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.