About Anaea Lay

Consultant, Project Manager, Realtor - those are the boring things. Books, writing, politics, food, travel, books, people, science, parrots, and books...that's me.

The Gift of the Marginally Competent Magi

Last week my grandparents were visiting in what was their first trip to Seattle and my first bout of hosting family since the move.  It was exciting! It was an adventure! It was…

Exhausting, actually.  Juggling hosting/touristing while also being over employed and having hobbies is a challenge.  So it was with somewhat obsessive, single-minded conviction that, on the Sunday of their visit, I dragged them to a bubble tea stand at a food court of the mall we were in to get me a fix of sugar water and tapioca.  You know I was desperate because I just said I got bubble tea from a place where “Food Court” and “Mall” were accurate location descriptors.  I have a long track record of ordering bubble tea in such places only to sigh and go, “I’d probably have been happier overall if I hadn’t.”  Several times I’ve tossed the drink rather than finish it.  This from me, the raging bubble tea addict.

You can also deduce that I was deep into the mode I encountered somewhat regular back in my coffee-serving days of needing the thing you’re ordering to be functional enough to order it.  Not for myself; I have a default I can order when I’m beyond the point where I can figure out what I want.  No, my problem was figuring out what to order for my room-mate, Dr. Unicorn.

Uni and I have a somewhat competitive relationship.  It started with mix CDs, where we’d battle by trying to make mixes that would emotionally gut punch the other one the hardest.  It has moved on to things like bed making wars, where we stealthily make the other one’s bed.  And also a minor bubble tea war, where we’ll fetch tea for the other one.  This latter one is my fault; Uni was innocently bringing me tea when it was convenient to as he came home from dates. I took it as a challenge and have been trying to keep the score even by similarly fetching tea.

I won the mix-tape war because I don’t have feelings and so you can’t emotionally gut-punch me.  I lost the bed making war before it started because, unlike Uni, I never make my own bed.  The bubble tea war is the tie breaker and while Uni’s wretched at keeping score, I’m not.  I know: I’m losing this war.

So there was no way, even if I was in a Food Court, in a Mall, that I was going to pass up this opportunity to score a point. I was ordering Uni a tea, no arguments. What tea, though?  This is where my need for a sugar-water fix reared its ugly head.  I started with the obvious best choice, Uni’s favorite.  But on reflection, that was a terrible idea since it’s a frozen slushie thing, and it would definitely not still be a frozen slushie thing by the time I got home.  Maybe this other thing, then! No, that won’t work, because Uni’s not a fan of milk in tea and this place only does it with milk. Finally, I settled on what should have been my first choice: Peach tea with tapioca and no ice.

I do not tell Uni I’ve done this, because I think it’ll be a nice surprise.  “I’ve got a present in the fridge for you,” I can say and then wham, I score a point in the war. Victory! Championship! The battle is mine even if the war is hopelessly lost.  I contemplate this impending scene with much joy and expectation as the day wears on and the time for Uni to return home approaches.

The appointed hour arrives.  I interrupt a conversation with my grandparents to check a text from my phone saying, “This is almost certainly Uni giving me an ETA.”

I read the text. Then I look up to my grandparents, who are giving me that, “Kids these days and their texting,” look.  Then I read the message again.  “Uhm,” I announce to the room.  “We’ve got some messed up O. Henry shit going on in this house.”

The text from Uni: I stopped at [place] on my way home. Want me to bring you a tea? I’ve just had the peach tea and it was pretty good.

My answer, after careful consideration and once I stopped cackling? “Lavender milk tea, please.”

My Pronouns/Titles Etc.

I recently ran across a reminder that it’s helpful even when straight/cis people identify their preferences because it normalizes the practice which then makes it easier for people who have a harder time with expressing their own preferences.  Then it occurred to me that while I’m not quiet about my preferences, if you don’t know me in person there’s not really any way to know what my preferences are.  So, here they are.

My preferred pronouns are she/her.  Also acceptable: She/Her, they, They.

Miss is my preferred title. I’m not married or permanently committed, have no intention of becoming so, and I like that English lets me signal that.  Ms is acceptable.  Mrs. is slightly vexing when directed at me.

That’s for English.  I vastly prefer Señora to Señorita, possibly because I was Señorita for the first time when I was 13 and knew nothing more than how to say “blue” and count to ten.  I am significantly older/more mature than that person, and her title doesn’t feel right.  That said, I’m not married, so Señorita is technically correct and I’m not going to be upset if that’s what gets used. (Also, I have a policy of not getting upset with the native speakers of languages I’m not a native speaker of over how they use their language at me)

Ma’am and Miss are interchangeable to me.

I will be Queen of the world, not King.  I will be God of the universe, not Goddess.  I am sometimes a civilized creature, but never a lady. Or a gentleman.  When I grow up and become Anander Miaanai, I will be Lord of the Radch.  I’m the Emperor, or the Imperatrix.

I am never, ever a girl.  Or a boy. I was a child, but have thankfully escaped that state.

I am female. Also, scary, spiteful, tired, organized, smug, stubborn, reasonable, and pedantic. The second list is significantly more important.

I am a woman, but only if we must make that salient and, really, I’d rather identify as God-Emperor of the Universe and change the conversation to something interesting, like books.

I’m also straight and polyamorous.  I don’t have boyfriends. Or a husband. I’m un-fond of “significant others.”  I have acquaintances, buddies, pals, friends, good friends, very good friends, best friends, family, and my sister.  You should feel free to refer to any of these people as “Anaea’s [fill in term from previous list]” should you need to define a person based on my relationship with them.  That list is not as hierarchical as it looks and categories are not exclusive.  I will tell you whether I’m sleeping with somebody if you ask. It’s also none of your business unless you’re a person I’m sleeping with.

Also, don’t assume that just because I’m straight that anyone I’m sleeping with identifies as male.  My relationship with an individual does not constrain that individual’s presentation to the rest of the world.

I think that covers everything. Let me know if I missed something and I’ll clarify.

CC: Selkie Stories are for Losers

This month’s fodder for the Crucible is Sofia Samatar’s Selkie Stories are for LosersThis was originally published in Strange Horizons and was, incidentally, the very first story I podcast for them.  I recorded five versions of this story and I’m pretty certain I read it more than Sofia did in writing/revising it.  Consequently, I was very happy when lots of people liked this story, because even after a month of staring at it constantly while I put recording technique etc., through its beta phase, I wasn’t bored.

For this story I want to talk about something I’ve touched on in other essays here but which is massively important here: the negative space.  I’ve seen commentary decrying this story as not speculative because there’s no conclusive proof the mom was a selkie, she might have just walked out and the selkie thing is a coping-myth.  That is a valid reading of the story, that’s actually a less interesting story.  What isn’t talked about explicitly, what lies between the lines but exists all the same, that’s the meat of this story.

I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.

First line of the story and we have everything.  We know the backstory – Mom was a selkie and has left; we have the character – sarcastic and angry; and we have a decent sense of setting and place – sounds like a modern Western teenager to me.  We have that without the narrator saying she was the one who found the coat, or that it was her mom who left.  We just know that because why else would that particularly descriptive point be her understanding of selkie stories?  This opening is deliciously assertive, in part because it refuses to make an explicit statement about what happened.  The problem is selkie stories, not her life.  It’s not even selkies, just the repeated plot arc of “they were happy and then they left.”

I work at a restaurant called Le Pacha. I got the job after my mom left, to help with the bills. On my first night at work I got yelled at twice by the head server, burnt my fingers on a hot dish, spilled lentil-parsley soup all over my apron, and left my keys in the kitchen.

Samatar could have written, “After mom revealed herself as a selkie and abandoned us, I had to get a job. My first night there sucked.” It would convey the same info and share the same tone and be a completely different character in a completely different story.  There is no explicit commentary about how that night went.  She just related a series of events and you know exactly, in your bones, how bad that first night was.  By the time she’s left her keys behind it’s no wonder – she had to be so frazzled it’s surprising she didn’t leave everything there.  But this is a story about what we don’t talk about, what we don’t say, and it wouldn’t work the same way if we didn’t have a narrator who won’t talk about things.  We the audience are getting the information we need, but she doesn’t have to tell us.

I turned, and Mona was standing there, smoke rising white from between her fingers.

She doesn’t describe Mona herself at all.  She doesn’t say anything about what she thinks of Mona then or now.  She’s just there, with a cigarette, and you know it’s all saving angel/white knight/this is love.

Do we get told they become fast friends? Nope.  Instead we get some information about Mona, we get all kinds of explicit information about Mona’s situation and Mona’s family because those are safe topics.  The closest to a description of thier current relationship we get is this.

After work Mona says, “Got the keys?”

Mona’s still taking care of her, they’re friendly, and the moment with the keys is one that’s shared and salient between them.  For Mona that might just mean our narrator is always the frazzled girl who stumbled into something she wasn’t ready for, but that means that Mona is still chronically in the rescuer/saviour mode.  That impression we got at her introduction is still relevant to the narrator because that moment is a crux of their relationship.

I tell her they’re not my selkie stories, not ever, and I’ll never tell one, which is true

This line here is important because at this point in the story, it’s true.  She’s not telling a selkie story.  Even if we get more details about that day, a more explicit acknowledgement that the theoretical girl going to the attic is our narrator, and proof that she didn’t see her mom become a seal.  And in case we didn’t know that the surface level meaning of the narrator’s words weren’t the whole picture, she immediately tells us a selkie story.  Not hers, somebody else’s.

when his wife washed the clothes, she found it.

Even when she’s telling us a selkie story, though, she doesn’t quite tell it.  She stops before the ending.  She finds the key and then…section break.  We know she unlocks the chest and leaves, but we don’t get told that.  This is a bit of a primer on how to read the story.  All the facts are here, but the narrator isn’t going to give them to us or organize them for us.  We’ve got to do that ourselves.

people who drop things, who tell all, who leave keys around, who let go

This is a really critical final line to the story.  Because we’ve had our narrator asserting who she is and what she is and isn’t doing, and we’ve got a pretty clear idea on where the truth lies in that, and then this.  “People who leave keys around,” we know is her.  “People who tell all.”  That’s….she clams she wont’ tell the story, but she did, didn’t she?  It’s pretty clear that she is the person described in this line.  Which is heartbreaking!  Because, yes, it means she’s people “who let go.”  But it also means that she’s “on the wrong side of magic” and that selkie stories are for her.  It’s her acknowledging what happened and finding the very edges of how to cope with it.  This is a coming of age story told in the subtext, and it’s gorgeous.

Next month: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013).  Sometime between now and then I’ll announce the next batch of stories we’re going to do.  Drop me line if you have something you’d like.

The Long List Anthology

UPDATE: Kickstarter has been postponed pending getting the long list and contacting authors to be solicited.  You can read David’s update here.

You know what the cool kids do when people try to ruin their party?  They party anyway.  David Steffen is a cool kid.

David’s the guy you might know from Diabolical Plots, The Submissions Grinder, or one of his stories floating around.  His latest act of neat is the Long List Anthology.  It’s an anthology that will collect the stories that received a lot of nominations for the Hugo ballot but didn’t manage to appear on it.  Given nonsense with this year, and the fact that the last few years have seen small short fiction ballots because the nominations were too scattered for a full set of stories to get the minimum 5% nomination, this is an idea that is the paragon of sheer elegance in its “Yes now, please,”ity.

There is, of course, a Kickstarter.  It went live this morning. So early this morning it was about half an hour after I went to bed.  I was going to tout how I’d donated a critique as a backer reward and you should rush over there to get it.  I was going to privately be nervous about whether anybody would think that a critique from me was worth $150.  I had a whole neurotic afternoon scheduled for tomorrow on that subject alone.

It, uhm.  It was gone before I woke up.  It was gone in three hours.  I hope whoever that was is in Europe because otherwise I am so sad for their sleep.  Also, now I have some extra time for tomorrow afternoon!

Go give David money so he can do this cool thing.  The thing’s barely eight hours old and it’s already a significant way to meeting its base funding, so I don’t think this is a risky proposition for you.

Also, if it does something impressive like, say, hitting its upper stretch goal by the end of the week, maybe I’ll offer David another critique to throw in.  Because, frankly, I’m feeling really sorry for the late birds right now.

The Grace of Kings and a Feline Terrorist

Back at the beginning of the month, a very cool book came out for your reading pleasure.  It’s this one.

Technically, I haven’t read it.  I read an early draft wherein my most notable contribution was to cuss at Ken Liu about pigeons.  This is, I’m not at all ashamed to say, probably the greatest of my literary achievements to date.  Someday I’ll be sitting in a job interview and when they ask me why they should give me the job I’ll say, “I once cussed at Ken Liu about pigeons.”  There will be a long moment of awed silence, and then they’ll ask me to write my own job description and employment contract.  This is a true thing that cannot be denied.

What else is a true thing that cannot be denied is that this book is really cool.  There’s not anything new in it, but some of the things he does are so old-school you might not have seen them before, and he mashes them together in a way that’s definitely new to you, and if you’re even a little bit bored of the same-old, same-old, this’ll be a breath of fresh air.  And even if you aren’t, it’s fun, which is enough reason to read anything right there on its own.  I can tell you all of this with authority, even though I haven’t read this version, because it was true of an earlier version.  Also, to make sure the fun and neat and general spiffy that was in the book didn’t vanish during subsequent revisions, I did science.

It is a well known fact of modern science that cats are the source of all things good, and also all knowledge, and also the center of the universe.  I just so happen to have had a cat nearby with whom I could perform a test on the copy of The Grace of Kings Ken sent me and which arrived over the weekend.  (Important takeaway: I have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings.  Do you have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings? No? Aren’t you just a sad panda.)  This cat’s name is Zoey.  She’s ancient, cranky, loud, smelly, clingy, demanding, and made of fur she sheds liberally absolutely everywhere.  She moonlights as a tiny dinosaur and hires herself out as a domestic terrorist.  In summary: yeah. She’s a cat.

Because I am a wise and sensitive human, I decided to interrupt her very important settee-nap (as opposed to her futon nap, her foot-of-the-bed nap, her head-of-the-bed nap or her Rolling-on-rug-to-embed-fur play session) in order to conduct my terribly important experiment.  Would Zoey certify that all good things remained in this book? Or, more importantly, would she consent to be photographed with the book so I could shamelessly manipulate people into associating it with internet-crazed-feline-obsession?

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Early trials were inconclusive.

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Zoey, it seems, expected that if I was going to disrupt her, I would be petting her, or playing with her, not trying to get her to pose with a book.  She’s a cat, not a marketing prop, her agitated pacing and squeaks seemed to indicate.  Or possibly they were saying, “Oooh, the boring human came out of her office to acknowledge me. I must vex and frustrate her to make sure this will happen again.”  The day I claim to understand the inner workings of a cat’s mind is that day I’ve started my cult.

Eventually, things began to settle.

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This is clearly a case of “This object is not offensive enough to drive me from the sunny settee. Now scritch me, human!”  See how her paw consents to brush the corner of the book.  That’s a mild endorsement of its contents if ever I saw one.

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And that?  That is treating the book as if it were part of her current environment, i.e. the sunny, comfy settee where she plans to lounge for the next hour because it is the most perfect place in all the universe.  Hear that, Ken?  Your book is part of the most perfect place in all the universe: my couch.

That, good people, is how to scientifically obtain an endorsement from your local feline.

So when you see this book in the store you need think only one thing: The Grace of Kings – Anaea tested, cat approved.

My Dulcet Tones and The Litigatrix

The Short: I read Ken Liu’s The Litigatrix for PodCastle, and it’s up for you to listen to today.

The Long:

I mentioned last week how I’ve gone through a bit of a transition in how I perceive the value of my podcasting work to other people as time has passed.  I’m not going to lie – one of the big things that assured me I wasn’t just chatting to the ether was when other people started asking me for audio work.  There are roughly eleventy bajillion people who want to do voice work, so if I’m getting solicited, somebody likes what I’m doing.

And when I’m getting solicited to read for an author I really like?

Also, murder mystery?

Also, PodCastle.

It was super awesome the first time they asked me to narrate a Ken Liu story.  It was so awesome I went and got my first ever sinus infection and lost my voice, consequently blowing their deadline in a major, major way.  I hate blowing deadlines, but I was physically incapable of doing anything else.  Alas, I said to myself, they’ll never want anything to do with me again, feckless, voiceless wretch that I am.

Once in a while, on very rare occasions, when the fate of the world is a little bit in jeopardy, I am wrong.

As a cynical pessimist, I usually quite enjoy being wrong.

In summary – THIS WAS SUPER AWESOME I’M SO THRILLED YOU SHOULD GO LISTEN AND THEN TELL KEN HOW AWESOME HE IS.

Also, of squee note, the story was originally purchased by Ann Leckie and published in GigaNotoSaurus.  I woke up this morning to a notification that a tweet I was mentioned in was favorited by Ann Leckie.  My level of fangirling here is not at all creepy.

CC: The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

This month’s story through the Crucible is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s The Ink Readers of Doi Saket.  This is a fun story with a lot going on in it, but I want to home in on a thing it does that you just don’t see a lot of in modern genre literature: Omniscient POV.  That’s the 3rd person narrator who knows everything about everything and traditionally isn’t a character in the story.  If that’s not innovative enough for Heuvelt, it’s an unreliable omniscient narrator.  Neat!

First, let’s take a look at how he goes about establishing the POV so that readers who aren’t trained to expect omniscient nevertheless follow along without getting lost.

It was during a night in the twelfth lunar month of this year when two strong hands pushed young Tangmoo down into the bed of the Mae Ping River, and by doing so, ironically, fulfilled his only wish. Tangmoo flailed his arms wildly, churning up the swirling water. The whites of his eyes reflected flashes from the fireworks as his smothered cries rose in bubbles to the surface, where they burst in silence: help, help, help, help!

This first paragraph goes a long way toward establishing the narrative voice and hinting what’s going on to the reader.  The distance inherent in opening with the date helps and also starts signaling that this is a fable-type story.  The use of “ironically” is also a big clue, because it’s commentary implying that narrator is in a position not just to report the events, but to comment on their relevance in the big-picture context.  At this point it could be a close 3rd on Tangmoo, but unless he’s suicidal, it’s going to be really hard for him to know that, ironically, his wish is getting fulfilled.  The case against a close 3rd on Tangmoo gets even stronger when we have a description of the whites of his eyes – there’s no way Tangmoo would know what the whites of his own eyes lock like while he’s being drowned in the middle of the night.  So the narrator is somebody who can observe the up close details of the scene, knows the inner thoughts of at least one of the actors and how the scenario plays in large context.  The reader doesn’t need to be consciously aware of those details about the narrator, but this is the information that makes the transition to the next paragraph smooth and easy to follow.

These filtered cries of alarm were mistaken by a pair of dragonflies fused in flight, their only wish to remain larvaless and so prolong their love dance endlessly, for the dripping of morning dew.

Here anybody paying attention and trying to determine the POV at play in the story has no choice but to accept an omniscient 3rd unless they want to generate a very specific character and explanation for this story.  Most readers won’t do that automatically, they just fall into accepting what’s going on in front of them.  So there, in less than two paragraphs, you have an atypical POV presented to the reader, the tone of the story established, the inciting incident described, and the major theme of the story introduced and reinforced.  Beginnings, man.  They’re such over-achievers.

What I like in particular about these opening paragraphs, though, is the amount of work they put into establishing the narrator as credible.  You get facts, and useful details.  You get insights.  And you get a little piece of commentary that betrays the narrator’s knowledge and understanding of the situation.  The commentary is important, because having commented once in a fashion that doesn’t at all beg the reader to question the implication (because it’s there to prove something else, not to be evaluated on its own) you’ve now believed one subjective thing from the narrator.  That primes you to believe another.

Which you get.

(There were rumors that the stone was not in fact bewitched at all, but that lustful Somchai suffered from some type of obsessive exhibitionism. Nonsense, of course.)

This is great . The explicit text is lying to you; this story is set in modern day and we find out what’s up with lusty Somchai later.  Those rumors are absolutely and unquestionably true, and every reader knows it.  Nobody would expect the readers to believe anything else.  So even though the text is an explicit lie, the narrator isn’t lying.  That’s a sarcastic “nonsense,” meant to cause a little bit of bonding between the narrator and the reader.  What it’s saying is, “I know the rumors are true.  You know the rumors are true.  But there are plenty of people who are invested in refusing to believe the rumors, and we’re too polite to shatter their beliefs on the subject.”  It’s a secret the reader and the narrator share.

But this, the same as with the dragonflies, was purely coincidental, and nothing should be read into it.

And here comes a piece of commentary that potentially is a lie.  A reader could go either way on whether they think this is meant to be believed.  Obviously it isn’t, but does the narrator know that?  Hard to say.  I’d argue that no, not really, because this motif of the benefits just being a coincidence gets repeated several times, then subverted at the end.

And maybe this was all coincidence, like so much in life.

The wording of this subversion is intensely interesting.  The “maybe” here is the word I’m latching onto because it clearly indicates that the narrator doesn’t believe it was all a coincidence.  They’re open to the possibility, but that’s not their understanding.  The wishes granted after Tangmoo dies are, as presented by the narrator, actually attributable to him.  Yet, in the same breath, the narrator specifies “Like so much in life.”  That right there is a reinforcement of the assertion that the fortuitous circumstances that followed Tangmoo in the days before he was murdered were coincidental.

The difference between whether the narrator means for the reader to assume none of the circumstances were coincidental may seem little, but it’s actually vital to understanding the scope of the story told here.  If the blessings in living Tangmoo’s wake weren’t coicidences, then this is the story of a gifted young man murdered and thereby freed to exercise his gifts more widely.  If they were coincidences, then this is the story of a good, sincere, kind boy murdered and transformed into a force of cosmic beneficence.  The second interpretation is a much bigger story, and the nature of the violence inherent in his murder changes, too.

I’m thinking the narrator was unreliable and none of the things were coincidences.  But I like the other story better.

Next month: May 15 –Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)