2019 Hugo nominations have been announced. I’m so pleased to see at least one book I’ve read, and a fanzine I know well, nominated.
WorldCon 76 was almost literally in my backyard, someone helped me decide I HAD to go, and it’s the only time (so far) I’ve been able to vote for the Hugos.
One of my favorite authors Mary Robinette Kowal, and astronaut Kjell Lindberg hosted a “Koffee Klatch” to talk about their work, and answer questions. There were ten of us, and we were enthused about meeting them. We learned some pretty interesting stuff about writing and being in space, and carried out a good amount of signed swag. (Kjell even signed the inside of the Canadarm hatch door on my model shuttle.)
Since I don’t anticipate going to WorldCon 77 in Dublin, sad doesn’t begin to cover how I feel about not being able to vote for at least these two nominees.
There’s such good stuff which has been nominated, and good lord how do people read it all? I’m still working on last year’s packet!
Being a list making/keeping type of person, it’s tempting to download the list of all Hugo winners/nominees and see how many I can read, but that way lies madness. There are two many other books to read, my apartment would explode with that large an influx of books.
Speaking of which, Marlon James‘ Black Leopard, Red Wolf just arrived. Here’s a great long read from The New Yorker published just before the book was published.
Part of my assigned reading for LitCrit involves N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, Toni Morrison’sBeloved, and James’ book. To bring it back to the Hugos, Jemisin won three years in a row for Broken Earth, and with as much hype as there is about Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I won’t be surprised to see it nominated for a Hugo next year.
For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year. 2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief. Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.
One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished. I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.
Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy. Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned. Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.
When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine. This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?” His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”
And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018 happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved. Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good. Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.
It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills. My review focuses on the use of Scripture as justification.
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all. Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected. Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic. Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio. His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works. My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.
Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance Author: Michael Moorcock Published: 2004 Publisher: Monkeybrain Books Publisher’s Blurb: … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.
“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.” (p14)
Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read. Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.
And yes, Moorcock is frustrating. He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments. His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right. And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?
“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” (p 18)
In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about. Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.” Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.
This too, resonated with me. “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.
“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story. Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes. The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.
Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves. Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.
Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.
Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance. Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.” While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.
Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external. The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.
An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft. “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated …” (p. 55) (emphasis mine)
And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.” (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.
Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters. Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man. (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)
Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy. Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).
Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot. Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind. So too should epic fantasy characters.
It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116) Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.
Chapter 5 “Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books. The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.
Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120)tickles me no end. And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.
Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive. Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)
This made me ponder how I read. I read books, in search of good stories, not genre. Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.
I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.
Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies. That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.
The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is. But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.
Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of. It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing. Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure. Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.
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
I left fandom years ago because I wasn’t really enjoying myself. Old friends have died or moved on and I wandered off to figure out me. Early cons are where I realized I was “too freaky for the mundanes, and too mundane for the freaks.”
While WorldCon76 was my second worldcon, it was my best con ever! Big backpack stuffed with con survival gear (food, books, journals, pens, etc.), bowler hat squarely on my head, I wandered the convention center with a big smile on my face. Thank you Richard for insisting I go.
My recaps are an effort to wrangle my notes into one accessible place. Notes are incomplete because there’s no way I could keep up with people like @MGallowglas or Shayma Alshareef and Yasser Bahjatt. Mistakes are mine, not theirs.
Panel: Geeks Guide to Literary Theory – M Todd Gallowglas – @MGallowglas