science fiction

Short Fiction on Audio Reviews

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On most work days, I liven up my commute by listening to podcasts. They’re easy to listen to, because I can drift in and out of focus without too much trouble, and put together whatever I miss from context. Listening to audio fiction isn’t so easy. I need to focus on every word, or the thread of the plot is lost, and my enjoyment of the words themselves is lessened. I listen to short fiction on audio only rarely, and then only to very short things, twenty minutes or less. Still, I’ve found some remarkable stories online. These are three of them.

That hilariously short attention span aside, and ignoring for a second that sometimes depression prevents me from focusing on anything interesting, I like listening to short stories on audio on my phone. While waiting for the bus, on my commute, on lunch breaks, on the line at the supermarket… wherever I can squeeze in those twenty minutes of peace.

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Stay Crazy by Erica Satifka

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“Look, I know I’m crazy. I know that. You don’t have any reason to believe what I’m about to tell you[.]”

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Disclosure: I received an ARC of Stay Crazy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The most important thing to note about Stay Crazy, of course, is that the protagonist is insane. Well, yes, of course. It says right in the blurb that she was discharged from a mental hospital. And yet, she is also at the center of a vast conspiracy. It would have been so easy to make this the story of someone who only appears to be insane, when they are in fact the only ones who see the truth. Most often when I see spec fic stories involving characters confined in mental wards or the like, the story is one of false imprisonment, and draws a sharp line between the POV character and all those other people, the real crazies.

Em is as real-crazy as they come. Despite her unflattering descriptions of her fellow patients, she explicitly sets herself among them, the other psychotics. The book is written in a very subjective and often claustrophobic first person narration, dragging the reader deep into Em’s periodic bouts of hallucination. It’s difficult to immediately determine, during each episode, whether is is delusional or merely trans-dimensional. The silver insects crawling over her boyfriend’s plate at the restaurant, the swallowing brown smoke at the bowling alley, even the TV psychologist’s hidden messages. Which of these are conspiracy, and which are artifacts of the mind?

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Earn It – a Meditation for Person of Interest’s Apocalyptic Graduation

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This is a story of how Person of Interest worked three long seasons to earn its surveillance dystopia, when other shows of the genre failed to show their work.

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Season 2 poster showing Finch, Reese, Carter and Fusco.

This week, Person of Interest returns to the screens for its fifth and final season. After a four season emotional roller-coaster, fans are eager but understandably apprehensive about the conclusion. No one promised us a happy end. In fact, as the show wore on, it became clear that its premise, which initially relied on crime drama with a thin dusting of ambiguous sci-fi, had become radically transformed. Viewers entering the fourth season now knew that the show’s world presents a freshly budding dystopia dominated by a conscious and independent artificial intelligence.

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Icon 2015: Guest of Honor Ted Chiang

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Every now and then Icon manages to acquire a major international writer as a guest of honor. It always seems like such a great opportunity, but on the other hand, I’m often only faintly familiar with the authors in question and their work. This year was an exception. Having just recently embarked on my career as a professional writer, and being that I’m still struggling with the specific demands of writing proper short stories, this year’s guest of honor events seemed too good to miss.

The festival takes place over three days during Sukkot and there are events all day long (and well into the night). Although I decided I couldn’t afford to write three full days off for writing, I was adamant that I would make the most and pre-ordered tickets to three evening events. These events were a panel on the subject of “the search for a perfect language”, a general short stories panel, and a one-on-one Q&A. Alas, I got ill on the second day and ended up missing the final event (the Q&A) which I was most looking forward to, along with the closing event where awards are announced.

The first panel was very interesting. The subject of language in science fiction is of perennial interest to me, not least because I’m myself bilingual. What I hadn’t realized (not being a linguist) is that “perfect language” is actually a quite specific piece of terminology. It describes, as best as I could understand, a language in which it is possible to perfectly express the speaker’s intent, without ambiguity. As a writer, obviously this seems like a terrible idea, because without ambiguity literature loses much of its magic. But, as a computer programmer, I’m a lot less worried.

All in all, it was very interesting and I’m very glad I got to hear it.

The second panel was a bit of a mess. I, like some others on the audience (and, I got the impression, also the panel moderator) got the feeling that the two Israeli panelists were dominating the conversation and injecting too many personal references and inner jokes. There was still a lot of interest to listen to, in between arguments about who won the most Geffen awards and short slips into Hebrew. ‘Where do you get ideas from?’ cropped up but also, more interestingly, some questions that were more about the process of transitioning the raw idea into a story-shaped concept.

I’m still sorry I missed the third event, but glad I went to the ones I did, especially the language panel. I’m even more glad that this gave me a good impetus to look up some of Ted Chiang’s short stories online and find out for myself why he’s so highly regarded. The stories I read are very high-concept based and feel like a distillation of the core process of creating science fiction. A novel scientific concept, a series of speculations, potential social implications and finally, their impact on the individual human.

A good week, despite my illness.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

On “The 100” and the Characterization of Cold Women

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I have been thinking lately on why I have such a great fondness for cold women. When I say cold women, I mean of course fictional characters. Like most people, I’m fascinated by a great many types of characters whom I would never tolerate in reality. By cold women, I mean both women who are socially chilly and reserved, as well as women who operate based on cold numbers logic, and consequently make a lot of ethically questionable choices.

The initial impetus for this was The 100. Part of the reason I love the show so dearly is exactly this. It is a show that deals with characters trapped in impossible situations and constrained by violent power dynamics, repeatedly pushing them into morally untenable situations. Unlike a lot of other “morally grey” narratives, it allows women to, on multiple occasions, occupy the role of the decision-maker. The leader, the one who makes the call that no one else could make. The one that historians will debate about for years to come.

Traditionally, women are seen as warm. In Western mass-media, and in a lot of other contexts as well. In another show with a similar premise, a bright-eyed girl would occupy a help-meet role as a moral foil to the male leader. A personal moral anchor, or a political rival who fervently — emotionally — argues for a position of interpersonal ethics, as opposed to global ethics. Because women are emotional and men are logical. That one, that’s also a repeating canard.

You get a little bit of that in The 100, too. Arguably, though, Abby serves more as a Bones to Kane’s Spock, with Chancellor Jaha caught in the middle. But the dynamics between Clarke and Bellamy are quite different. Early on there’s a contrast between them, but the main axis of disagreement centers around adherence to the old social order. Questions of cruelty and compassion, when they surface, are argued based on the merits of the way things are done versus the possibility of building a new society from the ground up.

Clarke isn’t a typical cold, calculating, tough-decision-making character. Part of the impetus behind her character growth is the struggle of being thrust into a reality where the rules she learned to follow — the rules that protected her — no longer apply. In contrast, Bellamy is habitually lawless because the rules never protected him or his family, and the society he lived in taught him that it was built for people like Clarke.

Lexa, I suppose, is a more traditional cold character. She is a leader born and bred, after all. She has the kind of skills and, more importantly, charisma that allow her to give orders to warriors twice her age and have them followed, and she was raised in the same harsh environment that Clarke and the Arc people are struggling to adapt to. Her position as a warrior gives her practice in making killing choices, even when she is face to face with her enemy. As a leader, she has also developed the kind of social aloofness and emotional containment that Clarke lacks.

I often find myself trying to write the kind of cold women characters I so enjoy in the media that I consume. It’s a constant balancing game, trying to keep them on-point while at the same time giving the reader an opening to sympathize with them, or at least comprehend their motives. Writing a character like Clarke, who takes on the role though she lacks the corresponding temperament, is a challenge that I believe is still beyond me. Still, I keep looking to media to see what new and fantastic ways I can discover to expand this particular archetype.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth