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May 25, 2017

Modern Monsters, Episode 8: The Seal Woman

The Twenty Percent True Podcast

Season 1: Modern Monsters

Episode 8: The Seal Woman

Content Warning: This episode deals with an abusive relationship.
Stay safe.

The blog: Twenty Percent True
Twitter: @CaryAndTheHits

May 23, 2017

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean Review

This week I read Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean: Stories of Imagination and Daring, a collection of short stories edited by Kristy Murray, Payal Dhar, and Anita Roy.  I hadn't heard of this until I got it as a gift for my birthday.

This collection was a response to a wave of violence against women in India and Australia in 2012.  Contributors were asked to re-imagine the world and push the boundaries of what girls were allowed to do.  Then as an added bonus, the contributors were paired up, one writer from India, one writer from Australia. Some of them just bounced ideas off each other, traded stories, then went and wrote their own, while other teams collaborated on single stories.The result is a mix, a nice variety of dystopias, retold myths, sci-fi, and creepy fantasy.

These stories are all very short (the longest is 18 pages, and that one is a graphic story).  It's a length I appreciate both as a reader and a writer.  You can't get too much in there, you can't fit too many levels or story threads, but you can go into detail and get an emotional punch on one set piece, one idea.  That said, some of the stories hit the mark better than others. 

"Cat Calls" by Margo Lanagan, is wonderful.  It made me cry.  And it was positioned perfectly as the first story in the collection.  A girl gets cat called by the same group of men everyday on her way to and from school.  In this world, there exists a technology that retracts the last 30 seconds or so, sucking words back into the mouth of whoever said them and sucking the words from the brain of whoever heard them.  It would be great for this cat calling situation, but this piece of technology isn't for poor girls and the main character can't have one.  Instead, her friends stand up for her, shouting the words back at the men.  The situation is real and relatable.  Lanagan builds up the friendships, the emotion, and the fear, so at the climax is an honestly earned triumph.  And I love, love, love that there's this piece of sci-fi technology, but it has no bearing on the story except that it's not there.  It never appears.  That's so cool on a craft level, and also says a lot about the socioeconomics of feminism. 

"What a Stone Can't Feel" by Penni Russon was another stand out story.  Vega's best friend Bonnie is dying and Vega has to deal with the loss of her friend and the fact that her super power can't save her: she can slip inside inanimate objects.  There's a second plot where a girl with the power of flight finds out Vega has a super power and tries to befriend her.  Russon does a fantastic job making the friendships believable through chatty dialogue and games about what object would you use to record a memory and other abstractions.  Almost all the dialogue is light, the more somber moments left to the white space between sections.  She packs a lot into the word limit like this, showing just snip-its before cutting away, each section short, and still saying a lot in the things that go unsaid.

"Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar was also excellent.  In it, a slave is bought for a rich woman's oldest daughter, who teaches the slave to read and make lace, how to live a free life and replace the memory lace the rich woman bought with something they created.  It's really cool commentary on expectations about gender, but it's hard to get into it without ruining it.  Go read it and come back and we'll talk.


Next week: Ten Thousand Skies Above You, the sequel to A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

May 21, 2017

To Tall Tale or not to Tall Tale

The last several months, I've been itching to write tall tales or fairy tales.  I want to capture some of the story telling, the oral traditions, that I grew up with.  But I've been having a lot of trouble doing it, and it's taken me an embarrassingly long time but I think I've articulated why I'm having such trouble.

A common feature in fairy tales, one of the techniques that signals that you're reading a fairy tale, is that the characters are flat or archetypal.  The description is minimal to the point of only describing the setting in terms of "the woods" or "the castle", only describing characters as "lovely" or "sad", and only noting when colors are white, black, or red.  No turquoise.  No articulated conflicted emotions.  No settings the reader doesn't already have a picture of.  The bulk is left to the reader's imagination, allowing them to cast themselves as the main character and the setting as their home town.

These makes for good short tales and fables, but not so much for full novels, especially not the kind I write with introspection and description and world building.  A novel where the characters don't get flushed out would be almost impressive in how the author managed to avoid it, and I would find it dull if it went for long stretches without a character to latch onto. 

I've been wondering if fairy tales and the kind of thing I usually write are mutually exclusive.  I can write my own short fairy tales, but I wonder if I can incorporate them into a novel without fundamentally changing one or both of the forms, without stripping them of what attracts me to them.  I can do a novelization of a fairy tale with all the tangents and back story and character growth and world building that I love to write, but I don't know how to do that without losing some of the lyricism, the dream logic, and perhaps some of the magic that draws me to fairy tales. 

Right now, I'm working instead on characters telling stories--kind of a "Big Fish" thing.  I like this because part of what makes tall tales so engaging is that the storyteller puts themselves into the story, casting themselves as a hero, and part of what makes them so interesting is to see how the stories they tell interact with or deepen their character.  My grandfather once found a rare, exotic butterfly on his trumpet plant in his back yard.  Just opening and closing its wings.  He called the Dallas Zoo and a zookeeper came out to his back yard, thanking my granddad profusely for finding the escaped butterfly. 

Another way I've been playing with it is to have tales interjected throughout as explanation or even exposition.  "Why does this happen?  Why does this matter?  Well, let me tell you a story..."  It gives some voice, some humor to info dumps, making them more engaging.

May 18, 2017

May 16, 2017

Magic for Beginners Review

This week's book is Magic for Beginners, short stories by Kelly Link.  This one comes from a magical realism recommendation list that I didn't bookmark and now have no way of finding ever again.

There are nine short stories here, so let me give you an overview of a couple of them.  In "The Faery Handbag," a young woman is charged with keeping track of her eccentric grandmother's handbag, which holds the refugees of the village where she was born, but the girl's best friend takes it to lose himself in the handbag when his life takes a turn for the worst. In "Stone Animals," a family trying to recover from the wife's infidelity and the husband's inability to prioritize his family over work, buys a house that is eerily haunted, possibly by rabbits.  In "The Great Divorce," a man and his wife are getting a divorce and take a last family trip to Disney Land, only the wife is a ghost who he met and must talk to through a medium, and their three kids "take after their mother" meaning they're also ghosts.  "The Cannon" is a transcript of an interview with someone...who is in love with a cannon?  It's stream of consciousness and the main character changes throughout the interview.

I liked that in several of the stories, it's possible that no magic is happening at all.  In "The Faery Handbag,"it's possible the grandmother is lying about being two-hundred-years-old from a village that no one's heard of, and her husband isn't aging slowly in her handbag but rather ran out on her or wasn't ever her husband, and that the best friend too the midnight bus out of town.  It's possible that the handbag idea was a lie the grandmother told to a child and that the young woman is now using the same lie.  It's possible in "The Great Divorce" there are no ghosts and it's a huge scam set up by mediums.  In these stories it's like you get two stories in one, one with weird magic and one with people who invent weird scenarios to make their lives easier.

But overall, these were not my favorites.  Often there are ideas, sometimes a lot of ideas piled on top of each other in a single story, that don't go anywhere, that don't add anything to the other ideas or the themes of the story.  There's a cool concept and I'm waiting to see where Link goes with it, and the answer is nowhere.  I feel like I need a book club to dissect these with me so we can figure out what the painting of the woman with the apple was about, or why Soap is obsessed with zombies or why he kidnapped a kid.  I don't get a lot of what's going on and it makes me feel stupid, and I don't like feeling stupid.

The strands don't come together.  It's not like all the things going on are different facets of the same problem (which when done well, is so beautiful it's one of my favorite things about literary short stories) or that they all come together in the end.  In a lot of stories there isn't really an end, not really a conclusion.  In "Lull" there's a story within a story within a story, all of which are cut off before the conclusion because they've run out of time.  Maybe there's a reason for this, but...these make me feel so stupid.  I shouldn't post this and air my stupidity in the breeze for you all to see.

I think this makes me so twitchy because these are issues I've struggled with in my own writing.  If I'm writing a story about a yeti, I have to ask, "why does this character have to be a yeti?  What does being a yeti bring to the table and what themes can I build or highlight with that?"  If I have a cool idea, a neat premise, I'll stress over "okay, but then what happens?"  It feels like Link didn't do this.  Maybe she's freed herself from the stress or the "have tos" and writes what she wants to write, and it doesn't matter if there's a point to everything or if there's a reason or a why.  But this is such a sensitive topic to me right now that I can't get past the feeling that she just didn't do the work.


Next week: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, a feminist anthology of short stories.

May 14, 2017

Because Magic! Because Science!

I've been thinking about the genre boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. 

There's a stellar interview (this is a long debate between the two, but this one is funny) between Ursula Le Guin and Margret Atwood, real life besties who disagree about genre boundaries.  Le Guin argues that The Handmaid's Tale and Year of the Flood are sci-fi and labeling them otherwise is a disservice to the works because you have to critique them differently.  (It's also a disservice to the sci-fi genre as a whole when people get elitist about a story because it's too literary to be lumped into sci-fi with all the pulpy, alien squid monsters.)  Atwood argues that her work is not sci-fi because she doesn't write sci-fi.  Atwood sets the boundaries like this: if it could happen today or with technology already in place in some form, it's speculative fiction; if it could happen in the future but not with technology that's been invented (faster than light travel, time travel), it's science fiction; and if there's no way it could happen, it's fantasy.

In the last few months I've read and reviewed two books (The Forgetting and Where Futures End) that "start as fantasy and end up as science fiction."  But what does that mean?

Using Atwood's definition, we could say that we assume at the beginning of these two stories that they present impossible situations, but then we're given more information and told, "no, no, it can happen.  With SCIENCE!"  If we roll with this, it means that readers are naturally skeptical and start these books assuming there's no way this could happen and have to be convinced.

Another way to define the genres is to look at the central conceit.  Stories in these genres typically have one big "what if" or one thing that is fantastical about which the reader is asked to suspend their disbelief.  The rest of the story, the world building and character reactions and plot, are affected by this.  In 1984, we're asked to imagine a government that watches people's every move.  In Harry Potter we're asked to imagine that wizards exist and are educated at a boarding school.  Aliens send us a message.  Dragons exist.  Water molecules stacked a certain way freeze anything they touch.  If we think about it like this, in science fiction the central conceit is explained by or derived from technology.  In fantasy, the central conceit is magical.

This definition gets a little screwy if you start looking at it too hard.  We generally assume that everything set in space is sci-fi (and it's marketed as such) because advanced technology is required to get them there.  But The Little Prince, where he travels around in space and visits different planets, is fantasy because he travels with magic rather than technology.  The movie Apollo 13, which is (mostly) true and doesn't require us to suspend our disbelief, does not count as science-fiction because it's not fiction.  The movie Gravity is fiction, but I'm not sure it counts as science fiction either.  All the technology used is already up there and the conceit is "there's an explosion that messes stuff up" which doesn't have anything to do with technology really.  We suspend disbelief that this happened rather than that this could happen.  What about Star Wars?  Our conceit is that there are people and aliens on a bunch of different planets with space ships and lasers that blow up planets and lasers that are like swords (all sci-fi), but also a conceit that there's a magical force that connects people to the universe and gives them magic powers (fantasy). 

So in these cases, I can see where Atwood is coming from.  Gravity is speculative, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (or Blade Runner, either way) are sci-fi. They both have tropes common to science fiction, but they're not the same.

And where does magical realism fit into all this?  By definition, the fantastical elements in magical realism are never explained.  The reader assumes thing happen "because magic" and leave it at that, but since it isn't explained (even to the level of "because magic"), it could very well be "because science."  Maybe it's radiation or nanites.  We don't know.

So this would imply that until we're given an explanation, we assume "magic" and the story is fantasy by default.  This would explain those two genre shifting books that start off as fantasy until you learn more and they become science fiction.  And isn't that a neat thing--that the human mind jumps straight to magic, that that's what we're most comfortable with?

May 11, 2017

Modern Monsters, Episode 6: The Roommate

The Twenty Percent True Podcast

Season 1: Modern Monsters

Episode 6: The Roommate