Friday 30 September 2016

Alison Littlewood on The Hidden People

Alison Littlewood (whose satirical short story “Always Look on the Bright Side” was published in TFF #12 back in 2008, and reprinted in TFF-X last year) has a new novel out, a dark fairy tale titled The Hidden People and published by Quercus. Alison joins us to tell us a bit about the inspiration for the book, but first, the blurb…

Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth

But was she really a fairy changeling, stolen away by the Hidden People under the Hill, as her husband insists?

Albie Mirralls met his cousin Lizzie only once, at the Great Exhibition in 1851, when she enchanted him singing a hymn under the grand glass and iron arches of the Crystal Palace. Unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to the Yorkshire village where his cousin lived. Halfoak may look picture-perfect in the blowsy, sun-drenched days of high summer, but it’s steeped in superstition and older, darker beliefs.

Albie is a modern man, a rational man of science, but as he begins to dig into Lizzie’s death, he discovers far more than he could ever have imagined, for in this place where the old holds sway and the Hidden People supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just half a step away.

It seems a long time since I first had the inspiration for The Hidden People. It began with reading about the case of Bridget Cleary, who was burned to death in 1895 by her husband. He believed her to be stolen away by the fairies and replaced by a changeling, and claimed he was merely trying to drive it out and reclaim his true wife.

I’ve adored fairy tales since I was a child. As a writer, I’ve long been fascinated by the little folk, particularly in their darker aspects. Bridget Cleary’s case was too real for me to write about directly—she was an actual person after all, and what happened to her was horrific and tragic. I used the concept as a starting point however, and it encompassed several of my interests. It takes place when the old tales have intersected with and intruded upon reality. Stories are changing people’s lives. And changeling lore is fascinating—what if the people around us were not who we believed them to be? Not being able to take anything at face value, having to delve beneath, can be at once intriguing and disturbing. And it raised issues of the nature of belief itself—why do we believe, and what is the relationship between those beliefs and reality? And all this at a time when the coming of the railways and new technologies, the march of progress across the land, was meant to have driven out such superstition.

My subject raised more questions than I had originally anticipated. I was halfway through the book before I realised it was going to turn out a rather different creature than the one I’d expected. But perhaps that’s what happens when you mess with the folk! Now, I might go and scatter a little milk for them on the hillside, to keep them happy…

The Hidden People can be pre-ordered from Quercus Books, or picked up from October 6th at your favorite bookseller.

Saturday 10 September 2016

Interview with William Squirrell

William Squirrell, editor of Big Echo: Critical SF, interviewed by Michael Díaz Feito

Big Echo: Critical SF is a new online zine of thoughtful and considered ‘scientific’ science fiction. The first issue went live August 3, 2016 at It features stories by Vajra Chandrasekera, Gord Sellar, Z. Finch (whose ‘Sonnets from the “New Heart’s Ease”’ appeared in TFF #35), Peter Milne Greiner, and Michael Díaz Feito (whose ‘Holy Many-Minds Home’ was in TFF #36).

Michael asked William Squirrell a few questions about the new zine.

Michael Díaz Feito: Why did you want to start Big Echo?

William Squirrell: The short answer is: why not? A friend and I just thought it would be fun to do something collaborative and creative, so we did. We certainly aren’t trying to carve out a niche in a crowded market or anything like that; on the contrary, I am much more interested in the performativity of SF than the SF short story as a commodity. I like to pretend the sensibility at Big Echo is punk rock: provide a stage on which people can try things out, try things on, experiment, push boundaries. When you are working with ideas and language, particularly when you are trying to do so at the very edge of your ability, it’s nice to have an enthusiastic audience, to have an echo chamber so to speak, and I suppose that’s what we aspire to, to provide a sympathetic space in which writers can take risks.

MDF: What does “critical” SF mean to you, and why is it an important distinction?

WS: That word signals pretty specific affinities. I am very curious about SF that is thoughtful, concentrated, that pushes beyond fannish “wouldn’t-it-be-cool” enthusiasms. While it is precisely those enthusiasms that are responsible for the vibrancy and energy which make SF such an attractive form, the euphoric rush to imagine the future frequently populates that place with an awful lot of unspoken and unthought assumptions about the way the world is and the way it ought to be. This observation is itself on the threshold of cliché, but it continues to hold true. It is most obviously the case in terms of how gender and race have been represented in the genre, but I’m thinking about other conventions as well; the ideas people have about politics, class, and wealth; about humanity; nature and culture; technology; history and progress; about thinking; and writing itself—how characters, narratives, language, etc., all fit together.

Critical SF would be SF in which such assumptions are questioned, deconstructed, reconstructed, satirized, reversed, or otherwise messed about with, not in an effort to educate or preach, but simply as a matter of course, as part of the fun. I’m not against glorious innocence and stonking good stories, but Star Wars and Stranger Things are hardly the horizon beyond which thought should refuse to pass and at which all pleasure must cease. We’re after SF which always wants to look over the next hill.

MDF: Are there any specific models for the kind of work Big Echo wants to publish?

WS: I don’t want to lay out one of those “who-begat-who” intellectual genealogies, or formulate a manifesto (at least not yet), but William Burroughs and Gertrude Stein are great examples of not the style we’re after, but the attitude: aesthetic and conceptual adventurousness. When I’m reading, I’m less worried about how slick or professional or plugged-in the writing is than that it confronts me, that it is committed to the mystery of it all. It sounds so sentimental and starry-eyed, but what the heck — Big Echo is the Steve Earle of online SF zines. We’re looking for fearless hearts.

MDF: How did the first issue come together?

WS: Hustle. I spent a lot of time digging through various venues’ archives looking for stories that struck a chord, then I’d cold call the writer and make a pitch. I don’t know how many people thought it was a scam or I was some creepy fanboy stalker (I’m not, really, and if anyone I spammed is reading this, the invitation to participate still stands). Gord Sellar and Vajra Chandrasekera were probably the biggest names I approached, and they were both so generous and enthusiastic about the project that it gave me a lot of confidence, but on the whole I tried pretty hard to identify fresh, clear voices. To be honest I still can’t believe how easily and well it came together. I wasn’t deliberately looking for people who suffer from the poet’s obsessiveness about the perfect word, but I struck gold with you lot. Every story is so carefully crafted, so distinct, singular even. I was laughing with delight as I read them. I wanted to stop strangers in coffee shops and make them read it all with me: “Look! Holy shit, look at this! Look what someone wrote!” I still feel like that.

MDF: What are your plans for future issues? Will Big Echo consider poetry or comics, have themed issues, print anthologies, etc.?

WS: It’s a sign of my utter lack of imagination that I hadn’t really thought of such things, but yes. Yes. Poetry, comics, translations, critical essays, plays; send them in, we love it all.

I have a couple of ideas for themed issues, but I have to talk to my partner about those before I start publicizing them. And we want to get another couple of issues under our belt first.

As for print anthologies, the idea appeals if for no other reason than “things,” things are nice to have and hold, especially things one has participated in the production of, and in theory I suppose it might be a means of generating a little revenue for all those starving writers. We’ll see how it all goes.

MDF: Any advice for writers submitting to Big Echo?

WS: Write. Submit. Repeat.

Thank you for joining us, William.

Big Echo: Critical SF remains open for submissions to issue #2, which is due out in early November 2016, see

Monday 5 September 2016

Nisi Shawl's Everfair

Tomorrow sees the US release of Nisi Shawl’s long-awaited African steampunk novel Everfair, a book that asks the question: what if the people of the Congo had access to steam power and technology in the nineteenth century, before they were colonized by Belgium? We invited Nisi to come say a few words about her book here.

I told Djibril I would write a paragraph about my novel Everfair. I’d rather offer you something different to read, though: thoughts on this novel’s growth medium. Everfair, I’d better first tell you, is a steampunk novel that’s primarily set in an imaginary Utopia in late 19th and early 20th century central Africa.

So where’d it come from? Yes, I’m the one who wrote my novel’s text. I had help, though. People gave me money, and ideas, and medicine, and food. Books. Flowers. Tea. Places to stay. They combed my hair, treated me with acupuncture, trimmed my toenails. That nurturing environment is what I’m calling Everfair’s growth medium. It holds my novel’s roots.

In my WisCon 35 Guest of Honor speech I proposed the idea that genius is not the manifestation of a single being but of a whole community. I said the same thing on Everfair’s acknowledgments page. I don’t know if what I’m manifesting is genius, but I’m very sure it’s an expression of my community and our concerns, from the pleasures of steeping ourselves in the sensory delights of technology to the ambiguities of fully nuanced interactions between a supposedly united mind’s conflicting yet simultaneously held beliefs.

My community is where Everfair is rooted, where it derives from.

And, in a truly fair turnabout, my community is also the atmosphere into which my novel unfurls itself and the light towards which it reaches.

When you read it, Everfair is fulfilled.

One early reviewer claims my novel is an “important entry in the movement for greater diversity in sf.” It only enters the movement through your eyes, though. It’s only important when it’s important to you.

Thank you for reading my book.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said of Everfair, “A compelling debut novel … Shawl deftly wields a diverse cast of characters to impressive effect, taking readers from the Victorian era to WWI and its aftermath. This highly original story blends steampunk and political intrigue in a compelling new view of a dark piece of human history.”

Nisi Shawl has posted on her website various teasers and extras, including photos of objects that inspired the story, an essay on sexuality and morals in 19th century Congo, the outline of a play performed in the novel, and other materials. There is also an extract of Everfair at the Macmillan website, where you can buy or preorder the novel.

Saturday 3 September 2016

Curtis C. Chen: I gotta wear shades

Guest post by Curtis C. Chen

I like a good dystopia as much as the next science fiction fan: 1984, The Hunger Games, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Windswept by Adam Rakunas, and pretty much anything by Philip K. Dick, to name just a few. A dystopian setting offers plenty of built-in conflict, the protagonist is always an underdog who’s easy to root for, and the dark future usually extrapolates some recognizable element of contemporary society.

As a writer, though, I prefer to play in more optimistic worlds. Sure, things can and have gotten pretty bad throughout human history, but if I’m going to spend months or years imagining a setting and the characters in it, I’d rather have fun with them.

My novel Waypoint Kangaroo takes place in a largely post-racial, multicultural society that is enhanced by technology in positive ways. Most of the story takes place aboard an interplanetary cruise ship traveling from Earth to Mars—in this future, millions of humans are living on other planets, and space tourists are commonplace.

Perhaps the most pessimistic part of this future is how long I think it’ll take us to colonize the Solar System. I don’t specify a precise date in the book, but in my mind, it’s about two hundred years from now. Not so long that our culture and language have mutated beyond recognition, but long enough—I hope—for us to have overcome a lot of the social issues we’re wrestling with today. I wanted my story’s conflicts to be less about the color of anyone’s skin and more about the content of their character.

It will come as a surprise to no one that I’m a big Star Trek fan, and the Kangaroo-verse is most like Deep Space Nine in terms of outlook: the main character works for a Section 31-like spy agency, and there are still great political divides within humanity that cause interesting problems. When Waypoint Kangaroo opens, it’s been only a few years since Mars fought a war to win its independence from Earth (which I imagined as something like the American Revolution—i.e. a policy dispute that escalated out of control for various complicated political reasons).

Now that the war with Mars is over, Earth tourists want to go see the red planet again. And that, in a nutshell, is my version of utopia: a place where everyone can share their own heritage in a non-confrontational, amicable way. Where we acknowledge history but celebrate diversity without prejudice. Also, you can buy a t-shirt.

I don’t know what the future will actually look like. But we all get to choose whether we live in hope, or in fear. And I choose hope. I will always choose hope.

Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo (Thomas Dunne, 2016) is a science fiction spy thriller about a superpowered secret agent facing his toughest mission yet: vacation.

Meet Curtis in person this September 10th in San Francisco! He’ll be at Borderlands Books with Patrick Swenson in the afternoon, then joining Anuradha Roy and other Writers With Drinks at The Make-Out Room in the evening. Details for both events at:

Follow Curtis online: