Small Crush: Sword and Sonnet

Many of the short stories I enjoyed most in 2018 came from one anthology – Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler. And before I’m going to tell you about the stories I loved, I need to emphasize how awesome the anthology as a whole is. It’s about battle poets (identifying as female or non-binary), and of course this concept grabbed my attention faster than any smashing opening line. Why, yes, please let me know everything about the power of poetry, about the wielders of war-winning words, about the searing sting of a single syllable!

The diversity of these stories is absolutely fantastic, much more so than you’re probably expecting! There are tales set in forests and tales among far-flung stars, there’s revolution, revenge, and revelation, and styles range from lyrical delicacy to effective bluntness. There was not a single story in this anthology that didn’t convey its vision or failed to engage me, even if it didn’t correspond with my preferred styles or topics.

Sword and SonnetAnd there were a lot of stories I enjoyed tremendously: After reading about all these vastly different word slingers, I should know that there is no such thing as the quintessential battle poet. But Gennesee of A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin by Hayley Stone somehow etched herself into my brain as just that, from the moment she sits waiting in her cell, sinister and full of hate, a victim and a perpetrator of war crimes … but still an artist. Another protagonist perceived as evil and in shackles at the beginning of her story is the witch Alejandra in El Cantar de la Reina Bruja by Victoria Sandbrook, and both stories find different and equally beautiful – but also painful – ways for seeking freedom and new beginnings through poetry.

The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts by A. Merc Rustad is probably my favorite story – it’s the perfect mix of myth, bold world-building, and traces of folktale (also, dinosaurs, and trees – would have been kind of hard to pack even more things I absolutely adore into just one story). Dulce et Decorum by S. L. Huang blew my away with the questions it brought up, questions you probably have faced if you ever saw common ground between poetry and war. And This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers by Carlie St. George was exactly up my alley because it features the difficulties of translation, and was about meeting and maybe coming to understand people of wildly different cultures. It was great fun, too, as should be expected of a story about settling intergalactic conflict via art conference.

Close runners-up to these favorites were Siren by Alex Acks (the lyrical voice and the scope of this story!), And the Ghosts Sang with Her: A Tale of the Lyrist by Spencer Ellsworth (a beautiful fairytale with a charming protagonist), The Firefly Beast by Tony Pi (great atmosphere in this elegant and action-packed tale set in China), and The Bone Poet and God by Matt Dovey (featuring a bear called Ursula who is also a shaman/poet).

These were the stories that appealed most to my personal taste. As I said, I found something worthwhile and engaging in every story of this anthology, and your favorites might be different ones. Be sure to check them out!

Sunday Story Time: The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul

When Natalia Theodoridou won the World Fantasy Award 2018 for The Birding: A Fairy Tale last weekend, another one of her short stories came to my mind again: The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul, first published in Clarkesworld 2014 (you can also read it on Medium).

The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul drew me in and never let go – a hopeless tale of a man stranded alone in the small confines of a bleak, almost lifeless environment. It is full of despair, decline, and lost dreams, and yet, there is something; life’s incredible resilience even under hostile conditions.

Natalia Theodoridou paid homage to artist Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests (and if you’ve never seen them, visit the webpage; it’s worth it!) They invite story, and they already seem to incorporate the melancholy that permeates The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul. So mechanics and beauty were embedded in the story’s theme, but the third ingredient is mythological and gently nudges you in the direction of the answer to a question the Strandbeests seem to evoke: man is lonely, and even in end-times builds himself life-like (if strange) companions. What is their place in the cosmos?

Island Quest at Viable Paradise

It begins with an ocean.

You cross the water, waves nipping at your ankles, salt stinging on your face. You have hopes, but you don’t know it yet: this is a real transition. You leave familiar shores behind, and all certainty about what kind of creature you are, what you are allowed to do, what you are able to achieve. What you thought safe. What you thought sound. Your concerns that this endeavor was maybe just an error, a misapprehension. Now you are here, on a boat.

You’re entering new, unexplored terrain.

You are welcomed by kind spirits. And while they tell you in no uncertain terms that you are on a quest, that you have challenges before you and obstacles to overcome, they assure you that no harm will befall you in their domain, nor shall you ever go hungry or cold. They care for you, heart and mind and belly, and they provide you with the strength to push on when things get rough.

There are giants on the island. You might be nervous about meeting them, a little bit afraid even. Then you discover that what makes them giants is not something that separates you, but something you have in common: a shared passion, a disposition to strive for better words, better tales, a will to explore and learn and marvel. And they want you to grow into a giant, too.

You find companions, true soulmates. They are on the same quest, and you’re in this together and get to know and love each other until you can be sure you have each other’s backs. You form a fellowship of the pen, a fellowship of quiet keystrokes, a fellowship of sealed plot holes and salvaged story arcs. You share meals and songs and ideas. Sometimes, you also share the horror, because there are times of plight.

But you are given tools to take paths you didn’t risk before. You are encouraged to mold your perception and find new ways to see yourself, your work, and all the stories you encounter. Most of all, you are given a place of acceptance, of companionship, of belonging. You are right where you are supposed to be, and this is a powerful gift.

Time behaves strangely on the island. Hours glide languidly into everlong midsummer-like days full of adventure. One night can stretch into an eternity, enough time to get you to the edge of the galaxy and back. But all too soon it will compress and accelerate and rush madly towards the end.

Things have to end, to circle back, to move onward, you know this by heart now. You cry, there is no way around that. You leave, eyes swollen, heart full. A multitude of ideas in your head, but they won’t form into something coherent until you are less overwhelmed, less miserable because you have to go.

It will take some time for you to discover: part of the island stays with you. The winds, and the knowledge you’ll smile at them again after all you have mastered. The waves, rocking your old shell off of you to make room for growth, rippling with ongoing change. The hearth fire, telling you you are not alone in this. The jellyfish, glowing in the darkness when you need a spark of inspiration. You set out on an ocean of possibilities.

This, you know, is a beginning.

———

I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard at the Viable Paradise writing workshop in October, and this might have been one of the best things I ever did. Viable Paradise 22, squinting in the sunI’ll probably get back to this with a more practical and down-to-earth post at some point in the future. Because if next year’s chosen ones are like me and my classmates, they will google every scrap of information, and they’ll need to know to bring warm socks without holes and such!

New novelette: When We Were Starless

My new novelette When We Were Starless was published in the October issue of Clarkesworld, and I wanted to provide a little bit of trivia and background for readers with an interest in such things. There may be mild spoilers. If you want to read the story first, here it is – you could go chasin’ ghosts among the ruins of a fallen world with Mink right now!

Clarkesworld 145

It is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.

When We Were Starless had a rough start. I was struggling with what felt like the certain knowledge that my first story had been a fluke, and I wasn’t convinced it would be a good idea to revisit this world. But the image that stuck with me was nomad herders with 3D printer spiders!!! I imagined a trickster story first, about a stranger shaking the tribe up and inducing change, before leaving them again. It took me some time to realize I didn’t want another outcast story. So the only thing I kept was Mink’s ability to change her color. The trickster goddess whom this would have been attributed to (as well as the ability to drop tails) sadly had to go.

My main source for research was Vanishing Footprints: Nomadic People Speak by Ann Perry and Anthony Swift (not a perfect book, but it makes an effort to feature the voices of nomadic people). As I figured out the plot, I visited a planetarium (for the first time ever!). Huge parts of the story clicked into place while I was there.

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium, Nuremberg: For a very brief moment, I thought this might be the ghost Mink meets …

There are some direct inspirations: part of the opening was inspired by the framing narrative of Clifford D. Simak’s City; and when I began to think about the exhibits in the dome, I couldn’t resist the urge to write a happy ending for xkcd’s super sad Mars Rover episode.

The music was a happy accident, more or less: I always envisioned Mink’s people as musical, but the strong focus on music snuck into the text almost without me noticing. The moment I found out how it would play into the ending, I knew I could make this story work. I also listened to a lot of music and have my own Paean of Manifest Horizons (more of a Paean of Manifest Finishing Line, because it took me forever to get there …).

Last but not least: Many thanks for encouraging me, and your brilliant ideas and editorial help, to Juliana Socher, Maike Claussnitzer, Catherine Brennan, Miriah Hetherington, and Sonia Focke! <3 And thank you, Clarkesworld, for publishing me a second time!
And thank you, readers, for spending time with my stories! Your comments, shares, and reviews mean the world to me!

There might be more of what I secretly call lizardpunk coming up at one point, more Shrouded Earth to unveil – or maybe space nomads? Or something else altogether. I’m not decided yet. Gotta go writing now to find out which egg will hatch next (or, you know, at all)!

Sunday Story Time: Tattoo

I keep thinking about the ocean lately. It’s been two years and a half since I stood on a seashore, far too long for my taste (Baltic Sea doesn’t really count, right?). I’ll get a healthy dose of ocean a little bit more than two weeks from now, and until then, this cute short webcomic by Sam Dow came to my mind, first published in 2014 (as far as I can tell). It is called Tattoo and ticks a lot of boxes on my favorites list: a female cast, an encounter with the unknown, nice wavy drawing style, and it’s a silent comic.

Not the only webcomic by Sam Dow that’s worth your time, by the way (try Cornerwitches, too). Sam has a tumblr and a Patreon.

Translation Troubles: Gender

For everybody interested in the process of translating fiction, I’m going to post some snippets about specific problems that can cause distortions between the source and the translated text. Please keep in mind that I address mostly English to German. These two are closely related, but they’re also surprisingly different. They occupy just one tiny area of the whole field – different languages, different problems. Also: different genres, different problems, and apart from the odd outlier, I’m firmly rooted in speculative fiction and related genres. So: YMMV, greatly (and I’d love to hear about it!)

Gender is one aspect often forcing my translations to be more specific than the source text – and I have to make decisions (after asking the author, if possible) for things that were (deliberately) left undecided.

Every noun is gendered in German (and a lot of other languages). This is especially interesting when it comes to job titles and other personal nouns. I have to clarify the gender of every guard, cook, pilot, soldier, visitor, stranger, and so on. In the source text, these people are sometimes not important enough to know their gender, and sometimes it’s convenient to keep this information ambiguous. This option is nonexistent in translation, and neither am I able to refer to a “doctor” with a female pronoun – I would have needed to call her a “doctress” in the first place. So imagine the blast of translatorial joy, after a leader’s aide has been popping up on the pages now and then, when discovering in volume three of the series that she has been female all along!

Male forms are default in German; female forms are an extra effort. So female visibility is lowered in a lot of contexts. And stereotypes are prone to lingering in translations: the translator might not “see” a woman in a group of guards or officers, even if the writer imagined women among them.

A side-effect of these unavoidably gendered nouns is the fact that animals, artificial beings, and just about anything else is gendered, too: a robot, a dog, or a ghost are always “he”, an AI is “she”. There’s a neutral form, “it”, mostly used for certain objects. You don’t want to use it for persons (which are gendered as “he” or “she” anyway, unless they are girls. Yep, girls are “it” in German …)

And here’s the last bummer: All available options are of course not applicable to non-binary people. There are some proposals for non-binary pronouns which are either awkward (like she_he), or most people have never heard of them. The nice, practical option to use “they/them” is not working in German, I guess (you can adapt to innovations in language pretty fast, so I’m not 100% sure).

Frankly, I don’t know what I would do with “they” at the moment. It never came up till now, unfortunately (about time some new books with non-binary characters get translated). Ask my publisher, I guess. Try out a few things and strive to establish a solution that readers could get used to. And face a shitstorm, probably.

Sunday Story Time: By the Hand That Casts It

I don’t know about you, but I would never have suspected a flower shop, a place for delicate displays of desire, to be the location of a deadly duel. This elegant story by Stephanie Charette in one of the (sadly) last issues of Shimmer sold me on the idea from the moment the first obnoxiously self-absorbed client enters florist Briar Redgrave’s domain. By the Hand That Casts It makes the best of its Victorian setting, with a snarky heroine in retirement (yay for retired leading ladies!), contrasted by a flamboyant second main character (of the kind we all know and roll our eyes at), and plenty of shadowy secrets hiding away under polished surfaces. It felt like a very different coming-of-age-story to me, one that is maybe unique to female biographies. And I loved the intimate setting full of subtle rules and agreements hemming in the heroine from all sides, while she holds the shears in her hands all the time.

You can find By the Hand That Casts It in Shimmer #45, and read the story here, or buy the whole issue here.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

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This scene might sum up the essence of Star Wars: The Clone Wars for me, the soon-to-be seven seasons of galactic goodness depicting the events between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It’s not from one of the greatest episodes, not even one in any form essential to the overarching plot. (None of them are. That’s part of the magic!) But it captures the colourful abundance and diversity of Star Wars, the light-hearted, sense-of-wonder-tickling approach The Clone Wars takes to its somber themes.

Ahsoka TanoAnd trust me, The Clone Wars is heavy stuff, especially for a show aimed at a younger audience. We all know what happens to hotshot hero Anakin Skywalker, and to those many, many Jedi and their faithful clone regiments. One of the great accomplishments of The Clone Wars is its exploration of the tragedy in the making, a tragedy that never worked in RotS on screen (the novelization by Matthew Stover does a much better job): a war lost from the beginning, an order of old not able to adapt as an institution (although filled with well-meaning, clever individuals), a fine hero slowly descending into darkness with no one to stop him, an army of misused men disconnected from the society they are defending, only to be utterly betrayed in the end.

I heard the words “Clone Wars” for the first time in 1977 Star Wars, and a whole range of exciting possibilities popped up in my mind then. When it turned out to be endless rows of Jango Fetts taking it out on endless rows of droids in AotC, it was a whole platter of meh with a dash of disillusion. Enter The Clone Wars: boy, did it deliver on the promise of a sweeping, epic conflict!

The first season isn’t quite there yet, though. And even later, the villains are often at their most cackling villainy, the droids are mostly walking, clanking jokes, and I can tell you I had a bad feeling about some overused one-liners. But the show finds its stride, evolving into multi-episode story-arcs and displaying a broad range of themes and genres – some episodes are pure fun and wonderful weirdness, some are super serious war narratives, or force mysticism fables, or games of political intrigue, or they pay homage to cinematic moments from Jaws to The Seven Samurai. Not all the things director Dave Filoni and his writing team experimented with were right up my alley, but I found something to like in most of the 121 episodes – even the ones featuring *gasp* Gungans!

Great, it’s gonna be another one of those planets.
– Clone pilot Warthog

The plots are not overly complex. You’ll often know how a story will go, because it’s just a Star Wars spin on something you’ll recognize. But there are twists and turns and a lot of fun along the way. Character development is always on spot and features awesome original characters like Jedi Padawan Ahsoka, Clones in many different flavors, Sith assassin Ventress, and a bunch of colorful bounty hunters. There’s a whole parade of well-written female characters, and there’s even a nice diverse subtext in this galaxy teeming with aliens of all shapes and sizes. Take the Aleena from “another one of those planets”: they are seen at various times as background characters, and while they look like a bad ringtone ad from the 90s, apart from tribal warriors on flying mantis mounts, they can also be drunken ladies on Coruscant, traveling artists, or even Jedi.

Fauna of Wasskah, Star Wars

Then again, I’m not among those who get annoyed by “those planets”. I grew up on the Ewoks animated series, after all.

The Jedi, by the way, are not exactly the good guys, not as a whole. The Clone Wars introduces a lot of greys to the Star Wars moral landscape; you could even say it drops the good-vs-evil premise completely as the war muddies all moral absolutes very effectively. Some story-arcs feature a surprisingly strong anti-war message, and the clones are the perfect stand-ins for the dehumanizing and deindividualizing nature of war.

Apart from that, The Clone Wars greedily gobbles up everything that was in the SW universe up till then, while adding a lot more, without neglecting to keep the audience grounded with a sense of place and coherence in the galaxy far, far away (looking accusingly at you, Disney era Star Wars!)

The background details (advertisments, graffiti etc.) are beyond awesome!

As this was the last major contribution to the Star Wars canon with George Lucas at the helm of Lucasfilm, these were the stories he wanted to tell, and they show he still knew how to spin a yarn, with Dave Filoni & Co. doing the heavy-lifting to make this serialized approach to the epic formula shine. You can clearly see how much thought and love went into the details, into the animation, and into the development of an awe-inspiring number of narrative strands weaving in and out of the main storyline about the fall of the Republic and the Jedi.

The Clone Wars is notoriously told non-chronologically (but it might be a good idea to watch it in the correct order). Somehow, it works anyway as an episodic war narrative at dozens of locations, coming together to form an extensive mosaic of worlds, characters, factions, and action. It manages to walk the thin line between rollicking pulp adventure and drama with admirable grace. This is Star Wars at its best, in a galaxy brimming with strange life, with its animation ever more beautiful, and its punches aimed at your guts ever more violent. Most violent, perhaps, when you realize the show was canceled in favor of Rebels without tying up even one of its numerous loose ends. I’m hyped for the revival, of course, but twelve new episodes seem awfully short to finish the stories I’d be interested in.

Even unfinished, The Clone Wars is worth watching. Are you a jaded Star Wars fan who wants to fall in love anew? Or do you adore all the movies and want more? The Clone Wars has got you covered. Give some love to the clones! Give some love to Ahsoka Tano (naturally)! Maybe even give a little bit of love to Anakin Skywalker!
Reconcile with the prequel era, you want. Search your feelings.
Embo on Scipio, Star Wars

Thou shalt have no other stories …

After another few months spent in translator-bot mode, producing daily word-counts I can only dream of as a writer, I have some thoughts about writing and having a day job as a freelancer in the publishing industry at the same time. It seems like a dream situation – to gain a foothold, to learn the business … and when I started this line of work over 10 years ago, it was a dream job. Second best thing to publishing my own stuff. A chance to work with words, with languages and their intricacies, in the genres and with the authors I loved. Translating has always been very close to my heart – it’s a special kind of approach to a text and can be extremely rewarding (for everyone involved, yay!).

Some aspects didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped for, but that’s a different story. A job closely connected to writing is, in some ways, a major boost for writing. I learned a great deal about language and how to construct stories while translating superb novels, and then some more by editing not-so-superb-yet novels. The moment you have to propose a solution when something isn’t good enough, a vague feeling of “I don’t like it” just doesn’t do. You have to get to the root of the problem, and that makes you see what will work and what won’t.

So I doubt I’d be able to write the way I do without my job, without being surrounded by professional words and stories daily.

But.

My own words inevitably dry up when I am deep in the translating game. I’m surrounded by another person’s story and strive to get into its style, mood, tone. If I try to start writing then, I might end up emulating the thing I’m working on at the moment.

Mostly I don’t even try: I simply can’t bring myself to hack out another word on my keyboard after I already spent 6 hours straight doing just that. Braindead. Daily amount of words used up. Instinct for stories vaporized.

I’m aware that the majority of writers out there are writing in their free time, and surely there’s no shortage of jobs eating your brain. I’m in awe of everyone who sits down to tell their story anyway.

I seem to be at a point where my day job isn’t producing synergies for writing anymore, or even just some (mildly lucrative) background noise; it has turned counterproductive. I guess that’s mostly because I’m working and writing in exactly the same genres. It’s just so close to my own words, and if I want to do it justice, I have to live the to-be-translated text in the same way I have to live my own stories. So my own writing is always relegated to the backburner.

Add in the precarious nature of freelancing, which makes you inclined to always take on another rush job, another project, because there’s no way to know whether and when the next thing might come up. And soon there is no room left for your own stories to unfold. I can relate to every writer who just wants an unobtrusive, not-too-demanding job.

What I do now, accompanied by a lot of anxiety, is decline some jobs. And try to shift a certain portion to other modes and genres, mostly non-fiction, to create synergies again. (But who am I kidding here – offer me a cool science fiction or fantasy project, and I’ll bite).

So, fair warning: having a second dream job apart from writing might not be the best strategy for producing a lot of words, especially if said dream job is, well, also writing, just for other people in another language.

Do what you love and you'll work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally

This has been all over the place recently … I simply had to add it. (from adamjk’s Instagram )

Reanimation

Hey, what have you been up to since November, Simone?
November, huh? It’s been so long, I even need a lousy fake interview set-up to get these rusty gears going.
Mostly, I’ve been a good little translator-bot. I translated a net total of 532,000 words of text, fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic MCU in-universe encyclopaedia which nearly killed me with its legions of weapons and gadgets, half of them real things, half of them Marvel inventions (yeah, thanks for nothing, Captain America!). I copy-edited a smaller amount, about 364,000 words, also fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic DC Comics encyclopaedia which nearly drove me crazy with its (sorry, DC) stupid timelines. Superheroes galore for me!
I read 25 books as a judge of the Seraph (original works) and the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis (translated works), both German sff awards. I co-conceptualized and co-hosted an awesome three-day workshop about storytelling as a tool for photographers with my camera-wielding partner in crime Chrononauts Photography.
And I last-minute-applied for Viable Paradise, because it sounded like pure workshop goodness. Which turned out very well so far: I don’t think I have ever experienced such a warm (virtual) welcome anywhere.

Did you write stories?
I wrote a thing for my VP application. Next step: improving my miserable story/workshop ratio. Feeling like the fraud of frauds here …

But you did write something, somewhere, didn’t you?
I didn’t even do much social media. Just work, eat and see to it that my back won’t give out, work again and then some more, sleep, repeat. Every single day (I had three free days over Easter, yay!). It felt like a never-ending nightmare, and that’s why I’m taking some time off now. Otherwise things would become an endless slog towards self-annihilation. Not cool.

What about stories, passive mode?
I didn’t read much apart from the nominated titles for the awards. There was T. Kingfisher’s romance/rpg adventure novelization hybrid Clocktaur Wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed (gonna write more about that one). I went to the movies a few times, to avoid becoming a hermit and such: I liked The Shape of Water – not the deep story about encountering the Other I expected from the trailer; but a beautifully shot film about misfits. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok where my favorite MCU movies so far, one for its vision and coolness, and the other for combining heroics and fun.
I played some Overwatch. I also played Fortnite, but that was for a job (and it’s probably not my cup of tea). Ah, but now, as this full-frontal march towards burnout is at its end, I’ve been reading nice things again. A short story collection by Roger Zelazny. What a feast! I started reading the Sword and Sonnet anthology recently. And after that, Murderbot vol. 3 is waiting for me. Oh, and I picked up Divinity 2 again, so good (gonna write about it).

What now?
There’s still some editing work and small jobs to do. Probably should be looking for bigger jobs, too, but apart from that, I feel like I could sleep a whole month.
Most of all, I miss my lizards and robots and powerful ladies, and my random ramblings about stories and stuff. But I’m beginning to find back to my own words, so stay tuned. Winter is coming! Again! Ugh, this has been a long time off …