Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of Connie Willis's Crosstalk

Almost two years ago, I attended a panel discussion at MileHiCon in Denver about animated movies in speculative fiction. I picked up a lot of good suggestions for my Netflix list, but was a bit surprised when Colorado author and SFWA
Grand Master Connie Willis said her favorite was "Tangled."

"That's mine too!" I exclaimed (under my breath).

Ah, at last I know why Connie singled out "Tangled."

Her new science fiction novel, Crosstalk, explores what it might be like if we could read each others' thoughts--or at least some of us could.

Beautiful red-haired Briddie works for a company that is competing with Apple to develop the next breakthrough phone device. She works hard, fielding constant interruptions from her large but lovable Irish family. She is beginning to despair of ever keeping any secrets to herself, including the fact that she is practically engaged to her boyfriend, when C.B. Schwartz, the freakshow nerd from the company basement, steps into her thoughts.

It's a roller coaster ride from there, as Briddie and Schwartz try to hide their telepathic connection from the boyfriend and the relatives, who, it turns out, really do have the Sight. We learn that the boyfriend is a cad, and that Briddie's nine-year-old niece Maeve is also telepathic. She's been blocking other family members from finding out she watches zombie movies, to say nothing of her all-time favorite, "Tangled."

Willis is a master at getting her characters in and out of farcical situations, and the pace of Crosstalk is breathtaking. It's a story of dramatic reversals (romance-wise), with a dash of Irish genealogy thrown in for good measure.

As the song says, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might get what you need." In Crosstalk, Briddie finds that mental telepathy works that way. Just as in "Tangled," she finds it's possible to fall hopelessly in love despite your best efforts.

Crosstalk is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00WPQ98JG.

Recommended.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Cat's Breakfast: Kurt Vonnegut Tribute--The Editor's Notes


      What distinguishes contemporary fiction from classic literature? We believe "classic" in this context means writing that has stood the test of time by appealing to multiple generations. The work of Kurt Vonnegut, through layered masterpieces such as Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, continue to fascinate us and encourage repeat readings.  For this short story anthology, we asked contributors to channel the "attitude" of Kurt Vonnegut, without explicitly using his characters or settings. It turns out that works incredibly well. Welcome to Cat's Breakfast, a double issue featuring the wide-ranging work of thirty international authors. This anthology is gratefully dedicated to Mr. Vonnegut.
      As you might expect, the majority of these stories are humorous, often downright hilarious. But not every story is funny. Some straightforwardly address serious themes, such as free will, mental illness, social cruelty, loneliness, and even relationships with parents. And there is that age-old question: What are we doing here?
      We lead with a story by David A. Kilman, "Spooky Action." What if until now God never knew we existed? Then after listening carefully to our complaints, what if He set about correcting His mistakes?
      In this divisive political era, we truly miss Vonnegut's sardonic input. One of the authors of this anthology, Neil James Hudson, quotes him as having said: "The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers." But it's some consolation that we've learned so much from Vonnegut's rich legacy and defense of freedom.
      Vonnegut served his country in the military during the Big One and later shared with us the insanity of military strategy in Slaughterhouse Five. A tart reminder arrives in James Beamon's "Command Decision." I wouldn't want to be in those soldiers' boots. August Marion's "Drop Dead Date" is an enlightening tale about the war with the robots and the lengths people are willing to go to deny reality. It doesn't look good for humanity.
      The book is filled with coincidences. Maybe that's to be expected when many authors consider a theme from many angles. The main section bookends with Molotov cocktails ("Spooky" and Corrie Parrish's "Violadors on the Run"). The prime number 37 makes an appearance in two stories, Dan Koboldt's "37" and Ville Nummenpää 's cheeky "Beyond the Borders of Boredom." Sentient luncheon meat is mentioned both in "Spooky" and in Konstantine Paradias's uproarious "They Grow Up So Fast." Disturbing uses for chainsaws are suggested in two stories (Anne E. Johnson's "Formica Joe," and Peter Hagelslag's "Scenes from a Post-Scarcity, Post-Death Society").
      And then there are a whole lotta tentacles (viz. Rati Mehrotra's "The Jim-Aaargh School of Philosophy," and "They Grow Up So Fast").
      Vonnegut made an intriguing contribution to the literature by inventing a new religion, Bokonism. Heaven plays a role in two Cat's Breakfast stories, but not the Western-style heaven. There's reincarnation and karma instead (Rekha Valliappan's "Snakes and Ladders" and "Jim-Aaargh").
      Vonnegut's characters often met aliens from outer space, before which they were usually powerless. Our authors let loose their creepy imaginations about alien appearance and behavior in Keyan Bowes's "Picnic, With Xels," Jason Lairamore's "A Static Fall to a Standing Walk," and John J. Kennedy's "The Bringers." What if we did finally hear from an alien civilization? Tim Jeffrey's tale, "Hear," tells of a distress call that reaches us too late. Jonathan Shipley's "Monkeyline" describes a conspiracy by aliens at a galactic university to make humans look bad. It almost succeeds.
      Cat's Breakfast is not, by a long shot, the first Vonnegut tribute short story anthology. James Dorr's "Dead Girls, Dying Girls" was originally published in Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing's So It Goes. Editor's note: Perhaps a resurgence in popularity (and sales) is in order?
      Is life really a dream, or a simulation like in "The Matrix?" A recent BBC Earth program noted that several physicists have suggested that our Universe is not real and is instead a giant simulation (http://bbc.in/2rDeUiG). S. E. Foley's "Quality Testing" helps us decide how we would feel about such a revelation.
      Even if we accept that the Universe is pulling the strings, what if there's a Multiverse? Check out Vaughan Stanger's "One Is One"—and try to keep your Twitter comments to yourself.
      Modern society imposes a number of, shall we say, cruel conditions on us, as Vonnegut often pointed out. Ryan Dull's "The Confrontation Station" takes a painfully comical look at office politics. Authors Iain Hamilton McKinven ("Honour Killing") and Neil James Hudson ("The Losers' Crusade") give their stories a satirical militancy.
      Yet sentimentality and emotion found their place in Vonnegut's work. In Veronica Moyer's heartbreaking tale, "The Edge of Toska," a young girl's adolescence on a tiny planet ends a happy childhood.
      Vonnegut raised a lot of kids, both his own and his sister's, so even when he had a lot of crazy stuff on his mind, the family was always present in his thoughts. Christopher Mark Rose's affecting "Emerging Grammars" is magical realism that hits just the right soft spot.
      Sometimes animals talk, or they only seem to talk, or somebody might be crazy, or. . . (Jill Hand's "Talk to the Animals," Gregg Chamberlain's "The Pigeon Drop"). Horses are specifically mentioned as not being able to talk, so it turns out that Mr. Ed is completely fictional. Who knew, right?
      Ultimately, we're all losers, as Hudson explains in the foreboding "The Losers' Crusade." There's nothing for it but to eat our breakfast and be our own champions. So it goes.
      In "Grins and Gurgles" (our flash humor section), Benjamin C. Kinney gets the show running with "Cyborg Shark Battle (Season 4, O’ahu Frenzy)," a futuristic reality TV show. Laurence Raphael Brothers's "Strange Stars," is a dating guide on mass ejections; E. E. King's "iPhone 17,000" is for those too much in love with their devices; and Edward Ahern's "The Service Call" warns you to keep your software maintenance plan up to date. Sometimes tech life just makes us WannaCry.
      One of Vonnegut's admirable accomplishments was having his books banned in some libraries, most notably Slaughterhouse Five. While we hope this anthology won't be banned (quite the opposite!), we do encourage everyone to participate in Banned Books Week (September 24-30 in 2017), sponsored by the American Library Association.
      And if you're ever in Indianapolis, Indiana, be sure to visit the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library.
      Until then, keep rubbing that Formica. No, not like that. In a circle. Like this. . .
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Cat's Breakfast is available in ebook for Kindle and print paperback from Amazon.
See Third Flatiron's website for a Table of Contents and further details.
     
                                
     

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Principia Ponderosa: Notes from the Editor

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Wikipedia defines Weird West as a literary subgenre that combines elements of the Western with another literary genre, usually horror, occult, fantasy, or science fiction. The seventeen authors of
Third Flatiron's Spring anthology dig into the principles that have made the Old West and Victoriana such rich ground for speculative fiction and adventure. Let the mining begin.

Such an anthology would not be complete without a steam-powered zeppelin or two. Principia Ponderosa leads off with "Blazing Beamard," by Stanley Webb, in which we discover that a formidable dragon is really a coal-fed monster put to work raiding trains for their gold. "The Great Man's Iron Horse" by Mark Mellon introduces another ground-devouring invention that threatens to drive the railroads out of business. But new inventions can't solve every problem, as we see when a lumbering machine becomes the peacemaker in Philip DiBoise's "Closing the Frontier."

As you expect, there are a lot of trains. Trains that built the west, and transported a strange assortment of denizens, both living and spectral, to their proper destinations. In Salinda Tyson's "The Hunt," an avenging eco-spirit decides enough is enough and changes the hearts of hunters shooting buffalo from trains for sport.

A lovely bit of magical realism worms its way into our psyches when a bunch of outlaws ride into the town of "Mourning Dove" by Jackson Kuhl, only to find their fates predicted in the morning paper.

Do not forsake me, oh, my darling. You've been challenged to a gunfight at high noon in front of the saloon, and it's pouring rain. Why haven't you gotten out of Dodge? A great new entry from Martin M. Clark is "No Country for Young Men," a slow build to an explosive duel fought with particle beam sidearms.

A thread running through many of the stories is justice for women in the old west. The scream of a woman starts the action in Robert Walton's Gold Rush tale. Should the men rush to her aid, or will "La Loca" take care of business? In "Lampblack and Dust," J. L. Forrest's witch summons her moving tattoos to rescue her protégé, in a tale reminiscent of Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake. The steampunk heroine tends to be strong too, as we see in John J. Kennedy's "The Gleaming," who overcomes the loss of an arm to become the first bionic woman.

The solitude of the lonely prairie sometimes plays tricks with the imagination, so we include a taste of horror in this collection. Premee Mohamed's practical farm family is used to losing stock to the harsh conditions of the prairie, but they also have to be "Willing" to sacrifice even further to ensure a good harvest. Jordan Ashley Moore's retired sheriff revisits the scene of an unsolved murder in "The Quiet Crime"—unable to forget how the killer simply vanished into thin air.

Appearances can be deceiving, as we see in Columbkill Noonan's "The Groks of Kruk County," a hilarious tale of drug-addicted mountain folks who end up dead, but keep up their haunting ways even though people see right through them. In Angus McIntyre's "The Monster Hunter," we wonder how he can keep killing monsters that everyone is pretty sure are imaginary.

Anchoring the collection is Geoff Gander's powerful chiller, "The Wind Father." Homesteaders are brutally murdered, but when Canadian Northwest Mounties investigate, instead of a frontier conflict, they encounter an entity thirsting for power—and human blood.

To lighten the mood, we close as usual with our "Grins and Gurgles" flash humor section, with pieces by Lisa Timpf ("Dealing with the Ship's Cat"), Sheryl Normandeau ("Gardening in a Post-Apocalyptic World"), and Brian Trent ("The JPEG of Dorian Gray"). Hmm, does it seem like our northern authors have a lock on humor?

We're happy this time around to have discovered some great new writers, It's gratifying to feature and encourage budding talent. We hope you'll thoroughly enjoy these sagas, told by an international group of excellent storytellers. Saddle up and ride with us into the sunset.

Principia Ponderosa is available in ebook for Kindle from Amazon (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers) and also in paperback.