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The book cover for Ada Hoffmann's debut anthology "Monsters in My Mind"

A Talk with Ada Hoffmann About “Monsters in My Mind”

The book cover for Ada Hoffmann's debut anthology "Monsters in My Mind"Welcome to the first Canadian SF/F author interview of 2018! We’re off to a great start by chatting with Ada Hoffmann.

Hoffmann released her debut collection, Monsters in My Mind, last year. I was at her book launch party, where she gave away prizes, unspooled some humour, and read selected pieces from her collection.

When she said that we was going to be doing additional work to promote her book, I jumped on the opportunity, and read her collection over the Christmas break. It’s a great read, with a combination of short stories, longer stories (in the novelette range), poetry, both original work and reprints.

Hoffmann is well  known online for both her fiction and for her “Autistic Book Party” series of reviews, where she reads fiction that features autistic characters and analyzes of how accurate/respectful their portrayals of autistic experience are.

This snippet from her site’s bio page provides more context about the value of these reviews, and the perspective from which she approaches these works:

Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. Several of her own stories and poems also feature autistic characters.

I was conscious of this aspect of her experience while reading Monsters in My Mind, but there were several other themes that kept popping up throughout the pieces in her collection. So here’s a look at them. I conducted the following interview with her via email.


Me: Many of the stories in your collection deal with motherhood or with mother/daughter relationships, especially those at the beginning of the collection. For example, there are mothers who don’t understand their daughters’ cognitive needs, daughters dealing with grief over the deaths of their mothers, and mothers trying to protect their children from malevolent forces. Can you talk about what particular resonance the mother/daughter relationship brings to your work?

Ada Hoffmann: Mother/daughter relationships can be so intense and complex, and we don’t see them explored in fiction as often as fathers and sons. People in Western culture often take mothers, and the astonishingly intense maternal protective instinct, and the grinding physical and emotional labor of motherhood, for granted. I’m not a parent myself, but motherhood is freakin’ hard stuff. Yet, from a child’s perspective, mothers are also complicated. We grow up dependent on them and can be hurt deeply by things that may not even register for them, or things that they view as necessary for us.

The result is that there can be tension between mothers and daughters, and affection and loyalty at the same time, and that contradiction is a fruitful creative place. It’s an especially complicated thing for disabled people, whose care is often disproportionately foisted on their mothers, and whose mothers are often ableist, misled by ableist doctors, or simply at a loss for what to do with them.

Me: Many of  the prizes at your book launch at Can-Con were related to creatures that show up in your stories and that people often fear or are disgusted by in real life: squid, centipedes, lampreys, etc. Can you elaborate on how these sorts of “monstrous” creatures capture your attention?

AH: You know, I was going to say “I think they are cool!”, but it varies. Like, I’m not actually that fond of centipedes? I wrote “Centipede Girl” because I was afraid of centipedes and had had a close encounter with one, and I needed to somehow write those feelings out. Squid, on the other hand, are just awesome. I think culturally we project our dark sides onto strange, non-human creatures, but different creatures get different parts of the dark side, and we relate to them accordingly. I think what binds them together is that they all have striking and memorable appearances, and they can hold webs of negative or intense association that would be too much for realistic humans.

Me: How did the title Monsters in My Mind come about?

AH: The title came about very late in the process; I sold the collection to NeuroQueer Books without a title. (For a while, thanks to Krista D. Ball, I was calling it “the Ad-ology”.) “Monsters In My Mind” was a title that just popped into my head one day. I like it because it alludes to some of the dark content of the collection as well as the neurodiverse content. I’m not the first person to have used the phrase or something like it. I suspect that I was experiencing a bit of cryptamnesia, because a few weeks later I remembered that the same phrase pops up in a song that I like, “Happy Hurts” by Icon For Hire.

Me: Your works contain an interesting blend of respect for technology for how it can be used to unite people (for example, in the poem “Evianna Talirr Builds a Portal on Commission”) and skepticism towards how it can be used to divide them (for example, in the story “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World”). What is your own personal relationship to technology like?

AH: It’s really interesting that you should use those two specific stories as positive and negative examples, because I think of them both as deeply ambivalent. I mean, sure, Ev is using technology to unite people, but she also spends the entire poem luring someone into a scary portal to another dimension that will literally tear apart their consistuent molecules and kill them. (Or at least, that’s my interpretation of the poem; perhaps there are others.)

In “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World” I was deliberately trying to avoid certain dystopian tropes. I came up with the story because I was annoyed by the polarized way people talk about social media; either “it will destroy human relationships and society” or “it’s great, everything about everyone should be public, there is no downside.” In my experience, technology never destroys the fabric of society (nuclear weapons may be a possible exception to this rule) and it never creates a utopia, either. It just makes things different, and people adapt to that difference in varying ways.

I really wanted to write a social media story in which people were adapting and surviving… kind of neutrally. They weren’t really questioning the fact that technology was being used to categorize them, even though that’s the part of the story that looks exotic and ominous to a reader. They weren’t trying to take down the evil technology empire. They were just regular people who were trying to get along within it, and who were questioning aspects of how it was used, and trying to subvert the parts that didn’t serve them.

I was raised by computer science professors. I was taught not to be an early adopter (wait a few years until they’ve got the bugs worked out and the price down) and not to be especially fazed by the way things change. I think there are dangers on the Internet; I think they’re not fundamentally very different from the dangers we encounter in other parts of our social lives. I think there is a lot to critique about the way that governments and large corporations use our information, but I don’t think that this is entirely a new thing, either.

It is worth thinking critically about how our thinking and living habits accommodate technology and are, in turn, changed by it, but I find that most critiques in this vein are oversimplified. Many are ableist (online things can be vastly more accessible to me than their real-life versions), ageist (“Millennials are killing face-to-face interaction!”) or just plain entitled (“how dare you talk to your friends on your phone instead of paying attention to me, a stranger”). I basically don’t like absolutism, in technology or otherwise.

Me: One of the stories I find most interesting is the one you wrote with Jacqueline Flay, “The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There.” In it, a vampire named Ishka has to face the prospect of sustained human settlement in a world where there wasn’t any before. Near the end, she thinks that what the humans have done is awful, because homes and cities are markers of Inside and Outside. However, it’s also easy to understand the attraction that such a life would have to the humans themselves, especially those who abandon her.

It’s a really well-balanced story where you fear Ishka and see her point of view, yet also completely sympathize with the people who want stable, settled lives. Was achieving this balance hard?

AH: I don’t remember that aspect of the story being hard. It’s a thing that happens all the time in different contexts; a state of affairs can be genuinely good for many people while excluding others, and everyone in that scenario is going to do what they feel is best for them. “The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There” deals very intensely with the idea of what to do and where you fit if you are inherently a monster, and a lot of that aspect of it came from Jacqueline, although it fits in the collection really well. I don’t know that there’s a good solution. I don’t know if there’s any state of affairs, on the scale of a human society, that doesn’t cause someone to acutely feel the pain of being excluded.

Me: I find the story’s focus on Inside/Outside, Self/Other interesting in light of your own efforts to analyze how neurodiverse people have also been traditionally Othered. Is that something you can elaborate on?

AH: I mean, this is something I think about on a lot of levels, who we exclude and who we don’t, and how we decide that, and if inclusion is always to some extent an illusion. People talk about oxytocin, for example, as a potential treatment for autism, because it makes people more social and trusting. But actually, oxytocin is more of an in-group neurotransmitter. It tells you who’s in and who’s out. With more oxytocin, you trust your in-group more, but you pull further away from people you see as outsiders. So oxytocin’s not necessarily a cure for exclusion. And, of course, it’s usually neurotypicals who are excluding autistic people, not autistic people excluding neurotypicals. Teaching autistic people to view neurotypicals as their in-group won’t solve that.

I think anyone on the autism spectrum can tell you about the pain of being excluded. Extreme forms of exclusion, like “shunning”, are incredibly traumatic; extended solitary confinement is literally considered torture. Even garden variety loneliness can cause trauma. On the other hand, exclusion isn’t always a bad thing. “Never exclude anyone” is one of the Geek Social Fallacies, and it leads to bullies and harassers being tolerated in the group at the expense of the people who feel most unsafe around them. (And autistic people are often bullied, harassed, and abused, too; we’re often not taught how to set healthy boundaries or protect ourselves from these situations.)

For our own safety, humans need the right to set boundaries and exclude people. Yet excluding people genuinely hurts them, and people who have been excluded their whole lives know that best. Talking about who “deserves it”, and what kinds of crimes against the group do and don’t justify exclusion, can be useful. But it doesn’t resolve everything, because people will always disagree, and even people who very heinously and obviously deserve it are still people with emotions. So we need to hurt other people to protect ourselves. It’s a paradox and I think about it too much.

Me: In your story “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”, the title character says the following line when she’s told that her project sounds impossible: “Do you think that I cannot build a thing in my own way?”

I like to think of this piece of dialogue as a mission statement, both for Monsters in My Mind as a whole and for the inherent value of neurodiverse experience. Is this a line that had any particular resonance for you when you wrote it?

AH: Not at all. It’s simply the most logical response to the whales’ naysaying at that point. But I love your take on it. I’m going to think of that when I read that line now. 😀


And that’s it! You can buy Monsters in My Mind online through Amazon, Kobo, Chapters, Barnes and Noble, or directly from the publisher.

A photo of the Campbell tiara, designed by Amanda Downum. It is a circlet of copper wire and glass beads that the winner wears. It's passed on from one winner to the next.

Hugo Awards Roundup: Campbell Award Nominees

A photo of the Campbell tiara, designed by Amanda Downum. It is a circlet of copper wire and glass beads that the winner wears. It's passed on from one winner to the next.

The Campbell tiara, designed by Amanda Downum. It’s passed on from one winner to the next. Photo by Amanda Downum.

 

The Hugo award deadline is TOMORROW, so I’ve been running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. This final post is about the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.


Ok, so, I know that the Campbell Award is Technically Not A Hugo. But it’s a time-honoured category (and also features items that are usually easy to read at the last minute because you’re a procrastinator like me), so let’s take a look.

Sarah Gailey

Gailey’s story from Fireside Fiction in the packet was, quite literally, a haunting investigation of regret, families, and spousal abuse. Gailey’s Best Related Work was also included in the packet, so check that out if you want to get a sense of her non-fiction chops.

Her prose is generally crisp and clear, with good smooth transitions and well-developed characterization.

J. Mulrooney

I’m going to admit straight up-front that I did not read the entirety of the book that Mulrooney included in the voting packet. I didn’t have the time. The opening wasn’t bad, though I’ll probably need to investigate further. My interest is piqued by the fact that it takes place in Toronto. Hell, it even mentions Scarborough on the first page, which is nice, though it does so by referencing Scarborough’s stereotypical reputation, which is not. Guys, Scarborough is good, OK? I’ve lived here my whole life. I should know.

Malka Older

Older’s work in the voting packet included 3 short stories as well as her debut novel Infomocracy. I didn’t have enough time to read the latter so I read the former. The stories themselves are decent, but feel half-developed.

Of those three, the best of the lot is “Tear Tracks”, a story about two humans tasked with making diplomatic overtures to an extraterrestrial species that considers personal experience with sorrow to be the best prerequisite for leadership. The ending, which illustrates one of the protagonists disbelief and disillusionment with this fact, is well done, as it neatly deflates the protagonist’s ego and her sense of ambition. The other two short stories, however, felt untethered, with endings that didn’t satisfy.

Ada Palmer

As with J. Mulrooney’s submission, I did not have enough time to read Ada Palmer’s contribution to the voting packet, Too Like the Lightning. (It’s also up for the Best Novel award.) However, I did read the first few pages and I have a lot of admiration for Palmer being able to pull off such a period-specific voice. Hell, she manages to incorporate a content warning directly into the story as part of the narrative, and does so while having the narrator themselves stay in character. I like that deftness.

It also helps that I am a fan of Palmer’s blog. If you don’t have time for the novel, check out her series of posts from a few years ago about putting Machiavelli in context. They are SO interesting.

Laurie Penny

Speculative fiction is all about using strange and far-off settings to examine the realities and anxieties of the present. If that’s your metric for award-worthy writing, there is no finer practitioner in this category than Laurie Penny. Penny’s stories contain biting social commentary along with the speculative elements – like serial killing becoming recognized as a form of art and getting government subsidies, or someone developing a patented pharmaceutical fountain of youth.

At times, her prose was so good, so incisive, that I felt physically anxious. So if you want something to roil your stomach, Penny should probably be your choice for the Campbell Award.

Kelly Robson

Of the entries that Robson included in the voting packet, I most enjoyed “Waters of Versailles”, her Tor.com novella. The flow, setting, and characterization in that piece are all lovely, and the ending is understated yet well-crafted. However, the other stories didn’t work as well for me. One of them, involving a girl who gets raped and murdered by a trucker, then revived by an alien form of bacteria with ulterior motives, was brutal, and I didn’t see what the point was of having it set around 9/11. I’d like to read more of her longer work to see if Robson works better with fiction that lets her spread her wings.

Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures

Hugo Awards Roundup: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Hopper Stone, SMPSP

The Hugo award deadline is right around the corner, so I’m running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. Today’s is Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.


Holy shit you guys, I have actually seen all of this year’s nominees. That’s a first, and that means there are two things to celebrate:

  1. Hollywood making decent SF/F movies in greater quantities, and
  2. My husband and I having enough disposable income to see said movies.

Yay for having money! So, let’s take a closer look at each nominee in turn.

Arrival

It is so satisfying to know that Hollywood didn’t bungle this adaptation of Ted Chiang’s mind-bending novella “Story of Your Life”. I reviewed Arrival back in November when it opened in theatres, and my opinion on it hasn’t changed that much. However, I also suspect I had such a strong reaction to the movie because of the heightened emotional state (fear, regret, exhaustion) I was in when I saw it. This movie would not have had the same impact on me if it had been released in 2015, I think.

The only thing I have to add is that while this adaptation made changes to the story that some people disagree with, I think those changes make sense. Let’s look at some comments by Abigail Nussbaum in particular:

To someone familiar with the story, there is a hint early on in Arrival of its shift in priorities and premise.  The film opens with a series of flashes to the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah, culminating in Hannah’s death, in her early adulthood, from a disease.  In the story, Hannah dies in a climbing accident.  The change initially seems pointless–or perhaps yet another indication that Hollywood thinks cancer is inherently more dramatic than any other form of tragedy–and then troubling.  In the story, the point of Hannah’s death being accidental is that it is easily preventable.  Someone with knowledge of the future–as Louise will eventually become–could keep it from happening by saying a few words.  The point of “Story of Your Life” is to explain why Louise doesn’t do this.  Making Hannah’s death something that Louise can’t prevent seems, in the film’s early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.

I disagree with this. I think changing the way Hannah died was a practical decision by the moviemakers in order to achieve the desired narrative effect, rather than a ham-fisted attempt to inject the story with pathos.

To first-time viewers, the revelation is that all of the scenes involving Hannah are flash-forwards rather than flashbacks. To make that twist resonate to the audience, Louise (played by Amy Adams) must look the same in both the present-day narrative and the near future. If Hannah is an adult, then Louise needs to look visibly older on screen to avoid suspension of disbelief. But if the passage of time between the two periods is less than a decade, Louise looking substantively the same age is a lot more plausible – and thus it’s easier to set the audience off their guard.

Deadpool

Ladies and gentlemen, let us salute the first comic book movie to show pegging on-screen. Let us also salute the mental image of my Boomer-age aunt and uncle watching Deadpool in the theatre. Because I know that, had I watched it with them, being in their proximity during the on-screen sexytimes would have made me melt into my seat in embarrassment. I would probably have also had to explain everything to them afterwards because my aunt is the kind of person who didn’t understand The Matrix when she first saw it.

So yeah. Deadpool. Lotsa sex jokes. Lotsa gore. Lotsa fourth-wall breaking. Mucho potential inter-generational embarrassment that, thank god, was avoided.

Ghostbusters

You know what? I liked Ghostbusters, MRA-rage be damned. It wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, and I was never a big fan of the original 80s incarnation in the first place. But I am all for Kate MacKinnon’s performance. Let’s just fill the rest of this section up with Holtzmann GIFs, ok?



Hidden Figures

I reviewed Hidden Figures back in January. It’s a good movie with great performances. The only problem I have with it is that you can tell that the original story was altered to make it more Hollywood-friendly. I’ll just share the money quote here:

For example, when Mary is encouraged to become an engineer, she initially brushes her coworker’s words aside by saying that as a black woman, there’s no point in her trying. It’s impossible, she says. So what, he replies, I’m Jewish and my parents died in the Holocaust, yet we’re both here working on getting a man into space. Nothing is impossible! Considering that Mary’s interlocutor has less than a dozen more lines in the entire film after this, his dialogue is a bit on the nose; it’s clear that he’s here only to fulfill that particular beat of the script.

Other parts of the script are also predictable. Do we have a scene where Katherine gives rise to her frustration and in a cathartic burst of rage berates her boss because there’s no bathroom nearby she can use? Yes! Do we have a scene where said boss, chastened and enlightened, does something dramatic and symbolic by taking a crowbar to the “coloured ladies” bathroom sign as a way to desegregate the campus? Yes! Do we have a scene where Katherine has to prove her mathematical worth at the very last minute, with little time to spare, in order to make sure that John Glenn doesn’t die in space? Yes!

Rogue One

When I saw Rogue One in the theatre, I really wasn’t expecting the movie to go there. You know. The whole thing with “even though one of the major taglines of the movie is that rebellions need hope to survive, every single goddamned important character in this movie DIES.” I wasn’t expecting it to go there.

It’s not a perfect movie, and Max Gladstone wrote a really good piece about how they could have fixed Rogue One‘s script to make it better. But what I care about most is Chirrut and Baze. I also think that not casting Tatiana Maslany as the lead was a huge missed opportunity.

Stranger Things, Season One

I’ve mentioned previously how long series of things are overwhelming to me. So much stuff to catch up on. So the length of shows like Stranger Things is perfect. Eight episodes, one plot arc, mostly killer and very little filler.

I took a big break after episode 6, which finishes with Jonathan and Steve fighting, and Steve slut-shaming Nancy in public. The plot development there put a bad taste in my mouth. But episode 7 was amazing, because it’s the first time where everyone teams up. There are still some things I’m conflicted about – for some reason, I wasn’t a huge fan of the actress they chose to play Nancy – but other parts are great. My husband couldn’t stand Dustin, but he’s my favourite character because he’s so emotionally perceptive.

Hugo Awards Roundup: Fan Writer Nominees

The Hugo award deadline is right around the corner, so I’m running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. Today’s category is Best Fan Writer.


Natalie Luhrs

I must admit up-front that my decision to start the Tea-Time Links series of posts on Books & Tea is directly because of Natalie Luhrs’s link roundups. Thank you, Natalie! She’s also one of the editors of The Bias, which discusses issues like diversity, inclusivity and accessibility within an SFF context. I genuinely enjoy her posts, and this piece in particular about how the World Fantasy Convention really needs to get its act together is full of practical advice for any con-runner.

Check out Pretty Terrible, Natalie Luhrs’s blog.

Foz Meadows

When Foz Meadows writes a post, she WRITES A POST. They may not be frequent, but they’re long, incredibly detailed, thoughtful, and occasionally full of snark. Her discussion of the most recent book in the Vorkosigan Saga is so comprehensive that it’s finally convinced me I need to start reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels, which is something that not even Jo Walton was able to make me do. (Long series are overwhelming to me, which is why I rarely start them. That Meadows has made me willing to consider starting a series with OVER A DOZEN BOOKS is quite the accomplishment.)

Check out Shattersnipe: Malcontent &Rainbows, Foz Meadows’s blog.

Abigail Nussbaum

Aaah, my god, Abigail Nussbaum writes SO MUCH and it’s SO GOOD and she has all these people writing informed, sensitive comments on her blog and I just. Damn. I wish I had the level of critical talent that fills up just one of her pinky fingers. This year’s voting packet features articles by her about Westworld, Ex Machina, and a recent BBC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that sounds eerily prescient about today’s political landscape.

Check out Asking the Wrong Questions, Abigail Nussbaum’s blog.

Mike Glyer

File770 is a one-stop-shop for news within SFF fandom. It’s updated so frequently, and is so long-running, that Glyer’s knowledge of the industry is damn near encyclopedic. However, while his updates are valuable, I don’t really connect with them that much. I’m not familiar with the people he writes obituaries about, even if they are well-known figures from the Golden Age or Silver Age or whatever. Reading lit crit and feminist analysis is much more up my personal alley.

Read more of Mike Glyer’s work at File770.

Jeffro Johnson

Once I noticed that Johnson was associated with Castalia House and that the very first review in his voting packet file contained liberal, unironic use of the word “dame” when discussing women in pulp fiction, I noped right out. No thanks.

Chuck Tingle

While I can appreciate Tingle’s humour and his attempts to poke Sad Puppies with a butt-shaped stick, his prose gets old for me fast. So, um, no, I guess I’m really not the target market for satire dressed up as dinosaur erotica. But good on Tingle for continuing to be the gonzo personality we all know and love.

Putting the Fan Writer Category in Context

Of all of the categories that exist in the Hugo Awards, Best Fan Writer is the one that I feel most personally connected to. I may never write a publishable short story or novel. But cultural critique and analysis like this? Most of the people on this ballot got started by setting up shop on their own. Which is what I’m doing right here just by writing posts.

Natalie Luhrs, Foz Meadows and Abigail Nussbaum are all incredibly talented. In a very real way, their work is a template for what I want to accomplish. I’m nowhere near their level of skill yet, but I hope I can be as good as them some day. Really, this ballot is just down to the three of them, and they are all equally worthy of the Fan Writer award. I have no idea how I’ll end up ranking them when I vote, but if any of these three win, I’ll be happy.

Hugo Award Roundup: Novelette Nominees

The Hugo award deadline is right around the corner, so I’m running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. Today’s category is Best Novelette.


The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Lin is the youngest member of the royal family of the Jeweled Valley – a Jewel – and Sima is her servant, confidant, and jewel-setter – a Lapidary. The valley’s gems have been renowned across continents for centuries for their magical powers, but when Sima’s father, the king’s Lapidary, betrays the court to help a western invader, Lin’s world falls apart. Now, with very little time and knowledge, Lin and Sima must do what they can to make sure the valley is not overrun.

I heard a lot of praise for this story when it first came out, but reading it now, I don’t understand why. If the Lapidaries are the ones who can speak to the valley’s magical gems and control their powers, how come they aren’t the rulers, since they have so much control over the valley’s magic? Why is it important that Lin manages to fashion a veil out of platinum chains? What is the significance of the excerpts from a guide book that open up each section? The prose feels so spare that huge parts of the story’s world-building make no sense to me, and I wonder whether this is a continuation of a pre-existing series where a lot of this information has been explained previously.

The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allan

Cover image for “The Art of Space Travel”. Illustration by Linda Yan.

Emily Clarah Starr lives a life set in liminal spaces. She’s the head of housekeeping at a hotel near Heathrow, and her house is just a half-hour’s walk away. Her mother, Moolie, lives in a liminal space of her own, too – after taking part in a cleanup effort for a failed manned space mission, the chemicals she was exposed to have affected her mind. Emily’s life is usually the same from day to day, but as the launch date for the first manned mission to Mars comes closer, her hotel becomes ground zero for a media frenzy, and she’s not quite prepared for all of the feelings such an event dredges up.

What’s interesting about “The Art of Space Travel” is how the SFnal elements of it all are very light and in the background – while we get some references to this story taking place about 60 years in the future, aside from the prospect of a manned  mission to Mars, it sounds like it’s set in the present day. No unusual technologies or scientific discoveries drive the plot. This is just a story about a young woman living day-to-day, talking to her mom, worrying about her job, and wondering about who her father might be. The voice here is human and gentle, and overall the story is very soft and understated.

Read “The Art of Space Travel” for free online.

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon

Grandma Harken lives in the desert, and what makes her stay despite her age is her garden full of tomatoes. But lately those tomatoes are disappearing just as they’re ripe on the vine. Who’s stealing them? When Grandma Harken meets the thief and discovers that she’s trapped under a spell, the old lady seeks the help of the train gods and embarks on a journey through the desert to a place where time and space fold in strange ways. I’ll leave it to you to find out who the ultimate antagonist is, but it’s an unexpected delight.

I’ve loved Ursula Vernon’s past work, and while I’m only somewhat familiar with her story “Jackalope Wives”, which is set in the same universe as “The Tomato Thief”, you don’t need to read one to be able to appreciate the other. Grandma Harken is a cussed old lady, and I like how her voice, full of said cussedness, comes through clear as a bell. This story is just begging to be turned into a podcast. I hope that PodCastle records this one, pronto. This one is going to take the top spot on my Hugo award ballot.

Read “The Tomato Thief” for free online.

You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay by Alyssa Wong

Ellis is the son of the desert and a strange man who had the ability to raise the dead. As their son, he can raise the dead himself and shapeshift like the desert’s sand. He does chores at the local brothel, but when his mother calls out to him, he’s helpless to respond. A local mining company has heard of his strange power, and wants to use his abilities to investigate a recent mine collapse. However, they have ulterior motives. Also, what’s the deal with the strange new preacher in town? Strange things are afoot, and Ellis may be overmatched.

I liked this a lot more than “A Fist of Permutations in Wildflowers and Lightning”, Wong’s nominee in the Short Story category. The plot made more sense to me, and the characters felt more grounded. However, I felt the ending, where Ellis raises the dead miners to reunite them with their families, tried to evoke a level of heart-tugging emotion that it didn’t quite earn. Also, it didn’t make sense to me that the preacher turned out to be his uncle – I didn’t understand why someone who was identified as a preacher would actually be someone allied with a much different kind of pagan magic.

Read “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay” for free online.

Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman

“Touring with the Alien” is set in a near future where alien edifices have landed on Earth’s surface. No one really knows what they want, but our protagonist, Avery, is tasked with the highly unusual job of taking an alien, plus one of the abducted humans aliens have trained to be ambassadors, on a road trip to St. Louis. Eventually, it’s revealed that the aliens themselves aren’t conscious. Humans, it turns out, are unique in this universe for possessing consciousness, and the aliens can’t get enough of this state of mind. Consciousness is so intoxicating, in fact, that it’s actually killing them like an addictive substance would.

I really wanted to like this story, but Avery treats the alien presence and their ultimate goals with such a matter-of-fact demeanour that the whole thing is robbed of any mystery or sense of wonder. Why does Avery feel so little betrayal at the idea that the aliens have actually come here to invade? Why isn’t she a bit more staggered by the coincidence of the alien ambassador wanting to visit St. Louis, which is the city where her daughter is buried? These revelations are treated with so much understatement that it robs the climax of any heft.

Read “Touring with the Alien” for free online.

Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex by Stix Hiscock

Dude, don’t try to beat Chuck Tingle at his own game. Just don’t. It won’t work.

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