Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Back from Arisia 2017


I'm back home from Arisia 2017 and other than being completely exhausted I'm feeling very good about the experience.

To sum up my impressions of the panels, experiences, and spectacles of this year's con I guess I'd say the theme was communication.

Me at the "Alien in Aliens" panel, Arisia 2017 (photographer: Lauren Crooks)
During my first panel, Putting the Alien in Aliens with Steve Popkes, Dennis McCunney, and Sonia Taaffe, the conversation centered around this question of communication. In comparison to other panels centered on this topic - the creation and appreciation of truly alien extraterrestrials - the focus here was not so much the biology or composition of the aliens as the limited ability of we poor human beings to understand any potential creature from another solar system. Is this even possible or plausible? Or is communication with aliens one more implausible feature of science fiction we all collectively ignore like faster than light travel?

The elephant in the room, addressed relatively late by the Sonia Taaffe, was the existence of the movie "Arrival," which dealt with these very issues. As I've stated at least twice on this blog, I absolutely adored this movie. Adapting Ted Chiang's original story was not an insignificant task; balancing the conflicting needs of preserving the original themes of the story while finding elements that would translate (sorry) well for the screen.

This movie helps in understanding two things representing best practices for handling the appearance of extraterrestrials in fiction. Firstly, aliens should be very different from humans. How different? As different as the writer can get away with and still tell a compelling story. Secondly, no matter how different these aliens might be, a writer should seek to make some aspect of their existence explicable. If aliens are not explicable, not comprehensible in any way shape or fashion, then their role in a story is different from simply an alien being. They become another force of nature: something to be dealt with or survived. That misses the chance to expand the ability of our human race to empathize with others.

One of the reasons I think the aliens of "Arrival," do succeed is that the movie plays out like a mystery story. The aliens are here and through hard work, desperation, and a little luck, humans are able to understand some piece of what their motive are.

Saturday I went to the Belly Dancing panel to see my wife, Lauren, take part explaining some of the history of belly-dancing at Arisia. This was a great talk, and it's always an incredible experience to see Lauren absolutely kick-ass when describing something she loves. Then, to top it off, I saw her dance in not one but two face-melting performances in the aforementioned Geeky Belly Dance show. She was part of the opening troupe of dancers and then did a hysterical homage to the most recent Ghostbusters! The second people saw the stripes on the costumes, they knew they were in for a show.

Sunday I went to a bunch of panels before heading to the "Preacher, Gone to Television" panel with Hildy Silverman (mod), Randee Dawn, Antonia Pugliese, and Dr. James Prego. One of the joys of being in a panel is having a conversation at length about a single topic. I always find the value of this is not only getting a chance to put into some semi-coherent form, my thoughts on a work of art, but also to learn what other thought of it. In the case of this panel, I left with a bit more excitement for season 2 than I thought possible. The show was not completely successful but when all is said in done, it stands a decent chance of being one of the greats.

I also caught a panel on Star Wars. Scheduled opposite to the Carrie Fisher memorial panel and the line to get into the Masquerade show, it was not as completely packed as I would have thought. The panelists there were all pretty much unanimous in their support for both recent Disney owned Star Wars movies (TFA and Rogue One). Uniform love of Star Wars can be a recipe for boredom in my experience but somehow that was not the case here. Despite the flaws of these new movies, there is a great reserve of optimism about the project overall. I realized at some point during the discussion I really want to see the next movie. I'm excited to find out what happens to Rei, Finn, Ben, and Poe. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, fandom is not the most important topic ever, but it's nice to know there's at least one thing to look forward to in 2017.

I had a couple of Monday panels this year, one on "The Uncomfortable Genre," moderated by Sarah Smith and one on "Short Sharp Shocks," moderated by the incredible Gillian Daniels. I've been on panels with both of these excellent writers and enjoyed the experience a great deal.

The first of the two panels, which also included Dennis McCunney, and Meredith Schwartz, was a strange duck. The description of the panel reminded me of one of my own ideas during brainstorming this summer so I made a pitch for it knowing full-well that what I wanted to talk about might not be quite what the other panelists wanted to talk about. As it turned out, I think it's safe to say none of us were completely 100% on what this panel was supposed to be. Essentially I wanted to talk about Cosmic Horror and Dark Realism and got the chance to do that. Other panelists brought up works that I've not had the pleasure to read but now have on my reading list. I came away from the panel with a few new ideas and a couple of thoughts for the last panel.

"Short Sharp Shocks" which included myself as well as MJ Cunniff, Andrea Corbin, and Keffy R.M. Kehril, is as close to a "Year in Literature" panel as Arisia had this year and it rocked! Part of the reason I like short fiction is that it is an easy and very convenient way to join in on speculative fiction's ongoing conversation. No story exists in a vacuum. Gillian Daniels talked about Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," a story I already intended to use in as an example and I praised last year's "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander before Daniels, who reviewed it in her own bi-monthly column on short fiction in the magazine "Fantastic Stories of the Imagination," did. I wanted to talk up Gwendolyn Kiste's story in Nightmare which Andrea Corbin also raised as an example of short fiction's power to use something like a list to organize a complete story. I left the panel encouraged and excited.

Add to that all of the other encounters and conversations conventions encourage and you're talking about a hell of a weekend. Arisia was a great chance to catch up with a bunch of friends: Matt, Alex, Melanie, Nalin, Ken, John (first year at the convention) and of course Wendee and Dan.

Conversations about science fiction and fantasy stretch back centuries right up until this very moment. The works that I love from the past few years strike me as powerful because they modify, rebut, and address the points of the past. You can't walk away from the past of speculative fiction. You can't pretend that the stories of the past didn't happen. What you can do is update the concerns of the so-called Golden Ages of science fiction for the needs and worries of the present.

Chances are, you like something, in places like Arisia you can find others just as passionate about that thing too.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Purpose of Alien Life

As part of my preparations for this weekend's Arisia, I've looked back over the idea of truly alien aliens. Tomorrow, I will be joining a panel concerned with this very same topic.

Aliens are an abiding obsession in science fiction and appear in many of the classics of speculative literature generally. In fact, if a space opera doesn't contain some reference to aliens or unknown life-forms, it's considered a notable deviation (so called Mundane Science Fiction movement and Firefly both come to mind). There's a deeply-rooted expectation that science fiction will at some point address aliens.

Why?

I don't have any easy answers for this question. The topic itself is more unwieldy than it might appear. When we talk about aliens, are we just talking about the traditional space opera with human astronauts encountering strange cultures on distant planets? Are we also adding in first-contact stories, cosmic horror, and fantasy literature that includes references to "outsiders." Could the treatment of certain cultures within fantasy literature, where customs are unfamiliar and bizarre, (I think of the Dunyain in R. Scott Bakker's "The Prince of Nothing" series), be considered an example of alienness? Where do we draw the line?

Because I have a limited amount of time in this post and presumably only slightly more time in tomorrow's panel, I will restrict this quick overview to science fiction. And as far as science fiction goes, aliens appear because, I would argue, one of the essential 'behind-the-scenes' purposes of this body of literature is an expansion of definitions. What is human? What is sentient? What is understandable? Unless a science fiction introduces an alien whose sole purpose in the narrative is to die in droves at the hands of space marines, some part of these books including aliens will always be a consideration of what makes an alien so, well, alien. Even Starship Troopers, that ur-text of space slaughter, includes discussions of how to understand insect foes.

When we find ourselves slowly moving from a sense of awe and befuddlement to an ability to predict and understand a fictional alien race, we have achieved something notable. In some small fashion, we have broadened the definition of what it means to be human. We have pushed back the borders of what is worthy of our understanding and empathy.

In a previous post I shared my love for James L. Cambrias' "The Darkling Sea," and Michael Faber's "The Book of Strange Things." I think in both cases, the power of those books was not shying away from this monumental undertaking. In different ways, both authors introduced aliens very different from Homo sapiens, and then through a series of careful adjustments worked the reader to an appreciation of certain commonalities. Sometimes this was done through the device of imperfect but improvable metaphors and other times through an assimilation of the untranslatable. In both cases, a reader is brought closer to the unfamiliar through the story. It's hard not to get encouraged by that.

Certainly other themes in science fiction are worthy of discussion, but this question of what is alien and how to find empathy for it, seems to me to be particularly significant. Leaving aside the question of whether we will in fact ever encounter sapient aliens; it's all too clear many people on this planet haven't fully wrapped their heads around empathizing with other human beings. One wonders if the ever increasing technology for personal augmentation and artificial intelligence might bring into our world aliens of our own planet. Entities that do not think like us on a fundamental level that we must find ways of understanding and co-existing with.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

In Defense of Brevity

As a writer of short speculative fiction, I am also a reader. I was a reader first and my love of the genre leads me to want to write short fiction. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is read contemporary's work. If nothing else, you're likely to be entertained - there's a great amount of stupendous short fiction available out there for exactly nothing. But it also tends to helps to develop craft. 

Long-time readers of this blog know I write up recommendations of a few short stories each month I really enjoyed. "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Carl Wiens" was my favorite story of the year. The first line of this story pretty much sums it up: "The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history," but I also enjoyed "The Girl Who Escaped from Hell" By Rahul Kanakia and "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," by Brooke Bolander. As a participant in Arisia' "Short Sharp Shocks" panel, there are the stories this panel might have been written to address.

I got started reading short fiction through Stephen King and Isaac Asimov. That's probably why I have the assumption that short stories and longer works are both equally part of a writer's medium, that neither expression is more important that the other.

I recommend reading short stories to everyone. I actually have trouble figuring out why short stories are not more popular. It would seem to be a natural fit for the modern pace. A good short story has the power to conjure an entire dynamic, compelling world into being in 5,000 words or less. Particularly in the case of speculative fiction, I'd argue that gives the writer the power to dramatically up the stakes and flexibility of a story. A character or situation that might wear out an entire novel can comfortably fill a smaller piece.

Having grown up on Clarke, Asimov, and King, I'd say classic short fiction has a lot to say to modern fans of speculative literature. It doesn't take much digging to realize that a lot of the classic science fiction, fantasy, and horror ideas got their start in short form stories. "Nightfall," "The Sentinel," and "The Lottery" all feel like complete statements, pushing the tradition of speculative fiction forward every bit as much as their writer's more celebrated novels.

So what it that makes short stories worth the effort to read? Their length is both their defining characteristic and their essential strength. As I've suggested above, a short story can fully explore certain ideas that might struggle as novels: too little concept over too many pages. Also, there is an intensity to the stories of short fiction. Novels can build up to impressive spectacles and spend considerable time on the slow build of tension. Poetry can capture perfectly a single moment, emotion, or impression. But the purpose of short story is to provide a single unforgettable experience. Because a short story can usually be read in a single sitting and considered in whole, a great short story doesn't just entertain, it has the sense of occupying fully a human brain, as though for 5,000 words or so the only considerations possible are those wrapped up in this one brief story. For an example of what I mean, I'd earnestly urge you to find "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang. There are plenty of short stories that could change a person's life. Exhalation is one of them.

In no particular order I'd also suggest the following authors as showing the possibilities of speculative short fiction in the 21st century: Laird Barron, John Langan, Ken Schneyer, Ken Liu, Gwendolyn Kiste, Maria Haskins, A.C. Wise, and Kristi DeMeester, among very many others.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Further Thoughts on Preacher (AMC)


In preparation for the panel on Preacher (Gone to TV), I've been thinking about what this television series, and the graphic novel that inspired it, mean. The big take-away I have, reflecting upon both, is the extreme good fortune I feel we, as the television watching public, currently enjoy having this story taking shape on the small screen. Despite being an excellent story, with memorable characters, it surely falls within a class of works posing a challenge to bring to the screen. 



Alright, let's talk for a moment about what the graphic novel is, and why at heart, I'm still incredulous Garth Ennis' work has made it to AMC. Pared away to simplest elements, The Preacher is a story of a man named Jesse Custer who goes on a long road trip across the United States and parts of Europe to have a few words with the all-mighty creator God. He meets up with an old flame, Tulip O'Hara, and an amusing Irish libertine by the name of Proisinois Cassidy who also happens to be a century old vampire. Jesse becomes imbued (possessed doesn't seem quite the right word) with power of an entity known as "Genesis" who as a product of the union of an angel and demon has the power of a new idea, has power that rivals God's Himself. As God's grows increasingly desperate to throw Jesse off His trail, the three main characters encounter serial killers, globe spanning conspiracies, Jesse Custer's awful family, and a resurrected, unkillable cowboy known the "Saint of Killers."

During the course of 75 issues of the Preacher comic (a count including a couple of related side-stories), there's enough material here for a whole fleet of television series, most of which fall outside the viewing guidelines for basic cable. AMC , with Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, certainly provides a little latitude for the comic's frequently profane or downright appalling storylines, but not as much as say HBO or Showtime. However, the diversity of settings, characters, timelines, and spectacles all suggest a budget closer to that of a tent-pole movie than something that runs for an hour every week. Television is expensive and a show like Breaking Bad or Walking Dead both found ways of cutting down on the number of sets or find ways of making as much of the action (even in the case of the Walking Dead) happen inside as possible.

The scale of The Preacher is as wide and open as the highways and byways of America itself. One of my initial concerns with the first season of the TV version was whether they were going to can that sense of motion and scale within the confines of one (telegenic) western town. I was happy to see that by the end of the first season, the intent appers to be to take the show on the road. As that epic quest aspect of the comic was one of my favorite features of it, I could not be more pleased by this development.

Add to that the basic theme of The Preacher being a fairly determined assault on the idea of organized religion and you wonder exactly who is going to fund this thing.

Having recently re-read the graphic novel, I'll add in one more problem any potential television adaption would have to face. Although published a little over a decade ago, The Preacher feels very much entwined with the era in which it appeared, both an expression of the late 90s and a reaction against it. It's hard not to pick at the strands of influences that lead up to the comic: the rough-hewn cool of Western movies, the black humor of that era's war movies, and the casual, hyper-erudite depravity of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith movies. Even reading this back then, it was hard not to observe how much of Jesse Custer's world-view comes off as a reaction to the controversies and social movements of the day. Ennis had little use for identity politics and reserved as much ire for things the typical Blue-stater might find sacrosanct as a red-stater. As has been noted by other reviewers, one major short-coming of the series is its treatment of LGBT characters and concerns. In a comic where John Wayne appears as walking, talking embodiment of all Jesse Custer aspires to be as a man, it's really concerning when every LGBT character in the story is either a ridiculous caricature or an evil-doer.

That said, I find it very difficult to escape the pull of this story. What struck me most about The Preacher, in the re-read, was my own entertainment, - there are story-lines which still strike me as having the power to awe and emotionally devastate. But there's also plenty that needs correction or at very least a critical reappraisal. No work can be all things to all people, but some of The Preacher will be off-putting, offensive, or down-right insulting to a potential reader. Partly this is by design. Garth Ennis delights in goring sacred cows, smashing idols, and generally taking the piss out of things other people consider above reproach.

The television series has already made gestures that it's going to take a different approach to many of the issues. While the first season dragged a little bit - it also opened up the story in a variety of ways. The casting of Ruth Negga as Tulip O'Hare strikes me as the best sort of reappraisal of the series - finding a way to push the narrative away from something as simple as one white dude's unhappiness and power trip. Another aspect to this is the character of Jesse Custer himself, as revealed in the series. Custer does plenty of under-handed and morally questionable stuff in the comics but he's always treated as the hero, the John Wayne of the story. That is simply not the case in the television series. If anything, Custer's flaws in the show are as much an aspect of the story as his virtues. I like this. The part of the graphic novel that aged the worst are the ways Custer is given a pretty much free-hand to manipulate and lay-low everyone he meets.

In an America that just hired a guy promising he's the only one who can fix things, it's of critical importance the central figures of The Preacher are shown as flawed as they are, and that absolute power in capricious hands tends to produce tragic consequences. My hope for the television series is that it doesn't recreate the source material faithfully but goes beyond and improves upon it. The Preacher comic book meant a lot to me but I'm hoping the television series means more.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Update on Arisia Panels

Now that we are a bit closer to the kick-off for Arisia 2017, I thought I'd firm up the times and locations for panels that I'm participating in.

Arisia is an annual science fiction and fantasy convention, held in Boston in the Westin Hotel drawing bit more than 4,000 fans each every year. This will be my seventh year at the convention and the fifth on panels. So, yeah, I really like the community that turns out for this thing and it's pretty much the high point of each winter.

I like how welcoming and supportive the community at Arisia is. No matter what your interest, there is a track where like-minded individuals can gather, discuss, and participate in that fandom. There are certainly larger conventions that offer that sort of "big tent" ethos, but few that have the cozier, more casual feel of Arisia.

So, anyway, if you are interested in hearing me talk about literature and media from the past year, I'm attending the following panels (Descriptions and panelists taken directly from the Arisia program schedule):

The Alien in the Alien Location: Burroughs
Fri (1/13) 7:00 PM
  • Description: Many recent sci-fi books have included very alien aliens: creatures whose bodies and thought processes differ dramatically from those of humans - for instance, the Trisolarans in Liu Cixin's *Three Body* trilogy and the Presger in Ann Leckie's *Imperial Radch* trilogy. How do authors convey this feeling of difference? What is gained and lost in the story by having aliens that are so far away from humanity? Panelists: Steve E Popkes (moderator), Dennis McCunney, Sonya Taaffe, Morgan Crooks, Corbin Covault
Preacher: Gone to Texas (and TV) 
Location: Burroughs
Sunday (1/15) 5:30 PM
  • "Preacher" is a marvelously twisted TV show that's not only a hit, but which seems to be toeing the line between faithfulness to the source material and an awareness of the need to shift content when working in a different medium like TV. We'll talk about the wonderful (and thankfully slightly more diverse than in the comics) cast, the wicked sense of humor, our favorite scenes (the motel fight, anyone?), and where we hope the show goes (and doesn't go) in season 2. Panelists: Hildy Silverman (moderator), Antonia Pugliese, Dr. James Prego, Randee Dawn, Morgan Crooks
The Uncomfortable GenreLocation: Burroughs  
Monday (1/16) 10:00 AM
  • The power of SFF to comfort is well explored. Let's take a look at the other side. SFF has an equal power to discomfit and bedevil readers. It can be what the story speculates, such as A. Igoni Barrett's Blackass, how it speculates, such as Mark Danielewski's work, or the characters and situations, such as Helen Oyoyemi or Yoko Ogawa's stories. What speculations keep you up at night? What might we gain from reading the uncomfortable genre? Panelists: Sarah Smith (moderator), Meredith Schwartz, Dennis McCunney, Morgan Crooks
Short Sharp ShocksLocation: Hale  
Monday (1/16) 1:00 PM
  • Simply put, you can do things in short fiction that you can't do anywhere else. Experiments that only hold up for a few thousand words, twists that would fall flat at greater length, intense playfulness with form and function, unrelenting emotional intensity, and more. Let's talk about the best short fiction of today and what makes it great. Panelists: Gillian Daniels (moderator), Keffy R.M. Kehril, Andrea Corbin, Morgan Crooks, MJ Cunniff

I'm very excited for these panels and in the days ahead intend to write down a few thoughts on Ancient Logic for each.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Alive in 2016


Part of me wants to sum up this year in one or two words - it sucked! - and be done with it. I've spilled a lot of virtual ink in service of pessimism lately so maybe it's time to put paid to 2016 and be done with it.

Instead, I'd like to take a moment to remember some of the good things about this year.

This was a year of friends. I met a bunch of amazing people this year, had time to hang out with old friends, and had some of the best conversations about politics, speculative fiction, movies, and life. If you spent time with me, helped me understand this world a little bit better, filled it with life and laughter and hope, well, the least I can do is thank you. Thank you for reading my stories, putting up with my mistakes, and giving me your support. Thank you Lauren for being the best friend a person could ever hope for and congratulations for finishing your masters.

This was a year of video games. Maybe not the most consequential aspect of life but, you know what, if I'm being honest, playing games occupies a significant chunk of my time. In particular I'll stand up in defense of one of the most maligned games in recent memory. I'm still playing "No Man's Sky," and foresee continuing to do so well into the future. The basic premise of the game still fills me with a sense of peace and wonder. Finding a perfect world in the wide, wide galaxy and being able to stroll over it is somehow all I've ever wanted in a game. I feel at peace, perfectly in the moment, and if that makes it seem more like a meditation device than a traditional game, so be it.

This was a year of reading. I've already listed my favorite new works from the past year but looking over what I actually read during the course of 12 months, I'm not really sure I captured what gave this year its meaning. Around September, when things looked particularly pointless on the election front I stopped listening to the radio, cut my cable news habit way back and simply started reading as much as I could. In retrospect, I can't help but think that was a far better use for my time.

In particular, I started tracking down books in cosmic horror genre for a series of posts. That was a lot of fun and lead me to authors such as Michael Shea, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Kathe Koja, and Robert Aikman. The other big project was listening to the "best books of the 21st Century" which was incredibly rewarding. As you might guess from my posts, I read a lot of speculative literature and not so much of what might be termed "contemporary fiction." After having read "Gilead," and the "Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," I'm glad I finally took steps to rectify that over-sight. My life is better for the books I've read.

This was a year of writing. Having "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," published in Electric Spec was a high point in my short career as a writer. As mentioned before, I think Electric Spec is a terrific magazine and I feel honored to have that story appear there. It's also enormously encouraging. I did not sell many stories this year but the one I did is recent and, in my estimation, one of my better ones. I have a crop of other stories coming down the pipe that I like as much and more.




Friday, December 30, 2016

What I Read in 2016


This was a great year for speculative fiction, both novels and short stories and I had a little trouble narrowing down my favorites to just five. Which is part of the reason this post is running right up to the end of the year. Every story I'm listing below is one that is still sitting with me all these months later. 
For the record, I have one more of these year-end posts left - a sort of wrap-up of everything else.

In comparison to last year, which was nearly all science fiction (and one very Sfnal fantasy novel) I've got a slightly more eclectic list going here.
  1. The Fisherman by John Langan: This is the last novel I read in 2016 and the best. Langan's tale of two widowers bonding over fishing the streams and rivers of Upstate New York combines intensely personal tragedy, with scenes of compelling weirdness and terror. The story raises interesting questions about the nature of language and the responsibilities of those in grief. 
  2. Infomocracy by Malka Older. A political thriller set perhaps half a century in the future when most of the world has embraced a global form of democracy, every 100,000 people choosing their own government every 10 years or so. After 2016, I could certainly understand the desire to never read another sentence about politics and governance but this novel makes a powerful argument in favor of big visions for a better world. 
  3. I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. A very short, disturbing tale of the perils of bringing a significant other home to meet the folks. You may think you know where this story is heading from the beginning but I'm pretty sure you'd be wrong. 
  4. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. A new genre needs to be coined to describe this story. Is it science fiction or fantasy? Is this world set in the far future with technology based on conflicting mathematical axioms or in the distant past riven by mystic war and heresy? A maverick soldier finds herself partnering with the ghost of a war criminal to conquer a rebel fortress. Much of the novel reads like an Ender's Game as written by China Meivile. 
  5. The Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay. I read parts of this alongside watching Stranger Things which made for an interesting pairing. Unlike the Netflix series, The Disappearance is set in the present day Massachusetts with supernatural elements taking a back seat to the anguish of being young, hyper-connected, and completely alone with your own mind. 
On to short stories.
  1. Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Carl Wiens. The first line of this story pretty much sums it up: "The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history." This story starts at about a 10 - a masterful hot-wiring of history, science fiction, and great personal loss - before it really gets weird. I read this story in the summer, and felt like I was witnessing an event. 
  2. The Girl Who Escaped from Hell By Rahul Kanakia. A father tries to take care of his biological daughter after her rescue from an apocalyptic cult. The father is well-intentioned but not quite up to the challenge, always falling a step or two behind what is required. 
  3. All the Red Apples Have Withered to Grey by Gwendolyn Kiste. Dark fantasy in the mode of Grimm or Gaiman taking a familiar trope of such stories- the enchanted apple - and imagining a cottage industry of self-administered paralysis. This is first and foremost a compelling and strange tale that just so happens to have a few pointed things to say about life, love, and everything. You know, like all the best fairy tales do. 
  4. Some Pebbles in the Palm by Kenneth Schneyer. I retain faith in the power of short stories to teach and console on the basis of works like this one. A story about a story (or rather stories) concerning the possibility of hope and renewal in a world with a proven track record of tolerating neither. It's the voice that sticks with me: profound and wise, but human and so, so weary. 
  5. A Diet of Worms by Valerie Valdes. In order to work, a horror story should make you feel a connection with a person in peril. No matter what the monster is, we the readers must see ourselves in the story or the effect of terror loses all sense of urgency and risk. Here a young man toils at a movie theater, his job winnowing his dreams, withering him one paragraph at a time. At heart, this story is about the despair of knowing you are much better than the life you can't seem to escape.