In my previous and first “CC0 Heroes” post back in January, I wrote about Thai artist Piti Yindee and his copyright-free web comic Wuffle, the Big Nice Wolf. Since then, I’m happy to report, his crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo was a huge success (it made over $7,500, way past the $3, 500 goal) and the book was finally printed and shipped out late this past summer. Having contributed to the campaign and received a signed copy myself, I can say that the end result was spectacular. It’s a delight to see such a polished, finished product from an artist using CC0. I was also able to get in touch with Piti after my blog post was released, and was given the chance to commission him to work on a project of mine…more on that in a future post! Not only that, but recently he graciously asked me to be the new proofreader of Wuffle, a job I absolutely love! Thank you, Piti!
There are other artists out there using CC0, however, even if there aren’t as many as I’d like there to be. I think it’s high time I profiled yet another one, and this entry into the “CC0 Heroes” series is none other than author and not-really-official TUEBL blogger Aelius Blythe!
I must confess that so far, I’ve only read one of Aelius’s books, though she’s released several. I intend to get caught up on her work in the upcoming months, but for now I’ll limit myself to a review of her short story collection, “Stories About Things,” and give a little bit of information about Aelius herself.
If you’re already interested in Free Culture, either in the form of creative works, activism, or both, then chances are you’ve heard of Aelius Blythe at some point already. (Heck, my last entry on this blog was a re-post of one of her Free Culture essays, one of my all-time favorite writings on the subject.) Her Twitter account, @CheapassFiction, is one of my favorite places to seek out news related to Free Culture and copyright nonsense (though be warned, it contains a lot of links to irritating, double-face-palm material…because a lot of copyright nonsense out there is very irritating). Her blog, Cheapass Fiction, is an excellent source of Free Culture info as well. (In fact, she gave a signal boost to my first “CC0 Heroes” post about Piti Yindee back in February! Thanks Aelius!) Along with QuestionCopyright.org, the CheapassFiction blog was one of the first places that really inspired me as my thinking on copyright shifted circa 2011/2012.
Originally serving as her personal blog for several years, she’s built up a lot of cool stuff there, including a brief collection of correspondences with publishers and authors who have attempted takedowns of their copyrighted works posts online. As she says on the page description, “My goal is to reach out to these authors, open a dialogue, show empathy, encourage an informed approach, and present “the other side.” I can’t imagine a nobler goal for a Free Culture advocate, can you? Too often debates of this kind tend to get very shout-y and one-sided, so it’s a relief to see someone simply reaching out to discuss these issues peacefully and with an appreciation for the “other side.” As someone who now has no real love for the idea of copyright at all, but who once was strongly in favor of it, I really appreciate Aelius’s attempts to reach out, especially with other authors.
Now, Cheapass Fiction is not only Aelius’s blog, but it also serves as the not-really-official “TUEBL Lovers’ blog,” with some extra resources added in specifically for those who use, or are curious about, TUEBL. What the heck is TUEBL, you ask? TUEBL stands for “The Ultimate eBook Library,” which is, as the name implies, a (non-profit) online library for eBooks of all kinds. Being a non-profit, and being a library, means that the eBooks within its virtual walls are all free. It’s a fantastic service, and anyone who loves Free Culture books (or just free books in general!) ought to check it out.
In addition to being one of the interweb’s best sources for Free Culture news, Aelius is a very nice person; I’ve spoken to Aelius via email a few times, and not only was she helpful when it came to my noob book formatting questions, it’s also nice to have someone who shares my grief over the CC0-unfriendly world of self-publishing. I’m sure that topic will surface in a future post here.
And in addition to being a very nice person, Aelius is also a pretty dedicated author. To date, she’s released three stand-alone short stories, including “Ask,” “Richard,” and “Ceasa,” two short story collections, including “World” and the afore-mentioned “Stories About Things,” and a novel, “Skyland: Abominations,” the first in what is to become a series. Recently, Aelius also released an “Extended Edition” of “Skyland: Abominations.” For those who have no idea what exactly this means, it’s a bit like the “Director’s Cut” of movies that are sometimes released. It features over 70 pages of material that expands the original story, created by lots of re-reading, note-taking, and note re-writing done by the author after the release of the original book, in preparation for writing the next entry in the series. It isn’t simply a bunch of cut scenes added back in, but the result of trying to create a richer, more detailed world for the stories to take place in…which I think is a pretty cool idea. For those interested, an autographed print copy is available here for purchase, and of course the eBook is free on TUEBL.
Another thing I love about Aelius’s blog is how much of it is dedicated to showing webfiction a little respect. Aelius views webfiction as its own creative subculture (sort of a sister-movement to the fanfiction world), one that rejects the view that only published fiction, fiction with a price tag, is worth reading. I love her description of it, so I’ll just share it with you here:
“Stories and novels on the internet that aren’t published through recognized commercial companies are often seen as cheap and worthless. WebFiction isn’t even allowed in the gutter of the literary scene. It’s the bad neighborhood down the street that the gutter runs into.
Well, we happen to like the neighborhood. We say “Hell yeah!” to cheap fiction. We say it may not be worth $14.99 or $9.99 or even $5.99, but entertainment doesn’t need to have a price tag. And when it does, we’re likely to pass it by and go hang out on the porch steps of our crappy neighborhood for kicks.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. I’m very fond of this idea not just for the stick-it-to-the-man ethos, or for any pretense that one type of writing is more “real” than another or qualifies as “true art” versus another, or because one is a “sell-out” and another is not, but because the emphasis here is simply on community. I think that’s lacking too much these days regardless. I’m fairly new to the world of webfiction (and fanfiction, for that matter) but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s the perfect place for any writer and/or reader. It’s a community. A place with constructive criticism and positive feedback, and maybe, just maybe, a little less pretentiousness than you might find elsewhere.
Despite the internet’s (perhaps too often deserved) reputation as a perpetual hate machine, there are places where one can find its true potential being reached, where people are coming together over a shared love of things like writing, music, and art of all kinds. I recently began looking into the world of fanfiction thanks to a friend of mine who happens to be an avid fanfiction author, and despite, too, that particular subculture’s not-always-stellar reputation, I was very impressed by the mutually supportive atmosphere of the community. It’s a beautiful and all-too-rare thing.
So, now that I’ve covered some of Aelius’s accomplishments as an author and Free Culture firebrand, what, you might be wondering, do I actually think of her work? As previously stated, so far I’ve only read “Stories About Things,” so allow me to share with you a little review! For the record, I actually purchased the print-on-demand version, partly out of a desire to own an actual, physical book released via CC0 Waiver, and partly to see what I might be getting when I eventually release my own book via the CreateSpace service (not to mention that it’s always nice to support an indie author). I wasn’t disappointed!
“Stories About Things” is split into two sections: “Thought and Memory: things of this world,” and “Fairies and things: things of other worlds.” Needless to say, the first section is comprised primarily of realistic fiction, while the second half is comprised of fantasy fiction. I should say, before going any further, that I didn’t particularly dislike any of the stories…it was just that some “missed” in the sense that they went over my head and didn’t make much of an impression. Others, however, were definitely “hits,” the kind that leave an impression and won’t be easily forgotten.
I think the brevity of the collection is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness (even the introduction is incredibly brief, with the preface “Don’t worry, it’s short,” she ain’t kiddin’.). The stories that flew over my head were did so due to me feeling that I was missing something. I wasn’t sure if I really did miss something, or if I was just slow to comprehend what was going on, but I believe that regardless, the minimalist use of exposition caused my confusion. On the flip side, this same minimalist style is what made some stories so brilliant and rewarding to read. One of those stories was “Teacups,” the first in the collection.
“Teacups” is a very strong start, and I think that it is my favorite story of the entire book. It’s a story about memory and loss, and it perfectly captures a certain mood I’ve felt many times but which I know no English word or phrase to describe. An old friend of mine used to call it the “after the party” feeling, the strange dissonance between the quietness of a place and its former activity and energy. To read a story that can capture this feeling so clearly and so beautifully, and in only about two and a half pages, is a rare delight.
“Time” is one of the stories in this collection that went right over my head. The tale of a scientist trying to master time travel, I understand the basics of what’s going on, but…I feel I’m missing something. Further, if I do understand it correctly, it seems this story borders on sci-fi…which of course isn’t the same thing as fantasy, but it certainly feels out of place among stories that are “things of this world.”
“The Name” could be considered dark comedy, I think. The story of a rather awkward funeral, it’s a bit slice-of-life, and it made me laugh in a way that made me feel a bit guilty for laughing. It wasn’t one of the stories that stands out in my memory, but it was nonetheless quite fun to read, and it felt strangely relatable, though hopefully I’m never actually in the situation it portrays.
“Maple Syrup” is one of the weirder stories, at least in the “things of this world” section of the book. This one is all “dark” and no “comedy,” making it a bit of mood whiplash after “The Name.” The premise, of a young man compulsively drinking maple syrup in order to remember the details of a traumatic past event, is pretty bizarre…and the names of the characters (Chi and Geo) make the story feel a bit like fantasy fiction rather than realistic fiction, even though there is nothing specifically fantastical about it. For all its quirkiness, “Maple Syrup” is one of the stand-out stories in the book; it’s a haunting, sad tale.
“The Swing” is a bit similar, thematically, to “Teacups.” For whatever reason, though, it doesn’t stand out to me as much. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy reading it; much like “Teacups,” it captures perfectly that dissonance one feels when standing in a single place, but torn between two very different places in time. It may not be one of the stories I remember as easily when I think back on reading this book, but I’m always glad when I find it again.
“That Night, There Was No Dinner” treads some slightly different territory than the other stories in this section. Some of the elements are the same (the dissonance between “then” and “now” being prominent once again) but it deals with a relationship (specifically, the marital kind), which is unique amongst the other stories. Whereas “Maple Syrup” explicitly deals with trying to remember the past, “That Night, There Was No Dinner” is focused on being unable to forget. While it didn’t stand out to me as much as “Maple Syrup” (though that could be because the latter is more dramatic) it’s a nice alternate take on the subject of memory.
“First Impressions” concludes the “things of this world” section of the book, and it’s a nice finish before the intermission. For some reason, I kept breezing through this story and not really absorbing it…I read it, barely remembered it, re-read it, and finally re-read it again just prior to writing this review. Strangely, the third time was the charm; for whatever reason, it seemed to “click” with me the third time. This is definitely in the slice-of-life genre, specifically the awkward trying-to-make-conversation slice-of-life genre. Despite my initial inability to focus on it, I really enjoyed this one, and I feel it concludes the first half on an even note, taking things down a notch from all the more dramatic stories in the middle.
The second half of the book, “Fairies and things,” begins with “Sun Set.” It certainly sets the tone, in a very we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore kind of way. To be too specific would be to spoil it (I run the risk of that with nearly all these reviews, since the stories themselves are so brief) but suffice it to say that this story is weird, and it is creepy. It makes for a strangely effective leap from the contemplative and melancholy of the first section to the creepiness of the second. It feels like taking a left turn on the way to buy some saltines at the grocery store and winding up in “The “Twilight Zone.”
With “Shark,” the weirdness just keeps on coming. Like “First Impressions,” this one isn’t really much of a “story” in the traditional, classical, beginning-middle-and-end sense. If there’s such a thing as “supernatural slice-of-life,” then “Shark” would probably qualify. It’s short, it’s weird, and it’s unsettling. It’s very effective…I love stories that can set up a mood, specifically one of such unease, in this way. It feels a bit like a modern retelling of an old fairy tale.
“Dinner Bells” is one of my favorites of this half of the book. Yet again I must restrain myself from explaining anything for fear of spoilers, but it’s delightfully creepy, and by the end of it I had the vague sense that this could be expanded. It worked perfectly in this limited format, but sometimes stories like this have a way (and generally, I think, this is the intended effect) of making the reader want more, and I certainly did. Once again, as in the first half, the dissonance between past and present was at the fore…but in a much more supernatural, eerie way.
After reading “Leaves of Trees” I think I finally understood why these stories were so appealing to me. I have a particular affinity for stories, movies, music, or anything that can conjure up the feeling of being in a dream. Nearly every story in this section of the book conjures a nightmare, but it’s effective nonetheless, and I enjoy the effect just the same. “Leaves of Trees” has the atmosphere of a nightmare or a childhood fear. Don’t try to make sense of it; the uncertainty is what you’re supposed to feel.
“The Bear Would Starve” is another of my favorites from this collection. It’s also similar to “Dinner Bells” in giving me the impression, even more so, that it could be expanded into a longer story, maybe even a series. Though a bit confusing at times, it nonetheless hints at a strange, strange world just below the surface of the everyday. The imagery and scenarios are particularly bizarre. I found myself wanting much, much more of this, more back-story, more information.
Finally, we conclude with…nothing, as the author’s note points out. “Space” is one of the less outright frightening, but equally surreal, entries in this collection. I loved it. It kept the momentum of that dream-like atmosphere and finished up the book on a satisfyingly mysterious note. It brought to mind “Twin Peaks” a bit, and, once again, I found myself thinking about “The Twilight Zone.”
All in all, “Stories About Things” was a most delightful read; though uneven at times. There were some grammar errors here and there, easily fixable with another round of proof-reading, and perhaps par-for-the-course for “cheap-ass fiction,” no? While some stories captured my attention a bit less than others, the majority of them made quite an impression, and I’m a big fan of the short-form. Aelius handles realistic (and semi-realistic) fiction as well as fantasy/supernatural fiction, and the end result of all of it is most entertaining. I’m looking forward to checking out the rest of her work soon, especially “Skyland,” as I have confidence that her skill at writing fantasy fiction will translate very well into the format of a full-length novel. It’s also worth mentioning that she did a lovely job with the book’s formatting…something I’ve recently learned to appreciate through bitter experience.
That concludes this edition of “CC0 Heroes,” I hope it’s inspired you to check out some of Aelius Blythe’s work. I think “Stories About Things” is an excellent place to start, if my experience is any indication. Perhaps, too, it will inspire you to release something via CC0…there may not be a whole lot of us CC0 artists out there yet, but as I’ve said before, I think you’ll be in pretty good company if join us!