Author: OJ

The War on Space and Time

I have a new story out! “The War on Space and Time” is the July story over at GigaNotoSaurus. And it’s free to read, so why not take a look?

It’s another of my Bletchley Park stories – I’ve been writing a sort of series of weird SFF shorts about the WW2 research at BP because that’s a period of history that genuinely fascinates me. But this story isn’t just about Bletchley – it bounces back and forth between the Park and WW2 Los Alamos. And both the Manhattan Project and breaking the German codes are having strange effects… In New Mexico, the research seems to be stretching the land so that buildings which were once next door to each other are now miles apart, while in Buckinghamshire space is collapsing in on itself… and in both locations, a set of twins is struggling with the war and with each other.

Bletchley Park
Helen woke to a room grown smaller than before. It was no illusion, no result of short sleep and poor light, a head grown soft and malleable under code. Her knees knew before her brain. They barked up against the bed that lay beside her own, the iron of its railings, the thin mattress and the covers all smoothed over.

It had not been a large room to begin with. There were too many men, too many women, and all the billets were taken, all the houses filled. Helen never minded sharing – she’d shared with her sisters all her life, six of them, and sharing a room now with only one of them – and that her twin, the closest of all – was a marvel of quiet and space in comparison. Even if it were only a small room, even if it were only two feet between cots and one of those feet gone now: the walls coming inwards, the beds inching closer together and that was something they had tried before, her and V., cuddling together for warmth and comfort when news of bombs came in, and battles.

But the two beds pushed together made it harder to get through the door, so Helen and V. had pushed them back into place, the little narrow beds, and gone to sleep with their arms stretched across the gap, their hands clasped together in darkness. It wasn’t the same, but it was hard to balance themselves together on a narrow bed and sleep when concentration was required of them in the waking hours, in the shifts before Colossus, in the codes and ciphers and breaking of Bletchley. Now, the beds were somehow shifting towards each other again….

 

Food and Fairy Tales win at the SJV awards!!!

I have had a fantastic weekend. I spent it down in Taupo, at LexiCon – New Zealand’s national SFF convention. I was on two panels: with Seanan McGuire and Meryl Stenhouse on Ecosystems in Science Fiction; and with Meryl again and Cat Langford on Writing Science, Writing Science Fiction. They both seemed to go well, got lots of comments and questions and the people who came up to me afterwards were very complimentary, which was kind of them as I’m not the best public speaker in the world and I’m afraid it showed. But still! I was pleased to make the effort, especially given how well LexiCon went. As a convention it was small but perfectly formed, being exceedingly well organised. Everyone was friendly and excited and happy to be there which is exactly how a convention should be.

But the big news – for me, anyway – happened on the last night, just before the closing ceremony, when the Sir Julius Vogel awards were held. These are our national SFF awards, named after a 19th century Prime Minister who wrote feminist science fiction, and they’re handed out every year. I was nominated in two categories: best novella/novelette for The Convergence of Fairy Tales, and best fan writing for my series of columns on food and horror, both of which were published last year by The Book Smugglers.

I was lucky enough to win both! So I have two lovely new trophies to sit on my bookshelf. (I was also really pleased that A.J. Fitzwater won the best short story category for “Splintr”, which was well deserved.)

I’m super grateful to everyone who voted for me. The competition was very strong, especially in the novella category. I didn’t expect to win, but it seems horror is more popular in the NZ fandom than I thought! So much thanks to my fellow kiwi fans, to the SJV organising team, and to Thea and Ana over at The Book Smugglers for all their support!

The Sharp and Sugar Tooth

I’ve spent the last year thinking a lot about food and horror – how our relationship with food impacts our ideas about consumption, and how that consumption can be made a dark and twisted thing. It’s something I’ve written about in my own stories (for instance “The Mussel Eater”), but it’s also something other people have been writing about. There’s a lot of fantastic stories exploring the dark side of culinary life out there…

I’m pleased to say there will soon be more. I’m editing an anthology for Upper Rubber Boot Books, called The Sharp and Sugar Tooth, to be published late next year. Submissions are open, and you can find the submission call here. Basically what I’m looking for is creepy, beautiful, mouth-watering stories with an element of horror. Stories can be dark fantasy or science fiction or straight horror, but they must be themed around food gathering, food preparation, or the act (and consequences) of consumption. Sex, strong language (and cannibalism!) is fine, but I’m not interested in torture-porn of people or animals even if that’s what gets them onto the plate.

Subversive, diverse stories with a focus on women are appreciated. The Sharp and Sugar Tooth is part of Upper Rubber Boot’s Women Up To No Good series, so authors must identify as female, non-binary, or as a marginalised sex or gender identity.

  • Word count: Up to 5000 words.
  • Payment: six cents per word.
  • Publication history: Original stories only. Reprints may be submitted by invitation only.
  • Multiple submissions: No.
  • Simultaneous submissions: No.
  • Deadline: 31 July 2017. All stories will be replied to by the end of August.
  • To submit: Please send stories in standard manuscript format, attached in .doc or .rtf files, to octaviacade@hotmail.com with the subject line SUGAR TOOTH. Be sure to provide mailing address and a short bio.
  • If the work is a translation, please also provide a statement from the rights holder that you are authorized to translate and submit it (both author and translator will receive full payment).

We encourage and welcome stories from voices underrepresented in speculative fiction, including (but not limited to) writers of colour, LGBTQ writers, writers with disabilities, and writers in translation.

 

The Little Beast

I have a new story out!

“The Little Beast” has just been published in Respectable Horror, the new anthology from Fox Spirit Books. Now I love pretty much all types of horror, but this anthology focuses on stories that try to horrify you without gore or explicitness. Inside you’ll find more Shirley Jackson than Saw.

“The Little Beast” is based around my least favourite fairy tale. I’ve always side-eyed Beauty and the Beast, and it was always Beauty that got my back up. There’s something so untrustworthy about how saccharine she is. I’m not even talking about her willingness to be sold to the Beast as some sort of family sacrifice. In itself that might be understandable – it’s when it follows the whole disgusting rose episode that sacrifice starts to take on more sinister undertones. If I can pinpoint the one moment when I finally realised that I just don’t like Beauty – and why – it’s that bloody bit with the rose; her desperate, needy desire to take up every last bit of her father’s mental space.

A rose is the worst of long-distance presents. It’s a cut flower, it wilts. He’ll have to wrap the stem in wet tissue, to watch it every second so that it doesn’t fall off the cart or get run over, so that it isn’t bumped and bruised by packages or the careless elbows of passers-by. He’ll end up carrying it himself, the whole of the trip home. It’s such a simple request, that made by his youngest daughter. Such a modest desire.

And every night, when he stops at an inn, he’ll have to ask for a vase and fresh water and before he gets it he’ll have to explain why he wants it. He’ll have to tell about his daughter, about her rose. And they’ll coo and congratulate him on having such a loving girl, and none of them will stop to think that she’s asked for a gift that’ll take more time and trouble than her more conventional sisters. No. They’ll be too busy making a fuss for that.

(None of the fuss will be about him.)

But cut flowers die, and no matter what he does, no matter the trouble he’ll go to, by the time he gets back home the thing’s going to be half-dead anyway, all wilted and with the petals falling off.

And the little beast… the little beast will look at her sisters with their expensive, easy requests and her bottom lip will quiver, just minutely, and then she’ll smile anyway and thank him for the present and say that his coming back safe was all she really needed. And all this ridiculous sequence of events will have been set up, by her, for his next line, because there’s only one thing he’ll be able to say at that point, confronted with that brave, martyred little face and that sad little flower.

“You’re such a good girl, Beauty.” (So much better than your sisters.)

Awful girl. Awful. To read the rest, check out the anthology…

Crown of Thorns

I have a new story out!

Crown of Thorns“, about fighting invasive species in the wake of apocalypse, is out in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld. It’s set on the Great Barrier Reef, which is being overrun by a particularly hungry, particularly spiny starfish known as Acanthaster planci, or the Crown of Thorns…

Acanthaster planci.

Home was the poison infestation of starfish, the bleaching acres of coral. Home was vast stretches of warm ocean currents with schools beneath, and colonies.

Home was a laboratory where all the concerns were popular. The Crown of Thorns invasion, their numbers out of control and crowding out the reef systems, the unending march of predation turning an ecology to wasteland, and that ecology already vulnerable.

“We can’t do it anymore.” Apocalypse had left a dozen scientists stranded on a reef laboratory—stranded by choice more than compulsion, because there were boats available, research vessels that could have taken them to the mainland if there had been anything left to go back to. The lab was at least familiar, with the advantage of solar power and fishing equipment. No one would go hungry, but for people defined by their intelligence, by the career choice of science and of conservation, there was more than physical hunger to satisfy.

“We’re outnumbered,” said Mel. “And anyway, there’s no one left to report to.” There’d been nothing but silence from the university for months, and silence in the new world, the world defined by plague and absence, could only mean one thing. “It was only a pilot program anyway.” The desperate attempt to clear and monitor a small patch of ocean, to see if intervention could lead to recovery. Diving again and again, in clear warm water with spikes beneath, with stars, and so focused on seabeds and the possibility of resurrection that the other destruction taking place had seemed a distant thing, unnoticed at first, or at least not taken seriously until the silence began to spread, to became too monstrous to be ignored….

This is my first Clarkesworld story! It’s been on my bucket list of markets to crack for a long time now, and I can honestly say I’ve done my damnedest to crack it. “Crown of Thorns” is the 29th story I’ve sent them. 29th!!! If that isn’t persistence I don’t know what is. Still, if you want to be a writer persistence is necessary – and it does pay off in the end.

Unlike post-apocalypse starfish slaughter.

The Meiosis of Cells and Exile

asimovsI have a new story out!

“The Meiosis of Cells and Exile” is a novelette about the Soviet scientist Lina Stern. It’s just been published in the latest issue of Asimov’s.

I enjoy mixing science history and speculative fiction, and “Meiosis” is an example of this. Lina Stern (1878-1968) was a biochemist and director of the Physiology Unit in the Academy of Sciences. She was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and Stalin was not impressed. Free speech was not something he found to be a priority, and the scientists and writers making up the Committee disagreed – to their very great cost. 15 members of the Committee were arrested and imprisoned for several years before being sentenced to death in a political show trial. Most were executed in 1952 in what came to be known as The Night of the Murdered Poets.

Lina was the only survivor, saved by her scientific talent and sent into exile in Kazakhstan instead. She was in her seventies at the time, and my story tells of her travel into that exile, fuming with what has been done to her and the rest of the Committee.

There’s (kind of) a happy ending to all that horror. Lina, despite her age, survived both Stalin and the miserable torturing bastard who imprisoned her and the rest of the League. She came back out of exile and spent the next 14 years of her very long life working for science, heading up the Physiology Department again at the Biophysics Institute.

It’s an apt story to be out at the moment, I reckon. Have been on Twitter the last few days, watching accounts from the Badlands National Park and NASA go rogue on climate change, tweeting science facts even though they’re under significant pressure not to. Scientists have the responsibility to speak truth to power, and I reckon Lina would have agreed.

(If you’re interested in reading more, Lina Stern also turns up as a supporting character in my short (free!) novel The August Birds.)

Nature as Creative Catalyst

entanglementsI’ve a new book chapter out!

Actually, that implies there was an old book chapter. Nope! There’ve been a handful of papers, but this is is the first academic chapter I’ve had published. It rejoices in the name of “Nature as Creative Catalyst: Building Poetic Environmental Narratives through the Artists in Antarctica Programme”, and it is riveting stuff I tell you.

But if you think that title’s a mouthful, have a look at the collection that it’s in: Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene, edited by Nicholas Holm and Sy Taffel. Perhaps it’ll all be a bit clearer when I tell you that the working title of the project, for most of the time I was involved in it, was Working With Nature. Basically, it’s a collection of essays on the many different ways that people interact with their natural environment. Aside from mine, there are chapters on photographing the Australian landscape, suburban landscapes, postcolonial property rights in New Zealand, and more. The focus does tend towards the Antipodean, but it’s not the only setting explored.

My own chapter looks at New Zealand’s Artists in Antarctica programme. Every year, artists are sent down to Scott Base, to live and work with the scientists there. This is done in order for artists to communicate the Antarctic environment to the general public, in different ways than the scientists do. Basically, to give a more well-rounded experience of the continent to said public, who let’s not forget are the ones paying for NZ’s research programmes on the ice. The more invested the public is in Antarctic conservation and science, the better – at least as far as I’m concerned. Selected artists may be writers, film-makers, visual artists, textile artists, musicians, and so on. Being a poet myself, I focused on the visiting poets and how they built environmental narratives of their experiences.

I’m not going to lie, one day I’d love to be part of the Artists in Antarctica programme myself. Still, until that happy day, I can at least appreciate the work of the poets who have been able to go thus far… namely Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Chris Orsman, and Owen Marshall. Lucky, talented bastards.

 

The Convergence of Fairy Tales

convergence2I have a new novella out!

The Convergence of Fairy Tales is a horror story published by The Book Smugglers as the first in their new novella series. It’s really a mash-up of sorts, where five different fairy tale princesses – Sleeping Beauty, the Snow Queen, Snow White, the Frog Princess, and Rapunzel – are facets of the same person. That person wakes, as the original Sleeping Beauty does, with a baby sucking the needle from her finger. How the princesses deal with their rape and forced motherhood – and how they wreak bloody vengeance within the confines of their own stories, aided by poison apples and mirror fragments, by long hair and glass coffins and golden balls – is something I really wanted to explore.

The Sleeping Beauty woke with a heartbeat between her legs. That was what dragged her out of the sticky swamp of enchantment, of curses and nightmare dreams – a red beat, one centred in her cunt and pulsing. It anchored her as fishing line, hooked into her flesh and hauling upwards until she broke the surface of her sleep and woke to a world so much different than before.

Her eyes were sticky-shut, the lashes glued together. It took work to open them and then the sun was so bright, shining through her tower window, that the Sleepy Beauty promptly closed them again to let herself adjust to the light glowing pink through her lids. It was in that moment, floating just above unconsciousness, that she began to feel more than flares and fish-lines.

The sheets were wet. Damp, really, with the sour odour of sweat, especially in the space around her hips where she could feel the liquid pooling, feel the heaviness of the sheets against her skin. She tried to move, to shift out of the damp spot – had she wet herself, had her bleeding come early? – but it hurt to move and there was something between her legs, something soft and wet and spongy. Her lower back felt as if she had been beaten, and there was a tugging at one finger.

And really, look at that cover. It’s by the fabulously talented Kristina Tsenova (who also did the cover for my short story “The Mussel Eater”). How can you not want a book with that cover?

The Convergence of Fairy Tales is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Eating Science with Ghosts

asimov-s-science-fiction-30I have a new story out! Actually, it’s a novelette. My first novelette, and my first story in Asimov’s Magazine.

“Eating Science with Ghosts” is the story of one very long dinner party, where the main character meets a number of dead scientists linked to weird stories of food and drink. Did you know, for instance, that Marie Curie’s cookbook is so radioactive it has to be kept in a lead box in the National Library in Paris? Or that Thomas Edison used to interview prospective employees by feeding them soup? If they tasted the soup before adding salt they were experimentalists at heart, and if they added the salt automatically (like I would, sorry to say) they assumed too much and were useless to him.

It’s science history as much as science fiction – actually, I’ve been planning to write a pop-sci book around this idea, so this wee novelette is like a proof of concept.

“Eating Science with Ghosts” isn’t available online, but if you can track down the Slightly Spooky October/November issue of Asimov’s it’s in there. Here’s a little taster, to see if it’s your kind of thing:

I’m a little bit drunk before the meal even starts. My guests are late, so that’s some excuse – and a bad joke to boot – but it’s always been easier to see the ghosts when I’m not entirely sober.

I used to try and block them out. But they never went, so eventually I learned to live with it. To live with them. In some ways now they feel like old friends, so when I got my doctorate I planned a celebratory meal. Not the one with family and friends, co-workers from the lab. This is the real celebration, the one that matters… and if those astronauts doesn’t turn up soon I’ll be face down on the table, passed out on one of those lovely little sidewalk cafés that Paris does so well, before I’ve even finished the first course.

I think my tongue is going numb. It’s the vermouth, come in a range of combinations and pretty glasses, nearly all of which are empty. This is a place for vermouth. It was advertised here, back in the early twentieth century: the first neon advertising sign in the world, and naturally it was for alcohol. Cinzano, the word lit up atop a building opposite, lit up in shining white against a brilliant red and blue background. Capital letters, a simple font… it all says Look at me! Buy me!

Short Stories and Eating Alien Politics

cwFOOD AND HORROR, PART SEVEN

This is the seventh in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a few months back.

The thing about food is that it can be a substitution for so much more. Consumption is a metaphor of many parts, with teeth all around – erupting, even, from places we don’t expect. In this month’s column, I’m sticking with contemporary short stories – but stories informed by other narratives of consumption, narratives of fantastic and natural horror that have their own subtext, their own ways of eating through and looking at the world around.

This month, I’m looking at alien predation. Eating aliens, and being eaten by them. This does tend away from the more fantastic or fairy tale narratives that I’ve talked about in some previous columns. “Alien” tends to imply science fiction, the coming of another sentient species – and one that hails from other worlds, other civilisations. This isn’t the witch with a candy cottage, sugar syrup in the cauldron and waiting for kids to eat up. This is space ships and invasion, the influence of foreign biology. But major differences aside – and there are major differences, for I’ve always thought that science fiction has markedly different concerns than fantasy (although that’s a whole other series of columns) – genre comes from the same mindset: a human one, and one that deals with human concerns. Thus similarities remain, even once the differences have been stripped off.

One of those similarities is the desire to use story for metaphor. I’ve talked before in these columns about vampires and how their blood-sucking has often been seen as a substitute for sex, and they’ve not exactly been original comments on my part. That’s an argument that has been around for a long time… something creepy to get past the censors, a sensual violation of a kind that can be lit up on a cinema screen without risking too much in the way of fines and obscenity charges. It’s consumption as a substitute for sex, and a fairly well understood one at that.

Recall also the success of natural horror: bands of tourists floating through the crocodile infested waters of the Northern Territory, or splashing in the seaside waters of Amity. This too uses consumption to tell a story, and if that story isn’t concerned with sex so much as survival, it’s still anchored to biology. The creature horror narratives are nasty reminders of our place in the food chain. They assign the label of prey animal instead of lover, instead of top-of-the-heap, the chosen party, or the most successful species – the most dangerous, the one slaughtering all the others. It’s a reminder that brains aren’t all that, and that they don’t protect against teeth and appetite. Splitting the atom has no effect on a rampaging croc, and no great white shark is going to fall under the spell of any swimming Scheherazade, telling stories in her swimming costume to keep her legs from being taken off at the hips.

These aren’t the only examples, of course, but they do illustrate ways that both fantastic horror and natural horror use consumption to tell stories other than the surface one. And that subversion, as it was last month, is where the modern short story really shines.

So: aliens. Aliens and food. Aliens who want to eat us.

It’s arguable that this kind of story belongs in a subset of creature horror. Is there really that much of a difference between being eaten by a crocodile, and being eaten by a reptilian alien that has substantial crocodilian characteristics? This hypothetical alien has a natural origin, suspending disbelief as we are. That’s why it’s science fiction. It’s not some entity raised from a Hellmouth, or cobbled together out of magic and spare parts, electricity and the remnant imaginings of Frankenstein. It is, supposedly, the product of natural selection, having evolved on a difference world with different population pressures, different ecologies and competing species. A rational construct, in other words: a created, imaginary creature, to be sure, but one created according to scientific principles and subject to natural laws.

On that level, there’s probably not that much difference between a carnivorous croc from Australia and one from outer space. Maybe minor variations in tooth size and structure, but that’s not going to matter if they hold and tear and bite… at least not to the one being held and torn and bitten. Which tends to beg the question: why use alien creatures at all? There are plenty of hungry beasties on Earth which could do the job quite nicely, and actually do so in any number of stories.

The answer is, of course, substitution. It’s using alien creatures to tell a story that can’t be told using animals from this planet. The most obvious difference is sentience. A large enough crocodile could destroy a propeller, but it can’t actually pilot a boat – or a spaceship, for that matter. It lacks technical and social intelligence enough to not only traverse space, but to cooperate with others of its species to do so.

And that’s where the short story comes in. I talked last month about how today’s short SFF story increasingly values diversity, with stories by diverse authors becoming increasingly more common and accessible. Because each of these authors write stories informed by their own experiences, the resulting stories indicate a wider range of these prompting experiences, and one of the ways they illustrate this is in their relationship with, and attitude to, power.

They tend towards the subversive, is what I’m trying to say. Last month I talked about some stories that used consumption to illuminate transformation, particularly in those stories that explored changing gender relationships. This month, I’m looking at how stories can use consumption to explore other power relationships – specifically that of political structures – specifically those that address inclusivity. Using alien societies to examine this sort of structure allows them to act as a metaphor for human debate without getting too bogged down in it (one hopes – there are always those painfully thin efforts that are poor disguises for polemic, but one doesn’t have to go to the trouble of reading them when there’s jam to be made and cupcakes to ice).

Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, takes the phrase “you are what you eat” to a whole new level. It starts, however, with an illustration of exoticism. It defines the alien through autopsy, essentially. Hank is a pathologist whiling away the night shift with drowning victims and hopes of fishing. Then his ex-wife Evelyn brings him a Worm: an eight foot monstrosity stretched out on a slab and ready for the knife. The Worms are engaged in an invasion of Earth, but one of their ships crash-landed and suddenly science has a number of corpses to play with – and play Hank does. He fillets and dissects and holds open with fishing nylon, opening up this horrible creature, preparing it for the table of his morgue.

The Worm, being a Worm, has its own markedly different relationship with food. It appears to be a mud eater:

“Let me take a look at that beak again. . . . Hah. See how the muscles are connected? The beak relaxes open, aaand—let’s take a look at the other end—so does the anus. So this beast crawls through the mud, mouth wide open, and the mud passes through it unhindered.”

There’s also three stomachs, so one assumes that minerals are filtered out therein in order to feed the truly massive brain. But whatever Hank’s comments on the transformative nature of the Worm’s digestive system – “It tastes the mud as it passes, and we can guess that the mud will be in a constant state of transformation, so it experiences the universe more directly than do we” – the horror is not solely in the dissection of this once living, thinking creature.

The horror comes when Hank starts to eat it.

Don’t get the wrong impression here. His autopsy kit doesn’t come with a steak knife or a lobster pick. Hank doesn’t go in for that sort of gluttony. His consumption is automatic; his will undermined by an alien… something. For behind a stinking black gland is a “small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal”.

It’s this that Hank eats, with his corpse-covered, glove-covered hands – and he’s not the only one. It turns out that this is the invasion, the crashed ship a deliberate ploy to use consumption as a transformative agent. To make Hank a Worm, to eat him up and steal his memories.

And the worst of it is he suspected the Worms would do something like that. Evelyn brings him one of the crashed corpses because she has faith in his ability to be imaginative in strange ways, to see around corners and make assumptions in biology and psychology. This is the science of science fiction, fitting form to thought, cause to effect. Differences in physiology impact on how a creature perceives the world, and how they interact with it. Assessing the massive brain and the chemical conversion chambers attached to the digestive system, Hank makes a decent guess at the nature of the enemy:

“I’d say the Worms are straightforward and accepting—look at how they move blindly ahead—but that their means of changing things are devious, as witness the mass of alembics. That’s going to be their approach to us. Straightforward, yet devious in ways we just don’t get. Then, when they’re done with us, they’ll pass on without a backward glance.”

Just as they do when passing through mud, because food is something to be absorbed and excreted and left behind. But the problem with mud-dwellers excreting digested mud back into the ground again is that eventually other mud-dwellers will swim through that excretion. Like humans pissing in a swimming pool, if you’ll forgive the crudeness of the expression. And what do you know, this particular characteristic mimics the political structure of the species.

The Worms are essentially the Borg of the annelid world. A hive culture, and when one individual dies its remains are eaten by the rest. Its flesh is returned to the species, transformed into new Worms, and its memories absorbed. (“Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own.”) And there’s Hank, beating his ex-wife to death and slowly being taken over, being driven insane, as he literally drives himself to an alien ship to be eaten – only to discover that his sense-images and memory of the drive, of the whole hideous experience, are just that: recollections, because Hank is already being digested. He’s the mud in the machine, and conscious the whole time.

This is a story that clearly cannot be told with a saltwater crocodile. As briefly as one might be aware of ambush, of teeth fastening onto a torso, no-one in the stomach of said crocodile has any remaining awareness. (Because they’ve already been torn into bloody chunks, but you get my drift.) This is a story that can only be told with an alien antagonist, one with a social and biological structure so foreign, so anathema to our own that the method of eating is insult compounded. As a species we are individualists. Compared to the hive mind of the Worm, ideological conflicts as massive as, for instance, the Cold War, are as nothing. They’re the disorganisation of a minor species. Hank simply cannot tell, of course, from a single specimen, if there are racial or sexual differences between members of the Worm population. But here’s the thing: if there are, does it even matter? The collective experiences of each hive member are shared by all the members of that hive. One has to ask: what use is Worm racism then? What use sexism? (If they have sexes.) These questions are all implicit. Swanwick doesn’t explore them in the text, but they’re there bubbling up underneath. Still, there’s an uncomfortable tension between the dystopian and the utopian here; the moral state of monsters.

It’s the Borg story again, writ large over the cosmos. Eating as a means of control, of colonisation, yes – but also eating as a mirror. Star Trek, with its (grossly overused, I can’t stop myself from saying) device of the mirror universe is used to looking at society through a glass darkly. And with its foundation principle of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, the Federation is the resulting political structure of this principle. The Borg, however – they’re infinite diversity in a single (hive) form, but the value of diversity remains. They’ll assimilate nearly everything – and so will the Worms. Because knowledge is valuable, and not just that which serves the periodic table, or propulsion systems. Knowledge is individual as well, personal – and personal is political. Worms will get medical knowledge of their dinner by consuming doctors, yes – but they’ll also get knowledge of unequal pay, and female circumcision, and lynching.

If they colonise.

Because this tactic, the one designed for diversity, is fundamentally flawed, as Evelyn points out. Given the human response to the crash, a response couched in the military industrial complex of an individualised, non-hive species, consumption is limited.

“The Worms crashed it in the Pacific on purpose. They killed hundreds of their own so the bodies would be distributed as widely as possible. They used themselves as bait. They wanted to collect a broad cross-section of humanity.

“Which is ironic, really, because all they’re going to get is doctors, morticians, and academics. Some FBI agents, a few Homeland Security bureaucrats. No retirees, cafeteria ladies, jazz musicians, soccer coaches, or construction workers. Not one Guatemalan nun or Korean noodle chef. But how could they have known? They acted out of perfect ignorance of us and they got what they got.”

And I’m reading this, and maybe it’s the beer and maybe I’m just used to talking about subversion in this column but it’s hard not to see this as a commentary on the state of the SFF short story today. Food and horror is so dependent on context, on the sub rosa presentation of power, that it’s now something I expect to see kept behind teeth and tongue and gullet.

Possibly the ongoing conversation at the moment in SFF is diversity. Who gets published more, who gets reviewed more. Who ends up on “Best of” lists. Look at this table of contents. Look at that one. How did that anthology end up so skewed? Our submission guidelines are open to everyone; we’re just taking the best of what we get – says the editor (says the Worm), and you know, I reckon half the time they really do believe in the value of diverse stories but their sampling systems are skewed. Their submission system is set down in one place and it eats up every story fed into it, but the Worms don’t go looking because they seem to trust to cross-sections. The Pacific will offer up Guatemalan nuns and Korean chefs and if it doesn’t, then they don’t exist. Their stories are not the ones to be consumed, and unless the Worms crash land in a number of different places, sent Hank and his ilk out to actively sample more meals, to stuff themselves forcibly down the throats of unsampled populations, then what the Worms get is a small snapshot of a culture only.

Some groups submit stories less than others; some submit earlier than others. This isn’t news. I’m always interested in submission stats… they feed a desire to know and analyse and argue. And while it’s problematic to describe other people as alien or the other, science fiction has a long tradition of trying on different perspectives through alien masks. It’s rooted in the desire to communicate, I think, to talk about issues in what can be a less incendiary way. To slide the conversation in sideways.

It’s this communication that comes through in “Pithing Needle” by E. Catherine Tobler. Communication through consumption again, and it’s no accident that both the stories in this column are from Clarkesworld. They’re very similar in theme, so it’s no surprise that they appeal to the same taste.

“Pithing Needle” is shorter than “Passage of Earth”. Yet the subject is the same: carnivorous aliens, crashed ships, and humans being eaten up by aliens that look like hermit crabs instead of worms. As the narrator says:

“I don’t try to talk to them—they have mouths but use them only to eat. I will not be eaten—slick trigger in slick glove, I fire the way they eat: constant. Sometimes I get there before they do; sometimes I’m firing and a soldier is already inside that shell, digesting. A thousand tongues inside one hungry, angry mouth.”

It’s an understandable fear. Invasion is taking over, and there are enough narratives in the news these days of hostile intruders to make an impression on anyone’s subconscious, not matter one’s truly held political beliefs (of which, it must be said, I know nothing of with regard to the authors featured here). And media today is so concerned with consumption, with catering to particular taste as news is packaged up, that having consumption take literal form in an actual invasion of the really foreign is unsurprising.

Again, though, the alien ship is a hive.

“You never kick a hive because of what may come boiling out, but when the troops place the explosives in an effort to bring the upper levels of the thing down, they only succeed in busting open all the levels that weren’t broken open upon landing. This ship explodes with life; aliens everywhere.”

And again, this is an understandable choice. Not only is the hive an alien construct, at least on a human level, but it has connotations of faceless masses, swarming over borders and bringing changing patterns of consumption. New foods, new languages, new ways of doing things and like locusts they eat up all that is inherently different.

When the nameless narrator of “Pithing Needle” is captured by an alien and taken into the depths of the hive, eaten up and spat back out again, it’s a digestive disgorgement that comes with language, and with the potential ability for communication, for cross-species translation.

“The alien that swallowed me perches on the rim of this room, screaming. Eventually, this alien begins to calm and the scream turns into a chitter turns into a pattern, a pattern that my brain begins to dissect.

Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar.”

When language exchange is insufficient, the alien tries a more direct approach, forcing its needle into the base of a brain in a sort of telepathic exchange of colour and sensation. Of different stories, of confinement and space, of imprisonment and freedom. And when this suddenly dual-focused individual is ejected from the hive, carrying memories not their own, relationships with other humans begin to change.

“I cannot form the proper words to tell them, about the ship and the cells, and then you are there, cradling my head, asking if I can see you.

I see you, in more colors than ever before. The color that glosses your rain-wet face has no word; the taste of the rain that slides from your nose and into my chittering mouth has no name on this world. What world—this world, but I cannot say where I am. I could reach into the drone that passes over us, could crack open the housing and show you the spill of wires, connective pathways; I could turn these colors and tastepaths into a map, could pull you inside this space and show you, but you would only ever know a fraction–a fragment, a–”

This is consumption as transformation again, the opening up of perception, of empathy, that comes from the understanding of another thinking creature. Even if that creature is a predator, even if its primary desire is to eat, to consume – and even if you’re the dinner – this is a form of knowledge without which one is lesser. I am not, I am not, please note, arguing that diversity precludes disagreement – often fundamental and, in the case of these two stories, violent.

But this is science fiction, and I am a scientist at heart. And no knowledge is wasted. No knowledge is useless.

And no stories are either.