Monday, December 22, 2014

"Hard" sci-fi recommendations from a more civilized age

I put out a call on Twitter tonight for recommendations of "hard" sci-fi from the Golden Age (by which I meant "stuff from before I was born" but which apparently means 1938-1946 (with plenty of caveats).  A few people chimed in, including very helpfully Paul Weimer and Fred Keische. Tweets are below for anyone interested in building a reading list.

First, though, an explanation.  It's not infrequent these days to hear a narrative something like: "back in the good old days, science fiction was 'hard' sci-fi about science stuff.  It wasn't about feelings and it wasn't about politics, it was about science!" Often rebutted by people pointing out first that much of that "hard" science fiction was poorly written and not engaging (people are more interesting than chunks of metal!) and also that by accepting and writing within a particular context, authors are writing politically - if all of your scientists are white men, you're writing a political story that says women and people of color can't be scientists.  (You're also valuing empirical physical sciences at the expense of others, which reinforces another political and social narrative, etc).  I'll have a separate post on creativity and overarching narratives, but my problem was much more basic: when I think of older science fiction writers, I think of Asimov (in particular the Foundation series), Heinlein, and Larry Niven (Ringworld) being the only thing I've read & remembered.  None of these authors are particularly writing about hard sciences, and certainly not to the exclusion of politics or at the least sketchy psychology.  I needed an education.

One of the great joys of Twitter is that there are smart and generous people on it.  Not only Paul and Fred replied.  I got book recommendations from Tim Akers, Kate Elliott and Ethan Jewett.  Fred pointed me to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which is far too much rabbit hole for me, but looks delightful.  Paul gently let me know that by throwing around the term "Golden Age" I was confusing.  I got a lot of book and author recommendations, and I'm excited to familiarize myself with a genre I don't know well.

Preliminary reading list (bold indicates those I'm most interested in), then the full Twitter exchange -
Hal Clement's Heavy Planet (a re-read in large part because I own it)
Larry Niven's Ringworld (again, a re-read I own)
Arthur C. Clarke's The Other Side of the Sky (a first read, but I own it.  Not sure if it fits the bill)

Hoyle The Black Cloud
Clarke Rendevous with Rama
Greg Benford
Poul Anderson
Paul McAuley Quiet War
Charles Sheffield

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A bookshelf picture

I picked up N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy Omnibus yesterday (Nahadoth! New Novella!) and was struck by the size.

Here's the Inheritance Trilogy up next to a few other books on my shelves.  The Dreamblood Saga & books 1 and 2 of the Imperial Radch Saga (Ancillary Sword and Justice), then The Name of the Wind and Mirror Empire on the right.  Erikson's Malazan books (minus the last) tower over them in back, and up front is the Earthsea Trilogy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

3-Body Problem - A Personal Reaction

Here's a second post on Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu.  As before, this is not a "review" of The Three Body Problem (Speculative Scotsman has a good one), it's more a personal reaction.  I do want to emphasize that The Three Body Problem is fantastic hard sci-fi. It invites us to think about big scientific problems, consider the ways scientific progress can advance, and projects the possibilities on the horizon.  I highly recommend reading it if you have any interest in science fiction.

There are links below to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign as well as thoughtful essays by people of color about representation in media.  I'd encourage you to head down & read them now.

(Light spoilers to follow, more likely to color your reading than ruin a surprise)

The Three Body Problem is a bestselling Chinese novel recently translated into english, and reading it made me aware of how thoroughly accustomed I am to being the center of a story.  The book is primarily set in modern China, with a prologue and a few other moments that look back to the Cultural Revolution.  Not surprisingly, there are essentially no americans.  Even when some of the scientists decide to reach out to the global scientific community, input comes from European experts, not Americans.

Some of this is simply delightful and creative.  Late in the story there's data on a boat that needs to be recovered.  I found myself waiting for the obligatory moment where special forces landed on the boat.  Since there's a loose global alliance, I actually found myself wondering if there would be a SEAL team or the chinese equivalent storming the boat.
I found the few places where Americans did show up the most challenging, however.  As mentioned, there is a loose global alliance (this is revealed early on, though the purpose is not), and there are periodic meetings where a US military officer shows up.  Four, I'm pretty sure.  By which I mean - I paid a lot more attention to the book every time an American shows up.  All four times.  Four meetings, where basically the officers serve as window dressing.  And yet I read these scenes very closely.  Then, in the last meeting, the American officer is a jerk.  He's a foil there to show off one of the actual protagonists, and reading this scene actually made me angry.  "We're not really like this!" I wanted to yell.  "That's not me!"

I don't know quite how to describe this, so I'm going to just say it again - I went into a story written by a Chinese author in Chinese, and yet every time an American showed up, no matter how briefly, I keyed in on that character.  When the characters turned to the outside world, I was disappointed that it wasn't an American expert they sought out.  When the American in the story turned out to be a jerk and a useful foil rather than a fully realized character, I felt betrayed and angry.

I take two messages away from this - first, I am incredibly accustomed (in ways I'm not even aware of) to being able to center myself in the story.  The Three Body Problem is the first time I can remember where I found my representation pushed to the margins.  This is the definition of privilege, and once again a reminder for me of how easy & unconscious privilege usually is.

My second takeaway is that #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  I'm a cis white male with all of the privileges.  It's easy for me to find books that center me.  But I'm trying to imagine reading a book where the character who I obviously identify with is always just a foil to show off someone else, always relegated to the background, always an idiot or a jerk, or violent, or being set up for a noble, tragic death (or maybe an ignoble or meaningless death).  Because for many readers and authors - women, people of color, gay or transgender individuals, that experience, rather than my one-time discomfort is the norm.  (And that's if they exist in the story at all).

I don't know what that experience would be like.  I can't extrapolate from my one venture into literature where I was not centered to imagine reading only books that marginalized me.  I can imagine that your defenses would go up.  I can imagine reading every book waiting to be betrayed by the author.  I can imagine clinging to shallow tropes and marginal representation because it was the best you've ever seen.  I can imagine anger every time someone said something like "well at least now there's a character like you - isn't that a good first step".  I can imagine simply being driven away from the genre entirely - choosing not to keep reading books that will let you down over and over again.  I can imagine all of these things, but I don't really know what it's like.  I do know that for me, reading a book that presented my identity in a marginal way, and eventually showed the character who looked like me to be an unpleasant jerk was not fun.  It wasn't enough to spoil my reading of The Three Body Problem (which, I reiterate, was awesome), but it did make me angry.

I'm going to stop here with links to a campaign to bring more diverse books so that more people can have literature than centers them, rather than marginalizing them.  (And also maybe so I can read more literature that doesn't put me in the center, and become a bit more aware of my own privilege).  Also included are a few recent links where people of color talk about representation in media.  If you're aware of more, please let me know in the comments & I'll add them here.

More links-

Donate here through December 10, 2014!

Troy Wiggins on DA: Inquisition
(Also a good set of recommendations if you're looking for diverse Fantasy/Sci-Fi)

N. K. Jemisin on DA:Inquisition

The Unbearable Solitude of being an African Fangirl

These are the links that I've noticed specifically in the few blogs that I follow in the SFF community recently.  This doesn't really touch on some of the issues exposed at the National Book Awards (buy Brown Girl Dreaming here!) or elsewhere.  These links aren't exhaustive.  They're barely scratching the surface of an experience many readers have all the time.  An experience that I've had once, but which provoked a visceral, angry reaction I haven't had towards a scene in a book in a long time.

Monday, December 1, 2014

3-Body Problem - The Aliens

I finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu recently.  Published by Tor books, this is the first of a trilogy of bestselling Chinese hard sci-fi.  I am unapologetically a fan of this move, and looking forward to more translated science fiction in the coming years.  (Clarkesworld will also be publishing translated SF short stories beginning next year, thanks to a successful Kickstarter project).  All of which is to say I was predisposed to enjoy The Three Body Problem, and I did.  The science is hard.  The perspective is Chinese, or at least recognizably not coming out of an American fiction tradition in ways that were almost entirely good, novel, and brain-stretching.  The Three Body Problem is probably my favorite book of the year (jostling with Lagoon), and this is definitely not a review.  There's a good one at The Speculative Scotsman (one of the few reviewers whose reviews I generally read regardless of the book, simply to learn from), I'm sure there are lots more elsewhere if you look.

Light spoilers follow - I don't think anything that would ruin a surprise, but probably things that will color your reading.

I've got another post planned about reading a book that's both global (and indeed interstellar) in scale and yet centered outside the US, but first I want to address the aliens in The Three Body Problem.  I'm accustomed to aliens in Sci-Fi, but usually (at least when presented with nuance), they are specifically different from humans in important psychological ways in order to comment on certain human impulses.  I am thinking here mostly of the emotionless but hierarchical Atevi of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, but also of the stationary and consuming monsters in Peter Hamilton's Pandora's Star, and the multi-bodied creatures of Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep.  There are aliens in The Three Body Problem, but their interactions with humans are mediated by a couple layers of technology and communication, such that they are presented as essentially human - any major psychological or physical differences don't make it through the layers of mediation, so humans are basically interacting with other humans.

One thing that this allows Liu to do is dive into the history of various important scientific discoveries & imagine how they could occur in a different environment.
What most blew me away, though, was that just as humans encounter aliens, so the aliens are encountering us.  Where many stories focus on differences between humans and aliens to highlight certain aspects of the human condition and suggest alternatives, The Three Body Problem achieves the same goals without needing to emphasize any difference.  People living on planets encounter each other twice in this book.  There are many important differences in their histories, the environments that they live in, and their political structures, but Liu focuses instead on their similarities.  The responses are similar, without being identical.  The general bureaucracy of a united communications effort and the particulars responses of individual representatives play out differently, and yet with certain unpredictable echoes in each case.

Liu's aliens, their response to humans, and their non-alienness aren't the most important aspect of The Three Body Problem, but they're probably the place where my expectations were most clearly blown away.  I have read about aliens and humans encountering each other many times.  I've seen alienness used to reflect (generally) weaknesses in humanity in ways that almost inevitably reveal as much about the author as any universal human condition.  Without relying on these tools at all (and thus, of course, preserving the possibility of further revelations if and when we encounter the aliens more directly!), Liu achieved these goals in a spectacularly ingenious way.  There's better writing & better science in the book, but these nearly featureless aliens keep sticking with me as I look back on it.  I'm grateful to Cixin Liu for such a great book, to Ken Liu for translating it, and all of the people at Tor who brought The Three Body Problem here.

Unfinished - My personal reaction to reading a book so thoroughly centered specifically in China and yet on a global scale.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

No big deal, just landing on a comet

We landed a robot on a comet earlier today.  Using harpoons.

XKCD covered it, and an archive of the slides can be found here. (first few are uninteresting, but keep clicking & it gets good).

There's also a video series for kids about the mission.

The European Space Agency robots are tweeting about it.

Approaching the comet, we've learned that it both stinks and sings.

Welcome to the future.
This is ridiculously awesome.  10 years ago we planned a mission to land a robot on an asteroid using harpoons.  And it worked.  I'm going to revel in that for a little while.

A personal note - I haven't yet seen pictures of the ESA Operations center.  I bet they're pretty excited right now, though.  Here are scientists from India celebrating getting their space probe into orbit around Mars. A representative image:

This image is fantastic, and a good reminder for me that scientists and space programs are more colorful and include more women than they do in my head.  Landing a robot on an asteroid is the future I signed up for.  Women in saris flying a robot around Mars wasn't, but is even more awesome!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dust by DJolder

This week Lightspeed Magazine published Dust by Daniel José Older.  I first encountered Daniel as one of the editors of Long Hidden, and he's an absolutely fantastic and thought provoking person to follow on Twitter (although too prolific for me to keep up with - I content myself with checking in periodically).  It would also be worth your time to take a couple minutes and check out this video on why not to italicize spanish in english language stories.

So when I learned that Daniel had a new story out, I went over to read Dust, and afterwards tweeted
Here's a bit of an expansion on that.  Not a review, more like a the encounter between Daniel's stories & my expectations:

I've been diving more into short fiction (inspired in large part by my enjoyment of Long Hidden) and am slowly realizing that I'm really searching for some "hard" sci-fi a la the Mesklin stories of Hal Clement.  (or something, because Married by Helena Bell, in Clarkesworlde's Upgraded absolutely clicked for me, despite not being that.  I have no idea what I want to read, but I need to practice letting the author guide me).  Dust is set on a mining operation on an asteroid covered in red dust and hurtling towards earth, but it's not a hard sci-fi story.  The opening paragraphs set the tone strongly:
Very late at night, when the buzz of drill dozers has died out, I can hear her breathing. I know that sounds crazy. I don’t care.
Tonight, I have to concentrate extra hard because there’s a man lying beside me; he’s snoring with the contented abandon of the well-fucked and all that panting has heavied up the air in my quarters. Still, I can hear her, hear her like she’s right behind my ear or curled up inside my heart. She’s not of course. If anything, I’m curled up in hers.
Even with this tone set, I never really just let Daniel's story carry me away as the protagonist Jax (whose body switches between male and female every few days) goes through a day of crisis while meeting an old friend and trying to save the earth.  I could have, but instead I kept finding myself wanting to yell "more of [shiny thing you hinted at]! less of [story that you're telling]!"
And the thing is, Dust is a very contained story focusing on Jax, their relationship with Maya, a friend from years ago back to make one final push to save the asteroid, and the miners that Jax (as chief engineer) supervises.  It packs an emotional punch and even as I sat and read and silently argued with it, I found myself admiring the transitions between scenes, and the craft with which Daniel built his story.  
After finishing Dust my grumbles went something like this:
So, wait, Jax just gets to make the asteroid swerve so that everything will be OK? That seems ... convenient.
Well, actually, it's pretty clear that Jax has some kind of relationship with the asteroid & the dust.  And within the first few paragraphs Daniel's established that, shown that this is partly because of Jax's status as an outsider, and hinted at why the asteroid/dust might be special.  But when Jax starts to explain, they're interrupted by a bar fight.  Because this isn't a story about dust technobabble.  It's about Jax and Maya and living on this asteroid as a genderqueer individual.
Yeah, speaking of that, Jax just switches sex every few days? What's up with that?  Where's the explanation for how that works?
There's no explanation.  This isn't a story about physio-babble about why someone's body changes.  It definitely does acknowledge the fetishization & bigotry that can result.  It alludes to the ways that this has always impacted Jax.  It talks about how the relationships Jax forms are colored by that identity, but gives Jax an identity beyond their genderqueerness.  In other words, it does a phenomenal job of making Jax a complete person, and putting a complete society around them.  Hell, it even alludes to the common stereotypes about gender and how those are complicated both by Jax's identity and just not always accurate.  Jax and the people and society around them are the best part of the story.  What are you complaining about?
OK, fair enough.  But speaking of this society, there are big political factions, an earth essentially destroyed by the "Chemical Barons", a giant universe around this story.  I like space operas.  Can I have some of that, please?
Here's where I finally realized what was going on.  I went in with my own expectations and tried to fit Dust into them.  And Dust does contain the seeds of a lot of other stories.  Stories that could be giant space operas, hard sci-fi explorations, or even further explorations of relationships and identity that don't cleanly fit into society.  But Dust is an amazing story of Jax and Maya and a moment of crisis.  I liked it a lot, but my strongest reaction was that it's really smart.  Daniel knew the story he wanted to tell, and nestled it neatly among a setting so convincingly realized that I wandered off on my own, trying to get my stories shoehorned in.  
I'm starting to understand the impulse towards fanfic.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tools for blogging & notes

This evening on Twitter, a question came up that I've struggled with a few times.

I haven't really worked on fiction or long-form writing (and handling putting a few pieces like different chapters together presents it's own challenge), but I have tried various versions of getting writing on a schedule under control.  Here's what I've worked on (blogging wise), with a slight bias towards iOS & Mac, but probably applicable to all operating systems.

(tl;dr is at the bottom.  The really short version is that at last for me, there were a lot of equally good/bad ways to organize things, picking a system & actually sticking with it is the solution I needed)

When I think about blogging, it generally comes in 4 parts:

  • Capturing the first inspiration.  (i.e. "I should really write about various tech solutions to blogging, because I'm not the only person who's struggled with this).
  • Getting that first inspiration into wherever I'm actually writing (be that Google Drive/Evernote/Text File/Blogging Platform)
  • Turning inspiration into a real draft
  • (Here I bet other people revise, maybe multiple times)
  • Putting on the final polishes and schedule/post.

I'm going to start with the "wherever I'm writing" section, then look at capture, write & revise, and finally post.  It's worth pointing out that I don't hold myself to a schedule, so I don't see these as "To-Do" items.  I'll allude to those in a few places though.

Writing a blog post can go in a few different places.  Usually the WSIWYG/HTML editors of a Wordpress or Blogger blog are the worst actual writing experience (I've definitely had a few "didn't save" snafu's, especially going between website & mobile app), but at least there's no need to copy from what you wrote somewhere into the blog engine, and then clean up formatting.  Something like Google Drive has the huge advantage of being accessible everywhere, probably the best collaborative tools of any option, and a folder structure.  Honestly, though, I can't really imagine using Google Drive if I weren't thinking about collaboration.

Mostly because Dropbox exists.  For text-heavy things like blog posts, it's pretty straightforward to install dropbox (again, everywhere, like Google Drive), use your text-editor of choice (MS Word on Windows? I'm sure there's better.  I like TextWrangler on the Mac) and one of the infinite dropbox-compatible writing apps on a mobile device.  Dropbox supports versioning if desired & moving between folders, so if you're not thinking about collaboration it's as good as Google Drive.  The "win" part is the "any compatible writing apps on a mobile device".  There are plenty of good text editors for phones.  The google drive apps aren't nearly as polished as dedicated text editors (at least on iOS), and when I was last looking there were plenty of good apps that would work with dropbox files but not Google Drive, hence the advantage.

Another approach entirely is to use Evernote.  Like Dropbox and Google Drive, it's ubiquitous.  Unlike the other two, which are oriented around "files", Evernote is oriented around "notes" (which can be text, pictures, audio, attached files, or any combination).  Notes can have "tags" and be in different "notebooks" (basically folders).  When it comes down to it, though, a note is essentially a text document just like you'd be working on with Dropbox or Google Drive.  (It does seem to be easier to integrate images if desired).  Evernote does have a powerful (if somewhat geeky) search tool, so that you could have saved searches for "blog posts in draft form" or "posts ready to put up", and with a simple tag change, you can move between them.  (Equivalent to moving among folders in drive/dropbox).  Evernote's advantage is the ability to associate reminders to notes.  Now if you want to get something written by Thursday, you can create the rough draft, put a reminder on it for Tuesday, and have a notification pop up & the note easy to find.

Really, though, the default WordPress/Blogger page, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote are very similar ways to store the content of blog posts you're working on.  Google Drive is best for collaboration, Evernote may have an edge if you want reminders, Dropbox if there's an actual text editor you like using, and the WordPress/Blogger page/app if your biggest thing is not wanting to clean up the post after copy/pasting it in.  (I use Blogger's site & app because I've made a mess of Google Drive & Evernote and feel like I'd have to organize them (probably untrue), and if I started using Dropbox I'd dive down the rabbit hole of investigating text editing apps).

Having decided on where your content will live, an important question is how to get it in?  You can always just load up your app of choice, make a few quick notes, then close out, but sometimes (like when a tweet prompts the blog post), that's not ideal.  With Evernote, you have a special email address you can send to that will create a note.  Google Drive & probably Dropbox could approximate this with IFTTT (If This Then That), and both Wordpress & Blogger have "email into" options as well.  On iOS there's a phenomenal app called "Drafts" specifically for taking quick notes.  You launch directly into a place to enter text, and then at the bottom, you get to choose where to route the text (Twitter, Evernote, append to a file in dropbox ... the options are very diverse).  Once again, though, there's very little between the different options to make a clear "winner" in the "how do I jot a quick note using my phone" category.  (Or the "having jotted a quick note on paper like a barbarian, how do I get it to be the seed of a blog post?" category)

With each tool, I find I always need to do final polish on an actual computer, and I tend to just default to the Blogger/Wordpress page for adding tags/categories, scheduling posts, putting in links, and making sure the formatting is correct.  Copy/Pasting in from another tool usually adds some kind of formatting issue, but again nothing insurmountable.

Essentially, then, you have a bunch of tools with slightly different strengths/weaknesses, but all of them are ubiquitous, make it easy to add new content, make it easy to revise content (generally I find it harder to revise on the phone, but that's a limitation of the phone size), and then final posting is easiest sitting in front of the computer.  The times I've tried to get myself to do regular blogging, my problem is usually forgetting about a step, or being intimidated by it:  I'll remember to add lots of notes about possible blog topics, but then never check the "Draft" folder when I'm thinking of writing one.  Or I'll think that "blog posts take way to long for this chunk of time" and therefore never get around to writing.  Or I'll get something written on the phone, but forget to do the final updates on the computer.  Plus, I always wanted to tinker, trying out new apps or processes rather than just working on the habit of writing.

Somewhere in there, you also need to consider what's going to be "fun" for you.  I really like charts, and the notion of passively tracking progress (and then suddenly realizing "Oh wow, I wrote many words!").  Jamie Todd Rubin has made available a pretty cool set of scripts that pulls data out of the writing he does in google drive in order to build those charts & progress reports for him.  If that's your thing, Google Drive may be an especially good resource.

When I've been successful, I scripted my process.  I sat down and wrote out how I would capture inspiration that came to me, up to the point where I created it as a draft post.  Then I sketched out times that I would write posts (again, I don't really revise much as you can probably tell).  I had a goal for how many posts I would write, and tracked that.  I used a todo app (OmniFocus is good for Mac/iOS folks.  Remember the Milk seems to be most closely integrated with Gmail, Things is another popular one that seems to be just about everywhere.  Wunderlist may win on the "pretty" factor, which is not to be ignored).  Since all of the solutions about let you associate your post with a URL, it's pretty easy to have a todo item that's "revise this post" and link directly to the post.

It was actually a kind of a nice system for a while.  Then the child stopped taking naps ...


  • Write posts in:
    • Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, or the App/Website of your blogging engine
      • Google Drive - easiest collaboration tools
      • Dropbox - real files (can be comforting for those of us used to files), probably integrates with your favorite text editor if you have one
      • Evernote - can do geeky searches/tagging systems to organize things, has built in reminders
      • Blogger/Wordpress - no worry about formatting issues when you copy/paste in
  • Pick a way to add post ideas
    • Email short notes into Evernote/Blogger/Wordpress, or use the Google Drive/Text Edit app, or an IFTTT recipe to get notes into Drive/Dropbox
  • Script your process & notice where your hangups are
    • I like to change tools all the time, and always put off actually writing posts
      • I wrote out my process with existing tools so I wouldn't change
      • I scheduled time to write
  • If you want to use a reminder/todo system to help remember the steps, there's probably one built into your system.  Other options include
    • Wunderlist - very pretty, can flag/mark recurring, not the best at nested tasks
    • Remember the Milk - closely tied to gmail
    • Things - Better at projects with nested tasks, I think
    • Evernote - very light "todo" options with checkboxes/reminders, but can ALSO be your writing tool

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review - Crossed Genres Issue 22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs

There's a great deal of interest in short fiction reviews right now, and after my experiences with Long Hidden and Women Destroy Science Fiction (very excited that Women Destroy Fantasy & Women Destroy Horror also just came out, although I'll probably be skipping horror stories), I'm trying to read more short stories as well.  Crossed Genres Issue #22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs came out yesterday, and I found myself enjoying (not unreservedly) all three stories in the issue.

Mabo by Megan Chaudhuri is a far-future tale set on a distant planet.  The problem of interstellar travel has been solved by sending off robots implanted with human embryos and maternal programming to raise the first generation of humans on arrival.  The protagonist is one of those children, raised alone (most robots raised 2-3 children) and born without arms.  She tells the stories of discovering that difference to her own children, eventually coming to an understanding and reconciliation with her mother-robot, Mabo.  Of the three stories, Mabo most clearly highlights the differences of purpose-built robots.  Mabo herself is easy to visualize, alien, and maternal. The child is perhaps overly naive, but strong and charming.  The ending felt a bit rushed, but I appreciated the complexity and nuance of attempting to reconcile a purpose-built, algorithm-driven machine, with the maternal instincts and drive that those algorithms were intended to create.  My main complaints are the brief interludes with the children, which may be necessary for pacing and occasionally worldbuilding, but mostly just dragged me out of the story building between the girl and her mother.  Also, the language occasionally jumped to light vulgarity in ways that didn't feel particularly natural.  This might have been an intentional play on how robots, and those raised by them, would use different rules for escalating to curses, but I found it jarring.  Of the three stories, Mabo was my favorite.

When They Come Back by Natalia Theodoridou is the story of a wandering cyborg and an angel in a post apocalyptic setting.  The "they" of the title are humans, who have disappeared from the land.  Now most cyborgs hunt angels, who can change their shape (and apparently need to change periodically as they grow exhausted).  Our two main characters wander, looking for hope, and exchanging fantasies about what will happen When They Come Back.  The plot, such as there is, is episodic, with the sense that the story could be continued almost indefinitely if the author wanted to pull out other themes from this world.  Most of the episodes lying between the beginning and the end felt a bit weak, and while I plan a separate post specifically about how I reacted to two of the episodes & what that says about my reading expectations, it's not clear why the story is the length it is, rather than adding or removing an episode.

The ending of When They Come Back is enigmatic, and perhaps over dramatic, but despite my complaints about the episodic nature of the story (again I think this partly reflects my own expectations that stories of any length should point towards ending and get there with all deliberate speed), I found the atmosphere evocative and enjoyable.  I didn't love the story, but I'd like to rediscover it from time to time. I suspect I'd highlight different elements each time.

The concluding story in the anthology, Daddy's Girl, by Eleanor R. Wood, is also the weakest, though even this one managed to finish quickly enough I didn't dislike it.  The premise is that through an experimental procedure the girl's father has been transferred into a robot body, and then the software crashes, leaving him unresponsive.  The story gestures towards a series of dismal economic trends in order to leave the girl without any means to repair her father: the company that originally made the father goes out of business, there is a lack of new research in the field due to economic downturn, the consequences of income inequality are manifested as the girl takes up a paper route in an attempt to save up for the impossibly high fees any repair would cost, and even when she becomes a researcher, she is isolated by the scheming of her fellow academics.  While elements of the story are familiar, there's not enough groundwork to support them.  This would be a problem if the complex setup was more than an opportunity to tell a heartwarming story about a girl driven from a young age to serious studies in order to be reunited with her father.  Beth is just charming and dedicated enough that the story finishes with a warm glow before exasperation at the details take it down.

With a collection, it's worth examining the whole as well as the parts.  In this issue, Crossed Genres tackled Robots, Androids and Cyborgs with a story that presented robots governed by specific yet flexible algorithms, cyborgs whose behavior is nearly indistinguishable from humans other than an irreversible directive against self harm, and an android housing a human identity in all it's complexity.  Between them, the three stories present a variety of relationships and technologies that seem startlingly feasible.  I enjoyed all three of the stories (which I had not expected), and I think they fit well together in imagining ways that we may relate to our technology in its increasing complexity.  As I reflect on the theme, the imagined identities and levels of technology seem somewhat parochial - I would have enjoyed a story utilizing technologies qualitatively different from those we now imagine, rather than simply the added quantitative complexity, and I would have liked a theme that addressed how we now interact in an increasingly connected world.  This issue feels like it could have been imagined and written years ago, rather than imagining a future to come.

That having been said, I enjoyed all three of these stories and think they nicely complement each other.  Mabo is an enjoyable story that does a fundamentally important job of illustrating the differences, strengths and limitations of humans and robots, and reconciling them in a single community and family.  When They Come Back does not lend itself to easy interpretation, and is one that I would like to read and revisit for years to come.  Even Daddy's Girl managed to overcome weaknesses in the premise to charm me into rooting for a long desired family reunion.  Crossed Genres Issue 22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs is worth a read.

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*Unfinished - My reactions to a pair of episodes in When They Come Back and what I think they reveal about my expectations as a reader.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Texts in conversation - Dragonlance & The Coldfire Trilogy

Piggybacking on my earlier notions about science, religion, and nuance.  I'm currently re-reading The Dragonlance Trilogy (because after The Mirror Empire I needed something a tad simpler), and noticed C. S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising on the "dear to my heart" section of my bookshelf, and was struck by how differently religion functions in these two stories.  Between the two series, there are three approaches to religion, highlighting some of the ways religion is presented in Fantasy stories.  In Dragonlance, religion is in some ways simply the functional power it represents in D&D, but also more broadly an assumed characteristic of all people.  Black Sun Rising in contrast, presents religions that have grown up in response to their environment, and shows individual responses to those religions.  My favorite treatment of religion in Black Sun Rising (and the entire The Coldfire Trilogy) is that while acknowledging the world it exists in, elements of the religious faith stretch beyond the world.

(There's a giant disclaimer here - I am familiar primarily with western Christian beliefs and practices.  I grew up in the Presbyterian church and studied medieval Christianity in college.  My goal here is to talk about the ways religion is portrayed in fiction, but to the extent that I'm referencing real-world religious experience, that's the limited context I'm drawing on)

Religion in Dragonlance is mechanistic (it is, after all, based on an RPG).  Gods provide healing power.  Wizards do magic, but can't heal.  Clerics can heal.  It's a bit interesting because all of the gods left a long time ago & have only recently returned, so there are a bare handful of priests around, but basically by identifying as a religious figure (Cleric in D&D terms), the character can use magic to heal & is affiliated with a specific god.  Period, end of sentence.

Except that it's not quite that simple.  The entire impetus for the companions' original excursion was to seek evidence of the old gods, and there's no indication that this was just because they thought the world would be better if more people could cure light wounds.  The major new power in their lands are the Seekers, a group based in a nearby town that claims to be seeking out new gods.  Dwarves and Elves at least claim to remain devoted to their gods, even though there are no clerics in their communities.  Central to Weis & Hickman's view of society, then, is a notion that religion & spirituality must exist.  There's no theology in the series & no ritual, but there is a notion that people will seek out gods.  It's just not quite clear what "religion" is.

Compare Black Sun Rising and the rest of The Coldfire Trilogy.  People have crash-landed on a world where a mysterious power (the fae) makes technology not work but allows them to do magic.  Of course, there are also magical demons who feed on humanity in one way or another.  In this world, Friedman shows a society that has grown and developed for centuries after the landing, but also a few glimpses of the early days.  In those early days, many of the demons formed by people's unconscious came from religious traditions and half-remembered childhood tales.  Centuries later, however, people have come to terms with demons in various ways.  The demons are classified & understood to a large degree.  Some have developed symbiotic relationships & are even worshiped by many residents.  A church has grown up, based on the rejection of the fae.  Friedman returns frequently to the notion that an important aspect of this faith is that the church does not expect miracles.  Surrounded by tangible, common, magic, the church has defined itself as stretching itself towards a world not ruled by these spirits.

Black Sun Rising highlights one of the key challenges many fantasy series struggle with.  When wonders, magic, monsters, and gods exist within the universe, often in ways that have been defined and contextualized, how will religious faith be different from what we experience here where miracles are less prevalent?  Many series portray gods and worshipers, but Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy is one of the few I can think of where a religion has sprung up seeking a consolation that is manifestly not available within the world.  Not founded on divine revelation or miraculous events, the church of the Coldfire Trilogy presents what I think is really an interesting and nuanced view - a striving towards another world, where the grass is greener.

Another thing I appreciate about Black Sun Rising (and particularly the later books of the series) is that different believers have different experiences of the faith.  In my own life, I've known people (believers and not) who have attended church for the community it provides, people who engage deeply with the theology and rituals of their church, and people who identify as religious without attending an organized congregation.  Rarely are the faithful a homogenous group.  Within The Coldfire Trilogy, there are people of greater and less faith, people with different methods of reaching the goal, and those who attend a church seeking a consolation other than the promises of their faith.  The diversity of the members of the church is another strikingly positive aspect of The Coldfire Trilogy.  (Undercut a bit by the presentation of the church on the eastern continent in book 2)

Even fantasy series that present "religion" in some way have wildly different ways of portraying it.  For many series, as in Dragonlance, religion may be assumed without great attention to either ritual or theology, or alternately "religion" may just be another supernatural element of the world like wizards.  Fantasy series like The Coldfire Trilogy that present a nuanced, heterogenous group of the faithful, and a religious experience that truly looks outside the natural confines of the world are rare, and I like to celebrate them.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Meta Monday - I hate blog posts

It's a bit odd to say this, but blogging makes me realize just how much I dislike it as a format.  Big disclaimer below about how I consume blogs. It's also probably worth noting that I'd like to write about (and mostly read about) not time-sensitive things.  News makes sense in a blog format. Posts full of reviews, thinky-thoughts, and "evergreen" topics, less so.

(Before continuing - I consume almost entirely on my phone, through a combination of an RSS reader and sending Twitter links to Instapaper to read later.  This means I don't really get the full effect of beautiful sites like A Dribble of Ink, and I hate being subscribed to a feed like that only sends a teaser, but has plenty of social media share buttons in its feed).

I'd usually like to do a sustained and focused exploration of a book or topic that's noodling in my head, but those aren't really blog-length appropriate (and in particular *I* wouldn't want to read them.). A really long blog post (as some have suggested) is a pain to consume when I'm scrolling through my RSS feed, plus probably needs revision and structural work.  But a series of short posts need a lot of scaffolding to connect them all.

More importantly, in many cases I'd rather discover the best of what someone's been writing, rather than what they're currently writing about.  

After blogging for a while, I'd like to put a pin in a certain topic, assume it as a given going forward (how many times have I linked to Kameron Hurley's We Have Always Fought? Because it's a pretty damn important text I'm thinking about a lot right now, but also maybe not one I need to link every time unless I do?).  Footnotes are maybe good for this, except when they're not.

I'm not sure what to do with this dissatisfaction. I've set up a consumption habit around blogs, and if someone's site foregrounds "my five best things" I'm likely to either miss them or not go to them because that seems like it would take time. It might be interesting to think about why blogs became such a de facto format (and I'm guessing there's a think piece on it out there), but that doesn't really interest me.

Anyway, I'd like to better utilize archives (when I have them), have a space to think out loud, but then eventually a more definitive pink.  Someday.  For now I'll just spit out content at times and you can subscribe, or visit, or read when I link on Twitter as you choose.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Mirror Empire throws down the "fantastic" gauntlet

Bear cavalry with forked tongues.  Cultures with three genders or five.  Hostile, mobile plants. Parallel universes.  Magic drawn from satellites that orbit at irregular periods.  As far as I remember, Kameron Hurley's new novel The Mirror Empire doesn't include a kitchen sink, but pretty much everything else is there.  Those unfamiliar with Kameron Hurley should go read the Hugo-award winning We Have Always Fought.  (Those interested in how to do an online book-marketing campaign should check out this blog tour, btw).  I'm still digesting The Mirror Empire, but there's an element that jumped out immediately: Kameron is clearly throwing down the gauntlet to authors and readers, challenging us to broaden our horizons and expectations for epic fantasy.

Let's start with the non-peopled setting of The Mirror Empire.  Carnivorous plants that can walk around make it dangerous to live outside of guarded settlements.  People ride dogs and giant bears with forked tongues.  A plant-monorail system.  There are at least three moons that orbit irregularly, which give different powers.  Also, there are other very very similar universes, and it's possible to travel between them.  Basically, the world of The Mirror Empire is fantastic in the truest sense of the word.  I've certainly never read a fantasy series (with the possible exception of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, which gets a lot more of it's fantasy from the cosmology & not the world) that really embraces the limitless potential of getting to tell your story in a truly invented world.  Authors - the gauntlet has been thrown down.  Your imagination is the limit.  (Readers too: if these elements alone don't challenge your expectations for "fantasy", something's wrong).  There are a lot of ways that Hurley's novel just begs to be made a movie because of the fantastic setting.

The people and cultures of The Mirror Empire are equally mind-bending.  One is a highly militarized matriarchal society.  Another is based around consent - even before sympathetically reaching out to comfort someone, you ask.  That culture also has five genders and performs ritual cannibalism.  There's another culture with three genders and yet another government structure.  Each of the societies is well-thought out and nuanced, internally and in their interactions with each other.  And with each culture, there are scenes that allow Hurley to deliberately challenge her readers; there's a refrain among many bloggers and critics that there's a sameness developing in pseudo-medieval fantasy, and Hurley absolutely breaks that mold in ways that I certainly found challenging and exhilarating.

There's a scene early on where a general in the matriarchal society comes home to her husband, a kept man she remains married to primarily for his sex appeal.  What I didn't realize until I saw a few people reacting to the scene on twitter was that even though the general has already been introduced as a strong and dynamic character, I read the scene with the husband at the center.  Which is tough as she casually and ruthlessly dominates him.  The Mirror Empire is full of scenes that deliberately challenge established reader expectations, sometimes by directly gender-flipping them and other times in more subtle ways.

And here's where my difficulty with The Mirror Empire comes in.  The world is so complex and fantastic, and Hurley drops you straight into the deep end, that for the first third of the book I felt like I was just along for the ride, enjoying the parade of wonders and hoping that enough would stick for the plot and characters to begin to take shape, which they did.  But even after I stopped feeling like I was treading water, Hurley kept throwing up scenes and storylines that were like looking at traditional fantasy through a funhouse mirror, then shattering the mirror.  Which is tough because so much of my expectation for fantasy is that I'll just be immersed in the world and the story, but The Mirror Empire kept pushing me around and knocking me out of the story.  Sometimes this is clearly an intentional attempt to challenge me to stretch my imagination to fit in an even more fantastic world.  Sometimes it was clunky writing, a character thrust to the fore of a diplomatic mission because he's a protagonist, or the climax of a character arc that just felt rushed and emotionally flat.  There are weaknesses in The Mirror Empire, but it's such an intentional, ambitious, and challenging novel that I'm not sure how many of those weaknesses are just related to my inability to let go of my own preconceptions. "I don't understand" is an empowering phrase.  I repeated that a lot while reading The Mirror Empire.

There's a lot going on in The Mirror Empire.  It generated a lot of buzz in at least my small corner of the twitterverse, and it's a stunning and ambitious book.  I didn't love it, and I wouldn't recommend it unreservedly.  Fans of fantasy who've been drifting away because it's feeling stale or cliched might well find The Mirror Empire to be a gateway back to the genre (and would be rewarded for doing so!).  Enthusiastic readers and other writers should also definitely read and consider what Hurley's doing because The Mirror Empire is very actively in dialog with the surrounding genre.  In some sense she's throwing down the gauntlet for both authors and readers to reconsider the fantastic in fantasy.  I expect that readers will find their expectations constantly challenged, and authors may find themselves inspired to stretch further in the worlds they create.  I certainly hope that the ripples of The Mirror Empire will still be visible years from now.  And I'll be reading it again and again.  I'm just not sure how much I'll be immersed in the story or how much I'll be poking at the scenery, and being bitten.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Casual Sexism: Eifelheim

I recently finished reading Michael Flynn's Eifelheim for book club, and generally really enjoyed it.  By which I mostly mean: I will forgive a great deal of a book that manages to present religion in a respectful way, and I have a particular soft spot for medieval philosophical debates because ridiculously amusing.  (Aside, did you know that there were very real & worrisome questions about how the resurrection of the body would work if you ended up in a river eaten by a fish that someone else later caught and ate because then the same particles would end up in two people and that would be confusing when God raised everyone?)  (Second aside - did you know that on Twitter Ta-Nehisi Coates inspired a bit of a discussion about body/spirit theology because football? Start here.)

Point being: while Eifelheim may or may not be "good" to the extent that that's relevant, it pushes a lot of nice buttons for me.  And until recently, no real downsides.  But this time, I noticed that in the "present" timeline, our protagonist Tom had been a bit of a man-about-town until he finally finally fell in with his girlfriend Sharon.  Sharon is a physicist who's settling Tom down, but not particularly exciting, so he gets to meet librarian Judy: "a fine-featured woman, decked with a long print dress and adorned by large, plain glasses. Her hair met behind her in a tight bun."
"Lieber Gott, Tom thought. An archetype!"

Well yes, but as we'll soon see, not only in the way Flynn meant.  Judy is introduced as a fine-featured woman, and she flushes when Tom speaks to her.

A paragraph later: "That was the nexus. A lonely librarian wanted a human conversation, and a lonely cliologist needed a break from his fruitless hunt".  Coupled with the fact that Tom's just been thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, the archetype Flynn's setting up has all sorts of sexual connotations, and every time we return to the present, there's some reference to Judy the librarian increasingly intruding on Tom's time which his girlfriend resents.

It's all perfectly innocent of course.  Tom and Sharon are An Item, and there's no hint that either Tom or Judy wants to start an affair.  It's just that the present timeline needs a bit of spice, and a lonely, fine-featured librarian to introduce a bit of jealousy is the perfect ingredient.

Tom's girlfriend has a research aide.  He's male.  We never really learn much about his physical appearance, and there are no hints of sparks, jealousy, or anything else, of course.

The sexism in Eifelheim is casual and unconsidered.  It's the sort of thing that I either didn't notice on previous readings, or maybe grinned at a bit.  It's not overt to the point it intrudes on the story, just quietly there.  And now, it detracts from the novel.  Because safe spaces and scaly llamas.  Because for some readers, it's going to reinforce negative views and for others it's going to be actively unpleasant (like being punched in the face at a restaurant) and there's no reason they should have to have that experience while reading Eifelheim.

I can't consume media the same way I used to anymore.  I'm a lot more sensitive to casual racism & sexism than I used to be. I suspect a lot still flies by me (and there is plenty of other writing that's insensitive & insulting to other communities like the disabled, LGBT, and others that I mostly miss).  Sometimes when I notice this, I get a bit sad, because I'd love to read Eifelheim without having the sexism detract from it.  Except, the author could do that to.  The author could write a more inclusive book that's not casually insulting, and then I wouldn't have this problem.  And loads of other people who aren't represented in fiction could also enjoy it.  That would be great.  I guess I'm saying #weneeddiversebooks ?  Also, authors: do better.  I'll reward you by buying your books, because there are fewer and fewer that don't bug me as I'm reading them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Taking Religion Seriously

I've started a re-read of Eifelheim, Michael Flynn's 2006 Hugo-Nominated novel, which I pitched to my book group & discussed on Sunday.  The book flits between 14th century germany and modern grad students (a theoretical physicist and a mathematician essentially trying to do reverse-psychohistory explaining 14th century settlements), and includes alien intruders.  I had forgotten that the main character in 14th century germany is a priest and natural philosopher.  When mysterious lightning crackles through the town, a minorite monk and most of the villagers fear demons and the devil, but it's the priest (Father Dietrich) who remembers the generation of static electricity with fur and amber, and seeks natural explanations.

I commented during my read of Ancillary Justice that I was very happy to see the religious rituals in Radch culture, rituals which did at times play out in how people viewed the world.  Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon features an older ghul-hunter whose magic works as an expression of his faith and knowledge.  Books (speculative fiction and otherwise) that take religion seriously as an important feature of the world not necessarily in opposition to science exist, but they can be hard to find.

So recently, enthused by the natural philosophical ruminations of father Deitrich, I tweeted out:

I know that there's a long history in western thought that aligns science and religion as polar opposites.  I'd be interested in having someone who knows more than I do outline where this came from, what sustains it now, and whether this dichotomy exists in cultures outside of the western european tradition.  There are a few books (Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow comes to mind, and maybe A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, though it's been a while since I read it) that take on the roles of religion and ritual pretty directly.  The (few) arab-inspired books I've read (Throne of the Crescent Moon mentioned above, When Gravity Fails and Desert of Souls) all show practices, garb, and beliefs as elements of the worldbuilding.

This post is, I guess, an invitation to discussion if anyone's interested.  Where does the notion that religion and science must be at each other's throats come from? Are there speculative fiction books that bridge this divide? Harden it? Why are so many books simply silent on either regular weekly rituals or religious beliefs and practices? Is there a place in speculative fiction to bridge the divide between science and religion? And do non-western books and stories do this better?

I'll dive back to the question from time to time, but if anyone else wants to chime in, I'd love to see a conversation about this.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ancillary Justice

After winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, along with the British Science Fiction Association award for best new novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award, (an unprecented feat) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie hardly needs more praise.  It's a fascinating space opera with an artificial intelligence (Breq) as the protagonist, that explicitly raises issues of feminism, colonialism and privilege among the more familiar trappings of science fiction.  It also, to my mind, is a book that leverages the length and structure of a novel perfectly (as opposed to the confines of a short story or the broad sweep of a multi-volume epic).

Any discussion of Ancillary Justice seems to begin where the author herself starts it, with the decision to use the pronoun "she" for every character in the story.
She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn't entirely certain. It wouldn't have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak - my own first language - doesn't mark gender in any way.
Ancillary Justice, p. 3
Better minds than mine have commented on how successful Leckie's decision is, and the value of a specifically feminist book in this genre.  I will point to Leckie's own post and a recent podcast from in which Kate Elliott and N. K. Jemisin talk about bias in the SFF genre.

What I enjoyed so much about the use of "she" everywhere, and the almost complete lack of other gender identifiers, is that by the end of the novel Leckie was able to bring in a host of other important signifiers.  A bit over halfway through Ancillary Justice (yes, my reading habits are so ingrained that it took almost 200 pages) I tweeted
Having laid hundreds of pages of groundwork to get us used to not looking at gender, Leckie gets to start using all sorts of other indicators of social status.  Once Breq and her companion Seivarden arrive in Radch space, the indicators pile up: human or artificial, civilian or military, clan affiliation.  Breq herself, as an outsider is Honored, but not Seivarden's Citizen.  This effect can only work after sustained effort getting us to stop looking at gender.  Hundreds of pages of effort, but a magnificent payoff that makes the Radch empire more immersive than it could otherwise have been.  Here, especially, I think Leckie is leveraging the form of the novel uniquely.  Only with something this long can she have the space to untrain the reader's common expectations of gender & other signifiers in order to really show the Radch empire, but when Ancillary Sword comes out in a month I'm going to need similar "retraining" to really get the effect.

In addition to the work building a feminist novel, Leckie's protagonist is an Artificial Intelligence.  The work alternates between "present day" chapters when Breq has been reduced to a single body and flashbacks when Breq was one aspect of the ship Justice of Toren and specifically a member of the unit One Esk.  In these flashbacks, we often get three or four views in quick succession from the various bodies of Justice of Toren One Esk all in first person but in wildly different parts of a colonized town.  It's a disorienting but extremely effective technique for conveying Breq's essentially alien nature.  After some recent twitter discussions (sample here) pointing out that reviewers who draw comparisons to other books often betray their own biases and more importantly reinforce the notion that men constitute the "canonical" authors and influences, I'm hesitant to point to too many comparisons, but Leckie's construction of Justice of Toren One Esk/Breq, as a relatable but essentially alien protagonist reminded me in many ways of C. J. Cherryh's construction of the alien Atevi in Foreigner (which again took a great deal of groundwork laid throughout the novel).  In both cases, through a series of key scenes and interactions the author forced me to step out of anthropomorphising an alien intelligence, and grapple with them as familiar-but-alien.  Again, Leckie's construction is extremely effective, and allows a series of revelations and immersive experiences (including Breq's interaction with a number of other AI's late in the novel) that could not otherwise occur.  My own favorite moment came early on when Justice of Toren One Esk and a human soldier were stationed together:
"Ships have feelings."
"Yes, of course." Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It's just easier to handle those with emotions. 
Ancillary Justice, p. 88 
There are other observations to make about the foregrounding of discussions of colonialism and entrenched privilege (again, there's a lot of payoff at the end of the novel), but they make the same point again: Leckie does an incredibly effective job using all of the space in her novel to highlight reader assumptions and challenge them in order to essentially retrain the reader in preparation for the climactic scenes in Radch space.  It's a challenge that requires the space of an entire novel, but is well handled.

Again playing with forms and assumptions, Leckie features two main characters.  The active protagonist Breq is an artificial intelligence, created for the use and convenience of the Radch.  Seivarden her unwilling companion is a human stranded far out of space and time.  Where Breq, the AI is active, capable of empathizing with others, and drives the story to its conclusion, Seivarden is passive, lost and alone in a time that no longer recognizes her or the privileged life she had prepared for.  In many ways, Seivarden is a useful tool for Breq to explain alien cultures to, a reminder of key moments in Radch expansion that various characters refer to, and another window into the entrenched power structures of the galactic empire.  She is, in other words, not really a fully fledged character on her own, so much as created for the use and convenience of the author.  In other situations, this is lazy writing, but with an author who has so carefully constructed her novel and the alien AI who drives it, contrasting a human who primarily serves a function in the story is yet another example of playing with the traditional elements of the form.

My only complaint about Ancillary Justice comes with its conclusion (and here inevitably will be spoilers.  Skip ahead if this bothers you.)  Leckie does a great deal of work to get Breq & Seivarden to Radch space, and to bring the reader along with proper expectations in order to see the internal conflicts and power struggles that threaten the empire.  When Breq finally reaches her nearly-impossible goal, things very quickly go to hell.  There are explosions, fights, power struggles, a desperate flight in a spacecraft with the fate of the system and thousands of innocent lives at stake.  Heroics ensue, and the heroes are rewarded.  Book two is set up.  Breq, who has aimed for the last twenty years at a single goal, finds herself unsure of what comes next, but her loyal assistant serves to help move the plot forward one final time.  In a book that up to this point had challenged and subverted so many tropes, raising very real questions about contemporary issues such as entrenched power structures, the legacy of colonialism, and gender relations, the ending felt cliched.  It may be unfair of me to be disappointed that Ancillary Justice does not suggest a response to these issues beyond a single brave actor leading a violent movement (and here perhaps I'm overly influenced by Ian Sales' recent post "Science fiction has lost the plot") but I did feel let down.

****Spoilers done****

Ancillary Justice is a masterpiece that deserved all of the awards it won.  It's a fascinating and hugely important book, that I enjoyed immensely.  What I kept noticing as I thought about Ancillary Justice is how well it used the structure and length of the novel form to achieve many of its goals.  The use of "she" as the pronoun, and freedom to explore other signifiers within Radch space can only come to fruition in a work of this length. Juxtaposing an active, alien, but relatable AI with a passive human supposedly of the culture but who primarily serves to advance the narrative agenda is an interesting structural decision.  Especially in a genre that seems to enjoy piling bookstops on top of bookstops, Ancillary Justice is a delight because of all of the things it does by virtue of being a novel.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Marigolds in Long Hidden has perhaps the most gripping introduction of any of the stories in the anthology.  It's a visceral and horrifying opening scene set in a brothel in Paris during the french revolution, and I can still remember the creeping horror of realizing what is happening as the scene unfolds.  As I read the rest of the story, I found myself vacillating between intense disgust and fascination, and a somewhat dull disinterest until the climax of the story.  At the end, I felt a dissatisfaction which, the more I reflected on it, seemed more a comment on my own reading blind spots than any weakness in the story.  Review below, with spoilers.

"I watch Maurepas enter the room, framed by my knees. He is plump and old, like the others that come to us ... Smelling of cognac and roasted birdflesh, their doughy skin scored by silks and velvets cut for younger bodies. He strips now, this minister, and when the last piece of cloth is discarded he is just another old man." (from Marigolds, p. 91)

The opening of Marigolds is captivating.  The physical details that lead from a woman looking at the ceiling, to her placement in a brothel servicing her client, who is in turn stripped of his finery and revealed as a wrinkly old man, anxious to reclaim some semblance of vitality through the act of sex while the woman is having her period are very effective.  The scene unfolds slowly, revealed through the implication of these details.  Later in the story, characters dig through chamber pots, and the entire magical element of the story is built on the powers of a woman's body when she is having her period.  Magical sigils are being used to encourage the terrible excesses of the revolution  L. S. Johnson excels at presenting these physical details, and while the scenes are disgusting, they also held my attention & were some of the strongest writing in the story.

It's also soon revealed that Claire, our protagonist, is in love with Isabella, one of the other women in the brothel.  In the month between the first and second moments of magical sex, there are a handful of scenes where Claire is teased, survives a riot, and uncovers the secret to the magic that is being worked.  Here is where I found myself disengaging from the story.  The errands seemed mere placeholders, the danger of the riot is clearly not a threat to either Claire or Isabella, so it is mostly just a chance for Claire to be out with her beloved before the climax the following month.

Eventually, though, the women are ready to perform their magic again, and the great ministers come to the brothel again.  Only this time Claire has learned the secrets of the magic, and is putting up a different spell for Isabella.  (I will confess that on first reading I feared Claire was going to essentially give her beloved a love potion.  I was happy to be proved wrong).  The next day, the course of events has not been changed as desired.  Claire and Isabella have both done magic to try to help the other escape! They fight their employer and leave to live happily ever after.

"We do not plot; we suggest.  No hunger, no suffering, no murderous rage. Just the slightest touch on the tiller, turning the world towards something a little kinder, a little sweeter, a little more like love." (Marigolds, p. 104)

I am dissatisfied with this ending.  It feels too pat, and simple.  My reactions after a second reading are less strong than on first reading, however.  When I first read Marigolds, I essentially stopped reading about the relationships after the opening scene.  Claire was secretly in love with one of the other women in the brothel.  From this, I made a whole series of assumptions that laid down blinders as I read the story: Claire would need to keep this attraction secret because it was shameful.  Her love could not be reciprocated because when you're attracted to someone of the same gender, what are the odds that they'll feel the same way?  When the story ended with the two living happily ever after, all my assumptions rose up angrily.  Too pat.  Too much author manipulation.  Implausible.

On a second reading it's clear that in fact Claire's feelings are an open secret in the brothel.  While Claire and Isabella never discuss them, Claire is often teased about her devotion in front of Isabella.  Isabella, for her part, initially rescued Claire and seems to have feelings for her.  Everything I objected to was foreshadowed throughout the story, I simply ignored it because of my own assumptions (and to some extent because I didn't find the prose compelling).  I'm still not particularly satisfied with the conclusion to Marigolds, but after two readings, it's pretty clear that most of my issues on first reading had much more to do with me than the story.

Have I mentioned that I've learned a lot from Long Hidden, including a lot about my own blind spots as I read?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Meta Monday - Discovery

I want to talk for a moment about book discovery, again mostly through the lens of the Kindle & e-books more broadly.  It used to be, I'd walk into a bookstore, browse the shelves, and pick a book. (And yes, I realize now, though I didn't then, how much that's governed by commercial concerns & displays).  If I was lucky, I could look at a library that had a good selection of what I was interested in, or (best of all) an indie bookstore or used bookstore by someone who really knew and loved my genre.

Now, I don't even bother.  My local indie bookstore is a disappointment, though I make an effort to buy books for the girls there, and to order books for me from them.  My local used bookstore folded.  I've been pleased by the selection in the library, but SFF is grouped with general fiction, so the discovery aspect is hardly strong.

I do, however, discover a lot from Twitter.  (I'm not on Facebook or Tumblr in any significant way, so it's tough to know if these can also serve as discovery platforms).  I don't really learn much from book review blogs for a few reasons: first, these seem often to be driven by marketing concerns (i.e. the book that's getting a big marketing push shows up on a lot of review blogs), but also I have difficulty reading a "typical" review (marketing copy, plot summary which repeats the marketing copy to a significant degree, then some response).  There are a handful of reviewers I will read because I learn about reading from them, but it's infrequent that a review prompts me to buy a book (or even read beyond the first few lines).

But here's the thing - I'd like to actively read new to me science fiction and fantasy (a departure from my agenda of the past few years).  I don't particularly care whether it's actually new, beyond the fact that a lot of older SFF is either difficult to find or likely to feel dated, but I'd love to get advice and recommendations.

And there are a lot of voices, particularly on Twitter, that I trust to recommend books.  I regularly email myself tweets in order to add books/authors to my To Be Read pile.

My podcast client is Overcast, which includes a feature that will show the podcasts and recommended episodes of people you follow on Twitter.  I'd love something like that for books.  Some form of bookshelf, curated, easy to follow, with buy links, closely linked to people I follow.  (It's too hard for me on the phone to get from a twitter user to a goodreads list to even check if this is a viable option).

Much as I'm dissatisfied with how Amazon handles the experience of owning and organizing books, I'm also dissatisfied with the experience of discovering new books online.  But good god there's room for someone to come in and develop an easy method to set up links to books tied closely to trusted voices.  The revenue stream is obvious.  Please? Someone? (Pinterest?)

*Unfinished - what would mine look like?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Songs and Habits

I sing my daughter a handful of bedtime songs some nights (when she doesn't just kick me out).
I also read nonfiction self-help books from time to time.  Consider this my review of the ones that have seemed useful.  Mediated through bedtime songs.

I can't go straight from verse 1 / chorus to verse 2 of one of the songs I sing.  There's a mental blank.  After verse 1 / chorus, I quietly cycle through the openings to verse 4 and verse 3, landing on verse 2, and start singing.

This is a habit.  It's part of the cue/routine/reward habit cycle that Charles Duhigg outlines in the The Power of Habit.

If I wanted to, I could change the habit, and indeed can change almost any parts of my behavior/personality.  Because in general most of our characteristics and preferences are mutable, rather than immutable.  Or so I was informed by Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

And of course if changing that habit, or adjusting my mindset in another way seemed hard, I could listen again to Kelly McGonigal's The Willpower Instinct for techniques to increase my willpower.  (which isn't quite the right way to look at it, but close enough).

Or I could just sing to my daughter, little idiosyncrasies intact.

(Note that the reason I have a separate blog about parenting is because this is the parenting version of this post.)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Changing Reading Habits

Picked up Kameron Hurley's Mirror Empire on Tuesday, and in a bit of a fanboy moment yesterday, I tweeted this about changes in my reading habits:
I haven't yet started Mirror Empire (I really want to finish Ancillary Justice first!), but my sense is that Eye of the World might be better replaced by Pawn of Prophecy if I still had that (orphans feature prominently in each book, I believe).  The tweet's a little misleading, since I recently finished re-reading The Wheel of Time and L. E. Modessitt is actually goto comfort reading for me (and specifically Parafaith War), but the basic point remains.

My fantasy used to be straightforward Tolkienesque pseudo-medieval.  Now, I'd rather have a woman writing a book that explores and challenges some of the assumptions in the genre.  I like science fiction (I actually find Ancillary Justice some of the "harder" sci-fi I've read in a while, and it's certainly grander in scale than Modesitt), but again I'm gravitating towards things that challenge me and many of the assumptions in the genre.

After juxtaposing those 4 books, I was most struck that Ancillary Justice and Parafaith War both treat religion seriously, an inclusion I particularly enjoy, and suspect that after finishing Ancillary Justice I may well want to consider those two books in conversation.

All that for the future, however.  For now, I'm going to enjoy some of the new books I'm reading!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Safe Stories in Long Hidden

I started this post a bunch of times, and kept getting bogged down.  And then the Hugos happened, and Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought" won (deservedly) and I re-read it (you should to), and I stopped focusing on arguing about the place of women in wars (not really the point, and the fact that I was focusing there showed I was missing the point), and instead started focusing on llamas and the way they're written about versus how we actually experience them (hint, not actually about llamas).  And then I realized that not only had I re-read a darn good (and award winning!) essay, but also I could lean on Kameron for this piece.

So let's take as a given that stories give us a lens to look at the world, and that sometimes the lens of story can be as influential as our actual experiences, particularly when we don't have a lot of firsthand experience.  And if you don't want to take that as a given, then maybe go read "We Have Always Fought", don't argue with it like I did, and then come back here.  I'll also drop some more links at the bottom.

Long Hidden is an anthology of stories from the margins of history.  (Have I mentioned you should buy it?) Many of those stories are about experiences and histories that I have very little firsthand exposure to, and haven't even read much about.  One of the things I'm most grateful to the authors and editors for is creating a safe space to read these stories.  I don't have to go in with my guard up, looking for a Magical Negro, Damsel in Distress or other damaging stereotypes, but could instead open myself up to unfamiliar experiences.  Two stories in particular really created a safe space for me: The Witch of Tarup and A Score of Roses.  (Witch of Tarup discussed first, with few spoilers, Score of Roses second with all the spoilers).

In The Witch of Tarup, there are a number of characters with physical disabilities.  Some permanent, some temporary.  Traditionally, disabled characters tend to be portrayed as either bitter and angry or else fonts of wisdom who transcend their disability.  Either way, they are defined by that disability.  The Witch of Tarup features neither.  The disabled characters fit into their story and community.  They need assistance at times, but can function with their disability, and are defined by their other characteristics and other ways they've fit into the community.  The story was one of my favorites from the anthology simply in the way it spun out and revealed the very touching conclusion, but also because it gave me a safe space to think about disability as a part of the whole person, rather than the defining characteristic.

Troy Wiggins' A Score of Roses also provides a safe space to tell a story too often negatively stereotyped in both fiction and media.  (Spoilers ahead!)  The two characters in 1870's Memphis are clearly identified as members of the black community by the use of African American Vernacular English (since I had to look up AAVE when I first saw it), but also as non-human spirits.  Together they fall in love, court, raise a child, and the mother (at least) leaves the family.  It is, viewed baldly, a story about what could be described as a broken family, where the child is growing up with only one parent present, the other absent with no clear indication when or if she'll return.  But mostly it's an incredibly tender story about parents falling in love and passing on their strength and identity to their children.  I did not, at all, get the sense from A Score of Roses that the family was broken in any way.  Instead I found myself smiling at the affirmation of strength and love that the characters had for each other.  It was only reflecting afterwards that I realized Troy was threading a needle by telling a story about strength and love in a family situation so often demonized or characterized as broken.  A Score of Roses may not all by itself tear down all of my preconceptions about what family means, but it certainly highlighted some of the ways those preconceptions are dangerous, flawed, and created by narratives.  (Scaly llamas!)

(After re-reading A Score of Roses, I've also remembered what a simply beautiful story it is.  Unfinished: a more detailed response to A Score of Roses by itself, because I have done this story an injustice by only bringing up the way it presents a nontraditional family in a safe, loving and supportive way).

Many of the stories in Long Hidden create safe spaces in one way or another, or challenge the stereotypes that other narratives have created.  I'm grateful to the authors and editors for doing so in a respectful way, and providing me a space to read stories that may make me uncomfortable, but also always challenged and rewarded me.  It's an incredible anthology.

If "We Have Always Fought" wasn't enough for you, more resources on the way our worldview is shaped by narrative, and some of the dangers that entails:
MedievalPOC, which shows how people of color have been removed from our view of medieval and early modern european society.
Nnedi Okorafor on The Magical Negro
Mary Robinette Kowal on writing the stereotype of the "psychotic half breed" while trying to combat other stereotypes
Ta-Nehisi Coates' point that Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns blows up the myth that black ghettoes were caused by illiterate broken families migrating to the north
Ann Leckie on restaurants that do (or don't) punch people in the face.  (Again, not really about restaurants)

Edited to correct title of The Witch of Tarup

Unfinished -
Review of A Score of Roses