Simone Heller

astray in worlds and words.

Reading with Vital authors

I’ve been under the spell of converging deadlines, again. It happens regularly with my main client (mostly due to licencing issues). Imagine I spent the last weeks under a massive Lego brick; that’s very close to the truth. One of the few occasions I crawled out of my translation zombie state was when I was asked to join a reading with three authors of the Vital anthology, Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, Sally Wiener Grotta, and Eric Schwitzgebel, and our shared editor RM Ambrose.

Plush reptile stand-in audience at online reading

The audience was fabulous!

So I found myself preparing for my first ever online reading, actually my first reading since sixth grade. It was a fun evening (noon break for others), perfectly organized by the wonderful Inlandia Institute, and I can’t wait to read everyone’s stories in the anthology. I really hope a lot of these online formats are here to stay – it’s an easy way for people all around the globe to participate in panels and readings!

I think I’m going to spend the weekend staring at a wall and internalising the translate-sleep-translate-cycle is over for now. But if you want to listen to me read from “Keloid Dreams”, the event is up on Youtube:

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New short story: Keloid Dreams

My new story “Keloid Dreams” is out in Future SF #8, a medical-themed issue published in September 2020. Read on if you’re interested in process and trivia, but beware, here be spoilers!

If you’d like to experience Carebot’s sensor input first and see to the patient’s wellbeing, please come along. And don’t forget to take a look at the other stories in this issue – I’m totally awed by the big ideas and scientific details my TOC mates came up with!



Future SF #8 coverFirst of all, phew! All my writing attempts since 2018 got shelved during first draft, and while people kept congratulating me on my last story, I plunged into a pitch-black hole. Then along came this healthcare prompt to yank me out of my comfort zone, with a tight deadline on top. And here we are, finished story! “Keloid Dreams” originated in thoughts about healthcare getting under your skin via implanted sensors, combined with the idea of robots caring for people. How would they become accepted, what would their humanizing features have to be so that you’d trust them with your parents?

I was planning to write about dementia first, about a patient losing himself, and a robot finding a personality, but the emotion-learning robot voice didn’t work for me. The refurbished warbot idea had been lurking from the beginning, and I truly hit my stride when I imagined the two veterans on a last mission together, despite the fallout of going to war.

Then it was a question of digging deeper. I connected bits and pieces to family history: my Dad, who was excluded from taking part in my life when I was ten. My Grandfather, who turned his back to fighting, but the whole story was obscured by the way German families don’t talk about their WWII past. On a lighter note, Overwatch inspired some details of the story, and if you played the game, you may find teeny-tiny easter-eggs and guess who my favorite character is. When I considered what Callas would do as a hobby, I settled on bird-feeding, partially because bird-feeding has gotten me through the worst of this pandemic. This decision made me pull one of my favorite graphic novels from the shelf, Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt, providing further inspiration.

My thanks go out to Ella Voss and Elena Kotsiliti who were lightning quick with their insights on very short notice, and Jennifer Hudak, who helped me make the story so much sleeker and more powerful. To firefighter/paramedic Meo, who was awesome at explaining complex physiological processes and effects (any bugger-ups are on the author’s side). And to my editor, RM Ambrose, who really got to the core of the story and helped me polish it. If you like his work for Future SF and feel the need to imagine the future of healthcare differently, consider backing his anthology Vital on Kickstarter, bringing you more stories soon!

Writing this piece of post-military SF has unlocked an achievement: true short story! I almost made it down to 5,000 words – and I’m in deep awe of people who truly master this and even shorter lengths!

Achievements remaining unlocked:
– write something that’s not 1st person
– write a story without reptiles (They’re invisible this time. Improved much?)
– write a story from the POV of an actual human.

Next time, maybe. Or maybe not. I have a roster of a dozen partially told stories, some mostly dead, some quite fresh, and some same old in a shiny new skin. Onwards!

For He Can Creep (Siobhan Carroll)

Now that there is a 2020 Eugie Award winner, I absolutely have to remedy the mistake of not urging you enough to read her story: “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll is told from the point of view of a cat. And not just any cat, but distinguished, treat-loving, fierce-clawed Jeoffry, the feline visitor to a 19th century London asylum fighting the demons torturing the place.

“For He Can Creep” is a classic outsmart-the-devil story, but it is so much more: its protagonist’s cattiness is captured in every hiss and every purr, and he has to give his best performance to defend his incarcerated poet against the nastiest of foes. If you love non-human POVs, this one is for you.

And the best thing is: “For He Can Creep is”, title and all, based on a real poem! I had to look this one up, and I was delighted to find that there was a story behind the story.

For He Can Creep, free to read at Tor.com, has also been a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award finalist, and is nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

A Handful of Sky (Elly Bangs)

I love it when stories just place me into a world and a society, leaving me to figure out the rules, and with a protagonist whose mysteries I have to unravel. A Handful of Sky by Elly Bangs delivers on that and more. Don’t miss it if you like fascinating magic concepts and high stakes!

It starts like a gritty sword and sorcery tale with a hunting party bringing in a slain dragon for its parts to be utilised. But these tropes are soon subverted, the more you find out about the hunters’ destination, a city of whispered secrets and eternal youth. The latter is not for everyone, though, and it’s always a delight to see an older female protagonist like Jorren Borriwack, a down-to-earth tailor just getting by, her talent buried and tarnished and waiting to change the world.

The story’s magic has the best handmade flavor, it’s very tangible even when it should by all means be abstract and elusive, and the ending is perfect – that’s the kind of fantasy I’d love to read more often, hopeful and addressing relevant questions.

Read it here in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #280 (June 2019).

Eugie Award

As promised, this bit of “news” gets an extra blog post, no matter how late I am: My novelette “When We Were Starless” is the winner of the 2019 Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction.

This makes me incredibly happy, not only because I’m still having trouble believing my writing was nominated for awards, let alone won one! It’s an award celebrating short fiction (yay!), and it boasts an incredibly fine selection of finalists and winners in the five years of its existence. Previous winners are Catherynne M. Valente, N.K. Jemisin, and Fran Wilde, so I’m clearly the odd one out here. And on top of that, it’s awarded in the memory of a truly brilliant short fiction writer.

I can only recommend you go and check out current and former finalists, and read Eugie’s work, too, if you don’t know it yet.

Plaque of the 2019 Eugie AwardI deeply regret I wasn’t able to be in Atlanta for the award ceremony personally – financial and health issues upset my plans to go. I celebrated two times, though – once in the middle of the night when I discovered on Twitter that my story had won, and a second time when the beautiful plaque designed by Tangled Earth Arts came in the mail.

And don’t forget to look at this year’s finalists, too. (Yes, my bad, there’s already a new round, and they’re amazing!)

Things happened …

… and things didn’t happen.
Most amazing among the things that happened was the fact that my latest story resonated with readers and was nominated for awards, to my utter astonishment. “When We Were Starless” went on to be a finalist for the Hugo and Sturgeon Awards, and it won the Eugie Foster Memorial Award (which deserves an extra blog post, even if I’m horribly late). Yay! I mean, YAAAAAYYYYY! I still can’t believe that happened!

But the fact that my latest story was, and is, still my latest story also serves as a hint to the things that didn’t happen.
I started a few new things and stopped in the middle of the process because I didn’t like where they were going. Some others simply refused to go anywhere. I dropped into that big black hole that keeps opening and swallowing me whole. I usually retreat and hunker down with (translation) work then, but last year was not great for translations, at least from my point of view. So the hole gave me some trouble this time around. Anyway, this is where I am. I haven’t given up; it’s just that my brain didn’t put out a lot of useful stuff these past months.

But things happen even when we sit in holes, and I’m lucky enough to have wonderful friends who keep nudging even if I’m at my worst holed-up self, and so the future doesn’t look all bleak: right now, a really wonderful (and challenging) translation is waiting on my desk. Friends have written amazing stories (and sometimes books) I want to talk about. And I might have been talked into doing a thing or two myself, one of them coming up right at Halloween! Which is, in the amorphous ways of 2020 time both forever in the future and sneaking up on us in a week or so.

Dogs of War (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Dogs come with more loyalty and trust than any single human should be allowed to handle, and thus stories about dogs are prone to enter the bitter space of betrayal, in some way or the other, unless you’re going for a trick ending like Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs.

I like stories focusing on animals, I’m up for the occasional well-written military SF, and I’ve enjoyed all of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novels I read, so Dogs of War was an insta-buy for me. And I knew from the first sentence I’d love it and it would break my heart.

My name is Rex. I am a Good Dog.
See Rex run. Run, enemy, run. That is Master’s joke.

Dogs of War is a near-future sf novel about modified animals used as forces of destruction in asymmetric, engineered wars. They are built to be terrible, alien, horror-inducing. And one of the most heartbreaking moments happens when Rex, the augmented/uplifted canine and central pov character, begins to suspect this. He’s a dog, one nightmare of a dog, full of all the loyalties, limited forms of understanding, and teeth dogs usually come with. Rex has a complicated (or is it, really?) relationship with his ruthless human master, and his journey into a more sophisticated way of thinking echoes Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon quite a bit.

As the story unfolds, it turns out to be a real page-turner, too. I wanted Rex to succeed in overcoming the simple truths he harbors to shield himself from a world that is far more complicated. And I loved the other animal characters, too – Honey, Dragon, and Bees. Adrian Tchaikovsky does a brilliant job in giving them personality, sometimes with very little material to work with. And his love for anthropods (as seen in his Shadows of the Apt series) is not diminished! So it’s not all about dogs, and even not all about so-called Bioforms, because Rex’s story is interspersed with different forms of humans and monsters from the beginning. But nothing beats a dog as a stand-in for soldiers and all they have to represent.

Dogs of War by Adrian TchaikovskyDogs of War starts out with military action, but evolves into an observation of a society that has to deal with a new despised worker/soldier class nobody wanted. Humanity’s discomfort in dealing with those creatures they made is understandable to a point that made me want to cringe at my reaction: Adrian Tchaikovsky is not shying away from showing just what a mess, what a horror, these modified animals are, while at the same time letting us peek inside their heads and know their redeeming qualities.

This is not just a novel about how we treat animals. It’s about all the monsters of our making, and somehow a dog can be the perfect amalgamation of both.

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!

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!

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