Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Tea-rannosaurus Rex"

The teapot nearly leapt off the table as the theropod shifted a taloned foot.

Igor winced.

"See," the Doctor explained, "episone integration alters the chorda tympani and --"

The theropod's other foot crashed onto the lab's damp cobbles. The teapot jumped again.

"-- then comes the operant conditioning chamber. Voilà! A Cretaceous carnivore consuming camellia sinensis."

"But, doctor," Igor wheezed, "what about its arms?"

The theropod peered down mournfully. Its stubby forelimb tried to guide the contents of a pink china cup into its maw.

Darjeeling spattered scientist and assistant.

"Yes," the Doctor mused. "That might've been an oversight."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ember Burns Bright

I can think of plenty of reasons not to review S.D. Smith's The Green Ember. For instance, ISLF is a site for genre fiction, not kid lit. (The Green Ember is a children's book.) Plus, I always think it's a bit awkward to post about titles with which I have a personal connection. (I served as a beta reader for a early draft of the manuscript.) And I truly try to avoid any impression of editorial subjectivity. (I'm a regular contributor to Story Warren, a site Smith started to help parents raise creative children.) So for all these reasons, I really ought to keep my trap shut.

But I'm not going to do that. I'm going to comment, observe, remark, and declare. Because The Green Ember is a good book. And good books are what ISLF is all about.

Heather and Picket are two young rabbits who live with their parents and baby brother in the elm-tree house at Nick Hollow. Busy with school and story time and a fast-paced version of fetch dubbed Starseek, they live lives that are, if not enchanted, at least content. All that, though, is about to change. One night, their father tells them a tale that's different than the usual bedtime diversions. A tale about King Jupiter the Great who served as Lord of the Thirty Warrens, ruling with justice and mercy. A tale of how King Jupiter was betrayed by a close confidant, cast down, and killed. Now savage wolves have seized the Great Wood where he held court and burned it. But one day King Jupiter's heir will return, and the Great Wood will be mended once more. Heather and Picket fall asleep that night with the story spinning in their minds. Little do they know that, while picking berries the next day, they'll spy lupine forms in the fields and see smoke ascending from the ruin of their home.

Here's the best way I can sum up The Green Ember for you: It reads as if Brian Jacques had Sam Gamgee's famous quote from The Return of the King ("Is everything sad going to come untrue?") nailed above his desk while writing a version of Redwall that wasn't awful. Far from being merely "not awful," though, Smith's first novel shows that he truly understands the essentials of storytelling. Ember picks up and rolls, its two young protagonists landing in near-constant peril of some sort or another from the fifth chapter on. Refreshingly, Smith doesn't defang the subject matter. Combatants die. Conflicts leave lasting scars. Internal politics roil old allies. And the book intentionally refuses to end neatly. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking Joe Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin here. The Green Ember is liberally seasoned with hope (and gorgeous pencil illustrations by Zach Franzen). But whenever the proceedings threaten to become saccharine, Smith tosses a little grit into the pot. The final pages find the characters with swords in their hands and a very long fight ahead of them. Indeed, the only real problem with the novel is its abrupt conclusion. I won't complain when fantasy authors decide to keep things short. Goodness knows we have too many doorstop-thick titles in the genre. But The Green Ember almost begs for a sequel. Here's to hoping that Smith pens it someday.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Zach Franzen; used by permission)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Music To Write By: Michael McCann's Deus Ex: Human Revolution Soundtrack

Why Listen? To hear tunes perfect for looping and letting run in the background as you scribble away; for the sorts of sounds from which great SF is made.

This ongoing series normally follows a predictable pattern: Each entry highlights a single song from a specific artist that I think might jumpstart listeners' creative processes through some combination of lyrics and music. Today, though, I'm going to mix things up by suggesting you listen to an entire album without any verbal content whatsoever, namely Michael McCann's original soundtrack for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

For those unfamiliar with the title (which will likely be most of you), Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a 2011 cyberpunk video game focusing on private security contractor Adam Jensen. When shadowy mercenary types attack his client, controversial human-augmentation corporation Sarif Industries, Jensen is horribly wounded. His employer takes advantage of a clause in his contract to make him into a 21st-century version of The Six Million Dollar Man, and afterwards Jensen begins the hunt for those who maimed him and (presumably) took the life of his longtime love.

Honestly, though, the plot will hardly matter to most writers. The important thing is how McCann translates the game's striking style into aural enjoyment.

In addition to open gameplay and near-future reimagining of everwhere from Detroit to Shanghai to the Arctic, Deus Ex: Human Revolution garnered kudos from critics and gamers alike for its visuals. Developer Eidos Montreal kept all the expected graphical detail while stripping the color palette to black and gold, giving the title an almost monochromatic starkness. McCann incorporates that lean feeling into the soundtrack through jittery synth riffs, piano chords, and a handful of traditional Chinese stringed instruments. Many of the tracks lack any sort of persistent beat whatsoever.

Which makes them perfect to write by.

As Jensen jets around the world, McCann keeps slips the main musical into several ambient compositions. "Detroit City Ambient (Part 1)," "Home," "Lower Hengsha Ambient (Part 1)," and "Singapore Ambient (Part 2)" are all plangent, minorish tunes perfect for looping and letting run in the background as you scratch away with pad and pen. Others could serve as break-time inspiration. "Hengsha Daylight (Part 1)" calls to mind the stirring wakefulness of Asia's demographic might as night surrenders to morning, and "Hung Hua Brothel (Extended)" uses an urgent beat to marry melancholy with yearning. They're the sorts of sounds from which great SF is made.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Take an Extended, Exciting Cruise on Ship

It started with a plan. I hadn't read a proper fantasy novel in ages, and a free copy of a lengthy title from a lauded author had landed in my lap. Time to bolt down the whole book down in a few sittings, right? Well, things didn't go according to plan, and by the one-third mark, I had to admit that I was flipping through the lengthy page count with all the speed of a narcoleptic gastropod. A brilliantly imagined setting can't carry a thousand-page book by itself. Still, I might've finished if the coup de grâce hadn't come from an unexpected quarter: the public library. My hold on Robin Hobb's Ship of Magic, the first installment in The Liveship Traders trilogy, had finally been fulfilled.

Storm clouds are gathering around Bingtown. Over generations, the town's seafaring traders have transformed it from a hardscrabble colony to a wealthy port of renown. They owe their riches to a monopoly on lucrative trade routes granted as a reward for settling the magic-blighted lands. Only they can brave the caustic waters of the most profitable waterways in intelligent liveships, but it comes at the price of losing unborn children to strange birth defects, a side effect of the mystical energies imbuing the area. However, a new satrap's willingness to bend ancient covenants in order to sate his prurient passions threatens their way of life. No family feels it more than the Vestrits. Patriarch Ephron Vestrit is dying, and his liveship, Vivacia, will gain sentience at his passing, a quickening concomitant with vastly increased financing costs. (Built of rare wizardwood, a liveship is so costly as to entail decades of debt.) Daughter Althea thinks she'll inherit the captaincy of the vessel, but her mother, Ronica, believes she lacks the savvy to see the family through fiscally lean times. Kyle Haven, husband to weak-willed oldest daughter Keffria, has trading experience, but also seems set on remaking the household in his own image. And domestic discord is far from the Vestrits' only danger. Flesh-eating sea serpents prowl the waters, and an ambitious pirate named Kennit deigns to rule the shipping lanes. Then there's the danger inherent in Vivacia herself, a vessel with a will all her own and a nigh century's worth of communal memory carried in her hull.

Okay, see that ungainly plot summary above? It embodies the biggest problem with Ship of Magic: its length. I wonder how many potential readers the genre has scared off with the titanic thickness of its books. Still, it's hard not to forgive Hobb once you realize that she's using the novel's breadth to build more than just a magical setting. She's setting up a family conflict so potent I actually felt my blood pressure spike while reading key confrontations. Fantasy usually goes big, fixating on kingdoms in peril and clashes on blood-soaked battlefields. Not so with Ship of Magic. You'd call it cozy fantasy if that descriptor didn't make it sound trite. It's anything but. The edition I read featured a cover blurb from George R.R. Martin ("Fantasy as it ought to be written"), and what an appropriate marketing choice. Though Hobb doesn't slaughter protagonists left and right, she deftly twitches the tangled strings of conflict to make relatively minor events shiver with strife. The bluing of dying man's lips. The prick of a tattooist's pen. A wounded sailor discussing how best to remove his mutilated finger. They raise more hackles than armed conflict. Perhaps the best testimony I can give is that, despite its length, Ship of Magic made me want to immediately turn to the next volume in the series as soon as I'd finished it.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Melissa Nilsson)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Correia on Guns in Fiction

Over at A Writer's Path, Ryan Lanz interviews Larry Correia (Monster Hunter International) about guns in fiction. Excerpt:
Ryan: What are the common pitfalls in fiction where it’s clear that the author has never held or fired a modern firearm?

Larry: It isn’t just guns, but any topic where the reader is an expert and the author is clueless. The problem is that when you write something that the reader knows is terribly wrong, it kicks them right out of the story and ruins the experience for them. Guns are especially hard because they are super common in fiction, and there are tons of readers who know about them.

Most of these really glaring errors can be taken care of with a little bit of cursory research. Technical things can be taken care of by a few minutes on the manufacturer’s webpage, which will keep your characters from dramatically flipping off the safety on a gun that doesn’t have one.

Beyond that, however, is the actual use of the gun. The character using it should have a realistic amount of knowledge based on their skill, knowledge, ability, and training. If you are going to be writing about a character who is a professional gunslinger, then you need to do some research to make sure that person does what a professional gunslinger would do.
Read the whole thing. Correia makes plenty of good points about how to pen firearms, but he includes an implicit supposition that I find valuable: While any bit of poorly understood detail can yank a reader out of a narrative, the subjects with which one should exercise particular care are those that 1) crop up regularly in stories; and 2) are likely to have been experienced by readers. Guns certainly fit the bill, as do subjects such as economics, sex, and religion. We ignore any of them at our compositional peril.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Keary O.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Ghosts 2014: The Stories

From your chair by the window, you can see snow sluicing down from a leaden sky, white on gray. The radiator ticks. The eaves creak. Metal clinks against porcelain as you shiver while stirring your drink. The world itself seems blasted by cold, an empty waste of icy earth hard as iron, denuded of life.

But, oh, it is not. Had you eyes to see, you could behold the host of restless spirits moving across this chill tableau, a cloud of unsettled witnesses. Are you sure you want to know what have they seen? Because you are anything but alone. They can tell of the wayfarer huddled in the woods just over the hill whose red right hand turned against his brother. They can tell of the nameless thing that stalks him, desperate to slake its undying thirst. And they can tell of the quiet congregation accreting by your back door.

Come, turn the knob and let us tell you our stories...
• "Real Game" by Brent Aikman (see below)
"The Camera Sees" by James D. Witmer on James D. Witmer
"A Million Pieces" by Rhonda Parrish on
• "Jingle Bell Run" and "The Steenbok" by William Gregory (see below)
"Heiligabend" by KJ Mansfield on KJ
"Spooky Tale" by Linda Casper on Third Age
• "The One" by Lynn Amaral (see below)
"Copy of a Copy of a ..." and "Elisabeth" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"Anesthetic" by Scott Garbacz on Advent Ghosts
"The Road Trip" by Simon Cantan on
"The Snowman" by Craig Scott on CS Fantasy Reviews
"Whiteout" by Simon Kewin on Spellmaking
"December 11001" by Ben Mann on
"The Other List" by Nick Johns on Tales from a Tightrope
"The Last" by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher on Esse Diem
"Naughty, Naughty Nick" by Sandra Seamans on My Little Corner
"One Night Ago" by Paul F. Boekell on Betrothed to Another
"Christmas Spirit" by Hunter F. Goss on Hunter F. Goss
"August In December" by Jason Jones on Catchy Title Goes Here"
"A glass of wine" and "Parasite" by Eric Douglas on Books by Eric Douglas
"What Scares Father Christmas?" by Paul Liadis on The Struggling Writer
"Assassin in Jack’s Backyard, AD 1660" by Joseph D'Agnese on Daggyland
"The Dark is Silent" by Erin Cole on Erin Cole
"Attic Ghosts" by Rachael K. Jones on Rachael K. Jones
"Collapse" by Dave Higgins on Davetopia
"Where Is Santa?" by Michael Morse on Rescuing Providence and "Silent Night, Good Girl" on Mr. Wilson Makes it Home
"Memories" and "The Charity of Strangers" by Derek Manuel on Derek Manuel
"I Saw Lightning Fall" by Scott G.F. Bailey on Six Words for a Hat
"Be Good for Goodness Sake!" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
• "Doll Face" by Geoffrey Miller (see below)
"A House, Haunted" by Nathaniel Lee on Mirrorshards
"Excrucimas" by Ollwen Jones on Fiction - Miscellaneous and Sporadic; (Probably Especially the Latter.)
"Good Help" by Bon Steele on The Process
"Home" by Leanne Stowers on Write On
• "Coming Into the Dark" by Peter Stein (see below)

* * *

"Real Game"
by Brent Aikman

Christmas morning snow covered leaves just enough, allowing her silent creeping to the wooded spot. Here generations before her had also stood, rifle in hand, and waited for their prey.

She waited. He might be quiet too. She would have to be patient, watch for any movement. They would not hear each other.And then, there he was, headed her way. She raised the gift from her father to her shoulder, put the sights directly on her brother’s chest, and slowly squeezed the trigger. It was only a BB gun. Practice for her chance to someday win the real game.

("Real Game" copyright 2014 by Brent Aikman; used by permission)

* * *

"Jingle Bell Run"
By William Gregory

Julie’s breathing was labored as the frigid air bit into her lungs. Her nose ran. Her eyes teared. The tiny bells on her running shoes jingled like a metronome marking her pace. She registered the red form on the side of the trail just as his black boot caught her shin and sent her crashing to the forest floor. Instantly everything stopped. She could barely draw a breath as his heavy bulk pinned her down in the icy snow. A paralyzing mix of fear and adrenaline coursed through her body… until she heard his jolly voice exclaim, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”

("Jingle Bell Run" copyright 2014 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"The Steenbok"
By William Gregory

Trevor crouched silently behind the acacia tree. He had stalked the tiny Steenbok for nearly 30 minutes. Now he was in range. Trevor focused his camera on the doe-eyed creature. Through the viewfinder the Steenbok’s intense stare made Trevor uneasy. It appeared to be fixated on the tree above him. Suddenly his camera strap went taut around his neck. Trevor realized his grievous mistake just as the full weight of the musky leopard fell upon him. The last thing Trevor saw before the big cat’s knife-like canines penetrated his throat was the little Steenbok casually slipping off into the veld.

("The Steenbok" copyright 2014 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"The One"
by Lynn Amaral

The altercation occurred without provocation. The embarrassing barrage of excuses for him imprisoned her. Buried in isolation, fearful of exposing what she allowed tied her to him so tightly she could barely breathe. Chained, not because she believed he would change, but desperate to believe she couldn’t have been so wrong. Doubting her own instincts crippled her, more than broken bones. Bruises confirmed what her mind believed: you’re an idiot. Change became phantasmagorical. Denial bred despair, suffering, and silence. Broken and bruised, her body defiled, yet that paled, incomparable to the scars of shame in her heart.

("The One" copyright 2014 by Lynn Amaral; used by permission)

* * *

"Doll Face"
By Geoffrey Miller

“Thank you. I only ever wanted a child."

The crone strokes the doll's hair, lovingly twining its yellow yarn curls round her knobby, gnarled fingers. A jewel on its stomach pulsates rhythmically to a disembodied sob, a sob that once woke you many anight. Your daughter’s sob—your poor daughter, who was exiled as a mere child, thrust beyond the safety of the city walls into the dark wilds because of her uncleanness of flesh.

“Jennyra wasn't going to live long anyway," says the crone with a toothless smile. "Now she doesn't have to hurt anymore. Now, we're both happy."

("Doll Face" copyright 2014 by Geoffrey Miller; used by permission)

* * *

"Coming Into the Dark"
By Peter Stein

As the shadow of night falls ever long, I feel within myself the deepening wrong.

The day relinquishes further to the night, and so takes life from the light.

The cold wind o’er the world blows, the black night within me grows

I find the coming of the dark, the black smudge, the filthy mark

Not just blackness in the world, it’s evil in me, soon unfurled.

At last the sun’s light fades, the hour struck, the deal made.

Here now comes the dark, final ruin calling hark

The end of all things

The last bell rings

It is


("Coming Into the Dark" copyright 2014 by Peter Stein; used by permission)

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Did the Bright Man blaze with starshine or corpsefire? Did glory or terror shut my Zechariah's mouth? Can this haunt-eyed haint be the man with whom I grew well-stricken in years? After all those years, why does my monthly blood flow again?

So many questions. Yet in the night as our bodies cleave and his silent mouth meets mine, they fall away. My barren belly has swollen, and I have my answer. It is a sweet sword that heals even as it pierces.

And beholding my young cousin, her virgin stomach rounding, I know it will pierce more than me.

Postscript: If the above widget is giving you trouble, visit ISLF's Soundcloud page or consider subscribing to the podcast to listen to audio recordings of this and other stories.