Changing Planes: a Le Guin collection
I am a big fan of le Guin, but this is definitely not a favourite collection. It’s amusing, but it’s not excellent (for me, anyway).
The conceit behind the collection I did really like: the idea that the boredom of sitting in an airport could trigger a visit to – wait for it – a different plane, as in of existence. It seems to be that the body itself does the travelling, because people come back with presents and sometimes arrive back on their own plane upside down. This is quite a fun take on the idea of alternate realities, since I think the idea also is that all of these planes are variations on Earth.
Each story in this collection is set in, or describes, a different plane, and many of them have little actual plot. It’s more like a travelogue, which makes sense and perhaps accounts for my less-than-in-love reaction. Some of them are very clever; some of them are quite clearly making a specific point about contemporary ideas, technology, or issues, or are presenting a topsy-turvy view to challenge and confront the reader. So there’s a plane where almost everyone is royalty; one where after about the age of 7, hardly anyone speaks; and one where people share their neighbours’ dreams. There’s a plane where two major cities fought for decades over a couple of acres of riverside property, and one where developing wings is a disability to be pitied. On another plane a scientific experiment attempted to develop children with no need of sleep, raising questions of the necessity of consciousness and sleep for sentience, and another where violence is a way of life.
I guess I expect le Guin to always turn out serious, hard-hitting and difficult fiction, which this is – largely – not. It’s a bit unreasonable of me, but there you go; I don’t expect light-hearted from her! It is a delightful collection, though, and of course all of the stories are very well written and there are some totally delightful descriptions.
Boxing Day Super Mega Podcast #2
Stolen largely from Jonathan:
The day after Christmas is a special one, dedicated to winding down after a day of feasting and gift giving, laughter and merriment. Things slow down – unless you have a taste for the mega-discount sales – and people tend to relax with family.
This Boxing Day, a bunch of participants in Australian podcasting joined together to record The Second Annual Boxing Day Super Mega Podcast. Participating were:
- Alex, Alisa, and Tansy from Galactic Suburbia;
- Ian and Kirstyn from The Writer and the Critic; and
- Gary and Jonathan from The Coode St Podcast.
Sadly, Grant from Bad Film Diaries couldn’t make it.
What we ended up with was seven seven people talking, in a fairly organised manner, about their highlights of 2011 and what they’re looking forward to in 2012. Because I [Jonathan] was doing the engineering for this there was a stuff up and the first 20 minutes of the podcast were lost forever. Alex and I did a quick do-over and new intro which we think works pretty well. Either way, we all hope you enjoy it, and that you check out our individual podcasts which will be coming out in the next weeks and months.
You can listen to the recording here, or stream it from iTunes via The Coode St Podcast.
The lottery: Catherynne Valente’s Omikuji Project
Oh my goodness I loved this collection so much.
I’ve had a hit and miss record with Valente over the last few years. The novel Palimpsest did absolutely nothing for me – I found it impossible to get into and the premise didn’t interest me that much either. I could, though, appreciate the beauty of her language, which made it perhaps more frustrating not to enjoy it as a piece of writing. I’ve liked her short stories more, although again not all of them – there have been a few which frustrated me, a couple because I think they were trying too hard and a couple of others because I just didn’t GET what she was trying to do.
And then there’s this collection.
I signed up for the Omikuji Project recently, because I found out about it when Valente was considering shutting it down for having too few subscribers. The deal is, you pay a certain amount and you get a short story – written just for the subscribers – every month, on beautiful paper with an envelope sealed with wax (apparently; haven’t got my first one yet). This collection is the first two years’ worth of those stories, made available via Lulu, and I figured I would buy it to have nearly the full set.
Many of these stories are riffs on fairy stories, which can be a dangerous thing to approach, but I don’t think Valente hits a bum note with any of them.
I would normally just talk about my favourites in a collection, but I feel like I want to mention every single one of them… so the TL; DR version is just: it’s beautiful. Well worth getting from Lulu.
“The Glass Gear” is a delightful, wistful and bittersweet spin on Cinderella, while the three parts of “A Hole to China” are about a child who attempts to dig just that, and what she discovers at the centre of the earth (hint: not what you were expecting. Whatever you were expecting, not that). “The Kunstkammer of Dr Ampersand” is a travel guide explaining a curio cabinet and OH I WANT that novel! Love triangles, heart-of-darkness experiences… it would be poignant and beautiful, like the cabinet. “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps” takes the idea of planetary spheres of influence in intriguing directions, while “The Pine Witch Counts her Knuckle Bones” takes the idea of natural witchcraft and makes it… greener. Valente gets vicious on Chaucer and Boccaccio with “The Legend of Good Women,” and although I’ve not read all of either of the male-authored accounts I know exactly what she is stabbing at here, and she does it well. “Mullein” is one of the most poignant of the collection, a rather heart-breaking little story about the lengths someone might go to for love, and the reader is definitely left wondering whether it’s worth it or not (although I don’t think the characters are). “That Which lets the Light In” is probably my least favourite, perhaps because I am not as familiar with the Russian stories that she is playing with. A story, or set of stories, I am more familiar with feature in ” A Postcard from the End of the World,” which combines Norse and Greek myths into a homely little story about apples (kind of), and “How to raise a Minotaur” sees your Cretan labyrinth, picks it apart, and puts it back together again with added nuance, contemporaneity and a little bit more hope. “The Economy of Clouds” reverses the traditional perspective of Jack and the Beanstalk; “The Still” is a slightly creepy story about girls and plums. I adored “The Wedding” – the idea of the mismatched couple, or mismatched families, is a banal staple of romantic comedies but this – a human and a rime giant? Delightful. “Reading Borges in Buenos Aires” reminded me that I have been meaning to read more Borges – I’ve only read one collection, and that many years ago – and it also connected in a weird way to The Dervish House, because of its ideas of cities as books with social geography that can be read. “The Folklore of Sleep” didn’t work particularly for me, although I appreciated what she was doing both with the idea of sleep as fundamental but more deeply with the idea of what makes individuals and how others react to that. I think the only clearly SF story in the collection is “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Golden Moon,” and it would make a wonderful novel too: children and an abandoned lunar colony, where they’re all given lunar names and don’t understand the Earth. Two of the stories in the collection are actually first chapters of novels finished over this period, from Deathless and The Habitation of the Blessed. As a result of reading them here, I must read the former and will be avoiding the latter studiously (which I already guessed based on their blurbs). I only understood the title of “The Opposite of Mary” as I was looking back over it today, and that because last week at church the sermon was about Mary’s response to the annunciation. In this story, there is no announcement of imminent divine arrival, but rather just a divine presence… in the shed, with the tools. And the human interaction is humanly motivated. It’s quite an interesting take, for me, on the idea of such interactions. Valente apparently wrote “Blue with those Tears” almost as a challenge to herself because she loathes other stories of Atlanteans so much – and in typical Valente fashion she cannot leave the idea unproblematised. “The Consultant” was inspired by a friend suggesting the need for a fairy tale consultant, and showcases Valente’s depth of knowledge about the subject. And finally, “Grandmother Euphrosyne” is a wonderful, slightly cranky story – just like a grandmother – that brings in Greek myth and family relationships in a beautiful, beautiful way.
The last thing to say about this collection is that aside from the glorious prose, there are pictures to go with every story – which I believe are largely from the community of Omikuji recipients (can’t wait to join them!), and also the beginning of the letters that Valente sends with each story, which contribute to the larger meta-narrative. This is a really special set of stories.
Spoilerific book club: YARN
Authors & books mentioned:
Janet Catherine Berlo – Quilting Lessons – Notes from the Scrapbook of a Writer & Quilter
The Friday Night Knitting Club novels – Kate JacobsAlso, GREY (the not-prequel set in the same world) is up for grabs – comment with your thoughts on YARN and I’ll choose a random winner.
Bad Power is so good
This fourth in the Twelve Planets series, from Alisa at Twelfth Planet Press, comes back to the idea presented by the first collection – that of an interconnected suite of stories, which build on and enhance one another but also stand by themselves. I think this comes second only to Love and Romanpunk for me, so far, and as I’ve already discussed, I’m in no way unbiased about that delightful little book.
The overarching idea here in Deborah Biancotti’s set is, as the title suggests, the use and abuse of power – especially when it is given to ordinary, or even undeserving people. The blurb asks “Hate superheroes? Yeah. They probably hate you, too.” It feels to me that the idea of ordinary people having powers and struggling with them is something that’s only become interesting in the last few years. Biancotti does not present unreservedly heroic or villainous people, in general, here. They do some stupid things… but they’re not out for world domination. They do some heroic things… but they have their struggles and failures, too.
The first story is “Shades of Grey,” in which Esser Grey confronts the idea of immortality and finds it not really to his liking. His reasons for not liking it involve some intriguing of character development, and the consequences should be ruinous for him but mostly end up being so for other people around him instead. I don’t think you can like Grey, exactly, but his story is an excellent introduction to the issues of power as Biancotti imagines them. And we are also introduced to the wonderful Detective Palmer, who keeps popping up throughout the rest of the sequence. Like in the second story.
“Palming the Lady” might be my favourite of the set. Not that it’s a pleasant story, by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a somewhat spoilt rich boy, son of a famous father, who claims to being stalked by a homeless woman; Detective Palmer, newly in the bad books at work, is assigned to look into it. Which means talking to said homeless woman at much closer quarters than she is comfortable with, and finding out more information than she is comfortable with. The ‘stalker’ is confronting on a number of levels: for her appearance, and her (lack of) status, and her talent. And for the conjunction, too, of a remarkable talent in an unremarkable woman. I did not like the rich boy, Matthew, but fortunately most of the story is actually about Palmer, who shows delightful tenacity as well as an endearing capacity for not understanding things immediately. Also, a weary love of humanity.
My dislike of Matthew made me slightly wary of “Web of Lies,” the third story, because it features him again. Fortunately, this is quite a different story, and quite a different Matthew too. It begins at his father’s funeral an unspecified amount of time after the second story,and – appropriately – features his mother to a much greater extent than “Palming the Lady.” There, Palmer met her once and dismissed her as having “a prescription problem.” This story delves into her life and shows it to be about far more than simply a bored housewife and overuse of valium. This one creeped me out quite a lot; somewhat sinister mothers will do that. Matthew is theoretically the centre of the story, with his problems in understanding the power that he is coming into, but the mother is where my interest really lay.
The fourth story is quite different, and it took me a while – in fact, until reading the next story – before I really understood how “Bad Power” really fit into the suite. I think it works overall, but certainly when I first started it I was a bit confused. Partly this is the difference in narrative voice: where the first three are third-person, modern Australia, and set in wealthy enough areas, this one is first-person, somewhere ill-defined, and very definitely not well-educated. It’s an unpleasant story (again). In this case the unpleasantness comes about because of other people’s reactions to our narrator’s power, which haven’t been explored on a medium-to-large scale in any of the other stories. And it definitely provides interesting context about how attitudes towards ‘power’ have changed, as well as attitudes towards individuals and, hmm, maybe social responsibility? After I got into the rhythm of the narrative style this was a really good story.
Exploding the Twelve Planets paradigm, this collection has FIVE stories, finishing off with “Cross That Bridge.” In many ways it ties together aspects of all four of the previous stories in nice, but not too neat, ways – ways that still leave me hungering for more story set in this world, for sure. We’re back with police work, this time with a Detective Ponti (heh, Latin joke!) at the helm, looking for a missing child. This is probably the most hopeful of all of the stories, where power is used largely for good – or at least mostly non-destructive – purposes, and where indeed an actual purpose for the powers exhibited so far can be imagined, and undertaken.
As should be obvious, all of these stories tie together, and I can see the reasoning behind the sequencing. However, I think you could probably read them in any order (hmm, except perhaps #2 and 3, which should be read in sequence) and enjoy the exploration of ideas they present. You could also, crucially, enjoy them completely independently – although I would imagine that that would leave you wanting more, to an even greater extent than I do at the moment. This collection really works.
Tiptree, and a collection of her short stories
I bought this collection of James Tiptree Jr’s short stories (and two of Raccoona Sheldon’s) because I was going to be part of the 2011 Women in SF Book Club, being run over at the (now-defunct) Dreams and Speculation blog. D&S’s now-defunct status is part of the reason why it’s taken me the whole year to read the collection – although to be fair it would have anyway, since the idea was to read 1-2 stories per month for the book club. But instead I’ve read the last third in the lat two days. I tried to host the Tiptree bit here on my blog: I posted my own spoiler-y thoughts on Delicate Mad Hands and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? However, I didn’t get much interest in them, so I discontinued it.
Now, however, I have finally finished the collection! And what a collection.
I have read bits and pieces of Tiptree’s work before, but most of these stories were completely new. The thing that most immediately strikes is that that they are intimately concerned with life and death, and with reproduction in defiance of the latter. I know this could be said about a lot of authors, but it really is a clear and obvious preoccupation in many of these stories. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tiptree can in no way be described as a happy writer. Which is not to say that she lacks joy; there is a great deal of that fierce, loving-life-in-the-face-of-death joy that can be both poignant and exultant, in these stories.* But you could bet on a story having a not-entirely-happy ending, and much of the time you would win.
And yet I love it. Tiptree breaks my heart and yet I love her writing. She is confrontational – about humanity, about individuality, about reason – and she is challenging, she is grim and she breaks my heart but there are very few stories that I didn’t love in this collection, even if they gave me agony.
What didn’t I like? I didn’t enjoy the titular “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, nor “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death.” The former was, I think, too… cold? for my liking; the latter was, dare I say it, a bit too weird – it was too hard to really figure out what was going on, who was speaking and why. Really, it just didn’t grab me. Ditto “And So On, and So On,” which was a let-down of a piece to end the collection with, although I guess I can understand the rationale; it sort of wraps up the entire collection and everything it’s been saying, and suggests that maybe it’s just the self-involved mutterings of a “kid these days.” That sort of deliberate invitation to dismiss everything that came before really didn’t work for me.
However, that leaves 15 stories that really worked for me.
The collection opens with “The Last Flight of Dr Ain”, and it meshes quite nicely with “The Screwfly Solution.” Both appear to deal with some sort of plague affecting the whole world, although the diseases have different impacts. “Screwfly” in particular is a scary read, as a woman – how male sexuality could be manipulated.
“And I Awoke and Found me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – the title an allusion to Keats – is one that I had read before and one that gets me every single time. Human-alien contact stories generally fall into two categories: “zomg they’re going to kill us!!!” or love-in. Tiptree presents a third option: we care, they don’t. It’s a subtle story, and I think one that tends to play on the mind – whose impact deepens the longer you think about it. “The Women Men don’t see” deals with a similar-ish story, and is probably the least obviously SF of the stories in the collection. But the description of male/female interaction, and the perception particularly of men’s behaviour, is brilliant. And heartbreaking. Probably the weirdest story of the lot, also dealing with an alien encounter, is “A Momentary Taste of Being.” It’s also I think the longest in the collection, I’m sure reaching novelette length. It’s amazing and horrendous at the same time: the interactions of the humans on a survey mission are, to a large extent, frightful; the backstory Tiptree gives some of the characters abhorrent; the reality of the alien is weird and mind-blowing and masterfully original. I’m not sure that I loved it, but I’m definitely in awe.
“The Girl who was Plugged In” is a most remarkable piece for 1973, anticipating as it seems to GPS and reality TV is horrendous ways. This is one that made my heart bleed and yet I loved it. It’s so clever – Tiptree had such a searing way of evaluating humanity, our foibles and penchants, and they come through here, in talking about what we love and what we discard; in this case, humans who do and don’t fit our preferences. That also connects in some ways to “With Delicate Mad Hands,” which is another heart-rending but fiercely awesome stories – of beating the odds, of being what you want to be, and finding fulfilment. Cold Pig is one of the most wrenching of Tiptree’s protagonists, because of what she endures and the dreams that she holds.
“The Man who Walked Home” is post-apocalyptic and takes place over a long period of time, and shows Tiptree’s very clever manipulations of time and physics; it’s one of the few stories that doesn’t deal with aliens, in some way or other. It suggests a somewhat gloomy view of humanity’s future, which isn’t necessarily present in all of her work – for example, “And I Have Come upon this Place by Lost Ways” and “On the Last Afternoon,” along with numerous others, imagine humanity having spread out through at least part of the galaxy, if not always to everyone’s betterment. “And I Have Come” reflects a certain view of how to colonise, I think, which Tiptree challenges in really interesting – if somewhat nihilistic – ways – while “Last Afternoon” has a human dealing with two different types of alien creature and being confronted with his own, and his species’ mortality. Also post-apocalyptic-ish is “She Waits from All Men Born,” which is Tiptree’s most obvious meditation on the issue of death and its intimate connection to life. Very, very, clever.
“Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” seriously, seriously broke me. IT’S SO SAD. I’m pleased to see that this one was published as Raccoona Sheldon, because I cannot imagine anyone thinking this was actually written by a man. At the same time, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” was published as Tiptree, and it’s one that I can kinda understand as being seen as masculine, but at the same time – so, so not. “Houston” is one of my favourites of the whole collection; it’s just so damned clever, the reveals come so teasingly and obviously, once they’re there.
“We Who Stole the Dream” is, I think, the only story not written from the point of view of humanity. Instead humanity is in the place of ignorant, unhelpful alien – which is quite a shock in the middle of the collection. It’s also, to my grieving heart’s extra battering, apparently set in the same universe as Brightness Falls from the Air, because it references Star Tears which are intricately involved in that (brilliant) novel’s plot. This is another really clever story about the lengths people (in this case non-human ones, but whatever) will go to, for their children. And so, in some ways, is “Slow Music” – another of my absolute favourites. Here humanity has interacted with aliens, but we never see them – we just see the result, which is the River, which appears to have attracted almost everyone on Earth. And so we’re left with a boy, who comes across a girl… and then there’s a most marvellous examination of modern life and its trappings.
This is a seriously brilliant collection. I would recommend, though, not reading the introduction first, because there are a few spoilers, as I found to my annoyance.
*In case you’re just joining us, James Tiptree Jr = Raccoona Sheldon = Alice Bradley Sheldon.
Um. Another monster.
Galactic Suburbia 48
After our producer went to the effort of getting this out almost minutes after we finished recording, this is a belated set of show notes…
In which we save the Tasmanian Devils, take on the Classics, review cars, discover that toy fandom exists, plan to read LOTS of Australian women writers, and Wonder Woman still doesn’t have pants. You can get us from iTunes or from
Coffeeandink on The Erasure of women writers in SF and Fantasy
Mur Lafferty – My Problem With Classics
Open letter to publishers: book bloggers are not your bitches
Kate Gordon’s Devil Auction – help to save the Tasmanian Devils! (kitten pictures with TEETH)
Australian Women Writers Challenge – sign up now
Jason Nahrung posted a list of the books he plans to read for the challenge – let us know what yours are!
In association with this, Tansy produced a list of award-winning SF/Fantasy books by Australian women.
Please keep sending in your suggestions for a Galactic Suburbia Award – we hope to have a plan for this by our 50th episode and are loving reading the tweets and emails so far.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Bellwether by Connie Willis; American Horror Story; Yarn by Jon Armstrong
Tansy: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor; Jingo & The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett, Shortpacked, a webcomic about toy fandom, obsessed people, lots of GLBTQ characters and feminist commentary on pop culture such as this strip about False Equivalence.
Alex: Coode St podcast with Ursula le Guin, and also with Ian McDonald and Alistair Reynolds; Spook Country, William Gibson; One of Our Thursdays is Missing, Jasper Fforde; Pirates of the Caribbean 4!
Feedback from Kitty of Panel2Panel:
Reasoning With Vampires
Kitty’s post about why Marvel has no equivalent hero to Wonder Woman
TANSY RECS for DC comics that don’t treat women appallingly:
Birds of Prey (start as early as possible, either with the Chuck Dixon issues which are pretty good, or the Gail Simone run which is #56-108)
Power Girl: A New Beginning & Aliens and Apes – Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner
Catwoman run by Ed Brubaker
Stephanie Brown Batgirl: Batgirl Rising, The Flood etc.
Secret Six, Gail Simone
Batwoman. Anything with Batwoman.
I HAVE NOT YET FOUND THE PERFECT WONDER WOMAN TRADE TO RECOMMEND. But I do think anyone interested in comics history could get value from reading her first year of adventures, available as Wonder Woman Chronicles Vol. One
Marvel dude saying we don’t have to have female characters
Please send feedback to us at email@example.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!
My latest monster
One of our Thursdays is missing
Sadly, I have been Disappointed.
I was an early fan of Fforde – I adored The Eyre Affair and the next two, to the point where I actually went to an event to hear Fforde speak, which is not usually my thing. I’ve read the rest of the Thursday books and continued to enjoy them, and his other stuff too. So I was excited when I heard there was a new Thursday book.
It did not live up to my expectations. And the main reason is that it felt gimmicky. Which is a ridiculous thing to say because the Thursday books are nothing BUT gimmicks, yet here… it just didn’t work. Maybe there were too many, maybe I was hoping for more substance, maybe I haven’t read enough of the books Fforde was riffing off. I read it all the way to the end, because I did want to know how it was going to be resolved, but… I read it in 24 hours because it was a very easy read, not because I was utterly enthralled.
There were bits I enjoyed. This novel actually has a very clever gimmick at its core which allows for all sorts of interesting discussion: the book is not centred on Thursday Next at all. It is centred on the written Thursday Next – that is, the character playing her in BookWorld, the one who is acting for all of those readers who encounter Thursday in the first five books. Head hurt yet? Clever though, yes? So there’s a whole heap of discussion and some angst about how Thursday ought to be played, and – most humorously and self-referentially – discussion about the fact that the Thursday books are basically unread at this time in the (fictional) world, which itself has all sorts of consequences.
One of the gimmicks that I enjoyed at first but then wore thin was the discussion of BookWorld, where the vast majority of the novel takes place. I like this idea a lot, and there are some interesting insights into genre politics and so on. But it was never quite clear whether Fforde was trying to be subversive, in his discussion of genre and who was dealing well and who <i>should</i> be doing well and which genre had influence on each other etc etc, or… whether he was making observations and assumptions. Because he did both. Which got confusing, since – um, was that bit subversive, or do you actually mean that potentially insulting thing you just said about that genre? Which added a layer of annoyance I could have done without.
Look, if you haven’t read a Thursday book, don’t start here. DO read The Eyre Affair, because it is wonderful, even if – like me – you have read no Dickens. If you are a long-time Thursday fan, I can’t see me talking you out of reading this one. But… borrow it from a library, or buy it second hand.