Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Locus

A case of “Stonebrood”

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The October 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

I’m very pleased to announce that the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is finally available on newsstands and in digital form, with my novelette “Stonebrood” as this month’s lead story. (A big excerpt can be found online.) In her review for Locus, Lois Tilton provides as good a summary as any:

Marius is a firefighter with a slow-moving disaster on his hands—an underground coal fire that has been burning for at least fifty years, until officials were galvanized into action by a sinkhole that collapsed a highway and killed eight people. The problem: no way to tell how large the fire is and how many miles it has spread. The solution: tiny drones, resembling bees, that can be lowered down boreholes into the mine to map the fire. From there, attempts to extinguish it can begin.

Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Trevor Quachri’s editorial note calls “Stonebrood” a “creepy” story, which is more or less right. And after “Cryptids,” which was meant as a kind of departure from my usual style, it represents a welcome return to the kind of story I’d like to think I do best.

Upon reading it over again, I was glad to find that I still like the result quite a bit, since it combines elements of the stories I’ve written for Analog in the past—an unusual setting, inexplicable events, a final scientific twist—with a tone that turned out to have unexpected affinities with my suspense novels. Elsewhere, Lois Tilton describes “Stonebrood” as “the most sciencey” of this month’s crop of stories in the major digests, including Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I was gratified and a little surprised to read this, since I’ve often felt like a borderline impostor in those pages: unlike many writers of hard science fiction, I’m not a scientist by training, and whatever factual content exists in my work is usually there only because it enabled a specific plot. If anything, though, I’ve had to try harder to make the science work, and to tailor each story to the material I happened to have at hand, and it’s particularly on display in “Stonebrood,” which wouldn’t exist at all in its current form if certain pieces hadn’t fallen together in just the right way. As usual, I expect to discuss the story’s development in greater detail in the coming weeks, so I hope you’ll take a moment to check it out.

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2015 at 9:42 am

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 3

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The May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Note: This is the third of a three-part series on the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears in the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. For the previous installments, please see here and here.

As soon as you’ve got an idea for a story, you’re naturally going to want a title for it. Unfortunately, titles are hard. I’m rarely satisfied with what I end up calling a story, and only in a couple of cases, as with “The Boneless One,” has a title suggested itself without effort. More often, it’s a long, unsatisfying process. It’s all the harder because I’m fond of titles that convey meaning on more than one level, ideally with a resonance that changes before and after the story is read. Sometimes, this takes the form of an ingenious pun, and I’m always pleased when I encounter a title with this kind of double meaning: Amy Waldman’s The Submission, Tracy Kidder’s My Detachment, Julie Powell’s Cleaving—the last of which is a rare example of a genuine triple pun. The title “Cryptids” suggested itself fairly early in the process, and I was much encouraged by the surprising discovery, courtesy of the invaluable Internet Science Fiction Database, that it had never been used before. Once I’d written it at the top of the page, though, I had to think of ways in which it could express something deeper, particularly in regard to character. So I started to consider how a person could be something like a cryptid: keeping a low profile, staying out of sight, surviving longer than anyone could have imagined.

This ended up being the key to the dynamic between the story’s two central characters, Karen and Amanda. I knew almost from the start that I wanted this to be a story about two women, partially because “The Whale God” didn’t have any women at all. Given the plot I’d sketched out, which involved a team of scientists being recruited into a project run by a pharmaceutical company, it seemed right to make their relationship that of an older mentor and an ambitious young protégée. The metaphor of the cryptid turned out to be a useful one: even as Karen seeks out a new species, she’s being sought out in turn by Amanda, who wants to know if the woman she once admired and envied still exists. Karen’s personality, in turn, was shaped by the logic of the title I’d chosen. She’s a survivor, someone who has managed to continue doing the research she loves by keeping her head down and focusing on her work in the field. As the story begins, she’s no longer sure that such a life is possible, but when the real cryptids attack, she finds that the skills she’s acquired are all that will keep her alive. The result gave the story, which otherwise might have degenerated into the literary equivalent of a monster movie, an emotional and thematic core, as embodied in the final line: “Some things can survive for longer than you think.” And if I’d happened to be drawn to a different title, the story might have ended up being about something else entirely.

Sinornithosaurus fossil

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a good monster movie in its own right, and since I knew that this would be a story about survival, much of my energy was devoted to making the action as logical and plausible as I could. We’ve all had the experience of watching a film in which the protagonist ignores an obvious means of escape, just because the plot demands it, so I wanted everything my characters did to make sense. In the end, they’re pinned down by venomous flying raptors, with nothing to defend themselves but the gear they happen to have on hand, with the dingy that brought them to the island inaccessible because of a storm. Laying these pieces into place was fun, if mentally taxing, and I especially enjoyed coming up with interesting ways in which they could use their scientific equipment. It’s a nice little formula, and I even went back and reread Stephen King’s “The Mist”—probably the best story ever written about people in a confined space fighting off a threat from outside—to see if I could mine it for ideas. Not surprisingly, the body count ended up being unusually high for a story published in Analog, which tends to avoid darker or more violent themes, but that was what the plot required. (Reviewing the story for Locus, Lois Tilton points to the abundance of redshirts, or characters who seem to exist just to get picked off by the cryptids, to which I stand guilty as charged.)

Reading it over again, I do get the sense, as at least one review has pointed out, that the ending is a little abrupt. This is mostly because, contrary to my usual approach, I started writing the story before I had the conclusion worked out. I had hoped that something good would come to me along the way, but ultimately, Karen and Amanda escape from the island, and that’s pretty much it. (The original outline ended on an ambiguous note, with Karen swimming toward the unseen dingy and Amanda’s fate unclear, but I quickly decided that this would only enrage readers.) Shortly after submitting the story, I began to wish that I’d included one more plot point or story beat at the very end—or even simply expanded the last couple of paragraphs to bring it to a more satisfying close—but at that point, I couldn’t take it back. If I ever end up revising it, perhaps for a collection or digital publication, I expect that I’ll do what I can to extend the climax and make it seem a little less lopsided. Still, given the story’s relatively modest ambitions, I’m happy with it. Certainly a lot of people seem to find it an exciting read, whatever its other limitations, and I’ve learned that if you can get a reader’s pulse to rise even slightly, you’ll be forgiven for most other shortcomings. A writer, like a cryptid, has to come up with a few good tricks in order to survive, and in this case, they just barely allowed me to get to the other side.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2014 at 9:44 am

Presenting “The Whale God”

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The September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Over the weekend, I was delighted to learn that my novelette “The Whale God” had been named to the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2013. In the ten years since my first story appeared in Analog, this is only the second time I’ve appeared on the list—the other time was two years ago for “The Boneless One”—so making the cut this time around is a real cause for celebration. Stories here are automatically included on the ballot for the upcoming Locus Awards, and although I’d welcome any votes, I’m aware that I’m up against some stiff competition: the other authors in the novelette category include such luminaries as Neal Stephenson, Zadie Smith, and Neil Gaiman, as well as countless other excellent writers in the field. Needless to say, it’s a thrill to find myself in such good company, and I’m grateful as always for the recognition.

And as I’ve done in the past, I’m pleased to be able to post “The Whale God” on this blog in its entirety—you can read the whole thing here. (Later, if you’re curious about the story’s origins, I’ve discussed this elsewhere in possibly excessive detail.) When you finish a story, you don’t know what its reception will be, or even if it will ever get published in the first place, and in fact, this turned out to be a slightly divisive novelette among certain readers. Still, it is science fiction, however unlikely the setting, and if it looks a little out of place in the pages of a magazine like Analog, that’s because it’s the only kind of story I know how to write. That said, plenty of other readers seemed to like it just fine, and to my own eyes, it’s one of the two or three best stories I’ve written. Please check it out if you’re interested, and if you do, I hope you enjoy your trip to Phan Thiet. There are some strange things happening down on the beach…

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2014 at 9:36 am

My skeptical muse

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Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

Earlier this month, the critic Rich Horton, who has long been one of the kindest supporters of my work, published a nice writeup of my novelette “The Whale God” in Locus. It was a gratifying review in many ways—Horton calls me “one of [Analog editor Stanley] Schmidt’s best recent discoveries”—but I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:

One of Nevala-Lee’s idea engines is to present a situation which suggests a fantastical or science-fictional premise, and then to turn the idea on its head, not so much by debunking the central premise, or explaining it away in mundane terms, but by giving it a different, perhaps more scientifically rigorous, science-fictional explanation.

This is a very shrewd analysis, and it covers basically all of my published stories. And it isn’t an accident. As I’ve noted before, it’s a convenient, flexible story structure that allows me to explore interesting ideas in the guise of a mystery, and I owe it entirely to The X-Files, as much as a writer from another generation might have obsessively returned to Star Trek.

In high school, I spent a fair amount of time writing X-Files fanfic, and I imagine that a critical reader might say that I never really stopped. My first published short story, “Inversus,” which appeared in Analog in 2004, was probably my most transparent homage: the lead character, Margaret Lime, was basically just an amalgam of Mulder and Scully, and the story itself—which detailed an outbreak of psychokinetic activity in Boston—followed the show’s formula almost beat for beat. At first, I thought about doing a whole series of these stories, but after the second one was rejected, I took my fiction in a somewhat different direction, which is probably for the best. The kinds of stories I love don’t necessarily involve a pair of government agents investigating the paranormal in a spooky small town: they’re narratives in which the line between science and superstition is so blurred that only rigorous thinking can save the day. This kind of story can be told anywhere, at any time, using a wide range of characters, which is why my own work has taken place in settings as diverse as New Hampshire and Vietnam and the Spanish Civil War.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files

And there’s one important difference between my own stories and the show that inspired them: in my version, Scully, or her equivalent character, is usually right. Part of this has to do with my affection for Scully herself, as well as the fact that I’m trying to sell stories to magazines like Analog, in which you’re expected to make the underlying science as accurate as you possibly can. It’s also a personal preference: I happen to think that a rational explanation—which often involves a fair amount of ingenuity—is more interesting than a paranormal one, at least when it comes to paying off the plot. In some ways, my stories have a little in common with the locked-room mystery, a genre I’ve never attempted but regard with a lot of respect. You begin with an impossible murder that seems like it might involve magic or a temporary suspension of the laws of physics, then logically establish how it might really have been done. A hint of the paranormal provides the hook; the logical explanation the reward. And if I’ve done my work right, as in a story like “The Last Resort,” all the pieces are there in plain sight, and a clever reader can—and often will—get there ahead of the protagonist.

Which also gets close to the heart of why The X-Files still means so much to me after all these years. Ultimately, the show is a dialogue between two strong personalities, a debate that continued for season after season even as the series itself kept stacking the cards in Mulder’s favor. Yet Scully remains the richer, more rewarding character. (It’s no accident that my three published novels all feature a thinly disguised homage, although Rachel Wolfe has since evolved in her own surprising directions.) The more I revisit the show, the more Scully’s skepticism starts to seem less like a form of denial than a distinct, joyous, sometimes equally insane approach to the game. Each episode starts with a puzzle that the two leads need to crack, each with his or her own set of tools, and although the genre of the show itself demands that the skeptic always be wrong, this just means that she needs to reach deeper the next time around, and be a little smarter and more inventive when it comes to explaining away this week’s werewolf or telepath. That’s the Scully I adore. And every story I write is a love letter.

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2013 at 8:31 am

UPDATED: The return of “The Boneless One”

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I’ve said before that of all my short fiction, the novelette “The Boneless One,” which appeared in the November 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, is my own personal favorite. It isn’t always the case that a writer’s own opinion coincides with that of the rest of the world, but for once, a lot of other people seem to agree: in addition to being selected for inclusion in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, it also made Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reading List for the year. Both are huge honors, and the latter is especially exciting, because it automatically puts the story on the ballot for this year’s Locus Awards.

With this in mind, if you missed it the first time around, I’d like to remind you that the November issue of Analog is still available for electronic purchase at Fictionwise for only $3.99. (A free audio version of the story will also be released by StarShipSofa at some point in the near future, although I’m not quite sure where it fits in their schedule.) If you’re in the mood for a dark aquatic story of murder and octopuses, with overtones of The X-Files and The Thing—and as far as I know, there aren’t a lot of other stories that fit that description—you should check it out. Later, if you’re so inclined, you can check out my own posts on how I wrote the story, as well as a few reviews. Enjoy—and don’t let the octopuses bite.

Update: After clarifying the rights situation with Analog, I’ve confirmed that I can also post “The Boneless One” right here on this blog! I’ll probably only keep it up for a few weeks, but if you’re interested, you can read it here.

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2012 at 11:06 am

“The Boneless One” and yet another title change

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I’ve always been a little unsettled by octopuses, and fascinated by yachts and oceanography, two obsessions that come together in my novelette “The Boneless One,” which appears in this month’s issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. As I’ve said before, this is an X-Files-style murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the North Atlantic, with some gruesome twists and surprising science, and it’s already received positive reviews from Locus, SFRevu, and Tangent Online. It also benefits from a gorgeous illustration by artist Laurie Harden. I can’t reprint the full spread here, but I’ve included a small detail above, which will hopefully pique your interest as much as it did mine.

“The Boneless One” is probably my favorite of my own published novelettes—I wrote the original draft well over three years ago, and reworked it several times before acceptance—and I do hope you’ll check it out. Borders, alas, has expired since my last story appeared, but you can probably pick up a copy in the periodicals section of any Barnes & Noble, or order an electronic version from Fictionwise. At some point over the next few weeks, I’m going to be discussing the writing of this story in more detail, as I did with “Kawataro,” so you might want to grab the issue if you’re interested in following along. And I can safely say that Analog would appreciate the business.

In other news, work continues on the sequel to The Icon Thief, which I’m scheduled to deliver by the end of the month. Last week, I finished a revised version of the prologue and sent it along to my publisher, which will be including it as a teaser at the end of the previous novel. My editor accepted it with almost no changes, which I can only take as a good sign. As for the rest of the book, after close to nine months of work, I have a fairly tight draft of just over 100,000 words, which is exactly the length it should be. At the moment, I’m hoping to spend the next few weeks on a comprehensive rewrite and deliver the final version at the end of September, at which point I will promptly collapse.

More importantly, the novel also has a new title. For those keeping track, this is the third title change: I originally pitched the novel as Merkabah, which I quickly changed to Midrash after the first title nearly gave my agent a heart attack. At some point, it became House of Passages, after a brief flirtation with House of Keys, which my editor gently asked me to change earlier this week—a request that I’ve heard before. Now, after two days of frantic brainstorming and discussion, complete with polls in two different offices, we’ve settled on City of Exiles. I’m a little exhausted from the process, but I love the new title, and I’ll be talking more about how we got here early next week.

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2011 at 8:41 am

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