Galactic Suburbia: Tiptree Month!

It’s Tiptreemonth! Our second Tiptree Spoilerific looks at several of James Tiptree Jr and Raccoona Sheldon’s most iconic and important short stories from the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.

Houston, Houston, Do you Read?
Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces filled of Light!
And I Awoke Me Here on the Cold Hillside
The Girl Who Was Plugged In
Love is the Plan the Plan is Death
The Screwfly Solution
The Women Men Don’t See

You can Skype us to leave a short feedback message about Tiptree or any of our other episodes, to be included in a future show.

03 90164171 (within Australia) +613 90164171 (from overseas)

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

The Girl who Circumnavigated, etc

Neil Gaiman said this book was a “glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.”

Yes.

UnknownI love a sneaky, omniscient narrator who takes liberties with speaking directly to the reader. Especially when they’re not condescending to the reader but takes us into their confidence, presumes we are as intelligent as they are, and goes out of their way to be warm and inclusive.

I love a story where the girl who goes to Fairyland is chosen because she is irascible and short-tempered sometimes. Not because she is good or pretty.

I adore the concept of all children being Heartless in some degree or other. I adore Wyveraries (wyverns and libraries having babies, why not?), although a land of Autumn doesn’t really translate to the Australian experience – especially not for a girl who grew up in the tropics, where leaves don’t really turn red, let alone fall off branches – unless there’s a mighty storm.

I do actually really like whimsy, when the wide-eyed joy is balanced with just enough cynicism that is self-aware enough not to get in the way.

I like it when heroines are sensible and determined, when they know they’re in a story and try to decide how to be in that story, and when they get to be brave and afraid at the same time.

I liked this story more than I expected. I liked the pictures, too.

Conquerors: or Portugal goes to India

I read Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire courtesy of the publisher, via Net Galley.

UnknownRoger Crowley has done a wonderful job of acknowledging the truly stupendous effort that was required for Portugal – tiny, generally-ignored-by-Europe Portugal – to get a trading foothold in India… while also detailing, in occasionally remorseless detail, just how barbarous the Portuguese practises were in getting and maintaining that foothold.

I believe it’s important to acknowledge things like the astonishing insight that, in order to take advantage of winds and currents, ships needed to swing way, way out west from the African coast in order to then be driven east, around the Cape of Good Hope, and into the Indian Ocean. I think we should acknowledge the hundreds of unnamed sailors who died on the voyages of exploration – from scurvy, dehydration, disease, fights with inhabitants encountered along the way – who families didn’t know their fates sometimes for years, and whose names are not commemorated in geographic features. And understanding historical context is important too: wanting to get to the Indian Ocean in order to screw the Egyptian Muslims is definitely unpleasant, but (and this is not to downgrade the unpleasantness) I want to know why they did it.

Crowley does these things. Using what can only be limited information – since who cares about sailors drawn from jails and the lowest classes – he gives an indication of what life must have been like on these tiny, tiny carracks travelling across a big big ocean. And while I might have liked just a little more context about why the Portuguese king – furthest west of Christians! – had quite such fervent crusading dreams, he does do a good job of setting these remarkable few decades of exploration into a global political context.

But with all the yes-they-were-remarkable (the leaders, that is; your grunt sailor really has no choice) because of their tenacity, and vision… it was impossible for me to not to be appalled by the actions of the Portuguese, both as they travelled the coast of Africa and when they got to India. (Please note that I am of course not singling the Portuguese out as particularly barbaric!) The actions taken against Muslim traders and their families for example were shocking and, in the established context of trading in the Indian Ocean, unnecessary. And their arrogance in dealing with Hindu rulers, likewise.

I think the aspect that surprised me most – which it really shouldn’t have, because I did actually know some of it but hadn’t put it together – is just how well-established trading was in the Indian Ocean. It makes sense, too: after all, it’s basically like a great big lake (rough and all, I know) with land on three sides – land with really different stuff that just screams out to be traded. And with monsoon winds that are regular to make criss-crossing if not straightforward then timetable-able – well of course the various different civilisations, from Malacca and what is now Malaysia over to what is now Oman, with India in between, they’re going to do what humans do: explore, and look for ways to make money. To some extent Crowley presents this pre-existing as idyllic; few disagreements between merchants or rulers, and so on. I have no doubt this was not the case, humans being humans, but it was long-established and everyone seemed to be getting something out of it, so why rock the boat.

And then along come Europeans, en masse (there were a few random Euros about previously, but never in big groups). They already dislike Islam and are looking to completely stop them from trading in this area (which, nicely for the Portuguese, will also screw Venice). They completely misunderstand Hinduism, because a) they’ve never encountered it before and b) they’re expecting to meet Christians (who do exist in the east, just not quite in the numbers the Europeans thought), so logically the Hindus must be Christians. And the Portuguese Christians demand exclusivity in trading rights (wha-??) and that the Muslims be kicked out (WHA-??) and if you don’t like our terms we will shoot our fancy guns at you until there is death and destruction.

Another aspect I enjoyed of Crowley’s book is his analysis of the Portuguese themselves. This is largely focussed on the leaders, since that’s who get books written about them in the day (early 16th century), and because they do shape policy after all. Finally I discover that Albuquerque is a Portuguese name! (…this one didn’t go to America, so I assume it was a relative.) The difficulties of leading men in what were, admittedly, difficult conditions – human enemies all around (largely of your own making but in the end that doesn’t matter when they’re fighting you), plus scurvy and weird new diseases… and a king whose letters only reach you once a year, who is getting advice from your enemies back home, and who wants you to pay the sailors with money you make from your trading thank you very much. Crowley does a generally good job of presenting these men as actually human, rather than icons, although at the same time they were clearly exceptional men to do what they did.

Another aspect that surprised me, which had a big impact on the Portuguese: this period is really a turning point in understanding how wars are fought (well, for the Portuguese anyway; Agincourt was a while back…). The fidalgos are all about one-on-one combat, personal honour, reckless charges and self-sacrifice. Albuquerque in particular isn’t stupid; he sees how impossibly pointless these tactics are, and starts making changes. He starts making men train in squads, to work together, and with weapons that can be used in such conditions. The fidalgos however are so insulted by this that at one stage they apparently tried to break the weapons! Of men who might be able to help them not die in battle!! I just can’t even.

Parallels have been drawn between this age of European exploration and the modern space age. I think these are warranted to some extent. The money, the dreams, the bravery and tenacity required – these the two periods have in common. I’m glad the moon did not have inhabitants for the Apollo astronauts to patronise and threaten, though.

Crowley has written an accessible book about a remarkable and depressing period in world history.

Letters to Tiptree

TiptreeIt is Tiptree month, because yesterday Alice Sheldon would have turned 100. I am completely ensnared in All Things Sheldon/Tiptree at the moment because of Letters to Tiptree, which was launched yesterday for Sheldon’s birthday and which has been consuming much of my time over the last few months. I’m immensely proud of this book and still incredibly honoured that Alisa asked me to co-edit it with her.

A few people have written articles about Sheldon and Tiptree, so here – have some links:

Leah Schnelbach on What James Tiptree can teach us about the power of the SF Community

Brit Mandelo on Where To Start with the Works of James Tiptree, Jr 

Tansy Rayner Roberts on Raccoona Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution”

Galactic Suburbia on the amazing biography written by Julie Phillips a few years ago

Alisa talked about Tiptree and other things over on the Three Hoarsemen podcast

Not sure you’re interested in reading a whole bunch of letters to Sheldon/Tiptree? Here are some examples:

Gwyneth Jones (includes one of the greatest lines ever)

Brit Mandelo

Nicola Griffith

Every Heart a Doorway

The publisher sent me an e-galley of this book.

Just like I like Mary Robinette Kowal’s stories for talking about the bit after the falling-in-love stage, and shows that married life can be worth stories, Seanan McGuire has presented a story about the girls and boys who come back from fairyland… and wish they hadn’t.

25526296Nancy went to the Halls of the Dead and basically learnt to act as a statue to please the Lord and Lady there. Her parents, of course, do not understand what she experienced and think she needs to be helped through whatever trauma is causing her to tell such dreadful tales. I’d never really thought to consider what Alice’s parents or friends might have thought… although Swift does have Gulliver deal with some repercussions of his travels and travails (these two go together in my mind because of a uni subject that made me read both).

Fortunately for Nancy, Miss West has a school specifically for people like her; those who have gone to other places and desperately want to go back, because that is home. Which sounds all well and good and like you’re going to meet people with whom you have lots in common… but not all fairylands are alike. In fact McGuire does marvellous work of sketching out how such places might be categorised, including the difficulty of ever really categorising such places, and if the place that felt like home to you was all about stillness and silence, how much do you actually have in common with someone who went to a land called Confection filled with light and colour? Yeh, adolescents have a hard time finding anyone they can actually connect with.

While simply telling a boarding-school story with such a bunch of misfits would probably have been enjoyable of its own, McGuire decides to hit them with problems as well – murder, to be specific – to play out the ramifications of trust issues, insecurity, and bonding under duress. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that not all of the characters are heteronormative.

McGuire has created a fascinating world here, and much as I would like a series of boarding-school books set at Miss West’s, somehow I think that might hurt the magic. This is a wonderful novella and I’m glad it found a home with Tor. It comes out later this year.

Binti

I was set an e-galley by the publisher.

25667918A young woman is accepted to university but her family don’t want her to go. Sounds like a familiar story… but the university is off-world, Binti’s people don’t tend to leave even their particular patch of Earth, and there’s a whole mess of trouble awaiting her on the journey.

I liked Binti as a person. I liked her strength and vulnerability and that while she disregarded her family’s wishes, it didn’t feel rebellious or anarchic: it was so that she could be the very best she could, and bring that back to her people and family to benefit them. I especially liked that this was a young woman whose talents were in maths; the description of ‘treeing’ as she followed mathematical equations down rabbit holes is enchanting.

I had to go look up the Himba people, and indeed they are a real group of people in Namibia, who do use an ochre paste on their skin and hair. I really like that verisimilitude in Okorafor’s work, and the suggestion that a semi-nomadic group of people in Nambia could have a story written about them involving space travel? Who’d have thought! (/sarcasm)

There’s a great big galaxy here of which Okorafor has barely scratched the surface. I rather hope she returns; I think this would make an excellent YA novel, or series (the idea of an entire planet as a university, that still manages to have lakes and forests? Awesome).

Binti will be on-sale September 22 in ebook, paperback & audio over at Tor.com.

Slaughterhouse-Five

UnknownI read this to help my school figure out whether they should teach it at Year 11. My thoughts? No.

Yes it’s an occasionally humorous reflection on the horrors of war and yes it’s a clever enough look at life and history and expectations and blah blah but… I did not enjoy this book in the slightest. I did not even really appreciate it much for what it was doing and saying.

If the main point, or one of, is to communicate the horror of war, I guess it does it well enough. But I don’t feel that it’s particularly well done and there are a few bits that justify Mary’s early concern about making war notseem as awful as it really was. I don’t think anyone would come away thinking that war is a lark, but still… it really didn’t work for me. I think there are other books that do it better and without being quite so annoying.

The main problem for me is Billy himself. As much as I am a pacifist I find Billy’s acceptance of everything that happens to him, his absolute passivity, incredibly frustrating and annoying and, frankly, boring. As a fictional character: yes, I know that there are things in my actual life that are just going to happen and I can’t do anything about that, so I like reading about people who have a go at shaking life to try and make a difference. As a reflection on exactly that issue of the human condition: even we, in real life, don’t generally just here, passive. At least we talk or we rage or we complain or we act as though maybe there’s a modicum of free will involved. Billy – the man who just lands in places and does nothing (that we see – clearly he got through optom school but that’s never discussed) but still manages to have good stuff and makes no decision ARGH. Not a character who was ever, ever going to work for me.

And then there’s the women. Yeh yeh it was written ages ago and I don’t care. The daughter, the wife, the girlfriend – nags and obese and existing for sex (only the last two thankfully) and I felt like the hobo who died on the train almost had more humanity than the daughter and the girlfriend, especially.

If I read the phrase “So it goes” one more time I may physically react. Passivity that makes no attempt at improvement or alteration and even movement? No thanks.

Galactic Suburbia: the Tiptree biography spoilerific

Galactic Suburbia Spoilerific – James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

phillips tiptree

In which we celebrate Alli Sheldon’s centenary with the first of our James Tiptree Jr spoilerific episodes and stand in awe of her extraordinary life, and the hard work of her biographer, Julie Phillips.

You can get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

It’s Tiptree month, and this spoilerific is a bit different from our usual ones because we’re focussing on a biography – Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice James Raccoona Bradley Davies Tiptree Sheldon. Her life sounds a bit like a novel and it’s all the more amazing for being real…

Join us for our next episode when we talk about some of Tiptree’s short works, including

Houston, Houston, Do you Read? and

“Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces filled of Light!”

(both are available in the Tiptree collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and Tansy particularly recommends the ebook which is nicely laid out)

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Galactic Suburbia now has Messagebank on its Skype number, so you can leave us audio feedback. I know, right??? This month, we would particularly appreciate comments about your favourite Tiptree work, thoughts on the Julie Phillips biography, or on the short fiction we’ll be discussing later this month. We would love to be able to include your audio feedback in future episodes (so make sure to let us know if your comment is not something you wish to be broadcast).

03 90164171 (within Australia)
+613 90164171 (from overseas)

You can order the upcoming Letters to Tiptree from Twelfth Planet Press – a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago. The book also contains archived letters between Tiptree and some of her dearest correspondents.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon; and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Alexander Kerensky

When I teach about the French and Russian revolutions, I like to pick a personage to announce as my very favourite; it seems to amuse the kids. For the Russian, Kerensky is my best and favourite; Lenin and Trotsky are a bit too dubious, and none of the other Bolsheviks get that much of a look-in in the textbooks. Kerensky, though… he seems to try his best in difficult circumstances between the revolutions in 1917, he had a career in politics and was a radical before the February Revolution, and I knew there was some vague connection to Australia. So he seemed a good choice. Which meant that I really needed to read a biography. Thus my excitement at finally hearing about this biography, old though it is, and the fact that I found a hardback version via Better World Books.

Certainly there are aspects of this book that date it, and while it’s pretty good about being objective it of course doesn’t entirely manage it. And books that refuse to translate French for we non-speakers just make me throw my hands in the air, sometimes non-metaphorically. Nonetheless, I am so happy to have read it; it has cemented Kerensky as the revolution’s ‘first love’ even while I acknowledge that I’m absolutely getting something of a biased account of Kerensky’s role and motivation. It’s a biography; that’s what they do

UnknownKerensky comes across as desperately in love with Russia, probably a bit near-sighted about the issues affecting the non-Russians, but vehement in his defence of, for example, the Jewish population; he was unendingly opposed to anti-Semitism. He was a passionate radical (although not a Marxist) – and, as happens to so many radicals, changed by actually being in power; he seems to have been one of those people whose reaction to setbacks is to take on yet more work and responsibility, since noone else would be able to do it as well. I felt deeply sympathetic for him, from this 100-year-on perspective, as he faced the problems of 1917: how could someone successfully negotiate placating the Allies during World War 1 about Russia not negotiating a separate peace, and deal with the Russian soldiers’ impatience with fighting this war that has gone dreadfully for them over the past two years, and deal with the expectations of the population for change following the fall of the Tsar, and deal with the political bickering from both left and right? Possibly these obstacles could have been negotiated for someone else, and maybe it should have been possible to reconcile the differences of opinion and bring everything to rights within Russia… but it didn’t happen. Abraham’s account shows where Kerensky made very poor decisions but also points out the immense pressure of the times. Like I said, I’m sympathetic (which is easier at a distance).

Two things frustrated me a bit about this biography. The first is that it didn’t really clarify for me one of the more bizarre episodes of Kerensky’s turn as head of the Provisional Government, between the revolutions: the Kornilov affair, where – depending on who you talk to – General Kornilov might have been trying to replace the Prov Gov with a military dictatorship, or working with Kerensky to save Kerensky’s position, or… who knows. Abraham does put the events into greater context by talking about Kornilov’s earlier actions as part of the overall Russian command, and gives details about Kerensky’s moves in August and negotiations with Kornilov; Abraham certainly makes it less Kerensky’s fault than other historians (looking at you, Richard Pipes) suggest, and gives reasons for some of the more incriminating evidence that turned up afterwords. But my problem is that Abraham doesn’t go into much detail about what happened to Kornilov afterwards – just a mention of a cushy prison in the context of the Civil War – and there is zero mention of Bolsheviks being let out of jail and armed in order to defend Petrograd, which the textbooks all mention. It’s too long since I read other histories of the period so I’ll have to refresh my memory from Fitzpatrick… because there’s either a weird lacuna from Abraham or a serious overstatement elsewhere.

That frustration is quite academic. The other is one I should have expected: that the women in his life aren’t that well treated. Kerensky married young; Olga gets served well enough early on but not later. He has an affair while a leading politician; what happens to her after he leaves Russia is dealt with brusquely in half a paragraph, and then not clearly. He has at least two more serious affairs and then marries an Australian woman; the affairs are glossed over with little explanation. Nell appears a bit in the last couple of chapters, with discussion of their moves within America and then to Australia and then back to America, but really it’s superficial. And I feel this is a shame, given how much time they spent together.

Overall this is a well-written biography, although not one I would recommend to a reader with zero knowledge of the Russian revolution. It’s certainly added to my knowledge of pre-Bolshevik Russia, and has deepened my understanding of Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky.

Melusine, etc

images Sarah Monette’s Melusine series is a remarkable set of four novels. I’ve been reading them for a while now, and they’re the sort of books where although I owned them all, I didn’t read one immediately after the other… because I didn’t want the story to finish yet.

Also, because it might hurt too much to keep going.

Slight spoilers

Do not read these books if you are really squeamish. There are some really distressing bits that I found quite harrowing; Unknown-1violence, and sexual violence, are at the heart of the first couple of books in particular. There’s more to the stories than that, but the violence is a fundamental part of the character and motivation and problem for both of the main characters.

The series is made up of MelusineThe Virtu, The Mirador, and Corambis. The stories are about magic, relationships, the abuse of trust, the recovery of trust, good governance, loyalty, sabotaging relationships, and how to heal. Yes they are complicated. Yes it is worthwhile. Yes even the distressing bits. Mostly.

All of the books have at least two viewpoints. The later books add another viewpoint, which is a bit weird as a reader but I think I get why Monette did it; it makes sense in terms of rounding out the main characters, and I think it makes sense artistically too, to give the world greater breadth. And here’s the slight spoiler: the narratives are from the perspective of brothers, but you don’t know that for quite a long time and it’s rather startling when it’s revealed, because they Unknown-2are so very different (and themselves don’t know their relationship). Monette is painstaking in developing the two different voices – Mildmay is uneducated and rough, and in telling his story is way down the spoken end of the register. He can’t be bothered impressing you; if you’re worried about his language and grammar and manners, well that’s your problem, yeh? Felix, on the other hand, is refined and learned and precise and all of his words are very. consciously. chosen. And learning how he came to be that way is part of the pain of the whole narrative trip. I love both of them; Felix I want to cosset and Mildmay I want to have a drink with (with no dice around. and very careful measures). Their relationship was by turns inspiring and despair-inducing, asUnknown they figured out how to relate and not destroy one another.

Aside from the fraternal relationship it’s the world that Monette imagines that really, really works. For starters, she does something which could be corny and sad, but which manages to make work: her world is tantalisingly close to ‘the real world,’ with linguistic analogues just nearly making sense… but which then skip away from whatever French or Spanish or maybe Latin word you thought it was meant to resemble, with a hint at meaning but well and truly going its own way (homosexual relationships described as being about tarquins and martyrs… Cabalines, the Curia, Troia, the Empyrean…). This could have been disastrous. Instead, it is charming and elusive and adds possible depths that are enchanting as you try to chase them down. Frustrating sometimes, but with a come-hither look nonetheless. (Much of the narrative revolves around sex.) And then there’s the world of the Mirador, home of Felix and the centre of the first three novels (although much of the stories themselves are set elsewhere, the Mirador is the heart of the narrative). It’s a brutal and unpleasant place. So is the city around the Mirador. The thing I loved most about the fourth novel in particular is that although Felix and Mildmay have journeyed a long way from the Mirador before, it’s in this novel that the old-fashioned-ness of that place is placed in stark contrast against a city that – in the same world – is recognisably modern. After spending three novels thinking the Mirador was brutal but normal for this world, this contrast made me question everything that has come before by showing it in an entirely new light. Without compromising any of the narrative or world-building that has come before. Sarah Monette: brilliant.

This is not a happy series. Bad things happen. To men and women and if there are kittens, to kittens. Characters experience grief and loss and pain, they are cruelly treated and wrongfully accused and it’s just generally bad for pretty much everyone at different points. And sometimes this is pretty heavy going, as a reader. But there are good bits, too, not least of which is Mildmay’s sardonic, evil wit; he skewers the egos and shrugs off delicacy and is brutally honest. But other than that… there is also hope. There are good relationships – which are sometimes screwed up, yes, but they do exist. There are positive things that can be done, even in the midst of madness, and light never entirely abandons this world that I imagine as being lit (within the Mirador at least) entirely by smokey candles and never ever by the sun. (This is not in the least upheld by textual evidence, but it’s the vibe of the thing, man. It’s always night there. Or at least overcast.)

It’s not widely available – I got my copies from Better World Books – but if you’re keen to read fantasy with brilliantly realised magic and complex relationships, this is a pretty good bet.

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