Another Week of Joy Commences Today

I've done this before.  Last night, I declared Friday the beginning of another Week of Joy, in which I will only discuss or talk about happy things, like books, movies, spaceships, magic wizard monkeys, and anything that should be, in principle, producers of happiness.

You are free to join me in whatever way appeals to you.

Week of Joy (Day Seven): “The Wonders of Whimsy” by Adam Callaway

Whimsy is important to me. Most everything I love about art -- music, movies, books -- comes down to one aspect:  whimsy. I appreciate technical masterpieces like a Rachmaninoff concerto or a Joycean short story. I enjoy gritty realism like Law and Order or Lord of the Flies. However, my love lies with those pieces that make you wonder and smile, that turns the mundane into the fantastic with a turn of phrase or a splash of color.

Whimsy is one of the most difficult aspects of art to quantify. It's one of those "you know it when
you see it" things. It's a butterfly landing on the rim of a lemonade glass or a wind-up toy that never dies down.
Whimsy is why Miyazaki movies are so compelling. Whimsy is the noise Totoro makes when he opens his mouth and the castle floating in the sky.

Whimsy is the feeling of the uncanny when the mundane is melded with the fantastic. It’s the bright colors in The Yellow Submarine. It’s the surreal made comfortable. It's what made Harry Potter a phenomenon. It's the feeling you get when you look out on a lake and imagine a mermaid swimming right below the surface.
Whimsy is the green apple in Rene Magritte paintings. It’s the extra-dimensions of Escher.
Whimsy is reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, pretending you’re looking over the shoulder of Willy Wonka as he gazes out on his candy empire.

Whimsy is one of the reasons we start reading and telling stories in the first place. It's why children can have imaginary friends with no sense of self-consciousness. Whimsy allows us to believe in the unbelievable, to suspend our disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Whimsy is the reason why we can be scared by ghost stories. Even in the most different of secondary worlds, it's why we can sympathize with characters that are nowhere near us.

Whimsy is a powerful tool. A lot of adults lose it as they age. And that's a real shame. Without whimsy, life becomes dull and gray. Without whimsy, the problems of how to pay a mortgage or hospital bills become the reason we wake up in the morning instead of looking forward to the new experiences a day will bring.

Whimsy is important. I think most of us forget just how important it really is.

------------------------------------------

About the author:
Adam Callaway is a science fiction and fantasy author who spends his days dreaming about tentacles and secondary fantasy worlds involving magic cooks and flying monkey overlords.  His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flurb, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror and many other wonderful places.  You can find out more about him on his website.
Editor's note (i.e., Shaun):
Go read his short stories.  They're really good.

Week of Joy (Day Seven): “The Genre Books That Influenced & Inspired Me to Read & Write” by Stina Leicht

It's funny. While I've always loved books, I don't remember the moment when I decided I wanted to be a writer -- not any longer. You see, originally I wanted to be an artist, but during seventh grade I decided that writing was what I wanted to do more than anything else. From the moment I forced myself through the process of learning to read[1] I loved books. Books were safe. Books were also adventure. So, I quickly found favorites. Zilpha Keatley Snyder was the first author that I actively tracked down in my local library. I read everything I could find: The Changeling, Season of Ponies, The Witches of Worm, The Headless Cupid, The Velvet Room, The Eyes in the Fishbowl -- most are out of print now. Some were Newbery Honor Winners. I think she was the author
that gave me that first spark, that first thought that I could be more than just a frightened little girl. I remember wanting to be ageless, free, and spritely like Ivy in The Changeling. I wanted to be mysterious like Amanda in The Headless Cupid. I wanted to ride standing on the backs of graceful, magical, cantering circus ponies like Pamela.
It's good that I found Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books before I found Francesca Lia Block's -- otherwise, I'd have searched the world for a pair of cowboy boot roller-skates, wore layers of wispy mismatched skirts with fairy wings, played with glitter, pierced my nose, and painted my hair purple long before I reached voting age.

And my mother would've killed me. A lot.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get glitter out of things?

Then there was Joan Aiken. I still say Lemony Snicket wishes he were Joan Aiken. She totally and utterly rocked my world. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Blackhearts in Battersea, and Nightbirds in Nantucket combined fantasy and history -- technically alternate history -- and hapless orphans who triumph over e-vile caretakers out to do… well... evil, of course. It was heady stuff. Throw in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and I was gone, gone, gone. Meg's mother was a scientist! It was the first time I'd come across such a thing. I remember thinking how awesome that was. I wanted to be a scientist for a whole month because I knew right then it was possible. I wanted to cook dinner on a hotplate in a laboratory while working on something really important. Something about that seemed so cool.
The first book to spirit me away into the adult section of the public library, however, was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.[2] My father read it aloud to me when I was twelve. I remember being frightened that the Library Police™ would find me among the adult book shelves. Because surely there was some sort of alarm that sounded when kids wandered in there. You know, I'm not entirely sure what I thought they'd have done if they had found me. I lived in terror of librarians. To be honest, I pretty much lived in terror of everyone in those days. I was a very shy, very skinny kid with frizzy hair, after all. The main thing was that I didn't want to be thrown out. The library was my world. I loved the smell and the feel of the books and the hushed consecrated ground. Now that I think back on it, The Sharpstown library in Houston wasn't very big -- one floor, a dozen long shelves in the center of the building, and a magazine section. They didn't separate the SF novels from the rest of the books in the adult section either. (I'm sure it was because they didn't have enough to warrant it.) I remember asking the librarian[3] where the SF books were and being overwhelmed by the concept of sorting through all of the books to find what I wanted. Unlike the children's books, I'd have to rely on the card catalog. The book covers weren't as much help. It wasn't long before I'd read everything they had that Bradbury had written. Then I moved on to others: Joshua Son of None by Nancy Freedman, Dune by Frank Herbert, Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clark, The Anything Box by Zenna Henderson, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -- I wandered all over until I found Stephen King. Then I kind of parked there for years like I did with Zilpha Snyder. But really, I think it was the combination of Zilpha Snyder, Joan Aiken, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury that made me think about writing my own stories. They were the first to open the doors of my imagination. The were the first to open up my mind to the possibilities.

-------------------------------------

[1] I'm dyslexic.
[2] You should be sensing a theme here. If it was mildly spooky, off-beat, or magical, I was all over it.
[3] When I finally got up my courage to do so. I was shocked to discover that the librarians were thrilled to death that I wanted to read adult books. Of course, by that time I'd already discovered Dickens and Twain.

About the author:
Stina Leicht is the author of Of Blood and Honey and And Blue Skies From Pain, urban fantasy novels set during the Troubles in Ireland.  She is a two-time Campbell Award nominee and lives in the great old state of Texas, where she actively causes trouble (because she's awesome like that -- love you, Stina! :P).  You can follow Stina on her blog and find out more about her work (such as where to buy it) on her profile.
Note from the editor (i.e., Shaun):
If you haven't read Stina's work before, you should do so immediately.  Her Ireland novels are bloody amazing.  We interviewed her twice about them on The Skiffy and Fanty Show.  You can find every episode she's ever been on here.  But first...buy her books!
Additionally, Stina mentions that most of Snyder's books are out of print.  Many of Snyder's books are available in ebook form now.  The wonders of electronics!

Week of Joy (Day Six): Heart of Fire by J. Damask (A Mini Interview)

J. Damask (a.k.a. Joyce Chng) was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new book, Heart of Fire, which hits digital shelves in September.  The book comes from Masque Books, a digital-only division of Prime Books, a notable small press genre publisher (notable most recently for releasing the absolutely amazing Yoon Ha Lee collection, Conservation of Shadows -- check out the Skiffy and Fanty interview here).  In other words, Heart of Fire is sure to be damned good!  Though you'll have to wait for a little while, you should bookmark this page and remember to buy it in a couple months!

Now for the mini interview:

If you had to describe your novel to someone who doesn't read a lot of genre fiction, how would you describe it?

It is set in Singapore, has a lot of mythological animals and creatures and Singapore food. And oh yes, it has werewolves.

What do you think makes fantasy such a compelling genre for so many readers?

I think it’s compelling, because it allows readers to slip into other worlds. You know, make-believe world. It’s like Narnia!

How would you say Heart of Fire fits in with the rest of your work?  Does it share certain sensibilities or thematic concerns?

It does, come to think of it. I tend to examine tropes of transformation and transfiguration, as well as motifs like family ties and relationships.  To me, the family is central and it does appear in many of my stories.  I often wonder if this is an Asian thing, to feature the family as an important motif/theme.

As a Singaporean author writing in English, what would you say are your greatest challenges in terms of reaching audiences abroad (particularly in other English-speaking parts of the world -- not just "the West," mind you)?

Authenticity?

(Then again, what is authenticity?)

I am Singaporean Chinese. So, I sometimes feel that people would want me to write in Mandarin Chinese (no, I couldn’t – and my last (and only) Mandarin spec fic story was written when I was a kid as a school composition). I think people want to see an “authentic” voice, so to speak.

I think there are no such things as authentic voices.

What one thing that you know now do you wish you'd known when you first started treating writing as a professional endeavor?

That it couldn’t be a full-time job.

That it won’t be easy for people from Southeast Asia?

(Wait, that’s two things…)

And, last, for a silly question:  If you had to choose an animal to write your next book for you, which animal would you choose and why?

A wolf.

Because it’s cool.

(But hey, it doesn’t have opposable thumbs…)

------------------------------------------------------

About the Book:
Jan Xu, wolf and pack leader, faces more dangers when she saves a foreign male wolf in love with one of her ancient enemies, a jiang shi, a Chinese vampire. Throw in a love-struck drake—and Jan finds her situation suddenly precarious, with her reputation and health at stake. How much is a wolf going to take when everything is out of control again and her world thrown into disarray? How is she going to navigate the complexities of Myriad politics while keeping her pack and family intact without losing her mind? The third book of the Jan Xu Adventures will see Jan Xu’s continual fight as pack leader, her clan’s Eye (seer) and mother of three young children. Her mettle, courage and love for her family will be tested to her utmost limits.

Week of Joy (Day Five): Neil Clarke and Upgraded: A Cyborg Anthology (Mini Interview) @kickstarter

Neil Clarke, editor-in-chief at Clarkesworld, is currently running a wonderful Kickstarter campaign for an anthology called Upgraded.  Folks like Yoon Ha Lee, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and so on will contribute stories to the collection, and there will be an call for submissions to fill the remaining slots.  In short, this anthology will be wicked awesome!  Support the campaign if you can (stretch goals = awesome).

I asked Neil if he would be so kind as to answer a few questions about the anthology, science fiction, and other related topics.  He was kind enough to oblige.  Here is my mini interview with him:

As a long time reader and editor of genre fiction, what would you say continues to inspire you to read the stuff?  What keeps you coming back?

For me, it’s a combination of the ideas and the escape. Science fiction and fantasy have made me think about things like no other genre has. I find that fascinating.

Cyborgs, cybernetics, and other "cyberpunk" elements have been a huge part of science fiction for almost as long as the genre has existed.  Why do you think we are still fascinated by these things today?  Do you imagine that we will live in a fully transhuman world one day?

I don’t know that we’ll see a fully transhuman world for some time, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch to believe that most of us will live to see some heavy-duty advances in cybernetics. While the technology in my device is fairly common, there are some incredible advances being made in brain-machine interfaces that make mine look like a primitive toy.

One of the reasons cyborgs and cybernetics have endured is that they are a believable future that makes an amazing framework for a lot of social issues. Listen to some of the privacy concerns people have about Google Glass. Now, imagine the cybernetic equivalent built into your eyes and completely hidden. It just ramps it up to another level. What kind of privacy do you have with a device that connects to your mind? At what point do you cease to be human? Who will receive the benefits of this new technology? What if this was the only way you could regain your sight? How far are you willing to go?

You suggest on your Kickstarter page that your recent health complications inspired you to put together this anthology, in part because, as you say, you've become cyborg yourself.  Aside from the obvious impact a health issue can have, how would you say your new cyborg nature, however small, has impacted your view of the world (however minutely)?  Has it made you think about fiction in different ways?

I’m a cyborg by necessity, so it is hard to separate the health issues from my new status as a cyborg. The combined effect has given me a new perspective on life. A lot of things that used to bother me seem trivial and unimportant now. It’s a lot easier for me to let go of thing and overall, I think my quality of life has greatly improved. The only cyborg-related change is a newfound respect for magnetic fields... they can damage the box and the box is my friend.

As for fiction, it’s made me realize what an important part of my life it has been. Professionally, it’s pushed me to try to make this a job that pays a living wage. Why shouldn’t we love what we do? I see a future in this.

What are some of your favorite stories featuring cyborgs (in any media form)?

After my defibrillator surgery, I asked friends on Facebook and Twitter to recommend some cyborg stories to help me pass the time. I read a lot of cyberpunk books in college, so I was already familiar with a lot of stories people suggested. I still have a fondness for Neuromancer by William Gibson and Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling.

As for TV, the Borg were always good for an interesting story and I have to give some credit to Neil Gaiman for breathing new life into the Cybermen. It’s about time they learned from the Borg and grew up. Nothing, however, will replace the first cyborg I encountered, The Six Million Dollar Man. Cheezy show, but doesn’t that make them perfect for kids and so much fun?
And now for a silly question:  If you could replace one external part of your body with a cybernetic part (a toe, an arm, nose, etc.), what would you replace and why?

I’m quite happy with what I have, but if I had to, I’d have to go with my hands.  Just think of all the improvements you could get as upgrades: faster typing, nut-cracker, paper airplane folding, speed dial, juggling, paper cuts prevention, chef-style vegetable cutting, not needing hot mitts...

My wife tells me she would object. No deal, I guess.

-----------------------------------------------------

To find out more about Neil, check out his webpage.  You can also find him at Wyrm Publishing and Clarkesworld.

Support Upgraded!

Week of Joy (Day Two): Rainbow Lights by Polenth Blake (A Mini Interview)

The lovely Polenth Blake was kind enough to join me during this Week of Joy to briefly talk about her writing and her collection, Rainbow Lights.
Synopsis:
A deep-sea robot tells stories in every colour, but no shade can describe meeting a giant squid. 
Rainbow Lights is the first collection by science fiction and fantasy author Polenth Blake. Alien scorpions, vampire ice cream sellers and clockwork flies, try to find their place in worlds where being human is optional. These thirty-five stories and poems are a mixture of new pieces and work published in venues like Nature, Strange Horizons and ChiZine.
What first inspired you to write genre fiction?  And why do you think genre fiction is such a potent form for storytelling?

I grew up in a family of geeks, so science fiction and fantasy were my bedtime stories. Reality is
subjective, but realistic fiction often doesn't acknowledge that. It's written as though what's real and what isn't is a concrete division. Speculative fiction has room for playing for those perceptions.

Who are some of your biggest literary influences?

Anne McCaffrey and Isaac Asimov were among the first authors I read. The stories that particularly stood out to me were McCaffrey's brain ship series and Asimov's robot stories. I recognise the problems with the
stories now that I'm older, but the general themes still interest me.

The whimsy of E. Nesbit and Lewis Carroll's work always appealed to me. Whimsical stories are often dismissed as not being serious enough, as though everything in the world is completely serious all the time. In my world, sometimes life is whimsical, and my stories reflect that too.

More recent influences are Nnedi Okorafor and Shweta Narayan. Their stories have a lot of layers, which is something I hope to improve on in my own work.

What is the weirdest story in your collection?  How did you come up with the idea behind it?

It's always hard to judge what's weird to other people, but even my family thought "Incident in Aisle Five" was odd. It's set in a giant supermarket, which the people inside think is the whole world. Their culture revolves around the different departments and the division between shoppers and shelfstackers.

My family doesn't have a car, so I spend a lot of time in the local supermarket. It isn't my whole world, but sometimes it seems like everything revolves around when I have to go shopping next.

I noticed on your website that the title for your book appears to originate from a Word Cloud. Can you talk about how you structured your collection along color lines and how you decided the name?

The word cloud came after the book, but I had noticed a lot of my stories mentioned colour. I'm sensitive to colours, and often differentiate between colours others see as the same shade, so colour is important to me. It meant splitting the stories into colours was remarkably easy, as the divisions were there waiting to be found.

Rainbow Lights comes from the first story in the collection, as the robot has a fascination with the colour of her own lights. As well as tying the colour theme together, rainbows have other symbolism, such as representing diversity. I write about the people around me, and there are all sorts of people around me.

If there is one thing about writing that you wish you'd known when you first started taking it seriously, what would it be?

I did quite a bit of research before I started, so I generally had a good feel for things. What delayed me from starting in the first place was the idea that writers start out with natural talent. I'd always struggled with writing and I'm dyslexic, so I wasn't winning writing contests as a child. I didn't think it'd ever be a career option. So I wish I'd known that being a child prodigy wasn't required.

And lastly, a silly question:  Do you really own pet cockroaches?  If so, why?

After the family cat died, I missed having a pet. I've always loved invertebrates, and when I saw hissing cockroaches, I was taken with them. Hissers are clean, easy to look after, don't bite and don't mind the fact my room is in perpetual darkness.

My current cockroach is Gem, though I plan on getting a few more soon (they're relatively short-lived, so I've taken to keeping my bio in the plural, as numbers change faster than the stories come out). Gem is adventurous and is the only cockroach I've had escape. She travelled across my room, climbed the curtain, and fell off (falling a few meters). She survived all this with only slight damage to one antenna.

Cockroaches are fun.

---------------------------------------------------------

To learn about Polenth Blake and her fiction, head on over to her website!

It Happened (or, Yeah, I’ve Given Up My Life to the Joy of Comic Books) #WeekofJoy

I officially have a pull list with my local comic book retailer.  Stranger yet:  the guy who owns the place now recognizes me when I walk through the door.  Clearly I buy a lot of comics...  And, well, this is actually kind of awesome.  Most of my comics are coming from a local place called All Star Sportscards & Comics.  It's probably the best place in Gainesville to get comic books.  Though it's not as big as the other major comic shop in town -- MegaComics -- the prices are better, the staff seems friendlier and more helpful, and every time I go there, I spend money (which is great for the owner, but not always so good for my bank account -- oh, hell, who am I kidding?  I love comics).

In a way, I'm fortunate to live in a town that even has a comic book shop.  Short of buying hardback or trade paperback collections, without a shop, I'd have almost no way to rebirth my interest in the form.  And that, I think, would be a horrible thing for me, as one of the things sustaining me through what is one of the toughest years I've had in a while (in terms of work and intellectual requirement) is this rediscovered passion for comics.  I'm having those little kid moments again.  You know the sort.  You open a book, movie, comic, or pack of collectible cards and you experience some variation of the following:  tingling skin, goose bumps, elevated heart rate, an uncontrollable desire to smile or jump up and down, and just an overall feeling of excited euphoria.  I had those moments when I was a kid only a few times, really.  Video games and movies were part of what helped me survive what I would describe as a relatively shitty
childhood.  Comics were part of that, too, though I certainly moved away from them when I hit my teens (RPGs and video games filled that gap).  In a way, I've always been a geek, so there's something nostalgic and generally pleasurable about rediscovering something that made you happy when you were younger.

That's what it's been like the last few weeks.  With all the things going on in my life at the moment -- most of them stressful, but not necessarily "bad" -- I need something to help me decompress.  Comics are doing just that right now.  And I'm loving every minute!
Anywho.  You may wonder what I put on my pull list.  Well, here you go:

  • Superman Unchained
  • Superman & Batman
  • Justice League of America
  • Cable & X-Force
  • Uncanny X-Force
  • X-Men (Vol. 4)
  • Nova
  • Secret Avengers
  • New Avengers
  • Iron Man
  • The Wake
I also have subscriptions to Batman, Justice League of America (through a donation I made, which is cool), Uncanny X-Men and Uncanny Avengers.  I may switch the last two to the regular pull list when the subscriptions are up; apparently the comics are not properly bagged and boarded when shipped, which means they get a little beat up through the mail.  I'm a bit of a collector now, so I'm not a big fan of slightly-mangled comics.

That list will probably change over time, depending on how the stories progress.  Right now, I am pretty much obsessed with Batman, Uncanny X-Men, and Cable & X-Force, though I'm sure Superman Unchained will join the obsessions list soon (Scott Snyder is writing it, which means I am almost guaranteed to love it).

Needless to say, comics are one of the many things I am grateful for right now.  If ever there was something to discuss during my Week of Joy, comics would be it!

What about you?  What are you reading, watching, or just straight up loving right now?  Let me know in the comments.

Week of Joy (Day One; Part One): An Introduction

If you don't follow me on Twitter, then you have no idea what this is all about.  Basically, with all the nasty crap going on in the world right now, not to mention in the science fiction and fantasy community, I have decided to take one whole week off from depressing things and only write about things that bring me or others some sense of joy.  I won't go completely off the trail, of course, but I think a little detox will do me (and maybe others) some good.  So, for the next seven days, you can expect lots of talk about books (releases, books I like, etc.), comics (ditto), movies (ditto), and anything else I feel like babbling about (SF/F-related or otherwise).

Of course, I don't have to do this alone.  If you want to join in, feel free to do so!  All you have to do is spend the next week blogging or tweeting about things that make you happy.  That's the only rule.  And if you do join in, let me know where you're going to do it so I can link everyone who reads my blog to your stuff!

And so you should all prepare yourselves, for the Week of Joy has BEGUN!