Autistic Book Party, Episode 58: The Trans Space Octopus Congregation

Today’s Book: “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation,” a short story collection by Bogi Takács.

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

This is a generally excellent collection. As is often the case with a single-author collection from an author I know, many of the stories were not new to me, and they won’t be new to long-time Autistic Book Party readers either (see the Reviews Index). Much of the joy of such a collection is in seeing the stories arranged next to each other, seeing more strongly how themes recur and patterns emerge.

“The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” ranges from historical fantasy to modern-day political allegories to far-future space opera, but there is a remarkable unity to the themes throughout. The writing is accessible and clear, but there is a very strong Bogi Takács aesthetic, which is hard to describe until you’ve seen it. It’s to do with powerful magic-users at risk from those who want to abuse them as weapons; matter-of-fact acceptance of states which in another author’s hands would be body horror; sensory seeking; Jewish mysticism; and non-sexual BDSM. Eir worlds are diverse and complex, with multiple cultures mingling and clashing, even within very short works. When political and other large organizations enter the stories, it’s with a wry awareness of those organizations’ flaws, ranging from the well-meaning but inefficient to the horrific; but it’s never without a sense of hope, if only in the sense of ordinary people making the effort to help each other. Those octopi from the title also appear here and there (though, sadly, not in the exact manner the title implies; there is no literal religious congregation of transgender space octopi).

The word “autism” is never used, but non-neurotypical characters abound in this book. The Ereni – citizens of a magical planet of autistic people – appear in several stories, though their universe is large, and they are mainly seen in minor roles here, through the eyes of other sorts of people. In works set elsewhere, characters stim, perseverate, have motor coordination issues, and generally behave in such a way that it’s easy to read autism in if you want to. Queer and trans characters also abound, as the title implies, often in the form of casual but clearly spelled-out nonbinary rep.

I’m not sure I have much else to say about Bogi’s writing that I haven’t already said in prior reviews, but “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” showcases the author at eir best. If you’re a fan of the writing of eirs that you’ve seen online, you should definitely check this one out.

The Verdict: Recommended

Disclosure: Bogi Takács is someone I consider a personal friend. I received a free electronic review copy of this book.

If Autistic Book Party is 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.

Cool Story, Bro: Favorite Stuff I Read In September and October

Carmen Lucia Alvarado, “Astronaut Poets” (Samovar, September 2)

I’m often hesitant about “all X are like Y” statements, which is how this poem begins, but I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little and I feel seen.

*

Sarah Gailey, “Away With the Wolves” (Disabled People Destroy Fantasy!)

This is a werewolf tale that quickly and quietly goes elsewhere than expected. Suss is a chronically ill girl who can change into a wolf when she wishes to; wolf form is the only time she isn’t in pain. Her wolf self isn’t overly violent, but she doesn’t always remember or control what she does, and the people around her are quick to blame her when wolf-related things go wrong. What I love about this, besides the disability representation, is that Suss’s arc isn’t about repressing or embracing a vicious animalistic side. Instead it’s about agency, belonging, and finding ways to give back to her community as her whole self.

*

S.L. Huang, “As The Last I May Know” (Tor.com, October 23)

Huang takes what could have been an arid, trolley-problem-style thought experiment – would people in power be less likely to give certain kinds of orders in war, even in self-defense, if they had to viscerally experience those orders’ human cost? – and fills it with heart and feeling. This is the kind of story where there are no easy answers, just all-too-human characters whose lives and needs are all too real, even as they come into conflict in seemingly impossible ways. It’ll stick with you.

*

Cynthia So, “If Love Is Real, So Are Fairies” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Nine)

A poem full of sweetness and longing and hope. The feeling of having an imaginary fairy to link you to someone, as the poem describes, is relatable to me.

*

Ali Trotta, “Three of Swords, King of Cups” (Fireside, July)

A poem about love, rebirth, and honoring oneself even in pain. I really love the metaphor in this one.

Announcing THE FALLEN

For a long time the most frequent question people have asked me about THE OUTSIDE is, “Will there be a sequel?”

THE OUTSIDE stands on its own, but its ending suggests many future possibilities and further ways the characters’ arcs could develop.

I am pleased to finally be able to announce that a sequel, tentatively titled THE FALLEN, is officially under development.

Watch this space for more news.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 57: No Child Left Behind

Today’s Book: “No Child Left Behind” by Claudia Casser

The Plot: A visitor from a parellel universe creates a prep school for neurodivergent Earth teenagers and refugee teens from his home world.

Autistic Character(s): The author; Geoff, the main viewpoint character, is also a teen with ADHD.

This is a book that has some cool ideas, but that I really struggled to get into because of the writing style. It’s a book whose early chapters seem to flit from thought to thought without much sense of context, stakes, or how it feels to be the various POV characters.

I do like some aspects of the way Geoff is written. The way his mind races is very realistic for a teen with ADHD. For instance, here’s an excerpt from when one of the characters explains to him that people from their universe have electromagnetism-related psychic powers:

Holy cow. Holy cow squared. You could do a lot of stuff with electromagnetic bursts.

You could fry pacemakers and memory beads. Could you fry cell phones? I shoved mine deeper into the back pocket of my jeans. Could you fry neurons? Had Lord Kemp fried my Mom’s neurons when he shook her hand? Is that why she was letting me sleep over? How could I stop them from frying my neurons? Could I find something to fry their neurons if they tried to fry mine? My foot was tapping like crazy.

But this excerpt also exemplifies what I found frustrating, because before any of these questions is addressed or before Geoff can make up his mind to do anything about them, another topic comes up and distracts everyone. This is fairly typical of how exposition and character interactions are handled throughout the part of the book that I read.

It’s also not solely a feature of how Geoff is characterized. An adult from the other universe named Lord Kemp, also has POV time; the style in his chapters is very similar to Geoff’s style. He says and does zany things, and it’s vaguely shown what his motivations are (he wants to build a school on his estate and doesn’t understand why zoning laws prohibit this), but the scene still kind of flits around without much context or illustration of what he’s sensing or feeling, or why he reacts the way he does.

I mentioned a long time ago, in my review of “Kea’s Flight,” how modes of communication that are natural for non-neurotypical people – like, in that case, infodumping – are sometimes classified as bad writing by neurotypicals. It can be worthwhile to push past that initial impression to understand what that communication style means for the characters. (I’ve reviewed other books in which I felt that long infodumps worked particularly well for building the characters, including “2312” and “Experimental Film.“) I feel bad that I couldn’t follow that advice with “No Child Left Behind.” For a reader with ADHD the aimless flitting around might feel exhilarating and relatable. It just happens to be something that I personally bounced off of pretty hard, and that made it a struggle for me to keep reading or to emotionally invest.

After I reviewed the very triggery “Mirror Project,” I decided to make a rule that I was allowed to DNF (did not finish) Autistic Book Party books if I wanted to. (I had also previously DNFed “Dance For The Ivory Madonna,” which was not triggery but just very badly written.) “No Child Left Behind” isn’t full of triggers, and it isn’t entirely bad the way “Dance For The Ivory Madonna” was. But it’s not working for me, and in the interests of getting to other autistic books in a reasonable timeframe, I’m going to put it down.

DNFed in chapter 6.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Disclosure: I read this book because Claudia Casser offered me a free review copy. This is the only interaction I have had with the author.

If Autistic Book Party is 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.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

Cover of the "Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019" anthology. The title and the names of the editors (Carmen Maria Machado and John Joseph Adams) appear on the cover. The art on the cover is a woman in a dress, with suggestions of planets and galaxies around her, holding a luminous sphere.

Things have been hectic and I am more than a week delayed in announcing this, but the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 anthology is out, including my story, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” which was first published in Strange Horizons. I’m honored to be included in such excellent company.

And check out that beautiful cover art! I’m only partway through reading the anthology and I don’t know what, if anything, the cover was intended to illustrate; but I can easily picture it as Liù, from my story, holding the Prince’s soul in her hands.

(I am also continually amused to have been included in this anthology from way up here in Canada, but apparently “Best American”‘s official policy is that it includes both Canada and the US. Ok!)

A Note For Dreamwidth Friends

Hello, Dreamwidth friends! I have been terribly, horribly negligent about the plugin I use that has been mirroring my posts from WordPress to Dreamwidth, and I somehow failed to realize that I had changed my password and that the mirroring stopped working. In, like, April. Whoops. Like, I was still reading my Dreamwidth friends list but just… not posting anything that showed up.

I believe I’ve fixed the problem. I believe I am also THE WORST at this. If you’ve missed me, here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to these past six months.

First of all:

A few things I wrote around the web as promo for THE OUTSIDE:

Other new work:

Autistic Book Party posts:

Cool Story, Bro:

Enjoy! It should be back to normal from here on out on Dreamwidth.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 56 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

AJ Odasso, “Tables Turned” (Stone Telling, Issue 8, August 2012)

[Autistic author] This poem describes a complex and uncomfortable power dynamic that many autistic people will recognize: an able-bodied person pitying and trying to comfort the narrator, out of a hidden discomfort of their own, when the narrator would rather that their strength be seen. It’s not specific to disability: the same dynamic might occur with a narrator newly growing in confidence with any number of parts of their identity. But I suspect autistic readers are going to like this one. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “The Merry Knives of Interspecies Communication” (Angels of the Meanwhile anthology, 2016; reprinted as a free Patreon reward)

[Autistic author] Flash fiction in which communication with aliens requires a painful telepathic ritual, and a masochistic crew member cheerfully volunteers. It’s very short even for flash, but the way ongoing consent to the communication process works is interesting, and the ending is cute. It comes with an even shorter, equally cute story, “One of Our More Atypical Invasion Plans”, which is one sentence long. [Recommended-2]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “A Spell to Signal Home” (GlitterShip #41, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Autistic author] A dreamy poignant story about witches, strandings in space, and siblings. The narrator in this story is nonbinary and AFAB, and I really like the way the story depicts the tensions between the narrator’s need to not be treated as a woman, and their cis sister’s wish to highlight and celebrate women. Reconciliation and understanding might just be what brings this narrator safely home at last. [Recommended-2]

*

R.B. Lemberg, “These Are The Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” (GlitterShip, March 2019)

[Autistic author] A surprisingly trippy story about architecture, aliens, and Spinoza. The Ruvan, super-powerful aliens who have conquered Earth, believe only in reason, logic, and straight lines. A human with an interest in imagination and beauty must hide their thoughts, and oddly, succeeds – even after the aliens seem to have transformed them into something rational, post-human, and under their control. (There’s also a brief, cheerful queering of the story of Noah’s Ark, which I enjoyed.) [Recommended-2]

*

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Now Watch My Rising” (Fireside, May 2018)

[Autistic author] In this metamythical tale, a wolf is told that their purpose is to eat the sun at the end of all things. The wolf disagrees and hunts through a myriad of other tales for an alternative. I found that this one drives its point home almost too hard, but the point – in which an often-vilified character rebels against the stories that are told about them, and strives to define their own stories instead – is one that many marginalized readers will need. [Recommended-2]

*

Rivers Solomon, “Blood Is Another Word For Hunger” (Tor.com, July 24, 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] A young slave murders her masters, and the resulting shock waves in the spirit world cause her to give birth to a new, undead found family. This is an unsettling story about community, freedom, and what is necessary in order to defend them. I especially like the grumpy/sunshine contrast between Sully, the protagonist, and Ziza, her firstborn; and how the story portrays trauma and depression in a way that feels hopeful while resisting cures and other easy answers. [Recommended-2]

*

Nyla Bright, “Spectrum of Acceptance” (Escape Pod 689, July 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] This is a very interesting setup for a story – an #ownvoices tale about a planet of autistic people, told from the perspective of one of the few neurotypical teenagers who lives on that planet. I have very mixed feelings about it; there’s a lot that it does well and a lot that makes me leery.

I’m always cautious of “reverse oppression” stories, and “Spectrum of Acceptance” is more or less set up that way. Ada, the neurotypical main character, constantly corrects her own thoughts and feels that her neurotypical social and emotional impulses are “wrong.” This is not only the result of being different from those around her, but a result of actual therapy in which autistic people tell her that her neurotypical speech is wrong and hard to understand. In some ways it’s good and clever to show an NT character engaging in this kind of self-correction – it illustrates that feeling “wrong” in this way is a result of social control, rather than necessarily a sign of being objectively wrong. But while reading the story, I was constantly raising eyebrows at the kinds of things Ada is told are wrong, including using metaphor and being able to read facial expressions. (Where are the hyperempathic, hyperverbal autistics in this universe? Meh.) Like some other fictionalized autistic communities I’ve seen, it seemed to present a limited view of what autism is. Or maybe that’s part of the point of the story – showing that, even in a community purporting to free a group from oppression, restrictive social norms may arise which don’t completely match that group’s actual needs.

“Spectrum of Acceptance” also partially subverts some aspects of the reverse oppression narrative. While Ada feels out of place in autistic society, she learns that NT society is also imperfect, and in some ways even worse. I liked this part of the plot, but I felt that it, too, was somewhat oversimplified. One of the traits that horrifies Ada is that people from Earth ask for things even when they don’t need them, thereby “using” other people. Perhaps this is only a social norm of Ada’s planet, but I feel that it presents an overly optimistic view of autistic community; autistic people are by and large good people, but I’ve seen plenty of us making the same mistakes around demands for emotional and caregiving labor that others do.

Overall, this didn’t quite work for me, but I did find it interesting and thought-provoking and I’m glad I tried it. I feel like this is the kind of worldbuilding question that we need to discuss much more and from many more angles. [YMMV]

Cool Story, Bro: My Favorite Short Works From July and August

Megan Arkenberg, “The Night Princes” (Nightmare, Issue 81)

This is a story about war, trauma, helplessness, and the stories that one young woman tells, Scheherezade-like, in order to make it through the night. But what really fascinates me about it are the intricate ways that the world of the story and the “real” world echo each other, sometimes obvious and poignant, sometimes resisting easy interpretation.

*

Isabel Cañas, “No Other Life” (Nightmare, Issue 82)

This is everything I want in a vampire short story: romantic, darkly sensual, wistful, and queer.

*

Theodora Goss, “The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Eight)

I have seen a lot of twists on the story of Cinderella before, but I hadn’t yet seen THIS one. Nicely done.

*

Ali Trotta, “The Magician Speaks to the Fool” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Eight)

A powerful Tarot-themed poem about life lessons, complexity, and courage.

*

D.H. Kelly, “The Furious Chisel” (The Future Fire, Issue 2019.50)

I really like this novelette about a disabled woman who reprograms her caregiver robot, and the robot who may be slowly gaining self-awareness as a result. I like the way the human and the robot have a helpful and respectful relationship instead of being pitted against each other, even when they’re faced with difficult conflicts of interest. I like how it resists easy answers about what sentience and personhood mean, what rights accompany them, how you can tell they’re there, or what should be done as a result – but how the narrator is deeply thoughtful about these things, and respects the robot’s ability to choose in the limited ways available to her.