In news that will surprise no one: a Masters at Oxford University takes up a lot of time. I spend most of my days translating set texts from Classical Armenian to English in preparation for my increasingly imminent exams. (Highlights: everything in the Alexander Romance, particularly the kafas — a type of poem — introduced to the text by Armenian writers and often describing the peculiar animals Alexander encounters on his more legendary journeys. Giant fleas! Bats with human teeth! Foxes!)
I barely have any time to write, but the nice thing about having written in the past is that books reprinting my stories appear in the post from time to time.
This is definitely the prettiest: XIII edited by Mark Teppo, reprinting my story “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints”. (The bees/wasps on the cover continue inside.) It is modelled here on top of whatever I was translating that day. Other books that have arrived in recent months are How to Live on Other Planets edited by Joanna Merriam, Clarkesworld: Year Seven edited by Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, and Women Writing the Weird II: Dangerous Daughters edited by Deb Hoag, which marks a wonderful treat for me: the cover art by Ashlyn Fenton is based on my story, “Fox Bones. Many Uses.”
And now for some very exciting news: I’ve joined the Interfictions Online editorial team as co-editor of non-fiction and poetry alongside Sofia Samatar! I’ll be starting very soon: the journal is opening to submissions for non-fiction, poetry and art (edited by Henry Lien) from 1 – 15 February. Fiction will re-open to submissions later in the year. Take a look at the journal and submissions information, then submit your interstitial, genre-chewing, defiant work.
I’ve been a fan of Interfictions and the Interstitial Arts Foundation since the first anthology in 2007, so I’m delighted that I now get to co-edit a corner of it.
I read these books in 2014! Fiction reading has (unsurprisingly) slowed down a lot with the amount of work I need to do on my MSt, but hopefully I’ll have some 2015 reads to talk about… eventually…
Xiaolu Guo, UFO in her Eyes (Vintage: 2010)
Kwok Yun, a woman in a Chinese village, sees a strange light that might be a UFO. The government takes an interest, not only in her but in her village. The village’s chief, Chang Lee, sees this as an opportunity to develop the village into a modern town and starts implementing plans, acquiring funds and changing the lives of everyone in her small village, to predictably mixed results. The novel’s format is government documentation: interviews with various people of the village and reports. I normally like unusual narrative formats, but here I felt it dilutes the potential potency of a story about Kwok Yun and Chang Lee — the two most interesting characters — with a lot of repetitive content from the other characters. The political angle on the story is cynical, the characters are little more than players in their political roles, which is a disappointment when Kwok Yun and Chang Lee are clearly interesting individuals straining to break free from the constrained plot.
A.S. Byatt, Ragnarök (Canongate: 2011)
A slim treat of a book. A thin child, evacuated to the British countryside in World War Two, finds comfort in the ending of Ragnarök: this is no cyclical story, no rebirth-narrative. The world ends, and that is so much more real. It really stuck with me.
Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming (Hodder: 2014)
In Auschwitz, shund-writer Shomer imagines a final pulp narrative: an alternate late 1930s Britain where the infamous Wolf is a down-on-his-luck PI. (I’ve got to say, as ‘unexpectedly fucking genius’ ideas go, this is up there…) That narrative is the majority of the book, but Auschwitz is never far, and it is more than a frame. The set-up allows a dialogue between the two realities: the rather obvious notions of ‘revenge fantasy’ and ‘wish-fulfilment’ colour Shomer’s imagined alternate Britain, but it is more complicated than that. Pulp tropes abound. Other unpleasant realities take hold: it is not possible, I suspect, to imagine a late 1930s Europe that saw the rise of extremism without seeing that extremism carried through to some extent. The rise of Mosley’s British fascists in the alternate history is especially chilling for a British reader today. In Auschwitz, prisoners debate how to write about the Holocaust. The whole book asks: how do you write about Hitler?
It is not the lightest of reads, or, ah, a book I could have bought for my father (I learnt a little more about Hitler’s sex life than I ever expected and wanted to) but it is definitely an interesting book, in the least I-have-nothing-else-to-say-so-I’ll-call-it-interesting way possible. It is deliciously meta, in that it’s aware of what it’s doing, in dialogue with itself, and I’m really into that at the moment. I’m still thinking about it a couple of months later.
Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow, translated by Alfred Birnbaum & Thi Thi Aye (Hyperion: 2008)
A Burmese novel about spirit mediums at the Taungbyon Festival. Daisy Bond, an elder medium, walks the world between man and woman in performance and reality. Min Min, Daisy’s young assistant and lover, wants to get away and be in a more ‘normal’ relationship. The novel deftly balances the extravaganza of a major festival with the minor — and nasty — mundanities of everyday life, which certainly don’t get left behind. Daisy’s gender defies easy definition. In places Smile As They Bow is not pleasant — Daisy treats Min Min abusively, made worse by the fact that Min Min was bought from his parents by Daisy. The purpose is not, however, to portray sympathetic people but to offer a week-long slice-of-life, and at that Smile As They Bow succeeds compellingly. It is beautifully written/translated. I enjoyed aspects of it.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Scale-Bright (Immersion Press: 2014)
Julienne is a regular young woman in Hong Kong, anxious and often lonely. After a snake demon, Olivia, drinks from her life force in a time of need, she is forced to face a little more head-on the reality that she also has Chang’e and Houyi for aunts. Scale-Bright follows on from “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon”, “Chang’e Dashes From the Moon” and “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate”, which are not required pre-reading but recommended (for quality as well as clarity).
What I most loved about Scale-Bright was its depiction of anxiety, internalised fears and the slow process of stepping past those. Also: queer women! So very many. Julienne and Olivia and Chang’e and Houyi are wonderful, as is the writing, whether describing chandeliers of Buddha hands using sign-language (OMG) or the minor moments of realisation in a relationship.
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, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, 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 snake sign on the Southern Ocean coast of Western Australia (which I thought was a snake-warning sign, but am informed – see comments – that it’s much more likely to be the Waugal pictured on signs along the 1000km Bibbulmun track):
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 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
"The stories range widely in scope and form — from prose poems to metafiction — to capture a dynamic, forward-thinking genre that plays with history, myth and science."
- The Washington Post: Think science fiction is dominated by men? Think again.
"...ground-breaking and superbly conceived..."
- Nina Allan: Strange Horizons: 2014 In Review
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