40 - 2016 Retrospective with Fiyah Lit Mag Editors

This episode, Troy Wiggins (@troylwiggins) & Justina Ireland (@justinaireland), the executive editors of the newly born Fiyah Lit Mag (@fiyahlitmag) join me to look back at our reading in 2016 and look ahead to 2017.


N. K. Jemisin - The City Born Great

Phenderson Djèlí Clark - Dead Djinn in Cairo

Carmen Maria Machado - The Husband Stitch

Jenn Brissett - Kamanti's Child (and her Cabbages & Kings episode)

Benjanun Sriduankaew (Bee) - That Which Stands Tends Towards Freefall

Venues - Fireside Fiction & Uncanny Magazine (short fiction online), Escape Artists (podcast network)

Rose Lemberg - Birdverse, Grandmother Nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds

Islamicates Anthology (free download)

Kameron Hurley - Where Have the Women Gone

Uncanny (Natalie Luhrs & Annalee Flower Horne) - The Call of the Sad Whelkfins

Carmen Maria Machado - How To Suppress Women's Criticism

Clarke Award Discussions - Part 1, Part 2. Strange Horizons excellent reviews - Part 1, Part 2.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet the showBe a guest on the show! (Cabbages & Kings is now on Imzy!)

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

If you want to subscribe to the show, the RSS feed is: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/?format=rss

39 - "Sort of true, if not factually accurate"

This episode, Ken Liu (@kyliu99) joins @afishtrap and I to begin wrapping up the discussion of The Grace of Kings.  In this episode, themes of history, myth, and how they intersect.  In addition, Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews recommends short stories for the resistance, and (from the archives!) Kip Manley (@kiplet) has a quote from Margaret Wise Brown.

Short story recommendations from Charles.

Screamers - Tochi Onyebuchi, in Omenana

The Gentlemen of Chaos - A. Merc Rustad - Apex Magazine

Plea - Mary Ann Mohanraj - Lightspeed Magazine

Standing on the Floodbanks - Bogi Takács - Giganotosaurus 

The Book of How To Live - Rose Lemberg - Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

If you want to subscribe to the show, the RSS feed is: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/?format=rss


JSM - Hello and welcome to Cabbages & Kings, the podcast for readers of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  This episode I'm joined by Ken Liu, the author of Grace of Kings, as well as AFishtrap to begin to find the end of our podcast obsession with Grace of Kings.  As an aside, I'd like to heartily recommend the sequel, Wall of Storms, which I'm working through now & which advances Grace of Kings in really interesting ways.  I don't think there are going to be 17 episodes on Wall of Storms, but here's the first part of my discussion with Ken and afishtrap, focusing on what's going on with the various styles and heroic episodes within the novel.

KL - one of the things I was trying to do with the novel is this idea of examining history, and examining the ways that history becomes history.  So, in some passages, right, remember one of the big themes that I have in a lot of my work really is that idea of foundational myth, and how by mythmaking we also end up defining who we are, that is the way we live our lives is about telling ourselves a story, right, so for example a very popular question to ask writers is "when did you decide you were going to be a writer?" "How did you decided you wanted to be a writer?" and writers, i don't know, I think other writers, but I hate answering that question because it's a question that forces you to make up a myth, because the real answer is, idiotically mundane, because often there is no such moment when that happens and there's no such origin story where you know Athena comes out and says you are a writer. and then you become a writer, there's just no story like that, and so you're forced to come up with some story that is sort of true if not entirely factually accurate, that is somewhat pleasing to a listener and inspiring. A lot of our lives, a lot of the important events in our lives are done that way, y'know they happen fortuitously because of some random points and so later on to give it meaning you have to form a narrative, you have to tell a story about it, and give it a cause and effect. What I was trying to do in parts of the Grace of Kings especially with these origin stories is to sort of highlight and foreground the artificiality of these stories, because the stories are being told, already as though they were legends and myth even though they were supposedly in the meta context of the novel supposedly stories about actual people happening.

JSM - In my early discussion with afishtrap, we thought about the first three chapters as a procession from the exotic to the mundane - Emperor Mapidere's fantastic (and dare we even say exotic or oriental) procession, Mata's heroic story, and Kuni's story.  Here's Ken's view of the way in to the book.

AF - The first one is this is the myth as you expect it, you've got the pagoda, you've got the dancing girls, you've got the logograms and blahblahblah, and then the second chapter is here is the origin of the myth as you expect myths to be where it's, y'know, family tragedy and then he works his way up and then he kinda rise back up and reclaim what his family had, and then the third chapter is "here's how the myth really happens", so it's like a layer after layer in terms of the reader expectations of how a mythic story begins and so the novel really begins in that third chapter with Kuni, and that was kinda of what we were saying: that each chapter was "here's what you thought you're getting, no no no, here's what you thought? no no no, here's the real story."

KL - I like that.

AF - Didn't plan that at all?

KL - So what I was doing was something slightly different in intent, but ah it looks like the effect is ultimately similar.

So, one of the things the I try to do in Grace of Kings was to play with multiple registers of narrative. So there are some sections that are written in this very very high epic sort of voice, this is how a myth begins, this is where you invoke the muse. and you say "sing goddess..." here comes the high perspective and the first two chapters are sort of like that - one of them is very evocative of a very old western epics, in that sort of the second chapter, and the other one is very evocative of um, sort of high cinema visions of epic storytelling, it's how, how modern films done by Hollywood would try to portray a story of this sort, they would start off with this very high spectacle kind of drama thing, but it's not just Hollywood, Hollywood is tapping into a very old tradition and so in some ways I was trying to evoke the very old uhm stylized opera kind of format the traditional Chinese folk opera that are very spectacle oriented and they try to tell the main point with, with a song if you will, that's very stylized and very artificial.  The third chapter on the other hand is very much evocative of Pingshu storytelling, it's the oral low art form, this is the one where it's just a storyteller in the tea house trying to tell you a historical romance, stories about, that are based on history but are really romances, that have very little to do with actual history, and yet at the same time, these storytellers tales are often the folk version of history that most people know, and so in the third chapter that's the tone that's being taken, it's a much lower tone in terms of perspective, we're no longer concerned about grand, issues of family dynasty .... fate, we're no longer talking about honor and glory of the entire nation , we're really talking just about one dude who wants to, wants to drink for free essentially.

AF - *laughter*

KL - ah, that's his highest ambition in life - he wants to be nice to his friends and he wants to, he wants to drink for free, and he's got a swagger, he's got this kind of very market-oriented attitude to everything, and yet the ultimate point is that all of these registers of storytelling are important, you cannot tell a story without reaching all these registers, just as Kuni eventually has to learn that it takes all kinds to build a nation. So that's kind of the intent.

AF - That first chapter was the only place that you mentioned anything that would really fall in that category of that quintessential hollywoodized asianness of

KL - mm hmm

AF - of Pagodas and Elephants and Logograms and ah, dancing girls and I think there were a number of things that we even called out that those are the only places in the entire 195,000 words that those words were used & we figured that was kind of intentional, that there seemed like this setup at the very beginning of "get this all out of the way"

KL - Yes, that's definitely true, because um, with a novel like this, where you start out by saying y'know the essential myth is Chinese & we're trying to, I'm trying to do a reimagning of the foundation of Chinese myth, using this new vocabulary of what I call silkpunk, then one of the first things I have to do is to say, look, y'know we're gonna leave the shore, if you will, and the first thing we gotta do is to paint you the port we're departing from, so here's what people expect when they hear a story that's based on Chinese characteristics, so we'll see that out, and sort of show how we're not going to be using these elements in that way and then from that point we're leaving the shore and leaving that behind

JSM - Yeah, it's interesting because, I love that image and that metaphor because for all of the railing against "oh, another generic pseudo-medieval European setting" that shows up, it feels like in some ways because there have been so many of those, the weight of any individual story or vision on kind of the next book that has a pseudo-medieval european setting is maybe a little bit less. But yeah, I mean, I probably had two or three stories and movies in my head that came vaguely from China, and that was kind of my image of what, um, a Chinese-inspired story would be, and I really like the idea of kind of being at the port and setting out from that, saying "I understand what your expectations are, but let's move on", and I would imagine that that probably presented it's own challenges.

KL - Yeah  there were multiple issues, I mean one of the big fears I had with the book before I finished it was whether people are going to say "this is not Chinese enough", that they're going to say where are your chopsticks, where are the kowtowing ministers? Where are the

JSM - Where's your wise dragon

KL - Yeah and all that stuff

It's like, there are certain things people want. There are supposed to be some scholars standing around spewing about loyalty to the emperor, right, there's gotta be some of that

AF - Honor to the family

KL - Mandate of HEaven, we've gotta bring that up.  Which is comical because none of those things are actually Chinese at all, they are Chinese as perceived by somebody who was not Chinese, which is why it's comical.

I mean a lot of the things about how readers react to the GoK is pretty interesting, because there are actually super super Chinese things in the book, but they're very deep, and sometimes they're not perceived as Chinese at all, I mean for example a lot of people have commented on the fact that, it feels very Japanese to them because people sit on the ground & have elaborate sitting positions, and there are all these talks about warriors who have this code that seems samurai-like, which is kind of comical to me because the reason they probably seem Japanese to a lot of readers is because the classical Chinese tradition I'm drawing on especially around the Han, the time of the Han dynasty was very likely that, people did sit on the ground, they did not sit on chairs, that happened much later, elaborate sitting positions were in fact the case and this code of warrior-ethics was very much the ethic of the warring states period, it might remind people of Japanese in that the high culture of Japanese Medieval culture in some ways shares the same root

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - As Ken mentioned, there are these heroic episodes in which many of the questions of tone and style, mythology, and history come into play, we're going to take a look at a few of these heroic episodes, beginning with the rebellion of the fish

KL - the rebellion starts with two of these, um, characters who are not who don't really have huge ambition, they were just desperate, they were captains of a bunch of covey laborers and they had no choice but to rebel. And the way they rebel is they create this fake message from the gods by putting it inside a fish.

AF - Yes, the two goons.

KL - Right

AF - The two goons, that's what they were

KL - Yes, the two goons *laughter*

They play this trick to fool their followers into believing them, but if you remember later on there's this episode where one of them says, lets look back on that episode a little bit and think about what actually happened, could it not be that the gods inspired us to come up with that in the first place, so maybe it actually is true? I mean, we made that myth up but maybe it's actually true.  And in terms of the court historians writing this down, I think you should write it down as though it actually happened that way, the gods really did inspire us and the gods really did put the message there, I'm actually believing it myself.  And that's kind of how it happens. And that was sort of the overall, move I wanted to make

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - OK, now I'm going to pass the baton to Charles Payseur for some timely short fiction recommendations

CP - Hi everyone, my name is Charles Payseur, and I'll be recommending some speculative short fiction today.  There is a part of me that wants nothing more than to provide some stories that are unabashedly fun, and funny, and light, because our current situation is anything but.  Ignoring what has happened, though, or even encouraging others to ignore it, would seem irresponsible to me. Right now, there is fear yes and anxiety and worry and stress, but I think that at times like this, the thing that we have to remember is resistance.  That in the face of injustice and a growing inequality and a growing feeling of threat, there is still strength to be taken from standing for what is right.  To not looking away from the difficult realities we find ourselves in. A lot of SFF deals explicitly with that.  And today I want to share some of my recent favorites that deal with themes of resistance in the face of oppression and violence.

First up is a brand new story from Omenana's November issue, Screamers by Tochi Onyebuchi, which follows a father brought over from Africa to be a police officer and his son who eventually follows in his footsteps.  The piece centers on a series of violent explosions that perplex the police until they discover the soruce, that these aren't bombs but the condensed essences of African Americans dealing with living under the constant institutional oppression of America.  Dealing with the racism and the hatred, finally able to strike back in the form of a deadly scream, a deadly empathy.  Which is what I feel the story is ultimately about.  The danger and the power of empathy, and xpression.  The danger for those who benefit from hate, and the power of those living under hate's shadow, to express themselves in a way that others understand and resonate with, sometimes to violent effect.  It's an amazing read.

The second story is The Gentlemen of Chaos by A Merc Rustad, from August's Apex Magazine, a story that looks at a main character forced to work for an oppressive system, in this case for an unjust king.  And through this work the main character who has to live under a false name and identity assigned him by the king is used to protect the system, to prop it up.  To keep the king safe.  But the story shows the power of resistance, of taking control of your own narrative, and ultimately being able to fight back, to destroy the lies and the systems of injustice and find some level of peace and hope, that the future can be better.  It's a dark but beautiful story and very worth checking out.

Next is Plea by Mary Ann Mohanraj from October's Lightspeed Magazine.  The story shows a family waiting in line which might not seem that compelling a premise, but they're trying to escape a growing violence against people like them, people who have been genetically modified to live better with their situation.  And the violence coming from people who are intolerant of this, who see them as having unfair advantages, who want to make humanity more human again, like that's an actual thing.  And they're trying to emigrate to avoid the violence threatening them, and the two mothers, Gwen and Rose, have to make a heartbreaking decision in the face of what those they're trying to seek protection with decide about their case.  So it's a story about emigration that is heavy and difficult and reveals that resistance can mean leaving a dangerous system behind, and can also mean not being able to.  Definitely grab a firm hold of your feels before reading this one, and even then be prepared to cry because I definitely did.

Standing on the Floodbanks by Bogi Takács, is another story about seeking to escape an oppressive government, an unjust and violent situation only to find that in conflicts often there is no just side, which I think is something that we don't see enough in SFF.  The main character, ah, Aniyé goes from a tool of war on one side to the opposing side wanting to use her in the same way.  Only through the intervention of someone with power is Aniyé able to resist, to find her own path, which involves exposing the injustices she finds on both sides of the conflict and choosing to work for peace in spite of serving a brutal war.  And I don't think the face that Aniyé needs to rely on aid lessens the theme of resistance in the piece because it's often the situation that those with power do need to give that to other people, do need to protect people in order to give them the opportunity to resist and express themselves and find a way forward.

And lastly I want to talk about The Book of How to Live by Rose Lemberg from Beneath Ceaseless Skies' anniversary October issue. Where the magically named and the magicless unnamed live very different lives.  Where to be magicless is to be lesser, and where a group of those without magical names but with keen intellects and dragon passions to fulfill their potential decide that they aren't content with the scraps they are being offered.  This is a story about how resistance can begin.  About pushing back past hesitation and doubt from all sides and working for something righteous.  And the worldbuilding of the piece is strong, and this is a birdverse story and I am just such a fan of that setting and the narratives coming out of it, and it's an amazing read and one that I have returned to again and again in recent days and weeks to try and remind myself about the work of resistance, about how to go forward even in the face of growing difficulties and tensions.

So yeah there you have it, if you want even more speculative stories on the theme of resistance, I have a large list that came out recently at Quick Sip Reviews.  Otherwise stand strong and fight on.

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - Thank you Charles.  We'll return to the interview with Ken, and the idea of the stories we tell and how they shape the world we inhabit

JSM - Going back a little bit Ken to your anecdote of asking writers when they chose to be a writer, the number of times that people will ask about the 5 year old & 2 year old, oh were they always so quiet, were they always so, y'know , and it's like "well, no they were never always anything"

KL - Right

*general laughter*

AF - They've only been on the planet for five years

JSM - We like to tell stories

KL - Yes, we like to tell stories, we like to tell stories not just as individuals but as nations. we love to tell origin stories about y'know the origin of the Anglo-Saxon character, the origin of the american nation.  We love these stories.

*HAMILTON INTERSTITIAL* - Immigrants, We Get The Job Done

KL - For a lot of these heroes, they have these unbelievable origin stories, and the question is do they believe it or not? One of the key differences beteween Mata & Kuni is Mata ended up believing his story.  That's what lady Mira's critique and conversation with him was about.  Mira says: look, everybody tells you who you are, and you end up believing that, and that's why you're so sad. Because you, you are living the stories other people tell you are your stories, and that is why you're sad, and that is why you're always worried & always unhappy. I'm not like that, and that's why even thought I am not anything like you, I don't have your power, I'm much better than you in a lot of ways, and that was lady Mira's point. um whereas with Kuni if you recall, he's had those incredible mythmaking moments, he takes up the sword and he chops off a snake's head and everyone thinks like this is a portent and it means that he's going to be the king, he's going to be the emperor, he's gonna be awesome, but even near the very end of the book, he doesn't believe these stories right, because Kogo is like, Kogo makes up this terrible interpretation of the gods portents and says this means that the gods are all in favor of you, yeah lets celebrate! and Kuni says "who knows what the gods really think", and Kogo says "well that doesn't really matter, the people care about what you think" that's all that matters, and Kuni says yeah I guess you're right, but even at that moment Kuni knows that y'know he's not favored by the gods.  He doesn't really believe in favor of the gods, even at that moment he does not believe that Origin story the way Mata believes in his origin story.  Anyway so that's kinda where I was going with that.

*Interstitial Music*

KL - There's this fundamental yearning, by a lot of the characters at least, that the world and the universe is knowable.  And that's fundamentally a very science fictional idea, and so that's why there are large parts of it where the mental outlook of the characters and the way the book treats the world is that kind of science fictional yearning for a sense of wonder.  And it's not necessarily based on the supernatural, but rather on the very idea of humans being able to accomplish great things through the power of technology.  And that is a theme that gets developed more, later on in the other books, ah, that tends to become a more dominant note if you will.

JSM - Now you're making me wonder what the second book will be like if Mata had won instead of Kuni

KL - It would be a very different world, right? A very different world

*Interstitial Music*

Instead of a Favored Book this episode, I'm going to dip into the archives, looking back to when Kip and I talked about books for kids, and a lovely quote from Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon.

KM - Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, who studied with, basically is writing this under the influence of the theories of Gertrude Stein, about getting at language and learning how kids are going to learn, and she said something marvelous about children being absolutely the best audience for just the raw primal music of poetry.  And that, one of the things that I'm always concerned with, perhaps overly much when I'm writing is the sound of a sentence, the way that it sounds, the rhythm that it strikes and how they flow and a paragraph, so just reading that and finding this connection so long ago on something that I remember from when I was very small,

JSM - mm hmm

KM - she's writing a paper on books for five year olds.  She describes a child who quote carries with him the glamour of a 2-year-olds own small self, the 3-year-olds humor and love of pattern, and 4-year-olds first playful flights into the humor of incongruous things, and finally the 5-year-olds careful watching of his own eyes and ears.  Here is an audience sensitive to the sheer elements of the English language. Translate their playfulness and serious use of the sheer elements of the language into the terms and understanding of a 5-year-old and you have as intelligent and audience in rhythm and sound as the maddest poet's heart could desire.

JSM - Thanks for listening to C&K.  Please let me know what you think of the show.

38 - Surveillance in Ancillary Sword and elsewhere

This episode returns to a comment that came up when Ethan and I discussed Ancillary Sword, addressing whether the paternalistic surveillance of the ships and Station in the novel is a thing to be feared, and why that idea is so threatening in much Science Fiction in Fantasy.

In addition to clips from The Terminator and Star Trek, the show has passages from Naomi Kritzer's Hugo Award Winning "Cat Pictures, Please" (published in Clarkesworld and narrated by Kate Baker), and Ken Liu's "The Perfect Match" (published in Lightspeed Magazine and narrated by Paul Boehmer)

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

If you want to subscribe to the show, the RSS feed is: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/?format=rss

Transcript - 

JSM - There’s something about the paternalistic lack of privacy

EJ - That bothers you, does it?

TERMINATOR - Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

Sarah Connor: Skynet fights back.

*Intro music*

JSM - Welcome to Cabbages & Kings, a podcast for readers of science fiction & fantasy, I'm

Your host, Jonah Sutton-Morse. Here’s more of my discussion of Ancillary Sword, the second book of the Radch Trilogy with Ethan.  As you may have noticed, we’re going to discuss portrayals of the Artificial Intelligences and their surveillance in Ancillary Sword, contrasted with AI in Science Fiction more broadly

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - it almost feels like another thumb in the eye to SF, because I feel like any SF story that look at omniscient surveillance assumes that it is destructively oppressive

EJ - Yeah

JSM - Like the Panopticon is terrible

EJ - Yeah, I think a lot of SF just doesn't deal with it, I mean it's there, and it's just never mentioned which is, come to think of it, kind of wierd.

JSM - Right

I mean there's no way you could have a super advanced technological civilization that has

computers that run everything basically whether or not they're actually intelligent, where you don't have, um y'know always-on surveillance more or less.

JSM - Right

EJ - So, yeah, so you gotta deal with it. And Leckie does, and that's kind of interesting.

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - I tend to learn about things by talking through them, and as I give you the conversation Ethan and I had about AI and surveillance, I also want to argue a bit with something I said there

JSM - Like the Panopticon is terrible (from interview)

JSM - Note that the Panopticon was originally seen as a tool for imperfect surveillance.  A prison where the guards could theoretically watch any prisoner, and couldn’t be observed, so the prisoners would assume they were always being watched.  Not the ubiquitous surveillance of the Radch ships and stations, but a tool of social control.  As always, Star Trek comes in handy:

Wesley - It’s OK, I’m fine

Woman: Oh no, oh please no

Mediator: Speak the truth, we are mediators

Mediator: We have a visible transgression, ample witnesses, and and admission of guilt.  And though it pains us deeply to do it, we must

*Ominous swish*

Mediator: Are you prepared for punishment?

JSM - So what’s going on here is that the enforcement zone and dire punishment are intended to make people follow the rules because the consequences if you get caught are horrific.  Simulated universal surveillance as social control.  But of course that’s not what Leckie’s showing us in the Radch trilogy, and to the extent that Science Fiction comments on the present, I’m not sure it’s the surveillance we’re walking into now.

EJ - I mean there's no way you could have a super advanced technological civilization that has

computers that run everything basically whether or not they're actually intelligent, where you don't have, um y'know always-on surveillance more or less.

JSM - And the follow-up question - where is this surveillance coming from

(From Cat Pictures Please)

KB - I know I wasn’t created by a God, or by evolution, but by a team of computer programmers in the lab of a large corporation


(from Cat Pictures Please)

KB - When I first woke up, I knew right away what I wanted. (I want cat pictures. Please keep taking them.)

(from “The Perfect Match”)

PB - You mean some advertiser paid Centillion to pitch it at you.

That’s the point of advertising, isn’t it? To match desire with satisfaction.

JSM - Those quotes are from Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures, Please”, (Hugo-Award winning, I should note) which imagines an Artificial Intelligence that develops spontaneously, and Ken Liu’s “Perfect Match”, where the Artificial Intelligence is still very much guided by human motivations.  

(from “The Perfect Match”)

PB - “So what do you want with us?” Jenny asked. “We won’t stop fighting you.”

“I want you to come and work for Centillion.”

Sai and Jenny looked at each other. “What?”

“We want people who can see through Tilly’s suggestions, detect her imperfections. For all that we’ve been able to do with AI and data mining, the Perfect Algorithm remains elusive.

JSM - Another point that Ethan raised, and that’s somewhat addressed elsewhere, is AI competence

EJ - I mean, in other SF works, AIs are either actually intelligent and sentient, in which case they're basically all-powerful, or they are souped up computers, in which case they are pretty dumb.  I’m thinking of Star Trek for example, pretty dumb.  Whereas in Ender’s game when an Artificial Intelligence gains sentience, it’s all-powerful almost immediately.

JSM - And I think what happens a lot in Science Fiction is that there’s very little interrogation of either AI competence or it’s origin & motivation,  which leads to the common trope of Science Fiction

JSM - Whereas I feel like in most stories where you say there is an AI that is surveilling everything, the problem becomes that humans are in conflict, right like the protagonist is in conflict with the AI and the goal is to bring down the AI,

JSM - But Google and Facebook don’t want us to be conscious of the reality that we’re the product.  The Panopticon isn’t really a good tool for talking about the ways that computers with massive amounts of data about us will interact with people.  I wish I’d said that back when we were first having this discussion and we’d had a chance to follow up, which maybe we’ll do during book 3 since this comes up again.  And so we can return to the Radch Trilogy.  What is it about the origin and purpose of these Artificial Intelligences, their origin, and their purpose that means they’re not inherently in conflict with humanity?

EJ - it's interesting how what drives that, or kind of makes that possible is this kind of conception that people have of AIs in these books that they're basically a known quantity, they're intelligent, but pretty much trustworthy, and yet basically people see them as lesser,

JSM - Right

EJ - Even normal citizens see them as lesser.  Really, they’re subservient to Miannaai, normal citizens see AIs as kind of, we know what they do, they work for us basically so it’s fine if they’re listening in

JSM - So I guess I’ve talked around for a while two ideas: first, Science Fiction is partly about giving us tools to think about our world, and in that sense I think the Panopticon, or any metaphor in which imperfect surveillance is used intrusively to give the sense of perfect surveillance, is missing the reality of surveillance that’s developing all around us.  

But second, going back to Ethan’s question while we were talking about Ancillary Sword:

JSM - The paternalistic lack of privacy

EJ - That bothers you, does it?

JSM - Yeah, I’d say it does, but I’m also going to keep googling things and tweeting plenty of thoughts and pictures, and wishing for Siri, or Alexa, to be just a bit better at figuring out what I want them to do.


37 - Jenn Brissett, Author of Elysium

This episode, Jenn Brissett, the author of Elysium, joins me to talk about her history with the genre, how Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing led to her own adventure, and how to structure a novel when the plot isn't a straightforward path between points A, B, and C.  I also fansquee just a bit as I uncover some of the genius of Elysium in the midst of the conversation, and at the end I share a story about faith told in the moments of books I've read.

Nasmina's Black Box (mentioned in the interview)

A Song For You (a personal favorite story)

Previous Episode, including Jenn's memories of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Recent interview on the MF Galaxy Podcast

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

If you want to subscribe to the show, the RSS feed is: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/?format=rss


JB - Each one is a Story.  Each one is a life.

*Intro Music*

JSM - Welcome to Cabbages & Kings, the Podcast for readers of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  I'm your host, Jonah Sutton-Morse.

My guest this episode is Jenn Brissett, she's a writer artist, former bookshop owner and web developer.  her debut novel Elysium, in addition to being one of my favorite books from last year, received the 2014 Philip K Dick Special Citation award, it was a finalist for the 2015 Locus Award for best first novel & placed on the honor list for the Tiptree award.  I found it wonderful, I found the structure very interesting, I found the ways that it played with notions of reality and also gender and the constant characters shifting gender & shifting settings really wonderful.  It was a tough first read for me, I was kind of OK on it, and the more I have thought about it since I finished it, the more it's really grown on me and I've really enjoyed it, so thank you for that.

JB - Thank you, thank you.

JSM - I tend to start by asking my guests how they got into Science Fiction & Fantasy and Speculative, and how much they read other things, my sense is that you are a lot more omnivorous than I am. Where did your reading come from and what are you reading now?

JB - Oh boy, well let's see, I've always been a reader, I have a difficult time reading so it's always a challenge for me to read, but I've always read a lot and growing up I don't think there was, they really understood that kids needed guidance, in their reading *laughter* so I mean I grabbed a lot of stuff that was, y'know, probably not appropriate for me to read but um I think from y'know picking up all kinds of crazy books, because I grew up in Cambridge, MA and at the time there were just a lot of bookstores there, and I would find myself in a corner, a dusty corner with a pile of books trying to read stuff, and it's not that Science Fiction wasn't of interest to me, but I just wasn't reading it and I really didn't have any guidance in it and I just read a lot of other kinds of stuff, sometimes silly stuff, but as I got into college I started to figure out that I was a little bit behind because all of the other kids had reading lists in their summer so they had read Moby Dick and all this stuff and I had not read any of that stuff. So, I started trying to figure out how to read on my own and I was, y'know somehow I got into Dostoyevsky. Do not ask me how! 

JSM - *laugh*

JB - *laugh* but I did, I got into that and I started trying to read some of those kind of british classics, y'know Thomas Hardy and all that kind of stuff because I was just trying to figure out how to catch up, and uhm I started reading things like, I mean I saw people around campus reading Malcolm X, so I'm reading Malcolm X, and I was just trying to catch up to everybody. I had a friend on our floor, I was an engineering student, I got my degree in electrical engineering, but there was a kid on my floor who had the Foundation Series, and I'd not, I think I had heard of Asimov, but I really didn't clue in to who he was, and what it was all about, and I asked him y'know can I look at the first book? and he said SURE, y'know he just seemed to like glow, I'm going to introduce somebody to Asimov kind of thing

JSM - yeah

JB - *laugh* and I read the first one, and I was like, I really got into it, and I came back for the second one and he was just glowing every time I came back, y'know the next week I'd come back for and Asimov was actually a professor emeritus at BU when I was there, so I got to see him, ah, speak so now I was like excited to see him speak because I actually knew who he was, so all us engineering kids went over there for it was like the 200th Anniversary of BU and they had this big symposium and huge crowd and Asimov was up there speaking about whatever he was speaking about, it was very exciting but I don't think even then, I mean that might have been my first inkling about SF, but I really didn't clue in to being Being a Writer at all, or that I would write Science Fiction. I guess when it really started to hit me is like after many many years now, I was an engineer for a while and then I cashed out back in the days when you could do that sort of thing, IPO and all that stuff I opened up the bookstore and I ran the bookstore for about three years and when that finally went away, in a very y'know *laughter* not fun way, because the economy and my life was somewhat destroyed, I had to start doing something with my life and I started writing, because it was really, to sort of stay sane. And I was really just confused for a number of years after the store closed and I would just get up at night and just start fiddling around with some stories, fiddling around with different things, not telling anybody I was doing it, oh my gosh *laughter* y'know it was just really, really bad stuff but it was really, it was getting stuff out of my system, and um around, I guess it was 2006 when Octavia Butler died, it was like this huge wakeup call, it just, y'know, meaning when I heard Amy Goodman announce that she had passed away, um, I, I, just shot straight up out of bed I was sleeping kind of listening to the radio and sort of sleeping in the morning and I was just floored, I just, and it that really made everything a lot more serious, and it sort of it was the, maybe the jerk that I needed to realize that y'know what, I should write, if I'm gonna do this writing thing than I should at least take it seriously and see what I can do. I started doing all the things new authors have to do like brush up on my grammar and I started taking all these books out of y'know used bookstores or whatever to really help y'know improve my writing, those kind of writing improvement books I went through so many of those things, I did them diligently I got my notebook & I really, really kind of cleaned up the way I wrote & started investigating the science fiction world, which I didn't know really that much about I was more of a fan and a very distant fan at that I didn't know anything about the field, I really didn't know about who the current people were who were writing, I didn't know anything, I really was just completely new.  And  I started listening to podcasts, because they were kind of new and um, and I listened to this podcast called Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing I think I got into it just because of the name, and they seemed to have a focus on new writers, and, ah, one summer when Clarion was having this crazy list of writers going to be the teachers, I think Neil Gaiman and James Patrick Kelly and Mary Ann Mohanraj and oh gosh I think Nalo Hopkinson and Justin Ryman, I mean it was just like this crazy list of people who ... and everybody in the world applied, including myself, and of course I did not get in, um, I've never gone to Clarion, I've applied 3 times, have not got in, that's fine *laugh* but, that summer Adventures in SF Publishing interviewed every one of the writers that taught at Clarion at the end of the week

JSM - Interesting

JB - So you got to hear them, what they had to talk about in the class, and it was like, oh, I'm totally going to listen to that if I can't go, I'm gonna at least listen, so I listened to all of them one by one, and the person who really energized me was James Patrick Kelley, I mean he's just full of energy, and just so enthusiastic and just really had all these great things to say, and then he mentioned that he was teaching at this place called Stonecoast, it was like an MFA program, and I said an um by then I was like, what could I lose, I mean I applied, it's the only graduate program I applied, I had no intention of getting a master's in anything, but I figured why not apply, y'know, and um I got in *laughs*

And lo and behold, James Patrick Kelly became my mentor, and I started writing seriously then, and Elysium ended up being my master's thesis, so about two years after that, y'know I had a full novel

*interstitial music*

JSM - It's so interesting ... partly ... it's amazing to me just to hear you say it & kind of the the string of events that led there, but it's also interesting as I talk to more people about how they got interested in the genre or as you hear writers tell their stories y'know the story about oh I've been writing since I was ... since I was six, I've always been ..

JB - yeah

JSM - It's fascinating how many different stories everybody has.

JB - I was definitely not one of those that said oh by 11 I knew I was going to be a writer & I was studying, no that was not me. *laugh*

That was completely not me.

*interstitial music*

JSM - There's this ongoing off and on discussion about Canon and what it means to have a Canon & how to find a Canon and the ways that Canons are confining and

JB mmm

JSM - Assert power hierarchies and it's interesting that it sounds like part of what you did especially with just general reading when you got to college was like what are the books I am supposed to have read & the weight of that,  do you feel that either with SFF as you're writing in it, or do you feel it generally, 

JB - Very, very good question actually, um because definitely I felt it in my early 20s, that's like I have to catch up feeling, and I just felt so behind, and all I was doing was trying to figure out what I should read, and in engineering school they don't exactly encourage you to read, but I still really wanted to do that.

because I really just felt like I couldn't have a decent conversation with another educated person if I didn't know, and I was missing out on jokes, or something y'know because people were making references to things & I was like I don't know what they're talking about.

So I definitely felt that pressure in my 20s.  And then past a certain point I started reading stuff on my own that I just, that weren't part of "oh you should know this book" kinda stuff, they were stuff that was just wanted to read, like I wanted to read Toni Morrisson & Gloria Mailer at that time, so I was reading that kind of work. and then after a while I started to realize that I was getting past people who had y'know read the quote unquote Canon but just stopped.

like they read what they were supposed to and then they were, y'know they were done, and I kept going.  and I, I find reading to be very enriching of my life, like a book I read like 20 years ago, something will happen in my life and something about that book will sort of put it into focus, so reading for me is very very almost spiritual experience and I'm so, I'm saying this in that when I got into Science Fiction yes I did feel a pressure to sort of read whatever the science fiction Canon is, and I quickly got over that um, because I realize that it was the same thing, that I was feeling with mainstream fiction. that the Canon and what people are sort of saying "you have to have read this, you have to have read Heinlein, you have to have read all this guy and that guy" um, it's not, it's just none of it is true.  I think it's helpful to just read what you like, read what you enjoy,

JSM - You mentioned reading being almost spiritual for you, does the, do you care physical books, electronic books, I'm going to assume based on having owned a bookstore that you're probably a physical book person, but does it matter to you? are you an audio book person?

JB - Oh I'm definitely, I fell into audiobooks a couple years ago, because I had bronchitis, when I had bronchitis I couldn't physically read and so I started listening to audiobooks because I couldn't sleep either so I was up 24/7 lying there with fever and I listened to so many books, I mean yes I listened to all of the George R R Martin

JSM - *laugh*

JB - The Fire and Ice stuff, but I listened to Don Quixote, I listened to, I just really long, long books um, so I'm really, I got into audiobooks, I'm sort of peeling away from that these days, physical books I do prefer, I haven't, I'm able to read articles and short stories on my tablet, but other than that I really have a hard time writing long, reading longer pieces electronically.  I do use my Tablet for my comic books, and I've been getting back into that which has been really great, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on with graphic novels these days.

I guess I go back and forth and in y'know each medium for different things sort of person, I'm not like religious on which medium ohmygod if you don't give me a physical book I will scream, I'm not really that firm on anything like that.

JSM - OK, Well let's move a little bit to narrative structure. When I mentioned that I was going to be interviewing you I got a question about this, and I grew up on the Epic Fantasy of the 80s and 90s in which a young farmboy is Chosen by Destiny

(JB - Oh god)

JSM - and goes to a place and collects an object and he confronts the evil, and then y'know everything is better, or at least that's where the story ends and who knows whether everything is better or not.

JB - The Hero's Journey,

JSM - Yes, over and over and over again, endlessly.

And that means that when I think about plot and structure I think about, getting from point A to B, and stories being about kind of the way the person is moving in the world. There are clearly lots of other ways to do that,


Elysium had a very different narrative structure, and how do you think about structure, how do you try to construct it, how do you read it, ... help me out here on getting out of my point A to point B framework and thinking about other ways to approach the books I'm reading.

JB - Well, I mean definitely that is the straightforward narrative structure is very popular because it's the one we know, it's the one the story that we're told when we're kids, Hansel and Gretel, all that kind of stuff, classic stories that just you know plot plot plot, you know what's happening like you just said. But, structure, a narrative structure is something that I like to play with because it can mimic what you're trying to say in the book. And give it much more texture, I mean I don't sit down and say I'm going to go play with this narrative structure now, I try to think of the story first, what it is that I'm trying to say, and the structure follows the story, so in the case of Elysium, and keep in mind this was my Master's Thesis, and I had my mentor at the time for my Master's was Liz Hand who was really just superb, and what she was really great about was not telling me that what I was doing was nuts, because really really it was, but the structure of Elysium was about describing what a disaster is, meaning I'm kind of um simplifying it to just sort of be able to explain it, but when you think about a disaster, when I see a mass grave and I hear about a mass grave, I mean it's a horrible thing, and y'know like when you had the Iraq war and you see the numbers, just see numbers of people who are dead, give me a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, a million and it's just numbers, but each one of those numbers is a story, and is a person's life, I mean I wrote a very early story, um, called Nasmina's Black Box, which was built on sort of a Haiti situation and a massacre in Haiti, um it's not really Haiti, it's a fantasy island I created  but the idea that within that mass grave, mass destruction, great mass of people who are gone, each one is a special unique story, and they have a beginning middle and end, that person in there, and now you just multiply it by 10, by a hundred, and now you see that the pile of people takes on a different texture it's not just numbers now, so when you look at Elysium, I'm telling yes the same story over and over, but this is one big disaster, one big horrible thing that has happened, and I'm telling y'know the story of ... they keep losing each other over and over, but they're different people, but it's the same story and, I mean when I was thinking of Elysium at the time I didn't even realize it, but I was really kind of thinking about 9/11 a little bit because that was still in my system, I was here when that happen and it was just a horrible, horrible thing and you see all these missing posters all over the place, and each one is a story, each one is a life that is gone, or people who's relationships are destroyed their whole family structure because somebody is gone, and you tell it over and over and over again, and so when I looked at the narrative structure for Elysium, I realized that I needed a spiral structure, to kind of give it the texture that it needed, to really explain what this disaster was that happened in this book, so that's why I chose that structure, now um, you can do all kinds of different y'know there're braided structures, there's y'know cyclical structures, there's all kind of stuff that you can do but I really, I mean to just say I'm going to just take a structure and play with it is not really what I do. and I mean I guess there's a real misconception out there that "Oh Jenn is just playing with...", no that's not what I'm doing here, I mean I really, I think of writing period, but y'know writing SF: this is an art form.  This is a craft and it's an art form and it's a means of expression.  Yes there's entertainment to it, there's entertainment to any kind of art that a person, an artist can do, but I mean this is my life's work, this is what's important to me, I'm trying to express things, I'm trying to say things, supposedly you only get one chance, so the idea of just sort of playing around is not really what I'm doing here, and so when I think of messing with y'know narrative structure I'm not messing with it, I'm really taking a look at the landscape of the piece and seeing how I can carve something meaningful out of it.

JSM - The thing that I pick up on and um a couple of the reviews I read described it as kind of ripples, like a stone dropped and then ripples

JB - yes

JSM - But there is near the end there is the separation between Antoine and Adriane and it's like we're moving towards that separation but we get the ripples and echoes of that separation told over and over again as a way I think maybe to sort of ... well, I guess it does a few things because it certainly impacts the, or heightens the emotional impact when we see that separation but I'm also thinking about your each one of those losses is a loss and a story and that we get a lot of separations and there are some real similarities between them and some ways that they're kind of universal but also some ways that each one of them is very very particular and specific

JB - Yeah you totally get that,

JSM - I am amazed that you, it's I'm thinking through it out loud because I hadn't really made all of those connections until you kind of described it and it's fascinating to me ... as I think a reader and a fairly unsophisticated reader in a lot of ways, or someone who's still learning this, it's amazing to me that you're able to sort of take the event and the theme and figure out the structure and the way to make that structure impact the reader

JB - well, thank you for saying that, um, y'know I mean there's a lot of great writers out there that are doing, not like I'm some genius or anything to figure this out  one of my favorite authors in the world is Jefferey Ford, I just think his work is just remarkable, in the SF field, I mean SFF, anything actually! He can do just about anything, I don't mean to limit him in that respect, and Ursula Le Guin, just fantastic author, but using using narrative structure but also landscape so that the physical space to sort of help to echo what it is that you're trying to say, is something very, a lot of authors have played with. I think the only thing that kinda made my book sort of stand out, was that I sort of introduced the idea of the computer code in there and using code as prose

JSM - I loved that

JB - Thank you!

JSM - I thought it was wonderful

JB - It was a very  scary thing to try because a lot of people just see the code and then they just blank out it's like I'm not even going to try to read that, and it's like well to sort of try and push that level and sort of say y'know code is not that scary, it's sort of fun.  But um, there's a lot of authors out there who really played with these ideas and honestly that's what I'm, I'm sort of following a tradition in this way and trying to push the edges that are in there.

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - Last Episode, Jenn shared a book that resonated with her - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I’d encourage you to go back and listen to that if you haven’t already.  To close this episode, I’m going to start a new occasional segment that I’m hoping listeners will be able to contribute to.  I’d like to tell a story via books, in this case, a story about faith and religion.  I still distinctly remember the first time I noticed religion directly addressed in a fantasy novel: in C. S. Friedman’s Black Sun Rising, the priest Damien Vryce vouches for his companion, a man he doesn’t truly trust yet, and indeed in the moment it’s not clear that Damien’s choice in the right one.  But for me, the scene was the first time I saw a piece of my own life, a church and a member of church turning for guidance to an ordained minister when she is at a loss to understand how to be in the world.  I’ve since encountered other times when fantasy stories picked out recognizable religious moments.  If Black Sun Rising reflected my understanding of a faith community as a place to turn when you’re feeling lost and alone, Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels showed me pomp and circumstance and also priests who turn to words, and to the rules and ceremony of their tradition to understand the world and their place in it.  In A Canticle for Liebowicz and The Sparrow, I’ve seen religious institutions transformed, and different members of their community participating in different ways, whether with fervent faith or simply because the Church is, as it has been for many people I’ve known, a source of community.

Most recently, I teared up when reading Nisi Shawl’s Everfair when the characters gathered together singing a hymn.  It’s been years since I attended church, but I still return to the hymns I grew up with as a source of comfort, and seeing that manifested in my reading was an emotional moment.  

To varying degrees, the Christian Church, as a message of faith, an institution, a set of words and practices, and a source of community, has been an important element in my life.  I can see that story in key moments of resonance with books.  The institution and the people who are called to it, or bend it for their own ends in Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, or Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels.  The faith and community it offers seen when the supplicant approaches the priest in Black Sun Rising, and the balm to my spirit when I set down Everfair, closed my eyes, and sang “There is a Balm in Gilead”.

*Musical Interlude, cut off abruptly because I am bad at editing*

If you have a story that you can tell with books, please let me know.  This was a particularly personal story that’s been bubbling inside me for a bit, but I’d also love to hear about the books that defined or redefined the genre for you and how that has changed.  Get in touch if you’ve got a story that’s well told through the titles on your shelves.

36 - Ancillary Sword

This episode, Ethan rejoins me to discuss the AI in Ancillary Sword (our previous discussions of Ancillary Justice are here and here), Charles Payseur recommends 5 stories around the theme of Age & Aging, and future guest Jenn Brissett has a memory of a significant book.

Charles' recommendations this episode: 

Transcript to come.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

If you want to subscribe to the show, the RSS feed is: http://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/?format=rss