Monthly Archives: June, 2011

Red Gloves are a bit creepy

This is the second book in the Curse Workers series. As such, it almost certainly contains spoilers for the first, White Cat (which was awesome).

 

We left Cassel Sharpe having discovered that he is not only a worker – possessed of magic – but the mightiest of all workers, capable of transformation magic. He had also discovered that his brothers had been using him as a tool for murdering people, that he had turned his best friend into a cat (which is better than having killed her, which he had thought), that she has now been cursed to love him, and that life is not, actually, going to be easier now that he is really part of the family. I think it’s fair to say that White Cat was a moderately dark book. It’s also fair to say that Red Gloves is, too. It’s not like things really can improve when you’re regarded suspiciously by most people at school, you’re in love with someone who’s forced to love you, your mother encourages you to help her con people, and you can’t trust either of your brothers. Oh, and your grandfather is a death worker, magic is illegal, and the mob wants a piece of you.

Fun times.

This is definitely a sequel. You could probably get by without knowledge of White Cat, but it would likely drive you a bit nuts. And rightly so; the power dynamics of the Sharpe family, and interactions with the Zacharov family, were neatly set up there and carried through here. (Also, at under 300 pages and a ripping read, it’s not like it would be a chore.) Those dynamics are fundamental to the plot of this story because when Cassel’s oldest brother, Philip, is murdered, both the Feds and the mob (with magic being criminal, of course there’s an underworld) come calling, wanting Cassel’s help and/or connivance. Cassel has to figure out how to deal with both sides of the law, not get kicked out of school, not get his mother sent back to jail, and how exactly to cope with Lila-in-love. It would be nice to know who is actually responsible for Philip’s death, too. There are some amusing moments in this book, mostly thanks to the witty banter that Black pulls out, but it is no light-hearted romp. The problems Cassel faces cannot be dismissed with witty banter and a clever con, much as he might like to.

I saw someone describe this as a ‘slice of life’ narrative, and that’s pretty accurate. There’s a fair bit of what could be seen as downtime – it’s not an action-on-every-page thriller, by any means. There’s having dinner, and doing homework, and catching up with friends. But neither is that dead time, because it’s developing characters, and the characters are a large chunk of what is so appealing about this series. Cassel himself is a very believable teen. His angst is real and heartfelt but also not overwhelming – broody Cassel never lasts that long; his family and friend relationships are appropriately messy and difficult to navigate. His school friends, Sam and Daneca, continue to play a large part in his life – helping, hindering, comforting, playing fall-guy. Their relationship also changes, separate from Cassel’s traumas. And then there’s Lila, who although central to White Cat in so many ways – her ‘death’ obsessing Cassel no end – hardly developed as a character at all, for obvious reasons. She gets much more of a showing here. Her awareness of the love-curse and her struggles with it are fundamental to much of Cassel’s own experiences. She doesn’t have much of a life apart from him, which makes sense in context, although towards the end there are some intriguing indications of What Might Be. In terms of minor characters, we get much more Mother Sharpe, which is fun if at times rather disturbing – the opportunities for emotion workers to be seriously creepy are legion. There wasn’t enough Grandpa for my liking, but I guess you can’t have everything.

The wider world of magic prohibition is slightly expanded in this volume, although the focus is still fairly tightly on Cassel and his issues. The main problem facing workers in New Jersey is a new proposal that would see everyone tested to find out whether they are hyperbathygammic – magical. The question then of course is how, or whether, that information would be kept private – and the fear is that the government would use that knowledge for nefarious purposes. There are overtones of the concerns raised by comics such as X-Men, of course, as well as other more general concerns about what the government (and other agencies, hello Faceblah) might do with personal information. There’s a very pertinent discussion of politics within this riveting fantasy.

I can’t wait for the third book.

Galactic Suburbia 35!

In which “best” becomes “superior,” Pottermore is Pottermeh, one of us wins all the awards, and we visit/revisit classic non-hard works of SF and Fantasy by Bujold, Willis and Pratchett (with bonus Russian fairytales by Valente). We can be got from iTunes or streamed from Galactic Suburbia.

News

Pottermore announcement to be made during our podcast…

Theodore Sturgeon finalists.

David Gemmell Awards

NatCon professional guests for next year are Kelly Link and Alison Goodman.

Chronos Awards  😀

Sidewise Awards finalists.

Translation Awards winners.

Stoker Awards.

Coode Street Horror Special with Stoker winners Datlow & Straub.

Gender Spotting Tool. Alisa’s verdict: Naff.

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Connie Willis’ Passage in progress, the next 3 Twelve Planets.
Alex: so much Bujold (Cordelia’s Honorand Young Miles omnibuses… omnibi… whatever), Fly by Night, Frances Hardinge, Red Glove, Holly Black. Series 2 of V (reboot)
Tansy: Deathless, Catherynne Valente; I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett; Wyrd Sisters audiobook, Terry Pratchett/Celia Imrie.

Next Fortnight: Galactic Suburbia’s Spoilerific Book Club Presents: Joanna Russ.  Reading How to Suppress Women’s Writing, The Female Man, “When It Changed.”

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

Tiptree link of interest

This is from a while back, but Niall Harrison of Strange Horizons wrote about Her Smoke Rose up Forever and raised some interesting issues about some of the stories – including “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” Some of the comments are very interesting too. Those of us who are reading the anthology for the Book Club started by Dreams and Speculation may find it stimulating – although I did skip over some of the discussion, because I haven’t read those stories yet!

Miles grows up: my Bujold discovery continues.

Tehani and Alex forge on to the end of the second Vorkosigan omnibus, watching Miles grow up and cause havoc. Alex falls further in love with the universe and Tehani watches gleefully. Spoilers! (We’ve reviewed Cordelia’s Honor here, and The Warrior’s Apprentice here.)


Tehani:

“The Mountains of Mourning” was an early foray into the Vorkosigan world for me. It was available for free from the Baen e-Library and I downloaded it, among a bunch of other stuff. It’s a novella, not a novel, and it is somewhat different to most of the other Miles books. It’s a rather introverted story, in which Miles is given an opportunity to consider the Vor aspect of himself and what it means, at the same time as confronting some ingrained social issues in his society that relate directly to him. “Mountains” gives us a rather more thoughtful Miles than we saw in The Warrior’s Apprentice, and fills out a bit more of his personality, and, again, grounds his honour more solidly. It’s a sad story, but one that ultimately fits in very well with the overall world-building.

I really enjoyed “Mountains,” and thought it worked nicely in the omnibus. It provides a clear bridge between Warrior’s and Vor Game, and allows some great insight into Barrayar home life. I was interested to see the degree to which Bujold makes the mutant-horror real in the life of the Barrayar hicks. I had neither expected that we would meet such back-country types (it’s certainly not typical in space opera), nor that the revulsion would be so real. I enjoyed the characterisation of Harra, the mother of a murdered ‘mutant’, and hadn’t actually expected the culprit to be her own mother; it was nice not to see the husband being responsible. And, of course, it grounds Miles more solidly, as you say, Tehani.
 
Tehani:
The Vor Game switches speeds again, and does it twice! This feels like two books squished together, because the first and second halves are quite different stories. In her afterword (in the omnibus edition Young Miles) Bujold says people often think that the second half of the book, the more military space opera bit, must have been tacked on to pad out the first half (which was published alone in Analog (??)). It’s not so, she says, as the novel was always written as published. It’s a fair thought though – the initial story is of Miles, newly graduated from the Imperial Academy, given a backwater Barrayar-bound posting to prove that he can submit to authority rather than subvert it. If you really look at it, nothing much happens, plot-wise. Yes, Miles is almost killed (accidentally), he finds a body (accidentally) and he stops a mass torture scenario (on purpose), but all that is quite incidental. It is all designed to set up the second half of the book, which sees Miles return to space, legitimately, under the instruction of ImpSec, and take back his Dendarii mercenary fleet (not quite as legitimately). It’s full of the action and adventure that I associate with the Vorkosigan Saga, but which I’m realising, through this reread, is not always the biggest part of any of the books! 
 
BAHAHAHA Miles kidnaps the Emperor!!
 
Ahem. That Gregor turned up in this story, having got himself captured by unwitting contractors, and then Miles turns up accidentally… yeh, that was hilarious.
 
Anyway, yes, there is certainly a change in speed in this book, and I can understand why it might feel like two stories. However, with the continuation of the Metzov character – which I honestly had not expected, and led to groan aloud in horror when he appeared as Cavilo’s right-hand man – it doesn’t feel like it’s unconnected. If anything, it probably reflects the reality of life for an ensign who gets sent willy-nilly on assignments!
 
Kyril Station is horrendous, and that whole section of the book was just one horror on another. I was initially disappointed by the reality of the drowned body, but I guess it was better than having genuine mystery chase Miles around – that might have strained credibility a little too far. It’s a nicely realised base in all, and with Miles parading around on drain duty Bujold gets to describe the realities of the place in more detail than she might otherwise. I do wonder whether this base will turn up again…
 
Tehani:
One of the most appealing parts of The Vor Game is the unfolding aspects of Miles. He’s such a complex character that watching him evolve, grow and really let loose is a great delight. It’s easy to forget, having read all the books and become used to it, that his manic manipulating is something he almost fell into, rather than a strategic gift he always had. I also really enjoyed seeing the relationship between Miles and Gregor – the genuine friendship, tempered by remembrance of the past and concern for the future, is superbly written, and is a counterpoint to the relationships we see of the older men in the books, such as Aral and Illyan
 
Manic manipulation is EXACTLY the right description. Mad Miles is about right too. It really, really is like watching someone who in reality is stumbling, but making it look like they’re running. From one obstacle to another… and ending up paid three times for his efforts. There was a bit less emphasis on his disability in this book, which was interesting, although there was one mention of his neck bones being coated in plastic which startled me! Miles’ reaction to Elena was more muted than I had half expected, and yes his relationship with Gregor is great. It also highlights the differences between Miles Vorkosigan and Miles Naismith, on which there is a fair amount of emphasis in this book. I can see this being a major source of difficulty, and skilful character building, in the later books – especially if the Dendarii do end up doing a lot of covert work for Barrayar, and Miles has to interact with ImpSec both as himself (Lieutenant) and as Admiral!
 
Tehani:
The character of Cavilo is problematic. In some ways, she’s Miles’ own mirror – highly intelligent, cunning, strategically brilliant. She would have to be, to end up in the position she is in (again, somewhat of a mirror to Miles). But she lacks Miles’s sense of integrity, and of course this means she is also self-centred, deceitful and disloyal. I would have liked to see more of Elena, or something at all of Elli Quinn, in this book, to redeem the balance of this dishonorable female character, particularly as we don’t really have any insight into the reasons WHY Cavilo is like she is. At least in The Warrior’s Apprentice, we can’t hate the elder Elena for her murder of Bothari – we understand it, even if we know murder is wrong. Cavilo gives us no such reason not to despise her just for being a manipulative, self-centred bitch. I kind of would have liked one.
 
Oh yes. Very problematic. Actually, she wouldn’t have been so problematic if she hadn’t appeared to try and seduce Miles the first time she meets him. Then, it would have been less like Scheming Seducing Manipulative Woman, and more like Scheming Manipulative Mercenary. In other words, even more like Miles’ alter-ego. The thoughts she leaves Miles with – that he might end up like her – are intriguing, and haunting indeed. Like you, I was disappointed there wasn’t very much Elena here, although I did like the development of her personality – particularly the marked lack of deference towards Miles. 
 
Tehani:
Yeah *sigh*. I wonder if Bujold would have written Cavilo the same way if she wrote that story today?
Questions: WHO IS ELLI?? Did you just let slip something there, Tehani?? Also: will Kyril Base feature again? What on earth is Miles going to do with the Dendarii? Will Cavilo return? And will Miles make Simon Illyan go white-haired by the end of the series?  (Let me guess, he dies in the next book…)
 
Tehani:
No! Hmm, maybe? Elli is Elli Quinn (mostly referred to just as Quinn) who was the mercenary whose face was obliterated in The Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles took her to his Betan grandmother and paid for her facial reconstruction. Um, and yes, she only had a bit part really in that book, but has a much bigger role as the series goes on. So it really makes no sense that she’s not actually in this one. Has always bugged me. Sorry if I spoiled you for her! You’ll like her, I promise 🙂 As for the rest, you’ll just have to wait and see!
Oh, THAT Elli. Yes ok, I remember now. I hadn’t expected her to play a role later so I forgot her name  🙂

June Tiptree book club discussion

Along with everyone else, I was sad to see that TJ had made the (sensible!) decision to let her blog, Dreams and Speculation, go. I came across her because of the Women in SF Book Club, and have so far really enjoyed the books and discussion. Rather than letting a good thing go, Shara at Calico Reaction and I have made the decision to jointly host and continue the Book Club; she’s doing the novels, and I get the joy of talking about James Tiptree Jr. So, welcome! And enjoy.

June’s story from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” – a story I have previously read as novella double, paired with Joanna Russ’ “Souls” (there’s a headspin for you). What follows is some of my thoughts on the story – completely full of spoilers, so if you haven’t read it yet, back away! Following in TJ’s footsteps, I’ve added a couple of questions at the end of the post – feel free to consider them in the comments or completely ignore them, as you see fit.

This story sees three astronauts on a solar mission; they encounter a flare and when they come back around to the Earth side, things are… different. Houston doesn’t answer, but someone else does. They get picked up by a very different spaceship, one that seems almost entirely crewed by women – and it’s several hundred years into their future.

This story does what my favourite stories do: with an awesome sf story, its focus is on the people – their reactions, their attitudes, their problems. The astronauts are appropriately different from one another such that a range of reactions can be explored, but they don’t feel like ciphers; Tiptree deftly sets them up as individuals. I believe this story first came out when Tiptree’s true identity was unknown; all I can say is, Seriously? Did they just not see the feminism?

Anyway, the slow unravelling of the men’s good nature at being rescued by women is very cleverly done. I found the attitudes of the men towards the men really quite harrowing; their patronising tone, their easy assumption of supremacy, automatic belittling of the women’s competencies – it was presented as so horrendously normal and obvious. Bud, in particular, is horrendous in his attitude towards women as nothing but sex objects. That said, in some ways Lorimer is almost more horrifying; as the narrator and because of his scientific background I felt sympathy for him, but still his attitudes and perceptions of the women are almost entirely sexist.

The gradual reveal that not only is the entire ship crewed with women but the entirety of the human race is women, thanks to an epidemic three hundred years previously, is very cleverly handled. The idea of a single-sexed humanity has been explored in other science fiction, with varying results; I quite like this idea, with clones to allow reproduction. The most poignant reflection on the differences between a single-sex and two-sex world comes right at the end, when Lorimer tries to defend Bud and Dave’s aggressive actions. I could almost feel sorry for all of them at that point.

Questions:

1. Did you pick that the future society was single-sexed before it was revealed?

2. Was the futuristic society believable for you?

3. What were your reactions to the men’s characters and attitudes?

4. This story was published in 1976. Do you think it is still a relevant story?

 

Bujold: the saga continues. Or begins.

Tehani and Alex continue their conversational review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s  Vorkosigan saga – Alex for the very first time. Spoilers ahead. (We have previously discussed the omnibus of Cordelia’s Honor here.)

Young Miles omnibus: Warrior’s Apprentice.

Tehani:

Warrior’s Apprentice was actually one of the last Vorkosigan books I read, despite it being the very first Miles book in the internal and publication date chronology. I probably couldn’t tell you which book I actually started with, but I know Young Miles (which contains this novel) was the last omnibus I worked through on my first time read. It was quite strange at the time, reading it with all the knowledge of what was to come but absolutely fascinating to see where the split personality that is Miles – Lord Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and Miles – Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, really began. It absolutely encapsulates everything we come to know of this mad little man – the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants ingenuity, his hyperactive intelligence, his sarcastic dry wit, his absolute faith in the abilities of those around him to do everything he thinks they can and more. We as the reader can’t help but fall in love with him as he careens from crisis to crisis, almost falling flat on his face more times that we can count but with that incredible brain working ten steps ahead of anyone else.

Well, that answers my question about the significance of the mercenaries! I figured they would continue to crop up; it seemed like too much perfect setting-up to simply have them only play a bit part in the continuing saga. Your assessment of Miles is spot on, and I think his faith in others is one of the more interesting aspects of his capabilities as a leader. It’s a much more realistic view, for a start. I guess you could argue that it allows Miles to get away with stuff that he really shouldn’t, and perhaps he could be seen as grasping too high/too fast; but really the ability to inspire others, and knowing when and how to use others (in good ways) is key to any leader actually succeeding. I was amazed by the careening – it was like watching someone who is just on the brink of falling flat on their face but instead manages to turn into semi-competent running. Also, the speed with which he went from washed-out wannabe officer to recruiting his first fellow-washouts was hilarious. Watching the development of the Dendarii force was mesmerising… like watching an avalanche and not knowing whether this is a good thing or a bad. It’s so unlikely, and yet… it works.

Tehani:

In this book, we get our first glimpses of the darkness that dogs Miles, a counterpoint to his hyperactivity and seemingly endless hubris. Always the outsider on Barrayar, set apart by his physical deformities as well as his intelligence and questioning mind, Miles suffers greatly when facing rejection or personal failure. This ties into both his sense of honour, instilled by his family and his social environment, and his own desire to prove himself. In Warrior’s Apprentice, he faces down defeat and finally feels like he’s made something of himself. But of course, what he’s made is completely made up! It’s a fascinating premise, and the action and characterisation, of even the most minor characters, is what makes it work.

Honour is clearly going to play a seriously large part in the whole series – the Cordelia books set that up, of course. I was amazed by the fact that he failed his physical, and deliberately within those first few pages! Not exactly an auspicious start for a hero. And the continuing darkness that, indeed, dogs him, is fascinating. It too lends Miles a sense of reality; he’s closer to three-dimensional because of it. I’m going to be really interested to see what Bujold does with that. I can see ways that it could be done badly – wallowing, or using it as a mark of a hero, getting repetitive or eventually letting it slip away without explanation… I hope none of those come about!

I’m assuming at this point that one of the reasons for Miles’ despondency in later books is the loss of the lovely Elena. Their relationship was a really fascinating one. I had assumed from early on that Elena and Miles would end up growing up together, and was curious to see where that went. I was saddened that it didn’t out with her! I really liked the honesty of Elena’s reaction to Miles’ declaration of love, though – that she would be swamped by him, which is I’m sure a fair assessment. To see her develop as a character, and to see Miles encourage her in that even as it means she’s growing away from him, was a really nice touch of character development. It must be said that Elena’s wedding to someone else was not the moment at which I had tears in my eyes, though. No, that was reserved for Bothari’s funeral. It was heartbreaking! And I was surprised that she got rid of him so early in the series, but I guess it would have been awkward for a cadet in the Imperial Forces to have a bodyguard all the time. Connected with Bothari is the other rather raw moment of emotional honesty: when Miles stupidly tries to bring Bothari together with the original Elena. Her hatred and revulsion of Bothari are so appropriate, and it was nice not to have an author thinking that should be smoothed over for … I don’t know what reasons can be used there, but I know it’s been done.

Tehani:

Oh, Bothari! I always forget that he dies here because Bujold lets him live large in Miles’ life in future books, simply by way of the enormous presence the Sergeant had in his early life. It was a spectacular way to demonstrate that no-one is safe in Bujold’s books, no matter how much of a staple they might appear, and also a very apt way to resolve (sort of) Elena’s mystery. To be fair, it also ties into helping Elena say no to Miles’s mad proposal – knowing the truth about her origins could have only strengthened her knowledge that realistically, a marriage to Miles would in no way be condoned on Barrayar. And Elena too was brought up with the same strict sense of honour that surrounded Miles, so it was something she could no way get around. Poor Miles – with the mother he has, only a certain type of girl is ever going to appeal to him, but finding the one who can cope with him, and his background, is never going to be easy!

I was impressed by Bujold’s treatment of Miles’ disability in this book. I had wondered whether it would simply pop up when it was narratively convenient, but the reader is hardly ever allowed to forget it – like Miles – not because it’s being forced down your throat but because she keeps reminding you that his legs drag, or limp, or that he’s slow and wears braces, and so on. It’s genuinely a part of the story, and that’s really really nice.

Also, one of the nice things I picked up – eventually! – is the fact that the pilot is Mayhew: presumably the same Mayhew who has a cameo as the pilot gulled into helping Cordelia escape Beta Colony. Nice tie in!

Tehani:

Ooh, I never figured that out! I’m a terrible reader – I am hopeless at noticing cameo characters!

I continue to be hooked. Questions raised: where will the Dendarii fleet end up next? What assignment will Miles end up with at the end of his training? Will Elena feature in the later books?

Tehani:

Again, I only answer one questions – YES, we will have more Elena! 🙂

Fly By Night: a review.

Mosca Mye, 12 years old and named for the common housefly, has escaped the dreary confines of Chough with Eponymous Clent, a swindler, and Saracen, a goose. What could possibly go wrong?

This book was written by someone (Frances Hardinge) who loves books and words, for all of us who do likewise. It’s utterly enchanting, with a sly sense of humour and delightful characterisation. I just love it. I read it when it first came out, and reviewed it for the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English. I believe I had grand plans of donating the book to school; I think I convinced them to buy their own copy instead. I have re-read it this past weekend because I discovered that Hardinge wrote a sequel, and I finally got my hands on it… and it reminded me of how passionately I loved it the first time. Surely, I thought, the Suck Fairy can’t have visited in six years? Happily, she hasn’t.

Mosca lives in a world that borrows liberally from the Britain of the early eighteenth century but also, as Hardinge herself warns, takes great liberties with anything resembling historicity. It’s a world of coffeehouses that float on the river; beautiful ladies in awesome gowns who go to watch beast matches; men with monocles and gloves and dastardly plans; and one girl who can read, is desperate for words and stories, and has a rather large dollop of bloody-minded determination in her head. Who else would kidnap a goose when she runs away? And who else could persuade the goose to hang around? The world’s resemblances to historical Britain also include a recent-ish Civil War, but here the result has been a Fractured Realm: no monarch has been properly proclaimed, and Parliament is dithering in its effort to confirm one (and has done so for decades). Religion, too, has been fractured, and it’s based loosely on the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (I’ve just realised; sometimes I am seriously dim).

So Mosca runs away from the sodden Chough, after rescuing Eponymous Clent (I never get bored by that name); they have various adventures, and end up in Mandelion, where yet more adventures await them. There are traitors, and mysterious benefactors, and villains-who-aren’t, and a just-manageable cast who remain entertaining and enthralling for the entire story; I certainly never got bored by any of them. Mosca demonstrates hidden strengths, as befits a plucky heroine, who at times descends to genuinely murky depths. Hardinge plays very interesting games with Clent, leaving the reader guessing for quite a long time as to whether he is a blood-sodden genius or a silver-tongued skin-of-the-teeth and seat-of-the-pants petty crim. Even Saracen the goose has some wonderful moments.

The narrative is entertaining, the characters are endearing, and the world is enthralling. Over all and in all and making it all wonderful, though, is the prose. Hardinge has a wonderful turn of phrase, full of alliteration and poetic language. It never falls into the flowery trap, mostly because it’s often in Mosca’s mouth, which means it tends towards acerbic instead.
Example 1:
The roof of the dovecote stealthily rose, and two sets of eyes peered out through the gap. One pair of eyes were coal beads, set between a bulging bully brow and a beak the colour of pumpkin peel. The other pair were human, and as hot and black as pepper.
Example 2:
Clent: Where is your sense of patriotism?
Mosca: I keep it hid away safe, along with my sense of trust, Mr Clent. I don’t use ’em much in case they get scratched.

Hugely recommended.

The discovery of Bujold: Cordelia’s Honor

Alex has never read anything by Bujold. Tehani is a long-time fan. Welcome to a conversation of discovery and re-reading that will undoubtedly include a lot of squeeing, spoilers, and misdirected guesses from Alex. Also a fair bit of meta-commentary, since we can’t help ourselves. There will be spoilers.

Cordelia’s Honor (sic) omnibus: Shards of Honour, and Barrayar. 

I can’t believe Bujold has never had an Australian print run; are we really that small a market that someone with so many Hugo nominations hasn’t been formally brought to our attention? I only heard about the series from Tehani and Tansy, who raved about it. I am actually quite happy, and lucky, to be able to read these in books in internal chronological order (barring any prequels she may see fit to write!), although a little sad that I don’t get the joy of reading this omnibus as a prequel, since I’m sure most long-time devotees of Miles were immensely excited to read his parents’ story. I’m also immensely pleased that I have so many more books to read, already published, and am not in the position of my friends who pounced on Cryoburn like so many starving wolves. I hadn’t realised just how hooked I was, by the way, until I finished Shards of Honour in two days and just kept ploughing right on into Barrayar almost without realising…

Tehani:
It’s quite amazing really that this is the first Vorkosigan book (Falling Free, set some centuries prior to the Vorkosigan period, is set in the same universe, but isn’t a Vorkosigan book, so I don’t count it) in both internal and external chronology. Such a huge amount of world- and character-building happens in even the first few chapters, without ever being info-dumpish – it’s an astonishing feat for an author, and just one of the things I adore about Bujold!
 
I absolutely agree. The universe Bujold has created puts me slightly in mind of the Hainish universe of le Guin – people have been (re)discovered and brought (back) into a galactic-wide society. There is a mention of the Time of Isolation, from which it’s obvious that there’s been some galactic community in the past from which some planets, at least, have been sundered for some period of time. In Barrayar we discover that that planet has only been brought back into communion 80 years ago, which seems a remarkably short period of time for that planet and society to acclimatise to galactic standards and norms – which some individuals actually haven’t managed. 

The characters:
Meeting Aral and Cordelia like this, for readers of the Miles-proper books, was surely a fascinating experience. It makes me wonder whether they are known as the Butcher of Komarr and the Killer of Vorrutyer to Miles’ acquaintances, in the later books? 

I like Cordelia. I was surprised by how quickly Bujold had Cordelia and Aral fall in love, but I guess it was a case of extreme circumstance. 

Tehani: 
It seems the romance between Cordelia and Aral does happen very suddenly, but I think it works, in this instance. Aral’s stumbling proposal is very sweet in his hesitancy, and Cordelia’s reaction to it is wonderful in the way it defies the normal expectations of romance tropes. The relationship development could be viewed to support the idea (posited in the movie Speed!) that pressure forces ties to form more quickly and of stranger bedfellows than the normal course of daily life allows. But the characterisation shown for Cordelia and Aral really allows the reader to see the inherent connection between them.

Aral may have other motives (conscious or unconscious, it’s difficult to judge here – I’d be interested to hear what you say on this, without the benefit of having read the later books!), but his genuine admiration for Cordelia’s strength, wit and intelligence is obvious. In turn, Cordelia is drawn to Aral despite her clear distaste for the society he comes from. This mutual connection is not for the usual romance reasons: there is not an instant physical response – neither are described as classical beauties! – nor is there immediate, unwarranted, trust. Instead, in just a few chapters, trust is earned, insights into each other unfold, and although it takes place in a short span of time, the relationship seems real. It’s a very skilled piece of writing that delicately subverts the romance tropes to become a believable developing relationship.

I can’t so far tell that there might be other motives on Aral’s part to falling for, or choosing, Cordelia. The sap in me hopes that I never get dissuaded of that romanticism!
 
I really liked that Cordelia is old! – well, by romance standards anyway; 33! Practically haggard! And surely beyond romantic entanglements… I particularly enjoyed the sense of duty and responsibility and common sense that attended this positively elderly romance – connected with the quiet desperation in their eyes. But back to Cordelia – she’s strong, and smart; a little bit broken by the past but resilient; a good leader, and someone I could definitely enjoy knowing. I admire her resourcefulness and was appropriately shocked by her ruthlessness on a few occasions.

Aral is awesome. Again, older; and it may be somewhat heretical to make this comparison, but I can’t help seeing the similarities between him and Eddings’ Sparhawk. World weary, largely unflappable, no beauty, violent when necessary, intensely loyal and honorable. I like the humanity that Bujold shows in his sensitivity to Cordelia, and towards his men too. He and Cordelia complement each other nicely, I feel. Having Aral be bisexual was an immensely interesting choice, too – up to that point I’d had no idea that this would be anything but a universe where heterosexuality was the only acceptable mode (maybe the Miles books are full of non-hetero sexuality and this is something Bujold fans expect; again, I look forward to finding out). 

Tehani:
Sparhawk, yes!! I agree, some readers might find that heretical, and the books the two appear in could not BE more different, but there are definite similarities in their characterisations!

It’s so wrong, isn’t it?

 
Bothari is… complicated.

And Miles? Well, I really hadn’t expected that he would be – what’s the right word? malformed? Not completely physically perfect, anyway. I think I had assumed I was getting myself into a series where the hero was a fairly typical hero, to be honest. Although I was shocked by the attack on Cordelia and Aral, and the fact that theantidote had such an impact on the fetus Miles, I admit that I expected that the doctor’s work would come out perfectly and the Count would have to eat his words. To have him born with bones so fragile that one breaks in the first 30 seconds, and the Count then renouncing familial ties (although that’s somewhat resolved in the epilogue)… I realised at that point that this was not going to be the sort of series I was expecting. 

Tehani:
I think Miles’s imperfections are part of the reason we adore this world so much. That he has so much to overcome from the very beginning makes him far more fascinating than if he’d been handed looks, ability and brains on a platter! You’ve moved on into Barrayar here, which while second in internal chronology, was actually the seventh book published, and it’s really interesting that Bujold went back to fill out the circumstances surrounding Miles’ birth. These two books work really well as a duology, which is brilliant given they weren’t written or published in order!

I really am amazed that they were written so far apart. They flow so seamlessly together! It really would have driven me wild to read them out of order. Also- yes, I can imagine that Miles’ imperfections are very attractive, in a hero. 
  
The worlds:
Barrayar and Beta Colony are (literally) worlds apart, and I’m now wild to find out where Miles spends most of his time – at one quarter through Barrayar I guessed Beta Colony, because there’s so much more on Barrayar that it seems like it might be filling in gaps for readers. Barrayar is a fairly recognisable military-dominated world – recognisable from other SF/fantasy that is – with attendant philosophies and values. It’s Beta Colony that fascinates me, though, because it is a more classically science fictional world: uterine replicators, hermaphrodites, parental licenses, a liberal view on sexuality… yet all of this takes place of a planet that’s happy to use drugs on someone to get information, is unwilling to believe their officer’s testimony, and has a President that apparently no one voted for. Deliciously complicated. I can’t wait to find out more.

Tehani:
Oh, so MUCH more to come for you! 🙂

The narrative itself:
I really enjoy being thrown straight into the action when it’s done well – which is something I can’t define – and Shards of Honour definitely manages that. Traitors, unlikely alliances, honour… so much goes on in what is a relatively short book. I was horrified by the actions of Vorrutyer, of course, and Bothari doesn’t really make those circumstances any better… but Aral bursting in on the scene is marvellous, and would surely play well on screen! The reception of Cordelia at home, and then her efforts to get away without betraying herself or Vorkosigan, are nail-biting indeed. I jumped straight into Barrayar after Shards, so I admit they muddle together in my head – but I love the vision of Cordelia turning up unannounced as Aral starts on a binge, and that their relationship just goes on from there. Civil war is always an interesting narrative mode for setting up alliances and world politics, and for outlining personalities too. I enjoyed the action bits of Cordelia and Drou etc running off to rescue the replicator with Miles in it, although it did feel just a little out of place – direct violence and action had been removed from the story for what felt like a long time. It was nice to have the conclusion with the Vorkosigan family making some attempts at reconciliation with each other, and I’ve no doubt this sets things up for the rest of the series.

Questions I’m left with: will Bothari and Elena feature in the Miles books? What about Kou and Drou (gotta say, that’s a bit tacky), Piotr, Gregor and Ivan? Will bone density continue to be an issue? Do we visit more than just Barrayar and Beta Colony? Will I continue to be hooked??

Tehani:
I can only answer one of those questions without venturing into spoiler territory so I’m just going to go with the easy one – YES, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE HOOKED! 🙂

Awesome 😀

Probably our favourite bit from the books:
Cordelia could not hear what they said to each other, across the garden, but supplied her own dialogue from gesture and expression, murmuring, “Aral: Cordelia wants Drou to play. Kou: Aw! Who wants gurls? Aral: Tough. Kou: They mess everything up, and besides, they cry a lot. Sergeant Bothari will squash her—hm, I do hope that’s what that gesture means, otherwise you’re getting obscene, Kou—wipe that smirk off your face, Vorkosigan—Aral: The little woman insists. You know how henpecked I am. Kou: Oh, all right. Phooey. Transaction complete: the rest is up to you, Drou.”

The Secret Feminist Cabal – now with extra awards

Since I wrote this review last year, The Secret Feminist Cabal has placed on the Honour List of the James Tiptree Jr Award, and I received a Chronos Award (voted on by the Victorian SF community) for the review itself. Allow me this gratuitous moment of reposting! The other exciting thing that has happened since is that I got to spend time with Helen Merrick herself – an utter delight.

The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms
Helen Merrick
Aqueduct Press, 2009

… what kind of self-respecting cabal would openly advertise its ‘secret’ existence through websites and conventions, identify its members through the wearing of garish temporary tattoos, and fund itself by the sale of home-baked chocolate chip cookies?” (p1)

I did not grow up considering myself a feminist; I have no idea whether my mother would identify as a feminist or not. That said, I grew up in the ’80s with a younger brother and there was never a time at which I felt that I could not do exactly the same things as my brother, if I wanted to, so I know (now) that I benefited from second-wave feminism – and from liberal, caring parents. I was regarded as a feminist by at least some people by the time I was in my late teens (looking at you, high school teachers), probably because I was loud and everyone loves a stereotype. It’s only been over the last decade (my twenties) that I have consciously thought of myself as a feminist. And it’s only been in the last couple of years that I have consciously sought out feminist books, feminist perspectives on historical issues, and really come to grips with the idea that feminism is not a singularity.

All of this is by way of contextualising my reading of The Secret Feminist Cabal, a marvellous book that has challenged the way I think about science fiction, fandom, and feminism. Merrick had me from her Preface, where she describes her journey towards writing the book in ways that resonated deeply with me, from the nerdy adolescent to the discovery of feminism and the dismay that many female acquaintances not only do not share our love of science fiction, they are completely mystified by it. Having only recently discovered the niche community that is sf fandom, the fact that so much of this book is concerned with expressions of feminism within that community – and how they impacted on sf broadly – was the icing on the cake.

Merrick begins by examining the very idea ‘feminist sf’, defining which – much like attempting to define sf by itself – is like the proverbial attempt by blind women at describing an elephant. She approaches it by discussing the multiplicities that are the reality of the genre, which is indicative of the approach she takes in the book overall and an incredible relief for those of us who are sick of being told THIS IS THIS and if you don’t fit, get lost. She also gives some space to justifying the use of literary criticism on science fiction, tackling that persistent and derogatory argument that science fiction doesn’t count as literature. While accepting that sf and popular fiction generally have an ambivalent position, as far as literary critics – including feminists – are concerned, Merrick makes no apology for using their tools. The rest of the introduction lays the groundwork for the book: what feminist fiction is or can be, the potentially problematic nature of feminist genre writing, and the ongoing divide that exists between mainstream criticism and feminist sf criticism. I particularly enjoyed that while Merrick engaged with these issues, at no point does her discussion become a polemic against those who have disagreed. Rather, she situates her investigation within the ‘grand conversation’ of feminist sf, and demonstrates constructive ways in which that can be extended to mainstream criticism – to the advantage of both.

I was forced to stare into space for some minutes when I read the opening to chapter 2. Merrick quotes from a letter written in 1938 wherein an sf reader opines that: “[a] woman’s place is not in anything scientific. Of course the odd female now and then invents something useful in the way that every now and then amongst the millions of black crows a white one is found” (p34). If nothing else, this book has made me grateful for the changes that have occurred over the last century, such that I have never been personally confronted with such a statement. This chapter provides an overview of the ‘invasion’ of women, sex, and feminism into sf, with a fascinating if horrifying look at the arguments of the 1920s and 30s for and against women being allowed into the genre. (She makes the point that of course women were already there, both as authors and readers, and that it’s hugely problematic when those foremothers are written out of history, as happens too often.) The 1960s and 70s saw some changes to the field, and the disputes that attended this period of ‘sexual revolution’ make for fascinating – if, again, horrifying – reading. My favourite section is that on Joanna Russ writing letters and criticism and the way such respected names as Philip K. Dick and Poul Anderson responded to her and her comments. I love the fact that what now generally appears on blogs as a long and convoluted comment-thread then featured in magazines, albeit at the mercy of the editor. This chapter alone is worth its weight in cookies for outlining the milieu in which both male and female sf writers and fans existed for so much of the twentieth century – an invaluable resource for a newbie like myself.

The third chapter takes up one strand mentioned in the second and runs with it: the idea of ‘femmefans’. The fact that female fans were distinguished by a separate moniker goes some way to revealing how they were regarded, at least by some males of the community. It’s almost heartbreaking to read of the letters written to pulps such as Amazing Stories by women who imagine themselves as the only female readers of such stories – another reason I love the future that is blogdom. What I particularly love about this chapter is its uncovering of specific women involved with sf fandom, in many and varied ways. Instead of making generalisations about readers and contributors to zines, Merrick goes out of her way to trace named individuals and outline their experience within the scene. Appropriately, there is a section on Australian women, who seem to be even more hidden from view than their American or British sisters.

The development of specifically feminist criticism of sf is discussed in chapter 4, with a fair amount of space given to Joanna Russ, as one of the progenitrices of formal feminist criticism and the name to which many others felt themselves to be responding. Merrick chronicles the rise of feminist fanzines in the 1970s, and the impact these had on writers and fans, as well as the increasing numbers of feminist anthologies being produced. The chapter moves through to the 1980s and ’90s, noting trends and struggles as feminists of those times attempted to define themselves as well as understand their histories. As with the previous chapter, Merrick provides copious accounts of individuals here, and an extensive reading list of both criticism and fiction.

Bouncing back to fandom, chapter 5 examines the development of feminist fandom concurrent with the development of feminist criticism of chapter 4. Again going for the intensely personal stories to illustrate a broad, diverse narrative, Merrick weaves a story of female fans and their involvement in the fannish community from the 1960s to the 2000s. The feminist fanzines sound like an amazing community to have been involved in. Her discussion of the place of Marion Zimmer Bradley in this community – beginning as a fan, becoming a well-known writer, and causing all sorts of controversy over her (at least early) non-identification as a feminist – is enthralling, and beautifully illustrates the axiom that the personal is always already political. The chapter ends with a discussion of how WisCon (a feminist sf convention) and the Tiptree Awards were established.

The last two chapters of Cabal “examine how recognition of the cultural work of sf feminisms filters out into other critical communities,” and as a consequence have a heavier, more literary-critical, feel, which may make them more opaque to some readers than the first five chapters. Chapter 6 deals with sf feminim’s response to cyberpunk, a 1980s sf movement that some saw as eclipsing or superseding the feminist sf fiction of the 1970s. Merrick connects this with theorist Donna Haraway’s call for feminists to consider the cyborg as a way of considering the fundamental issue of what it means to be human. The movement also connects with a growing sub-genre of cultural studies, that examining techno-science and cyberculture. A feminist take on these issues is an intriguing one, especially in its observation that much cyberpunk is opposed to the material, the body – and how problematic that can be.

Interestingly, Merrick takes her discussion in what feels like quite a different, although still relevant, direction for her last chapter: the connection of feminist sf with science itself, and how feminism is and can be in dialogue with that discipline. She suggests very strongly that sf feminisms can and should play a vital role in dialogues negotiating the interplay of science, nature, and culture, and gives examples of a number of ways in which this has already occurred productively.

Finally, Merrick has a provocative conclusion. She addresses new challenges such as those posed by queer theory and postcolonialism, and where or how feminism might still fit in. Along with a consideration, appropriately enough, of what the Tiptree Award has taught us since its inception, Merrick considers the question of whether the science fiction field is ‘beyond’ questions of gender. She argues that feminism – as long as it remains the challenging and diverse field it has been until now – still has a great deal to offer science fiction writers and readers.

A critical work based in a deep-seated love of the genre, Cabal is a testament to the enduring impact of women, feminism, and fandom on the fractured behemoth that is science fiction. 2010 saw it shortlisted on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Work, and win the fan-voted William Atheling award for best critical work. These are well-deserved honours. I hope coming generations of both writers and fans will make use of the cornucopia of references Merrick has gathered, both to understand the history of the field and because most of them make for wonderful reading.

Galactic Suburbia 34

In which we surf the wave of feminist SF news that has deluged the internet this fortnight, plus Margaret Brundage, why YA books are allowed to be as dark as they want to be, the Tiptree Award, Connie Willis, were-thylacines, Ted Chiang and Alex finally discovers Bujold… You can download us from iTunes, or download/stream from Galactic Suburbia.

News
Nicola Griffith on the m/f imbalance in an informal SF favourites poll in the Guardian.
The Guardian: Damien Walter, author of the poll & followup articles revises his comments in response to Griffith.
Niall Harrison follows up on Strange Horizons.
Cheryl Morgan on invisibility of women (some really interesting discussion in the comments, too).
The Guardian again, asking with wide innocent eyes if SF is inherently sexist.
Ian Sales announces the SF Mistressworks blog project.
Nicola Griffith asks you to take the Joanna Russ pledge.

Gwyneth Jones, Karen Traviss & Farah Mendlesohn talk on the radio about the perception of women in British SFTranscript.

MK Hobson on the term ‘bustlepunk’ and why there is a place for a domestic sub-genre of steampunk; follow up post on the assumptions made about works coded ‘female’ .

2011 Chesley Award Finalists; Cheryl Morgan on female & trans artists.

Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (interesting in light of the recent spout of incidents we’ve watched, notably the one with Nick Mamatas where winning World Fantasy Award was considered too regional to be significant).

Wall Street Journal on YA fiction.

Change to the Norma eligibility guidelines.

Why Galactic Suburbia T-shirts are no longer available through RedBubble.

Con Quilt.

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Tansy: Thyla, Kate Gordon; Will Supervillains Be on the Final? Naomi Novik
Alisa: Coode St Podcast with Ellen Klages, Eileen Gunn and Geoff Ryman; Connie Willis – Even the Queen; Octavia Butler – Bloodchild
Alex: Chill, and Grail, Elizabeth Bear; The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang; Welcome to the Greenhouse, Gordon van Gelder; Steampunk! Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.

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