“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.)

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…

Books read February

February was dominated by one book and one book only: Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, which I started at the beginning of the month and only finished in the last week of February. Very unlike me, I couldn’t read anything else beside it, because this was a book that demanded and got my full attention. I needed to concentrate to read it and when not reading it, I had no desire left for other books.

Fortunately Dhalgren is a masterpiece, one of the greatest novels ever produced as science fiction, so I didn’t begrudge its monopoly claim on my reading.

However, I did manage to squeeze one other book into my reading at the end of the month, K. W. Jeter’s Morlock Night which, as both Jeter and afterword writer Adam Roberts take great pains to tell you, is one of the books that created the steampunk genre back in the late eighties. I’m not actually sure I agree with that: there were steampunk books published before it that actually have more in common with the genre as it exists now than this book does. It’s also not as good a book as it thinks it is, glorified pulp ultimately.

Terminal World — Alastair Reynolds

Cover of Terminal World

Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds
487 pages
published in 2010

I find Alastair Reynolds hard to review. I like his work well enough to keep reading his novels, but I find it hard to say anything useful about them. As a writer, he has his feet planted firmly in the hard science fiction camp, where “hard” means no FTL ships or time travel and only the right sort of technobabble and jargon. He is however, unlike far too many American hard sf writers, not blind to literary virtues and not half bad at creating plausible, lived in futures either. All in all, most of his novels are solid, core science fiction, where if you like that sort of thing you’ll like them, but perhaps with not much to talk about other than the plot or the setting. They’re evolutionary, rather than revolutionary novels.

Terminal World is a case in point. This is a standalone adventure story set in the far future, where the world as we know it has changed considerably. It’s slowly dying, with what remains of humanity clustered on and around a gigantic artificial spire called Spearpoint, which from top to bottom is divided into zones of ever decreasing technology: Circuit City, Neon Heights, Steamtown, etc. Transfering from one zone to another is not easy: people who do it suffer from zone sickness, while higher technology stops working in a lower tech zone. Away from Spearpoint the world is largely wilderness, with the various zones becoming much larger as they spread out from the spire. What we have here in fact, is the planetary equivalent of Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thoughts he divided the galaxy in, in A Fire Upon the Deep and sequels. It’s a great setting, with a never quite revealed secret at the heart of it observant readers might puzzle out for themselves.

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Ancillary Justice — Ann Leckie

Cover of Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
385 pages
published in 2013

It’s funny how you don’t notice how ingrained gender is until you get your nose rubbed in it. In Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie makes it clear by the third page that when her protagonist Breq uses “she” and “her” she uses it as a neutral pronoun, yet unless I paid close attention or Leckie explicitly outed a character as male, I kept thinking of every character she meets as female. That’s I think a response more readers will have, as we’re just not used to thinking of the female form as universal; traditonally it has always been “he” or “him”, or something like singular “they” for those of us aware that the male isn’t actually universal. It may seem like a too clever writing trick, a clumpsy attempt at showing the reader the gender assumptions build into the very language we use, but I don’t think this is actually what Leckie had in mind. What it does instead is establishing the fundamental strangeness of Breq herself even before we learn she’s the last remaining component of a thousands years old warship’s AI.

That consistent use of “she” and “her” foregrounds the difference of the Radchaai culture Breq comes from. It’s a bit of unexplained strangeness that tells a lot about their society, culture and history, most importantly that the Radchaai are inherently matriarchal in the same way most if not all actually existing human societies are patriarchal. But there’s more going on with Breq’s gender blindness, as other Radchaai seem to have far less trouble differiating between men and women, even if they use the same pronouns for both. Meanwhile Breq not only has pronoun troubles, she also has trouble remembering which secondary sexual characteristics are male and which are female. It’s this that singles her out as not quite human.

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Plague Ship — Andre Norton

Cover of Plague Ship

Plague Ship
Andre Norton
192 pages
published in 1956

Hold on to your tail fins, space fans. This retro rocket boosted tale is sure to knock you out of your orbit. Oy, did this very fifties future slang get old fast in Plague Ship. This is another of Norton’s books at Project Gutenberg and mildly irritating as its language occasionally was, it was also the perfect kind of light adventure science fiction to be read in small snatches on my phone, while getting coffee at work.

Plague Ship is the second in Norton’s Solar Queen series, about the adventures of the crew of the ship the series is named after, free traders trying to eke out a living making the kind of trading deals the big companies can’t. The Solar Queen is literally a huge rocket ship, complete with humongous fifties tail fins to land on. Amongst its crew is Dane Thorson, Cargo-master-apprentice and our hero, prone to saying things like “rest easy on your fins” and “right up the rockets” and all other sorts of horrid expressions you have to read around.

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Books read January

With the first month of 2014 done, I’m reasonably satisfied in what and how much I’ve read. Eight books, five science fiction, one fantasy, two non-fiction. Could be better, could be worse. Five female writers, three male; I’m still trying to keep a rough gender equality in what I read.

Key out of Time –Andre Norton
Another novel in the series that started with Time Traders finds Ross and friends stranded in the prehistory of an alien planet. More decent young adult adventure science fiction.

Rocannon’s World — Ursula K. LeGuin
An early LeGuin science fiction novel, not nearly as good or interesting as the novels she made her reputation with, but still of interest for fans.

Women in Medieval Europe 1200-1500 — Jennifer Ward
A thorough introduction to the roles women could and did play in the late middle ages.

Soviet Operational and Tactical Combat in Manchuria, 1945 — David Glantz
An examination of the Soviet campaign against the Japanese late in World War II, in which they basically crushed the Japanese forces in Manchuria in barely a week.

Pushing Ice — Alastair Reynolds
When Janus, one of Saturn’s moons, turns out not to be and leaves it orbit, only the Rockhopper is in place to follow it. Just another gritty Reynolds hard science fiction bravoura.

The Killing Moon — N. K. Jemisin
First in a duology (so far) of fantasy novels inspired by certain aspects of Egyptian history and mythology.

Zoe’s Tale — John Scalzi
The fourth in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, a retelling of the third one, now told through the eyes of the seventeen year old daughter of that novel’s protagonists.

Ascension — Jacqueline Koyanagi
Alana Quick is a starship engineer in a galactic wide depression when nobody needs starship engineers anymore. She stows away on the Tangled Axon and falls in love with its captain, Tev, — “blond hair, boots and confidence”.