Memory Management in Humans 1.0

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2020

Even though I often bitch and moan about my memory problems, I don’t feel they’re a sign of early dementia. Humans just have poor memory management compared to computers. If Homo sapiens sapiens ever have a spinoff species I wonder if it will have better memory management? Science fiction writers often imagine Homo superior with superhero superpowers but I tend to believe whatever traits that sets our descendents apart from us will be rather mundane. I hope improved memory is one, but it will probably be the adaption to hotter weather and resistance to toxic pollutants.

Today I felt the need for the specific kind of memory if I was Jim Harris 2.0. I belong to a small group of people who discuss science fiction stories by email. This week we’re discussing “Utopian” by Mack Reynolds, which came out in 1970 about the problems people would face in the year 2000. I read two or three short stories by Mack Reynolds this summer and I wanted to reference them in my comments about “Utopian.”

However, I couldn’t recall anything about those stories – at first. Slowly, as I strained my constipated mind, I shat out a few rabbit turds of recollections, that eventually allowed a few larger memories to flow out. The results looked unrecognizable to what I had consumed. It’s a shame. We have rich experiences and all we retain are little piles of memory shit.

What would it be like if everything I read stored perfectly in my mind and I could recall it whole later? Yeah, I would be a computer then, wouldn’t I? But I’m not, so what’s the best work around?

I’m currently reading a novel, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig that’s about a young woman, Nora Seed, who commits suicide at 35. On the road to oblivion she is offered the opportunity to live a different versions of her life, ones based on paths she had not taken when younger. On one path she became an Olympic swimmer, but Nora realized once she was in that successful life just how much she had to give up to become an elite athlete. It required such a single-minded focus that she had to drop everything else she loved.

If I wanted a mind capable of remembering and writing about the work of Mack Reynolds in the kind of depth that I’m fantasizing about, I’d have to have ignored a whole array of other writers and stories I’ve been enjoying. The reason why I’m not great at anything is because I’m half-ass at everything else. I’m not finished with The Midnight Library, but one of the lessons I’m wondering Nora learns is the virtue of being a dilettante at many things.

I’ve tried diaries, journals, blogs, spreadsheets, databases, text editors, note taking software, 3×5 cards, clipping files, mind mapping tools, and so on trying to organize my thoughts and memories. Nothing works. I’m always surfing on a foamy wave of chaotic fragments of memories that I wished were whole. My mind craves the autistic trait of compulsive organizing but I can’t put everything in visually appealing stacks.

Each day I get up thinking of a new project to pursue. Whatever memories I can dredge together and hold in my mind for the course of the day become my entire set of tinker toys to build that project. Once I go to sleep at night, everything gets reset. I feel like Leonard Shelby in the 2000 film Memento waking up and starting over. I can carry a project over to another day, but I must rethink everything about it the next day. Often that takes me in a completely different direction. This explains why on a number of occasions when researching on Google I found articles I had written on the very topic I was thinking about writing that day, but had forgotten I had written. That really produces an eerie feeling.

What I keep searching for is a external tool or a mental discipline that would allow me to build a larger project by not having to restart everything the next morning. I marvel at people who can create large complex creative works over weeks and months. How do they keep everything in their head day after day? I have to assume their minds have laser focus ignoring endless distractions. I’m always seduced by distractions. I love distractions. I can’t resist squirrels and shiny objects.

Even knowing that distractions are keeping from doing what I really want, I can’t ignore their siren calls. There seems to be two kinds of people in this world. Those that get things done, and those that don’t. And it doesn’t appear that memory recall is the key difference between the two types. I’m guessing it’s more about limiting the amount of items the head juggles that’s more important. That managing a smaller set of data is the key to focusing. Which makes me wonder if Walter Isaacson had to forget all about Steve Jobs to write about Leonardo di Vinci?

If I could only think about one project until it’s finished. Maybe that’s the key to managing memory. I sit here thinking about all the interests my mind would have to ignore in one day, and that makes me feel like Wile E. Coyote trying to walk on air high above the canyon below.

JWH

BASS 2020: “Halloween” by Marian Crotty

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Evidently teenage lesbians can go just as girl crazy as other girls go boy crazy. In “Halloween” by Marian Crotty, seventeen-year-old high school senior Julie can’t control her impulses for college girl Erika and gets strategic dating advice from her thrice-married grandmother. “Halloween” is a nice little love story that moves from beginning to end in a linear progression. It does offer a small subplot about Julie’s jealousy for her mother’s growing transfer of affection for her boyfriend as Julie gets old enough to move out, and it digresses a delicious bit about the colorful grandmother, Jan. Maybe a little too much because Jan almost upstages Julie in this story.

Although “Halloween” is told with a decent concentration of embellishing details such as working at Yotopia, everybody else’s love life, bits of academic demands, and a few faint details about Tallahassee, Florida, the story is pretty much about Julie’s obsession with Erika. Sure, love stories dominate fiction, and its mildly interesting to learn about the sex lives of the latest generation, but it’s also a kind of ho-hum mundane love story. Because part of the story was set at Yotopia I couldn’t help compare it to John Updike’s classic teens at work story, “A&P.”

“Halloween” is an engaging story but won’t be memorable. Why is “A&P” still being taught in schools over a half century after it was first published and “Halloween” won’t? Why has “A&P” stuck with me ever since it was assigned to my English class back in the 1960s? How do you describe ineffable qualities?

There are milestones in the life of short stories. Getting written is a kind of conception. Getting published is a kind of birth. Getting selected for a best-of-the-year annual is a kind of graduation. Getting reprinted in retrospective anthologies is a kind of career. Becoming a classic is a form of longevity, even immortality. With every story I read that I like I have to ask if it has what it takes to keep living. And if I don’t think it will, I have to ask what would it take to survive.

“Halloween” needs something. Either more Julie, or more Erika, or more of both. If you compare Julie with Joy in “Godmother Tea” you’ll know what I mean. I wanted a lot more details about Julie’s inner world, and a lot more details about what she sees in Erika. For “Halloween” to survive we readers would have to feel what Julie feels when she can’t stop herself from going to the Halloween party. The story as is made me intellectually understand, but for it to reach the next level I’d have to feel it.

Jake Weber’s review. He found some comic elements that I didn’t. I recently wrote an essay about science fiction stories that could be read straight or as humor depending on your current perspective or mood.

Other Reviews:

Karen Carlson framed her insights around the three generations of women with relationship problems.

Jake Weber was fascinated by the questionable dating advice Jan gives Julie.

JWH

BASS 2020: “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2020

I’ve read “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson several times now trying decipher her message in a bottle, which is how I picture short stories. To me, we’re all isolated on our own deserted islands of consciousness. No matter how physically close we get, we’re all still very far apart mentally in comprehending one another. Fiction, that is the best of fiction, is a coded message from one conscious mind given to another.

I don’t mean to imply that literary writers have a philosophy to push, but I believe the best of them strive to describe something quite specific they’ve observe about reality with the best words and phrases they can find. However, no decoding of those words can ever lead to perfect telepathic communion.

There are a number of factors to consider when decoding a short story. The first thing to ask: “Whose story is it?” This can be simple to answer, or complex, or even multiplexed. In “Godmother Tea” Joy is a young black woman dealing with her unhappiness and loneliness. She has being abandoned by her lifelong best friend, the man she wanted to marry, and she is tormented by personal critiques from her mother, relatives, ancestors, friends, strangers, possessions, and even an imaginary godmother. Is Joy having an identity crisis? Is she worried that she is too white or not black enough? Is Joy a chronically dissatisfied human, or just having trouble growing up?

There is another level to consider when asking whose story is it. Is Joy merely a made-up character, or does she embodied any personal insights and characteristics of the author, Selena Anderson? All my favorite literary fiction has elements of the autobiographical. Roman à clef writing has gone out of fashion, but that doesn’t mean Anderson hasn’t used her own life as grist for the mill of her fiction.

One small clue I have that this story might be based on memory, is at the party, “some fool was playing Spice Girls on the violin.” The Spice Girls were popular in the mid-1990s. But that’s the kind of observation you save for a story, although that means Anderson has been working on this tale for a very long time. I did find this quote by Anderson:

My dissertation is a collection of stories about people who want to win and who make a bad situation worse by trying to do something about it. The stories are set in Texas—but in my imagined Texas of the recent past. There are ghosts, tiny men, a slave ship, dolls, dudes who talk in third person, forest fires, and plenty of girls brooding in their apartments.

Joy is definitely a girl brooding in her apartment making a bad situation worse by trying to do something about it. However, I also found an interview with Anderson talking about the writing of “Godmother Tea” and it doesn’t offer much hope that it’s about her (although in a couple places she mentions that some observations were based on the real world.)

The reason I love literary fiction, and even how I personally define it, is by it’s biographical/autobiographical feel. Literary writing is dominated by characterization that goes way beyond what genre characterization attempts. In short stories especially, literary writing feels like you are getting inside someone’s head. That’s why I say literary fiction feels biographical in third person or autobiographical in first person. It doesn’t have to be real biography/autobiography, just feel like it.

“Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson has the prestige of having the pole position for the BASS 2020 anthology. That means the editors really admired this story, and the one they expected to hook book buyers. It begins:

Just like my mama. She rolled up with a gift: a life-sized mirror edged by baroque curling leaves, with slender gold feet that somehow supported both its shimmering weight and mine. My mother has a knack for messy presents. Day passes to the gym, Merry Maids coupons, flat irons with built-in conditioner. This, however, was especially rude. A mirror would only reflect me, plus all my sulky auras, plus the cultivated environment that had drawn me this way.
 

Right away we know the narrator doesn’t want to see herself or how she lives. We don’t know immediately that the narrator is a woman, but it’s what I’m guessing. Moms don’t usually by their sons mirrors, and sons don’t usually worry about being judged or consider themselves sulky.

I did not know the author was black until after I read the story and began researching this blog. I didn’t know the character was black until later in the story, although I had my guesses. We don’t even learn her name right away, and then we discover this unhappy young woman is named Joy.

The main virtue of reading literary short stories is seeing inside people unlike ourselves. As an old white guy I expect most of these BASS 2020 stories will be about people much different from myself. Although Joy is African American her story isn’t about race. If anything, I feel it’s more about gender because Joy’s thoughts, observations, worries, and feelings aren’t anything like mine, or the guys I know, but are quite common with my women friends. But Joy’s problems are also about being young, something that’s becoming ever more alien to me.

A challenge to writers is to find a way to relate to the universal but present the specific. As readers we want novelty but we also need to resonate with the protagonist. Anderson lets us know the many ways in which Joy doesn’t like herself, and even why her friends are turning against her.

Joy is quite perceptive, quite smart. Is her suffering due to being too intellectual? Is her hyper-awareness of her situation the real cause of her anguish?

Joy’s mom obviously gives her gifts to help her improve her self esteem. Poor Joy has worn out her best friend who is leaving her, and rejected a boyfriend who was trying to help her. Joy knows all of this, and some of it comes out in an imaginary Godmother Joy creates to lecture herself. I wonder if Anderson wrote this story as a form of her own self realization.

Of course, we can’t know the answer to that. But I consider it a quality of good literary writing to wonder about such motives. On the other hand, would-be writers are taught to put their main character through the wringer, and maybe Anderson thought it would be fun to create Joy so we could watch her suffer.

Strangely, Anderson gives some of the best lines not to Joy, but to characters around her. Her best friend Nicole is moving on but still tries to help Joy by taking her to a party.

“You on the computer too much,” said Nicole. Someone passed her a plate of intricately painted chocolates that she rationed with me only. We were supposed to take one and pass them down. 

“Only because I’m heartbroken,” I said, “and failing. I’m not sure if we can take it anymore.” I was speaking vaguely about everything, so when Nicole said she knew what I meant, firecrackers went off in my face and hands. 

“I was just thinking about that the other day,” said Nicole. “I was wondering if I had the heart to do this work again. Like, could my heart break one more time? Then I came across the website of a woman who fostered medically fragile babies. Apparently when a newborn is terminal, the parents can give up their rights if they know they won’t be able to handle the medical bills. These newborns have nobody, so this woman would bring them home. Every now and then one would get better and be adopted, but most of them died in her living room. After about the tenth dead baby, her little son asked when they were getting another one. The mom told him it was too hard on her, she just couldn’t take it. And her son replied, ‘So we aren’t going to help any more babies because you can’t take it?’ ” 

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said. I looked Nicole up and down. “That story reminded you of me?” 

“It reminded me of a lot of things,” she said. She turned a cocoa-dusted truffle between her fingers as though contemplating my future. “When you think of quitting on yourself,” she said, “just remember the mom and the babies.” But I was stuck on the little son who couldn’t get enough of baby-death, who had also put their sad life in perspective. Without him the mother never would have noticed. 

Nicole leaves both Joy physically and emotionally at the party and Joy overhears:

“It may be over between us,” the blond person said, “but I just have to say, right now, you are nullifying my entire life.” 

I turned away. I didn’t like to hear somebody’s life get nullified. People have the right to withhold their attention. I’ve done it. And when André did it to me, I’d believed I was special. My heartache was delicious. It turned me into an outcast. I would cling to him until he said something devastating, like Take it easy.

Joy then leaves the party to confront André, the man she rejected but still wants, first on the phone, and then at his house. Joy hears Porsche, the new girlfriend, say in the background: “All shut eyes ain’t sleep” and “You don’t apologize to a roach once you spray it” which Joy comments to us “It takes skill to get to that level, years if you study really hard.”

In the end, Joy achieves some insights that let us feel she’s going to be better, but I’m not sure I buy them. Jake Weber takes a deep look at Joy’s identity problem at his blog Workshop Heretic. He thought the story was more about black identity than I did, and there are hints in the story to suggest that. But I thought the story was more about being judged, with Joy being her own harshest critic. Joy sees herself as a failed artist, whose apartment reflects other people’s tastes, who can’t dress in style or put on makeup properly, who seeks identity by cooking world cuisine that others consider slop, whose best friend has grown bored of her even when she’s making exciting observations, and her lover has moved on with a women that has more insight about people and relationships.

“Godmother Tea” is stuffed with witty lines, but my favorite was “It was April and I liked to be alone.” Joy is a person who lives in her head trying to figure out who she should be by all the external judgments made about her. I believe Selena Anderson’s story captures this wonderfully. Because she has painted Joy’s inner world so vividly that I wonder if she used herself as a model.

Other Bloggers Reviewing BASS 2020 This Year:

Other Stories by Selena Anderson:

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

JWH

The Best American Short Stories 2020

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 6, 2020

Once again I’m turning my reading of The Best American Short Stories (BASS) into a blogging project. See my review for the 2019 volume. The series editor is Heidi Pitlor, who has held that post since 2007, and this year’s 2020 guest editor is Curtis Sittenfeld. Each year, the series editor reads hundreds of stories and passes on what they consider to be the top 120 stories to the guest editor, who in turn picks their favorite twenty stories to publish as The Best American Short Stories for the year. It’s a kind of literary playoff where the winners of the Final 20 are chosen by us readers.

I’ve always wanted to write fiction, especially short stories, but I’ve never felt I was any good at it. Reading these stories teaches me about the best of literary prose. For each of the past three years I’ve read hundreds of short stories and I’m slowly learning what goes into good storytelling. I doubt I’ll ever write a story worthy of being published but I keep trying. To succeed at 69 or 70 would be very satisfying as an extremely late blooming boomer.

My intended project is to read The Best American Short Stories 2020 and study how each story works. This means twenty blog posts, something that should take me months to complete. I’m aware of two other bloggers also analyzing each BASS story (Karen Carlson, Jacob Weber). If other readers of this blog are also reviewing this BASS edition, please let me know in the comments.

To understand each story at an artistic level will require multiple readings. I’ve already learned it takes two or three readings to do justice to a good story, and it will take even more readings to reveal everything the author intended. Most readers rush through their fiction. That’s how I’ve read most of my life. It’s only since I started listening to audiobooks in 2002 that I’ve learned that slower is better. I’ve read the first story in this volume, “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson three times now, and I’m only beginning to comprehend why it’s the lead story.

My plan is to read each story via the printed book first. This will give me the general idea of the story, the flyover view. Then, I’ll listen to the audio version of the anthology. That will give me the voice and drama of the story. Professional narrators are highly skilled at interpreting that. And, finally, I’ll read the story again on the Kindle where I can highlight, take notes, and copy quotations. This is where I’ll deconstruct the writing and look for examples of what I want to learn.

I highly recommend buying BASS 2020, but if you don’t want to make such a commitment, some of the stories are available to read online. Try reading one of them. Then read it again. Did a lot more of the story pop out that you didn’t notice when you read it the first time? Try reading it yet again. Were you surprised by even more being revealed? These stories have amazing depth to them.

  1. Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson (my review)
  2. “The Apartment” by T. C. Boyle (my review)
  3. “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown (my review)
  4. “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers (my review)
  5. The Nanny” by Emma Cline (my review)
  6. “Halloween” by Marian Crotty (my review)
  7. Something Street” by Carolyn Ferrell (my review)
  8. This is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill (my review)
  9. In the Event” by Meng Jin
  10. The Children” by Andrea Lee
  11. Rubberdust” by Sarah Thankam Mathews
  12. It’s Not You” by Elizabeth McCracken
  13. “Liberté” by Scott Nadelson
  14. Howl Palace” by Leigh Newman
  15. “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” by Jane Pek
  16. “The Hands of Dirty Children” by Alejandro Puyana
  17. “Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser
  18. Enlightenment” by William Pei Shih
  19. Kennedy” by Kevin Wilson
  20. “The Special World” by Tiphanie Yanique

Normally, I read science fiction, but literary fiction usually reflects the cutting edge on the art of writing. Literary fiction also focuses on getting inside the heads of characters, and since we’re in the middle of a diversity boom, that means we’re seeing a wider range of perspectives, writing styles, and experimentation.

Few people read short stories today. It’s a dying art form that has a thriving subculture, albeit small. Before television Shanghaied popular entertainment in the 1950s, newsstands were filled with hundreds of magazine titles devoted to endless variety of short stories subjects, and most general interest and special focus magazines carried a handful of stories.

I consider short stories to be messages in a bottle from one soul to another. They are intricate little communiques where the writer sculps a small vision they want to share with the world. Great stories are multifaceted with layers and textures that required effort, concentration, and contemplation to reveal.

For some reason at my fading end of life I’ve found reading short stories to be far more interesting than any other art form. That’s partly due to the limits of what my aging mind can handle. Short and precise is good. But I also cherish what each writer expresses. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so each story is a handful of mental portraits and landscapes painted in words.

There is far more to short stories than finding out what happens in the plot. And once they are carefully decoded you have to ask why did the writer write this, and also ask yourself, what does it mean to me.

It’s all deliciously multiplex.

Other Bloggers Reviewing BASS 2020 This Year:

JWH

Writing Lessons from Envy

by James Wallace Harris

Basically, my blog is where I write what I think. I polish my essays to be more readable, but I’m too lazy to be more ambitious. Blogging is piano practice for writing but seldom produces professional-level writing. Blogging improves writing skills, exercises the brain to think clearer, but is too casual to produce art. Lately, whenever I read an exceptional essay I feel both envy and regret. Envy for craft, and regret for laziness. It’s time to up my ante.

I recently wrote about rereading Brave New World fifty years after first reading it in high school. Then I read “BRAVE NEW WORLD Revisited Once Again” by the science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch in On SF. I was amazed by how much better Disch had done with the exact topic. He opens with:

Just fifty years ago, at the dawn of the new era that dates from the death of Henry Ford, a young, half-blind, upper-class Englishman published a novel destined to become—along with Orwell’s 1984—one of the two most enduring prophetic visions of the future ever to clatter from the typewriter of man. The novel was Brave New World, its author Aldous Huxley, and the vision was of the Jazz Age gone to heaven. Anything goes in A.F. (After Ford) 632, but what goes particularly well are those two pillars of the affluent society, sex and drugs. What has been eliminated from that society as being subversive and destabilizing is: family life, passionate love, social nobility, and any art but the “feelies, ” fashion design, and dance music. Here’s a sample of the song lyrics and the lifestyle of A.F. 632:

Orgy—porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one with girls at peace;
Orgy—porgy gives release.

I realized this was a complete lesson in writing. Here’s my opening paragraph:

I first read Brave New World in high school back in the sixties. Rereading it again in 2020 reveals that it was entirely over my teenage head. I doubt I got even 5-10% of Aldous Huxley’s satire. Although I expect high school and college students of today have both the education and pop-culture savvy to understand it better than I did, it’s really a novel to read after acquiring a lifetime of experience. When I first read Brave New World I was already mass consuming science fiction so it was competing with shiny gosh-wow sense-of-wonder science fiction. I remember liking Brave New World in places, especially the free sex and Soma, but I thought the story somewhat boring and clunky.

My paragraph was more about me than Brave New World. I feel Disch and I are both trying to get people to reread Brave New World but his lead-in is a better salesman. His paragraph is dense with details about the book, while mine has too many details about myself. Should I even be the subject? My intent was to convince people the book deserves a second reading by my experience, but I could have done that without talking about myself.

Do visitors to this blog want to know about me or the topic of my discussion? Blogging is intended to be personal, and I have a number of followers for this blog, but the essays with the most hits are from people searching Google on a specific subject. Those readers aren’t interested in me. I could have written my first paragraph without any mention of myself and still provided the same data.

I consider this blog, Auxiliary Memory, to be my personal blog and Classics of Science Fiction to be a reference site. Maybe I should use a different style of writing for each.

Information is the key. When people read, people either want specific information or entertaining information. And web readers want quick information. I’m a wordy bastard. This essay is already longer than what the 99% want to read. But I haven’t covered my topic. I could describe a dozen insights I’ve learned from Disch’s essay and make this post 3,000 words long. Or I could put each insight into a different post.

If information is the key, then information density is the essence of great writing. I’m still impressed by how much Disch conveys about Brave New World in his first paragraph. I believe his summary says even more in fewer words.

My final quarrel with the book is one of emphasis from my first reading. I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for the world Huxley invented. I know I’m supposed to disapprove. But I would like to try soma just once, and I wouldn’t say no to a night at the Westminster Abbey Cabaret dancing to the music of Calvin Stopes and his Sixteen Sexophonists. The lyrics of the songs may be sappy, but I’ll bet they’ve got a good beat. As for the feelies, I suppose the plots are pretty simpleminded, but any more so than Raiders of the Lost Ark?

This is not to endorse all the sinister theories of Mustapha Mond, only to suggest that fun’s fun, and that some of the targets of Huxley’s satire are mean-spirited, insofar as he is making a case against pop culture, sexual candor, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Relax, Huxley. You worry too much. Have a gram of Tylenol. Things could be worse. This might be 1984.

Disch’s reading reaction that Huxley’s dystopia is alluring is close to mine. Disch combines story description with story reaction into the same sentence where I separated them into different paragraphs.

My envy of Disch’s writing inspires me to work harder, but it also makes me ask myself a lot of psychological questions about why I want to write. Blogging and other social media appeal to our urge to express ourselves. On many levels, I worry that’s appealing to our ego and vanity. Of course, we also call our activities on social media sharing. But what exactly are we sharing? Ourselves, information, promotion of cool things, memories, passions — the list goes on and on. When a writer produces a work to be read, they are also asking readers to use up some of their time.

The best thing I learned from my six weeks at the Clarion West writers’ workshop was “Great writing is the accumulation of significant detail.” I believe what I learned from my recursive reflection between these two pieces is: “Great writing is the accumulation of significant detail that wastes the least time for the reader.”

That’s a single lesson at one recursive turn. With another cycle, Disch’s prose sparkles for me because I just reread Brave New World and all his allusions resonated. That wouldn’t be true for people who haven’t read the book. That insight reflects back again, and I see I admire Disch’s essay because we both reread Brave New World late in life after first reading it when young. Seeing that lets me know great writing isn’t always in the prose but in the sharing. But that reveals the limits of finding the right reader.

I could keep going, but after the 1,178th word, I believe I spent enough of your time.

JWH

 

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