Author: OJ

TheBackward Lens of Compromise

I’ve a new story out! “The Backward Lens of Compromise” is the third novelette of mine to appear in Asimov’s, and I’m really happy for it to be there. Like the other two, “Backward Lens” is about science history – this time, the history of telescopes and the astronomers who look through them. Interwoven with this is a modern day story of science education.

As a science communicator, I’m all for science ed. But science can be expensive to teach – it needs labs and equipment for hands-on work – and in impoverished communities, with underfunded public schools, it’s easy to cut. And in this story that’s what’s happening, except it’s going further than the classroom. An old observatory is being shut down, one that works with schools to teach students about the stars. The observatory doesn’t make money, and the kids from this disadvantaged community are deemed to be no-hopers anyway, so why throw good money after bad in getting them a proper education? Needless to say, the observatory’s astronomer has no truck with this… and neither do the kids themselves. And the observatory is changing around them, all magic and seeing and comprehension, and it turns out that what these no-hoper kids have already been taught about science and science history is an empowering thing…

Because it is. Because critical thought and objective methodology, the ability to discover new things, is a crucial aspect of education. Kids who lack it become citizens who lack it, and that’s what leads to poor schools in the first place.

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Sharp and Sugar Tooth Kickstarter

So, the anthology that I’m editing for Upper Rubber Boot Books, The Sharp and Sugar Tooth, is getting closer! There’s a kickstarter on for it right now, so if you like short stories and horror and food, and feminism in your fiction, please take a look. There are all sorts of levels and rewards, including copies of Sugar Tooth and the other speculative anthologies in URB’s Women Up To No Good series, so it’s totally worth your while!

The anthology had its early genesis in the food and horror essays I did for The Book Smugglers a couple of years back. Once I’d finished that non-fiction collection, I was still interested in the food horror theme, and when I saw that URB was looking for new anthology pitches I thought I’d give it a go. The pitch was accepted, and last year I read through a heap of tasty slush, looking for the creepiest and most empowering horror stories I could find. There was a wide, wide range and it was really difficult to pick the best, as so many wonderful stories were submitted. But pick I did, and there are 22 fantastic stories from 22 wonderful, food-loving authors!

From Chikodili Emelumadu to Alyssa Wong and Catherynne M. Valente, as well as newer authors like Jasmyne J. Harris, H. Pueyo, and D.A. Xiaolin Spires, come stories of the sweet and the savoury and the scary, of apples and confectionary and strong meat, of little Wonderland cakes and post-apocalyptic nature preserves, of honey bees and hungry daughters and organ-eating. Please come back us, you won’t regret it!

 

Review: “Our Lady of the Ruins” by Traci Brimhall

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

Our Lady of the Ruins, by Traci Brimhall, is a poetry collection that follows a group of women wandering through the apocalypse. The back cover describes the women’s journey as a “pilgrimage” which is a faith-based term if ever there was one, even though the women themselves are periodically, violently anti-religious. The collection is mythic and layered, the poems forming a fractured narrative. And it’s a challenging narrative at that: a text laden down with metaphor and imagination, taking its imagery from a number of sources and with journeys over land and sea, from the old worlds and into the new, even venturing down into the underworld.

Steeped in the language of myth and pilgrimage as well as science, the first poem starts with an invitation that serves the same function as a question: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues” (“Music from a Burning Piano”, p. 15).

Imagine indeed.

There are a lot of apocalyptic stories out there. I don’t claim to have read all of them, but I have read a good few. They come in all shapes, mostly, although there are certain funnel effects—like the spectre of nuclear war, for instance—that help to form the resulting narrative and give it a sense and aesthetic different from that of a climate change apocalypse, for example, or one caused by plague.

What apocalypse stories tend to share is a theme of faith: what it is to have it, what it is to lose it, and how the object of that faith is both constructed and reconstructed in a changing environment. The faith in question could be in family, or it could be religious, or it could be the inability of science to make it all better, to restore order and bring back a semblance of normal life. Faith isn’t the only post-apocalyptic theme, of course, but it is I think the pre-eminent one.

The only type of faith that has no place in an apocalyptic narrative is a stagnant one. Stagnancy is dramatically dull at the best of times; following a hideous, transformative disaster it becomes unrealistic as well as dull. So: faith changes, or fluctuates, or perhaps it rebels. Faith, in an apocalyptic world, is metamorphic.

Which is why it shouldn’t be constrained by structure. The individual poems in Our Lady of the Ruins are fragments of larger stories. They ask questions of a destroyed world, of the place of faith and the place of stories in a world where destruction and faithlessness is the new norm. Because of this, stories are strung through the text like little seeds, telling of how “curators removed an elephant’s heart / from the museum because it began beating when anyone / in love looked at it, how the coroner found minnows / swimming in a drowned girl’s lungs” (“Prelude to a Revolution”, p. 16).

Sometimes, though, these stories are twisted from what they once were. After visiting an oracle, the narrator records, “We tie new knots in her hair and swim / into the belly of a shark to retrieve the book / of signs” (“Come Trembling”, p. 81). When it comes to oracles who are linked to the swallowing of great ocean creatures, we are more used to thinking of whales… but a shark is sharper, more deadly, and more apt for the gorging of war and end times. These twisted little references are found throughout the text, and explicitly so: later in the “Come Trembling” poem is the comment, “We want to believe, to split open the myth / and lie in it” (p. 81); but myths lose cohesion when split open, when examined for cold reality and superstition, and the skewing of the stories reflects a destabilised world in which the old beliefs have become insufficient.

This twisting is intentional. If the undermining of faith is the backbone of apocalypse, the transformation of faith is the meat about the vertebrae, the journey towards a place to stand again, the beginnings of recreation, and of resurrection.

The spirituality that so conflicts the women at the centre of the collection is implicitly stated to be a form of Christianity—there are reliquaries and madonnas and cathedrals, although all of the last are burning, set alight by the pilgrims in an act of conscious destruction. “We tried to burn every cathedral in the country” (“Hysteria: A Requiem”, p. 48) the narrator confides, but what is the purpose of such burnings? Are they vengeance upon a faith that proved to be inadequate, or are the fires set for the purpose of metaphor? It’s not a new image, fire in the service of purification, of transformation, but in times of struggle we often fall back upon the familiar.

Often, but not always – and it’s in this land-mined area between old habits and the kicking against them that new myths are born.

Our Lady of the Ruins is determined in its stand against resurrection. The narrator of the poems, one of the nameless women on pilgrimage, resolutely turns away from the possibility of spiritual renewal. This is the primary tension of the text: the betrayed reaction, for even though the women rebel against symbols of what one presumes was their previous, shared beliefs, they are on a pilgrimage still. But a pilgrimage for what? Does a pilgrimage have to be for anything anyway? What if it is a pilgrimage against?

Mid-apocalypse is a time for doubt and darkness if ever there was one, and both take centre-stage in this narrative. Doubt is not only a reasonable condition here; it is a mandatory one. “You, chosen for your doubt, / remain on the bridge, caught in your quiet / passage from one broken country to another” (“Diaspora”, p. 22). “You are the doubter and the doubt / worshipping a book you can’t read” (“Gnostic Fugue”, p. 35).

Characters who don’t doubt, in an apocalypse, are not characters driven—or even influenced—by reason. Their faith tends towards fundamentalism, their one-track minds so broken by trauma, or by the opportunism granted by trauma, that they’re all too invested in faiths that don’t change. That can’t change, although that “can’t” is always a position both driven and enforced by a faith’s followers. It’s the people more attuned to the world around them, the people with the most awareness of the utter destabilisation of apocalypse, that find their faiths both muted and mutating.

The world of Our Lady of the Ruins has been scarred from war until it is almost unrecognisable. “The Colossus” states that, “In the beginning, none of us can tell rock / from bone” (p. 31). This is an example of the conflation of body and nature that is so often illustrated in eco-poetry, lifted out and inserted into another genre, one where the body is equally influenced by—and influencing of—the environment. Here the conflation between the two is underlined by the sterile landscape and the death of the narrator’s baby. Fertility and growth are beyond the personified natural, and the stories are instead those of death and burial, or death and cremation.

The images of destruction in this collection are consistently linked with fire. New battlefields are “lit by strange flames” (“The Needful Animal”, p. 32). Even the anonymous narrator links her own desire for obliteration with fire, following the death of her child in “Requiem for the Firstborn”: “I can burn down the sugar cane” (p. 74). Some days she says that “fire is a mirror” (“Envoi”, p. 78), comparing their different capacities for destruction. The only things the narrator can retain are “grief / and a new obedience and four pounds of ash” (“How to Find the Underworld”, p. 75), where the ashes are remnants of fire and the only link to a destroyed past.

In the collection’s introduction, Carolyn Forché links the apocalypse of the text with the holocaust that was the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Forché describes Brimhall as “standing, as the stone lady stood in the ruins of bombed Dresden (as it happens, near the Church of Our Lady), keeping vigil in the aftermath”. The holocaust at Dresden is an apocalyptic landscape also caused by science: the white phosphorous bombs causing fires that would foreshadow the coming atomic bomb. Brimhall, by exploring the lives of the survivors of her own scientific apocalypse, tells their stories by metaphors and mixing, echoing science with myth to make new stories and new meanings for the new (and frequently hideous) world.

This merging of myth and science is repeatedly illustrated in the text. I’m thinking of one particular image of a fossil, standing as proxy for the subjective nature of personal truth. The narrator tells of her sister, who knows “that a fossil leaves two stories—one about unmiraculous fish and loaves and a hill crowded with atheists muttering mass, and one about carbon” (“The Revisionist Gospel”, p. 36). Or there’s the poem in which the women visit monks in “The Orchard of Infinite Pears” (p. 82)—monks who refuse to speak, whose primary interest now seems to be in the mathematical properties of zero. If they’re spreading any word at all now, any gospel, it’s of fruit and arithmetic instead of divinity.

As I commented before, this is a challenging text. But also a rewarding one, I think, and one that bears repeated reading. It exists in a space of searching and doubt, with juxtaposed images and personal ambiguities—the rages and defeats and small joys of continued existence—illustrating what life in an apocalypse might be for the poets, or for the faithful. Highly recommended.

 

Gone to Earth

I’ve a new story out! “Gone to Earth” is free to read in the latest issue of Shimmer.

It’s a psychological horror story about Mars: the effect it has on astronauts, and their inability to adapt to it. “Gone to Earth” is also one of the earliest stories I ever wrote. It’s been sitting on my computer for close to a decade now, and most of the time it was lying fallow. New-writer me sent it out a couple of times, and it was promptly rejected, and I was disappointed but not all that surprised.

I knew the idea was good, but the execution was… lacking.

That’s why when you’re a writer it’s so very necessary to be a reader as well. Especially if you’re not a very good writer – and none of us are very good writers when we’re starting out. If you don’t read, and read widely, it’s all too easily to fall into an isolated creativity where you simply don’t have the tools to recognise that you’re producing sub-par material. But because I did read, I could assess that early version of “Gone to Earth” with some objectivity, and if I didn’t quite know why the writing sucked, I still knew that it did.

So I left it and left it and left it, and then late last year I pulled up that old file and started again. And I’m really glad I did, because I still love the ideas in this story. Take a look!

He’d thought the green would keep him from dreaming of the memory of arid sterility, the red and waterless horizon.

It didn’t.

His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable.

An astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars! All the psychological tests he’d undergone had been for other things: socialization, conflict resolution in close quarters, the ability to cope with long-term and claustrophobic isolation. Alan had passed them all and felt himself stable enough, had never wavered either in ambition or explorer’s faith.

They’d never thought, none of them, that what brought him down would be a different sort of lack….

 

The Huntsman’s Sequence

I’ve a new story out! “The Huntsman’s Sequence” is free to read (and to listen to) in the new issue of GlitterShip.

I tend to write a lot about the history of science, but never have I written about it in such a nerdy way. “The Huntsman’s Sequence” is a story about Alan Turing, who worked at Bletchley Park during WW2 and who broke the Enigma code there. His contribution to the war effort was enormous, and he was not rewarded for it. Persecuted for being gay, Turing took a leaf from his favourite movie – Snow White – and killed himself with a poison apple.

This story is a mash-up between the fairy tale and the facts. Turing, of course, is cast as the Huntsman, tracking down Enigma (Snow White). And – I warned you I was a nerd – the story’s structured in the form of a Turing machine programme.

Anyway, take a look!

The war is blank.

Not in its individual parts, but as a whole. It covers everything, smothers everything. It blows continents open with opportunity. Much of that opportunity is for death, for carcasses hung up and split open in massive consumption, a grind of bone and blood, but for some the opportunity is a tool for all that. Something to insert into the space between ribs, to lever open and dissect.

Not everyone dies in war. Not everyone sinks into blank nothingness, into unmarked graves and mass burials, into fields turned red and mud that stinks of iron. Some fight with symbols instead of flesh, their weapons heady and hidden, and it is in combination and in permutation that Turing finds his battleground.

He’s under no illusion that it keeps his hands clean. The information he extracts from the body of Enigma, the sweet little Snow White of his waking dreams, is used for murder as much as if he did the stabbing himself….

Year’s Best Hardcore Horror

Last year I wrote a story, called “The Better Part of Drowning“, about carnivorous crabs and the girls who kill them. It was published in The Dark, and I’m happy to say it’s been reprinted this year as part of the Year’s Best Hardcore Horror series from Red Room Press! Volume 3 of the series, containing stories from 2017, has just been published. I can’t wait to get my hands on my own copy, because I love horror (as you would expect, writing so much of it) and I’m really looking forward to reading all the other creepy, bloody, lethal stories herein.

If you haven’t come across “The Better Part of Drowning” before, here’s a small excerpt:

Alix was never sure what kept the groaning rickety-spider of a dock up, unless it was the mussels that swarmed over the piles, turning them to hazards that could slice a swimmer open. The divers were all over scars from waves and mussels, always being pushed into shell sharp as knives and leaving their blood to scent the water.

“You kids be careful you don’t draw the crabs!” If she heard that once a day she heard it fifty times, and each time she had to smile over the slicing pain and wave up, because coins weren’t thrown to kids who wailed. Wailing made her choke if she tried to dive anyway, and there were always kids enough to squabble over coins so tears did nothing but anchor her to surface and starvation and blind her to the sudden scuttle of predation.

Don’t draw the crabs, they always said, and smiled as they said it, because it was entertaining to see kids dive in crab beds, and entertaining to see the bloodshed when they were slow enough for catching. Alix didn’t blame them for that. She’d never been able to look away either, no matter how much bile rose in her throat, the metal taste of panic.

Crabmeat, crabmeat. It was their own little circle of carnivorism, the smallest crabs providing one and the smaller kids the other. Not that the biggest of the scuttlers couldn’t take a man full-grown, but usually the bigger you got the more sense you had, and the more the habit of watching claws kept them away from bone.

 

We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice

I’ve a new story out! “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice” is free to read over in this week’s edition of Strange Horizons. It’s a climate horror story about bears and lies.

It’s an odd mix of fantasy and fact, this one. Clearly, ghost bears the size of houses are not prowling over the ever-less-frozen north of the Americas. But I like finding interesting new ways to write about science so folded in with all the gore and mayhem are bits of biology and climate, and sprinkled through the whole are links to science news stories from journals like Science and Scientific American. The articles inform the story, so you can read them if you want but the mere presence of the titles in the text should clue you into context if you don’t want to follow the links.

I wrote it in cold rage a few months back, after seeing that terrible video of the starving polar bear. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it was either swallow down all my bile (which didn’t seem to work, apparently spite concentrates in small spaces) or spit it out and make other people suffer too. Fair warning, this one’s really dark. Strange Horizons lists content warnings before each story, and this hits quite a few of them. As you can see from the opening snippet:

Look at what we woke.

We feed them lies and watch them burn for it.

Koala bears rarely run during bush fires. Their instinct at danger is to climb up into canopy, where the leaves are shot through with eucalyptus oil, and flammable. They cling to the trunk with charred paws when it begins to burn, the thin bark catching easily and falling off in flaming strips. It sets their fur alight.

They die screaming. ….

Review: “Wake” and “Drink” by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Wake published by Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2015.

Drink published by BlazeVOX [books], 2015.

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There’s some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you’ve only got time for one, I’d recommend you go for Drink. I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death – specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman’s death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I’ve come across often – barring F.G. Haghenbeck’s portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo­, or Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series,  for instanceand it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that’s underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.

“Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You” (49) has the poem’s narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn’t touch her – which is what you’d expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it’s one-sided.

“I like monsters” says the poet (in “Preference”, 56). Yet “My sister is a monster” (so claims the poem “Barren Monsters”, 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because “Monsters and humans can’t mate”. One would presume, in this case, that it’s the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out – the bleeding, the “extra wombs” – for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It’s a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem “Book of Monsters” (61) states that “As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom’s ceiling and walls black”. Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.

No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.

Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister’s house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping – or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. “We don’t go there anymore” says the poet (in “Death’s House”, 38) and it’s a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death’s House. Other people live there; they “tread the family carpet, watch the doors”. Yet later, in “Sister Death” (46), “We know it’s time to visit again” and it’s all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn’t kind. It’s of a bitter thank-goodness-I’m-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they’re overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In “The Entrance to Death” (64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: “I’m going in. I’ve been there. I can come back.” In “Death’s Cameras (51-52) it’s “Together we’ll go back to the living”.

But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in “Anthology of the Dead” (40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell – how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because “Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives” (in “Considering Lore”, 39).

It’s a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.

I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of – and poems on – mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay – in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.

But the wordplay is underpinned by deeper connections – the varying myths and realities of modern life. The poem “On Vanishing” (19) makes this particularly clear. After the disappearance of a plane, possible reasons for that disappearance get stranger and stranger, delving into science fiction and controversy. Then “Someone says, Mermaids. Another says, This is about lack of security, welfare moms. There’s no such thing as mermaids.” The myths of the past, of half-human, half-fish sea creatures are being replaced by the myths of the present: the welfare mother as the reason for social (and aeronautical) collapse, the ever-present expectation of terrorism as the new lurking monster under the bed (in the hold). These myths expand into our social consciousness. Given that this is a book about mothers and daughters, the myth of the welfare mother holds special weight. Unemployed and slovenly, bearing multiple children to different fathers and spending her money unwisely. A scourge to her daughters, violent and abusive. That it appears to be true in this case – the sequence of poems in Drink where the mother ignores a daughter’s suicide attempt, telling her boyfriend du jour, on being confronted with that daughter’s failing body, to “Step over her, Joe. Step over her” (“Complicit IV”, 63) is particularly horrifying – doesn’t mean that the exception is the rule. Unless, of course, we’re mythmaking. Then, the single incompetent individual is blown up, magnified as the representation of an entire class, because demonising that class is an easy thing, a simple explanation. Terrible mothers don’t bring down ships in “On Vanishing”. They bring down planes.

The subject of the myth changes, but the object – the desire to explain, to place blame – remains the same. It’s not mermaids pulling men underwater any more, it’s irresponsible women drowning themselves in drink, and the children are suffering for it.

But if the terrible mother shares the threatening nature of mermaids, so do her daughters. It’s here that the two parts of Drink really come together: it’s an exploration of what living with drink, what being surrounded by it, can make of you.

In Drink, the daughters of an alcoholic become mermaids. Not literally, of course. They don’t learn to breathe underwater. Their legs don’t fuse; they don’t live on fish and the folk they lure into drowning. What they share is more subtle than that. It’s certainty that ties the two pieces of myth and reality together… the certainty of self, of what it means to be a mermaid, to be the daughter of a drunk.

This certainty both strengthens and handicaps. Mermaids “fear nothing. The only thing to fear is mermaids” (“Shadows”, 24). The only thing to fear is the self, in other words. The self that refuses to die, even after swallowing a bottle of pills and being stepped over by boyfriends, still and silent on the carpet, surrounded by vomit. The self that is afraid of backsliding, of transforming into the mother, because alcoholism in a family member increases the chances of alcoholism in the self. “I don’t drink anymore so there’s no beer, no wine, no liquor to take a drink” (“Hit the Bottle”, 87). Reminders of temptation, of generational repetition, are always about. A partner who collects bottles (and how much is the daughter of an alcoholic going to be drawn to others? has it happened without her understanding it?). Bottles that appear out of nowhere: “I didn’t understand why there was a bottle by the sink. I didn’t put it there” (“The First Bottle”, 72). Bottles thrown into the ocean, and always the possibility of return: “You say, It will come back. I shake my head, thinking, No, some choose never to come back” (“A Bottled Message”, 71) – the implication being, of course, that some do.

Mermaids are trouble because their only danger is themselves. They’re unaffected by anyone else. “Not like elves or fairies. If you stop believing in them, they don’t care or die” (“Against I: Myth”, 29). If you stop believing in a parent, do they care? If a mother’s daughter is overdosing at her feet, does she remain unaffected?

The rock solid certainty of personality, this absolute cleaving to myth, is reflected in the certainty of daughter towards the mother. “Welfare Queen” (43) is acid in the description of the parent: negligent, abusive, entirely absent of boundary. The daughters, in reflection, are called “Pariahs. Homeless. Whores” because certainty is catching when myths are about. They’ve a mythic role to play, those daughters: the next stage in the intergenerational cycle of dependency, the image of their mother.

In response to sexual abuse, the girls “grew scales, bone hard and jagged, an armour”. Their humanity is taken away by the indifference and determined looking-away of neighbours, when there was no-one “who would talk to us like we were human / we swam mostly alone” (“Pariahs”, 51).

Mermaid traits are thus a defence mechanism – but a double-edged one. Becoming a mermaid may protect from some threats, but it comes with certainty and risk, the possibility of turning into mother, of being so solidly set upon a rock made of bottles that the final destination really is drowning in drink. “I write, SOS. I write, My sister refused to die. I write, We are all mermaids” (“O Captain! My Captain!”, 88). The daughters swim alone, but another poem, “The Mermaid’s Sister” (89) says “I don’t swim, not even close”, while being gifted with bottles by a lover.

The drink is always a temptation, for mermaids, for the daughters of alcoholics.

It’s what’s expected of them, anyway.

The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish

I’ve a new story out! “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish” can be read for free in the new issue of Kaleidotrope.

It’s the follow-up to another Kaleidotrope story of mine, “The Ouroboros Bakery”, although it doesn’t use the same characters. I’m writing an interlocking series of stories, set on the same magical street, because I enjoyed writing “Bakery” so much that I wanted to go back to the same world and play some more in it. I’d had this idea floating around in the back of my head for a while, about a girl reincarnated as a goldfish (don’t ask me where it came from) and the sheer outrageous ridiculousness of it seemed like it would be a good fit for a street that specialised in dodgy transformations.

I’ve sold four of these street stories so far, and another one’s out on sub. I’m hoping to have a collection’s worth by the end of the year, but for now the weird goldfish story will have to entice you. And here’s a teaser for it:

Everyone deserves a last meal. Mine was fish, Syllabub laughing her arse off as she served it up. Not goldfish, because that would have been bad luck—the kind of bad luck that comes from gossip about a last meal getting back to her Ladyship and being taken as insult. Instead a poor skinny muddy thing in a thin soup, flounder I think, or catfish.

“They’re not at all the same,” says Syllabub, critical, but they’re fish, aren’t they?

“I didn’t think there was going to be a test,” I said, and if I’d any room left in me for panic I would have panicked then, because the Lady and her tanks are the only thing between me and a bloody end instead of a scaly one. And if I’m to be examined on fish before I’m allowed to become one, then I might as well offer myself up for gutting now and be done with it…

Award Eligible Stories, 2017

It’s that time of year… when all writers start shilling their stuff for the upcoming awards season! And why not, I reckon.

I had nine eligible stories and one non-fiction book come out last year, but I think that’s genuinely too much to list, so I’m going to stick with a handful of the shorts and the non-fiction book.

The most important story I wrote last year, no question, was “The Stone Weta“, which appeared in Clarkesworld. If you’re considering nominating something of mine, please make it this. The idea for it was essentially ripped from the headlines – climate denialism sponsored by the state, and scientists working to preserve data across borders. Both of these things are happening, and cli-fi is an important tool in bringing climate change into the spotlight.

The best-written story, on the other hand, was “The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science“, which appeared in Shimmer. This is the most literary of the things I had published last year, and continues my effort to write about science with a tinge of speculative fiction about it. If your nomination wants some snob-value to it, this is the story to go for.

On the other hand, if you’re a horror fan, I had two stories out near the end of last year which have both got a bit of positive attention. “The Ouroboros Bakery” from Kaleidotrope (my creepy magic food story) and “The Better Part of Drowning” in The Dark, which does its best to make sure you never eat crabs again.

If you’re looking for something non-fiction to nominate, my collected Food and Horror essays came out from The Book Smugglers at the beginning of December. The columns were actually published individually throughout 2016, mostly, but the collected edition has been substantially expanded, going from 40,000 to 60,000 words. Also, take a look at that gorgeous cover please, by Kristina Tsenova, who could be nominated for art if you’re so inclined.

That’s it! Thanks for your consideration, *cough* stone weta *cough*.