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. 


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.

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)