royal’s gender clear without ever having to specify the anatomy of their current body.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I should mention something about it. I described the story as a romance, but romance as a genre contains some pretty strict expectations about endings. “Portrait” doesn’t have a traditional romance ending, but it also is not a tragic ending – this is not at all a queer tragedy story.

There is no autism anywhere in this story, but it’s another solid Birdverse installment with its detailed mythic setting, nuanced characters, and lyrical prose. If you’re into what it’s offering, don’t miss it.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a personal friend. I volunteered when they asked who wanted an ARC, and received an ebook copy for free in advance of the novella’s publication date. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This novella was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.