Author Archive: Alex

Gender Identity and Sexuality…

Unknown.jpegin Current Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I picked up this little anthology at Helsinki’s WorldCon, from Luna Press. I’d not heard of them before but I was and remain intrigued by their doing these non-fiction anthologies.

Yes, Helsinki was two years ago. Yes, I just got around to reading it.

As the name suggests, the essays deal with both issues of gender and of sexuality, primarily in fiction but also – and I loved it – in an analysis by Juliet E McKenna on the place of female-identifying authors across time in the publishing world. “The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and other obstacles in Science Fiction and Fantasy” made me think of Joanna Russ (as do so many of these sorts of conversations) and is well researched, persuasively argued, and did not – surprise! – leave me feeling completely hopeless. It’s a fascinating way to open the anthology.

Some of the essays meant more to me than others because in some I am familiar with the  material, and with others less so. Kim Lakin-Smith’s “Doll Parts: Reflections of the Feminine Grotesque in France Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline,” for instance, was truly fascinating but I couldn’t feel it as deeply as I might because I’ve not read either of the works (the Hardinge exactly because it’s billed as being horror). And it turns out I am even less up to date with fantasy than I thought, because AJ Dalton’s “Gender-identity and sexuality in current sub-genres of British fantasy literature: do we have a problem?” referenced sub-genres and authors I’ve not heard of. The essay itself was very interesting, don’t get me wrong, but I was unable to reflect on it meaningfully.

Of course, some essays I had little problem accessing. Both Jyrki Korea’s “What about Tauriel? From divine mothers to active heroines – the female roles in JRR Tolkien’s Legendarium and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations” and Alina Hadîmbu’s “Newly added female chapters to blockbuster franchises: gender balancing in otherwise male-dominated fictional worlds or a greater purpose?” hit on issues and franchises very dear to my heart, and I greatly enjoyed reading the explorations of Tauriel and Arwen and Rey.

Let us not forget that this anthology includes an essay about Magic: The Gathering! Which is not something I would have thought was very interesting a year ago, but now I do! Rostislav Kurka (their name is meant to have a circle above the ‘u’ but my symbols don’t seem to include that one…) has helped me realise just how much more is going on in the fiction about M:TG than I realised, and how the cards’ art reflects and helps that too. So I also love that Luna Press saw M:TG as a legitimate topic for inclusion here; the essay absolutely fits the theme, and of course both the game and the fiction are a part of the speculative fiction world.

Other essays, I should point out, are more interested in a broad summary, rather than focusing on one genre or set of texts. Cheryl Morgan’s “Tipping the Fantastic: How the Transgender Tipping Point has influenced Science Fiction” was (as expected) a throughout examination of how trans characters have been presented in various stories, and what that means both for trans and cis readers and general diversity/understanding. Anna Milon’s “Bikini armour: women characters, readers and writers in male narratives” also made me think of Joanna Russ, and made me cranky, as you may imagine some of what is discussed from the title (it’s a good essay; it’s a frustrating topic).

Overall I think this is a great little anthology – and it is little, at 236 pages in about an A5 package. Obviously there is plenty more to be said, and part of me hopes that Luna does another one… although of course there are lots of other topics to cover, and they’ve got one on Evil and one on African fantasy and science fiction, so those are both excellent topics, too.

Authorized Pasts

This is so utterly Peak History Nerd it makes even me laugh.

Unknown.jpegMany, many years ago – back in undergrad – I was walking through the building I spent way too much time in and there, on a shelf, was a pile of books that were free to good homes.

Reader, I have rarely been able to walk past a free book. I know, it’s adorable.

So I looked through the books, and I grabbed a couple. Just a couple, honest. And they’ve sat on my bookshelf, unread, ever since.

Authorized Pasts is one of those books, and the other day I decided it was finally time to read it. And… it was better than I expected!

The idea behind the essays is the idea of ‘official history’: what does official history look like, function as, in different times and in different places? It’s not something I’ve had much to do with in my own studies, but I am intrigued by official remembering and the uses history gets put to, so I was already coming from a place of interest.

Probably the best thing overall about this anthology is its breadth. It’s not broad spatially; it’s basically all European with a couple of diversions to the USA (I assume this reflects the fact that most contributors were from the same university, which when this was published – 1995 – leaned strongly in those directions). But it’s broad temporally, with the first essay being Ronald Ridley writing about ‘official history in the ancient Western world from he third millennium BC to the third century AD’, and the last being Alison Patrick reflecting on French Revolution history on its bicentennial. In between, there’s discussion about Carolingian history and celebrating the Reformation and how the remembrance of Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus are similar and different.

As a complete book one intriguing aspect is that almost every essay begins with a discussion of what makes something official history, or not. This was fascinating partly because the definitions seem to be different depending on what era is being discussed, as well as the personal definitions of the historians writing the essay. It also included some discussion of what even ‘history’ is, in the context of the time and place being discussed. And I love that stuff.

It must be said that the line-editing of some of these essays is somewhat poor; there are some grammar and punctuation issues that annoyed me, although they didn’t get in the way of understanding.

I don’t think this book is easy to get hold of, and let’s be honest it’s very niche. But I don’t regret picking it up that fine day lo these many years ago.

The Old Lie

I knew nothing for sure about this book, going in.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I knew it was by Claire G Coleman, so having read Terra Nullius I had a reasonable assumption that it would involve something very clever and probably heart-wrenching as a commentary on Indigenous Australians.

Unknown.jpeg(If you haven’t read Terra Nullius yet, and you’re Australian, you really really really should.)

I also assumed that it would be a really awesome story, because it was her.

The other main assumption I made was from the title. I’m not the world’s greatest poetry reader, but I did study war poetry in Year 12 (our teacher gave us the choice of what themes to look at: we chose war and death. We were 16, what did you expect?). So I can recognise a Wilfred Owen allusion when it’s waved in my face.

Putting those two things together and I could hazard a guess at the general ideas Coleman would be broaching. And if you’ve read Terra Nullius you can guess what sort of clever things Coleman is going to do with the ideas of war, and Indigenous soldiers. If not… look, both of these are the sort of books that really reward the reader having faith in the author, and going in with as few spoilers as possible. It is incredibly worthwhile. So go away, read it (them), then come back, because there are spoilers below.

Basically, Claire Coleman has written another brilliant book for today’s Australia and compels non-Indigenous Australians to think about the past and present realities for our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Also, it’s bloody brilliant story that’s going to work as a story whether you know the history behind it all or not.

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The Olive Season

It’s fair to say that I take what previously I would have called a guilty pleasure in reading books about foreigners who go to France (or Spain) and rehabilitate dilapidated farms. It’s a guilty pleasure because of course there’s a level of exoticising what for the people these foreigners encounter is just their daily life, and a degree of Othering that I’m uncomfortable with. However, I’m not calling such things guilty pleasures anymore. Problematic, perhaps. It is a pleasure; I’ll not call it guilty anymore. If I keep the problematic nature in mind, and remind myself that these are deliberately romanticised narratives, then I think I’m doing ok.

The Olive Season is the second in a series. I’ve not read the first; I found this in a second hand shop, and while I considered buying the first I decided it didn’t matter. All I need to know is that Carol fell in love with Michel and they bought a near-derelict farm with a few olive trees. Right, got it.

Basically if you’ve read one of the Tuscany books you have a sense for what happens here. Water issues! Planting problems! Madcap guests! However things do get awfully real, too, as Carol experiences some very real and significant tragedy. Her honesty in the way she discusses these in the book is bracing, and a bit heart breaking, and could probably be a bit much for those who have experienced similar things. And it’s appropriate too, since this is a memoir, not a story of a farm. As someone on the outside of such things I respected the way Carol worked through some of the problems in her writing, and the way she also integrated her discussion of the farm, and what it means to her, and how physically working helped her headspace.

Look, the book is set in Provence, and written by someone who loves the place. Of course it makes it sound like it’s a marvelous place to be. There’s no denying the hard work that’s involved in the olive farm, and Carol doesn’t try to downplay it, but nonetheless… she can’t, and the reader can’t, get away from the fact that: this is Provence, and that will always have certain overtones for the non-Provençal.

I enjoyed this book a lot as a holiday read. I won’t go out of my way to find the other books, but if I find them by serendipity I’ll happily grab them.

The Arrows of Time

The time has finally come.

I have finally finished Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy.

There really ought to be a fanfare for such an announcement.

The other books: Clockwork Rocket and Eternal Flame. Spoilers for these two naturally follow.

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At the start of his one, Egan himself has written that you just won’t really get this book without the previous two. I don’t think I’ve ever come across the third book in a trilogy that said that so bluntly, and I really appreciate it. Because it is SO true: if you don’t understand how light and time work in this universe (and look, I don’t understand it, but I get how it’s different from ours), let alone the society and what the folks are doing on this mountain-turned-spaceship, you will be so lost you’ll end up in Antarctica instead of Bali.

As the second book was a few generations after the third, so here. The ship is sailing happily through the universe, and folks are still working on how to save the homeworld. Not that everyone especially wants to save the homeworld, from which they are now several generations distant – and will never see themselves anyway. So, classic generation ship angst, really. That’s one issue. Then, there’s what turns out to be a logical consequence of the bizarre universe Egan has set up where light travels at different speeds and some parts are orthogonal to others: that time is affected, too. Specifically, that it should be possible to set a receiver for messages from the future.

Because that couldn’t possibly turn out badly.

So now there are two issues dividing the crew of the Peerless. And just to add to the problems, while the earlier issue about children has been solved – the females no longer need to either die to become their children, or starve to prevent that from happening, and they’re not overpopulating – there are some people who aren’t happy with the solution: especially some brothers who don’t want to be compelled to care for their sister’s children. So life is definitely not rainbows (which they’ve never seen) and roses (which they don’t grow).

I love that Egan tackles such weighty topics as democracy, needs of the few vs needs of the many, the importance of choice, the place of parenthood, and so on – all in a book that literally has vector diagrams in it as it explores the outcomes of a thought experiment in physics.

From a narrative point of view, the most gripping part is when four people travel to an orthogonal world to see whether it would be habitable. Again, this is an exploration of the consequences of ‘orthogonality’; time is literally going in the opposite for this world from how it is experienced by the travellers, so what could that possibly look like? What does that, what can that, mean for free will? (A whole bunch of headaches is the answer. Mostly metaphorically.) This bit is also a deeper exploration of the characters, as they interact only with each other, in very trying circumstances.

As with the other two books, I admit that I skimmed bits of the physics explanations. Including the diagrams. I read it well enough to get the point Egan is making, but I would in no way attempt to explain it.

I have a couple of thoughts that are spoilers, so don’t read the rest if that’s a problem… but if you’ve read the first two, I think you definitely need to see how the story plays out.

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Mysterious Charm

As a rule, I don’t gravitate to romance novels. I have a complicated relationship with them: I absolutely grew up rejecting the idea of them as being too femme, and I didn’t want to have a bar of that… even while knowing that I enjoyed a well-written romance in whatever books I was reading, or film I was watching (yes, I would watch Empire Strikes Back with just the Han/Leia scenes). As I grew up I realised what I was doing and finally started thinking more sensibly about romance as a genre. It will still never be my go-to genre, I think; while I have enjoyed romance/SF, for instance, I do prefer the balance to be on the SF narrative rather than the romance.

However. Every now and then someone recommends a romance novel to me, and I give it a go, and I have hugely enjoyed them. The Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan, for instance, was just lovely: the romance is the centre of each book but around it is a meaty, thoughtful and engaging narrative. (Although I haven’t read the last one, because the term suffragette wasn’t coined until about 1903, and the book seems to be set at least two decades too early.) And that’s what I like, it seems; a romance where the surrounding plot is as strong as the romance. Maybe there’s lots of stories like that; perhaps I’m continuing to do a disservice to romance – I have read a few where that’s not the case, but maybe I was misled by the person who gave them to me.

GoblinFruit-683x1024.jpgANYWAY. The whole point is to explain that when I say I’ve read four books by Celia Lake in about a week, that’s a pretty serious recommendation from my perspective. The Mysterious Charm books are largely centred around the New Forest, in the 1920s. It’s a world where magic exists but those with magic keep pretty separate from the non-magical. It doesn’t seem to be as strict as in JK Rowling’s world, but it’s still significant. The date is a clue to some of what is significant in these books: it’s post WW1 Britain, with the issues that implies: returned soldiers with physical and mental ailments, people grieving their lost ones, survivors struggling with that, and so on. It’s also clear that Lake was influenced by Dorothy Sayers – in fact she says as much, and one of the books is very much a Lord Peter Whimsy story – and the story around the romance in each of the books is some sort of a mystery. There’s an archaeological story, there’s a mysterious drug story, a smuggling story, and a reappearing house story; in each, the pair who will end up involved have to figure out what’s going on. The magic is generally pretty low-key, but essential to the story.

The books aren’t perfect; there are a few idiosyncrasies in the writing style that bugged me at time, mostly around use of commas! But they’re not detrimental to the story. In each, the protagonists generally go chapter for chapter, so the reader gets insight into both sides, which I really enjoyed; there’s no agendas hidden from the reader, and while there are of course obstacles to true love, these are cosy stories, so you don’t have to be worried about where it will end up (not saying I was burnt, but I’m thinking of you, Roman Holiday, and I’m still angry). (These are also stories akin to the Mills&Boon ‘Dare’ or ‘Blaze’ imprints – relatively sexually explicit.)

The first story is “Outcrossing” and while I did think it was adorable I would honestly suggest starting with Goblin Fruit, because it was a meatier and generally more intriguing story. The four that are out so far are intertwined, with some of the same characters popping up, but there’s no real spoilers – if you know that things are going to end well for the characters anyway, it doesn’t matter if you see them happily together in a different book.

I may have signed up for the author’s newsletter so I know when the next one is due…

Mission Critical

Unknown.jpegAs a rule, I really enjoy Strahan’s anthologies, and this one intrigued me: the stories of when things go wrong. These are small stories and large, set in our near space and a very long way away – in time as well as space – and stories where not everything ends up well. You already know something is going to go wrong.

I didn’t love every story in the book; it’s an anthology, so that’s no surprise. To my own surprise I did not love the Greg Egan story that starts it: it was fine, but it didn’t have quite the… flair… that I like from his work usually. Ah well. There were plenty of stories I did love. Linda Nagata’s was in the vein of AI-gone-wrong, and I really enjoyed the characterisation. Gregory Feeley’s is set on Mars, like Nagata’s, with a completely different set of problems and hints at a whole bunch of background issues that intrigued me. Possibly not one to read if you’re feeling sensitive about children in danger. Going way off into the distance, temporally and spatially, Tobias S Buckell sets up a really intriguing society and a problem that verges on a “Cold Equations” scenario. I loved the characters a lot, and would absolutely read a novel or three set in this place.

Despite what the Goodreads page says, this book does not have an Alastair Reynolds story. To my disappointment, as you can imagine. There is, however, a Yoon Ha Lee story, and these days that pretty nearly makes me as happy. And “The Empty Gun” absolutely delivers in cold hard explosive story that I could not hope to guess the ending of. Same goes for Peter F Hamilton’s story. I’ve read only a few things by him, and it’s been a bit hit and miss – I think because he often verges on, or is outright, horror – but this one, set in our solar system but many, many years away, is amazing: the changes to humanity necessary for survival, the uncomfortable conception of maternity, and the outrageous version of a bad roadtrip. The final story, by Peter Watts, is a fairly uncomfortable place to end the anthology – it absolutely works, but it’s a grim view of the future, and one that feels if not plausible then at least imaginable.

This is a highly enjoyable anthology with a good range of stories; I’ve only covered maybe half of them here. The theme is broad enough that you’d almost not know that the authors were writing to a theme, except for all the time things go wrong. Many of the stories are long enough that they get to develop their worlds and characters a bit more than in a short-short. Definitely one to read if you’re after some wide-ranging SF.

The Gate to Women’s Country

Unknown.jpegI’ve heard of Tepper as one of the early-ish feminist SF authors who got quite a lot of attention. This came out in 1988, so not early at all, but nonetheless it’s one whose name seems to kinda float around in the ether as an example of feminist writing. It’s been sitting on my shelf for ages, so I figured I should give it a go.

Set some time in the future, on Earth, this is largely an exploration of a society through one character’s life. There are a few significant events, but most of them are daily-life-level, rather than world or even community-level: it’s intentionally small scale, I think, to explore the issues on Tepper’s mind rather than to present an epic narrative.

This is a very complicated book to think about. Firstly, although it’s only mentioned in passing this is a deeply homophobic book. I don’t think there’s any mention of female same-sex relationships, and male homosexuality is regarded as an illness that needs to be cured; men who want to sleep with other men are deeply suspect.

Secondly, it’s an example of that sub-genre where women and men live largely segregated lives. The women are mostly in towns, while many of the men live outside the town walls in a garrison. There are exceptions: the men who return to the towns, through ‘the gate to women’s country’, and why they choose this and how the other men regard them is one of the key aspects that’s explored through the story – eventually, anyway. I don’t think Tepper is advocating for this segregation as a real way to live, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

Thirdly, the narrative structure isn’t linear. It largely follows Stavia, and her experiences both as a child and as woman; a large part of this is about how childhood experiences influence her as an adult (the child is the mother of the woman, etc etc). This isn’t too complicated, but it is occasionally confusing, since there’s no textual indication at the start of the chapter or whatever to indicate which time the chapter is in. It does become evident pretty quickly, but it’s still something to be aware of.

Fourthly, there’s the Iphigenia at Ilium aspect. This is probably the strangest bit. The book is set some centuries after some sort of disaster has killed a massive proportion of the population and devastated the environment. Lots has been lost, but somehow a variation of The Trojan Women has survived, and become so important that it’s staged every year. I can see some of the thematic similarities that Tepper is trying to convey – Achilles’ ghost is basically laughed at, and it seems to try and remind the women that there are problems with warriors and senseless violence, or something like that? Perhaps I missed something deeper, because overall it just didn’t make sense to me.

Lastly, one of the big revelations towards the end is a major spoiler, so if you don’t want that, look away now…

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Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Unknown.jpegThis is my first GGK and… I really don’t know what to make of it.

I mostly really liked it as I read, although there were some odd narrative quirks – like the omniscient narrator occasionally breaking in with prescient predictions about a character later reflecting on something as the end of childhood – that didn’t seem to have pay-off or point in the narrative. But those things aside I largely enjoyed the story as a whole… until the very end when something very weird and out of place happened that made me feel a bit ick about the whole thing.

Anyway, before that: Ned is in France with his photographer dad; meets another visiting American and has a weird encounter with a dude which then leads to more weird encounters and a progressively weirder journey around bits of France. There’s a love triangle ranging over enormous sweeps of time, eternal enmity, races against the clock, family secrets and family discoveries, and some slightly dubious mashing of history.

In general, I found the story generally enjoyable. I’ve no idea how accurate the geography of France is; apparently it was written while Kay was there, so hopefully there wasn’t too much licence taken? Overall the characters were interesting and plausible enough, and the pacing generally wasn’t too bad. It’s not a book to think too much about, though; the history aspect in particular is a bit silly and there are a few narrative holes that made me shake my head.

Also I hate the title. And I’m a bit bemused about it winning the 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. I don’t recognise the other nominees, but this … seems like an odd choice.

The big thing that irks me, though… (spoiler…)

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This is how you lose the time war

Unknown.jpegSome people I respect were raving about this, and I like both El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s work separately, so I thought I’d give it a go. Bought it on my day off (e-copies really are very useful) and made a start on it.

And then I finished it. In one sitting.

I think it’s a novella… but still. Yes. I inhaled it. It’s brilliant. It’s about time travel and two rival versions of human history.

Why are you still reading? Just go buy it already.

If you’re still reading and you’re not convinced: two very different views of how human history should play out are in competition across time, and across the multiverse – or strands, as our narrators call them, which means that you get all sorts of symbolism along the lines of braids and so on. Very clever; I like it a lot. Our people go upstream and downstream and across strands and they’re always looking to make their version come out on top, and thwart their opponents.

And then Red and Blue start to communicate. And then (I’m sorry) things start to unravel.

The story is fabulous, the ideas are enthralling and rich and wonderful. The characters are always somewhat opaque but honestly that fits so well with what’s going on and with who and what they are, that it was fine.

The one thing that some readers might find off-putting is the language: I saw someone describe it as ‘baroque’ and that’s probably fair; it’s extravagant and ornate and rich and luscious, sometimes whimsical and playful, full of symbolism, and occasionally meandering. I loved it; it’s the sort of prose that will definitely reward re-reading, and a slower read, in order to really mull over the weight of the words.

Straight to my ‘possible Hugos’ list for next year.