“It’s possible I have bitten off more than I can chew”

I’m more than slightly in awe of Olivia Waite. For the blogging from A to Z in April challenge she decided to do a series of posts on intersectional feminism in Romance, leading to such gems as this review of Sandra Hill’s Frankly My Dear:

This is the petty tyranny of inconvenience — just as the heroine believes that her individual comfort somehow justifies the enslavement of roughly a hundred other human beings, romance readers feel it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to reflect on the ways the genre not only has marginalized but continues to marginalize not only characters, but also readers and authors of color. This book was not written by an obscure self-published writer with a small niche audience. Sandra Hill is a New York Times bestselling author, a genre mainstay for the past two decades; she is still writing books set in the contemporary South, though I am certainly not going to read them.

In her introduction post she sets out how she will do this:

Every day in April, Sundays excepted, I will post about an author or a book that features something other than the straight white wealthy cis able-bodied mold romance is so wedded to (see what I did there?). These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. Many of the books are no longer new, so if you can think of more recent releases that grapple with the same issues, please mention them.

Every day in April, Sundays excepted, I will post about an author or a book that features something other than the straight white wealthy cis able-bodied mold romance is so wedded to (see what I did there?). These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. Many of the books are no longer new, so if you can think of more recent releases that grapple with the same issues, please mention them.

Sometimes, as with Sandra Hill’s novel, this means looking at a problematic work to see what it’s doing wrong and what this means for romance as a genre, sometimes, as with Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, it means looking at a book that gets it right and show how it does it:

It’s easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi’s luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who’s in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters’ disability is a plot point, but it’s not The Plot Point — the same goes for queerness and race: they’re baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can’t wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

And I’m so glad that finally not only has somebody else heard of Ascenscion, but she seems to like it as much as I liked it. It’s a novel I found only by accident, in the for sale section of a local bookstore and which nobody else online seems to have read, unlike say Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is somewhat similar.

I’m not much of a romance reader myself, but it is interesting to read these reviews and certainly some of them make me curious about the books reviewed, like e.g. Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s impressive not so much to write a post each day — I’ve managed to do that for long periods of time myself — but rather to write such substantial and insightful posts on such a difficult subject day after day.

(Found via Natalie Luhrs, who has a knack of finding interesting, chewy sort of links.)

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

It’s incredibly tense in the English Premier League at the moment, with three teams fighting for the title. With Manchester United disintegrating and lucky to secure European football, the much anticipated Spurs title challenge fizzing out and Arsenal struggling to even reach their customary fourth place and access to the Champions League, it’s up to Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool FC. The latter two met last Sunday in an emotional, stressfull match which saw Liverpool win 3-2, setting a giant step forwards to winning the title. For Liverpool fans and many neutrals it would be wonderful for Liverpool to win it now, because it’s been twentyfour years since their last one, because of Steve Gerrard who, a single childhood slipup aside, has always been loyal to Liverpool and won everything but the title with them, but mostly because it’s been exactly twentyfive years since the Hillsborough Disaster and just weeks after a new inquest into the disaster and the coverup has started.

It all started as a normal FA Cup between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, but after only six minutes the game was abandoned as the Liverpool fans in the away end climbed over the crush barrier onto the fields. At first it was thought to be just another example of fans misbehaving but it soon became clear something monstrous was happening, as shown in BBC’s Match of the Day that night.

Ninetysix people died that day and the disaster hit the city of Liverpool hard, not just because of the deaths, but also because of the coverup by the police that followed the disaster, as recounted in a BBC Panorama investigation from last year. Though initial reports into the disaster had laid the blame for it on the shoulders of the South Yorkshire police for inadequacies in handling the crowd that day, much of the particulars of what exactly had happened remained unknown, while the police and the media started blaming the Liverpool supporters themselves for what happened, most notably in the Sun, still being boycotted in Liverpool to this day.

Football supporters in the late eighties were largely seen as scum, hooligans and criminals and the Heysel disaster — in which Liverpool supporters had attacked Juventus fans during the 1985 Europa Cup Final, resulting in the death of thirtynine supporters when a wall collapsed — was fresh in people’s memories. The narrative therefore that Hillsborough was another Heysel was easy to believe. Yet in Liverpool and amongst the survivors and relatives of those that had died in Hillsborough there was a need for justice that never abated, organising to both keep the memory of those who had died alive and to seek justice for their deaths.

It all came to a head at the 20th anniversary of the disaster, as the speech of the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, MP Andy Burnham was interrupted by shouts of justice for the 96; four days later the government decided to open up police files about the disaster, leading to the setting up of the Hillsborough Independent Panel reinvestigating the disaster and its aftermath, two years ago reaching the conclusion that there was indeed a coverup.

Now, twentyfive years after the disaster a new, proper inquest has started at the same time as both of the city’s football clubs are doing the best in the League they’ve done for years, Everton in the race for fourth place, Liverpool chasing their first title in twentyfour years. Is it any wonder both fans and players, Steve Gerrard especially, who lost a cousin at Hillsborough, get a little emotional?

The women fandom doesn’t see

Foz Meadows aks, if we’re so annoyed at how mainstream media portrays nerds and fandom, why do we do the same when it comes to determining who is the real geek:

Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.

To be honest, I should be the last to complain about this, as being a fat, bearded and ponytailed speccy bastard I’ve certainly profited from this image, being taken far more seriously at work or in fandom than I’ve sometimes deserved, just for looking the part. And I’ve certainly been guilty of assuming that fandom is mostly white and male, even when I should and did know better.

It’s a trap that Joanna Russ warned us about already, in How To Suppress Women’s Writing. If women, if people of colour, keep on being seen as new to fandom, even by those who welcome them to it, they never quite become part of fandom, regardless of how long they’ve objectively been a part of it. It’s that constant surprise that women are reading science fiction, playing games, writing fanfic, the privileging of supposedly masculine hobbies (videogames, roleplaying) over female ones (cosplay, fanfic) and the rewriting of history that excludes or minimises those who aren’t white men. Half the time it’s not even done consciously, just a reflection of the culture fandom moves in.

The struggle to make fandom as a whole more inclusive, more welcoming, might therefore (temporarily?) make those women and/or people of colour already in fandom feel less included as well as empower them, if the focus in such struggles remains on the novelty of having such exotic creatures in fandom. Or alternatively, if the onus remains on women, on people of colour or LGBT people to prove that they belong in fandom, have history in fandom. What we (white men) need to do is not just welcome, but embed everybody else’s history in our own, to take the Russ pledge: The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men.

Because we have been here before as fandom, in the sixties and seventies and we did try and be inclusive, be more welcoming. But what happened was that we got the “women in comics” panels, but then those became all any woman was invited to appear on. We need to move beyond feminism 101 and inclusion 101. How to do that? I’m not sure, but I still believe voluntary quotas are part of the answer.

No Riesman, making Captain America a dick isn’t interesting

Abraham Riesman gets Captain America all wrong, because he’s ignorant:

cover of Captain America Comics #1, with Cap punches Hitler

Let’s think about that core story for a minute. Imagine someone frozen in the 1940s being dropped into the 2010s with no experience of the intervening decades. Someone still high on ’40s social norms, righteous wartime adrenaline, and super-serum. Would he be the gentle, sensitive man we see in Marvel’s films and comics? It’s certainly possible. But isn’t it more likely — and more interesting to imagine — that we would find him difficult and reactionary? That he’d be uncomfortably macho and out of touch with modern values? In other words: Wouldn’t he be more John McCain than Barack Obama?


Because Captain America isn’t just “someone frozen in the 1940s”, he’s a premature anti-fascist who grew in the Brooklyn of the 1930s, in Roosevelt’s New Deal America, who cared enough about the growning menace of fascism to volunteer for a dangerous, dodgy experiment after every draft board in New York had rejected him. He punched out Hitler in his very first cover for heaven’s sake, a year before the US would declare war on Germany. He let himself be made into an ubermensch just to fight those who actually think in terms of unter and ubermenschen. That was there from Captain America Comics #1, put in there by his Jewish-American creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

And when Lee and Kirby brought him back in the sixties, it was clear from the start that no matter how much trouble he had adjusting to the modern world, intolerance and machismo wasn’t part of it; the first actual African-American superhero (the same as in the new movie) debuted in Captain America. What Cap struggled with instead was with having his friends and family aged or gone, having to adjust to a world that went through several decades of change without him.

Riesman’s idea of a man out of time being an ignorant, reactionary dick is about the most dull and obvious you can have and it’s no wonder he takes his lead from the execrable Ultimates series.

Norman Rockwell: The Problem We All Live With

I like Lawyers, Guns and Money commenter Sly’s view of Captain America much better:

The best way to understand Captain America is that he is “weaponized Norman Rockwell.” And not just the Norman Rockwell who painted Boy Scouts, Santa Claus, and baseball games, but the Norman Rockwell who painted Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Rosie the Riveter, and little black girls being escorted to desegregated schools by Federal marshals.

Both Rockwell and Cap were actually much more lefty than their sanitised images — pushed by the sort of conservatives who imagine the American flag is theirs and theirs alone — allow for. Rockwell’s art, before, during and after World War II had a political, liberal left content that’s been ignored since. That iconic image of the townhall meeting from the Four Freedoms series of paintings has so often been appropriated as a nostalgic vision of America’s small town roots, stripped from the context that made it radical.

The same of course goes for Captain America, who can look so easily like just another jingoistic symbol of America, for those who can’t look past his star spangled uniform. But Cap only works when his writers acknowledge the fundamental decenty and honesty of the character, his genuine Roosevelt Democrat beliefs.

What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton

Cover of What Makes this Book So Great

What Makes this Book So Great
Jo Walton
446 pages
published in 2014

What Makes this Book So Great is that it’s written by Jo Walton, who has a real talent for making you both reconsider books you know well or long for books you’ve never heard of before. I’ve known Jo for almost twenty years now, from when we both independently discovered internet, usenet and rec.arts.sf.written, where it didn’t take long for her to become one of the most interesting posters there. It was no great surprise that she became a professional writer, or that Tor would ask her to do the same thing she did on usenet on their website, the end result of which is this book. You could call it the non-fiction counterpart of Jo’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others

What this is than is a collection of some 130 columns written for tor.com in 2008-2010, mostly discussing a single book, sometimes going into more general topics about reading books. As Jo makes clear from the start, she isn’t a critic and she’s not reviewing these books, she’s just writing about the books she’s reading and why she likes them. Because she’s been reading for a long time, because she’s a writer herself, because she’s been thinking and talking about books, about science fiction in the ways only an intelligent lifelong reader can, these columns are interesting whether or not you’ve read the books in question.

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Books read March

I struggled with my reading this month, starting but not yet finishing several novels (The Creative Fire, Deathless), “Wasting” a lot of reading time. Two fantasy novels, one science fiction, two non-fiction books this week.

The Shadowed Sun — N. K. Jemisin
Second in a duology of Egyptian inspired fantasy set on a world orbiting a gas giant, this one deals with the consequences of the end of the last one.

Dark Eden — Chris Beckett
This won last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s a decent enough sf heartland adventure story, but fell somewhat flat for me.

The European Colonial Empires 1815 – 1919 — H. L. Wesseling
An overview of the height of the European colonial system.

What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton
What makes this book so great is Jo Walton’s voice, who gets you passionate and interested in books you may never have considered otherwise.

Blood Price — Tanya Huff
First in an urban fantasy series. Not normally my cup of tea, but everything I’ve read of Huff I liked, so I bought more or less the entire series in one go.

Dark Eden — Chris Beckett

Cover of Dark Eden

Dark Eden
Chris Beckett
404 pages
published in 2012

Dark Eden won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also a finalist for the BSFA Award, which is why I got it from the library when I saw it there. It won against fairly stiff competition like Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion as well, so I was curious to see if it was worthy of the win. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed. This isn’t a bad novel, but it’s a bit on the slight side for my liking.

To start with the positives, the world Beckett depicts in Dark Eden, a planet far out in interstellar space, a rogue wanderer without a sun, with life only possible through the presence of geothermal energy, which the local lifeforms have evolved to make use off one way or another. Trees grow out of the heat channels running from the planet’s core, the basis for a complex ecology that luckily for the people that crashed into Eden, turns out to be compatible with human life. Five people landed on Eden, three people decided to try and leave again, two remained behind and started a family. Twohundred years later their descendants number roughly fivehundred, still living in the same valley their ancestors landed in, having degenerated into hunter gatherers, losing most skills and knowledge of their ancestors in the process.

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Moar book loot

slightly too many books bought

So on a whim I decided to go to my favourite secondhand bookstore in Amsterdam, only to find they’d just gotten a shedload of science fiction/fantasy in as well as added a new comics section. This led me to getting slightly more books than I’d counted on.

But at least I got a lot of books I’d been looking for for donkeys. Tricia Sullivan’s Maul for one, as well as Dreaming in Smoke, sound Mind and Someone to Watch over Me. There’s Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Robert Reed’s Down the Bright Way, as recommended by Jo Walton, several Bruce Sterling books (Crystal Express, Zeitgeist and A Good Old-Fashioned Future), the last in a John Meaney trilogy (Resolution) I needed, two Greg Egan books: Quarantine, Oceanic and one of K. W. Jeter’s steampunk novels (Infernal Devices).

I also got Tanya Huff’s complete Blood … series, a lot of Elizabeth Bear’s Promothean Age novels (as well as her science fiction novel Undertow) not to mention some more Gwyneth Jones books: Rainbow Bridge, White Queen and Divine Endurance as well as a Juanita Coulson novel, Star Sister to try out and perhaps review for SF Mistressworks.

Comics wise it was a mixed bag: two Pete Bagge collections of early, Neat Stuff work, an Marvel Essential Hulk collection, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, two volumes of Russell: the Saga of a Peaceful Man, A Smithonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, a thick slab of Strontium Dog, Oscar Zarate’s It’s Dark in London, a Samuel Delany adaptation, Bread and Wine and finally, Kyle Baker Cartoonist Volume 2.

And then I got home and the latest volume in Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was waiting for me…