Cool Story, Bro: My favorite short work from March and April

For some reason, all of the fiction and poetry that I enjoyed most, this time around, was about love. Though not necessarily a romantic one!

Marissa Lingen, “Flow” (Fireside, March). This is about humans who have a special connection to naiads, and about acquiring a disability and learning to live with it, and it’s so good. I love the connection between the father and daughter, and I love the way it ends, full of hope.

Toby MacNutt, “Green Thumbs” (Liminality, March). This is just so full of smell and taste and touch and hesitance and tenderness and slow-building desire. I love it.

Arkady Martine, “Object-Oriented” (Fireside, March). A short, bittersweet tale about disaster workers who stay invested in their job with empathy pills. What I really like about this one is the thoughts it raises about affective empathy. So often empathy in SF is described like it’s just an emotion detector. In a small space, Martine focuses on another aspects of empathy – the *caring* aspect – and makes some very poignant points about both its purpose and its costs. (As a side note, I also like that the narrator feels empathy for inanimate objects and buildings – this is a common quirk of autistic people, though it’s not exclusive to us, and I don’t think the narrator is autistic, but it IS nice to see nonetheless.)

Emma Osborne, “Don’t Pack Hope” (Nightmare, Issue 67 April). I’m not normally one for zombie apocalypse stories, but this is one of the ones that does it really right. By focusing on a single scene – one of preparation and planning, not of violence – the story gets to really zero in on a study of its trans man protagonist. As he packs his bags to find his family and survive, we see in a unique way what he is attached to, what he hopes for, what he fears. Lots of feels are available here!

Hester J. Rook, “Across the anvil and burning” (Liminality, March). This came immediately after “Green Thumb” in the same issue, and they are a wonderful pair – both vividly sexy and sensual in the best ways. But where MacNutt’s poem is tender and exploratory, Rook’s contrasts it with a powerful undertone of dominance.

Fran Wilde, “The Sea Never Says It Loves You” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-One, March). UggghHHHHhhh. Sometimes being in love is exactly like this, and makes you feel exactly this small.

Short Story Smorgasbord, Special Edition: Where to Start With Yoon Ha Lee

When I found out Yoon Ha Lee is on the autism spectrum, I’d already been a fan of his writing for many years. I knew I could not go back and review every single short story of his, because there are just so many! (Plus, I feel like that would be creepy somehow.) But I decided that I could, at least, review the ones that had been nominated for major awards. If you’re looking at his dozens of wonderful stories and don’t know where to begin, you may as well start here. 😀

*

Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (Lightspeed, September 2010): Bizarre and poetic fictional weapons are a Yoon Ha Lee staple, and this story centers around one. Arighan’s Flower is a gun that changes the past and erases the target’s entire lineage – an especially horrifying power given that the viewpoint character comes from a culture that worships its ancestors. Time-bending and suspenseful, this was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial award. [Recommended-2]

Ghostweight (Clarkesworld, January 2011): In this novelette, a rebel fighter and her ghost companion pilot an unreliable, semi-sentient space kite with origami weapons. “Ghostweight” is not set in the world of the Hexarchate, but many of Ninefox Gambit‘s best tropes are reproduced here in minature: a ruthless, conquering empire; a surreal and intricate system of battle; an unreliable collaboration; and a vicious ending twist. Finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and received honors from the Carl Brandon Award. [Recommended-2]

Effigy Nights (Clarkesworld, January 2013): A city that worships writing tries to weaponize its books to defend itself. This is classic Yoon Ha Lee, with clever and cold-hearted space warriors surrounded by a surreal and detailed magic that plays by its own rules. Finalist for the World Fantasy and Locus Awards. [Recommended-2]

Extracurricular Activities (Tor.com, February 2017): Shuos Jedao, many years before the events of Ninefox Gambit, goes on an undercover mission. This story takes place in the hexarchate universe, but calendrical warfare and its bizarre effects are irrelevant to the mission and therefore absent. What remains is a surprisingly accessible sci-fi spy caper with a cute, silly queer flirtation on the side. You don’t need to know Jedao or the hexarchate universe to understand it, but readers who do know them will enjoy themselves. [Recommended-2]

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 5: The Lark and the Wren

(First published June 21, 2013. TW for sexual abuse/assault in this one.)

Today’s Book: “The Lark and the Wren” by Mercedes Lackey

The Plot: A young violinist named Rune runs away from home and has adventures.

Autistic Character(s): Maeve, a kitchen drudge at the inn where Rune lives and works at the beginning of the story.

Let me say one thing up front: I didn’t read this book for the autism. It wasn’t on my list of planned Autistic Book Party books. It was a book my partner lent me because he thought I’d like it. Maeve appears only peripherally and only in the first few chapters, before Rune runs away. She is so minor that, even if her character was handled wonderfully, I would hesitate to recommend the book just for the autism. It’s a very small part of what the book is.

Autistic Book Party isn’t just about recommending books, though. It’s also about “what not to do”. So here’s how not to write an autistic minor character:

Told to sweep out a room, she would do so. That room, and no more, leaving a huge pile of dirt on the threshold. Told to wash the dishes, she would wash the dishes all right, but not the pots, nor the silverware, and she wouldn’t rinse them afterwards. Of course, if anyone interrupted her in the middle of her task, she would drop what she was doing, follow the new instructions, and never return to the original job.

When Maeve follows instructions in this manner, instead of correcting Maeve and giving her better instructions next time, Stara (Rune’s mother) makes Rune pick up the slack. (Not that giving her better instructions occurs to Rune, either.)

Other characters describe Maeve various ways. “An innocent.” “A little simple.” “A great lump.” The word “autism” isn’t used because it would be anachronistic, but with the literalism, the inattention to others and apparent emotionlessness, the constant tuneless humming, and other stereotypes, autism is the best word I can think of. If she isn’t autistic, she has a related developmental disability, and the same “what not to do” arguments apply.

The point of Maeve existing, as far as I can see, is to add to a list of problems in Rune’s life before she runs away. She has to do chores all the time instead of playing her violin; people look down on her because she’s illegitimate; her mother bullies her; the local NT girls bully her; the local boys both bully her and try to sexually assault her; and her co-worker is a disabled girl who doesn’t pull her weight. Oh, noes. *eye roll*

How Maeve feels about her duties at the inn is never addressed. I don’t mean we never find out; I mean it never occurs to anyone that Maeve has feelings in the first place. She tends to be expressionless and not to speak (I’m not sure if she’s actually nonverbal, or just doesn’t talk much), so everyone assumes she doesn’t have any emotional reaction to anything. Including the following:

But no call came, only the sound of Stara scolding Maeve, and Maeve’s humming. Rune sighed with relief; Maeve never paid any attention to anything that wasn’t a direct order. Let Stara wear her tongue out on the girl; the scolding would roll right off the poor thing’s back – and maybe Stara would leave her own daughter alone, for once.

(Out of context, this can be read as Stara giving a relatively mild reprimand. But every time Stara criticizes Rune, she uses very harsh and unfriendly words and Rune whines in the narration about how mean Stara is, so I think we can assume that whatever she’s saying to Maeve is at least as bad.)

Two comments on that:

[1] You can’t be intelligent enough to understand specific instructions about household chores (even in a very literal way), yet not intelligent enough to notice when someone is chewing you out for doing your work wrong. Language understanding doesn’t work that way.

[2] Just because an autistic person has no clear facial expression doesn’t mean they’re not feeling anything. Our facial expressions and other nonverbal communication tend to be weird. In fact, NTs often have as much trouble reading autistic body language as autistic people do reading NTs.

[3] Most people feel bad when being chewed out for doing their work wrong. It doesn’t take a lot of psychological study to realize this. Knowing that you slacked off or misunderstood something and being called out for it feels bad. When you try your best, followed the instructions carefully, and still get yelled at for doing it wrong, even though you don’t understand what you did wrong? That feels even worse. Especially when it is something that happens again and again, and you can’t figure out how to fix it, and you clearly must be a bad and defective person because you can’t stop getting it wrong and being yelled at. Ask any autistic person about this feeling, seriously.

Lackey seems to assume, not only that Maeve’s lack of expression betrays a lack of thought, but also that she isn’t thinking or feeling anything even when she does what she is good at:

There wasn’t anyone in the common room but Maeve, who was sweeping the floor with a care that would have been meticulous in anyone but her.

But it gets worse.

Continue reading “Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 5: The Lark and the Wren”

Some News

On Wednesday, I performed a live reading of “An Operatic Tour of New Jersey, With Raptors” at ChiSeries Toronto. It was a lovely and unexpectedly musical event. I sung the sung parts in my opera-themed story; Charlene Challenger played several types of music including a traditional Maltese insult song; Kelly Robson sang a theme song for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, to the tune of the music from “Gilligan’s Island”; and, of course, Kari Maaren was there to serenade us with filk. (It’s been final exam season lately. The academic-themed song was VERY RELATABLE.)

Bakka Phoenix Books was kind enough to bring copies of each reading author’s book for sale. I counted four copies of MONSTERS IN MY MIND on the table when I came in; by the end of the evening, all were sold, even though they were marked up to like 37 dollars. That made me happy.

Here’s some other fiction news:

  • “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” – a novelette co-written by me and A. Merc Rustad, set in the Principality Suns universe – will appear in Lightspeed‘s June issue. I’ve seen mock-ups for the issue’s cover art, which is based on this story, and let me tell you, it is going to be FABULOUS.
  • Another opera story of mine, called “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” will appear in Strange Horizons at some point in the next few months (possibly also June). I am immensely proud of this one. More later.
  • My story “Minor Heresies,” which appeared in Ride the Star Wind last fall, will be reprinted in Transcendent 3: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction.

And poetry:

  • My Patreon hit the $75 monthly goal, so I released a group of short computer-generated poems dedicated to my backers. You can find them here: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]
  • My poem, “Nightmare II,” will appear in Kaleidotrope sometime in 2019.
  • I’ve also released a Twitter bot, @uwtwitsong, as part of my PhD research. It’s a computer program that generates (semi-coherent) quatrains based on the news. I’m going to continue posting @uwtwitsong’s poems for several more weeks before the project is complete, so please do check it out!

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 4: The Meeting of the Waters

(First published May 13, 2013)

Today’s Book: “The Meeting of the Waters” by Caiseal Mór.

The Plot: In ancient Ireland, the squabbling Danaan and Fir-Bolg tribes must band together to defend themselves from the invading Milesians.

Autistic Character(s): The author! Yay!

This is going to be a new kind of Autistic Book Party post. There won’t be any “how to write autistic characters” advice, because nobody in this book is autistic. In fact, Caiseal Mór published this book (and 13 others!) while passing as NT. It’s only with his 2007 autobiography that his autism became public knowledge.

It’s important for me to highlight good books by autistic authors, even if they don’t have autistic characters. Why?

First, because representation means paying attention to authors AND characters. If you want to combat sexism in spec fic, I sure hope you’re looking at women authors as well as female characters. With autism or any other group, it’s the same. Nothing about us without us.

Second, because autistic people are often told we can’t write good stories because we don’t have enough imagination, or enough empathy, or whatever. If a straight white NT dude has trouble writing convincing characters, he gets told to go to a writing workshop and build his skills. If an Aspie has trouble doing it, she is contractually obligated to question whether this is an “Aspie thing”, and whether Aspies are capable of writing good fiction at all.

(Side note: Some autistic people have trouble with “pretend play” as children. They do not see the point of acting out a situation that everyone knows isn’t real. But this isn’t the case for all autistic people. An awful lot of us are known to retreat into imagination as a coping mechanism. Others – or the same ones – construct elaborate imaginary worlds as a special interest.)

So I’ve been itching to give you some examples of good speculative fiction by autistic people, and Caiseal Mór – a bestselling Irish-Australian fantasy author – looks like a good place to start.

“The Meeting of the Waters” is an epic fantasy with a large scope and many viewpoint characters. Yet the usual epic fantasy tropes – Chosen Ones, hordes of throwaway villains, long journeys and quests for a MacGuffin – are pleasantly absent. That’s because Mór isn’t using other epic fantasy as his model. He’s gone back to primary sources and to a lifelong fascination with Celtic mythology.

Mór’s take on this mythology may surprise some readers. In “The Meeting of the Waters”, the Tuatha De Danaan have not yet become the immortal, capricious creatures of most modern fantasy. When we meet them, they are ordinary mortals. Here the Danaans, the Fir-Bolg, and the Milesians (ancestors of today’s Irish people) are three human tribes descended from a common ancestor, each with rich musical and magical traditions, a cattle-based economy, and a carefully codified set of rules for war and justice. But each tribe’s choices, as the story progresses, will set them onto radically different paths.

Mór takes a bird’s-eye view of these choices. (Sometimes literally. Parts of the book are narrated by a man who has been turned into a raven.) He moves from character to character as he wishes in order to show us a larger picture. No single character carries the fate of all of Ireland on their shoulders, and no single character is always expected to garner readers’ sympathy. Instead, what changes the course of history is a set of interlocking decisions from many characters. The major players are each interesting and distinct from each other, but none is immune from making terrible choices when pushed. Similarly, no one is entirely unsympathetic, though some characters (especially the Fir-Bolg king and queen) seem to be, for a while. Even the story’s villains – a pair of manipulative Fomorians set on causing discord between the other three tribes – come off as clever and likeable at times, especially early in the story, before we’ve seen the worst consequences of their meddling.

The result is an overall voice which can be somewhat detached, but also very human and forgiving. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But in a genre overrun by NT authors who think the whole moral and physical universe revolves around their Chosen One, I think Mór’s balanced approach is the better one for teaching us empathy.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autism News, 2018/04/11

April is Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Whatever Month, so let’s start with two posts about that.

Posts about “Autism Uncensored”:

Other media and reviews:

Parent perspectives:

Posts about autistic people being treated terribly:

Posts about autistic people being treated not-terribly:

Posts about what life is like in general:

Misc:

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: Story notes, part 45, 46, and 49

45. Miss Sprocket Tinkers

Round and round they went on the big brass wheel, up and down the ladders, in and out of little hidey holes. Sprocket wanted those mice.

This is a steampunk story from the point of view of a clever cat who gets a little too involved in her owner’s inventions. It appeared the first issue of the now-defunct magazine Comets and Criminals.

I hesitated to add this one to the collection. At a formative phase in my writing career, I heard people talking derisively about cat stories – as kitsch, or something; it wasn’t clear – and I felt ashamed of having written one. But I’ve also had people – especially people who don’t always like my darker, weirder fare – tell me it’s one of their favorites. So… shrug! I guess I have to remind myself that Ellen Datlow once edited an anthology of cat stories, so that gives them some pedigree. So to speak.

46. The Tooth Fairy Throws In the Towel

I was there when a fish invented teeth,
that was a real ornery fish believe you me

At some point in 2012, I had my wisdom teeth taken out, and my recovery was miserable and slow. No complications – it just hurt a lot for longer than it was supposed to (my dental surgeon didn’t believe in anything stronger than Advil) and I kept trying to tough it out and chew things I wasn’t ready for and just making it worse.

During this annoyingly long time, I couldn’t concentrate enough to write anything. I knew I was finally starting to recover properly when my creative words came back. The first thing I wrote was an intentionally absurd, badly spelled free-writing exercise as a present for A. Merc Rustad. (They’d asked for more Lovecraftian fairy tales, after “What Great Darkness.” I wrote something ridiculous about Ariel the Little Mermaid crossed with Elric of Melniboné.) The second was this poem, which is, appropriately, about a frustrating experience involving teeth. (And fairies. And Cthulhu… Maybe I wasn’t too far from Merc’s writing prompt, after all.)

“The Tooth Fairy Throws In the Towel” is one of the only intentionally humorous poems I’ve written. It appeared in Mythic Delirium 29, along with “The Siren of Mayberry Crescent” and one other poem.

49. The Chartreuse Monster

“That book saved my life,” said Indrani.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND comes full circle at the end with the very first short story I ever published for money. “The Chartreuse Monster,” published in Expanded Horizons in July 2010, is the story of a hyperempathic convention attendee who finds out their favorite author is dying.

“The Chartreuse Monster” is also the only story I ever successfully wrote based on a randomly generated prompt. I was a tiny baby writer and I was very aware, when I started the story, that my skill at creating settings needed work. I wanted to write something set at one of the only places I’d been in real life that I thought was “interesting enough” – a science fiction convention. But that didn’t give me a plot. So I rolled randomly on a table of George Polti’s 37 Dramatic Situations and ended up with element 1A3: “Appeals for a refuge in which to die.”

But who would want to spend their last days at a science fiction convention? I asked myself. And this story appeared, with all of its gentle overtones about grief and legacy and what books mean to people. I was as surprised as anyone. (Now that I am a slightly-less-tiny baby writer, there are some things about the premise that I’d approach differently – but I decided not to meddle.)

The editor of Expanded Horizons also said that the protagonist of this story reads as autistic to them, even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about that at the time. We agreed it was ok to tag the story with “autism” – which makes this, unwittingly, also my first #ownvoices autism story. And makes an even better bookend to the collection, which now starts and ends with two very different stories about autistic girls and women at conventions. “You Have to Follow the Rules” is the tale of discovering a world for the first time. “The Chartreuse Monster,” at last, lets it go.

Song Pairing: The song for this one is In This Moment’s “Into the Light“.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: Story notes, part 43 and 44

43. What Great Darkness

Red met Wolf on her way through the forest, long before the Plague. He looked at her. Smiled, and there were fangs in the smile. Her heart fluttered, and not with fear. She had never seen anything like him before.

“Red Riding Hood shacks up with the Wolf because who needs humans anyway” is not exactly a new take, but I tried my hand at it anyway. Then, owing to the same “inner story” and “outer story” conversation that I had with A. Merc Rustad before writing Lady Blue and the Lampreys, I added Lovecraftian monsters. Why not?

“What Great Darkness” was written for an anthology of Lovecraftian fairy tales, but it didn’t get in. It’s now a MONSTERS IN MY MIND original.

Song Pairing: As mentioned, this is not a new take, so there are already several songs to choose from to complement it. I’ll go with Xandria’s “Little Red Relish,” because, again, why not. (If I can symphonic-metal a thing, I’ll symphonic-metal the thing.)

44. Daphne Without Apollo

Not running away. Not pleading
for a hiding-place – vain boy of a god,
did you think you would blot me
from the world?

There are some Greek myths that I kind of hate. Film at 11.

The theme of Issue #2 of Plunge Magazine – a short-lived genre magazine focused on queer women – was “chase”.  “Daphne Without Apollo” was written for, and appeared in, that issue.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 44: Failure to Communicate

Today’s Book: “Failure to Communicate” by Kaia Sønderby

The Plot: Xandri Corelel interprets alien behavior for a living. But her latest mission, to help with diplomatic negotiations on the planet Anmerilli, will test her skills to the limit.

Autistic Character(s): Xandri, the protagonist.

I like the trope of autistic people learning to communicate with aliens, and this is the first time I’ve seen the trope addressed at novel length. I was excited to see what would be done with it, and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a refreshing nuance and subtlety to the way Sønderby handles her topic. Xandri’s skill at finding patterns in alien body language is partly due to good autistic pattern recognition – but mostly due to hard work and skill developed over many years because it was necessary for her survival. She’s genuinely good at it, one of the best in the Alliance – but that doesn’t make her automatically good at all the other skills that go with negotiation, nor at deciphering types of deception among humans to which autistic people are frequently vulnerable. And much of the conflict of the book comes, not from trying to puzzle out what the Anmerilli are thinking, but from these high-level, all-too-human interactions.

Although the novel has many fast-paced and action-y parts, and doesn’t dive needlessly into introspection, nuance is the name of the game when it comes to its characters and worldbuilding. Autistic people are rare in Xandri’s time, thanks to genetic modification, and individuals vary widely in how they treat her. Some are genuine friends, which Xandri treasures as a rarity; some are ableist and dismissive; some are manipulative; some are well-intentioned but clueless.  Xandri’s alien friends (and the ship’s AI she’s befriended) are often more accepting than most humans, but the aliens are not a monolith either, and in particular, the Anmerilli have many political factions and different opinions. It’s hard to write a story about ableism with this kind of nuance and individuality; even #ownvoices stories often have a slightly cartoonish feel in their more ableist characters. But the variety of attitudes taken by different characters in “Failure to Communicate” really helps the setting feel real and lived-in.

The story is also really fun. I cheered in some places and cried in others, and sometimes had to step away when a plot moment hit too close to home. I love Sønderby’s aliens, especially the parrot-like Psitticans and the furry, taciturn Ongkoarrat. I love Xandri’s friendships with the people on her team who “get” her and are looking out for her (and there’s some setup that I’m hoping will lead to a queer romance, in a sequel 😀 ). There’s a definite found-family vibe to the Carpathia‘s crew, even though not everyone in the crew is equally accepting.

I especially like the way Xandri’s touch sensitivity is handled – like other aspects of “Failure to Communicate,” it isn’t black and white, but presents differently in different circumstance, and doesn’t desexualize her. Xandri’s autistic traits in general are present consistently and depicted through all the little details of her social environment, from the ship’s AI making sure there are satin patches she can stim with on her clothes, to her bodyguards having to remind her to eat, to the meltdowns she experiences several times at stressful points without losing her agency.

Xandri just feels relatable to me in ways that kept surprising me. Not every autistic protagonist – not even every well-written autistic protagonist – is the same, which is to be expected, since real people on the spectrum are so different. I often appreciate the way a character is depicted without identifying with them especially closely. But for whatever reason, Xandri as a character just kept on making me go, “Yep, that’s what I’d probably do. That’s how I’d react to that. …Yep.” This was an unfamiliar feeling.

I’m struggling to talk about the story’s plot instead of just listing all the mess of details that felt wonderful and accepting and real.

One other thing that I loved about it is even harder to talk about, and it also involves a PLOT TWIST, so I’m putting it behind a spoiler cut.

Continue reading “Autistic Book Party, Episode 44: Failure to Communicate”