The Winged Histories

Tonight is not a good night, but I do have the perfect book for it, and that is something.  I've begun Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories. The Swordmaiden lies wounded in the ruins of a house, coming to terms with the ruins of an imperial legacy her sister cannot admit is lost and the older generation in her family has already been broken by, and my mood is matched perfectly.  In my Twitter feed, which is for better or worse (mostly worse, I think) my news feed, Houston lies devastated.  The most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded has flattened islands, and buildings, and people, and named countries I have only ever been vaguely aware of, and closes on Florida.  A Nobel laureate a world away whose name I grew up with lays land mines and watches the massacres of a religious minority, while a would-be emperor undoes another part of the legacy of his predecessor, another Laureate who dropped bombs on people half a world away who look and talk differently from me (and him, I  suppose).  Like the Swordmaiden, I am not happy with my empire, but my childhood was happy, and prosperous, and peaceful (I am deliberately thinking of the Roman "desert and call it peace" here), and tonight raging storms and racial hatred are showing me the crumbling mansion, while elsewhere there are still parties and laughter.

My mood is dark, but I can cling at least to the perfect book for the mood.  And I am conscious that this is a mood, not the truth of the world, and it is an empire that is crumbling slowly, not the world. (N K Jemisin's conclusion to The Broken Earth awaits me, if I want to read about the end of the world, and what comes after.) Elsewhere George Fox and my newfound Quaker faith (community? Articulation of the faith I aspire to?) promises Truth, and downstairs on the shelves, there is White Rage, when I feel like the problems around me can be solved by my understanding them better.

It's important to have a lot of books to read, so that you have the right book for every mood and moment.  Tonight, at least, I do. And that is some consolation.


Tossing out some thoughts on Tolkien

So Erin Horakova just wrote a brilliant essay on "Kirk Drift" about how we have entirely invented a captain Kirk who did not exist in The Original Series.  Go and read it, because the how and the why matter a lot.

And the same day, there's this actually-not-bad-except-kinda-bad essay/interview about "historical diversity", which does a good job of telling the story that racism in Epic Fantasy is bundled up with European Imperial conceptions of race, and its great progenitor Tolkien. It's not a *bad* argument, and clearly there are still plenty of people who are more interested in denying or downplaying racism in genre generally and Tolkien specifically that it needs to be said.


Erin reminds me that:

Thus it becomes a matter of reclaiming texts via attentive reading. In the post-truth world, attention is a skill. Reading is a skill. We must vigilantly listen to the hum of the currents of power running through texts and their interpretations, to actions and their spin. We must insist upon reality in order to meaningfully and morally do the work of relativistic interpretation: there are four lights, for fuck’s sake

And the thing is, I'm pretty sure that this story of genre's Original Sin embedded and cocreated with Europe's great sin elides so much as to be incorrect.  So here are some thoughts and complications, some of which I'm more confident in than others, which I'd like to explore more later.  (When we're moved into a house and I can unpack my library, for instance).

  • The invention of "Race" and "Racism" should probably be located with Portuguese colonizers in something like the 15th century.  It's well fleshed out and embedded by the time Tolkien's writing.
  • Tolkien's also writing in the midst of a broader European project to legitimize various Nations and Nationalities (locating the "volk") by finding or inventing "Great National Epics", pre-Christian (i.e. uncivilized and authentic) culture.
  • Those 400 years of writing and inventing race include a bunch of Epic Poetry (in a different tradition from things like Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, which we know Tolkien was interested in). There are, in other words, a lot of interesting sources and traditions Tolkien was writing in the context of.  I don't know much about these, but would like it.
  • (So there's a bunch of bullets about what Tolkien was doing, since he didn't spring sui generis, and I think that's rarely engaged with)
  • Meanwhile, the Story of Tolkien as progenitor jumps two decades to the remarkable coincidence of Lord Foul's Bane and Sword of Shannara published in the same year, picks up David Eddings, Robert Jordan, the Canonization of Fantasy Races in D&D, and then the backlash of grimdark as embodied in George R R Martin.  Race and racism are embedded throughout (this seems largely true to me).
    • This story erases (at least) women, magazines, the ways that Fantasy and Sci-Fi are probably interrelated.  It's a fine story, but deserves to be complicated
  • More importantly, this story recreates Tolkien.  His grand mythology is played up at the expense of the ways The Hobbit in particular isn't a fully immersive story and refers back to its readers.  The fantasy that Tolkien's imitators created becomes Tolkien's work.  Which seems unfair to Tolkien and his language jokes at the opening of The Hobbit, at least
  • Something-something marketing creates our readings of books and traditions of inheritance (and other things to, but here I'm far out of my depth).

I want to think about all of these through a rereading of Tolkien, but if you've got suggestions, send me an email at contact at cabbagesandkings dot audio.  At some point, I'll probably work these up into some essays.  

Reading log - the second thirdsies

Two excellent things that have nothing to do with the fiction I read in the last third of the year.  This review of Star Trek: Beyond is an excellent love letter to the franchise.  Stand it up next to this manifesto about the identity of Science Fiction that's masquerading as a review of The Weave, then stop by Abigail Nussbaum's review of the Clarke Shortlist that tackles the award's status in genre at this moment, and then maybe you'll agree that Strange Horizons is writing some of the best stuff about genre out there right now, and by the way you can support them.  

I'll also point out that there's a new literary magazine launching to spotlight speculative fiction from black authors - Fiyah Literary Magazine.  Go take a look at the masthead (someday I'll get to see I interviewed the editors when...), read the mission & the history, and then keep your eyes peeled.  (In case I haven't mentioned the Fireside Fiction report on antiblack racism in Black Speculative Fiction recently, it's a damning read).  So far as I know, Strange Horizons is the only short fiction market to have responded officially.  I am hopeful that Fiyah will be one of many other responses.

I read a lot less in the second third of this year, aka the summer home with the kids, but I did get through a few things.  I struggled through the Clarke Award shortlist & then discussed it (twice) with Megan & Maureen.  If you're interested in writing about award shortlists, I'd recommend Abigail Nussbaum's review (above) & the roundup over at Martin Petto's blog.

The best thing I read came from the Clarke list - Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix was very good.  Dave Hutchison's Europe at Midnight was also very good (controlled and with a distinct, tense tone where Phoenix burst with ideas and energy and memorable characterization), but I wish Europe had treated its women better.  N K Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate started off brilliantly, parceling out information in small quantities while hinting at the horrors all around.  As the book wore on, the invisible hand of the author moving plot points from A to B became increasingly visible, and I didn't find The Obelisk Gate as satisfying as The Fifth Season (one of the best books I read last year), or even particularly great on it's own.  I am, however, very excited to read the complete Broken Earth trilogy next year.  The eventual Clarke award winner, Children of Time was (to quote myself) "ambitious and a bit old-fashioned", and included some really excellent writing about uplifted spiders.

I didn't read much short fiction at all last thirdsy (though I have anthologies piling up everywhere), but I'd recommend Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djeli Clark.  I particularly enjoyed the voice and the sense that early-20th-century Cairo was a character in the story.

I tried a few more "literary" novels: Nina Allan's The Race was good, but I think I need to dive in more closely to really pull it apart & see what made it tick so well.  I didn't particularly enjoy Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation when I read it, but it's grown on me, particularly after a conversation with Kate Schapira that'll be posted at some point.  Another that I hope to reread, this time rather than attempting to solve the book, I want to read carefully but without seeking mastery.

I read and enjoyed The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and also read and occasionally enjoyed various shorter length things for Hugo voting (none of the novellas on offer were as good as Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, I'll note with a grumble)

I'm close to finishing Kate Elliott's Traitor's Gate, making progress on Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories, which remains high quality & emotionally wrenching throughout, and working on Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing (still sadly relevant).  Nisi Shawl's Everfair is coming soon, as is Ken Liu's Wall of Storms.  I've got Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad on my shelf so I can be part of the new literary conversations, and also McKillip's The Riddle-Master of Hed so I can catch up on older material.  Hopefully with the kids in school, a bit more free time, and no awards hanging over me I can read a bit more and a bit more widely.


We got a new set of bookshelves installed recently, and for the first time I can remember all of my books fit on the shelves!  I chronicled the process of reshelving, reorganizing, and reconnecting to my collection on Twitter.  Tweets collected here.  At the end, I requested some recommendations.  My history section is white guys writing about Europe and America.  I have greek philosophers and a reasonable collection of histories of Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Science, but otherwise my histories of ideas have gaping holes.  I have few novels and little poetry, my science fiction weights towards white guys and is lacking in optimism, and above all else I'd love to give my kids books that will let their imaginations soar and welcome people from across the country and the world.  If you have suggestions for books to fill the (literal and metaphorical) gaps in my shelves, do let me know!

And Shook His Heavy Head

More links this week. One that I wanted to throw away but can't get out of my head, Others about the narratives that might need to be retired, and what could replace them.

1 - Here's this textual analysis of various genres, including "gothic", "science fiction", "detective fiction", checking how well they can be categorized based on the words used in large samples of books.  Everything about this seems obnoxious and silly - surely the genre I love cannot be reduced to the list of words inside the covers.  And yet the paper isn't full of grandiose claims.  It tests a few simple questions while being clear about limitations. Plus, there are plenty of links to older influential essays.

2 - I don't understand poetry.  I also don't understand modern art.  But after wandering through the MoMA in New York recently, I found myself looking at the world differently, paying attention to things I would never have noticed otherwise.  After reading the first poem in this piece about African poetry, I had the same kind of reaction to the prose I was reading later in the evening.  Maybe that's similar? (via @kiplet)

3 - I'm always here for dragging Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve. It's a well-written book that oversimplifies the progression from a dark medieval period to the light, joy, and kittens of modernism and the renaissance.   

It is an injustice to the past, and the mythical invention of modernity is an ethical issue because it sets a precedent for history that ignores complexity in favor of oversimplification. What if that history deals with more than cultural production, but genocides or incarceration or forced migration? What if that history is about whitewashing whole religions as all extremists, or naively superstitious, or terrorists? At what cost comes more viewers or higher ratings or more prizes?

4 - This speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is phenomenal.  And in the context of the critique of The Swerve above, I was struck by the connections drawn between distant times and places.  An ancestry of the entire world, preparing to crack open the heavens and reach the stars.  It's a far cry from Greenblatt's narrative, and one I prefer.  "The sleep before the American Dream".

5 - Knowing he Doesn't Know a Damn Thing is (was? 2 years ago?) Kip Manley's superpower.

these people, you’re gonna talk to them and they’re gonna come off as, you know, likable, personable, a little sarcastic maybe, bit of a smartass, but that’s the quintessential modern, contemporary, urban narrator, right? Eight million stories in the naked city, hoo, boy, let me tell you, been there, done that, world-weary, jaded, and they stole this voice from reams upon reams of private eye mysteries because, you know, urban, contemporary, and who’s gonna argue with success like that? But, and we’re zeroing in on what I’m getting at, to be that jaded, to be that weary of the world, you have to know something of it, or make like you do

What even is Urban Fantasy, anyway? I have no idea, but I like Kip's prose, and his story, which doesn't seem weary or jaded.

6 - Retire it Already

story shows women treated badly → women characters respond: “Oh, it sucks that women are treated so badly when we are rational humans deserving of equal treatment!” → audience cheers and pats author on the back → author pats self on the back → move on to next scene in which women are treated badly → repeat cycle. Retire it already.

Over at Couch to Moon, identifying and criticizing this cycle (here in Martin's Feast for Crows) would be worth a link.  So would the praise for Nina Allan's earlier review.  This has both.

7 - Black Wolves! Over at the Booksmugglers, Renay has a review.  I never manage to be more coherent about Black Wolves than saying it feels like coming home to the Epic Fantasy genre I adore, without all the grit and grime and patriarchy it's been dragged through.  Coming home might be a useful phrase for people who've talked with me about a lot of fantasy, or those who grew up on Tolkien, Lewis, Black Sun Rising, and perhaps Donaldson as I did.  But for anyone else, my description isn't all that helpful.

After confessing her love for the book, Renay continues - 

This book is about legacies and social change and family. This book is about the intersections of politics and gender and religion. This book is a conversation with epic fantasy and a direct challenge to the waves of people who claim “historical accuracy” to erase people of color, women, older protagonists, and historical nuance from fantasy literature and replace it with an imaginary, white-washed, patriarchal past. This book is a gauntlet thrown by a woman writer who has written inside a genre that has repeatedly said it doesn’t want her or the type of stories she’s telling.

Later, regarding one of the key characters

If this story belongs to any one character, it is Dannarah, who has carved out a space for herself as a reeve Marshall ... Dannarah is the fuel that creates the momentum of the central story ... Through her choices and decisions we meet a woman who is complicated and stubborn and flawed. She’s blinded by the love of a father she lost and a brother she still mourns, and even so late in life, she’s learning things about her past that change and challenge her. Living in complicated political times is difficult; Dannarah’s story is the embodiment of that difficulty.

This is a good review of a book I adored. It nails why the book is important to Renay, outlines the significance of Black Wolves within the fantasy tradition, and specifically discusses a key character and important moments. 


What is "Science Fiction" Anyway?

(Also read by me in Podcast Episode #33)

I’ve been reading more science fiction recently, and realized that for all that I identify as a science fiction and fantasy reader, I’m really mostly a fantasy person.  I just haven’t read all that much science fiction, and I’ve bounced around a lot rather than really settling into a genre enough to feel like I understand it.  But this year I’m going to read the shortlist for the Clarke Awards, which honors the best Science Fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom in the last year, so everything first published in 2015.  Which by strange quirks of eligibility rules means that Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which was first self-published as a Kickstarter project and was nominated for as best debut novel in 2014 for the Kitschies, another UK-based genre award, is now on the shortlist for the 2016 Clarke Awards which, again, honor the best books first published in 2015.  We live in strange and interesting (and dare I say science-fictional) times?

I’m kind of breaking a rule here, because when I started Cabbages & Kings, I promised myself that the topic that would be off-limits would be awards-stuff.  I wanted to talk about books, not the endless conversations that swirl around science-fiction and fantasy awards and communities. That little note about Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (which I’ve read and enjoyed) is as close to award neepery as I plan to get, I promise.  I am, though, going to have Maureen K Speller back to talk about the Clarke Award shortlist, along with Megan of the blog From Couch to Moon.  We’re going to read the six books shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year and talk about them, hopefully before the award is presented in August..  And probably talk about whether and how these represent the science fiction field (in the UK at least) as it stands, and maybe even what science fiction is.  There’s some value in awards that can provoke discussion and consideration of books, after all.  I’ll have a link to the shortlist in the show notes, but the books in no particular order are: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, Iain Pears’ Arcadia, Europe At Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, which I dearly hope can be read without first reading Europe in Autumn, Way Down Dark by J P Smythe, which is a little tough to get in the US, so if you want to read along go find this soon, and Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who’s been on my “to-try” list for a while, so that’s a plus.

Anyway, discussion to come.  Thinking about the award, and my general uptick in reading science fiction recently has made me wonder a bit about what even is science fiction anyway.  I think drawing genre definitions is usually a fool’s game, and I don’t plan to hold all of these books to this particular standard, but I do actually have a very clear idea of what I hope for when I settle in to read a “Science Fiction” novel.  I’m looking for a moment of clarity that either unsettles my understanding of “how the world works”, or makes concrete a vague notion I have about how the world works and how that constant would look different in an entirely different setting.  

A few examples: The first is from Larry Niven’s Ringworld.  When the characters are first learning about the ringworld, Niven explains for those in the audience with an evocative passage that starts with a candle and a thin strand of thread wrapped around it.  The candle grows to the size of a sun, the thread to the Ringworld itself, and (at least for me), suddenly the immensity of space, the engineering required to create a project like the Ringworld, and the size of the area to be explored all snapped into focus.  This is still a moment I remember when I’m thinking about scale and how changing scale can entirely redefine a problem, or the world.

The second example comes from another older science fiction novel, Hal Clement's Heavy Planet. Here, Clement imagines a very dense elliptical planet with much higher gravity than ours. The inhabitants explore the planet as a way to describe what such an environment could be like, and how (again) our perspective would be fundamentally changed - the notion of a fall of a body-length, even for creatures measured in inches and adapted to such gravity, as an instantly lethal fall, for instance. And their changed ways of interacting with the world.  Clement wrote an essay where he suggests basically that this kind of science fiction, which I think of as “thought-experiment sci-fi” is a game between the author and the reader.  Can the author construct a world sufficiently rigorous that the reader cannot find an inconsistency? Can the reader anticipate the future developments the author will introduce?

(I’ll note that many of these books have holes big enough to drive a truck through when other sciences such as sociology or anthropology are brought to bear.  An easy and accurate complaint is that many of these stories were not only sexist but privileged physics and chemistry above other sciences based on some pretty sexist notions.  But I still enjoy these sorts of thought-experiments which take the laws of nature as best we understand them and apply them to an entirely different environment.)

C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner has a very similar “moment of recognition” for me, but this one isn’t related to physical laws at all.  In Foreigner, a small community of humans lives on a planet dominated by the alien Atevi, whose physiology, community and emotional connections to each other are built in part around systems of allegiance.  That is, recognizing someone’s authority over an area, or over yourself, has physiological effects, kind of like romantic love in humans.  And there’s a crucial moment in the first book where the human character is feeling human emotions, and the alien reminds him that while her behaviors may look superficially like human reciprocity, her *feelings* are more closely akin to the aesthetic pleasures of eating a good meal.  I hope I’m not mangling too badly this scene I last read in high school, but much like Heavy Planet gave me a sense that gravity in a planet with wildly different mass would produce a wildly different environment, Foreigner was a moment of recognition that our behaviours and feelings, and the ways that we interpret the behaviors and feelings of others are a complicated interaction of social conditioning and physiology, and not nearly as universal as we might think.

I could probably go on. There’s a delightful moment in Steerswoman where a character reasons out low-earth-orbit satellites from first principles, and even though many of Ken Liu’s stories aren’t necessarily “science fiction”, most have a moment of unexpected recognition within them. The point, though, is that when I think of science fiction, what I think of are those moments of recognition.  Moments that remind me there are real universal realities that our earth and society are just a very fragile specific manifestation of, and that things we may assume are universally applicable are highly contingent on the specific events and environment that have led us here.  I like those moments of recognition.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in defining the boundaries of the genre, and I don’t expect all of the books in the Clarke shorlist to be catering to that expectation, but it is something I bring to the table when I think about “Science Fiction”

Seven Maids With Seven Mops

After what has felt like a lot of links that aren't about texts, lets see if we can get back to talking about words and books. (I'm also turning comments on for this post.  In general, I think comments are terrible unless well-moderated, which I'm not up to, but we'll see what happens)

1 - @ActuallyAisha is reading the Carnegie Medal shortlist (as she did last year), and her review of Lies We Tell Ourselves acknowledges both the "tremendously effective writing" at the opening sequence, and questions the assumed audience

if I hadn’t committed to reading this book for the award I might have stopped reading. I began to suspect that perhaps Talley’s book was assuming an audience that needed to know what having racist slurs yelled at them felt like. I still don’t know if that was unfair.

This review gave me a great feel for the strengths of the book, the weaknesses in its false equivalencies, and as Aisha revealed some of the questions she asked herself, she inspired me to ask a few more of myself.

2 - I stumbled on this old review of Gate of Ivrel by Adam Roberts for SFMistressworks.  (I quite enjoyed the book back when I'd first discovered C. J. Cherryh, SFWA's latest grandmaster).  

The purpose of this quest is to destroy not a magic ring of power with charmed letters written upon it, but a completely different artefact: a magic sword of power with charmed letters written upon it. 

I've noticed a few things about Adam Roberts' reviews.  First, he cares a great deal about language and style, which I generally ignore (this is what comes of growing up on the fantasy of the 80s and 90s). At one point, Roberts laments: 

Cherryh is an expert Latinist, and taught the language for many years, so she knows the difference between a ‘thee is’ and a ‘thou art’; but she insists on using the former idiom the whole way through her novel. Ah well

Second, Roberts has read a lot more SF and Fantasy than I have, and he's better at picking out common elements than I, as seen in the first quote.  Third and most importantly, Roberts is a deeply forgiving reader.  He mentions that his criticism "does not capture the flavor of reading the novel", and ends with the conclusion of the novel "- it's surprisingly affecting".  I'd like to be better at both nailing the weaknesses of a book I read and also capturing some of the essence I enjoyed.  Plus, of course, more reviewers should use the word wrongfooted.

3 - Meanwhile and entirely differently, Jo Lindsay Walton has launched the Sputnik Awards.  In general, I think that book awards can be fun way to share and discuss great books, but that too often the discussions are either some kind of genre boundary policing, or about "community" instead of books.  The Sputniks seem to afford the chance to talk about wonderful books and stay focused on having fun.  I've joined the advisory board (and submitted a wandering monster list).  Go forth and nominate!

4 - I'm going to spend some time setting up this next link which I got from Will Ellwood.  First of all, let's note that the byline on the Wired piece is from Jonah Lehrer.  It's not clear to me that even if Lehrer is taking journalistic ethics seriously, there's any need for him to be rehabilitated - it's not as though there's a shortage of white guys writing about random studies and extrapolating how we should be in the world.  But let's set that aside and look at the actual article (which exists with some variation in both Wired and The Guardian - each even managed to find a writer covering this beat who does the very counterintuitive thing the study suggests!).  Apparently a single study (and this came from UC San Diego, so the students were probably pretty WIERD) suggests that people may enjoy stories more with the endings spoiled.

And the thing is, this might actually be interesting.  It's possible that expanding on this study could give us some interesting ideas about games and narratives.  And even without the study, I'd be really interested in hearing some authors and critics talking about foreshadowing and narrative techniques.  But this is one single study, it's hardly rigorous theory.  And Lehrer extrapolates from this study to the "no spoilers" culture on the internet.

In this age of information, we’ve become mildly obsessed with avoiding spoilers, staying away from social media lest we learn about the series finale of Lost or the surprising twist in the latest blockbuster.

I'm just spitballing here, but what if part of avoiding spoilers is being respectful of the lots of different standards that different people have? Some people will actually enjoy a story less after spoilers.  When I watched Hamilton recently, I was really glad I'd listened to the soundtrack so I could follow what was happening, but I wish I hadn't trolled through YouTube for clips quite so obsessively - I would've like the visual experience to be a bit more ... unspoiled.  The point being that there might be an interesting conversation to be had around spoilers, or really a couple, some around individual enjoyment and others around social media communities, but summarizing this single study in a media outlet and attributing real significance to it is pretty silly.  Wired did. So did the Guardian.  So did more than a few other places.  

5 - Deryni reading continues.  Joe Sherry is continuing his Deryni reread at Nerds of a Feather.  Like Joe, I've imprinted on this series and I'm incapable of being objective about it, but I'm enjoying following along with him.  In this case, Joe nails his feeling while reading the book.

When I wrote about Camber of Culdi and Saint Camber, I talked around the Deryni persecutions because the persecutions were much less the focus on those novels and were rather more a looming threat. This gave me the space to think about religion and grace and the ethical use of Deryni magic. That space is now tightly contracted because Camber the Heretic is all about the bloody persecution of the Deryni race.

I'm not sure how this read would be for someone unfamiliar with the series, but I'm loving it.

6 - Two reviews that are both good reviews of a story and also also have a broader point to make.  Jonathan McCalmont reviews James Tiptree Jr.'s The Screwfly Solution in the anthology Sisters of the Revolution by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.  The first part of this essay considers whether this story fits into the anthology (I have enjoyed McCalmont thinking about what constitutes a good anthology, even if mostly to argue with him), the second part is a close reading of the story and how Tiptree (a pen-name for Alice Sheldon) leads us through thinking about gender roles and the ways they intrude and become dysfunctional.  Meanwhile, I've just discovered the superdoomedplanet blog via this post on Borges' Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The point that this is worldbuilding via essay rather than narrative, and then the consideration of what sort of worldbuilding is being done here is very good.

Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.
The Tlonites tick differently

This post exists in the shadow of the Hugo awards, and so it is also a post about community.  Wesley draws a connection between the worldbuilding of Tlon and the geek cultural impulse to catalog, collecting facts and keeping anyone else unable to recite the same facts out of the gates.  I'm inclined to agree with the general point that toxic aspects of geek culture are sadly omnipresent, but there's a couple paragraphs that, while individually reasonable, I find contradictory when juxtaposed together.

So really among these links, four good posts all butted up together.

7 - My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves.  This piece from Kat Chow of NPR Code Switch on the language she and her father use, and her experiences growing up is excellent.  I was particularly struck by this line.

To some degree, these things come down to the words available to us in the first place.

Of Shoes -- And Ships -- And Sealing Wax (5/18/2016)

Linkety Links may need a real title.

Here's another roundup of links from Jonathan McCalmont, all of which are worth reading, but I'm picking a bit at the end.  Jonathan asks whether there's space for a "critical hinterland" (to borrow from Nina Allan's piece that kicked off the discussion around the Clarke Award: "conversation and debate among readers and critics: what constitutes science fiction, what are the issues currently at stake, what is ‘best’"). He concludes that there's not - the divide between authors and fans has come down, and while thoughtful criticism may exist, it's not driving the conversation.  I don't have enough perspective on anything other than the current state of SFF online discussion to see what's different or lament a lost golden age, but this feels right.

I'll note also that Paul McAuley (a former Clarke Award judge) responded to Nina Allan by drawing a bit of a line around SF, as opposed to literary fiction, and the relative merits of each.  As someone who hasn't thought much about what Science Fiction is (and even less about Literary Fiction), this is an interesting post.  It does feel like a familiar discussion, though, that must have been hashed out and retreaded in various forms and with different proof texts many times.  I hope that the distinctions and relative merits of Science Fiction as opposed to literature are not "the issues currently at stake".

I like this piece by Vajra on two different books that imagine an Aztec empire.  The rhetoric leads the reader to the obvious questions about who is centered in a story, and use of non-english language (dare I say that it suggests conversation about the issues at stake?), while also baldly stating truths like "the purpose is not to posit a plausible alternate history of the spread of religion in the western hemisphere but to evoke a frisson of horror at the alien beliefs of brown people, a well that SF has returned to many times."  I'll leave you with the conclusion

I appreciate what Hogan's doing in particular because I look for books like this: SF that isn't about the "representation" of non-Anglo cultures (both books could be said to do this, which is why it fails as a metric) but rather about the inclusion of non-Anglo writers into the field and about giving them room to create their own kind of work, differently centred, differently made. That kind of work matters to me as a reader and as a new writer myself: it gives me hope and encouragement whenever I can see it as an ongoing tradition that's been there in SF since Kylas Chunder Dutt, as an alternative canon that's closer (in spirit, if not in geography) to home.

Speaking of SF by non-Anglo creators, here's a short film called Pumzi via Nnedi Okorafor (@nnedi)

Moving from media "differently centered, differently made" to its reception.  This review of Stranger in Olondria from Bookslut points out that Jevick (the stranger) knows Olondria through books, and of course he and many others take pleasure in being transported by their reading, and romanticize the places we are transported to.  "It makes me wonder if his passion for Olondria isn't a direct result of his love for reading." (And what, I wondered, is Middle-Earth to me?) Meanwhile NPR is looking at how to avoid othering -  "I mostly listen". Debbie Reese wrote about the different meanings a story about a Native boy who wants another name has in different communities.

If I read it as a Native kid whose community, friends, and family engage in banter about naming and give each other nicknames, cool. It is delightful.
And if I imagine it being read by a reader who likes and respects Native peoples, I can see why they would like it, too. For that reader, though...  The move to possible names that celebrate "something cool that I've done"? I know the not-liking-your-name theme resonates, but do they also like it because it fits within mainstream "knowledge" of how Native people are named?

(And of course our annual reminder that in the venues that review SFF, it's mostly white men reviewing white men)

Here's an older piece by John H. Stevens unearthed during the demise of SF Signal, attempting to rehabilitate "willing suspension of disbelief" as an active engagement with the text.

Adam Roberts discovers Leprosy Colony Money, asks why it hasn't been used in a story, and also whether you'd eat some, or let your child.  I wouldn't want any around my toddler, irrational though that may be.

Highlights of a conversation between N K Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Ibi Zoboi.  Masquerades, Initiation, the publishing industry and what is afrofuturism anyway?

A lot of this has been wondering what's important to talk about when we talk about SFF, and who's even doing the talking and setting the agenda.  I'll close with two more links.  The premise of Your Booklist Will Be Graded is that Science Fiction and Fantasy in this day and age (and every day and age) are written by and about many people who are not white men, and if you're going to make a promotional post recommending a series of books, your list should acknowledge that.

Meanwhile, A Dead Djinn in Cairo is a new short story out right now by Phenderson Djèlí Clark.  It's urban fantasy at the turn of the last century that throws a double-handful of magical traditions into steampunk trappings on the streets of Cairo.  I am still debating whether I'm more delighted by the protagonist, the in-your-face nature of the intrusion of magic into daily life (complaining about how difficult it is to identify Djinn from their passport because they all use similar names!), or the way it resolutely rejects centering men and imperial europe.  All are wonderful, as is the city of cairo, the threat of the ghuls, and the eventual resolution.

More Linkety Links

Here's a critical mass of links of interest, many related to reviews.  In general, I'm not a huge fan of most of the reviews that I see - they don't usually pique my interest in a book (which I tend to find via Twitter), or influence my reading of other books (which I enjoy), so the genre of review that gives an overview of a book, situating it in place and showing strengths/weaknesses usually falls flat for me, through no fault of the individual reviews.  Of course, last episode I ran this review because it said many things I'd thought of, plus a few I'd missed & praised one of my favorite books, so I'm clearly not all that consistent.

More up my alley is this great review from William Morris that discusses a single aspect of Sofia Samatar's Stranger in Olondria (it's relation to the Bildungsroman) and a set of other links to other reviews along with some of what makes them special.  This seems to me an excellent practice, and one I may try to emulate.  This recent review of All The Birds in the Sky from Ira at Ladybusiness also pokes at a particular piece of the book, in this case the ways that it plays with tropes, and comes away a little dissatisfied, but mostly made me step up to questions about how I think about gender, and interrogating tropes in whatever I'm choosing to read. (Dammit, I need a screenshot of Ethan Robinson's "subverting the trope reifies the trope!" tweet to drop in here).  I'll note that Ira also links to a bunch of other reviews, including Renay's more favorable review at Ladybusiness.

Kiplet made an offhand remark about these reviews that target a piece of the book and then reach out to a group of other reviewers to present other takes.

If a series of targeted reviews that both pick apart an aspect of the book (and challenge me to do the same elsewhere) and curate other takes are fun, so are statements of a genre that happen to discuss a book along the way.  I pointed to Ethan's not-review of The Weave last time, and I'm going to add @CouchToMoon's survey of Military SF to that list.  I've also been doing some thinking about Epic Fantasy and government and worldbuilding.

I've also enjoyed a few movie reviews recently, all of which are looking at big speculative blockbusters and asking what we have to suspend in order to believe.  Ronan Willis takes aim at individuals versus structural oppression in The Hunger Games. Here's @stepquietly on how the MCU is centered on America & the global north, and here's Abigail Nussbaum taking apart the problems with a simple #TeamCap / #TeamIronMan dichotomy.  There's a bit in Speculative Blackness about how speculative fiction often uses allegory to talk about complex problems, and sometimes (i.e. Captain Sisko, black captain in Starfleet) just using real history is a better way to go.  That seems connected to these reviews in that it's asking what the genre is directing us away from while trying (appearing?) to ask other interesting questions.

That's a lot of stuff about reviews, and it's all the meta-commentary I've got. The rest of these are just things I've found interesting.

Here's a post about why a Captain America takedown was a bad idea that I think is a good way to say "I screwed up" and also "Here are reasons we screw up" (implicitly - look, we could do better!)

SFBluestocking is reading Dune and it's really interesting to see the novel from naive eyes.

Octavia Cade's series on food & horror at booksmugglers continues to be amazing.  This installment is really nice on the ways that consumption can be complicated and given new meanings. Plus story recommendations!

Here's Nina Allan on the Clarke Awards.  There's actually some interesting discussion of these awards and how they are (and/or aren't) reflecting SF right now? I'm going to be reading this year's shortlist and discussing with a few guests.

Here's Mensah Demary on Miami Vice, and what we're doing when we watch shows, and giving interiority to black characters, and a whole lot more besides.  This one just needs to be read & experienced, but it's worth it.

I was never all that connected to Prince, but this remembrance from Tressie McMillan Cottom about Prince & genius and paths foreclosed was good. I think there's an art to speaking about a cultural moment when it's not your job.  This one was good.

"Magic is Afoot" from Ethan last year that Cecily Kane reminded me of about belief and magic and fantasy and I argued with him about it, because I think it misses my personal experience of not believing but desiring to believe, but it's worth arguing with.

Reading Log: The first thirdsies of 2016

I've been tracking my reading for the year, which makes it easy to pull up for air from time to time and see what I've read so far.  Two DNF (Did Not Finishes) for me, a few really brilliant stories, an underappreciated author, and a few stories that I'm choosing to describe as helping me learn about my tastes.  With that said, here's a review of what I've read in the first third of 2016, my progress on reading 100 new-to-me authors from marginalized backgrounds this year (spoiler: I'm not on track), and a look further ahead.

The standout recommendation of this year is Victor La Valle's Ballad of Black Tom, which is a reimagining and confrontation of H. P. Lovecraft's The Horror of Red Hook (I read the Lovecraft afterwards, it's interesting to see which spaces LaValle is filling in & how Lovecraft told the story, but there's no need to read it).  

I'd also like to bring attention to L S Johnson, who I first encountered in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.  Her story Marigolds is a grotesque and enchanting repudiation of the "tragic queer" trope.  (And dear lord can some editor please put this online so I can refer people to it?!?)  I read her Little Men With Knives, a novelette available from Crossed Genres and now in her collection Vacui Magia: Stories, which I'm looking forward to sinking into later this year.

The other excellent short fiction I read were Ethan Robinson's One Way Out and a number of stories from 2015 preparing for Hugo nomination season: Marissa Lingen's Points of OriginForestspirit, Forestspirit by Bogi Tákacs, Grandmother nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds by Rose Lemberg, and Alyssa Wong's Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers.  (This story, and Alyssa, are both on award lists this year, well-deserved from what I've seen).  Good Hunting, reprinted in Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is the first of the four stories I've read so far that has unreservedly delighted me.  I've also discovered Kip Manley's serialized novelettes The City of Roses which bring urban fantasy and wonder into the city of Portland, OR, with fascinating and nontransparent prose.

The excellent longer piece I read was André Carrington's Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction. This is an academic text and heavy reading, but excellent.  I'll have more to say in a few different venues, and have already tweeted a bit & talked about the prologue.

As for the rest, confirming that in general short fiction is a mixed bag for me: 

I read the first story in Octavia's Brood - Revolution Shuffle.  I haven't read more in that anthology yet.  Jeremiah Tolbert's Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, and Looking Glass in Lightspeed Magazine and Sarah Pinsker's Our Lady of the Open Road seem to be well told stories doing what they want to do (Jeremiah is playing with the notion of portal fantasies and what happens when everyone gets one, Sarah is writing the story of a travelling band in an even more precarious United States), but they mostly made me realize I'm not particularly interested in those premises.

Vajra Chandresekara has an odd little story Tyr/Fenrir (UST/Dubcon Squick), Cassandra Khaw wrote When We Die on Mars, Robin Wyatt Dunn's I Am Winter appeared in Lackington's.  I read About a Kid and a Woman and Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of all Mankind which seemed to get some award buzz and had a few moments of delight, but I never really connected with. Mike Underwood's There Will Always Be a Max is an introduction to his Genrenauts series.  It confirmed for me that I don't want to explore the Genrenauts further.  You may have a very different reaction - there are a lot of meta commentaries on tropes, which are either clever or annoying depending on your perspective.

I've started 8 novels this year, heavy on Science Fiction which is a bit unusual to me: Survival by Julie Czerneda was quite good and interested in biology, ecology, and evolution.  Caroline Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit was almost very good until it decided that the community of blind humans living by a different star had magic because of their blindness.  Anyone who wants to jump down the TVTropes rabbit hole starting with Bizarre Alien Sense and then consider that these aliens are just blind people can probably guess why this annoyed me enough to turn me off from the book. I am reading Kate Elliott's Crossroads trilogy before rereading Black Wolves (which I beta read and recommend unreservedly - it's like coming home to the Epic Fantasy I loved but with the problematic elements stripped away & reimagined), so I've read Shadow Gate and moved onto Traitor's Gate.  Tim Akers' Pagan Night had some elements that were delightful: there are consequences for impulsive actions, battles stumble together, and the magic is really intriguing and sometimes has delightful visuals.  I didn't find the integration of women knights into the culture all that persuasive and I think the travel could've been tightened up, but this book's cover absolutely speaks for itself.  If it looks interesting, you'll probably love it.

I didn't finish Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia because I just didn't really like the voice and contemporary setting, but here's a good review of it by someone who did like it.  I don't have complaints, it's just not really for me.  I also didn't finish Dexter Palmer's Version Control which is at the boundary of science fiction and "litfic" because I found the early chapters really unappealing with the few women slipping around in slinky dresses and worrying about ex-boyfriends.

Sofia Samatar's Stranger in Olondria is very good, though it took me a while to get into.  This is a secondary world fantasy travelling & ghost story, sometimes told through letters and storytelling, but entirely disconnected from the armies and violence of so many secondary world fantasies. William Henry Morris just wrote about it.  I also read Becky Chambers' Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which is shortlisted for the Clarke Award.  This is a very character-driven space opera that I'm still turning over my thoughts about.

I'm reading through Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and in addition to really loving Good Hunting, I very much liked the preface as well as Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, State Change, and The Perfect Match. It's tough reading a single-author collection because some of Ken's writing tics become more apparent when read close together, but this is an excellent set of stories.  

That's what I've read so far: 32 items, 8 novels (2 did not finish), 1 academic nonfiction, and 23 pieces of short fiction at various lengths.  13 items by new-to-me-authors from marginalized backgrounds. 1 standout novella, 1 author I'd love to see discussed more, a mixed bag of short fiction and more science fiction than I expected.

Coming up, I've got Castles in Spain (translated stories from Spain), People of Colo(u)r Destroy SF, and I'll be reading the Clarke Award shortlist to discuss with Maureen Speller and @couchtomoon.  1 down, 5 to read, discuss & produce an episode of before the August award announcement.  I'm hoping to read Adam Roberts' BeteThe Dark Forest (sequel to Three Body Problem), and The Wall of Storms (sequel to The Grace of Kings, which we've discussed endlessly here) also comes out this year.  I also have a lot of authors from marginalized backgrounds to discover.


Linkety Links

I don't usually do link posts.  Others do. They're an art (I read Natalie Luhrs at pretty-terrible and Aishwarya at Practically Marzipan.  I'd recommend both).  But I've come across a bunch of posts and podcast episodes recently that I'd like to refer back to and point you at.  So links.  Some old, some new.

At the moment, one of my favorite writers (I think in part because I am susceptible to grouchy opinions, strongly articulated) is Ethan Robinson sometimes of Strange Horizons and other times at Marooned Off Vesta.  

  • This is a manifesto of what (some part?) of Science Fiction can be, masquerading as a book review.  
  • This is a story by Ethan.  I found it disorienting. I've come to think that there's a whole lot of the world we live in - this place where we drive hulking metal-and-plastic beasts over vast cement constructions and regiment our lives by our employers (who are intruding themselves more and more into places they were once not welcome), and otherwise all live together in our little boxes made of ticky-tacky (or live in some other way) - is kind of based around social consensus except that in a lot of ways we'd all define that consensus differently.  And here's a story that made me feel that over and over again.
  • Cecily Kane had an entirely different reaction based on filling in the pieces around what the story tells.

Another of my favorite writers now is Vajra Chandresekara.  He's got a new column at Strange Horizons, but I'll probably always love him best for this piece on Military Science fiction. He also wrote about Binti, a novella I thought was okay, and I really, really liked his review.  Which again filled in pieces around the the story.

I always mean to read short stories.  And then I don't read nearly as many as I want to.  And so many of the ones that I read are "okay-but-not-great".  But there's a new podcast Storyological that I adore.  (My discovery of last year was Flash Forward which looked at longevity drugs in an especially interesting way and is still appointment listening for me).  Every week on Storyological (*shakes fist at people who can reliably release weekly episodes*) they take apart two stories & put them back together.  Most recently they talked about two stories from the Apex Book of World SF (which I started reading & need to get back to), and made me feel like a superficial reader in the best possible way.

I've seen a few people herald this 9,000 words long survey of the historical roles of women from Kate Elliott as the definitive answer to men complaining about "unrealistic" women in fantasy. I suspect it'll be as effective in that role as Jon Oliver's evisceration of Donald Trump. It is, however, a good reference. I love that it spends more time talking about women than the silly arguments which prompted it, that it's global in scope, cites sources, and acknowledges the group of people who helped bring it about. As a simple blog post or response to "could women do that?" it's exhausting. As a trove of inspiration, it's a resource to return to over and over again.

I'll note that Kate has had a pretty big impact on how I read women these days.  I tend to ask questions like "are they with other women?" "can they be active characters without just being like men?" and "If their roles are different from historical roles I'm used to, how has that shaped society?" (this latter because The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding)

Here's N K Jemisin on Hamilton, which is one of many essays about this masterpiece, but I like how she connects mythmaking and history and how those two things are really intertwined. And I cannot help but point out that the world we live in, the one that we all figure out how to occupy space in & agree on the common bounds of in various ways is a world shaped and formed by those myths and histories in various ways hard to separate from the physical constraints of the world we live in.  That understanding of the world in part because of Kate Schapira, who writes about climate anxieties & imagined futures and also specifically here about environmentalism and pregnancy.  Which in turn leads me to the Sevenscribes podcast, currently doing a series on environmental justice and ending each episode by asking "did we learn something?" 

I have no idea what similar question would define Cabbages & Kings, but I'll leave you with a set of questions & recommendations:

27 Observations from William Henry Morris

13. The genre readers know what they want. They want the familiar, they want the new. They want the comforting, they want the exciting. They want to be transported, they don’t want to leave the confines of their own worldview. They want you to explain more. They want you to stop explaining so they can fill the cracks with their own explanations. They want, they want, they want, they don’t want. Stupid readers.

The best fantasy recommendation list I've seen (from Troy Wiggins)