New for you to read, new for me to write – anthologies from ZNB

The mass market edition of The Death of All Things is now available, and as those who backed last year’s Kickstarter can attest, having already had their copies, it’s an anthology full of excellent stories.

So do take a look over at your preferred e-retailer, whether that’s Amazon UK or somewhere else, for tales taking on the Grim Reaper with explorations of the mythical, fantastical, and futuristic bonds between life and death. Learn the cost of mortality, the perils—and joys—of the afterlife, and the potential pitfalls of immortality …

The authors are – K. M. Laney, Andrea Mullen, Faith Hunter, Kendra Leigh Speedling, Jason M. Hough, Julie Pitzel, Shaun Avery, Christie Golden, Leah Cutter, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Dunlop, Juliet E. McKenna, A. Merc Rustad, Ville Meriläinen, Amanda Kespohl, Mack Moyer, Fran Wilde, Kathryn McBride, Andrija Popovic, Jim C. Hines, Stephen Blackmoore, and Kiya Nicoll.

Are some of those names unfamiliar? They surely will be, because one of the many good things about these anthologies from ZNB is the editorial team’s dedication to including new voices by offering slots to unpublished writers, via an open call for submissions once the Kickstarter funding is secured. If you’re an aspiring writer, do keep your eyes open for the submission guidelines for this year’s new projects, and take note that ZNB is now a qualifying market for SFWA membership requirements. Meantime, Joshua Palmatier has written this in-depth post for File 770 on what he looks for through the selection process.

This dedication to new voices is just one reason why I and other writers keep coming back to be part of ZNB projects. Others include (but are not limited to) their high standards in editorial feedback and book production, and being paid a professional rate. ZNB may be a small press but they’re thoroughly professional when it comes to creating books worth having for the reader, and worth doing for the writer, whether you’re not yet published, just starting out, or an established author.

While you’re browsing, take a look at the other ZNB anthologies out this month. All Hail Our Robot Conquerors harks back to SF of the 1950s and 60s and the era of evil robot overlords, invading cyber armies, and not-quite-trustworthy mechanical companions. Submerged turns its back on deep space to stare into deep water. Do dark monsters swim unseen beneath the waves? What ancient wonders lie hidden, waiting to be discovered? What sirens call …?

I mentioned this year’s new projects earlier. Here’s the Kickstarter page with all the information you’ll be looking for.

I’m signed up for SECOND ROUND: A RETURN TO THE UR-BAR, alongside Jacey Bedford, C.E. Murphy, Kari Sperring, Kristine Smith and Gini Koch. This is going to be great fun, since the 2011 publication by DAW Books of AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR, was the very first anthology edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier. That’s what started them down the road which eventually led to the formation of the small press Zombies Need Brains. So I’m looking forward to returning to that legendary time-travelling bar with all-new stories set throughout the ages. Let me repeat that – “all new” means none of us are returning to the era we visited before, as the immortal bartender Gilgamesh serves up drinks mixed with magic and a dash of intrigue.

What will I be writing? Well, provided this year’s Kickstarter gets funded, I can tell you this much. It’ll be a SF story set on Mars a couple of centuries from now. Writing SF for the Eve of War anthology, and for Novacon, last year seems to have whetted my appetite…

This also gives me the opportunity to offer up a Tuckerisation as a reward at the $250 pledge level. Fancy seeing your name – or someone else’s – in print as a character in my story? I’m also offering a signed set of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy as one of the $90 pledges. There are a whole lot of other incentives and add-ons, so do check them out!

Brief memories of Brian Aldiss

I was sorry to hear of Brian Aldiss’s death at the weekend. Like almost everyone else I know in SF and Fantasy circles, his writing was an early discovery to draw me into the genre and an influence thereafter, from his short fiction to his Helliconia books and beyond. I also had the great good fortune to meet him and hear him talking about well, life, the universe and everything else on various occasions over more than thirty years.

The first occasion was as an undergraduate, when he was a guest at the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group annual dinner. He had been instrumental in founding the society, along with C.S. Lewis. He explained with withering sarcasm how the Powers That Were at the time refused to allow it to be called a Science Fiction club, in case the word ‘science’ misled anyone into thinking there would be serious, academic discussions and pursuits involved. It was very apparent he did not suffer fools gladly.

Hearing him give a talk or being interviewed, it was equally apparent he was wholly unsentimental about his early life, the ups and downs of writing and publishing and indeed, about old age. One of the last times I saw him was when we did an event in support of a local library six years or so ago, where we talked to a packed audience about our respective careers and approaches to writing SF and to writing Fantasy. Sharing a stage with Brian Aldiss on that basis? Imposter syndrome – I had it!

Anyway, given where we both lived, I was happy to help out the organisers, by going to pick him up, drive him to the venue, and take him home afterwards. So after he’d invited me into his home to show me a new piece of art he was very excited about, we chatted in the car all the way there and later, all the way back. Among any number of other topics, he told me with great animation about the display the Bodleian Library was planning about his life and work, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. Then there was the new book of articles and such coming out, An Exile on Planet Earth, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. That was the secret to living as long as possible, he reckoned sunnily; keeping the diary full!

Unsentimental and not suffering fools gladly? If that makes him sound unapproachable, nothing could be further from the truth, certainly in my experience. At that library event, he was genuinely and keenly interested in everything I had to say about my own approach to writing, comparing and contrasting his experiences and my own. There was no hint that he considered SF in any way superior to Fantasy. Good writing: that was the thing, regardless of genre.

Subsequently, he sent me an invitation to the launch party for An Exile on Planet Earth where I had the great pleasure of meeting many of his friends, family members and admirers. That was a busy evening, at the end of a very long day for him. When I went to get my copy signed, he greeted me with a charming smile and said, ‘now, my dear, you’ll have to forgive me, I am an old man. Remind me who we are to each other?’ I cannot think of a more straightforward and gracious way of handling that moment when you can’t quite place someone. He wasn’t going to bluff or dissemble, that simply wasn’t in his character. So I smiled back and mentioned the library event we’d done. ‘Oh, yes!’ he said with enthusiasm, going on to ask how I was getting on with various writing projects we’d discussed in the car.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to have spent such time with him.

First Chapter Friday – Eastern Tide

Here’s where you can read the first chapter of Eastern Tide.

This fourth volume wraps up The Aldabreshin Compass, bringing our hero Kheda full circle, as he realises no matter how far he travels, he cannot leave his obligations and responsibilities behind.

On the other hand, everything he has seen and experienced means he’s a very different man to the warlord he was when his domain and the Archipelago first came under attack. How can he resolve that particular conflict?

And once again, Ben Baldwin did a superb job with the new ebook edition cover.

Cover reveal for ‘The Death of All Things’ anthology

Here’s the eerily beautiful cover for the next Zombies Need Brains anthology THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS, edited by Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson. You can preorder the Kickstarter edition or ebook at the ZNB online store and get the anthology early. (While you’re there, why not check out the other upcoming anthologies?) The general trade paperback edition will be available on September 1st.

I’m one of twenty-two writers considering the Grim Reaper through mythical, fantastical, and futuristic portrayals of what we may encounter between life and death, and what may lie beyond. What does that teach us about the lives we live first? My own story is called ‘A Constant Companion‘.

Personally, I can’t wait to read the other stories from: K. M. Laney, Andrea Mullen, Faith Hunter, Kendra Leigh Speedling, Jason M. Hough, Julie Pitzel, Shaun Avery, Christie Golden, Leah Cutter, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Dunlop, Juliet E McKenna, A. Merc Rustad, Ville Meriläinen, Amanda Kespohl, Mack Moyer, Fran Wilde, Kathryn McBride, Andrija Popovic, Jim C. Hines, Stephen Blackmoore, and Kiya Nicoll.

Cover art by Justin Adams. Cover design by C. Lennox Graphics, LLC.

As sharp-eyed observers will note, there’s some redesign going on…

Issues with WordPress and its technical underpinnings mean we need to do some updating and rethinking hereabouts.

Bear with us, as Cheryl deals with my inability to visualise things until I can actually see them, or the lack of them, and thus make up my mind…

We will endeavour to have everything sorted and stable as soon as possible.

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. Third post in this series

And so we come to War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest in what now seems to be an ongoing series of films rather than merely a trilogy. We see where events since the last movie have led us, as man’s arrogance encompasses his own downfall. Will the unexpected consequences of bio-technology offer other primates a chance at the top slot?

Technologically, the film is a tour de force. What motion capture and CGI can do is astonishing – you really cannot see where reality stops and special effects start. So far, so increasingly common these days. But great special effects are not enough, as rather too many movies fail to realise. A film like this must also have sufficiently strong central performances to make it a drama, not merely a spectacle. Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson deliver absolutely what’s needed. The dynamic between Caesar, leader of the apes, and Colonel McCullough, commanding an embattled remnant of humanity, is tense and compelling from start to finish.

Mankind’s inhumanity to man is front and centre, compared and contrasting with the apes’ mutually supportive culture. All Caesar and his kind want is to be left alone. Colonel McCullough needs an enemy to fight though, and unable to attack the virus that’s been humanity’s downfall, finds the scapegoats he needs in the apes.

As a war film, the movie wears its influences unashamedly on its sleeve, most obviously, though not exclusively films exploring the Vietnam War. It can absolutely and legitimately be called Ape-ocalypse Now. This is not merely retreading those footsteps though. Such echoes, and other references such as the slang names for servile apes, serve to tie this dystopian future to our own reality. There’s also the inescapable fact that the Vietnam War proved the hollowness of the American doctrine of ‘peace through superior firepower’. That undercurrent continually runs beneath our viewing of events where armed men seem to have an inescapable whip hand over apes with severely limited abilities to fight back. Beware assumptions.

Issues of gender in this movie are more complex than they might first appear, certainly as far as I am concerned. I’m using words like ‘man’ and ‘him’ advisedly because this is very male-gaze apocalypse. Not however, one where masculinity-under-threat-in-this-modern-liberal-world can finally come good, with its guns and its manly men taking charge of helpless women and children to save the day.

This is a story about the dead-end destructiveness of arrogant white male masculinity so used to solving everything with aggression that it’s incapable of thinking outside that self-defeating box. That influences my response to the widespread online comment about the complete absence of female voices in the dialogue (apart from possibly one female soldier’s scream?) The one significant human female role is mute and childlike in the most literal sense, and while a couple of female apes have things to say, they do so through sign language. Could one view the lack of female voices as a feature rather than a bug, if one were prepared to squint a bit…? Then there’s the almost-gender-neutral appearance of the apes apart from the females’ apparent (and to my mind inexplicable) inclination to unflattering central partings and rustic ear decoration. I think there’s more to be discussed about the absence of female characters here than might be first apparent. Is that very absence what permits masculinity to turn so toxic?

Not that this excuses the use of perhaps the laziest motivate-your-male-protagonist cliche in the first act of the movie. There are other script-writing choices I can quibble with, most notably some utterly bone-headed human tactics as the film rushes to its conclusion.

A fourth movie is reportedly under discussion, or development, depending on what you read. I’ll be very interested to see it, provided that the writers can offer something more than man and ape in conflict. These films have done that, and done it well, but the story needs to move on. In my head at least, there must be other corners of this world where the post-apocalypse is working out differently, with male and female voices contributing equally to co-operation rather than conflict. I’d like to see how that’s working out, given so many challenges will still remain to drive a story.

First Chapter Friday – Western Shore, Book 3 of The Aldabreshin Compass

One of the underlying themes of The Aldabreshin Compass series is the burden of rule. Rank has its obligations as well as its privileges. By this point in the story, our hero, the warlord Kheda feels increasingly under pressure from the expectations and assumptions of all those he rules over, all the more so because his own world view is changing in ways he cannot share.

Something’s got to give, but what? Or should that be who and where?

You can read the opening chapter to Western Shore by clicking here.

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. Second post in this series.

Spiderman: Homecoming continues to build on, and expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While, and oh, thank heavens, it’s not another Spiderman origin story retread, it does an excellent job of refocusing the character on its original appeal at the same time as updating and integrating the High School Hero into the modern day. As a decades-long fan of the comic, I’m thrilled to see a young, nerdy Peter Parker, while also very much appreciating a younger, more modern, far more relatable Aunt May rather than a grey-haired granny stereotype.

With its smaller scale and 80s-teen-movie vibe, the film is in many ways lighter in tone than other recent and forthcoming MCU movies. A story feels much less oppressive when the oncoming disaster is humiliation at a teenage party rather than global annihilation by aliens or android armies. On the other hand, that tighter focus and scenario simultaneously makes this story far more personal. We can empathise far more readily with the reality of that situation whereas we could only ever be onlookers in need of rescue from Ultron or the Chitauri. When a shop which Peter regularly visits, where we know he chats with the owner, becomes collateral damage – that has an emotional impact which can sometimes be lacking in the CGI-spectacular destruction of faceless hordes.

I also like the way that Peter’s school and classmates are portrayed. He’s attending a specialist science and technology school, where being intelligent is the norm, not a reason for ridicule. Yes, he has a bullying nemesis, in keeping with the High School vibe, but that lad doesn’t mock Peter’s brains, rather he’s jealous of his place on the Academic Decathlon team. Yes, there’s a roly-poly, nerdy sidekick, but he’s extremely bright and capable when it comes to playing his own vital role in the plot. Success in the Academic Decathlon is presented as a worthwhile victory to strive for. All of which might be merely worthy if it wasn’t for the presence of Tony Stark. We all know Tony’s off-the-scale-brilliant but one thing his involvement in these events highlights is the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Tony doesn’t listen, he’s arrogant, and he shrugs off what doesn’t interest him. That sets the tone that his employees adopt. It’s Peter who learns the lessons that result from the consequences of Tony’s mistakes – as well as his own teenage missteps, of course.

Michael Keaton is a stellar villain whose coherent motivation is so much more convincing and complex than mere motiveless malignity. Beneath the patent injustice and/or callousness that sparks his initial grievance, there are also a good few questions posed about the roles of big business and government and what happens to ordinary people when politicians and billionaires organise the world to suit themselves. With great power, comes great responsibility. Someone should remind them of that. Which is not to say Adrian Toombs is some misunderstood and wronged individual who warrants our sympathy. He has made his own choices, consciously and deliberately for years now, and as we see, is utterly ruthless in pursuit of his goals. We can believe that Peter is in very real danger, thanks to Michael Keaton’s performance and the personal nature of their conflict.

So far, so good, however … there’s still no getting away from the most abiding and persistent problem of superhero movies based on characters with a decades-long back story. Yes, I mean the roles for women, drawn from source material written when very different cultural archetypes went unquestioned. Once again, the girls are peripheral to the male-focused action, only present in the stereotypical roles of objects of desire, domestic helpmeets and damsels in distress. The writers and actors make heroic efforts to lift the female characters above such clichés but even with the appearance of Mary Beth Lacey, apparent now working for Homeland Security or some such, there’s only so much they can do here. I can only hope that the hints of more and better to come in the next movie are fulfilled, from Michelle in particular – as long as they can do that without mangling the essence of the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman whom we know and love. I’ve had quite enough of that sort of thing with DC turning Superman supposedly dark and edgy and in the process erasing so much of his core character.

Oh hey, how about some more female-led superhero movies? That would work to elevate women and to offer girls their own role models, without eradicating the men. How about we stop looking at this as a zero sum game?

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. First of a series.

It’s been an interesting last little while in the SFF genre, notably for those of us keeping a watching brief on gender issues alongside our uncomplicated enjoyment of superheroes and the fantastic. But rather than demand your time and attention for an extended read on them all at once, here’s the first in a series of related (and hopefully not too spoilery) posts.

Wonder Woman was good fun. I most definitely appreciated seeing strong, athletic women taking charge of their own destiny on Themiscyra, and wearing costumes that drew far more on classical Mediterranean leather armour than on lingerie. Putting Diana into Great War London and seeing the clash of cultures that followed worked well, both in terms of the film, and incidentally to highlight today’s obdurate misogyny. Lucy Davis as Etta Candy gives a performance that’s central to exploring those particular themes all the more effectively through humour. I thought Chris Pine gives a good account of himself, and personally I didn’t feel his presence turned the film into All About Steve. Mind you, there really should be a law against anyone called Steve flying off alone a plane in a superhero movie now. There’s no telling what will follow…

Is this an particularly feminist movie? Not to my mind. Let’s not forget, Diana’s plot ultimately revolves around a response to male aggression. So far, so predictably defining a woman’s role as reactive to a man’s. On the other hand, there are some thoughtful asides on the causes of war and no over-soft-pedalling the dire practical and psychological consequences for men and women alike. Having a female villain in Doctor Poison was a good choice, though let’s not forget she is subservient to a man. But then again, this is set in 1918 … so … would a female villain with more overt agency have been anachronistic? There are arguments on both sides. Not least because a more overtly feminist movie would have offered endless ammunition to those primed to attack it as ‘message fiction’ long before they’d seen the opening credits.

All told, I felt Sameer and Napi were badly underused which meant their contribution ended up as primarily ‘see how prejudice extends to race as well as gender?’ rather than having that assuredly valid point made incidentally to more rounded roles for those particular characters. That said, making such roles meatier would mean extending a film with a run time that’s already well over two hours. Oh, here’s a thought? Maybe dial back the extended CGI-spectacular scenes just a bit here and there? Use those saved minutes for more interesting character exploration?

The film did drive a galloping coach and horses through established Greek myth, as I observed as we left the cinema. ‘I thought Greek myths had all sorts of variations?’ remarked one son. ‘That’s your biggest problem with a story set in a universe where a man dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime?’ queried the other. Well, yes, fair comment, both. The unexpected appearance of Spud from Trainspotting did also distract me. Just like my flashback to Renton’s toilet-dive when I watched Obi Wan Kenobi et al visit the underwater city in The Phantom Menace. But that’s probably just me…

So overall I thought it was a good, fun film rather than a great, deeply-meaningful one. I mean, compared to … oh, wait, there are no other female-led superhero movies to compare it to, are there? So let’s not get hypercritical here. As a foundation to build on, and as a film that proves that a female superhero can light up the box office with a good, fun, adventure story that everyone can enjoy, it’s exactly what we need at the moment.

1st Chapter Friday – Northern Storm, Book 2 of The Aldabreshin Compass

In a week that’s seen more tedious instances of people with no real knowledge of genre asserting that women don’t or can’t write SF or Fantasy*, here’s a little something to prove otherwise.

And if you’re expecting any kind of dragon that’s prepared to live alongside humans, think again…

Feel free to spread the word.

Here’s the first chapter of Northern Storm.

artwork by Ben Baldwin

* No, I’m not going to link. Like just about every female writer I know, I am sick to death of this endlessly recurrent nonsense.