Saturday, October 1, 2016

New Short Story in "Abyss & Apex"

Study. Learn. Know.

My short story "Study. Learn. Know." is now available in the 2016 4th quarter issue of Abyss & Apex. This is a far future science fiction story about hermit crabs, scholars, and AI programs. Read it free here!

Funnily enough, my biography at the end of the story, which I just e-mailed to the magazine a day or two ago, says that my husband and I live in upstate New York. Except we moved to Houston almost thirteen years ago. Freudian slip?

Short fiction reviews coming within the next few days....

[Please disregard the "read more" link at the end of this post.] Read more!

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Tale of Two Art Forms, Part II: Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera

[Cover of Madama Butterfly, a quadrilingual picture book by Monica E. Lapenta (author) and Stefania Pravato (illustrator)]. Paramica/LaMa House Publishing, 2008.]

A few nights ago I was fortunate enough to attend Houston Ballet's Dance Talk titled "A Closer Look at Cio-Cio San", who is also known as "Madame Butterfly." This talk was a lead-up to Houston Ballet's upcoming production of Madame Butterfly, a two-act ballet created by the company's Artistic Director, Stanton Welch, back in 1995 for The Australian Ballet. This, in turn, was based on Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. (The "a" is not a typo; the opera really is titled Madama rather than Madame.)

I always enjoy Houston Ballet's "Dance Talks," but this one was particularly thrilling for me because we not only got to hear about the character of Cio-Cio San from Yuriko Kajiya, one of Houston Ballet's principal dancers who will be dancing as Cio-Cio San in the upcoming production, the panel also included Vicki Attard, who originated the role in Welch's premiere of this ballet, and Ana María Martínez, whom we have seen sing the role in Houston Grand Opera's production of Puccini's opera not once, but twice.

The discussion was ably led by Dr. Howard Pollack from UH Moore's School of Music. Dr. Pollack first gave some background on the ballet, which is based on the opera, which is based on David Belasco's one-act play titled Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. And that was based on the 1898 short story titled "Madame Butterfly" by John Luther Long, which was partially based on stories told to Long by his sister and partially on Pierre Loti's 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème.

Got all that? There will be a quiz.

The panel discussion lasted about an hour, but it seemed to fly by much more quickly than that. The artists discussed the fact that modern audiences may view Cio-Cio San as a victim, but within the context of her story, her strength is illuminated when she sacrifices herself for her child. They also spoke about the challenge of performing opposite different singers/dancers as Pinkerton, and performing with a small child or, as Ms. Martinez did at the Metropolitan Opera, with a puppet (and three puppeteers!) representing the child.

My favorite moment of insight came when Ms. Kajiya charmingly stated that the dancer must first "get the steps into your body" before developing the emotional layers that go with the role; the dancers can't act realistically if they are thinking about the steps or the count, so those things must become second nature. I also enjoyed hearing about how she had to study up on Japanese attire, gestures, and movement, since the traditional attire has not been worn widely in Japan during her lifetime.

I was also impressed with how articulately Ms. Attard and Ms. Martinez described the process of bringing a character to life. People sometimes mistakenly assume that ballet dancers are unthinking dolls, but in actuality, the best dancers take a deep and intellectual approach to their characters. Similarly, opera singers literally must learn to convey emotion in many different languages, since most operas follow the language of the composer. If I recall correctly, we've heard Ms. Martinez sing beautifully in French (Carmen), Italian (Madama Butterfly), and Czech (Rusalka). It's not enough to learn the words by rote; the singers have to understand and convey what they're singing at all times.

All three of these strong, passionate, talented women were kind enough to sign my copy of the quadrilingual picture book shown at the top of this post, a book that is now a very treasured possession for me.

Houston Ballet's production of Madame Butterfly runs from September 22 to October 2, 2016. Tickets are available here. In addition, Ms. Martinez is in town to perform as Marguerite in Houston Grand Opera's production of Gounod's Faust, which runs from October 28 to November 11, 2016 (tickets here).

[Click here for the post "A Tale of Two Art Forms, Part I"]

Read more!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Short Fiction - August 2016

Short Fiction - August 2016

My short story "diet" in August was a little different than usual, as I focused a lot of my reading on a single-author collection that I'll be reviewing separately in a few days. Of the stories I read in August that were not part of that collection, one in particular jumped out at me, and I felt I should give it its own post rather than tack it on to my upcoming review.

"Walls of Nigeria"
by Jeremy Szal

Length: 973 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Nature
When Published: 2016-08-10
Link (free)

Nature is one of the three venues that I read fairly regularly for flash fiction, the other two being Daily Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction. In this short piece, a soldier fitted with bio-armor to defend the Earth against an alien threat is left behind in his homeland of Nigeria when his superiors deem him dangerous to what's left of the human race.

Like the author of the story (according to his story commentary here), I've long been drawn to stories about power armor, starting with Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, John Steakley's Armor, and of course Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. I'm impressed that Szal has managed to deliver such a complex mood, one that feels fresh to me, in so few words. At the same time, this story shares with its predecessors the message that war, with or without power armor, cuts off a whole generation of soldiers from the rest of humanity.

I also want to mention that Nature gives illustrations to most of its "Futures" stories; all of the ones I've seen have been by an artist going by the single name "Jacey." The illustrations are often simple but effective. Click through to the story to see this one.

Additional stories read in August 2016:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Primordia" by Sarah Crysl Akhtar (2016)
- "In Sickness and in Health" by Gustavo Bondoni (2016)
- "Like a Ghost I'm Gonna Haunt You" by Curtis C. Chen (2016)
- "A Man of Action" by Liz Colter (2016)
- "On the Eyeball Floor" by Tina Connolly (2008)
- "The Chocolate Song" by Helen de Búrca (2016)
- "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" by Andy Duncan (1996)
- "You Can’t Take It with You" by Lisa Finch (2016)
- "The Day Poppo Came Down to Breakfast, Twice" by James Alan Gotaas (2016)
- "Fingerprints" by Jason M. Harley (2016)
- "Childish Things" by Steven Hicks (2016)
- "God State" by Michelle Ann King (2016)
- "Floating in My Tin Can" by Gerri Leen (2016)
- "Circular Landscapes" by Alexandria Mansfield (2016)
- "Ex Angel" by Viara R. Mileva-Seitz (2016)
- "Sustaining Memory" by Coral Moore (2016)
- "Oh Susanna" by Mandy Nicol (2016)
- "How I Found My Way Here" by Stephen V. Ramey (2016)
- "Waking Beauty" by Martha Soukup (1996)
- "Killer Grandma" by Jeremy Szal (2016)
- "Buying the Farm" by Arlaina Tibensky (2016)
- "Hole in the Wall" by Lauren Triola (2016)
- "Cup of Love" by Kathryn Trudeau (2016)
- "MPDB" by Tyler Young (2016)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Daily Science Fiction, Aug 2016
- Diabolical Plots, Aug 2016
- Digital Science Fiction: QuickFic, Aug 2016
- Every Day Fiction, Aug 2016
- Nature, Aug 2016
- One Teen Story, July 2016
- Starlight 1 (anthology, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden), 1996
- Strange Horizons, June 2008

Read more!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Short Fiction - July 2016

[public domain image of Library of Congress building from]

Short Fiction - July 2016

I'm a little bit late in my post for my July short fiction reading, but I've been reading all along. Unusually for me, this month I read three novellas, one of them approximately 40K words long, balanced on the other ends by lots and lots of flash pieces and even microfiction, which I count as under 500 words. The two standouts for me this month fall on either end of that spectrum, with one flash piece and one novella.

I have to admit, my long fiction reading is suffering as a result of this story-a-day project. But I think I have become addicted to the short form, so that may be the way it has to be.

"Morning Sun"
by Edward Ashton

Length: 971 words
Category: Short story (mainstream)
Where Published: Every Day Fiction
When Published: 2016-07-13

This short mainstream piece is about a man who has both cancer and regrets. In that sense, it's not what I'd call an innovative story, but I felt as though every word in the story was the right choice. The author conveys so much in a few words.

"Combat Shopping"
by Elizabeth Moon

Length: 20,450 words (est. based on sample page count)
Category: Novella (science fiction)
Where Published: Escape from Earth (anthology), SFBC
When Published: 2006
Link: N/A

This novelette appears in the anthology Escape from Earth, in which editors Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois were charged with finding stories with a traditional juvenile sensibility of longing to "see what's happening out there." I haven't read all the stories in the anthology yet, but Elizabeth Moon's "Combat Shopping" certainly filled the bill. Twelve-year-old Andi Murchison longs to get her pilot's license as a possible means to escape her stifling life in a habitat on Jupiter's moon Ganymede. When she defies her adoptive mother's orders to take the test, it sets off a chain of events that reveal some unexpected secrets about her situation. I loved the way Andi takes charge of her own destiny, yet doesn't forget her responsibilities to others, particularly her adoptive siblings.

Other stories read in July 2016:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Vent Act" by Graham Brand (2016)
- "Companion Trilogy: Bareheaded" by Mike Buckley (2016)
- "Companion Trilogy: Companion" by Mike Buckley (2016)
- "Companion Trilogy: Companionless" by Mike Buckley (2016)
- "A Patch of Dirt in Paradise" by Lee Budar-Danoff (2016)
- "Interrogation Cupcakes" by Alexander Burns (2016)
- "Goosed" by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks (2016)
- "Heroes Be Damned" by Jareb Collins (2016)
- "2 AM at a Motel in the City" by Cory Cone (2016)
- "Sunrise" by Madeline Curtis (2015)
- "The Big Blow-Up" by Dave D'Alessio (2016)
- "Momentum" by Kris Dinnison (2016)
- "A Study in Grey" by Sarah Doebereiner (2016)
- "The Redaction of Flight 5766" by Eric Gregory (2006)
- "Retirement Plan" by Jack Hillman (2016)
- "Choose Your Kid's Adventure" by Meghan Renee Jenkins (2016)
- "Stan" by Rosalie Kempthorne (2016)
- "Great Expectations" by M.E. Kerr (2001)
- "Frog Soup" by Floris M. Kleijne (2016)
- "Never Will I Ever" by Kaleigh Longe (2016)
- "Repeat One" by Andrew Neil McDonald (2016)
- "The Cost to Be Wise" by Maureen F. McHugh (1996)
- "GI Jesus" by Susan Palwick (1996)
- "On Impulse" by Rita A. Popp (2016)
- "Candle, Card and Mirror" by Stephen S. Power (2016)
- "Killing the Morrow" by Robert Reed (1996)
- "Slow Bullets" by Alistair Reynolds (2015)
- "I Blame the Kardashians" by Tess Riesmeyer (2016)
- "In the Depths of the Museum" by R. Rozakis (2016)
- "Lonesome" by Tarah Scalzo (2015)
- "Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long" by Alex Shvartsman (2016)
- "Strawberry Kisses" by Carl Steiger (2016)
- "Expendable" by Katherine Toran (2016)
- "The Happiest Place" by Carrie Vaughn (2009)
- "Drink Me" by H. Victory (2016)
- "A Piece of Her Self" by Liz Walker (2016)
- "The Passing of the Book" by Gerald Warfield (2016)
- "A Wrinkle Ironed Out" by Alison Wilgus (2016)
- "Insurrection" by Oscar Windsor-Smith (2016)
- "Blind Side" by Peter Wood (2016)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Abyss & Apex, 3rd quarter 2016
- Daily Science Fiction, July 2016
- Diabolical Plots, July 2016
- Escape from Earth (anthology), edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, 2006
- Every Day Fiction, July 2016
- Mash Stories, August 2016
- On the Fringe (anthology), edited by Donald R. Gallo, 2001
- One Teen Story, Oct 2015; Dec 2015; June 2016
- Realms of Fantasy, Feb 2009
- Starlight 1 (anthology), edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, 1996
- Sybil's Garage, no. 3, 2006
- Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, July 2016
- Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, June 2016

Read more!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

July 2016 Publications

* * *

My 2007 story "Waterfall" appears as a reprint today in Expanded Horizons. Here's where to find that story as well as my other July publications:


In the future, art may take on forms we can't yet achieve. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Khimairal Ink, this story about an artist's muse also appears here in Expanded Horizons (free).

"Leeland and Dunce, On the Case"

Special Agent Leeland and Special Agent Dunce have gotten a tip that a very serious crime is in progress. Read it free here at Every Day Fiction.

"Suicide Club"

My short story "Suicide Club" has been reprinted in Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, and is accompanied by a killer illustration (no pun intended) by artist John Skewes. Read it free here.

"Daisy, Cactus, Porcupine, Ghost"

Even brief encounters can make lasting, life-altering impressions. This 600-word short story appears in Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, and is free to read here.

"The End of the World Is, Like, So Boring"

Originally published with a slightly different title in Perihelion in July 2015, this story is now available as part of Digital Fiction Pub's "QuickFic" feature here. Find out what a girl does when her friends have disappeared and, like, nobody is answering their cells!

Read more!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Monday Morning Fun!

My story "Leeland and Dunce, on the Case" is out this morning from Every Day Fiction. A lot of my stories are on the serious side. This one? Not so much! Enjoy it free here.

Read more!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Short Fiction - June 2016

[An 1886 illustration of the kineograph, from Wikipedia]

Short Fiction - June 2016

Before I start talking about specific stories, here are some half-year stats. As of today, I've read 201 short works this year, ranging from microfiction to novelettes. I've also been keeping track of word counts this year (using sample page counts for print books when necessary), and have read more than 667,500 words of short fiction in the last six months.

Because I like to skip around so much in terms of story length and genre, I rarely read an entire anthology straight through, but I made an exception recently and was rewarded with two of my four favorite stories of the month. The anthology is Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories, and is full of original young adult stories edited (and in one case written) by Stephanie Perkins. I chose this anthology on the strength of her earlier editorial effort, My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories, which I started last year and plan to finish during the upcoming holiday season.

Naturally, not every story in either anthology appeals to me. But overall, I really like what she's doing in these books.

"The Map of Tiny Perfect Things"
by Lev Grossman

Length: 13,200 words (est.)
Category: Novelette (YA / fantasy / science fiction)
Where Published: Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories (anthology), edited by Stephanie Perkins
When Published: 2016
Link (book purchase)

In this story, which I'm not sure whether to call fantasy or science fiction, high school student Mark realizes he's living August 4 over and over, ala Groundhog Day. He's coping fairly well for the most part, and then meets Margeret, a fellow repeater. They get to know each other slowly, and together make it their mission to find and map all of the perfect moments that they can find.

I really enjoyed this story. I give it extra points for openly referencing the movies Groundhog Day and The Edge of Tomorrow while not being too similar to either one. I also liked the way the Abbott's Flatland is referenced. But then again, Lev Grossman, who wrote the Magicians trilogy, is particularly good at incorporating formative popular culture into his fiction.

I got this book at the library, but I'm tempted to buy my own copy just so I'll own this particular story.

"A Thousand Ways This Could Go Wrong"
by Jennifer E. Smith

Length: 12,200 words (est.)
Category: Novelette (YA)
Where Published: Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories (anthology), edited by Stephanie Perkins
When Published: 2016
Link (book purchase)

In this story, Annie runs into Griffin, a shy boy she's had her eye on for a while, and asks him on a maybe-a-date/maybe-not-a-date outing to an arcade. {MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD} When Annie gets stuck late at the camp where she works while waiting for an autistic boy's mother to pick him up, Griffin comes by and gets along with the little boy remarkably well. It takes Annie longer than it does the reader to put two and two together, but Griffin finally tells her that he has Asperger's (which he notes they're now calling autism).

This is one of the better fictional treatments of the subject that I've seen. It's not played for laughs (ala Big Bang Theory), nor is it from the point of view of someone with more severe autism, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It's just a thoughtful look at what it might be like to navigate the beginnings of a romantic relationship when one of the two people has a harder time with cues. I also thought the characters were very well developed for such a short story.

"One More Bite"
by Michelle Muenzler

Length: 800 words
Category: Short story (horror)
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: 2016-06-09
Link (free)

There aren't many authors who can make me actually look forward, with pleasure, to reading a dark, creepy story. Michelle is one of those authors. This short story, at 800 words, is really all atmosphere, since we don't find out terribly much about how this ... let's call it a "process" ... works. But that atmosphere is so beautifully constructed that it's delightful (and delightfully creepy) to read.

by Caroline M. Yoachim

Length: 581 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: 2011-07-18
Link (free)

In this super short story, a woman keeps her husband company as he remembers his impending death, even though he doesn't seem to remember anything else about their life together. I'm not entirely sure what is happening in this story, but it's not simple Alzheimer's. Whatever is happening, the tone of the story is lovely and sad, and that's what mattered to me.

Other stories read in June 2016:

(alphabetical by author)

- "The Arrangements" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2016)
- "On Discovering a Ghost in the Five Star" by Peter M. Ball (2016)
- "Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail" by Leigh Bardugo (2016)
- "Sick Pleasure" by Francesca Lia Block (2016)
- "Last Stand at the Cinegore" by Libba Bray (2016)
- "Don't Read This Story" by K.T. Bryski (2016)
- "The Exterminator's Daughter" by Meg Cabot (2007)
- "Brand New Attraction" by Cassandra Clare (2016)
- "Good Luck and Farewell" by Brandy Colbert (2016)
- "Time and Space Died Yesterday" by Brandon Echter (2016)
- "Souvenirs" by Tim Federle (2016)
- "The Weight of Kanzashi" by Joshua Gage (2016)
- "Pencils, Rules, Bones, Heart" by JT Gill (2016)
- "Department of Truth" by Jennifer Rose Jorgensen
- "Going Deep" by James Patrick Kelly (original 2009; reprint 2011)
- "The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R." by Benjamin C. Kinney (2016)
- "The End of Love" by Nina LaCour (2016)
- "Turkey Shoot" by Tom Lavagnino (2015)
- "The Greyhound" by Dafydd Mckimm (2016)
- "Irma Splinkbottom’s Recipe For Cold Fusion" by Janene Murphy (2009)
- "The Job" by Bob Page (2016)
- "In Ninety Minutes, Turn North" by Stephanie Perkins (2016)
- "The Day the Future Invaded" by Beth Powers (2016)
- "Failed Interview with the International Convocation of the Damned" by Luc Reid (2016)
- "Inertia" by Veronica Roth (2016)
- "Useful Objects" by Erica L. Satifka (2014)
- "Little Dead Girl" by C.M. Saunders (2016)
- "Love is the Last Resort" by Jon Skovron (2016)
- "America, America" by Okafor Emmanuel Tochukwu (2016)
- "After the End" by Damien Angelica Walters (2016)
- "Created By..." by David Wardrop (2016)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Daily Science Fiction, June 2016
- Diabolical Plots, June 2016
- Flash Fiction Online, Nov 2009; Jan 2016
- The Mammoth Book of Nebula Awards: SF (anthology), edited by Kevin J. Anderson, 2011
- Nature, Oct 2014
- The New York Times Book Review, June 2014
- Prom Nights from Hell (anthology), 2007
- Strange Horizons, June 2016
- Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories (anthology), edited by Stephanie Perkins, 2016
- Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, 2015; 2016

Read more!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Story reprint (first time online) - Suicide Club

I promise this blog will return to mostly reviews in the very near future, but I wanted to mention that one of my short stories, "Suicide Club", has just been reprinted in Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, and I couldn't be more thrilled! This is the first time I've had a story illustrated, and I think artist John Skewes really did the story justice -- I just love his style.

The story is short, at only 1,500 words. In light of full disclosure, please be aware that "Suicide Club" is not a cheerful story. However, aside from a little profanity, it's not graphic. (And it's also not autobiographical!) If you want to find out what the first rule of "Suicide Club" is, click here.

Last but not least, there's one aspect of the story that people tend to interpret in different ways. To get a better idea of where people stand on that, I've created a very brief, three-question survey here. I'd appreciate your feedback!

Read more!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

New short story - "Daisy, Cactus, Porcupine, Ghost"

My short story "Daisy, Cactus, Porcupine, Ghost" was published today on Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. Got two minutes? It's only 600 words! Read it for free here.

Read more!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Grand Tour: A Piece of Flash Re-inspired by a NASA "Travel Poster"

Earlier today I came across a post about these lovely retro-style "travel" posters created by the design studio at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs. The Jupiter poster is my favorite by far, but the "Grand Tour" poster reminded me that not long ago, I had played with creating a flash fiction story with that exact title. So I just peeked back at the story, made a few little tweaks, and present it here, just for fun.

[Image by Jet Propulsion Labs Design Studio]

The Grand Tour: A Silly Flash Story in 1,000 words


Amy Sisson

Three weeks into the twenty-five month voyage, Stacey had to admit it to herself. It wasn't the Grand Tour she'd wanted, exactly. It was being able to say that she'd done the Grand Tour.

It had sounded so exciting: fly-bys of the Moon, Mars, Ceres, and Jupiter. Stacey remembered the fuss everyone had made when that Bobby kid returned from the first Grand Tour. He was sixteen when he'd left, but turned eighteen en route -- that was the cut-off; you had to be of legal age by journey's end. He was the first kid on a long-duration voyage, and the world treated him like a rock star.

Stacey read about the upcoming second tour. It would take longer than the first, due to orbital mechanics, whatever those were. So at not-quite-sixteen, she would be younger than Bobby when he'd left, but could still make the cut-off. She immediately started petitioning her grandparents to buy her passage. It took more than money, she knew, but Gramps was connected. That was easy, actually; getting her parents' approval was something else. But Stacey was good at getting what she wanted. She reminded them that only one other teenager had done it, so she would practically be guaranteed admission to any college on the planet when she got back.

And here she was, stuck in this tin can for the next two years. What had she been thinking? She was the only one on the ship younger than thirty-five. She'd known it was silly, but Stacey had secretly hoped for a dazzling interplanetary romance -- that really would have gotten some attention.

So yeah, this whole thing pretty much sucked.

To be fair, some of the passengers were okay. Sofia was a composer, for instance, and even though she mostly did classical stuff, she'd worked with some famous pop stars and didn't mind sharing the juicy rumors. And Gerald, a doctor, seemed happy to have Stacey onboard, even if it was only because she provided a little age variety for his research. In return for his promise of a kick-ass recommendation letter, Stacey agreed to be one of his guinea pigs.

Stacey's favorite, though, was Alina, who had a slight Russian accent and looked young enough to be Stacey's sister. Alina took Stacey seriously -- well, mostly. She did call Stacey "rich girl" but not unkindly. And she could be kind of blunt.

"You're bored? What did you expect?" Alina said. She was painting a still life of the engine room, of all things. Alina planned to capture the entire voyage in acrylics, and had been given a special weight allowance for supplies.

"I thought there would be more . . . social life," Stacey said.

Alina snorted. "There's plenty of 'social life,'" she said. "The weekly poker game . . . no, you're not ready for that. But come to our book group. We read all kinds of things, and eventually we'll let you choose the book. But maybe not Vampire Werewolves on Mars, okay?"

"Very funny," Stacey said. But she read that week's book, and the next. She was shy about venturing her opinion at first, but then she realized they all teased each other. That's what made it fun.

It wasn't enough, though. The next time Stacey and Alina had the exercise room to themselves, she asked Alina when she'd decided to become a painter.

"I didn't decide," Alina said, panting slightly. "My mother gave me paints when I was six. She said I was already a painter before that."

"But how did you know that's what you wanted to do? And why come out here? Except for the fly-bys, the scenery won't change much."

"Always the questions," Alina said, smiling. "I'm capturing the voyage, the journey. Photographs, they're not the same. I will show the world how I see it. Sofia, she captures the journey in music. Gerald pins down the science. The others, I don't know well yet. But why are you here?"

Stacey sighed. "You can't tell anyone, but I think maybe I ... just wanted the attention." It was hard to say that out loud, even to Alina.

Alina didn't laugh. "It's okay," she said. "You just find a new answer for why you're here, and make it true. Keep asking questions. We have how many months left? Before we're done, you learn every person on this ship."

"Get to know them, you mean?"

"Yes, and more. I do my portraits -- the passengers, the ship -- and Sofia does hers, her way. You will do this too -- you make a ‘portrait’ of everyone on this ship."

"But Alina, half of them won't even talk to me," Stacey protested.

"You make them talk. You find out about them ahead, then ask them good questions. They'll talk." Alina looked hard at Stacey. "Don't wish this away, rich girl. Ten years from now when you are a person, you don't want to realize you wasted this trip."

Stacey thought about that. What did Alina mean, when Stacey was a person? What was she now?

She looked up her shipmates. The communications lag back to Earth was noticeable now, but the ship had a cached version of the Net. These people had actually done some interesting stuff. Captain Tomlinson, for instance, had been the first person to set foot on Europa, before she'd left NASA for space tourism.

But maybe Stacey should start with someone less intimidating. The next morning, she poked her head into the hydroponics lab where Landers -- Alina was trying to nickname him "Sprouts" but it hadn't stuck yet -- was poking around with some seed trays. He was a kind-looking man with gray hair at the temples.

"Knock knock," Stacey said.

Landers looked up, confused until his mind switched gears. "Oh. Stacey. Can I help you?"

"I was just wondering," Stacey began. "If maybe you could tell me about your plants?"

"Sure," Landers said. He actually looked glad for the company. "C’mon in."

- The End -

Read more!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Short Fiction - May 2016

Short Fiction - May 2016

I'm a few days later than usual posting about my monthly reading, but here are my favorite stories read in May.

by Gary Emmette Chandler

Length: 1,000 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Flash Fiction Online
When Published: 2016-05
Link (free)

This is a lovely short piece about brothers and flying -- not inside aircraft, but wearing a suit fitted with wings. I don't want to say too much about it, but my favorite line was "What sort of Sparrow hesitates before the fall?" I also liked the pacing and use of flashbacks, which felt perfect even at this short length.

"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Length: 2,817 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Original Publication: New Dimensions 3 (anthology), edited by Robert Silverberg, 1973
Link: (see notes below)

A recent conversation with one of the professors at the community college library where I'm temping convinced me that I needed to finally read this famous story. And although I spent the first half of it thinking "this isn't really a story" (not that that's a crime), by the end of it I was completely sold. I would have liked to have the text broken up into a few more paragraphs for ease of reading, and sometimes the story tries a little too hard, but where it succeeds it does so at a level that's kind of off the charts.

I'm not posting a link to this story because I feel that doing so in this case would be supporting a case of copyright violation. The fact that the professor and I were able to pull this story up on the internet so easily -- the very first Google hit was a PDF obviously put online by a professor somewhere -- sparked an interesting copyright discussion. In my opinion, posting this story freely online for one's students is a violation of fair use, unless you're the author. The posted version uses 100% of the work (as opposed to an excerpt), it's posted it in a way that's not limited to the students in that class, and it's very likely the professor is using it over and over again from semester to semester. In addition, it could possibly be shown to be causing financial loss to the creator. Even if the professor were photocopying it on paper for his/her whole class every semester (as opposed to posting it publicly on the Internet), that would still be a violation unless the educational institution cleared/paid for the use. That's why professors put things on reserve in the library instead. People tend to think because the purpose is educational means that anything goes, under the guise of "fair use," but that's not so.

On the other hand, as my professor points out, if he uses a college textbook anthology of short stories and teaches 10 of the 50 stories, with the students paying $50 for that textbook, well, it's creating a real hardship for them. And while he himself wouldn't post the story online, since he knows it already is online, he can just tell his students to find it. (Does it make a difference if he tells them exactly where to find it, or if he tells them to just Google it? In a way I think it does.)

In any case, I'm not posting the link. For anyone who would like to read it, you can find it in anthologies and collections and, well, on the Internet.

"The Long Fall Up"
by William Ledbetter

Length: 7,794 words
Category: Novelette (science fiction)
Where Published: F&SF
When Published: 2016-05
Link: N/A

I read two amazing stories this month that have to do with child-bearing, and this novelette is one of them. A pilot is sent after a woman who is harboring an illegal zero-g pregnancy in order to prove that healthy children can be born in space. The company that employs the pilot, however, is less than forthcoming about its true motivations. This story works hard to get the science right even though it really isn't about the science, and it pushed all the right emotional buttons for me.

"The Right Sort of Monsters" by Kelly Sandoval

Length: 3,682 words
Category: Short story (fantasy)
Where Published: Strange Horizons
When Published: 2016-04-04
Link (free)

And this is the other story about child-bearing. A village woman desperately longs for a child, and has to decide whether to take the same drastic measures her own sister took to have a child that some might call a monster. The plot went in a direction I did not expect, which I enjoyed, but most of all, I loved the way the author revealed the specific details of this world so gradually and naturally.

I don't have children and have never wanted them, so it takes a lot for a story to make me understand that someone would feel the way this woman did in the beginning of the story. I do feel very protective of small creatures (including human children!), however, so by the time I got to the end of the story, the author had completely "spoken" to me. In that regard, for me reading this was akin to reading Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow as an atheist, and getting a glimmer of emotional understanding of the concept of sainthood.

Other stories read in May 2016:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Stacy and Her Idiot" by Peter Atkins (year unknown)
- "The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi (original 2008; reprint 2012)
- "Getting Dark" by Neil Barrett Jr. (original 2009; reprint 2012)
- "17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!" by James Beamon (2016)
- "Ice and White Roses" by Rebecca Birch (2014)
- "Bodyshop" by Graham Brand (2016)
- "Fence to Fence" by Jennifer Cox (year unknown)
- "Last Round" by Paul Crenshaw (2016)
- "The Reality Machine" by Karl El-Koura (2016)
- "One Last Smoke" by Alex Granados (2016)
- "A !Tangled Web" by Joe Haldeman (original 1981; reprint 2012)
- "The Promise of Space" by James Patrick Kelly (original 2013; reprint 2015)
- "Best Friends Forever" by Michelle Ann King (2016)
- "The Poet with Fishhook Eyes" by Michelle Knowlden (2016)
- "The Summer of Rotting Lasagna" by Zack Kotzer (2015)
- "The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Luck" by Preston Lerner (year unknown)
- "The Finite Canvas" by Brit Mandelo (original 2012; audio reprint 2014)
- "The Fountain and the Shoe Store" by Paul Steven Marino (2011)
- "Swift, Brutal Retaliation" by Meghan McCarron (original 2012; audio reprint 2014)
- "Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh (original 2009; reprint 2012)
- "A Brutal Murder in a Public Place" by Joyce Carol Oates (original 2011; reprint 2012)
- "The Black Kids" by Christina Hammonds Reed (2016)
- "Bird Watching" by Anton Rose (2016)
- "Will It Fly?" by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero (2016)
- "After the Coup" by John Scalzi (original 2008; audio reprint 2014)
- "The Box" by J.T. Sharp (2016)
- "Fortune for Your Freshman Year" by Lucy Silbaugh (2016)
- "To Give Birth to a Dancing Star" by K.B. Sluss (2016)
- "Night Watch" by Nancy Sweetland (2016)
- "Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia" by Rachel Swirsky (original 2012; audio reprint 2014)
- "Across the Terminator" by David Tallerman (original 2013; reprint 2015)
- "Chit Win" by Deborah Walker (2011)
- "Heating Up" by Daniel Wilmoth (2016)
- "Fried Chicken You Can’t Refuse" by Peter Wood (2016)
- "The First Snow of Winter" by Caroline M. Yoachim (2016)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Black Dahlia & White Rose (collection by Joyce Carol Oates), 2012
- Clarkesworld Year Seven (anthology), edited by Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, Wyrm, 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, Dec 2011; Apr 2016; May 2016; June 2016
- Every Day Fiction, Jan 2016; Apr 2016; May 2016
- Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring 2016
- Flash Fiction Online, May 2016
- Freeze Frame Fiction, year unknown
- The Mammoth Book of Nebula Awards: SF (anthology), edited by Kevin J. Anderson, Robinson, 2012
- Luna Station Quarterly, June 2016
- Nature, Nov 2014
- One Teen Story, Apr 2016; May 2016
- Perihelion, Apr 2016
- Pinball, Spring 2016
- Punchnel's, May 2016
- Strange Horizons, Sep 2011; Apr 2016
- Selected Original Fiction, 2008-2012 (audio collection, Brilliance Audio, 2014)
- Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures (year unknown; Mar 2016)
- Vandercave Quarterly, 2015

Read more!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Short Fiction - April 2016

[April ... March Madness = the Frozen Four!]

Short Fiction - April 2016

Well, April certainly went by in a blur! There was a film festival, some opera, the symphony, a national college hockey championship (did I mention that my beloved University of North Dakota won the men's Division I championship game at the Frozen Four, and I was on hand to see it?!), and, of course, short story reading. Here are my favorites for the month:

"Mika Model" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Length: 4,375 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Slate
When Published: 2016-04-26
Link (free)

I loved the writing in this story about a sex/pleasure robot who asks a police detective for a lawyer after confessing to killing her owner, or lessee, actually. The page on which the story appears states that:

This short story was commissioned and edited jointly by Future Tense—a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate—and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. It is the first in Future Tense Fiction, a series of short stories from Future Tense and CSI about how technology and science will change our lives.

There's also a response by an attorney regarding the legal implications in the story, which I found interesting. As to the story itself, upon first read I felt as though the story didn't end, that it left me hanging. But then I realized that just because it didn't have the ending I instinctively wanted didn't mean that it didn't end. In any case, this is definitely worth checking out.

"Memories of My Mother" by Ken Liu

Length: 997 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: 2012-03-19
Link (free)

So that film festival I mentioned? I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my favorite SF short films at this year's Worldfest-Houston was based on a Ken Liu story, which I immediately went and found online. This is a terrific example of someone taking a short story, one that is less than a thousand words long, and turning it into an emotionally gripping short film by both staying true to the original source material and filling in where necessary. To compare the beautifully spare prose version with the visually compelling film version is like comparing apples and oranges; I highly recommend that you experience both formats, in either order.

I suppose I should mention what it's actually about, though, shouldn't I? A terminally ill woman with a young daughter decides to spend the last two years of her life traveling away from Earth and back via relativistic speeds. This gives her the ability to spend a single day/night with her daughter once every seven years, thus allowing her to see her daughter grow into adulthood. The trade-off, of course, is that her daughter has to grieve the loss of her mother after each visit, which denies her closure but gives her something else in return.

My review of the short film is here. (I have to say, the addition of the nightclub scene to the film was quite brilliant, in my opinion.)

"Puff Piece" by Becky Robison

Length: 813 words
Category: Short story (mainstream)
Where Published: Pinball
When Published: 2016
Link (free)

I'm not entirely sure why this little piece of mainstream flash delighted me so much, but it really, truly did. It's about unrequited same-sex love against the backdrop of a middle school class election. It was funny, biting, and poignant, all at the same time. I look forward to checking out more stories from Pinball, which is new to me.

Other stories read in April 2016:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Party Smart Card" by Barrington J. Bayley (original 2006; reprint 2007)
- "RAM SHIFT PHASE 2" by Greg Bear (original 2005; reprint 2007)
- "Bear-bear Speaks" by Beth Cato (2016)
- "How I Lost Eleven Stone and Found Love" by Ian Creasey (2016)
- "The Parasite and the Widow" by Jeremy M. Gottwig (2016)
- "Speak, Geek" by Eileen Gunn (original 2006; reprint 2007)
- "Heartwired" by Joe Haldeman (original 2005; reprint 2007)
- "We Have a Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You?" by Rebecca Ann Jordan (2016)
- "This Is a Letter to My Son" by KJ Kabza (2016)
- "The Effigies of Tamber Square" by Jon Michael Kelley (2016)
- "Scatter" by Rosalie Kempthorne (2016)
- "I Remember Angels" by Mark Kreighbaum (1996)
- "Undead Again" by Ken MacLeod (original 2005; reprint 2007)
- "Cut the Blue Wire" by Patrick Mahon (2016)
- "Don't Mention the 'F' Word" by Neil Mathur (original 2005; reprint 2007)
- "The Treasures of Fred" by Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey (2016)
- "The Sudden and Mysterious Disappearance of The Pretty Good Gatsbys" by Timothy Mudie (2016)
- "Still Life" by Jonathan H. Randall (2016)
- "I miss the Before" by Robert Reed (2016)
- "Firstborn" by Brandon Sanderson (original 2008; audio reprint 2014)
- "Let Me Hear From You Urgently" by Eliot Schrefer (2016)
- "Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw (original 1966; reprint 2006)
- "Down on the Farm" by Charles Stross (original 2008; audio reprint 2014)
- "The Dead" by Michael Swanwick (1996)
- "A Serenade of Strings" by K.L. Townsend (2016)
- "A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones" by Genevieve Valentine (original 2012; reprint 2015)
- "Space Travel Loses its Allure When You’ve Lost Your Moon Cup" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (2014)
- "Carla at the Off-Planet Tax Return Helpline" by Caroline M. Yoachim (2016)
- "Sister Emily's Lightship" by Jane Yolen (1996)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Abyss & Apex, 2016 (1st quarter)
- Clarkesworld Year Seven (anthology), edited by Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, Wyrm, 2015
- Crossed Genres, July 2014
- Daily Science Fiction, March 2012; Apr 2016
- Every Day Fiction, Apr 2016
- Fantasy Scroll Mag, Feb 2016
- Futures from Nature (anthology), edited by Henry Gee, 2007
- Jim Baen's Universe v.1, no.1, 2006
- Liquid Imagination, Feb 2016
- Nature, Apr 2016
- One Teen Story, March 2016
- Pinball, 2016
- Slate, Apr 2016
- Space Squid, 2016
- Starlight 1 (anthology), edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, 1996
- Strange Horizons, Apr 2016
- Selected Original Fiction, 2008-2012 (audio collection, Brilliance Audio, 2014)
- Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, March 2016

Read more!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Summing Up

This year, I saw twenty-six short films in four sessions over two days.... As always, I enjoyed most of what I saw of Worldfest-Houston. I was sad to miss the animated short film and NASA short film categories, but glad I got to see so much science fiction.

My favorite films from each of the sessions I saw were:

Comedy Shorts

Favorite: The Ballad of Ella Plummhoff, directed by Barbara Kronenberg

Runner-up: Ms. Vanilla, directed by 徐子悅 (Hsu Tsu-yueh)

Sci-Fi Shorts (International)

Favorite: Beautiful Dreamer, directed by David Gaddie

Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts

Favorite: The Clock Makers Dream, directed by Cashell Horgan

Sci-Fi Shorts #2

Favorite: As You Were by Trevon Matcek

* * * Overall Festival Favorite * * *

The Ballad of Ella Plummhoff, directed by Barbara Kronenberg

Final Thoughts

After three years of watching short films at Worldfest-Houston, I've noticed a few things. The biggest trend is that so many short films deal with grief, or at least loss. In looking back over my write-ups of the 26 short films I saw this year, eight of them were specifically about grief. Another six were about loss (of home, memory, freedom, soul/lifeforce, Earth, or limbs). Only twelve of the films (fewer than half!) didn't fit neatly into one of those two categories, and for a few of those, an argument could be made that they actually did edge in there.

Honestly, I'd like to see a little less of obvious dystopian futures, and a little less about grieving, but I can understand why grief in particular is such a compelling subject for filmmakers.

Looking ahead to next year, it looks like I may not have my usual conflict, so I may get to see even more short film sessions. I hope so!

Read more!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi Shorts #2

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi Shorts #2, Sunday, April 17, 2016

This was the last of four short film sessions that I saw at this year's Worldfest-Houston. More sci-fi!

The Roma Project
Director: Harry Keenan
Screenwriter: Evan Scott Russell
Length: 19:37 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film's Facebook page

A young man wakes up in a mental institution, and is told he's been in a car accident that killed his mother. He dreams of a woman (it's not clear to me if it's his mother; I assume so but she seems very young) in a meadow with a tattoo on her wrist, and is asked to describe the dream repeatedly. Eventually he realizes something odd is going on, particularly when he sees the tattoo symbol on some hospital, and notices armed guards stationed outside of the room where he meets with the "doctor." [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Ultimately, the young man learns that he has powerful telekinetic powers, and breaks out with another patient he has befriended. From the tattoo "clue," I inferred that the place had been experimenting on his mother at some point, perhaps while he was in the womb.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with this film, and I thought it was very well-acted, but it didn't tread a lot of new ground so I didn't find it particularly memorable.

Tomorrow's Dream
Director: David Gould
Screenwriter: David Gould
Length: 06:40 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: New Zealand
Film's Facebook page

This piece had a theme that I've now seen a number of times in short films: a man frantically works, to the point of endangering his own life, to find some way, any way, to bring back the (usually tragically killed) love of his life. In Ben Goodger's Anamnesis, a young man uses some kind of alien lifeform to keep replaying the perfect last day; in Ronald Eltanal's Nostalgic, an aging scientist takes an experimental drug that lets him see his now-dead wife, even as it prevents him from forming new memories; and here, a young man invents a time machine to insert his current consciousness into his former self to try to prevent his girlfriend's death.

In spite of the inherent predictability in such a film, I found Tomorrow's Dream refreshing in its relative simplicity and length -- it managed to get an entire relationship and story across in under seven minutes. My husband and I had different interpretations of the young man's ultimate fate, but that was part of the fun. I also liked the relative low-tech of the time machine's appearance.

Targeted Advertising
Director: Mitchell Rose
Screenwriter: Mitchell Rose
Length: 03:54 minutes
Category: Science fiction/Comedy
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

Like Cruxberry, which I saw in an earlier session during this festival, Targeted Advertising does not try to tell a hugely complex story, but instead effectively manages to get across a single concept in under four minutes. The program book calls this "a sci-fi aerial dance-film" in which "spambot drones chase a fleeing populace blasting ads for Viagra, hair loss products, and other exciting values."

If you are ever online -- and you are, if you're reading this -- you will definitely get the point of this film. It was a lot of fun, particularly the ending. You can watch it in its entirety at the link above.

As You Were
Director: Trevon Matcek
Screenwriter: Trevon Matcek
Length: 22:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

This film is about Johnner, a soldier who returns home with high-tech prosthetic limbs to replace the ones he lost in combat, and finds he has to reconnect not just with himself, but also with his wife, children, and society in general. Because that society has become leery of robots, Johnner has difficulty finding even a simple job, but he eventually finds some balance.

This film was moving, and the acting terrific. I liked the montage of prospective employers thanking the veteran ever so earnestly for his service while clearly hoping he would just get the hell out of their offices. There was one part of the film that didn't quite make sense to me, however: Johnner does finally find a job working with hazardous robotic materials, and wears a hazmat suit while breaking things apart and moving them, but people without protection seem to be standing no more than a few yards away without being in danger. It's just not clear what he's actually doing on this job, so it felt like a convenient excuse to have Johnner flash back on the drone that caused his injuries.

My only other quibble is that I thought the anti-robot graffiti that Johnner encounters while out jogging was a little heavy-handed. Overall, however, I thought this film was very well done. And extra bonus points for the nod to the Terminator franchise. Also while jogging (with a cute bit in which Johnner kicks the soccer ball, inadvertently sending it into next week), he encounters two boys named Kyle and Reese. Yep, I see what you did there....

Silent Night
Director: Nastassja Djalog
Screenwriter: Nastassja Djalog
Length: 11:04 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Australia

A nurse shows up at the bedside of a woman who has just given birth, swabs the inside of the baby's cheek, and learns that it will die around age fifty of cancer. For that reason, the "system" decides that the baby is unprofitable for society, and the nurse carries out her duty.

After which the nurse goes outside on a break and smokes a cigarette.

Don't get me wrong -- the nurse smoking is not the point of the film; it's window-dressing to show how distressed she is by her job. Movies, and especially short films, use this all the time: if you want the audience to see that a character is stressed, show them smoking a cigarette. But I really had trouble getting past this little detail when we were just told a baby was unprofitable because it would die a half century later of cancer. It seems to me that the possible lung cancer, and almost certain emphysema and heart disease, that this nurse is trying to give herself would be a lot less profitable.

Other than that, this film was quite decent. It's not particularly believable, but it does make the point that far too often, human lives are valued in dollars and cents. [SOME SPOILERS AHEAD] I did like the little touch that people being "released" (for lack of a better word) are given images of happy memories to watch. Initially, I didn't buy the way these images were retrieved from the patient's "identification." For instance, for an older man, his law diploma was fed into a wall slot, and the screen returned actual video of him graduating and receiving an award. For a young boy whose mother has "surrendered" him, the nurse puts a birthday card into the slot, and home-shot video of the birthday party comes up. It took me a while, but then I realized that Facebook can almost do this already, with the diploma, at least. Surely Facebook's algorithms can take the man's name and the school's name, call up any related video that is online (and what isn't online these days?), and perform facial recognition to make sure it got the right material. And this stuff is only going to get more sophisticated.

All in all, this chilling short film was worth watching. That smoking bit really bothered me, but upon reflection it occurs to me that it could be the nurse daring the system to tell her that she's not profitable, a way of dealing with the guilt by flirting with elimination herself. Maybe that's a reach, but if that's what was intended, it changes things for me a bit.

Director: David Victori
Screenwriter: David Victori
Length: 29:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Episode 1 on YouTube
(approx. 9 minutes)

The opening and closing credits for this film make a big deal of the fact that Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are attached to it, and indeed, this film has impressive special effects and cinematography. But I'm afraid I had significant issues with both the science and the plot.

A father trying to cope with his grieving son is on his way to work one day when Earth's gravity sort of turns off. Not all at once, but rather by degrees, so that at first little pebbles and bits of debris float around, then bigger and bigger things. Then, after gravity has somehow turned itself back on and everything has fallen back to the ground again, the father rushes home to check on his son, who has run off to the site where his mother was killed in a car accident. There he finds the man responsible for that accident. Convenient, but I can kind of accept it -- the man says that he thought the gravity phenomenon was a sign of the end times, so perhaps it makes sense that he would return to the scene of his greatest sin.

Aside from the gravity problem, then, I can live with these developments so far. But the gravity is a big issue. Consider the fact that the gravity on Mars is roughly one third of that on Earth. That doesn't mean that pennies and nickels and dimes sitting on the surface of Mars would just start floating because they're lighter than people or cars. Gravity is either one or off, so everything would be equally affected.

Even if I accept for the sake of the story that a gravity anomaly would work like that, however, the father-and-son story also became problematic for me. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Just as the father is chasing his son, the phenomenon strikes again. The boy latches on to an antenna tower, but then tells his father he's ready to go find his mother in heaven, and deliberately lets go, floating up and away. Bigger and bigger items start getting pulled up, and the boy goes out of sight completely. And then the switch flips again and everything starts falling. The boy conveniently falls into water (he probably would have been instantly killed from that height anyway) and the father rushes to save him while avoiding falling debris, but the boy is unresponsive. So the father carries him for several minutes until he gets to a place where a handful of people have gathered to help each other if they can, and then performs CPR. If he didn't know CPR it would have been one thing, but he knew it and didn't bother performing it right away! And then it's to no avail -- until the gravity switches off again, which coaxes the water out of the boy's lungs all by itself.

Sigh.... And then the boy wakes up and immediately has the huge emotional, screaming grief breakthrough that's been a long time coming, when actually he should have been brain dead by that point. And the man who killed his mother has also conveniently shown up at this location so they can all get some closure together.

I apologize -- it feels a little unfair that I'm being this nitpicky. But I just don't feel that the two main components of this film, i.e. an implausible science phenomenon and grief, went together naturally. It's fine, of course, to explore grief against any background or scenario, but in my mind that scenario needs to be integrated and at least somewhat plausible.

* * * * *

Click here to see all of my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

Read more!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts, Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Shadow of Dara

Director: Kirill Proskura
Screenwriters: Kirill Proskura, Andy Mihov
Length: 14:15 minutes
Category: Science fiction (listed)
Country: UK
Film's website

I quite liked the first half of this film, in which a group of human rebels enter a virtual reality environment to warn Dara, an imprisoned alien commander, that he's being duped into giving away critical information. The initial set-up is very much like (perhaps even too much like) The Matrix, to the extent that one of the rebels is essentially transmitting herself into the VR to convince the commander that it's not real and he needs to get out. But I really enjoyed the oddball office scenario into which the commander has been put; his "co-workers" keep acting bizarrely and asking him for important numbers, the reason for which is later revealed.

Unfortunately, when the commander does leave the VR environment, the film falls short for me. The alien race that has imprisoned Dara is effectively portrayed, with polished costumes, make-up, and even an invented alien language. But the story becomes a bit muddled and the dialog a bit trite at this point. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] The rebels are from the future, and are trying to prevent Dara from giving away Earth's coordinates to the aliens, who in the original timeline have destroyed both Earth and Dara's home. Dara inexplicably becomes arrogant and calls himself a god, which I think we're meant to take at least semi-literally. He has no apparent gratitude for the humans who've rescued him, and ultimately the group simply escapes in a pod, while the bad aliens hint darkly that they already have the information they need. This ending made the film feel a bit like a video game prologue; the tiny band of rebels lives to fight another day.


Director: Jamie Oon
Screenwriter: Jamie Oon
Length: 3:53 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Canada
Film's IMDB page

In this extremely short but effective film, a young woman, wearing a simple white dress in a futuristic white cell of some kind, answers questions and is rewarded with a sweet berry when she gets it right. At first, the questions are mainly about the berries themselves and the young woman has no problem, but when questions such as "what is your purpose" pop up, she becomes confused.

Eventually, we see that on the other side of the one-way touch screen, a woman in a lab coat sits, posing the questions -- and she is identical to the woman in the cell. I took this to mean that the woman in the cell was a clone, and she was being tested to determine whether she could learn and/or gain a moral compass.

I felt this film was exactly the right length -- any longer and it would have become too repetitive. As it was, I found it to be clever and refreshing. I also note that the director and writer was also the film's sole cast member.


Director: Jaime Valdueza
Screenwriter: Jaime Valdueza
Length: 17:00 minutes
Category: Suspense/Thriller
Country: USA

In this film, Jason has been hiding out in a rundown hotel for reasons related to a sensational murder being reported on the news. He reluctantly agrees to accompany his new girlfriend, Lila, to a small get-together at a house out in the sticks, and becomes agitated when one of his hosts takes a photograph that might put him in danger.

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] This film had a pretty awesome twist: the audience assumes that Jason is the eyewitness that the reporters say is on the run for his own safety, when in fact he's the murderer. Once the other man at the gathering puts two and two together, Jason kills him, that man's girlfriend, and ultimately Lila.

While I thought this was clever and well-acted, I didn't quite understand why Jason had to kill Lila. The photo of him had already been posted online at that point, so Jason should have just run -- it's not as though he had to silence Lila about his being there since that would already be known. There's a voice-over about trust, so it's possible that in Jason's twisted mind, he believes that Lila has betrayed him even though she really hasn't. I understand more why he killed the other two people, who were more confrontational, but he kills Lila when she's trying to hide from him in the house. His two choices are to kill Lila and have it be known that he's now responsible for three more murders, or to not kill Lila and have it be known that he's now responsible for two more murders. Killing her does nothing to improve his situation.

Unfortunately for the audience, the sound system broke down partway through this film, making it sound like it was being projected underwater, so it's possible I missed something in the voice-over that would shed some light on Jason's motive for killing Lila. In spite of the technical glitch, which was the fault of the theater rather than the film, I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It did a great job building suspense.

Bang Bang Club

Director: Jason Chan, Christian Lee
Screenwriters: Jason Chan, Christian Lee
Length: 19:31 minutes
Category: Suspense/Thriller
Country: USA
Partial film (4:18 minutes) on Vimeo
(listed as Episode 1 of a web series)

I found this film to be action-packed, a bit strange (a good thing), a bit convoluted (not a good thing), and a little too long. In addition, the film's description in the festival program book is not how I understood the film at all. What I saw was this: two young men wearing masks break into a building to shoot a young man at a computer. In flashbacks, we learn that they were recruited by a beautiful young woman who made them believe she was going to kill them, but instead her gun shot "bang bang" stickers onto their foreheads. She also trained them in hand-to-hand combat, rather brutally. At this point, the film felt like a cross between Fight Club, Wanted, and that dormitory game called "Assassin."

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Alas, when the two men shoot the computer guy, they're slow to realize that the gun has actual bullets this time; naturally, they panic and run. They're confronted by two security guards and almost apprehended, but fight their way out. They end up ... somewhere, and paranoia sets in as one man suspects the other one of switching out the gun to frame him (even though they did "rock paper scissors" when deciding which of them would shoot the guy). A big martial arts fight ensues, and we see that the woman and another man are watching them on video, via some very conveniently placed cameras. The woman tries to convince her companion that it's time to stop since there's a live gun in play, but he wants to let things continue. Finally, they remotely play back the footage of the murder and the men fighting, to the men themselves (as if that proves anything), and the woman welcomes them to the Bang Bang Club.

Although I liked parts of this, I was unfortunately left with too many questions. First, I thought they were welcomed to the Bang Bang Club when the woman first shot them with the stickers. I can accept that maybe that was preliminary, and that this operation is a test or initiation of some kind, but to prove what? That upon learning they actually killed someone, their instinct would be to fight rather than surrender to the authorities? Were the woman and her companion testing them to see if they actually were willing to kill someone? That would be an unsuccessful test, since they didn't know what they were doing. Or is involving them in an actual murder a way to compel them to start working for the club as real assassins whether they want to or not?

And here's the film's description, which I didn't read until after seeing the film: Banks control the world beyond our imaginations. When one bank strips away the livelihood of two young men, they take revenge by joining an elite assassins training group: The Bang Bang Club. Only problem is that the club has links all the way to the highest financial powers of the world and has other plans for them: covert murders and their own demise.

So now I'm completely confused. I didn't see their livelihood being stripped away. This also implies that the two young men knowingly joined an assassins' training group, but the big bad guys have "secret" plans to have the young men, you know, assassinate people. They also don't kill the men, so what's that about their demise? The woman's companion must be the big bad bank guy, but I don't remember finances so much as being mentioned, although I could be mistaken in that regard.

Overall, I guess I felt this just needed a bit more discipline and focus.


Directors: Shannon Kohli, Michelle Brezinski
Screenwriter: Michelle Brezinski
Length: 09:57 minutes
Category: Drama/Thriller
Country: USA

In this film, a woman tries to get her husband back after he dies from the Black Plague in medieval England. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] I believe what happens is that in her grief, she mistakenly imagines that her husband is still alive, and digs him up. I think it was intentional that for much of the film, the viewer might reasonably assume that the husband is actually a zombie. This was well done, but I didn't really feel engaged by it.

(In a bizarre coincidence, I was looking the the screenwriter's web page and found that her company produced another short film titled "Christmas Crackers" co-starring my brother-in-law, who's an actor up in Vancouver, B.C. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like I can watch it anywhere online.)


Director: Johannes Bachmann
Screenwriter: Johannes Bachmann
Length: 09:15 minutes
Category: Suspense/Thriller (listed); Sci-fi/Thriller (my categorization)
Country: USA

A woman driving alone at night through dark woods hits something and gets out to find out what it was. When a Hummer approaches the scene, she drives away in terror. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Ultimately, we see that this is a time loop of some kind; the woman has hit herself, and it keeps happening over and over. I felt that the look of this piece was very polished, but it was another film that didn't engage me quite as much as I would have liked. I also felt like it was longer than necessary to make the point.

The Clock Makers Dream

Director: Cashell Horgan
Screenwriter: Cashell Horgan
Length: 12:03 minutes
Category: Sci-fi (listed); Sci-fi/Fantasy (my categorization)
Country: Ireland

Last but not least, this was a visually delightful film about a clockmaker who keeps his entire town running, but who loses his desire to do so upon the death of his wife. He tries to build a replacement for her, but ultimately realizes he's been taking the wrong approach.

It's not quite accurate to say that this film was Burton-esque because it had its own unique look, but it inspired a similar sense of strange wonder. The town is populated by creatures with human bodies and animal heads, which looked to be large masks. The clockmaker himself wears a mask of a gray, immobile face with a pointed nose and beard. My favorite was the girl with the giraffe head, whose purpose seemed only to be skipping merrily through the town's streets. There were also some animated sequences.

Although the story itself didn't entirely make sense to me, this was a pure delight to watch. I also realized I knew the narrator's voice, and saw during the credits, which included headshots of the actors, that it was Jared Harris, who played Moriarty opposite Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. He was a good choice for this.

[This is anal retentive of me, but it really bothers me that the film's title is missing an apostrophe.]

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My next post will be on Sunday's "Sci-Fi #2 Shorts" -- stay tuned!

Click here to see all of my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

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