THE SEM10TIC STANDARD

Speculative Fiction. Art. The In-between.

Novel: Stay Crazy

Stay Crazy

by Erica L. Satifka. Apex Publications: Lexington, 2016. Science fiction. Interviewed by Gary Emmette Chandler.

Stay Crazy

Stay Crazy

Overall: 4/5 stars*

     Growing up, kids often imagine themselves as heroes. Fed on an endless stream of heroics, they wield the force in their back yards, casting spells and brandishing imaginary swords. They hold out hope that one day they'll receive their letter from Hogwartz—that one day, they'll find some hidden ability within themselves, and be tasked with saving the world.
     But what if a time came when you couldn't separate the imagined from reality? What if someone told you there was a threat, but you couldn't be sure that threat was real? What if you were older, angry, and didn't want to save the world anymore? That's the dilemma of Emmeline Kalberg, the protagonist in Erica L. Satifka's first novel, Stay Crazy.
     As a schizophrenic with depressive tendencies, Em is not your typical hero, just as Stay Crazy isn't your typical heroic story. When the novel begins, Em is a college dropout starting a new job as a stock worker at Savertown USA, back in her hometown after two months in a mental hospital. Almost as soon as she begins work, an entity named Escodex begins communicating with Em through the goods of Savertown USA, warning her that disaster is pending, and imploring her to save both of their dimensions.
     While the premise might sound light and humorous, Stay Crazy is frequently a dark, raw novel. From the start, Em is angry and abrasive, lashing out at everyone who comes near. As a character, Em has far more in common with Netflix's brooding Jessica Jones than CW's bubbly Supergirl. As Em herself says at one point:

     "The most important person in the world doesn't stock shelves at Savertown USA. The most important person in the world doesn't need her mom to drive her to work, and she doesn't need to drop out of college after three weeks."
 

     The driving force behind her character is anger. Em hates everything around her: her co-workers and the job she's been forced into, her therapist, her mental illness—sometimes, even her family.
     Beyond her anger, Em's schizophrenia is a complex core element of the story. Unreliable narrators and reluctant anti-hero protagonists might not be new concepts, but they're always a delicate balance. It would be an easy thing for Stay Crazy for veer into "gotcha" territory, where Em's mental illness is used as a gimmick to play games with the reader. To Satifka's credit, that never happens; when Em wonders what is real, so does the reader. When she's grounded, so is the reader. It might be difficult to like Em at times, but it's not difficult to empathize with her, and that's one of the novel's greatest strengths.
     Stay Crazy succeeds in its defiance of convention, in taking the most familiar story arc in existence and turning it inside out. As a first novel, it's a promising showcase of Satifka's talent, and fans of Philip K. Dick will feel right at home. It's not always the easiest ride—and at times it's painful to watch Em's self-destructive anger and vulnerability unfold—but it's certainly one worth taking, and one that's bound to linger with you long after you've put it down. 

 

Interview: Erica L. Satifka

Conducted by Gary Emmette Chandler

     You’ve been quite prolific and successful in your short fiction career, publishing in Clarkesworld as well as other high profile SF/F magazines. Stay Crazy is your first published novel. How long has it been in the works, and what was the transition to writing longer fiction like?

     Funny story… I wrote this novel before I wrote any of the short stories, back in 2005-06. Safe to say that I didn’t know much about the writing business back then, and because I was allergic to editing (still am to some extent), I “trunked” it after it was rejected by one or two agents. I wrote almost nothing in the few years after that, for various stupid reasons, but I never forgot the story and how I wished I’d done something with the novel before quitting.
     In 2011-ish, I started writing again! But I didn’t work on novels, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish a new novel without finishing this novel first, but I wasn’t ready to look at it yet. I wrote only shorts for a couple of years until I moved to Portland, and then I pulled out this novel, and then I rewrote it, and here we are. It looks like I graduated from short stories to novel writing in a typical path, but literally nothing about my writing career has followed a normal trajectory at all, and sometimes that’s just the way it is.

     In Stay Crazy, your protagonist, Emmeline Kalberg, has schizophrenia with depressive tendencies. It’s refreshing to see a story deal with mental illness outside of the stereotypical institution setting. What inspired you to write this character and her story?

     I came up with the story behind Stay Crazy while employed at a certain big-box store, in the frozen food section, just like in the novel. I was also reading a lot (and I mean a LOT) of Philip K. Dick at the time; I discovered him in my senior year of college and he quickly became my favorite writer and biggest inspiration. And I was also really depressed! I’d graduated college a few months back and afterwards found myself trapped in the tiny college town. I was also writing fiction, though as a hobby (back then I didn’t know you could actually submit fiction to magazines). Coming up with this story and working it through in my head was the only way I could deal with the crushing horror of working at that place.
     I could be mistaken, since it’s been so long since I came up with the idea, but I don’t think Em originally had schizophrenia. That idea got added later, when I read Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip. One of the main characters of that novel, Jack Bohlen, describes himself as an “ex-schizophrenic,” and while a lot of mystical things happen in that novel, the character is actually mentally ill for real; it’s not all a hallucination. And this just completely floored me for whatever reason, that a character could be battling demons both inside and outside his head simultaneously. I started reading more about schizophrenia from people who actually have it, and started to feel very strongly that this would add an extra layer that the story was missing (as well as keep it from simply being an autobiography with aliens). And I was right! The story clicked after that and I started writing it down for real, after I got out of that town.

     A protagonist with schizophrenia is probably one of the more unreliable narrators a writer could choose. In your novel, Em has to balance her own hallucinations with a very real situation that seems absolutely crazy: an entity named Escodex who speaks only to the mentally ill (through the goods of Savertown USA, no less) and who tasks her with saving the world. Were there any extra challenges in writing Em that you might not have encountered with a different protagonist?

     Honestly, a lot of Em is based on myself, as are most of my characters. I don’t have schizophrenia, but the sarcasm and the pessimism and the fatalism are all me. So her personality wasn’t that much of a departure. The hallucinations and delusions were, but after reading a dozen or so memoirs of people with schizophrenia (and I stuck almost entirely to first-hand accounts), I found it easy to slip into her POV. Just like folks with any sort of disability or difference, people with schizophrenia are all different, so I wanted to avoid making Em only her schizophrenia. It’s really just another thing about the character, like her eye color or love of weird comic books.
     The main challenge was to avoid either stigmatizing or romanticizing mental illness. Basically, there are a lot of shitty portrayals of people with schizophrenia in fiction, especially science fiction and horror. Either they’re axe murderers, or their illness was entirely the result of the speculative element, a sort of paranormal gaslighting. Stay Crazy may not be entirely accurate but at least it avoids those tropes!

     Stay Crazy strikes me as a rather unique take on the classic “save the world” tale, and seems to play with the conventions and expectations of that sort of story. Was this a conscious decision?

      I’ve never met a convention or expectation I didn’t immediately want to invert, and I find heroes extremely boring. Going back to Philip K. Dick, one of the things I still find so refreshing about his work is that every character is an everyman, and not in that “everyone thinks he’s an everyman, but actually he’s a powerful wizard” way. While Em could be considered a variation on the Chosen One, there’s never a point at which things stop sucking for her, no graduation from the wizard school.
     On the other hand, it wasn’t a deliberate subversion in that I didn’t take a “normal” plot and character and twist them, it’s always been a different sort of book. The reason I will never be a huge success at writing is that I am incredibly resistant to writing certain types of stories or following formula; I don’t think this makes me better than writers who follow a formula, but it’s all I know how to do.

     Em’s path is a bittersweet one, but also fitting for the tone of the novel and her character. Can you see a sequel somewhere down the line for Em, or is her story at an end for you?

     This is a standalone novel. Absent someone dropping a dump truck of money on my lawn to get me to write a sequel (someone please do this), I don’t see returning to this story, not because I don’t love the characters or the plot, but because… well, it’s done. It’s designed that way. I hear standalones are coming back, though that might just be wishful thinking!

 

 

Editor's Note:
We're using a five-star rating system for now and while readers should be familiar and comfortable with this format, as a reminder:
 
1 – Unacceptable. A very negative experience
2 – Mediocre. Some serious structural issues
3 – Neutral to positive review. May suit a specific audience
4 – Positive review, a must-read for genre fans
5 – Highly recommended, a must-read for everyone

We believe this will help readers to discover books that suit their tastes and preferences.

Short Story Markets Reviewed: July

Editor's note: 
It's easy to find reviews of larger markets—Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Asimov's, reviews of the big players in the short story field are surplus. We're taking a different approach, however. Instead of reviewing markets you're probably familiar with, Meryl Stenhouse reviews the ones you aren't. 

The Future Fire

Issue 2016.37

The Future Fire was founded in 2005 and has established itself as a home for science fiction and fantasy with “feminist, queer, postcolonial and ecological themes.” As well as putting out four issues a year, the editorial team has produced five anthologies – one ‘best of,’ two disability-themed (Outlaw Bodies and Accessing the Future), We See a Different Frontier, on post-colonialism from the point of view of the colonised and oppressed, and Fae Visions of the Mediterranean.  
     This issue opens with an editorial reminding us of the recent hate crimes from around the globe, and while that’s a sobering beginning, al-Ayad goes on to point out that stories put shape and perspective to our lives, and the stories in this issue capture that–people going on and finding joy regardless. Overall an excellent issue, neatly balanced between dark and light stories.

The Future Fire, Issue 2016.37

The Future Fire, Issue 2016.37

The Wave
by Vanessa Fogg
Recommended Read

     Shannon is a surfer in a near-future world of ecological disasters, where the next generation of YouTube stars record their neural activity–mind-casts–which are transmitted directly to the consumerist masses. It’s an awfully accurate portrayal of a generation focused on living vicariously through the experiences of people who become stars simply by putting their lives on public display. I really enjoyed the story–Shannon’s quest to ride the massive waves that only happened when certain weather events converged, her reasons for surfing, rather than completing her degree and her relationship with her team members–which comes together into a sort of meta-experience. All that was missing was my neural connection. 


A Distant Glimpse
by Simon Kewin

     Mina is the leader of a group of other children who are scavengers at a massive landfill, created from the discards of the lords and ladies of a great shining city that Mina sees in the distance. A thoroughly depressing story of child slavery and abuse and the hopelessness of those unfortunate enough to be the victims.


Patchwork Girl
by Colleen Anderson

     An insightful poem about a woman shaped by domestic violence who takes revenge on her abuser using what she learned from his violent acts.


Porphyria: Dazzle Con Debut
by Priya Sridhar

     A sweet story about a young woman using her strange and rather cool superpowers for the first time. I was slightly thrown out of the story by the fantasy of an unoccupied girl’s bathroom at a convention, but I moved past it. This wasn’t a high-stakes story and didn’t dig very deeply. Topical issues were very briefly touched on but didn’t resonate.


Glow in the Dark
by Rachel Linn

     Library assistant Ivy looks for patterns and signs, which lead her to understanding. She notices a woman photocopying articles on seal biology, then finds a seal tooth in a model of the library, which leads her to a discovery. Ivy is immediately likable, which is good, because the whole story is a fascinating journey through her thought processes. She’s a tragic and slightly comic figure, drawn with sensitivity and I really enjoyed her search.


Cinder-Elver
by Mary Alexandra Agner

     Despite being put off by the promise of yet another fairytale retelling, I grinned all through this story. The author gives a solid middle finger to duty and societal expectations and all that guff. Nice to see fairy godmothers who give useful gifts. Best fairytale retelling I’ve seen so far.

 


Bracken

Issue 1, March 2016

Bracken’s tagline is “lyrical fiction and poetry, inspired by the wood and what lies in its shadows,” and that was enough to make me sit up and take notice. Bracken’s first issue came out in March, so they are quite new, with a proposed quarterly publication schedule. Issue one opens with an explanation of the origins of the magazine, born of the editor’s love of the woods, and her desire for magical realism set outside the urban landscape.  It’s a meaty issue with five short stories and six poems in mix of styles, but leaning heavily to the literary. I look forward to seeing what Bracken settles into. Overall a good first issue, and keeps its promise of stories outside the urban landscape.

Bracken, Issue 1

Bracken, Issue 1

When We Got to Arizona and the Petrified Forest
by Laura LeHew

     Three crows that the protagonist met in the petrified forest of Arizona move into her life and her dreams. Bracken’s submission guidelines encourage ‘in-between-genre pieces’ and that’s definitely what this piece was. It was like a conversation with an odd stranger in the line-up at the supermarket; a brief connection that resonates for the rest of the day. Very enjoyable.


Through Earth and Sky
by Gwendolyn Kiste
Recommended Read

     Two sisters, torn from their family and cared for by those who don’t listen. One loving husband, one abusive husband, magic, the raising of bones, and the wind a tool for justice. I love a good story told in second person POV and Kiste pulled this off with panache. 


The Woodcutter's Sons
by Stephen Case

     The forest grants a boon to a woodcutter, who asks for his twin boys to be able to understand the language of the trees. The tale was beautifully told in a very traditional style. The prose was almost enough to make me overlook the narrow roles of women in the story, being either wives, dead wives, sex objects or gift givers. Almost, but not quite.


Passing Through
by Stephen Thom

     K fights with his wife and she leaves him. He rescues an odd stranger who is tangled in barbed wire. Years later he returns to the house to look for memories, and finds himself repeating old actions, including rescuing not one but two strangers from the wire. A weird tale about repeating past mistakes. 


Father Bear
by V. N. Martin

A bear ponders the presence of a child in his forest. Short and thoughtful.


Runaway
by Claire Hermann. Poem.

     Good use of shape and vocabulary which elevates the life of the runaway to something magical.


Close to Home
by Jed Myers. Poem.
Recommended Read

     Really fabulous imagery and a lovely rhythm that captures the sway and dance of the forest. 


Give Up the Saw
by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens. Poem.

     I enjoyed this piece, but damned if I would call it poetry.


Tale from the Vienna Woods
by Erika Michael. Poem.

     I found the references to fairytales and history in this piece engaging, but I just wanted to left-align everything.

     
I Asked the Alchemist
by Sara Backer

     I have no idea why the alchemist was even involved in this poem. 


Devoured // Neverhome
by Jessica Bixel

     Ouch. Dark, disturbing and excellent.

 

 

Lackingtons

Edited by Ranylt Richildis

This is the ‘governments’ issue of Lackingtons and, given the political dramas and upheavals of our age, sometimes comes in under the ‘too close for comfort’ banner. The editor’s tastes lean toward the experimental, a style I’m not a fan of, but the majority of stories were strong and engaging. I won’t say that the issue was comforting; it was quite confronting, in the best way. Excellent issue, worth adding to your collection.

Lackington's, Issue 10

Lackington's, Issue 10

Wax Names
by Evelyn Deshane

     In a world where stories have been swallowed to feed a voracious king, two women keep them alive, passing the stories between them. I love the heart of this piece, of a people keeping their history and culture alive regardless of the rules of their lives. The parallels with oppressed peoples are clear. Even so, this was an upbeat story with a core of hope.


The Problem with Thunderstormes
by Dennis Mombauer

     Leros, sheltering in the subways from a deadly thunderstorm, emerges to find he has been elected Director (as the only candidate) and charged with preventing the thunderstorms and protecting the people. This story was really experimental, more so than I usually read. I enjoyed the reading, I loved the atmosphere of the piece. Did I get it? Nope. No idea. But it was still a gripping read. Dennis, if you’re out there, what is the problem with thunderstorms?


A Million Future Days
by Charles Payseur

     Chance Chase is living on church charity in a future world where debt keeps going after you’re dead. All the future possibilities of himself give him advice which is just as useless and confusing as it sounds. A fantastically convoluted story with a gripping end.


Tiny Guns
by Steven Earnshaw

     I don’t enjoy stories that are deliberately confusing and obtuse. I read this all the way through but had zero interest in the characters or outcome. Someone might like it, but that someone wasn’t me.


On the Occasion of the Treaty of the Thousand Rivers, A Visit to the Gallery
by Wren Wallis

     A general comes to view the collection of a powerful relation of the current ruler, and hears the story of a greedy king and a djinn. Delightful story, rich in wonders.


The Transfigured Knight
by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

     A survivor of a bloody war is trapped in his armour and pays penance by being willingly tortured. He then goes back to war. An odd and brutal story (it comes with warnings) which didn’t hit the mark for me. It’s told in the distant and formal tones of a fable, but lacks a coherent moral. Unless that moral is “men will always prefer violence,” in which case, thanks for the depressing thought.


The Automatic Prime Ministers
by Kate Heartfield
Recommended Read

     In the near future, government decisions are based on modelling scenarios. Flora and Maryam, prime ministers of Canada and India respectively, meet in Canada for a summit where world leaders will present their decisions on the fate of a shipful of alien refugees in orbit. This story hit really close to home given the present refugee crisis. Heartfield does a fantastic job of pointing out all the logical reasons not to accept refugees—and the single most important reason they should be accepted. Brilliant and heartrending.

 

Grendelsong

Issues 2, Spring 2016
Edited by Paul Jessup

The editorial informs us that this is actually a reboot, that each issue has a Grendeltaste, and that the editor does not exist. Very whimsical. There’s also part one of an essay on occultism. This was a really meaty issue, packed with great stories. 

Grendelsong, Issue 2

Grendelsong, Issue 2

We Ride the Stillness
by Deborah Walker

     Mother is the leader of a cluster of tube worms (I think? The biology is a little sketchy.) who has to deal with a wild and ranging larvae she names Red Ice, whose travels warn Mother of dangers to come. The story is well told and gives the characters personality without anthropomorphising. I would never have believed there could be so many stories about ocean invertebrates. Okay, that’s two, but still that’s more than I would have expected (the other being Salt and Cement and Other Denials, by Sara Saab in Lackington’s Architecture issue). This is a subgenre I’d like to see more of.


Sisters
by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

     A retelling of The Little Mermaid. Elin wants to save her sisters, but loses them one by one. A dire story of loss with no happy ending. I’m afraid my dislike of fairytale retellings has coloured my opinion of this piece, which is otherwise well done.


The Tale that Wrote Itself
by Berit Ellingsen

     A dry-farmer writes a tale that catches the attention of the king. When the king asks the farmer to write a story for him, the farmer refuses. The poetic descriptions in this tale really captivated me, though they might not appeal to everyone. 


On the Acquisition of a Very Fine Steed 
by Virginia Mohlere

     Hyacinth, a powerful Seelie, wakes up after a night of revels in an unknown bed, next to a kelpie. They find themselves in the court of spiders and must escape before they’re eaten. I grinned all through this delightful, sexy tale. These are no prissy fairies with glitter and cantrips. Mind you I wouldn’t like to meet either of them, but their story was a lovely ride.


Verses on St. Andrews
by Berrien C Henderson
Recommended Read

     Feeling’s mother gifted him a pouch that protects him from the glamour of the Witch on St Andrews. When a bully chases him onto the witch’s property, he learns what his mother’s gift contains. I liked the themes here, that you can have sympathy for someone and still hate and fear them.


Carnival Microbial
by Octavia Cade

     The cast of a circus are, as the title suggests, microbial. This story is as gross and crazy as you would expect. Excellently disgusting, written in poetic prose that just makes you want to take a shower in disinfectant.


Eat Me, Drink Me, Set Me Free
by Julie Reeser

     Short, sharp and punchy. Love the Alice references.


What the Hoffenphaafs Know
by Samantha Henderson

     The Hoffenphaafs know it. Lovely poetic language in this story. It has the feeling of a surreal play, where the players and the sets and the costumes are stunning and engaging and unfathomable. Go in without knowing, come out again unknowing still. But worth the coin.


Wardrobe of Metaphysical Maps 
by Julia August

     A new bride finds a hoard of maps made by the previous duchess, but these are not ordinary maps. The last one holds the key to her happiness. 


A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War
by Fábio Fernandes

     Stories are sentient beings, images of humans, with culture and history but still, apparently, second class citizens locked in basements and feared and shunned. Eduardo has been searching for his story all his life. I couldn’t really get behind this story. Though well told, the basic conceit just didn’t work for me. And frankly, I loathe it when people compare stories to babies and writing them to giving birth. 


Lunching with the Sphinxes
by Richard Bowes

     Millicent Mead is an art teacher in the place of swamps and seawalls that was once New York. Children are going missing to provide young bodies for old. Millicent and her students find a novel way to bring down the regime. A gripping story that moves along at a great pace.