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Sue Burke
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I’ve read all the short fiction finalists for this year’s Hugo Awards, and I have opinions.

NOVELLA

“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor
The protagonist just happens to be able to solve all the problems of the story – too often by coincidence rather than by her own effort. She just happens to have a special artifact, and her cosmetic just happens to ... well, no spoilers. A dire predicament is solved too easily. However, her anguish at both her danger and her otherness is vividly portrayed, and her home culture proves to hold depth and strength to help her through her crisis.

“The Builders” by Daniel Polansky
A fairy tale about personified animals – but not for children. The body count is far too high and vivid for children, as is the cold, murderous greed and revenge that motivates the story’s mice, rats, stoats, owls, rattlesnakes, badgers, cats.... Kids would enjoy the jokes and comic asides, though. It might not be my favorite, but it may well be yours.

“Penric’s Demon” by Lois McMaster Bujold
Told with a spare style, generous with humor, low on tension and surprises, and rich with world-building and believable detail. Satisfying, except that it felt more like the start of a novel than like a complete novella.

“Perfect State” by Brandon Sanderson
This Gary Stu is about a brain in a jar “living” in a fantasy world where he is all-powerful and beloved. Then he is ordered to reproduce with a female (also a brain in a jar), and, although this reproduction would be fantasy, for some pointless reason it must be enacted in real-life-like bodies. The story also involves stereotyped women and, of course, a chance for Gary Stu to be a hero.

“Slow Bullets” by Alastair Reynolds
The plot twists back and forth as the survivors of a war disaster discover that they have in fact survived even worse multiple disasters and face grave responsibilities. My only tiny quibble is that the final twist should have been better foreshadowed at the beginning – otherwise, superbly told.

NOVELETTE

“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
A hyper-violent, grim, profanity-ridden love story crammed with more metaphors and similes than a classroom assignment executed by a first-year bipolar MFA student suffering a psychosis-level attack of mania. If I were the professor, I’d give it an A anyway: effective futuristic feel and setting, vivid characters, and compelling plot with a nice twist at the end.

“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai
This story serves as a scaffold for a chronological recital of hardware, especially weapons, employed during a space alien attack, with a predictable plot and characters who exist mostly to activate said hardware. An O’Reilly® reference text, despite other similarities, offers more human emotion and surprises.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
The setting turns out to be one big, scary metaphor about current social problems – one of the fine things that science fiction can do best. The style feels a bit odd compared to standard Western storytelling (an observation, not a complaint). In the course of the narration, the idea of folding an entire city, and the reason behind it, becomes believable. Hao’s story enriches this year’s Hugo ballot.

“Obits” by Stephen King
A burgeoning journalist discovers he has a unique skill with obituaries. Compared to Brooke Bolander’s story, “Obits” feels tame and bland, and the protagonist is a feckless coward, so the story is shallow: the potential consequences of the skill are avoided rather than explored.

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke
The big surprise is obvious rather early on. One thing this story – and others like it – never explains is why aliens desperately want to conquer Earth’s solar system. What do we have that’s not easily available everywhere else without a fight? The writing is competent, but that isn’t enough to rank this story among the year’s best.

SHORT STORY

“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris
This is neither fiction nor a story – and an obvious insult unworthy of nomination or your time – but at least it is blessedly short.

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon
This story goes on too long for its content even though it’s flash fiction: a one-joke monologue from an alien invader who doesn’t understand human biology and is incapable of learning.

“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
It’s hard to be funny, but this story about a well-meaning, frustrated AI might make you laugh out loud. The story also examines human foibles and dissects our current obsessions, which is a noble use for science fiction. It was my choice for the Nebulas. If you haven’t read it, please do: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_01_15/

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao
Part of the There Will Be War Volume X anthology, like some other nominees, this story’s war begins as the Chinese – the unredeemably eeeviiilll Chinese – without a second thought prepare to engage in the largest genocide in history. A tale told artlessly and unconvincingly.

“Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle
Not Hugo material, simply a gay erotic story with science fiction trappings. Lots of typos, too. This was nominated to demean the awards, but Mr. Tingle has handled the situation constructively, with grace and wit, and he deserves respect for that. And the story is not the worst of the nominees, not at all.

— Sue Burke

1st-Jun-2016 11:34 am - The Holy Grail – found!
Let me see..
I’ve seen three Holy Grails – not that I was looking for them, but I got lucky anyway.

The Holy Grail, of course, is the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and which was used to catch his blood as he hung on the Cross. In medieval times, stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table recounted quests for the Holy Grail, and eventually belief in its existence became widespread – including the assertion that drinking from the grail conveyed immortality.



One magnificent grail is the agatschate or agate bowl on display in the Imperial Treasury at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. It measures 30 inches / 76 cm from handle to handle and was carved from a single block of agate. On the basis of beauty alone – still in perfect condition – it merits the status of treasure. Probably, it was carved for the court of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century and came to western Europe when Constantinople fell in 1204.

If you look at the bowl in the right light, you can sometimes see the letters “XRISTO.” This natural result of the veins in the agate for a time was taken as proof that this was the Holy Grail.

But isn’t a “grail” a drinking vessel? No. The word originally meant a serving dish, bowl, or cup.

Is it worth seeing? The bowl is housed in the House of Habsburg Imperial Treasury, which contains room after room of splendid secular and ecclesiastical riches including the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, made over a thousand years ago and still sparkling like new; important historic relics including wood from the True Cross; and the treasury of the Knights of the Golden Fleece. After my visit, I realized that never before and probably never again will I be surrounded by so much gold and so many diamonds, pearls, and enormous gemstones. Go – and be prepared to be dazzled.



Another candidate for Holy Grail is the Chalice of Doña Urraca made in the 11th century and on display at the Museum and Pantheon at San Isidoro Basilica in León, Spain. It is an agate chalice that was encrusted with gold and jewels on orders of Urraca of Zamora (1033 - 1101), daughter of King Ferdinand I the Great.

The princesses of the royal family were charged with the care, maintenance, and control of many of the churches and monasteries in the kingdom, and they often commissioned magnificent works to enrich and ennoble them. The cup and base of the chalice are made of agate pieces from Roman times, and Doña Urraca had them united and decorated.

No one seemed to think it was the Holy Grail until the appearance of a 2014 book, Los Reyes del Grial (The Royalty of the Grail) by Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega del Río, which claimed it was “the only chalice that could be considered the chalice of Christ.”

This would have been news to Doña Urraca. No records from that time – and we have quite a few – show that anyone believed anything like that. In fact, she lived just before the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table became popular, so the idea would never even have occurred to her. If it is the Holy Grail, it is so purely by accident.

Is it worth seeing? If you’re in León, by all means. Even better than the chalice and the many other church treasures in the museum is the Pantheon in the basilica’s crypt, which contains early 12th-century frescoes often called “the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art.”



Finally, there’s the Holy Chalice at the Cathedral of Valencia. This is another agate cup, and is believed to have been made in the Middle East up to a century before Christ. It was later mounted in gold, silver, and gemstones.

Tradition says it was taken to Rome by Saint Peter, eventually came to Spain, and later was given to King Martin of Aragon in 1399. His successor gave it to the cathedral.

Is it real? The cathedral argues that such a cup would have been used for Sabbath and Passover suppers by Jewish families in the time of Christ. It has the status of holy relic. If Jesus didn’t use this cup, he may have used one much like it.

Is it worth seeing? Since 1916 it has been lovingly housed in a special chapel of the medieval cathedral, which has other beautiful chapels and a museum displaying many items of art and worship, and amid the rich architecture of the cathedral. Take a look at these photos. There’s lots to see and do in Valencia, and this is one of the city’s main historic sites.

I didn’t set out on a quest for holy grails. I love history and went looking for that – and I found plenty of it. The grails came as a side note, anecdotes, traveler’s tales about a thread in European history that unites artifacts with faith and legend. Every artifact tells a story, and every story is itself a treasure.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website, http://www.sue.burke.name


22nd-May-2016 12:43 pm - Review of “Castles in Spain”
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Rachel Cordasco writes:

“If you’ve been living your life thinking that you’ve already read some of the best speculative fiction out there, but you haven’t read any of the stories in this collection, then you’re just plain wrong. The stories in Castles in Spain are not just some of the best to come out of Spain’s “Golden Age of fantastic literature;” they are some of the best in the genre, period, stop, end of sentence.”

Read more here:
http://www.sfintranslation.com/?p=80

— Sue Burke

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Yesterday a webcam was installed on the roof of city hall to live-stream a stork nest. Alcalá de Henares is near Madrid and is famous as the birthplace of Cervantes and for its stork population.




Opinion


(See the full cartoon here: http://www.defenestrationmag.net/2016/04/hugo-boss/)

For another year, the Hugo Awards will be a battleground rather than a celebration.

What’s the fight over? Two groups of fans and writers, the Rabid Puppies and the Sad Puppies, have felt dissatisfied by the nominees to the Hugos in the recent past. They justified their dissatisfaction with an argument largely involving a supposed left-wing plot: nominations were being based on social-justice issues rather than quality. Or, perhaps: left-wing social-justice types had organized secret slates to nominate each other.

In light of that, the Puppies felt justified in promoting their own slate, which largely contains their own works and which supposedly harkens back to what “real” science fiction used to be and should still be.

Every single one of the Puppie’s contentions has failed to stand up to scrutiny. For example, if there were secret slates, the Puppies couldn’t succeed with their own slate, although they’ve had near-total success this year. If you haven’t seen all the discussion and scrutiny, you can get a recap here: http://file770.com/?page_id=22881

Instead, their nominees last year and this year reveal what really happened: the Puppies consider themselves masterful authors, and they weren’t being nominated, so they sought someone or something to blame. Yet their slate demonstrates exactly why they weren’t being nominated: they’re at best second-rate writers, unworthy of nomination. They’re so unskilled, so blinded by politically inspired rage, and so lacking in humility that this idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

This year, like last year, as a dutiful Hugo voter, I’ll read all the nominees and carefully consider whether they represent the year’s best. I’m not hopeful, however. This is another attack by organized jealous wannabes.

Which is all the Puppies really are.

— Sue Burke

4th-May-2016 12:52 pm - Grass-green love
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Prairie grass loves buffalo.


(A bison at the National Bison Range in Montana. Photo by Paul Frederickson.)

It’s a mutual love story that began during the Miocene epoch about 23 million years ago. This was the time when kelp forests appeared in oceans, birds and mammals were well established (including our ancestors, who were splitting from chimpanzees), and grass-grazer ecosystems took over large parts of the world.

Grass is like few other plants. Its stems grow underground. What we see as grass are merely the leaves. Buffalo can eat the leaves (or we can chop the leaves off with a lawn mower), and the grass can keep on growing.

As grasses evolved and expanded their territories, so did animals to eat them, as varied as deer, elk, elephants, wooly mammoths, sheep, horses, zebras, rabbits, cows, buffalo, and bison. (American bison are called “buffalo” because they were named by French fur trappers, who apparently weren’t taxonomy experts.) Large grazers were key to the spread of grasslands.

Here’s why: trees will take over any land they can, including prairies. As they grow, they block the sun, killing the grass. So for grass to flourish, trees must be eliminated. Grazers do this by eating seedlings as they munch the grass and by trampling the seedlings. They also eat other kinds of plants that grow with above-ground stems and would compete with the grass.

So buffalo need grasslands for grazing, and grasslands need buffalo to keep arboreal intruders from encroaching on their territory. America’s Great Plains and the American bison created and maintained each other.

If we look at it from the point of view of grasses, we can see that they get to reign supreme by putting up with the inconvenience of being grazed on from time to time. Grasslands cover almost a third of the planet’s land: they’ve found a winning strategy.

When I was researching ecologies to worldbuild a planet where plants might have more ability to control their environment, time and again I found situations were plants used animals for their own ends. Or plants would use animals, if plants could scheme. And if plants could scheme...

Bearing that in mind, I wrote a novel, Semiosis. Watch for more news closer to its publication date.

And in the meantime, remember that the ratio of flora to fauna on Earth is 100 to 1. Humans consider themselves the dominant species, but I think we should be more humble. There’s a lot going on, and we’re just one small player in a big, complicated game where we might not be much loved beyond our usefulness.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional writing website: www.sue.burke.name

27th-Apr-2016 03:42 pm - Editors can only do so much
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I do freelance editing and proofreading, and I’ve edited a few works recently where the authors either don’t seem to have proofread their work or don’t know some basic rules of grammar and writing.

I’ve been editing for decades, especially during my time working at newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, texts come in very clean. Other times, they need work. Obviously, the latter class of writers didn’t have my university journalism professor, the late, esteemed Jay Sykes, who said you want to turn in clean copy to protect yourself from editors. “Once they change one thing, no matter how small, that will encourage them to change even more.”

As an editor myself, I understand how small changes embolden editors to make big changes. Worse yet, after enough big changes, I’m tempted to move beyond the correction of errors and make “improvements” in style, as despicable an editorial act as that is.

I wonder if these writers treasure their words. Since I’m being paid by the hour, I also wonder if they realize they could save themselves some money by being a bit more careful.

But I have a bigger concern. Writers who don’t know rules of grammar and usage (I’ve witnessed some who seem proud to say they don’t) are like professional sports players who don’t know the rule book: they don’t know what they have to do, what they can do, and how far they can get away with bending and consciously, even conspicuously breaking the rules. To use another metaphor, a writer’s only tools are words and grammar, and not knowing how to use them to their fullest with precision is like being a musician who hasn’t systematically explored and mastered all the possibilities of an instrument. Those writers will never play guitar like Prince (rest in peace) – or fully fathom why they can’t.

Sure, as an editor, I can fix things, but writers who don’t know language deeply, who haven’t mastered the art of words, will miss opportunities, and those can’t be edited in.

It makes me sad.

— Sue Burke

OpenMic


“Literature goes out to meet readers.” That’s the motto for the 2016 Book Night in Madrid, La Noche de los Libros. It will take place on Friday, April 22, the eve of World Book Day. More than 600 events are planned: author conferences, Bookcrossing points, children’s activities, recitals, theater, music, workshops, panel discussions, book signings, storytelling, exhibits...

And I will be part of the VI International Poetry Encounter with poets from 14 countries at 8:30 p.m. at Librería-Champañeria Maria Pandora, a book store-café at Plaza Gabriel Miro 1, right across from Las Vistillas Park in downtown Madrid. Come join us!

World Book Day celebrates the (supposed) deaths on the same day, April 23, 1616, of both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare – 400 years ago on Saturday. That calls for a big celebration. At a minimum, we can all buy a book.

— Sue Burke

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You may recall me blogging from time to time last year about a crowdfunding project: the translation of an anthology of short stories that were landmarks in science fiction, fantasy, and horror in Spain. We raised enough money, assembled a talented team of translators – and in less than a week, the book can be yours.

Castles in Spain can be preordered as an ebook from Amazon.com, and will go on sale on April 19. A paperback edition will be available soon, and both will also be for sale at the publisher’s website, Sportula. The Spanish-language version, both ebook and paperback, are already available at Amazon.

Thank you to everyone who backed the project. You should all have your ebooks by now. (If not, let me know. The paperbacks are coming.)

English-language publishers are leery of translations, but step by step we can show them that translations sell. If you read it and like it, post reviews, give it stars on Amazon, and share the love.

— Sue Burke
6th-Apr-2016 03:48 pm - Four modern myths about Cervantes
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Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha – among many other works – died 400 years ago. Here are four myths to clear up before you commemorate this anniversary.

Myth 1: Cervantes died on April 23

No. Cervantes probably died on April 22. Church records say he was interred on April 23, 1616, and in Spain people are generally laid to rest the day after their death. There is no doubt, however, that he was interred at the church of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in central Madrid, a few blocks away from his home.

Myth 2: Cervantes died on the same day as Shakespeare

No, for two reasons. Number 1: William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, not April 22. Number 2: Spain was using the Gregorian calendar (just as we do now), while England was still using the Julian calendar. The Gregorian equivalent of April 23, 1616, is May 3, 1616. Shakespeare died ten days after Cervantes was interred.

In spite of that, UNESCO has established April 23 as World Book Day to honor their (more or less) simultaneous deaths and their (unquestionable) status as giants of literature.

Myth 3: Cervantes’ remains have been found

Maybe. A team of 36 experts in history, archeology, and anthropology spent more than a year investigating Cervantes’ interment at the Trinitarian church. They knew his remains had been “consolidated” around 1730 after the church was rebuilt. That means the remains from several crypts were combined to free up space for more interments.



Eventually, these experts located a grave from the right time, judging from fragments of clothing and a coin found in it. But what they discovered (seen here, photo by Municipality of Madrid) was in fact a mixture of casket hardware, pieces of wood, some rocks, and bone fragments, all deteriorated. The bones were sorted out and corresponded to 6 children and at least 10 adults, including men and women.

One of those bones was a jaw whose owner had lost most of his teeth. We know that Cervantes had very few teeth when he died. Some rib and arm bones showed signs of injuries like the ones Cervantes suffered in the Battle of Lepanto. So the director of the investigation announced that “it is possible” that “some fragments” were from Cervantes. “We can’t resolve that question with absolute certainty and that’s why we’re prudent. We’re convinced we have something.”

Corroborating that “something” with DNA would help, but it’s going to be tough to get DNA from family members, since their remains aren’t in any better shape, if they can even be found.

In spite of all that, you can now go on guided tours of the church and view the nice new five-foot-tall granite headstone that rests a floor above what are possibly Cervantes’ remains. But the tour guide tells visitors, “It doesn’t matter if they’re here, over there, or somewhere else. The author hasn’t left this place.” And that’s for certain. What’s left of him, though it might not be much, is most definitely in that church. Somewhere.

Myth 4: We writers should honor his remains with a visit

Maybe. These aren’t saintly relics, however, so they won’t radiate any sort of blessing to improve our souls. And even if they did, remember that while we now celebrate Cervantes’ genius, during his lifetime he was always poor and overlooked. That’s why his remains were “consolidated.” Only those rich enough to pay for the privilege got to rest in peace and solitude for all time to come. Everyone else was moved to joint burials if their space was needed by someone else.

If we make a solemn pilgrimage to his resting place, we might be blessed by genius – or cursed by poverty and obscurity. We don’t need Cervantes’ help to achieve that.

Vale.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website.

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