Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dust by DJolder

This week Lightspeed Magazine published Dust by Daniel José Older.  I first encountered Daniel as one of the editors of Long Hidden, and he's an absolutely fantastic and thought provoking person to follow on Twitter (although too prolific for me to keep up with - I content myself with checking in periodically).  It would also be worth your time to take a couple minutes and check out this video on why not to italicize spanish in english language stories.

So when I learned that Daniel had a new story out, I went over to read Dust, and afterwards tweeted
Here's a bit of an expansion on that.  Not a review, more like a the encounter between Daniel's stories & my expectations:

I've been diving more into short fiction (inspired in large part by my enjoyment of Long Hidden) and am slowly realizing that I'm really searching for some "hard" sci-fi a la the Mesklin stories of Hal Clement.  (or something, because Married by Helena Bell, in Clarkesworlde's Upgraded absolutely clicked for me, despite not being that.  I have no idea what I want to read, but I need to practice letting the author guide me).  Dust is set on a mining operation on an asteroid covered in red dust and hurtling towards earth, but it's not a hard sci-fi story.  The opening paragraphs set the tone strongly:
Very late at night, when the buzz of drill dozers has died out, I can hear her breathing. I know that sounds crazy. I don’t care.
Tonight, I have to concentrate extra hard because there’s a man lying beside me; he’s snoring with the contented abandon of the well-fucked and all that panting has heavied up the air in my quarters. Still, I can hear her, hear her like she’s right behind my ear or curled up inside my heart. She’s not of course. If anything, I’m curled up in hers.
Even with this tone set, I never really just let Daniel's story carry me away as the protagonist Jax (whose body switches between male and female every few days) goes through a day of crisis while meeting an old friend and trying to save the earth.  I could have, but instead I kept finding myself wanting to yell "more of [shiny thing you hinted at]! less of [story that you're telling]!"
And the thing is, Dust is a very contained story focusing on Jax, their relationship with Maya, a friend from years ago back to make one final push to save the asteroid, and the miners that Jax (as chief engineer) supervises.  It packs an emotional punch and even as I sat and read and silently argued with it, I found myself admiring the transitions between scenes, and the craft with which Daniel built his story.  
After finishing Dust my grumbles went something like this:
So, wait, Jax just gets to make the asteroid swerve so that everything will be OK? That seems ... convenient.
Well, actually, it's pretty clear that Jax has some kind of relationship with the asteroid & the dust.  And within the first few paragraphs Daniel's established that, shown that this is partly because of Jax's status as an outsider, and hinted at why the asteroid/dust might be special.  But when Jax starts to explain, they're interrupted by a bar fight.  Because this isn't a story about dust technobabble.  It's about Jax and Maya and living on this asteroid as a genderqueer individual.
Yeah, speaking of that, Jax just switches sex every few days? What's up with that?  Where's the explanation for how that works?
There's no explanation.  This isn't a story about physio-babble about why someone's body changes.  It definitely does acknowledge the fetishization & bigotry that can result.  It alludes to the ways that this has always impacted Jax.  It talks about how the relationships Jax forms are colored by that identity, but gives Jax an identity beyond their genderqueerness.  In other words, it does a phenomenal job of making Jax a complete person, and putting a complete society around them.  Hell, it even alludes to the common stereotypes about gender and how those are complicated both by Jax's identity and just not always accurate.  Jax and the people and society around them are the best part of the story.  What are you complaining about?
OK, fair enough.  But speaking of this society, there are big political factions, an earth essentially destroyed by the "Chemical Barons", a giant universe around this story.  I like space operas.  Can I have some of that, please?
Here's where I finally realized what was going on.  I went in with my own expectations and tried to fit Dust into them.  And Dust does contain the seeds of a lot of other stories.  Stories that could be giant space operas, hard sci-fi explorations, or even further explorations of relationships and identity that don't cleanly fit into society.  But Dust is an amazing story of Jax and Maya and a moment of crisis.  I liked it a lot, but my strongest reaction was that it's really smart.  Daniel knew the story he wanted to tell, and nestled it neatly among a setting so convincingly realized that I wandered off on my own, trying to get my stories shoehorned in.  
I'm starting to understand the impulse towards fanfic.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tools for blogging & notes

This evening on Twitter, a question came up that I've struggled with a few times.

I haven't really worked on fiction or long-form writing (and handling putting a few pieces like different chapters together presents it's own challenge), but I have tried various versions of getting writing on a schedule under control.  Here's what I've worked on (blogging wise), with a slight bias towards iOS & Mac, but probably applicable to all operating systems.

(tl;dr is at the bottom.  The really short version is that at last for me, there were a lot of equally good/bad ways to organize things, picking a system & actually sticking with it is the solution I needed)

When I think about blogging, it generally comes in 4 parts:

  • Capturing the first inspiration.  (i.e. "I should really write about various tech solutions to blogging, because I'm not the only person who's struggled with this).
  • Getting that first inspiration into wherever I'm actually writing (be that Google Drive/Evernote/Text File/Blogging Platform)
  • Turning inspiration into a real draft
  • (Here I bet other people revise, maybe multiple times)
  • Putting on the final polishes and schedule/post.

I'm going to start with the "wherever I'm writing" section, then look at capture, write & revise, and finally post.  It's worth pointing out that I don't hold myself to a schedule, so I don't see these as "To-Do" items.  I'll allude to those in a few places though.

Writing a blog post can go in a few different places.  Usually the WSIWYG/HTML editors of a Wordpress or Blogger blog are the worst actual writing experience (I've definitely had a few "didn't save" snafu's, especially going between website & mobile app), but at least there's no need to copy from what you wrote somewhere into the blog engine, and then clean up formatting.  Something like Google Drive has the huge advantage of being accessible everywhere, probably the best collaborative tools of any option, and a folder structure.  Honestly, though, I can't really imagine using Google Drive if I weren't thinking about collaboration.

Mostly because Dropbox exists.  For text-heavy things like blog posts, it's pretty straightforward to install dropbox (again, everywhere, like Google Drive), use your text-editor of choice (MS Word on Windows? I'm sure there's better.  I like TextWrangler on the Mac) and one of the infinite dropbox-compatible writing apps on a mobile device.  Dropbox supports versioning if desired & moving between folders, so if you're not thinking about collaboration it's as good as Google Drive.  The "win" part is the "any compatible writing apps on a mobile device".  There are plenty of good text editors for phones.  The google drive apps aren't nearly as polished as dedicated text editors (at least on iOS), and when I was last looking there were plenty of good apps that would work with dropbox files but not Google Drive, hence the advantage.

Another approach entirely is to use Evernote.  Like Dropbox and Google Drive, it's ubiquitous.  Unlike the other two, which are oriented around "files", Evernote is oriented around "notes" (which can be text, pictures, audio, attached files, or any combination).  Notes can have "tags" and be in different "notebooks" (basically folders).  When it comes down to it, though, a note is essentially a text document just like you'd be working on with Dropbox or Google Drive.  (It does seem to be easier to integrate images if desired).  Evernote does have a powerful (if somewhat geeky) search tool, so that you could have saved searches for "blog posts in draft form" or "posts ready to put up", and with a simple tag change, you can move between them.  (Equivalent to moving among folders in drive/dropbox).  Evernote's advantage is the ability to associate reminders to notes.  Now if you want to get something written by Thursday, you can create the rough draft, put a reminder on it for Tuesday, and have a notification pop up & the note easy to find.

Really, though, the default WordPress/Blogger page, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote are very similar ways to store the content of blog posts you're working on.  Google Drive is best for collaboration, Evernote may have an edge if you want reminders, Dropbox if there's an actual text editor you like using, and the WordPress/Blogger page/app if your biggest thing is not wanting to clean up the post after copy/pasting it in.  (I use Blogger's site & app because I've made a mess of Google Drive & Evernote and feel like I'd have to organize them (probably untrue), and if I started using Dropbox I'd dive down the rabbit hole of investigating text editing apps).

Having decided on where your content will live, an important question is how to get it in?  You can always just load up your app of choice, make a few quick notes, then close out, but sometimes (like when a tweet prompts the blog post), that's not ideal.  With Evernote, you have a special email address you can send to that will create a note.  Google Drive & probably Dropbox could approximate this with IFTTT (If This Then That), and both Wordpress & Blogger have "email into" options as well.  On iOS there's a phenomenal app called "Drafts" specifically for taking quick notes.  You launch directly into a place to enter text, and then at the bottom, you get to choose where to route the text (Twitter, Evernote, append to a file in dropbox ... the options are very diverse).  Once again, though, there's very little between the different options to make a clear "winner" in the "how do I jot a quick note using my phone" category.  (Or the "having jotted a quick note on paper like a barbarian, how do I get it to be the seed of a blog post?" category)

With each tool, I find I always need to do final polish on an actual computer, and I tend to just default to the Blogger/Wordpress page for adding tags/categories, scheduling posts, putting in links, and making sure the formatting is correct.  Copy/Pasting in from another tool usually adds some kind of formatting issue, but again nothing insurmountable.

Essentially, then, you have a bunch of tools with slightly different strengths/weaknesses, but all of them are ubiquitous, make it easy to add new content, make it easy to revise content (generally I find it harder to revise on the phone, but that's a limitation of the phone size), and then final posting is easiest sitting in front of the computer.  The times I've tried to get myself to do regular blogging, my problem is usually forgetting about a step, or being intimidated by it:  I'll remember to add lots of notes about possible blog topics, but then never check the "Draft" folder when I'm thinking of writing one.  Or I'll think that "blog posts take way to long for this chunk of time" and therefore never get around to writing.  Or I'll get something written on the phone, but forget to do the final updates on the computer.  Plus, I always wanted to tinker, trying out new apps or processes rather than just working on the habit of writing.

Somewhere in there, you also need to consider what's going to be "fun" for you.  I really like charts, and the notion of passively tracking progress (and then suddenly realizing "Oh wow, I wrote many words!").  Jamie Todd Rubin has made available a pretty cool set of scripts that pulls data out of the writing he does in google drive in order to build those charts & progress reports for him.  If that's your thing, Google Drive may be an especially good resource.

When I've been successful, I scripted my process.  I sat down and wrote out how I would capture inspiration that came to me, up to the point where I created it as a draft post.  Then I sketched out times that I would write posts (again, I don't really revise much as you can probably tell).  I had a goal for how many posts I would write, and tracked that.  I used a todo app (OmniFocus is good for Mac/iOS folks.  Remember the Milk seems to be most closely integrated with Gmail, Things is another popular one that seems to be just about everywhere.  Wunderlist may win on the "pretty" factor, which is not to be ignored).  Since all of the solutions about let you associate your post with a URL, it's pretty easy to have a todo item that's "revise this post" and link directly to the post.

It was actually a kind of a nice system for a while.  Then the child stopped taking naps ...


  • Write posts in:
    • Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, or the App/Website of your blogging engine
      • Google Drive - easiest collaboration tools
      • Dropbox - real files (can be comforting for those of us used to files), probably integrates with your favorite text editor if you have one
      • Evernote - can do geeky searches/tagging systems to organize things, has built in reminders
      • Blogger/Wordpress - no worry about formatting issues when you copy/paste in
  • Pick a way to add post ideas
    • Email short notes into Evernote/Blogger/Wordpress, or use the Google Drive/Text Edit app, or an IFTTT recipe to get notes into Drive/Dropbox
  • Script your process & notice where your hangups are
    • I like to change tools all the time, and always put off actually writing posts
      • I wrote out my process with existing tools so I wouldn't change
      • I scheduled time to write
  • If you want to use a reminder/todo system to help remember the steps, there's probably one built into your system.  Other options include
    • Wunderlist - very pretty, can flag/mark recurring, not the best at nested tasks
    • Remember the Milk - closely tied to gmail
    • Things - Better at projects with nested tasks, I think
    • Evernote - very light "todo" options with checkboxes/reminders, but can ALSO be your writing tool

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review - Crossed Genres Issue 22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs

There's a great deal of interest in short fiction reviews right now, and after my experiences with Long Hidden and Women Destroy Science Fiction (very excited that Women Destroy Fantasy & Women Destroy Horror also just came out, although I'll probably be skipping horror stories), I'm trying to read more short stories as well.  Crossed Genres Issue #22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs came out yesterday, and I found myself enjoying (not unreservedly) all three stories in the issue.

Mabo by Megan Chaudhuri is a far-future tale set on a distant planet.  The problem of interstellar travel has been solved by sending off robots implanted with human embryos and maternal programming to raise the first generation of humans on arrival.  The protagonist is one of those children, raised alone (most robots raised 2-3 children) and born without arms.  She tells the stories of discovering that difference to her own children, eventually coming to an understanding and reconciliation with her mother-robot, Mabo.  Of the three stories, Mabo most clearly highlights the differences of purpose-built robots.  Mabo herself is easy to visualize, alien, and maternal. The child is perhaps overly naive, but strong and charming.  The ending felt a bit rushed, but I appreciated the complexity and nuance of attempting to reconcile a purpose-built, algorithm-driven machine, with the maternal instincts and drive that those algorithms were intended to create.  My main complaints are the brief interludes with the children, which may be necessary for pacing and occasionally worldbuilding, but mostly just dragged me out of the story building between the girl and her mother.  Also, the language occasionally jumped to light vulgarity in ways that didn't feel particularly natural.  This might have been an intentional play on how robots, and those raised by them, would use different rules for escalating to curses, but I found it jarring.  Of the three stories, Mabo was my favorite.

When They Come Back by Natalia Theodoridou is the story of a wandering cyborg and an angel in a post apocalyptic setting.  The "they" of the title are humans, who have disappeared from the land.  Now most cyborgs hunt angels, who can change their shape (and apparently need to change periodically as they grow exhausted).  Our two main characters wander, looking for hope, and exchanging fantasies about what will happen When They Come Back.  The plot, such as there is, is episodic, with the sense that the story could be continued almost indefinitely if the author wanted to pull out other themes from this world.  Most of the episodes lying between the beginning and the end felt a bit weak, and while I plan a separate post specifically about how I reacted to two of the episodes & what that says about my reading expectations, it's not clear why the story is the length it is, rather than adding or removing an episode.

The ending of When They Come Back is enigmatic, and perhaps over dramatic, but despite my complaints about the episodic nature of the story (again I think this partly reflects my own expectations that stories of any length should point towards ending and get there with all deliberate speed), I found the atmosphere evocative and enjoyable.  I didn't love the story, but I'd like to rediscover it from time to time. I suspect I'd highlight different elements each time.

The concluding story in the anthology, Daddy's Girl, by Eleanor R. Wood, is also the weakest, though even this one managed to finish quickly enough I didn't dislike it.  The premise is that through an experimental procedure the girl's father has been transferred into a robot body, and then the software crashes, leaving him unresponsive.  The story gestures towards a series of dismal economic trends in order to leave the girl without any means to repair her father: the company that originally made the father goes out of business, there is a lack of new research in the field due to economic downturn, the consequences of income inequality are manifested as the girl takes up a paper route in an attempt to save up for the impossibly high fees any repair would cost, and even when she becomes a researcher, she is isolated by the scheming of her fellow academics.  While elements of the story are familiar, there's not enough groundwork to support them.  This would be a problem if the complex setup was more than an opportunity to tell a heartwarming story about a girl driven from a young age to serious studies in order to be reunited with her father.  Beth is just charming and dedicated enough that the story finishes with a warm glow before exasperation at the details take it down.

With a collection, it's worth examining the whole as well as the parts.  In this issue, Crossed Genres tackled Robots, Androids and Cyborgs with a story that presented robots governed by specific yet flexible algorithms, cyborgs whose behavior is nearly indistinguishable from humans other than an irreversible directive against self harm, and an android housing a human identity in all it's complexity.  Between them, the three stories present a variety of relationships and technologies that seem startlingly feasible.  I enjoyed all three of the stories (which I had not expected), and I think they fit well together in imagining ways that we may relate to our technology in its increasing complexity.  As I reflect on the theme, the imagined identities and levels of technology seem somewhat parochial - I would have enjoyed a story utilizing technologies qualitatively different from those we now imagine, rather than simply the added quantitative complexity, and I would have liked a theme that addressed how we now interact in an increasingly connected world.  This issue feels like it could have been imagined and written years ago, rather than imagining a future to come.

That having been said, I enjoyed all three of these stories and think they nicely complement each other.  Mabo is an enjoyable story that does a fundamentally important job of illustrating the differences, strengths and limitations of humans and robots, and reconciling them in a single community and family.  When They Come Back does not lend itself to easy interpretation, and is one that I would like to read and revisit for years to come.  Even Daddy's Girl managed to overcome weaknesses in the premise to charm me into rooting for a long desired family reunion.  Crossed Genres Issue 22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs is worth a read.

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*Unfinished - My reactions to a pair of episodes in When They Come Back and what I think they reveal about my expectations as a reader.