Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Long Hidden Closeup: Collected Likenesses

I'm not yet done with Long Hidden, but so far my only post has been about how I was challenged as a reader, and I'm having trouble articulating the feeling of safety that so many of the stories give me, so here's a closer examination of the story that had the biggest impact on me: Jamey Hatley's Collected Likenesses, which left me physically tense long after I finished it. (General spoiler warning.  If you want to read the story naively, come back later.  Pretty much everything but the twist at the end is here.)

At the conclusion of what seem to be gentle introductory paragraphs, we suddenly get "He cut figures of my people ... How I loved to cut."  Then an iteration of sharp things the narrator loves: "Long, slender hatpins ... buttery leather shoes with pointed toes."  As the catalog increases, the items become more explicitly dangerous "A threat sidled up next to such delicious beauty".  Set in 1913 New Orleans, the opening of the story sandwiches these pointed threats between the memories of a grandmother who remembers the evils of slavery time.

In some ways the opening is very tender - the protagonist a young woman, isolated and hated by her family and caring for her beloved grandmother.  Except these sharpened threats keep creeping into the story.  "This is how you learn to trip and bite and scratch and pinch and fight even when they are kin."  ... "You use your sharpest scissors to clip your Grannie's nails." (emphasis mine)  Even in apparently tender moments, these dangerous words crop up.

By the time the protagonist goes out on her own, the goal of escaping her hated family and avenging past wrongs seems clear.  I had expected that after a glance towards the difficulties of living as a day worker in New Orleans, the story would return to the quest for revenge, but Hatley keeps the focus on the protagonist's long hours, precarious situation, and expanding circle of friends and eventually lovers.  Even in these passages, though, the story keeps returning to "tweezers with and without a slant, needles ... the sting and burn of astringents".  The tension established in the opening builds, and by turning away from it towards the difficulties of day to day life, Hatley extends the tension even as the notion of revenge, always postponed continues to hang over the protagonist.

The concluding twist was unexpected, though I think well telegraphed by the story.  It complicates the narrative and also casts the entire story and time period in a different light.  Collected Likenesses doesn't allow for an easy or triumphal narrative, and both literally and figuratively rejects easy black and white categorization in favor of shades of brown.

I don't think that Collected Likenesses will be my "favorite" story of Long Hidden.  And I don't have enough experience with the short story form to place it in the genre more generally.  I do distinctly remember being physically affected by the tension of the story, and also being acutely aware that Hatley was using the tools of her craft to cause this reaction.  On the first read, I caught the sharp and dangerous words that created the tension.  On the second, I noticed how the narrator's gaze, and the extension of the scenes acting as a day worker enhanced and extended that tension while also presenting a more realistic, and often overlooked, picture of life.  By turning away from the established narrative, Hatley also sets up the concluding hook brilliantly. (Aside - the story is told in second person.  I have no idea what to do with this.)  Collected Likenesses is an incredibly enjoyable story.  It's also a story to learn craft from.  It's just not a story to read shortly before you plan to go to sleep.

Bonus - a few of my Twitter reactions to Collected Likenesses, and a comment from the author.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bouncing off stories & how I read

I'm slightly over halfway through Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History now, and I'm beginning to see some patterns in my reactions.  (Tracked here).  A few days ago I mentioned that with Long Hidden, there are 4-5 stories competing for my "Favorite", and only a couple that I've bounced off of.

Let me take a moment to suggest that you go buy Long Hidden right now and read it if you have any interest in SFF / speculative fiction more broadly, or if you enjoy short stories, or (like me) want to like short stories but usually have trouble.  Because my usual hit rate on a short story magazine or anthology is really enjoying 1 or 2, and being glad I read more than half.  So Long Hidden overdelivered with about the first 5 stories.  It's a phenomenal anthology.  Go buy it.  I'll wait.

Here's my attempt to talk about one story* in particular that I just think I didn't really give a fair reading, and some observations about what that says about how open to diversity I am as a reader.
(General disclaimers - this isn't a review.  I'm not experienced enough to write reviews, and I haven't even finished the anthology.  This is personal reaction and thoughts about those reactions.  Also, some light spoilers follow.)

The story I most remember having trouble with was "Across the Seam" by Sunny Moraine, centered around the 1897 Lattimer Massacre (of unarmed striking miners in Pennsylvania).  The story's protagonist is an immigrant from central Europe, haunted by the witch Baba Yaga, and perhaps beginning to identify as a woman rather than a man. (Despite some googling and listening on twitter, I don't have the vocabulary to describe the gender identity.  At the beginning of the story, Iwan is "him", but Baba Yaga and his own behaviors and feelings challenge that identity as the story unfolds).

Throughout the entire story, I spent my time alternately arguing with the author and puzzling over this choice.  The story is set during an important labor event.  The main character is an immigrant, already an outsider.  Why include this confused gender identity? Some of the time I was looking for the reason the gender identity was necessary to the story.  The rest I was deciding that it wasn't necessary, so the various hints and inclusions could be removed.

I'm going to pass over the necessity of gender identity very briefly.  It's possible that Baba Yaga is primarily linked with women and so this confusion is "necessary", or that the scenes strengthen the link to the importance of women in the labor movement, or simply that the author always envisioned the character this way.  Critiquing the "necessity" of these elements feels a bit like "a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic ... about nonwhite people"  (Aside - I can dig more into how Baba Yaga figures in this time/characters, because there's a bibliography for each of the stories on the Long Hidden website!).

Instead I'm going to talk a bit more about my reaction demanding that this identity be necessary to the story, or be removed.  Because implicitly what I'm saying here is "keep your characters within a nice, safe, gender binary that I'm familiar with, or justify it."  In the real world, this has a pretty ugly corollary: "you can't identify as something other than your biological sex without constantly proving it, going through therapy, etc."  In fictional reading, I'm a half step away from "keep your characters all white men or justify it".  And that's a bit of an unpleasant realization, because I've been reading, and cheering, about why We Need Diverse Books.  I backed Long Hidden because I wanted to read diverse and unfamiliar stories.  Because diverse and unfamiliar stories by diverse authors brought me back to SFF.  I'm also just going to link to Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought" and Kate Elliot's "The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding" because they also make good points about the value of diverse representation in fiction.

One more counter to my "that non-binary gender character better have a good reason to be in this story".  Here's my reaction when re-reading the Dragonlance Chronicles when Tanis asks "Who is he" about the Forestmaster and the centaurs slap him down with "She".

Sometime after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms I was exclaiming with someone about how amazing the scenes with Nahadoth were, and she pointed out that they were sex scenes.  I was actually a bit taken aback.  My reading identity was as someone who doesn't generally read sex scenes, particularly not from the perspective of a woman.  Except that these scenes were some of what I most enjoyed about one of my favorite books (even if I'd been hiding behind descriptors like "sensual").  It took a few days, but things finally clicked.  "OK" I thought to myself.  "I'm someone who can read and enjoy sex scenes.  They're not porn, they're not just sensual, they're sex scenes."  And when I got to sex scenes in other stories (including some of those in Long Hidden), I got to read the sex scenes.  No need to skip, get flushed, or anything else.  I'm not, right now, a reader who can read stories with protagonists who don't have a clear binary gender identity.  But I can change that.  So after I finish the anthology I get to go back to "Across the Seam" and read it again.  And I'm pretty sure also "Neither Witch nor Fairy".  And I get to set aside my expectations about the categories a character is allowed to fit in

Long Hidden is a fantastic anthology.  One that deliberately set out to tell stories from the margins of history, and stories about people on the margins.  The stories are rich, and varied and on the whole delightful.  Every story that I've been able to read, instead of arguing with, I've enjoyed.  Even those that I found a bit disappointing are stories I would have been thrilled to find in any other anthology.  And apparently I can mostly read and enjoy them, trusting the authors and editors to tell these stories respectfully, except when it comes to non-binary gender.  That's a disappointing realization for me, but also an empowering challenge.  At least, that's how I'm going to take it.

**Unfinished - Long Hidden has a bibliography.  I am so excited about this!
Unfinished 2 - Long Hidden as a safe space for me because I'm unfamiliar with many of these stories & worried about exploitative/dishonest/incomplete storytelling.
Unfinished 3 - "OK, I'm someone who can read and enjoy sex scenes"
Unfinished 4 - Yeah, I also need to talk about "Marigolds".

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Texts in conversation: Dawn, The Martian, and Cold Equations

I first encountered Cold Equations (the short story) in college, and it rocked my world.  I remember sitting in the laundry room shattered as I hoped that somehow the stowaway could survive.  Of course, she did not, and the inexorable reality of the physical laws of the universe settled around me.

It's been a while since I read the Cold Equations (and my goodness, stay far away from the short story collection of the same name.  Pick it up in something like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume 1), but I came across a tweet recently that pointed out at least one hole in the short story: put a bit more fuel on the supply ship and all of a sudden the cold equations become a bit warmer.  Death in the Cold Equations is not due to the inevitability of physical laws, but rather the decision by the people who outfitted the supply ship not to build in a margin of error.

Not long after coming across this tweet, I read The Martian (not a big fan) and heard a discussion on the Three Hoarsemen podcast characterizing The Martian as a spiritual response to the Cold Equations. Stranded on the surface of mars, the reality of physical laws and chosen supplies will lead inevitably to the death of astronaut Mark Watney long before any rescue could reach him.  And yet (spoilers!) Watney manages to repurpose some of his equipment in order to extend his stay.  (My brief criticism - the vast majority of problems Watney attempts to solve are mostly of the "two trains start out 300 miles apart, one traveling 20 miles an hour, the other 30 miles an hour, when will they meet?" form)  Where Cold Equations ignores the decisions made in packing the shuttle in order to focus strictly on the inflexibility of physical laws, The Martian looks at the abilities of human ingenuity to overcome the limitations of these laws.

Most recently, I finished Octavia Butler's Dawn, which I highly recommend.  In Dawn, Lilith finds herself imprisoned on an alien space station after a world war has destroyed humanity.  The aliens are physically repulsive, implacable traders, and determined to exact a price for saving humanity.  Where Cold Equations focuses on physical laws, Lilith finds herself oppressed and manipulated instead by the powerful aliens who control every aspect of the environment she lives in.  The laws of Lilith's world, however, are no less implacable than the physical realities of Cold Equations.  Humanity will only be brought back to earth on the aliens' terms.

Dawn is significantly more horrific than Cold Equations.  Lilith is subjected to aggressive actions from the aliens over and over again (from juveniles essentially wanting to play with their new pet all the way to sexual assault), and finds herself nearly helpless in an environment not designed with allowances for humans in any ways.

In a lot of ways, my encounters with Cold Equations and Dawn have a lot to do with my evolving understanding of privilege.  I grew up with pretty much all of the available privileges (straight, white, cis male, also with social and class privilege), so I was (somewhat consciously) aware that many rules and laws outside of physical realities were unlikely to have real consequences for me.  The great horror of Cold Equations was that laws and consequences would apply fully.  While I didn't have the language of privilege to express this at the time, it's clear in retrospect that my reaction to Cold Equations was the growing realization that these serious consequences (death) would indeed apply to the stowaway, a result that was far out of my experience.

Dawn is, in many ways, a novel about living with fewer privileges.  Lilith is surrounded by a hostile and aggressive environment.  Assault (physical, emotional, and sexual) is always present.  Even when other humans are introduced, she is marked out as separate.  If Cold Equations is about someone with privilege learning that that privilege does not apply everywhere (with drastic consequences), Dawn is about living without privilege in a hostile world.  I hadn't expected to be linking these two stories (and briefly The Martian, blissfully unaware of privilege and consequences), but the more I reflect on Dawn, the more appropriate the connection seems.

I'd recommend Dawn with only a few reservations - it does include scenes with sexual assault and I suspect that when I was a younger and less experienced reader I would have missed a lot.  I haven't re-read Cold Equations in quite a while, but I think that even with the weaknesses I'm now more conscious of it's still worth a read.  I finished The Martian mostly to get it done and counting towards my Goodreads challenge, but my sense from a number of reviews I've seen is that this puts me in the minority.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


A few years ago, I was ready to be done with new SFF. I still loved the genre, but Sanderson, Rothfuss and Martin were disappointing me, and every time I tried to strike out on my own based on a review or a blurb I was similarly frustrated.  I enjoy rereading books, and I was ready to just dive back into my bookshelf again and again while exploring new genres and hoping another would grab me the way Tolkien and Le Guin and C. S. Friedman had.

In fairly short succession, I read Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon and N. K. Jemisin's 100,000 Kingdoms, and my interest in SFF was renewed.  I was so happy to meet a character like Adoulla who inhabits a distant but enchanting realm (full of tea!) and wears his religion comfortably, side by side with the Zealot Rasheed bas Rasheed and the tribeswoman Zamia.  The horror of flesh ghuls (I almost set aside the book early in the prologue) set against the banality of Adoulla's life in the city was like a breath of fresh air.

Either just before or just after reading Throne, I also read N. K. Jemisin's 100,000 Kingdoms, which is to say I was swept away in Nahadoth's arms and enjoyed every minute if it.  If Throne showed me that there were still characters I'd like to adventure with, the Inheritance Trilogy (in particular the gods) restored my flagging interest in being transported into another author's imagination.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the two authors who renewed my interested in a genre that felt increasingly stale are both people of color, though I also don't want to read too much into this (or at least I don't want to hold them up as two identical and interchangeable diverse authors.  They are emphatically not).  I suspect that I was unconsciously reacting to some of the sameness in the genre that each is consciously writing against.  Because of their books, I began following each on social media, and they led me to a community of people working towards a more diverse community of SFF writers, authors, and fans, a community I'm still exploring and learning from.  But when I first encountered Throne and the Inheritance Trilogy I was a much less critical reader.  Each of these books grabbed the me who grew up on Tolkien and Dragonlance and C. S. Friedman, who was growing bored with the SFF I was finding, and they gave me a good shake and said "this genre that you enjoy so much, it's still awesome. So if you can't find something you want to read, go look harder."

N. K. Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed restored my interest in reading fantasy, and reassured me that's there's new and exciting stuff being written in a genre I'd feared was becoming stale. (And yes, this has a lot to do with the authors I was looking at and the places I was looking for recommendations).  They also led me to the discovery of authors and editors and writers in the SFF community who are committed to more diverse books.  I'm grateful to both of them for a lot of reasons, but mostly because if I hadn't read Throne and Hundred Thousand Kingdoms I might just not be reading many books right now, and that would be sad.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Midyear Reading

Since the year is half over, let's take a look at my goals for the year and see how I'm doing ...
  • Read 12 books for my monthly book group
  • Read 6 academic nonfiction books
  • Read 6 books in translation
  • Read 12 books of fiction, 1/2 by women, 1/2 SFF
    • 1/2 women, min goal, 1/2 SFF max goal
  • Read 50 books
(I've missed one book on book group so far.  I'm also enjoying jumping back into SFF and reading authors I haven't encountered before, so I won't be unhappy if over 1/2 my reading is SFF)

And the current list from Goodreads:
  • Persuasion, by Jane Austen (Fiction, Woman, Book Club)
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction, Woman)
  • Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George B. Dyson (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic (Fiction, Translation)
  • Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams, Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, A Memory of Light all by Robert Jordan or Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, the end of my Wheel of Time re-read.  (Fiction, SFF) 5 books
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon (Fiction, SFF, Nebula award nominee)
  • King Rat by James Clavell (Fiction, book club)
  • An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (Nonfiction)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Nonfiction, Book Club)
  • The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones (Fiction, SFF)
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (Nonfiction)
  • The Martian by Andy Weir (Fiction, SFF)
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman (Fiction, SFF)
  • The Absolute Sandman Vol 1 by Neil Gaiman (Fiction, SFF)
  • Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross by Richard Winston (Nonfiction)
  • Dawn by Octavia Butler (Fiction, SFF, Woman)
  • The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Fiction, SFF)
22 books.  16 Fiction, 6 Nonfiction, 12 SFF.  Of the fiction, 3 written by women, only 1 of the SFF written by women. (Also probably worth noting only 2 written by a person of color as far as I know)
1 book in translation.  No academic nonfiction. 12 of the 16 fiction books are SFF.  22/50 books.

I take some consolation that my currently reading pile includes Women Destroy Science Fiction, and I just picked up Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, but Wheel of Time re-read skewed stats or not, this is a bit of a disappointment.  Still, I'm looking forward to re-reading some N. K. Jemisin later this year when her series is re-issued, and I've just discovered the wonder of Octavia Butler, so not a total loss. 

Favorite books thus far:
Dawn, and I actually quite enjoyed the end of Wheel of Time even if it drags in places.  Nothing else particularly interesting in the list, though.
(I will say that I'm right now working through a short story anthology: "Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History" and it's simply fantastic.

Monday, July 7, 2014

First glimpse - organizing the shelf

More updates on these later, but some pictures from organizing my shelf today. Neither context nor explanation provided.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

I don't know how to read this

Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves punched me in the gut recently, and made me aware of just how much I've grown accustomed to the tropes of fantasy.

Partway through Republic of Thieves (oh, um, spoilers.  Blanket policy: I'll be spoiling the books I'm talking about. This one is not ruinous to the book), our protagonist Locke is traveling with his companions including Sabetha who he's had a crush on since he was about six.  Locke wants to talk about feelings, and since he's told her he likes her, wants to hear that reciprocated.  Sabetha is interested, but she's also the only woman in this band of thieves, which she's been in charge of until Locke took over. She's also probably the more ambitious of the two, and Locke has had her up on a pedestal all this time.  It's complicated. Sabetha sees this. Locke doesn't. Over the course of a few scenes, Sabetha guides Locke, and the reader through this.  She doesn't use the terms "male gaze" or "male privilege", but the concepts are there.  She doesn't call herself a feminist, but her message is recognizable to a modern reader.

I don't know how to read these scenes.  And that's empowering, rather than a problem.

I can read the words and process the ideas.  I even often agree with them.  But they're outside my reading experience.  I grew up on the generations following Tolkien, and studied Medieval History in college. I can read a pseudo-Medieval European Epic Fantasy with a man at the center that only exposes it's social agenda by reinforcing the status quo like nobody's business.  

And when I do, I yell at anachronisms, and I yell at "message" passages that might illuminate the author's views, but break me out of the story because I don't believe the character would say that, dammit!

MedievalPOC has been busy challenging my belief that I actually understood what "the reality" of medieval and early modern Europe was.  Scott Lynch just challenged my belief that I understand how to create a believable secondary world that the reader is immersed in.  I'm still reeling a bit.  (In other recent readings, Kate Elliot's Spirit Walker series, written intentionally and emphatically in the head of a female protagonist also knocked me out of my comfort zone on a number of occasions).

I've been learning, slowly, and primarily from authors and critics on Twitter, just how many assumptions I've let pass unchallenged as I grew up on Epic fantasy.  And for a while I started to walk away from Fantasy and Science Fiction because all I was seeing was more of those assumptions being fed back to me.  (I'll save the story of being brought back to the fold by Saladin Ahmed and N. K. Jemisin for another time).

I'm also learning, slowly, how powerful "I don't understand" is.  I could read these scenes that aren't what I'm used to and reject them.  Bad writing.  Not for me. Political/Message fiction.  Or I can read them and ask why the author includes them.  I can use these scenes that I don't understand as jumping off points that expand my view of the world.  I can take Kate Elliot's Spirit Walker series as an invitation to the (a?) female gaze.  A gaze I rarely look through.  I often say that one of the reasons to read SFF is to be exposed to new worlds and new ways of thinking, and to see our own world in a new way.  I'm learning, slowly, that every scene that makes me say "I don't understand" is an invitation to do exactly that, and to learn to understand.

A final note: my current reading pile:

(Lightspeed Magazine's "Women Destroy Science Fiction" #wdsf, which is definitely bringing some "I don't understand" moments, and The Annotated Dragonlance Chronicles, which is about as comfortable a genre read as I can think of)

**Unfinished - how I came back to fantasy.