In a silly mood recently, I thought there was a joke to be made about how in my more confident days, this was a picture of me taking dictation from my muse. I mean, look at that gorgeous skin …
The painting was used by someone on Twitter and as is my inclination, I went off on a search.
The introduction of Artemisia Gentileschi began with this article which points out if one were to invest in art, one could do worse than investing in her paintings
“She has a position both as a feminist icon, who grappled with the not always beneficial attentions of the opposite sex, but also as an exponent of a robust style of figurative painting.” (Colin Gleadell, The Telegraph, 4 Dec. 18)
“Wait! Who is that?” I wondered and the search widened. Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of Orazio, himself a painter of some repute. She became known for paintings of strong women taking charge. Her best known painting is probably Judith Slaying Holofernes (below), in response to her own rape by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. Tassi was hired by Artemisia’s father because women weren’t allowed to attend the art academy. (Tassi was eventually convicted of rape.)
Wow. As I read further, I learned about the Power of Women, an artistic trope depicting “an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy.” (Wikipedia, op cit)
This is the truncated version of how I finally got to know Artemisia Gentileschi and her work. There’s much to sort through and think about while placing her in the realm of feminist icon.
And, the name of the painting finally revealed itself at Robilant + Voena, in an exhibition of works inspired by La Artemisia.
Title: Binti, Binti: Home & Binti: Night Masquerade
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2015, 2017 & 2017
ISBN-13: 9780765385253, 9780765393111, & 9780765393135
Publisher’s Blurb: Binti is a story about a brilliant young woman, and the responsibilities she bears: to her society, her family, and to herself. While travelling through space for the first time in her life, Binti must survive and adapt to an encounter with fascinating and deadly aliens.
“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otijize is red land.” (p. 13)
There’s no way anyone could prepare themselves for the times their self-identity bumps up against bigotry. This is one of the things I admire most about Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy. In choosing the incidents which would populate Binti’s life, Okorafor chose to include the prejudices her traveler would encounter, both from outside and within herself.
It’s hard to write about this without cliches. Pain of all types makes us stronger, we hate when people say that to us, but there it is. The most incredible part of reading these books was the honesty with which Okorafor writes; of war, prejudice, outright hatred, ignorance, and fear. And that she managed to wrap it all up in 462 pages, while flinging us through the stars and back again is amazing to me.
I think what I want to say is no one is safe from prejudice or bigotry. It’s a part of the very fabric of being sentient (human). We are all different, we are all insecure about something and we all compare ourselves to others hoping to make ourselves feel better. This comparing and contrasting can make us even harder on ourselves for not having the life we imagine someone else has.
Binti is brilliant, and as self-aware as she can be at the age of 16. It’s frequently difficult to remember she is still a teenager, and lacks the maturity that only experience can proffer.
Along the way, she literally becomes a part of unlikely families. Some, like the Meduse, are another species altogether. Others, like the Desert People, turn out to have been family all along. They all play a part in her evolution, taking her on a journey which is more than just a university education. What she is taught along the way is she must be careful of her own prejudices, making sure they don’t keep her blind to the work she is destined for.
The story is almost magical, and nearly breathless, in some places. Nnedi Okorafor’s tight writing tells a big story which deals with complex issues. The character Binti studies the lessons we should all study. Learn to accept yourself, and others, as they are. Don’t force your set of rules onto someone else. Hesitate before you say or do something you’ll regret.
Most importantly, I think, is the lesson to face our fears and look deeply into the hard truths we don’t want to know. That way lies the harmony we all struggle to find.
This slender trilogy is a big story about an adolescent Himba girl who learns to stay grounded, fly among the rings of Saturn, fall in love, and forgive herself for the imagined pain she’s caused herself. Okorafor’s writing is splendid, and I’m looking forward to exploring her other books.
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.
“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.” (p. 144)
“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)
This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government. The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.
When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum. The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament. But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.
All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences. Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough. Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.
The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.
The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts. The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her. This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.
And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well. Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.
And what of the misattributions? If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical. One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.
And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.” Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament. It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.
The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working. A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.
The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s. Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.
Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste. While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.
There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.” Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam. Women are not allowed such a diversion. Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation. Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.
All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies. It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife. It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.
The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions. Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers. Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet. Let the mob sort it out.
Rigidity leads to rebellion. Gilead is no different. A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety. The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh. “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.
For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun. Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history. That should terrify us all.
Title: God’s War
Series: 1st of 3
Author: Kameron Hurley
Publisher: Nightshade Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war — but at what price?
God’s War is the first of three books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.
I long for the day when we don’t have to think about feminist or masculine tropes, that we can write and read good stories without the heavy load of “male gaze” or “women don’t/shouldn’t do that” (same goes for men). It seems unfair to have to point out that Kameron Hurley’s work is uniquely feminist, and that her reasons for being so amount to “enough is enough, women can too do that.”
It’s unfair because Hurley is a damned fine storyteller. She has said repeatedly she’s written characters like Nyx based on Conan the Barbarian and Mad Max. Her bookThe Geek Feminist Revolutionhas two essays which specifically address this. Hurley makes it clear that if a male protagonist can do it, so can a female protagonist.
And that’s how we got Nyx, the badass who can take on Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Nyx is a nasty piece of work, and she is everything a hero/antihero needs to be.
God does not answer the phone
If the goal of feminism is for women to be treated equally to men, then Kameron Hurley’s God’s War succeeds in many ways. In her world, women are in charge and visible at every level of society. As she tells the story, “bēl damê, [is] an old Assyrian/Babylonian term for a blood avenger … ‘owner of the blood’ and ‘collector of blood debt.’” She wanted to write about a bel dame in disgrace. Nyx hobbles through the world taking any contract that will pay the days’ bills.
If feminism is about being seen and heard, then nearly all the women who populate Nyx’s world have succeeded. But sexism still exists. Never mind the details, the women are the sexists in this world. They leer and catcall just like any ill-mannered male in other books.
What’s striking to me is while Hurley has turned the anti-hero trope on its head by making women the lead characters in a dismal, apocalyptic world, she does not give women a pass on bad behavior. These women are so far from prim and proper, and polite, it’s laughable. Yet Hurley is making a point, that women can hold the plot of such a story just as well as men. Women are in every corner of society, just trying to get along to the next day.
The main thrust of the plot is an alien gene pirate has landed and threatens any potential of “balance” in this world. It’s presumed her ancestors had a part in starting this war centuries ago for reasons no one remembers anymore. The pirate becomes a wanted woman and the queen calls on Nyx to deliver her head.
That’s what bounty hunters do, they behead and deliver it to the contract holder. Or they kill outright. But they only get paid if they follow the contract’s instructions to the letter.
So think about this, Nyx is a woman mercenary who’s good at tracking and killing people. She’s been kicked out of the guild of government paid assassins because even they couldn’t handle her. She’s given up her ability to transport zygotes in her uterus because she sold it for money to get to the next stop, wherever that might be. This is who she is, what she has become. And she has no illusions about her place in life. And the queen calls on her, not the bel dame, to find and behead an alien.
Politics being what they are, Nyx discovers hidden agendas and wanders into fights, literal and figurative, which call everything she knows about who she is and what she’s fighting for into question. In the end, people die or are banished. Nyx argues with the Queen over ideology and realizes, just as the rest of us do, there are no happy endings. We just keep going on.
Every one of the characters in God’s War are broken. There’s no repairing them, and most know it. Hurley does not spare us from the atrocities of warfare, sexism, and politics. She builds a world in which a paid assassin, part of a guild, would break under the burdens one must bear just to get through.
And although it was slow to get started, and it is bleak and horrifying, I found God’s War to be a good story. Which is what all readers are looking for, isn’t it? And thank you Kameron Hurley for making this the feminist apocalyptic story it is. Women can be just as badass as men, if not more so, and deserve the chance to tell their stories.
Title: The Queen of Crows
Author: Myke Cole
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Publisher’s Blurb: In this epic fantasy sequel, Heloise stands tall against overwhelming odds—crippling injuries, religious tyrants—and continues her journey from obscurity to greatness with the help of alchemically-empowered armor and an unbreakable spirit. No longer just a shell-shocked girl, she is now a figure of revolution whose cause grows ever stronger. But the time for hiding underground is over. Heloise must face the tyrannical Order and win freedom for her people.
I’m just a woman who has been hard done, who has lost those who she loved. I am angry, and I am tired, and I am through making deals. (p. 245)
Let’s first acknowledge author Myke Cole’s feminism. Heloise is a hero for all times, but it also important to note that Heloise is a young woman leading the battle against the totalitarian religious government. In The Armored Saint, she literally had greatness thrust upon her. In The Queen of Crows she begins to accept the leadership role she finds herself in and works to be the leader her people need her to be.
Cole does not make a big deal out of making his protagonist a young woman, and I’d like to say neither should his readers. But it is a big deal because so much genre writing is overwhelming men fighting to save the day. Cole shows us a woman who is up to the task of leadership and fighting against the dangers of the oppressive regime called the Order.
Brother Tone, on the other hand, not only wants to put the village in its place as devoted to the Order, he wants to put Heloise in her place as woman. At every turn, he sneers and belittles her, and those who she has sworn to protect.
Heloise is imperfect. Stubborn, insecure, paranoid, with a narrow world view. At one point, she has gone through so much she refuses to leave her alchemy powered suit of armor for any reason. The armor has become talisman, protecting her emotionally from all the horrors she’s survived in service to both her village and the bands of Kipti they encounter.
The Kipti are led by the wisdom of women who have a few magical tricks in their toolbox to be used against the Order. And while the Kipti are nomadic, and suspicious of people who want to settle into a village, they recognize the mutual enemy and combine resources.
Reluctantly recognizing Heloise as leader, the two bands of Kipti come to realize that she in her armor, who killed a devil in The Armored Saint, is the best hope for a victory against the Order.
Victory doesn’t come in The Queen of Crows. It is an agonizing, brutal story which deals both with the realities of war and of going against a regime whose demand of loyalty to the Emperor grates against everything Heloise has come to question.
It is also a story of hope against tyranny as word spreads across the land that a Palantine, an Armored Saint has gone to war against the Order. That a young woman is delivering all from the hell that is totalitarianism.
“You are Heloise the Armored Saint, who turns back the tide, who delivers the wretched from misfortune, who will save us all.” (p. 250)
Heloise is no Joan d’Arc who believed in her God given leadership to support Charles VII, reclaiming France from England. Heloise doubts herself, and her role in her war. She is a reluctant leader, herself questioning her wisdom, her ability, even her gender to lead. But as people gather to follow her, she knows she must and follows her instincts.
Heloise has her detractors. They don’t much question a female leader as much as they question how this young, inexperienced villager could possibly lead them against the Order. Further, these few wonder why they should be following her at all since it was at her hands the Order is now intent on putting down the unrest.
Both The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows can be read through a feminist lens celebrating the young woman who questions the status quo and leads her followers against tyranny. They can also be enjoyed as ripping good tales, which happen to have a leader who is a woman.
I am of the opinion that Myke Cole, and Heloise, should be recognized for deliberately making choices which demand more of genre, both readers and writers.
Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad Author: Jennifer Egan
Twitter: @Egangoonsquad Published: 2011 ISBN 13: 9780307477477 Publisher: Anchor Publisher’s Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read. A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe. Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar. Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.” But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.
The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting. The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes. Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich. No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone. Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The big theme is Time. It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book. “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage. Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well. It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.
Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience. There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident. I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.
Music, and the music business is another major theme. Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”
Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos. A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now. A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.
Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes. Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama. But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.
The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City
Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days. Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.
Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie. In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women. These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it. Nor should it ever be thought normal.
Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.” His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault. Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”
The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating. Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work. (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)
Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work. Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.
Title:The Geek Feminist Revolution Author: Kameron Hurley Published: 2016 ISBN-13: 9780765386243 Publisher: Tor Twitter: @KameronHurley Publisher’s Blurb: Outspoken and provocative, double Hugo Award-winning essayist Kameron Hurley writes with passion and conviction on feminism, geek culture, the rise of women in science fiction and fantasy, and the diversification of publishing.
The first panel I attended at WorldCon 2018 was M. Todd Gallowglas’ Lit Crit for Geeks. I was enthralled. One of the writers he mentioned was you, as doing some great work in feminism. I dutifully wrote your name down in my journal.
Since then, I’ve lost my job and spend my days reading and writing and thinking. I hash things out a lot in my brain, the one that never shuts up. And then I write stuff for my mentor to read.
One evening after dinner, a friend took me book shopping. Kepler’s is this fabulous indie bookstore whose customers banded together to keep it from closing its doors. There were two names on my list that I knew would go home with me that night, yours and N. K. Jemisin. And since I didn’t know where to start with you, I picked up The Geek Feminist Revolution.
Always a voracious reader, I am inhaling them now. This is my job while I figure out about the day job, I read and write about what I’m reading. Not only does it give me direction for a life which could easily be adrift and and feeding my food addiction, it makes me stronger in so many ways.
Never really shy about self-reflection, I now have the time and space to really look at some of the things coming up right now. And sometimes, it is some scary, sad shit.
“But because my body was coded female, I was never ever assumed to have the kind of knowledge or credibility that a man would have.” (p. 37)
I read the first 38 pages of your book and sobbed. I felt so completely bereft that I had to set it aside for a week or so. Because those pages were my story. The story of being a woman and the rampant sexism which had become so normalized I didn’t see it anymore. I read your story and began to understand that not only was I not alone in this mess, but that there were ways I could raise my voice.
But first I had to reconcile some stuff within myself. Because the stuff that was coming up was more than just re-evaluating my entire life in terms of how I’d been treated because I was female, it was looking at some pretty horrifying events and having the light bulb go off. Which led to, “Well shit, no wonder. I never had a chance.”
And without going into too much detail here, there were new realizations about my parents. Then there was looking at my most recent job and realizing that it had been a put-up job from the day I walked in as a temp until the day I walked out as a no longer employed here type. Things started slamming into place. And it was scary.
I’ve been following you on Twitter and reposting some of your articles on Facebook, because you speak to me in a way that no woman ever has before. And that’s valuable to me. I’ve learned a lot from you.
Taking a deep breath, I picked The Geek Feminist Revolution up again, and only put it down when other, more pressing matters demanded my attention. It made me wish I knew you well enough to take you to dinner and ask you to just tell me stories about your life. To talk about process, and yeah it sucks to have to have a day job for the insurance, and holy shit I hadn’t realized how bad the sexism is.
There are hard truths in your book.
At my last job there was a week when I had to actually go to my manager and explain to him what being a part of the team and having a voice meant. The group admin wouldn’t put me on the meeting agenda because I didn’t have Director in my title. She would only do it if my male manager said it was okay. I was pissed. So pissed I was vibrating. And that I had to explain it several times in very small words just made it worse.
Reading your book gives me such hope. For the first time in my life, at a time when people are looking forward to retirement, I realize I still have time to make change in my world. I have time to rearrange everything I thought I knew about myself and create a different life for myself. The life I want is one which tempers my very emotional responses and allows me to reasonably explain to someone why they’re not allowed to take my voice away.
I get to figure this out, and you have motivated me to keep doing that. To read, and write, for the sheer joy of it. To understand I need a day job for the health insurance benefits, and to pay my bills. And that all of it’s okay and necessary to survive. My writing can be my night job. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice anymore.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell my middle-school self to keep writing, because writing would keep her happy and sane. I would insist she not give it up and not worry about what it looked like or sounded like. I would tell her no matter what, do not quit writing, even if it’s just a sentence about how particularly shitty the bullies were that day. “Keep writing, always,” I would whisper in her ear.
I had so much to heal from, so much to learn, it’s hard to regret it took me this long to realize what I had been keeping from myself. Reading books like yours help so much, and I don’t know how to tell you what an impact you’ve had.
I close this with an open invitation, if our paths cross at any time, dinner is my treat. It’s the least I can do, aside from buying your other books and joining your Patreon once I’m gainfully employed again.
Publisher’s Blurb: (Calculating Stars): … with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.
(Fated Sky): Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars.
I am not kidding even a little when I say these books jumped to the top of my list of favorites. And getting to meet Mary Robinette Kowal was a highlight of my WorldCon experience. She really is kind, patient and generous.
The Lady Astronaut series is entertaining, even while discussing important topics like sexism, racism and, climate change, just to name a few.
And her publisher Tor has announced there will be two more books in the series.
The Calculating Stars
This book literally starts off with a bang. A cataclysmic event which takes out most of the east coast of the US, and precipitates a space race to move the world’s population to another planet.
It’s an alternate history of the US space program set in the late 1950s and grapples with the big question we find ourselves facing now, “How do we save ourselves?”
Elma is a mathematician who ferried planes around during World War II. She is smart, capable and, stubborn. Her only visible flaw is that she’s a woman in that time period. She has to fight so much just to have her contributions to the space program noticed. She’s fine out of the public eye as a computer. But that’s not what she wants for herself, or her friends who also fly.
Part of Elma’s story is her social anxiety. In school she was shamed for being smart. One of her coping mechanisms is to count prime numbers. But doing that doesn’t keep her from throwing up before she makes public appearances. So she does what any sensible person would do, she goes to the doctor for help.
Miltown prescription in hand, Elma is better able to handle her anxiety. It has to be kept a secret though, because open knowledge would cause those the men in charge to view her as an hysterical female and drop her from the program.
It would have been just as easy to not write this about Elma. It’s already nearly impossible for her to make any headway on equality in the space program. Giving her protagonist social anxiety, Kowal shows just how determined Elma is to make equality a realty.
The things the women have to do to prove their worth are demeaning. Something most women would identify with, no matter their generation or profession. And all the women striving to be in the space program paste their best smiles on and go through the paces. They know there’s a lot on the line for so many reasons.
By the end of The Calculating Stars Elma has earned her place in the program setting up the Moon as a way station to Mars.
The Fated Sky
There’s a colony on the moon now, and Elma rotates on and off, flying shuttles to Earth and helping prepare for the next big step, colonizing Mars.
It isn’t until the director realizes that the navigational computer isn’t reliable and too hard to program that a woman is considered for the crew. Elma’s highly visible profile as the “Lady Astronaut” makes her the choice to go at the expense of someone else’s place. And living in close quarters makes it harder on everyone involved.
Seven people on a space ship to Mars. There’s a lot of tension. Affairs are revealed, old wounds are picked at, and Elma does her best to roll with it. We finally see what’s been festering between Stetson Parker and Elma York in both books.
We also get to see the astronauts try to work through the personal issues which could very well be the downfall of the mission to Mars. The best thing about Elma is she’s always trying to understand, and learn, when her privileged white background gets in the way.
By the end of the book, landing on Mars has become not routine, but is well on its way.
The must do event was the KaffeeKlatsche with @Mary Robinette Kowal and @astroKjell (Kjell Lindgren) . MRK has written two of my favorite books ever, her Lady Astronaut series. (Reviews coming much later when I get caught up with stuff.)
Getting to sit at a table and talk to the woman who wrote a fantastic book whose protagonist is strong, smart and an advocate for women in the space program knocked my socks off. Oh, and a real live astronaut. What a great way to start the day.
Mary and Kjell are some of the best people I’ve ever met. They were kind and generous with their time, and allowed the 10 of us at their table to ask questions. I’m grateful to for the opportunity to meet and engage with them.
1001 Nights is the first anthology ever.
“Fiction gives voice to the voiceless.”
Science fiction writing is booming in the Middle East now. Yasser Bahjatt started a publishing house so that these voices can be heard. One of his goals is to work with translators so that English readers get to hear the voices too. It’s a really exciting development for world science fiction/fantasy