SpecFic

Sacrifice in Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” Sequence

I’ve a new paper out! And it’s on a book series that is close to my heart: The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, which was the fantasy staple of my childhood. I don’t know how many times I read The Grey King as a kid, but it was a lot. I think as an adult it’s been replaced by The Dark Is Rising volume as my favourite of the series, but it’s a close thing. I still read through all five books at least once a year, generally around Christmas, and I always get something new out of them.

You can imagine, then, just how thrilled I am to have a paper out on it. Cooper’s got some really interesting examples of sacrifice that pop up over and over again in the series, all of them quite distinct from the others, and that’s what I look at in my paper. “Sacrifice in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence” is out in issue #19 of BFS Journal. It focuses on what exactly makes a sacrifice: how knowledge and intent work together (or don’t) to form different types of sacrifice, and how the sacrifices made differ between mortal and immortal figures.

We’re used to seeing grand sacrifices in fantasy literature, but so much of the story Cooper tells hinges on the small quiet choices of characters like Jane Drew and John Rowlands, and for me these are often more compelling. These two characters are particularly small and mortal compared to the more supernatural, the more mythological, figures in the text, and it stands to reason that their actions are comparatively small and human, but they’re no less effective – and no less crucial – for all that.

Advertisements

Nation Building and Baptism

I have a new story out! “Nation Building and Baptism” is in the new issue of Capricious, available here. It’s part of a series of stories I’ve written about future post-apocalypse New Zealand, rebuilding itself after global ecological collapse.

I love post-apocalyptic fiction, mostly because I really enjoy seeing how communities choose to reinvent themselves afterwards. Do they fall back into the same old patterns? Do they do worse than that, building dystopia out of destruction? Or, what I’m more interested in, do they do better? Apocalypse is a dreadful thing, but it’s also a chance to improve, to look at the ashes of life around you and say “Right. Let’s not do this again” and go on.

It’s not that I don’t like dystopias. I do! But I think we’re over-heavy on the miserable response to apocalypse. Of course there’s going to be misery, there’s no getting round that, and hard choices. But I wanted to do a series of stories where choices were about how best to help, how to support the environment and each other. How apocalypse can be repurposed as an opportunity for the creation of a better way of living. “Nation Building and Baptism” is set in a world where conservation and ecological protection has been made a central concern – as it would have to be, after ecosystem collapse. And that has a whole lot of consequences, such as what to do with refugees, for instance, people from places where the environment lacks viability enough to support them. That’s what this story is about – valuing desperate people as people, and giving the them chance to be a part of a safe and stable community again. If you’re interested, pop over to Capricious and take a look!

Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms

I’ve a new story out! “Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms” is in the Mother of Invention anthology that’s just come out from Twelfth Planet Press. As soon as I saw the call for submissions I knew I had to send a story in. A feminist anthology focused on gender and artificial intelligence? Who could resist.

Luckily for me, I had a story idea in the wings ready to go. (This is why it’s so useful to jot down ideas when you have them, even if you’ve not got time to write them immediately.) I’d read, some time back, a book on the history of robotics, and it happened to mention a 17th century text called the Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile. In this book was the story of Bertha, who built herself a boyfriend out of sapphires, scented water, almond meal, pearls, and sugar. And I thought at the time I read it how delightful it was, and how suited it would be for an updated version.

What it is not is the basis for a science fiction story. Luckily, Twelfth Planet Press wasn’t limiting themselves to sci-fi interpretations of the theme, so I used inspiration and theme to whip up what is probably the only sexbot story I will ever write. I’m not really a fan of that particular trope, but it turns out that if you can build a man out of almonds and sugar you can probably build one out of cake… and cake improves everything.

Here’s a little appetiser for you… if you want to read more, go pick up the awesome anthology!

She filled his skull with honey.

Honey made him thick and sweet, perfect for love. It also looked better if things went wrong. Once she’d filled his head with cherry jam, a thin sweet-sour mix that gave him a measure of tartness in bed, but the woman who rented him became over-excited, smashed the back of the sugar skull against the bedhead and the jam had started to ooze from eye sockets.

She’d brought him back with half his face eaten off. “I couldn’t help it,” she said, red-cheeked and unable to meet Berta’s eyes. “He was just so delicious. I’ll pay for damages, of course.”

It was a good thing she’d kept the moulds. It made it much easier to bake a replacement cheekbone, cover over the exposed and splintered sugar teeth with thin layers of almond icing. But from then on it was honey in the skull, which if it leaked at least had the appearance of scented tears, and bloodless….

The Backward 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.

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. ….