Tag: Short Fiction

Forest of Memory – Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m steadily working my way up to total fanboy status regarding Mary Robinette Kowal’s work. As I’ve mentioned several times on the blog, her insight, perspective, and wit are one of the great draws of Writing Excuses, and her work that I’ve read (Shades of Milk and Honey, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, and her contribution to the Shadows Beneath anthology) I have absolutely loved.

I have her most recent novel, Ghost Talkers, on my to-read list, as well as Word Puppets, a collection of her shorts, but the book that drew me first was Forest of Memory, a novella published by Tor.com. The cover art, by Victo Ngai, of a surreal forest with an etherial buck jumping away from the viewer, captured my attention wholly.

Paired with the title, the image piqued my interest, and I wanted to know how the seemingly disparate images would connect to each other.

What I found in the novella is yet another example of Kowal’s stellar craftsmanship. The world, though never explicitly seen, feels enormous and lived-in, and the characterization is shows remarkable depth for its quickness.

Forest of Memory also asks a question that is increasingly important these days: in a world of perpetual connectivity, what would it feel like to suddenly find yourself alone? Unable to reach out to the entire world at a moment’s notice? Cut off from the global conversation?

I think about it often, because while I used to disconnect for several months at a time (as a result of working in the mountains), I haven’t truly disconnected from the web in almost a decade.

Almost 10 years of using the internet every single day. It’s remarkable. I wonder if it’s an inextricable part of my life and future. But it’s not all bad, of course. I socialize on the web, and have used the internet to build a life for myself in the writing community, which has been terrifically rewarding and healthy, not to mention profitable in some ways. I use the internet to learn, to laugh, to play, to connect. But I also use it to distract, to numb, to shout into an echo chamber with rage at the political problems of today. It is counterproductive and addictive.

What would it be like to lose something so wonderful and so destructive??

Kowal’s story is near-future science fiction, where the internet is ubiquitous, and devices are directly integrated into the body and brain. The protagonist collects antiquities, and deals in authenticity—the sale of legitimate artifacts and their stories. That last bit might be a little on the nose, but it’s worked well into the plot and setting, and it doesn’t feel as overbearing as it might have with a less skilled author. It does raise a good point, though. Digital facsimiles are all around us, and there may come a time, soon, when replicas are more readily available than the real thing.

I’m digressing from the story again. Spoilers follow, so if you want to read Forest of Memory—and you do—come back here when you’ve finished the 88-page story.

Kowal’s protagonist is riding along on a highway through the forests  Oregon when a group of deer cross her path. She stops and begins recording them, knowing she can sell this moment, this experience, on the web. The moment is interrupted when one of the group, a buck, is shot. An illegal act. The hunter appears and begins working   on the body of the buck, so the protagonist tries to run. She, too, is shot. Tranquilized, it turns out. Like the buck.

She wakes, kidnapped by the hunter, who is doing  something  to the bucks and deer. When she tries to use her tech to connect to the web, to call for help, she discovers that she can’t. She’s offline. She is terrified.

What follows is her strange captivity, watching the man work, wondering what he’s doing to the animals before releasing them, coming to some sort of terms with the discomfort of being disconnected. The hunter assures her that, once his work is done, he will release her and she’ll be able to connect to the net.

She tries to sleuth out what he’s doing, and the reader is lead to understand that he’s installing some sort of signal-blocking technology into the animals, so that the web doesn’t work around them. Through their conversations, he informs her that a wealthy party is interested in having him complete the work, and is additionally interested in purchasing an antique from her—a typewriter—and a story written on the selfsame typewriter about her experience. After her days of captivity, she is released, and soon is able to reconnect to the net.

The experience shakes her, but leaves her (largely) unharmed. For me, reading it, I was left thinking about technology addiction, unadulterated appreciation of nature, and just how good Mary Robnette Kowal is at this whole “writing” thing.

I can’t wait to learn more from her. (I took a short story class with her earlier this year, and am attending the week-long writing excuses cruise this July.)

Forest of Memory is available on Amazon.

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

John Scalzi is a somewhat enormous figure in genre fiction, having published some 20+ novels, eight non-fiction books, and a generous handful of short fiction and essays. Not only that, but his role as “influencer” is further cemented by the popularity of his “Whatever” blog and his more-than 110,000 followers on Twitter. But we’re not here to talk about Scalzi’s reach as an author, prodigious though it may be. We’re here to talk about the audiobook of Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi I listened to, courtesy of Audible.

The eighteen stories in Miniatures are, as the title suggests, very short. In the introduction, Scalzi says that the longest piece in the collection is only 2,300 words long. The audiobook for the collection is teeny-tiny, clocking in at just under three hours. The stories are funny, and all hover around the central of subverting “conventional” science fiction tropes or dropping a surprise reveal at the end of the story. I enjoyed Miniatures tremendously. The different narrators for each story (and sometimes multiple narrators in a single story) were all excellent, bringing precisely the right kind of humor each moment demanded. Some were deadpan, others matter-of-fact, others over-the-top dramatic. More than once, I found myself having to stifle giggles at my desk, lest I inform the whole world that I’m multitasking.

Some of the stories were more compelling for me than others, as is often the case with collections, but rather than talk about one story that really did. “The Other Large Thing” was a delightful story that introduces a curious protagonist, master of his domain, who watches as a new entity is introduced into his world. This new thing learns to communicate with Sanchez, the protagonist, and acquiesces to all of Sanchez’s demands. Sanchez plots to use this thing to take over the world.

Spoiler: Sanchez is a cat. But you don’t know that until later in the story—though on a second listen, it’s rather obvious. Something about the way that story unfolded had me grinning the entire time I listened to it. Bolstered by the gravelly delivery of the narrator, the Sanchez character is at once absurd and very serious. The way he makes demands, punishes and rewards his “others” and the “other large thing” is delightful. Long story short (no pun intended), it’s a great story that left me curious about how to pull of a similar feat.

For those of us who enjoy audiobooks but are not particularly keen on forty-hour epic fantasies, Miniatures is perfect. Short and sweet, with a host of narrators and wildly different settings (though, like I said, there’s a thematic thread throughout), it’s something I recommend to anyone and everyone. And hey, if it’s not your cup of tea, at least it’s only a few hours long.

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi is available on Audible and Amazon.

Missing Link – Frank Herbert

When I read Frank Herbert’s Dune as a teenager, it was a revelatory experience. Dune is widely considered to be a crowning achievement in science fiction, and I’ve heard it called “The Lord of the Rings of SF.” I’m aware that it’s polarizing as a book, and that the series as a whole isn’t as well-loved as I’d initially thought, but none of that changes my relationship with those books.

I remember days in high school where I’d float from class to class, not listening to a word any of my teachers were saying, because I was so immersed in the political dealings of the Atreides and Harkonnen, in the zealous fury of the Fremen, and of the extraordinary universe they occupied. Dune hit me like blast to the chest, and changed the way I read.

And even if I hadn’t read anything else by Frank Herbert until somewhat recently (Destination: Voida few years back, which I thought was strange and wonderful), I considered him one of my writing idols. So you can imagine my delight at discovering a short he’d published in 1959 in the Astounding Science Fiction anthology edited by John W. Campbell.

Missing Link is a great example of Frank Herbert’s work. It’s certainly a product of its time, and not without its representational issues, but at its core is intrigue, political maneuvering, and a clever protagonist with an uncanny ability to read between blurry lines in moments. The story revolves around two conversations, though one’s a bit more action-packed than the other.

In the first conversation our protagonist, Lewis Orne, is talking with the superior officer on his ship regarding the risky mission on which he is about to embark. The conversation smacks of Herbert’s other works; tempers brandished like rapiers, a subtle back-and-forth that’s more fencing than discussion. In this case, we have military personnel frustrated with the bureaucracy, and a scientist caught between. The conversation serves to set the why of the short story. A ship has gone missing near the planet they currently orbit. It’s Lewis’s job to investigate, potentially by encountering the—and here’s the representational issue at the heart of the work—the barbaric/savage denizens of the planet.

The second conversation is another great—and very different—example of classic Herbert. Lewis is on the planet, talking with the leader of the hunting party that found him and attacked his vehicle. During the conversation there’s much to distract us, from the fantastic scenery to the seemingly incongruous amount of technological development on the part of the natives—again, that representation thing. But what happens during that conversation behind the scenes, inside of Lewis’s mind, is Herbertian perfection.

Lewis deduces the location of the missing spaceship and its fate by paying close attention to his captor/passenger’s choice of words. He quickly connects linguistics to anthropological phenomena he witnesses, then subtly shifts the conversation in order to corroborate his hypothesis. It’s that kind of intellect, and that approach to sleuthing out the facts, that attracted me to the Dune universe. And though it’s short, Missing Link was an excellent soupçon of the writing I fell in love with as a teenager.

It also provided some important perspective on how the zeitgeist in speculative fiction has changed. After reading Missing Link, I read a few other pieces, including Mary Robinette Kowal’s Forest of Memory, which I’ll review later this week or next week. The two pieces are radically different, and demonstrate how technological advances have changed the way we view the future, how social changes have changed the way we view the world around us, and how exploration needn’t happen at the expense of the explored. There was a beautiful counterpoint in those reading experiences, which together served as yet another reminder that I’m a fortunate person to be able to spend so much of my time reading and thinking about books.

Missing Link is available for free from Gutenberg, or can be purchased on Amazon.

Binti: Home – Nnedi Okorafor

There seems to be no better day than today, International Women’s Day, to talk about an extraordinary piece of science fiction written by the brilliant Nnedi Okorafor, about belonging and identity from the perspective of a powerful young woman.

You might recall that Binti was one of my two favorite works of science fiction of last year. It was evocative. Beautiful. Frightening. Most importantly, it was different. It managed to pack an incredible and vibrant world, a complex and compelling protagonist, and a spectacular plot into a fairly short piece of fiction. It told a story that could have easily fallen into the category of sci-fi tropes, but it avoided them by applying a unique voice and perspective through Binti, it’s main character.

Binti: Home finds Binti after about a year at Oomza University. A year after she heroically (and accidentally, if I recall correctly) brokered peace between two warring planets. A year after she left home in the dead of night, against the wishes of her family and community, to study what is essentially mathemagics off-world. Binti’s experiences have changed her enormously—represented by a physical transformation: her dreaded hair has become like the tentacles of the jellyfish-like Meduse.

The physical change is a vital piece of the story, not an on-the-nose metaphor for the internal changes in Binti. Much is made of physical appearances in Binti’s world, from the red clay she adorns herself with to the tribal intolerance she suffers at the hands of the upper class on Earth (and at Oomza U), and to the seemingly strange behaviors of the “desert people” that Binti’s tribe finds less-than-worthy of a seat at the table.

As Binti is a story of perseverance and growth in the face of different types of adversity, Binti: Home is a story about shedding preconceived notions and inbuilt intolerances; about how experience inexorably changes us, and changes how the world sees us. The events of Binti were, for the most part, things that happened to Binti. In Binti: Home, she is confronted by the reality that despite her lack of agency or choice in most of the things that happened to her, she is blamed. She is mistrusted. She is made a pariah.

The things that happen to us leave a mark. Sometimes, it’s subtle. Sometimes, it’s as dramatic as having tentacles for hair. Binti: Home explores the intersection between changing personal identity and changed external perception. It’s a fascinating, emotionally resonant exploration of an eminently relatable condition, couched within beautiful prose and a once-again spectacular plot.

Nnedi Okorafor has once again left me deep in thought. While Binti: Home wasn’t as explosive a read for me as its predecessor, it was nevertheless a spectacular book. Nnedi Okorafor’s storytelling is masterful, and she has made a lifelong fan of me with Binti and Binti: Home. I eagerly await the next installment of Binti’s story.

Binti: Home is available on Amazon.

Simone – André Brun

André Brun must be some kind of masochist. The author of Lies and Deception (to be published by Inkshares some time next year), knowing the difficulty of crowdfunding a book, has gone back for more on multiple occasions.

For the currently-running horror contest, he’s entered a book of connected short stories, Arcadia, the first of which he sent me for review.

Simone is very short, and in a pretty rough state, but what it lacks in polish doesn’t detract from the content of the tale.

Secret cults, monsters, and true fear creep into the periphery, seeding curiosity in the reader about what’s to come in the stories that follow.

Though it might frustrate some readers, there’s a moment in Simone that I found greatly appealing. The character—presumably Simone—states that, while she was traveling, she came upon a pillar in a jungle cave.

There’s something delightful about not knowing the details there. The omission builds character. Simone, in the telling of her tale, doesn’t think that her being alone in the jungle at seventeen is important to the story; it’s just a detail that informs the listener of time and place.

Thing is, there has to be a story about why she was in the jungle at such a young age, alone, seeking shelter in a cave. It could be a story all on its own. But she glosses over it.
That simple absence of detail reminds me of stories from the golden age of science fiction, stories that opted for dense statements that can span millennia as opposed to the modern world of genre fiction, which is detail-oriented and strives to break presses worth strength of word count alone.

Though Arcadia will no doubt need polish, the substance is there. I look forward to reading it someday, whether it’s a winner in the contest or otherwise.

Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia McKillip

mckillipdreamsofdistantshores

Tachyon Publications has a knack for putting out excellent collections of short stories—in fact, it seems to be their specialty. This week’s “flavor” is Patricia Mckillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores, an excellent anthology that spans modern fiction, slipstream, and urban fantasy.

Dreams of Distant Shores contains five short stories and two novellas, and while you should certainly read the whole collection, I’d like to focus on the novellas in this review.

The first, The Gorgon in the Cupboard, is emblematic of Mckillip’s strengths at imbuing characters with tremendous reality and honesty. The cast is made up of artists and their many models and muses, principal among them a painter pining for another painter’s wife, and a peasant who has undergone the deepest of personal tragedies—the loss of a child.

Oh, and there’s a talking painting of Medusa, too.

The flow of The Gorgon in the Cupboard is fantastic. It maintains many threads effortlessly, while transmitting real emotion through believable characters using surreal moments and wavering sanity. The Gorgon in question, the Medusa on the protagonist’s painting, is nothing more than a par of eyes and a mouth, imbued with life—whether as a figment of his imagination or by some magical intervention—and a keen and biting wit that she uses to motivate him to look in different places for the muse he seeks.

The way McKillip uses painting, color, and the struggle to express the moving, sometimes ephemeral nature of the subject, is phenomenal. It puts you right there with the artists as they paint and cavort around town and the countryside. The introduction of Jo, the muse, is done in heartbreaking contrast—a rainy night finds her huddled with vagrants under the awning of a butcher’s shop, where she reminisces about the death of her infant child and aged mother. All she has to remember them by is her scarf. Once, she had been a model for the protagonist, but the manner of her initial departure was such that she wouldn’t dare return to his studio.

Things twist and turn, the Gorgon whispering encouragements and distractions into the painter’s unwilling ear, and the plot resolves nicely. All told, it’s a fabulous story.

But the story that shines brightest in the anthology is, without a doubt, Something Rich and Strange. Here, McKillip enters a Haruki Murakami-esque state, building a world and a “normal” life for her characters, then blurring the edges of reality slowly, until you’re plunged alongside the characters into the surreal and mythological. It’s a magnificent story, truly wonderful, and even if the rest of the stories were mediocre—they aren’t, the whole anthology is great—this story would be well worth picking up the whole book for.

Something Rich and Strange takes its name and much of its symbolism from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, dealing with sea-gods, temptation, betrayal, love, trust, and bravery. It’s a whirlwind story that buffeted me like a hurricane. The transition into surreality was so smoothly done that I looked at the world around me, confused and unsure of whether I, too, was falling into some kind of fey. Something Rich and Strange is brilliant. That’s the long and the short of it.

Dreams of Distant Shores is available on Amazon and Tachyon.com.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

binti-nnedi-okoraforNnedi Okorafor’s Binti just won best novella at the 2016 Hugo Awards, after having won the Nebula Award in the same category. I had no idea what the book was about, but based on the cover art alone, I knew I wanted to read it. It’s part of Tor’s new effort to publish shorter fiction through their Tor.com imprint, and they’d been advertising heavily on sites I frequent, so I’d seen the cover of Binti a few hundred times before I finally picked it up. It was a bit serendipitous, actually. I walked into a bookstore I’d never seen before near my house while my parents—who were visiting—explored shops nearby.

I love going to local bookstores and scoping out their genre fiction sections. More often than not, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are poorly represented, but Diesel books in Oakland had a lovely section in the back with a great selection. I pursued the section slowly and the cover I’d seen so many times caught my eye. I felt like I had to have it. I’m very, very glad I bought it.

Binti is one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read. It’s beautifully written, complex, and vibrant. It’s imaginative, human, and challenging. I hesitate to be so hyperbolic, but I think it’s a masterpiece. It certainly deserved its wins at the Hugos and Nebulas.

I enjoyed everything about Binti, from the living cephalopod spaceships to the rich cultural traditions, to the interfacing of the technological and the spiritual. So often science fiction falls into familiar trappings of external technologies, pale humans, cold hulls, and a deliberate disconnection from basic biological self. Okorafor integrates everything together with grace, while illustrating a fantastically large-scale universe from bits and pieces sprinkled throughout Binti.

But more than beautiful words and a beautiful message, Binti is a great story. The plot takes a hard right turn halfway through, which took me by complete surprise, yet ties up elegantly, leaving the eponymous protagonist, Binti, stronger and wiser. I felt stronger and wiser too, when I finished it.

Binti is absolutely brilliant. It’s about 90 pages long, and you should take the hour or two to read it. I imagine it’ll be used in short fiction master classes for years to come.

Binti is available at Tor.com and Amazon.

 

Falling in Love with Hominids – Nalo Hopkinson

tumblr_inline_o1d3hgmGfs1s0669x_1280I’ve been fortunate, over the last year or so, to have had my horizons expanded as a reader. For a while, my bread and butter were long-form fantasy epics, or space operas dealing with political games and good-versus-evil as a central theme. Don’t get me wrong; I love those books still, and they can get plenty “deep” to satisfy any curious soul. But the more I read short fiction and speculative fiction like Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids (published by Tachyon), the more convinced I feel of the power of science fiction and fantasy to tell deeply human stories with the capacity to elicit change.

The term “visionary fiction,” introduced by the editors of Octavia’s Brood, has stuck with me, and it’s appropriate that I followed up that collection with the spectacular fiction of Nalo Hopkinson. It shares many of the visionary qualities of the stories in Octavia’s Brood, and Hopkinson’s writing is outstanding.

The title of Falling in Love with Hominids is a nod to Cordwainer Smith, a sci-fi author from the Golden Age of Bradbury whose works were an inspiration to Hopkinson and many other authors. The title is also personal to Hopkinson, which she outlines in her introduction to the collection. As a child, she was not the biggest fan of humanity—a sentiment many of us share when we’re confronted by the tremendous darkness and evil our species is capable of—but as she grew older, she began to appreciate (and even love) humans for our boundless creativity and capacity for good.

As such, the stories in Hominids occupy varied spaces on the spectrum of human goodness and darkness. There’s the pain and alienation of the transition into adolescence, the odd biology of beginning relationships as told by orchids, the magic of belief, the desire to fly away from bullies. They’re beautifully written, and as different from each other as can be—which makes sense, since all but one of the stories was published over the last decade-or-so. It’s a testament to Hopkinson’s raw skill with words; a few of the stories, in particular one dealing with “The Elephant in the Room” (you’ll get the joke when you read it, which you absolutely should), were sparked by a challenge, the desire to take a reader by surprise, or to not allow them the time to recover from an oddity too outrageous to believe.

Falling in Love With Hominids is yet another extraordinary collection of short stories that is well worth your time and rapt attention. The writing is beautiful, the message important, and its delivery is page-turning. Not only that, but as with all short fiction collections, it’s perfect for those of you who are only able to read a bit here and there. Do yourself a favor and pick up Falling in Love with Hominids. You won’t regret it.

Falling in Love is Hominids is available from Tachyon and Amazon. (Using the Amazon link helps support the Warbler!)

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

heart-bigAfter seeing her at a reading at Borderlands in San Francisco, I became a fan of Seanan McGuire. Before that reading, I’d only seen her work in Altered Perceptions, wherein she wrote a very moving personal piece about living with OCD. I knew she was rather prolific (from her essay more than anything else), and knew that I wanted to read something by her, the gods of my ever-growing to-read list willing.

The opportunity came to request her upcoming novella, Every Heart a Doorway from NetGalley, and I was delighted. Two birds with one stone, as they say.

Every Heart a Doorway is a tale of belonging, of a community of misfits and ill-fits, and of self-discovery. While it is, superficially, a simple tale, it is built on a wonderful, rich concept that is so large in scope that it encompasses worlds. It’s appeal lay in its telling-which was beautifully executed-and in its characters, a varied group of wonderfully zany, morbid, logical, calm children.
Set in a boarding school for children who’ve journeyed “beyond the looking-glass,” Every Heart a Doorway follows Nancy, a girl who found her way through a door in the cellar into the halls of the dead. Upon her return, like all children who go through portals to other worlds, she was somewhat incompatible with her old life.

One of the things I liked best about Every Heart a Doorway is the way McGuire built a system around the various magical worlds. While the story never delved deeply into this “magic system,” its presence served as a compass that positioned the characters in a framework, made their wild variations make perfect sense, and piqued my curiosity more than a little. The “handwavium” of many fairytale worlds is effectively nullified by an intellectual and academic approach.

The school is filled with characters who traveled to fascinating worlds, all of whom want to return, thinking them their true homes. For whatever reason-different for each child-they were returned to reality. Some were expelled, others returned as a test, administered to ensure their commitment to their particular world or their desire to stay in reality.

When students (and eventually a teacher) start turning up dead-brutally murdered-a panic sets in over the school. Nancy and her (few) friends set about uncovering the mystery. The challenge makes makes marvelous use of the skills or abilities some of the children gained in their worlds, leading to fantastical moments-like a boy animating the skeleton of one of the victims using a flute carved of bone-that make the story shine.

Every Heart a Doorway was a beautiful read, and some of the underlying messages could do with wider spreading-inclusion, openness, self-confidence-especially in this troubled sociopolitical climate.

I hope that Every Heart a Doorway is a taste of a larger world McGuire is building-I picture a world-hopping heroine embarking on many adventures in this multi-verse-but if it is not, Every Heart a Doorway was a delightful and satisfying enough morsel on its own. It is yet another fantastic novella that you should not miss.

Pre-order Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway on Amazon.com. (Using that link helps support The Warbler!)

Firstborn & Defending Elysium – Brandon Sanderson

elysiumAny opportunity we have to see the progress of those we idolize, to humanize our creative deities, is a good thing. I’ve made no secret of my passion/obsession with Brandon Sanderson’s work both on and off the page. His contribution to genre fiction will surely go down in history as the most significant of our time. He’s our Tolkien, or our Bradbury. There are other authors who have made spectacular contributions to genre fiction, and I do not mean to minimize their impact, but I think Brandon Sanderson has made the biggest waves among them.

And yet, he constantly makes his fans feel special. Like each and every individual matters. Like those fans of his who are aspiring writers (like me) have every chance to become great too. A great example of this kind of encouragement comes in the form of Firstborn & Defending Elysium, two novelettes bound into a single tête-bêche volume, written by Brandon Sanderson before he was the superstar he is today.

The reason these matter is because he shares their origin, and the vulnerability of the creative process, and the occasional need we writers face of realigning ourselves to our chosen outlets.

I wasn’t enamored with Firstborn, the first of the two short stories I read. It was his first published short, and it’s a somewhat-lackluster tale of jealousy and betrayal. What it does for me is further humanize Mr. Sanderson. It gives the superhero his origin story. In Firstborn are the kernels of Sanderson’s creativity and sense of scale, his love of classic elemental stories told in far-out settings. Even if I didn’t love it, I’m glad for the opportunity to read it and, through that experience, gain a better understanding of the trajectory of his writing career.

Sanderson’s introduction to Defending Elysium describes a time when he was feeling particularly vulnerable and at odds with the craft. He’d been writing for years, finished a dozen novels, and hadn’t sold a thing. He was lost in the quagmire of writing, but feeling like he wasn’t writing stuff he’d want to read.

What he needed, he decided, was to write for writing’s sake. So while on vacation with a few writer friends in Monterey, he wrote Defending Elysium.

It is an excellent story. The ideas it puts forth are massive in scale, existing in the periphery of the story and giving the universe the feeling of enormity beyond he on-screen events. I always appreciate when a short story does this; it makes it much easier for me to jump into the events of the short story.

The writing is solid, but not the most interesting part of the Elysium reading experience. Brandon was in A difficult and very sensitive headspace while he wrote Elysium, whose protagonist, a blind man who is an agent for the Phone Company (which controls the secrets of FTL communication and is the only group that can freely talk with aliens), sees with the aid of technology.

The world he “sees” is vibrant, with colors as vibrations—which, incidentally, I saw in an interesting in TED talk a while ago—giving him a unique view of the world around him.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I get the impression that Elysium is a story into which Sanderson injected himself, consciously or otherwise. His character is misunderstood, not entirely honest with his peers, and blind. He is good at what he does, but is somewhat disillusioned with it.

Later in the story, he loses his sight for a time, and quickly descends into madness and terror. The visceral description of his horror at his renewed blindness, his fear of every sound around him that he’s unable to parse into an image of the world, is riveting. It swept me up, and my heart raced alongside the character’s. I felt his fear in a way I haven’t connected with a character in a very long time. Sanderson, in the depths of existential creative crisis, wrote a blind character who is nonetheless capable, who then rediscovers the horror of sightlessness, only to gain it back and become more powerful than before. Maybe it isn’t a representation of his issues with writing. Like I said, I could very well be projecting.

Firstborn and Defending Elysium are both short reads—I read both in a few hours—and are well worth getting if you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s work. If you’re not, you can skip it.