September 24, 2014

Ava Chin, Eating Wildly

This past weekend’s column. I enjoyed the book, but also look how pretty the cover is.

 

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Late in Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, a radio producer asks the author why she forages. Momentarily hesitant, she explains that foraging reminds her “that the world is a generous place […] I know that plants will always sprout in the spring, become lush in the summer, and then grow dormant in the winter. And the following year, it’ll happen all over again.”

Chin’s book, in large part a forager’s handbook, does make the world seem a particularly generous place. Parks in New York yield fruit and herbs and a huge variety of mushrooms; Eating-Wildly-covereven in the more populated parts of the city it is possible to find unknown treasures. Even in the winter nature provides; dandelions sprout serendipitously, or a little effort reveals a spread of field garlic. Chin is the author of a blog on urban foraging for the New York Times and she is at her best when she portrays the world as busting with life, all interconnected, and ready to share that bounty with those who care to look. Organised loosely around the seasons, each chapter is dedicated to some new (or rediscovered) food that Chin finds in the course of her journey. Many chapters end with simple recipes using the food stuff in question, while others explain a technique, like the drying of mugwort leaves or how to create a spore print to identify a mushroom. With an index, a bibliography and a short list of other resources, Eating Wildly is very much a book about food, about the process of finding it and thinking about it and consuming it.

But it is also a memoir. This is not unusual for a book about food; food and the ways in which we think about it tend to be deeply emotive. Over the course of the book we see Chin work out her complicated and loving relationship with her grandmother, the end of one long-term relationship and various attempts to begin another, her difficulty in coming to terms with the father who abandoned her, and most of all her relationship with her mother. The narrative skips back and forward in time, jumping from memory to memory, many of which are food-centred. Those set during the author’s childhood are particularly well done—Chin doesn’t simplify, or downplay the hurt that people who love one another are capable of inflicting upon each other.

It is in its contemporary storyline that Eating Wildly stumbles. One danger of writing a personal memoir intertwined with a foraging diary is that in trying to turn these two strands into a unified whole the things that are strongest about them may be rendered secondary to the larger narrative. There are moments when the story of Chin’s foraging experiences and that of her emotional journey come together in genuinely moving ways—as it does when, leaving the hospital where her grandmother has died she comes across the mulberry tree for which she’s been hunting across the city. But often the book’s structure is a little too obvious; it’s all too clear what this chapter’s big revelatory moment will be, and the text is eager to make the connection between what Ava learns in one sphere and how the resulting lesson might be applied to the other—as when an encounter with a hive of bees reminds her that there can only be one “Queen” in her partner’s life. The neatness of this intertwining makes it all a little too pat, as if Chin’s emotional life could be fixed entirely by a year’s experiences. Some of the rawness that made the earlier sections work is lost.

At its best, Eating Wildly is moving as a memoir and fascinating as a food book. In its weaker moments it provokes some rolling of the eyes. And the wild mushroom, fig and goat cheese tart looks amazing.

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September 23, 2014

Changes, Announcements

Or just one change and one announcement really, and by now most of those who are interested in/affected by it have probably seen it.

I’ve spoken here before about how important Strange Horizons has been to me as a fan, for the things it publishes as well as for providing me with a community of readers that feels more like home than anything else I’ve found in SF fandom. A huge part of that has been due to the work of the reviews editors – (in the time I’ve been reading the magazine) Niall Harrison, then Abigail Nussbaum.

Abigail is stepping down as reviews editor at the end of the year, and the reviews will be passed on to a team of people. Maureen Kincaid Speller will be Senior Reviews Editor, and (this is my big announcement bit) she’ll be working with me and Dan Hartland. We (we!) are also hoping to find someone to do media reviews (details here).

What this means is:

a) I get to work with people I like and respect (and if you’re not already reading Dan’s and Maureen’s criticism you should be) on something I really care about.

b) Abigail will hopefully have more time to write for us (if you’re not already reading Abigail’s criticism you should be).

c) I will shortly be having a minor crisis about Being Good Enough.

d) This is going to be great!

September 23, 2014

Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library

One of the things that’s interesting about Grant’s kindle single is the way in which the lines between how we talk about physical books[1] and ebooks are constantly crossed by its format and subject. As I say below, pieces of this length are probably financially more feasible in ebook form, and yet it’s mostly about physical books, and has a (electronic) cover that deliberately invokes a very specific print publishing tradition. I think what I was going for in this week’s column is that this makes it particularly interesting to see how the book is read; in what ways it can be (or resists being) co-opted into the various conversations around books-vs-ebooks (and indeed the discourse that puts that “vs” there at all). And the ebook format allows us access to some of that information about how it’s being read/used in unique ways.

I think instead I come across as crotchety and annoyed that other people are highlighting the WRONG things.

(They are, though.)

 

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I find it very easy to be very annoyed by the sort of people who rhapsodise over the smell of books (you can now buy a perfume that claims to capture this) or the feel of them, or the magic space that is a bookshop. I love rooting through second-hand bookshops, but I always want to wash my hands afterwards; I do most of my book-buying online; sometimes I’ll even walk into a bookshop and look at what’s on offer and not want any of it. It feels often as if the idea of books (of being the sort of person who reads) is more important than the fact of them—I don’t recognise myself in the culture that produces such things as the cringeworthy “date a girl who reads” meme. Occasionally someone will tell me that they can’t read ebooks because they require the physical presence of a book, and perhaps this is really true for them; but I find myself wondering how many books they buy and read per year, whether they have magic houses and space-time-continuum-defying shelves, whether they ever move across the world (or just down the road) and have to confront the sheer weight of books. I’m probably displaying all manner of prejudice in doing so, and yet.

One of the several advantages of reading Linda Grant’s short piece I Murdered My Library as an ebook (perhaps the most obvious is that pieces of writing this length are much more feasible in a world where we have ebooks) is that the Kindle usefully marks for you not only the sentences that you yourself have noticed and highlighted, but the things that a number of other readers have. And so I know that here as well, readers have been most moved by things like “you cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books”, or “reading wasn’t my religion—it was my oxygen”. At one point nearly an entire page bears the dotted underline that tells me that other readers have been here before me (in this the whole thing resembles a much-used library book). The only part of the page left un-annotated until I highlight it myself is a section where Grant speaks of a specific author, Jean Rhys, and it’s the most moving thing there.

Because when Grant writes about books it’s clear that she’s very aware of the weight of them, in the metaphorical as well as the purely physical sense. She can speak of Rhys and make me teary; she can also speak of the usefulness of knowing that Tom Stoppard once wrote a novel (“Lord Malquist and Mr Moon was the literary equivalent of the Wonderbra for the intellectually pretentious students of the seventies”). Physical books can be charged with meaning and personal history; reading and owning books can be oppressive to the point that it’s possible to feel hatred.

On the subject of ebooks Grant is pragmatic; some things aren’t available as ebooks, sometimes technology fails, much of the time it’s a relief to have lots of reading material in one tiny device (“[and it] feels more intimate, like a shelled animal carrying its home on its back”). Paper books can be burnt or pulped or thrown away and it’s a sad necessity and/or a tragedy; “but you can’t kill books” (she quotes Amos Oz).

And yet, and yet. “It is death that we’re talking about. Death is the subject”. A library is a bigger idea than the individual books of which it’s made; and it’s at the point when Grant resigns herself to the impossibility of her library and discards most of it, that the book begins and ends. The moment of the murder. You can feel the suppressed horror rising through the book; Grant’s last words are “what have I done?”

 

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 [1] See Raghu Karnad’s “booksing” piece, also Kuzhali Manickavel on maybe not wanting to fondle/sniff/lick/have sex with secondhand books that smell weird.

September 11, 2014

Accessing the Future: A Conversation Between Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan. Part III

Djibril al-Ayad (one of the editors of We See a Different Frontier, which I loved) and Kathryn Allan (editor of Disability in Science Fiction, which I reviewed here) are editing an anthology that (in their own words) “will explore disability—and the intersectionality of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. They want people of all abilities to see themselves, as they are now and as they want to be, in our collective human future(s)”. The campaign is here; it passed the minimum target a few days ago, but the editors are hoping to achieve various stretch goals, such as being able to pay pro rates for the stories.

I’m really looking forward to this, in large part because they are editors I respect very much, and agreed to host the final third of a conversation between them here on the blog. You can read the first and second parts here and here respectively. With artwork (originally from here) by Robin Kaplan, who will be doing the book’s cover.

 

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[Kathryn writes:] Because we can’t stop geeking out about the science fiction we love (and want to see!), I asked my co-editor Djibril al-Ayad a few questions about his thoughts on Accessing the Future. What unfolded was, in my opinion, an insightful look into the rewards of editing on the margins of genre when you have a love of SF and an open mind. The interview ended up being longer than we intended (this is a good thing!), so we decided to break it up into three parts. Today we share with you Part III. (See part I and part II.)

[Kathryn] I think we first met during a Twitter #feministSFchat on cyberpunk (or something equally cool). What is the appeal of feminist SF and cyberpunk to you?

[Djibril] Feminist (i.e., intersectional) science fiction has always seemed to me the greatest value of speculative fiction, writing that doesn’t take place in the “real world”; that may be because I started reading after the 1970s, so it’s always been around for me. Cyberpunk was the genre I grew up with, and it was cool, it was slick, it had heroes I could aspire to be (because I couldn’t fight, didn’t want to go into space, but I could code!) and because it satirized the übercapitalist world I could see being built around me. But although cyberpunk grew in part out of the political, experimental, non-conformist science fiction of the 60s and 70s, which very much included feminist writers like Russ, Le Guin and Piercy, these influences were largely unacknowledged, and the genre became pretty macho. Feminist and queer cyberpunk has always been around too, of course, and great novels by Melissa Scott, Nicola Griffith, Nalo Hopkinson, Laura J. Mixon, Lauren Beukes and a hundred others have been breaking this ice since at least the 90s. There is of course scope for much, much more.

[Kathryn] Yes! Thank you for pointing out the feminist SF influences of cyberpunk. I think our shared love and understanding of feminist SF and cyberpunk is how we knew we’d work well together. What other subgenres of SF do you enjoy reading & publishing?

[Djibril] I feel kind of the same about other genres: I enjoy classic horror, Lovecraftian paranormal noir, sword and sorcery, but these days I get impatient if there isn’t a meaningful, progressive twist to it. Forget your creepily lovingly portrayed serial killers, your puritan New Englander professors, your noble kings and generals; I want to read about ghosts fighting back against colonial oppression, minorities standing up to corporate-organized Cthulhu cultists, fantasy with lower class, queer or other marginalized protagonists fighting for their world.

[Kathryn] Speaking of corporate-organized Cthulhu cultists, as an editor, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who feel marginalized by mainstream publishing?

[Djibril] This is a tough one. It would be self-serving of me to say that mainstream publishing isn’t everything, that there are small presses and indie magazines out there that are hungry for good writing, that love marginalized authors and topics, that will cherish rk-fearoffalling1and promote and maybe even be a step along the path to broader recognition for writers neglected by the mainstream at the moment. But I don’t know if it’s usefully true; and I certainly know it isn’t enough.

By the same token, some would advise them to self-publish, because you can make it that way too, sidestepping the mainstream. There’s a lot of privilege behind such advice as well, though (not to mention a juicy slice of the Capitalist Dream), because it ignores the ingrained prejudices that infect readers of indie works as much as it does the mainstream gatekeepers themselves. I’m blissfully unaware of a lot of disadvantages that I’m privileged not to face myself. So while we and quite a few other small press publishers will do their best to signal boost underrepresented authors, and while the advice I’d give to *any* writer would be to keep writing, whatever you write, whoever reads it, because practice and persistence is worth infinitely more than any “raw talent”, I don’t pretend that I have any of the answers, or that my saying nice or inspirational things is going to make it easier.

 

Please support the Accessing the Future anthology at igg.me/at/accessingfuture.

September 10, 2014

August Reading

… which sounds entirely different from what it is meant to signify: the books I read in August.

There were not many of them; between conventions in London and conference-planning in Newcastle the only time I read at all was on trains. But I did manage to read a few things.

 

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm: I’ve seen some positive reviews of this book that treat its portrayal of the publishing industry and its books within the book as revelatory, and I feel like I might be missing something? I did genuinely enjoy it though.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm, The Year of the Griffin, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: I was involved in a Diana Wynne Jones conference that was to take place at the beginning of September (that it is now over is the only reason I’m able to post this thing now). I reread The Tough Guide and Dark Lord of Derkholm for my own paper, The Year of the Griffin because having reread DLoD I thought I might as well (and also it’s just good), Howl’s Moving Castle because I was moderating a panel about the adaptation to film (and would also be seeing the film for the first time in a long while). I feel that the proper response to weeks of thinking about the conference ought to be to not want to think about Jones for a while. Instead, I find myself contemplating a complete reread.

Rainbow Rowell, Landline: I wrote about this here.

Nick Harkaway, Tigerman: Tigerman offers so much to unpack and play with that it’s the sort of thing that critics ought to love. And so much of it looks so obvious and over-drawn, and then the whole is salvaged by quiet, individual moments that have quite a lot of emotional power. I’ll be discussing this elsewhere at length, but for now I’m very glad it exists.

Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book: I wrote about this here.

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, The Last Battle: I have reached the Narnia and Postcolonialism bit of my thesis and there is far too much to work with.

Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck: I needed Heyer, because I was exhausted with moving, and this was all there was. It’s very far from being my favourite of her works, and I’d forgotten how irritating the main characters are. The Beau Brummel cameo is still great though.

 

September 8, 2014

Rainbow Rowell, Landline

I did not read much last month (I will post my regular list in the next few days, along with my excuses) but a thing that I did read and enjoy was the new Rainbow Rowell.

A thing I do not address here that is nonetheless worth talking about is, as Din pointed out in a conversation elsewhere, the extent to which the book’s premise is gendered and what it does with that. Probably a task for someone other than me, considering how bad I’ve been at writing words down lately.

Here is a column, anyway.

 

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Neal is the perfect father, working from home and looking after the children, cooking healthy meals for the family, making the house beautiful. His wife Georgie is a comedy writer who does not cook, works long hours and, horror of horrors, has chosen to prioritise attempting to achieve her dream job over her family this Christmas.

This is the situation with which Rainbow Rowell’s Landline opens. Neal flies home to his family, taking the children with him and avoiding Georgie’s calls. Georgie is left to spend the few days before Christmas alone. Then by chance she uses the landline in her mother’s house to call her husband and finds herself talking to Neal again—not the Neal of 2013, but the Neal of 1998, when he and Georgie had just become a couple and when she used to call him on this number.

The conceit is vaguely science-fictional (a phone that allows you to call someone in the past); the execution is not. Some of the staples of time travel fiction show up later in the story—conversations with characters who are dead in the book’s present, the potential for paradoxes, the suggestion that these conversations are a part of the past which the Neal of the present remembers. But all of this is relegated to the background, existing merely to put these characters into this situation. It’s not science fiction, and I suspect this may be important to a reading of it.Landlinegrey-1-e1381519474537-300x441

I think more than anything else Landline is in dialogue with a particular sort of romance narrative, and one I’m very susceptible to, that has the teenaged romance of the nineties as a sort of ideal of the form. It works because we find the story of the young protagonists meeting at the college magazine, falling in love through a series of misunderstandings, worrying about the future familiar and likeable; for readers (women in particular, since this sort of narrative tends to be marketed to us) it’s a story we grew up with.

It’s no surprise, then, that at times the young Neal is more appealing than adult Neal, even to Georgie. “She hoped this was the right Neal. (She didn’t mean the right Neal, she meant the young one.)” Youth and young love are important because beginnings are important; for much of the book Georgie is allowed to believe that if she can only say the right things to the Neal of the past, she has a chance of fixing her relationship with the Neal of the present.

Where Landline is interesting, though, is in the moments when it challenges this construction of romance and forces us to see these characters as flawed adults who have already said the right things, who have begun well but still need to work on what they have.

And perhaps this is the deeper reason why this book is not a science fictional novel. The time travel story of necessity generally constructs time as a series of events that lead to other events, so that changing one small thing can affect the whole world. Everything may be connected, in a butterfly effect sort of way, but some form of cause-effect relationship is still there and the only reason we can’t plot it out is the impossibility of sufficient data. With the right amount of knowledge perhaps we could go back in time and kill Hitler and not cause any awful effects to our own world.

No, suggests Landline, you can’t just swoop in and change things, however much you want to, because things are constantly moving and human relationships are a work in progress. Rowell’s book ends with a grand gesture that is narratively satisfying, but we’re never allowed to believe this is the end of the characters’ problems. Time and relationships don’t work that way, even if you have a magic phone.

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September 1, 2014

The future is ScarJo

I have watched a lot of Scarlett Johansson movies this year. I have also watched other movies, some of which are mentioned in this thing I wrote recently for the Indian Express (this version is slightly edited, the result of having rewatched Lucy). This isn’t the long Scarlett Johansson’s Summer of SF piece I crave, and I hope someone does write that soon. I do want to write more about Lucy which, for all its badness is occasionally bad in really interesting ways (on twitter, Rahul Kanakia summed it up for me when he said it was nice to see “an SF film with vision and ambition”, even if “both vision and ambition were very stupid”). But not yet.

 

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A young American student in Taiwan falls into the hands of drug smugglers, who surgically insert a packet of a new chemical into her stomach. When the package leaks, its effects upon her system are catastrophic—her capacity to use her brain expands, allowing her to manipulate matter and absorb huge amounts of information at a glance, but she has not long to live.

Accepting the obvious, that no movie exists in a cultural vacuum, it’s tempting to read Luc Besson’s Lucy in the context of other recent movies. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character, has starred in a run of science fiction films over the last year—she plays an alien in a human body in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a quickly-developing sentient computer operating system in the Oscar-nominated Her, and spy-turned-superhero the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

All of these roles have her cast as an outsider and observer of humanity– even the Marvel movies, where her character is self-contained and closed-off. Johansson brings to them all a sort of curious detachment that is genuinely effective. Under the Skin opens with the putting-together of the alien character’s eye so that from the beginning we’re aware of her as a being who sees; in a probably-accidental parallel scene in Besson’s film, Lucy comes back to consciousness after the drug has wracked her body and we see her eye blinking through several shapes and permutations before coming to rest.

And yet. As the nameless protagonist of Under The Skin comes closer to humanity, we’re invited to see the creatures she preys on as vulnerable, thinking beings. Black Widow’s arc has her open up and form gradual friendships with her new colleagues. Samantha, the “her” of Her, begins by forging a relationship with one human but is soon involved in intimate connections with hundreds, her developing intellect allowing for a larger relationship with other creatures, human or AI. Lucy, by contrast, is growing away from the humans around her.

Lucy has a number of resonances with another big science fiction movie of this summer, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which brilliant scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads her dying husband’s consciousness to a powerful computer. With access to near-infinite amounts of information and a rapidly expanding consciousness, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) turns into something of a monster. Both films have their protagonists grow more and more remote, both are martyred for science (Transcendence seems a little more ambivalent than Lucy on this subject). Both feature Morgan Freeman in the supporting role of a scientist whose job is largely to look wise and reflect upon the follies of mankind. Both use TED talk style settings as a tool for exposition. Neither is very good.

And yet it’s interesting (or ought to be) to consider what these two science fiction films about characters transcending what we know as human, released within a few months of each other, have to say about humanity and where it goes from here.

Nowhere good, appears to be the answer. Lucy’s preliminary reaction to the changes in her body is to travel around Taiwan indiscriminately killing the local people—the film’s racial politics are about what you’d suspect from the trailer, which consists entirely of Johansson’s character killing Asian men—and even as she becomes more resigned to her situation and tries to reach out she finds it harder to make connections with other people.  Will Caster’s expanded consciousness doesn’t extend to such things as greater empathy—he quickly begins to use other people’s bodies as tools and even with the wife whom he loves he is unable to grasp the concept of consent. (The scene in which Hall’s Evelyn reacts to his violation of her boundaries with an almost-childish “you’re not allowed!” is one of the most powerful in the film.)

Apart from being a tragically limited understanding of human intelligence, I suspect this is bad science—though accepting flawed science is probably a prerequisite of both films.

Early in the film, as Lucy is pursued by her captors we cut to Discovery channel-style footage of a predator fleeing prey—at one level she is just another animal. In a late scene we see her travel through time to meet the first Lucy, our earliest human ancestor and reach out to her, re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (previously shown in the film, which doesn’t really trust its audience to understand things like metaphors). Across time and space and thousands of years of evolution the first and last humans (because when Lucy’s brain has reached 100% capacity where else is there to go?) see each other, and forge a connection. The film can identify Lucy with animals, or with our most distant ancestors, or with the Biblical God; when it comes to humans in our current form both it, and Lucy herself, don’t seem to know what to do.

In this Lucy is the more intelligent of the two films (which is to say very little); more than once we see her struggling to hold on to her humanity.  Yet the question remains. Freeman’s character, Professor Norman, tells Lucy that one of the most important functions of life forms is to pass on knowledge. A suggestion that this knowledge might be misused is made, then dismissed. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” says Lucy, at the end of the film. I suspect many of us would prefer not to.

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August 29, 2014

Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book

A thing I’ve occasionally done to amuse myself since I moved to the UK is to adopt a fake curious anthropologist’s gaze and marvel at the natives with their primitive food and orange war paint and television rituals (a story they keep telling one another about an immigrant doctor who averts disaster a lot and is basically my dad*; a weekly sport involving cakes).

All of which made rereading Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book on a recent trip to London particularly gratifying.

From a recent column.

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The history of anthropology, like many other areas of study, is inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism, and the assumption that the subject positions of observer, recorder, analyser belonged as naturally to the European as the position of object for study belonged to the “native”. Verrier Elwin was a tribal activist who took up Indian citizenship after independence and whose expertise was drawn upon by Nehru; he was also a man who spent years studying the Gond people, married a Raj Gond girl (she was thirteen, he was forty) and wrote and published extensively about her sexual behaviour, eventually divorcing her after his work on her people was done. Nowadays this form of research would be considered somewhat unethical (to put it mildly) and it would be nice to think it wasn’t entirely accepted at the time.

But Elwin has been dead for half a century now, and it has been ten years since the grandson of his manservant wrote a book of his own. It’s probably reductive to read Bhajju Shyam’s The London Jungle Book entirely in the context of this history, and I don’t mean to, but while it can’t negate a few centuries of modern history, it is full of joyous inversions that make that history more palatable.

London Jungle BookCommissioned to decorate the walls of a British restaurant, Bhajju Shyam travels to London with mixed feelings. An artist, and one unfamiliar with the local language, he records his experience of the city through a series of paintings that draw upon the motifs he is familiar with, from Gond art. And so the London Underground becomes a giant worm, with the individual lines depicted by snakes (which connote the earth) and the stations by spiders at the centre of complex webs. Big Ben is a giant rooster (another keeper of time), its eye watching over the city. His regular bus, with its safe, familiar route, appears as a faithful dog. English people at a pub are represented by bats hanging upside-down on the branches of a tree—suggesting that they truly come to life at night, and that the pub itself is a sustaining, life-giving environment. The different varieties of London rain are depicted through a series of the patterns used in Gond tattoos.

There’s no sense that any of this is intended for a deliberate decolonising project; for one thing, it’s far more generous than such a project might be. The London Jungle Book is always kind to London, treating it with an openness and an interest even when speaking of unpleasant things. At one point he observes London’s homeless population; at another he points out that many of those watching him work were happier to speak about his art to one another than to him. Often it is playful and personal—the map of the underground includes a busker in one corner “because I like buskers”; later on Shyam speaks of the social cachet his travels abroad have brought him, so that he can now tell stories that other people want to listen to, and above him the crescent moon is transformed into an underground sign.London Jungle Book 2

 

And yet it’s hard not to read politically. Because here is a Gond artist from Bhopal observing the British metropole, using a title reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling (in their introduction to Bhajju Shyam’s book, Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf claim that Elwin compared one of his own books on the Gond to The Jungle Book), and insisting upon interpreting the city on his own terms, and through his own set of signifiers. The city is turned into a natural space, populated by snakes, dogs, bats, and similar creatures; it’s the author himself who figures as the human observer. And in the end he returns to his own country in the figure of a reporter and a teller of stories, someone whose words and representation of this foreign city and its people bear real weight

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*(Not my mum; it is an important part of the story that the Doctor cannot be a woman, for some mystical reason that an outsider cannot understand)

August 27, 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:

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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.

 

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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.

August 24, 2014

Tove Jansson, The Moomins and the Great Flood

Tove Jansson’s birth centenary was on August 9, and I thought a celebratory column might be appropriate. It’s been less than a year since I wrote about Fair Play (here) and I do try not to write about the same author too often, but this was clearly a special occasion.

While in London I also went to this small exhibition about her life and work; if I’d had time I’d have gone back just to look at one particular picture again. Recommended, if you can get there in the next three or so weeks.

 

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Anniversaries are useful things. It is Tove Jansson’s birth centenary this week, and in celebration of her work a number of her books have been published or republished this year, and an exhibition currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But this Jansson revival has been going on for some years now among English-language readers, ever since Sort Of Books republished some of her wonderful writing for adults (including Fair Play, discussed in this column in the past). Yet it’s as the writer and artist of the Moomin stories that Jansson is best known, and they are some of the finest children’s books ever written.

“It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures”. The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was begun the year the war broke out, set aside and completed the year it ended. It was also, for some reason, the last of the series to be translated into English; appearing in a limited edition in 2005, some years after Jansson’s death, and only widely available since 2012.

Moomintroll and his mother, Moominmamma, walk through the great forest in search of a place to build a home. The forest is dark and full of danger, the swamp is home to a giant Serpent, and Moominpappa has gone missing and they may never see him again. The world is vast and unknowable and terrifying, all they can hope for, as Moominmamma suggests, is that “we’re so small that we won’t be noticed if something dangerous comes along”. Jansson’s illustrations add to this effect; the moomins are so tiny, so fragile compared to the landscape around them, and when the serpent appears, the artwork suggests that the moomins are about the size of one of its eyeballs. They are subject to a storm, and to the flood of the title. They are never safe in their smallness.

The Moomins and the Great FloodThis vastness and bleakness is a part of the later Moomin books as well, particularly in Moominland Midwinter (my own favourite of the series). But in the later books there is generally the solidity and comfort of home and family. Here, Moominmamma may have dry socks in her bag, but there is no home to go to, the family is divided, and the world is full of unhappy things. “But you see, sir, it’s really all very sad. Moominpappa has disappeared, and we’re freezing and can’t get over this mountain to find the sunshine, and we haven’t anywhere to live,” says Tulippa the flower fairy to an old gentleman who is also lonely, though his mountain home is made of sweets.

Jansson’s short introduction, and the knowledge that the book was written during WWII make it difficult not to read it in that context. But this effect is enhanced by the artwork, which combines drawings of the style familiar to readers of the other books in the series with painted, sepia-tinged pieces that give the whole a quieter, elegiac feel.

But if there’s sadness, and fear, and a lack of safety, there are still other things in the world. Moominpappa is found safe and well, and has built a splendid home for them all. Disparate creatures, brought together by the ravages of the flood, help one another. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. In the face of awful things “one’s work [stands] still”, as Jansson puts it. The more I read the Moomin books, the more I value their kindness, their sense that if all we have to hold on to are spontaneous acts of kindness, of generosity, of willingness to make homes and open them those who need them, that these things may –almost—be enough.

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