July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

On Talent

You don’t have to be good.

I don’t mean virtuous here. I do think it’s important for all of us to do the best we can to be that kind of good..

What I’m talking about is talent and ability and the idea that we can’t do things because we’re not good at them.

Of course we can do them. And we can keep doing them even if we never get “good” enough to be a superstar.

I’ll start with self defense. Far too many people — particularly, but not exclusively, women — believe they can’t defend themselves, can’t fight back.

And it’s not true. Everyone can learn some self defense skills. They’re not particularly difficult or complicated.

The best part: you don’t have to be good. If you’re ever actually attacked, a couple of quick strikes and running like hell will serve you very well.

I know, because I’ve done it, and believe me, at the time I was very far from good.

The best part is that learning some skills like that gives you the confidence to stand up for yourself in the more common struggles of life, the ones that involve words and insults and gaslighting.

Knowing that you can fight if you have to means you aren’t likely to have to fight.

Knowing that you don’t have to be the super hero (which only happens in the movies anyway) or even a black belt makes that even easier.

But this applies to more than self defense.  Continue reading “On Talent”

More Delightful Summer Reading

Here are some more reviews of books I’ve recently enjoyed recently.

 

Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott (Tor)

Kate Elliott always delivers entertaining stories with relatable characters, and Servant Mage is no exception. Indentured fire-mage Fellian leads a drab life, half-starved and clinging to memories of her childhood, before the rigid, fundamentalist Liberationists came to power and enslaved anyone with magical power. The usurped Monarchists have formed an underground rebellion, and they need Fellian’s Fire magic. Of course, one among them is devastatingly handsome, thereby setting expectations of romance to come, as well as the restoration of a noble, altruistic king.. Here’s where Elliott departs from the usual and becomes deeply subversive. Fellian holds steadfastly to her own values when presented with an attractive man and the lure of a benevolent monarchy restored. Instead, she asks piercing questions and relies on her own judgment, time and time again. She is keenly aware that the other conspirators need her special talent, and she’s not about to exchange her autonomy for a new community. In short, she thinks for herself. Through her, Elliott strongly questions the romantic notion so prevalent in fantasy: the noble aristocracy, devoted to the welfare of their subjects. Fellian insists that to trust future generations of entitled rulers is folly and that exchanging one form of top-down rule for another is no guarantee against despotism. This emperor might be just and fair, but in a generation, common people like her might find themselves just as oppressed.

I love how respectful Elliott is of her readers’ intelligence. She plays fair and gives us all the information we need (such as Fellian’s passion for literacy in teaching fellow servants to read and write) without ramming conclusions down our throats. She lets the characters and unfolding events speak for themselves without telling us how to feel about them. For this, and for superb storytelling and compelling characters, I’ll grab anything she writes!

 

The Necropolis Empire, A Twilight Imperium Novel, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Tim Pratt writes a lot of very cool science fiction. From his “Axiom” series (my gateway into his work) to The Doors of Sleep (which I really, really hope will become an entire series, now that there’s a sequel) to his “Twilight Imperium” novels. When I reviewed the first of these, The Fractured Void, I had no idea that Twilight Imperium is a war-without-end strategic game. I wrote, “Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).” That’s even more true for The Necropolis Empire. If you, like me, are so much Not a Gamer that you’re into negative gamer-ness, just ignore that part and enjoy the book as a great science fiction tale.

Standing on its own, The Necropolis Empire falls into one of my favorite science fiction subgenres: spooky alien ruins. In this case, very, very old alien ruins from a race we’re really glad has gone extinct. Now if folks would just stop trying to resurrect their tech…

Our young heroine, Bianca, lives on one such world, a pastoral culture built on top of the aforementioned, deeply buried alien tech. Scavenged bits are useful, but mostly the farmers go about their lives…until a ship from the imperialist Barony of Letnev arrives, annexes the planet, and carries Bianca away with a rather incredulous story about her being a space princess. Bianca falls for it, though. Not only is she adopted, but rather than settle down with a nice neighbor boy, she has always yearned for something beyond her own world. That something becomes clearer when she begins changing, developing superhuman speed, strength, senses, healing, and more. The ruthless Letnev believe she is the key to finding and controlling the ancient military relics, which they mean to use to dominate all known space. Bianca has other ideas.

I absolutely love how vulnerable and how competent Bianca is. Her confidence in herself and her abilities stems from more than her new, superhuman powers. As a child, she was wanted and cherished, never coddled but given responsibilities. She grew up with permission to tackle all manner of challenges, and she’s a genuinely nice person. The Letnev, not so much. They’ve perfected arrogance to an art form.

I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series of “The Adventures of Bianca,” although I sadly fear the good folks who’ve created Twilight Imperium are more interested in promoting their game and not so much in a fascinating character who stands on her own.

 

Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

I loved Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God, a fantasy set in Roaring 1920s Hollywood. Now she returns to that era, with its glamorous silent film stars, bootleggers, gangsters, drug use, widespread corruption, and the frenzied exuberance that followed World War I. In this story, a murder mystery (without Bride’s supernatural elements) the viewpoint character is Emma, a young British widow who now works as a companion and secretary for her superstar sister-in-law, Kitty. Classically trained, Emma is constantly affronted by the wildly inaccurate movie scripts (Kitty is currently starring in The Empress of Babylon), many of which she is called upon to rewrite on the spur of the moment. She’s also embarked on a possible new romance with cameraman Zak. To complicate matters further, Kitty’s real life is as melodramatic as her screen characters. She is a generous person for all her antics, especially loving to her three adorable Pekinese. When Kitty’s dissolute ex-husband, Rex, is found murdered, it looks very much as if someone is trying to set Kitty up to take the blame and is doing a very bad job of it. A deliberately bad job?

Drenched in atmosphere and fascinating historical details, featuring vivid characters and snappy dialog, Scandal in Babylon is Hambly at the top of her form. The pacing and depth of the scenes are wonderful, just the right combination of page-turning action, whodunit tension, and moments of reflection and personal growth.

Rumor has it that Scandal in Babylon will be the first of a new series. If so, sign me up!

 

The Science of Being Angry, by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers)

Eleven-year-old Joey lives in an unusual blended family. For one thing, she had her two twin brothers have two moms, one of whom was married before and has a son from that marriage. She and her brothers were the result of IVF, and the boys are identical, having split from the same egg. For all the nontraditional nature of this family, there’s a lot of love and acceptance. But all is not well with Joey. She’s been having increasingly volatile episodes of anger and acting-out. Her temper has become legendary at school, where she’s been given the nickname, “Bruiser,” after she threw a soccer ball at a boy in gym class so hard she bruised his collarbone. She’s roughly pushed away her best friend, on whom she also has a crush. Now she’s left with the fallout wreckage of what she’s done.

Despite the efforts of her moms to help her, Joey’s outbursts are only getting worse. Finally, she melts down into a tantrum so destructive, her family is evicted from their apartment and must move into a motel, where close quarters fuel everyone’s irritation. Her moms start bickering, and Joey thinks that’s her fault. Her older brother, who is trying to focus on his academics, goes to live with his father, and of course, Joey blames herself for that, too.

Joey can’t understand why she flies into a rage or how to control it. All her best intentions are in vain. Then she gets the idea that perhaps her temper is a genetic trait inherited from her biological father. If she can just track him down, she thinks, she might better understand her own volatility—and he might have found successful strategies for managing his anger. With the help of her alienated best friend/crush, she embarks on a genetics project for science class. And, of course, nothing goes the way Joey expects.

In many ways, Joey is a typical adolescent, struggling with the tensions between immaturity and independence. In others, though, she is very much her own person with a unique family. I loved the way the unusual marriage and relationships are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Joey’s anger is clearly not caused by her having two lesbian mothers. Indeed, the clear love and understanding between her mothers, the way each of them has found her way to an authentic life, are one of Joey’s principal strengths. I also noted very little along the lines of, “girls don’t have anger management issues,” when in fact psychological research shows that girls experience anger as frequently as boys do (but are socialized to suppress it).

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Highly recommended for adults as well as their adolescent children.

 

Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Okorafor’s work invites us into a world of the future, but one in which the foundational culture is not derived from Western Europe but situated in Africa. Her underlying premise is that the Africans of the future, in this case Nigerians, have developed their own rich technologies. Two stand out for me in this novel: harvesting solar and wind energy in the deserts of northern Nigeria; and the heroine herself, whose cyborg body has been extensively augmented. At the same time, herdsmen follow ages-old traditions. In Okorafor’s skillful hands, high tech and ancient ways of life blend into a seamless whole.

 

 

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

Uncomfortable in Your Comfort Zone

Nobody wants to be uncomfortable. If we all had our druthers, everything would feel just right all the time.

That, of course, is not possible. It wouldn’t be possible in utopia, assuming humans ever manage to develop a utopia. Even in a world where things are fair and systems work, people will still misunderstand each other or fall in love with someone who doesn’t love them back or disagree on the best way to deal with a problem.

Besides, even if we manage to survive and thrive and shift things so that climate change doesn’t do too much harm, the weather’s still going to be awful a good bit of the time.

Plus people are still going to get sick and die. We may figure out how to live longer, but I don’t think immortality is in the cards.

We’re nowhere near utopia at this point, so there’s a lot of discomfort in our world.

Of course, there are things so awful that the word discomfort lacks all meaning: war, other violence, disasters, hunger, brutal authoritarian governments, a whole raft of diseases that could be treated or prevented, but aren’t.

Some of those awful things are happening to people nearby. People are living on the streets – pitching tents on a concrete sidewalk – because they have no place to live. They are sick but can’t afford to go to the doctor. Their kids don’t have enough to eat.

They are worse than uncomfortable, but their presence should make those of us who are getting by very uncomfortable. Continue reading “Uncomfortable in Your Comfort Zone”

Three Stories

There are, I suppose, as many different stories about why and how a woman gets an abortion as there are women.

Here’s one: In the bad old days before Roe, my mother once drove a friend from New York City to a parking lot in New Jersey, where her friend got into a waiting car. Five hours later the car returned, her friend got out (sheet white and trembling, but okay), got in my mother’s car, and they drove back to the city. She went on with her life, with what residual emotion from the experience I don’t know; I do know my mother was deeply shaken by her small part in it.

And another: I remember several girls in college who got pregnant, before and after Roe. After Roe some things were the same: the secrecy, the collections taken up to help defray the cost, the sympathetic pampering when the girl returned to the dorm. But some things were very different: before Roe there was a well of secret knowledge–all I knew was that someone knew someone who knew a real doctor… and the rest of the process was shrouded in mystery, not as dire or scary as my mother’s friend’s experience, but sufficiently clandestine. After Roe, if memory serves, you had to cross the state line to reach a state where the procedure was legal. But there were official resources on campus which could explain and expedite the process. Still expensive, still secret, but without the gloss of criminality which made a bad situation terrifying.

And one more: mine. Continue reading “Three Stories”

The Power of Story

Last night (your Sunday night) I was putting together some material for my patrons. It includes an interview I did years ago with Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire and Daniel Abraham. I was looking into what made the suddenly-very-trendy preternatural romance and adventure novels and going straight to three excellent writers on the topic seemed like a good idea.

It still does. I’m considering picking up my old habit of interviewing writers in groups, to find out what they think and who they are. If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know. In the interim, it may be years since the first novels of these three writers came out, but I made such an excellent choice of interview subject: they’re still all perfect for this difficult year. Good writing trumps tough times, I find.

These days using ‘trumps’ like that makes us think of politicians who lead people astray and make the hard, harder, but I want us to return to the pre-Donald use of the word. It comes from playing card games. Card games, like good light fiction, help when the emotions are really not up to heavy lifting. Still, I’d rather read Carrie or Seanan than play cards this month. Cards may be fun, but COVID is still with us and far too many of my friends are down with it. I want to step into a delightfully frothy werewolf tale or dream of sarcasm in fairyland.

My present to you for the Fourth of July then, is a reminder of the power of books to keep us sane when life goes awry.

Rethinking All the Rules

On the first day of our constitutional law class, a hundred or so of us assembled in a large classroom set up something like a theater, with two long rows of steps down to the platform and podium used by the teacher. It was the beginning of the second semester of our first year and we had survived thus far, so we were cocky enough to be talking noisily.

Then the professor came in: Charles Alan Wright, whose name graced various textbooks, who argued regularly before the Supreme Court, and who was particularly noted at the University of Texas law school for coaching the aggressive intramural football team the Legal Eagles. By the time he reached the front of the room, you could have heard a pin drop.

He looked around at us and then said, in a mild voice, “Would someone please give us the case of Marbury v. Madison?”

Now anyone in that room could have explained Marbury v. Madison. Hell, we learned about it in high school. Plus we were law students, legal nerds by definition.

For those who’ve forgotten high school or who aren’t from the US, it’s the case where Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court can weigh in on the constitutionality of laws and actions by other branches of government. It’s a gimme question. Wikipedia has a good explainer on the case.

Yet everyone else in the room breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Timmons raised his hand and gave the answer. That’s just how intimidated we were by the professor and by the importance of constitutional law.

Here’s the thing, though. The one thing that didn’t occur to any of us was to question whether Marbury was a good idea. I mean, it would have been like questioning the gospels in a Baptist Sunday school.

Professor Wright certainly didn’t raise the point. I doubt he ever questioned it. But after the last few rulings of the current Supreme Court, it’s pretty clear that allowing a group of unelected lifetime political appointees to be the sole arbiters of what’s constitutional is one of many flaws in our system. Continue reading “Rethinking All the Rules”

A Potpourri of Short Book Reviews

I’ve been reading a lot of delightful books recently. Here are a few for your consideration.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)

Set on an uninhabitable planet whose only value is as a stopover for other worlds, this story explores what happens when members of very different species and histories are forced into community when they are temporarily cut off from contact with the larger Galactic Commons. Three of these strangers are guests at the overwhelmingly hospitable Five-Hop One-Stop version of a spacer’s truck stop when a freak accident halts all traffic and communications. At first glance, they have little in common: an exiled artist with an urgent, perhaps redemptive appointment to keep, a cargo runner with a military history at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual who cannot leave her space suit but is doing her best to help those on the fringes. Add to this odd grouping, their host and her teenager, furred quadrupeds that reminded me repeatedly of space otters. Most of all, though, this book is about how people who are initially not only diverse but at odds with one another can bridge those differences through understanding and shared experiences to form friendships and, ultimately, community.

 

Crazy in Poughkeepsie, by Daniel Pinkwater; Aaron Renier illustrator (Tachyon)

It’s difficult to find words to describe a Daniel Pinkwater book because they are a unique breed that defies the usual literary terminology: they’re enchanting (often literally), playful, spontaneous (as in combustion, upon occasion), and hilarious-yet-insightful. In other words, a Daniel Pinkwater book provides the occasion for parents wrestling the copy from their kids, and vice versa, so why not avoid bloodshed, or paper-shred, and read them aloud together?

Mick’s ordinary life comes to a screeching 180 degree turn when his older brother returns home from Tibet with Guru Lumpo Smythe-Finkel and his dog, Lhasa, and Mick finds himself—how, he’s never entirely clear—the guru’s new disciple. Guru, disciple, and magical dog set off on a quest that’s as notable for its vagueness as its unpredictability. They acquire fellow travelers, graffiti-fanatic Verne and Molly, a Dwergish girl (sort of like leprechaun trolls with hidden goals, magical powers, a gift for making friends, and a charmingly madcap sense of humor). Soon they’re cavorting with a ghost whale who is the essence of love, as well as other wacky and memorable characters.

Pinkwater’s in on a great secret: if you want to communicate wisdom to young readers, first make them smile. Or giggle. Or run wild in Poughkeepsie, as the case may be.

 

 

The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi (Subterranean)

Part noir detective story, part thriller, part inventive science fiction that examines a world in which death is not permanent (well, certain kinds of death and mostly), this is newest adventure in John Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” series. I hadn’t read the first one but quickly found that didn’t matter. Scalzi skillfully weaves in all the necessary backstory with nary a plot hiccough.

In Scalzi’s world, a few years ago almost all folks who were murdered don’t die, they reappear in a place they feel safe, like a childhood home. Natural deaths are something else: you die, you stay dead. A new profession has arisen, that of “dispatcher,” a not-murderer for hire. If you’re about to die naturally, you hire them and get another chance at life. Most of the time. But business has been drying up, and Tony Valdez has been taking on cases that blur the shady line of what’s strictly legal. Like killing a Chinese executive so he can re-appear thousands of miles away in time for an important business meeting. At this point, Scalzi propels Valdez firmly into thriller territory, with plenty of dramatic tension, noir mystery, and danger. In Scalzi’s superlatively competent hands, it all comes together seamlessly for a can’t-put-it-down ride.

 

Paper & Blood (Book Two of the Ink & Sigil series, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey)

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Hearne to begin with, and his “Ink and Sigil” series is a delight. As a former student of calligraphy, I love the idea that the written word is magical. In this series, set in the world of the Iron Druid, scribes create magical spells using not only words, but painstakingly prepared pens, inks, and paper. The spells include the Sigils of Unchained Destruction, Restorative Care, Agile Grace, Muscular Brawn, and Quick Compliance and are used to protect the world against malevolent gods and monsters.

Our everyman-hero, Al MacBharrais, is under a couple of nasty spells himself. If he speaks to someone more than a few times, they loathe him (this happened to his own son), and his apprentices die violently after a year of service. This isn’t good news for his hobgoblin apprentice, Buck Foi. While Al is searching for a way to lift his misfortunes, his fellow sigil agents go missing in the wilds of Australia. Al and Buck are off to the rescue, joined by one of the missing agent’s apprentices, his receptionist Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite, a few sundry allies, and the Iron Druid himself. The search leads them to a forested preserve, where chimeric monsters lie in wait. These critters are sometimes more effective and lethal than others, but always inventive: a turtle-dragon-spider, an eagle bull, a scorpion with a rat’s head (ugh), pygmy goats with fanged snake heads, a gorilla elephant, a yak badger, and my favorite, a zebra possum.

All in all, this is a quick, fun read filled with plot twists and delightful characters but also depth, the best combination.

“Abandoned cheese is a sure sign that something’s gone wrong.”

 

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart (Ballantine)

If we ever managed to figure out time travel, who would control it? How would we prevent time tourists from messing with the past—and would that warp the present, as in the grandfather paradox? In Rob Hart’s latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, the US government has been policing time tourism and historical research expeditions, only now they’ve run out of funds and the franchise is about to go to auction.

January Cole works security at the Paradox Hotel, which hosts time travelers awaiting their scheduled “flights to the past” at the nearby Einstein Institute. She’s a seasoned time traveler herself, having made many trips as part of the policing agency. As a result of spending too much time in the past, she’s become Unstuck, with the result that she often sees events and people from prior times. The best of these incidents allow her to be with her sweet, loving girlfriend, now dead. But January’s condition is worsening, and she’s not only seeing the past but the future. That future includes a corpse in Room 526.

With trillionaires arriving for the auction, baby velociraptors on the loose, and January’s grip on the present moment growing ever less reliable, it’s inevitable that more things will go wrong…starting with a series of “accidents” befalling the powerful, ultra-wealthy bidders. Clocks run backward, time seems to stutter, the treatment for being Unstuck no longer works, and January’s running out of time to stop the murder.

I loved the convolutions of time, January’s wrestling with grief and guilt, the dips into the past, and of course, the baby velociraptors that grow much too fast, all with the fast pacing of a thriller. In short, Hart’s time-twisting murder mystery satisfies on many counts.

 

 

Something Perfect, by Laura Anne Gilman (Faery Cat Press)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a sweet, sexy novella from Laura Anne Gilman. It’s a romance between a long-married couple, Jenny and Nic, who feel more complete with a third person. Luck hasn’t favored them so far, as triads or throuples aren’t for everyone. Polyamory requires excellent communication skills, integrity, and generosity of heart. Frustrated with having their hearts broken from yet another breakup, Jenny asks Nic to use his scrying talent to find their perfect partner.

“When you see the curve of their face reflected in glass and moonlight,” goes his reading. “The city shining on their skin. When you see that, you’ll know.”

Years go by, until Jenny attends an exclusive party in New York City and spots Amy sitting alone on the moonlit patio. Jenny knows she’s “the one.” Courtship is difficult enough, but between three people it’s a real challenge, especially when one of them is as insecure as Amy, who’s convinced she “isn’t good at sex” and will never find the right partner. Nic’s “Seeing” may have started the ball rolling, but it takes more than magic to forge strong, resilient relationships.

There was so much I loved in this story, and it’s all beautifully rendered: the strength and clarity of Jenny and Nic’s marriage and their ability to communicate in a loving, nonjudgmental fashion; the absence of plot stupidities and misunderstandings that serve no other purpose than to draw out tension, when a simple conversation would resolve them; the positive portrayal of sex and multiple relationships, one that trusts the reader’s intelligence; and most of all, a thread of gold running through the story, the importance of consent. Asking for it, giving it, checking in, taking it back, celebrating it. And the wonderfully juicy erotic bits are great, too.

 

 

Within Without (A Nyquist Mystery), by Jeff Noon (Angry Robot)

This is the third “John Nyquist Mystery” I’ve read and it’s by far the weirdest. Nyquist’s latest case involves the theft of a sentient, essence-of-glamor image that has gone missing from its host. To

investigate, Nyquist and his new assistant travel to the city of Delirium, guarded by boundaries that are far more than checkpoints or physical barriers. Their search for the magic practitioner who created and attached the image to begin with leads them into increasingly bizarre cities-within-cities. In Escher, Nyquist discovers his “Inverse,” the character hidden within his psyche, and it turns out to be Gregor Samsa, the narrator of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who wakens one morning to discover he has turned into a cockroach. So Nyquist must deal not only with Samsa’s personality and voice, but that of the cockroach. As if that weren’t strange enough, his assistant has become infected with a creeping magical substance and, obsessed with taking the image, named Oberon, for his own, disappears. Plot twists abound, building until Nyquist finds himself in an utterly different plane of existence, one in which the images define and distort reality. The book carries forward and intensifies the hallucinatory texture of the previous Nyquist novels.

 

 

 

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…