Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire Wins 2011 James Tiptree Award

Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston (book cover) - the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award winnerHairston’s Novel of a Turn-of-the-Century Hoodoo Woman Wows James Tiptree Award Jurists

Still playing catchup, this time with all of the awards news that took place this month, not the least of which was the announcement of the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which went to Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston. James Tiptree, Jr. – in case you didn’t know, let me enlighten you – was the nom de plume of science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. The award, per the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council, is “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.”

Sheldon, you see, felt she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman author at the time she was writing, so she invented a male persona which she maintained for much of her life. Among Tiptree’s peers, her identity – and gender – were a topic of considerable debate. Ironically, there were those who were positive that Tiptree was a man, because of the way she wrote.

To learn more about Alice Sheldon and her literary alter ego, James Tiptree, check out this biography.

According to the council’s website, apparently there was Redwood and Wildfire, and then there was everybody else. To wit:

Redwood and Wildfire was a favorite of the jurors from the moment they read it. They reported: “This vivid and emotionally satisfying novel encompasses the life of Redwood, a hoodoo woman, as she migrates from rural Georgia to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. While Redwood’s romance with Aidan Wildfire is central to the novel, female friendship is also a major theme, without deferring to the romance. Hairston incorporates romantic love into a constellation, rather than portraying it as a solo shining star. Her characters invoke a sky where it can shine; they live and love without losing themselves in cultural expectations, prejudices and stereotypes, all within a lovingly sketched historical frame.

“Intersections of race, class, and gender encompass these characters’ entire lives. They struggle with external and internal forces around questions of gender roles, love, identity, and sexuality. This challenge drives how they move through the world and how it sees them. The characters in Redwood and Wildfire deftly negotiate freedom and integrity in a society where it’s difficult to hold true to these things.”

Sounds interesting, to say the least. But to say “then there was everybody else” isn’t quite fair; to make the annual Tiptree Award honor list is no small feat; the other works in the running can hardly be described as also rans. Here’s the breakdown of the 2011 honor list, as cribbed from the Tiptree Award site:

  • Libba Bray, Beauty Queens (Scholastic Press 2011) — In this atypically comedic Tiptree candidate, a cast of iconic characters trapped on a hostile island (populated by the capitalist analog of Doctor No) illuminates the limited palette of roles for women and offers the hope of more rewarding and rounded lives.
  • L. Timmel Duchamp, “The Nones of Quintilus” (in her collection Never at Home, Aqueduct Press 2011) — This standout story addresses the relationships between mothers and daughters and how the world looks different when you become (or intend to become) pregnant.
  • Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Night Shade Books 2011) — Set on a marginally habitable world divided by a common religion with diverse interpretations, this engaging work explores a militaristic matriarchal society.
  • Gwyneth Jones, The Universe of Things (Aqueduct Press 2011) — Running through these gorgeous stories is a fierce awareness of how gender roles and other social power imbalances are always factors in how we think, how we approach one another, how we see the world. The author questions the status quo, and then questions the questioning, so what emerges is a mature, honest, thoughtful complexity.
  • Alice Sola Kim, “The Other Graces” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2010) — This elegantly written short story revisits the role of mirroring in self-actualization and casts that path in a new and skiffy light as its heroine, Grace, is mentored by her older alternate selves. It also depicts racial/cultural intersections with gender roles.
  • Sandra McDonald, “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” (Strange Horizons, 2010.10.04) — A surreal and subversive take on human-AI relations. An older female character exploring her sexuality is a rare thing in science fiction, and it is refreshing to see it handled here with such a deft hand.
  • Maureen F. McHugh, “After the Apocalypse” (in her collection After the Apocalypse, Small Beer Press 2011) — This title story of an impressive collection brings to the foreground gender expectations concerning the practice of motherhood in extreme situations and then completely and matter-of-factly upends them.
  • Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze (Big Mouth House 2011) — A clear-hearted, magically immersive time travel story that explores powerful ideas. Thrown back through time to an antebellum plantation, a thirteen-year-old comes to understand how women’s experience is shaped by cultural expectations as they interweave with social, economic, and racial truths.
  • Kim Westwood, The Courier’s New Bicycle (Harper Voyager Australia 2011) — This compelling novel depicts a variety of sexually transgressive characters and looks at themes of fertility and alternate family structures through a dystopic lens.

Kameron Hurley's God's War (book cover) - named to the 2011 James Tiptree Award honor's listAll of those sound interesting and worth reading as well, although there are two that stick out among them, in my humble opinion. The first of these is Hurley’s God’s War; religion almost always makes for an interesting topic in the right author’s hands, and a matriarchal yet militaristic culture sounds intriguing.  Religious war is also obviously a very topical theme, in this day and age.

As for McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots,” I’m inclined to read any short story that has the words sexy and robots in it – which probably reveals more about my psyche than you might be comfortable with – throw in cowboys and it’s a done deal.

Fortunately for me and everyone else who likes science fiction, speculative fiction and related genres, Strange Horizons – in it’s total awesomeness – keeps its previously published fiction archived online (props to the authors that allow them to do this, as well). Which means you can check out McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” at Strange Horizons right this instant.

Said it before, say it again: living in the future is a mixed bag, but generally, by and large, pretty cool.

P.S. I feel compelled to add this note, in these Internet times of shoot-from-the-hip emotional reactions and cries of reverse racism and sexism at every turn. For the cynical or misinformed among you, I’ll point out that there have been have been plenty of dudes that have won the Tiptree Award in the past.

Indeed, previous award jurists have been quite open minded; in 2009 the award was split between a novel and a manga title.

Get 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award winner Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston here.

Review: Redemption in Indigo

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is Not Your Parents’ Speculative Fiction

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoHaving recently caught up on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, as well as having gone back and reread Tolkien – damn near all of it; people with torn quadriceps tendons need comfort food – Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo was quite a refreshing bit of fantasy, if you can call it that. It was nominated for a 2011 World Fantasy Award, so I suppose we can. But the term speculative fiction fits Redemption in Indigo better, however, as there are elements of physics – albeit of a fantastical flavor – interwoven with Senegalese folklore and spirits called djombi – reflections of its author’s Carribean roots (she’s a native of Barbados) and the larger African diaspora, perhaps, as well as a professional life steeped in academia.

Redemption in Indigo is remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it is a splendidly well-written first novel. But it seems remarkable to me that here is a rather slim and succinct book – in comparison to today’s genre fiction with its stereotypical bejillion-page magnum opus XI of XX – that has no swords in it and really no visceral violence to speak of contained within its pages. There are no swooning damsels – in distress or feeling randy – although our main character is certainly in distress of a kind (but not the kind that can be fixed by white horses and shiny armor).

Really it’s remarkable that books like Redemption in Indigo get published at all in this day and age gritty fantasy. But it’s fortunate for us that we do. Cheers to Small Beer Press, the dead-tree counterpart to Weightless Books.

The beginning – even books about the spirit of Chance and its tool, Chaos, have a beginning – of Lord’s Redemption in Indigo finds the aforementioned Paama fleeing her ten-year marriage. Her husband, Ansige, you see, is a gourmand in the worst sense of the word – “not an epicure, but a gourmand,” as Lord’s narrator tells us. In short, he is an irredeemable glutton. Thus we find Paama, getting close to the wrong side of youth, her marriage a childless and loveless failure, having retreated to her family’s home in its ancestral village.

It may sound trite, if not down-right yawn inducing, but in Lord’s capable hands, it doesn’t read this way at all. In fact the book’s opening vignette is rather skillfully humorous. As we meet bumbling and hapless Ansige, he is undertaking a perilous journey to Paama’s village – perilous because he is limited in the amount of food he can take and prepare along the way to sustain his usual-yet-ridiculously voracious diet. And it is here, even before we meet Paama, that we meet our first djombi, and get a hint that this book might be more than it initially seems.

It is here, too, that we first meet our narrator, the story teller. If I have a bone to pick with Indigo in Blue, it would be with Lord’s use of the narrator. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s get back to Ansige and Paama.

Ultimately Ansige, a minor character, turns out to be not a humorous figure at all but a tragic one; he has only himself to blame for his circumstances. Paama, on the other hand, is fate’s plaything – or rather that of Patience. And plaything is really not the right word; let’s call her an instrument of Patience, as she uses Paama to achieve the redemption of the spirit of Chance, or at least offer him a path to rehabilitation.

While Paama is a central character in Redemption in Indigo and of critical importance to its plot, it is Chance that is the main character; Lord uses the folktale of Paama and Ansige to introduce what I suppose we can call the spiritual dilemma of the undying djombi. As Karen Lord explained in a recent interview with Carribean Beat arts magazine, there are no fantasy elements in the original story at all; she added these as she developed the story.

Chief among those is the character of Chance, who has become disillusioned with humanity and subsequently filled with ennui. As an immortal being imbued with the power of Chaos, this is – well, I’ll let Lord’s narrator tell it:

Remember what we mentioned to you before. This is a dangerous person. He enjoys lulling the prey into a feeling of safety before killing it. That instant of betrayal, that twist of perception when one realizes that one’s entire universe is founded on a lie – that is the moment that acts on his boredom as splendidly as champagne on a jaded palate.

This description comes near the beginning of the story, soon after Paama has been given the power of Chaos unknowingly, and Chance has come looking for it. It is when he finds her that the story at the heart of Redemption in Indigo begins. Let us skip to the end of the story: having been confronted by the most powerful being in his pantheon, Patience, Chance is, shall we say, offered another chance.

“What changed, she asked him.

He walked a few more pensive steps, and then answered. “Paama is an unusual woman.”

… “Not as unusal as you might think,” she said, replying at last to his comment about Paama. “There are many women like her, considered by some to be virtuous and lyal, considered by others as foolish and week. What about Paama changed you?”

“Nothing stopped her from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair. She was willing to learn, and when she felt the lesson was beyond her capacity, she was willing to simply obey.”

“Ah, so you saw her duty,” Patience said, sounding pleased.

“No, not at first. She saw her duty long before I noticed it. There are many things that I once knew but which I had forgotten, and one of them was that human duty is not very different ours.”

And, later in the conversation, when Patience has put her offer on the table:

Chance looked at her and considered long and hard. He had tried isolation, and it had been sterile and useless. He had tried to do as he pleased with humans, and instead of senseless vermin he had found Paama, remarkable in her own ordinary way, and very burdensome on his conscience. He found himself running out of choices.

So what choice does he make? You’ll have to read the novel to find out. But Chance’s potential redemption is not the only one on offer in Indigo; there is that of Paama as well. Chance takes her on a journey through space and time in an effort to show her that Chaos is not a power that is easily wielded, even with the best of intentions. As Lord describes it early in the novel:

Chaos was a far subtler force than most people realized. It would be so easy to sense if it threw off thunderbolts or sent barely sensed thrummings through the fabric of reality, but it was nothing more than the possible made probable. It did not break or bend any laws of nature or tip the balance of the universe. How would a mere human understand how to manipulate it? They would end up thinking they were merely lucky, or blessed.

What’s more, our jaded immortal tries to convince her that humanity is not even worth the trouble. But in the end, Paama may have illustrated for him otherwise.

As for Paama’s own redemption, again, you’ll just have to read the novel. And you really should.

Raucous Storyteller or Unnecessary Convention?

Now, about that bone of contention. Narrators that stick themselves into stories that are otherwise told from an omniscient third person point of view almost always bother me. If a story otherwise told in the third person needs a narrator as character, then there’s a problem with the story (or the author). I think it is a convention that rarely works, even for accomplished writers. Furthermore, I think it’s often done because of writers’ lack of faith in their own abilities; sometimes those fears are unfortunately real, at other times unfounded.

While I can’t speak to the inner workings of Karen Lord’s mind, I can certainly say there is certainly no lack of writerly talent in Redemption in Indigo, and certainly none that needs to be bolstered by a narrator as character. Initially I was a little put off by the presence of this narrator – yes, it’s a bias, I’ll admit, but one with reasonable foundations, I’d argue – but in Indigo the narrator’s presence works and works well for the most part, enriching both prose and story, rather than getting in the way.

I read Redemption in Indigo on my Kindle, and when I looked through most of the quotes I had made from the book, the majority of them in fact comprise clever asides by the narrator. To wit:

Alton’s Love Poems to Neila have been famous for years, as everyone knows, but if you want to sample them for yourself, or try a verse or two on your own beloved, I fear that you will have to buy the published works or attend one of the performances still running in theaters in many of the major cities. A minor writer such as I cannot afford the cost of reproducing the words of the poet dubbed Love’s Own Laureate.

And to be fair, Lord’s narrator mostly keeps out of the way, while still offering up those clever asides, like this early description of our aforementioned poet:

A terribly shy man, he was far too self-deprecating, an unhelpful trait in any person who aims to sell snatches of empty air shaped around vowels and consonants, or worse, bits of white paper irregularly stained with black ink.

Or this gem, again with regard to the hapless poet:

Women fell into that category of fantasies and dreams that worked well when unfulfilled but presented all kinds of problems when brought out into the real world of trial and failure.

And lastly:

Many women, by their beauty and sheer presence, have reduced intelligent men to babbling idiots or gaping mutes, but few have inspired to such heights of eloquence a man who can only be described as mediocre. There is the secret. Show a woman that she has the power to improve you a thousand times over, and she is yours for life.

That last one literally made me laugh out loud when I read it. Like all good humor that relies on hyperbole, there is a grain of truth in there.

But there are times when Lord’s narrator becomes needlessly intrusive, and this is annoying at best.

… but I am hearing some rumblings from my audience. You are distressed that I have spoiled the moving and romantic tale of how Love’s Laureate courted his beautiful wife? You complain that I have turned it into a cobbled pastiche of happenstance, expediency, and the capricious tricks of the djombi? I bleed for your injured sentiments, but to dress the tale in vestments of saga and chivalry was never my intent. A sober and careful reading of history will teach you that both lesser and greater persons have been treated more roughly by fate. Be content. If it was only a djombi’s vanity and aversion to human company that caused Alton to become a merchant prince for one night, if it was fear of discovery and capture that made that djombi flee, thus settling a lordly mantle on Alton for all time, how does that come to be my fault? I am only the one who tells the story.

It is particularly annoying because her prose stands on it own and easily; it doesn’t need this sort of thing and it consequently only serves to disrupt the story. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Karen Lord, author of Redemption in IndigoHaving said that, there admittedly may be a cultural nuance here that I’m missing or just otherwise don’t understand, being a native of an Ohio suburb. In the course of looking for some biographical information on the author, as well as some background on cultural beliefs with regard to djombis, I came across several reviews that praised Lord’s narrator as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling in African cultures and consequently the African Diaspora – namely the West Indies. The idea that our spirited narrator was a nod to cultural roots – either consciously or otherwise, never occurred to me, quite honestly. Furthermore, I have to admit that in that context, the feisty narrator as character makes more sense.

In any event, Redemption in Indigo is an excellent novel, at turns amusing and insightful. Let us hope that Karen Lord’s muse will inspire many more such works.

And now that I’ve read two of the six nominees for the 2011 World Fantasy Award in the novel category – Lauren Beukes’ amazing Zoo City – I’m curious to read the winner, Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death. It just occurred to me, incidentally, that all of these novels have an African connection. Zoo City is set in a South Africa of the near future, while Who Fears Death is set in a far-future Saharan Africa.

P.S. For an interesting review of Redemption in Indigo that delves into how Lord weaves physics into her narrative, check out review at Small Axe Salon.

P.P.S. This novel was the winner of a Mythopoeic Award, a Crawford Award and a Frank Collymore Award, in addition to being a World Fantasy Award finalist. It was also longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literatures and shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

P.P.P.S. Longlisted? Er?

Get Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo here.

Back in the Saddle: Thoughts on Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear

So I took a break from blogging – well, more of a hiatus, really, which you can read more about over at the Gecko’s Bark.

But I’m more or less back in the saddle, although I have less time for reading and writing now that I’m working again. Nevertheless, here I am.

While on my goofing-off hiatus, I still read often. I finished Connie Willis’ time travel and WW II two-part opus, Blackout and All Clear, read William Gibson’s entire catalog once again, from Burning Chrome on up to his most recent, Zero History – the third entry in the so-called Bigend trilogy. I also re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and re-visited a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s catalog. Somewhere along the line I also perused Earth: The Book (which, while amusing, is nowhere near as funny as its predecessor). More recently, I’ve re-immersed myself in Isaac Asmov’s various Foundation novels, and went back and read the sequels, which I had never read before, and am currently working my way through the prequels.

The works above for the most part represent the equivalent of literary comfort food. There are others of course – I often visit my old friend W. Somerset Maugham and his friends in The Razor’s Edge; these are just some of the works I happened to turn to when in need these past months. The Harry Potter books are mental Doritos: not the worst thing you could eat but not exactly healthy, but oh so tasty and enjoyable. Of course some might say the same of the science fiction I read, even the lofty ideas inherent in Clarke and Asimov – one person’s occasional tasty snack is another’s dietary staple.

To each his own.

Sounding Connie Willis’ All Clear

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutI think too many months have passed since I read All Clear for me to give it a proper review along with its companion novel, Blackout, and I’m not of a mind to go back and reread it just now. So I’ll just offer up some general impressions. First off, I confess I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Willis’ Blackout.

I think for people who haven’t read a lot of science fiction just the mere aspect of the time travel may be enough to entertain, but time travel isn’t exactly a fresh topic, and it’s hard to bring some originality to this well-worn sci-fi staple. Furthermore, beyond the central idea of a science fiction novel – the conceit that makes it science fiction as opposed to just fiction – the same things that make any sort of fiction good make a science fiction novel good (beyond the ideas and themes): plotting, characterization and so forth – the actual art of writing (I would argue it’s an art, not a craft; at least it should be).

In Blackout, Willis throws us right into the thick of things, with our characters from the mid 21-century England back in World War II-era. They are historians, you see, using time travel as one would naturally expect historians to do, should they ever have access to it. If, like me, you’ve immersed yourself in the nerdy world of science fiction, you are probably thinking (if you aren’t already familiar with Blackout/All Clear’s plot), “Yawn. Historians traveling in the past. Gee, that’s never been done before. Let me guess. They get stuck and/or are in danger of altering history. Been there, done that.”

And in a sense, you would be right. And one of the problems I had with Blackout is that in addition to these very standard sci-fi conventions, our characters are pretty generic. One hundred pages in, I couldn’t help but think frankly: “Wtf? How and why did this win a Nebula?”

However, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and for whatever reason, I’m loathe to stop reading a book I’ve started. It has to be really, really bad for me to give up on it. Funny, but I’ll bail on a movie or television show at the drop of a hat, but I’ll slog through terrible fiction. But I digress.

As it soon becomes clear by the middle of Blackout, the most important character – at least in this first novel – is Blitz-era London, the surrounding countryside, and their British inhabitants. It is this that is Blackout/All Clear’s saving grace, and makes it Nebula worthy: Willis paints an indelible portrait of what it was like to live through the Blitz and World War II in a way that perhaps no factual history book could.

I wonder now – as I did before – if Willis actually made a conscious effort to draw the characters of her future historians somewhat generically in order to draw the reader to the characters who dwell in the past – who can’t simply pop back to the comforts of 21st-century London when it suits them. By the middle of Blackout it is these folks that we come to care about more so than the future historians. Indeed, as one of her historians notes toward the end of All Clear: while History remembers the political leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin – and venerates those who fought and died, the common people – both those who lived through the war and those who didn’t – who simply “carried on” through the incredible adversity with the business of living life – are also worthy of veneration and remembrance.

To be sure, this is a sentimental cliché, and Willis is hardly the first author to express the idea – it’s perhaps an even bigger cliché than time travel. So it is to her credit that by the time we come to the end of All Clear, we care what happens both to our historians and her characters native to 1940s England, and she manages to write an entertaining and Hugo-nomination worthy effort that doesn’t get weighed down with maudlin sentimentality (there is a bit of this, to be sure, but not too much).

Again, hard core sci-fi fans – the ones who live to find continuity errors in extended works and can endlessly debate items of literary canon – may be tempted to poo-poo time travel as depicted in Blackout and All Clear, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. There is never a satisfactory explanation as to how time travel actually works here, and only somewhat vague notions as to why it suddenly stops working, at least in terms of being a two-way trip.

But again, the novels aren’t really about time travel, but about the lives of British citizens living through the Blitz – time travel is just a conceit to take the reader back there – readers, who, like our mid-21st century historians, may know the details of the war, the dates of the battles and perhaps even the horrific accounts of the survivors – but really can’t fathom what it was like to simply be alive at this time, to be an ordinary civilian living through the War, dealing with the rationing, and nightly air raids. To discover this is why her historians do travel back there, and why it’s worth it as readers to go along for the ride.

So if you’ve read Blackout or happen to be in the middle of reading it and are inclined to put it down, as I was, carry on and get to the second novel, All Clear; it’s worth it, in the end.

One big complaint I do have about the novels, however: they really should have been one work. Willis says in a forward that it became clear during the writing that the work simply had to become two works; I’m inclined, humble reader I may be, to respectfully disagree. I think some very skillful plotting and/or skillful editing could have produced one long but well-paced and entertaining novel. Blackout quite frankly doesn’t stand alone as a novel, and it seems to me that if a novel can’t stand alone, then it shouldn’t. But then judging by the trends today in popular fiction, I’m in the minority.

Random News on Books, Vol. II

All sorts of miscellaneous book news to catch up on while I’ve been slacking lo the past week and a half or so. I have a good reason for this slackness: I’ve caught the graduate school bug yet again – it seems to strike every three years or so, but this time it feels likely to be terminal. I’ve even got it narrowed down to specific MFA programs I will try and get into (and the backup MA programs if I don’t, which is a distinct possibility). So the next six months is going to be spent studying for the GRE (again) and writing and workshopping (no, not technically a verb) the piece(s) I will submit with my applications.

But that’s neither here nor there.

First off: yet more awards are in the offing. Must be that time of year, I suppose.

Nothing is Absolutely So

Theodore Sturgeon in 1972 (reportedly). Not sure who took it or holds the copyright; if anyone can supply that info, please do. The above headline – or text in between the title tags – is Sturgeon’s Law, as stated by the man himself. Of course most people, myself included, have come to think of Sturgeon’s Law as the old saw about 90 percent of science fiction being derivative crap. Reportedly his actual quote was this:

Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.

One wonders what he would think of this year’s crop of his eponymous award finalists (and that’s not meant as a comment on this year’s field one way or the other). In case you are wondering, the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas administers/curates/decides Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award; is  by its intent is to honor outstanding short stories or other short works of science fiction.

Sturgeon, of course, was one of – some might even say “the” – authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a contemporary of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and van Vogt. Not everyone includes Arthur C. Clarke in that list, but I most assuredly do. Anyway, without further ado:

  • Eleanor Arnason, “Mammoths of the Great Plains” – (chapbook)
  • Damien Broderick, “Under the Moons of Venus” – Subterranean (Spring)
  • Elizabeth Hand, “The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon” – Stories: All-New Tales
  • Geoffrey A. Landis, “The Sultan of the Clouds” – Asimov’s, September
  • Yoon Ha Lee, “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” – Lightspeed, September
  • Paul Park, “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” – Fantasy and Science Fiction, January / February
  • Robert Reed, “Dead Man’s Run” – Fantasy and Science Fiction, November / December
  • Alastair Reynolds, “Troika” – Godlike Machines
  • Steve Rasnic Tem, “A Letter from the Emperor” – Asimov’s, January
  • Lavie Tidhar, “The Night Train” – Strange Horizons, 14 June
  • Peter Watts, “The Things” – Clarkesworld, January

You know, I’ve never read Sturgeon’s seminal novel, More than Human. I’ve read plenty of his stories in anthologies over the years, but somehow I’ve never read this novel. I think I need to remedy that forthwith.

One other interesting tidbit about Sturgeon: he had a profound influence on Star Trek and the subsequent Star Trek universe. He wrote the screenplays for two of the more popular episodes of the original series. Including “Amok Time,” the one in which Spock has to get his groove on – or die. Among the enduring impact of Sturgeon on Star Trek, he gave us: the concept of pon farr, the aforementioned Vulcan ritual for getting it on, i.e., mating ritual; the concept of the Prime Directive, which has helped fashion all manner of plots across the entire spectrum of Star Trek series; and then there is the peculiar Vulcan greeting, including the hand salute and the phrase “live long, and prosper.”

The proper, polite response to this is, of course, “peace, and long life.” Yes, I am a nerd in general and trekkie in particular. And yes, I opt for the phrase that most of my brethren shun. Bones is doctor, dammit, and I am a trekkie, not a trekker. Reclaim the word for our own, I say.

But I digress.

Nod to a Golden Age with the John Campbell Award

While Sturgeon is a seminal author, John Campbell was a seminal editor of science fiction, so much so that if it weren’t for him, there might not have been a Golden Age of Science Fiction; it might never have emerged from its pulp roots and into the realm of literature. Of course there are a lot of stuffed shirts who think that it still hasn’t, but we, dear gentle reader, know better, of course.

Anyway the Golden Age certainly would have been somewhat less gilded had it not been for Campbell. Without him it might have remained the Stone Age of Science Fiction; the field might have managed to make it to the Bronze Age of Sci Fi at best. Really if we were to continue this metaphor to its conclusion a more apt name would be the Steel Age of Science Fiction as opposed to the Golden Age. I’m just sayin’ (and digressing).

The good folks at the University of Kansas and the Center for the Study of Science Fiction are also responsible for the eponymous Cambell Award. This is apparently the center’s nod to the science fiction novel.

  • Yarn, Jon Armstrong (Night Shade)
  • Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (Orbit)
  • Zero History, William Gibson, (Putnam)
  • C, Tom McCarthy (Knopf)
  • The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (Gollancz/Pyr)
  • New Model Army, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • The Quantum Thief , Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz/Tor)
  • Veteran, Gavin Smith (Gollancz)
  • The Waters Rising, Sheri S. Tepper (Eos)
  • Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Valtat (Melville House)
  • Anthill , E. O. Wilson (Norton)
  • Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis (Spectra)
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (Pantheon)

Notably, Nebula award winner Connie Willis is on here for her duology Blackout/All Clear. I just finished reading Blackout, and am reading All Clear. Also, I’m – somewhat – surprised that Gibson’s Zero History keeps showing up on all these award lists. Not that it isn’t deserving, because it is, but it’s not really science fiction. The so-called Bigend trilogy, of which Zero History is the third, is set in the current day, and none of the technology depicted in it, while advanced, all exists today, so technically it’s not science fiction, by the strictest definition of the term.

Of course if we take his entire oeuvre, we can call Gibson a science fiction author, so I suppose I’m splitting hairs.

Alison Bechdel Becomes a Fellow

An excerpt from Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home. Copright is hers, of course.I love comic artist Alison Bechdel, the author of the long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. If you aren’t familiar with DTWOF, as you might guess from the name it’s a so-called alternative comic strip; you would not have found it in your daily mainstream hometown paper. You might have found it in your hometown alt weekly, however. If you missed it the first time around there are several collections of DTWOF comics; I can highly recommend them. Dykes was probably one of my favorite comics of all time; it ranks right up there with Bloom County and its successors in my humble estimation.

Bechdel is also known for her graphic novel, the autobiographical memoir of her relationship with her father, Fun Home. Fun Home is a wonderful work, a truly moving piece. Some may debate whether the graphic novel is literature; to them I would suggest they read Fun Home and then tell me that it’s not.

Anway, Bechdel is going to be serving as a Mellon Fellow at the new Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago; she will be co-teaching a course on autobiographical comics.

Attention New York Times: Hüsker Dü Wasn’t Metal

Despite this assertion that Bob Mold made “metal music for the kind of people who don’t like metal” — the ironic  umlauts in the name must have fooled ’em — it’s cool that the New York Times reviewed Bob Mold’s autobiography See a Little Light, The Trail of Rage and Melody. Bear in mind I’m almost but not quite a nerd when it comes to metal and punk; I’m more of a geek in that respect, as opposed to a nerd (if you want to get fussy about the terms, and being such, I do).

I suppose some of his music might be classified by the ignorant as metal, but doubt any serious connoisseur/anyone who came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s would. But then labels are subjective. One person’s garage rock is another one’s proto-punk, for example. ]

Anyway, Bob Mold has published an autobiography. That’s news in and of itself. If you had asked me back in oh, 1989 or so, that someday I’d be reading a review of Bob Mould’s autobiography in the New York Times, I would have said something along the lines of “No way! GTFU!”

More Bad News

It has been a tough spring for science fiction and fantasy authors and artists, to say the least. Now we learn that British author John Glasby, a contemporary of the aforementioned Golden Era greats, died June 5; he was 82. A prolific author, he started out writing science fiction in the 1950s, but is perhaps better known for his later work in the fantasy and horror/supernatural genres. He continued to write almost up to the time of his death; his last work, a science fiction novel, Mystery of the Crater, came out just last year.

According to Locus many of his earlier works are soon to be republished here in the United States, and also has a few works yet to be published.

I also see on Locus that author L.A. Banks is in the hospital with late stage adrenal cancer. I’m familiar with her work – L.A. is short for Leslie Esdaile, presumably – from a few fantasy/paranormal short story anthologies; but she is quite prolific in several genres, including crime/suspense and romance. If you want to leave an encouraging note for Leslie, or even make a donation for her mounting medical expenses – no employer-supplied health insurance for authors – just follow that link.

As I was in the process of posting this and double checking a link, I saw a notice that author and editor Alan Ryan had died. I am more familiar with the many short story anthologies he put together and edited. But he also published a lot of short fiction in the horror genre as well. A more complete obituary for Alan Ryan can be found over at the Too Much Horror blog.

In Which I Rubbish Sexism

Attention V.S. Naipaul. Emily Brontë declares rubbish to you, sir. In light of author V.S. Naipaul’s decidedly sexist remarks about women writers, I’ve been thinking about the issue of gender and writing, particularly with regards to literary sexism.

I can say that I think his remarks are pretty much rubbish. I suppose sometimes it is arguable that on occasion an author’s gender can be deduced from their writing and nothing more, if not from their prose itself from the stereotypical or sexist portrayal of characters of the opposite sex. This goes both ways, of course.

As for no female author — ever! — being his equal, well, I find that hard to believe.

But I think more often than not, an author’s gender is irrelevant; a competent writer can create believable female and male characters and situations regardless of what’s between their legs and the ratio of testosterone to estrogen in their bloodstream. I’ve read plenty of female authors who can create believable male characters and can write just as well, if not better than, your average male authors. Consequently, there are just as many craptacular women authors as there are male authors.

Mating Rituals and Differences
Between the Male and Female of the Species

I suppose I’m kind of biased though, if it is indeed a bias and not the truth. But having spent six years behind a bar slinging drinks and observing both the male and the female of the species engaging in their drunken courtship rituals, I’m convinced that there is not that much difference between men and women and their motivations as we’ve been led to believe.

Oh sure, there are the obvious anatomical differences of biology — vive la différence! Furthermore, I think there is definitely some truth behind the vague generality that men have a biological impulse to spread their genes around as much as possible, whereas women — remember, we’re speaking in vague generalities here — are looking for someone that will make a strong, protective mate and father – again, it all comes down to biology.

But then we’ve divorced ourselves from biology many, many generations ago. While these things are factors, to one degree or another, they are far from the only factors. I would further argue that they are often not the primary factors in many people’s decisions as to who they couple with, or even choose to settle down with — we’re quite complex, homo sapiens.

But based purely on observation, I would have to further add that this belief that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” is complete and utter bollocks. This idea that men and women are so complex and their motivations so obtuse and dependent on their gender that it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for the other gender to decipher? Pure rubbish. The same complaints that women have about men that are voiced to their bartender are often the same complaints that men have about women. The courtship games and ploys that each gender resorts to are often quite similar to one another, when viewed from an impartial standpoint as a sober third-person observer, the bartender.

There’s not as much difference as we’ve been led to believe or like to think.

And trust me, children. Alcohol is a truth serum. You don’t do anything drunk that you don’t think about doing sober. Oh, your inhibitions might save you from doing it when you’re sober, but you won’t do anything you don’t want to do, deep down, when you’re drunk – unless you’re inebriated to the point of blacking out.

So, yeah. What Naipaul said? Rubbish. He may be a good author; he may be a great author — I’ve never read him, so I can’t say. But to claim that every female author is inferior, that they are made so automatically by reason of their gender?

Utter. Rubbish.

Emily Brontë says its rubbish. George Eliot says its rubbish. Caitlín R. Kiernan says its rubbish. James Tiptree, Jr. says its rubbish. Marge Piercy says its rubbish. Ursula K. Le Guin says its rubbish. Mary Shelley says its rubbish. Virginia Woolf says its rubbish. And I’m just thinking off the top of my head; the list could naturally go on and on and become quite long.

Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. SheldonSF Mistressworks: Celebrating the Women of Science Fiction

But then, sexism has always been present in publishing and literature, pretty much since Gutenberg – or his equivalent in China – invented movable type. The aforementioned Brontë and Wuthering Heights is a great example of literary sexism; for years, until critics and historians established its author’s identity beyond dispute, people argued that it had to be written by a man — of course it was originally published under the nom du plume Ellis Belle — because it was so well written.

As this is one of my favorite books ever, I find this particularly galling (not to mention the idea that it can be lumped in with the pablum that gets pumped out today under the subgenre guise of paranormal romance … no. No. No! NO!). I don’t feel this way out of any sense of political correctness (the narrow-mindedness of which I find rather abhorrent, actually), but simply because, like most prejudices born of ignorance, it’s just plain stupid. But then, it is easy to judge history and ignorance after the fact.

With that in mind, I’ll just add my voice to others in promoting the SF Mistressworks meme. This is a list of Twentieth Century women science fiction authors and corresponding works worth reading, as compiled by science fiction blogger, writer and reviewer Ian Sales. He did this in response to a list created by Orion Publishing Group of notable science fiction books it has published in the past through several imprints, covering books published from 1999 back through to the time of H.G. Wells. This SF Masterworks list is quite the sausage fest, so to speak; With the notable exception of Le Guin, all the authors are men.

I’m not much of a meme person – you know, filling things out and emailing them to other friends, posting them on Facebook, etc. But I do like the idea of this particular meme. You can see Sales’ original SF Mistressworks list at his blog; Worlds Without End has a nice duplication of SF Mistressworks list complete with covers, blurbs, and links to its Amazon store (I need to start my own affiliate store, come to think of it).

I will list some of the authors on the list that I have personally read and am happy to recommend however. You should also check out the SF Mistresworks blog for reviews – you could even submit one yourself, perhaps.

Mary Shelley
Virginia Woolf
Andre Norton
James Tiptree Jr
Ursula K Le Guin
Suzy McKee Charnas
Joanna Russ
Vonda N McIntyre
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Octavia Butler
Tanith Lee
Margaret Atwood
CJ Cherryh
Marge Piercy
Elizabeth Moon

This is not to say that the other women on the list aren’t worthy of reading, I just haven’t read them (yet). One I would add to the list is Rebecca Ore. She’s not terribly prolific, but the few novels of hers I’ve read I’ve absolutely loved. Time’s Child is probably the most original book with time travel as its central conceit since the concept of time travel was first thought up. The Becoming Alien series it pretty remarkable as well; she is one of the few authors that creates characters that come across as truly alien, as opposed to most authors aliens, who tend be nothing more than funny looking humans — you know, the typical Cranium-of-the-Week aliens they had on Star Trek, The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation.

Speaking of Star Trek, for any fellow nerds reading this – I almost said Trekkie, which I know is verboten for most, but then I would consider myself a Trekkie, actually, so I can use the term – Vonda McIntyre writes some of the best novels based on Star Trek TOS – that’s The Original Series to you non-nerds. She is one of the few authors that truly captures the original characters well.

Of course if you want to learn more about James Tiptree, Jr., just wander over here on Barking Book Reviews to start.

And if you’ve never read the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, what the hell?! Remedy this situation immediately. Post haste. And forget all that crap you’ve seen in horror films (but all due respect to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein).

V. S. Naipaul: Cranky Old Sexist?

Or Self Possessed, Accomplished Author?

Author V.S. Naipaul. Photo copyright David Levenson/GettyI admire people that just don’t care what other people think of them; they are in fact quite rare. Oh, lots of people claim to feel this way, but when you stop and break down it down, it falls apart under the scrutiny.

As a youth I used to think that I didn’t care what other people thought, that I was a true social misfit, etc. I broadcast this belief with lots metal in my face, spiky hair, mohawks, crazy clothes, etc. – until someone pointed out that I was still taking my queues from those around me. I felt compelled to declare that I was different. Wanting to be perceived a certain way — worrying about it – is akin to caring what people think, just as much as fashion-conscious people one claims to despise.

D’oh!

So I have a certain admiration for the fat, hairy, middle-aged guy down the street who mows his lawn without a shirt on. On the one hand, from an aesthetic standpoint: ewww, gross. No one wants to see that, least of all, me.  On the other hand, props for truly not giving a damn and letting it all hang out. Literally.

It’s probably true that at age 42 I care less in general about what a stranger would think of me than the average person. But I’m not to the point of the fat, hairy guy down the street. If I had to mow the lawn – I rent, so it’s not my problem – I’d still put a shirt on.

Of course there is a fine line between having the self-security not to care what others think of you and the vanity and hubris that enables you to do and say outlandish things. Hubris, of course, is all about what other people think of you.

With all that in mind, I can’t help but wonder what was author V.S. Naipaul’s motivation was when he declared that no woman writer was the equal of himself. To wit, in Britain’s The Guardian last week, the critically acclaimed author had this to say:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that women writers were “quite different.” He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world. And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Let’s set aside the question of whether or not he is the greatest living writer of English prose, or even if his sexist claims are valid and true (or rubbish). Rather, let’s look at his motivation. Is his vanity and hubris so great that he actually believes this? And does he genuinely not care what others think?

Or is it actually just clever marketing? The lets-say-something-ridiculously-controversial-because-there-is-no-such-thing-as-bad-press marketing ploy?

On the one hand, I can’t believe anyone with half a brain would actually believe this, no matter how good a writer they were. On the other, I can’t believe that guy down the street mows the lawn with his shirt off.

I’ve never read Naipaul, so I can’t say if his writing is all that. But now I’m mildly curious, because of these outrageous remarks about women authors. If it is a matter of vanity and hubris, I feel bad for him; one would hope at 68 that he would be secure enough in his own talent not to feel the need to make such outlandish claims, even if he believed them. But if he genuinely does believe this to be true and it’s not a matter of an old man’s vanity, well then, bully for him, I suppose.

But then it would seem that Naipaul has some deep-seated issues with women, as his authorized biography reveals, which would suggest these claims about women writers arise out of his own insecurities – often the root of hubris.

Oh Snap! Biz Markie started it all. In any event I’m inclined to agree with what critic Helen Brown told The Guardian:

He should heed the words of George Eliot – a female writer – whose works have had a far more profound impact on world culture than his.

Oh snap!

Burn.