Last night I attended the London launch of Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History, edited by Claire Trévien and Gareth Prior. The anthology grew from the editors’ realisation that there doesn’t exist (to their knowledge) an anthology of contemporary poets writing about historical people and events, with the exception of historical wars, which is a limited lens through which to look at the past. The resulting anthology spans the entirety of history, from the formation of the Earth to the history we have only just made, with a diversity of poets and subject matters. In the introduction, Hannah Lowe writes:
‘Rewiring History’ seems full of the possibility of giving history a new charge, acknowledging that history can be dynamic and dialogic, a current which can run back and forth along wires, be redirected and forge new connections across an indeterminate matrix.
It includes my poem “Her Sun-patterned Eye” alongside excellent new and reprinted poems by Martín Espada, Emily Hasler, Hel Gurney, Susan Mackervoy, Kirsten Irving, Sarah Hesketh, Rose Lemberg and many more.
The launch was excellent: hearing the poets read their work from the anthology and elsewhere, often with contextualising information. (The fact that stuck with me the most is that only in 1984 — not very long before I was born — did a UK birth certificate add a field for the mother’s profession. But for a small number of years, my mother’s profession might have been hidden from the record of my birth: my father an accountant and father, my mother a mother. An accountant, too, fuck you.) I was also delighted to hear a poem — which is in the anthology — about Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge, who I read about when writing an essay on personal reception of queer history on my MA.
It’s a beautiful anthology and I’m delighted to be a part of it.
Two very kind reviews of my story “Because I Prayed This Word”.
J.Y. Yang selects Fiction Nuggets on her blog, saying of my story: “Gorgeous treacly prose about a magical city crafted by desire. Poetry and myth and history woven into beautiful narrative. Also, come on, as if I would leave a story about a literal city oF LESBIANS out of this list!****
****HOW DO I APPLY TO BE A RESIDENT OF THIS PLACE SERIOUSLY SOMEONE TELL ME”
At io9.com, K. Tempest Bradford includes my story in her latest weekly round-up, saying: “I chose this story for the idea of the city—why it exists, what it’s made of, how women move in and out of it. I must admit, the actual story of the characters felt a little light to me, but the imagery of the city seized me and wouldn’t let go.”
I wrote the city foremost, so I’ll cop to the characters not being as central! I’m really really glad the idea of the city has stuck with some readers. I want it to be real. In a less literal sense it is, of course, real: sharing what I know of it, talking about it, is one reason I write.
I’ve had two new short stories published recently!
“Pocket Atlas of Planets” is in Interfictions Online. It’s about exoplanets (which means the science may be out of date already!) and gender, inspired in format by the excellent Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky (translated by Christine Lo) and in content by a great deal more. I’m working on several other stories connected to this piece. Maybe even a novel.
Infinity Of Worlds
Giordano Bruno says of space in 1584, of its fixed stars: In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own. Each heliocentric system, like ours, holds worlds.
Torild, a child, reads those words and burns with longing to see those worlds, but space exploration is frightening: the self-splitting required to reach superior Venus and inferior Venus, the un-welcoming government of Caskia on Mars, the complete inability to communicate with the aliens seen as blurs in space, the distances, the inevitability of insanity. So Torild studies early space exploration in London, where hen is called ‘she’ for hens body, for hens specific interest in women’s pre-20th Century observations of the solar system and early travels. Hen hates it and leaves after less than a year — but the women, they remain.
An infinity of women studying — reaching — an infinity of worlds. What a dream!
Torild adds other genders to that dream.
“Because I Prayed This Word” is in Strange Horizons as a bonus in their annual fundraiser, which is ongoing and needs support! The story is about a magical city for women who love other women — women not welcome in Christine di Pizan’s City of Ladies — and the long (or lost) memory of texts. I wrote it during my MA in Ancient History, after writing an essay about personal reception of Psáppho. I am deeply grateful to Sonya Taaffe and Sofia Samatar for giving me permission to use their translations.
The city appears between the pillars of the cloisters like a dream of an embroidered wall-hanging: more gold thread than is ever available for the Sisters, more precisely tidy stitches than Perrette will ever manage. For a moment she sees it on the edges of her vision, and though she thinks of telling her Sisters, she does not. She assumes it is the fast. She walks on.
She keeps seeing it.
Alongside her Sisters she bends over vellum, copying. Barbe, whose freckles are like the stars above the monastery, is at her left. Ragonde, who snores while Perrette and Barbe work, is at her right. They have each been chosen for their skills: Perrette for her precise letters, Barbe for her paintings that face Perrette’s copied words, and Ragonde, who sparingly applies the gold, trusted because of her seniority with that most precious adornment. They copy Lives of the Desert Fathers. Perrette admires the strength required to hold faith in the desert. Barbe paints the female saints.
October is over, November is not. Lies, misrepresentations and reports of my actions are still being spread, so I’d like to talk about things I did (and didn’t) do. Continue reading »
I’ve been reading short nonfiction lately, for a range of reasons: my boredom at a lot of the short fiction I was reading, my interest in reading more of a form I am currently writing for Tor.com (I would like to get a lot better), my acquisition of a new phone that runs Pocket (which is great for reading short fiction, with the exception of Strange Horizons where the titles of books/etc in the text are inconsistently omitted for what must be some very exciting back-end formatting reasons). I’ve caught up on nonfiction I intended to read years ago, as well as enjoying newly published pieces. These are some of my favourites of the past month or so.
Brit Mandelo wrote a two-piece article — part one, part two — for Stone Telling about the poetry of Joanna Russ, which was uncollected and a form that Russ abandoned early in her career. Unsurprisingly, given my historical and poetic interests, this especially jumped out at me:
The last of these three poems, “Queen at Ur,” appeared in The Cornell Writer in April ’57, presumably after the 11th Festival reading of a different, less polished version. This is a historical/speculative poem, about “The Lady Shub-Ad, lying Dead in Sumer/Five times a thousand years, brick-tombed to dust,” who speaks to the reader about the ways in which she is “filled with all events” and “could stretch out a hand to the farthest star.” The imagery of space and eternity, of the smallness of time, are stunning in this poem. The poem itself is short, but each word is ultimately necessary and perfect. The ultimate culmination of the young Russ’s experiments with diction and a developing precision in her work, “Queen at Ur” is fabulous and resonant. It ends: “Daughter, train your soul for the amenities/That come finally with death. Emulate my corpse.”
I certainly want to read the rest.
Still in poetry, I also enjoyed Emily Jiang’s article “When Flowers Bloom, When Flowers Fall” about the Tang Dynasty poets Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji: the different ways both women engaged with the poetic conventions of their time.
Speaking of historical women, the recent research reported on the National Geographic website about Amazon women’s names being revealed in Greek transcriptions on pottery is very interesting! I can’t get at the academic article with my KCL alumnus access, but as soon as I get my Uni of Oxford access — either by JSTOR or the library stacks — I’ll be reading it. Better academics than I will surely weigh in on the strength of this research, but it looks non-stupid to me. Women called Worthy of Armour, Hot Flanks and Don’t Fail — yes, please.
Jeff VanderMeer’s piece “My Wilderness Year” stuck with me as an impression, rather than a direct memory, as I read it while tired (in an airport? on a plane?) — an impression of the inextricable relationship between fiction and landscape. VanderMeer has talked elsewhere about the real-life inspiration for his Southern Reach novels, and I thought also of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, where understanding of the movements of the countryside is intrinsic to Hild’s ability to see what is likely to happen, and I remembered walking down Cairn Gorm last year and seeing the biome change around me (and, on the hill behind my hostel in Aviemore, walking through woodlands and suddenly emerging into treeless windswept alpine/sub-tundra(?) land at the top). I’m aware of how much better I ought to know my countryside, after growing up in it, and I’m drawn to fiction — like Hild — with that awareness. I like regular buses and shops and all that, but I miss the countryside every day.
I also liked Jeff VanderMeer’s conversation with Bronson Pinchot about audiobooks and a lot more.
I read, in Strange Horizons, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay’s “Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic”, which talks about the differing uses of separating different groups of SFF (eg: Desi SF) or striving towards a greater understanding of SFF that encompasses non-Anglophone works and multiple approaches to SFF across all languages. As Chattopadhyay says at the end: “A non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy would look like a study of science fiction and fantasy, but it would be the result of a different consciousness and have different purposes…” How we talk about marginalised aspects of SFF is of great interest to me, unsurprisingly, but my thoughts on that will wait for another post.
Via Liz Bourke, “Unbalanced Academics, Scribblers, and an ‘Odd Christmas’” is rather a comfort: academics who are also writers.
And, last for now, “Grandma’s Misplaced Recipe for Cultural Authenticity” by Pear Nuallak, a personal piece about food, family and recollection.
I was on holiday for over a month! It was very needed. Highlights of the holiday: time spent with excellent friends, eating endless tasty food, being covered in cats, 1,500km road trip, rocks. Not highlights: so many long flights. Now I’m living in Oxford where I’ll soon be starting the Masters in Classical Armenian Studies. I’m in college-owned housing, in a room on the top floor where I can see the sky and leaves (on deciduous trees, sadly, turning to brown like the death of the sun and warmth), and it’s going to be a good (and hard, and rewarding) year.
For now, a cute snake-warning sign on the Southern Ocean coast of Western Australia:
I’m quickly discovering the pointlessness of reading boring books. It’s one thing if I’m planning to engage with a bad book re: gender for Tor.com, but not if I’m just reading for fun. I lost interest in Alison Morton’s Inceptio a bit over halfway through (interesting premise — a Roman nation surviving to the modern day led by women — let down by flat writing, with barely any time spent talking about that nation and its gender politics because the main character is too interested in her boring by-the-numbers heterosexual romance), while I read the opening story of Peter F. Hamilton’s Manhattan in Reverse (free at WFC 2013), went “Mehh” and decided I had many better books to read instead.
On to the better books!
Jonathan Strahan, ed. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 8 (Solaris Books: 2014)
Like any Year’s Best, this is a mixed bag. I particularly liked Yoon Ha Lee’s “Effigy Nights”, M. John Harrison’s “Cave and Julia” (I hadn’t read any M. John Harrison in a few years and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the way he writes the subtly, devastatingly weird in the real world), Lavie Tidhar’s “The Book Seller”, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Fade to Gold” and Karin Tidbeck’s “Sing”. Others were enjoyable, if less memorable. Others were not. There’s a definite presence of non-conservative stories here, a variety of voices, but not enough, and then the second-to-last story — Ian McDonald’s “The Queen of Night’s Aria” — is a retro-style adventure on Mars where women are retro-style sidelined, and it’s so irredeemably backwards-looking that I don’t see the point, what is this for? It speaks to a conservative thread that runs through this anthology alongside the forwards-looking thread. It’s apt: the tension between conservative and forwards-looking in SFF was a significant feature of 2013 — and 2014, too, and 2015, I don’t doubt — but I really just look forward to leaving this tension behind.
Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad (Fixi Novo: 2014)
I love Zen Cho’s writing! It’s funny, comforting and clever. Spirits Abroad collects some of Zen’s short stories, which are often about families or friends — not always living, not always human, not always on Earth — but always important, if often difficult. The characters are so down-to-earth (that’s… a bad pun for the earth spirit and Liyana, sigh), no matter who they are and whatever they’re dealing with, whether an unexpected forum attendee or a difficult grandmother or moving to the Moon. I had a really great time reading Spirits Abroad and I hope other people will too! Zen has helpfully listed where you can buy the book. (I also like that the publisher’s manifesto at the front of the book says “italics are a form of apology” re: italicising non-English words.)
Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu (Tor: 2014)
I got an ARC. I’m glad: it’s an interesting science fiction novel. It has several narrative threads. Young scientist Ye Wenjie falls afoul of political upheaval in the 1960s and is assigned to a mysterious base where she works for the following decades. In roughly the present day, scientist Wang Miao receives mysterious, scientifically impossible threats if he continues his nanomaterials research. In the game of Three Body, Wang observes — and contributes to solving — the problem of sustaining life on a strange planet with three suns and periods of atmospheric chaos and stability.
The game segments most interested me, as well as Ye Wenjie’s career: she’s a compelling character, even if I strongly dislike the conclusion that humans will never redeem themselves and require outside intervention. It shifts responsibility away from us. It denies the possibility of hard work and change. Ye’s experiences are pretty awful, so her conclusion is not that surprising, and fortunately the book points out the biggest problem with the idea of benevolent intervention. Back to the game segments. They, like the rest of the book, involve a lot of science! It’s no surprise that they involve the titular three-body problem, which is especially fun when there’s a planet added to the system and life has to evolve on the planet. I liked this aspect the best. It’s incredible to imagine life surviving in such harsh conditions — the sort of what-if I want in science fiction about space. (De-hy-drate…) It’s a bit sly in places (the in-game personae of at least two prominent Western scientists are played by Chinese gamers — one of them Wang), and fun to follow to its conclusion(s), which helps to compensate for Wang’s lack of personality.
The prose is nothing to remark on and while there are varied female characters, there are also unnecessary moments such as a young woman being described as “so soft that the bullet hardly slowed down as it passed through [her body]“. Right then. It’s very het and binary-gendered. Some of the footnotes explaining cultural references are cringingly obvious, but I’m sure this is an impossible balance to strike. Fortunately the unnecessary moments are only moments, not the tone of the book: it’s scientific/hard science fiction that doesn’t think science/the future is 100% white men! More than just that, it’s fun science and I liked a lot of the story. I look forward to the second and third books in the trilogy.
Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree (Angry Robot: 2010)
Free at WFC 2013. A secondary world fantasy novel I enjoyed sinking into: lots of worldbuilding (bones! ghosts! creepy tree!), a good story and a gender set-up that’s not out of a privileged man’s erroneous wet dream about the past.
Communities called Orders live around the Tree that takes up almost an entire island. Almost all children go on Schools: walking around the Tree, learning as they go, for the five years it takes for a full circumnavigation. Their teachers are young women, who each typically stay in one of the Orders along the way, ensuring genetic diversity. Men rarely move between Orders after school-age, instead enjoying power within their Orders, such as choosing the young women to be teachers. Women move between Orders as teachers, enjoying a privileged welcome into each Order and the freedom to choose where they stay (for the most part). Often, older women walk too. In all but the worst Order, women have access to contraception, their consent is respected and they are free to stay or move on as they choose.
This set-up does a decent job at disrupting the gendered assumptions of most secondary world fantasy, although it doesn’t quite dismantle and rebuild. The (most) women = mothers thread was strong, although a mother can walk away around the Tree without her children. Men hold what I’d generally call ‘political power’. There’s an echo of our gender imbalances. The echo isn’t strong enough to put me off. There are gay/lesbian characters (though the main character is relentlessly heterosexual), but I wish the book had reached the Order where many of the gay and lesbian people of the island live (or, say, normalised non-heterosexuality more so they don’t have to go to that one Order). It’s thoroughly binary-gendered. Walking the Tree isn’t everything I’d like to see in secondary world fantasy, but it’s a decent read and I’m glad I got it.
The weekend (this weekend!) before Loncon, where I’ll be on some panels, I’ll be at Nine Worlds, where I’ll also be on some panels! I am really looking forward to both of these, as well as hanging out with friends in the bar/elsewhere.
Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom
Saturday: Connaught B, 10am – 11:15am
Rule 63 states that for every fictional character, there is an opposite gender counterpart. This popular rule has obvious power for subverting male-dominated media and potential for introducing trans narratives. In its positioning of ‘opposite’ genders, it is also potentially troubling from trans and non-binary perspectives. This panel will discuss Rule 63, from real historical examples of people inhabiting ‘opposite’ genders to contemporary fanworks, through queer and feminist lenses.
Panel: Tab Kimpton, Zen Cho, Alex Dally MacFarlane, more TBC
Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: is RPF okay when the person is dead?
Sunday: County B, 11:45am – 1pm
How do we write about historical characters? Is historical fiction a form of Real Person Fiction if it features people who appear in the historical record? A panel of authors and fans discuss techniques of writing historical fiction and how writing about the dead differs from writing about the living.
Panel: Alex Dally MacFarlane, Tanya Brown, Elizabeth Bear, Aliette de Bodard, Kieron Gillen
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
Out in late 2014
"...the 33 stories that MacFarlane has gathered for this volume dazzle with the virtuosity of their contributors’ talents."
- Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
"Works from around the world, some in translation, provide an invaluable snapshot of this moment in the genre as well as some tremendously enjoyable reading."
- Publishers Weekly Best Books of 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