Short stories

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!

 

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. ….

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*.

Dinornis

I’ve a new story out!

“Dinornis” appears in the anthology Pacific Monsters from Fox Spirit Press. It’s the fourth volume in their series of monster stories from around the world, and all of them are well worth checking out.

“Dinornis” is also my first graphic story! I wrote the script, and the story’s illustrated by Dave Johnson, who has done a fantastic job of making the moa seem creepy and sad. “Dinornis”, of course, is a reference to that giant extinct bird of New Zealand, the moa. The moa’s not really a monster, not in the typical understanding of the word, anyway. It’s sort of what I think of as a wishful monster.

Monsters are strange things.

We’re fascinated by them. There’s whole industries devoted to bringing them to life, to packaging them up in consumable form so that we can be briefly entertained by fright. And it’s fun because it is brief. I can enjoy spending two hours watching a zombie horror film precisely because zombies don’t actually exist. If my life revolved around fending them off, I’d not be turning towards them for my leisure hours. I’d be refilling the flame-thrower and any moments I could snatch for escapism would tend to the absolutely harmless.

We generally don’t want the monsters to be real. But sometimes it’s just so disappointing when they’re not.

Especially when we hold the burden of having removed them ourselves. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend turns an individual amongst monsters into the monster those monsters fear, and on a species level Matheson isn’t far wrong. Extinction took a lot of monsters from this world long before humans came alone, but we’ve certainly done our best to slaughter the rest.

This can best be seen in the lands where humans are not. And, for longer than anywhere else, New Zealand was that land. The last major land mass to be colonised, absent of any native mammal but small bats, it was for millennia a land belonging to birds. Flightless, many of them, and some not. The most dangerous was the largest eagle to ever exist – Haast’s eagle. It died out when humans killed its food to line their own stomachs.

That food was my Pacific monster. The tallest bird ever known, the giant moa. Females were as much as 3.7 metres in height, and all of them were flightless.

All we have left of it are bones. Bones, and stories…

Every so often the rumours start back up. That down in the remote, unexplored back blocks of Fiordland the moa survives. Perhaps not the giant moa, which would be genuinely hard to miss, but one of the smaller species of the genus. There’s sightings, a blurry photo or two. Tracks in the earth.

When my Pacific Monsters story was being edited, Margrét commented on the character who’d just found a moa footprint. Wouldn’t she wonder what it was?

There isn’t a person in this country who would see a three toed footprint that size and not think – not hope – that it was a moa. We’re a young country. We take our monsters where we can get them.

Do I think they’re still out there? Honestly, no. Do I want them to be? Oh, so much.

It’s wishful thinking, I know. Imagination layering itself over science, and with just enough hook to cling to, because, Jurassic Park-like, there is an astronomical outside chance that discovery of ancient DNA might be enough to bring them back.

But what would we do with them if we did? If we found them, alive still, in the dark and distant corners of the bush?

I’d like to think we’d be happy. That, as a nation, we’d pull of the mother of all conservation efforts, exceeding even that of the black robin – a native bird pulled back from the brink when once there were only seven individuals remaining.

But then I remember the context of monsters, and how the moa met a monster new-come to their shores… and it was us.

They didn’t survive the human race.

If they’re still out there, I hope they stay far, far away. That they’re rumours forever, because some monsters survive best in wishful thinking.

 

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science

I’ve a new story out! And it’s a Shimmer story! AT LAST AT LAST I HAVE A SHIMMER STORY.

Right. You see, Shimmer has long been on my list of “bucket markets” – by which I mean markets I want to get a story into before I get hit by a bus and die. I have tried for years to get a story into Shimmer. It is a very hard thing to do. Why? Because Shimmer is a consistently excellent speculative fiction market, and so it gets a lot of submissions. I think they were commenting on Twitter that they got 5000 stories a year sent to them? Of which they publish maybe 24. So you can see the odds are stacked against.

This story of mine, “The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science” (free to read at the link there), is the 28th story I have sent them. 28!!! It took that much work before they bought a story from me. I’ve been pretty open about this on Twitter – and now here – because I know from experience how discouraging constant rejection can be if you’re a writer. And it is discouraging – but it’s also part of the business, so you need to learn to not take it personally and keep trying. Editors want you to succeed, they want to buy an awesome story from you. The Shimmer editing staff, in particular, are lovely, and they were just as excited as I was to break that rejection streak I think.

I mean, if I can do it so can you. So don’t give up! And here’s a little snippet from the story to inspire you:

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight…