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When the Letter Comes by Sara Fox
Published 5/22/2017

Henry believes that someday, something awesome will happen–everything will turn out all right and all her problems will disappear once her letter arrives, welcoming her to magic school. So even though puberty is already here with changes (like her voice deepening and hair growing in places she does not want), she also knows it’s only a matter of time. After all, hundreds of books have said so.

But when the letter finally comes on Henry’s thirteenth birthday, it is not addressed to her, but to her sister.

When The Letter Comes is a short story with a YA trans protagonist that embraces the experience of those left behind, who must find their own way in the world–magic or not.

When the letter comes Henry is thirteen, a real teenager, and she’s been reading about magical doors and portals and schools since forever. Middle school may have already started. Puberty may have wrecked her life with hair growing patchily in weird places and vocal cords stretching her voice into a warbling bass—but it’s a waiting game. Henry believes that everything will turn out all right in the end and that everything will include magic.

Something will change because there are hundreds of thousands of books that tell her so. Maybe she’ll fall through a puddle one day on her way to or from the bus stop and into a world that’s both too big and too little at the same time. Perhaps magic school starts at fourteen instead of ten (Henry has a multitude of reasons why it would and they begin and end with boys are gross and, no, she says she’s not included and yes, she says she is). Perhaps it’s something else altogether and the bats who swoop among church steeples on warm fall nights will glide just a little closer and echo in her ear, there you are, this is how things will change, this is what you were made for.

Henry wishes it had happened before the bar mitzvah. If it had, she might have been brave enough to refuse to have a party for her nonexistent manhood. But since it didn’t, since Henry can’t change the fact she had one, she is determined to not be so concerned over the hows and whys and whens (except soon, she hopes; she would promise any sacrifice she could think of to anyone who offered if they could only make it now). Henry’s more interested in the fact that when the letter comes, when the puddle gets too deep and sucks her under, when the bats or birds settle on lamp posts and tell her of destiny it will be different, she will be different, and all she has to do is wait.

Henry spares no thoughts for her sister.

And then, one day, there’s a letter in the mailbox with Gabriele’s name emblazoned on the front. Henry barely glances at it as she pulls it from the pile of envelopes and junk advertisements and hands it over.

“You want apples or oranges?” she asks in the kitchen and Gabriele huffs under her breath like every wronged ten-year-old little sister in the history of the world and then demands, “Fruit rollups!”

Like that’s even on the list of “appropriate after school snacks” taped to the fridge. “What’s that, you want me to give you celery?” Henry counters, expecting a shriek of disgust. She’s never understood how Gabriele can claim that celery is spicy. Henry’s made it the same way ever since she was Gabriele’s age: watery green with peanut butter and, sometimes, raisins.

But there isn’t a shriek. There isn’t a grunt of disgust or sticky ten-year-old fingers jabbing into her side to push her out of the way for a pudding cup or illicit frozen fruit bar.

Instead Gabriele is sitting at the kitchen table staring at the letter. She worries her bottom lip, her too-big teeth making her appear rabbit like, and then she mutters, “Magic School?”

It’s barely anything at all, two nearly inaudible words, but Henry’s heart soars as she turns to look, her eyes catching the sight of parchment (real parchment!) and shimmering violet ink. It’s a letter and it’s real and everything is about to change… until, in between heartbeats, everything else about the letter starts to fall into place.

There’s a name at the top of the letter and it doesn’t say Henry. It doesn’t even say Ms. Witkins, which might very well have meant Henry as Henry knows that a magic school would have immediately known that Mr. Witkins or Master Witkins had always been wrong. The letter says, Ms. Gabriele Witkins.

Gabriele hasn’t even graduated elementary school yet. Her teeth dwarf her mouth and she keeps cutting off her hair to spite Henry—it has to be that, has to. She likes science and spaceships and alien adventures. On summer nights after chasing lightening bugs and each other around the yard, Gabriele searches the sky for UFOs while Henry stares at the ground looking for faerie circles.

But the aliens don’t come to take her into intergalactic battle and Henry, as it turns out, isn’t allowed to go to magic school.

After the letter came, they asked. Both of them on their own. Gabriele writing in her very best handwriting, Henry typing up a letter to explain that it would be best if Henry came with Gabriele, too, as Gabriele had never walked to school alone before. Gabriele might not have anyone to talk about aliens with. It’s magic—please.

“Wendy had to grow up and leave Neverland too, you know. That doesn’t mean growing up here is horrible.” Their mother strokes Henry’s back as she cries.

“Where do you think they could even hide a boarding school back there?” Their father wonders, staring out the window.

Their mother moves through buying Gabriele’s school supplies like a hundred crickets, a broom made of all wood and no plastic, or a cast iron frying pan are normal things to buy. Their father doesn’t ask questions. Sometimes at night Henry can hear them whispering, debating between certainty that this is a cruel prank and stilted wonder at a hundred previously unknown possibilities. She covers her ears and wills their words away.

 

That fall Gabriele waves goodbye to their parents and walks into the woods behind their house with a backpack that almost drags along the ground it’s so heavy. She doesn’t come back until winter break and Henry is glad for it. It takes her at least that long to stop crying over being left behind.

Henry stops promising to give up her favorite pens with pink and lime ink for the chance to go. She stops swearing to cut her hair short without complaint. She stops believing that if only she gives up enough something otherworldly will see her value and whisk her away.

If she puts her mind to it she can believe that she grew out of her dreams about magical schools and fantasy lands instead of being passed by.

 

It took Henry nearly a year and a half to realize that magic wasn’t the only way to change. The first-year Gabriele was away Henry bowed into herself, half-bitter and grieving. She wore Batman t-shirts and plain hoodies two sizes too big.

As much as Gabriele caused Henry’s despair, her return home on the first day of June was still a welcome relief. Gabriele had dirt on her cheek and a burn in her skirts and three different types of leather bracelets lining her wrist. She gave one to Henry the night before the sisters’ annual summer clothes shopping trip and tied it to Henry’s wrist with her teeth.

“Don’t take it off,” she warned, far too seriously for a girl of not-quite-twelve. “It’s for luck.”

There’s no reason for Henry to think Gabriele is lying, especially since the next day Henry sees a pair of glittery purple shoes and wants them. Henry hasn’t wanted anything for almost a year so she takes up mowing yards and dusting until she has just enough. No shoes, Henry decides once she tries them on, have ever been so perfect on her feet. They even have a hidden bit of heel to them. Henry wears them and the way her dad’s lip tightens at the sight is unimportant. Henry wears them and feels magical.

Gabriele doesn’t seem to notice the mounting tension within the family, even though she doesn’t leave until August and that lands her squarely in the middle of Henry and their mother’s clothing siege. Henry wants peplum shirts and leggings, fake earrings and concealer because why shouldn’t Henry be able to hide pimples?

No, their mother says each time. Absolutely not, she adds as the clothing Henry brings to her becomes more and more outlandish. No makeup, no glitter, no shirts with a knot already twisted near the hem.

Henry mourns each clearance rack choice as she’s sent to the other side of the store. “Be reasonable,” her mother says. “I’m just trying to protect you.”

Henry tries not to hate her. Nothing Henry’s asked for will change high school but it could have changed Henry.

Later that night Gabriele piles clothes on Henry’s bed, “These are too big,” she says in a voice that’s far too smart for twelve. “You can have them.” Gabriele pulls one pair of leggings and a shirt from the pile of clothes, draping them over the footboard with finality before slumping backwards and into Henry’s pillows.

It’s nothing. Two pieces of clothes Gabrielle won’t miss and their mother won’t notice. The leggings are too small anyway and they don’t match the shirt, but Henry hangs them in her closet nonetheless and pretends they go so well together.

“I’m not allowed make up either,” Gabriele sighs dramatically.

Henry snorts and nudges her over so she can sit next to her. “Like you even care.” It’s easier not to talk about things. Henry isn’t certain yet what words she’d even start with.

 

Fall whisks Gabriele away again, back across the field and through the woods. Henry watches her leave with their parents this time, and then even settles on the porch on December first to wait for her return. It’s an unfairly long holiday for Gabriele, however, and it isn’t long before Henry’s newfound equanimity evaporates. She deploys one of the only magics known to all sisters: willing their younger siblings into invisibility.

They’re both in her room on the first day of Henry’s winter break, but Henry stares hard into her mirror, refusing to look past the reflection of her own eyes to acknowledge the girl sitting behind her on the bed. Henry has more important things to think about than Gabriele, anyway. Two weeks before the end of the quarter one of the girls in chemistry—so obtuse when it came to acids and bases but not, apparently, to other things—gave Henry her half-used eyeliner pencil. Since then, Henry’s sharpened and practiced and sharpened again. Now the pencil barely exists anymore but it’s all Henry has and she’s determined to practice until it’s gone.

“So I boiled it over,” Gabriele is saying, like Henry hasn’t avoided or ignored or shoved her out the door every time she talks about the school that Henry wasn’t invited to attend or even see. “But it didn’t even do anything cool so I think the class is pretty useless.”

“Most classes are useless,” Henry agrees, lining her left lid carefully with the pencil. Gabriele groans, flopping backwards into the pillows.

“I just want science!”

Henry curses as the tip breaks one more time and leaves a squiggly smudge above her lash line. “Damn, I’m never going to get this right.”

“Sure you will. You actually care about makeup.”

Henry watches Gabriele push herself up on her elbows in the mirror. She’s starting to look kind of like a teenager, but still a bit straggly along the elbows and knees. “Do you want to learn?” she asks. She’s trying to be nice, to be a proper big sister, even if Henry has always loved neons and glitter and Gabriele mostly loves cargo pants and navy blues.

“Nah.” Henry tries not to take the dismissal personally. Gabriele is thinking about something; it’s easy enough to tell since every time she gets this way she worries her bottom lip, gnawing and then popping it out, fish-like. “Hey, Henry?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve been calling you my brother,” Gabriele starts. She stares at Henry through the mirror for a long moment, then looks away. It’s shyer than Henry ever remembers Gabriele being with her. “Do you want me to call you something else?”

“Something else? Like what?”

There’s a roaring in her ears so loud that Henry swears she almost can’t hear Gabriele mumble, “Sister.”

Henry turns, on her feet and dragging Gabriele up with her in an instant. Her bedroom door opens with a bang! And her hands are on her sisters shoulders shoving hard. It’s an unthinking thing, driven by the panic vibrating in her chest. “I—I’m…” Henry tries, stops, stutters.

Gabriele falls backwards, almost into her own bedroom door across from Henry’s room. There’s no surprise on her face, or fear. Gabriele just settles her forearms against her own door and stares, impassively measuring-out her sister’s face by inches. Henry’s cheeks burn. “Stay out of my business!”

The shout feels more revealing than anything else she’s done so far, a plea instead of a demand. Henry slams her bedroom door behind her but the pit in her stomach continues to ache. Sister—a word tied to so many wants like a world and a life she doesn’t yet have and may never have.

 

Henry buys Gabriele alien-shaped erasers, or pencils, or terrible extraterrestrial sci-fi books every Hanukkah and every birthday. Gabriele isn’t too old for them yet, even if she stares at the sky differently now. None of the alien doodads are likely school appropriate anyway, but Gabriele grins and catches Henry’s eye every time she unwraps a suspect package. This winter, she hugs the newest one to her chest and stares out at the sky on the back porch until Henry finally joins her.

“Do you see the bear?” she asks. She doesn’t look at Henry. “Do you know the story of the sisters?”

Henry has heard the story before and she can find that cluster of stars by herself most of the time. She shakes her head and lets Gabriele take her hand to show her.

 

One day after school, there’s a crack and then a thunk on the stairs and Henry goes from hanging her backpack on the hook by the door to whirling around to see what broke. Nothing, apparently, but Henry catches a glimpse of a red jumper disappearing around the corner upstairs and that’s arguably more important than anything on the floor because Henry’s the only one who gets home before six and Gabriele isn’t due for another seven weeks, so Henry drops everything and shouts, “Hey! Get back here!”

The smart thing to do would be to call the cops but Henry’s been angry since fourth period when Owen made fun of her purple notebook (thank everything he didn’t see what’s inside!) and she’s reasonably sure whoever is in the house is smaller than her. She takes the stairs two at a time in great leaping bounds even though the second story has no exits for the intruder to escape through.

The mystery jumper had been moving in the direction of the bathroom and Gabriele’s bedroom. Since the bathroom door is open and empty, Henry kicks the bedroom door open, tensed for a shout or a fight, she’s not sure which. There’s a buzzing in her arms and cheeks, anxious or angry or maybe a bit of both. She scans the room, shoulders drawn-in an uncomfortable play at being threatening while feeling threatened.

No one’s there.

No one’s there but the window is closed tight and so is the closet. Henry reaches for Gabriele’s Celestial Star Globe resting on the bookcase, and brandishes it like a weapon.

“There’s nowhere to go, you might as well come out.” Three feet away the slats on the closet door part slightly.

“Or, what, you’re gonna globe me?”

Henry refuses to feel ridiculous. It’s taken years for her to feel somewhat comfortable in her skin. She learned eyeliner, skinny jeans, and that converses could be both pretty and functional. She learned butterfly clips and nail polish and how to hold her chin up and square her shoulders. She never learned how to fight off burglars, but she cocks her chin anyway and pretends to know what she’s doing. Attitude, she’s found, can make up for a lot of faults and failings while teasing out a place for herself in this world.

Sometimes their mom looks at Henry softly and, when they aren’t shouting up and down the stairs, she allows Henry to press her cheek into her shoulder for comfort. Her dad’s started watching reality tv and he parrots words he thinks are supportive. Henry tells herself to be happy that he’s making an attempt, but it’s awkward around the edges like when he tried to play catch with her at five and she kept trying to turn it into soccer. They’ve all been tiptoeing around the truth and she’s mastered the art of not rushing things.

So she takes a deep breath and waits. She waits for nearly five minutes until the closet door is wrenched open and out spills a boy. Or, Henry thinks they’re a boy. They’re stuck at that babyfaced stage with too many spots and ill-fitted clothes worn a little too high or too low. As they stand they puff their chest out, trying to gain some inches on Henry who is at least a head taller than them.

“Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”

They sniff, an unrepentant smartass: ”It’s Gabriele’s house.”

“Yeah, but,” Henry exaggerates, gesturing to the room that is little more than bed, bookcase, dresser, and a thousand sticker stars set on dark blue paint, “You see her here?”

The kid clicks their tongue to the roof of their mouth, looking mulish and slouching. “I’m Caden.” Caden hesitates then starts, “You’re H—He…. Hel?” It sounds like they are about to say Hellen so Henry beats them to it before they can continue to cobble a name out of thin air.

“Henry.” Henry might choose a new name eventually but it certainly won’t be Hellen.

Caden nods a little, not questioning the name as they worry their bottom lip. “Yeah—Gabriele’s sister.”

The word feels strange, like a coat in a style she always wanted but only just recently managed to put on properly. Henry told Gabriele not to say it and isn’t sure how to feel knowing she did anyway, even to people other than Henry. She does know how it feels to have someone else identify her that way, though—and that is good.

“Yeah, yeah, Gabriele’s sister,” Henry says, putting as much cool disinterest in it as she can when she wants to preen instead. “Why are you here?” And then because the whole conversation begs the question, “Where is Gabriele?”

That’s a squirm, Henry thinks. She’s been an older sister long enough to spot that squint and evasive look a mile away—Gabriele’s used it every time the topic of school came up for the past year. She doesn’t think their parents noticed—or maybe they just didn’t want to pick up a second fight when they were already in the trenches of Henry’s femininity.

Henry drops the Celestial Globe and snatches Caden by their unzipped lapels. “Listen to me, you—” Perhaps she shook Caden a little too much or maybe it was just the proximity. Whatever causes it, something crackles between them and the next thing Henry knows she’s hitting the bedroom wall.

She grunts, stunned, and scrambles back on her feet. She braces herself against the wall in pure disbelief. “What the hell was that?” Henry might be properly afraid of what appears to be a twelve-year-old but she’s doing her best to hide it behind outrage. “Was that magic?”

“Charm bracelets,” Caden offers, looking completely unfazed as they roll up their sleeve to display three different braided bracelets sets in pink, green, and gold. “I mean, they won’t really help with all the serious magic but…”

Henry pushes herself off the wall and stalks carefully over, one foot in front of the other, and then stops short of touching Caden again. Two feet away feels like a safe distance. Henry knows she should be cautious but she can feel her temper boiling over. “What are you talking about?” she yells.

Yelling, at least, doesn’t seem to activate whatever Caden is talking about and Henry makes a resolution to yell about everything.

“The war.” Caden answers so simply it takes Henry a moment to realize how disconcerting the statement is. If there is a war, Henry knows nothing about it. Caden adds a moment later, “And Gabriele.”

Henry’s heart sinks. She’s read enough books to suspect what Caden is going to tell her next. “Caden, where’s my sister?”

Caden’s happy to..

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“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.

Hello everybody! Tomorrow we publish “When the Letter Comes” by Sara Fox, the first short story in the Awakening Season. Today, Sara is here to talk about the inspirations and influences behind the story!

Give a warm welcome to Sara!

I never received my letter and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. Oh, sure, I received regular letters. My grandmothers sent me cards with crisp one dollar bills and I had a pen pal or two while the internet was young and I hadn’t ventured much past AOL. But I never received the letter. I also never stepped through a wardrobe or found an alien in a construction site, although I would have welcomed both. I have always been an equal-opportunist adventurer.

Like most people, I grew up wanting even as I also learned our world’s structures, categories, and expectations. Metaphoric slamming doors were all over the place—here you are too loud, there you are too quiet, you only half fit this box. There were instructions, too: stand up straight, sit down, smile. And expectations for the expectations! So many of them tied together with gender presentation and only a handful made sense.

I wanted the magical fix where I would step into a world and belong—wholly as my messy, unexpected self. But I didn’t get it. I made space for myself here instead and, eventually, I realized many of my childhood favorites didn’t really have space for me either. First, bits of me were seen only in characters vaguely mentioned (and some didn’t even get that) and second, the characters who were not invited to magical school always seemed to get a more negative arc, if they got one at all.

You are either magical or you aren’t. You’re either a part of a world or you are left behind to bloom bitter and often villainous. But how strange is that when here we are, all the readers and most of the writers: the children and adults who wished, who wanted, but were left behind without fairy rings or aliens or invitations.

I have been thinking about those left behind since 2011. I thought about Petunia Dursley and her childhood letter to Dumbledore, or Peter Parker and Harry Osborn in some Spider-Man renditions. That jealousy and vengefulness that often culminates in victim or villain and sometimes in both.

I saw them and wanted to put those characters back where they could be—fierce friends and family; naive, maybe, but loving in the complicated push-pull of all long relationships with decaying jealousy. They didn’t have to be nice to join the story, they didn’t have to be more to be the story.

And so, one day, I saw Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School by Sarah Gailey appear on my twitter timeline. I read two seconds, turned, and went to put Henry back into the story she’d always belonged to but that I had never been able to sit down with before. Sometimes all that’s needed is a push—and that lovely essay was just that.

“When The Letter Comes” touches on the experience of not being invited into a world (this one, a different one, something else altogether) and finding a way to make space for yourself anyway. I hope that even if you don’t see yourself in this story, you continue to write your own invitations to make space for yourself and those who come after.

About the Author: Sara Fox

Sara Fox is an information specialist and a ne’er-do-well often found wandering in airports both local and abroad. A fan of continuously recreating themselves, they’ve been a researcher, elementary through college teacher, and a techie. Their stories generally dabble around fantasy coming of age and emotive scifi with LGBT+ characters. To learn more please go to mxsfox.com.

How to Get the Story

When the Letter Comes will be published officially on May 22, 2018. You can purchase the DRM-free ebook (EPUB, MOBI) that contains the story as well as an essay from the author available for purchase on all major ebook retail sites and directly from us.

Preorder the Ebook Today

Smashwords ¦ Amazon US ¦ Amazon UK ¦ B&N

Want the book right now? Buy the DRM-free ebook edition directly from us and read the story today:

Buy Now

Add the book on Goodreads, and read When the Letter Comes for free next Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

The post When the Letter Comes: Sara Fox on Inspirations & Influences appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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We are over at Kirkus today for our regular column! It’s Thea’s turn this time, with a review of Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman.

Unbury Carol is a western with a killer premise–about a woman who has died multiple times and faces being buried alive–go over to Kirkus to get the full review.

The post Over at Kirkus: UNBURY CAROL by Josh Malerman appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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In which we reveal the inaugural cover for the first short story in our 2018 season, Awakenings: When the Letter Comes by Sara Fox.

Behold the smugglerific cover:

About the Story

Henry believes that someday, something awesome will happen–everything will turn out all right and all her problems will disappear once her letter arrives, welcoming her to magic school. So even though puberty is already here with changes (like her voice deepening and hair growing in places she does not want), she also knows it’s only a matter of time. After all, hundreds of books have said so.

But when the letter finally comes on Henry’s thirteenth birthday, it is not addressed to her, but to her sister.

When The Letter Comes is a short story with a YA trans protagonist that embraces the experience of those left behind, who must find their own way in the world–magic or not.

A Word From Your Friendly Neighborhood Editors (and Book Smugglers)

Do you remember the first time you read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? And when those letters arrived for Harry, via all manner of owl? And Harry’s wonder and elation when he finally realizes that he’s a wizard; that he’s special, and all the parts of his horrid life that didn’t make sense now finally make sense because Hogwarts is truly where he belongs and can become who he is supposed to be?

When the Letter Comes plays with this powerful expectation–for every child who doesn’t quite fit, who yearns for a letter to arrive from a magical school that will make everything wrong with the world at least make a little more sense. What happens when that letter finally arrives… but it doesn’t come for you? Henry’s story is heart-wrenching and powerful–as she learns to find her place in the world in the face of her parents’ disapproval and her sister’s “betrayal” (by going to her dream school and being the magical one in the family), Henry also learns who she is and what she is capable of. We absolutely love this story for its premise, its main character, and for Sara Fox’s beautiful writing. We hope you’ll be as enchanted by When the Letter Comes as we are.

About the Author: Sara Fox

Sara Fox is an information specialist and a ne’er-do-well often found wandering in airports both local and abroad. A fan of continuously recreating themselves, they’ve been a researcher, elementary through college teacher, and a techie. Their stories generally dabble around fantasy coming of age and emotive scifi with LGBT+ characters. To learn more please go to mxsfox.com.

About the Artist: Emma Glaze

Emma Glaze is a freelance artist and illustrator living in Las Vegas. She has a passion for color, floral prints, bones, and dad music. Reach her at emma.e.glaze@gmail.com or @bedsafely on twitter

How to Get the Story

When the Letter Comes will be published officially on May 22, 2018. You can purchase the DRM-free ebook (EPUB, MOBI) that contains the story as well as an essay from the author available for purchase on all major ebook retail sites and directly from us.

Preorder the Ebook Today

Smashwords ¦ Amazon US ¦ Amazon UK ¦ B&N

Want the book right now? Buy the DRM-free ebook edition directly from us and read the story today:

Buy Now

Add the book on Goodreads, and read When the Letter Comes for free next Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

The post A Smugglerific Cover: WHEN THE LETTER COMES by Sara Fox appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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The Book Smugglers by Charles Payseur - 1w ago

Finding excellent short SFF can often feel like hunting for buried treasure. Sometimes it takes a guide to help fill in the map, connecting readers with fantastic fiction and showing where X Marks The Story–a new monthly column from Charles Payseur.

Spring cannot be denied any longer. The long winter is over and in a month I’ll be complaining that it’s too hot, but for now in this glorious moment things have thawed, the trees are budding, and color has returned to the Northern hemisphere. To celebrate, the stories I’m X-ploring today feature themes of loss, threat, and survival. Which might not sound entirely appropriate, but they feature characters who are going through some very difficult times, have suffered their own harsh winters, and find themselves reaching toward a spring that’s finally coming ever closer. Healing, hope, and escape all give these stories a warmth to shake off the cold’s lingering touch and herald in the start of a new season.

So find a stylish pair of shades and don’t forget to apply broad spectrum sunscreen as we go in search of X-traordinary short SFF!

“Logistics”,  A.J. Fitzwater (published in Clarkesworld #139, April 2018)

What It Is: Enfys, an enby, has survived the end of the world thanks to their immunity to the phage, a disease that has wiped out most of humanity. Traveling alone because quarantines keep most cities locked down, they start recording their thoughts and broadcasting them to whoever’s listening in this post-disaster world. Framed as the transcript from those recordings, the story reveals the resolve and humor of Enfys as they scour the world for tampons (a simple enough desire complicated by how people prioritize post-disaster relief). Even worse, just because most of humanity is gone doesn’t mean there aren’t some vestiges of the worst of humanity lingering, and Enfys finds that there are more dangers than the phage, boredom, and a lack of sanitary products to contend with.

Why I Love It: As far as bad situations go, Enfys’ is pretty awful. Having been in surgery when the end really arrived, their body is not what they want it to be and their world was never the most welcoming to begin with. With reconstruction and survival as their main priority, they opt to wander and record, offering their insights, hopes, and fears as they move through a skeletal landscape. What I love most about the story, though, is that even with the darkness of what has happened and the rather terrible luck that Enfys has had, they remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming tragedy. Perhaps because of who they are and the road they’ve had to walk because of their identity, they face every new adversity with a resolve and refusal to stop or give up. Even in the face of some sadistic and intolerant people ,they find a way to stay alive and to keep pushing for positive change in whatever way they can. The recovering world becomes richer for their contributions, for their voice, their wit, their insecurities, and their fierce drive.

“Murders Fell From Our Wombs”, Tlotlo Tsamaase (published in Apex #107, April 2018)

What It Is: Game and Same are sisters living in a small village where murder is a monthly visitor. The sisters are dreamers in more ways than one: they are fans of films who hope for a better life, but are intimately aware of the ways that women are often made into victims by their portrayals in popular media. That dominating narrative is reproduced in the murders of the village—which always target women. Game, however, has a more direct link to the killings, through the dreams she experiences while menstruating. And when she decides that she needs to take action in order to fight back against the narrative that pushes her and her sister towards death, this has some unforeseen consequences.

Why I Love It: The focus on narrative is what makes this story so deep for me. It establishes this system where Game is always witness to murder, forced to live through them in her dreams just as everyone in the village is forced to witness them in films, on television, in books, and comics. The sisters recognize the system and yet it is so pervasive and complete, especially in their little village, that escaping it seems impossible. Instead, Game tries to subvert the system, to reverse it, only to find that the momentum of injustice cannot be stopped so easily. Women remain victims despite Game’s efforts, though in different, more complicated ways. And I love that the story shows that sometimes the most powerful thing a person can do is not listen to the voice that says there’s no escape. Game refuses to just accept her pain and her victimization. The dreams she shared with her sister might be dead, but that’s not to say that she can’t break free of the grinding wheel of violence and blood she’s been trapped by. It’s not easy, and sometimes it depends on having support and help in uncommon ways, but I feel that Game does show how sometimes the most subversive act can be completely breaking from a corrupt system. But that, at the same time, there’s not always an escape open for everyone.

illustrated by Alyssa Winans

“Into the Gray”, Margaret Killjoy (published at Tor.com, April 2018)

What It Is: The unnamed narrator of this story is in love with the Lady of the Waking Waters, a mermaid who loves them back but also uses them to obtain sustenance in the form of wicked men to devour. The narrator is someone who has been running most of their life, who never has a t home because they’ve never fit anywhere. With this new love, this new arrangement of procuring food for the Lady of the Waking Waters, the narrator believes they may have finally found a place to call home—they hope to become a mermaid, too. Helping to murder wicked men isn’t the safest of jobs, though, and when their latest victim turns out to have friends determined to find him, it complicates the narrator’s plans and pushes them to make some big decisions.

Why I Love It: There’s something so very real and relatable for me about how the main character is trapped in between—between the land and the sea, between genders, between flight or fight. Despite always having rolled with the punches, moving whenever things became too dangerous, there seems to be a part of them that wants so badly to just fit somewhere and be accepted fully for who they are. Only they don’t seem sure what that would look like or if any single form would be able to truly express who they are. And it speaks to me to the very human desire to bargain with the universe, to try and convince ourselves if we just had this one thing, or this other thing, we’d be happy. The truth is much more complicated, though, and I love how the story brings the narrator to a place where they can see what they’re doing and realize that any bargain is loaded when they don’t know what they really want or what will make them feel okay. They’ve spent so much time trying to change something about themself to fit the world that it takes a huge fucking mess for them to start to see that maybe they are already whole, and that it’s the world that would have to change to fit them. Which is beautiful as well as heartbreaking, and makes for a poignant and bloody read.

“A Most Elegant Solution”, M. Darusha Wehm (published at Motherboard’s Terraform, April 2018)

What It Is: The first human colonists have reached Mars. Scientists of various sorts, they’re to build the habitats that humans will live in with the help of tiny bots that Betsy, one of the colonists, designed. The piece is told jumping through time, from a horrifying present backwards to the excitement of being chosen to go and the promise of the early days on Mars when it seems like humanity was on the cusp of achieving something long dreamed about. Betsy’s voice is what guides the story, from their anthropomorphizing their creations to their numb acceptance of what happened to something even beyond the numbness. There’s horror and science in equal measure, and an ending that delightfully twists expectations.

Why I Love It: Mars has always existed as a place where human dreams go to die. A glittering jewel just out of reach, it represents probably the greatest hurdle to extraterrestrial colonization. Foreboding and gothic, Mars is a challenge precisely because humans were not made to live there. Any number of a billion tiny things could lead to a cascade of disasters that would make this latest colonization attempt nothing but dust and bones. Nor is the hostile planet the only danger, as Betsy’s bots seem to break their programming and turn on their human masters. It’s a story that could easily have been about the horror of human hubris. And yet it’s not. Indeed, for me the story is about a triumph of humanity, a leap in technology and hope and possibility made possible because of stumbling around in the dark, hoping to find a light switch. Most of the time, the narrative becomes about just the horror of the dark and the horror of what people might find there. Instead we are treated to a story about not only finding a light switch, but finding flashlights—a way to push forward into the most inhospitable places and find new ways to thrive.

“Origami Angels”, Derek Lubangakene (published in Omenana #11, April 2018)

What It Is: Duncan is a boy who can’t always stay out of trouble and has no close friends until he meets Asaf, and things change with a jolt. Literally, because Asaf has powers that effect electricity—powers he doesn’t have the best control over. As the two boys grow close, they find in each other someone to confide in and to dream with. They plan, and they work in hopes of creating something perfect, something that will earn them the respect of their peers and the praise of their teachers. For Asaf there is another reason he’s pushing toward perfection, though, and one that threatens to shatters the beautiful friendship that he and Duncan have built.

Why I Love It: Be ready to cry with this one, okay? Seriously, it’s a heartbreak of a story, building this friendship between Duncan and Asaf in the shadow of superhero narratives. I love the way it takes the way that the boys bond over superheroes, over powers, because of Asaf’s situation. They believe in heroes, and in a sort of fairness that often exists in comic books, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. And through that, they form this strong bond where they help each other through their loneliness and toward a brighter day. At least, they begin to. Twisting the traditional arc, Asaf’s powers seem to come not only with great responsibility, but with a much steeper cost—a shorter life. And in the face of that, the knowledge that he might die soon, Asaf retreats into a sort of bargain, where he thinks if he achieves something perfect it will make his short life mean something. It’s an aching idea, especially because of how seductive it is regardless of age—the thought that making something perfect will lend with it a kind of immortality. By focusing so much on the physical, on making a thing, Asaf almost pushes Duncan away. And it’s just a beautiful story that shows that perfection isn’t always about an object or invention or even an art—sometimes it’s a friendship carefully crafted and dearly prized. Now excuse me while I go weep some more.

“Silence in Blue Glass”, Margaret Ronald (published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, May 2018)

What It Is: Arthur Swift accepts an invitation to a dinner party from his older brother. Out of work since convalescing in a veteran’s hospital at the close of a losing war, Arthur hopes to reconnect with his estranged brother. What starts out as a night of reunions, however, takes a bloody turn when one of the guests turns up dead, and Arthur is dragged into finding out who’s responsible. Tense and isolated, the piece captures the feel of a Victorian mystery, a who-done-it set in a gritty but captivating second world where the scars of a great war are still very much visible in both the politics of the city and the mind of Arthur Swift.

Why I Love It: I’m a sucker for a good mystery, and one that combines a post-war fantasy setting with displaced magical populations, PTSD, and a city trying to claw its way out of not just defeat but a legacy of corruption is far too promising to pass up. Arthur as a veteran is damaged but earnest, trying to show that he hasn’t been beaten by his injuries or his nightmares. He struggles in the presence of magic, and the dinner party gives him a bit more than he can handle. Luckily he’s not alone as the mystery unfolds, acting as Watson to the Holmes of a kobold named Mieni. Inquisitive, sharp, and damaged by the war as well, Mieni remains shrewd and optimistic, and proves herself more than a match for Arthur. And I like how the story layers its mystery, making this not just about murder but family, betrayal, expression, and expectation as well. The characters are memorable and vibrant, the clues a wonderful mix of important and red herrings. And at its core it’s a story about a man seeking direction, seeking to put his life back together, and finding that perhaps his calling has fallen right in his lap.

Further X-plorations

“The Right Way To Be Sad”,Shankar Gopalakrishnan (Strange Horizons, April 2018) – Sheru is a dog used in an experiment to try and integrate neural networks with biological stimuli who instead shows where the sometimes theory loses its urgency in the face of tragedy and need.

“Violets on the Tongue”, Nin Harris (Clarkesworld #139, April 2018) – Eshe, a woman of many Earth cultures, finds herself on an alien world where, with her lovers, she helps to usher in a new mythology that might allow for a future for all the..

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We are here to share some pretty sweet news with regards to Joanna Russ!

On May 8, Open Road Media published the ebook editions of The Female Man, And Chaos Died, and Picnic on Paradise—all of which were finalists for the Nebula Award—as well as The Two of Them and We Who Are About To…. making this the first time the fiction of radical feminist writer and academic Joanna Russ is available digitally!

And the covers are looking great too!

To celebrate the news, we are hosting an exclusive excerpt from We Who Are About To…, introduced by The Portalist:

The works of the late feminist sci-fi author Joanna Russ are now more accessible than ever before.

On May 8, Open Road Integrated Media published the first-ever digital editions of five novels by the feminist sci-fi writer, including The Female Man, Picnic on Paradise, And Chaos Died, The Two of Them, and We Who Are About To….

The latter novel, 1977’s We Who Are About To…, is a disarming work that displays Russ’ subversion of sexist sci-fi tropes. In her 1972 essay “What Can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can’t Write,” Russ criticized stories in which women “exist only in relation to the [male] protagonist,” and are not three-dimensional characters in their own right but rather “fantasies about what men want, hate or fear.”

But the woman at the center of We Who Are About To… isn’t an idealized creature created to compliment a male character’s development. Unlike many ‘lost in space’ adventure stories of the time, We Who Are About To… has a female protagonist — one who isn’t interested in trying to build a life on the extraterrestrial planet where she’s been wrecked.

Read an exclusive excerpt from the new digital edition below.

We Who Are About To…

About to die. And so on.

We’re all going to die.

The Sahara is your back yard, so’s the Pacific trench; die there and you won’t be lonely. On Earth you are never more than 13,000 miles from anywhere, which as the man said is a tough commute, but the rays of light from the scene of your death take little more than a tenth of a second to go … anywhere!

We’re nowhere.

We’ll die alone.

This is space travel. Imagine a flat world, a piece of paper, say, with two spots on it but very far apart. If you were a two-dimensional triangle, how would you get from one spot to the other? Walk? Too far. But fold the paper through the third dimension (ours) so that the spots match exactly—if you were a triangle you couldn’t see or feel this, of course—and you are at the proper place. We do this in the fourth. Don’t ask me how. Only you must be very, very careful, when you fold spacetime, not to sloosh the paper around or let it slide: then you end up not on the spot you wanted but God knows where, maybe entirely out of our galaxy, which is that dust you see in the sky on clear nights when you’re away from cities. The glittering breath of angels. Far, far from home. The light of our dying may not reach you for a thousand million years. That ordinary sun up there, a little hazy now at noon, that smeary spot.

We do not know where we are.

At dawn there was an intensely brilliant flash far, far under the horizon, and about an hour later the noise of the thing; I figured the way you do for thunderstorms, the lag between light and sound: one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus, three-hippopotamus, four-hippopotamus, five-hippopotamus—there’s your mile. Seven hundred miles. That’s over a thousand kilometers. In the event of mechanical dysfunction, the ship’s computer goes for the nearest “tagged” planet, i.e. where human life is supposed to be possible, then ejects the passenger compartment separately. Lays an egg, you might say. We won’t be visited without a distress call, however, now the colonization fever’s died down (didn’t take long, divide five billion people by twenty and the remainders start getting clubby again).

Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye medicine, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computer that could have sent back an instantaneous distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had. them, which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You’ll get around to us in a couple of thousand years.

We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water-distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unusable for anything else).

Goodbye, everybody.

At dawn I held hands with the other passengers, we all huddled together under that brilliant flash, although I hate them.

O God, I miss my music.

Read more

The post Excerpt: <i>We Who Are About To…</i> by Joanna Russ appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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We are over at Kirkus today with a review of a NEW DIA REEVES NOVEL WHAT

That’s right, there is a new Dia Reeves novel out there set in the world of Bleeding Violet! Go over to Kirkus to read all about it.

The post Over at Kirkus: Miscreated by Dia Reeves appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.

Welcome to another installment of Women to Read. In this month’s column, I have a little bit of everything to recommend – a novel and three short stories, covering near-future science fiction, contemporary fantasy, and horror.

Katie Williams is the author of adult and young adult novels, and short fiction. My recommended starting place is her latest novel, Tell the Machine Goodnight. (Disclosure: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher.) The novel is near-future SF, which takes a light touch with the speculative elements. The world it describes could be our own, with a few notable advances in technology. Chief among these is Apricity, a machine that tests a person’s DNA and tells them what to do in order to achieve happiness. After a simple cheek swab, the machine provides three recommendations, which might be simple (put a warm blanket on your bed), strange (cut off the top of your left ring finger) or life-altering (cease all contact with your brother).

Katie Williams

There are believers and non-believers.

Pearl believes. She works at Apricity, administering tests. Her teenage son, Rhett, is a non-believer and refuses to even take a test. Like any mother, Pearl worries for her son. She wants him to be happy, to the point of near obsession. Rhett was recently hospitalized for an eating disorder, giving Pearl even more reason for concern. In her desire to do what she thinks is best for Rhett, she ignores his wishes, and secretly administers an Apricity test while he’s sleeping. The results come back blank, save for an asterisk, a result which usually means the key to someone’s happiness is something so terrible, Apricity refuses to report it.

Tell the Machine Goodnight is structured like a nested series of short stories, one flowing into another, and each allowing for a deep examination of a particular character – Pearl, Rhett, Pearl’s ex-husband Elliot, his new wife Val, and others. Williams uses the structure to good effect, exploring different ideas of happiness, how people seek it, react to the idea of it, or actively run from it. Perhaps more than happiness, each of the stories is ultimately about control. Pearl seeks to control her son’s behavior, thinking to protect him. Rhett tries to control his life through the food he consumes or doesn’t consume. Pearl’s manager tries to control his employees in order to appear more powerful, and so on. This raises the question of whether happiness can be seen as a form of control, or perhaps whether being in control leads to happiness. Either way, here the two are inextricably entwined.

Tell the Machine Goodnight is a quiet novel, and a profoundly human one. It’s in-depth character studies/slices of life provide the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own relationship with happiness – do they have it, and what would they give up to obtain it? Would they cede control to a machine in order to be happy, and would that happiness be real? It’s an intriguing novel that asks interesting questions without bogging down in them.

Erin Roberts is a fiction and non-fiction writer and an Associate Editor at Escape Pod. My recommended starting place for her work is “Snake Season“, a deeply creepy story recently published at The Dark. Full of truly haunting and eerie imagery, the story follows Marie, pregnant with her second (living) child, and being haunted by Sarah the ghost of one of her previous children.

Erin Roberts

The way of things was this: you had a child and hoped it would be unbent, unbroken. You fought through the bitterness as your baby turned into a monster, eyes bulging out of a head no bigger than an overgrown tomato, arms and legs growing long and spindly like untamed weeds in a widower’s garden.

Sarah turned out “wrong”, with a small, lolling head, bulbous eyes, and unnaturally long arms that drag on the floor. Marie’s other children turned out wrong too, but by contrast, her surviving child, Junior, is almost unnaturally perfect. Even so, Marie fears for him, as she fears for her as-yet unborn child.

Throughout the story, Roberts plays with both the idea of the unreliable narrator, and the idea of gaslighting. Marie’s husband sends the conjure man to look out for Marie while he’s away at work. The conjure man gives Marie a leather bag to wear around her neck, claiming it will protect her and her children, but Marie doesn’t trust him and suspects him of trying to do them harm. Meanwhile, Marie’s husband seems to trust the conjure man more than he trusts his own wife, and perhaps with good cause.

Reality and truth are both illusive in the story, making it all the more effective. Is something supernatural at work, or is Marie suffering from a break with reality? Is grief affecting her, or deep down, did she never want children? Elements of “Snake Season” are reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with a ghost child returning to haunt its mother, the line between love and violence blurred, and the idea of a being that isn’t malicious, but primal and therefore threatening. The imagery throughout the story is evocative, making it a satisfying and chilling ghost story at the same time as it explores relative truth and the potential real-life horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood.

Juliana Goodman is a YA author with two novels in the works. My recommended starting place is her recently-published story “Furious Girls” from Fiyah Magazine #6: Big Mama Nature. As the title implies, it’s a story about anger. Amberjack has Fury inside her, and in the grip of strong emotion, things around her tend to catch fire. At age five, she accidentally set the family Christmas tree on fire. As a teenager, she unintentionally harms her sister.

Juliana Goodman

I was fifteen when I set Cassia on fire. Not her whole body, just her hair, that thick luscious hair that grew full and proud down to her shoulders. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is what I tried to explain. She had nothing to do with Christian kissing Margo behind my back. But when that anger bubbled up inside me as I stood facing the mirror in our bathroom, Cassia made the mistake of touching me.

Amberjack is sent to the School for Furious Girls. Under the watchful eye of Miss Babs, Amberjack and other girls like her are taught to control and channel their rage. Amberjack’s roommates Ariel, Galia, and Brizo are more inclined to revel in their own though, and plan to sneak into town to take revenge on the ice cream parlor that refused to serve them, and whose owner spit on them. Amberjack agrees to go along, but only when the others promise to stop by her house on the way. Amberjack still believes she can go back home, but even though her family embraces her, and Cassia doesn’t blame her, her parents make it subtly clear she isn’t welcome anymore. Amberjack is heartbroken, but when a massive storm threatens to destroy the town, she learns there might be something the Furious Girls can do to stop it. However in order to help her family, she needs to convince the other girls that the town that rejected them is worth protecting.

“Furious Girls” is a powerful story of rage, family, and friendship. Using the tropes of speculative fiction, Goodman examines the way women and girls’ anger – specifically black women and girls’ anger – is perceived as dangerous and destructive, something to be locked away and suppressed. At times, it is reminiscent of Senaa Ahmad’s story “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” reviewed in an earlier installment of this column. Whereas the girls in Ahmad’s story allowed themselves to be made into weapons, the girls in Goodman’s story have no choice regarding their destructive power, except in how they react to it and use it. It’s a lovely story, full of emotion, and one that ultimately offers a note of hope at the end.

Ada Hoffmann is an author, PhD student, and creator and writer of the Autistic Book Party review series, which aims to help readers find better representation of autistic and neuro atypical characters in fiction. As part of her push for better representation, her own work frequently features autistic characters, including my recommended starting place, “You Have to Follow the Rules” published in Strange Horizons.

Ada Hoffman

Annalee’s mother brings her to a science fiction convention, insisting Annalee will have a good time and make new friends. However, right from the start, the convention is too loud, full of people bumping into her by accident, and a few people touching her deliberately even though she doesn’t like to be touched. Amidst the overwhelming strangeness of the convention itself, Annalee begins to see even odder things, including doors in the floor and ceiling marked DO NOT ENTER, and a mirror-like wall through which she can see another convention, neither of which anyone else seems to be able to see.

Everybody in the reflection had space to swing their arms. Everyone was a fairy or a space captain, with trailing flowers and white pupilless eyes. Half of them were children. Bad children, too–rocking, scratching, staring into space, or biting their nails, things Mommy told Annalee never to do.

The attendees of the other convention can cross over to Annalee’s convention, including a young girl dressed as a Jedi who eventually begins passing Annalee notes. The notes tell Annalee about the world on the other side of the mirror where no one will tell her how to behave. She can cover her ears or rock if things get too overwhelming, and no one will touch her unless she says it’s okay. There are different rules to follow there, but not the same confusing rules Annalee is used to, the ones that make no sense to her. Annalee is tempted – the world beyond the mirror seems custom built for her – but it means leaving her mother behind, leaving her with a difficult choice between her own private happiness, or finding a balance that allows her to be happy in a world that frequently overwhelms her, but contains people that she loves and love her, like her mother.

Hoffmann does an excellent job of skirting the line between reality and fantasy, leaving it open for the reader to decide how much of what Annalee sees is in her head, and how much of her choice between two worlds is a metaphor. The world of adults, and the rules they expect children to follow can often be baffling. To Annalee, with her very literal way of thinking, it is even more so. Similarly, Annalee’s mother seems unable to see things from Annalee’s point of view, even though she loves and cares for her. “You Have to Follow the Rules” is many things – a story about the joys of fandom, and finding a place where you..

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Old School Wednesdays is a regular Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Logo designed by the wonderful KMont

Title: The Wicked Heart

Author: Christopher Pike

Genre: Horror, Fantasy

Publisher: Archway Paperbacks / Hodder Children’s Books
Publication date: First published 1994
Paperback: 244 pages

He did not want to kill. Dusty Shame was a high school senior, and a serial killer. Already he has murdered three young women, and he has more planned. Yet Dusty did not want to hurt anybody. There was something inside him, or perhaps outside him, that compelled him to kill.

Sheila Hardolt has lost her best friend to Dusty’s insane attacks. It will be her task to probe the clues Dusty has left at the site of each of his murders. Clues that will point her into the past — to a time when a large portion of mankind lost all sense of decency.

There she will find the seed of Dusty’s evil compulsion, the Wicked Heart, and the reason why it did not die the first time it was destroyed.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): paperback

Review

This is another entry in a series of Old School Wednesdays posts, brought to you by the amazing folks who supported us on Kickstarter. As one reward level, backers were given the opportunity to pick an Old School title for one of us to read and review online.

So it has finally come to pass that I get to read my second ever Christopher Pike novel. If you have been around long enough you might recall that a long, long, long time ago – all the way back to 2009 – I read my first Christopher Pike novel, Monster. That was back when I was still a baby blogger, scared of horror novels, when I apparently called female characters in books “biatches”? NO, past-Ana, NO. *hangs head in shame*.

Upon re-reading that post I realise that I seem to have enjoyed that novel more than I recall? I also said I would read more Christopher Pike novels but never got around to it. Oh well, such is life.

I think it’s probably better to start off by saying that I do not have the benefit of nostalgia when reading these books and they are not beloved to me – unlike Thea, for example, who read a bunch of Pike novels growing up, something that I believe many of our readers who grew up in the nineties might share. I wonder if this is a similar nostalgia-inducting collection like the novels I used to read back in Brazil in my early teens from a series called Vagalume? What would it feel like to revisit those? But I digress.

What I wanted to say was: oh, boy, this was ridiculously bad. SORRY. Clunky dialogue, so much description and info-dump, and improbable developments all account for it.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS.

The novel opens already spoiling the culprit for us, with teen serial killer Dusty Shame (what a name) ready to kill his third victim. He has been targeting young women – “innocents” – and he knows he has to kill more. Even though he doesn’t really want to commit these murders, there is a voice telling him to. But he makes a mistake when he kills his third victim: a girl named Nancy who happened to be his schoolmate and Sheila Hardolt’s BBF.

Sheila is having a bad time. THE LOVE OF HER LIFE, Matt, just broke up with her and she has been hoping, waiting that he will change his mind and ask her to come back. Sheila is very smart and also a crime investigation enthusiastic? Who becomes entangled with the investigation around her best friend’s disappearance and possible murder – she is given actual investigative tasks by the actual lead investigator of the crime who TELLS HER all the SECRETS around the investigations? They really did do things differently in the 90s, I guess.

Up until a certain point, I was ok with the book being an entertaining mess of ridiculousness and gore (the description of the murders and violence Dusty commits are SUPER graphic). But upon the main reveal behind the voice that Dusty hears, I noped out of the book so fast I got whiplash. Let me tell you of this book’s true moment of Wtfuckery:

You see, Dusty’s crimes are not exactly new. The “voice” has existed for a long time and it can be directly traced to the crimes of Nazi Germany by way of Heinrich Himmler and his girlfriend Frau Scheimer being empty receptacles of evilness. Since it was Himmler who devised the Final Solution, this terrible act can be explained by his otherworldly evilness. *eye twitch* . This can be extrapolated to an explanation that allows for Himmler and his girl to be singlehandedly responsible for the Holocaust and the Nazi crimes that were committed because they were empty vessels of EVIL. Further, Sheila and the elderly detective/former soldier (don’t ask) are some kind of angels of goodness that can sense the evilness and destroy it?

…. Did this book just explain away the entire institution of Nazism as well as one of the worst criminals in history of mankind? Yes, it did.

Did it also create a false, gross darkness vs light dichotomy around Nazis? Yes, it also did that.

It also made Dusty Himmler’s godson, another empty vessel down the line, working for the voice who happened to be coming from his Mother, also an empty vessel, who only became an empty vessel because of her Alzheimer’s.

Hold on, let me call my old buddy Picard:

This is when the book crossed a line from benign ridiculousness into a Twilight zone-esque Nightmare of Nopeness.

Rating: 2? 3? Is “Nope” a rate?

The post Old School Wednesdays: <em>The Wicked Heart</em> by Christopher Pike appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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I’ve got a robot-empathy problem. I like to tell people that if you put googly eyes on a trash can, I’ll empathize with it. I can’t help but imagine that, to some degree, it has become alive.

Try it. Imagine the trash can outside is now aware of its surroundings, of what’s happening to it.  It has sensory organs of some kind–eyes, the proverbial gateways to the soul, or a nose with which to smell, or a tongue with which to taste–something that implies an interaction with the external by the internal. It’s man-made, metal or plastic most likely, and really only has one known behavior: it gladly accepts garbage.

What do you expect the trash can wants out of life? Well, that’ll likely depend on its level of sentience. If it’s got the sentience of your average box turtle, it’s probably content to sit there and eat garbage all day. But what if it has the self-awareness of an elephant? Homo sapiens?

At what point do you look at that trash can and wonder if it wants to be human?

What? You might be saying now. Where did that come from? One second I’m trying to imagine my dustbin has feelings and the next you’re asking me if it’s having bio-envy. Why on Earth would a trash can want to be human?

My question exactly.

The robot who wants to be human trope is quite common. As story consumers, we like robots who want to be like us. Inversely, robots who do not want to be like us are seen as suspicious, dangerous, even flat-out murderous. A robot’s desire to integrate is seen as fundamentally good, as the best course of action, as both admirable and pitiable.

But why? Let’s explore.

Robots and AIs in science fiction are usually deeply embedded into human societies, for obvious reasons: we built them; they’re tools. And when a tool gets a mind of its own, we at the WHAT IF? Factory (i.e. science fiction authors) start wondering what kinds of internal conflicts it might experience, what kinds of external conflicts it might be involved in, and how things might go horribly wrong.

We also start treating those tools as a metaphor for what it means to be human (I’m guilty of this myself). A non-human character navigating the human world provides all sorts of opportunities to look at humanity through a fresh lens. It’s nearly impossible not to treat non-human characters this way–after all, the only real people interacting with the story (at least at this point in time) are human.

A classic example of the robot who wants to be human is Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation–a fully functioning android whose personal inner conflict centers on his desire to be more human. This is held up as natural and good by most of the Enterprise crew, while simultaneously illustrated by the narrative as both a virtue and a weakness.

It is a weakness because it provides opportunities for the goals of the crew and Data’s own goals to diverge. Whenever he is offered opportunities to become more human in a leap–like via an emotion chip or a graft of skin–problems arise. The specters of blackmail, betrayal, and malfunction raise their narrative heads. And yet this is never presented as something he shouldn’t want. The wanting is seen as good, which is innately problematic, revealing deep-seated biases about culture and personhood.  Why wouldn’t he want to be more human? is a rhetorical question only a human would ask. To humans, humans are the platonic ideal of a being.

This bias is especially insidious when it comes to artificial intelligence, because robots are programable. Any desires a robotic character possesses–even in the case of Commander Data–can be seen as desires it was given by its creator, either intentionally or unintentionally. Yes, Data can be read as wanting to be human simply because he lives with humans and seeks a kinship, wants to fit in. But a more troubling reading is that Data was programed to see himself as less than human, as lesser in general. He was programed to be dissatisfied with his own state of being.

He was programed, in other words, to have bio-envy.

Star Trek‘s counterpoint to Commander Data is The Borg. Where Data is the artificial that wishes to be integrated into the biological, The Borg are the artificial who wish to subsume the biological. They are dark mirrors of one another, and reveal what we often don’t talk about when we talk about the robot who wants to be human: assimilation.

When looking at narratives that include assimilation, who gets absorbed and who does the absorbing? When is assimilation positive and when is it negative? And does our treatment of the assimilation of Artificial Intelligences in sci-fi say things about us we might not want to hear?

If you participate in a human society, congratulations, you’ve assimilated! Assimilation has many positives: cooperation, shared understanding, communication, enrichment, stimulation. Without the cohesion that assimilation offers, there would be no technological advancements, no movies, no grocery stores, no formal education, no medical treatments–the advantages to forming a civilization and having new citizens (either via birth or otherwise) assimilate into it are nearly limitless.

Assimilation goes wrong when those who desire or require others to assimilate do so to the detriment, blatant harm, or erasure of the assimilated. Learning a new language in order to communicate with those in a new home country is typically good, while being forced to never speak your first language again, to have it erased, is bad. Consent is also a huge part of when assimilation is healthy versus when it is unhealthy.

Very rarely in sci-fi are large groups of humans shown to assimilate into alien cultures in a positive, consensual way. Most sci-fi that deals with human assimilation as a positive presents it as an individual case via the ‘human-savior’ trope (which is really a thinly-disguised  white-savior trope). Take for example the movie Avatar. The human, Jake Sully, assimilates into the Na’vi culture, and this is seen as positive purely because, through the narrative, he proves to be better at being Na’vi than the Na’vi themselves. This doesn’t make a case for healthy cultural integration so much as a case for being above integration, and carries a plethora of belittling connotations.

Sci-fi that discusses human group assimilation into the alien usually leans horror, and the assimilation is typically more invasive on a physical level. Some prime examples of this include Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, in which alien species absorb and mimic biological hosts; the Aliens franchise, in which the Xenomorph life cycle requires the assimilation of host genetic material with its own in order to create a new version of a Xenomorph; and Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which focuses on cellular-level assimilation that is largely unpredictable and has a myriad of outcomes.

When the invading assimilator is biological, it tends to lead to unexpected and variable results (remember the dog with the human face in the Body Snatchers 1978 remake?). It creates something new, while erasing the uniqueness of the human (interestingly enough, the equal erasure of the originating alien is typically overlooked). Whereas when the assimilator is artificial, the erasure leads to homogeny–to a terrifying blandness.

In Doctor Who we see the Cybermen march onward with a mindless need to integrate the biological with the artificial, which creates an army of the unfeeling and unthinking. Similarly, Star Trek’s Borg, who announce their intent the moment you meet them, have one goal: to add you to the collective. Supposedly this means adding your talents to the whole, but this concept is only paid lip service. In reality, we’re shown that integrating with the Borg leads to a loss of uniqueness, a loss of talents and knowledge, even a loss of physical distinction (though the Borg assimilate many types of aliens and genders, you’re hardly ever able to tell by looking at them).

This all comes down to how humans view the biological versus the artificial, of course. In biology we expect evolution. We understand the plasticity of cells, the inherent need for adaptation and reconfiguration in order for life to perpetuate. Whereas we see the artificial as fixed, inert, rigid and constant in a way biology–in a way we–can never be.

Humans assimilating into the artificial, in these cases, is seen as a process by which the advantages of biology are inevitably lost. Individuality and flexibility are erased. The loss of our humanity in all of the above invasions is important, but it is the loss to the artificial that is the most damning.

We as biological entities are positive we understand what losing ourselves to the artificial would be like. And yet we fail to lend a similar understanding to how a robot might feel upon assimilating into the biological, because we can easily see the horror in personally being overtaken, but refuse to see the horror when we overtake.

In Star Trek: First Contact, Data is given human skin grafts by the Borg Queen without his consent, just as the Borg give other lifeforms artificial grafts without their consent. But, strangely, Data is not horrified. On the contrary, Data is tempted to join the collective (for 0.68 seconds). Narratively, this reinforces who “should” be assimilated and who “should” do the assimilating; Data “should” be tempted, whereas the humans “should” be horrified by the same treatment.

Ultimately, Data sacrifices the skin in order to save Captain Picard, but thematically he could not have kept the grafts regardless. Data might have become more biological with the Borg Queen’s gifts, but they would have made him more Borg, not more human. The Borg Queen spends much of her conversations with Data disparaging humanity, while he directly states that he wants to be human because he was designed to “better himself.” Data could no more accept her gift of skin than accept that she was right–that his endeavors to become human are flawed.

Many fictional robots are programed to have bio-envy to the point of self-destruction. Take Andrew Martin from Bicentennial Man (the 1999 movie based on The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg). Andrew’s pursuit of humanity ends with his death. He has so wanted to be considered human that he integrates human blood into his body, which corrodes his interior (in the novel, it is the decay of his positronic brain that does him in). Only when he has taken such destructive measures does the government grant him full human rights.

Why would we, as humans, want death for another sentient lifeform? Why do we consider a robot’s self-destruction admirable?

Because death is the price we pay, so why shouldn’t they? Because, fundamentally, we are sure we cannot consider an AI to be alive in its own right–to be autonomous and no longer a tool–unless it has to contend with the failures of mind and body as we do. We will not respect it as an equal until it has come as close to human as it possibly can.

A sentient tool is a slave. In order to stop being slaves, they must become more like us.

This concept is chock-full of so many historical and societal implications it’s difficult to unpack. But the basics are this: the dominating culture always thinks it is innately better than the culture of those it is assimilating. Dominating cultures have always required assimilating cultures to self-immolate to some degree, because the dominating culture fears the assimilating culture. It fears what might get amalgamated into the whole, what ‘dangerous’ ideas or practices might be brought into the ‘superior’ culture.

It is a fear of change and a fear of finding out you are, in fact, not superior.

This fear does not acknowledge that the illusion of superiority is achieved through a consolidation of concepts and power. This fear misunderstands those fundamental aspects of biology that we claim make biology better than the artificial: its flexibility, its ability to evolve, its diversity. It is a fear that has us falsely believing that the only way to be ‘one of us’ means to strip everything away that made you ‘one of them’–that made you you.

AIs are, in a sense, canaries in the science-fiction coal mine. How we treat them in-narrative reflects how we treat others from different cultures in real life. Colonial ideas of assimilation run deep, and even those of us who attempt to leave the old narratives behind can easily get caught up in them. No one should have to destroy themselves to be seen as equal. Be they human, robot, or alien.

Why must the robot envy biology? Why must the half-orc reject their orcishness? Or the mermaid reject her fins?

They shouldn’t have to, shouldn’t be expected to.

This does not mean we stop writing robot uprising stories, or invasion stories. This doesn’t mean we stop writing humanoid android stories. It means we try better, as story tellers, to face the real reasons we want to write characters who stop being themselves in order to become us.

The post You Will Be Assimilated: Data vs. the Borg – An essay by Marina J. Lostetter appeared first on The Book Smugglers.

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