Ten Bookish Resolutions for 2017

  1. Continue making a concerted effort to read books by women and POCs. The quality of my reading shot up last year when I started setting myself targets for female- and POC-authored books from the library. I’ve recently moved house so haven’t figured out what exactly the targets will look like this year, though. My reading for 2017 already looks pretty good on the female authors front (eight out of twelve!), and I’ve got a handful of books by POCs on my TBR pile. I expect it’s going to be TBR stuff until I work out where my nearest library is.
  2. Continue writing this blog. I mean, that’s probably an obvious one. Blogging is what I do and what keeps me sane. And especially in these dark and difficult times of Brexit and Trump, blogging is what reminds me that I still have a voice and a way to resist.
  3. Spend at least an hour a week editing my NaNoWriMo novel. I would love this target to be higher, but I feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day any more. So we’ll see. I’ve definitely been feeling the urge to return to my writing lately, though.
  4. Read more fiction online. I read Strange Horizons fiction regularly, of course, but I want to branch out into other fiction venues too; I feel like I’m missing out on a whole field of wonderful writing.
  5. Read more SFF criticism. I don’t want just to be shouting my opinions into a vacuum; I want critical context, other voices to speak back to and reflect on.
  6. Stop chasing nebulous things like “audience” and “community”. Yeah, this is a difficult one (and I’m aware, here, that this is more “blogging” than “bookish”). I’ve been writing this blog for, what, three and a half years now, I’ve poured hours and hours of my life into it, and still I have approximately three readers (one of whom is a Russian spambot, probably). This is because I am fucking crap at commenting on other people’s blogs, I am terrible at Twitter, I don’t have a tumblr or an Instagram or any of the other things where online community actually lives. I don’t have the time or the energy to do these things because they make me emotionally exhausted and anxious. I can’t be permanently online. So I have to accept that all this work is for me; to help me think through stuff and resist the oncoming tide of capitalism and be me.
  7. Comment substantively on at least one online article a week. Having said the above…I do have hour-long lunch breaks at my computer now I work somewhere without a canteen. I can use that time to start participating in venues where I actually want to be: I think it’s going to be a case of pruning back the places I visit to what adds most value to my life. It helps that the Tournament of Books is starting up soon!
  8. Leave Booklikes. I’ve actually already done this. My reasons, basically, are that I haven’t found the community there that I hoped I would, and scrolling through all those posts is such a timesuck and I don’t always enjoy it and also it’s so slow.
  9. Join a geeky society. I work in London now, there are like a bajillion of these floating around, and I know from experience that there is nothing like shared geekdom to bring people together and make really strong connections.
  10. #resist. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep thinking. Keep marching. I may only be a voice in a city of noise, but I’m not going to stop talking any time soon.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I’d Send To Donald Trump

So I read an article the other day about protesters sending books to the White House for Valentine’s Day, and it got me thinking.

  1. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. A powerful warning about the corrosive effects of hate, the irreparable mutual harm that oppression does both to oppressed and oppressors. Plus, it’s written by a woman.
  2. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor. A novel that argues, melodiously but forcefully, the blinkered folly of Anglo- and anthropocentrism, how absurd it is to think that we, personally, are the centre of the universe. Okorafor depicts Lagos, Nigeria as a vibrant, modern city; in many ways a more interesting locus for an alien invasion than the more conventional Los Angeles or New York or London.
  3. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Another angry novel, taking two of the great American myths – the Wild West and Disney’s Aryan, prettified Snow White – and making them brutal; describing self-perpetuating cycles of abuse which the marginalised inflict upon themselves and each other in a hopeless attempt to win the approval of their oppressors. Plus, it’s short enough even for Trump’s limited attention span.
  4. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A sharp, intersectional look at race in America; I defy anyone not to weep and rage.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. Maybe if Trump read this, he would actually understand how science works, and how it relates to society. (Pro tip: it’s not a hoax invented by the Chinese.) Then again, maybe not.
  6. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Such a lovely, hopeful story about integration and working alongside those who are different to us. #hopenothate
  7. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. This is a novel about the incremental value of kindness; the sheer work involved in achieving any kind of progress. Hopeful about humanity’s potential, pragmatic about its reality.
  8. Railsea – China Mieville. Another spin on a classic American myth – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But whereas Melville’s novel’s about conquest, Mieville’s is about the self-defeating wastefulness of rampant capitalism.
  9. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. And yet another retelling, this one (again) of Snow White: there is nothing new under the sun. Anyway, this one also brings the toxic nature of hate to the fore, but its ending is slightly more hopeful than Valente’s version (albeit problematic).
  10. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Essentially a 700-page feminist rant about the systematic repression inherent in women’s writing of the nineteenth century – albeit an extremely well-researched and readable one. It’s extremely aware of how systems of oppression work.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Topics I Avoid

  1. Tortuous high fantasy politics. Into this genre falls A Song of Ice and Fire, Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire and anything by Raymond Feist. I don’t have the patience for 800+ pages of names I can’t pronounce making elliptical alliances and, usually, crushing the lower classes into the dust.
  2. Family sagas. I read far too little literary fiction because I just feel so bored by their blurbs, which make them all sound navel-gazing and tedious.
  3. Modernism. Talking about navel-gazing. The Modernists were quite possibly the least helpful storytellers who have ever existed. Reading Ulysses made me want to scratch my eyes out.
  4. Romance. By which I mean, any book that threatens a heterosexual romance as a central plot point, especially modern ones. The vast majority of heterosexual romances are still set within an unacknowledged heteronormative framework which sees certain things as “normal” when they’re at best applicable only to some of the population and at worst actively unhealthy. I find this boring.
  5. Invisible demons/ghosts with teeth/girls who crawl out of TV screens/supernatural creepy crawlies. I am a wimp. I regularly wake up thinking Slender Man is going to eat me (although lately Donald Trump has also featured in my midnight terror) and I find the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who difficult to deal with. I do not need more fodder to scare myself with.
  6. Women’s fiction. What does this even mean? I tend to class it along with family sagas: it just sounds dull and quotidian to me, and also a bit sexist.
  7. War/military. The Resident Grammarian has about a million history books and a good eighty per cent of them are war books. Politics and war aren’t particularly what interest me about history – how efficient generals were at killing enemy soldiers. I’d much rather read social histories, which for me are a much better indication of what any given historical period felt like to the people in it.
  8. Gardening. Most of the plants under my care die in about three weeks and I have no interest in or energy for doing anything more complex than watering something.
  9. Murder mystery. Especially modern, “gritty” murder mysteries that are all darkness for darkness’ sake. I can get on quite well with a nice Agatha Christie, though.
  10. Religious conspiracy theories. The Da Vinci Code, I am looking at you. Any book promising apocryphal revelations and exciting secrets will always turn out to be a dull and counterfactual retread of old and damaging conspiracy theories. This is a law of the universe.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America

  1. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. A lone gunfighter wanders across a desert wasteland, killing as he goes. There are mutants under the mountains and sex demons in stone circles. The one town he passes through tries to murder him.
  2. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. A vast and corrupt ruling class keep the city in line with an iron fist. They research horrors without appropriate safeguards. Criminals are horribly and disproportionately punished.
  3. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. An endless religious war rages across an entire planet, but no-one can remember what it’s about or where it started. The government hires assassins to take out draft dodgers. Racial and gender intolerance abounds.
  4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. Corporations and institutions perpetuate endless injustice. Tiny steps forwards are met with enormous leaps back. Evil is easier and more common than good.
  5. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. Poor people live crowded together in unstable and irradiated plastic bubbles in space. The only kind of revolutionary activity that works is the ultra-violent kind.
  6. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne Valente. Everybody gets the raw end of the deal. Abuse perpetuates abuse. You submit or you die.
  7. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel. Everyone dies of flu. Religious intolerance is a thing.
  8. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins. Children are sent to kill each other to keep the population in line. The working classes starve while the rich eat so much they vomit it up to make more room. The only kind of revolutionary activity that works is the ultra-violent kind.
  9. Wool – Hugh Howey. The people in power keep pulling the wool over your eyes (see what I did there?). What’s worse, they make you pull the wool over your own eyes, to keep you all safe and alive. Also, you live underground in a giant silo and have never seen the outside world.
  10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling. Hogwarts is taken over by an increasingly paranoid megalomaniac with a face like a toad. (Sound familiar?) Student clubs are banned. Magazines are banned. The aforesaid megalomaniac tortures her students and drives out all the sensible people.

Review: Ancillary Sword

“I find forgiveness overrated. There are times and places when it’s appropriate. But not when the demand that you forgive is used to keep you in your place.”

Ann Leckie

So a shit thing happened in the UK today. I’m not writing about it here; it’s late and I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation.

But I *am* writing. I’m keeping on writing about sexism and racism and heteronormativity and ableism and privilege and all the shitty things floating around in our cultural discourse because I believe (like Mosca Mye) that you should never stop thinking, and that thinking about these things is a step on the way to making them better, the first step and the most important one.

And that’s all. And that’s enough, for now.

***

ancillaryswordIn Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ancillary Justice, Breq, the ex-spaceship turned Fleet Captain, is dispatched by the Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai to the out-of-the-way Athoek system, ostensibly in order to protect it from the ripples spreading across the Radch empire after Mianaai’s disastrous personality split. Local politics soon sees Breq and her small retinue visiting Athoek planet, where much of the Radch’s tea is grown; there, Breq comes face to face with the terrible shadow of imperialism, as she witnesses first-hand the treatment of indentured tea-pickers shipped in from annexed planets.

So the book, like Ancillary Justice before it, is invested in exposing the flipside of imperialism; the human cost of huge SFnal armies floating across summer blockbuster screens. It’s a work of subversion, in other words, reimagining a familiar genre to delve into the assumptions (of maleness, of whiteness, of rightness, of singleness) at the heart of it.

Unfortunately, in doing so it runs right into the genre’s structural problem: which is, of course, using an institutional, strategic view to think about individual human issues.

What do I mean by that? Breq is a very, very senior member of military personnel, who was, moreover, literally built to enforce and represent Radch superiority. Her worldview is one which contains tactics, politics, high-level analysis. It can’t really encompass the plight of the unprivileged individual, the debt slave whose brother is being blackmailed into performing sexual favours for the daughter of the plantation owner. The result is that the slaves all the way at the bottom of the ladder, those who are so insignificant as to be visible from Breq’s military viewpoint only en masse, are flattened into a faceless body which is being wronged, utterly passive, there only to shed light on their owners’ characters.

And so, when we have a super-powered individual like Breq swooping down onto a planet to make things better for the slaves, and swooping away again when she’s done, we get a distorting effect which effectively erases two important dimensions to slavery (and, remember, Leckie’s project is precisely to probe slavery, to reveal how military SFF distorts our worldview): firstly, the experience of those suffering it – so we get a White Saviour narrative – and secondly, the fact that slavery is always institutional, and not solely caused by a few unpleasant individuals. Because Breq has significant political power, she can work as an individual to change the system. But because she’s a representative of that system, she makes it look as though the system itself isn’t the problem.

So Ancillary Sword fails; but it’s an ambitious failure, a failure that is at least reaching in the right direction. It keeps, quietly, insisting that gender doesn’t have to matter to readers of traditional genre narratives. It does, at least, recognise that guilt and responsibility are not clear-cut in situations of oppression: Breq has had a hand in enabling oppression throughout her career as a military vessel, and the slave who commits an act of violence against her employer is guilty as well as being a victim. Ancillary Sword makes an attempt where most novels are pleased just to rest on their laurels. And, some days, that’s all you can ask.

The West Wing Review: Things Fall Apart & 2162 Votes

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Plato

A little story about The West Wing.

I last watched it about three years ago, at school, with Hiking Friend, who was (and still is) sort of obsessed by it. We had watched up to about halfway through season 6 (I’ve now established that it was about episode 10 that we stopped), and then we went to university and I mostly lost interest in it, partly because Josh Lyman had disappeared from the show at that point and, really, Josh carries the whole thing. Anyway, I visited HF recently, and we couldn’t remember which episode we’d stopped at, so we decided to watch the season 6 finale.

And here we are.

Things Fall Apart and 2162 Votes focus on the issue of President Bartlet’s sucessor. The Democrats have no nominee; the White House tries its best to knock everybody’s heads together and get them to agree. And there’s a crisis aboard the ISS: an oxygen leak leaves the astronaut’s lives threatened, and discussions are had about whether to use a secret military shuttle to rescue them.

It’s hard to speak to the episodes as a finale to season 6, because I haven’t seen the whole season, but one of the strengths of the two-episode arc is that it delivers a deceptively simple ending to a fast-paced, politically technical, very funny hour and a half. There’s never any doubt, ideologically speaking, that Mat Santos will get picked (because he is a Good Guy and also represented by Josh Lyman, who is, as noted above, about as close to a lead character as an ensemble show like this can get) and that the Bartlet Administration will send up the military shuttle to rescue those astronauts; it’s more a case of finding a way around the various political obstacles. As several commentators have pointed out, The West Wing is essentially a fantasy, one whose premise is that it’s actually possible for a kind, principled group of people to gain political power in the West. It’s a fantasy that enables a discussion of the ways that the system pushes back against kindness – the ways that it inclines people towards self-interest and self-aggrandizement, not because they’re intrinsically terrible people but because they’re paradoxically fuelled by the prospect of doing greater good – but also one which is sort of founded on the idea that kindness is possible; that if individuals make specific and positive efforts towards kindness and decency, the world can change, in small and incremental ways, for the better. It’s an approach that acknowledges political realities (to a point) while arguing that those realities aren’t an excuse for callousness, for irresponsibility, for abuse of power.

And, while there are iffy things about the show – as an emotionally restrained British person, I find its untrammelled patriotism, its unashamed adherence to an ideal America, a little worrying, especially when I catch myself actually wanting to be American – this isn’t a bad line to walk at all, between individualism and collectivism, between idealism and reality, between pessimism and hope. It manages to make politics – politics! – exciting and watchable and funny and somehow personal as well: the dramas of the west wing become our dramas, as office tensions merge into personal tensions merge into national tensions. In this finale to the show’s penultimate season, the answers seem perhaps a little easy and a little obvious, but the sheer political detail of the episodes keeps the balance between hope and realism sweet. Watching it was a great reminder of what I loved about The West Wing, and why I’ll always pay attention when someone mentions it.

Troilus and Criseyde

“Wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery feere,
And to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.”
 

 Geoffrey Chaucer

If Northanger Abbey was the upside of revision, then Troilus and Criseyde is the downside. It’s a 10,000-line poem by a guy called Geoffrey Chaucer, supposedly the father of English letters, set in the besieged city of Troy a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. (Not that last bit, obviously.)

This is what happens:

Troilus falls in love with Criseyde. He tells his best friend Pandarus all about the pains of love, etc., etc., at great length. Pandarus, arch-pimp, happily informs his friend that Criseyde is, fortunately enough, his niece, and that he can get her to sleep with Troilus. (His niece, Constant Reader. His actual niece.) Subjected to much pressure, not to mention a juicy bit of emotional blackmail, Criseyde eventually agrees, only to leave the doomed city shortly afterwards and take up with a Greek guy named Diomede. Troilus once again complains of the pains of love at great length, and eventually commits suicide-by-Greek-soldier on the plains before Troy.

I repeat: this poem is 10,000 lines long. There’s a lot of talking.

Plus it’s in Middle English, which is not the easiest of things to read at the best of times.

Constant Reader, I hate to say it, being an English student and all, but Chaucer is boring. Intensely, mind-suckingly tedious. Oh, he’s bright, yes: he knows how to write words, he knows how to use his verse, he can pun with the best of them. He’s read his classics, he knows his Dante, he’s probably read every single other book around. But given a choice between reading Troilus and Criseyde again and voting UKIP, I’d…

…OK, I’d probably re-read Troilus and Criseyde. But you get the idea. Chaucer is like that pretentious person at a party spouting impenetrable puns to make other people feel small. It might be clever, but it’s not nice. You could spend hours interpreting such behaviour, but you don’t want to be on the pointy end of it.

Plus, the bits with Pandarus in – which is most of the poem – make me seriously ragey. Like, I get that Chaucer is making a point about the line between public and private, and the vulnerability of women in his era to the men who control them – but couldn’t he have done it with a nicer person? Or at least made something satisfyingly bad happen to Pandarus in the end?

I imagine Shakespeare’s version is much better, or at the very least more fun to read. Chaucer may have been a genius, but that doesn’t mean I want to read him.

Star Trek: The Omega Glory

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs, unless good is very, very careful.”

Star Trek

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

This episode of Star Trek initially looked quite promising. The ka-tet beam aboard an apparently abandoned starship orbiting an alien planet and find that the crew have all turned to salt. The last log report tells the ka-tet that they are doomed unless they beam down to the planet; they promptly do so, and find a crazed starship captain who has violated the Prime Directive by interfering with the lives of the warring natives, the Coombs and the Yangs.

Hurrah! A mysterious virus! Evil starship captains!

Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. My thoughts on the episode can basically be summed up in one sentence:

This is really, really stupid.

The first half is only standard Star Trek Stupid: some claims about the virus that sound a bit scientifically suspect, a non-realisation that water is a chemical too, and a reference to the “bacteriological” wars of the 1990s. Which we’re still waiting for…

(OK, that last one isn’t really stupid. But if you’re going to put dates on the apocalypse, you should really make it A Long Way Away.)

But then the story descends into what I can only assume is a form of Cold War propaganda, because, honestly, there’s no other way to explain the actual weirdness of what happens.

You see, it turns out that the Yangs are Americans descended from other Americans who lost a biological war against the Coombs (who are Communists) and were driven out into the wild.

Wait, what? What?

And, no, I’m not talking about descendants of humans on Earth who have somehow wound up on a strange planet. I’m talking about actual aliens, who a) happen to look exactly like humans, b) happen to speak pretty good English (and it’s made perfectly clear that this is not a result of Evil Starship Captain’s cultural contamination), c) happen to have had exactly the same political development at some distant point in the past, and the same Cold War, and the same names for the opposing sides (Yangs = Yanks) and d) have the same frickin’ flag as the Americans on Earth. Oh, and the same Pledge of Allegiance and Constitution.

I’m sorry, is anybody actually supposed to take this seriously? Or am I missing something vital? Is it all a subtle allegory or something like that? Because to me it looks astonishingly unsubtle even for Star Trek.

And then came Kirk’s rousing speech on the theme of How the Constitution Must Apply to Everybody. Of course. Translation (for the waiting audiences of 1968): “We’re better than the Communists! Captain Kirk says so! So it must be right!”

Later, Spock asks if Kirk has not himself violated the Prime Directive through his Rousing Speech, and Kirk, essentially, goes, “It doesn’t count if it’s about freedom.”

I give up. Sarcasm fails in the face of such blatant lunacy.

Have I Got News For You

“That’s why we have a revenue system. It’s to say, “That’s an obvious scam, can you please grow up and give us the money now?””

Ian Hislop

OK, I will own up: Have I Got News For You is basically the place where I learn all my news. Yes, really. I would not have known that Rebekah Brooks got a £7m payout if I hadn’t seen it on this programme.

And that is the first point in favour of HIGNFY. It is educational.

The second point in favour of HIGNFY is that it plays roughly the same role as The Revolution Will Be Televised – it allows the public to laugh at the government. As I have said before, this is a vital component in democracy. The kind of cynicism and sarcasm practised on HIGNFY is catching; it allows you to see through propaganda and think about what you’re being told. And, of course, it’s very funny: a British institution in its own right.

Perhaps I should explain. HIGNFY is a comedy panel show like Mock the Week only funnier. Editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop and general comedian/BBC presenter Paul Merton appear every week with two guest panelists – usually comedians and, hilariously, politicians – and a guest host. And they answer questions about the week’s news and generally make fun of politicians, propaganda, public figures and propositions – anything that’s been in the news is fair game. It’s clever, incisive, witty and definitely worthy of a place in your TV schedule. Fridays, at 9pm, on BBC1 – clear a space in your diary.

Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell

“You’ve got to be stronger than the story/Don’t let it blind you.”

The Killers

OK, so the title sounds stupendously boring in an “oh-look-the-BBC-is-trying-to-make-science-relevant” kind of way. (Isn’t everything called “The Secret/Hidden Life of Something” nowadays?) But really, The Hidden Life of Cells is well worth a look, even if only for the graphics.

Ah, yes, the graphics. The graphics are wonderful. Of course, it’s all CGI, since colour probably doesn’t even exist at scales smaller than the wavelength of light, and even if it did we couldn’t see it. And this programme’s USP is probably that it is conducted almost entirely in CGI. (Apart from about ten minutes’ worth of film of scientists standing in random places totally unconnected to what they’re talking about. Like a beach. Or the top of a very tall building.) God knows how much it cost to produce. But it really is very beautiful. That sounds hyperbolic, but once you see the images of DNA, constantly in a state of low-level movement, or the vast skeletal structures holding the cell together, or the virus particles with the spikes, set to a sublime orchestral soundtrack, you’ll know what I mean. Hopefully.

Basically, the premise of the programme is “Attack of the Adenovirus: From the Cell’s Point of View”. Narrated by David Tennant, talking about a “four billion year old struggle”, it’s described by one of the talking heads as an “amazing epic science fiction movie”.

And that, in my opinion, is where it falls down. All the science is made to fit neatly into the typical science fiction narrative: evil invader threatens peace and harmony. No. That’s not how it works. Viruses are not good, not evil; cells are not evil, not good. They just are. Not every battle has to have goodies and baddies. And there, I just fell into the same trap, calling it a “battle”. Perhaps there just isn’t a way to visualise the way the cell works without using human, narrative terms like “war” and “machine”. Which makes it a semantics problem, rather than a problem with the programme itself.

What is a fault with the programme is the deliberate simplification of the science to fit the narrative. Now, I’m not saying I’m a scientific expert, because I’m not, but I do know a bit about cells, all right, and the molecules on the surface of a virus that allow it into the cell are not called “keys”, they are called “antigens”. It does not take that much effort to explain that to an audience. Also, “security molecules”? Really? Is there no proper word for them? Like “recognition molecules”, for instance?

This may sound like nitpicking, and I do accept that it must be hard to strike a balance between oversimplification and total incomprehensibility, but it’s important to remember that the public is in all probability a lot more intelligent than programme-makers give them credit for. And science affects everyone, not just scientists and academics. It ought to be approached properly, and not in a condescending way.

All of this is not to say that the amazing epic science fiction movie wasn’t exciting, because it was. And, like I said, the graphics are wonderful. And anything that makes science more accessible is always a good thing. Just – be careful you’re not making the facts fit the story. Because that happens more often than you’d think.