A Second Look: Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies

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A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

 A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

 Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

 During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalayas ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

 In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

Includes “Fear or Be Feared,” “The Disappearance of Juliana,” “Invisible People,” “The Elephant’s Eyes,” “War Horse,” “The Lady of the Lost Valley,” “The Ghost of Halkidiki Past,” “Wolf in a Cage,” “The Gift,” “Clouds Without Rain,” “Mendocino Mellow,” “Slice-of-Death,” “The Illuminations,” “The Customs Shed,” “Afterword: Deviations.”

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Book Review: LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Prefacing the conclusion to this riveting and terrifying book is a famous quote by Stewart Brand: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Brand was the editor of the original Whole Earth Catalog, which a primitive attempt at a social network. We’ve come a long way since then. One of the main messages of LikeWar is that modern online social networks are not only the abodes of gods, but also of warring demons. In fact, the authors make a strong case that the demons are wreaking havoc in a domain that was once thought to be a virtual paradise.

Singer and Brooking don’t even bother to list the advantages of the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. They simply categorize them as addictive and let it go at that. Instead, they launch right into their overwhelming theme, which is that these media have been co-opted by foreign governments and extremist groups as digital battlegrounds for the hearts, spirits, minds, and opinions of the people of the world. Their detailed descriptions of these entities using multiple accounts, sockpuppets, and botnets to confuse populaces and spread propaganda in the form of fabricated stories brings to mind the horror movies with blob-like monsters that I used to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid. Some of the specific examples they use include the sophisticated social media recruitment network of ISIS, Russia’s elaborate sockpuppet and botnet army, and China’s immense, enclosed, government-controlled social media system.

This book is a dark read. It makes you wonder if there’s any hope of the internet’s reliability as a source of truth now and in the future. According to the authors, Silicon Valley is much more interested in the bottom line of their corporations and the profits of their stockholders than in the morality of what appears on their global websites. Honesty and integrity seem to hold little sway compared to the overwhelming flood of disinformation that threatens to inundate any semblance of truth and thoughtful commentary.

For a time, shortly after its birth and baby steps, the internet was thought to be an intellectual utopia, a place where democracy and free thought would reign supreme. However, it was only a matter of time before terrorists and saboteurs began using it for their own nefarious purposes. The flood of animosity and disinformation caught online communities unprepared, and now governments and tech giants are playing catch-up to try to cope with the cyber-wars that have erupted in tandem with – or sometimes as prelude to – actual physical wars.

Counterattacks have been partially successful, say the authors, but there is still much ground to make up. Governments are attempting to cope, but much of the responsibility of security lies with the social media networks that the bad guys exploit. Singer and Brooking insist that Silicon Valley can no longer remain neutral when faced with the flood of evil that has overwhelmed their services, but must provide better security for the online communities of billions that daily look to social media for news, edification, entertainment, and personal connection.

This book is absorbing and important. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella by George Saunders

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, so I wanted to switch over to some fiction – to get back to my usual pattern, if I could, of alternating fiction and nonfiction in my reading material. I had no specific titles in mind, though, so I conducted an online search for the best short story collections of all time. This title, Pastoralia, came up on several lists.

Compared to another George Saunders collection I read not too long ago, Tenth of December, which as I remember was substantial, Pastoralia is sparse; it comes to less than two hundred pages in this paperback edition with fairly large print. That’s okay; we’ll assess it by its content, not its length.

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the book was the cover. It was completely out of place. It had nothing to do with the contents or themes of the stories. It seemed as if whoever designed it saw the title, and then selected the photo of a deer with forested hills in the background without realizing that “Pastoralia,” the title piece, has nothing to do with pastoral landscapes at all. Rather, it is a dark tale of a society with a dysfunctional economy in which the protagonist has to hire himself out as an actor playing a caveman in an amusement park exhibit in order to support his family. I really wondered about that cover: was someone actually paid to design it, or was it slapped on at the last minute by a person in marketing who had no clue to what the book was about?

Concerning the stories, they’re a mixed batch. “Pastoralia,” the first and longest story in the book, is darkly humorous and because of its absurd premise made me consider that it would not be out of place in a science fiction anthology or magazine. It’s very entertaining, but I thought that Saunders could have made his point even more effectively if he’d trimmed some of the excess and cut it by about a quarter or so of its length.

My favorite story is a dark fantasy, a zombie tale actually, called “Sea Oak.” It’s about a poor extended family living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. After a sweet spinster aunt who’d been living with them dies and is buried, she reappears as a slowly-disintegrating, gross, loud, potty-mouth, pushy zombie who starts ordering them all around. It’s uproariously funny in parts. Another sweet and well-told story is “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” which is about a lonely middle-aged man who can’t help but harshly judge every woman he sees. At a mandatory class for drivers who have received tickets, he meets and finds attractive a woman with a beautiful face but an unshapely body. The barber has to learn to mentally overcome his aversion to her imperfections before he can interact meaningfully with her.

As I mentioned in my review of Tenth of December, Saunders’s strongest stories seem to be those with science fiction or fantasy elements. His recent Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is also a fantasy. And yet somehow he has managed to escape the stigma of being labeled a genre writer. Other writers such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, even though science fiction and fantasy comprised only a moderate portion of their outputs, never got rid of their genre labels despite their vigorous efforts to do so. I suppose it’s because they started their careers in the pulps, whereas Saunders began in the literary magazines. It’s hard to shake early impressions in the publishing world.

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Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff; Part Two: About the Book

And so after a long jaunt down memory lane, we come to the book itself. We almost didn’t. I had a hard time acquiring this book. Why? Two reasons: I couldn’t afford it, and the library wouldn’t stock it. When A Lit Fuse first came out, I hungered to read it for some of the reasons I delineated in part one of this review. However, it is more expensive than most comparably-sized hard-covers, and it was beyond my price range. Way beyond. So I had no recourse but to wait either for Amazon to discount it during a special occasion, as eventually happens with most books in its inventory, or the book came out in soft-cover. Time passed, and neither of these things seemed to be imminent.

So I went to plan B: I suggested that the Seattle Public Library system acquire it. They have a form where readers can nominate books to be purchased. So I filled out the form. Nothing happened. After a few months had passed, I filled out another. And another. And another. After four tries, I came to the conclusion that either the library system didn’t want the book (which would have been odd, as they have numerous Ellison volumes in their catalog) or for some reason the publisher was not making the book available to libraries.

That was it. I was stymied. I had to let it rest. I was out of options. I continued to check occasionally for a paperback edition, but that didn’t happen. Finally, about a year and a half after the book came out, last Christmas I received an Amazon gift credit for a returned piece of clothing that didn’t fit, and I used the credit to purchase A Lit Fuse.

Was the book worth it? Did I attain satisfaction? I would have to say yes. It’s a fascinating exploration of Ellison’s life. But spoiler alert: it’s not a biography.

The sections I appreciated most were the first few chapters and the last chapter. The first hundred pages or so come closest to a standard biography. They deal with Ellison’s childhood, the multiple times he ran away from home and found odd jobs, his adventures as a fan, his early career in New York as a pulp writer, his first marriages, and his move to Los Angeles to get involved in script writing.

After this, the middle sections are arranged topically rather than chronologically and deal with various facets of his career. They are embellished with exclusive interviews, but for the most part they paraphrase the stories of Ellison’s life that he has already shared with his readers in countless essays and introductions to his stories. There was little in these sections of A Lit Fuse that I didn’t already know, although it was convenient to have all the stories sorted out and available in one place.

The last chapter, though, called “The Flight of the Deathbird,” took me by surprise and is emotionally devastating. It deals with Ellison’s decline in health late in life as he struggled with quadruple bypass surgery, a serious stroke, and clinical depression.

Ellison was a controversial figure throughout his life, and he made a lot of enemies. The amazing thing, though, is despite his fabled cantankerous nature, he also had an overwhelming wealth of friends – people who would stand by him and do anything for him. This included writers, actors, filmmakers, editors, publishers, students, and of course his fifth wife Susan, who married him in 1986 and remained with him for thirty-two years until his death.

One of the appendices at the back of the book lists the awards that Ellison won for his writing and editing. It goes on for page after page and includes multiple Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, World Fantasy Awards, Writers Guild of America Awards, and numerous others. The man truly was a literary phenomenon, and this book is a wonderful introduction to his writing, his life, and his legend.

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Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff; Part One: What H.E. Means to Me

On the short list of writers who most influenced my own career, Harlan Ellison has one of the top positions, if not the number one spot. Others on the list would be Jack London, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac.

One of Ellison’s stories was directly responsible for my choice of writing as what I had to do with my life. Well, I might have come round to it anyway; I can’t imagine doing anything else. But an Ellison story was the catalyst that I needed to open my eyes and light my own personal fuse. I had been staggering semi-blindly through my courses during my one college year at the University of Santa Clara when I enrolled in a class on science fiction as literature. The textbook was The Mirror of Infinity: A Critic’s Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg, and ensconced within its covers was the story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. That story blew me away. I had been an avid reader since I was very young, and I had been profoundly moved by many great books. This experience was different. It was visceral; it was shocking; it was like getting emotionally overwhelmed by some ripping great rock music. By the time I had finished it, I realized: “This is it! This is what I want to do with my life! I want to turn people on with the power of my writing just as this writer turned me on!” From that moment, there was no going back, and I never gave passing glance to any other career.

That doesn’t mean it has been a smooth and easy ride. Ha! Far from it. There was even a time that I stopped writing for about fifteen years, but that’s another story. Back to the college scene. I was badly messed up back then. I was smoking way too much pot and taking way too many psychedelics. My brain was fried and fragmented and it took me time to recover. I found myself back up in Seattle working odd jobs and going to the occasional community college class. And then I read in the paper one day that Harlan Ellison was going to be lecturing and reading from his works at the University of Washington. I went to the auditorium at the appropriate hour and was treated to a wonderful show. Not only that, I learned that he was there as a teacher at the Clarion West science fiction writers’ workshop. It was the first time I had ever heard of it, but I immediately wanted to be a part of it.

That evening Ellison kept the audience captivated with his incomparable speaking skills, sharing anecdote after anecdote. About an hour or an hour and a half in, he had the lights lowered so that the only illumination was the reading lamp on the podium, and he read us a story that had not yet appeared in print but went on to win awards, the dark fantasy thriller “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” What an event! I can never forget that experience! He followed with another shorter story, a light violent comedy called “Bleeding Stones.”

Now that I knew about Clarion West, I was determined to enroll. I applied and got accepted for the following summer. Looking back, I think the criteria for admission must have been lower than it is now; there were almost certainly fewer applicants. I say this because although I had been making attempts at writing stories, I knew virtually nothing about it when I went to Clarion West, and during my stay there I learned little, having such a weak foundation upon which to build. My growth as a writer came later. However, Ellison came back and was one of my teachers. It was a thrill to meet him and listen to his instruction, even if he did dismiss with few words the pittance of a tale I offered during his week there.

My next and last personal encounter with Harlan Ellison took place down in Los Angeles. I had finally realized I had to get out on the road and experience life if I wanted to have something worth writing about, and I had started out on my first hitchhiking journey to Mexico and Central America. On the way back, I stopped in at the apartment of short story and teleplay writer Russell Bates. He took me up to Ellison’s house in Sherman Oaks. Bates had lived there for a while, and he walked right in without knocking and started to give me a tour of the awards displays and so on. At some point, Ellison came out in his bathrobe, politely said that he was feeling sick and it wasn’t a good time, and cut short the visit. That was the last time I ever saw him personally.

For a time, I collected every book of his that I could find, and I avidly read them all. I had most if not all of the Harlan Ellison series put out in the seventies by Pyramid Books with beautiful covers by Leo and Dianne Dillon. I also had a copy of the original comprehensive bibliography of Ellison’s works that came out in a large soft paper edition. Alas, when I needed to minimize my belongings and acquire cash to travel as I set off on my first trip to Europe and the Indian Subcontinent, I sold those books to a used book store for a fraction of what they are worth now. There was nothing I could do; for me, it was a time of forsaking.

That’s about it. After that, I had less opportunity to enjoy Ellison’s writings, although I did find and read Deathbird Stories at a library in Thessaloniki, Greece, much later when my wife and I were raising our young family, and I ordered a copy of The Essential Ellison from Amazon UK and read that wonderful compilation of stories and essays. Later, after I had moved back to the States and attended Clarion West events, I would ask people who had been in touch with him how he was doing. That’s how I heard about his stroke and diminished health. He died on June 28th, 2018, about a year after A Lit Fuse was published.

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Book Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

While at the library one day, I found myself perusing titles on the Peak Picks shelf. The selections are comprised of brand-new bestsellers that people can take out for two weeks at a time with no reservations and no extensions. A woman standing next to me recommended a book, and I told her I’d already read it; then I recommended this book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, which I was then reading. She was skeptical, pointing out that Native American histories were hard to get through because they were such horror stories. I told her that the author here was trying to do something different. Instead of dredging through the gruesome deep past, as Dee Brown does in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David Treuer emphasizes the resurgence from near extinction and slow struggle of Native Americans to obtain their human rights and rights as Americans, overcome poverty and lack of education, and revitalize their identities and cultures.

Although the author has a positive vision for this book, he still chronicles a lot of misery. He starts with a brief overview of the various tribes around the United States before and after the coming of the Europeans. This leads up to the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre and other similar events. Afterwards, there is the story of how Native Americans attempted to hang onto their lands and lives despite a multitude of laws, regulations, and illegal encroachments that threatened to deprive them of both. Despite the zeal of so-called reformers who thought they were acting in the best interest of Indians but never bothered to ask the Indians what they thought would be best, Native Americans kept losing their land to white settlers and their children to mission and government schools.

It took decades of effort to right these wrongs – or at least make progress towards righting them. Various laws were passed that gave Indians more autonomy. A high percentage of Native American enlistment in the First and Second World Wars offered young men who had spent their entire lives on reservations a look at the outside world. Later, Indian militancy arose with the Red Power movement. A Supreme Court ruling in 1976 enabled many tribes to set up casinos on their reservations, which continues to offer a lucrative source of income.

This book greatly benefits from the fact that its author was born to an Ojibwe mother and raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. As a result, instead of the outsider-looking-in perspective of many books on Native Americans, Treuer gives readers an insider’s viewpoint. Interestingly, his father was an Austrian Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who worked with a community action program on the reservation to help the residents obtain needs such as school lunches, elder assistance, community centers, job training, and credit unions. His mother, formerly a nurse, earned a law degree and became a lawyer on the reservation.

I meet Native American writers from time to time here in Seattle through the Clarion West writer’s workshop, but my most intimate contact with a Native American was with my friend Russell Bates, a Kiowa writer about whom I recently composed a blog post. Russ would tell fascinating stories about his youth, and he even took me on a visit once to his hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma, where I met his parents and others in his family. They were amazingly hospitable people.

Back to the book. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is well-written, interesting, and informative. It has strength in it, and vision, and hope that Native Americans will be able to continue to thrive despite archaic obstacles that yet hinder their progress.

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Russell Bates, Kiowa Writer

I have been reading a dynamic new book called The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, and I thought about my Native American friend Russell Bates and wondered what he might think of the book. I hadn’t been in touch with him since I moved back to the States from Greece, so I ran a search to see if I might find a recent email address or Facebook page where I could re-contact him.

That’s when I came across his obituary. It said that he died on April 19, 2018, after a brief illness. He was seventy-six years old.

I met Russ at the 1973 Clarion West science fiction writing workshop. I had just turned twenty years old and he would have been in his early thirties. As he explained, he had got into a serious accident while serving a stint in the Air Force, and while he was in the hospital, he turned to writing. I was a total neophyte, but he had credentials. He had worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, and Harlan Ellison had bought one of his stories for his legendary anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Nobody knew that the book would never see print, and at the time everyone at Clarion wanted to be in it. (Ellison later bought a second story from Bates that should have also appeared in the anthology.)

If truth be told, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was too young, too immature, too inexperienced to benefit much from the Clarion experience. I did my best but didn’t make much progress with my writing. The main benefit for me was the opportunity to meet other writers and forge friendships. Russ, Paul Bond, a few others, and I would head out to the University District near the University of Washington campus where we were staying and drink beer together. Most of us, apart from Russ, were underage, but I led the way because I was familiar with the area and knew the bars that didn’t ask for ID.

After Clarion West, I languished in nowhere land for awhile, and then decided to hit the road and find my voice as a writer. On my first hitchhiking journey, to Mexico and Central America, I stopped in Los Angeles and slept on the floor of Russ’s apartment. That may have been the time that Russ took me on my first and only visit to Harlan Ellison’s house in Sherman Oaks. At the time, Russ and another 1973 Clarion West graduate, David Wise, had also recently collaborated on a script for the Star Trek animated TV series, “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.” The episode went on to win an Emmy, and that’s probably the piece of writing for which Russ is best known.

After that first trip, I decided to head down to Los Angeles and attempt to become a screenwriter. Russ had moved back to Oklahoma by then, but he eventually returned, and he stayed at my apartment for awhile until he found his own place. While he was there, we collaborated on a treatment for a then-popular TV show, which Russ attempted to sell but was unsuccessful.

When Russ eventually decided to go back to Oklahoma, our fellow Clarion graduate Paul Bond and I decided to drive him. So in Paul’s car we crossed California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, finally to arrive at Russ’s hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma. There Paul and I met Russ’s parents, John and Agatha Bates, and his brother David. His mom cooked up some beans and fry bread that to this day is one of the finest meals I have ever eaten. Russ’s family was wonderfully hospitable.

One evening Russ, David, Paul, and I decided to go out to a rowdy bar that featured half-naked dancers on stage. We had a few, or possibly more than a few, pitchers of beer. Somehow when it was time to leave I ended up out in the parking lot before the rest of them, and I was surrounded by a crowd of red-neck Oklahoma young people who were obviously pissed off that I was consorting with Native Americans. Before I realized what was happening, one of them punched me in the face and opened a deep cut above my left eye; I retained the scar for decades afterwards. I was figuring the odds weren’t too good for me when all of a sudden Russ’s brother David charged out of the bar. He wasn’t too tall, but he was a big man. He looked very mean and angry. There were at least half a dozen of the red-neck yokels, but David must have had a reputation, or maybe it was his appearance of a bull about to charge… Whatever the reason, all those hicks scattered and ran. David saved my ass from a severe beating, and I was grateful.

After Paul and I left Oklahoma, I never saw Russ again, but the story isn’t over. While I was raising my family in Greece, I got back in touch with him via email. We started to correspond. He’d tell me about his latest writing projects, and I’d tell him about mine. He wrote me that as he recalled, he owed me some rent money from when he stayed at my place in Los Angeles. I told him that when we met again, he could buy me a steak and we’d call it even. I asked him for his recommendations of good Native American fiction and nonfiction, and he sent me a list; through it I found some great reading material. We lost touch again when I moved back to the United States and went through the long-term trauma of severe culture shock. I’ve always hoped that eventually I’ll be able to snap out of my financial struggles and get a little breathing room, and if I do, I’d like to travel again. I had an idea that on one of my hypothetical road trips I’d stop in at Russ’s house, the Bates Motel as he called it, and we’d share some beers and we could get that steak he’d promised me.

Too late now. It’s a sad thing that we’ll never be able to see each other again, and that the literary public will never be able to enjoy some of the projects he had been working on.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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Book Review: Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent by Ted Morgan

I found this book at a Friends of the Library book sale in Seattle; it was a like-new hardcover copy for two dollars. Not bad. You might think that a volume chronicling early North American history might be a bit dry and even boring, but such is not the case for two reasons. First, the writer has a lively, easy to read style. Second, instead of writing the history in the admittedly tedious listing of bare facts one after the other, the author tells the story mainly through individual vignettes compiled from logs, diaries, and journals of some of the fascinating characters who lived through the events.

The author’s own story is as absorbing as any of the other people he introduces in his text. Ted Morgan was born in Geneva, Switzerland as Comte Sanche Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont, the son of a French World War II pilot and part of a family with roots in French nobility. After attending Yale University, he was drafted into the French army and served from 1955 to 1957 in the Algerian War, including the brutal Battle of Algiers. After his service, he returned to the United States and became a journalist, at one time winning the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. During this time, he was still a citizen of France and used the byline Sanche de Gramont. In 1977, he renounced his nobility, assumed American citizenship, and took the name Ted Morgan, which is an anagram of de Gramont. Besides Wilderness at Dawn, he has written histories and biographies of famous historical characters, some of which have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists.

Wilderness at Dawn begins with an account of the first forays from Asia across the Bering land bridge onto the wild North American continent. At that time the land was teeming with animal life but completely free of humans. Slowly, over the course of thousands of years, the first Native American pioneers made their way overland through North America and Central America to the southernmost tip of South America.

Then came the Europeans, of course, looking for a western route to the Far East. Instead, they discovered a vast new continent. Morgan devotes sections to the Spanish, French, and English conquests of the northern New World and the brutality and privation that accompanied these incursions on lands that were already occupied by indigenous peoples. The English advanced on multiple frontiers up and down what is now the eastern coastline of the United States. Many of the new colonists were prisoners, refugees from religious intolerance, and indentured servants. Eventually, of course, black slaves from Africa began to arrive too, to labor in the tobacco, indigo, and rice plantations of the South.

Morgan goes on to tell of the exploration and settling of the western frontier lands, the expulsion of the French, the Revolutionary War, and the aftermath in which the young government sought to pass legal measures capable of helping to govern the newborn country.

As I mentioned above, what makes this book unique and more fascinating than most other books that cover this subject is the author’s reliance on personal stories from journals and other writings to highlight the overarching history. This makes the reader intensely aware of how these massive historical events touched individual lives. I found this book deeply absorbing and highly readable, and I recommend it.

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A Spray of Short Stories

I mean the word “spray” in the title both as a powerful expulsion of metaphorical liquid and as an attractive display of flamboyant flowers. I’ve recently written a blog post called “Books Make Great Gifts” about some of my available full-length works, so I thought why not highlight some short stories that are among my personal favorites? So here they are, volume by volume, some of my personal favorites from among my own short stories.

From The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories:

The Dragon Ticket“: Presented with an extraordinary gift by an alien artifact high in the remote Himalayas, a young woman named Michelle must learn how to use her new power as nuclear war plunges the world into chaos.

From Painsharing and Other Stories:

Beyond Purgatory“: On a far planet the ultimate civil punishment is to be genetically deformed into a monstrous beast and forced to live in the forbidden compound called Purgatory as a slave of the State.  When authorities arrest and condemn the woman he loves, Justus determines to find and save her, even if he must search Purgatory itself.

From Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales:

Dark Mirrors“: The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to fight, even prisoners; those who refuse are threatened with dismemberment to provide spare parts for wounded soldiers.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

From Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies:

Fear or Be Feared“: A teenage Greek girl climbs Mount Olympus with some of her friends.  Lost in a lightning storm, she discovers the spirit of an ancient Greek god which possesses her and uses her against her will as an instrument of vengeance.

The Customs Shed“: Those who wish to cross the river of death must first be purged in the customs shed; but within await the mysterious customs agents.  What will they require as the price of passage?

From Opting Out and Other Departures: Stories:

Opting Out“: It is the near future, and due to easier availability of alternative energy, fossil fuels are becoming outlawed.  Fleeing south along the coastal highway from a state government that threatens to confiscate the gasoline-fueled camper-van he lives in, a homeless man comes across a seemingly-idyllic communal refuge for homeless people set up by a philanthropic dot-com billionaire.

Opting In“: An old man, feeling useless, leaves his daughter’s home to go live in a homeless shelter. Following up on a tip from a fellow vagrant, he finds an alien being preparing to leave Earth who invites him on a journey from which he can never return.

From Heroes and Other Illusions: Stories:

Matchmaker“: From a future bereft of emotion, a time traveler journeys to Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917 to find a legendary matchmaker and learn the lost secret of true marriage. Although aware that the city is about to become decimated by fire, he becomes betrothed to a local woman and must choose between remaining in the past or returning to the future with the desperately needed knowledge he has acquired.

Katabasis“: After traveling to India to take advantage of cutting-edge psychiatric technology, a jaded ailing old man embarks on a guided journey through his memories to locate and correct errant decisions that shaped his life.

From Invasive Procedures: Stories:

The Beatification of Lady Poverty“: A government operative recruits a young woman with a very special power of self defense for a mission to help end a war in Europe. However, once she unleashes them, her mysterious abilities provoke changes beyond anything her handlers intended or imagined.

Camp College“: In the near future, as societies continue to erode and the gap between rich and poor widens, inexpensive college camps spring up around the country as an alternative form of higher education. At one such camp, a partially dysfunctional veteran and a woman alienated from her family meet and attempt to make sense out of the rapidly changing world.

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Book Review: Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction Edited by Irene Gallo

I acquired this excellent new anthology in a Christmas gift exchange at a gathering of local writers. Most folks received fun flamboyant socks but somehow I got the book. I don’t regret the lack of colorful images on my feet, because instead, I have spectacular images floating around in my mind.

After I read several of the stories in Worlds Seen in Passing, I realized that the level of overall quality was higher than in some recent best of the year collections I’ve read, and I wondered why. One reason is probably that Tor.com pays double or more what any other professional speculative fiction venue offers, and so it attracts the top talent.

The other reason that I came up with was the superlative team of editors that Tor.com employs. Most best-of anthologies have just one editor who makes all the choices, and naturally the final selections are going to skew in favor of that editor’s personal preferences. However, at least five or six top-class editors oversee the fiction at Tor.com, several of whom specialize in specific sub-genres. You’re bound to get a broader range of opinions that way. Usually when I read a best-of anthology, I love some stories, like others, and am not so keen on a fair amount. When I started reading Worlds Seen in Passing, I found the stories were all of top quality, highly entertaining, and very well written, one after the other. Even in the latter third of the book, where most of the stories are horror and fairy tales, which are not my favorite categories, every one of them is competently told and enjoyable to read. In fact, there was only one story in the entire book of over five hundred fifty pages that I lost interest in and didn’t finish reading; it was the only story in the volume that was all style and no plot.

As I said, most of the stories were excellent, but let’s see if I can highlight a few of my favorites. “Waiting on a Bright Moon” by J.Y. Yang is a novelette by a writer from Singapore who weaves together oriental mythology and interstellar adventure. The Chinese characters scattered throughout the text add to its sense of wonder. “About Fairies” by Pat Murphy is a subtle story about possible fairy hideaways in the midst of San Francisco. It’s unclear whether there is really a speculative element in it at all, but it’s still a wondrous tale. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal is a touching story about an aging spacefarer who gets a last chance for interstellar adventure. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly is a stylistically clever fantasy about a baker that imbues memories into his wares and uses this power to overthrow a maniacal tyrant. “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey is an apocalyptic story about revelers becoming more and more decadent and depraved as the world falls into ruin. It has some truly gruesome scenes, and yet it is so well-written that it causes me to overcome my revulsion of explicit horror tales.

All in all, I recommend this book as a great selection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.

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