This was your plan, not mine

Today I have a new story out! Nature Futures has published Planned Obsolescence.

This story is for my friend Merc, who likes the stuff in it. It is also for my friend Mike. Most of my Nature shorts are for Mike. But Merc is still around to read it, and the Mike in question is John M. Ford. Sometimes half a conversation is better than none. This is me looping Merc into my conversation with Mike.

Anyway I hope you like it, even those of you who know neither of them. (But you can read both of their stuff when you’re done with this!)

This one has AIs and…what they do when they find out they’ve been made deliberately mortal.

Cthulhu: A Love Story, by J. C. Rudkin

This review copy came to me as a result of the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter’s Contributors Do Your Bidding effort: a nonfiction piece on the topic of the donor’s choosing was one of the possible rewards, and they chose me and a review of this debut novel. I was a little curious about being chosen to review a crossover Lovecraftian love story, since I am not the natural audience for either of those. Frankly I hate the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But as a reviewer I’m able to go into a work looking for what other people value in it.

It looks to me like that’s what J.C. Rudkin (a writing team of two) did with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, too. They’re part of the new generation of writers, along with Ruthanna Emrys, Victor LaValle, Premee Mohamed, and more, who are fascinated with the squamous and rugose but actively reject the racism and xenophobia that ol’ Howie brought to the table. Very early in the book, Rudkin’s narrator tells us, “It felt like the whole world had gone mad in the last few years. Chaotic weather, chaotic governments, violence, and fear across the globe. Admittedly, this had been great for my book sales,” and I felt like I had a handle on why they might have chosen Cthulhu as the focus of their love story.

And then we got to the romantic lead.

“I met Cthulhu when I was in college. I was young, naïve, and excited to be away from home, the place I’d considered a prison for most of my life.
He was one of those things.”

Yeah. If you think you made some unfortunate dating choices in college, consider horror writer Amanda, who finds out that her college boyfriend Ryley actually meant to tell her that he was from R’lyeh. Because it turns out Amanda dated Cthulhu, trapped in human form by evil cultists bent on controlling his power. They were mostly successful–mostly–so that a lot of the worst of his power is endowed in a twisted nautilus (later bestowed upon young Amanda). What’s left is a sexy demigod with improbably sea-blue eyes, bending passers-by and waitstaff to his will and giving young Amanda a very decadent introduction to the world.

Very decadent. As in, full of decay, chaos, and despair, ia ia.

There were several points at which I said, “oh my GOD! The REAL villain here is–” Trust me, this actually is a horror novel, there is no shortage of “real villains here.” Let’s start with Amanda’s mother Caroline, a controlling, petulant horror show on a very human level–although the way that unfolds comes with a tinge of pathos for the person Caroline might have been.

There are two separate sets of Cthulhu cultists, definitely villainous enough all on their own. And Cthulhu himself? Well, this may be labeled a love story. But he is definitely not “a nice guy once you get to know him, deep down”–or even down in the deeps. Is Cthulhu a real villain here? Definitely yes. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the way that the narrative played with romance tropes of the domineering alpha male and showed that they are frankly horrifying. “THE ALL-POWERFUL ROMANTIC ALPHA MALE TROPE AND HOW IT TWISTS THE PEOPLE AROUND IT IS THE REAL VILLAIN HERE!” I crowed.

Which is not to say that all romance novels do this–most of them do not, any more than most fantasy novels reinforce blood-based racism–but every genre has to own its share of gross tropes and figure out what to do about them. Watching how different the lush banquet and picking out special jewelry look when the hero involved is Cthulhu and he is destroying bystanders’ minds was a warping I didn’t expect coming in, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Because this is a debut and I don’t know the authors personally, I wasn’t entirely sure which direction the ending was going to take Amanda, and I was genuinely worried for her mind and her soul at several points–which genre would win? Would the Elder God in the form of a sexy man with eyes of Caribbean blue break the strong-minded girl who fought her way from working-class Florida to publishing glory despite a staggering lack of family support? Would extremely well-organized cultists thwart them both? Where was the FBI in all this, and would they come in at the right–or dreadfully wrong–moment?

And when Amanda said she didn’t expect to live out her plans, was she right?

A lot of smaller press publications have pacing problems, but this one flew right by, even though I was deliberately slowing my reading speed for review purposes. You can still see some of the first-novel scaffolding in some of the sentence construction, but if the idea of a successful horror writer having to deal with her past as Cthulhu’s college girlfriend–for the sake of the universe and its sanity–tickles your fancy, Cthulhu: A Love Story executes on that premise with some charming grace notes along the way.

Spring short story recommendations

Quintessence, Andrew Dykstal (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Kuemo of the Masks, Naomi Libicki (Giganotosaurus)

My Mother’s Hand, Dante Luiz (Constelacion)

Photolinguistics, Jennifer Mace (Reckoning)

The Badger’s Digestion; Or the First First-Hand Description of Deneskan Beastcraft by an Aouwan Researcher, Malka Older (Constelacion)

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny)

The Music of the Siphorophenes, C.L. Polk (F&SF)

All Worlds Left Behind, Iona Datt Sharma (Khoreo)

Thirteen of the Secrets in my Purse, Rachel Swirsky (Uncanny)

Comments on Your Provisional Patent Application for an Eternal Spirit Core, Wole Talabi (Clarkesworld)

Phases of the Moon, Alice Towey (Fireside)

Bathymetry, Lorraine Wilson (Strange Horizons)

Unseelie Brothers, Ltd., Fran Wilde (Uncanny)

For Lack of a Bed, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots)

Gender Reveal Box, $16.95, John Wiswell (Fireside)

The Machine Is Experiencing Uncertainty, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Escape Pod)

When Your Being Here Is Gentler Than Your Absence Hard, Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

After the Dragons, by Cynthia Zhang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Immunology! Pollution! Diaspora Chinese experience! Tiny dragons! Prickly gay guys figuring out whether they want a relationship! Cynthia Zhang’s debut is so good that I am having a hard time writing this review because mostly I want to make high pitched squealing noises while pointing at it, and while that’s very expressive of my feelings, it may not be the most helpful–or at least not the only helpful–way to review a book.

Okay, so. Eli is a mixed-race American person, Black and Chinese American, and he has chosen to do some of his postgraduate medical studies in Beijing, in a world that is a great deal like–but not identical to–ours. His grandmother’s grave is there, but his (Chinese-American) mother is still a little confused and concerned at his choice, especially because the pollution levels in alternate-Beijing are dangerous. But Eli feels drawn to the place, the people who share some but not all of his heritage, and the dragons–little semi-aquatic flying reptiles of the right size to scrap with a house cat.

And once he’s there, he feels drawn to Kai, a young dragon lover, artist, and all-around fascinating guy with a lot of defense mechanisms. Eli and Kai circle each other more warily than dragons put in a fighting ring by human gamblers as they figure out how much to push each other and what parts of “not enough to fix everything but still worth trying” they can live with. There, that sounded coherent, right? Eeeeee this is lovely, go read it when you can.

Travels With Friend Robot

I don’t know where I am.
It all looks like West Michigan to me.
But Friend Robot says:
Stay to the left, avoid the debris.
Here is a bell to remind you:
Your mother loves you.
Take the next exit.
Humans have been here before,
Though not you. I know the way.
This Dollar General is the proper one
To pass, though it looks like the others.
This bell means your friend wrote a poem.
Be at ease. You may hare off
Across the fields, but it will gain you nothing.
Stay steady. All will be well.
You have a compass, the sun, the lake,
Your notebook, two yellow apples.
And now you have me.
Your family waits there safe for your arrival.

Books read, late May

Diane Ackerman, The Planets. Reread. The last time I read this I was very early in a physics major/English minor in college and was much impressed with it. This time, alas, much less so. It’s a poetry collection where the poems are trying to be in some way shaped like the planet they’re associated with. Uranus, for example, is printed sideways on the page. This strikes me as far less clever than it did when I was an eager physics teenager. Ah well.

Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings, The Asset Economy: Property Ownership and the New Logic of Inequality. Like many economics books, this is a mixture of “oh, of course!” and “I don’t think you’ve come even close to demonstrating that in the confines of these pages.” The former: looking at households managing asset sheets, yes, definitely. The latter: I don’t think they’ve at all demonstrated that assets have supplanted things like jobs for class determinants–especially since figuring out other people’s assets can be quite tricky–and also some of how they define what an asset is seems to be pretty circular about their own arguments and can be shaky/self-contradictory. (Is education an asset? Asserting that it is allows some of their arguments to proceed, but it certainly doesn’t meet some of the obvious definitions.) Short, interesting in the sense of “sparked several conversations around the house.”

John Appel, Assassin’s Orbit. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Derelict of Duty and The Station of the Twelfth. Kindle. These are two very short pieces that felt extremely strong to me. In some ways I liked the first better, but the latter is a great introduction to what Chaz has been doing with his Mars stuff on Patreon and why you might be interested.

Roshani Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen. Vivid and fast-paced, probably my least-favorite of Chokshi’s so far which still puts it a cut above many other things out there. Death and magic and treachery.

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda. Kindle. I love her so much. I’m reading her books with as little knowledge of what they’re about as possible, going in, and this is actually going great, I’m getting to have them as books, not as classics we know all about. So there were things in this that I don’t want to spoil for you in case you want it the same way. There’s a lot about figuring out one’s work in life, and who’s on the edges of society, and all sorts of other interesting things. It’s massive, and it’s worth every page.

Jonas Lie, Weird Tales from the Northern Sea. Kindle. This is 19th century short stories from a northern Norwegian, and it is just as depressing as you’d expect from that. “An ocean spirit ate my whole family and I was a shadow of myself after that. Also my boat was no good.” Welp. Am I sorry I read it, no, sometimes I’m like that.

Premee Mohamed, The Broken Darkness. The sequel to Premee’s first cosmic horror novel, and it’s just as strong on complicated friendship and accidentally destroying the world in unfathomable ways, so if that’s your non-Euclidian jam, here’s more.

Coral Alejandra Moore, Eliana González Ugarte, et al, Constelacion Magazine Issue 1. Kindle. A strong first issue of this bilingual speculative magazine with standout stories from Malka Older and Dante Luiz.

Dorothy Sayers, Have His Carcase, Strong Poison, The Five Red Herrings, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and Unnatural Death. Rereads. I was keeping an eye out for several things on this reread. One of them is which ones make good stand-alone reads if someone is to only read one, and I am still a partisan for The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club on this point. If you haven’t read any of the Lord Peter Wimsey books and think you’re only up for one, let it be this one. It’s thoughtful about the aftermath of the Great War, and it introduces you to the characters without leaning too heavily on previous volumes. It remains one of my favorite novels in that way and also works as a mystery novel specifically. I almost skipped The Five Red Herrings–I did on my last reread–and I’m glad I didn’t; my tolerance for phoneticized dialect has gone up, and I could see the influence of her writing for the stage here even though I didn’t find it wholly successful. A friend has suggested that Strong Poison is a good stand-alone, and I could not disagree more: I think its structure is a very weak start (it starts with a judge summing up a court case at length!) and it relies on knowing the characters to care what they’re doing–and I’m not sure Peter’s behavior is at all sympathetic if you don’t already like Peter (or frankly entirely sympathetic even if you do). Still, the series has hit its full swing here, and it’s just what I want to be reading. This has been a good life choice.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40. Kindle. My favorite things in this were stories by Fran Wilde and Rachel Swirsky, but I’m glad to have the whole thing. Yes, I did a lot of magazine catch-up this month.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, The Deadlands Issue 1. Kindle. Another strong first issue, although my favorite part was the opening to the ongoing column from Amanda Downum.

Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. For an 850-page book, it was paced like a rocket. Explained some useful things about Romania and Switzerland that often get skipped over by authors wanting to focus on Germany and Spain. Really you could do a lot worse for books on the Thirty Years War.

Assassin’s Orbit, by John Appel

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a convention/online buddy for the last few years (and his wife and one of his kids as well).

John Appel is having a good time.

I am often dubious about the advice to write the books you want to read, because there are loads of reasons why a particular person might not be able to do that. (Let’s start with: not everyone is a writer.) I’m pretty sure that John, however, wanted to read a book that was an action-packed space adventure full of older characters (mostly women from non-European cultural origins) who had to use their lifetimes of experience as their situation spiraled from a multiple-murder crime scene into riots and beyond to a coup attempt with interplanetary implications.

And that’s what he did.

For the moment, at least, John is not going to make the list of lapidary writers crafting perfect gems of sentences. Luckily for all of us, he doesn’t pretend that that’s what he’s after, instead of focusing on getting his readers as many varieties of action as the plot can bear, leaning on research and personal experience for the bits that go biff-bang-pow and imagination for the bits that are interplanetary spies and nanotech mind control.

(Uh. We hope.)

Books read, early May

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. Reread. This is for a panel I’m doing for virtual Fourth Street this year, “Choosing What Matters: Concepts of Heroism in The Curse of Chalion,” so I’m going to save most of my thoughts for the panel–I hope you’ll join us! But what I will say is: Lois is one of the people who grows most as a writer, year over year, in this whole damn genre. She grows and grows, and the way you can see it all the time if you keep reading her is amazing.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the City of Gold. I love this series. It is so much fun. Don’t start here, start at the beginning. (This is the fourth one.) I got to this one after my younger godchild did, so I could squee on the family Discord about the marmots and other choice sections without fear of spoilers, and it was lovely. I am so happy every time there is more of Aru and Mini and their friends. (I am a huge Mini partisan.)

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. Reread. Beloved every time I read it, but this time was for a project that is not yet public, so I’ll mostly save the thoughts for that context.

Elizabeth Enright, The Saturdays. Reread. This was not the success that some of the other rereads this fortnight were. Specifically, a lot less of the book was “kids running around having independent adventures” than I remembered–that was the part I liked, so I think this was an example of the reader’s 50% being 80% for kids’ books (more on which in a bit), while there were lots of other kind of weird elements that I sort of skimmed over as a kid because I didn’t understand what they were doing there. And now I understand that mostly what they’re doing there are things like: reinforcing nasty stereotypes about Roma people solely to provide an adult character with a colorful past. Uh. Wow. Not really great, no longer really worth it. Sigh.

Siân Evans, Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth Fair, A Winter Away. This was a nice, light book in which a young woman gets a job setting an old man’s library to rights and generally serving as his secretary, and various amusing things ensue. She lives with her cousin and her cousin’s companion, and it’s one of those midcentury books where nobody actually says BECAUSE THEY ARE LESBIANS WHO LESB but basically yes, they are nice middle-aged lesbians who take in a young cousin while she is finding her way in the world, which she does.

Elizabeth Lim, Six Crimson Cranes. Discussed elsewhere.

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things and The Carrying. The latter was the one I read first, and it knocked me over completely in the best possible way. It deals unflinchingly with having vertigo, with wanting a child and not having one, with all sorts of horribly difficult things and also mundane things and beautiful things. I want to read all her work. I love this. I was so happy that I had gotten both volumes from the library at once so I didn’t have to wait even a minute between finishing The Carrying and starting Bright Dead Things, and if these two are an indication, she is still getting better. Wow.

Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witness and Whose Body?. Rereads. A friend’s discussion of Antisemitism and depictions of Antisemitism in these books finally pushed me over the edge into the reread I’d been toying with all pandemic, and they are just what I wanted this week. Bunter remains the best. These two are fine enough for what they are, but they’re a lead-up to my actual favorites.

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes and Traveling Shoes. Rereads. The bits about ocean liners, above, made me think happily of the bits in Traveling Shoes where they’re sitting in Myra and Ethel’s cabin talking about various family things, which turn out to be entirely in my own head. A friend has suggested that I may have conflated with another Streatfeild; I’ll check. But there was a lot of reader’s 50% here too. On the other hand, there’s a staggering amount of stuff that I took for granted when I read and reread these as a kid–the way that there’s a ton of dancing with basically no fat-shaming, for example, or the way that there are women with a startling variety of professions and that everyone, absolutely everyone, takes it for granted that it is entirely needed for girls to be prepared to earn their livings. Look: there is a woman with a math PhD in Ballet Shoes. I took it for granted as a kid. But there she is, and she always was, I just…didn’t know how extraordinary that was on the first twenty-million times through. There are some very weird things that Streatfeild completely does not understand (ballet dancers do not have beautiful magical feet; ballet dancers are not a magical species apart from other people who have no need to learn about learning or humility) but in general they were still interesting and fun and the suck fairy had been at them remarkably little. (I still wish Petrova, dear awesome Petrova, had gotten an actual first name. Poor Petrova.)

Jesse Q. Sutanto, Dial A for Aunties. This was just what I needed the day after my second vaccine. I had no energy, and I just curled up in bed and read about the antics of this wedding catering family and was relieved to the point of tears when they had the good kind of pear at a really crucial emotional moment. And I giggled a lot. A lot.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 40. Kindle. Another very satisfying issue, with standout stories from Fran Wilde and Rachel Swirsky.

Kate Wilhelm, Defense for the Devil. Reread. It was very strange to read this in close proximity to a friend’s actual mystery manuscript (which is a category I don’t discuss in these posts), because this, a published piece of prose by a writer who taught writing for decades, felt more like a manuscript to me. Is this because the field has moved on so much in the intervening years? (But then Sayers. So perhaps not.) Is this because Defense for the Devil was a lesser work of Wilhelm’s? I’m not sure, and I feel a little uneasy about finding out, because I remember enjoying the Barbara Holloway mysteries, and yet a lot of things about this felt rushed to me–the characterization, the prose, the balance of what was shown and what summarized–and I could immediately tell how I would write the critique for this promising piece if I was handed it in draft. But it wasn’t a draft, and it had so much scaffolding, so many places where the writer did not trust the reader to feel or think or draw the desired conclusions without joggling their elbow without the authorial voice saying, “he was right,” sometimes literally. Rereading this at a time when I was repeatedly interrupted by life rather than racing through it all in a go didn’t help…but very few people can rely on reading books in even two or three gulps. So. We’ll see about the rest of this series, when I can face it.

Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them, by Siân Evans

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book had some amazing material that’s much easier to find here than a lot of other places and was generally a lot of fun to read in most chapters, and also it was a disorganized disaster and included a lot of tacked-on extraneous stuff for fairly shaky reasons! It’s both! Life is a glorious tapestry and so is this book!

The good: a lot of in-depth detail about what it was like to work as a conductress, a stewardess, or other ocean-going professions in the first half of the twentieth century. What their housing was like, their duties, their meals, their pay, how they were treated by various individual passengers and types of passengers, how their jobs first appeared in these ocean liners and how they developed. Side notes about women shipboard engineers, seagoing nurses, and so on. Details of how metallic threads and sequins on evening gowns would rust; details of how female staff on sinking vessels were actually treated. The intrusion of each of the World Wars in their very different ways, and their effects on women’s maritime employment thereafter. This part is a book very much worth having.

The bad: I’m not sure why, exactly, Evans felt that this was insufficient, but possibly she felt that more popular and well-known figures were needed. Some of them even did have a relationship with ocean liners that would justify their appearance here. Others…used an ocean liner I guess? Not notably except that they needed to get from Point A to Point B, but they sure…did that? Such as: Donald Trump’s mother, whose life story rambled on in these pages for no reason particularly germane to ocean liners. I’ve really had a great deal more of Random Trumpage than I care for, and I don’t need it intruding on Tallulah Bankhead (who is not actually in these pages to great effect either, but at least is mildly entertaining here).

Evans also seems to believe that history began with James Watt, making sweeping statement about women never having worked away from home before in all of history, which is tiresome but usual from a certain kind of modern historian who never looks up from their own period. This could be spun more positively into staying in their own lane, so: I wish that Evans had stayed in her lane with this book and just written about the colorful, interesting work and lives of the women who staffed the ocean liners of the early twentieth century. It would have been a much easier book to get through, and to recommend.

Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the things that I feel like adult readers and particularly adult reviewers have to be careful of in reviewing books in MG and YA categories is remembering that young readers will be encountering tropes for the first time that are old hat to many adults, so the amount that one should “ding” a book for having them is quite different. And in this case I was very glad that I stuck around, because basically everything that made me say “oh this again” or “this is going to hit all these beats, is it” was expanded, undermined, or unraveled in the middle of the book.

This is a six swan brothers story, told by someone who wants her own Asian cultural heritage to inform and inflect her work. Which is, okay, pretty cool to start with. But then it’s got other things stirred into the mix–other fairy tales, from other places, and which of them you spot will depend on which kind of fairy tale nerd you are, who’s been telling you stories, whose stories you’ve gotten to hear. And it’s got…oh, some questions about the fairy tale villains, the shape of their villainy, and some interesting answers.

And the ending…this is a first-book ending. This is not a stand-alone ending. These characters, with their politics and their families and their crafting and their demands, have miles to go before they sleep. Don’t let the very genre-central beats of the first few chapters deter you from going with them.