“a covert kind of feminist SF”

In ada, “a journal of gender, new media & technology”, Lucy Baker looks at how Lois McMaster Bujold treats the birthing process in her Vorkosigan series and how it echoes real world feminist concerns:

Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction (SF) relies on the symbiotic relationship between the technological and the social. This is often illustrated by the tension between the scientific and medicalized process of reproduction (via uterine replicators, cloning, and genetic modification) and the primal, ‘natural’ process. Varied levels of technological advancement and associated societal changes across the myriad planets within her SF universe allow Bujold to structure this tension as an emotional and social process as much as a medical or obstetrical one, while maintaining a respect for the choices, risks, and vulnerabilities involved in becoming pregnant.

[...]

Bujold’s SF work highlights and integrates women’s experiences into the narrative. It is this examination and ultimately hopeful yet practical approach that makes Bujold’s work feminist – it is “Invention…stories and role models and possibilities, that prepare us to leap barriers and scale heights no one has reached before, that prepare us to change the world.” (Gomoll 6).

I only found this because it showed up in my referers one day, linking to my post arguing that Bujold writes hard science fiction. It’s further proof that despite her and the Vorkosigan series massive popularity, she’s still underestimated as a serious and important science fiction author. Partially it must be because the series is published by Baen Books, often somewhat unfairly dismissed as a publisher of cookie cutter mil-sf and other pulp and at first glance it’s easy to confuse the Vorkosigan books as something like the Honor Harrington series: lightweight entertainment.

That her gender also plays a part I’ll take as a given, though I note that hasn’t stopped her from winning an impressive number of Hugo and Nebula awards.

But what may also play a role is perhaps that Bujold is actually not obvious enough with her writing; as Baker argues, she writes “a covert kind of feminist SF”, nowhere near as overtly political as a Joanna Russ or even a Nicola Griffith. That the setting is the familiar sort of semi-feudal, aristocratic stellar empire helps hide this too, as the revolution the uterine replicator brings to Barrayar on the surface looks just like modernisation, not anything really revolutionary. In the same way the uterine replicator itself doesn’t look like hard science fiction because Bujold focuses too little attention to the technological side of things, but rather more on the social impact of it as filtrered through the point of view of her aristocratic protagonists.

(You could even make an argument that the overall story of the Vorkosigan series is showing the start of a bourgeois revolution, as progressive members of the old aristocracy make common cause with the up and coming rich merchants to remake the feudal system in their favour…)

And of course perhaps the most important reason why Bujold is underestimated is that she’s so very readable; you rarely have to struggle with reading her novels and we still tend to think difficulty equals genius.

Hugo Noms: Fan writer & fanzine

Just in time before the deadline closes, let’s talk a bit about potential candidates for the Hugo’s best fan writer award:

First for consideration is Deidre Saoirse Moen, for her work in uncovering and investigating the child abuse of Walter Breen & Marion Zimmer Bradley in fandom, a story that waited fifty years to become fully public. She’s not the only one who had been pushing this story last year, but she was the impetus behind getting what “everybody knew” out in public and making it undeniable. It’s not a happy fun story and I do have the feeling some segments of fandom are less than happy with her for doing this, but it’s an important bit of fan history that was previously swept under the carpet and it illuminated the deep dysfunctionality of some corners of fandom. Something that’s sorely needed especially today, as fandom attempts to belately welcome those who want to be fans but by reason of gender, race, sexual or gender orientation found themselves less than comfortable in it.

Similarly, James Nicoll has also been adept at peeling back the foreskin of ignorance and applying the wirebrush of enlightenment to fandom, being an amplifier both of inconvenient truths and an (unpaid) publicist for worthwhile ventures that otherwise might have escaped my knowledge. His critical attitude towards much of what happens in SF fandom makes his opinion on what is worth looking into that much more important. His recent reviewing site is also a good example of how he has helped shine a light on the more neglected corners of fantasy and science fiction.

The same can be said of Ian Sales, for his SF Mistressworks project, showcasing overlooked works by female writers that should be in the Gollancz Masterworks series. (Full discloser: I review for it). But I also like his own personal writing outside of it, on his blog and on Twitter, like James, that of a critically engaged fan.

Natalie Luhrs may call her blog Pretty Terrible, but it’s far from it. Her fan writing these days consists mainly of link posting and writing on Twitter, but don’t underestimate the power of a good link roundup. She has also been actively pursuing some of the nastier stories in fandom last year, one of the people who with e.g. Moen helped keep the MZB saga out in the open, as well as the Wiscon/Frenkel debacle and far too many other scandals. She has helped keeping fandom honest.

Abigail Nussbaum is one of those people whose opinions I always want to argue with, not because they’re wrong but because they’re consistently smart and well reasoned and I still disagree with them and they make me think more about why I like something she doesn’t or vice versa.

The same goes for Ethan Robinson, who is often wrong, but interestingly wrong.

Fanzine wise, Europa SF is a great project that deserves more attention, attempting to provide an English language portal for the European (continental) science fiction scene(s). In a world so dominated by American and British concerns, any counter to it is welcome.

The other fanzine I like to nominate people will probably not know, is Chaos Horizon, attempting to “make sense out of awards chaos” and predict the Hugo/Nebula winners. Whether they succeed is not the interesting part, but just getting some scientific rigour to this whole awards business is sorely needed.

Campbell Nominations

The Campbell Award for Best New Writer is not a Hugo award but is awarded together with it. Unlike the Hugo, writers have two bites at the cherry as you are eligible for nominations in the two years after your first professional sale. My list therefore has the best writers from the eligibility list at Writertopia eligible for the second year in a row:

  • Carmen Maria Machado
    I read two of her short stories in my SF marathon and liked both of them, she has a somewhat more literary bend than is the norm within science fiction and deserves some recognition for it.
  • Helene Wecker
    I just wish I’d read The Golem and the Djinni in time for last year’s Hugo Nominations.
  • Bogi Takács
    A writer with a lot of potential and I want to read more of e’s fiction.
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew
    Despite the revelations about her being the blogger behind Requires Hate, I still like her fiction and think she is one of the brighter talents on the SF scene currently.
  • Usman Malik
    I read two of his short stories in my SF marathon, which were almost good enough for a Hugo nomination, were it not for the stiff competition from others.

Hugo Noms: short stories

The clock’s ticking, but you still have time to read and vote for these stories as your Hugo nominations:

Alyssa Wong, “The Fisher Queen.” F&SF, May/June 2014.

“The Fisher Queen” is perfect, already a Nebula nominee and deservedly so. It’s a story about a fisher girl from the Mekong delta who one day learns the truth behind her father’s joking that her mother was a mermaid. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a feminist fairy tale.

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Floating Girls: A Documentary.” Jamais Vu 3, September 2014.

A very simple story about an unexplained wave of girls, well, just floating up into the air and the indifference with which it is greeted. It feels very much of the moment, a response to things like GamerGate and such.

Kelly Sandoval, “The One They Took Before.” Shimmer #22, November 2014.

An urban fantasy story that looks at what happens after you get back from fairy land. It reminded me a bit of Jo Walton’s Relentlessly Mundane, about the same general emotions of loss and bitterness, but in a different key so to speak.

Rachael K. Jones, “Makeisha in Time.” Crossed Genres #20, August 2014.

Almost impossible, but Rachael K. Jones has managed to write a novel time travel story, of a woman who keeps getting pulled back into the past to lead entire lifes there, only to return to the exact method she left, her family and friends none the wiser, and how she adapts to this. A great story.

Xia Jia, “Tongtong’s Summer.” Translated by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, December 2014 (originally in Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded, Wyrm Publishing, 2014).

Xia Jia writes about the impact of high technology on everyday life and here tackles a very contemporary subject, the use of robots to help an aging population cope with day to day life. In this case Tongtong’s grandfather, in his eighties but still working at the clinic every day until a bad fall, has to come live with them, so Tongtong’s mother could take care of him. Because she and her husband both work, Tongtong’s father brings home a robot, an Ah Fu, to help them. Which isn’t actually a robot, but a tele-operated machine run by an intern for the company Tongtong’s father works for: real robots don’t work and full time carers are too expensive.

Hugo Noms: Novellas & novelettes

I never quite know how to spell novelettes or how they differ from novellas; somewhat of an awkward length. Only the first story is a novella according to the Hugo rules.

Rachel Swirsky, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap).” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

A brilliant story about a daughter and a father and how they cope with her impending death. I’d call it a 21st century Helen O’Loy if that wasn’t a creepy sexist bit of sentimental shite and this isn’t.

Veronica Schanoes, “Among the Thorns.” Tor.com, May 7, 2014.

Re-imagining a horribly anti-semitic Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Carmen Maria Machado, “The Husband Stitch.” Granta, October 28, 2014.

A very meta, very allegorical, feminist sort of fantasy story.

Yoon Ha Lee, “Wine.” Clarkesworld, January 2014.

A great space opera sort of science fiction story, with a trans protagonist.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star.” Tor.com, July 20, 2014.

You could argue that this isn’t science fiction, but this is a story that concerns itself with everything science fiction should concern itself with in the 21st century.

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth.” Tor.com, May 14, 2014.

A Lovecraftian story that refutes Lovecraft’s racism.

Hugo noms: novels

So the deadline for Hugo nominations this year is March 10, so it’s time to get some recommendations down. As always my main interest is with novels, so let’s get those out of the way first. In no particular order:

Otherbound — Corinne Duyvis

What sets this apart from the hundreds of other young adult fantasies are several things. First, there’s the ingenious concept of the protagonist, Nolan, being forced to live somebody else’s life, see through a stranger’s eyes, every time he closes his. Second, Duyvis makes this into a disability more than a superpower. If every time you blink you see through somebody else’s eyes, it’s bound to distract you from the real world. And that has consequences. It’s not the only way Otherbound deals with disability; all three main characters are bound together by their disabilities, their lives interwoven because of it. Third, she has also seriously thought about the consent issues of being able to share someone’s life so intimately. And she manages to do all this and write a gripping adventure story too.

The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley

The first book in the new fantasy series by one of the hot new science fiction writers. In some ways it is a traditional epic fantasy, complete with a Big Bad that needs to be defeated, but what makes it special is its worldbuilding. The world of The Mirror Empire is one of the more fully realised, interesting and novel I’ve read in a long time and she manages it without “the great clomping foot of nerdism” stomping down on the story.

Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor

Written out of frustration with the South African sf movie District 9, this is her version of an alien invasion, set in Lagos, Nigeria. That setting already sets it apart from the ordinary run of invasion stories, usually set in the States or sometimes Europe. But there’s also Okorafor’s unapologetic use of Nigerian English rather than “standard” English. Then there’s the genre breaking Okorafor cheerfully commits here as well, as one chapter frex is told from the perspective of a spider trying to cross a tarmac road, a self aware and evil tarmac road looking for new victims to devour.

Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie

The sequel to the novel that last year swept the SF awards is just as good. Paradoxically it both takes place on a smaller stage than the previous novel and concernes itself with bigger matters. Most of Ancillary Justice revolved around Breq’s struggle to come to grips with her own identity and her quest for vengeance, her inner turmoil, but Ancillary Sword has those struggles if not entirely resolved, so much so that she’s in full control here. And whereas the focus of the original novel, thanks to its novel use of pronouns, was mainly on gender, here it is on the impact of colonialism, something science fiction as a genre direly needs to come to grips with.

The Stone Boatsmen — Sarah Tolmie

This reminded me of The Steerswoman series, in that it’s the purest of science fiction stories set in what first looks like a fantasy setting, a world with three cities who didn’t even suspect each other’s existence until one navigator prince took the gamble to go look for other cities in the direction the stone boatsmen in the harbour of his city were pointing. What was most impressive about this novel was how free of violence and conflict it was without it being some boring utopian walkthrough.

These are my choices for the Hugo, but that leaves out Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Andy Weir’s The Martian and Ken Macleod’s Descent as almost equally good choices for the Hugo and I won’t be miffed if any of these end up on the final ballot instead of my choices. But I’m limited to five choices and reluctantly had to leave these out.

Short SF Marathon Week 3

Richly late, halfway through week 4, but here are the short stories reviewed in week 3 of my Short SF Marathon:

  • Day 15: Yoon Ha Lee, Rose Lemberg
  • Day 16: Kelly Link, Ken Liu
  • Day 17: Carmen Maria Machado, Usman T. Malik
  • Day 18: Usman T. Malik,Tim Maughan, Sandra McDonald
  • Day 19: Sam J. Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Sunny Moraine
  • Day 20: Sunny Moraine, John P. Murphy, Anna Noyes
  • Day 21: An Owomoyela, Susan Palwick, K. J. Parker

Annihilation — Jeff VanderMeer

Cover of Annihilation


Annihilation
Jeff VanderMeer
208 pages
published in 2014

Last year Jeff VanderMeer (or rather his publisher) did something rarely done, releasing an entire trilogy in one year. Annihilation is the first of this Southern Reach trilogy and has gotten steady buzz as one of the shoe-ins for Hugo and Nebula nominations; it already managed the latter, in fact. VanderMeer is arguably the father of the American New Weird, that mid-noughties movement that came bubbling up from England and got codified across the pond, mainly through his and Ann VanderMeer’s contributions. I’ve only read one story of his before this, the deliberately confusing The Situation.

Annihilation is a much more straightforward story, of a four woman expedition into Area X, as told by the biologist through her field journal; the other three members are the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. Their names are never told: “names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X”. They’re the twelfth such expedition into the Area; the previous eleven all came to grief one way or another. What they’re setting out to discover is left vague; they themselves only know in general terms what they’re doing or what they can expect, though the psychologist seems to know more than she lets show.

Read more

2014 Nebula nominations

The SFWA has just announced the shortlist for the 2014 Nebula Awards:

Novel

  • The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Tor)
  • Trial by Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
  • Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu ( ), translated by Ken Liu (Tor)
  • Coming Home, Jack McDevitt (Ace)
  • Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada)

I’ve read two of the six novels on this list, Annihilation and Ancillary Sword. Both The Goblin Emperor and The Three-Body Problem have had a lot of online buzz, with people I trust liking both. As per usual there’s a Jack McDevitt novel on the list, because he either has a lot of friends in SFWA or a lot of blackmail material, as he’s the dullest writer in existence. Gannon I’ve no clue about, but he’s published by Baen and with a few exceptions, the best their writers aim for is “decent”.

Novella

Of these, only Mary Rickert and Rachel Swirsky are on the list of critically acclaimed short SF I’m reading my way through on the booklog. An indication perhaps that there is a rough consensus on what last year’s best stories were, but only a rough consensus.

Novelette

In the novelette category, traditionally the most …awkward… category with both the Nebula and the Hugo as nobody really knows what is and isn’t one, there’s more of a consensus: Richard Bowes, Tom Crosshill, Carmen Maria Machado and Kai Ashante Wilson all are on my list with the same stories. This may just be because fewer novelettes than novellas or short stories are written.

Short Story

In the short story category, there are once again only two stories that overlap: Usman T. Malik’s and Alyssa Wong’s. Again evidence of a lively short story field?

What struck me also is that how little in all these three categories was published in the traditional venues; basically anything that doesn’t have a link above. Two novellas, one novelette and two short stories. The novellas published as chapbooks by Tachyon, the rest in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
  • Edge of Tomorrow, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
  • Interstellar, Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (Paramount Pictures)
  • The Lego Movie, Screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Warner Bros. Pictures)

This award has the same problems as the media Hugos: it’s not where the Nebulas’ focus lies, so the selection is predictable and limited to big budget blockbusters rather than anything surprising. Are these really the best science fiction or fantasy movies from 2014, or just the ones the Nebula nominators have heard of?. I suspect the latter and I don’t see the point in yet another award rewarding the already known and unsurprising.

Granted, you can make the same claim for the novel award, but the difference there is that the Nebula is one of the two top awards in the particular field of SFF novels, while nobody cares about winning the Bradbury. Moreover, while the novel Nebula can be predictable, it isn’t to the extent shown here.

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

  • Unmade, Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House)
  • Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow)
  • Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A.S. King (Little, Brown)
  • Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (St. Martin’s Griffin)
  • Greenglass House, Kate Milford (Clarion)
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton (Candlewick)

If the Nebulas do have to have speciality awards, I’d rather it’s for categories like this, of more direct concern to the SFF field and highlighting a critically underserved branch of SFF.