Category Archives: Reading


It’s the beginning of the month, which means my Patreon statement shows up today listing the wonderful writers, editors, and other creators whom I support via Patreon each month. Yeah, no doubt about it, I feel good each time this arrives and I can see how I’m helping, in my modest way, these terrific people to do marvelous work. But…

Here’s the thing: My Patreon list is nowhere near as inclusive of diverse and/or marginalized individuals as I wish it were. Oh sure, I buy lots of books, magazines, and other works created by folks from all sorts of backgrounds. But still. It’s time, maybe past time, for me to take a hard look right now at who I support and how much.


I’m thrilled to say that my interactive fiction game, T-Rex Time Machine is but one of a double handful of science fiction and fantasy works written by Taos Toolbox alums in the past year or so. Hope you’ll check out the wealth of reading featured on Walter Jon Williams’ blog. They all make great last-minute gifts for yourself or someone else!


Baltimore Book Festival

Do you love books? The Baltimore Book Festival is free! What could be better than spending a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday listening to terrific writers talk about books? It’s all at the Inner Harbor on September 28 -30. I’ll be part of two panels on Friday:

2 pm. Research, or “How I Spent My Whole Day on Wikipedia”

Whether a writer is after something historical, scientific, cultural, or trivial, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit holes of research. Let our authors tell you about the places they’ve gone for a single reference, as well as tips on how to do effective research.

Panelists: Sue Hollister Barr, Elektra Hammond, Kosoko Jackson, KJ Kabza, Marianne Kirby, Rosemary Claire Smith

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Stage

3 p.m. Beyond Borders, Beyond Maps: The Everything Else That Shapes A World

Worldbuilding is more than just inset maps. It’s about economy, culture, politics, food, entertainment, modes of transit, class structures, gender roles. Panelists talk about creating worlds, and how much they know that doesn’t ever make it to the page.

Panelists: Denise Clemons, Vera Brook, L. Penelope, Jon Skovron, Rosemary Claire Smith, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Stage

Check out the rest of schedule! See you there!


Unreliable Narrators

MidAmeriCon 2 was an all-round terrific World Con for me this year. Rather than ramble about this and that, I’m doing a series of retrospectives on some personal highlights, in no particular order. One was connecting up with writer buddies Cath Schaff-Stump and Christopher Cornell, whom I met at Paradise Lost. They’ve been putting out a podcast, Unreliable Narrators, that’s ridiculously good. For example, they’ve brought on some very talented SF writers like Ann Leckie and Charlie Finlay, who now edits F & SF.

So I was thrilled when Christopher squeezed my MidAmeriCon 2 dinosaur panel into his hectic schedule and mentioned our panel on the podcast. The ebullient Frank Wu led the panelists in a discussion of cool new developments in paleontology plus our conjectures as to courtship and mating strategies for enormous critters that have a row of spikes running down their tails. That’s a subject I’ve tackled in Dino Mate, an Analog story that’s been reprinted by Digital Science Fiction.



I’ve returned from Sasquan, the World Science Fiction Convention thinking about the fact that in two of the three short fiction categories, no Hugos were awarded this year. Nor were Hugos given out to editors of long or short works. While there are reasons for this turn of events, which are discussed at great length elsewhere, I find that there is another troublesome development, even setting aside the political and social divisions running through the science fiction community. Namely, even in more tranquil years, short stories, novelettes, and novellas do not get the love—meaning readers, publicity, and money—that they merit. As a writer of short fiction, I’ve even had intelligent people who love good books out-and-out say with a sniff that they don’t read short stories. While I do share their love of sinking into a wondrous novel, it saddens me that these readers are missing out on so much.

They are missing out on two wonderful things. First, a writer can take risks in short fiction that might crash and burn at novel length. Some fascinating ideas and set-ups are perfectly-suited, even stunning when embodied in short stories but couldn’t be sustained at novel length. (Naturally, the trick for the writer is to discern which ones are which.) The ideas that coalesced into my second-person account of limbo dancing during the zombie apocalypse would have collapsed at a longer length.

The second reason to read short fiction is to discover some terrific new writers whose imagination, attitudes, and unique voices will bring you pleasure for years before these writers get their first novel published. With a minimal investment of time and money, you can try out new writers and unfamiliar magazines. What with so many people bemoaning their lack of time for reading, I want to point out that you can download and read short stories on your smart phone while standing in line at the grocery store or the DMV or while commuting via mass transit. It’s never been easier.

Oh and while you’re at it, make a note of the shorter works that bowled you over with their goodness. Anybody can take part in the selection of the Locus awards, Anlab ballot, and a number of other awards. If you have some selections already picked out, doing so will be a breeze.


I finished reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman last week and have been mulling it over ever since. Like nearly everyone who has read Watchman or intends to do so, my reactions are intrinsically a product of my relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird. Significantly, I had not been introduced to Mockingbird at the formative age when it could have rocked my world views. To be sure, I admired Mockingbird a great deal as an important story, gracefully and economically told, with unforgettable characters, alive with telling events on nearly every page. But, coming to Mockingbird as an adult and as a writer, there was never a time when I could put myself into that fictional family or wish that Atticus was my father.

And so now, I’ve been asked, as a writer, what I think of Watchman. What people really want to know is what I think of the portrayal of Atticus Finch as harboring racist views. First of all, you have to realize that Atticus is a character seen though the eyes of another character, our narrator Scout. Given that Scout is a child in Mockingbird and an adult, Jean Louise, in Watchman, she must inevitably see things differently. At the very least, absent good reason, an adult character is generally less likely to comprehend other people in absolutist terms with no shades of gray.

“But wait,” some exclaim, “he’s undergone a personality transplant. How dare the author mess with our beloved Atticus. He was so noble in Mockingbird, so willing to endure the cost of standing up for his principles, and in Watchman he’s a smaller person, judgmental and in some respects mean-spirited.”

Alas, I have news for you. Writers change their characters’ personalities in fundamental ways all the time. Characters don’t and can’t exist in a vacuum. For one thing, they must evolve over time, no less than a real person who has lived another twenty years and been influenced by societal changes for better or worse. For another, the character must drive the plot and in turn is usually changed by it, just as we are all products to one degree or another by the significant events in our own lives.

And yet, character growth over the course of a novel is a different thing than a radical personality transplant. Fair enough. It strikes me that what likely happened is this. Harper Lee, like any writer, needed to come up with the right characters for the story she wished to tell. As a new writer, she began with the version of Atticus in Watchman. The story changed as she worked her way through some meaty revisions. Those changes, in turn meant that the original portrayal of Atticus in Watchman simply wasn’t right for the Mockingbird story.

There’s another factor at work that I haven’t mentioned yet, namely the role of a good editor. Though I have no special inside knowledge as to the relationship between Harper Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, I think it pretty apparent that she had the invaluable guidance of a terrific editor. By all accounts, it was Hohoff who suggested that Harper Lee recast the novel, setting it twenty years earlier when Scout was a child in the 1930s learning about people and about morality and about society from those around her, especially her father. You can see it in Watchman, as the passages in which Jean Louise recollects incidents from her childhood are the most vivid, the most alive and genuine in the book. Setting the novel entirely during Scout’s childhood also forced Harper Lee to ditch the Watchman scenes in which Jean Louise makes speeches to other characters in lieu of dialog, as well as other scenes that simply don’t go anywhere.

As a writer, having read the two versions in close proximity to one another, I find it enormously encouraging to see just how much an astute editor can assist a writer in recasting a story to make it the best possible. Though not every editor can work with a first-time novelist to reach the towering achievement of Mockingbird, the value of a good editor is vastly under recognized.


The title of this post employs five of the ten words recently chosen as deserving of more use in conversation and prose. ‘Says who?’ you may well ask. It’s a fair question.

They were chosen by vote and based on a list developed by @WordWarriors of Wayne State University. You can find the rest of the 2015 top-ten list at And really, how could you not want to check out concinnity, opsimath, and the other contenders?

But why stop there? Do you realize that you too can do your part to help save your favorite words from oblivion? Any word lover can nominate English words deserving wider use.



It’s that time of year again for readers of science fiction and fantasy to make nominations for the Hugo awards. In fact the Hugo nomination deadline is March 10, 2015. It’s also time for writers belonging to the Science Fiction Writers of America to make nominations for Nebula awards. That deadline is February 1,2015. Yikes, both dates are right around the corner!

Every year I stumble upon the usual spate of articles bemoaning the fact that “too few” people submit nominations for the Hugo and Nebula awards, with the bemoaners asserting that the nominations have been rendered less meaningful by reduced participation. I don’t have a lot of patience with this viewpoint. Instead, I have an idea … If you’re reading my blog because you are interested in science fiction and/or fantasy stories, you might consider making some nominations if you are eligible to do so, and voting when the time comes.

So what is worthy of being nominated as one of the best science fiction or fantasy works of 2014? It seems like I go through the same mental process each year. First, I absolutely intend to make some nominations because there are several terrific novels and shorter works that were published in the last year. But wait, there are so many stories, long and short, that I did not read, and didn’t even open. How can I possibly put forward informed choices?

Then I remind myself that absolutely everyone who nominates is in this same position. There are hundreds of choices (or maybe more?) if you consider every science fiction and fantasy work that was published in 2014. Nobody could attempt to get even a cursory overview of everything out there. So, I’d better start making my selections because that excuse won’t cut it.

After I’ve drawn up a preliminary list, I usually see that it seems skewed toward those publications I like best, such as Analog. Well, Analog did publish 3 of my stories over the years, and one of those, “Dino Mate,” is eligible in the 2014 short story category. How could I not find that Analog stories speak to me? That’s one reason why I’ve read more of that magazine this year than any other periodical.

So I usually start by figuring out my choices for the Analog Readers Choice Awards. This is a marvelous award as it is chosen by Analog readers. You don’t have to qualify to be a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, which is for professional writers. Nor do you have to be a member of any science fiction convention or group, which can be pricey. Anyone can fill out the Analog ballot by February 1, 2015 in the comfort of your own computer. Here it is:

But getting back to the Hugos and Nebulas, my next step after deciding on my AnLab choices is to take a look at the Tangent On Line Recommended Reading List. I love that the Tangent reviewers make such an outstanding effort to look at nearly every novella, novelette and short story that has been published in the past year. However, even just looking at what they recommend can be a lot, so I tend to focus especially those works that have 2 or 3 stars or that are written by the ever-growing list of writers whose works I admire. Here’s this year’s Tangent list:

One last thought—I’ll undoubtedly have missed some great stuff when I submit my nominations. Not to worry; I’ll be sure to read all those nominees when it comes time to vote for the Nebulas and Hugos.


Though I do have a system for fiction reading, I can never come close to reading all the books I want to, or intend to, in any given year. My system in 2014 was to focus on quite recent titles, and to read everything (or close to it) that was nominated for the Nebula or Hugo awards. While I mainly read novels, I find that they get a disproportionate share of attention by many readers. More’s the pity, as short stories are a great way to find new writers you’ll love, and to enjoy some wonderful works that cannot be sustained at novel length. So, without more ado, here are some books that really stood out for me this past year.

Straight Up Science Fiction

The Martian – Andy Weir – It’s a tale of the competent man as a fully developed protagonist in a battle to survive alone on Mars.

Ancillary Justice – Anne Leckie – There are so many reasons this first novel has taken the major awards.

The Red: First Light – Linda Nagata – Military science fiction has to have a lot going for it to hold my interest, and this one does.

Hard Wired – Walter Jon Williams – For contrast, I re-read this cyberpunk classic to find that it’s still fresh, gritty, and gripping today.

Contemporary and Historical Fantasy

American Craftsman – Tom Doyle – Here’s a modern-day military thriller/fantasy mash-up of interest to readers of Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft.

The Golden City – Kathleen Cheney – This is a thoroughly enjoyable detective story set in turn-of-the-century Porto, featuring selkies and other sea people.

The Golem and the Jinni – Helen Wecker – I loved the people and the setting in turn-of-the-century NYC, which is where my mother’s parents met and married.

Hild – Nicola Griffith – This portrayal of life, religion, and intrigue in 7th Century Britain gives us a wonderful look at just how different it must have been to live in a pre-industrial society lacking much of the knowledge of science that we take for granted.

River of Stars – Guy Gavriel Kay – A sweeping historical fantasy based on ancient China, with memorable characters

Dark Fantasy/Horror

Maplecroft – Cherie Priest – Thriller in which Lizzie Borden meets H.P. Lovecraft

Shambling Guide to New York City – Mur Lafferty – What’s not to love about a travel guide for vampires, zombies, water sprites, and the like?

Short Story Collections and Anthologies

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories – Adam-Troy Castro – These are dark, even disturbing stories, not something to breeze through merrily.

Best of Kage Baker – The author was a remarkably gifted story teller who passed away too young.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction 29th, 30th, and 31st Annual Collections – Gardner Dozois – I’d somehow fallen behind in reading these annual anthologies of short fiction by many of the best writers in the field.

Year’s Best SF 18 – David G. Hartwell – Another great assemblage of science fiction, some of which overlaps Gardner’s, by another masterful editor.


Catfish and Mandela — Andrew X. Pham. Most of the non-fiction I read is for my own research. However, I was so taken by this part-biography, part-travel-tale written by a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S., that I simply had to include it.

Lastly, I present you with some gender stats: The books I’ve read in 2014 (all of them, not just my favorites) are almost evenly split between male and female authors, with just one more male author than female author. While I love to read authors I’ve never tried before, I don’t systematically try to balance the number or percentage of books I read that are written by women as opposed to men. In picking out my 2014 favorite books, I only gave thought to author genders after I’d finished my list. Hence I find it interesting, and reflective of nothing other than my own personal taste, to see that my favorites this year in SF are split 50-50, and 60-40 for fantasy. My dark fantasy favorite books this year are both by women, while the single-author collections divide equally. Maybe I do have a slight preference for women authors, as the list above has 6 men and 8 women for single-author works. Having said all that, I have to conclude that a list of 14 favorite books (excluding the 4 anthologies) isn’t a large enough sample to draw any meaningful conclusions.



Today is the day established by law on which we commemorate the United States Constitution. I hear some of you asking, how do we do that? There don’t seem to be any parades, fireworks, or even blockbuster sales events.

Well, I have an idea: we might try reading, or rereading, the Constitution.

What’s that you say? Too long? Too boring? Too nerdy? Stuff and nonsense. It’ll scarcely take any more time than reading a news article or a short story. Besides, you’re already hanging out reading blog posts, and this is the document that establishes our government, with its powers and duties. It also establishes our individual rights, for goodness sakes. So here you go.

And for those needing a smart phone app:

You’re welcome.

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