Notes on “Association of the Dead”

Hi Everyone. I’ve always really liked blogs (like David D. Levine’s or Ian Creasey’s) that included notes about each of the author’s stories. To me, it feels kind of fun and historical. It’s nice to know that these things don’t just disappear. So this is my attempt at doing the same sort of thing. The story notes will be published on the blog’s main page as I write them, and then they will be linked-to in my bibliography.

Story Notes

  • “Association of the Dead” was published in Clarkesworld Magazine #46
  • Read it
  • Listen to it
  • Originally Published in  July 2010
  • 6200 words
  • Science Fiction
  • Rejected 1 time before selling
  • Took five days to write the first draft (March 25th – March 29th, 2010)
  • Finished revisions on May 2nd, 2010 ( with only minimal changes between first draft and final draft)
  • Accepted on June 27th, 2010

First Lines

The neon logic clusters cascaded through the extremities of Sumith’s perception as he sang sweet Code through the room, through the house, and out into the massed congregations of networked singers across the world.

The Code had tripped another threshold. Or so he’d been told. He’d long ago abandoned the ranks of dilettantes who stood back from the effort and sipped chemical so they could dream up fancy metaphors to describe the glorious totality of the Code. Now he sang the Code. He sang the Code in his sleep, and paused only a moment after waking before plunging in again. He sang it while he ate, and he sang it while he—

His home muted the orchestra of Code a moment before the rock crashed through his window, sprinkling his living room with pebbles of safe-shatter glass. A bleeding body, its clothes bloody and torn, slithered through his window. The face turned towards him. The pale whites of its eyes were highlighted by the dirt and dried gore caked on the face, the rust-colored bloodstains around its mouth. The face and the mouth were exact replicas of Sumith’s own… as exact as a molecular extruder could make them.

Origin Story (and other notes)

One day during my lunch break, I was browsing Wikipedia and I ran across the following List of Premature Obituaries: a list of people who, for whatever reason, had been declared dead while they were still alive (notable mentions: Alfred Nobel; Gabrielle Giffords; Ernest Hemingway; Mark Twain). Most of the stories are pretty silly: internet hoaxes or the accidental publication of pre-written obituaries. But one of them was super-cool!

Lal Bihari, Indian founder of the Association of the Dead, an organisation which highlights the plight of people in Uttar Pradesh who are incorrectly declared dead by relatives in order to steal their land, usually in collusion with corrupt officials. Bihari himself was officially dead from 1976 to 1994 as a result of his uncle’s attempt to acquire his land. Among various attempts to publicize his situation and demonstrate that he was alive, he stood for election against Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 (and lost). He was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for his ‘posthumous’ activities.

And that led me to this article in TIME. Apparently, this is a thing in India. People will bribe the district clerks to declare someone dead. Bihari formed an organization to represent these “undead” victims. When I got home that day, I started writing this story. I’m not sure why it’s about zombies and cannibalism and social networking and virtual reality, but, you know…that stuff happens.

When Clarkesworld likes a story, it will hold it at the top of the slush until the end of the month. But when this happened to me, I didn’t know that, since they’d never before taken longer than nine days to reject a story of mine. I was on mission in South Asia while I watched this story steadily climb up to the top of the slush pile. And I remember thinking, while in a hotel room in Bangladesh, that I really didn’t think this story was going to sell. Keep in mind that, at that point, I’d only made 1 SFWA qualifying sale (to Nature) and that I’d only sold 2 stories at pro rates (the other story was published in the second issue of the now-defunct Redstone Science Fiction). Clarkesworld was (and is), like, a real magazine. One whose stories get reprinted and nominated for awards and read by real people. Up to that point, I really had no proof that any of my stories had ever been read by anyone that I didn’t know (publishing a story in Nature, while awesome, will not win you any recognition within the field).

So selling to Clarkesworld would be a huge step up for me, and I really didn’t think that this was going to be the story that did it. Honestly, it just did not seem that much better than any of the other stories I was writing at the time (actually, in my eyes, it felt worse).

On June 27th, I’d finished my mission and was spending ten days in Berlin, visiting a former roommate of mine. I was staying in a wonderful hotel: the EasyHotel. It’s basically just this super-tiny room that’s a bed and a bathroom and nothing more (the bed takes up 70% of the floorspace in the room). I’d wake up around noontime and go out and meet my friends at a cafe. And one day I woke up to an email from the editor of Clarkesworld (Neil Clarke) saying that he wanted to publish this story.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my life. The happiness was literally not expressible. I tried to explain it to my college friends, but I don’t think I quite conveyed it.

Anyway, other fun stuff: I debated back and forth for a few emails with Neil Clarke about how the story should be read in audio (since it uses a typographic convention–uppercase and lowercase letters–to distinguish between multiple characters with the same name). Finally, he just left it up to Clarkesworld’s audio editor, Kate Baker, to handle. I’ve never listened to the audio version, so I have no idea how she solved the problem.

Some Awards Season Mentions for “What Everyone Remembers”

Normally I don’t post links to reviews of my work, since I figure that you’re all capable of reading it and forming your own opinions, but I did want to note that my short story, “What Everyone Remembers,” has popped up in a few end-of-year summaries now that the nominations period for the Nebula* award has opened.

I’m glad that the story is coming back into view, especially since it appeared wayyy back at the beginning of the year and could easily have been forgotten.

*The Nebula Award is given annually to the best novel, novella, novelette, short story, and YA novel published in that year (as voted upon by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America).

Three pretty good short stories that were published in March 2012

This month, I read the March original fiction output of Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld.

I really didn’t want to like my favorite story of the month. In fact, I positively resisted it. I read it with the utmost disinterest for about a third of its length until I finally gave in–against my own will and political instincts–and admitted to myself that it was awesome.

“The Bells of Subsidence” by Michael John Grist (Clarkesworld) – A young girl leaves a young boy–her very best friend–behind on a desert world. She goes up into a galaxy-trawling spaceship in order to perform the complex mental gymnastics that keep it moving through time and space. The ship moves without guidance or purpose. It is the remnant of an ancient empire that populated the galaxy and then subsided. Now it takes a hundred children from every world that it visits and then it slowly chews them up with its intense mental demands. But the girl remembers her boy. Even as she forgets everything else, she remembers his name. She remembers that the name is important. She resists the crack-up, and retains her mind, and becomes captain of the ship, and searches the galaxy for the answer to a question that she cannot remember.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re groaning right now. Really? Love conquers all? You can become a spaceship captain and travel the galaxy, but what really matters is the boy you left at home? It’s horrifying, and until the very last sentence, I kept hoping that the story would subvert the trope. But it didn’t, and I guess that’s okay. In a way, I suppose the story is a subversion of all the stories in which people are so anxious to get into space that they are willing to take any risk and undergo any kind of physical or mental trauma. In this story, a woman is given the galaxy, and she turns it down, in favor of the comforts of home.

The story is great. Its portrait of an empire that continues to propagate itself mechanically is awe-inspiring. I loved the Bells–the spaceships–and the lost, confused Bell-captains. I loved the strange planets. I loved the way that each third of the book feels different in tone and setting, as if this was three different stories. It’s a beautiful, suspenseful story, and it’s definitely my favorite out of all the ones that I read this month.

Alarms by S. L. Gilbow (Lightspeed) – I think we’ve all met someone whose personal problems made his presence kind of alarming. A person who has made us say to ourselves, “Umm, this guy has way too much going on right now. I’m just going to stay away until his issues sort themselves out”. In this story, a woman finds that her presence sets off all the mechanical and electronic alarms in her vicinity.

It’s kind of a metaphor for the woman’s mental problems, but it’s also a problem that’s treated seriously within the text in that interesting way that genre-fantasy (as opposed to allegorical fantasy) sometimes does things. She can’t go into any building because she’ll set off smoke detectors. She can’t go too close to parked cars because she’ll set off their car alarms. She can’t work. She’s isolated herself. She’s slowly falling apart.

What drives the story is a very spritely voice. Even when things are going to shit, the protagonist remains committed to examining her own life and trying to figure things out. And I really admired the last third: the ending deft and thoughtful. The story takes its premise as a starting point and goes farther than most stories would.

“Nightfall in the Scent Garden” by Claire Humphrey (Strange Horizons) – A contemporary fantasy story told as a letter by a grown woman to her (female) childhood friend. She describes an incident from when they were young. Her friend was about to be enslaved by a fairy queen, but the protagonist claimed her as her beloved and, thus, saved her (or perhaps not–it is implied that the friend’s true desire might have been to go and live with the fairy queen). In return, the protagonist agreed to take no other lovers and to, someday, spend a hundred years in the service of the queen. But now they’ve grown up, and the two friends are not together. Her friend is married to a man and has a child, and the protagonist is left alone with her unrequited love. And the protagonist is wondering whether she should break her deal.

I loved this story. It’s very tragic, but it’s also kind of creepy. The protagonist feels, somewhere deep inside, that she has some kind of claim over her friend, and she can’t stop begging her friend to honor that claim. If this was a straight guy writing to a lesbian girl, it would be super creepy*. As it is, the lesbian girl to straight woman version is just sort of creepy. We’ll know we’ve achieved equal rights when we consider the lesbian version to be just as creepy as the straight version.

At the same time, whatever. We’ve all experienced unrequited love. It’s creepy and it’s quite distasteful, but it’s a real feeling and it deserves a place in our stories. I loved the internal tension in the protagonist. She knows the beautiful–and perhaps the most honorable–thing would be to continue to hold to her bargain and to throw her life away in service to this love, but she also cannot help but struggle against that fate.

 

*It’s kind of hard to imagine a version of this story in which a gay man writes to a straight man, not because it’s impossible for a gay man to have an unrequited crush on a straight man, but because it’d be hard for such a letter to contain a similar allusion to the possibility that the straight man might turn and choose to be with the gay man after all. Rightly or wrongly, men are not thought to be so fluid.

February 2012 Short Fiction

 All The Young Kirks And Their Good Intentions (Clarkesworld) by Helena Bell – Earth is being ravaged by some kind of disease. It responds by sending a few brilliant men and women to a moon colony where they try to recreate Earth’s (often extinct) ecosystems. Meanwhile, the town of Riverside, Iowa, has gotten caught up in this interplanetary fervor: it starts naming all of its children after a mythical hero from the past, James Tiberius Kirk.

I am normally very suspicious of fan-service stories, because I think they have a tendency to try to glamour their audience by namedropping nerdery instead of creating interesting characters, situations, and settings. And perhaps that’s what is happening here, but if that’s the case, I am thoroughly beglamoured. I love this story.

It’s just a story about kids, jostling to be special. Ostensibly, they all want to grow up and go to the moon and be heroes. But right now, they’re sitting in Iowa, playing status games with each other. The story is slow, but implacable. All of its pieces resonate with each other, and obey some unseen internal logic.

 

Bear In Contradicting Landscape (Apex) by David J. Schwartz – An author finds that a character from one of his early (terrible) short stories has come to life. In most hands, this story would be really playful and silly and insubstantial. But Schwartz just keeps throwing stuff in there. He spends all this time detailing the really dystopian story that the character came from. Then he starts describing the author’s girlfriend, a woman who is having her whole life story tattooed on herself. Then he’s writing about the character’s wife and her fascination with Elvis. And then the character’s cats corner a rabbit and the author saves the rabbit.

There’s really not a wrong note in the whole story. I’m just reading and reading and I’m never thinking–as I usually am, for most stories–“Okay, how is all this crap going to cohere.” No, because it’s cohering and agglomerating as we go. Even the everyman schlub narrator manages to avoid being just another everyman schlub. He has an engaging, fox-quick voice that’s full of wonderment and understanding (rather than the usual self-pity and neuroticism that I’ve come to expect from everyman schlubs). Anyways, I liked this story alot.

 

Aftermath (Strange Horizons) by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill – The zombie plague was averted after only a year by an airborne cure that turned the zombies back into ordinary human beings. A former literature professor struggles to live with a husband who succumbed to the plague and spent several months as a flesh-eater.

I love zombie stories. And I love that zombie stories are so versatile. They’re not just about titillation, like vampire stories, or about scaring you, like most monster stories. Zombie stories are about how we relate to society: the blank mass of strangers that we see around us everyday. And I love this story’s twist on the zombie tale: in this story, the zombies come back to life and try to live like ordinary people (they don’t remember any of their former atrocities). It has a lot of resonances with many modern situations in which people have to live with situations that they were not fully responsible for: Slavery or the Civil War (in America) or The Partition (in India). But it’s also a story that fully engages with its own premise. This is a story about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. It’s rigorous and it doesn’t provide easy answers to the dilemmas that it raises.

 

In addition to the stories mentioned above, I also enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s “The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” (Lightspeed), Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren” (Lightspeed), and Justin Howe’s “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” (Beneath Cease Skies)

Four pretty good short stories that were published last month

Longtime blog readers may perhaps remember that in December 2010, I promised that I was going to read the top online SF/F markets every month and find nice things to say about at least three stories (in order to combat the pernicious feelings of envy that had been [and still are] assailing me). Well….my bad. I only did it once. Okay, but now it’s a new year, and I’m trying again.

I just finished reading the combined output January 2012 output of Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and Strange Horizons….err…except for the reprints*. I chose four stories this month, and they are below.

“Scattered Along The River Of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld) – This story is simultaneously about a woman leading a rebellion against an interstellar colonizer and about her granddaughter coming to an exile community to witness her heroic grandmother’s funeral. While I was reading this story, I thought, “Hmm, this is pretty good…but I’m not sure it’s going to be one of the ones that I blog about.” The story is beautifully written, and there is something very delicate about the very carefully calibrated narrative distance from which it’s told. However, the plot seemed banal. And then I got to the end. It has a great ending. A perfect ending. The ending ties up every strand in the story in one arresting image, and manages to comment powerfully on exile and assimilation.

“How Many Miles To Babylon?” by Megan Arkenberg (Lightspeed) – Okay, so sometimes I read a story, and even though it seems pretty good, I keep thinking, “What’s the point of this story? Why does it exist? What makes this story original?” and then, other times, I read a story and I think, “Holy crap, this story is awesome”. This story is one of the latter ones. It’s a man and a woman driving across a perpetually-darkened Earth, and perpetually under attack from these devilish pseudo-Biblical creatures. It’s full of arresting images: a civilization subsumed by rotting, leafless trees; a town on fire, with skeletal figures writing in the sky above…

But, do you see the problem? None of that stuff is exactly new. The hellish landscape is a mélange of Hieronymous Bosch, Hellboy, South Park, and everyone else who’s ever treated the subject. And the central plot of two survivors making a line-drive through a hostile environment to the supposed safety of some last redoubt has also been done a large number of times. And yet, I don’t care. I still really like this story. It’s weird biblical-horror tone and intense pace was enough for me. This makes me wonder whether I actually dislike stories for their unoriginality or whether I find them unoriginal because I dislike them.

“The Five Elements Of The Heart Mind” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) – Sometimes I forget that there is such a thing as a science fiction story which hinges upon some interesting scientific concept. Most SF stories don’t have too much to do with science. They’re either about playing around with mythopeic tropes (aliens, robots, generation ships, immortality, etc) or they’re about gadgetry and futurismic speculation. This story is about an interstellar traveler who is marooned on a planet that happens to contain a long-lost colony that has regressed, technologically, into the Iron Age. There, she falls in love with a local villager. Now, that would be a pretty dull story (although it is very engagingly written), if it didn’t have a super amazing scientific speculation at its heart. I don’t even want to tell you what the speculation is, for fear that it will ruin the story. And what’s more impressive, the scientific speculation provides new vigor to the castaway plot. The whole thing really works. I was very impressed.

“The Chastisement Of Your Peace” by Tracy Canfield (Strange Horizons) – Okay, so this one is pure jealousy. Astute fans of mine might perhaps have noticed that doubling is one of my themes. I’ve written about office-slave clones (“Ted Agonistes”); a British Navy staffed entirely by parallel universe versions of Admiral Nelson (“Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast”); a society created by the discarded nanotech replicas of one man (“The Association Of The Dead”); and a tiny cockroach that gives birth to replicas of itself (“What Everyone Remembers”). I don’t know why, okay. I just love doubles. And I have so many more unpublished stories and story ideas that involve doubles. If I published them all, I could literally populate a whole collection of doubles stories. And when I read Tracy’s story about a world populated entirely by parallel universe versions of Jenny Sirico (just one random woman), I thought, “Damn, I wish I’d witten this one.” It’s not only an idea that I love, but it’s treated in exactly the manner that I love. It’s full of all these fun little flourishes that give the Jenny-world the illusion of being as rigorously logical as (we hope) the real world is. And I like the direction that the actual story went, too. Everything about the story really clicks. It feels like, given this setting, the story used the exact right character and told the exact right story.

*I’m sure that some people enjoy reading the reprints, but I am not one of those people. I kind of feel like the only reason to read a monthly fiction magazine is to get a glimpse of what’s new…these stories are literally the latest thing that is happening in the SF/F world. The reprints are probably pretty good, but they’re just not new, and hence they’re hard for me to get excited about. Whenever I want to read reprinted short stories, I prefer to read them in a Year’s Best or single-author collection.