Present Writers: Nancy Kress

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

I’ve talked on the record about how Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain, the novel version, was one of the most formative books of my teen years, one of the books that my father found for me as a random no-occasion present that made me sit up and say, this, I’m going to do this. But when I went to write this post, I turned to the thing that turned out to be even more formative for me, which was Kress’s short story collections.

Now, I’ve been gradually rereading a lot of the short story collections I read in the Nineties, and frankly I’ve been disappointed in a lot of them. So I picked up Trinity and Other Stories with bated breath. It was the first one, she hadn’t even really hit her stride, how would it strike me now, in my 40s instead of my teens?

I needn’t have worried. I was not even all the way through the first story before I relaxed into the prose, into the characterization, into the ideas. I moved on to Beaker’s Dozen to find the Kress I remembered–the Kress of the Nineties, the Kress who shaped my idea of how short stories worked, still there, still writing about both biology and compassion, both spacetime and interdependence, social ecology. She’s won Nebulas, Hugos, a Campbell, a Sturgeon, written dozens of novels and even more shorter work, not to mention books on writing–taught and lectured and keynoted, hell, sang and danced and for all I know probably juggled.

And…when I read through these collections, I remembered the sigh of relief that I felt, that someone else in the field I was trying to work in knew and understood that heart vs. brain was not a reasonable theme because there was no “vs.” there, what you wanted was an ampersand. Because embracing that “vs.” made us all worse. I realized, on this reread, what I couldn’t see as a teenager: that Nancy Kress is the science fiction writer who is most like my mother. (Not “like a mother to me” but like my own specific mother.) Who sees the overlooked ideas of the lower-class women, the caregivers, the people whose life demands are not entirely polished, not entirely tidy…who can see into the shiny boardrooms and labs and also the world that is not entirely techno-black-matte-finish, and translate between the two. Why did this work feel so entirely right, oh, I see now, I am so happy to see now.

In some previous entries I’ve included a disclaimer that the author is a personal friend. I can’t say that here–I’ve never met Nancy Kress. But rereading these short stories, thinking happily about rereading some of the novels, I think that she is probably the head of the list of authors I’d gladly buy lunch if we were at the same convention. What these stories did for me was so huge, and–what a relief to find that they are still themselves, that they have not diminished as I have grown up. What a relief to find her work, as herself, so steadfastly present in this field.

Lord of Secrets, by Breanna Teintze

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend and shares an agent with me.

There is a lot of very serious fantasy out there right now, and I love much of it. Taking on the hard-hitting, gigantic questions is part of what genre literature does best. And yet. And yet sometimes I want a book that touches on those big questions but with a lighter hand. Lord of Secrets is one of those books.

For me it has a feel of all the best of the fun fantasy adventure I grew up with, without any of the parts that make us cringe now. Gray is a wry and dogged hero, Brix is a tart-tongued and able heroine, and the other characters are individually and vividly drawn. They cast spells with a painful, even poisonous, rune-based magic, consuming human lives a bit at a time. Gray is focused on saving his grandfather–a quest that I could hardly find more relatable–and Brix has her own concerns that unfold with the rest of the story. Each character has their own motivations, often getting in the way of the others to frustrating effect. (Frustrating for them. All too compelling for me.)

I got this copy of Lord of Secrets when I was down for the count with a bad cold. It was a lovely way to distract myself for those hours and kept me guessing to the end.

Books read, early July

Lloyd Alexander, The Beggar Queen, The Book of Three, The Illyrian Adventure, The Kestrel, and Westmark. All rereads. Well, let’s see, what panel was I on at Readercon this year. It overlapped nicely with the “rereading the Westmark trilogy phase of grief” in my life. Every time I read that series I find something new in it. This time there was a new gut punch in The Kestrel, which I’ve been gutted by over and over since I was in the single digits, but…the Regians were eating the seed corn. The seed corn, and I gasped and had to close my eyes because I am 40 now and that means so much more to me and every line of these books, oh, oh.

Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Lost Legacy. This was charming and fun, some kids saving the day in a hotel full of magical creatures. So many shenanigans. Definitely looking forward to the next one.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapter 21. Kindle. This was a quite short chapter, but it moved the non-school plot forward, so…we’ll see where it’s all going.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the Song of Death. The second in its series, and I heartily recommend starting with the first to get the character dynamics down. Which for me are the best part. I hope the up-to-the-moment contemporary references age well, but this is that moment, and right now they’re doing great. And this is another that was just so darn much fun. I needed a lot of fun this fortnight, and I got it. Yay.

Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever. Adventures in space, time, and the human mind–or perhaps soul!–with Max! Whooosh. Tech geniuses! Various kinds of goo and despotic reality-warping rulers and earnest monks and friendship being–well, magic. But the kind that helps you do the hard work of fixing, not the kind that fixes stuff just by being. Who are you, who are your friends, who are you with and without your friends–across the galaxy. Very different from the Craft Sequence, in ways I love to see people branch out. Yay.

A.J.R. Russell-Wood, The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move. This was a lot about the interaction of various Portuguese colonies with each other, and particularly about logistics. If you want to think about equipping ships and how long things took, this would be very useful. If that’s not your jam, probably give it a miss. Also there is a lot of pleading on behalf of the Portuguese as better than the other colonizers, which…let’s say I am not entirely convinced in every particular that this is a total ordering worth making.

Snorri Sturluson sort of we think maybe, Egil’s Saga. Reread. Good heavens is Egil a pill. Which is why this is a lasting work of literature, no one would want to read it if he was Egil the Snuggly. I read this as research for a future project, and I got everything I needed and more, but…mostly in the form of notes to myself rather than to you.

Bogi Takács, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation. Discussed elsewhere.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and Brandon O’Brien, eds., Fiyah Issue 11. Kindle. Interesting to see what happens with an unthemed issue and authors free to roam the galaxy and the human heart. I like the themed issues too, but having a bit of Fiyah that just goes where it will was very cool.

Wider horizons

Strange Horizons is running a fund drive, and the $10K reward is my short story, Wrap Me in Oceans Wide! It’s full of undersea cities and environmental peril; I hope you enjoy it.

The fund drive is still going on even though my story has been unlocked. Selfishly, I’m a lot more excited about the higher tier rewards, since I’ve already read my stories. It’s also reminded me that the magazines I like and write for that aren’t in the middle of a fund drive still get read more when I have a subscription, whether it’s in ebook form or print, so…maybe think about whether that works well for you too.

But whatever your situation is, this story is available for free and you can go read it right now if you like. Or later. Please do.

Short stories I’ve liked sorta-recently

I had a big chunk of time when I just wasn’t reading short stories much, and when I asked for recommendations from that time I got very little. So as usual, please, if there’s stuff you’ve been enjoying, give me links in the comments. (And while it’s fine to link to stuff from 2018 and before in the interest of a good read, what I’m mostly interested in with these posts is recent-ish fiction–this-year-ish mostly.)

(Also a poem or two might sneak in, you never know.)

Chen Qiufan, Coming of the Light (Broken Stars)

John Chu, Probibilitea (Uncanny)

Tiny Connolly, A Sharp Breath of Birds (Uncanny)

Nicky Drayden, The Rat King of Spanish Harlem (Fiyah Issue 9)

Meg Elison, Hey Alexa (Do Not Go Quietly)

Theodora Goss, The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly (Uncanny)

Rachael K. Jones, Oil Under Her Tongue (Do Not Go Quietly)

Cassandra Khaw, What We Have Chosen to Love (Do Not Go Quietly)

Jonathan Kincaid, The Ishologu (Fiyah Issue 9)

Karen Osborne, The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power (Uncanny)

Charles Payseur, Undercurrents (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Nibedita Sen, Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island (Nightmare)

Fran Wilde, The Unseen (Fireside)

Xia Jia, Goodnight Melancholy (Broken Stars)

Caroline Yoachim, A Wedding Gown of Autumn Leaves (Daily Science Fiction)

The Trans Space Octopus Congregation, by Bogi Takács

Review copy provided by the author.

Takács has not chosen this title accidentally. While this collection is not a single theme, its constellation of themes undulates around gender, fluidity, and form, with the alien and the other taking varying roles according to the needs of the story. The ordering of the stories has a particularly liquid flow, from one into the next in ways that inform and illuminate with no one theme or tone ever having a chance to grow stale.

I have major issues with the prior claim (NOT by Takács) that science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement (but that is, as they say, another panel–literally, that is a panel I will be on at Readercon next week, discussing the classic Darko Suvin essay on this topic)–but this science fiction is deeply and profoundly estranged, and at the same time is interested in healing that estrangement in the ways that healing is meaningful and possible–and the ways in which efforts toward that healing do not themselves cause greater harm. That is: recognition of estrangement is also a possible good in these stories. Diversity both of problem and of solution is recognized here.

No collection has every story for every reader, but so very much of this was for me–despite almost none of it being “for” my demographic. I am not trans, not Hungarian, not Jewish, not for that matter a cephalopod or an alien, but this is exactly the kind of science fiction where the beauty of not being “same” shines through the most. Recommended.

Books read, June

Samira Ahmed, Love, Hate, and Other Filters. This is a charming story about a Muslim-American teen from Chicago who is trying to navigate her life as an aspiring filmmaker around the usual teen beloved obstacles of family, friends, school, etc. I was pleased with how Ahmed stuck the landing.

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. A brief history of Existentialism, fairly idiosyncratic but not a bad thing to read while thinking about what to talk about on a Readercon panel. Probably not my top pick if you want to know more about Existentialism, though.

Basho, The Essential Basho. Lots of nature poetry in the kind of translation that made it hard to see why it was essential if you didn’t already know. Perhaps get introduced to Basho somewhere else, but on the other hand a great thing to read if you’re already dressed for your dad’s memorial service and not sure what else to do. (I do not advise being in that situation if you can at all avoid it.)

Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Lost Legacy. This is a fun kids’ book set in a hotel full of magical creatures. I particularly like a couple of the places where characters decide to trust each other and work together instead of dragging out a different kind of drama.

Stephanie Burgis, Spellswept and The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart. The former is a prequel that takes us up to the family I’ve enjoyed in previous romantic fantasy novellas, but it was the latter that really blew me away. I adored the fierce young dragon protagonist and her newfound passion for the ways of human life and chocolate. This was a book I’d saved for a rainy day, and it was perfect–definitely looking forward to the sequels, which I’m afraid I will not have the willpower to save any more!

Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings. This was vivid and Gothy and only the beginning of its series, and I have the second one on my pile, and I am getting to them just in time for the third, so go timeliness.

Tim Flannery, Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, A Scientist, and a Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Creature. Sometimes a book about kangaroos, including the tree kangaroos and the prehistoric kind, is just what you need. It was sort of comfort reading, this book. Granted, the bits about kangaroo reproduction were…not comforting. But still, it’s a bit like being five years old, being able to curl up with a nice book about animals. Sometimes one needs that.

Donald Hall, Without. This is a harrowing book of poetry about Hall’s wife, poet Jane Kenyon, dying of leukemia, and also his grief thereafter. I think for some people it would be the absolute worst thing to read while grieving, but for me it was quite companionable. I have no real interest in reading anything else of Hall’s but have put the complete works of Jane Kenyon on my library list. But for me this was like…this was like the people you meet in the ICU family lounge, you have an intense and real bond with what they are going through in that moment, and then you don’t need to keep meeting up for coffee thereafter.

Carol Kendall, The Gammage Cup. Reread. I have had this book on my shelf in several states but have not reread it since, I think, Kansas, which would be 1990. It’s a fairly straightforward kids’ fantasy about villages of simple peasants, some of whom are odd and need to be more accepted for their oddity, and how they fight mushroom people. I found it more charming when I had less to read, and there is a lot of Message per unit book.

Dorianne Laux, Smoke. This is another poetry book that was recommended to me for in grief, less focused than the Hall and less successful for me but striking in a number of images.

Yoon Ha Lee, Hexarchate Stories. Discussed elsewhere.

Ken Liu, ed., Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. A very wide mix of types and lengths of story–there’s so much SF being published in Chinese that I wish there was the funding for four or five of these a year, but I’ll take what I can get. Favorites from this volume included Chen Qiufan’s “Coming of the Light” and of course Xia Jia’s “Goodnight Melancholy.” Xia Jia is an international treasure, a favorite in any language. The more she publishes, the more impressed I am.

Rose MacAulay, The Furnace. Kindle. This one was written before WWI. Two English siblings living in Italy have their “Bohemian” lifestyle tested by various trials in life, and…it’s Rose MacAulay, so the eventual moral of the story is not modern but not completely odious either. I am going to keep picking away at her back catalog, and finding them interesting and readable as I go. And while I say “not modern,” more modern than 1907 had any right to expect to be.

Robert MacFarlane, The Lost Words. This is a brief and beautiful book of poems. I don’t usually expect this much commitment to a particular formalism to come out so well–in this case, the poems all spell out the words they’re about, acorn and otter and so on, a list of nature words taken from one of the children’s dictionaries for insufficient relevance to the lives of modern children, and MacFarlane objects beautifully.

Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. I think I am not the target audience for this book, I think the target audience knows a great deal less about adrenal response and organization, but it has a calm tone and generally a level head, so all right. It is rather gendered but tries, in that direction, not to be a jerk–that is, it recognizes that many things are different for people socialized female in our culture at various times in their lives but tries not to assume various essentialist things along the way while acknowledging that.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa, David Mogo, Godhunter. Discussed elsewhere.

Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. These volumes keep not being complete works, and I keep trying.

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch. Reread. This is one of my favorite Pratchetts. But also. But also. A book about time traveling to teach your younger self some things is a particularly odd and wonderful book to reread, because…you can see your younger self reading it and see yourself learning different things, apprehending different things. So that’s a strange dual vision.

Karen Russell, Orange World and Other Stories. I was halfway through the first story when I let out a contented sigh, knowing that I was in good hands. And I was. She does such beautiful weirdness, such a lovely exploration of the way the world shifts and is not where you expected it, possibly because it has changed, possibly because you were wrong. Estrangement, I have been thinking about literature of estrangement, and this is a lot of that. In such a lovely way.

Charles Sheffield, Vectors. Reread. This is a very early collection of Sheffield’s short work. It contains the seeds of his later ideas, several early works that later became parts of short story series, types of things he later did more of. It also contained false starts, things that were more “of their time” and less impressive…the sort of thing those of us who write a lot of short stories have early in our portfolios. Since he did go on to write so much more, this is the sort of short story collection I’d recommend picking up if you’re in an Airbnb and it’s on their shelves but not seeking out over his other work.

Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner, eds., Do Not Go Quietly. Lots to really enjoy in this anthology, quite varied stories. I think my favorites were Rachael K. Jones “Oil Under Her Tongue,” Cassandra Khaw “What We Have Chosen To Love,” and Meg Ellison “Hey Alexa,” but it was a really solid selection of a variety of genres, styles, and types.

Sherwood Smith, A Sword Named Truth. Discussed elsewhere.

Rebecca Solnit, Cinderella Liberator. Sigh. Apparently I don’t love everything Solnit does. It’s not that this was offensive or horrible, it’s just…this is what happens when people who don’t work in fantasy or children’s books think of an illustrated fairy tale as something they don’t have to think much about before bringing in an innovation, and then their innovation is basically something that was done in heaps and truckloads in the ’70s. And ’80s. And ’90s. So…there’s nothing wrong with Solnit’s version, per se, it’s the same, hey, what if a fairy tale character was empowered. But on the other hand there is something disappointing about watching the person who wrote Men Explain Things to Me not notice that a field that is dominated by women…exists. At all. And is worthy of notice. Oh well. Next time, Rebecca.

Tui T. Sutherland, Wings of Fire Book One: The Dragonet Prophecy. My goddaughter urgently wanted me to read this as part of a conversation we were having about moral complexity of characters in kids’ books, and I got the graphic novel version from the library. When I went to talk to her about it, I realized that she now feels that I will read the other eleven in the series. Well. I liked the teamwork aspects, the self-discovery, it will not be too bad to read some more, but…it is very much the sort of kids’ book that is a kids’ book rather than an all-ages book. But the different kinds of dragon are also pretty cool.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam. The strange thing about this edition is that it was for study, and I was not reading this to study, I was reading this to grieve across centuries with Tennyson, for which it worked admirably. There is a poem very early on where he confesses that he has chosen his particular formalism in hopes of numbing his grief, and further confesses that it is not working. And if you are fluent in Victorian formal poetry, the entire rest of the thing has spots that are very like Tennyson snotting on the sleeve of his frock coat and wailing things like, “I feel like he could just come in the room at any minute and just be here!” Which: buddy, I know. I am with you, Al. So all the essays afterward were…slightly askew for me, except Eliot, Eliot was fine, this nudged me another step closer to reading more Eliot because we had some solidarity in how we read Tennyson, which was a strange feeling. Also: I think we have this twenty-first century thing where Darwin is the synecdoche for how Victorian science turned people’s worldviews on their heads, but in this Tennyson is flipping his lid about the news that the sun will someday burn out, and it’s a powerful reminder that the entire 19th century was one thing after another like that–that in fact we have had a good solid two centuries and counting of what do you mean it’s like that I was not prepared from science.

Rey Tercerio and Bre Indigo, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. This is a graphic novel resetting of Little Women (obv) in modern Brooklyn, in a multiracial blended family with modern problems but also a great many of the beats of the original book reproduced exactly. I know Little Women. I know how the beats fall really well. So it was fascinating to watch them choose very deliberately which parts to keep, which to alter only slightly, which to change deliberately for modern readers, because the lessons that a modern reader needs–the lessons Alcott would likely have wanted to teach–are not the same. I ended up liking it, and I will be interested to see if I can talk to goddaughter about it, to see how well she knows the original and what she thinks of the changes. Ditto anyone older of course.

Emily Tesh, Silver in the Wood. Discussed elsewhere.

Fran Wilde, The Fire Opal Mechanism. An astonishing, lovely and in spots bleak, time travel fantasy where intention and reality diverge sharply. What are we trying, what do we achieve, where have we gone wrong from what we meant to do and can we get it back again. Beautiful and caring.

P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith in the City. Kindle. I had run out of cope one day, and there was Wodehouse, and this was one where he was on his game, the title character and his bosom companion attempting to work for a beleaguered bank who was possibly not the better for their services when they could have been playing their beloved cricket. It was short and made me giggle when I very much needed to, and about the time it grew tiresome it was over.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, The Last Tsar’s Dragons. Discussed elsewhere.

Hexarchate Stories, by Yoon Ha Lee

Review copy provided by publisher. Also I have known the author since Officially Forever, On Here.

I have rarely read a book with such a clearly defined audience! This is for people who love Yoon’s debut trilogy (the Machineries of Empire trilogy, the one with Jedao in it) and have or enjoy a strong fanfic impulse.

What do I mean by “strong fanfic impulse”: the range of tone in this material is very, very large, and how much it has traditional story structure varies extremely. The central novella that constitutes the bulk of this volume does indeed have a fairly traditional story nature, and so do a couple of the short stories, but others are of structures like “what if favorite character went home for a holiday” structures that are more like “outtakes” and other structures that fanfic explores more thoroughly.

So if you have that kind of impulse to see more range of structure and tone, this is definitely for you. I put off reading this volume, honestly, because I was not sure that I could deal with the levels of complexity, intensity, and darkness that Yoon sometimes brings to his fiction with the other things that were going on in my life at the time. And those are sometimes present, not going to lie about that. But the middle of the volume is definitely in the fluffier end of the range–there is no coffeeshop AU, but there is a lot more of the “this is a lighter moment” end of things, brief touches, small illuminations of a larger world.

I would not recommend starting this series in this point–it does rely fairly heavily on you having some notion of the characters and the setting. But for those who are invested, there is a range and a depth here that will likely be appealing.