Looking at the year so far, I realised I’d read almost no novels for fun. The year before that, I was doing my MA and then reading for The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: short fiction was the majority of my reading material. I love short fiction, but I love novels too. I love sinking into a bigger sea. I’m enjoying my Tor.com column about Post-Binary SF, but there’s a definite difference between reading to engage with the text and reading for fun, even if the fun involves minor blogging — as below — to talk about what I’ve been reading, the books I liked and the books I didn’t. I have a few months until I start my second Masters, when I suspect I’ll stick to short fiction, so I’ve decided that I’m going to spend the summer reading (mostly) novels, clearing my to-read pile (the concept of a to-read pile annoys me) and (hopefully) having fun!
Here are the first few reads, including one or two from a bit earlier in the year.
Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine (Grand Central Publishing: 2013)
I didn’t finish this one. Partly because gods-are-just-like-bickering-humans is a trope faar beyond my personal preferences. Partly because the relationship dynamics in the family – specifically towards Makeda – were too emotionally abusive for me to stomach.
Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (Atria Books: 2014)
A breezy read with a bit of bite. I liked it. I don’t know the fairytale it retells (Twelve Dancing Princesses), but it has a bit of a fairytale feel: a certain neatness to some events, the image of twelve sisters going out dancing. The love of dancing suffuses the book, as does the tense relationship between the sisters and the prison of their father’s house.
The focal point of the book is Jo, the oldest sister and “the general”: her role in organising her sisters’ false freedom, in keeping them safe — in complicity — and, ultimately, her realisation about what real freedom is. That tension — complicity, support, freedom — is deftly done and really quite remarkable: it’s an approach to an oppressed life rooted in real complexity.
I found the book in some ways a little too quick. I wanted to see more of the lesbian sisters, in particular. I wanted a bit more examination of the ending, particularly marriage-as-freedom. But, overall, I’d recommend it.
T.M. Wright, Blue Canoe (PS Publishing: 2009)
Free at WFC 2013. I read it in one sitting and laughed at bits like “I must protect my orgasm. Grab cock and spin.” (ACTUAL QUOTE) but, really, this is a bad book: it’s steeped in misogyny — every single woman is described through the lens of her sexual appeal, even the narrator’s mother, with my favourite adjective being “consumable” — and it keeps calling attention to the fact that it’s presenting an unreliable reality, as if the reader can’t be trusted to notice.
Leena Krohn, Datura, translated by Anna Volmari & J. Robert Tupasela (Cheeky Frawg Books: 2013)
Datura is another book about unreliable reality, but it’s far better! It’s about a woman who works at a magazine that publishes articles about “strange” phenomena, who meets the people for whom the “strange” is real, and who experiences her own reality grow ever-more-uncertain as she consumes datura seeds to help her asthma. Reality is questioned, asserted and undermined in a light, tongue-in-cheek way, a little too fond of the people in the book to out-and-out mock them, a little too uncertain about the true definition of reality to disbelieve them. I found it fun, although there were one or two moments (describing a woman’s beauty as “exotic”, an unpleasant description of an obese woman, casual, meaningless use of “yin and yang” — a drinking game all by itself at this point) that it could have done without.
It also made me reflect on the pleasures of short novels. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Blue Canoe and Datura can all be read in a single sitting (although I was interrupted before the end of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and read it over two nights), and there’s a particular pleasure in doing so: digesting the book as a single object, experiencing its characters, its plot, its voice all at once, interconnected. It all sits in the mind, coherent, viewable from multiple angles. All three books are non-linear, to a certain extent, which makes the single-sitting read especially rewarding: viewing the pieces as they slot into place. I like a long novel that I can return to over a longer period of time (I read Nicola Griffith’s Hild over several months), but a short, single-sitting novel is a definite treat.
I’ll be at Loncon 3 this August! I’ll mostly be milling about, meeting friends, but I’ll also be on 3 panels talking about unsurprising topics. I look forward to seeing many of you at the con.
Rewriting Gender Defaults
Thursday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 9 (ExCeL)
Several recent novels, including Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312″, Kim Westwood’s “The Courier’s New Bicycle”, Deb Taber’s “A Necessary Ill” and Kameron Hurley’s “God’s War”, have tried to imagine futures with increased gender diversity, or changed gender defaults. This panel will discuss how writers in English approach the technical aspects of challenging and disrupting gender binaries: how do issues such as narrative voice or structure affect our impressions of the worlds created? What are the strengths and weaknesses of different choices?
Roz J Kaveney (M), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Julia Rios, Geoff Ryman, Mary Talbot
An Anthology of One’s Own
Friday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL)
Thanks in large part to the efforts of publishers like Aqueduct and Twelfth Planet Press, and the increasing use of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, we are in the middle of a small wave of feminist SF anthologies — including the Twelve Planets series and the Lightspeed Women Destroy X special issues, and with Alex Dally MacFarlane’s Mammoth Book of SF by Women and the VanderMeer giant anthology of Feminist SF still to come. Such anthologies are part of a tradition stretching back at least to Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthologies in the 1970s. How have they helped to shape contemporary understanding of SF? To what extent have they been successful at rewriting the narratives of SF history (and breaking what are often cycles of discovery and elision)? And have they left any blind spots of their own?
Julia Rios (M), Jeanne Gomoll, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Ann VanderMeer
The Biology of Sex and Gender
Saturday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness the Gethenian people change gender and sex naturally as part of their lifecycle. Le Guin knew that many Earth creatures undergo a similar process in changing sex. What is the science behind these sex-changing animals? Could humans do it, or be modified to do it? What would this mean for our understanding of gender?
Alex Dally MacFarlane (M), Lucy Smithers, Howard Davidson, Helen Pennington, Keffy R. M. Kehrli
Not one, but TWO covers for anthologies I’ll be in this year.
Haikasoru has released the cover art for Phantasm Japan! It’s gorgeous, as is the TOC.
Zachary Mason: “Five Tales of Japan”
Gary A. Braunbeck: “Shikata Ga Nai: A Bag Lady’s Tale”
Yusaku Kitano: “Scissors or Claws, and Holes”
Lauren Naturale: “Her Last Appearance”
James A. Moore: “He Dreads the Cold”
Nadia Bulkin: “Girl, I Love You”
Quentin S. Crisp: “The Last Packet of Tea”
Seia Tanabe: “The Parrot Stone”
Jacqueline Koyanagi: “Kamigakari”
Project Itoh: “From the Nothing, With Love”
Tim Pratt: “Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters”
Alex Dally MacFarlane: “Inari Updates the Map of Rice Fields”
Sayuri Ueda: “Street of Fruiting Bodies”
Miyuki Miyabe: “Chiyoko”
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: “Ningyo”
Joseph Tomaras: “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self”
Dempow Torishima: “Sisyphean”
Neil Clarke has likewise released the cover art and TOC for Upgraded, his anthology of cyborg stories (edited by a real cyborg!) that looks really great.
The TOC is a longer one, so I’ll link to the Upgraded page rather than reproduce it here, but it includes Yoon Ha Lee, Genevieve Valentine, Elizabeth Bear, Xia Jia, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Seth Dickinson and many others.
I’m looking forward to reading my contributor copies of these (which I don’t always do).
The third volume of Lavie Tidhar’s excellent anthology series The Apex Book of World SF is now available for pre-order. The page includes bundled deals with the first and second volumes. Lavie notes that the full set contains 58 stories, from 34 different countries. I highly recommend taking a look at these anthologies, if you haven’t already. They’re strong and important collections of SF.
The Table of Contents for XIII, ed. Mark Teppo, has been posted. It reprints my story “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints” among many new works. It is due out in March 2015.
Speaking of anthologies, I’ve recently seen a preview of the cover art and a PDF of the page proofs for Phantasm Japan, ed. Nick Mamatas & Masumi Washington. It looks very attractive. I can’t wait to get my contributor copy later this year.
A cool thing I saw on Twitter: manuscripts used as dress linings.
A less-cool thing I read: my post about Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai is live at Tor.com. It’s a really unfortunate book, terrible in so many ways that I couldn’t find a single positive thing to say about it. I got it for the gender-change and the possibility of interesting conversation about bodies/gender/fluidity. Instead I found… that.
I didn’t even mention the dire quality of the writing. Or some serious problems: the house of forced sex and manpain, where a bell tolls daily to commemorate the moment Chen’s ex-partner left him. (If you do decide to read this book, TW for rape. I decided I’d be far happier if I skipped some chunks, and I was.) The non-animal woman who decides to lead the animal-people for their own good, because they’re too disorganised without her guidance. (She’s also a bit of a quirky object of male desire: a manic pixie white saviour?) The herbalist who finds herself pregnant, a condition that could kill her due to an irreparable bone condition, but doesn’t even consider abortifacents. Or, on a far lighter note, the house of waterlogged marble that the main characters intend to set alight. Good luck!
There’s a sequel. I won’t be reading it.
I’ve spent parts of today re-reading Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (I’m up to the 1950s so far, pre-Tiptree). It remains an incredibly interesting read, but also a very discomfiting one, because Phillips is very committed to the idea of Sheldon as a “woman writer”. Compare this line of Phillips’ narration in Chapter 9:
“Yet her life does have a pattern, the pattern of a woman writer.”
to Sheldon’s own words, written in a sketchbook, quoted in Chapter 10 as “probably drunken” in Phillips’ assessment:
“goddamn I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy.”
“they say it is ego in me I know it is man all I want is man’s life. [...] my damned oh my damned body how can I escape it I play woman woman I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy, thank god for liquor.”
“I am no damned woman wasteful god not to have made me a man.”
It’s an absurd contrast. How can you read Sheldon’s words and not consider that Sheldon might not have been a woman? Sheldon certainly experienced a lot of life as a woman, sought (and struggled to find) solidarity with women, including in women-only spaces, struggled with the tension of achieving success in a sexist culture by acting in “male” ways, struggled with sexuality and what to do about desire for women (and desire for men). It is a complex set of factors in a complex life — not an easy narrative, not an easy conclusion, especially as the sense I get from Sheldon’s very varied writing about women and being a woman is that Sheldon was conflicted, confused, unsure. The closest Phillips gets to addressing this (so far) is later, in Chapter 17:
“She never explicitly identifies with men, but she doesn’t feel like a woman either. She often seems to be trying to get free of gender entirely, as if her ‘scientific’ inquiry is a way of climbing out of her own skin.”
Pages earlier, in the same chapter, Phillips writes:
“…when she wrote objectively about ‘women’ she was always also writing about herself.”
Phillips writes about the alienation Sheldon felt, but seems to root it in Sheldon being a woman — which isn’t to say that Sheldon didn’t identify with female identity (going by the writing quoted in this book, I think Sheldon did), but that a person who is assigned female at birth and is not female may feel alienation both from sexism and because they are not actually female. I think it’s very telling that Phillips opens the book with two epigraphs, one of female alienation in Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See”, the other of Joanna Russ writing to Tiptree, saying, “To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man.” The possibility that Sheldon may have been a real man is not the narrative Phillips seems to be telling. It is a narrative of female oppression — a fine and important narrative, and one of relevance to Sheldon’s life, but not the whole truth.
I’m not the first person to notice this. In 2006, Farah Mendlesohn reviewed the book at Strange Horizons and flagged up the problem, saying: “Julie Phillips wants Alice Sheldon to be a woman. … Based entirely on the evidence presented by Phillips, I am unconvinced that Sheldon ever so wanted.” I know friends of mine (including trans friends) have wondered about this too. Mendlesohn makes a useful point in saying:
“None of her careers, however interesting, lasted more than five years. In 1976, when Tiptree was outed, his career had lasted almost a decade: had Sheldon not become so engaged in Tiptree as self, Tiptree’s career might well have ended at about the same time anyway.”
Taking a man’s name, being perceived male, is no more a universal experience than any other. I cannot say that it means x or y about Sheldon’s gender, nor that a life of brief careers can never have a longer career without it being super, specially important, but I can say that a person dedicating a lengthy part of their life to living (partly) as a man — a person who earlier wrote of longing to be a man, a person who had breast reduction and expressed bodily discomfort — is a person whose female gender ought to be considered an uncertainty. There is a neutrality in being male, in a male-dominated culture. There’s also maleness in being male. If Sheldon wanted to escape gender entirely, it may have meant a significant confusion. If Sheldon found it easier to write as a man, it may have been because of significant cultural sexism and because Sheldon’s own gender was masculine-leaning.
I’m uncomfortable declaring that, yes, Alli Sheldon was a man. (Only Sheldon could have said that, and — it seems — didn’t in as many words, although “to be a man” and “I play woman” is more than suggestive!) I’m equally uncomfortable saying Alli Sheldon was a woman. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with prioritising the difficulties of a “woman writer” over the consideration of possible trans/queer gender.
Sonya Taaffe has a beautiful rebuff of the idea that gender in ancient cultures was bereft of trans*, non-binary and other gender identities beyond the modern “cis”, as if non-cis gender was invented recently. Here is a snippet:
You read Frazer, so you must have a smattering of interest in comparative religions; are you familiar with the diverse gender identities of the gala/kalû of Inanna/Ištar, who were sometimes men who took female names and wrote hymns in the exclusively female eme-sal dialect of Sumerian and had sex with men and married women and fathered children and were sometimes women? And that this is a rudimentary and almost certainly misgendering way to discuss this priesthood, because as the above description implies, the gala were not defined on a gender binary? Aṣûšunamir the assinu of Ištar’s Descent is another gender-crossing figure of Mesopotamian myth. Often assumed to be a eunuch. Maybe. You can find lots of literature describing the assinû as homosexual cult prostitutes, although since Aṣûšunamir’s explicit function is to delight and distract and soften the mood of Ereškigal, Queen of the Underworld . . . The kurgarrû are likewise ambiguous in gender.
It prompted me to dig up Kathleen McCaffrey’s article “Reconsidering Gender Ambiguity in Mesopotamia: Is a Beard Just a Beard?” in S. Parpola and R.M. Whiting (eds). Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, which I photocopied during my MA and never got around to reading. It’s a useful article that covers some of the same ground as Sonya’s post, but suffers from a lack of the idea that gender can be “neither”. It’s worthwhile to look at gender through the lens of role rather than genitals: the possibility of changing gender by changing role without any modification of the body, possibly? (eg: women entering the male role of “king”, thus beginning to be depicted iconographically as men, with features including weapons and beards, which raises the question of whether they grew/wore beards in reality; the example given is a 9th C BCE Assyrian “bearded queen” represented at Nineveh, notably only c.50 years distant from Šammuramat). But, but, this system of gendered roles becomes just as rooted in the binary as the gendered bodies of the Western system, this crossing between male and female without leaving the two genders, whether partially or totally. (It reminds me of reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, which I wrote about on Tor.com: the troubling of male and female by “both”, sort of, without strongly considering the possibility of “neither”.) And, really, gender beyond the binary and beyond aspects of a binary-defined “both” seems, to me, to be there. The bigger (and perhaps un-answerable) questions are what “neither” might have meant for people in the past, what the relationship/s with male and female was, what fluidity was possible, what relationship/s it had with bodies, roles, and so on.
(There’re things I want to say about performance and gender and how talking about, say, a woman taking on aspects of male performance and therefore queering her identity, really frustrates me when it’s talked about in a certain way, but I think that’s a post for another day. I need to pin down my thoughts better.)
I want to talk about gender in the past on Tor.com, because I think it’s important to talk about history. As I said elsewhere: our history is often visible between the lines of what we write about the future. (What we write about the present, too.) Many SFF writers struggle to depict people of all genders as people of the future, not men and women of the past — based on a flawed understanding of the past. The supposed “newness” of queerness is an oft-used excuse for dismissal.
I recently re-read B’s essay “What “queer” could look like in Hindi: translated poetry and queerness in regional tongues”, which talks about the tension between trying to look to the past for our queer history — through which lens/es? — yet how important it is to see the queerness. There are always lenses, there is no objectivity, considering the possibility of gender identities that can be usefully termed “non-binary gender” is not (in my opinion) an overactive modern lens, but the how of approaching gender in the past is always important.
(This isn’t my research area — sidenote: it darkly amuses me when people assume my academic work is gender-related, as if I cannot possibly have other interests — but it’s something I intend to keep reading about, where I can, and I can, because I GOT THE FUNDING TO GO TO OXFORD TO DO A MASTERS IN CLASSICAL ARMENIAN STUDIES.)
It’s June! It’s summer, my favourite season! I’ve been mired a bit too much in the less happy corners of my head lately, which I’d like to leave — as much as I can — by doing more, which includes trying to blog more. I share or talk about interesting things on Twitter a lot, but that need not only happen there. Of course, June optimism may end mid-June if I don’t get funding for a second Masters (to learn Classical Armenian, necessary for the PhD research I want to do), which I’ll (hopefully) hear about this month.
I’m going to start the easy way, with links.
Two of my stories are being reprinted in anthologies later this year. The first is “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)”, a very short piece about royal Babylonian women corresponding and fighting zombies, which will be reprinted in Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran.
Both title-links go to the Table of Contents.
My Post-Binary Gender in SF column continues at Tor.com. I recently hosted a roundtable, Languages of Gender, with Rose Lemberg, Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Bogi Takács; I found their responses excellent and strongly recommend the roundtable to anyone interested in the subject of gender in SF.
On a far less happy — but important — note, there are serious flaws in Wiscon’s handling of harassment at the convention. Saira Ali wrote a post about FJ Bergmann’s harassment of Rose Lemberg in 2012, which Rose reported in 2013 (and which I reported too, as a witness), and which has not yet led to consequences for FJ Bergmann; I have co-signed Saira’s post. I have since heard of a person who was harassed by Jim Frenkel in 2013, who reported this harassment, and was subsequently lied to about why Jim Frenkel was allowed to return to the con this year. Natalie Luhrs has the links. I am appalled.
This is an email I sent on 15 July 2013 in support of Rose Lemberg’s report about harassment by FJ Bergmann at Wiscon 2012. It is posted publicly with Rose’s permission, in support of this post, which I’ve co-signed.
Dear Wiscon Safety,
With Rose Lemberg’s approval, I am writing a formal report of the incident of FJ Bergmann harassing Rose at Wiscon in 2012, which I witnessed. Rose is copied into this email.
I was at the Moment of Change launch reading that Rose Lemberg hosted, and I heard the poem that FJ Bergmann read. It was an offensive, anti-feminist poem in its own right, nasty about the woman at the core of the poem (surely a very 101-level failure and inappropriate for a feminist, intersectional reading). But as FJ Bergmann read it, I kept hearing things that made me think it was aimed at Rose: the references to Russia (where Rose is from, and Rose has talked about this publicly multiple times in the years before Wiscon 2012), to birds (which feature prominently in Rose’s work), to Siberia (where Rose has lived, although this is not as widely known, but this has also featured in some of Rose’s work). I know there are other details that other audience members picked up on (anti-Semitism, PhD references, accent mockery – all relevant to Rose, who is a Jewish academic with an accent).
It left me with the distinct impression that the poem had been aimed at Rose, down to its minute details, and the nastiness directed at the woman of the poem was thus directed at Rose.
It made me feel very uncomfortable, so after the reading I spoke to several other friends who had been present – and I found that we had *all* felt very uncomfortable and were sure that it had been aimed at Rose: an active attack on her.
I do not think it possible that this was a misunderstanding. It was too specifically targeted at Rose, too nasty and hurtful.
In the interests of disclosure, I was friends with Rose prior to that Wiscon, as were some of the other people I spoke to, but I do not think that coloured our interpretations at all. (I was thinking “Surely this poem isn’t aimed at Rose… surely…” but by the end of the poem I was sure it was, and I afterwards found that everyone I spoke to agreed.)
It was upsetting to witness, and I know it has been deeply upsetting to Rose and still is, and I offer my support to Rose in this situation.
All the best,
Alex Dally MacFarlane
Last Friday I posted at (Hugo Award-nominated fanzine) Pornokitsch with a Friday Five: five fascinating maps. Maps are the best! I love writing about maps!
Mentioned in my bio are a few map-related stories I’ll have out this year.
One is in Phantasm Japan, a Haikasoru anthology edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, out in September. They recently announced the TOC, which includes my story “Inari Updates the Map of Rice Fields”. The title gives away the contents: Inari, maps, mapping of the world from “centre” to “edge”. At the “centre” is a rice map, which looks something like this 8th C CE example (the grid, annotated, with landscape details at its edges):
I read a couple of interesting articles from the free The History of Cartography when researching it late last year: Kazutaka Unno’s “Cartography in Japan” and Kazuhiko Miyajima’s “Japanese Celestial Cartography before the Meiji Period”. (It actually turned out to be relevant to my academic research, in that it provided useful knowledge of comparative mapping approaches elsewhere in the world.) I’m incredibly excited to be in Phantasm Japan. The TOC is a mixture of Japanese and non-Japanese writers, which has produced a different line-up to other anthologies. I look forward to reading it. I’m also excited to be working (in a small way) with Haikasoru, which is a fantastic imprint, publishing an ever-increasing body of Japanese SFF in English translation. If #WeNeedDiverseBooks crossed your twitter/tumblr/Facebook at the beginning of this month and you want to read more widely, head over to Haikasoru; the sheer range of what they publish ensures you’ll find at least one that interests you. There’s even a non-binary SF book!
Another story is in Upgraded, Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology. “Coastline of the Stars” is about a missing artist of maps, Sermi Hu, whose work includes a tactile star map inspired by the tactile wooden maps of Ammassalik I mention in the Pornokitsch post. I want a tactile star map. (I want to write about Sermi Hu more, too.)
Then there’s Gigantic Worlds, which is out in the next couple of months; and Interfictions Online, which is a recent sale to the fall issue, which I’ll talk about later.
Last week my novelette “Women in Sandstone” was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A general crosses a desert of living winds to outdo her world’s Alexander the Great. It opens:
“Your mouth is hanging open like a bell,” the South-East Wind said. “I wonder, if the wind blows between your teeth, will you clang or chime?”
The general tore her gaze from the temple’s walls. The tall wine-dark plume on her silver helmet bobbed and swayed in the North Wind | I blow through it and it is like the grass near a battlefield: heavy with the smells of burning and blood and bones | and then it tilted as she removed the helmet, revealing her hair — long and black with white running through it like embroidery, fastened in four thick braids — and the extent of her dark, scarred face. “I wish to honor your great temple,” she said.
Other favourite details include the Alexander references. Here’s a guide:
(1) Kandros is obviously Alexander. Where the real Alexander died in Babylon, after returning from India when his army mutinied and insisted on returning west, Kandros went alone to the desert of the winds. After Alexander (and Kandros) died, the lands conquered fell into generations of war between the Successors. Berenike was a common name for royal women among the Successors of Alexander.
(2) Berenike’s breastplate is embossed with “a woman, heroically nude, stabbing a lion that reared on its hind legs” because a) heroic nudity is an artistic convention for men in ancient Greek cultures, and I liked the idea of a woman using that convention, b) Achaemenid Persian kings (the dynasty Alexander defeated in Persia) liked to depict themselves stabbing lions on their hind legs, like so, just as Assyrian kings did before them. There’s a lot of inheritance of kingship motifs in the Near East, in architecture, textual traditions, etc, which Alexander’s textual traditions participated in (and Alexander himself!) so Berenike, as a Successor to Kandros, would adopt kingship motifs to demonstrate her (intended) kingship.
(3) Berenike’s shield is “embossed with a map of the world’s mountains” because mountains are an important motif in the way the world is described in textual traditions about Alexander, which draw (I argue) from Near Eastern traditions in which mountains are also important. Mountains are at the edges of the world, where heroes journey, heroic/legendary acts occur and “inhuman” peoples live. A conqueror like Berenike would embrace this motif in her own narratives — would want to reach every mountain range and outdo her predecessors’ deeds there. See, later: “…the high mountains where people with partridge bodies were rumored to live…” The people with partridge bodies are from the Cuthean Legend about Naram-Sin, a descendant of Sargon, a real and legendary king of Akkad.
(4) Berenike’s coins are described as having thick curls of hair over her forehead, though her hair’s straight. The famous coins of Alexander minted by Lysimachus depict Alexander with thick, curly hair, which it stands to reason a Successor like Berenike (especially one, like Berenike, who is noticeably mixed race) would emulate.
(5) Berenike’s mother was Central Asian: an Amazon, a tradition of warrior women inspired by the real warrior women of Central Asian societies. The Amazons were said to have sent a delegation to Alexander, at a different point in his invasion to when they meet him in this story. The sea of grass is the steppe.
(6) Šammuramat (Š = ‘Sh’) is the name of the real royal Assyrian woman who may have been the model for Semiramis, who Alexander is said to have outdone in crossing the Gedrosian desert. (Semiramis and Alexander are interesting: they’re both exemplars for each other.) It’s convenient for Berenike that she has a good story (that happens to be true) about herself in the desert of Šammuramat.
(7) This simile: “…like one of a pair of snakes leading her across the desert.” When Alexander went to the temple at Siwa (in Egypt) to consult Zeus Ammon, he became lost in the desert, upon which two snakes appeared to lead him to the temple. This is told by Arrian, who is considered our ‘sober’, ‘factual’ source for Alexander’s campaigns.
(8) Roshanak is the name of Alexander’s Bactrian wife. It’s not impossible that she would have had contacts among the nomadic peoples of the steppe. Her life after Kandros’ death is a lot better than her life after Alexander’s.
I think that’s all. If anyone wants to know more, do ask!
I had a lot of fun mixing ancient history into a world that’s very fictional, too, with winds that “blow the winged women of the Aĝir people into the snowstorms where they test their strength” and see “a palimpsest of women, mother under daughter, granddaughter like a scarf around them both”.
Out in late 2014
Aliens: Recent Encounters
"...this [anthology] blew us away more than any other. Mostly because of the sheer volume of greatness contained in these 32 stories... These are classic stories of alien encounters, from some of the best science fiction writers working today."
- io9.com Best Books of 2013