Richard Chwedyk sold his first story in 1990, won a Nebula in 2002, and has been active in the field for the past thirty-two years.
MOVING OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE
The other day I was writing up a lecture for an asynchronous class on science fiction writing I’m supposed to be putting together. I brought up the subject of how there’s a wide variety of reading in the field these days, some but not all of it divided along generational lines. Mostly, though, it’s a matter that readers often find one kind of SF that appeals to them, but don’t venture much further from that little corner of work they like. So I recommended to aspiring writers to read as much SF as they can manage, and to read as much outside of their “comfort zone.” See what the folks on the other end of the field are doing. Good or bad, you’ll learn something you can apply to your own writing.
Good advice, I thought. And like much of the good advice I hand out, I wasn’t following it.
Teacher, teach thyself first.
So, most of the entries in this column will be of books and authors who aren’t my “go to” choices.
And what I found was that I can be right even when I don’t know what I’m talking about.
The Genesis of Misery
by Neon Yang
This may sound like a negative review, but it’s not. Yang does a lot of things that get on my nerves. They use the sort of present tense narration that’s become quite fashionable, but they handle it effectively and consistently. The dialog is also fashionably snarky and always looking to make little zingers that will end up in someone’s next news feed.
I let those little irritations go because at the heart of this novel is an interesting theme. A kind of “Joan of Arc” situation with their Misery Nomaki protagonist, but not in any traditional, or even nontraditional, way I’ve seen before.
The neat thing about it was that it erased the usual sense of inevitability that accompanies such a classic mythos and its variations. It kept me reading with great anticipation of where Yang would take the story.
Way out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I read it. I suspect I’ll be reading more books written in this kind of voice. If it’s where we’re going, I don’t want to be left behind.
by Hiron Ennes
Reading about parasites and viruses and weird microbial entities is something of a horror story all in its own way. It can be appalling, disgusting and, ultimately, compelling. What is that phrase again from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? “The fascination of the abomination.”
Pair this with a gothic setting and a cast of characters from a surrealist Bruno Schulz novel, and you might have something like Hiron Ennes’s Leech. It’s not the sort of novel I would usually choose to read—not in my “comfort zone,” surely—but I’m grateful I did. It adds whole new meanings, in fact, to “comfort zone,” and then smashes them to pieces and buries them in quicklime in the deepest cellar of an ancient fortress.
It begins with our narrator/protagonist, enroute to the Château de Verdira, home of the Interprovincial Medical Institute, in the far north of an unnamed country. The doctor of the chateau’s baron has died, and the narrator is to become his replacement. The last leg of the journey is on a worn-out sled:
The ride is unpleasant, but it is not long. In a few minutes an orchard of smokestacks appears beyond the treetop, ringed by the slanted tin roofs of miners’ homes. The pines part, ushering us down a corridor of crooked stone buildings braced with ice. We wind through the snowy streets, past half-buried warehouses, past belching chimneys and pumping turbines that denied sleep even in the dead of winter, and up the slope of a looming hillside. At its crest, we cough to a halt before a wrought-iron gate. Two men emerge from a crumbling guards’ hut, one wielding a shovel and the other a rifle. They exchange a few words, then force the gate open on hinges rigid with cold. The taller one waves us in, gun dangling from his shoulder like a broken limb, and we sputter onto the unkempt, frozen grounds …
The institute is allegedly devoted to training doctors and guarding humanity from a bevy of microbial threats that have already jeopardized their existence on this world. Unfortunately, one of the many bodies the institute has kept for many purposes—research and otherwise—has disappeared. Our narrator has to discover what has happened to the body. And that’s for starters.
There is much of Mary Shelley here, not only Frankenstein but The Last Man. Along with the surreal influences added to a landscape designed by Mervyn Peake, I’m reminded a lot of the Brontës. It reminds me of a time when I had my advanced science fiction writing students read Octavia E. Butler’s “Bloodchild” (a story partly inspired by her reading about botflies before taking a trip to Peru). One of my students described it as a love story, in fact, as a version of Jane Eyre. And, by golly, my student was right. Similarly, Leech is a novel gazing down from the precipice of Romanticism, the great carpet of the world below looking distant and tiny—but familiar—as if fixed to a microscope’s slide.
Haunted by the Past
by Simon R. Green
In my junior high days, not only did I have a weakness for books about the occult and psychic investigators (or whoever passed as them then), but I enjoyed tales about detectives like Algernon Blackwood’s Dr. John Silence and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin. When I hit full adolescence, I wrote my own parodies of a hard-boiled psychic private eye named Ed Migraine. By the time Anita Blake and Dirk Gently came by, I had moved on to what I thought were greater things. Harry Dresden may have hung out in Chicago, his books felt like someone trying to swat flies with a Howitzer. Not my thing.
Recently, though, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for Ed Migraine, so I picked up the latest in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series. Jones and his companion, Penny Belcourt, seemed more my speed than Harry Dresden.
This latest adventure has them at Glenbury Hall, where an associate of theirs has disappeared. It’s supposed to be the most haunted place in England, reminding me of the historic Borley Rectory. It’s loaded with strange, creepy, scary stuff, which suits me fine. Ishmael and Penny are experienced enough with this stuff to keep their wits and wittiness about them.
Nevertheless, things get stranger and stranger until they seem to be on the verge of a very science-fictional spatial-temporal paradox.
Or at least so it seems.
For me, as a reader, it feels like the farther you travel, the closer you get to home.
In books like this, the “detective” part has to be as strong, if not stronger, than the “occult” part. It works for me in Haunted by the Past. Readers more familiar with this subgenre may not be as impressed, but Green’s prose is efficient without being utilitarian. And it’s of a good length (283 pages) to keep things moving and engaging.
I’m not quite ready to leap back into occult mystery stories, but I’m sorely tempted to pick up some more books in this series and perhaps reacquaint myself with what intrigued me about ghosts, poltergeists and suchlike in the first place.
The Scarab Mission
by James L. Cambias
In all honesty, James L. Cambias is definitely not outside my comfort zone, though I must confess that I was about to throw in the towel on any more novels about scavenger ships. Every other SF novel with a spacefaring setting published today has to have a crew of scavengers, it seems.
The last novel of his I read, Arkad’s World, really impressed me, and I’ve always enjoyed his short fiction. So, even though this is the second book in a series, and it contains a derelict colony, which is another thing I’ve seen quite enough of recently, I thought I’d give it a try.
The plot is a suitably tangled web, in a good way, and the concept of the Billion Worlds of the Tenth Millennium is quite engaging, but what took my attention especially were the characters. Solana Sina, the scarab (Cambias loses no time in explaining what a scarab is) who can’t bear to look at human faces; Atmin, a raven; Utsuro, a cyborg; and … a dinosaur!
I am always a sucker for a good dinosaur:
Pera was big—probably two hundred kilos—but she looked lean and swift rather than bulky. The word predatory came to mind. Her long tail coiled securely around the post of the seat she was sitting on, with her massive legs tucked in on either side. She wore a simple dark skinsuit with lots of pockets, and had gloves on her feet with openings for her huge hooked claws—which were coated in blue enamel. Her skin was dark gold and the crest of feathers on her head was brilliant blue, matching her eyes. More blue feathers ran along the other edge of each bare forearm.
The ship they’re on, Yanai, is also a character.The most intriguing character for me makes a late appearance: an AI spider named Daslakh. Apparently, Daslakh’s role in the preceding novel, The Godel Operation, was much greater, so I’ll have to go back and check that one out. Daslakh is wise, sneaky and enigmatic, and great fun to read about.
Of course there’s intrigue, pirates, human (and non-human) trafficking, plenty of suspense and all sorts of things to keep the story moving. It’s not just great fun but thoughtful fun. And it all comes in at lean, mean and super-clean 266 pages. I’m sold. Cambias can write about wriggling space jelly, I’d venture, and it would still be in my comfort zone.
Chicks in Tank Tops
edited by Jason Cordova
It wasn’t too many years ago when it seemed that every new release in the SF book section featured an attractive female in an impractically skimpy, skin-tight outfit brandishing a weapon at least twice her size. What made me most uncomfortable about the covers wasn’t so much the imagery and symbolism (a topic for a much longer essay), but that the imagery and symbolism had become so pervasive. The sameness of it all almost (but not quite) made me yearn for the old days of gothic romances, when rack after rack was filled with book covers featuring wispy women in negligees looking over their shoulders with fearful expressions while in the background loomed old scary mansions, or even castles, with a light in a single window.
We returned to one of the great unwritten rules of publishing: when something hits it big, keep copying it and copying it until you can barely give the books away (reminding me of even older days when a detergent company, I kid you not, put a Harlequin Romance in every box they sold). Repetition is the sincerest form of desperation.
It was about 1995 that Baen published the first Chicks in Chainmail anthology, edited by the irrepressible Esther M. Friesner. It was a takeoff on the sword and sorcery books, the covers of which featured attractive females in impractically skimpy outfits, brandishing swords at least twice their size. Some great new ideas go back a long way.
Back then, I didn’t board the Chicks in Chainmail bus, or the bus didn’t stop for me. I may have appreciated the self-parody of a form which in some respects had already become parodic, but at the time I was striving for a more “serious” side to SFF and didn’t have the patience for amusing takes on women in sword and sorcery.
In other words, I was being a snob.
A number of follow-up anthologies came out until about 2004, with a return volume, Chicks and Balances, in 2015. After that, I thought the coast was clear.
I was wrong.
Chicks in Tank Tops hopes (or threatens) to do with women in military SF what Chicks in Chainmail did for women in sword and sorcery. In the ensuing years I have lost at least some of my snobbiness, as well as more willing to search for good short fiction wherever I can find it. My timing, for once, is spot on.
The stories included herein are quite smart and sophisticated. The entry by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller dually reminded me of how long it’s been since I’ve read anything by them and how good they can be. There are works here by the always reliable Jody Lynn Nye, David Drake (two stories!) and Esther M. Friesner herself. What impressed me as much if not more were the stories by authors with whom I’m less familiar, like A. C. Haskins, Joelle Presby, G. Scott Huggins and Marisa Wolf. Regular readers of military SF may be more familiar with these names, but I’m a stranger in town.
The overall quality of the work here is impressive. It may not make me a fan of military SF, no matter who or what is on the cover, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for these authors’ works from here on.
Walk to the End of the World
by Suzy McKee Charnas
Let us now praise Suzy McKee Charnas.
The sad news is that she recently passed away, in fact just as I was readying to complete this column. I might have waited for a later column, but I didn’t want to allow this opportunity to pass. One never knows these days who we might lose in the coming months. I also wanted to note this novel in contrast to Chicks in Tank Tops. It helps underscore the distance we’ve come in the portrayal of women in American science fiction.
Charnas’s effect on feminist science fiction has been, in my opinion, overlooked for quite a while. It can be argued, and quite successfully, that her second novel, Motherlines, was more influential in feminist SF circles, but looking back on these novels, and the “Holdfast Chronicles” in its entirety, without Walk to the End of the World, there would be no Motherlines, or The Furies, or The Conqueror’s Child.
I mean that in more than a chronological sense. Motherlines is one of those novels that describe how an alternative society can be formed. Walk to the End of the World describes why it’s formed, and does so with sincere urgency.
Walk takes us to a postapocalyptic world where women are subjugated in the most horrific ways. Her depiction of this world is uncompromising, unsparing. Contemporary readers will need a multitude of trigger warnings.
Holdfast is a brutal, unforgiving world, ruled by some of the most misogynistic, sadistic males you’ll find in all of literature. We learn more about this world than we’d care to, but we need to. It’s not necessarily supposed to be a reflection of “our” world, but it depicts what our world can feel like if you occupy the bottom rungs, and what it can become if we’re not careful. Our central protagonist, Alldera, takes a long time coming to the foreground, but when she and her few allies do, she provides the ray of hope we’ve been looking for. Not a bright hope, but enough.
That’s the point.
The pace is akin to a slow, relentless drumbeat. She refuses to spare the reader’s sensitivities. It’s a first novel and has those flaws of many first novels, especially her reliance on many lengthy expositional passages. Charnas pulls it off because she’s writing with her nerves and her heart.
That’s what keeps it compelling. Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin, working at the same time, are intellectual and clever and stylistically brilliant. Charnas is like pure id. Her primal voice and unflinching eye are what still speak to us after a half century and will keep speaking to us for many years to come.
by Brian Trent
Flame Tree Press
Definitely in my comfort zone and very much worth reading. Just when you thought tales taking place within our solar system have pretty much exhausted the technological possibilities, someone like Brian Trent comes along and reimagines everything.
The suspense and action here come from notion that war criminals from a recent interplanetary melee have escaped arrest by housing themselves in genetically 3-D printed versions of other humans. Hal Clement and Philip K. Dick can both eat their hearts out. This is the second book in a series but it took me no longer than the first chapter to get up to speed. Trent is an experienced prose juggler and gives this whole tale a marvelous sense of urgency.
The Best of Edward M. Lerner
by Edward M. Lerner
Allow me to squeeze one more in. I’ve had to cut it for the last two columns. Lerner is one of the wittiest and most thoughtful of recent Analog regulars, and this collection provides a fine overview of his output. My one added observation is that the title is somewhat premature. “Best of” collections are supposed to be a sort of authoritative summary of authors who are wrapping up, unofficially, their authorial careers (relax, James Van Pelt, I don’t mean you, either). Not only do I think Lerner has a few more good novellas in him, this volume also misses a couple that to my mind should rate inclusion. For the time being, though, this will do nicely.
Copyright © 2023 by Richard Chwedyk.