Friday, January 23, 2015

Two #ShortSFF stories

As a child, I loved Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Some years later, I fell in love with The Chronicles of Narnia and longed for my own portal to some almost-parallel magical universe.  This month, along with other bloggers, I'm going to discuss two new short stories that bring us into a nearby magical place.   Ruthanna Emrys’ Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land from and Because I Prayed This Word by Alex Dally MacFarlane from Strange Horizons.  Both are beautiful short stories that will be quick to read and yet reward re-reading.  Go ahead and read them before coming back.

Next week we'll be hosting a twitter chat using the #ShortSFF hashtag, so I don't want to dive too deeply into either story, but I have a few thoughts for now, and some questions I'd like to explore further.

First, Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land, in which planting the special seeds of the distant land Tikanu allows people to enter its library, speak (or email!) with the golems who tend it, meet with the fairies and ants who populate the garden, and perhaps even encounter dolphins and learn to defeat Leviathan.  The story is delightful, and Tikanu is dangerous as well as beautiful, demanding effort to preserve and strengthen the land even as it gives gifts of food and lore.  It is the land that so many children (and even adults) long for, but as with most manifestations of Faerie, it is to be entered with care and respect.  After finishing the story, I want magical mint leaves!

In Because I Prayed This World, Alex Dally MacFarlane shows us a city covered with words, specifically love poetry written by and about (as far as I can tell) women.  This city is set up for those excluded from The City of Ladies (a manuscript written by Christine De Pizan in 1405).
Questions crowd at Perrette's mouth like birds at a granary window. She selects the first. "What is this city?"
"A place for women who. . ." The woman's gaze slides away, to the women-shaped words on the door. Perrette wishes she could read that script. "Let me read from this poem: this woman's apron. It was written several centuries ago, by a woman named Hamda bint Ziyad." The woman says nothing for a while, only murmuring under her breath: reminding Perrette of her own murmurings, turning Latin to her own words. Then the woman speaks, and her words hold Perrette like a binding.
"My tears reveal my secrets
in a wadi with traces of beauty
rivers encircling gardens
gardens encircling rivers
among the gazelles, a sweet doe,
full of milk, has grasped my heart
her gaze keeps me from sleeping."
The woman glances at Perrette. "Is that enough? There are more lines. . ."
Perrette, her thoughts full of Barbe, says, "That is enough."
"Think of this as Hamda bint Ziyad's city," the woman says. "And mine. And yours. It is for any woman who shares this love. I, meanwhile, would also love to know your name."

My own reading of this passage is that the city of words is a city for women who love other women.  There is also mention in the story of another city of sound, for women who are illiterate but still part of these cities-which-are-not-Christine's.

I love the City in Because I Prayed This Word.  I enjoy discovering new texts, discussing them with others (fancy that), and disappearing into pages and words and ideas.  I studied Medieval European monasticism in college, so a story that opens with nuns illustrating The Lives of the Desert Fathers immediately intrigued me.  It was a joy to be introduced to various characters in the story, watch them make connections, and eventually also find contacts outside the City in "our" world.  I

Thoughts I haven't fully fleshed out but would love to discuss -
In Because I Prayed This World, the city is entered through doors.  In Seven Commentaries, Tikanu is brought to our world via planting mint.  Is there something to make either of leaving our world vs. bringing magic into our world, or of having a literal portal vs. infiltrating living things like a garden?

In both stories, connections made in the other world carry over into our world, and friendships are formed in our world.  Harold adventures alone, and the children travelling to Narnia mostly travelled for their own development.  When I was a kid, the adventures I wanted to have somewhere else weren't necessarily adventures I wanted to share with others.  Where does this emphasis on community in our world come from?

I am struck that Seven Commentaries constantly builds and recruits new members.  If you can be trusted with Tikanu, anyone can share some plants with you.  Because I Prayed seems less about inviting new people in, but instead giving an often-persecuted subset a safe space.  I think there are lots of jumping off points here to think about communities, but I'm not sure where to go with that, except I hope there's a city for lesbians who like working with their hands?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thanks @tithenai

This is the first of what will hopefully be a few "thank you" posts to people on the internet who've helped me out probably without realizing it.  Many thanks to Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow) on Twitter for providing the impetus to actually write this.  Today I'm saying thank you to Amal El-Mohtar (@tithenai on Twitter).

Early on in my time on Twitter & engaging with SFF Fandom, there was a controversy.  I don't remember the topic, but the general outline will be familiar - an institution (maybe the Hugo awards?) did something that clearly revealed and reinforced the entrenched racism and sexism in the SFF field.  Many people (mostly women) on Twitter pointed this out.  Others (mostly men) suggested that it wasn't that big a deal/people were just stirring up trouble/couldn't we all get back to talking about books we loved?  I was mostly with the men on this one.  I wanted to engage with people who loved the books & stories I did.  I knew (as did all right-thinking people, of course) that racism & sexism were bad, they were on their way out, and so people who saw them everywhere were probably just looking for them and stirring up trouble.  Couldn't we just move away from the drama and back to what we loved?

And then a tweet popped up from Amal to the effect of: "Do you think we enjoy fighting these fights? Don't you think we'd rather be celebrating awesome writing?" (I have the spirit, though not the actual words of the tweet).  I was following Amal because she interacted with Saladin Ahmed, whose Throne of the Crescent Moon helped bring me back to reading fantasy, and so in the strange logic of Twitter connections I took this tweet seriously and paused to think about it a bit.  Amal and many of the other people pointing out the current problems didn't seem to enjoy fighting these fights.  She usually tweeted about poetry and owls and pop songs from decades ago.  Maybe the kerfuffles I was starting to see & get tired of were more important than I thought.  Maybe they were in fact necessary to the health of the genre that I loved.  Most importantly, maybe the people (like me) who wanted them all to just go away were in fact pushing aside lots of voices who did in fact want to celebrate awesome writing (that I'd probably never heard of!)

Since then, one of my guiding principles in Twitter interactions (which I'm learning to apply to other social settings), has been to ask whether the person who is upset or angry seems to enjoy that state.  If they do, I unfollow in a hurry, but if (as is more common) they seem to have many other things they'd rather be doing, then I try to listen and take the concerns seriously.  (And yes, as I type these words I realize that this idea is straightforward & something I should've learned before my late twenties.  I'm a slow learner)

Amal, by the way, does not particularly enjoy these fights.  She reviews books for NPR, responded to an unpleasant short story review (and an overall lack of diversity & critical attention to short fiction) by creating a review column picked up by - Rich and Strange.  She loves owls and good tea.  She wrote my favorite original fiction in Lightspeed Magazine's Women Destroy Science Fiction anthology last year - The Lonely Sea in the Sky.  She also edits Goblin Fruit, a quarterly journal of fantastic poetry, which you can support on their Patreon page.  Returning to the original question, Amal has many other things she's passionate about and is doing lots of positive things to make the genre better.

I don't know whether this particular tweet had an impact on anyone other than me.  I don't know whether many people other than me need to hear that message.  But in case you do -

When you see drama on the internet (or elsewhere), it's worth asking whether the people who are upset seem to enjoy being upset, or if they'd rather be doing something they're more passionate about. 

 If it's the latter, please be quiet and listen.  That's always a good first step.  Later, it might also be worth letting them know that they were heard, they're not just shouting into the void, and that you appreciate them taking their time and energy to make a community better, even though it can be hard and draining.

Thank you Amal, for taking the time and energy to make our community better.  I am sure that tweeting sometimes feels like shouting into the void.  On at least one occasion, you persuaded someone to be quiet and listen, and also to change my attitudes about the books and authors I read, purchase, and talk about.  You also wrote a great story (and tweeted with me when I mentioned I was reading it!).

(btw, if anyone has suggestions for the steps after being quiet, listening and taking people seriously, and letting them know they're heard and appreciated, tweet me or leave a comment)

**ETA (1/30/2015) - In retrospect I made some mistakes with this post.  See below -
First, I didn't tell Amal I was going to post this.  I wrote it, tweeted it (tagging her & someone else who'd suggesting thanking people), and the attention and retweets flooded in.  At the time I was thinking "here's a surprising & delightful thing I can do, I bet it'll really make her day!".  But of course it's also possible that she'd have a problem with some of what I'd said*, be in a position where she didn't want the attention, or be freaked out by some random guy on the internet writing so much about her.  If I wanted to write a combination "what I've learned" and "thank you" post, I'd have been better off contacting her ahead of time to let her know & see if she was OK with this.

Second, I wasn't clear where Amal's opinions left off & mine began.  I do remember seeing the tweet I reference at the beginning (do you think we enjoy being angry?), but didn't actually look it up.  Everything else is my opinion & takeaway from that tweet.  As the line often goes - empathy and good ideas should be credited to Amal, all mistakes my own.
This is particularly important because I was writing about anger, who is allowed to be angry, and my opinions about what voices to listen to.  These are complicated and somewhat personal decisions (depending on how you use Twitter), and often used to marginalize women, people of color, and others.  My opinions are almost certainly not Amal's (which I know in part because of her reaction to my tweet).  Again, a mistake.

To correct this - I reached out to someone who knew Amal & asked for advice, then emailed her to apologize for the ways that I overreached and essentially put words in her mouth.  I'm also updating the blog post.  I'm not publicizing this in Twitter because I don't want to launch any more twitter discussion focused on Amal.  (see mistake #1)

If I were doing something like this again - I'd separate the Thank You & "what I learned" elements of the post.  I'd email the person to say thanks, specify that I don't expect any response, but include at the end of the email a note that I plan to post about the lesson that I've learned (without identifying information, so attention doesn't go past me, but still acknowledging that other people's behavior on Twitter led to my insight - to salve my own feelings about trying to take credit for lessons that others taught me).  I may ask whether they'd like to be included in the "lesson" post, and whether they'd like it to include a larger "thank you" message.  I'd wait a week, then go ahead with the "lesson" post.

Opinions? Did I make other mistakes besides imposing my own attention and not being clear about whose opinion was whose? Should I do something else to correct these mistakes? Is there a better way to do something like this?


Monday, January 5, 2015

Crossed Genres #25 - Indoctrination

I read Crossed Genres' Issue #25: Indoctrination last night and was mostly underwhelmed.  The first story, Cabaret Obscuro was imaginative, but I never really felt enough of the world to really invest in it.  In the story, humans are the dominant members of a society also populated by "xenos", alien lifeforms ranging from cartoon stickmen to hobgoblin magpie trainers and household instruments like mattresses and candles brought to life.  The performances at a human and xeno cabaret are contrasted, critiquing the use of xeno performers as the "freak" or "novelty act".  The thrust of the story felt broadly allegorical (with the xenos standing in for marginalized members of our own society) without enough specificity to provide an interesting critique.  The climactic scene in which our protagonist, the hobgoblin musician/stripper had some emotional force and was more creative and delightful than I'd expected, but mostly this story felt like a neat idea not pushed hard enough to have much force.

The second story Distant Gates of Eden Gleam features a career office clerk brought in to the offices of the Illuminati in order to do some of the grunt work associated with running the world.  A revelation of the first day is that there are 14 continents, cleverly hidden.  The instructions relayed are almost entirely relatively small-time disasters - a forest fire, oil spill, etc.  Not surprisingly, he becomes disenchanted and does something about it, giving a speech about how he never really wanted to be a career office clerk, he was just held back by the poor economy.  After observing that this is a story about a low-level file clerk in the bowels of the Illuminat, there's not much more to say.

The third story, The Lion God (which I immediately renamed Subverting Aslan in my head), had some potential.  A great lion has come to earth, performed various miracles (mostly healing-related), and his very presence compels worship and adulation.  The lion has set himself up as God and (perhaps unsurprisingly) implemented a relatively socially conservative society, ensuring at least a few rebels.  The story is told from the perspective of one of these rebels during her inquisition by the Lion God himself.

The Lion God got a lot of points for me because the Lion God was genuinely godlike.  He's a big, impressive force who performs genuine miracles and inspires worship even in rebels like the protagonist.  I've talked before about appreciating science fiction & fantasy that take religion and gods seriously, and this story does.  It also gets points for the sheer insolence of basically dropping Aslan into a New York broadcast center.  That was pretty awesome.

One of the problems I had with The Lion God was simply a matter of taste - the protagonist is young and impertinent with lines like "In that moment I know that 'Licorice Death' will be the name of my next band".  I didn't enjoy this at all, and it knocked me out of the story a bit.  More broadly, though, the complaints against the Lion God are predictable, especially for Crossed Genres' audience.  Aslan is enforcing the patriarchy - women are banned from boxing and wearing pants is frowned upon.  Years of fiction like The Handmaid's Tale are doing the heavy lifting for this story, along with the ongoing and important discussions within the genre.

The Lion God is a fine story.  I was delighted (over and over again) at the realization that the author dropped Aslan into a modern broadcast center and made him the villain of a story.  I was grateful to the author for presenting a truly godlike creature and never pulling back the curtain to reveal some illusion.  And yet despite the strengths of these concepts, the actual grievances against Aslan were stale, the story lasted a bit too long, and the conclusion was a bit of a letdown.

Overall, I wasn't a huge fan of this issue, but I found pieces of each story to enjoy.  There's a lot of emotional strength in the final scene of Cabaret Obscuro (and probably a lot more for more marginalized readers than there was for me), I just wish the rest of the story had led me to it more strongly.  I think the core concept in Distant Gates of Eden Gleam was worth telling, I just wish it'd showed up in a shorter & punchier form.  I will always be happy that I've read Aslan Subverted (and probably will never read The Chronicles of Narnia the same way again), so that's a story I didn't even know I needed checked off my to be read list.  But sometimes when you only make space in your lineup of authors for men, the overall product falls a bit short.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Year End Book List

I did a midyear roundup, but here's the wrap of the books I read this year:
  • Persuasion, by Jane Austen (Fiction, Woman Author, Book Club)
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction, Woman Author, POC Author)
  • Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George B. Dyson (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic (Fiction, Translation)
  • Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams, Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, A Memory of Light all by Robert Jordan or Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, the end of my Wheel of Time re-read.  (Fiction, SFF) 5 books
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon (Fiction, SFF, Nebula award nominee)
  • King Rat by James Clavell (Fiction, book club)
  • An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (Nonfiction)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Nonfiction, Book Club, Woman Author)
  • The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones (Fiction, SFF)
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (Nonfiction)
  • The Martian by Andy Weir (Fiction, SFF)
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman (Fiction, SFF)
  • The Absolute Sandman Vol 1 by Neil Gaiman (Fiction, SFF)
  • Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross by Richard Winston (Nonfiction)
  • Dawn by Octavia Butler (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author, POC Author)
  • The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Fiction, SFF)
  • Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • On Basilisk Station by David Weber (Fiction, SFF)
  • Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older (Fiction, Short Stories, SFF) - editors are nonbinary and person of color
  • Swords and Deviltry (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser #1) by Fritz Leiber (Fiction, SFF)
  • Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author) 2 books
  • Jaran by Kate Elliott (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author)
  • Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (Fiction, SFF, Book Club)
  • Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author)†
  • Swords Against Death (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser #2) by Fritz Leiber (Fiction, SFF)
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • Night's Black Agents by Fritz Leiber (Fiction, SFF)
  • Upgraded edited by Neil Clarke (Fiction, Short Stories, SFF)
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author, POC Author)
  • Heart of Veridon (The Burn Cycle #1) by Tim Akers (Fiction, SFF)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author) 3 books
  • Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • The Three-Body Problem (Three Body #1) by Cixin Liu, Translated Ken Liu (Fiction, SFF, Translation, POC Author)
  • Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler (Fiction, SFF, Woman Author, POC Author) 2 books
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Nonfiction, Book Club)

That's 45 books.
Book Club - 8 books
Written/Edited by woman/nonbinary - 13 (9 in the second half of the year)
Written/Edited by person of color - 7 (only male POC are Daniel José Older, co-editor of Long Hidden, and Cixin Liu, the Chinese author of The Three Body Problem) (5 of these came in the second half of the year)
Sci-Fi or Fantasy - 32 (20 second half of the year)
Nonfiction - 9 (3 in the second half of the year)

General observations - basically all of my nonfiction reading came from book club, which I find a bit disappointing. I have good intentions of reading nonfiction, I just rarely pick it up. I dove back into Science Fiction/Fantasy in a big way later in the year. Some re-reads, some new-to-me older reads, some contemporary titles. (I read all but 2 of the currently buzzing titles that I'm at all interested in.  Still want to check out Goblin Emperor and maybe City of Stairs).  I am encouraged that my reading was more diverse in the second half of the year (partly simply because I finished The Wheel of Time)

Standout reading experiences of the year included -

Long Hidden - This kickstarted anthology was simply fantastic.  What amazes me is that every discussion/blog post I've seen about it highlights different stories.  For me, Marigolds, Collected Likenesses and Lone Women were three of the most engaging stories, but nearly every story would stand out as a "best" of nearly any other anthology I've read.

The Three Body Problem - This hard Chinese science fiction was an engaging read that I've been wanting for a while without quite being able to put my finger on.  The science explanations, going into problems of multiple star/planet systems, how a computer works, and delving into some more theoretical physics, encouraged me to imagine how science works.  All of this was presented from the unfamiliar perspective of modern china.  I'm not sure how realistic or complete this perspective is (Ken Liu has me pretty well convinced that looking for a "complete" view of Chinese speculative fiction would be nonsense), but I wrote about how important it was for me to read something that didn't center me.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor is a first-contact story with aliens landing in Lagos, Nigeria.  Due to publishing quirks it's not yet available in the US (and I'm going to be very disappointed if this ruins its award chances), but I grabbed the Audible copy, which was a great choice.  The narrators and accents were excellent.  I enjoyed Okorafor's style, but also the interweaving of science and popular culture, the visions of the natural world, and the optimistic tone.  

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice was fantastic, as all of the awards, reviews, etc. indicate.  I'd have been blown away by Ancillary Sword had it been anything other than the sequel to Ancillary Justice.

Octavia Butler (Dawn and Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents) - I've heard Octavia Butler's name for years now, but hadn't ever read anything of hers.  Dawn was an incredibly good first contact-ish story that raised some very important questions about human identity and power relations.  The Parable books are prophetic dystopias that feel incredibly relevant in the age of #BlackLivesMatter.  I've more or less sworn off dystopias (post I still need to write), but the Parable stories feel like the essential dystopias that should stand up and be cited along with 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale.

Rereading Kate Elliott's Jaran and N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy Omnibus has been a great pleasure.  My wife was recently between books and commented that "maybe I'll just read Jaran.  It's so good, which is why I end up reading it twice a year." I think this is exactly right.  I tend not to read for character interactions (one weakness of The Three Body Problem that I didn't even notice until I read some other reviews) but Jaran has a fantastic group of characters interacting in fascinating and delightful ways inside a fully-realized culture.  
When I first read the Inheritance Trilogy I was simply carried away by Nahadoth, who is such a compelling and overwhelming character.  I was actually worried about rereading this series, but it's even more fascinating and rewarding than I had remembered.  Having grown up on Lord of the Rings, Shannara, and The Wheel of Time, the Inheritance Trilogy gives me all of the vast, epic feel I love while simultaneously highlighting so many of the weaknesses in "Epic" fantasy.  I had remembered that Jemisin's gods are so vast and unknowable that they overhang the entire series (and show up every Olympian-ish god out there), but I had forgotten (or just missed) how much the series sets up a privileged group that aspires (literally) to cast the world in it's image and undercuts those notions of universality.  
Both Jaran and The Inheritance Trilogy are things I'll return to frequently, and recommend to anyone interested in speculative ficiton.

I also discovered short stories this year.  I'm rereading the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (an interesting anthology that's definitely showing it's age), read Long Hidden, Women Destroy Science Fiction (another kickstarted anthology, good but with a more uneven fiction selection), and Upgraded from Clarkesworld.  Short fiction is still a struggle for me - there are a lot of outlets and I haven't really worked short stories into my reading patterns, but I've been encouraged enough by what I've found that I really want to read more.

Disappointments - My big disappointment this year was The Martian.  Aaron Roberts' review (and in particular Ian Sales' comment) hits the nail on the head for me - this was so pedestrian as to be both uninteresting and unrealistic.  Man cannot live on potatoes alone.  It does occur to me that I've been wanting to read "hard" science fiction (which for me means stuff that foregrounds science that can be measured, although I realize this definition has some problems) and jumped at The Martian for that reason.  Maybe there's just not much out there right now? Rec me some, please!

Fire with Fire was awful in its portrayal of women, and the obsession with guns was uninteresting for me.  Nebula award nominees will probably not be a reading challenge I try again.  

I may re-read The Wheel of Time again sometime (I think Sanderson actually did a great job salvaging a series that had lost its way), but it's very much lost it's lustre.

Going Forward - In 2015, I do want to read some older "hard" SF to understand where that's coming from.  I'd like to avoid Heinlein and Asimov's Foundation series (which seem to have a lot of bizarre pseudo-social sciences) and find some things more like Hal Clement's Heavy Planet.  I solicited recommendations, but please drop me more.

I'm planning to reread another big epic fantasy series.  I was considering Erikson's Malazan, but I think it'll be Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars.  Likely in conjunction with reading a bunch of Elliott's backlist as well as her three(!) new books coming in 2015 (a collection of short stories, Black Wolves, a new epic fantasy, and Court of Fives, a debut YA novel).  N. K. Jemisin also has a new series starting next year.  My other goal is to dive into short fiction.  I want to read it, understand what's going on with short fiction, and find some more exciting authors.  Finally I want to read more people of color.  Daniel José Older's Half Resurrection Blues drops January 6.  I'm going to retry David Anthony Durham's Acacia, and try Samuel Delaney.  Again I'd love more recommendations!