Tag Archives: Science Fiction

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

18 Aug
Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the speculative fiction novel House of Shattered Wings.

Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer and history geek who lives in Paris. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, ClarkesworldInterzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her trilogy Obsidian and Blood is set in Ancient Mexico, and her novel House of Shattered Wings is set in a post-Apocalyptic Paris and features Fallen angels, a washed-out alchemist and a former Vietnamese immortal with a grudge. She has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read de Bodard’s story “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually—my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight "rules" for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

Originally published in March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Lincoln Michel

22 Oct
Lincoln Michel's debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was described in The New York Times as reading

Lincoln Michel’s debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was described in The New York Times as reading “something like translated Kafka.”

Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, and The Paris Review Daily. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn.

To read his story “Dark Air” and an exercise on merging literary and genre stories, click here.

In this interview, Michel discusses the differences, if any, that exist between literary and genre fiction.

Michael Noll

I was on a panel recently, and the question was posed about the difference between literary and genre fiction. The usual things were said, with the eventual answer being a bit like the Supreme Court justice’s line about obscenity: we know genre or lit fiction when we see it. But when it comes to this particular story (and several in the collection), any distinction between genre/literary seems impossible to find. I can’t remember another story in Granta that was so devoted to genre elements, yet the characters are developed and the language is tight, so it’s easy to see why Granta selected it. You’re part of a large group of writers who are straddling both worlds (Adrian Van Young, Manuel Gonzales, and, obviously, Karen Russell). What do you think? Is any distinction left?

Lincoln Michel

I seem to have a different stance on this question than most people I know in either the genre world or the literary world. I don’t believe that genre distinctions are meaningless, but I also don’t believe that there is anything inherently inferior to genre work. To me, genres are literary traditions and conversations between writers, readers, and critics. Part of the enjoyment of “genre-bending” or genre mashing is seeing the different tropes and styles subverted, complicated, or tweaked in different ways. If we didn’t understand what, say, a hardboiled detective story was or what a Lovecraftian horror story was, then a hardboiled cosmic horror story simply wouldn’t work.

When I write in a genre (or in two or three), I’m both participating in a conversation with other authors in that literary tradition, and I’m working in a form and hoping to subvert/complicate/expand it.

“Literary” is a tougher term, because I think it has a lot of different usages and definitions that frequently contradict each other. (That’s true of “genre” too actually.) To avoid going on a thirty-page rambling rant, I’ll just say that I think of “literary” fiction as fiction that is complex, language-focused, and challenges instead of simply meets readers’ expectations. As such, writing can be simultaneously literary and genre. Le Guin, Delany, Chandler, Atwood… their fiction is as complex, beautifully written, and boundary pushing as anything on the “literary fiction” shelf of a bookstore. (By the same token, fourth-generation Raymond Carver knockoffs are the realist version of genre pulp.)

Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

In my book, Upright Beasts, some of the stories use genre elements from science fiction, fairy tales, and horror, but I don’t believe there is any quality distinction between them and the Kafkaesque parables or realist Southern stories. They are just playing with different forms and styles.

So genres exist, but I think you are right that we’re finally tearing down the borders separating the writers who work in them. It used to be that the literary world was separate from the SF world that was separate from the crime world, and so on. As a writer you kind of had to pick one little patch of land to grow your garden in, or maybe two if they were adjacent plots like SF and fantasy. But now Le Guin just got a National Book Award lifetime achievement medal, the Library of America series publishes Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut alongside James Baldwin and Philip Roth, the New Yorker has issues devoted to SF and crime, and authors are feeling increasingly free to write in different genres, to plant lots of different gardens in lots of different plots.

And that’s how it should be. No one wrinkles their nose at the fact that a Kubrick directed the best horror film ever in The Shining AND directed one of the best science fiction films in 2001 AND directed great black comedies, war films, and other films in other genres. Why shouldn’t writers have the same freedom?

Gigantic Worlds is an anthology of 51 science flash fiction stories from writers as varied as Jonathan Lethem, Charles Yu, and Kelly Luce.

Gigantic Worlds is an anthology of 51 science flash fiction stories from writers as varied as Jonathan Lethem, Charles Yu, and Kelly Luce.

I actually just co-edited an anthology of science fiction called Gigantic Worlds that had this ethos, so I’m definitely interested in genre as both a form and as great literature. Gigantic Worlds is a mix of fantastic SF writers (Ted Chiang, Laird Barron, Meghan McCarron, etc.) and great literary writers working in the form of SF (Catherine Lacey, Alissa Nutting, Kyle Minor, etc.). There is no reason those writers shouldn’t be read, enjoyed, or studied side by side.

(Adrian Van Young is also in that anthology, and I’m glad to hear you give him a shout out as he’s a fantastic writer—and one of my best friends—whose work is definitely simultaneously genre and literary.)

That’s what I want for my own writing. I want to write a book in every genre! I want to play with different genres like I play with different structures, different voices, and different POVs. I think you have to do that with a love and understanding of the genres—and I grew up reading Le Guin and Chandler alongside Carver and Calvino—but otherwise, go forth and write whatever you love. Sculpt weird beasts out of the different elements that speak to you. Make them yours.

October 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Adrian Van Young

24 Apr
Adrian Van Young is the author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything.

Adrian Van Young’s story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, has been called “seedy, even unnatural” and full of “Cthulian horror.”

Adrian Van Young’s story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, won the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. His fiction and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in LuminaGiganticElectric Literature, The American Reader, Black Warrior ReviewThe Believer and Slate, among other publications. Van Young has taught writing at Boston College, Boston University and Grub Street Writers, in Boston, and writing and literature at the Calhoun School, 826 NYC and the Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School. Currently, he teaches writing at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, and lives in New Orleans, LA with his wife.

In this interview, Van Young discusses monster creation, mall gothic, and genre-benders like True Detective.

To read “The Skin Thing” and an exercise on writing one-sentence paragraphs, click here.

Michael Noll

I love the monster in the story, the actual The Skin Thing. It’s such a simple concept. There’s no origin story, no technical explanation of its mechanics or motives. It’s just a blob that sometimes eats people and sometimes doesn’t. How did you come up with the monster? Did you start with The Skin Thing and write the story around it? Or did you have a sense for the kind of story you wanted to tell and create a monster to fit?

Adrian Van Young

Thanks! I was happy with the way it turned out. To begin to answer the first part of your question, the story was solicited by Gigantic Worlds, a terrific anthology of flash science fiction forthcoming from Gigantic Books and featuring a great many writers who I slaverously admire such as Brian Evenson, Laird Barron, Meg McCarron, Alissa Nutting and Adam Wilson, to name just a few. So the genre was somewhat decided in advance.

But I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write an alien story and that moreover I wanted the alien itself to be Lovecraftian—a creature that presides terribly over human destiny but from a point beyond human knowing. Of course, when you’re going the Lovecraftian route, you don’t always want to hew to what’s been done, you want to make it new, so I started thinking, as well, about the scariest element of successful horror-inflected science fiction, which in my mind is always the human element. It’s a simple but effective principle. Take the Alien trilogy, for example. In the second film—which also takes place in a ruined space colony on a planet not unlike Oblivia—sure, H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph creature is responsible for a lot of the bloodshed, yet were it not for The Company’s decision to send the colonists and then the space Marines into a potentially dangerous situation or The Company’s decision, via Burke the corporate shill, to harvest a human host for military research, then a lot of what transpires over the course of the story would be moot. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I wanted the true horror in “The Skin Thing” to be not the creature itself but rather—not to belabor the obvious—what the colonists put on the creature and how they react to it in a setting of isolation and privation. Thus came my decision to call the creature The Skin Thing and to have it share with humans the largest and most superficially recognizable human organ: skin. So while the creature is “The Skin Thing” by name, the colonists themselves, whether they want to admit it or not, are doing “the skin thing,” i.e. the human thing— segregation, violence, cruelty, oppression, what have you, which humans have done with remarkable skill since they first crawled out of the ocean, notwithstanding hideous creatures to expedite the process.

So I guess you could say that, yes, I tailored the monster to fit the story, more or less. On another level, though, the look of the monster emerged partly from my obsession with Jim Henson Puppet Factory creatures and the like—the painstaking craft that at one point in time went into fashioning grotesque bodies. Guillermo Del Toro, god bless him, carries on the tradition today in film, Laird Barron and Caitlin R. Kiernan in literature. And somewhere in there must’ve been the sandworms from Dune, combined with a sort of eyeless sloth, combined with a terrestrial bat.  I was—and am!—a super nerdy and monster-obsessed little kid. After watching Star Wars and Dune, or reading The Tommyknockers and At the Mountains of Madness, all I could think of for days were the monsters.

Michael Noll

You write a lot of one-sentence paragraphs in the story. For example, this passage about the people who were sacrificed as a series of one-sentence paragraphs:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty. Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six. Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Life was, for an instant, as right as it could be. 

Until the matter of McGrondic.

Is this style simply the way you find yourself writing? Or did you discover this style in an attempt to achieve a certain voice or tone or effect?

Adrian Van Young

The Man Who Noticed Everything has been called, by John Wray, "the secret love-child of so many authors I admire, from Ambrose Bierce to H.P. Lovecraft to Sherwood Anderson to Tobias Wolff."

The Man Who Noticed Everything has been called, by John Wray, “the secret love-child of so many authors I admire, from Ambrose Bierce to H.P. Lovecraft to Sherwood Anderson to Tobias Wolff.”

That’s an interesting question; I’m glad that you asked. Before a couple years ago though, I think you would’ve found that my fiction trafficked in lengthy, solid blocks of text that scrolled endlessly down the page. And unless you’re Thomas Bernhard—who I sometimes wish I was!— that’s not always going to work, especially with the modern reader. I learned from writers like Denis Johnson and Lydia Davis and Peter Carey, to name only a few, the indelible power of a well-placed one-sentence paragraph. It can just slam you, if you do it right. I also think it strengthens the bridge between fiction and poetry—namely, treating fiction as a kind of long-form, narrative poetry that demands equal if not more attention to rhythm, word combination and line-breaks, as it were. When I myself am writing a piece of fiction I always have a rhythm in my head that I want the words to conform to—so much so that at first I end up choosing words irrespective of precision, allusion or inflection and solely based on whether or not they fit rhythmically into the musical scheme of the sentence. That rhythm can be imprisoning. In drafting, of course, I go back and end up recalibrating the music of the sentence to fit the aims of the words but in the first draft, at least, rhythm is everything to me. One-sentence paragraphs further this sense of rhythm because they each signify a clean break from and a full stop after the sentence before. They also speak with a lovely straightforwardness to the writer’s intent—take note of this sentence!—and serve to move the story along in accord with how a reader’s eye moves down the page and how that eye, in turn, translates those words into brain matter, i.e. image, image, scene, image, scene, scene, image, etc. As you can see, my writing is heavily influenced by film, but at this point I’ve seen so many, how could it not be!

 Michael Noll

This story reminds me a lot of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. (It’s also set in a place not unlike the colony in her novel The Dispossessed.) Both stories are science fiction, of course, and they’re both written in first person plural and formal in tone. Both read like myths, though your story has more narrative (I suppose, in that sense, it’s not unlike Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”). I’m curious what draws you to this style and form. Are you after that mythic sensibility, and science fiction/speculative fiction is a form that allows for it?

Adrian Van Young

Funny you should mention that Le Guin story, because in spite of the fact that several other people had noted a similarity, I’d never actually read it until yesterday when I started answering these questions. It’s a good one—though I think I like other Le Guin better. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” also from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, is a marvelous space opera that does volumes with characterization and world building in less than 50 pages. Of course, I can see the resemblance between “Omelas” and “The Skin Thing,” though I’d argue that “The Skin Thing” is bleaker. “The Lottery” you’re dead-on with, though. That story was at the forefront of my mind when writing this one. I have always been a tremendous Shirley Jackson fan—We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House rank among my favorite novels—and “The Lottery” is no exception.

But the “mythic sensibility” that you cite in Le Guin is something I’m absolutely drawn to as a writer. That sort of epic, indelible quality to the prose, the themes. The writer’s way of saying: this happened. It was terrible, terrible, and it cannot un-happen. Near as I can recall I first encountered that quality in Edgar Allan Poe in stories like “The Fall of the House of the Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death”—even though he was very much writing out of the 19th century. And then subsequently people like Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, William Gay and Annie Proulx, who all riff on 19th-century-inflected modes of speech and storytelling to manufacture their own modern-day myths. Granted this technique can seem hackneyed and super-imposed, especially if you go about it half-assedly, and so I would argue that the more wholly you give yourself over to the high, operatic quality of this kind of storytelling, the more a reader will be inclined to believe you, to go where you’re taking them. You really have to go full ham, I think. Carter does this extraordinarily well in her stories—“The Lady of the House of Love” from The Bloody Chamber, for instance, which is a feminist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with vampires in it, and goes so utterly over-the-top that it works. Which is all by way of saying, yes, I think this tone can be well suited to speculative fiction.

On the other hand though, you have people like Kelly Link, Victor LaValle and George Saunders who strive to incorporate more banal elements alongside more fantastic ones in their fiction, giving rise to something newer and subtler probably than anything I’m capable of producing. Shirley Jackson excelled in this, too, especially in “The Lottery,” which begins: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day…” Or to touch again on Saunders, there is no better descriptor in criticism than the term that’s been used to characterize his early work (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia): mall gothic.

Michael Noll

Your story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, was published by Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc. For a long time, the attitude toward small, independent presses like Black Lawrence has been that they publish the writers whose work is too weird or experimental or nontraditional (whatever these terms mean) for the big publishing houses. But I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true anymore. Your work–and the work of writers like Kelly Luce (published by A Strange Object) and Daniel Jose Older (published by Crossed Genres)–is firmly within some very popular genres, most obviously the speculative fiction of Le Guin and horror of Lovecraft but also what’s sometimes called the New Fabulism of George Saunders, Aimee Bender and, now, Karen Russell and Manuel Gonzales. In short, the big houses are publishing some of the same kinds of fiction as the independent presses–“literary” fiction that is incorporating various genre elements. Do think this is a case of the big houses finally catching on to a style that was discovered and promoted by small presses? Or, are presses like Black Lawrence and Dzanc growing large enough that they now exist in the same sphere as the big houses?

Adrian Van Young

Well, given that Black Lawrence recently separated from Dzanc, I guess the last part of that question’s up for debate. Certainly both presses (Dzanc and Black Lawrence) are expanding every day, putting out top-quality fiction, poetry and non-fiction, genre-inflected and not. But I mean, yes, I definitely feel like New Fabulism, as it’s been called, has been inching its way into the mainstream for a couple years now to the point where genre-barriers are breaking down. In my opinion, this is ideal for literature in general. These distinctions between genre fiction and literary fiction, which have been picked over ad infinitum, are essentially meaningless when it comes to quality—and yet they’re incredibly meaningful, too, when it comes to form and tradition insofar as understanding the ways in which various genres work can help one into a greater appreciation for fiction that blurs the lines between them. Ultimately, I think that a more useful distinction exists between commercial and non-commercial, i.e. 50 Shades of Gray vs. The Piano Teacher. But then again, there are some jaw-droppingly adept novels out there that are superficially “commercial”—Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, for instance—and some jaw-droppingly absorbing novels out there that are superficially “non-commercial”—say, Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I suppose in the end that all of these distinctions are silly, that a really excellent piece of fiction will decimate them forwards and backwards. Yet in the end they’re very human, and they’re useful to us as writers and readers. Distinguishing and discerning between types, after all, is its own form of doing “the skin thing”—it’s just what people do.

In his recent essay at Slate, Van Young argues about the TV series True Detective that "the cosmic-horror genre—rooted, as it is, in humankind’s subprime position in the pecking order of the universe—is deeply entwined with the character of Louisiana’s physical and cultural landscape."

In his recent essay at Slate, Van Young argues about the TV series True Detective that “the cosmic-horror genre—rooted, as it is, in humankind’s subprime position in the pecking order of the universe—is deeply entwined with the character of Louisiana’s physical and cultural landscape.”

And while I wouldn’t group myself in with the so-called New Fabulism school of Aimee Bender and George Saunders—as much as I admire those writers—I do think it’s catching on and I’m glad of that. It was wonderful, for instance, to see Saunders receive so much attention for The 10th of the December, which although accessible in some ways is objectively a very bizarre, eclectic collection of stories. As bizarre and eclectic as any of Saunders.

All the same, though, I don’t think you could realistically say that Black Lawrence and Dzanc, along with Coffee House, Two Dollar Radio and others, are in the same sphere as the big houses—and this is purely from a standpoint of promotional resources, distribution reach, market clout. The sheer ability that the bigger houses have when it comes exposing their authors, getting their books reviewed, getting their books in bookstores. What is interesting to me recently are the larger houses who’ve embraced the indie model as a sideline—say, FSG Originals, who has been publishing work by ostensibly experimental or genre-bending writers like Laura Van Den Berg, Jeff VanderMeer, Amelia Gray. That goes for Riverhead too (a division of Penguin), who published Manuel Gonzales’ collection.

That said, no, I don’t think it’s a case of bigger houses co-opting what was originally promoted by smaller presses. In many ways, I think it just marks a shift in the cultural sensibility at large. Which is to say a shift toward genre-bending, a gleeful sort of category crisis. You see it in TV (True Detective), in film (Let the Right One In, District 9), and now in literature. If the 80’s and 90’s were a time for largely embracing the conventions of genre when it comes to narrative art forms, then maybe the 2000’s have been a time for exploding them. You could chalk this up to post-modernism, blah, blah, blah, but in the end I think it just comes down to the fact that people as artists and consumers of art crave ingenuity, and the surest path to achieving that is through hybridization. Everyone loves a good mash-up.

April 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

22 Apr
Adrian Van Young's story, "The Skin Thing," was featured on Electric Literature's Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Gigantic Worlds.

Adrian Van Young’s story, “The Skin Thing,” was featured on Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds.

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.

How the Story Works

Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.

They tend to be used in one of three ways:

Accentuate a change in tone:

This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

Summarize time and events:

These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Illuminate important images

This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:

  1. Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
  3. Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.

Good luck!

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

27 Mar
Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been a finalist for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Tiptree Awards. She is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood; the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting; and many short stories and essays. She lives in Paris.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually–my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight "rules" for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Reinvent a Stock Character

11 Jun
M. John Harrison's Light is X.

M. John Harrison’s Light has been called “space opera for the intelligensia,” and Neil Gaiman said it was one of his favorite SF books of the last ten years. Light is the first in a trilogy that includes Nova Swing and Empty Space: A Haunting.

Almost every story begins with an idea that has been written about a thousand times. Detective stories can begin only so many ways. Stories about immigrants to America feature characters who, despite their far-flung origins, share a certain kind of experience. The problem is not to invent a story that’s never been written but to reinvent an age-old tale.

This is what M. John Harrison has done in his novel Light, the first of a science fiction trilogy. The book features space ships and aliens, but Harrison moves far beyond the typical versions of these things. You can read the opening of the novel here, or you can read the short passage below.

How the Story Works

For an example of how Harrison reinvents a stock character, read this passage about an alien invasion:

Drawn by the radio and TV ads of the twentieth century, which had reached them as faltering wisps and cobwebs of communication (yet still full of a mysterious, alien vitality), the New Men had invaded Earth in the middle 2100s. They were bipedal, humanoid—if you stretched a point—and uniformly tall and white-skinned, each with a shock of flaming red hair. They were indistinguishable from some kinds of Irish junkies. It was difficult to tell the sexes apart. They had a kind of pliable, etiolated feel about their limbs. To start with, they had great optimism and energy. Everything about Earth amazed them. They took over and, in an amiable, paternalistic way, misunderstood and mismanaged everything. It appeared to be an attempt to understand the human race in terms of a 1982 Coke ad. They produced food no one could eat, outlawed politics in favour of the kind of bureaucracy you find in the subsidised arts, and buried enormous machinery in the subcrust which eventually killed millions. After that, they seemed to fade away in embarrassment, taking to drugs, pop music and the twink-tank which was then an exciting if less than reliable new entertainment technology.

Thereafter, they spread with mankind, like a kind of wretched commentary on all that expansion and free trade. You often found them at the lower levels of organised crime. Their project was to fit in, but they were fatally retrospective. They were always saying:

“I really like this cornflakes thing you have, man. You know?”

Notice how the passage begins with an alien image we’ve seen before (humanoid, bipedal, white-skinned) but then quickly moves into unexpected territory (red hair, Irish junkies). But the genius of the passage is how Harrison describes the aliens’ attitude. He starts by making them the opposite of the creepy, emotionless creatures from TV and the movies. But then he develops the idea: what would it mean for an alien race to be attracted by Earth’s TV and radio ads? If human culture drew them to the planet, how would they behave? Rather than making the aliens sinister, the passage presents them as both curious and dopey enough to take that culture seriously but also technologically advanced enough to nearly destroy the world. By the passage’s end, Harrison has created an alien race that is entirely new to fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s develop a stock fictional character the way that Harrison develops the alien invader.

  1. Pick a stock character: hard-boiled detective, crooked cop, bloodthirsty pirate, ambitious drug dealer, too-serious doctor, laconic cowboy, Medieval knight, bold dragon hunter.
  2. Describe the character. Feel free to include setting. Start with a cliche.
    1. A thin and weary private eye in a small, dirty office
    2. A single woman asleep in her cluttered apartment and awoken by a call from the hospital).
  3. Move the description in an unexpected direction. One way to do this is to include an unusual trait and then use that trait to make an unexpected comparison (red hair, Irish junkies).
    1. He had a mustache with the ends pulled to a thin point, like a villain who’d tie a woman to railroad tracks or a hipster with a custom-made bicycle.
    2. She was missing the pinky finger on her left hand. No one at the hospital had yet noticed the absence, but they inevitably would, just as a pickpocket’s victim inevitably pats his pocket to find his wallet gone.
  4. Answer the question of how someone in that character’s position would behave given that unusual trait.
    1. The mustache made it hard to blend in, but he wouldn’t give it up—the greased tips had taken him more than a year to grow out—and so as a result he only took business that involved the low-rent but becoming-gentrified part of town.
    2. The patient in which the finger resided would also discover it, which is why the doctor took a drink before going into work, a habit that was, in part, the reason she lost the finger in the first place.

The key to this exercise is to begin with a stock character and develop him/her by first adding a small, unexpected detail and then imagining how that detail would affect the character’s life.

Have fun.

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