Archive for ‘Strange Horizons’

August 25, 2017

New review and Strange Horizons fund drive

SH logoI have a review at Strange Horizons this week. It’s of the Guy Ritchie Arthur film that came out earlier this summer; I was ridiculously late with it (particularly shameful given that I’m usually on the other side, sending gently nagging emails to reviewers). I happen to be editing a chapter of my thesis that does a lot of thinking about the Arthur myth after empire, so think of this as a tiny bit of my PhD, but with more dick jokes.

More importantly, this week also marks the start of this year’s Strange Horizons fund drive. Lots of lovely people have been saying nice things about the fiction we publish (and this year has been great–here’s Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s incredible “Bluebellow”, for example). But as I’ve said before (and before I joined the enormous team of people who make the magazine happen), the thing that makes me commit myself to SH is how seriously it takes its nonfiction. I love that we published this wonderful essay by Dexter Palmerthis roundtable by Rebecca Roanhorse, Elizabeth LaPensee, Johnnie Jae and Darcie Little Badger, these columns by John Clute and Andrea Hairston, Erin Horáková’s astonishing Kirk Drift piece; that these pieces can be academic or sweary or long or full of almost incomprehensible neologisms, or whatever they need to be. And obviously I love our reviews section, for similar reasons. (I’m planning a twitter thread of beloved reviews from the past year, but I’ve barely started it so here’s last year’s.)

All of which is to say: I think we do good things, and I hope we continue to be able to. If you like the things linked above (or any of the other things we make!) and if you have cash to spare, please consider contributing. There’s an indiegogo page, and a patreon, and 61 (!) hopeful members of staff.

(And if you cannot contribute, ignore the last paragraph and just enjoy the several thousand words of great writing linked to above.)

June 22, 2017

Jared Shurin (ed), The Book of the Dead

From three years ago, a slightly-edited review of an anthology of original mummy fiction. Published in Strange Horizons, and brought to you by my shady Victorianist past. I was reminded of this review’s existence because of the recent film The Mummy, starring Sofia Boutella (as the Mummy) and Tom Cruise. (Thoughts on that are forthcoming, probably, but please know that it is terrible.)

 

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The mummy story emerges from a nineteenth century that is saturated with Egyptomania. Which is to say, of course, that it emerges very specifically from imperial Europe’s troubled history with Egypt. “[S]ince this accursed Egyptian style came into fashion . . . my eldest boy rides on a sphinx instead of a rocking-horse, my youngest has a papboat in the shape of a crocodile, and my husband has built a watercloset in the shape of a pyramid and has his shirts marked with a lotus,” John J. Johnston quotes from an 1805 letter to the London Morning Chronicle in his introduction to Unearthed, an anthology of classic mummy stories. Robert Southey complained in 1807 that “everything must now be Egyptian, the ladies wear crocodile ornaments, and you sit upon a Sphinx in a room hung round with mummies.” Europe was never exactly unaware of Egypt, but Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1798 opened it up for European scrutiny in ways that it never had been before. Egyptology as a discipline begins with the Description de l’Égypte; nineteenth century knowledge about Egypt, whether fact or fiction, was produced in the context of, and in the service of, empire. (This is the basic premise of Edward Said’s Orientalism.)

Which raises a question about how these two books—The Book of the Dead, an anthology of original mummy stories, and its companion volume, Unearthed, both edited by Jared Shurin—present themselves, and how they are packaged. The Book of the Dead is dedicated to Amelia B. Edwards, feminist, writer, women’s suffragist, and founder of the Egypt Exploration Society. Both volumes contain introductions by a member of the EES, and both end with an advertisement for it. This shouldn’t be a surprise—Jurassic London have clearly stated that these books are published in partnership with the society. But in a post-Orientalism (not, alas, post-orientalism) world, it’s hard to stomach this uncritical celebration of Europeans producing knowledge about Egypt in light of how that knowledge was, and in some ways still is, put to use. It’s probably worth noting at this point that as far as I can tell, all the writers in The Book of the Dead are British or American.

Fortunately, many of the best stories in the collection take as their impetus the complex, uncomfortable historical relationship between the west and Egypt. One of these is Adam Roberts’s “Tollund,” which is certainly aware of the power inherent in the creation of knowledge, of who gets to produce it and who has it produced about them. “Tollund” is a reversal of our expectations of a mummy story; not only is the preserved body in question a bog body in Jutland but the scientists who come to study it and have a terrible adventure in the process are named Hussein, Suyuti, el-Akkad, and el-Kafir el-Sheikh. It’s not always subtle; the phrase “occidental exoticism” appears and the characters spend a lot of time sitting around discussing the inferiority of these barbaric Northerners. It doesn’t need to be; a number of the stories in the collection critically examine the roots of the genre, but this blatant overturning of it delighted me.

Other stories in the collection deal with the transport of Egyptian artefacts to museums across the western world. Louis Greenberg’s “Akhenaten Goes to Paris” has its title character travel to France to visit a father who is currently on display in a museum. Paul Cornell’s Rameses I wakes up in a museum in Canada. Den Patrick’s “All is Dust” has canopic jars stolen . . . from the British Museum. The turning of bodies into objects and the attendant undercurrent of discomfort that comes with this has been a part of the mummy tradition since its inception; fittingly, Unearthed begins with Theophile Gaultier’s 1840 short story “The Mummy’s Foot,” which has a young man buy a disembodied foot to use as a paperweight. One of mummy fiction’s most uncomfortable moments comes in Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, when the Egyptologist Professor Trelawney unwraps the perfectly-preserved body of the Egyptian Queen Tera. The unrolling of a mummy for an audience was a popular spectacle in the mid-nineteenth century, and once it is done Trelawney and his associates stand gloating over Tera’s beautiful naked body. But also in the room is Trelawney’s daughter Margaret, who is for supernatural reasons the physical double of Tera. As long as Margaret is present, it is impossible to entirely think of Tera as an object—and so the sense of violation is brought uncomfortably home.

In The Book of the Dead, Louis Greenberg’s Akhenaten moves constantly between the states of person and object—unable to bluff his way through airport security as a living person he begins the story by traveling to Paris as cargo; once there he is able to hide in a museum by pretending to be one of the exhibits. In his perorations about Paris (a city he quite likes) in the guise of a living being Akhenaten is subject to multiple instances of casual racism and suggestions that he go back to where he came from—including in the Place de la Concorde, which has at its centre the Luxor Obelisk. As fond as Akhenaten is of the modern world, it’s clear that he is more welcome in Paris when he is an artifact than when he is a person.

If the museums preserve mummies as objects, we’re also reminded that they can be destroyed, and even consumed. As Johnston reminds us in his introduction, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans even ingested powdered mummy as a form of medicine. Roger Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” takes for its inspiration stories of rags from mummies being imported from Egypt to the USA in order to make paper for newspapers. Jenni Hill’s “The Cats of Beni Hasan” is based on the use of mummified cats (tons of them were shipped to England in the nineteenth century) as fertilizer.

Two stories in the collection deal with the physical consumption of mummies. “All is Dust” has a group of old friends accidentally snort some dead mummy along with cocaine—the only one it affects is the Egyptian character who turns into a vengeful murderer. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Bit-U-Men,” a reanimated mellified man (or not a man—its gender is ambiguous throughout) allows for its body to be used in the production of American confectionery. This story, which later contains a reference to “mummy brown” ink, centers the consenting human owner of the body and in doing so invokes thousands of mummified bodies that were used in various ways without the possibility of consenting, and harks back to the tradition of mummy stories built upon the sense of unease created by the inability to wholly erase the humanity of these bodies-as-collectable/consumable-objects. “Bit-U-Men” is probably the strongest story in the collection, both in the ways it harks back to and interrogates the traditional mummy story and in its fittingly thick-as-honey prose.

Headley’s story is one of many in the collection that play with that other great trope of mummy fiction—the love story. Early fictional mummies are usually female and beautiful; Gaultier’s Hermonthis, for example, possesses “the purest Egyptian type of perfect beauty.” Whether this was connected to a more general feminization of the Orient, or the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling (all those public mummy-unwrappings!) Victorian mummy fiction is full of the beautiful undead, whether they be beautiful and deadly (like Queen Tera, or even Rider Haggard’s Ayesha) or harmless like Hermonthis or Haggard’s Ma-Mee. Lou Morgan’s “Her Heartbeat, An Echo” has another Egyptian princess fall in love with a modern man—a museum security guard who refuses to treat her as an object and offers to share his lunch. The susceptibility of thousand-year-old beautiful princesses towards random British men is another fine Victorian tradition, but there’s something rather nice about this particular iteration of it. The eroticized female mummy takes on a different form in Michael West’s rather muddled story of rape and revenge, “Inner Goddess,” while David Thomas Moore’s “Old Souls” adapts the reincarnated lovers trope as a retelling of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (complete with a reference to the film, so that we know it knows it’s doing it).

Jesse Bullington’s “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” is one of the few stories that refer to later cinematic iterations of the mummy. Seth Rasul (I don’t know how common “Seth” is as a modern Egyptian name; I suspect its use in two consecutive stories in this collection has more to do with its familiarity as an English or American name) is of Egyptian descent and the target of racist bullies at his British school. He also loves mummy movies and retreats into them when he is the target of abuse; in his head he is the mummy, a boy on whom he has a crush is a werewolf, said boy’s girlfriend is a vampire. I can’t help reacting rather uncomfortably to this story, which in most ways I love. It’s well done; Bullington never oversimplifies the complex relationships members of minority groups can have with the media we grow up with. And yet and yet and yet. Part of the point of “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” is that immigrants and minorities tend not to exist very much in mainstream culture, so that our relationships with the things that are conceivably “ours” can be possessive, even when we’re the monsters. Perhaps when it’s done this convincingly it’s irrelevant that Bullington (as far as I know) has never been a queer brown kid in a white school. And yet I keep coming back to that (all British/American) table of contents and think that maybe it does matter.

At the most basic level mummy stories are about dead bodies, and so about death and what you can and cannot keep holding on to. Maurice Broaddus’s “Cerulean Memories” and David Bryher’s “The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey” focus on the physical aspects of this; the ways in which keeping a dead body around is rather horrifying. Glen Mehn’s “Henry” takes the opposite route with a focus on the virtual—if everything stays on the internet forever, how do you let go? This question of how you face the death of someone you love is at the heart of the last story in the collection, Will Hill’s “Three Memories of Death.” Hill’s story takes the form of a philosophical debate carried out by two men over decades, and it’s quiet and elegiac; a reminder that this genre can also be intensely personal.

Much of this review seems to consist of describing the ways in which these stories adapt classic tropes. Because even where there’s a clear, critical engagement with those tropes, most stories in the collection still feel very traditional. Sarah Newton’s “The Roof of the World” feels like a classic Victorian adventure set in the Pamir Mountains—I’m not convinced it’s a mummy story, but I like the genre enough not to mind. And despite its undercurrent of political commentary (or not “despite”; the original stories often do this too) Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” is very much a cozy Victorian horror story, complete with frame narrative (abandoned midway) and bad title. I love the mummy story because it’s rooted in a historical moment with which I’m fascinated; a collection like this one, where the strongest pieces focus on interrogating the origins of the genre and where attempts to update it feel more like window dressing than anything else, isn’t much of an argument for its resurrection. Perhaps Hill’s story is a fitting end to the collection, a reminder that sometimes it is necessary to let go.

 

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Rereading this has reminded me that someday I want to reread Louis Greenberg’s story alongside Beatrice Alemagna’s Un Lion à Paris (this is mostly a children’s literature blog, nowadays). Someday.

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

chasing starsI have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over there. Both as an SF novel and as an adaptation of Othello I found it … not great, but intriguing. In the review I read it in the context of the other texts that it is (both explicitly and implicitly) bouncing off, and suggest that it works better as an intervention into those works than it does as a thing in itself. Which is all fine.

But that isn’t the only context in which I’m reading the book–it’s also a children’s book, and more importantly (this year, at least) it’s a Carnegie-eligible children’s book. It appeared on the list of nominations for the Carnegie medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian and Waterstones prizes and longlisted for the Jhalak prize. Some further thoughts, then:

I’ve been reading this book as an adult, a science fiction fan, and a person who knows Othello relatively well; and my particular reading of it means that I find it harder than usual to imagine how the book would work in the absence of those contexts. (The internet suggests that lots of people are coming to it that way, and many seem to be enjoying it.)  It also makes judging it in light of the Carnegie criteria seem rather meaningless.

(But let’s try anyway: with the exception of the Love At First Sight trope the characters and their development do make sense; there’s clever use of “literary conventions and techniques” though not necessarily as I think those criteria intend; the resolution is credible; I’m going to stop now because the Carnegie criteria always feel weird and limited to me.)

In the review I mention very briefly the fact that Olivia’s interest in film becomes a marker of class. I was trying not to give too much away, and also not get boring and rambly, but that is not a concern on my own blog, so here are some details.

For most of the book, the only characters we see Olivia interacting with, other than her brother, are the refugees. We know that Vee’s interest in old-timey films is weird because she tells us so, and also because when she makes movie references in conversations with her new crew they seem to be confused by them. But–these characters are also former “drones”, a sort of underclass who work in the mines, most of whom were born into these conditions. There’s a point in the book where Nathan points out that drones do not have the opportunity to watch films and read books, so that the access that Vee has always taken for granted, and which is a basic condition of her particular hobby, is specifically a function of her class position within the universe. Vee is taken aback, assimilates this into her understanding of the universe, moves on; it’s a throwaway scene, though one of many in which Nathan and his friends draw attention to the fact that Olivia has watched films and they have not.

[Here be spoilers]

Late in the book we discover that the serial killer aboard the ship is Doctor Sheen, the colony’s sole doctor who has never herself been a drone. Sheen wants to get back to Earth–with her knowledge of the drones and their allies she can easily buy her freedom–and has been killing off those on the ship towards this goal. She is, however, willing to see Vee as an equal and a potential ally, because “You have a love of literature and films and music and art, all the things that separate us from beasts and drones.”

And I’m wondering how this knowledge, that a familiarity with certain sorts of culture is both a marker of power and a weapon itself, sits with a book which is itself a reworking of a classic (and is thus made richer and deeper in the reading by the reader’s knowledge of its intertext/s), and there’s a lot here that is rich and interesting and that I’m not sure yet what to do with.

 

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The other thing that I could not fit into the review was the revelation that at one point, when Vee and Nathan are having sex, the act of cunnilingus is described as “to go where no one had gone before”. I’m not sure whether Star Trek exists within the universe of the book, but I’m choosing to believe this is a widely-used euphemism among Olivia’s people.

May 13, 2015

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity

A review of this in a recent issue of Vector.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reviewing a couple of children’s literature shortlists recently and I’m so bored of having to stick “this is a very white list of authors, isn’t it?” into my reviews of things [and it's such a dull thing to keep having to write (always stuck somewhere unobtrusive, because it's such a ubiquitous annoyance that it's never the most interesting thing about the book)]. I’m not sure what Irregularity‘s excuse is; I had a related complaint with another Jurassic London anthology last year.

Some good stories in here– Rose-Innes and Roberts in particular. As a whole I was insufficiently whelmed.

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Irregularity (edited by Jared Shurin) was published to coincide with the Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. This connection sets the collection in a very specific context—the 17th-19th centuries in the history of science, the age of enlightenment. Most of the stories sit comfortably within this framework; the earliest, Richard de Nooy’s “The Heart of Aris Kindt”, is set in 1632; the latest, Simon Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought”, in 1854.

The focus of the anthology (helped along by, to put it mildly, not the most diverse list of contributors) makes it inevitable that the majority of these stories are of Northern Europeans doing science in Northern Europe. But the age of enlightenment is also the age of empire (what did we think they needed all those ships for?), and occasionally this fact comes into play in these stories as well. The fatal game in Rose Biggin’s story is played out in Port Royal, and the role of empire is explicit in Roger Luckhurst’s “Circulation”, which is proper Victorian horror. It’s also the disturbing undercurrent to Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Animalia Paradoxa”, one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Rose-Innes’ unnamed protagonist is in search of a spectacular new animal for the collection of a rich patron in France, but he’s prone to thinking of the African men he’s hired to help him as collectibles as well.

As is often the case with a themed collection, a number of the stories here are variations on the same central idea—that ordering and knowing and mapping and exerting power upon and destroying are all inextricably bound up in one complex knot. (“’He’s mapped us,’” says a character in Rose Biggin’s “A Game Proposition”, “in a tone that meant murdered us.”) The strongest of these is E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm” in which a young girl befriends the spiders that live under her bed, only to unwittingly kill them one by one as a visiting scientist tells her their names. This is basic fairy tale logic—to know a thing’s true name is to have power over it—but it’s also at the heart of the enlightenment project. The child protagonist makes these two systems of understanding the world fit together surprisingly well. “Knowledge is power” is hardly an original idea, but the lonely, detached perspective of Swift’s Eva would make up for greater sins than this, and “The Spiders of Stockholm” really is powerful and lovely. Though it’s unfortunate for both stories that Swift’s should be placed immediately after Biggin’s, which treads similar ground.

In Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out of Time” humans aren’t the ones imposing order upon the world, but the creatures upon whom order is imposed. Unknown forces (in my head a version of Terry Pratchett’s Auditors) watch Emilie du Chatelet in alarm as she threatens to discover too much too soon. Humans are not entirely powerless, though, and Curran’s nameless narrators have plenty of help from the patriarchy.

It sometimes feels as if all of Irregularity is at war with Linnaeus—he is indirectly responsible for the death of Eva’s spiders, is one of the driving forces that leads Henrietta Rose-Innes’s protagonist to hunt for the chimera in Africa, shows up (as a sympathetic figure) in Tiffani Angus’ “Fairchild’s Folly” grappling with the question of whether or how one might classify love. It always comes back to the question of classification—to what extent it’s harmful, to what extent it’s natural and human, to what extent the universe is classifiable. None of these stories makes reference to William Blake’s Ancient of Days; I’m not sure if this is a pity or a relief.

This drive to impose order, whether innately human or not, extends in some ways to Irregularity itself. The Afterword, by Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring, suggests a relatively ordered understanding of the history of scientific progress; dependent on success and failure (the collection is dedicated to “failure”), strewn with “false leads” and “dead ends” but largely teleological. But then there’s the best story in the collection, Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle”.  This story is gloriously silly, the whole thing is an extended pun; but it’s also chaotic, its framing of the history of human thought destabilising the collection completely.

Some of the most powerful (and the most powerfully weird) SF stems from this sort of chaos—the thing that doesn’t belong exploding into the world. Nick Harkaway’s framing narrative tries to place the book Irregularity itself in this position, but it feels rather inconsequential. More successful is M. Suddain’s The Darkness”, a version of the great fire of London, as told by Samuel Pepys, but with an inexplicable black hole and multiple instances of cruelty to bears.  It’s very cleverly done, with Pepys’ account (convincing, at least to me, in its stylistic details) of life going on as normally as possible juxtaposed with the giant vortex slowly consuming the city. Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought” takes for its starting point another great moment of literary rupture, that megalosaurus “forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill” at the beginning of Dickens’ Bleak House. Guerrier’s alternate history brings together the history of this book, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and Ada Lovelace but it doesn’t have anything like the same effect; the story is too concerned with signposting its sources.

This is a problem general to a number of the pieces that make up this collection. There are honourable exceptions—Swift, Suddain, Rose-Innes, whose quiet, clever story bursts into weirdness at the end, James Smythe’s brilliant, over the top prose. But too often these stories are a little too well-researched, a little too carefully signposted, a little too written to spec. And the whole is underwhelming as a result.

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January 9, 2015

2014 in books (and stats, and angst, and possibly resolutions)

Firstly, the Strange Horizons reviewers’ picks for 2014 are up here. My section is right at the end, and I recommend books by Ghalib Islam, Kuzhali Manickavel, Jenny Offill and Megan Milks. They’re all brilliant, and the highlights of a year that included some very good things. There are other things I read and loved in 2014 but they weren’t necessarily speculative; most of them I’ve written about in some form or another on this blog.

A quick count through my monthly reading posts suggests that in 2014 I read:

  • 200 books total
  • 140 books by women
  • 40 books by POC*

All of which, particularly the last, are numbers that need unpacking. I don’t feel like I read 200 books this year, and I’m pretty sure that is in large part because most of them were rereads–children’s books for the thesis, and romance novels for downtime. I’m toying with the idea of not counting rereads at all in 2015 unless they mark a huge change in how I read the book in question. Particularly since cutting out my romance novel and school story rereads might also provide a less flattering account of the number of books by women I read in any given year.

But more importantly, I’ve somehow managed to read less books by people of colour in 2014 than I did in 2013, and that is unimpressive. I have a bunch of excuses lined up: I read a couple of awards shortlists, which tend to be pretty white; much of my reading was for my thesis (though the fact that I’ve chosen to study white-men-who-wrote-series-fiction is a pretty poor defense); I read a LOT of Diana Wynne Jones; but still.

So, plans for 2015?

  • Read less. Too often I’m lazy and don’t want to waste effort on something new and go back to something I’ve read a million times before that I can race through. I can’t need this many comfort reads. Genre series fiction (across a range of genres) is a major culprit here.
  • Bow out of SFF. Recent events have made this feel necessary; I’ll still be involved with the community aspects of Strange Horizons, as well as editing some of the reviews (here and here are some great recent book club discussions I’ve participated in), but other than very occasional reviews (I thought about giving this up as well but as all editors whom I owe things know, it wouldn’t really be very different), I don’t see myself being active in the community as a whole. No cons, no reading awards shortlists or arguing about things that clearly are not going to change, significantly less twitter. I’m looking forward to the extra time this is going to give me.
  • I will read the Carnegie shortlist, probably.
  • I committed to doing the South Asian Women Writers Challenge a couple of years ago, and suspect in 2014 I failed it. In 2015 I’m planning not to.
  • Maybe write some thesis, even.

 

* Disclaimer: given that some books are by multiple authors of various genders and races, some are by authors and illustrators, and people’s race or gender identities are not obvious (“poc” and “women” may not be very useful categories at all and “queer” would probably be impossible), these numbers are of necessity only approximate.

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!

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.

September 29, 2013

Strange Horizons is a good thing

I feel the need to point this out because they’re entering the final stages of their yearly fund drive.

I sometimes write for Strange Horizons. This year I have a review in their bonus fund drive issue (the full issue can be found here) and a piece in their forthcoming issue on Indian science fiction. But when I linked to the fund drive a couple of weeks ago on twitter, I said that while I would like the magazine to continue as one of its occasional writers, it’s as a fan that I’ve found it most vital to me, and it’s as a fan that I’m speaking of it here.

Other people have written about the fiction that the magazine publishes, and obviously a lot of it is very good (See this and this and this). Lots of places publish good SFF short fiction though*. What I really value about SH are the nonfiction parts–the reviews, articles and columns, which are often brilliant. (I’ve been unforgivably late with my own reviews for them in the past, simply because having a standard to live up to is unnerving and makes me want to curl up and read fanfiction instead).

SH is the sort of place that will review mainstream literary fiction which has elements of SF, or epic fantasy from a major publisher, or self-published work, or academic work on SF, or translated fiction, or My Little Pony (before it became a Thing), or the occasional video game, and it is always taken for granted that all of these are worthy of serious thought, and that engaging with things is an enjoyable activity. Sometimes they publish academic work. Recently a review linked to a cat gif.

It’s also the sort of place where it is almost taken for granted that lots of contributors (both fiction and nonfiction) will be from outside the USA, will come in skin colours other than white, and gender identities other than male. Conversations about diversity within fandom often make me feel uncomfortable; here, I don’t particularly stand out and it’s great.

There isn’t any single conversation around books and films or other media on the internet or off it; it’s always a set of overlapping sub-conversations (stating the obvious here, sorry). The set of conversations and (I just wrote “reader-book interactions” and deleted it because *shudder*) that make up Strange Horizons has felt sometimes like coming home. I’m rarely sure of my ability to contribute something of value to the conversation, but this is a literary (and fannish?) culture that I value and want to be a part of.

I spend a lot of time on this blog trying to think through half-formed ideas, and feeling inarticulate and not very bright. If you don’t read Strange Horizons and you do read this blog, and if any of the sort of writing I want to be doing is coming across at all, it’s possible that you will also find SH valuable and important.

Plus, there are prizes to be won.

 

*Or so I assume; I’m very lazy about reading short fiction.

February 1, 2012

January Reading

As promised, the first of a series of monthly updates listing the books I read this year. January got off to rather a slow start, but began to pick up towards the end. I have a rather terrifying deadline to meet in March, but I’m hoping I can still get some decent reading done over the coming month.

 

Stella Gibbons, Westwood: A longish review of this for the Sunday Guardian will be coming at some point. Lynne Truss (who, as I understand it, was a big part of the move to get this and other Gibbons books back in print) suggests that Westwood is the Persuasion to Cold Comfort Farm’s Pride and Prejudice, and it’s easy to see where she’s coming from – though surely if one wanted to get the analogy exactly right CCF would be compared to Northanger Abbey. Westwood certainly feels more mature, more wistful, and less obviously funny. Still a fine book, but I think I’ll always love Cold Comfort Farm more.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns): Very fluffy, very funny. I suspect it was also very hurriedly put together, judging by the amount of material that feels purely for the purpose of filling up space. Reviewed along with How to Be a Woman, here.

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman: See above.

Edmund Crispin, The Gilded Fly, Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for Pleasure: I’d read two of the Gervase Fen mysteries before; The Moving Toyshop (generally considered the best of the lot) and Holy Disorders. A bookshop I visit had six or so of the series – I bought these three and have since visited and obtained the others. Ages ago Subashini suggested that Love Lies Bleeding was perfectly tailored to my interests and this turned out to be the case; school story, murder mystery and drive-by Shakespeare geekery all in one. The others were less perfect but good fun, and Buried for Pleasure particularly pleased me on its first page with its description of a chocolate machine “rusting and overturned, like a casualty in some robot war”.

Barbara Cartland, The Rhapsody of Love: Oh dear. Dubious premise (brother and sister come to London to meet guardian; due to a legal quibble guardian is actually sexy young son of former guardian) borrowed from Heyer’s Regency Buck, nothing remotely attractive about either of the main characters, random running away to the circus, and not even the ridiculous eugenics of A Sword to the Heart to keep me entertained.

Enid Blyton, The “R” Mysteries: Part of a bit of academic research I’ve been dancing around for a while. Expect to see quite a few references to Blyton on this blog in the near future. This is (for those with imperfect memories) the series that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, ends with The Ragamuffin Mystery, and features four children, a monkey and a hyperactive spaniel. I’ve always quite liked the “R” books, and they’re certainly more mature than a lot of Blyton’s other work. But more on that in a half-finished post that I really should get around to finishing.

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: I’ll be writing at length on this book and linking to other people’s commentaries. But it’s been some years since I read it, and I’m astonished by how powerful it still is. I loved the book when I first read it, but I’ve tended to think of it as a less mature relative of The Owl Service and Red Shift. And while it’s probably accessible to younger readers than either of those two books, it is much more than that.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey: On the surface this novel combined a number of things I love; Austen, Regency romance, and fantasy. The central conceit of the glamour as a learned art fits well into the historical setting. And I liked the various echoes of Austen scattered through the plot – the Mrs. Bennet-ish mother, the Dashwood-ish contrasting sisters and so on. But this book is really only Austenesque with regard to setting and those particular plot points. It lacks Austen’s humour and her sense of irony and offers up in compensation only a tepid romance and a bunch of characters it’s hard to care much about. And while I know that Austen would have spelled “show” as “shew”, I can’t imagine that she’d have used it so often that one would notice and get tired of it. Beyond its premise, then, Shades of Milk and Honey left me distinctly underwhelmed.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies: I’m not sure if it’s cheating to list here what is effectively a short story, but it’s a standalone work. I have a tendency to be a bit evangelical about Manickavel’s work. Her first collection is one of those books I’ve never owned for very long without pressing it on a friend – I’ve bought it at least five times so far, and received one copy as a gift. Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is exactly as good as Insects was. It’s dark and layered, clever, grotesque and it feels me with so much envy because I’d love to have written it.

 

In unrelated news, my review of Lavie Tidhar’s Cloud Permutations was published over at Strange Horizons while I was away and can be found here.