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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
 
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Cat Pictures Please and Other StoriesCat Pictures Please and Other Stories by Naomi Kritzer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The seventeen short stories in this collection include the Hugo Award-winning “Cat Pictures Please.” That story begins with the words “I don’t want to be evil.”

In a way, that summarizes all these stories. The protagonists don’t want to be evil – but they have problems: a terminal illness, a missing piece from their soul, captivity, or horrible mistakes made by their parents. They may find themselves searching for their real parents, measuring alien penises, missing their friend’s robot, falling in love with a mortal, watching the Berlin Wall fall, or trying to cook for a houseful of quarantined children during a long and disastrous pandemic with dwindling food supplies.

Most are fantasies, most center on women’s lives, and invariably they are humane, sometimes even gentle, yet fascinating. The breadth of Kritzer’s imagination is on display, along with her sense of humor. If you like “Cat Pictures Please” (read it here if you haven’t), you’ll love this book.

-- Sue Burke


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17th-Jul-2019 03:02 pm - All the good names have been taken
partygirl
Space Station Middle FingerYou may have noticed a trend to give strange names to beer. (Wines, too.)

For example:
Arrogant Bastard Ale,
Great Big Kentucky Sausage Fest Imperial Brown Ale,
Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout,
Bitzkreig Hops Double IPA.

Does this help sell beer? Maybe the first purchase. I wanted to buy a six-pack and I saw Space Station Middle Finger. I like science fiction. It sounded like fun.

The carton said: “From the dawn of time, humans have looked to the sky for answers. Space Station Middle Finger replies to all from its eternal orbit. Behold and enjoy Space Station Middle Finger, a bright golden American Pale Ale.”

So I bought it, and it was a fine brew with a citrus-like tang, not as highly hopped as some American pale ales, and overall very satisfying. As I drank, I admired the artwork on the label, which could have appeared in an episode of Red Dwarf, and that was a pleasant thought.

Tasters at Beer Advocate also had a good opinion of the ale.

Would I buy it again? Sure. But wandering through a beer aisle or perusing a display cooler yields no shortage of tempting fermented adventures. A brand has to find a way to stand out. A strange name helps, I guess, but what happens when all the strange names are taken?
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The Science of HerselfThe Science of Herself by Karen Joy Fowler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This slim volume contains three outstanding short stories, one entertaining interview, and the essay “The Motherhood Statement,” which gave me a lot to think about. For a science fiction story to “burn the motherhood statement,” it should avoid affirming “the conventional social and humanistic pieties, e.g. apple pie and motherhood.”

That’s fine, Fowler says, but conventional societies don’t particularly affirm motherhood. Mothers are blamed for loving their children too much or too little, or lawmakers try to enforce motherhood by denying abortion and birth control, and childless women get their own kind of reproach. Maternity becomes a means to discredit women. Recently, a woman was charged with the death of her fetus because someone shot her while she was pregnant.

So, Fowler concludes, which motherhood statement do you want to burn, and when you’re done, can we craft a new, better one?

-- Sue Burke


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4th-Jul-2019 09:00 am - My Goodreads review of "Radicalized"
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RadicalizedRadicalized by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book isn’t a novel, it’s four novellas – but I like short fiction, so that’s fine. The stories are all united by “our present moment,” as the cover says. I think some are more successful than others, but they all capture a truth about what’s happening now.

“Unauthorized Bread” explores the ways that technology and laws can control poor people and take from them what little money and freedom they have. They fight back, and the story dives deep into exactly how they rebel with a satisfying level of detail. The happy ending, though, seems a bit strained, although I want to believe it.

“Model Minority” has one big plot hole the story can’t successfully explain away. How did the superhero American Eagle, who is not stupid, spend so many years on Earth in the United States and not know the basic facts about racism? The lectures to get him up to speed seem didactic – which doesn’t make them any less true. He learns there’s no super-strength shortcut to justice.

“Radicalized” left me with one question. In the story, people who have been screwed over by health insurance companies decide to take revenge against the executives who sentenced them or their loved ones to needless suffering and death. My question: Why isn’t this happening now? The anger is out there and easy to find.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is a modern retelling of an Edgar Allan Poe story. A rich guy holes up in a bunker to escape the ravages of a catastrophe. He and his friends are arrogant asshats, and they get what’s coming to them. It’s a brutal kind of fun to watch them fail while the key to survival lies elsewhere.

-- Sue Burke

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Keep Calm
Sofia RheiAqueduct Press recently released Everything Is Made of Letters, a collection of short stories by Sofia Rhei. She’s an accomplished author with an engaging personality, and we became friends while I was living in Spain.

I originally translated her short story “Techt” for the anthology Spanish Women of Wonder. Sofía tells a thoughtful, touching account of an old man living in poverty in a hostile future. Language has become debased as well — or perhaps as a consequence — and can no longer express complexities. He strives to maintain what literature and “long” language have to offer humanity: sophisticated ideas, beauty, and a life of richer meaning.

Aqueduct Press put up a sample of its book, and it includes the full text of “Techt.” You can read it here.

Overall, I’m satisfied with my translation. I think I handled one tricky little detail effectively. A chart on Page 17 of the book shows “Alphabet 100,” a simplified form of communication using symbols, and the text explains what some of the most frequently used symbols mean. In the original Spanish:
@ - a, K - que, Ð - de, & - además

indexLiterally translated, it says:
@ - at, K - that, Ð - of, & - also

I saw that the meaning of @ and & are the same in English, so I didn’t need to change them for the translation. K presented a problem that was easy to solve: K is used in English as an abbreviation for OK, and I could substitute that meaning without doing violence to the original text.

Ð in Spanish has been used, especially in old documents, as an abbreviation of DE (of), but the symbol has no common use in English. I could have asked for the symbol to be substituted for something else in the original chart in the text, but I knew it would be so much easier to find some sort of adaptation. I researched until I discovered one.

It turns out that Ð is a letter in Old and Middle English, and it represents the sound of “th” in “the.” That substitution would work. Problem solved!

I couldn’t figure out how to solve anothe problem, and I feel bad because I failed. The original text features debased oral language: “Ké zer nau?” “Yob’m film!” “Nvío urgent. Krtera decir tú sign.”

My translation: “Wat du nao?” “Job’n film!” “Erjnt mes. Caryer say yu ident.” (They make more sense in context, don’t worry.) I think that’s a reasonable translation except for one thing. The original, you might notice, is Spanish heavily influenced by English.

English. It has a growing hegemony in the world, imposing itself on other languages, and its presence in debased discourse in the story implies something significant to Spanish-language readers. English is cool, thus Spanish is not as cool, so English is used needlessly in Spain these days in a way that doesn’t always advance or enrich communication, which breeds resentment among some Spanish-speakers. This article published by an important watchdog of the Spanish language, Fundéu BBVA, tries to refute the idea that English is the “enemy” of Spanish. The fact that the idea needs refuting tells us it exists.

I could not figure out how to express the subtext in the story that English has helped deteriorate Spanish, since English is the culprit here. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. The story “Techt” stands strong even without that missing detail, but my instinct as a translator is to bring you everything a reader in the original language would have understood and everything the author was trying to say. I failed, and it bothers me.

-- Sue Burke
22nd-Jun-2019 01:17 pm - A splashy pink birthday gift
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Aglaonema21june19
My brother’s family sent me this plant for my birthday yesterday.

They know me well. “Another plant for your growing jungle!” the card said. (Kathy, my sister-in-law, invented the fippokat as a child and lent it to me for Semiosis and hasn’t complained about the ways I’ve used and abused them.)

The card from the florist identified the gift as a “Green Plant(s). Moderately bright locations are preferred on most plants. Water thoroughly when soil is dry to the touch…”

I needed to know more, of course. What was it? How exactly should I care for it? Plants always want something from their service animals, sometimes something very specific, and I’m willing to acquiesce in order to have strong, healthy, happy houseplants.

The flower, a spadix, told me it’s a member of the Araceae or arum family. That narrowed it down to about 3700 species. But only a few of them were likely to show up in a Chicago florist shop. A peace lily (Spathiphyllum)? Wrong leaves. Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema)? Maybe. The variegation and texture of the leaves seemed familiar, but pink?

To make a long Google search short, it’s one of the many new cultivars of Aglaonema known variously as ‘Pink Splash’ or ‘Lady Valentine’ or ‘Lady Valentine-Favonian’ or maybe ‘Pink Dalmation’ although that one looks a little different.

In any case, the plant originated in Asian jungle undergrowth. The Missouri Botanical Garden, which has a large collection of Araceae, recommends partial to full shade and home-level warmth. NC State U Extension adds that they like humidity. No problem. I live next to Lake Michigan and it’s foggy here a lot.

Welcome to your new home, Pink Splash/Lady Valentine! May you live long and prosper. I’ll do my best to make that happen.
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My father, Richard Burke, died in 1996 of complications from prostate cancer.

Here are few things not everyone knew about him:

DickBurkeFootballSmallHe played on the defensive line of the Marquette University’s Golden Avalanche football team during the late 1940s. To earn a little money on the side, he also briefly (and secretly, since it was forbidden by college sports rules) fought as a professional wrestler under the name “Tiger Dick.”

When he was cut from the team, he was drafted into the Marines, where he served as a Marine sharpshooter and MP. He was also a semi-professional gambler at the time, and he and some fellow Marines opened a clandestine casino on base — but only for about a month because “that’s how long the bribes lasted.”

(I’m not a great card player, but he taught me some useful strategies that I don’t share with potential rivals, so don’t ask.)

He never had occasion to face combat, but as an MP he once stopped an attempted rape. He warned the perpetrator, “Halt or I’ll shoot!” and, since the circumstances required it, he would have shot to kill. He recalled that incident with pride at his resolve to do what he had to do without hesitation. The perpetrator wisely halted.

DadHe went on to work in supervisory positions in heavy manufacturing. He eventually held three patents. He also raised four children, adored his wife, enjoyed pro and college football, could fix anything as a handyman, and was an excellent sport fisherman.

Later, he capitalized on his long experience in manufacturing to do some industrial espionage. He said the spy work wasn’t especially sneaky. He would simply observe what a company was doing during a public factory tour, for example, and since he understood manufacturing processes so well, he could deduce their secrets.

When he retired, he volunteered to lead tours at historic Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas, headquarters to Pecos Bill and the Buffalo Soldiers.

-- Sue Burke
Semiosis
Finalists for this year’s John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction novel have been selected, and Semiosis is on the list! I am deeply honored.

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel , or Campbell Memorial Award, is an annual award presented by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas to the author of the best science fiction novel published in English in the preceding calendar year. It is the novel counterpart of the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best short story, awarded by the same organization.

(The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is a different award presented along with the Hugos at Worldcon. Yeah, I was confused at first, too.)

The Campbell Memorial Award will be presented in Lawrence, Kansas, on June 28. This year's jury included Gregory Benford, Sheila Finch, Elizabeth Anne Hull, Paul Kincaid, McKitterick, Pamela Sargent, and Lisa Yaszek.

The full list of nominees:

Semiosis, Sue Burke (Tor)
A Spy in Time, Imraan Coovadia (Rare Bird)
The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Time Was, Ian McDonald (Tor.com Publishing)
Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller (Ecco)
Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice (ECW)
Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman (Europa Editions)
Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon)
Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Peter Watts (Tachyon)
The Loosening Skin, Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)
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I have a problem. I really like four of the six short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo Award and would be pleased if any of them won, and the other two are highly meritorious as well. If you get the chance, read these stories or any one of them chosen at random. It will be worth your time.

That said, here’s my ballot. The Hugos uses a ranked voting system, so I have to rank them — but why can’t there be a co-winners like the eight finalists in the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee?

6. “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
My low rank is solely due to my disagreement over the storytelling style. A boy discovers the cost of magic, and he learns that good intentions do not overrule cold cause and effect. The fable-like telling to me felt too distant, which I thought obscured the originality of the story — that’s a quibble, though, and the ideas within the story are well worth telling.

5. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
This is a tale of dragons, a witch who is a princess, and a stupid prince, and the story is praiseworthy despite my low rank. It upends some conventions and the plot never falters. For me, it tries too hard to be funny — but a sense of humor is so uniquely personal that other people may think it strikes just the right notes.

4. “STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
The story format is a draft of a research paper with comments written in the margins by editors and reactions by the author. A woman loses her daughter in an accident involving an automated car and, as revealed in the research paper she writes, she believes that the car made the wrong choice. The emotions are raw, and the unusual format is used for good ends. I rated it in fourth place only because I thought the the story rested on some obvious ideas — but they’re expressed with an authenticity that lingered with me.

3. “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
This won the Nebula Award, a well-deserved recognition. The story takes a fact, which is that Washington had dentures made of human teeth, and uses it to create nine short biographies of the slaves whose teeth were used, each with a unique story and a specific kind of magic. I wish the magic had changed the sweep of history somehow — but the story is satisfying without that.

2. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
This was my vote for the Nebula Award. A witch librarian wants to help a troubled boy find the book he needs to escape his life. I liked it so much that I read it slowly so I could enjoy it longer. In truth, this is a tie for my number-one choice.

1. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
I laughed out loud when I read this. Some mythical, magical men meet their match with a strong-willed mortal woman. The storytelling is wonderfully paced with delightful characterization, and it deliberately and transparently turns traditional tales on their heads. Again, humor is uniquely personal, but, personally, I loved this story.

— Sue Burke
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The Best of Poul AndersonThe Best of Poul Anderson by Poul Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Poul Anderson (1926–2001) won multiple awards and much acclaim during his career. His story “Eutopia” in the Dangerous Vision anthology (1967) remains one of my favorites for the way the plot hinges on the final word. This is typical of Anderson. His plots were genius.

Likewise, all nine of the stories in the collection The Best of Poul Anderson are impeccably told – and yet this book left me troubled. A quick summary of the stories might offer a clue about why.

“The Longest Voyage” (1960): Explorers (men) rather like 1700s sailors on Earth are circumnavigating their planet, and they find a high-tech artifact. Won the 1961 Hugo Award for short story.
“The Barbarian” (1956): A spoof of Conan the Barbarian.
“The Last of the Deliverers” (1958): A man arrives in a future Ohio town and debates politics in a satire of the Cold War.
“My Object All Sublime” (1961): A couple of men meet over time travel and crime – to say more would be a spoiler, and there’s a nice twist.
“Sam Hall” (1953): A man fights an oppressive government. Nominated for a Prometheus Award and Retro Hugo Award.
“Kyrie” (1968): A woman falls in love with a doomed alien. Nominated for a Nebula Award.
“The Fatal Fulfillment” (1970): A man falls afoul of a repressive system of psychological control.
“Hiding Place” (1961): A space opera story involving Nicholas Van Rijn, one of Anderson’s recurring characters.
“The Sky People” (1959): In the future on a resource-depleted Earth, a savage attack falls on a peaceful city, and a brave captain (male) saves it.

You may have noticed a certain dearth of women in significant roles. And consider the description of the only woman who is a protagonist: Her ship’s captain regards her as “gauche” and “inhibited,” and he tries to suppress his “distaste” – “but her looks! Scrawny, big-footed, big-nosed, pop eyes and stringy, dust-colored hair....”

When women are introduced in these stories, they often lead with their breasts and sex appeal: “her build left no doubt [of her mammalian life form],” “the rich black dress caressed a figure as good as any in the world,” “blond, big-eyed, and thoroughly three-dimensional,” “her gown was of shimmerite and shameless in cut,” “young and comely, and you didn’t often see that much exposed female flesh anymore,” “a stunning blonde,” “she was nice-looking ... and he thought he could get her into bed.”

In “The Hiding Place,” Nicholas Van Rijn has brought a female paid sex companion on his trip whom he keeps underclad and verbally and physically mistreats. In fairness, he’s an ass to everyone, but her abuse has a rapey edge – and he’s the hero of the story. In “The Sky People,” the rescuing fleet has bare-chested woman aboard who “comfort” the men as their only means to join a exciting mission of discovery. Couldn’t they be full members of the crew and share in the adventure without prostituting themselves?

I was born in 1955. I grew up in a time when girls could only wear skirts to school – among many other arbitrary, humiliating, harmful rules, such as no competitive sports; women could legally be paid less than men for the same work if they could even get the same work; reproductive rights didn’t exist. As a headstrong girl, I chafed at the restrictions, stereotypes, and peremptory limited horizons. Reading these stories is a return to the nightmare time when I was legally a second-class citizen.

Poul Anderson can’t be held too much at fault for not seeing that, though. Second-wave feminism didn’t begin in the United States until after most of these stories were published, and progress toward equality was (and still is) slow. Other authors of that time, in and out of science fiction, were equally blind to what we can easily see now.

My question is this: What are we blind to now? What in today’s fiction will future readers point at and wonder how we could have missed something so utterly glaring?

We’re all idiots, we just don’t know what kind of idiot. Reading this book with its painful flaws ought to keep us humble.

...

(An essay with a related theme is at Tor.com: The Sad But Inevitable Trend Toward Forgotten SF.)

-- Sue Burke

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