Search Results for “Karen Joy Fowler”

June 14th, 2014

Karen Joy Fowler, “The Science of Herself” (and Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures)

I did say I’d be writing more about Fowler. From the past weekend’s column.



Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures begins with a superhero origin story. A baby is in a field with a crowd of people watching a performance. A storm blows up, and one woman picks up the baby and shelters under a tree. The tree is struck by lightning, and lightning runs through the child’s body—and the body of the woman holding her, who is killed along with others standing nearby. The child survives, but from that day is marked out as different. The child has powers that no one around can understand.

The child is Mary Anning, self-taught palaeontologist and fossil-collector and remarkable creature herself. Her superpowers (somewhat less spectacular than invisibility or unnatural strength but no less world-shattering) were finding fossils, understanding fossils, and making a huge contribution to the nineteenth century’s overturning of what was known about the world, while being lower-class, not very educated, and female.

I read Chevalier’s book about Anning shortly after another writer’s depiction of her—Karen Joy Fowler’s short story “The Science of Herself” which I found, coincidentally, a few days after Anning’s 215th birth anniversary. One of the (many) things I love about Fowler’s writing is her constant questioning of how a story is being told even as she tells it. It’s a question that comes up frequently even in this short piece; what are the ways in which we create a narrative of Mary Anning’s life? It’s this question that makes Fowler’s story work so well in conjunction with other accounts of that life, such as Chevalier’s. What choices have been made, we’re forced to ask, what forms do we try to fit this story into?

“Austen would have seen the possibilities”, Fowler says, as Mary meets the geologist Henry de le Beche for the first time when both are in their teens. “[T]he older boy, in disgrace, but with the confidence of wealth, education, and good looks. Then Mary, who should have been quiet and deferential in his company, but was not.” We know this story. It isn’t Mary Anning’s.

Austen and Anning have an unlikely connection. Austen visited Lyme Regis, Mary’s town, more than once, and in 1803 called in Mary’s father to fix a cabinet. She thought the price he quoted too high and refused it, and wrote about it in her diary and that was that. Fowler imagines a teenaged Mary selling ammonites on the beach in 1814, the year in which the characters in Persuasion visit Lyme Regis, three years after Mary and Joseph Anning unearthed the first ichthyosaur, unnoticed by Anne Elliot. Unnoticed by Austen too, but it’s hard to see what Austen would have done with her.

Among the other narrators of Anning’s life whom Fowler quotes is the teenaged Anna Maria Pinney. “Had she lived in an age of chivalry she might have been a heroine with fearless courage, ardour, and peerless truth and honour.” But Pinney was sixteen, and she relates a story of Mary’s own teenage years, and “[t]he romance may well have doubled in the double adolescent telling of it.”

Chevalier splits her story into two voices; Mary’s own and that of her mentor of sorts, Elizabeth Philpot. Mary speaks in an odd mix of registers, presumably to indicate her incongruous position; Elizabeth provides the (excessive) period detail. There is a definite narrative arc.

Fowler, on the other hand, resists trying to capture Mary’s voice or story, and when she does, she immediately undermines herself. On noting that Mary was “a complete romantic” and had a Byron poem copied into her commonplace book, she suggests that the lines she’s quoted as significant might not have been the ones that mattered to Mary. She acknowledges the temptation to give her a secret sorrow (“The world dislikes a story in which a woman is merely accomplished, brave, and consequential”).

So what can an author do with another person’s life, particularly such an extraordinary one? Struggle, perhaps and remind herself constantly that people’s lives don’t fit neatly into narrative tropes. Turn it into a famous tongue-twister (she sells sea shells etc). Tell the truth slantwise; read Anning’s monsters into Verne’s science fiction, as Fowler does. Or write superhero stories.


June 5th, 2011

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn’t See

A couple of months ago I reviewed Karen Joy Fowler’s short story collection What I Didn’t See for Global Comment. I’m reposting that piece here for the sake of completeness, and because apparently people are asking about brilliant female writers. Here is one.


If there is one thing that is obvious from Karen Joy Fowler’s work to date, it is that she is interested in books and how they work. The Jane Austen Book Club, for which she is chiefly known (it spent quite some time on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a movie in 2007) engages with the modern romance genre and with science fiction as well as with Austen’s novels. The Case of the Imaginary Detective, also published as Wit’s End, is a crime novel about crime novels. Sarah Canary, her first book, seems to change genre with each person who discusses it.

What I Didn’t See is a collection of Karen Joy Fowler’s short stories, the first such collection since 1997’s Black Glass. Most of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, with the oldest (“The Dark”) first published in 1991 and the most recent (“Halfway People”) in 2010. So it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately form a unified collection. However, while it would be reductive to say that literature is Fowler’s subject, this is a frequently recurring thread that is useful to hang on to.

The title story, “What I Didn’t See”, was published in 2002. This story about a group of people on a gorilla hunt in the 1920s does not on the surface show allegiance to any particular genre. Despite this it won a Nebula award in 2003. While not visibly SFnal in itself, the story is in conversation with one of the great short stories of the genre, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See”. Tiptree’s story is about alienation, both with regard to race and (primarily) gender and to actual aliens. Fowler’s narrator, unlike Tiptree’s, is a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women.

“The Halfway People”, “The Dark” and “King Rat” all engage with fairytale or folkloric elements. “The Halfway People”, first published in a collection of fairytale retellings titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, plays off the fairytale of the six swan brothers. In the Grimm brothers’ story, the brothers are turned into swans by a curse which is eventually broken when their sister weaves shirts for them. The youngest brother, whose shirt was left incomplete, has a swan’s wing for an arm. Fowler locates the fairytale in the mouth of a woman who loved this youngest brother, and makes of his story a bedtime tale for her son.

“The Dark” manages to combine a history of plague, the Vietnam war and feral children into a disturbing story which also contains references to the Pied Piper of Hamlin. “King Rat” is a simpler piece in which the narrator remembers a friend of her family, yet again the story of the Pied Piper and his attendant lost children lurks in the background.

“Booth’s Ghost” appears here for the first time. This is a story about the family of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Lincoln. Edwin Booth’s acting career is dogged by his brother’s crime, and he is equally haunted by the ghost of his father – so iconic an actor of Hamlet as to make it almost impossible for Edwin to play the role. Besides the Shakespeare connection “Booth’s Ghost” is in conversation with another text in the same book; “Standing Room Only” tells the events leading up to Lincoln’s death through the eyes of a young girl with a crush on John Wilkes Booth.

The intertextual nature of most of these stories adds depth and can be stimulating, yet most of the stories could probably stand quite well without it. Fowler is marvellous at evoking beauty and strangeness, and her narrators are odd enough to be real. The central character of “Private Grave 9”, a photographer at an archaeological dig competing with Howard Carter’s, stands out here. And the teenaged characters who appear in many of the stories are among her strongest voices.

Family also plays a major role in the collection. It can be a source of happiness and comfort, as in “The Marianas Islands” in which the young narrator explains the family history that led to her owning a submarine of her own. Family here is an unmitigatedly good thing; as the narrator says “the first thing you need to know is where you are”. In most of the stories, however, the family plays a more ambiguous role.

“The Last Worders” is a story about a town obsessed with poetry and a river that doesn’t exist. But it is also the story of a long-standing and uncomfortable rivalry between two sisters (and here again we have a fairytale staple) over a man they could both love. “The Pelican Bar” chronicles years of torture meted out to a girl who is sent to a horrific reform school by parents who never see her again. Parents are unreliable; the terrified child narrator of “King Rat” seeks out her father for protection and finds him annoyed with her. The parents of a pregnant girl in “Familiar Birds” force her to carry her child to term and put him up for adoption. In “Always”, a story about immortality in a cult of sorts, there’s the impression that the narrator is trying to escape a stepfather who “was drinking again” and a mother whose life “would have been so much better without me”. In “Standing Room Only” Anna’s discovery of her mother’s plot with John Wilkes Booth comes across as a betrayal.

And there are the lost children. They form the focus of the last story, “King Rat”, but really they are all over this book. From Norah in “The Pelican Bar” whose parents remain unaware that they have lost her to Paul in “The Dark” to the adopted child in “Familiar Birds”. The final passage of “King Rat” (and therefore the book) feels as if it were coming from Fowler herself; nothing could be more appropriate than that a collection so aware of stories should end by commenting on itself:

I hate this story. Vidkun, for your long-ago gifts, I return now two things. The first is that I will not change this ending. This is your story. No magic, no clever rescue, no final twist. As long as you can’t pretend otherwise, neither will I. And then, because you once bought me a book with no such stories in it, the second thing I promise is not to write this one again. The older I get, the more I want a happy ending. Never again will I write about a child who disappears forever. All my pipers will have soft voices and gentle manners. No child so lost King Rat can’t find him and bring him home.

What I Didn’t See is dark and often painful to read. Yet it’s also honest and weird and lovely. It has all the lightness of touch that you’d expect from someone who has spent so long dancing around the boundaries of genre.


April 3rd, 2011

What I Didn’t See, Karen Joy Fowler

I’m pretty sure no one in India is going to read anything that isn’t cricket-related today. (Pause here for a moment to be overwhelmingly happy). But I have a review up at Global Comment of Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent collection of short stories. Short version: it’s brilliant; where can I find a copy of Sarah Canary?

Read here.
July 17th, 2017

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything

hargraveWriting about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, I said that one problem I had with the book was its inability to establish a baseline reality for its world; the reader had no sense of what was and wasn’t possible in this world, and so moments that might otherwise have been startling or meaningful lost their effect.

Which is why, despite my own genre leanings, I’m very glad that her second book isn’t a fantasy. The Island at the End of Everything is set in a version of our world, in the Philippines at what appears to be the beginning of the twentieth century. The book opens on the island of Culion, an island populated by those “touched” by a disease (that we soon realise is leprosy) and their families. Our narrator and protagonist, Amihan, is one of those untouched–she lives with a mother who is affected by the disease. Unfortunately, the state authorities (or their representatives on the island) have decreed that harsher rules of segregation are needed if the disease is to be isolated and wiped out. People from all across the Philippines who are affected are to be brought to the island, while those adults who do not have it can still choose to live on Culion but only in areas designated “clean”. All children who do not have the disease are to be shipped off the island and sent to orphanages.

One of my favourite short stories is Karen Joy Fowler’s “King Rat”, which I’ve never yet managed to make my way through without crying. “King Rat” is about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and more broadly, the visceral awfulness of stories in which parents and children are forcibly separated.

Shortly after I met Vidkun, I wrote my own book. This was an illustrated collection of short pieces. The protagonists were all baby animals. In these stories a pig or a puppy or a lamb wandered inadvertently away from the family. After a frightening search, the stray was found again; a joyful reunion took place. The stories got progressively shorter as the book went on. My parents thought I was running out of energy for it. In fact, I was less and less able to bear the middle part of the story. In each successive version, I made the period of separation shorter.

I quote Fowler because I can, and because every excuse to do so is a good one; also to explain that I, like the narrator of this story, find this form of separation particularly hard to bear. The opening sections of The Island at the End of Everything are wholly taken up with the ripping apart of this small family, and the more straightforwardly sentimental it is (Ami and her mother calculate the number of letters they’ll have to write if they are to write one a day until Ami is allowed back on Culion again) the more I’m willing to commit to the book entirely. Which is all fine, except that the book is doing other things as well.

At the behest of the authorities, and particularly of Mr Zamora, the horrifying representative of the state, the children are removed from the island. Zamora is (I don’t like this comparison, let us have one conversation this year that’s not about Harry Potter) Umbridgelike, not only in his position as representative of deeply awful state institutions, but in a bigotry and sadism which start out seeming like they’re merely a feature of the institution he represents but that is revealed to be teetering on the brink of of something dark and unbalanced. (I’m forcibly restraining myself from making comparisons to other political leaders of this moment.) He hates and is terrified of the people he has been forced to work among–his obsession with “cleanliness” underlining just how afraid he is of catching the disease. This is not his only flaw–he is a naturalist, obsessed with butterflies (there’s some wordplay around “leprosy” and “lepidopterist” that fortunately isn’t made much of). To Ami, this mostly means that he kills butterflies, poisoning them in a bell jar that he keeps for the purpose. Her nanay (mother) is also fond of butterflies, though she, of course, has taken the opposite approach, planting a butterfly garden in the hope of bringing them to her home. (It hasn’t worked. “‘Not a single butterfly came last summer, Ami’ says Nanay. ‘I don’t think they like it on Culion.’”) The butterflies will turn out to be Significant–the evacuated children will force Zamora to drop his specimens and lose some on their way off the island–and when Amihan returns to say a final farewell, there they are, gloriously.

The butterflies are also the element that destabilises the book’s realism. In most senses this absolutely is historical fiction; the presence of the butterflies is such that we’re forced not to read the book in an entirely realist mode–it’s not magical realism (you could make an argument for The Girl of Ink and Stars being in or adjacent to that genre, though I don’t know that I’d be convinced), but I think it’s probably closest to fabulism.

Other people will probably write at length about this book’s found family, its implicit queer relationship, its evil scientist plot. All of these are handled varying degrees of well, and none of them made a huge impact on me. What stuck with me, I think, was something less tangible. In a dangerous attempt to return to Culion, Ami, Mari and Kidlat risk their lives on the sea, so that we see Ami “[...] think of all the things beneath us, the fish and the coral and the sharks.” There’s some of this sense in the early chapters as well, which feature characters both living with and very carefully not thinking about the thing that is going to kill so many of them and/or their loved ones. Which is to say that the lasting impression of this book for me, reading it in this year and at this time, is one of people giving themselves up to huge, fatal forces, and doing what needs to be done in the knowledge that things are ending, and ending soon. Until its final act, which is a reassuring return to normal operations (though perhaps not for Ami, for whom such a life has never been normal), the main emotive thrust of the book for me was a sort of gentle apocalypse.

July 2nd, 2016

June Reading

Is this going to be another of those months where I disapprove of things? (Yes)


Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen: I promised a friend I’d attend at least one of her Bailey’s prize shadowing book group sessions, and picked the last one largely because of this book. I’d seen it compared to Karen Joy Fowler’s work (which I love), there was an approving Ursula Le Guin blurb, and various other enthusiastic reviews (including this one from Jeff Vandermeer). It was probably inevitable that I’d be disappointed, and I was, a bit–as a social novel, with lots of exaggeratedly horrible characters, The Portable Veblen is successful; as the sort of thing that KJF does, it is not. I liked its joyous, over-the-top-ness, I liked every moment of Veblen and Paul attempting to figure out how to be those two people in a relationship; reading it against Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (also for the abovementioned book group) I enjoyed the ways in which it was big and sweeping and comic in ways that felt stronger than Rothschild’s own invocation of those things. But at moments where I’d have wanted it to be weird it was twee, I wanted it to do more with its Thorstein Veblen references, and Veblen herself in particular embodies a particular sort of precious, whimsical whiteness that I’m strongly put off by. I feel more kindly disposed towards it than Abigail Nussbaum does here, but the comparison with Where’d You Go Bernadette?, which I hadn’t thought of, rings disappointingly true to me.

Patrick Ness, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here: Many (many) words on this here.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts of Heaven: Many words on this here. Both this and the Ness were a part of my Carnegie shortlist shadowing project.

Garth Nix, Goldenhand: Nix was in my city for a conference and I got to interview him (forthcoming from Strange Horizons!) and also to wheedle an ARC of the next Old Kingdom book out of him–and since I’d just reread the series for the interview, and have been a fan of the Old Kingdom since the 1990s, obviously I stayed up all night and read it immediately. I have many thoughts, but am saving them for a proper review in a couple of months.

Anna Breslaw, Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here: I seem to know a lot of people who deeply loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (which is about a young woman who writes very successful fanfic) and have generally attributed the fact that it does nothing for me to my general lack of engagement with fandom. Breslaw’s book is also about a BNF in a fictional fandom but is so clumsy in its engagement with fan culture that it makes me appreciate Rowell’s book a lot more. Scarlett is a fan of a teenage werewolf drama, which is cancelled at the beginning of the book. Undaunted, Scarlett and her friends in fandom (the most popular writers) decide to keep writing fic set in this universe anyway. Scarlett makes this an excuse to write thinly-/not-at-all disguised versions of her schoolmates into a weird RPF that features a) sexbots and b) no werewolves at all and for some reason, rather than turning away in vague embarrassment the fandom decides to embrace this setting and it grows popular enough for there to be ship wars. Naturally, the principal characters (the Mean Girl who is the basis for the main sexbot, the popular boy Scarlett has a crush on) find out and things blow up.

There are the bones of a good book in this–Scarlett’s initial idolisation of her father’s Cultured-ness (vs her mother’s lack thereof), the ways this maps on to her assumptions about who is and is not culturally valuable, these make for thoughtful, nuanced character portraits, and I think the book is reaching for exactly this. But it’s awkward in its relationship to and unnecessary explanations of fandom (and what on earth is that moment when Scarlett is surprised that a writer of m/m slash is a woman???), trite in its discussion of middle-aged white man fiction (to make me want to defend Jonathan Franzen is quite a feat), just generally unimpressive.


September 13th, 2015

Of Interest (13 September, 2015)

Links! Unsorted this weekend.

One of my favourite authors on one of my favourite books. I’d read anything Karen Joy Fowler wrote, and that she loves The Once And Future King doesn’t surprise me, and also makes me very happy.

Something about this piece by Helénē Schouten feels to me like it should be a short animated film–and there are moments that made me stop and gasp.

America’s Wild West narratives, sheikhs and desert love. I like this Amira Jarmakani piece and simultaneously want to be reading another piece (possibly also by her) that reads the books themselves more closely.

Darren Anderson watches The Wizard of Oz.

Joshua Clover on Children of Men

On The Witch of Clatteringshaws and Joan Aiken’s vision for our future (and where is the essay on The Shepherd’s Crown and The Witch of Clatteringshaws that this blogpost (by the author’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, I think?) has convinced me we deserve?

Luke Bennett on the A380.

@piercepenniless, who I follow on twitter, was suspended by the site recently for quoting Sean Bonney and wrote this in response and it is good.

Dara Khan on war games and gaming in a time of war.

Is Anne Boyer ever not amazing? Serious question.

Tananarive Due on Fear of the Walking Dead and being this culture’s zombies.

Kagiso Mnisi interviews Lindokuhle Ngosi and it’s just a really good conversation.




August 27th, 2014

What I Did On My Holidays (Nine Worlds, LonCon3)

I spent two weeks this month in London meeting people I like (Sunny! Sid! Uttara! Yoav! Other people I have embarrassingly forgotten!) and going to museums and attending cons, also filled with people I like. I took very few pictures, and the ones I did didn’t have people in them, but such is life. This is not a con report, because such a thing would require more rigour and a better memory than I have brought to the process.


I was on three panels at Nine Worlds. The first of these was on myths and fairytales, with Lauren Beukes, John Connolly, Joanne Harris and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, moderated by Nazia Khatun. I was commuting from friends’ house in central London, had slipped into a panel directly before mine to avoid having to speak to new people, and was probably too disoriented to say much of value. I’d have liked to be smart and eloquent enough to properly problematise some of what other panelists were saying re. the universality of myth, but I did get to talk about the Ramayana, bestiality and Karen Joy Fowler (separately, she added hastily) and probably did not embarrass myself.

Other things I attended on the Friday: the “Archaeological Worldbuilding” Monsterclass with Debbie Challis from the Petrie Museum (great, and so well attended that most people had to sit on the floor and Jared performed bouncer duties), two good academic papers (Kelly Kanayama on Asian female assassins in comics, Samantha Kountz on immigration in post-cold war SF film), Nine Fanworks Recs (I was neutral on this–it turns out hearing people talk about their fandoms is mostly interesting only if everyone’s familiar enough with them not to need the plot explained), and the LGBTQAI and Race and Culture tracks’ joint tea party, which was the best thing because queer people and people of colour and cake all in the same room. Then I went to my second panel, on school stories, with Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, and Tiffani Angus, moderated by Ewa Scibor-Rylska. It involved wavy hand gestures, commiserating with the audience over the later Chalet School books, and at some point I shouted something about the MORAL LACUNA AT THE HEART OF HOGWARTS. So that was alright.

The journey home featured a regular bus, two night buses, and an angry drunk man who wanted to murder our bus driver. Also two fellow subcontinentals who watched from the upper deck of the bus as the man was removed and applauded and said “good show”. I don’t know.

On Saturday I had no panels and felt very unburdened. I went to a genuinely wonderful panel titled “This Will Always Be Your Home” in the Race and Culture track; I walked in too late to hear the panelists introduce themselves but  Zen Cho and Iona Sharma and Kelly Kanayama and Koel Mukherjee were all there, and another person whose name I missed (help, someone?), and it was about carving out a space for oneself in fandom and it was personal and funny and familiar. I then went to the books panels on Westerns (Jared Shurin, Will Hill, Stark Holborn, John Hornor Jacobs, Joanne Harris) and “Looking Backwards” (Gail Carriger, John J Johnston, Marek Kukula).

Sunday was the “Reading SF While Brown” panel, with Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Taran Matharu, and Camille Lofters, moderated by Stephanie Saulter. There was a point at which it was the Reading C.S. Lewis While Brown panel because apparently Narnia stretches its tentacles towards us all, but we also talked about how people of colour are described, and smelling spicy to werewolves, and magically being a white person for the duration of reading and I may have told a roomful of people that I had a thing for racist Victorians, which was made extra odd because there were a couple of people (cosplayers? time travellers? who knows?) wandering around in solar topees. It was recorded, so it might be on the internet at some point. I think we were entertaining. It was also the last Nine Worlds panel that I attended, because socialising and book buying intervened.

[We pass here over a few days of sightseeing and being fed wonderful food. There was the comics exhibition at the British Library and Matisse's Cut Outs at the Tate Modern and the single Rachel Kneebone piece at the White Cube that made me have to go home and reread Mervyn Peake and Derek Walcott.]


And on to Worldcon! I arrived on Thursday afternoon, delayed by Yoav’s providing me with dhokla and mangoes for breakfast. This meant that I missed the earlier panels I wanted to attend and also failed to meet my roommate (Hugo Nominee Liz Bourke*) until late that night. It also meant that I missed most of the terrifying registration queue, rumour of which had reached me as I travelled across the city, and was out in about forty minutes. I caught the second half of “When is a fantasy not a fantasy?” (it was good) and then proceeded not to attend any panels in favour of talking to Maureen Kincaid Speller until the evening’s panel on the Hugo best novel shortlist. Maureen had read the whole of the Wheel of Time in two weeks. Matt Hilliard had read Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles. Ruth O’Reilly tried to be nice about Mira Grant’s Parasite. Everyone, in short, had suffered nobly for their art and their pain was amusing to us.

On Friday I went to “Constructing Genre History” (which had good people on it and ended up being largely about personal histories of genre, but was interrupted by mysterious noises in the room next door), “An Anthology of One’s Own” (also very good; I’m sure someone more responsible than me livetweeted it), “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding” (disappointingly aimless, considering how great the essay that inspired it was), and then Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest in conversation about being on the Granta list thirty years apart, and what this has meant for genre’s place in the literary world. I felt rather let down by this one because it turned into another iteration of Literary Fiction Hates Us and I am so bored of that argument. Also people were Wrong about Jane Austen (or Jane Eyre, the two appeared to be interchangeable?!); in mitigation, Priest was pleasingly caustic about Amis/McEwan/Jacobson. Later, there was the You Write Pretty Panel and I loved this. Writers arguing for sentences (by other people) they thought great before getting the audience to vote. Frances Hardinge had to take over because moderator Geoff Ryman had disappeared; luckily she was very good at it. Greer Gilman’s line of Marvell was clearly the best thing read out; Hardinge’s choice of a line (also very good, fine) from Jabberwocky won the audience vote, but as the Hugos so often teach us democracy is all wrong.

Saturday began with the Strange Horizons brunch, at which there was fruit (a few days of con and I’d begun to worry about scurvy) and tea and all the good people, before I went to my first panel, on South and South East Asian SFF. It was a small, crowded room and we all talked over each other and I thought it was great–hopefully the audience thought so also. Later in the day I went to “The State of British SF“–as with the Worldbuilding panel, I’d had my expectations raised by a really good discussion online. This one ended up being too much about the publishing and marketing sides of things (and not in a particularly interesting way) and then someone in the audience asked the question about women writing SF and it just got embarrassing. I moved on to a book launch in the terrifying South Gallery before my next panel, “Saving the World. All of it“, where I hope I was sufficiently coherent.

Here is a picture taken on Saturday morning:

I imagine it growing tiny legs, Luggage-like, and trotting away.


Here is the South Gallery, which I am convinced had no end. It’s blurry because I was shaking. With fear:



Sunday began with painful cramps and I missed two panels I wanted to attend while I waited for painkillers to kick in. But when I finally staggered in, “Representation, Whitewashing and Internationalism in Fandom” was such a warm hug of a panel; everyone was smart and funny and bounced off each other so well. “The Gendered AI“, which I went to immediately after, was also very good, even when a member of the audience brought up Enthiran and used it to Explain Indian Culture (he was not Indian: it turns out we as a people are against saving the lives of women if said women are naked, or something). Being in a good mood I was mostly just amused that everyone in the room was taking the trouble to pronounce the title right(ish); in the North of the country we just dubbed it and called it Robot. Most of the day was spent meeting people and contemplating the mysterious bubbles that seemed to come out of nowhere to attach themselves to Will. I then had two back to back panels; first the “Writing Postcolonialism” one, where I got to recommend Sofia Samatar and Derek Walcott and was too frazzled to do the obvious thing and tell people to read We See a Different Frontier, and where Shaun Duke and E. Lily Yu were both amazing. Then “Fandom at the Speed of Thought“, which was slightly truncated because everyone wanted to get to the Hugos (and in any case we had a tiny audience) but surprised me by going in directions I didn’t expect in really thoughtful ways.

The Hugos happened, we snarked in the bar. Most categories were won by works or people I quite liked but had not been my first choice (Strange Horizons, “Selkie Stories” and Abigail Nussbaum were robbed, etc), but a thing that wasn’t Doctor Who won the Doctor Who category, Sofia Samatar won the not-a-Hugo, and we had twitter and cider. We missed Ethan very much (he was with us on twitter, and also in our hearts) so we made an effigy of him. Obviously.

Later that night Liz and I recorded video footage of an unusual feature of our hotel room.

Monday began with the panel I’d been stressing about since I received my Worldcon draft programme. We started (or the rest of the panel did, because I am no fun) with a mic check that turned into a not-very-good a capella session (when they finally make the Science Fiction fans do Glee crossover show it will not have me in it); when we started talking things got genuinely good and I think we could have gone on quite a bit longer. I suspect other good things are going to come out of that panel also, but more on that later. I spent most of the day at a rapidly growing table of people I like (as the crowd grew other tables were absorbed into that one); there was a lot of wine. I would have been quite happy for it to have gone on for another few days.




I’m not great at dealing with crowds of people, or new people, or a lack of privacy, or really any of the things that come with spending a couple of weeks in buildings full of people and living out of a suitcase. I was dreading the whole thing. If I thought I was likely to enjoy any part of the experience, it was Nine Worlds, because of its relative smallness and friendliness and explicitly stated politics that I agree with. And yet I quite enjoyed Nine Worlds and I loved LonCon3.

Nine Worlds did a lot of things right, and there’s a lot I really liked about it. A room for quiltbag and poc fans (my people!); pronoun badges; gender-neutral loos; lists of panellists’ book recommendations; being able to make it clear whether you were able to be talked to/photographed. A weekend of this and I was genuinely a bit surprised to see pictures of myself appearing on twitter after LonCon panels I’d been on–it’s not something I find hugely bothersome, but coming after 9W it was particularly … visible.

On the other hand (and this is in large part because I wasn’t staying at the hotel and therefore couldn’t retreat to my room), at 9W I felt constant pressure to be switched on and interacting with people. There simply weren’t quiet spaces I could escape to and rooms full of strangers, however lovely said strangers might be, are still something of a nightmare. I had some great conversations with people (Zen! Alex! Ewa! Rhube! Sophia!) and I wish I’d spent more time with all of them, but the bits in between were not always great. This is one of the ways in which the hugeness of a worldcon worked in its favour for me. The Excel was big and impersonal enough (I think this may also be why I like airports, which are a thing the Excel resembles. Complete with frequent plane noises.) to absorb even the thousands of people who attended, and if I needed a space to be alone there were lots of them. And as it turned out I didn’t need that space; there was so much going on, much of it involving people I wanted to see, that I kept going for days and am still feeling weirdly energised. As well, the LonCon3 programme was a thing of wonder; here too the sheer size of it meant that I could choose at any point between multiple things that interested me, and individual panels could focus on a super-specialised subject (9W’s general “myth!”, “westerns!” etc meant more flexibility, but they also meant that discussions started from such a broad base that they couldn’t really move much beyond “so, why is this thing cool?” I caught myself speaking in platitudes more than once and being quoted, which was worse.)

Being a brown queer woman at a con was still not an eyeroll-free experience in either case. I don’t feel like the inclusiveness that is so consciously a part of 9W’s larger structure and part of specific tracks has quite made its way into all of their programming yet. I spent a lot of books panels as an audience member not raising the question of race or empire because who wants to be the brown person in the audience who keeps asking about race? (But it’s a panel about Westerns. But it’s a panel about Victorians studying Egypt). LonCon was conscious about diversity to the point that I know a few people of colour felt they were only on panels about not being white and/or western, and there were still a number of well meaning con-goers** whose “welcome” to all these new young fans was more cringeworthy than encouraging (shoutout to Will, who not only rescued me from one of these situations but did so with wine). Occasionally Men Told Me Things. I know there were a few fraught moments at panels. I was in one such fraught moment and I did not handle it well. But as far as I could tell, the organisers jumped in to fix things as soon as possible; I got the sense that people were really trying.


Highlights of this two weeks of con-going: too many to name. Mahvesh dealing with a patronising man in the most glorious of ways, Maureen’s disapproval of things, the mysterious Karen, several conversations with people I look up to (some of whom know who I am), Niall’s leg ears, discovering that people I like on Twitter are exactly the same in person, a famous writer’s opinions on the modern toilet system, finding a beloved bracelet I thought was lost (a LonCon miracle!), Sid’s biryani, Yoav’s pumpkin kuzhambu, Emily’s Ursula dress, sitting in the Excel and looking up at the rain and wondering when the see-through roof was going to cave in, the disgust of Erin’s cat, any number of embarrassing things that I said that have hopefully been forgotten by the people who were there to hear them. I wish I’d spent more time with almost everyone I met. I even miss Tiny Shower.



*Sorry Liz

**Which needs a hyphen, because I’m not sure what the verb “to congo” suggests but it’s probably not this.

June 4th, 2014

May Reading

A certain amount of reading seems to have got itself done this month, I don’t know how. Not enough (never enough!), but then it has been a busy time.  


Evelyn Smith, Seven Sisters At Queen Anne’s: You know how in a lot of classic school stories the new girl travels to the school and is different and has to learn the ways of the school and it all ends well? Here, the new girl doesn’t change much, and nor does the school, and everyone still manages to quite like and respect one another. And it’s smart and funny and I would like to read more Evelyn Smith please.


Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation: Gorgeous, and likely to be one of the best things I read this year. Column here.


Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon: I ended up really liking this despite (because of?) its messiness. Column here.


Sarra Manning, The Worst Girlfriend in the World: My track record with Manning is that she either leaves me a feels-y mess (You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me) or leaves me entirely unmoved (Adorkable). This book did neither of those; it did make me happy because it’s a book about female friendship where love interests are either entirely secondary or entirely ridiculous.


Sophia McDougall, Mars Evacuees: I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books about Issues this month—lots of death and war and trauma. Mars Evacuees is also set during a war and it never forgets that, or neglects to take seriously the fact that people are at risk of death—and one of the ways in which it treats these issues more seriously than a lot of the other things I’ve been reading is that it sees actual people caught up in them. And yet it’s also funny and warm and warming. It’s not perfect, but it is very, very good and made me very happy.


Kathryn Allan (ed), Disability in Science Fiction: I have a review of this up at Strange Horizons, here.


Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!!: Last week’s column, here.


Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant: I’m part of a Carnegie shadowing group (the award winner is announced later this month) and so read this for that. I was not impressed.


Karen Joy Fowler, The Science of Herself: PM Press have put out an e-chapbook containing “The Science of Herself” (a story about Mary Anning), “The Pelican Bar” (which I’d already read) along with another short story, an essay titled “The Motherhood Statement” and an interview. I was between Carnegie books and thought I’d read the first story, and naturally sat and read the whole book instead, including the story I’d already read. I hadn’t known, or had forgotten, that the title story was about Mary Anning—this was a day or so after the google doodle in her honour. This was an even better tribute, and I should have something longer on it soon.


Kevin Brooks, The Bunker Diary: Another of the Carnegie shortlisted books. I’ll be writing about this at greater length soon; I’m not sure it works, but I am sure that I respect it.


Anne Fine, Blood Family: Also on the Carnegie list, and will also be written about soon. I was not exactly blown away.


Katherine Rundell, Rooftoppers: Another Carnegie book. Treads a precarious line between charming and twee and sometimes slips, but is also sometimes great. I don’t know if it’s the SF fan in me that demands more worldbuilding, better fleshing out of this particular iteration of oppressive state and secret lives of vagabonds, but its lack of substance did annoy me at times. On the other hand, it would make the most wonderful Disney movie.

July 5th, 2013

June Reading

What I read in June.

Lucy Boston, The Children Of Green Knowe: Wrote about this for the column, here. It is all golden perfection.

Adi, Tantra: This is not golden perfection, but it was so entertaining that I will be reading the sequel anyway.

Barbara Pym, No Fond Return of Love, A Glass of Blessings: Wrote about the first of these here. I’m going to be reading more Pym over the next few months, so expect frequent reminders that she is great.

Grace Burrowes, Lady Eve’s Indiscretion: I think I’ve gone off Burrowes. I really liked her earlier books, but the last few have oscillated between boring and unreadable for me. So I skimmed this, but I think the “indiscretion” in the title is that the title character got raped? Well okay then.

John Freeman (ed), Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4: Hmm. On the whole I approve very much of most of the writers on the most recent Granta list. And I wrote about the collection here.

Gita Wolf, Andrea Anastasio, Bhajju Shyam, Alone in the Forest: Lovely thing from Tara books- will review soon, but I liked it a lot.

Gita Wolf and Sunita, Gobble You Up!: See above.

Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: I cried.

René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Astérix le Gaulois, Asterix Legionnaire: I’m trying to work my way through the Asterix books in the original French, just to see if in doing so I can bring my scrappy French back. So far it’s been slower than I expected but mostly successful; I have to look up some words, but I’m getting the gist of the stories and (I think) most of the puns. The last time I studied French was 2002, so this isn’t that bad.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: I’m planning to reread this and write a much longer piece on it, but it is astonishingly good and if you can possibly get a hold of it you should.

Il Sung Na, A Book of Sleep: I think it was Felix Gilman (whose books are excellent and you should read them) who recommended this to me; a lovely, quiet board book involving giraffes and penguins and owls and some beautiful art.

Agatha Christie, Destination Unknown, A Pocket Full of Rye, Third Girl: I thought it would be fun, partly as context to my real research, to read specifically those Christie mysteries that were published in the years around the end of the British empire. These are some of them.

Eloisa James, Once Upon a Tower: This was a romance novel I genuinely liked. Because it’s an Eloisa James book there was a lot of Shakespeare-referencing; there were also people making a mess of relationships and hurting one another for believable reasons, and people utterly failing at sex for believable reasons and it’s all just very refreshing.

Francine Pascal, The Sweet Life: I continue to be fascinated by the Sweet Valley reboots and the ways in which they engage with the original books– see my review of Sweet Valley Confidential here. The Sweet Life has as its primary plot a false accusation of sexual assault, which angered and depressed me (particularly since I read this on the same day as I’d watched a movie about a false accusation of sexual assault), but it also, for example, clearly reminds us that the man accused attempted date rape in an earlier book. I’m used to having a twisted, combative relationship with a series– I’m not used to the supposed author of the series having a similar relationship. (Note: the writing’s still awful)

Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim, The Moon Moth: This surprised me by dispensing of most of the Vance-prose in a Vance story and still being very good.

Jane Austen, Persuasion: Reread so that when I read Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family it would be fresh in my head. It is still wonderful.

Erin Dionne, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet: Entertaining, but I think the sheer horror of any parents calling their daughter Hamlet took me out of the story from the beginning.

Lavanya Sankaran, The Hope Factory: Reviewed for The Hindustan Times, and I’ll post when it’s published. For now, I was unimpressed.

Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, Chris Eliopoulos, Hawkeye 11: Right, so I normally read comics in bulk (if I read them at all) and talk about them then (if I talk about them at all), but this? Amazing. The day it came out I spent the evening screaming about my FEELS at friends on the internet who were, in turn, screaming back. There’s so much to play with here, critically, but I haven’t fangirled in so long and I HAVE SO MANY FEELS.

March 30th, 2011

About books about books

I planned to read more Russians this year, and I’m still hoping it will happen. But a number of other factors (including a larger project that I seem to have let myself in for) have coincided to make sure that my reading thus far has had a different theme – that of books about books. I’m not counting literary criticism here (since that is necessarily about books) but I’m thinking of characters in books who read and think about what they read. So far this year these books have included Jo Walton’s Among Others, Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built. I’ve also read the most recent Karen Joy Fowler collection and Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, both of which engage with other works of fiction though not as directly. I’ll certainly soon be rereading Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family. I might even reread Northanger Abbey, since I haven’t visited it in a few years.

But: what next? What am I missing that has a protagonist’s reading as a major part of its plot? I need recommendations, internet.