Great Online Short Fiction I Have Read Recently (weekday reading)

I will soon be doing another Fiction Magazines Worth Reading for 2010, but before I get to that I want to talk about some specific stories I've read online, which you can read for free and which I heartily recommend.

I recently talked about how much I loved Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's collection Memories of the Future. One story of his not in that collection but every bit as good is called "Yellow Coal" and is a perfect example of everything that's great about his work.

Wet Asphalt favorite Matt Cheney has one of his first published stories available at Failbetter, called "Getting a Date for Amelia". Whenever I see Matt has a story available I always jump and read it, because he's one of my favorite story writers right now. Matt, come out with that collection already please!

From Clarkesworld, here's "The Things" by Peter Watts. Watts recently became an internet cause célèbre because of his recent arrest and subsequent conviction over a border-crossing incident. However, aside from all that, it's important to remember that he's also a pretty good writer, and one of the few practitioners of "hard" science fiction that I have any patience for. "The Things" is a fascinating exploration of identity from the viewpoint of an alien that has no conception of it, constructed like a monster movie, but turned on its head from a thriller into a think piece, reminding me of early Alan Moore stories where a different perspective provides for startling revelations.

From Strange Horizons, "Who in Mortal Chains" by Claire Humphrey provides a picture of an immortal who simply wants to settle down but instead finds herself pulled back into violence, the only thing she really knows how to do well. What could be the set-up to a more typical action story, however, becomes a more-subdued-than expected meditation on personal affection, with unexpected moments of beauty.

And finally, "Last Beautiful" by Robin Sloan. I'm probably going to have to write a whole piece on Robin Sloan, because he seems to be doing everything you're not supposed to do as a writer and being very successful at it. The best example is his novel, Annabel Scheme, which he self-published, getting tens of thousands of dollars in money from to do it. This is not someone who's well-established already, this is his first novel. "Last Beautiful" is another perfectly good example; he wrote it sentence by sentence in Twitter, getting feedback as he went from his Twitter followers, something that would give Jeff Vandermeer a heart attack. And yet the story is actually really good, the tale of a lost love and the last beautiful day ever in San Francisco. Again, Robin Sloan deserves more analysis, but if you want to see what doing everything wrong and making it work looks like, read this story.

The God-Machine: A Modest Proposal

Suppose you have a black box. It has two openings, one labeled "Questions" the other labeled "Answers."

No matter what you put into the "Questions" slot, something will come out of of the "Answers" slot. Whatever the "Answers" output is, it is a complete answer to the "Questions" input question.

This is true even if the "Questions" input is not a question. To be clear, anything can be put into the "Questions" slot and will produce a complete answer from the "Answers" slot.

This means that even output from the "Answers" slot could be input into the "Questions" slot, and thereby produce it's own answer.

Again the truth of these answers will always be as reliable as the truth of the answer to the question "If I have one apple and someone else gives me an apple, how many apples will I have?" is "Two apples."

This is even true of questions that are unanswerable, like the halting problem or something of that nature. The black box will never the less produce an answer. The black box is not a computer and is not limited by the limits of computation.

Now, imagine that you do not have access to the "Answers" slot. The answers are being produced to whatever question you are feeding into it, but you cannot see them or know what they are.

That would be frustrating, but you would know for certain that there was an answer, even if you could not see it.

Suppose now, that for some questions, you can figure out the answer yourself. Without observing what the output of the black box is, you can still know what the box will output anyway. This empirical or grammatical fact. Things that can be known through observation or reason.

We have access to these facts, although the black box will not confirm them.

There are other questions that we cannot figure out the answers on our own. Any number of answers could be correct, all of them could be, or none of them could be. We just can't tell because we can't see what the output is.

I am Jason Finkas Quackenbush

Many of you have wondered, is JF Quackenbush just the name that Eric uses when he wants to say something vitriolic and swear at people a lot? I mean, Jason Finkas Quackenbush? That name has to be fake. I'm here to tell you yes, it is fake. It's time to stop pretending.

I first came up with the Quackenbush alter ego during my time at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. I was a lonely college student and it was late at night in the TV lounge at the dorm that I started pretending that there was someone there with me, laughing at episodes of The Adventures of Sinbad, the greatest television show in history. Soon I was trying to form a band, but no one wanted to play with me, so I pretended I was in a band with Quackenbush, who would, in my deranged imagination, wear a silly costume and call himself "Reverend Chaos". It was a heady time.

Later when I put together the web zine YankTheChain, I needed it to seem like it was more than just me, and so Quackenbush became a writer, going on insanely about talking to the ghost of Richard Nixon and hanging out with Jennifer Love Hewitt and pining away publicly for a girl at Berklee who was really also me, but in a dress. Quackenbush became a tool with which I could call myself the names I secretly felt I deserved, and delineate exactly who needed to be Neutered, Shot or Both. It was a heady time.

Finally, though, I feel as though I must cast off these trappings of my young adulthood, and stop pretending. I am JF Quackenbush, and always have been, and all indications to the contrary are so much subterfuge, for I am that clever.

Also, I am secretly Edward Champion. But you probably already knew that.

Why I don't trust Kiva

Maybe you've seen the ads on Hulu of President Clinton touting this non-profit Kiva website that makes it possible for firstworlders to make microloans to borrowers in the developing world. It's also something that's been cycling through the google ads on this site. Not totally surprisingly, I actually have a big problem with this crap.

Addendum and Errata

Because apparently I don't really exist anymore, WetAsphalt presents the following:

E.L. Borgnine's selections, not that anybody bothered to ask him...

Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper, a very funny send up of the supernatural horror genre about a group of white supremacists trying to wake the Great Old Ones in the food court of a Rhode Island shopping center.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, which was a lovely Kafkaesque bit of crime fiction that left me looking forward to what Berry will do next.

Both Matter and Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks were published in paperback last year, the first as the latest in Banks's Culture universe which explores the uglier side of a utopian left wing future run by Artificial Intelligences, and the latter a very bleak slice of Space Opera dealing with some very interesting twists on the standard setting. Banks is the best writer writing Space Opera today, and he uses science fiction the way it's supposed to be used.

The Reavers by George MacDonald Fraser was important not just because it was the last book he finished, but also because like his earlier novel The Pyrates it's just a damn fine piece of work exhibiting all the best that can be found in escapist adventure fiction.

Lest it be forgotten, last year did see Norton's publication of a scholarly edition of The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard which is important if only because it makes Ballard's most important and interesting work, almost never found in his uniformly poor novels, much more accessible.

What's Wrong with the Tournament of Books with Special Guests Ed Champion and Sarah Weinman

Every year, the Morning News website does a "Tournament of Books" in which a selection of reviewers compare books to one another, elimination style, until only one is left the victor. It's a pleasing concept and an addictive one, especially if you have a particular book or two you root for like a favorite sports team. The only problem is that there seem to be certain biases as to what books get picked for the tournament. Specifically, anything printed under a "genre" imprint (science fiction/fantasy/horror/romance/mystery/thriller/crime/whatever) gets ignored, pretty much as a rule. Which isn't to say they're opposed to genre concepts, for example, this year's tournament included Margaret Atwood's dystopian Year of the Flood, which even she refers to as a speculative fiction novel, though it's published as mainstream. One assumes then that it's not as much an explicit prejudice as simple ignorance.

To rectify the situation, I'm recommending some books from 2009 that were sadly overlooked, and I've recruited two excellent authorities, Ed Champion of Reluctant Habits and Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. It's too late to be included in this years proceedings but hopefully they'll take notice. And next year I plan to be more proactive in letting them know my selections before they begin, so they have no excuse!

Logicomix: A Short Review

I just read Logicomix. Very interesting. Should have taken the tractatus more seriously, but that's ok, even a lot of professional philosophers don't understand it.

The impact of World War One on modernity is beautifully captured by a two page layout of Wittgenstein standing in the middle of no man's land and a caption by Russell saying "put a man on the edge of the abyss, and in the unlikely event that he doesn't fall in he will become either a mystic or a madman."

The themes betray a computer scientist's fondness for Turing, algorithms, and computation that if not wholly misplaced is not the answer to everything that many computer geeks think it is.

Yet again i find myself wishing that more people would read Hubert Dreyfuss.

But Dreyfuss himself doesn't understand The Philosophical Investigations point on psychology and in his commitment ot Heideggerean phenomenology founded in metaphysics as opposed to a Wittgensteinian one founded in language, he concedes too much to the model makers.

Stanza Ebook App No Longer Available on iTunes

Apparently, Stanza for iPhone/iPod Touch, the best ebook reading software I've ever used, is no longer available. Suspicions point to Amazon (whose Kindle app for the iPhone/iPod Touch is the WORST ebook reading software I've ever used), who bought Lexcycle, maker of Stanza, some time ago, killing the program to make less competition for its Kindle app, especially with the forthcoming rollout of the iPad. Note, no official notice killing the app, nothing on the Lexcycle or Amazon websites. Just the app surreptitiously gone from the store.

I am not happy at all. Screw you, Amazon.

EDIT: App appears to be back now, so false alarm. Sorry. Still the news that there's no plans to make a version of Stanza specifically geared to the iPad is worrisome.

Fans Are Jackasses: Part whatever

So bear in mind I'm on day three of not smoking and that's made me more cranky than usual, but I just wanted to take a minute to tell fans of Repo! The Genetic Opera to fucking get over themselves.

In case you haven't heard about this latest little storm of fandom outrage about something stupid (y'know like putting a chinese kung fu star in a movie and then calling it "the karate kid" because duh, don't they know karate is japanese?!?!?!) there's this movie getting made called "Repo Men" about guys who repossess organs purchased on credit whose owners then got foreclosed on. This is the same premise as the aforementioned "Repo! The Genetic Opera." So now RTGO fans are all pissed off because their beloved indie B-Movie is getting "copied" by a big hollywood studio. And how dare the big studio for ripping off such an original idea. Except wait a second, not only is it not an original idea, its a fucking boring one and more than that, the new movie is really a rip off of a truly original and great sci fi flick from way back called "Repo Man," and RTGO is a rip off of that too, the only difference is that rather than repossessing organs, in Repo Man the main character repossesses cars.