sff she-read #12: AMONG OTHERS, by Jo Walton

Among Others Yeah, you should read this book.

It hits a lot of formal sweet spots: It’s shelved as fantasy, which I appreciate, but it’s effectively a YA book, and although I’m glad for me that it wasn’t categorized that way (because I would probably have passed it over), I’m a little sad for the YA readers who won’t be reading it—and a little bit for Walton, because I think it could have been a bunker-buster. It’s also a proper British boarding school story in the vein of “Such, Such Were the Joys” or BOY or STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD (if it’s fair to call an essay and two memoirs the same thing as a novel), which I appreciate largely in comparison to Harry Potter, not that Harry Potter doesn’t do a decent job. And it’s a coming-of-age novel in a quiet way, and a love letter to classic sf, and also a Lupine puzzle where the things a common-or-garden fantasy author would have lavished thousands of words of hard-sweated description on are instead offscreen, in the past. So there’s a lot to like in its various approaches. And Mori Phelps is a great character—damaged and vulnerable in some ways, but also smart and opinionated; doesn’t suffer fools but sociable with her people. Plus great taste in sf, can see fairies.

On first reading, I’d say it’s not perfect for my taste; a bit too much is left to wonder about Mori’s mother, her twin, and the nature of the fairies, and the basic issue of the “reality” of magic is left totally unresolved. But I wouldn’t trust either of those judgments. First, because they’re both solidly de gustibus, and second, because I’m not sure they’re even right. If Gene Wolfe had written this, in fact, I’d be confident that they were wrong. And I think I’m willing to trust Walton as much as Wolfe. So I think I’ll be reading this again in due course, with a magnifying glass, paying close attention. And I think I’ll be giving it to my daughter in a decade and change, or sooner if I can.

sff she-read 2012, #11: DEATHLESS, by Catherynne M. Valente

The original she-read post.

In Yaichka, they say a child draws her first breath through her ears, her second through her eyes, and her third through her mouth. This is why it sometimes takes a moment for a baby to cry The first breath is for the mother, the second breath is for God, and the third breath is for the father. The breath through the mouth brings the most pleasure, and we forget immediately that we ever knew how to breathe any other way. When a child in Yaichka cries, his mother will pick him up and hoist him on her hip and laugh and say, Look at my little bearlet, breathing through his eyes again! And the child stops his crying because he likes to be called a bearlet.

Look, if that doesn’t get your blood up to do some reading, I can’t help you. I realize the right thing to do is furnish clever enumerations of Valente’s juxtapositions of the fantastic and the geopolitical, talk about the language and the imagery, then say how it’s really all about the characters. So that’s done. But be reasonable, at least—the muse can write a blank check for all the language and imagery and high-wire conceptual combination in the world and still not budget for that little twist of craft. But that’s where the magic happens, comrades.

“Yaichka” is from the Russian яйца, “egg.” If you don’t know why this is important, read the book.

sff she-read #10: THE HIGHEST FRONTIER, by Joan Slonczewski

The original she-read post.

My Goodreads review more or less sums it up:

Full of ideas, some really cool, but the mix of Charlie Stross and Jane Smiley didn’t quite gel for me. I think she may have built the right world and found the wrong story to tell in it—in a world that’s plagued with so many really terrible problems, it just constantly rings odd to be focused on a girl from a well-heeled political family in her freshman year at a fancy liberal arts college (though at least it is in space). It’s a weird enough approach that I kind of want to recommend it, but the execution starts rough and doesn’t consistently improve.

It did win the 2012 Campbell award for best novel, though, so somebody’s mileage varied.

Of course, it’s possible I’m just sensitive because one of the running jokes is that Amherst once accidentally admitted a robot.

The one thing I’ll add is that I would try out Slonczewski’s earlier work on the strength of THE HIGHEST FRONTIER. I really like the way she applies her biological training to her speculation. I just think there’s an intrinsic, almost structural problem in building a world that’s full of really dire stuff and then looking at it through the eyes of a person who’s as protected from that stuff as it’s possible to be. (For one thing, it sure blunts the stakes of the presidential campaign that runs throughout the book; the fate of the world is supposedly in the balance—and it’s not implausible, but the main character’s family is so powerful that it’s hard to imagine her coming to much harm even if billions die.)

I could be wrong about this. I suppose I’m implying that a college novel kind of has to be a novel of manners or some kind of personal journey, and I don’t exactly want to be that restrictive. But I do, a little. I went to one of these colleges. I learned a few things and made some lifelong friends, and I go back every year—and, like Joan Slonczewski, I’m an academic who hasn’t much trod outside the ivory. So, and maybe we’re headed into de gustibus here, I view myself and my fellow alumni as having led basically charmed lives. Some of them have gone through very bad things, of course—the recent rape scandal is testament to that—but most, like me, haven’t. Charmed lives are great to live, of course, but I think it’s hard to make them interesting to read about, especially when they’re the only thing in your field of view. We do get a bit of “reality” in the form of the town, which relies on the college EMS and its future version of Habitat for Humanity, but no sustained engagement.

(As with MEMORY, I chose this book based on what looked most interesting between Okorafor-Mbachu and Valente. The library didn’t have THE ALCHEMY OF STONE, and this narrowly squeaked out over THE HOUSE OF DISCARDED DREAMS, largely because it was written by an academic and because I know I’m going to get around to Ekaterina Sedia eventually. I may have drawn the short straw on a book-versus-book basis, but now I know about a new author, which is cool.)

sff she-read #8: MEMORY, by Linda Nagata; sff she-read #9: WHO FEARS DEATH, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The original she-read post.

I always have more to say when I have complaints.

I hope to God Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu doesn’t need my help. She’s a published author and an academic, my two as yet unrealized aspirations, and if she does… well, shit. Linda Nagata, though, seems not to have written a book since MEMORY. Which is a huge shame; MEMORY has its weaknesses, especially toward the end, but Nagata is working in a space between Octavia Butler and Charles Stross that could really use more occupancy. (THE DANDELION KNIGHT might qualify, if I can ever convince anyone to show it the light of day, but then again it might not.)

Speaking of Octavia Butler, Okorafor-Mbachu is working, at least to my perceptions, in a Butlerian space as well, almost a fusion of the Patternist books and the Parable books — but inflected with some straight-out fantasy and a more contemporary politics, and at least as post-apocalyptic but somehow so much less bleak. I feel a little bit lazy making this analogy. I think Nagata and Okorafor-Mbachu are the only two writers I’d really describe as heirs to Butler, and they also happen to be two of the few women of color in sf. But I’ll stand by it. All three are preoccupied with bodies, their changes, and how those changes are tied to identity; all three are preoccupied with feral, fallen worlds, where civilization persists like lichen on rock, in tough but vulnerable patches; all three articulate a spirituality that fuses the mystical and the practical, that complicates and problematizes mysticism without succumbing to the urge to reduce it. It perhaps goes without saying that all write women of color who span the range of personality, sympathy, and power, some of whom triumph and some of whom die bad deaths.

All three need reading. Get to work.

(Edit w/r/t Linda Nagata: She hasn’t disappeared; she’s self-publishing now, still selling short stories and maintaining an active Web presence. And, based on photos, I may or may not have been wrong to say she’s a person of color—I made an assumption in the above post, which I’m leaving unedited for anthropological interest. Anyway, none of this changes my evaluation of MEMORY, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing.)

(Explanatory note on the selection of MEMORY: I started August picking up Sarah Monette’s THE VIRTU, which I mistakenly thought was the beginning of an independent trilogy and not a sequel to MELUSINE, which was theoretically my August book. I was a chapter or two in by the time I realized I had to be wrong. That was enough to make me suspect that Monette’s writing wasn’t for me; fairly or unfairly, I was getting HAVEMERCY PTSD. So I went to the branch of the library that had MELUSINE and made a compromise: I picked up a book by every female author in the sf section shelved between Kelly Link and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, including MELUSINE, and had a few-first-pages showdown. MEMORY narrowly beat out Neve Maslakovic’s OF DUCKS AND UNIVERSES, which I really do plan to go back and read, as well as MELUSINE, Elizabeth Lynn’s DRAGON’S WINTER, and Patricia McKillip’s THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE. Probably I should have divided the alphabet up and done this with something like a three-letter interval centered on every other letter; but there you go.)

sff she-read #13: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN, by Kage Baker

The original she-read post.

I feel so stupid that my reviews don’t include book cover photos. This isn’t my favorite, but it’s what was on the library copy that I read, so it stays.

I read IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN on vacation several weeks ago, so my memory isn’t as good as it might be. The basics: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN is centered around an approach to time travel that’s more than innovative enough to justify the Chapter 1 infodump and attendant slow start, and its point of view character is really well drawn and well written, with all the weaknesses you’d expect from what amounts to an eighteen-year-old godling. The romance is as sweet as it could be and as tragic as we pretty much know it has to be. If the book has a real defect, it’s that Mendoza’s professional objective, the botanical MacGuffin that brings her and her entourage to the garden of Iden, is not especially compelling—important, but not invested with any real emotional urgency. But I go back and forth on whether this is a defect. First, the book is and reads as an origin story, and so it makes some sense that the focus is on the force that events exert on Mendoza’s character rather than the significance of what she achieves. Second, maybe related, what she’s doing is her job. Sure, it’s a job that confers immortality and involves hiding things for your employer to find thousands of years in the future, but it’s still basically a job. So it makes some sense to frustrate the expectation that the quest will provide some deep emotional satisfaction. It provides the satisfaction of doing one’s job, which is a real but limited compensation; and there will be lots of quests to follow.

Actually, the one other potential defect is in the time-traveling conceit. The idea is that you can’t alter recorded history—so you can’t kill Hitler, but you can hide something for your boss to find a thousand years in the future. The storytelling function of this limitation is obvious, and you can lash it loosely to quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and so on to get a reasonably interesting take on reality as collective perception, but distracting questions immediately jump out. How long does history have to be recorded to be set in stone? If something was common knowledge in one era of human history and unknown in another, is it fair game? When does history stop for these purposes—remember, the Company’s future is some other future’s past. What about the butterfly effect—can you kill one of Hitler’s ancestors? If not, can you kill anyone? If not, what else can’t you do, or can you?

Anyway, I bring this up only because it nags; Baker may address these problems beautifully in subsequent books. I will certainly find out when I get the chance.

“a writer who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone”

All the articles in SLATE’s Longform Guide to Takedowns are worth reading, but two stand out. I think their common strength is in using good writing, and insight trained by writing, to anatomize the failings (and, in a sense, the workings) of bad writing. It may help that their targets really are fish in barrels—or, perhaps more likely, that their targets come off as fish in barrels may testify to the pungency with which Taibbi and Morozov make their cases.

The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

“Let me… share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,” he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

“Flathead,” by Matt Taibbi

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

“The Naked and the TED,” by Evgeny Morozov

“Insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering.” I’ll have lunch with Evgeny Morozov any time.

sff she-read #7: STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, by Kelly Link

The original she-read post.

Miss Nevada has been abducted by aliens on numerous occasions. The stage spotlights appear to make her extremely nervous, and occasionally she addresses her interviewer as 9th Star Master. Miss Alabama has built her own nuclear device. She has a list of demands. Miss South Carolina wants to pursue a career in Hollywood. Miss North Carolina can kiss her own elbow. We try to kiss our own elbows, but it’s a lot harder than it looks on television. Please hold me tight, I think I’m falling.

Miss Virginia and Miss Michigan are Siamese twins. Miss Maryland wants to be in Broadway musicals. Miss Montana is an arsonist. She is in love with fire. Miss Texas is a professional hit woman. She performs exorcisms on the side. She says that she is keeping her eye on Miss New Jersey.

Miss Kansas wants to be a weather girl.

Miss Rhode Island has big hair, all tendrilly looking and slicky-sleek. The top part of her jiggles as she wheels herself on stage in an extremely battered-looking wheelchair. She just has the two arms, but she seems to have too many legs. Also too many teeth. We have seen her practicing water ballet in the hotel swimming pool. (Later, during the talent show, she will perform in a tank made of specially treated glass.) We have to admit Miss Rhode Island has talent but we have trouble saying her name. Too many sibilants. Also, at breakfast her breath smells of raw fish and at night the hoarse mutterings of spells, incantations, the names of the elder gods heard through the wall have caused us to lose sleep.

—“Shoe and Marriage”

Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN is by far the best book I’ve discovered this year. Not just in this little project, but in 2012 overall. Possibly also 2011. 1Q84 might (or might not) be just a little bit better, but only because Link lost me a bit on “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.” Nothing else comes close. (“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is the first story of STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. If you don’t like it, persevere. You’ll thank me later.)

STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN is a short story collection. Link takes two main approaches: Mashups and deconstructions of myths and fairy tales, and surreal horror. The mashups and deconstructions are very good; “Travels With the Snow Queen” and “Flying Lessons” are particularly well done, and “Shoe and Marriage” has an out-spiraling riff on Miss America (quoted only in part above; you should not miss Miss New Jersey) that beats almost any other moment in the book for hilarity and fecundity of imagination. The horror, though, is the best I’ve read. “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” and “The Specialist’s Hat” are creepy in ways whose mechanisms I do not understand. I had bad dreams. Fiction doesn’t give me bad dreams. It turns out I like it when it does, I guess.

Link’s work is magic realism in the vein of the usual suspects, who to me are Borges, Bulgakov, Calvino, Harlan Ellison, Marquez, Murakami, maybe Saramago, and Gene Wolfe (which is not to imply that no female suspects exist, just that I haven’t read them). Her shade into horror is particularly reminiscent of Ellison (say “Croatoan” or “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or “All the Birds Come Home to Roost”) and Wolfe (notably “Seven American Nights”), which I mention mostly because it’s Wolfe and Ellison who benefit by the comparison. Anyway, the point of all this is just to say that it’s hard to imagine anyone who likes literary fiction not liking STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. Her fantasy isn’t secondary-world or urban fantasy where you’ve got to absorb a new cosmology before your hit of story; her horror isn’t monster-based or gory in the ways that tend to squick people. If you don’t like being creeped out at all, then skip “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” and “The Specialist’s Hat” (“Louise’s Ghost” is not horror), but for Christ’s sake read the rest.

I suppose I have two caveats for prospective lectors. One is that, if you yearn for explanations, prepare for disappointment. Personally, I love reading a story where I don’t quite get what’s going on, but think I could if I dug into it; that’s presumably either a source or a consequence of my affection for Gene Wolfe. The other is a certain sameness in the narrative voice. It’s a good voice; Link’s language is extremely clear and accessible, as you see above, her images vivid and startling but precise. So it’s not a huge defect. But it can snag the attention just a little bit if you read three or four stories in a row.

Which you will. Or, anyway, should.

(P.S. Mary Robinette Kowal was patient enough to come by my post on SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and educate me a bit on what she was trying to do there. So we’ve got a bit of back-and-forth in the comments, of which her half at least is worth reading.)