The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin ~ read
I’m not sure how I wound up in this place. This place of intellectual challenge and delight while reading and writing differently than before. In two short months, I have seen remarkable change in the way I approach them, the keepers of my sanity. Somehow, I’ve become richer, more sure of myself, more ready to do the hard work required to become better at reading, and writing.
A lifetime of reading voraciously, anything within reach. Some above my grade level, others extremely inappropriate for a reader of any age, all of it like a drug no one else around understood. They watched me read, they fed my habit, and considered themselves readers too. But somehow my attachment to books and the spells they wove were different for me.
I read all the time, often getting in trouble in class for not paying enough attention. I’m bad at math but I still think I got the better part of the deal. At temp jobs, “You mean you’d rather read than work?” Uh, yeah.
But some books felt like I was just skating on the surface. I could see figures beneath the ice, enticing me to join them, but I couldn’t reach them. I didn’t know how.
But I kept reading. From “should read,” “best of,” “canon,” lists. Trying to organize what felt like a very disorganized approach to reading. I made lists of my own, going through bibliographies carefully. I was looking for clues to a puzzle I didn’t understand.
The lists caused minor panic attacks. The boxes on my shelves leered at me. And still I brought them into my living space. How was I ever going to read them all? Sometimes I would admonish myself to read faster, harder, eschew everything unnecessary to daily life for the sake of reading.
I joined a social media site for readers, found a group and settled in for a couple of years. There I developed rules of engagement for my reading. Only these topics, only series I had already started, only authors whose work I had begun reading. But someone would warble a book or, in the case of egregious generosity, send the first in a series to my Kindle app. The nerve!
Then what was supposed to be a cozy little community blew up in my face over my unwillingness to move a book from a challenge which suited my needs to another one which suited someone else. It got ugly, names were called, fat shaming was invoked and I sat at my computer sobbing. All of this over a book? I made my stand, “My reading is for my pleasure, not yours.”
At the end of the calendar year I left for good. And went back to reading without the interesting challenges, and the mildly entertaining cliquish conversations. I was on my own again, still searching for people to talk books with.
It was in this cozy little community that I started to write reviews. Everyone did it. So I joined in. And because the internet and blogging had always fascinated me, I started a blog, several times. 7Stillwell is probably the sixth or seventh iteration.
All through my BA studies, I read interesting things. Any time I had the chance to study something cross-disciplinary between literature and history I took it. Women in Asia, Medieval literature, anything for which I could get credit in a history degree I took.
My way of reading was deepening, my craving for getting under the ice intensified. Some I could crack a little hole and peek through, others I could see the figures more clearly but I couldn’t find my way in.
My writing. Well that was something altogether different. I thought I wanted to write grand fiction stories, but realized I didn’t want the responsibility of trying to keep a fictional world balanced. But I kept trying.
And I’d never been satisfied with my reviews. I read others, both peer and professional. But I kept finding myself fumbling around, especially at the end of a review. I couldn’t stick the landing sometimes. But I kept at it.
I read book blogs and thought, “Oh, I know I can do better than that.” And I would continue reading, and writing about it. Then I got myself listed on a book blog for authors to find reviewers. And they came calling. Not many, but a few. Some I turned away. Some I accepted and then regretted that choice. One came through like a shining star, and I asked Alexander Watson what else he was working on and would he make sure I got copies.
The really good books are the ones that make it worthwhile. Alexander’s River Queens was the one that kept me going because it was so elegant, and he was so professional about promoting his book. He kept me going when work was turning ugly. He reminded me why I had such a deep abiding love for books, and the sanctuary they offered me.
But I was getting more restless. Because now I was reading books that were touted by groups of people I had respect for and wondering what I was missing. Kafka? Yeah, he’s fine but this one story in this collection was really clunky, how did it ever get picked? Steve Martin? Yeah … no. Ready Player One? Okay, not an 80s kid. Don’t get it.
By August 2018, I was in such a funk. Work was quickly going off the rails, I was discovering more and more I had at most two friends to talk about literature and books with. I wanted more something, everything, different.
And so there was WorldCon 76 in my backyard. The reader friend on the East Coast convinced me to cough up the money. It was a lot of money. But he was right, it would be a shame to miss it when it was less than five miles from home. And, wow. I had a great time, better than any other con I’d ever been to. I was on my own, attending panels I wanted, and just being me. What a revelation.
My very first panel of my WorldCon experience was M. Todd Gallowglas’ “LitCrit for Geeks.” Wait. What? This can’t be right. I thought LitCrit was dry and dull and required special skills and, here’s this writer I’ve never heard of making it sound like a lot of fun. Something worthwhile.
When I got home from the weekend, I reread my notes. Intertextuality, metatextuality, Marxism, feminism, new historicism? Race, gender, deconstruction, OOO? And for the next month while I fought the demons at work, and tried a new approach to reading and journaling, I thought about LitCrit. This geek wanted more but what?
I lost my job in September. Packed up my stuff and came home. Moped around for a few days and thought “now what?” The need to read, and write, remained. But I wanted to go deeper. I knew there were ways to do that but I didn’t have a clue where to start. Just reading and recapping weren’t enough anymore.
Little did I know that the guy I hadn’t heard of would turn out to be my mentor and show me the way to look at things differently. Little did I know how much I was going to change. Little did I know how much work it would be and how happy it would make me. Here, finally, was something worthwhile to do with my time.
In two months, I’ve read a lot more than usual. Feeling myself slipping into the cracks, acknowledging myself, figuring things out. More personal growth than I thought possible. Then two books which really shook things up and made me realize while I was just starting, I was doing it. I was reading deeper and writing better about what I read. I felt like my reviews were taking on meaning.
First, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. Jangled, sharp edged, arrhythmic. There were times I’d think, “She won a Hugo for this? What am I not seeing?” I’d put it down and think about the new theories I was learning, think about how they might apply. I stuttered my way through until something happened which betrayed my trust in the story. I literally had to have a bit of a lie-down because I was so angry with what I had just figured out about the main characters. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go on.
Applying the Pearl Rule still doesn’t come easily to me, and Jemisin had won back to back Hugos three years in a row for this series. That was important. What was I missing?
Off to the internet to read what other people thought, what other reviewers wrote. This is unusual for me because I want to go into a book with as few preconceptions as possible. But damn it, this was supposed to be brilliant. I had just been at WorldCon surrounded by really smart people who talked about her and this series. Besides, my mentor suggested I join him for a group read. And he was having problems too.
What I read reassured me enough to dig back in. To forgive Jemisin enough to finish the story. I was happy I did, and now the thinking. Now I had permission to think and do it deeply. “Pick five schools of theory and apply them to The Fifth Season,” he said. Oh boy.
November. “We’re going to spend the month on A Visit From the Goon Squad,” he said.
“Oh ha ha,” I thought. “A month?”
For all intents and purposes, I’ve read it three times. Back to back to back. Each time finding something different, something I hadn’t picked up on before. Three times. I don’t do that. But apparently I do now..
Jennifer Egan is brilliant. Her collection of thirteen stories are enriched by being told in non-chronological order.. Not only is her prose engaging, her characters and their stories transcend archetype to become fully formed.
This character Bennie leads to his wife Stephanie leads to his brother-in-law Jules leads to starlet Kitty Jackson leads to …. This story about Bennie in high school leads to his visit to a band he signed who no longer make the grade which leads to …. Seamlessly, and with epiphanies. “Oh, that explains why Sasha’s a kleptomaniac.”
Spend a month? I could imagine spending an entire semester on it. And all the while, with my spreadsheet and 30+ pages of notes, thinking is happening and I feel myself opening up and going deeper. “Pick five schools of thought and apply them,” he said again.
And as with The Fifth Season, I discovered not all schools can be applied to all books. New Criticism and Feminism will almost always apply. Trying to make my other choices apply meant looking at the material differently. Was race a viable filter? Culture? What does culture mean in this text?
I reminded myself I was at the beginning of this fascinating journey, I couldn’t possibly know how it would, or if it could, work together. Having to think about how there might be other ways to interpret the text made me reach, and stretch. There were days when I flailed, a lot. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here,” I would gripe. But I kept writing, and thinking.
It’s been two months of work. Steady, daily work. Reading Michael Moorcock’s essays still make me anxious because he’s so damned erudite and he eloquently writes about things I’m just now learning. Instead of skipping or stopping or throwing my mental hands up and saying, “This is too hard,” I kept at it.
I kept at it. That was huge. I was no longer in the realm of wanting to just move on to the next book, or deciding not to write about it. And things I’d read about process and writing from other writers whose work I enjoyed seeped in.
Here was Anne Lamott with her “shitty first draft,” from Bird by Bird. Richard Kadrey, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley … “do the work, it’s okay to be scared, writing is hard work, and no one has to ever see what you write.” This last perhaps as important to me as Anne Lamott’s.
Knowing Michael was the only one seeing the work I chose to show him helped. Trusting he would tell me if I was going down the wrong road, helped. His brief encouraging comments about my mind and the great work I was doing thrilled me.
“Trust yourself,” he said. He wasn’t in the same county, so he couldn’t hear when I laughed. “Dude,” I thought.
I kept working through my personal grievances and anxieties. Days when I didn’t want to get out of bed because the PTSD was making it hard. But I did it. I got up and went to work.
Because the work is what keeps me sane right now. And learning about different ways to dig into the text and make the connections and then write about them make me really happy. Before September, I was prepared to just keep reading as I had been. Trying to find writing classes which didn’t really fit but were affordable and might offer some guidance, and trying to write to the specifications of assignments which made no sense to me. That’s what I was doing before.
Now, in November, I think differently about what I’m reading. I look for the connections, I apply filters, I think things like, “Why would she write it that way? How does [some school of theory] apply here?” I allow myself to believe I know what I’m doing, to trust I have a lifetime’s knowledge to apply, and to know I’m really doing the work.
Examining A Visit From the Goon Squad with a spreadsheet was something I had never, ever thought to do. But it seemed to be the best way to really dig in and pay attention. It’s never occurred to me even once that it’s weird to be this excited about reading better and deeper, or that my writing would become stronger. It’s not weird, it’s quite wonderful. And I look forward to doing the work every single day.
Title: The Forever Watch
Author: David Ramirez
ISBN 13: 9781250033819
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publisher’s Blurb: The truth is only the beginning. When a man is murdered on the Noah, a city-sized spaceship that is half-way through an eight-hundred-year voyage to another planet, his body is so ruined that his identity must be established from DNA evidence. Within hours, however, all trace of the crime is swept away, hidden as though it never happened – a strange occurrence in a world where deeds, and even thoughts, cannot be kept secret. Hana Dempsey, a mid-level bureaucrat who has been genetically modified to use the Noah’s telepathic internet, begins to investigate. Her search for the truth will uncover the impossible: a serial killer who has been operating on board for a lifetime, if not longer. And behind the killer lies a conspiracy centuries in the making…
There is a lot going on in this book. So much it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on. There’s enough in this book for at least two books, if not more.
First, there’s the story of Noah, the multi-generational space ship headed for humanity’s new home, Canaan. No one’s quite sure what happened to Earth which required this alien spaceship capable of holding an entire metropolis, to go on a mission lasting 800 years. All anyone of the current citizens on Noah is this has always been home.
Then, is there a serial killer loose? Bodies which look like they’ve been ripped apart are appearing. And people are disappearing , their records marked as “retired,” at a high rate.
There’s a love story between the “mission critical” Hana Dempsey and cop Leonard Barrens. Dempsey is gifted in many areas, including as a hacker. Barrens is portrayed as somewhat more brutish but capable of great softness for Dempsey. They work together to figure out what’s going on with the possible serial killer. They also work together well as a loving couple, despite the snobbery of Hana’s upper class friends.
And the conspiracy story concerning the children born aboard the Noah. Women are put into a nine-month coma and never see their children. At the beginning of The Forever Watch, Hana has just come out of her coma. What happens to those children is not for the squeamish, their hellish destiny is better left unknown.
Ramirez introduces an overload of technology and psychic abilities. We’re talking neural implants, heads up display, instantaneous communication, and entire cities built psychically out of a material called plastech.
And this is where I got lost. Ramirez has been so careful with his world building, thinking through every detail and going on ad nauseum about how the tech works. There’s so much information and it gets bewildering after a few pages. And then it keeps going on and on.
This is one of my main complaints about sf/f worlds, there’s just too much detail. If it’s accepted in an author’s world this stuff works, that’s all that’s needed. Authors don’t need to convince the readers, we’re happy to go along for the ride. That many pages shouldn’t be spent on explanations and details unless they are absolutely required to move the story forward. Most of the time, it’s not. (N. K. Jemisin is the best I’ve read recently in giving the reader just enough detail to move the story without getting bogged down.)
The horrifying revelations are nearly unimaginable. Ramirez obviously imagined them, I didn’t see a lot of them coming. Except for the “huh, what do you know,? the founders were right all along.” I figured that was coming, realized that what was happening was cyclical, leading to a moral conundrum for the survivors who find themselves in charge.
The Forever Watch is not a bad read, but it’s not exceptional either. There’s so much potential for great exploration of any of the plot lines, which makes the book feel incomplete.
Title: The Geek Feminist Revolution
Author: Kameron Hurley
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.
Did I say “thank you?”
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
There’s so much going on in this book. It is dense and filled with dangerous adventure. It’s also filled with bigotry, sexism and violence. In many ways, it’s a difficult book to get through. Three story lines, three different women. Or so we think. Each on their own adventure. Each with a different narrative point of view.
There’s Essun, whose son has been killed by her husband. Her story starts with the discovery of her son’s body and carries us through as she searches for her daughter who’s been kidnapped by Essun’s husband. Along the way she meets the mysterious Hoa and gregarious Tonkee who delights in taking samples of things as they go along in search of a community which will take them in after the ground has started shifting under their feet.
There’s Dayama, a young girl whose parents exile her to the barn until a Guardian can fetch her. Exiled because she has a scary skill and people would rather her kind, the orogene, didn’t exist at all. Dayama’s story begins when the Guardian arrives and takes her off to school, on horseback, to be trained. Daya is treated better by the Guardian, Schaffa, than she was by her community and family. Yet his treatment comes with difficult lessons to learn, one of which is that because she is orogene, she will always be considered less than the rest of society. She will always be considered lowest of the low, unless someone needs her to use her skills for them. Even then, she will be asked begrudgingly.
Third, there’s Syenite whose story begins when she is assigned to a ten-ring orogene named Alabaster on what seems to be a simple mission to unclog a shipping port so trade can go back to normal. Syen is resentful and angry, and she takes it out on Alabaster, who returns her anger in kind. The first scene with Syen is almost literally her telling him that she’s there to fuck him (Jemisin does not sugar coat this). Syen believes the only reason she is traveling with him is to breed. His ten-ring genes with her four-ring genes could produce a super orogene to be used at one of the satellite stations for the Fulcrum.
“Everything changes during a Season.” (p. 185)
The Fifth Season refers to an extended winter triggered by cataclysmic earthquakes or catastrophic weather events. And one is on its way.
Then there comes a humdinger of a loop. One which threw me completely out of the story and made me feel betrayed. I had to put the book down and walk away for a long while. Truly, I didn’t understand why it happened, and it threw everything I thought I knew about this story into disarray. I wasn’t sure I could go on. The book won a Hugo, what was I missing?
After I calmed down, I did some reading of other reactions to The Fifth Season. What I read made me curious enough to go back and finish the book. It was worth it.
In a way, all the characters congregating at Castrima, the community run by orogenes, which welcomes everyone seems too easy. But there’s nothing easy about this book, you have to work for the payoff. Three women are actually the same woman, their stories set in three different times of her life. The stories of hardship, impossible choices, and survival come to a head in Castrima. Alabaster has the last word, “… have you ever heard of something called a moon?”
Everyone important to this story has gathered in Castrima, and it has something to do with a moon. What a great setup for book #2 The Obelisk Gate.
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.
Geeks Guide to Literary Theory – M Todd Gallowglas – @MGallowglas
- Kameron Hurley & @Kameronhurley for her feminist SF/F lit crit (The Geek Feminist Revolution)
- The Broken Earth Series by N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin)
- Jennifer Egan & @Egangoonsquad
- The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory by Gregory Castle
- Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock
- The American Shore by Samuel R. Delany
After the panel I wandered down to the Dealer’s Room to table F19 and talked to Todd for a few minutes and picked up a copy of My Year of Creative Reading, which he signed for me.