Three-A-Week (4.3): Sam J Miller’s “Allosaurus Burgers”

Published in Shimmer (Issue #20)

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

“Allosaurus Burgers” is one of those stories that sneaks up on a reader. The moment you think you’ve understood that it’s a weird magical realist story about a dinosaur’s effect on this town, it twists and shifts to reveal itself to be a really powerful narrative about a son learning that his mother is a real human being. There’s something really impressive about a story that can present such a profound experience through a seemingly light-hearted perspective/plot. Much of this is accomplished, of course, through the narrator, who is done so, so well. Kids are a difficult perspective to pull off convincingly, especially kids who are in a moment of change or realization. Add to that already tall order a strained and slightly messed up family situation that has really had an effect on the child, and you have Matt, the narrator here. And Sam totally knocks it out of the park. The voice of the story might have been my favorite part.

The pacing of the story seemed rushed to me. I felt like we were only just beginning to get a handle on Matt’s situation and the people around him when the climax of the story came along, and although I could see the emotional climax the story wanted to hit, I wasn’t sure it had totally earned it. This is weird for me to say, because I did feel an emotional reaction to the story and to the ending, but I suspect that has more to do with me projecting my own parental issues onto the story. The story hit my buttons from the first few lines, and I would’ve been on board even if the Allosaurus turned out to be Voldemort in a dinosaur costume.

I really love the subtle way we’re introduced to how inflated Matt’s consideration is of his mother. He narrates some of these problems by mentioning how he forces himself to think of his father the way his mother does or talking about being mad at his sister because of what she’d said about his mother. But then there’s the moment where he sees the dinosaur, which is such a great scene. Matt comes face to face with this creature from another age, a creature of imagination and legend, and his metric for understanding its size and stance is to compare it to his mom. This is the kind of thing that really gave me pause in this story. Matt’s inflated understanding of his mother is so ingrained that even this amazing creature only exists in relation to his equally mythic mother. What a great way to demonstrate the sneaky and sometimes damaging impacts adults can have on the children they care for.

That wraps up Sam’s stories for this week, though the Sam J Miller excitement isn’t over yet! He has very graciously agreed to do a short interview, so look forward to seeing that sometime next week. Hurray!

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Three-A-Week (4.2): Sam J Miller’s “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History”

Published in Uncanny Magazine (Issue 2)

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

This is a really incredible story. I knew a little about the Stonewall riots, but I found myself pushed to find out more in order to really appreciate “The Heat of Us,” which is a good thing, I think. So often, the speculative work I read seems desperate to leave the world behind, to disavow its influences and divorce itself from reality. This, of course, is impossible, and the works that attempt it miss out on what speculative work excels at: escaping to better understand your present. Good fantasy, in particular, leverages magic or the supernatural to help understand reality; I think it’s actual better at doing reality than most real fiction. (That all sounds very academic-y and sterilized–I think, though, the love and joy found in those speculative elements is really important, too. I just want to recognize the other side of how awesome fantasy is!). “The Heat of Us” is a story that understands perfectly its orientation toward reality. It’s so steeped in a historical moment that the speculative element is at once powerfully emotional and importantly political.

I’m so completely torn in my reaction to this story. I loved it–totally. But both times I read it I had a weird, dual reaction. The story resonates so profoundly as a consideration of systems of discrimination, parallels between pain and suffering, and the Stonewall riots, and it is also a really stunning and flat-out *cool* entangling of form and content. On the one hand, I feel like this story should be read and digested in quiet, alone. On the character level, Ben is absolutely (heart)broken over the death of his brother and his part in it; on the thematic level, the audience is asked to really critically and carefully think about how suffering between distinct populations is or isn’t similar. Is the pain of oppression universal or specific to the oppressed (or the oppresser)? This is serious stuff, and it should be considered with the full weight of the thick silence that comes after reading a powerful story.

But on the other hand, the content twists with the form in such an exciting and interesting way that it makes me want to chatter endlessly (to myself, since there was no one else around except for Cassie (who is a cat) when I finished). There’s so much coolness in the way Sam perfectly adopts the oral history form without becoming servant to it. The form accentuates the nature of the content: a story about people coming together to have their story told truthfully, to have themselves told truthfully, begs to be told this way. It’s so great. Seriously. Just go read it. And if you’ve already read it, reread it. I know I’m going to.

One thing kind of related to what I was talking about above: I was really fascinated by the varying positions on suffering/pain espoused by different characters in the story. Sargent Abraham Asher, even as he makes his really homophobic comments, asks what is an important question: if the deaths at the Stonewall happened because a group of people decided, communally, that they had had enough, why did the same thing not happen with those imprisoned in Auschwitz? In other words, what he’s really asking is whether or not this explosion of communal pain and sorrow and anger was specific to this group of people or whether it’s universal. Craig, whose opinion and perspective we trust more as readers, suggests that the lack of these incidents in history is actually the fault of those who read and write history. His suggestion that this sort of thing has happened before but not been recorded or understood implies a certain universality to pain that certainly resonates with the focus on community and interconnection present in the story. But at the same time, I wonder about this question of suffering. Is it something that isolates, that belongs to a single person, or a single community? Is feeling individual pain and suffering the privilege of those already connected and systematically supported? Or is it something that brings people together, something that forges connections? I’m not sure I have an answer, and I’m not sure “The Heat of Us” provides a conclusive answer, but it certainly believes in something hopeful about pain. And not only pain, but joy, both of which are working on the same kind of idea I saw in “We Are The Cloud,” which is this notion of powerful emotions enabling (or limiting) an individual’s ability to connect to those around him or her.

So much to think about! What could be better?

Three-A-Week (4.1): Sam J Miller’s “We Are the Cloud”

Published September 2014 in Lightspeed (Issue 52)

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

I keep putting myself in a pickle by reading stories that are so damn good and so damn hard to write about. “We Are the Cloud” is really beautiful in a tragic and uncomfortably true kind of way. Angel’s narrative feels at once personal and political; his individual experiences build and shape a reality we’re surrounded with. Sam’s website talks a little about his passion for community organization, and that comes through in “We Are the Cloud,” which paints a picture of the individual’s place within a community as both hopeful and desperate. It’s an incredible story, and one that I’m going to be thinking about for a long time to come.

I’m so fascinated by the evolving idea of alienation/separation in this story. Angel is a character who is completely disconnected from the community and society around him, and he even seems disconnected from himself, all of which are ways to keep people down and content with it. In addition to struggling with speech and living away from his mother and in a place he doesn’t seem to fit, Angel’s systematically enforced anxiety over his own sexuality means even his own desires are strangers to him, things he must avoid or feel ashamed of. And Case changes that for him, though not in the way we would expect. For a hot second, the story of Case and Angel’s relationship seems to be one about mutual support in times of darkness. Case appears and Angel begins to understand more about himself: he sees how his linguistic abilities change depending on the love/affection he is feeling; he allows his desire to overwhelm him and experiences what it’s like to truly want someone/something; he begins to feel connected, both to Case and to the world around him. Case comes around and Angel begins to plug himself in to the world.

But Case’s choice after the porn shoot changes everything for the story, and this is where I realized how incredibly smart the narrative is and how totally capable Sam is as a writer. Angel’s reaction to what he sees as Case’s betrayal is the perfect recognition of the depressingly complex situation of communities among the poor. Can we really blame Case for taking the money and running? For using another person to get ahead and (hopefully) get out of the damaging trap the boys of Egan House find themselves in? In some ways, it’s totally selfish. It’s the same kind of orientation toward the Other that keeps poor people poor and rich people rich; you see someone else as a tool to be used, and that justifies all manner of sins (cloudporting among them).

And yet, I find myself feeling a little sorry for Case, because he, like Angel, like Angel’s mom, is so much a product of the world around him. He seems to struggle with his decision to leave, and even though Angel’s revenge fantasies paint Case out to be a malicious and vile person, I think the truth is much more complex, much more tragic. And it’s clear that the author recognizes that, too. Angel finds himself still longing for Case, though he now recognizes that perhaps what he was feeling was not love but a desire that he’d long kept shut away from himself. It’s a mighty and important realization, and it was wonderful to see it handled so deftly.

Angel’s final scene is one that feels at once empowering and dangerous. He’s finally begun to understand his place in the world, and he’s beginning to throw off these illusory rules that have kept him in line. And he’s reacting to the bright flare that was his relationship with Case in exactly the opposite way that Case did. He’s using this newfound passion to create community, to reinvest in those around him. He’s become dangerous to the system that has kept him in line, and this is in part due to the cloudport, but it’s also really because he’s begun to see himself as an individual with a community. He’s no longer a solitary node; he’s one in a network.

Interview: Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri was awesome enough to answer a few questions to wrap up their story week. What follows is the mini-interview–enjoy! And thanks so much Nino; it was awesome to read your stories. I can’t wait to see what’s next from you!

1. You’ve written in all sorts of genres and forms; your website has links to essays, stories, book reviews, food and travel writing, plays, comics–and that’s all in addition to your short stories! How do you balance being such a multi-genre, multi-form writer? Are these different modes that you have or distinct projects that you’re working on? Or do you see all of your writing and writerly selves as connected somehow?

I’ve always bounced back and forth between formats and mediums. The first writing classes I ever took were for screenplay writing, and I was attending poetry slams and making ‘zines from the time I was fifteen. I focused on play writing in college. I always wrote prose as well, but I only started really concentrating on fiction in the last few years.

Writing in different mediums does require a mental shift, but not as much as people might think. For me, it really comes down to the story I want to tell. There are so many ways to approach a story: will this narrative be best served by actors performing it on a stage, by someone hearing it as a podcast? Will it have a bigger impact if the visuals are emphasized over the words? I love experimenting and trying different things.

2. What is your writing process? How has it changed as you’ve changed and grown as a writer?

I tend to work on multiple projects at a time. Currently: a novel, two short stories, an essay, and a short comic script. I also have two books I’m reading for future reviews. I try to do a bit of novel-writing in the morning, and everything else usually happens on weekends, or occasionally after work. Other than that, I don’t have much of a process, per se. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I’ll hold a story in my mind for years before writing it, and sometimes I’ll set a timer and just see what my brain comes up with.

The one thing I’ve noticed that’s changed in the last couple years is that I go through more drafts. The last story I finished, back in April, had a ridiculously complicated revision process. I wrote a draft, decided to take the concept and write an entirely new story from it, revised it, then looked at both and decided I liked the first one better. Then that went through two or three revisions before I started submitting it.

3. You say that your fiction tends to fall in the direction of literary science fiction/fantasy/magical realism. I love seeing and hearing people talk about writing that is both ‘literary’ and ‘genre.’ To me, those things feel very complementary and in no way exclusive, and it seems the same for you. What does it mean to you for something to be ‘literary,’ and how do you see that element/aesthetic/structure/etc interacting with the more speculative elements you’re interested in?

I spent years working in bookstores, with coworkers that constantly thrust books into my hands and demanded I read them. Reading between genres is a habit now, bouncing between lit-fic and speculative stuff, occasionally picking up mysteries and nonfiction. My favorite books tend to be liminal ones, hybrids, stories that push at the boundaries of their labels. I love stories where the core speculative elements are used to examine philosophical and humanistic themes. Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s new film is great example, with a concept that’s been well-trod–sexy android women!–but is used to interrogate the nature of consciousness and masculinity.

I think the balance between style, structure, and plot in literary science fiction can be different as well. There’s a bit more leeway for experimentation in form and style. For example, Catherynne Valente just had a great story in Uncanny Magazine, “Planet Lion”, which is mostly told from the point of view of an alien telepathic species, and uses rhythmic repetition in such a beautiful and novel way.

This isn’t to say that “regular” science fiction or fantasy stories don’t do these things. The label, honestly, is kind of meaningless outside of marketing.

4.What is it like writing as both queer and genderqueer in the environment of science fiction/fantasy today? Awesome projects like Queers Destroy Science Fiction and the work of increasingly diverse authors (from all spectrums of diversity) make me think that the community is growing more inclusive, but then there are kickbacks (all of the nasty Hugo/Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies stuff springs to mind) that make me think there are still a lot of challenges for writers who are approaching their work from a not-as-often-seen perspective or subject position. What are your thoughts on this?

Being a queer and genderqueer writer isn’t that different that being a queer and genderqueer human in my day-to-day life. It’s mostly a non-issue, or among my friends, something that’s appreciated and celebrated. There are definitely people who are confused by it, or privately think it’s weird. Sometimes, I’m asked rude or intrusive questions. Occasionally, I encounter open hostility. And I still have to live and work and write, knowing there are people that wish all of us–all the writers who aren’t male or straight or white or cisgender–would shut up, go away, or just not exist.

The Sad/Rabid Puppies thing was pretty discouraging, but it didn’t really reveal anything I didn’t already know or suspect. There are bigots and entitled assholes everywhere. I’m not writing for them or looking for their approval, though, so I don’t much care what they’d say about me. I’m also lucky enough to be beneath their notice right now. I might change my answer if some bigots start crusading against me the way I’ve seen them crusade against other writers I admire.

Honestly, though, the SF/F community have been really supportive and welcoming to me. And through SF/F, I’ve been introduced to an amazing network of other queer, trans, and non-binary writers and editors. So many people before me have done a lot of work to make this community as inclusive as it is, and are still challenging the status quo. I’m grateful.

Nino can be found at their website, twitter, or on patreon. Go support them!

Three-A-Week (3.3): Nino Cipri’s “The Noctambulists”

Published serially at Nino’s patreon page.

Normally this is where my warning goes, the one about me spoiling the story and being rambly and whatnot. But this post is a little different and a lot shorter. The story this time is a novel, the chapters of which are being published serially for Nino’s patreon backers. And I have less to say about it than I normally would because it’s just getting started. There are two chapters up of “The Noctambulists” so far. I don’t want to spoil anything for people, but I also can’t really–there’s been enough of the story so far to get me really interested in it, but what I have so far are enticing questions without any answers.

One of the really neat things with “The Noctambulists” is that it’s told in second person, and so far that seems to really work with the tone of the story, which is so dang creepy. Second person has always felt a little uncanny to me: recognizable and unsettling, inviting in a sickly sweet way. And the way Nino has already begun deploying it in these first few chapters pulled me in immediately. The main character of the story, the protagonist (“you”), encounters an odd TV show in the first chapter that is oddly appealing. It features a woman speaking to the audience as though she could actually see them, as though there was an actual conversation to be had. And the protagonist watches the TV show and the movie that begins afterward despite the growing sense of unease accompanying the whole thing. And that’s exactly how I’m going to keep reading “The Noctambulist:” with the growing unease that should accompany a creepy story told well.

Alright, that’s all I’ve got for “The Noctambulist.” If you want more, and you really should, head over to Nino’s patreon page and become a backer. You get access to their backer-only stuff *and* you get to support a great new writer!? There is no bad here!

Oh, and don’t forget to stop back here tomorrow for Nino’s interview, which they were so wonderfully kind to agree to do. It’s going to be great!

Three-A-Week (3.2): Nino Cipri’s “The Shape of My Name”

Published March 2015 at Tor.com.

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

I finished “The Shape of My Name” and immediately rushed to the start to read it again. Like any good time travel story, there’s the promise here of plot significance that only reveals itself on a second or third read, and I wanted to savor those things, certainly. But mostly I ran headlong into a second reading because I couldn’t let go of the story. There’s an invitation to know more of these characters that is intoxicating. Important elements are given the barest treatment in the story, just gestured at, and it becomes impossible to read passively. I felt like I was taking part in the story as I was reading it, forging connections between timelines and characters that are just barely conjured by the narrator. There’s something of a puzzle in this story; there’s a sense that the fractured pieces of the relationship between Heron and his mother (Miriam, I think her name is) are all there, all waiting to be gathered together and stitched slowly back together.

There’s more important stuff to talk about, but I just want to take a quick moment to say how really wonderful it is to see time travel done well and done for a purpose. This is one of those story forms that often seems cheap to me, done for a neat intellectual exercise or as a way to easily handwave plot complications. But here, the plot ties together with surprising grace and the mechanic of the anachronopede serves character in a way that’s hugely important. It’s really great.

The story is told as a letter to Heron’s mother, an epistolary account of who he’s become. A letter of introduction. And this becomes so important, both for the narrator and for the audience, because we get to see and be part of the process of Heron’s self-realization. The story has small phrases here and there crossed out, which makes this a letter still becoming, something not yet fully realized, and the audience gets to see that. This sense that Heron is in the middle of something, is becoming who he truly wants to be, is figuring out if he can forgive his mother, is figuring out where and when he belongs–all of these things in potentia leave traces of themselves in the crossed out phrases, the edited memories and language. Much like Heron’s leaps through time, the narration itself is the product of disparate times and moments and even selves.

There’s this super interesting moment in the story where Heron sees himself from the future. It’s brief, only a glimpse of a not-quite-recognizable person talking to his mother before he’s swept away upstairs. Because the story is so well done, and because it’s so clear that the reader is in good hands, I knew implicitly that this was an important moment. And later on when I realized who that person was, it was something neat to think back to, but it was also sort of troubling. The story is told in the past tense, and as I mentioned above, we get the sense that it’s still very much an alive, growing, developing thing. I read through this moment of past to-be Heron meeting present Heron and it struck me as either a missed opportunity or something really tragic. As a really impactful moment, it seems to go by quickly and without any real comment. Even the description that Heron gives of his later self (“I only caught a glimpse of the man standing in the corner; he had thin, hunched shoulders and dark hair, wet and plastered to his skull. He was wearing one of Dad’s old robes, with the initials monogrammed on the pocket. It was much too big for him.”) is so sparse as to be kind of unremarkable. In the structuring of the story, this seemed to be a plot point buried early to pay off later. But it’s not really a plot element; it’s a character element and I wasn’t sure if the small space given really set it up to pay off as much as it might have.

However, the other reading I can see is that Heron (who is not Heron as this point but has not yet found his name and is still being identified [at least by his mother] as female) can’t yet recognize the person he is going to become, and all he can see is a man looking a little off-kilter and wearing a robe he doesn’t quite fit into, which is maybe telling all on its own. It’s really sad to compare Heron’s experiences from either end of this moment; he’s unable to really recognize or see himself both as a child and as an adult, and those missed connections are both orbiting around his mother, who doesn’t truly see or recognize the man she meets or the child she carries upstairs. It’s a powerful moment the second time around, and thinking about it like this actually really makes me appreciate and understand the brevity and sparsity of the first iteration. Yeah, I think I see it now.

These things make me think of this brilliant and sad quote from the story: “You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday, I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.” It’s beautifully written, but it ends up being only partially true. Heron certainly transforms into someone unrecognizable to his mother, but the sad truth of the story is that he was never recognizable to her, not really. She fought so hard to see him as the daughter she wanted him to be that she never really saw the son he was. It’s heartbreaking.

Three-A-Week (3.1): Nino Cipri’s “The Literal Forest”

Three-A-Week #3! This week we have Nino Cipri, who can be found online here and here. Get excited for three great stories– And! An interview with Nino to wrap up the week! How are we so lucky, imaginary readers!? Let’s get to the first story.

Published in Betwixt (Issue 4)

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

“The Literal Forest” was such a wonderful and meaningful surprise for me. The beginning of the story seemed to be setting me up for a pretty standard portal fantasy, a story in which a woman escapes her difficult reality through a magical wood. And that would’ve been just fine with me, because the wood exploding into life in the middle of a library in Chicago is such a cool, delightful idea that it probably could’ve carried a really traditional story structure like that. But “The Literal Forest” is so much more than that. It uses the promise of escape to consider how people find homes for themselves in this world. It made me think of Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s books (total favorites of mine) in this way. The stacks of held books for the staff in the library turn out to be completely thematic. Elsa tells Kay that she’ll have to “shove everyone’s crap around to make room for yourself. Which is a good metaphor for living in Chicago, incidentally,” but this is about more than living in Chicago–it’s about living. Kay struggles with where she belongs, with where she wants to belong, and this instruction from Elsa ends up being exactly what she does: she creates a home for herself, or she at least goes out of her way to find a home for herself.

I’m realizing as I write this that Kay’s trajectory sounds like one of escape: she lives in Chicago, experiences the good and bad of it, tries to come to terms with the past she’s leaving behind, the people she’s moved away from or lost, and then she disappears into the literal forest. But Nino’s treatment of Kay’s attempts to find a home is more thoughtful than that. Kay’s relationship with her environment grows more complex, more nuanced, after she learns about the literal forest. She doesn’t recede from her world or ignore it; she better engages with it. She begins to imagine her environment anew, seeing a tiny house in the middle of a bridge as a microcosm of infinite possibility and potential. And that’s a far more complex and empowering narrative than the simplistic escape that portal fantasy sometimes offers.

I love the progress Kay traces between her two experiences getting lost in the woods. Her experience in Chicago neatly parallels her experience in Washington, and there are moments where it seems like Kay hasn’t grown, hasn’t changed, is still stuck in the quagmire of her past. But then we hear about how she got lost in the forest in order for someone else to find her. Like so many kids, she ran away with the hope that someone would pull her back and show her she was wanted (which is now striking me as such a beautiful and nostalgic critique/celebration of escapism in fantasy). But this time she runs away into the forest to find a home, to make a home. She’s not looking for someone else to find her, she’s going to find herself, and that makes all the difference.

In the end, the text from Aunt Billie, flawed as it is by the typo, is portentous; Kay truly is almost home, but the home she finds in “The Literal Forest” is not Chicago but a quiet stillness growing inside of Chicago. The title of the story and Elsa’s assurances of a “literal” forest engender a sense of home that is certainly metaphorical and insubstantial even as it is truly grounded in reality, in the literalness of space and of place. Reality asserts itself insistently in this story–the unendurable heat of Chicago, the voices of people outside of Kay’s apartment; the physicality of a home can’t be forgotten, and it shouldn’t be. “The Literal Forest” doesn’t undercut the idea that home is where the heart is; it simply adds to it. It pairs a physical reality with an emotional one, and the result is powerful and personal.