Browsing articles in "Reading"
Jan 6, 2015
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Books read (Guo, Byatt, Tidhar, Yi, Sriduangkaew)

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.

Aug 27, 2014
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Books read (Morton, Hamilton, Strahan, Cho, Warren, Liu)

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.

Jul 21, 2014
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Books read (Hopkinson, Valentine, Wright, Krohn)

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.

Out now!

"...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

Short Stories