Thursday, September 4, 2014

The gentle hopefulness of terrible disasters

 An interview with Seattle author Caren Gussoff

“Avinashi did what she considered her greatest work with the warm weight of her daughter against her back. That series, done while Lily was an infant, was less critically and commercially successful than her first series, ‘Horrible Ways to Die,’ but she herself preferred the gentle hopefulness of ‘Terrible Disasters.’”  

This is one of my favorite passages from The Birthday Problem (Pink Narcissus Press, July 2014), a novel by Caren Gussoff, a Seattle author, a colleague, and a friend (visit Caren's web site to learn more about Caren and her fiction).
Avinashi Gopal was a celebrated artist. Her mother, Malaya, created the nanobots that eradicated human disease. Her daughter Lily opened a bakery. Her granddaughter Chaaya recites Fibonacci numbers when stressed. She is or will have been a mathematician — if not for the nanobot plague.
The Gopal women are a few among many unforgettable characters one meets in The Birthday Problem, the novel that it about… well, very much about this— the gentle hopefulness of terrible disasters, much like Avinashi’s paintings.
I asked Caren a few questions about her novel and herself. Here is what she told me.

JS: You have come into speculative fiction from literary fiction What does spec fic let you do that literary doesn’t, and vice versa?
CG: My first two books, Homecoming and The Wave and Other Stories, were both driven by character and language over plot and idea. Yet I think you can see the seeds of my conversion to spec fic in both books; the settings are hyper-real, the coincidences are near-magical, and, in at least one story from The Wave, features characters of mythical origin.
I’ve always been a sci fi and fantasy fan, and for the first part of my life, was sure I was going to be some sort of scientist. I think of my time in lit fic as my apprenticeship to craft, since it was the genre most embraced in writing programs…and it was easier to get feedback on my work if I wasn’t always having to explain my ray guns and robots.
JS: And I thought you were a literary “plant” in the spec fic world. Turns out you’ve always been a spec fiction plant in the world of the literary!
CG: Yes, ray guns and robots, metaphorically speaking, are my interest, and I love how I can explore really, really divisive and touchy subjects (colonization, gender, race), as well as mushy subjects (memory, identity, redemption) with readers – and eliminate some of the resistance – by setting it on another planet, in alternative history, or played out by non-human beings.
JS: Oh, that’s interesting, about tough subjects. Why do you think this is? Is it like hiding a bitter pill in a cookie? Or is there something else going on, like we always need a mirror of the “other” to see ourselves?   
CG: I think it is exactly like hiding a pill in a cookie – it’s very human to resist change and to feel defensive when presented with data that clashes with what we do and how we live. No one likes being shown that they are a racist, for example, by directly pointing out how their specific actions stem from being raised inside an institutionally racist system. Most folks would immediately jump to wanting to defend their actions, as if their very goodness was what was in question.
I’ve found that using an analogy eases this…it lets readers safely draw the parallels between the fictional world and their own world themselves. It’s both gentler and more effective. It sinks in this way, and encourages dialogue.
JS:  If you were to pigeonhole yourself and your works, which one will you end up in? Do you consider yourself a genre-bender?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Russian Fantastika reading list -- this is where you start

At Readercon, a couple of folks asked me to point them to good books of Russian fantastika available for reading in the original language or in English translation. Here is my very first list item: start with Strugatsky brothers. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is where modern Russian fantastika comes of age -- and into her own --  social sciences fiction somewhere in between science fiction and fantasy, surreal like a spaceship chained to a birch-tree, familiar like a voice that says in your ear, There is something wrong with the world as you know it.
Pick up any of these three novels -- as a matter of fact, new and improved translations into English by Olena Bormashenko are available for two of them:

Hard to be a God

Chicago Review Press (IPG, dist.), ISBN 978-1-61374-828-2
What a cool cover!  The image is from the film a prominent Russian director Alexei German made based on the book.

Roadside Picnic
Chicago Review Press, ISBN-13: 9781613743416

The Ugly Swans
only an older edition available -- 1980, Collier/Macmillan, ISBN13: 9780020072409 

If you'd like to read any of these (and any other works) by the Strugatsky brothers in Russian, they are available here 
and are titled, respectively
Трудно быть богом 
Пикник на обочине 
Гадкие лебеди



Sunday, July 6, 2014

Clarion West Write-a-thon

This is the third year I participate in Clarion West's Write-a-thon event that is held during the six-week workshop. What is Clarion West? It is a non-profit organization that is behind the highly competitive annual short story workshop for aspiring writers of speculative fiction genres, held in Seattle, WA. Clarion West also organizes year-round events for writers and readers -- such as the famous Write-a-thon -- and is truly the fabric that connects a community of writers, readers, fans here in Seattle, all across the US, and internationally.
Write-a-thon is a fundraising event and a platform for writers, beginners to professionals, to introduce themselves and show their work, as well as impose writing deadlines and discipline upon themselves, should they still need any. I take part in Write-a-thon because I am a graduate of the Clarion West workshop and because I owe so much to the workshop and the community that makes it possible. Please visit the Write-a-thon page to meet writers like Elizabeth Bear, Eileen Gunn, Andrea Hairston, and many others, including my friends and classmates Randy Henderson, Kris Millering, Emily C. Skaftun, Lucas Johnson, Joel Walsh, D. Elizabeth Wasden, Katrina S. Forrest, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Vicki Saunders. See what they are up to, and sponsor them.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

My Readercon 2014 schedule

Readercon 25 schedule is out! The full schedule can be downloaded from Readercon program
My part of it is as follows:

Friday, July 11

1:00 PM:    The Difference Between Magic and Science  with  Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (leader)
3:00 PM     Russian Traditions of Science Fiction and Fantasy with  Michael Kandel
9:00 PM      Parallels Between the Evolution of Human Language and Genetics.
Reprising my 2013 talk at the Art+Science salon at the Tacoma Art Museum, I will give a popular science-level overview of parallels between evolution of human languages and human genomes/epigenomes as tools of expression and communication. The presentation will be based in serious academic literature on the subject, though will also aim to provoke imagination and just have some intellectual fun.

Sunday July 13

12:00 PM    EM    I will read  from the novel The Age of Ice and unpublished work .

Monday, June 30, 2014

A new story out in Devilfish Review

My short story Rohrschach Redemption is out online in Devilfish Review magazine.
The story's idea originated at a workshop taught by  John Crowley.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Readercon 2014!

I am looking forward to participating in this year's Readercon, a conference on imaginative literature held in Burlington, MA on July10-13. I will be on a couple of panels and will have a reading. Details to follow.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Allow me to introduce -- Anna Kashina

She is a mother of two, a cellular biologist, a fantasy novelist, a friend of twenty plus years without whom I would not have read The Lord of the Rings when I did, and not seen Star Wars when I did; a girl, unchanged by time, at whom I marvel to this day because she is a marvelous person —and because she is still a mystery to me.
The credit for starting this friendship goes to a lab course of immunology. Students had to pair up to do the experiments of the course, so she and I formed a team. We performed classical hands-ons, like letting an antigen and an antibody diffuse towards each other through a slab of jelly, and observing formation of arc-shaped zones where the two met and, if they were a match, formed a precipitate. We too proved a good match.
We studied for our finals together and walked our dogs together. We pierced our ears together. We each landed in our first serious relationship at about the same time, and went through the requisite ups and downs. We both were taking swings at writing fiction, first in our native language, Russian, and later, in English. We went to each other’s weddings. More than once. 
And yet we are so different — ah, let me count the ways. I can’t imagine why she’d prefer instant coffee to espresso. I had picked up martial arts when she’d picked up ballroom dancing (and went on to become a far better dancer than I — a martial artist). Many-many years ago, before Peter Jackson’s movies, we almost had a fight about the physical appearance of hobbits. And did I mention? She writes fantasy. I don’t, I’m pretty sure. But let me tell you: many years from now, we joke, we may just end up moving in together as two old blue-hairs. We’ll probably fight about hobbits, among other things. It would be fun.
Today, in anticipation of the release of the first book of Anna’s new Majat Code trilogy, Blades of the Old Empire (Angry Robot Books, Feb 25, 2014), and as media outlets talk about the book, allow me the liberty to talk about the author.