My Primal Apocalypse

It all began with Gremlins.

When I was a child, VCR was the shiny new gadget you needed to have. Well-meaning, but ill-informed, my father brought home Gremlins as one of the very first rentals.

I wasn’t old enough to read stories on my own then (and to choose from any shelf I wanted to), so I had mostly encountered children’s stories. Gremlins might have started like a totally acceptable children’s story, but it soon turned out to be pure horror for me.

Gremlins movie posterI didn’t even make it very far, and my father, who must have felt that I was a little bit too terrified, sent me to bed before it got wild. Which was a bad decision. I knew that suspiciously cute Gizmo would turn into something nasty, and I had learned the rules: The thing with the water and the thing with the feeding. I got it all mixed up when I applied my own logic to the concept: So they turn nasty and grow bigger and multiply when they get wet and eat? You can get wet anytime. And they are monsters, so they’d want to eat people, and BAM! They become even bigger and nastier!

I didn’t only lie awake the whole night in terror. Over the next few days, my imagination led me into a desolate, dark future, where fat, ugly, grown-huge-as-houses Gremlins roamed the streets, looking for more people to feed upon. I thought about how I would sneak through the shadows to hide from them. I felt a little better when I realised that at some point, they would have eaten most of us. Then they wouldn’t find anything else, and the cycle of feeding and growing and multiplying would come to an end. But most of the time, I was half crazy with fear. It could happen anytime. It would be the end.

It couldn’t have been too long until my father noticed something was wrong, but as I remember it, I spent something like a fortnight silently descending into fear and depression. At some point, my father reassured me it was just a movie. A funny movie, even. And it had a happy ending.

But it didn’t matter. I knew now. I knew that something like this could happen, that the world as we knew it could end. That everything could (and would) be gone. And it terrified me.

But it also fascinated me. It was my first what-if extrapolation, my first post-apocalyptical world. I don’t think my final disaster scenario had a lot to do with Gremlins anymore. But until today, I haven’t watched the whole movie, and every time I see a picture of those little pests, they give me the creeps. Even the “real” gremlins, the mechanically inclined imps, make me shudder because they remind me of them. But I’m not entirely sure whether I should condemn director/writer team Joe Dante and Chris Columbus (and my father, I guess) for introducing existential crisis into my life, or thank them for fueling my doom-driven imagination.

Sunday Story Time: The Secret Life of Bots

With the Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer, I came for the title and had my eyes glued to the screen from the moment Bot 9 is activated and given a (rather domestic) job on a starship with a (rather crucial) mission. It is a beautiful, fun, and fast-paced story you don’t want to miss if you have ever suspected appliances might have feelings, too.

While exploring the diversified bot population of the ship (always operating within well-defined parameters), Suzanne Palmer keeps you grounded: Familiar space opera/military sf tropes are used as a mere backdrop … until they aren’t.

You can follow the adventures of amiable busy-bot 9 on Clarkesworld #132 (also podcasted). And don’t forget to put Steve Jablonsky’s Transformers soundtrack to good use for the finale of this stellar story!

Small Crush: Paper Girls (Vol. 1)

Brian K. Vaughan has written so many interesting comic stories that he was bound to show up here eventually. Some of them I love (Pride of Baghdad will get an entry, too!), some I found intriguing, but they didn’t draw me in.

Paper Girls Vol. 1Paper Girls immediately got me by reminding me of two other immensely popular tales: Like Stranger Things it features teenage heroes riding bikes and getting involved in fantastical and mysterious events, and it seems to hop on the train of 80s nostalgia. Like Lumberjanes, it’s focussed on friendships between girls and shows what a girl gang is capable of, even when confronted with the most improbable events straight out of the cheesiest b-movie inventory.

Paper Girls transcends them both. While the combination of space age and suburban life provides a charming backdrop for the events, the ongoing story doesn’t get stuck in the 80s formula. And there is a distinct sf feel from the beginning, anchoring the onslaught of the supernatural we soon face.

What I liked most – besides the brilliant before-sunrise color scheme – were the characters. Paper Girls develops four very different girls into firmly grounded heroines, without adhering to common types and clichés. Tiffany, the geek, is teenage girl first and geek second, and I’d even hesitate to call her “the geek”, because she’s drawn as a human with many facets (and all four girls are geeks). They have poignant, sometimes shockingly sad backgrounds, and their tough decisions and hasty reactions when their neighbourhood is beleaguered by more than leftover stragglers from Halloween feel all too real. As do the consequences of their actions.

I’m curious about where the story will end up, and I hope there’s at least a half-decent plot in the end. But for the moment, I want to see more of Cliff Chiang’s rad art, and enjoy what turned out to be the most relatable and likeable girl gang of all the all-female casts I encountered in the sf comics field recently.

Sunday Story Time: Crab

A mean, old, very short animated video from Birdbox Studio. Yes, I’m easily amused. Especially by creatures with eyestalks.

Of Cats and Chickens

Writing buddy Sam of Moyas Buchgewimmel passed the baton of the Versatile Blogger Award, so I guess that’s what you get this week: 7 random (yikes!) facts. And I’ll gladly pass it on to whoever likes to share their own random facts. I must admit I love to read those from time to time, so go on and jot something down!

1: I like limits
I don’t like to follow them to the letter; on the contrary: give me a limit, and I will test it and stretch it and try to break it. But I think I get inspired by the challenge, by having something to chew on. Form, length, theme, or character constraints – anything is better than starting with an anything goes premise.
So, first of all, this list needs a limit. Seven facts about me finding words.

2: I’m wordy
I could drone on and on about those facts. Tl;dr is my worst nightmare. Social media and the need to have your say in way too less characters or as a caption for a picture (to stand in for the remaining 995 words) go against my instinct to get to the bottom of things. But I learned to cut. See?

3: Copy-Cat
Clever ways of saying things, phrasings, lyrics, and expressions get stuck in my head like blueprints. I try to be aware of that.

4 (copy-catted at Sam’s place): I only write when it’s dark
Not entirely true, but also not completely false. I am the night. Leave me to my own devices, take away dependancies on other people’s schedules and opening hours, and I’m guaranteed to mutate into a nocturnal creature.

5: The chicken is IN
All words are great in the night. So it’s best to re-evaluate them in the morning. As. If. I. Could ever read them again. So many brilliant ideas lost in the realms of chicken scratch. Woe is me!

6: Chicken out
I tend to leave things unfinished for lack of a perfect ending. Maybe it would be better to put them out anyway, instead of chewing on them forever or letting them perish incomplete in the drawer/drafts folder/wip shelf?

Small Crush: Every Heart a Doorway

Magical Boarding Schools are not exactly my kind of thing. When characters in stories have to go to school, I tend to skip whole passages, unless it’s Jo Walton’s Morwenna in Among Others, who hates her school experience in a very relatable and well-narrated way.

So I was genuinely surprised when I came upon Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway in my Hugo readings and began to feel this novella was written for me.

Every Heart a DoorwayIts main emotion is longing, an unhealthy and absurd longing not to live in this world anymore. It’s the main motivation of every student in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, because everyone of the girls (and very few boys) there has once been lost, following a path to another world, and now all they want is to go back there, where they feel they truly belong.

Or so they say.

Their parents see another story, of troubled young minds and traumatised kids they can’t reach anymore.

There are so many layers and ways to read Every Heart a Doorway: is it a metaphor about growing up and leaving childhood dreams behind? Does it tackle mental illness and trauma? Or is it a fairytale, where special children are called to other worlds?

It is, first and foremost, acknowledging that people have very different needs. Some will never fit in, and they will break under the expectations and demands of the world. Unless someone offers them a place to be themselves, and that’s what Eleanor West (whose own story is one of the heartbreaking moments of this novella) does.

But her small bubble of inclusion is threatened when students start to get murdered. The whodunit part of Every Heart a Doorway is not its main feature, though – it’s the diverse and varied bunch of characters and their stories instead. That’s why the murders hit so hard; they show very clearly the stories that are left unfinished. From goth-like, fascinated by death Nancy to wannabe mad scientist Jack, these characters are somewhat quirkier than your standard magical boarding school students.

I’m still not sure what to think about the ending. It was a little bit anticlimatic, so very easy, and it seemed to narrow down the story and to factor out some severe implications. Discussing it with a friend, I found it could still be ambiguous, Pan’s Labyrinth style. If anybody wants to know more or discuss, I’ll write some spoiler-y thoughts in the comments section.

Every Heart a Doorway starts the Wayward Children series, and I’m also not sure I needed to know more, because it was pretty self-contained. But I’m willing to get surprised once more.

Worldcon & Work Done

Attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki made the deadline of my last translation project a real challenge (and I had to switch to translatorbot mode upon my return). But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Welcome in HelsinkiHelsinki was quite welcoming, giving out free public transport rides and a warm, fuzzy feeling in between the frequent showers. While it felt a little bit disorganised in the beginning, Worldcon got better by the day at managing its huge crowds of fans.

A workshop about societies in post-apocalyptic fiction taught by dramatist Taj Hayer was a great way to start the con and meet new people. It wasn’t only fascinating to learn about all the different backgrounds people brought up that got them interested in post-apocalyptic settings. We also did a cool group exercise about world and plot building and ended up with a world reminiscent of Mary Rickert and Octavia Butler stories, where only children are able to communicate, and form an anarchist society. I wonder which one of us will end up writing it … Anyway, I really appreciated Taj’s teaching, so if you’ve got the chance to attend one of his classes, go for it!

I could totally relate to the things stated in a panel about writing while multilingual (with Ken Liu, among others), fell in love with the sheer display of knowledge in “The Times that Shaped the Science” (mostly about the birthing age of modern science and how it came to pass), and had the best of times with an epic snark battle-panel between Babylon 5 and Star Trek, shortly before rushing back to the airport (no big spoiler: Babylon 5 won).

But my favourite panel was “True Grit: The Appeal of Grimdark Fantasy”. So much thoughtful input here, especially from Scott Lynch, on a fascinating topic. You can watch it on Youtube, too (with appropriately gloomy lighting).

Posing with Major Ursa

Posing with Major Ursa

Apart from that, there was a small Taos Toolbox meet-up, a visit to a glorious steampunk bar, meeting old and new friends, and discovering cool Finnish artists and a really flourishing sff scene. I didn’t know that so many books are translated into Finnish (and they’re beautifully designed, too).

Oh, and the Hugos were a blast, of course: I loved the fact that many of my favourites won, and they were dominated by women this year! Bam!

When you look into the abyss …

There is one question I really dread when I talk about my job as a literary translator: “Of the works you translated, what would you recommend?”

First of all, I usually don’t get to choose. Translating is my day job, and as much as I love it, it has to be well-paid work. Um, as well-paid as it gets when you’re at the bottom of the publishing industry’s food-chain. So I can’t be picky. Also, as long as it’s genre, I get paid roughly the same, whether it’s a super easy quick and dirty text without linguistic finesse, or a complex work testing the limits of language. So what I want is a good mixture of quality and quantity: I don’t like to get bored to death by samey, bland stuff, but I also can’t afford to spend forever and a day on a demanding text.

I got lucky a few times. Or that’s what I thought. I got to work with a few of my favorite authors – some of them I adored before getting the chance to translate them, some I discovered on a job. But then the book market happened, and there’s nothing much left to recommend anymore.

But that said, I have to admit I tend to find something to appreciate in nearly every work I translate. I look very, very closely at all those texts, by doing several drafts and chipping away at the surface until I can hope to capture the real thing. During this process, I stumble upon the annoying traits of my heroes (because I notice every over-used mannerism and every lazy phrase). But more than that, I always discover something worth reading, something charming, something working really well. I might not be thrilled in the beginning, but at the second draft, I have an idea about what the author set out to do, and I can see where she succeeded.

Whatever it is, whatever it does, I get attached. And I get sucked in in ways that are not entirely healthy.

Every line of thought, every development of plot and character, every plunge off imaginary cliffs, I have to follow. I have to incorporate the whole thing, and articulate it anew. But I can’t do it by my own rules, with my coping mechanisms, my ways. I have to do stick to whatever works for somebody else.

That’s a good thing, in an on itself. It’s what I love most in fiction: It shows me the world in a way I can’t see it myself. I learn a lot this way. But I also have to swallow things I don’t like. I have to stay on track when I’d rather run off in another direction. It gets hard when there’s not much common ground, and even harder when the text hits home due to entirely individual reasons.

I suppose that’s one reason why I write in English. German fiction is work, it’s adapting my voice to the demands of another person’s ideas. After some hours of doing this, it’s often difficult to step out of this mode again.

So in this weird, complicated relationship I develop with my translations, recommendation is a category that doesn’t fit anymore. But even after going through all of this, there are some texts I still love.

Sunday Story Time: Postcards from Natalie

It’s been some time since I last posted a free online story goody for Sunday aftern…ight reading. Well, at least it’s technically still Sunday around here, and I want to pick up the habit again, so here we go!

Today’s story, Postcards from Natalie by Carrie Laben, really gripped me, and I think it will stay with me for quite some time. It’s a short story about two sisters, one of which ran away from home and keeps informing the other one on her travels via postcards. Deep rifts run through the family and keep the younger sister from getting all the messages. But as they begin to sound more and more despondent, she goes to some lengths to read them.

Postcards from Natalie has been published in dark fantasy/horror magazine The Dark, so better don’t expect a cheerful story. There’s no blood and gore, though, and it’s a really beautifully crafted piece of fiction – the dread creeps upon you very slowly, and you won’t realize it punched you in the guts until it’s too late.

But then, it has some surprisingly uplifting imagery for a story about those dealt a bad hand by fate. There is a quiet strength to the ending, in how it deals with the fact that some people, especially women, just fall through the cracks and are dismissed all too easily. A haunting, intense read!

One of my favorite Murder By Death songs came to my mind: The lyrics (not the video shown here) of Hard World are eerily fitting for this story, right down to some of the images.

Small Crush: Wonder Woman

How can you not have a crush on Wonder Woman?
She is pure wish-fulfilling empowerment, without being debased by the male-gazey fits a Black Widow (and almost every other woman who ever wore a hero’s costume) has to suffer. If you can’t see that, and if you can’t understand how this is able to change the way a woman perceives herself in the world, you probably never struggled with the kind of roles stories had to offer, the kind of dreams you had access to.

It could have gone wrong in so many ways. Diana was destined to be born sexy yesterday. But lo and behold, every time the dreaded “oooh, so this is what a kiss feels like” scene was about to come up, Wonder Woman veered off into another direction. The whole romance was handled very thoughtfully.

Same goes for the camaraderie. My first love in fiction was epic fantasy, so I have this soft spot for ragtag, diverse groups of adventurers going on a quest. I liked Diana’s companions. And the scene when they free a Flemish village is pure joy for many reasons.

Wonder Woman movie release posterWhat I enjoyed most, though, was the movie’s beginning at Themyscira, showing a whole island of women at all levels of society. I could have watched this forever. Actually, I was able to watch it for quite some time, because Wonder Woman starts out slow-paced. Which would have been perfect, hadn’t the rest of the film been totally detached from these scenes. I felt there should have been some reconnection later on, anything to justify the time we spent with that awesome Amazon action.

(Talking about action: Why, oh why, do we still have to put a woman who’s all legs anyway in high heeled boots in 2017? No amazon worth her tiara would ever wear high heels to fight, when it’s all about balance and firm stance.)

The old superhero movie malady of too much thrashing and bashing also raises its ugly head in the finale. It looks good, but doesn’t show anything beyond that, especially in super slowmo and going on forever because the big bossfight has to be epic.

These issues with pacing and focussing are nitpicks, though, and compared to most superhero movies I have seen, Wonder Woman has a strong plot. But it often hinges on the assumption that women can’t do that. Wouldn’t do that. Diana does, astonishment arises, and she wins the day. The story depends on the element of surprise, on the outrage and innovation of a physically overpowering woman. I wonder how Wonder Woman’s plot will develop when this crutch falls away, when she’s accepted as what she is.

We’re not there yet. But Wonder Woman is a beginning, and I’m impatient. With heroines like Diana, we’ll get there.