Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind – anthology
I didn’t know this book existed until this year. It was published in 1985.
The list of contributors is just… I mean:
Joanna Russ (the only reprint)
Raccoona Sheldon! …
and that’s just the names that I immediately recognised.
It’s nearly 40 years old, so some of the stories have aged, I guess? But honestly the general issues in discussion still feel pretty real. Zoline’s “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire” – children kidnapped and swapped to stop a nuclear apocalypse – still feels like a chillingly appropriate concept. Josephine Saxton’s view of advertising is hideous and, again, not as laughably far-fetched as I might like (it is ridiculous, but also… ads…). Beverley Ireland’s “Long Shift” is remarkable for its focus on a single woman, just doing her job; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this published today. Pearlie McNeill is (was?) Australian, and I’ve never heard of her! Apparently this was her only piece of fiction? – SF, anyway. And this is where Raccoona Sheldon’s “Morality Meat” was first published, which is… a moment.
There are very few poor stories here. This is an amazing anthology.
Proof of Concept
This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be out on 11 April, 2017.
Um. Wow. No seriously. Terrifying and amazing and absolutely captivating.
Jones is saying a lot about modern society in this novella and most of it isn’t very nice. She’s also presenting a compelling story and believable characters and… this is yet more evidence that novellas are a fantastic length for stories.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how facebook mediates news and how people who only get their news from facebook can end up in an echo-chamber, essentially, with their own opinions endlessly reflected back to them. Jones presents GAM: Global Audience Mediation. An avatar, the AI of GAM, asks questions for news broadcasts – it’s “the statistical sum of… real-time responses” from the global audience (4). It’s crowd-sourced journalism, where presumably minority views and questions get drowned out in the fantastically huge audience. No room for dissenting voices then. Then there’s the broadcasts of the VLDMT (Very Long Duration Mission Training) – in theory Earth 2-like training situations for people who might go on interstellar missions, but effectively ending up like reality tv – Big Brother in extremis.
And this isn’t even really what the story is about. They’re just creepy incidental issues that Jones throws in to show that this is a real and believable future story. I love Gwyneth Jones.
What the story is actually about is getting off Earth as the population and climactic situation gets progressively worse and worse. There are two solutions being proposed: the VLDMT people imagine a space ship, while Margrethe Patel is working on a method of hyperspatial travel that shifts within 4D information space. (Happily, Jones is not Greg Egan, so there’s no vector diagrams to attempt to understand.) The two groups come together when an enormous abyss is discovered under Poland and it appears to offer a place to practise for both groups. They need complete isolation from the rest of the planet, and things go from there…
Did I mention that the focal character, Kir, has an AI in her head? Yeh. There’s a huge amount going on here.
I loved Kir and how she faces the various problems – like annoying people and difficult work – that confront her. I was gutted by how Jones imagines this possible future, and I was enthralled by what she imagines as solutions. If you like science fiction you need to read this story. When it’s available.
Letters to Tiptree
It is Tiptree month, because yesterday Alice Sheldon would have turned 100. I am completely ensnared in All Things Sheldon/Tiptree at the moment because of Letters to Tiptree, which was launched yesterday for Sheldon’s birthday and which has been consuming much of my time over the last few months. I’m immensely proud of this book and still incredibly honoured that Alisa asked me to co-edit it with her.
A few people have written articles about Sheldon and Tiptree, so here – have some links:
Leah Schnelbach on What James Tiptree can teach us about the power of the SF Community
Brit Mandelo on Where To Start with the Works of James Tiptree, Jr
Tansy Rayner Roberts on Raccoona Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution”
Galactic Suburbia on the amazing biography written by Julie Phillips a few years ago
Alisa talked about Tiptree and other things over on the Three Hoarsemen podcast
Not sure you’re interested in reading a whole bunch of letters to Sheldon/Tiptree? Here are some examples:
Gwyneth Jones (includes one of the greatest lines ever)
I did not manage to finish the book prior to this one, Gwyneth Jones’ White Queen. I am slightly surprised that I finished this one, in that light, but the structure of this novel is definitely easier to cope with, and I think the plot is slightly more straightforward too.
So in White Queen the aliens arrive and it turns out they’ve been living amongst for rather a long time. The world is a difficult place in which to live anyway – environmental stuff etc – and when the aliens finally decide to make contact there’s a conference on women happening … and for whatever reason, the aliens decide that that is the world government. Which means that all of a sudden (ok, I think it makes months or years) there is an actual real Sex War, at least partly because of the aliens. Stuff happens… etc.
North Wind is told from two main viewpoints. Sid is a human liaison to the Aleutians – the aliens. Bella, also known as Goodlooking, or the librarian, is an invalid Aleutian. Their experiences of the world are very different: because of their expectations of gender, because of their expectations of humanity, because of their expectations of family and other social interactions. Their interactions with each other are immensely complicated for all of these same reasons, and because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
This novel could have been relatively straightforward. It’s an attempt to figure out what is indeed a complex problem, but the actual events along the way are not that Byzantine.
Jones, however, was not interested in writing a relatively straightforward novel. And that’s perfectly fine; just don’t expect it to be one. Because Jones used this novel to explore concepts of gender, in particular, in detail and in complexity that you don’t often get in novel form. Not from widely popular novels that get nominated for the Clarke Award (in 1995) necessarily, anyway. The Aleutians have a very different concept of gender from most of humanity, and the intersection between the two species’ expectations and lived experiences highlight, in particular, humanity’s limitations.
I found this a difficult book to read partly because of the switching of pronouns, which takes some getting used to; partly because Jones uses narrative ellipses to imply things and sometimes I wasn’t fast enough on the uptake. Probably I missed some subtleties from not finishing White Queen (like the issue with Johnny, but that is eventually explained). It’s a clever book, and it’s an important book, and I want to say it’s an ambitious book but so often that phrase gets used in a condescending tone and I really don’t mean it like that. I really mean that Jones is doing ambitious and difficult and passionate things. But… I didn’t love it. I think it was too difficult for me. I won’t be rushing out for Phoenix Cafe, the third in the series. Which makes me a bit sad because I had intended to read all of Gwyneth Jones’ work, but I don’t have to like everything, I’ve decided.
Yet another book off the TBR shelf! Go me!
Galactic Suburbia 83
In which we tamper with our format to discuss reconciliation in SF, and the disappearance of women in modern movies.
NK Jemisin’s GoH speech about reconciliation in SF
The Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison on not turning a blind eye.
At the movies, all the women are gone.
ALEX: The White Queen, Gwyneth Jones – abandoned; Mono no Aware, Ken Liu; After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress; Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed. (Also S2 of Game of Thrones.)
ALISA: PhD paper – Female bestsellers: A cross-national study of gender inequality and the popular–highbrow culture divide in fiction book production, 1960–2009 by Marc Verboord
TANSY: Original Sin, by Andy Lane; The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
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!
Tiptree Award Anthology #2
For those just joining us, James Tiptree Jr was a magnificent SF writer whose work Robert Silverberg once described as “ineluctably masculine.” Which is amusing because she was actually Alice B Sheldon. Anyway, in 1991 some people decided there should be an award named for a woman, and that it should be given to works that “explore and expand gender”. So, to be quirky, they named it for Sheldon/Tiptree. And the award has been going since then, and there are now a number of anthologies that reflect it: excerpts from novels, complete short stories, but also other work that reflects the issues that the award desires to highlight. Which is awesome.
Debbie Notkin’s introduction does a marvellous job of discussing the very first award and how it was decided on, as well as – most interestingly – pointing out that each jury has been forced to decide all over again what it means to “explore and expand gender.” Which is good to be reminded of, because there are definitely stories in the anthology whose inclusion I was a little confused by. And this, Notkin says, is totally fine.
In honour of Tiptree/Sheldon, the anthology opens with a short essay from Julie Phillips, the biographer of Tiptree/Sheldon (which I reviewed here, and as I write I am listening to The Writer and the Critic discuss it), about talking and talking too much which is completely fascinating (and somewhat connected to the current furore over Hilary Mantel’s words about the media representation of royalty?). It’s matched with a letter from Sheldon herself, to the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, talking about identity and science fiction and science and friendship, which is such a nice touch. And then the anthology jumps straight into Raphael Carter’s “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by KN Sirsi and Sandra Botkin,” which can only be read by itself, must be read in a single sitting, and may then require that you sit staring at a wall for a few minutes. Because it is mind blowing. It’s written as a thoroughly researched scientific article, where two scientists from different backgrounds come to a startling discovery about how gender is perceived and what that means for identity and… that doesn’t really explain it at all. It’s very accessible as well as challenging and I can absolutely understand why it won.
L Timmel Duchamp’s collection Love’s Body, Dancing in Time was shortlisted in 2004, and from it this anthology includes “The Gift.” For all that it’s set in a distant future where the narrator is a travel writer who discusses other planets rather than other countries, there’s something rather medieval in its suggestion that there is more to an understanding of gender than a basic dichotomy. And I don’t mean ‘medieval’ in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that some medieval thinkers seemed to be groping towards a similar sense – and for similar reasons as suggested here. That aside, one of my favourite parts of this story is the description of the meal composed around the ideas of Matrix Aesthetics. And made me wish that something similar could possibly exist, that combined visual, aural, and taste sensations all designed to complement one another.
The next two parts of the anthology are again from 2004, this time excerpts from the winning novels. The Tiptree Award is an interesting one in that it seems to me one of the few really big-name awards that considers all work for one award (shorts and novels), and which is not afraid of having a tie (which has happened a few times). Firstly here, Joe Haldemann’s Camouflage – the first four chapters and “and two from a little further along,” according to the reading notes. I HAVE to read this novel. It’s utterly gripping, right from the start: an alien comes to earth millennia ago, and is capable of changing its outward appearance to be… whatever it likes. Imagine the consequences of that on ideas of gender and identity. This is complemented by an excerpt from Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story, which I imagine I will also get around to reading. Translated from the Finnish, it does indeed involve a troll, as well as (again according to the reading notes) mail-order bride slavery and Finnish folklore and homoerotic imagery. In this excerpt, the narrator’s night has started badly, with a failed date, and gets worse when she finds a bunch of boys attacking an animal. Things get weirder after that.
“Looking for Clues” is Nalo Hopkinson’s guest of Honour speech from WisCon (the convention where the Tiptree is announced) in 2002. As a woman of colour, as she explains in her speech, finding people “like her” was one of the aims of her extensive early reading – because there weren’t that many. She takes a winding road through various media and her experiences to look at the different sorts of role models (and not) available through her childhood and teenaged years, as well as making pointed remarks about people who insist on remaining ignorant about the issues. It would have been a brilliant speech to hear in person.
Eileen Gunn’s collection Stable Strategies is another one that got shortlisted in 2004, and as a representative this anthology chose “Nirvana High,” co-written with Leslie What. This is one of the inclusions that I simply do not get. It’s a clever story and it says interesting things about difference, and about growing up as ‘different’, but I don’t see that it says things about gender that connect it to the Tiptree. But I’m sure Notkin would say “and?”
From 1996 comes Jonathan Lethem’s “Five F***s” (sorry, I would like to keep this profanity free!). It’s a series of six vignettes, and in all of them there is a woman whose life appears to be different each time she has sex with a particular man. Indeed, it’s not just her life, but the world around her; in this sense it reminds me a bit of Lathe of Heaven. The lover does not appear in every story; in all but the first, there is a different man – Pupkiss, a policeman (mostly). So there are elements of the procedural to some of the sections, but not really. It’s one of those stories, as you may be able to guess, that is particularly hard to explain. It should just be read.
Carol Emshwiller’s “All of Us Can Almost…” is another story in the I don’t entirely get it pile. Shortlisted in 2004, it’s about desire and lying and determination, and while I think it’s a very good story and fascinating in what it says about interactions between people and expectations, I don’t entirely see that the gender aspects – which I can see – are an interesting enough or explored enough aspect to get it shortlisted. Again, refer to Notkin’s advice.
Gwyneth Jones is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, so I was pleased to see an entry from her here. Rather than a piece of fiction, it’s a paper she gave called “The Brains of Female Hyena Twins: On the Future of Gender,” presented at the Academic Fantastic Fiction Network conference in 1994. In it, she ranges far and wide over scientific papers that discuss aspects of gender and biological sex in animals (those hyenas, peacocks, lizards and fish…), as well as gender and sex in humans and their malleability, as well as some frightening aspects of the battle of the sexes. It’s erudite and occasionally witty (insofar as such a topic ought to be), and outright challenging to biological determinists.
The penultimate place belongs to Ursula le Guin, for Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea which I have read before but fell in love with all over again, reading it here. The planet of O is such a richly realised place – their marriage customs so breathtakingly original – and they’re not even the centre of the story, which is I think mostly about scientific research and its impact on individuals, as well as the impact of family, and the choices that we make… It’s wonderful.
Finally, Jaye Lawrence’s “Kissing Frogs” is described as “a pleasing after-dinner mint of a story” by the reading notes, and I think that’s about right. It’s a retelling of the fairy story, of course; it’s amusing and sweet and I can’t go into any details because the point of it is the little twists Lawrence weaves in. A highly enjoyable way to complete the anthology, anyway.
What this anthology does, and I presume what it set out to do, is give a broad overview of the point of the Tiptree Award – showcasing works that various juries have thought worth honouring, as well as including work that must help to inform the juries, and authors, and readers about the ideas of gender that the award wants to recognise. It succeeds in this aim, and no doubt in a secondary aim as well – of publicising those names whose work has been recognised, so that they get more recognition, and more people are challenged and inspired by their words.
You can get this anthology from Fishpond.
Midnight Lamp – not really a review
Spoilers for the first two books, because it can’t be otherwise.
I actually don’t think I can write an adequate review of this book without massive spoilers in general – and really, how do you review the third in a series of five, and do justice to it and the characters and everything else? So why am I writing a review? – mostly because I just want to note having read it, and remind people that THEY SHOULD READ THE SERIES.
This series is monumental, and much as I want to rush through and devour the last two I think it is a good idea that I leave a little time between them. Without that space I would just fall into Gwyneth Jones’ world and be lost for a while. And I’m not sure that would be entirely healthy, because being like Fiorinda, Ax and Sage is not a healthy place to be. Fi is suffering in the aftermath of the death of Rufus O’Niall and the murky, difficult discovery/growth/development of her ?magical abilities (they’re definitely magical, but they’re also kinda maybe something else). Sage is in a weird place in the aftermath of Rufus’ death and his own experimentation with the Zen State, and is even more conflicted than Fi over the status of his relationship with the other two. And then there’s Ax, kinda caught between them and kinda leading them on, reluctant to use his political clout but desperate to change and improve things nonetheless.
This part of the epic is different from the others in being set in Mexico and America, which brings some large changes: for a start, the trio are popular but not idolised; feted but not mobbed. For another, the USA was not affected by the technological losses and massive shifts in attitude that impacted on the UK with Dissolution Summer and the internet viruses, so this feels a bit more familiar, a bit more ‘real life’. Which is actually a bit weird when you’re used to having the heroes in a recognisably other place. There are also more fractures between the central trio and their band, their merry band, of cohorts – understandable after a few years of high-stress, high-weird life.
Many things happen. There are tragedies, averted and not; there are adrenaline-laced adventures; there are still, reflective moments of contentment. Characters develop and some change a lot.
You have to read the first one, and then you’ll probably be hooked.
On the Edge of Infinity
Edge of Infinity is not especially concerned about Earth, but it cares deeply about humanity. It’s not blindly optimistic, but neither is it depressingly morbid. It cares about the little things and the big, it’s got romance and death, and lots and lots of adventure, set within our solar system but not on Earth. Also, space ships.
Pat Cadigan opens the anthology and immediately throws the reader into the position of deciding whether they can hack the displacement. “Nine decs into her second hitch, Fry hit a berg in the Main ring and broke her leg.” This, accompanied by the story’s title – “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” – is a very clear sign that Here Be Science Fiction; the sort of science fiction that requires the reader to do a bit of work, while trusting in the author that these things really will make sense. And, of course, they do; Cadigan is a marvellous writer who mixes the very weird with the quite familiar, and gently leads the reader to understanding where she’s going with her story. The unfamiliar language is used partly to warn the reader that this is not a situation they can just take for granted, but also because it’s entirely appropriate that language would change out there around the moons of Jupiter – perhaps especially, as in this case, when those living in an alien-to-humanity environment have themselves changed from the human standard, at least morphologically. Cadigan also makes some interesting points about how being “two-steppers” has impacted on humanity’s ways of thinking, especially with regard to binary decision making. At heart, this story is about choice: an individual’s freedom to make choices about their body and their livelihood and where they live. Just suggested in the background is also a broader discussion about political choice, too, with shades of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, about the place of Jupiter in the solar system. It’s a fitting opening to the anthology, flagging as it does many of the issues that resonate across the set.
Elizabeth Bear’s”The Deeps of the Sky,” which comes next, is the only story that focusses on aliens. Here again though the focus is on choice; Stormchases and his skiff have been out mining a storm for trace elements such as iron when a curious object appears in the sky, and he has to decide what to do about it. The plot is thus quite straightforward, but it’s the world building that makes this story an interesting one. As mentioned, it focusses on an alien society – probably living in Jupiter – and aside from the alien biology, the aspect Bear gives most attention is that of reproduction. Who gets to reproduce and with whom, and at what cost (…literally) is absorbing Stormchases, and therefore the narrative. And it is indeed different enough to cast a rather fascinating light on humanity’s own tendencies in those realms.
Bringing the anthology back closer to home (… again, literally) is James SA Corey’s “Drive”, a story that unfolds along two different temporal tracks: in one, Solomon has just taken off from Mars in his souped-up space craft; the other follows Solomon from his first encounter with Caitlin and their subsequent relationship. Like Cadigan, Corey envisages a solar system that is as uneasy with differentials in political power as it is with access to, and production of, resources. This provides much more of the narrative tension for Corey than it did for Cadigan; Earth’s attitude to Mars has an immediate impact on Solomon and his life. I’m excited to see stories like this one, despite its melancholy tone, because it puts the idea of colonising Mars squarely back into the realm of the possible, at least from an SF perspective. There’s no suggestion that it will be easy – quite the contrary – but at least humanity is there, reaching beyond our own troposphere. Somehow the idea of being out on Europa or Titan isn’t quite the same, even though the colonisation of Mars is generally a prerequisite of that further expansion.
Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey deliver “The Road to NPS,” similar to “Drive” in that it focusses on the issue of transportation – bringing to mind Samuel Delaney’s Nova, and the suggestion that once a civilisation expand beyond the solar system, transportation becomes the most important issue. For Rahiti, this presents a challenge he cannot leave alone – despite the threat, and very real danger, inherent in doing so. Rahiti is one of few antagonists of this anthology that I did not particularly connect to. I think this is partly because his motivation seemed to be entirely commercial – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it simply did not work for me. And he just didn’t seem like that nice a guy, overall.
The first AIs turn up in John Barnes’ “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh,” where, intriguingly, AIs are therapists. For humans. Which is about the most unlikely role I’ve ever read them in. This is one of the most complex stories of the anthology, narratively speaking. The “I” is the AI, and the narrative follows multiple threads. First, and appearing sporadically throughout, is the narrator’s own musings on its own capabilities – specifically the difference in subjective time that it and its human interlocutors experience. It draws a comparison for one of the humans: that “the ratio of [its] cycles of information processing per second to theirs is about the same as theirs to an oak.” In response to which, very sensibly, the human (eventually) asks what an oak would think about… which doesn’t seem to be the point, but perhaps from the AI’s point it is. Anyway, the story is a fascinating glimpse into what that sort of processing power might do (brain the size of a planet, and so on). The rest of the narrative involves the AI musing on its interactions with two humans it has counselled. Laura and Tyward see the AI for different reasons – Laura because of Ty, Ty because of an ant (a mechanical one). Their relationship, shown through the AI’s interactions with them as individuals, is poignant and realistic, even though I think the conclusion is a bit of a stretch. Finally, I’d like to point out how hard it was to write this without referring to the AI as ‘he’. I think this was because its character came across so strongly, and as humanly flawed rather than a remote perfect artefact, that it seemed wrong for it to be genderless. As for ‘he’ – well, yes. Aren’t all robots male? (sigh)
Paul McAuley’s “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” wins for longest title. It, as a title, also covers the most important things that Mai Kumal learns about when she travels to Dione, one of Saturn’s moons, on the occasion of her father’s death there. Overall this is a less a narrative, really, than a rumination on what humanity might do Out There, so far away from the safe little blue ball. Colonisation; extreme adventure sports; secretive colonisation; and outrageous, lavish works of art. This is definitely one of the more overtly optimistic pieces of the anthology. While it’s a bit sad that Mai and her father were estranged, this is set against a glorious back drop of humanity’s potential, both in terms of relationships and Grand Achievements. And I think it’s a wonderful dream, for that.
Taking quite a different tack, one of the narratively most straightforward stories is “Safety Tests.” Here, Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes a very normal, albeit still dangerous and necessary aspect of humanity + machinery – the idea of needing a licence – and explores it. In space. Using spaceships. Around an inhabited space station. Over the course of a single day, Devlin must deal with six quite different applicants for public piloting licences. Things progress from there about as Devlin appears to expect every day to progress. That is, poorly. There’s not much extra world building built into this story, but it’s the sort of situation one can imagine fitting into most any space-faring story (imagine Ellen Ripley or Han Solo going for their licences. I dare you).
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw” is my favourite story of all, so thank you very much Gwyneth Jones. Set very briefly on Earth, the focus is on four Remote Presence devices, operated by humans on Earth but physically located on the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Thanks to a solar storm, the link to those devices is severed, but the software agents… well. They continue to exist, and to operate, if in rather different ways from what their designers and operators would recognise. These manifestations are wonderfully thought out – how such software, designed to be intelligent and run programmes, might react to apparently being abandoned by their makers, and how they might interact after that happens. (It does make me wonder somewhat about the poor old Mars landers and rovers….) Sophie, on Callisto, is the focus of the story: she is both an array collecting data of the Jovian system; and a memory, or a remnant, or an avatar of the Sophie back on Earth. Of the four devices, she is the only one who both accepts this reality and thinks that getting back in touch with Earth is actually important. So this is the only story that does not imagine humanity having literally spread out through the solar system – yet, anyway; it’s also the story that feels temporally closest to Now. Sophie is delightfully engaging, and her concerns entirely realistic (within the bounds of the story, naturally).
Following a theme of Hannu Rajaniemi work in Jonathan Strahan anthologies (… that would be two from two, so maybe not a theme yet; the other one was “The Server and the Dragon,” in Engineering Infinity), “Tyche and the Ants” is the most magical-seeming of these stories, while – as the reader suspects throughout and has confirmed by the ending – having a very solid science fictional basis to everything; it’s the perception that lends the magic, not the action. It also comes close to the Jones story as being my favourite. Tyche lives on the moon, dividing her time between the Base, where she’s meant to stay, with only the Brain for company; and the place through the Secret Door, where waits the Magician and various other creatures. Her seemingly happy life is, however, disturbed the day the ants come to the moon. On one level this can be read as a poignant almost-fairytale; it’s sweet, if combined with some rather sad moments because of Tyche’s confusion. However, Rajaniemi does that wonderful thing of suggesting an enormous background to the story, without ever overwhelming the immediate story – and I now really want a novel set in this universe. Please. Because there are all sorts of ideas about humanity that are suggested at but not fully developed.
The main narrative thread of most of these stories so far (the Barnes is perhaps the exception) has encompassed a relatively short timeframe. Not so Stephen Baxter’s “Obelisk.” Beginning with the arrival of Wei Binglin on Mars, as he pilots the Sunflower in after a very difficult voyage, the story follows the next several decades of Binglin’s life as he adapts to Mars, deals with the brash American Bill Kendrick, and both watches Mars develop and assists in that happening. Binglin is an interesting character through which to explore this; he feels a great deal of guilt concerning the Sunflower, and he’s unconvinced, early on, about living planetside. His growth as a character works overall, and I can absolutely agree with how Baxter imagines Mars bootstrapping itself. And the fact that he imagines it as a largely Chinese endeavour is certainly believable, although there’s not a whole lot of Chinese-specific culture to be seen. However, I was troubled by the way Baxter dealt with Xue Ling, Binglin’s adopted daughter. The role she plays seems largely superfluous; certainly the apparent pull she exerts on both Binglin and Kendrick is not required to get them to do what they do. Rather she sometimes seems like an excuse. Her actions at the conclusion of the story were especially problematic, seeming not to fit in at all and feeling instead like gratuitous sentimentality on Baxter’s part, or as if there needed to be some big dramatic Thing to impart some sense of occasion to the story. It was unneeded and I think actually undercut the rest of the story.
Alastair Reynolds’ “Vainglory” is another story that uses two temporal tracks. In the first, Loti Hung is confronted by Vanya Ingvar, and asked some uncomfortable questions about her interactions with a certain Skanda Abrud; while the second is essentially Loti remembering exactly that interaction. While many of the central characters throughout this anthology have been engineer or science-y types (although not all, Tyche in Rajaniemi’s story and Mai is McAuley’s especially), Loti is quite different: she’s an artist. Specifically, a rock artist – someone who carves rock on a massive scale – we’re talking asteroids here. And I love the very idea of a science fiction story that focusses on the possibilities for art in the future, in these far-out locations humanity may find itself in (McAuley does a similar thing). The story is about one of Loti’s commissions, and it not turning out to be quite what she thought; and Ingvar investigating just exactly went on with it. The interaction between the two women is understated and believable, as is that between Loti and Skanda. Again, this quite personal story is set against a much larger backdrop of solar system colonisation, the arrogance of wealth, and questions of justice.
While transportation may be one of the major issues of solar system colonisation, as shown in “Drive” and ” The Road to NPS,” solar system habitation is going to be greatly impacted by something that already affects large swathes of Earth: access to water. In “Water Rights,” by An Owomoyela, this issue is front and centre after an explosion interrupts the water supply for many of the near-Earth colonies. This is of immediate interest to Jordan Owole because, as the owner of an orbiting hydroponics outfit – which naturally has a large reservoir – she’s now become of great interest both to the authorities and to independent orbiting homesteaders. Which is an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least. While this sounds potentially depressing, Owomoyela pulls a beautiful turn at the end which nearly brought tears to my eyes, and makes it amongst the more obviously optimistic of the anthology.
The ultimate story in this set is from Bruce Sterling, and a weird one it is. “The Peak of Eternal Light” is set on Mercury – a Mercury with incredibly restrictive and quite bizarre gender restrictions, especially when it comes to marriage. There were moments when I, as a woman, found reading this story actively unpleasant; while Sterling may not (probably does not) accept the ideas presented here as worthy, and does indeed go on to critique them to some extent, it was still not an enjoyable experience. There are a number of instances where he veers very close to existing stereotypes that, in a futuristic setting – even with outre accoutrements intended to suggest perhaps that this is new and weird – were depressing to imagine continuing beyond the confines of Earth. Marriages are entirely arranged and intended to be endured, nothing more; couples spend time with one another in strictly regimented ways, and the women appear to live in the equivalent of a harem. The central couple, who refer to each other as Mr and Mrs Peretz, do begin to question some of the limitations placed on them; and I did enjoy the idea that the bicycle, which was indeed a revolutionary form of transportation in its time for women, would find a new lease on life on Mercury. This questioning, though, did not compensate for the overall image of life on that planet. I do not want Sterling’s vision of the future.
Overall, this is an awfully good anthology. And it’s very exciting indeed to read an anthology entirely dedicated to science fiction, and science fiction of what might be called the medium term future; not the immediate collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, nor the humans-spanning-the-galaxy stories (which I do adore, I’ll be honest). It’s an anthology that spans ideas, planets, concepts, personalities and the future of humanity. What’s not to like?
Castles Made of Sand
Jones begins this story just minutes after the conclusion to Bold as Love, such that I had to go back and read the last chapter of that book to make sense of this one. Which, to my mind, doesn’t happen very often; it made it feel like this was less a sequel, as such, and more a continuation of the same story. As it should be, I think.
*Spoilers here for Bold as Love*
I loved this novel. A lot. Maybe not quite as much as I loved the first one, because that was all bright and shiny and shocking and new… but it’s love nonetheless.
I still liked the characters. Fiorinda is a bit more grown up and less annoying baby-rock-princess; still vulnerable (if not as much as the boys think) and spiky with it; she’s not my favourite person to read but she is sympathetic. Mostly. Ax, now dictator of Britain in some sense (I found the politics a bit hard to follow, especially figuring out how the rocknroll counter-culture side fit in with the still-existant Westminster government), struggles believably with the difficulties of leadership and relationships. Sage… well, Sage was always going to be my favourite, but/and he gets darker here too. He struggles with love and with science-cum-magic, and with music, too.
The plot… well, it’s hard to go into it without being spoilery, which I would like to avoid. But there are metaphorical dragons that our heroes must confront: some political, especially in the form of neo-Celtic pagans who’ve read a bit too much about maybe-druids and their sacrifices; some personal, both in how to balance one relationship with another and how to balance any relationship with power and expectations. And then there’s the people who are actively trying to bring down this counter-culture, for their own political and personal reasons.
Look, it is wonderful. Not without flaws, and not without uncomfortable bits (those two not always the same); but it’s a fascinating view of the world and explores some provocative ideas for how to make the world a better place. Also, she brings the magical aspect just a little bit more into view…
For a spoilerific and eye-opening (for me) description of this novel, especially as it relates to Arthurian and medieval fantasy tropes, my hat goes off to the Wikipedia contributors for this novel. Well done indeed.
Galactic Suburbia #59
In which the boob window is explained. Don’t say we’re not educational! You can get us from iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.
Drink Tank loves us! Download their Hugo shortlist commentary here.
Mondy loves us too! He makes us go awww.
James Tiptree Jr finally in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and about time too.
Talking to Alistair Reynolds: he defends the idea that science fiction has a limited number of plots
Women in (Japanese) Comics: Cheryl Morgan reports; Anime News Network
Some kickstarter stuff:
Feminist Historical Anthology from Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Scalzi on Amanda Palmer and how she worked hard for 10 years to get her “overnight success”
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: We Wuz Pushed by Brit Mandelo
Alex: Castles Made of Sand, Gwyneth Jones; Captain America; The Avengers; Confusion of Princes, Garth Nix
Tansy: A Confusion of Princes, Garth Nix; The Avengers; Earth 2 & World’s Finest; Ishtar
Tansy’s Note: “I do not mourn the boob window” is a classic line that should be long remembered and oft repeated – but Cheryl Morgan said it first! I only steal from the best…
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