620 pages. That’s how long this brick of a book turned out to be when I got it in the mail. Hell no, I thought. But then I started to read it and I didn’t want to stop.
Children of Time, the 2015 sci-fi novel by British writer Adrian Tschaikovsky, is a supremely imaginative story about one planet and two rival species vying for control of it. On the one side we have an ark ship of humans, the survivors of a spacefaring civilization that blew themselves up millennia earlier, leaving a rump population on Earth to reestablish technology and, one day, flee their dying home for the stars.
To where exactly?
Well, here’s where Tschaikovsky takes the trope of a colony ship in a wholly unexpected direction.
Let’s rewind. Millennia earlier at the start of that cataclysmic war, megalomaniacal scientist Avrana Kern was going to seed a terraformed planet with monkeys and a virus that would selectively enhance their evolution in favor of intelligence. Her creepy plan goes awry, and what we get is not a rehashed Planet of the Apes, but something much creepier, especially for those of us who are arachnophobes.
Spoiler…the monkeys didn’t make it to the planet, and the virus, which did, selected for intelligence mostly among the insects, the top dogs being a certain species of spider.
Centuries later, as the spiders evolve into a complex and intelligent society, that ragtag ship nears what they believe to be a green paradise just waiting for them to land and populate it. As you can guess, there will be conflict.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story. Instead, here’s my breakdown:
—Children of Time alternates between both groups. For the first hundred pages or so, the story and pace were riveting. I didn’t want to put it down.
–The writing is pristine and engaging. As someone who obsesses over words, zero complaints.
–Tschaikovsky managed to make spiders (not a fan) into sympathetic and relatable characters. He wove spiders’ natural biology into humanlike functions and hierarchies. He made it seem effortless, though I am sure this was the product of hours upon hours of research and craft.
–The human characters were all compelling. Even the minor ones seemed real to me.
The not as good:
—Children of Time sagged in the middle. There was a lot of back and forth that made me wonder if the writer had to figure out a way to account for the passage of time (and the spiders’ continued evolution). Also in the middle section, the chapters were overly long, when shorter and punchier would have been more effective.
–A subplot regarding the ship’s captain, while interesting, felt like it belonged in another book.
–While I liked the ending (totally unexpected), something about it felt off. Not sure what or why. It could have just been a pacing issue.
But these are minor flaws. I wouldn’t normally buy or recommend a 600-page book. Children of Time is a fantastic exception.
The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less following these guidelines:
Setting: In a sleazy casino
Genres: Noir + Paranormal romance
Trope: First alien contact
Characters: A space wizard + King Arthur
POV/tense: 2nd person/future tense
You’ll incarnate savagely, a murderous pain as your spirit merges with another discarded body.
You’ll taste burnt almonds. This body was poisoned. Targeted. Your latest incarnation may be brief. Briefer still if that infernal wizard finds you.
You’ll rise like Lazarus and think of her in a tumble of ancient melancholy. You’ve chased Guinivere for eons, your vengeful love tangled by the wizard’s curse. You’ll rub the death from your eyes and sense her near. You’ll assess your face. Not a king’s but it will do. Then you’ll peer into a sky of drifting stars. On a spacefaring craft yet again.
A knock pounds your door. You’ll open it to a lipstick blonde who eyes you suspiciously. “Octavio, hon, you’re looking fresh as a daisy.”
She’s not Guinivere. “I don’t wilt,” you’ll say.
“Apparently not.” She’ll hook your arm. “Come. Brando’s on roulette. You know what that means.”
She clacks her heels down the corridor, nodding at women who stream flirty laughter and men who shrink away.
“You’re armed?” she’ll ask.
Oh, Excalibur, gone so long. “No.”
She’ll bring you to a doorway framed by neon. Merlin’s Delight, it reads. The gall of him.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she’ll say.
“Soon enough, perhaps.”
You’ll pass a surly doorman and enter a room of gaming tables and preening bodies. In the midst of the clamor you’ll feel her essence throbbing in your chest. The blonde will plant a Judas kiss against your cheek. “You shouldn’t have done it.” Before you can ponder her meaning a man ratchets your arm behind your back.
“Brando, I assume,” you’ll say.
“Hard one to kill,” he’ll growl. “Care for a trip to the airlock?”
You’ll smirk. “Flirt.”
“Very funny. Now let’s go.”
This peasant won’t stop you. After a kick to his shin and a fist to his nose, a posse will subdue you both.
“Gentlemen, violence is forbidden in my establishment.”
“Apologies, Mister Wells,” Brando will say.
You’ll stare into familiar black eyes. “When will this game end, Merlin?”
“It’s only half begun.”
Your pounding heart becomes unbearable. “Where is she?”
“Impatience was always your Achilles, Arthur.”
“Mister Wells,” the blonde will say, “this has nothing to do with your operation.”
“He is my operation, child.”
“Don’t cross us,” she’ll say.
“Don’t you challenge me, girl. Your science pales next to my powers.”
The pull of Guinivere will become a fishhook in your flesh. You’ll scan the crowd. That sultry redhead? No. That ebony cocktail waitress? No. The lanky man slouched against the bar? No. Then you’ll spy a fluid form, skin like rusty sunset. A six-fingered hand sweeps tendrilled hair. You’ll gasp. You’ve never seen an alien. Its head turns your way. You lock onto silver eyes. It’s Guinivere! The only woman who ever mattered. You’ll ache for one more night with her, one just like that first in Salisbury among the bonfires.
As your fingertips graze her skin you’ll hear a pop. Pain will sear your chest. Then, blackness.
The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less sticking to these guidelines…
Genre: Comedy + Historical
Setting: On Gilligan’s Island
Trope: Possessed by demons
Characters: A star ballerina + a wise old person
POV/tense: 2nd person/past tense
The Minnow Would Be Lost
The way you settled the Exorcist experiment. A miracle. Was the child selected to play Regan truly possessed? A lesser case worker would have silenced her. Not you. You held her and prayed until she believed the demons fled.
Recreating Mass Formation Psychosis is messy. But how else can we understand the madness of eras like 1780s France, 1930s Germany, 2020s America?
I almost nixed your application. You seemed fragile, but your stint with the Bolshoi turned you to steel, strong enough to master our worst experiment: Gilligan’s Island.
Three months earlier we’d selected the participants for the roles of the castaways, to remain in character until the experiment ended. Our last observer team never returned. You volunteered to accompany me. Together we rowed out to the island. I would be a theater director. You, an actress with our traveling production of Taming of the Shrew.
You wanted to learn everything I knew. You told me someday, you would have my job.
I asked if you knew why we imposed such stress on these brave souls.
To prevent the worst of mankind, you said.
Do you think we really can, though I asked.
No. Still, we have to try.
On the shore we discovered a sign saying NO ENTRY beside a skull with flecks of crusted, bloody flesh around the sockets.
Worst case, you whispered, no fear in your eyes.
The show must go on I said.
We hiked through the foliage to the encampment. The breeze carried a sweet burning. Black smoke billowed from a fire. I heard a scraping. Past the first hut a body hunched. I recognized him: the lonely widower I selected to play Thurston Howell.
I cleared my throat, and said: Good Afternoon. I am Lachlan Mountjoy, director of the Globe Theater, and this is Serena Butterfield, the finest thespian in the world.
Ginger ran out. A director? She screamed. Her tattered sequin dress was streaked maroon. Her red hair a birds nest. I recall how excited the woman portraying her had been to be chosen. Now her eyes terrified me.
Yes, I said, and we would like you to play the lead. My voice cracked, because I knew this experiment had likely failed. Are there others here?
A man stumbled out of a hut. Red shirt. Head bowed. Hands behind his back. Muttering The Minnow Would Be Lost over and over.
Shut the fuck up! Ginger screamed.
Gilligan ran up to you and grinned. The Minnow Would Be Lost, he hissed. You never flinched.
Are there no others? I asked.
They were so tasty, Thurston said. Dead weight becomes good meat. Are you dead weight, too?
Gilligan pulled a machete from behind his back. You silenced him forever with your glock. Before Thurston could pounce you silenced him, too. You saved the tranquilizer gun for Ginger. She would be analyzed, her brain dissected.
My spirit broke with that experiment. That’s why I recommended you for my role. Your unsentimental nature will take you far.
The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less sticking to these guidelines…
Setting: An asteroid
Genre: Fantasy + Fable
Trope: A nasty surprise
2 Characters: A dumb jock and Dracula
POV/tense: 3rd person/future tense
The Lady in the Rock
Not the frog, nor the witch, nor the ball catcher can know who will emerge victorious. That’s for the best. One’s fate should remain a mystery.
It will begin with Taylor.
“Don’t be a wuss,” Taylor will say as she peels off her dress.
“But the water’s so dark,” Jayden will answer. “What if there’s an alligator in it?”
“You’re so dumb. There are no alligators in Arizona. You promised you’d take me skinny dipping.”
“And you promised if I do…”
She’ll suck her finger. “Deal.”
He’ll pull off his clothes and they’ll dive beneath the black water, surfacing not under moonlight but in a cave.
Taylor will graze her lips along his neck. “What’s happening, Jayden? I’m so scared. Hold me.”
“Whoa, babe. Look at the moon. It’s not above us. It’s in front, like on some giant tv screen.”
While the two humans rise from the water in their alien environment, a green amphibian will emerge beside them, clearing its slimy throat before croaking its truth. “I may appear a lowly frog, ignored as I flop through the muck, but l possess the power of speech. Hear my words. Hear me roar. Listen to me! What I have to say is of the utmost value.”
A bellow rising from the depths of the chamber will cut him off. “Silence! I am Morgan Le Fay. Tremble at my name. My nemesis King Arthur banished me to this asteroid, but not before I stole his sword, the only weapon that could slay me.” She’ll point to a stone with a sword embedded in it.
“Wicked,” Jayden will say.
“Foolish witch,” the frog will croak. “Pride will be your downfall.”
The witch will approach the frog. “Are you are the magic holder? The one who followed my call through the lake?” She’ll lick his skin and grimace. “Perhaps not.” She’ll drop him and spike her heel through the heart of the only talking frog in Arizona, and that will end the tale of the frog who couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
She’ll turn to Jayden. “And you, my fine muscled one?”
“I’m just a tight end at Arizona state.”
The trapped witch will frown. “Hmm.” Then she’ll pause on the beautiful young Taylor. “You smell…old.”
“Me? No! I’m nubile and nineteen.”
The witch will wrap her hands around a shrieking Taylor’s throat, who will transform into a withered pustule-covered vampire. “Dracula!” The witch will laugh. “I sensed your power. Now I’ll claim it for my own.”
The vampire will lunge for Jayden. “No! He was mine to drink! You’ve ruined it.”
The witch will siphon Dracula’s power, leaving him a shriveled hulk before rising up with a victorious wail. “I can feel his strength inside me. Now I’ll return and conquer the world.”
But Jayden, who outlasted the talking frog and prince of darkness, will free the sword from the stone, and as he beheads the witch with one swift swing, he’ll prove that sometimes brawn is mightier than brains.
The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less following these guidelines…
Setting: On a train
Genre: Sci-fi + Military
Trope: Blown cover
Two characters: A dumb blonde and a mad scientist
POV/tense: 1st person/past tense
The Screams of the Acolytes
The bards would sing of Asmodeus, the golden capital of the Bartolic Republic, but their songs turned to cries when the republic turned to empire. Brandon Sathanis, that cyborg chimera, that corruption, secured his infamy as our last elected leader. Then he gutted the vital freedoms one by one until none remained but the freedom to agree.
I’d been exiled from Asmodeus for twelve years. This troop transport train to Asmodeus’s central station, would end that chapter. The odds were high, the wager my life, but success could bring counterrevolution. But the enemy was cleverer than I expected.
This captain, this man with silver bars and green uniform and black boots, no cyborg enhancements visible, eyed me with simmering contempt. “You’re no lieutenant.”
“Not for Sathanis.” I spat in his face. Spittle flecked his left cheekbone. He didn’t wipe it away.
“Eyes not truly blue,” he said. “Hair not truly blond. Fraud.” He clucked his tongue. “But what else to expect from a recidivist. Vermin, really. We’ve already disposed of five this week.”
I bucked. The cuffs that locked my wrists above my head dug into my skin. “Disposed of?”
The captain motioned to the gray-haired woman hunched in the corner, the left half of her face a dull cyborg chrome that melted into her human flesh. “You’re choices are thusly, lieutenant. Defect. Repent of your recidivist tendencies and embrace the truth of the majority.”
“Or?” I asked.
“Or Doctor Gressil will commence your unraveling.”
The doctor’s cyborg eye flashed orange. A rumble emanated from her throat. “The process is most unpleasant,” she said. “Truly unpleasant. For the participant. For the spectators, so much fun.”
The train jostled through the spiraling suburbs of Asmodeus. Soon it would pierce the heart of the city. “Here is my answer. Brandon Sathanas is the king of lies.”
The captain clapped. “I was hoping this would be your choice.” He turned to the doctor. She tiptoed toward me and pulled a silver vial from her pocket. “Your plot will tumble from your mouth as your gray matter dissolves,” she said. She twisted my head and rammed the needle into my ear. I howled. I panted. I felt nothing except a throbbing in my ear.
Then, happiness. I couldn’t say the colors of the train car. Even my own name became a puzzle. Drool hung from my mouth. I grinned at the nice man and woman before me.
“Good, good, my boy,” the captain said. “Tell us what you’ve plotted.”
“Tell us,” he said.
“You go boom,” I muttered.
“You go boom.”
He grabbed his phone just as the pulse rippled through the car. He clutched his chest—his enhancement beneath the skin. The doctor shrieked as her cyborg face sizzled. The train swayed as if drunk, then rolled onto its side. My chained body twisted among the collapsing metal and shattering glass, mind still dumb but alive.
Outside the train I heard the screams of Brandon Sathanis’s acolytes. And I laughed.
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.
I don’t do good with unexpected freedom. It was a Thursday. I should have been working but a bottleneck ruined my plans. I couldn’t stay idle in my house because my mind would wander to someone else and then thoughts of what never could be would loop in my head, so I roamed the city with a book and my earbuds and headed toward the waterfront—blue sky over the river, the Manhattan skyline, ferries streaming across the Hudson—and I sat and read and listened and watched people go from work toward the train station and vice versa.
The book was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which I bought for two bucks from a street vendor. It was five by the time I got my coffee and sat on the rocking chair underneath the granite portico with a view of the river and listened to a shuffle of songs (starting with Manchester Orchestra’s I Know How to Speak) and cracked open the book and started to read it only to discover it was not about a WW2 battle but instead a bridge collapse. In the book Wilder kills the five travelers from the get-go. Then he explores those five in detail and what led them to that bridge at that moment. The first of those characters is Doña Maria, described as unattractive and unloved, who was finally married off at 26.
Still, she lived alone and thought alone, and when an exquisite daughter was born to her she fastened upon her an idolatrous love.
Unfortunately Maria’s daughter, Clara, took after her father, cold and intellectual. Still, Maria persisted, persecuting Clara with nervous attention and a fatiguing love. A grown-up Clara moved to Spain, but Maria’s desire for her daughter only grew more intense. Maria knew she would never be loved in return, but she couldn’t quit her desire.
I thought of that someone else. Desire, someone said, is not love but the awareness of distance. That’s true. For me and for Maria, too. She was obsessed with that distance between her and her daughter. And me, no matter how close I could possibly get, that someone else would always be separate from me. I see it and I feel it and I know it but it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t kill the desire. That’s the essence of desire, I guess.
While I read I watched men walk by wearing loafers with no socks. A woman held her mask loose in her hand as if she was about to let it go. A man passed in the sunlight and I judged him adequate according to that inventory list in my mind and I ached (Dumb word, ache. Romance ruined it.) and told myself that he doesn’t feel shame, not like I do, that no one could feel it like I do. Something rumbled in my gut, some undigested thing from some long-gone yesterday, and I wondered if it would ever be digested, or if I would I carry it around with me forever. When that adequate man left my line of sight I felt relieved and read some more.
She wanted her daughter for herself; she wanted to hear her say: “You are the best of all possible mothers”; she longed to hear her whisper: “Forgive me.”
I looked out at the pier and at the men and women who crossed its planks. What was here a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? What would be on this spot a thousand years from now? Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey a century ago. He’s gone. The people he wrote about—people who lived three hundred years ago and who seem as real as any of the men and women on the pier before me—would be long gone, if they ever really existed. But I still felt them resonate.
She lived alone and she thought alone.
I read that line again and again. Like her, I am separate. Separated. I don’t know if this feeling is a Covid hangover or an ancient psychic wound or some personal flaw or just a hallmark of what it means to be human. I wanted to bring that feeling, that eternal separation, out into the sunlight, dry it out it and shrink it until it was small enough to fit in my hand and tuck into my pocket instead of having to wear it like a giant dripping shroud hanging over my shoulders and head and blocking out the rest of the world. But I don’t know how.
Maria could never figure out how to let go of her desire. News of her daughter’s pregnancy led her to cross that fateful bridge to a certain shrine where she would pray for the health and safety of her daughter and grandchild. She was convinced this devotion would finally win her daughter’s love. Her desire was her undoing.
My coffee was getting cold. A woman took a chair across from me and she rocked in her summer dress staring at her phone, legs extended, smiling, and I felt so far from her I could barely even find myself. Then she was gone. A man in a suit and sunglasses walked past me with a hands-in-pocket swagger that told me he was trying too hard, that he, too, carries a dripping shroud heavy on his shoulders. I’d never want to slip into his skin; I have enough shame for one man as it is, so why take on his as well? But I did, and then I was stuck with sadness for two. Someone once told me I lacked empathy. I wish I could lack some more.
By 6:30 pm my coffee was empty. I’d watched so many people pass by on to some other life, and me, always apart. All I wanted was to escape whatever inside me makes me stay so apart. I wanted to feel what they feel, like one of them, like they do, but I never do and it leaves me like an alien on this planet. I could’ve sat and watched the people all night until the morning and then all day again but that longing, that desire, would grow so unbearable that I’d want to rip my chest open and pull out every last poisonous fiber. If that someone else were beside me and if I could be totally honest, I would say this: Come sit beside me and take my pain from me. To me it’s poison but to you it’s dust.
And if I did and if it happened, then what? Would I still be alone, even with that someone else beside me? I think I would. Does this go back to my father, who taught me how to live in distance and separation? I don’t know. And while I’m being totally honest, do I truly, really, care about that someone else? Who they are? What they feel? Their own poisonous pain? Did Maria care about her daughter, or was Clara just a receptacle for her mother’s needy desire?
I finished the section about Maria. Two days before that bridge fell out from under her she realized that her desire was her undoing, that she need to surrender it to ever feel peace in the world, that she needed to live her life with courage and not fear.
“Let me live now,” she whispered. “Let me begin again.”
I left my chair and the view of the skyline and the commuters with my own desire still by my side.
The thing I love about speculative fiction (horror, sci-fi, contemporary fantasy) is those stories aren’t just about monsters or spaceships or time travel. They serve as broad canvases to explore different facets of humanity. Dragons and Ice Zombies in Game of Thrones are window dressing for a story about the lust for power. The task of fighting vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a metaphor for the tumultuous transition to adulthood.
Recently I saw a horror movie titled The Black Phone that was not just about a teenage boy locked in a basement by a sadistic madman who got help from previous dead victims via a dead phone. The story was not about ghosts. It was about child abuse.
The Black Phone (not sure how I feel about the title), starring Ethan Hawke and based on a short story by Joe Hill, is about a child abductor nicknamed the Grabber who terrorizes a Denver suburb. He kidnaps teenage Finney and locks him in the basement. In this basement is the black phone of the title that doesn’t work, except it does. (WARNING: spoilers ahead). Finney has a touch of ESP, and that ESP allows him to communicate with the boys who the Grabber kidnapped and murdered before him. Those boys barely know who they are anymore. Their murders left them that traumatized, but they’re able to give Finney advice that leads him to tools that may help him survive.
First off, The Black Phone is really well done. At no point did I find my mind wandering. I didn’t get bored. It took me a while to get into it, but that’s more of a Kevin quirk than an actual criticism. The ‘70s details are fun (before my time, so I can’t relate or critique), the suspense and thrills are well placed and well spaced, and the writing and acting were strong. If you like horror, you’ll love this movie.
So, about the child abuse. In the real world it’s a topic rarely touched. The Black Phone didn’t shy away from it.
One of the earliest shots shows Finney and his sister Gwen tiptoeing around their angry father, a nasty drunk mourning the suicide of his wife. Gwen (like Finney and their mother) has ESP abilities, which their father literally tries to beat out of her. This, not the kidnapping or murders, was the most horrific scene of the movie. For anyone who’s experienced something similar, it will be a killer scene to watch. For those lucky enough to never have suffered abuse, hopefully it will be a little easier to watch.
It’s not profound or especially insightful to say that abuse warps children. Gwen is defiant and violent. Finney is passive to a fault. Both learned lessons from their abuse (Gwen: fight fire with fire. Finney: weakness). By the end Finney learns that sometimes you have to fight back, if just to survive. The second to last scene gutted me. After Finney kills the Grabber, he and his sister huddle in the back of the ambulance. Their father runs to them and sobs apologies at their feet. They stare at him, blankly. He’s repentant, but they’re already broken. That scene rang so true.
But the final scene of The Black Phone, the one just after that ambulance scene, told a different story. Throughout the movie, Finney was tormented by bullies. In the last scene, Finney, now legendary for killing the Grabber, struts through the halls of his school, ready to claim the love of the girl he crushes on.
It was a good ending, but it left me with a doubt I could only make sense of when I read an interview with the director. For him, the movie was about being bullied. In that narrative framework that absurdly triumphant last scene make sense. But the realities of child abuse tell a different story. In the real world Finney would have a long, long road ahead of him. He’d face a mighty struggle to reclaim his sense of self and his sense of power.
We rarely talk about the effects of physical abuse on children, including in fiction. Horror is the exception. To me, the movie Hereditary was about a woman abused by her mother pass on that abuse to her children. In The Babadook, a mother lashes out at her difficult son, using her grief as an excuse. Add The Black Phone to this thin cannon (I don’t count Carrie–the mother was too cartoonish). All three movies presented the parents as sympathetic. They usually are. But they didn’t flinch at showing us a glimpse of the horror that children experience as a result of their physical abuse.
“Life is its own point. It’s just a series of moments, some of them memorable, some of them not. There’s no redemption but what we’re prepared to grant ourselves. No point when we’re finished becoming what we’re going to be. There’s just this breath, and the next one, and the next one. Each of those breaths, each of those moments, help shape us.”
This bit of gorgeous nihilism is to me the heart of Anne Corlett’s sci-fi novel The Space Between the Stars, the story of a group of plague survivors: the .0001 percent or so of humanity spread across several worlds who were not turned to dust.
I didn’t plan on reading a book about a plague, not right now. Living through a much milder one than in this book is about all I wanted to do with anything plague related.
Once I started reading, it was hard for me to stop.
The Space Between the Stars is centered on Jamie, a thirtysomething veterinarian who is estranged from her long-term boyfriend, isolated from her own historical grief, and the only survivor on a small colony world.
Or so she thinks.
Plague stories can go in several directions. The Walking Dead was once my favorite TV show. Now just a droning, repetitive PSA that humans can be monsterstoo (ok, I get it!). When Jamie finds other survivors, I was expecting some Walking Dead-ish human vs. human confrontations.
Not so much.
I won’t get into spoilers, but a search for survivors–and her boyfriend–takes on some twists. Not too many, though. The Space Between the Stars is not a hard sci-fi novel (spacecraft can traverse great distances in unbelievably short spans of time). It is also not a thriller.
Instead, it’s more of a character study. On that note, I found Jamie wholly unlikable. She is prickly. She snaps at people. She is self righteous. She’s a horrible communicator. But Corlett does a great job in showing some of the whys, and also showing how maybe Jamie doesn’t like being so flawed. So, while Jamie is unlikable, she’s relatable, if not quite sympathetic.
The Space Between the Stars is not perfect. There were things I couldn’t relate to–as an American, I don’t get the English obsession with class, which was one of the themes of this book. And I wished the sci-fi was amped up (several scenes felt too present day, and not set a century or two in the future).
Still, I was glad to be along for the ride. The writing was beautiful (almost to the point of distraction), and Corlett hit all the right emotional notes. By the end, I wanted to stay in that plague wrecked world just a little while longer.