Friday, February 28, 2014

Interview: Lettie Prell

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

I was bent on going through college majoring in something practical that would lead to a good job. Yet I filled every elective class I had with literature or writing. I graduated and got the good job; I’m currently research director of the Iowa department of corrections and I’ve enjoyed my career in the justice system very much. But the other side of me insisted on being expressed as well. In my free time I wrote poetry, science fiction and fantasy, and worked on my writing skills by taking more classes and attending critique groups. I used to tell myself it was a hobby, but I have an intense drive to excel at everything I do so to call it a hobby now would be laughable.

The Performance Artist focuses on the merger of humans and technology. That's a very interesting theme to explore with so many possibilities. Do you see humanity actually heading in that direction?

Questions like this are impossible to answer. If I were to say no, it feels like I’m denigrating all the work I put into thinking intensely and in detail about this. If I say yes, I sound a little loony; it’s a bad sign in a science fiction writer to worry about stuff you write coming true. Yet I see people walking around staring at their phones, living inside that world and dangerously close to preferring it—and I wonder what this is leading to.

Most people nowadays seem to neglect reading short stories. They are under the impression that only a novel can provide a fully developed story. Do you think that opinion is warranted? Is it important for people to rediscover the wonder short stories have to offer?

Actually, it’s odd short stories aren’t more popular. The format would seem to fit right in with this fast-paced society known for its short attention span. You can read an entire story during a commute, on a lunch hour or before bed. It’s not a huge investment and if you don’t particularly care for one, choose another. Maybe short stories need a marketing campaign with billboards and prime time commercials.

It's said that writing a good short story is far more difficult than putting a novel together. Do you agree? What would you say the hallmark of a good short story is?

My natural inclination tends toward the novel. I can try to keep it in check, but sometimes the world I create is simply too big to fit into a short story. So it’s a relief when I finish writing a short story and it actually works as a story. Stories are lean body-builders compared to novels. They have to be tight—nothing wasted—with every image supporting the overall piece. Novels can afford to take time to appreciate life; they do a bit of lounging around eating bon bons and talking about fascinating things.

Where did your interest in science fiction start; what drew you to the genre?

I grew up with older brothers and a sister who liked Star Trek, so I watched it, too—we’re talking re-runs in the 1970s. Then in the high school library I discovered Asimov’s Foundation. After reading the trilogy, I worked my way around the room reading all the science fiction: Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, and so on. What hooked me was the imaginative genius of the writers, and reading about the future. I especially liked reading about aliens because their strangeness challenged the way I looked at things. I liked my mind being pulled in these crazy directions.

Do you have any favourite authors you can recommend?

I admire Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh, and M. John Harrison’s Light. I’ve read quite a bit by Octavia Butler and William Gibson, and I’ve enjoyed reading Ted Chiang and China MiĆ©ville. There are many more I can get excited about, but I’ll stop here.

And finally, if you could integrate yourself with one piece of technology what would it be?

Well, not presently, but when I’m close to natural death, I’d like to be integrated with the Large Hadron Supercollider. Think of it, experiencing the thrill of atom-smashing. But also, can you imagine becoming one with something that learns the secrets of the universe?

More about the author:
Lettie Prell is a science fiction writer who likes to explore the edge where humans and their technology are increasingly merging. In addition to Apex Magazine, her stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Paranormal Underground and elsewhere, and have been featured on the StarShip Sofa podcast. She is also a poet and her haiku were featured in the Iowa Drama Workshop production of Kali Ma!

You can visit her website at or follow her on Twitter - @lettie_prell

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: The Book of Apex Volume 4

Title: The Book of Apex Volume 4
Editor: Lynne M. Thomas
Pages: 368
ISBN: 9781937009205
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Published: 2013
Genre: Short Stories
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

The Book of Apex Volume 4 collects the original fiction from Hugo-winning editor Lynne M. Thomas's first fifteen issues at the helm of Apex Magazine, which included two Hugo Award nominations for the magazine.

Thirty-three science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories grab readers by their emotional cores to star deep into the source of our humanity and inhumanity. Well-known authors like Ken Liu, Genevieve Valentine, Catherynne M. Valente, Lavie Tidhar, and Alethea Kontis, along with newer voices, sketch surreal pasts, presents, and futures full of characters with familiar and outsized desires and fears.

The Book of Apex Volume 4 is a collection of short stories which originally appeared in Apex Magazine. The thirty-three short stories are a smorgasbord of speculative fiction. Whether you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror or a mixture of them all you are bound to find something to your taste.

Normally I’m one of those people who read anthologies from start to finish, but for this review I decided to try something different; choosing fifteen stories to read based on the titles which sounded the most enticing. That’s one of the benefits of short story anthologies you can pick and choose what to read without feeling guilty. Only a handful of stories I’ve read so far didn’t really appeal to me. All the rest were thoroughly enjoyable, each in their own unique way.

It’s always tough to review short stories. Most of them rely on the reader experiencing them for the first time, without any prior knowledge, to deliver their full impact. You can’t say too much before you run the risk of ruining the experience. It’s also very difficult to choose which stories to highlight since each story will impact each reader differently.

These are just four of the stories that really appealed to me. There were many more, but I'm trying to keep things brief. 

"The Performance Artist" by Lettie Prell: A hauntingly thought-provoking story which deals with the merger of human and machine. An artist quite literally gives everything of herself for her art only for it to be... Well, the full impact is in the ending, so you’ll have to read it to see how it turns out.

"The 24 Hour Brother" by Christopher Barzak: As can be inferred from the title, this story brings home the fact that time is extremely precious. It deals brilliantly with issues of family, coping with loss and the inevitability of death.

"So Glad We Had This Time Together" by Cat Rambo: Reality TV meets the supernatural world with unforeseen consequences. Loved the subtle hints throughout the story that showed that everything isn’t as it seems and the ending is stunning.

“Decomposition” by Rachel Swirsky: A very macabre tale of revenge filled with magic and decaying corpses. Sensitive readers might find this one a tad too disturbing, but I enjoyed the very dark, disconcerting tone of the story.

The Verdict:
The Book of Apex Volume 4 is a stunning collection of eclectic speculative fiction, both in the array of stories and authors it presents. Like any anthology some stories won’t appeal, but half the fun is uncovering those unexpected gems that catch you unaware, crawl into your mind, and demand contemplation for days afterward. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 7 (Very Good)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Guest Post: Art and the Inner Well

Comments on My Story, The Performance Artist
by Lettie Prell

Back in the 1990s I first read inventor Ray Kurzweil’s contention that humans would download their minds into computers and live forever. I found it a fascinating concept yet it disturbed me greatly, because Kurzweil was dead serious. My mind began to spin scenarios of horror but also of transcendence. The ultimate merger of humans with their technology was good; it was bad; it was both at once. My mind probed the ramifications of existence in a downloaded world in detail, enough to fill a novel, which is now completed. Yet I also churned out several stories. I wrote “The Performance Artist” in a weekend. It came out in present tense because I’d been working on my novel synopsis to send out, and synopses are in present tense.

I sort of borrowed the story arc from Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” which I’d read over a decade ago, but like Kurzweil’s ideas those Kafka stories lurk down there in my inner well. All I could remember of the story was a performer giving his all for the audience and his art until there was nothing left of him.

One reader of “The Performance Artist” saw a resemblance between my character Anna Pashkin Bearfoot and the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic of the 1970s. Yes, Abramovic is down there in my well with Kafka, ever since I read an article that described her interactive piece, “Rhythm 0,” which included a gun in an array of implements that could be used on her.

It sounds like a recipe: mix equal parts of Kurzweil, Kafka and Abramovic and “The Performance Artist” will result. This is why writers shouldn’t discuss where they get their ideas; the danger is sounding unoriginal. Yet the ingredients all came from my well and I stirred them up myself.

I used to be a landscape photographer on the level of serious amateur. The thing about that line of art is you come upon a scene people have seen a million times and challenge yourself to make something of it that’s fresh, that makes people go wow. I used to describe my process of taking a photograph as “going non-verbal.” I would look and look, and carefully frame the image until it felt – not right exactly – but meaningful, in a way I couldn’t describe. Now I recognize what I was doing as getting still so I could tap my inner well and make art out of the ingredients of the landscape in front of me.

So while I can describe the ingredients I used in “The Performance Artist,” I can’t tell you what I think it means, just like I can’t tell you what any of my photographs mean. Nor should I try. Explaining one’s work is even more of a taboo than divulging where one gets one’s ideas. But to the extent the reader feels even a bit of what I felt when I looked into my well and pulled out this story, I’ve succeeded.

More about the author:
Lettie Prell is a science fiction writer who likes to explore the edge where humans and their technology are increasingly merging. In addition to Apex Magazine, her stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Paranormal Underground and elsewhere, and have been featured on the StarShip Sofa podcast. She is also a poet and her haiku were featured in the Iowa Drama Workshop production of Kali Ma!