Sunday Story Time: From the Point of View of a Cat

Time for some cat content, always a wise choice when time is short and the mind is distracted with other things. Czech writer Karel Čapek did not only coin the term ‘robot’ in one of his plays, he also wrote about animals frequently, as in War with the Newts.

In this short piece from 1935 he takes the point of view of a cat, and he seems to be a real cat connoisseur.

I stumbled upon it on tumblr, where you can have a look at it, too.

Small Crush: Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty)

Once in a blue moon, some book’s premise triggers my curiosity so effectively I can’t resist. I. Need. To. Know. I need to know what happens and how it’s done. Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes is one such story.

Six WakesDormire is a starship with six crew members on a long, long voyage. They all wake up in their cloning tanks with memory loss, while the ship is off course and their murdered former bodies are still floating around in zero gravity, because someone disabled the AI and the basic functions of the ship. One of them did this, but they can’t even trust themselves, because each and every one of them has no memories of the time leading up to the disaster.

I didn’t need to know more to start reading. It’s like playing the RPG Paranoia – you can’t trust anyone and keep staying on your toes. And it’s kind of a derailed cousin of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. While Angry Planet’s Wayfarer is full of fluff and love, and nothing much happens in an utterly adorable way, Six WakesDormire houses an equally diverse crew (not as colorful, because no aliens), but it’s full of suspicion and flaring tempers, and ALL THE THINGS happen. The whirlwind plot cycles through the characters, the pacing is relentless, and your suspicions shift along with the crew’s. Before long, you expect this dysfunctional team to rush into another killing spree any minute instead of working together to save the ship.

Gradually, the story transcends the fundamental Whodunnit premise and ends up asking questions about cloning ethics and forgiveness. There are even some echoes of Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain when you learn about the development of mankind under the influence of cloning. And then to read in the afterword that it all started as an FTL fan fic warmed my gamer heart, although I never would have guessed.

Six Wakes offers no easy camaraderie and feel-good vibes, but an interesting bunch of troubled characters in a dire, dire situation, and the revelation that comfort food helps even in space.

Sunday Story Time: Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth

This Sunday, I want to share a brilliant, gripping novella I discovered last week. In Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth by Juliette Wade, you get thrown into a mix of different and utterly strange cultures in a world inhabited by dog-like, sentient creatures. These canine peoples are beautifully envisioned and use some distinct forms of language you’ll have to adapt to. I’m always amazed at how fast we are normalizing new linguistic quirks if they are presented cleverly. (But, as a caveat, this story is not for you if you don’t like to have to cope with lots of new words and concepts you just have to accept for the moment and work out their meaning by reading on.)

The story of Rulii, an older, high-ranking member of the conquered race of canines in this scenario, and nearly the only one interested in the human scientists also visiting this world, is a fast-paced mix of adventure, intrigue and character development. While the concept and setting were totally down my alley, I was equally fascinated by the clever, sweeping tale itself. Both come together admirably in the way Rulii perceives and eventually understands the human word friendship, an absolutely outlandish concept in a culture that defines all relationships by dominance and submission, hierarchy and rank.

Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth was published in Clarkesworld #127, and you can find it online here, or subscribe to the magazine, for example on Patreon.

Storytelling, catholic edition

I’m from Bavaria, one of the hyper-catholic regions of Europe, and I grew up in a small village with a church at its physical and metaphysical center. When I was young, religion was a big part of my life. Nowadays I find myself wondering about its influence on me and my perception of story. Because church and religion were, as a kid, first and foremost story to me.

The church itself with all its paintings, statues and other representations was full of stories, and during mass, you got to hear at least one more, two if you were lucky. My penchant for epic, mythic storytelling must have been surfacing then already, because I preferred Old Testament stories above all others. Nothing much beats the Exodus, even Hollywood agrees.

The only equally big New Testament thing is the Passion of Christ, storytelling highlight of catholicism and nucleus of faith. And considering the Passion of Christ, you can’t deny the inherent grimdark streak of the catholic church. It’s not just that the story of the crucifixion is told in a very detailed and prolonged way, but there is a real inclination towards gruesome detail and dark, gritty depictions. I remember sitting in church every Sunday, above me a statue of the Mater dolorosa (which is basically Mary with a sword through her chest, as a symbol of her suffering), and from where I sat I could study another statue: Saint Sebastian the martyr, mostly naked and pierced by a significant amount of arrows – a whole lot more than Boromir. Bavarian sculptors and painters did not shy away from showing what wounds looked like; there was a fair amount of trickling blood, gaping flesh and agonizing sores to be seen.

When it came to my Communion, the ceremonial initiation into the catholic fold, I got a book about saints. I gobbled it up like I gobbled up every other book I could get my hands on (even math textbooks for school, but that’s another story), and, wow, there was a whole new range of suffering and dying to be discovered. Some of the stories about female martyrs are highly sexualized; they’re often virgins unwillingly claimed by powerful men, and are subsequently shown to their community naked, then publicly tormented and killed. Eight year old me didn’t feel all that comfortable reading those stories.

But the stories also cover power, wonders and the sublime. Religion, like story, strifes to tackle the big themes of mankind. There is, of course, a difference: In a very simplified way, you could say stories make us ask questions, while religion tries to provide answers. I think it is not a coincidence that some of the early defining voices of the epic fantasy genre were catholic, too. The catholic origin story of suffering and sacrifice, of paying a hefty price if you were to truly achieve something, is a powerful motif.

The concept of faith and believing itself invites story: it’s at a person’s core and can (and must) be challenged, and there is a whole string of cultural implementations attached to it, providing even more fodder for story. I always feel drawn to the decorum and grand gestures of catholicism and its compulsion to dominate people’s lives (both storytellingwise). It was all ingrained in my mind as a child and challenged me to reflect on it, the light and the dark, the sins and the saints.

Well, and then there is another thing the stories from church have taught me: They taught me about bad storytelling. Man, it was frustrating at times how bad the stories told in church were, compared to the stories I read at leisure. Sometimes they made no sense at all, had no proper ending, had a lot of “because I say so” going on, pieces didn’t fit, and, as an inherent fault of the genre, there was deus-ex-machina in abundance. But maybe they didn’t care about suspension of disbelief because it was assumed that you already handled this before you sat down in church.

There is, without doubt, also some good storytelling going on there. Some seriously rad imagery has trickled down into our language, and there are quotable lines galore. In German, even a lot of the words for inner processes and emotions stem from christian scholars trying to make up words for concepts that were never needed before. Part of this significance has to do with christianity dominating western culture for centuries. Its lore and legends even managed if not to kill, then at least to discontinue a lot of other powerful mythological traditions. But at its core, there must have been good storytelling (or at least the right stories at the right time), because at some time in the past, people were moved to flock together and listen. It can’t just boil down to a love of grimdark and “come back next Sunday to hear if the pharaoh really shot Moses”, can it?

Sunday Story Time: Minuscule Valentine’s Day

Yeah, it’s not exactly the season … but I’m still fighting my deadlines (this time for a not-so-small, but very urgent licensing project), so I need something calming. Enter Minuscule, a French children’s show about insects. What’s interesting about the five-minute episodes created by Hélène Giraud (daughter of comic artist Moebius) and Thomas Szabo is that they come without any dialogue. The inner lives of the adventurous tiny heroes (animations blending into live action nature shots) are relayed by sounds and insect facial expressions only.

Nothing much happens in the short episodes (but the feature-length film emerging from the show, Valley of the Lost Ants, boasts a thickened plot by adding warring ant tribes and the coming of age of a ladybeetle hero – also highly recommended). They are simply charming and relaxing. And the meadow world is a serious (more or less) take on a self-contained insect cosmos.

Enjoy, or watch it here (if you’re in a country without restrictions) or here.


Minuscule – Valentine's Day / La Saint Valentin von YourKidTV

Implied Spaces on a shoestring budget

This week marks the deadline for my translation of The Exodus Towers by Jason M. Hough. Somehow, despite all planning, the end is always a very delicate time – I just can’t squeeze in a love letter or other blog post. But in case you need a recommendation anyway: One of my all-time favorite books, Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams, is on sale this week (eBook editions, just look it up at your preferred seller – mine is Smashwords). It’s a story about a bright future on many worlds, and it’s very interesting to see Implied Spaceshow suspense is created in a universe where mankind seems to have found solutions for most big questions. If you are interested in the craft (or just good old ingenious entertainment), this novel also shows how style and genre work, because every chapter presents a new genre. Also featuring speaking cats, soul-devouring swords and battle by throwing around wormholes. I’m going to write more about this novel with its brilliant characters and formidable concepts some day soon, but in the meantime, you could just go ahead and read it. You’re not going to get a better deal this week!

Sunday Story Time: Kaiju Parenting

Ultra-short story time today with a light and adorable tiny comic about parenting among monsters by Iguanamouth. I’m always fascinated by comics without words and love to see what kinds of stories artists are able to tell relying only on images. Check it out!

Iguanamouth is a tumblr celebrity with her drawings of unusual dragon hoards.

Small Crush: Sleeping Giants (Sylvain Neuvel)

I have a confession to make: I am no giant robots girl. Robots are cool, sure. The Iron Giant is fine, too. But show me Transformers or Gundam style piloted vehicles, and I’m mostly out. So why on earth was I intrigued by a novel evolving around the idea of mankind stumbling upon giant robot parts buried deep in the earth for millennia?

I guess it was the premise to treat these unwieldy and, for me, inefficient huge heaps of metal as a real thing. In the beginning of Sylvain Neuvels debut novel Sleeping Giants, they are exactly what I imagine them to be: weird, giant metal pieces lying around, and nobody knows what to make of them and what to do with them. Nobody knows that they exist, to be exact, because giant body parts emerging from the earth all of a sudden are a top secret thing, of course. And this is the other feature to guarantee a fascinating read: You are let in on a secret. You’re allowed to snoop on the classified files of the giant robot dossier, and that’s what you get to read – interviews, surveillance data, secret reports, and so on. Sleeping Giants is not the first book to do this (World War Z comes to mind, among others), but as much as you have to fill in the blanks and put together the bits and pieces of information, Sleeping Giants has a narrator, kind of: the one who collects the files, a shadowy figure you know nothing about, who conducts interviews, controls and manipulates the events. He (or she?) stays completely opaque, so you’ll gobble up every little bit of (indirect) information about them.

Sleeping GiantsThis “narrator” gathers personnel (recruited from military and science) to study the giant robot parts. Their findings seem to defy everything we know about history and science. It’s the biggest top secret discovery on Earth. Yet people … are people. The protagonists are fascinating, flawed characters, real persons in the face of robot perfection. So real, in fact, that their drama seemed a little bit over the top to me in places, given the surroundings and events of the story. On the other hand, all those boiling emotions are able to close the distance created by the dossier style of Sleeping Giants. Simultaneously, global drama unfolds, and there’s still a whole bunch of questions about those robot pieces.

I don’t know if I like the direction the story is going in the end, but Sleeping Giants kept my eyes glued to the pages, that’s for sure, and Sylvain Neuvel knows a thing or two about the art of suspense and cliffhangers. And while I’m still no giant robots girl, I really liked all the giant robot(s) girls portrayed in this book.

Sunday Story Time: Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death

Today I’m late, so you get something good – this is one of my favorite stories of all time (and probably my favorite by James Tiptree Jr.) Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death first appeared in 1973, went on to win a Nebula Award, and is a classic today. Its point of view lost nothing of its strangeness and the narration will keep you on your toes, freak you out and get you thinking. Not an easy read, but one you’ll likely never forget.

You can read Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death for free at Lightspeed Magazine’s webpage (it also appeared in their Women Destroy Science Fiction! anthology). And if you like audio books, do yourself a favor and listen to this story, read by the brilliant Stefan Rudnicki.

XCOM 2 (Firaxis)

My one big love of 2016 was Firaxis’ XCOM 2. This game managed to look good, sound good and feel good in all the right ways (if you’ve got that soft spot for guys shooting slimy aliens and crave a healthy dose of military sf every now and then). And it got me invested in my underdog crew and my beautiful stolen starship on a level I seldom experience with a game.

XCOM 2 - Dr. Tygan

Your chief science officer is also fond of oozy-snotty-slimy-wimey stuff.

X(-)COM has been reigning supreme in the Earth-vs-Aliens genre as long as I remember, but this latest installment even beat the one time my character in a pen & paper UFO campaign owned a collection of more than 40 samples of oozy-snotty-slimy-wimey stuff. Dr. Tygan would have been proud of me!

Anyway, bad news for XCOM veterans: You fight a guerrilla war now, and nothing else has changed; the aliens are out there, and they are scary as hell and bear no love for humanity. It’s your job to face this threat. Against the will of (most of) humanity, that is, and without government funding.

One thing I like more than anything else in gaming is when game mechanics and storytelling go hand in hand. XCOM 2 does this so beautifully you’ll want to cry: you’re operating on very limited resources, just barely staying afloat. Strategy games aren’t exactly known for their quality stories, but XCOM 2 starts with giving you a bunch of memorable characters with their own quirks and in-jokes. You just gotta love grumpy Central, missing his old sweater and giving the general impression that he would kick the aliens back to where they came from single-handedly, if he could just bring himself to leave the Commander’s side (and the Avenger’s bar).

Everyone complains about how I fly the ship, but I don’t see anyone other than the autopilot stepping up.
– Central Officer Bradford

There is also a fascinating level of equality and diversity going on here, which really is something for a game in a typical boys’ club genre (militaristic, strategic, round-based). It starts with the Commander, who gets to play a bigger role this time, apart from being the substitute for the player. Very cleverly, the Commander’s gender is never stated, nor is it ever shown clearly. With this, you’re able to really step into those shoes, and for me, it makes all the difference. Shout-out to all my fellow female Commanders out there – Vigilo Confido, ladies!

And it gets better when you start recruiting rookies from all over the world and all walks of life. They’ll wear scarfs and bandannas and hockey armor and whatever is close at hand when you have to join the resistance against the alien overlords of the Earth in a hurry, but there’s not a single high-heeled amazon or boob window to be seen.

Most of Earth’s population did fall for the aliens’ propaganda, though, enthralling them with – no jokes – yummy free burgers and, ok, super high end health care, too. So your bunch of misfits has to take to the field. This is where the real magic happens: XCOM 2 gives you all you need to tell your very own war story: cinematic shots of your squad in action, heroic debriefings for the survivors, a sad memorial for the deceased, a range of voices, personalities, idle actions and fancy nicknames. And if you’ve got the smallest spark of a storyteller in you, you’re going to dive into the narrative. You’ll crave the moments when they make the day, and yell at them (often!) for messing up a perfectly good shot. And in the end they’ll be the heroes of YOUR story, and that’s what emergent gameplay is all about, I’m told.

Screenshot XCOM 2

This is one mean game.

I even enjoyed the (probably buggy) extra time when your squad is delivered to and from their missions, idly fidgeting around, mood strongly depending on your leadership skills. You’ll want to be a very committed Commander. And this game is mean. If you produce a strategic fail or even a wrong click, you will be punished. The enemy will shoot, burn, poison and mindfuck the shit out of your guys, and friendly collateral damage is also a thing. At crucial events it is not entirely impossible for you to realize you botched your whole campaign.

As you gradually unveil the secret of the alien rule, your story comes together so beautifully that it hurts a little when the ending hits fast … and not completely satisfying. It has its moments, but the suspense created beforehand seemed to hint at something larger. I would have liked to see a twist, something more ambivalent, some more struggle. More struggle, you say? Isn’t this a mean bastard of a game already? Well, if you don’t rush your campaign, you’ll have developed everything to the max for the endgame, and that’s when things become kind of evened out between you and the aliens.

On the other hand, I had lost my heart long before this point, and I guess I’ll have to try out this new Long War mod I keep hearing about and raise another bunch of rookies to heroes.