Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Tag: short stories

Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Short Fiction Reviews

There’s been some discussion recently about the need for more (and better) reviews of science fiction and fantasy short stories, much of which is predicated on the various inadequacies of the few existing short fiction review venues.

In general I think more short fiction reviews can only be a Good Thing, because more critical discourse on science fiction and fantasy literature is never a Bad Thing. There’s not enough of it (as opposed to PR and squee). That said, I have a couple of reservations.

First, if the purpose of short fiction reviews is to be useful for award nomination purposes, I have a problem with that. I appreciate that nowadays there are frankly too many short stories being published for any single person to read them all,1 and that award nominators are looking for ways to filter the reading material down a bit. But I have a problem with the implicit assumption that winning awards is the reason for creating works of art. (Winning an award should be an inadvertent by-product, not the point of the enterprise.) If we’re reviewing short fiction because we’re trying to figure out our award nomination ballots, then we’re reinforcing the notion that art is grist for a career: write a story to generate buzz; generate buzz to win an award; win an award to further the career; ???; profit!

We’d also be privileging the latest at the expense of the greatest: reviewing for awards purposes means you only review what’s eligible for the next award season. A story that is only three to five years old may still be worthy of critique and analysis—may still be worth talking about—but if all you’re doing is reading for awards, it has already disappeared down the memory hole. Functionally speaking, it no longer exists.

Neophilia might be good for the publishing calendar, it might be good for writers’ careers, but it’s terrible for art.

Second, if we’re agreed that there should be more short fiction reviews, I think it’s a bad idea for us to simply review it on our own blogs and journals. It’s too haphazard. There aren’t enough people looking for short fiction reviews to have those reviews scattered across the intertubes. There’s a reason why Rocket Stack RankTangent and Locus came to be: collating reviews from divers hands makes a lot of sense. The reader only has a single place to go.

The problem is that short fiction reviews make absolutely no economic sense. I could easily reboot Ecdysis with a new focus on short fiction reviews, but how would I solicit them? Reviewers would expect, reasonably, to be compensated, but what business model (other than Locus’s, but they primarily do book reviews and trade news) would there be for a periodical focused mainly on short fiction reviews? Book reviews get few enough eyeballs; short fiction reviews would be even worse, and without even the faint hope of affiliate income. It would have to be a labour of love, which in sf community terms means a work done for social capital, and that’s often been problematic too.

I’ll keep thinking about this, and listening to other opinions on this subject.

Infinity Wars

With Infinity Wars (Solaris, September 2017), Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project turns its attention to military science fiction. Each volume of Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies—Infinity Wars is the sixth—has taken some aspect of hard sf and turned it on its head a bit, offering fresh takes on old themes, often from authors not normally known for writing hard sf. (I reviewed Engineering Infinity, the first book of the Infinity Project, in 2001; last year I reviewed the fifth book, Bridging Infinity. I’ve read them all.) Now it’s military sf’s turn, and if there’s a subgenre of science fiction that could use some shaking off of the shibboleths, this is it.

That’s because military sf has more than its share of detractors, a result of it being associated, rightly or wrongly, with a certain ultra-conservative, anti-government, paranoid brand of American politics, one whose bent has gotten more and more strident as its mantle passed from Heinlein to Pournelle to a younger generation: Disch traces the evolution of this strain in his 1998 study, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.1 See also David Auerbach’s piece for The Daily Beast. These survivalist/soldier-of-fortune power fantasies aren’t the only kind of military sf out there, but there’s an awful lot of them (whereas, as Disch points out, masterpieces like The Forever War are singular), and it’s what people think of when they dismiss military sf.

John Scalzi’s Miniatures

I’ve been expecting a short story collection from John Scalzi for some time now: it’s the sort of thing one periodically sees from science fiction writers, once their novel-writing careers are established enough to warrant one. But Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (Subterranean, Dec. 2016), his first collection of short stories (apart from the linked collections The Human Division and The End of All Things) is not that collection. Miniatures has a specific remit: it focuses on Scalzi’s short fiction at its shortest, its funniest, and (you might say) its scalziest.

Scalzi’s past career in the newspaper biz trained him to write short and make your point fast: the average length of these 18 stories is 1,310 words. Most of them adopt the form of interviews, memoranda, transcripts, or other non-typical narrative styles — there are even two tweetstorms — which I heartily approve of on general principle, but is almost essential when dealing in super-short lengths.

And they’re also appropriate when you’re writing humour. Because, make no mistake, there are some very funny pieces here. Laugh-out-loud funny. In another context I called Scalzi quite possibly the best humorist working in science fiction today, and these pieces do little to disprove that thesis. (Though I should warn you that there is a cat-story-from-a-cat’s POV in here.) If anything his humour works better at short lengths; when he does it at novel length it runs the risk of tedium. As Scalzi says in the introduction, “If drama is a marathon, humor is a sprint. Get in, make ’em laugh, get out.”

The entire book is about the length of a novella, and will afford a pleasantly diverting afternoon’s worth of reading. His longer short stories are generally available online or as individual ebooks; whether those stories will also be collected remains to be seen.

Amazon | iBooks

Au-delà du gouffre

au-dela-du-gouffreYesterday was the publication day for Au-delà du gouffre (Le Belial’), a collection of Peter Watts’s short stories in French translation. My essay, “God and the Machines: The Short Fiction of Peter Watts,” translated into French by Erwann Perchoc, appears as an afterword.

This represents several milestones for me: it’s the first time something I’ve written has appeared in book form, the first time something I’ve published has been reprinted, and the first time something I’ve written has been translated into another language.

Au-delà du gouffre isn’t listed on Amazon.com at the moment: try Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.fr; it’ll be available through Amazon.ca in January.

Still waiting for my contributor’s copy, though, so I can’t yet feel weird about reading a translation of my words into a language I can read. (Update: It showed up on the 17th.)

Invisible Planets

invisible-planets

In addition to writing some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the past few years (and I hear his novels are pretty good, too), Ken Liu has also been translating Chinese science fiction into English. His most visible work has been the translation of the first and third volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, but he’s also been translating short stories—more than forty of them so far, according to his bibliography—that have been appearing in the online and print magazines. One of those translations, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” won the Hugo Award for best novelette this year.

Thirteen of Ken’s1 translations, including Hao’s “Folding Beijing” and two stories by Liu Cixin, have now been gathered in Invisible Planets, out this week from Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.). It’s a first-rate anthology for a couple of reasons. For one, Ken himself is an elegant writer, and his translations are no less elegant. For another, the process to arrive at these thirteen stories—Ken translating his favourite Chinese-language stories, then picking his favourites of those translations—makes for a selection process akin to a year’s-best or best-of anthology. In other words, we’re getting the cream of the cream of the crop.

Not So Much, Said the Cat

not-so-much

It’s hard for me to review Michael Swanwick’s latest collection of short stories, Not So Much, Said the Cat (Tachyon, August 2016), without coming across like a total fangoober. That’s partly because, when it comes to Swanwick’s work, I am a total fangoober, and have been for decades. He’s one of my favourite writers and a literary hero of mine, so I’m primed to like a collection of his—I always have. But it’s also because Not So Much, Said the Cat is such a good collection—far better than any book of its kind has any right to be.

Not So Much, Said the Cat includes most of Swanwick’s short fiction production from 2008 onward — the only exceptions I’m aware of are the collaborations with other authors, the miniatures he’s written for his wife’s Dragonstairs Press project, and the Mongolian Wizard stories, which presumably will get their own volume (though the fourth story in the series, “House of Dreams,” is included here). Which is to say that it’s one of those short story collections that are iterative and reasonably all-inclusive: here, these collections say, are the stories that have appeared since the author’s previous collection—in this case, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (Tachyon, 2007).

Rattlesnakes and Men

Magazine cover: Asimov's Science Fiction (February 2015)Michael Bishop‘s “Rattlesnakes and Men,” which appeared in the February 2015 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, is one of six finalists for the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. (The nominees were announced over the weekend.)

It’s a story that imagines a Georgia town where rattlesnake ownership is mandatory, where people wear pit vipers on their belts for protection, and where death by snake bite is carefully hushed up. “Rattlesnakes and Men” is a transparent parable for the out-of-control gun culture in the United States, and some readers and reviewers have found its allegory a bit obvious and heavy-handed.

But given that Bishop’s son Jamie was one of 32 people killed in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, I think he’s earned the right: this story can properly be read as a primal scream of frustration. In March 2015 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to Bishop about his story and the gun control advocacy that was born of his loss.

(“Rattlesnakes and Men” is not online at the moment. Publishers frequently make award finalists available to read online, though, so check the Asimov’s website in a few days.)

(Update, March 8: It’s now available online.)

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