Blog-worthy, continued

Issue02_150x193 So it turns out that inclusion in the Locus Recommended Reading List also means inclusion on the Locus Awards ballot.  “Home Again” is a tiny story that got only a fraction of the attention of some of the others on this long list, but it would mean a lot if it didn’t come in dead last.  If you read it in Interzone #221 and liked it, please vote!

The ballot is here, and “Home Again” is in the short story category, about halfway down the page.  You don’t need to be a subscriber or a member, and you can vote for 5 pieces in each category.  Thanks!


TIssue02_150x193his is worth mentioning:  The 2009 Locus Recommended Reading List is out, and my Interzone short story “Home Again” is included in it!

I’m a little stunned to see my name appear with so many people I’m in awe of.  There are several with whom I never would have expected to share a list any more specific than “Beings That Appreciate Oxygen” —  conspicuous among these are four of my Clarion instructors: Kelly Link, James Patrick Kelly, Geoff Ryman, and Neil Gaiman.


My Appearance on Hour of the Wolf

Jim Freund, Hour of the Wolf 6-27-2009

Once or twice a year for the last three years or so, my writing group, Altered Fluid, has visited Jim Freund’s speculative fiction-themed radio show on WBAI, Hour of the Wolf.  The topic of these shows is writing groups and how they function.

After the banter and self-introductions are out of the way, one of us reads the first draft of a new short story.  Then we conduct a regular workshopping session – we go around the room, and each member critiques the story, speaking for a carefully timed two and a half minutes.  The writer can’t respond during this time, but after everyone has had their turn, we open it into a free discussion.  After that, since this is a live radio show, we take calls from listeners.

Perhaps because the show airs from 5 to 7 A.M. on Saturday mornings, Jim has to stay on top of the calls to ensure they are on-topic.  Often they are, and we get insightful feedback.  Sometimes we get snippets of whatever’s on the mind of people who happen to already be up and about at dawn on a Saturday.  Our favorite comment was the heavily accented guy who called in after a hard-sf story about dark matter aliens and said, “I didn’t like it — It needs more trolls.”

Today was my turn at the microphone, and I think it went pretty well.  I read a sf story about three men stuck in a time machine with a sleeping dinosaur, which is not my usual stuff, but its pace and humor made it a good selection for a reading (my thoughts on stegosauruses are here.)  The feedback was kind, and where people saw faults, they had some exciting ideas I could apply towards fixing them.  They got my jokes, mostly.  And we had some great callers: one who had a full crit prepared; one who verified my references to elephants based on personal experience; and one heavily accented guy who said what I thought at the time was, “We all want to have peace in Chechen,” but which actually turned out to be, “We all want a hot beef injection.”  Good thing Jim cut him off quick, or I might have said something like, “As do we all, caller.”  (Now that I think about it, this may have been the same guy who wanted more trolls.)

Here’s the mp3 of the whole two-hour show.

WBAI is on FM 99.5 in the New York area.

Sybil’s Garage #7 Opens for Submissions on January 15!

sg6cover_200I want to let the world know that Sybil’s Garage will begin accepting submissions for its 7th issue on Friday, January 15.  This ‘zine is Matt Kressel’s baby, but I’ve been an associate editor for the last several issues, and I have to admit to feeling some pride as well for the quality of the writing it carries and for the strong reputation it’s been garnering.

Here’s some of what we’re looking for:

Sybil’s Garage publishes a wide variety of speculative fiction, including traditional science fiction, fantasy and horror as well as more atmospheric/slipstream stories. For issue no. 7 we seek to cast a wider net and encourage contributors to send us both atmospheric/slipstream stories as well as those with traditionally strong plots and characters.

We also will look at stories with little or no speculative element, but with speculative tendencies (e.g. weird but not-necessarily supernatural.)

Here’s a few things reviewers said about previous issues:

“Sybil’s Garage [is] one of the best run and downright prettiest of the small press magazines…”
Stephen Eley, Editor, Escape Pod

“This issue, a salon of gorgeous language and music, has something for everyone and is well worth exploring for an afternoon, curled up in your favorite chair.”
The Fix, Rae Bryant

Sybil’s Garage is a strange little magazine with old-fashioned illustrations accompanying the text. If you like some tales out of the ordinary, then this is for you… The stories all got a Very Good from me.”
SFRevu, Sam Tomaino

Sybil’s Garage No. 4 is an alienating thing—a saturation tank of isolation and the sublime. Like its first three predecessors, Issue 4 aligns the quietly bizarre and the slightly uncanny with nineteenth-century design. That’s not to say that Sybil’s Garage is easily classifiable, either in form or content. Victorian woodcuts share pagespace with postmodern silhouettes and modernist sketches. Fragments of polyglottal marginalia pepper Sybil’s pages—appearing everywhere like cryptic typesetter’s notes. From the first glimpse of the Bladerunneresque cover to the final, stunning woodcut, this issue is its own work of slipstream art.”
Behind the Wainscot, Darin Bradley

The full guidelines are here.  There’s a nifty on-line submission system, and our response time is usually just a matter of weeks.  If you’ve got speculative fiction or poetry that you’re proud of, we’d love to see it!

Unicorn Chasing

Alright, it’s been so long since I last updated this that the spambots have begun circling like buzzards, and it’s becoming more effort to delete their comments than to just post something new.  Hopefully when they see signs of life, they’ll move on (though if you need discount pharmaceuticals, I can put you in touch with someone who desperately wants to sell them to you).

This is kind of neat:

I recently visited the Cloisters, which is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art way up at the very northern tip of Manhattan.  It’s home to a lot of their medieval collection, and I went mainly to stare at the Unicorn Tapestries.

Unicorn Tapestry RoomThis is a group of seven tapestries that were woven in the Netherlands approximately 1495-1505.  It’s not clear that they were all originally part of the same set, but they’ve been together for hundreds of years.  Each depicts one or two scenes in the hunt for a unicorn involving all the folk of a castle.  The pictures include many layers of Christian and Pagan symbolism, not all of which are still understood, and when you get within a few inches of them they reveal more detail than you can absorb in a single visit. They fascinated me when I first found them ten years ago; since then I’ve discovered the beautiful stories of Peter S. Beagle and learned that these tapestries inspired some of his best known work.

Tapestries are apparently a lot more portable and durable than paintings.  These were looted during the French Revolution, and when they were discovered generations later, they were in a barn, being used to cover potatoes.

Although many huntsmen pursue the unicorn, it eludes them until it is caught by a virgin.  The huntsmen kill it and bring it back to the castle.

Dead Unicorn

In the final tapestry, the unicorn is resurrected; this is an obvious reference to Christ, but since the unicorn is now in contented captivity with a collar around its neck, it’s thought to also represent a newlywed groom.  (At least some of these were commissioned to celebrate a marriage, possibly that of Anne of Brittany to Charles VIII.)

Unicorn in Captivity

(In this scene, those red streaks aren’t blood;  they are dripping juice from the pomegranates above it, which also represents rebirth.)

The fifth tapestry, the one in which the virgin captures the unicorn in a rose garden, was heavily damaged, and just two strips of it remain.  You can’t actually see the virgin now, and you have to guess what she might have looked like;  all that’s visible is her hand on the back of the unicorn’s neck as he gazes up at her, oblivious to the attacking dogs.  (I wonder — did someone cut her out of the piece to make a medieval pin-up?) The tarty-looking woman behind them seems to be her maid.  She’s calling one of the huntsmen, but her come-hither expression suggests she’s thinking about more than just the unicorn.

Capturing the Unicorn

Because what is a blog for, if not self-promotion

I just got a bit of nice press:  Rich Horton calls my story “Home Again” one of Interzones best three short stories of 2009.   (Novellas and novelettes are separate categories, but still…)

“The best short stories were: “Home Again”, by Paul M. Berger (April), a short story with a sharp ending about a man piloting “thought-ships” across the universe while trying to maintain his family’s reality; “Unexpected Outcomes”, by Tim Pratt (June), in which a certain Tim Pratt, and the rest of the world, realize on 9/11 that the world is a simulation — and end up taking action about that; and another June story, Sarah L. Edwards’s “Lady of the White-Spired City”, about a woman in an interstellar society returning to a planet on which her long ago (due to time dilation) visit has made her the stuff of legend.”

(Thanks to Mercurio Rivera for pointing this out to me!)

Review – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin


I recently had possession of one of the ARCs of N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  There apparently aren’t many of them, and I thought I’d take advantage of this by posting my own review.  The tag line on the cover says, “Gods and mortals, power and love, death and revenge.  She will inherit them all.”  If anything, this underplays the scope of this subtle and imaginative novel.

(In the interest of disclosure, I know the author.  She’s in my writing group, and I’ve never pulled any punches in critiquing her work.)

Here’s the backstory, or most of it anyway: Thousands of years ago, there was a war among the gods.  The losers were imprisoned in human form and enslaved to the human clan that was most loyal to the winners. Over generations, that family used these gods’ powers to make themselves the de facto rulers of the world.  The also became monstrously scheming and cold-blooded in the process.

Twenty years ago, the daughter of the head of this family abandoned the palace and ran off to a barbaric land of women warriors, where she had a child of her own.  Now she has been murdered, and her daughter, Yeine, is summoned to her grandfather’s palace.  Yeine is designated a potential heir to the throne – but there are others, and they will kill each other to get it.

This fantasy has magic and gods and a bit of unconventional bloodshed, but the emphasis by far is on the strengths, weaknesses and needs of its characters, and the ways these clash or dovetail.  I’d say most of the plot arc qualifies as Mannerpunk – it unfolds within the confines of the immense palace as Yeine moves among the other players, trying to sort their truths from their lies and determine how she fits into each of their plans.  Jemisin has a subtle and perceptive touch for the give-and-take of antagonistic or romantic relationships, and it’s clear those are the parts of the story she relished writing.  In the background there is an especially rich sense of the power dynamics involved when gods are enslaved and even servants can command them.

Other aspects get less attention.  About halfway in, the nature of Yeine’s conflict shifts abruptly away from the one the first part of the story prepares us for; the transition felt choppy to me, and I had to work hard to follow it.  And with all the knives that are being drawn throughout the story, I had hoped at least one would be significant enough to Jemisin to warrant some description or differentiation.

Maybe this is a guy thing, but despite the emphasis on intrigue, the parts of the story that stayed with me the most strongly were some truly creative action scenes – one in which a god is given free rein to eliminate an army any way he sees fit, and another in which a god and a mortal engage in love-making so cosmically transcendent that their bed is smashed upon re-entry.

This is the first book in Jemisin’s upcoming Inheritance trilogy, but stands alone and has a satisfying ending.  It’s a powerful debut and a great read, and I recommend it.  The book is scheduled for a February release, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.

This made me laugh

This is a stegosaurus:

Stegosaurus 09-10-30 (29) a

This part is for smashing things:

Thagomizer 09-10-30 (29)

Scientists refer to it as a “thagomizer,” which somehow sounds exactly like what it is.  But they didn’t make it up — Gary Larson did.   In a Far Side cartoon.


Meshie the chimp

This is a chimpanzee in the primate hall of the American Museum of Natural History.  Her name is Meshie. In the 1930’s, one of the museum curators found her during a trip to Africa, adopted her, and brought her back to the U.S. to raise as part of his family. (This is possibly the inspiration for Bedtime for Bonzo.) He was said to be distant and withholding to his own young children, but he doted on Meshie.  He staged home movies in which they all interacted like siblings, including scenes in which Meshie slept with the children and bottle-fed his baby daughter.

In addition to receiving all their dad’s affection, Meshie turned out to be a nasty piece of work who made the kids’ lives hell (as a creature that is four times stronger than you and is subject to periodic fits of rage is prone to do).  The curator’s son, now in his 70’s, still has a scar on his hand where she bit him.  The curator was the only one who could handle her, and he was forced to donate her to a zoo when he left on another long collecting expedition.  Meshie couldn’t handle life in a zoo or with other chimps, and she died a few years later.

The zoo gave her body back to the curator, and he had her put on display in his museum.

Meshie’s story is a sad one about cruelty stemming from short-sightedness, scientific arrogance, and possibly even good intentions.  But the curator’s son still visits the museum from time to time.  And how cool is it to be able to go see the stuffed body of your oldest nemesis behind glass?


Max Headroom

So, I’m finally on the Internet.  [Looks around, taps inside of your monitor.]  I figure it’s time I had a home of my own here.

I’ll be using this site to post a bit about my writing, and to share some of my favorite pictures of cool things I’ve come across in my daily wanderings or while traveling.  I’ve been volunteering in the American Museum of Natural History in various capacities lately, so many of these pictures are likely to be from the museum.  One of the things I do is serve as an explainer in the live butterfly exhibit (which re-opens this weekend after its summer hiatus!), and there will probably be a lot of new shots of cool bugs, posted here.

I’ll use this space to blog from time to time, but I don’t have any causes that I can think of off the top of my head, and I’m too private to post anything resembling a journal, so it’s likely to lean towards news I want to share and interesting stories that bear re-telling.

I want to thank my friend Matt Kressel for his help in putting this site together and accommodating my various picky demands.  Senses Five Press is his love, and IT consulting is his business, and if you need help with your own web efforts you can reach him here.