My adult epic fantasy novel A Shadow in Chains has been shortlisted for the Future Worlds Prize for unpublished SFF writers of colour. Squee! It’s a book about ancestor magic, forgotten technology, and feuding clans, and takes place in a world I’ve been writing stories in for a very long time. Here’s the Bookseller announcement, which gives further details about the shortlist. The prize is in its second year, and last year was won by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson. Eight of us have been shortlisted, with a winner and runner-up to be announced in the coming weeks. The prize includes mentoring from one of the publishing partners for all shortlisted writers, which is such a valuable part of the contest. All the shortlisted titles sound amazing (a summary of each can be found on this Twitter thread), which just goes to demonstrate what an untapped variety of talent there is out there. Whatever happens, I am so happy and honoured to have been part of this year’s list, and I hope the prize goes on to discover many great new voices.
Apex Magazine is one of my favourite places on the internet to read short fiction. They publish everything across the speculative fiction spectrum, including some of the biggest names in the business and some of the most amazing short stories I’ve read. Apex is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter for funding for their next year of publication, and I would encourage anyone who is in a position to do so to support them here. Apex Magazine champions diverse works that, in their own words, are “twisted, strange, and beautiful”, so let’s help them to be able to keep on doing what they do so well.
I was lucky enough recently to have the opportunity to pick the brain of editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore, so read on for an insight into what goes on behind the scenes at a short fiction zine.
M H Ayinde: Thanks for answering my questions! First up, how would you say the short fiction market has changed in the years since you started Apex Magazine?
Jason Sizemore: For writers, it’s improved. There is a still a dearth of high-paying publications, but writers have so many more resources than they did in 2009. Publication transparency is improved. The concept of “for the love” has been critiqued into oblivion so that most markets now pay a decent token rate. Organizations like SFWA and the HWA have improved and become better watchdogs of the business.
For readers, the quality of short fiction has skyrocketed over the past decade. I credit this to the focus on diversity and own voices. Instead of only reading great fiction from the Anglo-centric English-speaking countries, we’re reading great fiction from all over the world!
MA: I’m really enjoying Snap Judgement, Apex’s new critiquing event, where writers can submit the first 250 words of a work for video critique. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see writers make in their opening lines?
JS: Thank you. We worked our butts off preparing for and executing that first entry, so it’s gratifying to know readers who enjoyed it!
By far, the biggest mistake I see is where readers start their stories at the wrong place. Unfortunately, if I’m reading your submission and nothing happens of interest until the fourth paragraph, it will be rejected. This is why you hear the well-worn advice of never start your story with your character waking up. 99% of the time, it is better to have them up and interacting with the plot than sitting in bed musing about what happened or will happen.
MA: What is your favourite part of the editing process? And the most challenging?
JS: My favorite part is sending the acceptance letters! Not only does this mean that I’ve found a fantastic story, it means I get to make someone’s day.
The most challenging is making the tough cuts. It isn’t uncommon for me to have rejector’s remorse. I’ll agonize for several days on a decision sometimes. Ultimately, I have to make the call on which stories will appeal to our readers the most.
MA: Finally, which three SFF/ comic book characters would you have at your side in your ride-or-die squad?
JS: Ford Prefect from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Dude is ready for anything thrown at him.
Roland Deschain from The Gunslinger. As long as he’s sharing stories of his youth.
Any badass heroine from a Cherie Priest novel!
The man with the titanium jaw, Jason Sizemore is a three-time Hugo Award-nominated editor, writer, and publisher who operates the genre press Apex Publications. He currently lives in Lexington, KY. For more information visit http://www.jason-sizemore.com or you can find him on Twitter @apexjason.
Last weekend I attended my first literary convention; FIYAHCON, set up by FIYAH Literary Magazine, and held online across three days. It was a bit of a revelation for me, having never attended a con before in my life, and having never heard so many BIPOC authors discussing speculative fiction. When I told one person I know that this con was organised by a magazine that showcases Black SSF writers, her first response was, “What, you’re not the only one?” We are out there, and in great numbers; it’s just that our voices don’t often get heard.
Having this take place online was really important, I felt. On a personal level, as a (attachment parenting) mother of three young kids, and as someone of relatively limited means, this was finally something I could actually attend. But beyond this, the many visa-related obstacles writers outside the US/ UK face, combined with the prohibitive costs of travel, mean cons just aren’t on option for many. FIYAHCON felt really international in a way few cons seem to be. It was so wonderful to listen to a panel held by people in three different continents. If we want the SFF writing community to be truly diverse, we have to have more opportunities for people around the world to be involved in the discourse; people who can travel less easily – whether due to health or finances or red tape – must be able to join.
Highlights for me included panels on empire, and on the challenges of writing to market as a person of colour. There were many panels I couldn’t attend, so I’m really grateful for the archives, which I’ll be spending a lot of time in over the next few weeks. But honestly, all of it was fantastic. For me personally, the insight and feedback I received from panels, workshops, and one-to-one sessions has been really inspiring. Writers, especially unpublished writers, spend so much time in their own heads, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole community of like-minded individuals out there, who are just as keen to talk magic systems and adverb overuse as you are. And they are from all over the world.
Anyway, all I can say is … I’ve found my con home. And I can’t wait for the next one!
This is 100% spoilery spoilerage of the most spoilerish variety. Here’s a cute pic of something cute that I still haven’t blimmin seen yet, to give you a chance to turn back:
So that’s it. The “Skywalker Saga” is at an end. Looking back, I’ve realised I didn’t write any words here about The Last Jedi, which I feel funny about because so many people hated that film, and I loved it (not unequivocally, but still deeply.) Put it down to life getting in the way or something. Anyway, I should say from the start that I really enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It was fast paced (maybe too fast paced, as others have commented), exciting, and felt like a proper Star Wars movie. I cried loads in the last third of the film. I loved Rey and Kylo Ren fighting over that shuttle. I loved zombie-cyborg Palpatine and his planet-spanning force lightning. I loved those horse things, and the endless vista of Star Destroyers. I even liked that kiss! The movie was so much fun and I enjoyed pretty much every minute. But…. BUT…
I’ll start by saying that I never go to the movies completely blind – I have to read at least one or two reviews, and one thing I’d read ahead of time was, If you liked The Last Jedi, prepare to be disappointed. The summary was that The Rise of Skywalker undoes much of what The Last Jedi did. And yes, I did feel that; most brazenly when Luke’s force ghost said, “That’s no way to treat a light saber” or some such, when Rey tried to throw hers away. For the most part, I didn’t mind the little digs and the backtracking. The only thing that really irked me, and it irked me big time, was the big reveal that Rey is a Palpatine.
For a moment, I’m going to set aside my annoyance that this totally undoes one of my favourite aspects of The Last Jedi; that anyone can be born with a talent for using the force, that you don’t have to come from a particular noble line, and that the force is something for all. My main gripe is that on a purely narrative level, within the context of this film, it was completely unnecessary for Rey to be a Palpatine. Palpatine knew of Rey because he sensed her strength in the force and tracked her down. She could have been anyone. A despot like Palpatine will destroy (or seek to turn to the dark side and then use as an avatar for himself and all the generations of Sith… whatever) anyone who is significantly skilled in the force. It didn’t need to be his own granddaughter. He was not shown to have had a particular interest in her specifically because she was his offspring. Likewise, the only real evidence of Rey wrestling against a pull to the dark side was when she unwittingly summoned force lightning. She showed no dark tendencies, and only worried about the pull of the dark because of the revelation about her lineage, and because of one dream that was possibly placed in her mind by Palpatine anyway. So there was no emotional weight to her being a Palptine or destined for darkness, within the context of the film. It felt as though the only reason for this choice was to undo the work of The Last Jedi, and I found it really unnecessary.
I know there is a certain satisfying symmetry to Rey and Ben Solo/ Kylo Ren both being descendants of great lines, but honestly, I loved the idea of Rey being just anyone. Here are some more reasons why I liked The Last Jedi. I don’t entirely love Kylo Ren as a villain, but do like him as an antihero (I feel that the sequel trilogy as a whole lacked a really solid villain, despite agreeing with this.) I loved that final shot in The Last Jedi when the stable boy uses the force to grab a broom. This is a big part of why I enjoyed The Last Jedi – because it deliberately moved away from the idea of inherited worth, instead positing the notion of skill in the force being just like any other talent… music or sport or anything else; yes, it sometimes runs in families, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes talent just appears in the most unexpected of places. And given the social and economic inequalities we are shown as being still prevalent across the Star Wars galaxy, there must be millions of force-talented individuals living undiscovered in poverty.
To a lesser degree, I was also irritated by the number of questions left unanswered. I haven’t played any of the video games, or watched much of The Clone Wars TV series (might try to remedy the latter at some point, but I was put off by the animated movie, which I really disliked), but to my knowledge, we still don’t know for sure the truth about Anakin’s immaculate conception, and a lot of us thought this might be answered here, particularly given that this was a movie that focused so heavily on Palpatine, and that it is supposed to conclude all things Skywalker (and surely this is the biggest thing?) It’s strongly hinted that Palpatine created Anakin (making Kylo Ren and Rey cousins of some sort, since they share a grandfather / great grandfather) and given this movie’s focus on the symmetry between Rey and Ben, I find it frustrating that this wasn’t addressed at all.
In addition: how did Papatine survive? He seems to be a corpse, so does that mean the electrical energy of his mind is all he needs to remain alive? Was he part of that contraption, and therefore, could his mind have escaped into it (and therefore still be alive)? I know Rey blasted it with reflected force lightning, but I dunno, did Palpatine make backups of himself? Were all those Sith in the background some kind of Sith variation of force ghosts? Or were they an illusion created by Palpatine? How are objects now able to travel (or be created) by force projection, and does this only work between them because of Rey and Ben’s connection? (I did love the exchange of light sabers, but the whole concept feels kinda Sith to me…)
I really hope the fact that this is the end of the Skywalker Saga doesn’t mean we are now heading for movies that focus on a Palpatine Saga. Much as I’d love to know more about Sheev Palapatine, and his training, and his master, it also feels like it’s time to move away from this whole set of characters… all of them. I really want more stories about the Sith when they were at the height of their powers, or perhaps more to do with the origins of the Jedi and the Sith. And much as I love these sequels (and think they’re a thousand times better than the prequels) it also felt as though they held back. Much of this is, I’m sure, due to all the changes with directors and no single person having an overarching vision for this trilogy. But I hope the full potential of the Star Wars universe will be unleashed in the new set of films.
But anyway, despite all this, I really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to re-watch it. And since everyone’s doing it, for what it’s worth, here is my take on the Skywalker Saga from favourite film to least favourite. I know I’m in a minority of one with my ordering here. Sorry not sorry. And yes, Return of the Jedi really is my favourite, and yes, I really will put The Phantom Menace above The Force Awakens, because that end battle with Darth Maul, Obi Wan, and Qui-Gon Jinn is absolutely everything.
1 Return of the Jedi
2 The Empire Strikes Back
3 The Last Jedi / The Rise of Skywalker I KNOW I KNOW BUT I CAN’T CHOOSE AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!
5 A New Hope
6 The Phantom Menace
7 The Force Awakens
8 Revenge of the Sith
9 Attack of the Clones
It’s a few weeks now since I went to see Jordan Peele’s movie Us and I can’t get it out of my head. Like all good horror, it served to unsettle me on both a visceral level and through what it had to say. It kept coming back to me, layers of meaning unfolding and I honestly can’t think of another horror movie in recent years that has felt so satisfyingly complete.
Although I’ve read a lot of fascinating words about what this movie has to say about trauma, most powerful to me was its take on privilege (and class.) And I’m a sucker for anything that can speak intelligently about class. I kept asking myself about each of the choices in the film, and what they could mean, because every choice did seem to have meaning to me. Why did Red speak with that rasping, constricted voice? Because it is literally harder for those without privilege to have a voice, have a say, and to be heard. (And Red is only able to speak at all because of who she was originally.) Both son Jason and his counterpart Pluto love fire, but why is Pluto scarred when Jason isn’t? Because those with privilege can transcend their mistakes, their dalliances with danger, but those without privilege often carry the consequences of their mistakes with them for the rest of their lives, and danger is always more dangerous to those without. The escalator is always heading down, pushing those at the bottom back into their place, ensuring they cannot rise. Those born into poverty are like puppets, moving to the whims of those in power (literally dancing to their tune, as Red does.) Every aspect of their lives is dictated by people they cannot see, and everything done those in power as an affect on the ones at the bottom. As Red says at the end, the tethered seem so like their counterparts and yet worlds separate them.
It was heartbreaking, and terrifying, and that final image, of the chain of tethered holding hands across the countryside, will stay with me for a long time.
Women of colour passing the bechdel test!
I have so many (only slightly spoilerish) thoughts about the fourth episode of Star Trek: Discovery that I almost don’t know where to begin. Sceptics, begone! Surely this is the episode to show us that the new show can be everything we want it to be?
Words have been written elsewhere about the choice of perspective, with our sole viewpoint character being Burnham, rather than the full ensemble of a senior crew. It is indeed refreshing to be introduced to a Starfleet vessel from the lackey’s perspective, but it also serves to highlight an important thematic point: the crew of the Discovery, and perhaps Starfleet itself, have lost their way. While Burnham alone continues to want to seek out new life, in the form of Ripper, everyone else is focused only on “weaponising” it, or seeing it as a threat. She alone treats it as a possibly sentient being, and she alone embodies Starfleet’s ideals. I love the affinity she has with it, and the parallels between the way she views it and the way others view her. Burnham’s eyes swim as she describes it as just wanting to defend itself, and as, ultimately, peaceful and misunderstood. If the rest of her is Vulcan, Burnham’s eyes are still human- all her emotion is there, and Sonequa Martin-Green is brilliant. During the six months of Burnham’s incarceration, the galaxy seems to have gone mad, and we share her disorientation as we adjust to this version of the Federation.
I know some people wonder why this had to be another prequel (especially to TOS), and feel that this restricts the show. Usually I’m the first to bemoan such decisions, and when I first heard about the new Trek I too was hoping we’d get something post-Voyager. But this episode has won me over, because of the existence of the spores. Something is going to go wrong; hideously wrong. That’s why we don’t have this method of travel in TOS or beyond. Now the threat of what will happen hangs constantly over our heads, and I am sure that the usage of the spores will increase, as will Starfleet’s reliance upon them, and as the stakes rise, so does the tension, and tension (not context- sorry, Episode 3) is king. I was reminded painfully of the usage of Star Whales in this episode of Doctor Who, and I just hope that poor Ripper isn’t put through too much… I don’t think my heart can take it.
I love a good antihero, and I already love Voq. So. Much. Pathos. And again, more parallels- both he and Burnham are outcasts, despised by their peers. Both have lost their beloved mentors, and each has the other to blame for this. I can’t wait for them to meet. The show ended with Voq contemplating Burnham’s image, as the architect of his downfall, and with Burnham receiving a poignant reminder of what Voq has taken from her. I look forward to Voq becoming the crazed Klingon despot he is surely destined to be.
This book! I love Jeff VanderMeer’s writing, and I’m still trying to process his latest novel, Borne. It simultaneously broke my heart and lifted me up. I can’t think of another book I’ve found so moving and disturbing and yet also so beautiful and, eventually, positive. Warning: this splurge of thoughts may contain spoilerage.
All of the stuff I love about Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction is here: corrupted nature; body horror; a decaying metropolis. Explorations of power and who wields it permeate (is it the Magician, who sells lies like a priestess sells religion- to comfort but also to control? Or Mord who, king-like, terrorises to rule? Or the Company, who ingest and spew out, a faceless, thoughtless consumerist nightmare that, unchecked, will destroy worlds?) And monsters! Such monsters, in every sense of the word. What makes a monster and what makes the opposite, a “person” – as Borne is so fond of saying and is so desperate to be – is another question that lurks behind much of the story.
I loved Borne’s upbringing with Rachel. What parent hasn’t heard many of Borne’s myriad, impossible-to-answer questions from their own offspring? And the way in which Rachel questions herself, doubts herself, blames herself… Well, I have definitely been there as a parent, many a time. Ultimately, it’s nature, not nurture, that wins out for Borne – or is it? Rachel comments, more than once, that Borne appeared to her the way he thought she wanted him to be. And Rachel surely wanted nothing so much as a weapon with which to rid the city of the blight of Mord.
There was a lot in this novel that for me echoed other fiction by VanderMeer, and not just the environmental themes or the beautiful, haunting descriptions of nature twisted. A big reveal towards the end, in particular, is reminiscent of a similar big reveal at the end of Finch. Rachel is a delightfully and self-consciously unreliable narrator, although not quite in the category of the narrators of Shriek: An Afterword, another of my favourites.
I loved the cyclical nature of much of what happened. Rachel salvaged Borne, Wick had once salvaged Rachel, Rachel salvaged Borne again. I felt it most strongly through the cycles of creation and destruction we see. The Company creates monstrosities, destroying worlds in the process, but ultimately these creations will remake the world. The magician (and Wick) create memories, but the magician destroys children to do so. The magician, and Rachel in her way, create monsters, as did Wick, and Wick and Rachel’s creations destroy each other, and in so doing, create a new world. Even Mord, who destroys so much, creates his proxies (who then go on to destroy.) Have I tied myself in enough of a knot yet?
I should probably stop here. I just loved loved loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Oh, and I want a swimming pool just like Wick’s.
How timely that I have just discovered this amazing, amazing show. I’m slowly working my way through all the episodes (I’m about to start Season 3) and really could not have discovered it at a better time. I mean, totally this, this week:
I’ve seen a few things likening the above Season 2 episode The Waldo Moment to the current political situation in America (and, really, elsewhere.) The episode is scarily prescient, not to mention terrifying, and is probably my favourite so far, along with Fifteen Million Merits.
It’s not just the relevance of the stories that makes it so worth watching. It’s unusual and refreshing to find a new show with an anthology format, and the discreteness of each episode is a good lesson in complete story construction. Though I have heard people compare the show to The Twilight Zone, among other things, it also reminds me of a series called The Outer Limits, which I felt was really underrated at the time (over twenty years ago, and itself a remake of an earlier series…. Ye gods, I’m getting old!)
Anyway… More Black Mirror for me. Far less terrifying, and far more sensible, than the real world right now.
I loved this radio piece on lucid dreaming. I’ve been a lucid dreamer since about age 8, although I will sometimes go for months without being able to properly control my dreams.
Like others mentioned in this, I used to suffer with terrible nightmares. I sucked my thumb until I was at least <mumble mumble> years old, and so when I went to sleep I’d tell myself over and over that if I had a nightmare, all I’d have to do is bite down and the pain would wake me up. So my first experience of lucid dreaming was desperately biting down while zombies chased me across my school playground. (Zombies… It was always zombies. This is also possibly where my love of zombies comes from.)
I’m often aware I’m dreaming, but am not always able to control the dreams, in a fully lucid sense. And I have learned to wake myself up out of a dream at will. All of which means I now rarely have nightmares.