“To Catch a Crow” by S.C. Jensen

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Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday!

This is a new feature I’m experimenting with to encourage readers to get into flash and short fiction. I’ll be using Flash Fiction Friday to share some of my own short stories, and also to highlight the writing of other authors, new and established, who are looking to expand their audience. If you are a reader, please leave feedback! If you are an author, please contact me if you have a piece of flash (under 1000 words) or short (under 2500 words) fiction you’d like to see on “Sarah Does Sci-Fi.”

“To Catch a Crow” by S.C. Jensen
Genre: Magical Realism

Ruth peers at the crows with her eyes half-closed. They land on the grass at the edge of the yard, sharp black eyes watching. Three of them. It’s probably a coincidence. Still, Ruth’s flesh prickles. She wishes she’d brought a coverup. Not that she could put it on now; she’s pretending to be asleep.

You can’t trick a crow. But she continues to lay in wait. She has to. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a fool’s errand.

Fishing line bites into her flesh; the connection between Ruth and her wedding ring is nearly invisible. The strand glistens in the sunlight, like spider silk. The thin golden band glitters enticingly on the garden path. Crows love shiny things.

I don’t know why I need to catch the damned thing myself. But Madame Esme had been adamant on that point.

“Three feathers,” she had said, crow’s feet twitching. “Plucked, not found. Not bought.”

For strong magic the feathers must be fresh. And for the strongest magic the caster has to pluck them. Madame knows what she knows; Ruth isn’t going to argue. This is an exorcism, after all. She doesn’t want to muck it up.

But I don’t have to like it. She glares at the crows through the twitchy black legs of her false eyelashes.

The big one keeps his body sideways, puffs up his chest. Typical. Ruth shifts her weight on the patio lounger. The crow hops back and forth like a boxer, glittering eyes focussed on her. She peels an ass cheek off the vinyl mesh and curses the cheapskate husband who refused to spring for the fabric covers. The big crow moves in closer.

That was the first one. The cheapskate. They had been married for ten years when Ruth started adding arsenic to his coffee.

Husband number two was a bore and insufferably needy. He didn’t last three years.

It was husband number three who gave her trouble. Mr. Big Britches. He was immense and loud and had an uncanny tolerance for ingesting household cleaning products. And now that he’s finally kicked off, the fat bastard is haunting her. Slamming doors and leaving mud everywhere, just like the oaf did when he was alive. The morning Ruth walked into the open cutlery drawer she knew exactly what was happening. Mr. Big Britches is lingering.

In my own house! Ruth grinds her teeth silently. The nerve. That’s when the crows started hanging about, too. Ruth can’t help but feel it is connected. She looks forward to plucking a few tail feathers, actually. Madame Esme’s task might be cathartic in more ways than one.

The big crow struts casually up the garden path, pretending not to look at the ring. His cronies hop in unison at his flanks. Ruth tightens her grip on the fishing line. Her pale goosefleshy limbs tense. She doesn’t move. Like one of the great white garden spiders that hang between the lilies, she waits. The lounger creaks.

Then the big crow lunges.

“Gotcha!” Ruth flies to her feet and yanks the fishing line. The crow leaps forward as she pulls and the line goes slack. The ring glitters in his beak. Ruth scrambles with her trap, hand over hand. This isn’t going to work.

“Caw!” says one of the cronies. “Caw! Caw!”

“Oh, stuff it!” The big crow still has the ring. But unless he swallows the cursed thing she’s not going to be able to reel him in. Stupid!

“Crrrrrrraaawk!”

Ruth drops the line and picks up the nearest object at hand. She hurls a bottle of suntan lotion at the big bird. He watches it sail past and land in the lilies, his beady little eyes twinkling.

“Sod off then, you mongrels!”

The big crow flies a victory lap around the garden, ring glinting in the sun. The fishing line trails behind him. He swoops toward her. Ruth makes a last ditch grab for her thread. But the cronies are ready.

“Crrrrraaaaaaaawk!” The two smaller crows swoop and dive, claws out, black beaks flashing. “Caaaaawwrr!”

“Oh!” Ruth stumbles backward. The lounger is waiting. With an enormous shriek the maligned patio chair wraps its metal limbs around her. The cronies cackle.

The big crow drops to the grass. He holds his wings out from his body and sidles toward her like a gunslinger. He dares her to draw. He stops just out of her reach, the ring held tightly in his beak. Ruth pats the grass desperately, but there is nothing left to throw.

“Fine,” Ruth says. I should have poisoned the feeders. “You just stay off my side of the bed, Mr. Big Britches.”

 

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Moving Forward, Together

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So, I know you’re a just about as tired of my bi-annual “sorry I haven’t posted in a while” posts as I am. But I am sorry, and I am trying to figure out how I can make this better for you and for me.

I’m thinking that I’d like to split my posts between three topics I enjoy:

  1. Writing Craft – posts about how to improve your writing, posts about people who write well (and why) etc.
  2. Broadening Horizons – focusing on marginalized writers or characters through book recommendations, reviews, and literary analysis, especially regarding Sci-Fi and speculative fiction
  3. Flash Fiction spotlights – sharing my own and other’s flash fiction pieces (under 1500 words) to get people reading and share new writers with all of you

These regular topics will be peppered with posts on my personal publishing journey, hopefully with some insight that will help those of you who are hoping to embark on a similar path.

So. I will be working on a series of posts of my own that fit within this framework. But I will also be seeking guest posts from book reviewers, authors, enthusiasts, and critics from all stages in their career. If you have something you’d like to share with “Sarah Does Sci-Fi” please do (you can comment here, message me on FB, or email me at scj3ns3n@gmail.com)

I’d like this page to operate as a cooperative of writers moreso than just a space for my own thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to suggest post ideas, too, even if you don’t feel qualified to write them! What do you want to see in this space?

 

Calling all Reviewers!

Looking for a summer read?
Looking for a summer read?

I’m looking for some sci-fi and spec fic fans to review my new novel, The Timekeepers’ War. If you’re looking to add another book to your summer reading and think you’d enjoy a little post-apocalyptic adventure, please get in touch! I’m looking for honest, thoughtful reviews. No fluff! If you don’t like it, I’d rather read a constructive review on why than a fake positive review 😉 Thanks in advance for your interest!

SF Book Review: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin

It has been a long time since I’ve written a book review here, so I’m going to try to kill three birds with one stone. That is, if you believe you can kill something by just loving it too much… I hope Jemisin is resilient, because there is going to be a lot of love coming her way.

I cannot say enough good things about N.K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. This isn’t going to be a proper, detailed review because I simply read them all in one great insatiably hungry sitting. Now, I can’t remember all of the details that made me love these books; all that remains is the hazy afterglow of book-lust in all its warm and fuzzy glory. One of the hazards of binge reading, I suppose.

Jemisin is a recent discovery for me. I stumbled upon a review of The Broken Kingdoms by the Little Red Reviewer, and in an uncharacteristic act of blind faith, immediately bought the entire Inheritance Trilogy as well as the first two books in the Dreamblood trilogy. What can I say. I’m a sucker for well written reviews and pretty book covers.

Jemisin did not disappoint. Not only did she not disappoint, she blew every expectation that I had out of the water. She is everything that a great science/speculative fiction or fantasy writer should be, in my opinion. She is everything that I hope to be, some day, as a writer. I thought I was getting close, but Jemisin has shown me exactly how far I can still push myself. And I love her for it.

I’m not going to tell you the plotline of these books. You can look that up easily enough. What I am going to tell you is that Jemisin does three things marvellously well, and I believe these three things are essential to good, progressive SF&F lit.

1) Women: Jemisin writes female main characters who are main characters that happen to be female. She does not do stereotypes. She does not do caricatures. She writes full, well-rounded, interesting female characters who are as tough and vulnerable as they need to be. They are human, even when they are gods. This is also true for her male characters, although I would argue this is less of an anomaly in today’s fiction. Jemisin creates balance and believability with her characters without resorting to age old tropes and conventions.

2) Gender and Sexuality: I will never understand why, when a writer creates a completely original and unique world, they insist on conforming to heteronormative social constructs. Jemisin is not afraid to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality in her writing, she uses ambiguity to great effect, creating complexity and tension in her characters’ relationships that would not exist otherwise. And I’m not talking about trendy lesbians, either. She writes male characters who slip with ease from raw masculinity into sumptuous femininity. She writes about love between men, and the complications of having both male and female lovers. She deals with power and dominance in ways that rise above gender. And it’s hot. I dare you to pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and tell me otherwise.

3) Race: Like issues of gender and sexuality, race is another oft overlooked aspect in SF&F literature. The genre is notoriously whitewashed; the most popular SF writers tend to be white men who write about white men. This is true in all literature, but seems to be a particularly stubborn reality in SF. As more and more female writers and/or writers of colour are taking off in literary fiction, SF seems stuck in the mud. But this is the genre that should be the most able to accommodate writers and characters of all backgrounds. There are literally NO RULES when you’re writing SF. You get to make it all up, top to bottom. Why the hell do we insist on continuing to read and write predominantly white characters? Jemisin does not feel compelled to follow this formula, obviously. And she shows exactly how easy it is to make the shift. I honestly didn’t really think much about the fact that she created a world with many races (which were not sullied by “real world” stereotyping/exoticising) as I was reading. It was after I had finished that I thought, “Holy shit, that was refreshing!” Now that she has shown me how it can be done, she’s given me new goals for diversity in my own writing.

So regardless of where your tastes lie as a science fiction or fantasy reader, I urge you to pick up N.K. Jemisin the next time you’re looking for a fresh new voice. I honestly believe there is something for everyone in The Inheritance Trilogy and Jemisin has something to teach us all, as readers and writers, about how easy and effective it is to push those boundaries. I truly hope she will help to usher in a new age of SF fandom now that she has thrown open the door for those of us trying to follow in her footsteps.

SF Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2/5 Stars

 

Let me say first that my rating of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is through an “enjoyment as reader” lens, rather than a comment on its historical and cultural value. There is no doubt that Brave New World is a hugely influential and important piece of literature. It crosses the boundaries drawn around it by the Science Fiction genre and has been accepted as a classic work of English Literature. And there are a lot of valid reasons for this to have happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book—the broken and disjointed viewpoints worked to build a comprehensive setting and provided us with all the background we needed without coming across as an info dump (which it certainly was). Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the readability does not. The characters reveal themselves to be little more than shallow “place holders” for Huxley’s vision. Brave New World is an allegory, sure. But it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these puppets as they are pulled from one predictable scene to the next. Part of their banality is obviously intentional, Huxley is emphasising the lack of individuality and independent thought in his dystopian London. By this rationale, we would expect something more from John Savage. But he too is a puppet. A puppet inexplicably reciting Shakespeare with no linguistic or socio-cultural reference for what it actually means.

As we switch perspectives from Bernard Marx to John Savage, my compassion for the characters actual wanes further. Bernard is a flawed, though, oddly sympathetic character. Of all of the characters I actually felt I understood him, even if he was a cad. Lenina is vapid and pointless. Helmholz may have been interesting, but we’ll never know as he never does more than lurk at the periphery of the story. Savage is all misplaced teenage angst and over-the-top romanticism, but he translates all of his experiences through the words of Shakespeare so that I got the feeling he wasn’t really present in his own story, merely acting out a role in a play he didn’t understand. The only time John Savage interested me was during his debate with Mustapha Mond, when Huxley puts his vision to the test.

Huxley’s take interest in eugenics is surely a response to the emergence of Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. The twist on pronatalism speaks to the 1930’s population concerns regarding low fertility rates during the depression era. The two combined, and taken to extremes, are in essence a recipe for great dystopian SF. Had the narrative kept up with the ideas, this would be a fabulously good read. But the problem with readability was, for me, compounded by the Huxley’s problematic treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This isn’t an undergrad paper, so I’m not going to go into ridiculous detail, but I will highlight some of the issues I had with this novel:

On Gender: Ya, I know. It was written in the 1930’s and I really shouldn’t expect anything more. But all of the female characters in this book are completely insipid. All of the characters who challenge ideas in this Brave New World are male. Bernard, Helmholz, Savage, and Mond. That is it. The only possible exception to this is Lenina’s tendency to “fall in love,” first with Henry Foster and later with John Savage. Linda challenges some ideas, but not by anything that she does, merely by the fact that she gets fat and old and therefore ugly. Not exactly screaming examples of female agency.

On Sexuality:In this world of required promiscuity and universal sterility, there is not an inkling of anything other than heteronormative relationships. Even when the goal of sex is just “fun” there is no room for bi-sexual or homosexual attraction, except maybe by accident during a compulsory orgy. Again, ya, I know. Written in the 1930’s. But it’s not like homosexuality was unheard of. In some circles it was even recognized and accepted (albeit in a limited sort of way). Huxley’s hetero world just comes across as unimaginative at best and cowardly at worst.

On Class: There’s a lot going on in Brave New World if you are interested in class issues. Huxley’s dystopia abides by a rigid, genetically engineered and enforced, caste hierarchy of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons. In many ways, Brave New World is a scathing commentary on American-style capitalism; consumption is the name of the game. However, in Huxley’s world of supply and demand, there are those who demand and those who supply. Alpha’s and Beta’s go about their lives doing the “important” work in sciences (mind you, they aren’t actually allowed to think for themselves) and they happily spend their money on stuff, they are the demand. The lower castes exist solely to supply the labour to fulfill these demands. They are genetically engineered to not want or expect anything more than their station requires of them. And they are happier for it. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that if poor/uneducated people would accept their positions and quit trying to rise above their stations, they too could be happy. [This flies in the face of the capitalist fantasy of the “self-made man,” and seems contradictory to Huxley’s other points against the ideology… colour me confused.] Furthermore, the idea that castes are somehow naturally ordered based on intelligence irks me. Granted, there is some social conditioning involved to keep the Deltas and Epsilons content, but the suggestion appears to be that all you need to do to create a happy slave caste is kill a few brain-cells in the embryo stage.

On Race: Ahhh, racism. This was the biggest issue for me. Racist imagery occurs repeatedly throughout this text and it repeatedly grated on my nerves. A pair of Delta-Minus twins are described as “small, black, and hideous,” (Pg. 55) they look at Bernard with “bestial derision,” (Pg. 56). Later, another group is described as “almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas “ (Pg. 138), or another as “dark dolichocephalic male twins…[with faces like]a thin, beaked bird-mask” (Pg. 183). Now, I should not that there are Deltas and Epsilons that are described as sandy and red-haired, but they are never dwelt upon with such horror as the “dark” ones. Also, it is only the “dark” workers who are described in animalistic language (beastial, beaked). And none of the Alphas or Betas are ever described as dark; they are all Caucasian variants.

Since the caste structures are achieved through eugenics there are two possible scenarios which would account for this: a) dark-skinned embryos are purposefully chosen for the Delta, Epsilon and Gamma castes and not for Alpha and Beta, or b) stunting the development of an embryo somehow creates dark-skinned outcomes. Neither of these possibilities makes me feel any better about what Huxley is trying to say.

Further racist images include the Indians on the reservation, where the once-fair Linda is polluted by her sexual relationships with the dark skinned “savages.” John Savage, Linda’s blonde haired fair-skinned son, appears to be instinctually repulsed by this. When he comes upon Linda and her lover Popé, John describes the scene thusly: “…white Linda and Popé almost black beside her…[a] dark hand on her breast, and one of the plaits of his long hair lying across her throat, like a black snake trying to strangle her,” (Pg. 114). He is so revolted by this that he attempts to kill his mother’s lover.

Later, there is the “feely” that Lenina takes John Savage to. The film is about a love affair between “a gigantic Negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female,” (Pg. 146). The black man suffers a blow to the head and develops an unnatural and uncivilized attraction to the blonde woman, kidnaps and rapes her, before she is saved by “three handsome Aphas” (Pg. 147). Tellingly, the gigantic black man is not given a caste, signifying that even before his injury he is outside of civilized society.

Likely there are more examples, but I’ll leave that up to the scholars…

Now, I’m not going to say they no one should read Brave New World because it’s racist/classist/sexist. Despite these shortcomings, Huxley’s dystopic vision is interesting. Indeed, because it’s dystopic once could argue that Huxley is not advocating racist/classist/sexist views, but speaking against them (I would argue that you are wrong, but it might be fun anyways).

These issues did, however, disrupt my enjoyment of the novel for reading’s sake. And that is what I have based my review on. I have never studied Brave New World in an academic setting. I would be interested to hear from any of you who have, who may be able to enlighten me on any points that I have missed or misinterpreted. I am essentially arguing in a vacuum here. But for now, I’m going to go with a whopping two stars. Brave New World, “It was okay.”

SF Themes and Ideas: Frozen Viruses

light-virus-1I might be coming late to the party on this one… but did you know that viruses can survive being frozen, become thawed, and live to infect another day?

This has been in the news for the last couple of weeks: giant virus comes back to life, etc. etc. But, “according to the researchers, the revival of the virus could mean there may be other threats to human or animal life hidden in the permafrost.”

So this is fucking scary. Also, totally intriguing. Any SF writers/readers that have come across this theme before? Does it make you think of possible themes in future work? I know it’s been done before. But has it been done well? And should it be done again? Let me know in the comments 🙂