Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

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.

December 23, 2013

Elsewhere

I’m refusing to make any proper “best of 2013″ lists until at least January (if then) but here I am at The Booksmugglers’ blog talking about some of the best translated works I read this year. Of the three books I chose to talk about, only one was published (in translation) in 2013. I didn’t read nearly as much work in translation as I’d have liked to this year–I know of a number of works that I missed out on from India alone–so consider this post a plea for recommendations as well.

October 9, 2013

Shannon Hale, Austenland

I have mixed feelings about this book, but at least it looks significantly superior to the movie.

 

(From this week’s column)

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Mr Darcy died this week.

Some months ago a giant Mr Darcy rose from the Serpentine like a participant in some bizarre Austen/Godzilla crossover movie (Pride and Pacific Rim?), the alarming sculpture a tribute to that scene in the Pride and Prejudice TV series, where Colin Firth jumps into a lake only so that we may admire his clinging wet shirt. That scene, and Firth’s Darcy, have grown into a phenomenon in themselves. The scene has become a staple of a certain sort of fluffy literature which can make the assumption that most heterosexual adult women have seen it and can identify with its power. One of the earlier examples of this is in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books—Bridget is a big fan of Firth’s Darcy, a situation made funnier by the fact that Bridget Jones’ Diary is itself a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice (and Bridget’s Mark Darcy is also played by Colin Firth in the film adaptation). Fielding’s third Bridget Jones book has just come out, and even those of us who have not yet read it can hardly have missed the big news—Bridget is now a widow, her Mr Darcy dead. Perhaps it was about time.

That’s certainly the impression one gets from Shannon Hale’s Austenland, the movie version of which recently released. Hale’s heroine Jane Hayes is an Austen fan; she’s read the books multiple times, and has managed to enjoy them (except Northanger Abbey, which already makes me suspicious of her taste). But Jane is also a Mr Darcy fan, and is self-reflexive enough to know that those two things aren’t necessarily the same. After a series of unsatisfactory relationships Jane has begun to think her obsession with Mr Darcy is actively hindering her love life. When a relative sends her on a three week holiday to an Austen-themed resort, she determines to face and conquer her Darcy problem.

The resort, it turns out, is an ‘immersive’ regency experience for rich (usually married, usually American) women who want to live like Austen heroines and flirt with beautiful men in period costume. Jane finds herself both attracted and repulsed by the lifestyle—the gorgeous men in breeches on the one hand, the long hours of boredom and class snobbery (one is not permitted to flirt with the sexy gardener) on the other. The toll of keeping up the act—though Jane is certainly luckier here than the actors, who are being paid to be pawed at by rich women. And being seduced by a gorgeous man who says all the right things is very nice, but not when he’s been hired for the role and one can’t tell what is and isn’t real.

Part of the problem is that it’s never clear how far Darcy has affected Jane’s life—of the ex-boyfriends of whom we hear, most are terrible, and a couple are ordinary failed relationships of the sort that happen to anyone. As Jane is reminded on her arrival, in Regency England a woman in her early thirties would be regarded as unmarriageable and (therefore) a failure; in the 2010s that is far from true. Since it’s not clear what Jane is doing wrong, it’s hard to see why she should need to fix it.

But then this also plays into a cultural narrative in which women who like romance novels and movies are somehow incapable of functioning within real world relationships. In the end, I’m not sure whether Austenland challenges that idea by giving Jane a relationship that validates all her fantasies so far, or endorses it by assuming that there’s something wrong with this adult woman who dreams of Colin Firth.

Either way, the problem appears to be Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy and his dripping, wet-shirt-encased torso are somehow sabotaging all our love lives. Mr Darcy had to die, and we can only be thankful to Helen Fielding for killing him off.

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August 30, 2013

Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards

In case you missed it, the winners were announced on the award’s website a couple of days ago. I thoroughly enjoyed my first time judging anything (except the one time I had to judge a children’s poetry competition and my co-judge liked all the most conventional things with the dullest rhyme schemes and I was very unhappy the whole time), and I’m very pleased with the final list.

(Only talking about the novels here, but my approval of Karin Tidbeck is documented elsewhere, and I thought the rest of the shortlist was very strong also)

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is the thing I’ve most enjoyed reading so far this year, and will probably continue to be so. It’s just so clever, in the sort of way that had me pacing the room and scribbling things on things. It’s clear about its inspirations, about the literary tradition to which it belongs (Calvino, Borges, Eco all get namechecked) but it also felt to me strongly individual, very much of its place and time and (as I said in that press release) definitely political. The translation is excellent as well–particularly in its negotiation of the Cantonese bits of the text (the rest of the book is in Mandarin). The introduction’s a fine piece of writing in itself, and it’s clear that author and translator worked in close collaboration. In short, this is great and I’d love for more people to read it.

Belka, Why Don’t You Bark took a little longer to absorb me. It’s an odd, rough book about generations of war dogs that, it gradually dawns on you, is neither rough nor about war, though it certainly is odd (and about dogs). But I found myself thinking about it long after I read it, and championing it. It’s everything Kari Sperring and Martha Hubbard say about it in the awards press release. I suspect it was a particularly difficult work to translate, too.

Kaytek the Wizard is a great children’s book in many ways– a large, unpredictable, world, body and powers that its protagonist must learn to control, genuine terror. For an adult reader it’s a lot more poignant than that, though I was occasionally jarred out of it for some of the attitudes towards race and gender (it was written in 1933).

Roadside Picnic was the only one of these books I’d read before (in a different translation)–though unlike many of the other judges I didn’t remember enough of the previous translation to really compare this one with it. James Morrow says in the link at the beginning of this post that this one restores parts of the text omitted in the earlier translation–which by itself would be enough reason to ascribe value to it. But it’s also stylistically wonderful, and if most of these plot elements have showed up in later SF, they don’t make it seem less fresh.

Of the other books on the shortlist, I was particularly fond of Rosny ainé’s Three Science Fiction Novellas, all three of which play with ideas in a way that feels (and is, obviously) very early SF, but in doing so reminded me of why I read this sort of thing. I share this reviewer’s annoyance over the quality of the introduction and the critical commentary, but the stories themselves are great. And The Time Ship is delightful, and a bit of genre history that ought to be (and hopefully will be, with this translation) more widely known.

 

August 24, 2013

Also

(I should have mentioned this in my last post, but I was half asleep at the time) Larry from the OF Blog is doing a series of posts in which he tortures with fiendish rodents interviews people who blog about books. His interview with me is over here; I recommend some children’s literature, extol the virtues of mocking and abusing books, and say a number of things about Indian publishing that are probably completely wrong.

August 24, 2013

Pride and Platypuses

Not the latest Austen mashup, or not that I know of. The nice people at Duckbill books are having a Pride and Prejudice celebration week on their blog. I’ve written a little P&P timeline thing for them, which you can read here.

The John Kessel story I mention is here.

Persuasion is still better, though.

May 17, 2013

“CHARACTERNAAAAAAME!!!”

[With many sorries to Ashwin Pande. But look, no spoilers!

(That title is totally a spoiler)

(The rest of this post will also contain spoilers. I can’t imagine anyone cares about this)]

 

Star Trek Into Darkness. Bullet points, because bullet points seem to be how I always talk about blockbuster-y movies on this blog and also because I am lazy.:

  • I suspect the writing process for this movie went something like “Who’s the most popular Star Trek villain?” “Ah, right. What actors are popular right now?” Which is why this guy is playing this character.
  • He says this line (except the bit about not being a terrorist, because he kind of is), and he says it straightfacedly. Unless JJ Abrams was doing an SRK shoutout on purpose?
  • The last movie had Uhura randomly stripping down to her underwear. That doesn’t happen in this movie and at one point they even give her trousers. So that’s an improvement?
  • … except there’s an entire scene engineered for the sole purpose of having Alice Eve’s character in her underwear. Apparently it is necessary to do this before changing into a suit to go outside the ship. Other people we see leave the ship in special suits: Kirk, Spock, Khan, Bones. Of those, we see the following in their underwear:
  • To be fair to Abrams (but why should I?) with the image of Montalban’s Khan in our heads Cumberbatch’s chest would merely have seemed blindingly white. Because Cumberbatch is white. He is about as white as it is possible for a major actor in Hollywood (most of them are at least quite tanned) to be.
  • One way of solving that problem would have been to maybe cast a reasonably buff brown person. Other people have written very lucidly on the politics of this casting decision; I’m a fan of N.K. Jemisin’s clever comparison of casting within a racist system with the Kobayashi Maru.
  • When the 2009 movie came out I witnessed a number of discussions in which fans tried to retcon reasons for Kirk’s eyes being brown in the original series and blue in this alternate universe. I look forward to the theories that Khan’s newfound whiteness generates.
  • Uhura is very competent in her first scene, and in general right up until she starts discussing her relationship with Spock in the middle of a delicate mission that could get them all killed because that’s what girlfriends do Reasons.
  • Quinto and Urban remain the best things about this cast, despite the painfully uninspired things the script gives them to do. Such as chase Benedict Cumberbatch on foot through future London.
  • Cumberbatch appears in an early scene on a London street with his coat collar turned up and we thought of this and giggled a bit. Then, in the middle of the abovementioned chase scene he stopped to pick up and put on a long, swooshy coat so that he could then swooshily sherlock his way through the city. The young men sitting in front of us turned around and glared.
  • The movie’s first scene is an attempt to prove Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods.
  • In Abrams’ dubious defense: the last movie went straight for pretty/shiny/smouldery. This one manages a half-hearted attempt to examine the ethics of Starfleet, of Starfleet captains, of the organisation’s real purpose. By “examine” I mean “mention”.
  • Many things are mentioned. As this review puts it: “Old Spock explains why Khan is a guy to be feared. Pike explains Kirk’s character to Kirk, and also throws in a detailed explanation of the lessons Kirk must learn in this movie. Khan explains his own history to everybody, and the evil admiral explains his evil plan to the entire crew of the Enterprise. The film breathlessly rushes from action scene to action scene, stopping only to have a character deliver leaden exposition almost directly at the camera. It’s as though all of the set pieces were conceived first and then a trio of subpar writers had to fill in the gaps. ” (Actually, just read all of that review, it’s entirely accurate)
  • Wrath of Khan has a few iconic moments. Spock dies (spoiler: he comes back!), Kirk howls “KHAAAAN!!” STID does something supremely stupid; it rehashes and reverses the death scene. Now Spock has to watch Kirk die, their hands separated by a clear screen. Even now the scene might have retained some emotional resonance, until Spock howled out the name of his enemy. In that moment it became clear that the only emotion this film was interested in evoking was “I see what you did there”.
  • Kirk’s emotional trajectory over these two films has been entirely linked to his loss of his father, then his loss of his mentor. As Jonathan McCalmont said yesterday, daddy issues within daddy issues. Spock’s emotional trajectory has been illustrated in its entirety by Gingerhaze here. I wonder if Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus gets to have parental issues–she did just see her dad start a war, try to kill a bunch of people, and have his head crushed.
  • And finally, props to the movie for having Cumberbatch recite a series of terrible sexual innuendos in a (even by Cumberbatch standards) Very Deep voice. Since the movie gave him little to do as a villain, it was nice to see him breathily say “Oh, Captain!” in a shocked voice and ask Kirk if he was going to punish him some more. Should Abrams decide to make Star Trek III: Carry on Trekking, it’s nice to know he has something to draw on.

Short version, for anyone whose eyes have glazed over by now: This was a very bad film.

March 26, 2013

Elsewhere

A short post at The Hooded Utilitarian about Jhangir Kerawala’s Timpa comics, here.

Possibly relevant, this post from last year about one of the weirder Tintin comics.

March 1, 2013

Poets use soap too

While we’re still (sort of) on the subject of William McGonagall. The thing I find most disappointing about this advertisement for Godrej soap featuring Rabindranath Tagore (via Oculus on Twitter) is how dull it is. I mean, you’re a well-known poet and playwright, a Nobel laureate, surely your selling out ought to be more spectacular than this?

Compare Tagore to McGonagall, who was committed enough to not only write a five-verse poem about his soap of choice, but to (free of charge, one assumes) compose his further correspondence with the company in verse as well. I know whose work ethic I’d pick.

 

February 19, 2013

A Clever Pun About Leaving

The January issue of The National Geographic Traveller contained the last of my Paper Trails columns; for the immediate future, at least. Here it is, feat. Georgette Heyer, Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Jerome K. Jerome.

 

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Packing for trips I’m always envious of the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. Heyer’s characters (most of them superlatively rich) never pack for themselves. There are servants for that, and the need to be well-dressed at all times trumps the need for keeping your luggage light and easily transported. Your valet will fret if you don’t carry a dozen spare cravats, and you can always hire an extra carriage or two to take the excess baggage. The hero of These Old Shades is happy to send his long-suffering valet back and forth between England and France for any small thing he has forgotten. In Devil’s Cub a character finds a few dozen bottles of good wine in a French inn and immediately arranges to hire a coach or a boat to transport it home to England.

For most of us, packing to go travelling is a little more difficult. Without a retinue of servants and with the added tyranny, if flying, of luggage restrictions, we’re obliged to somehow fit everything we need into the smallest, lightest possible bag. Magazines in their summer issues offer tips for doing this, none of which seem in the least bit practical. Before us all is dangled the mystical figure of the seasoned, sophisticated traveller who is somehow able to dress appropriately for every occasion and meet every travel emergency with the contents of a small, stylish backpack. If we were sophisticated, seasoned travellers too, is the implication, we wouldn’t be lugging around these overloaded suitcases and heavy laptop bags. And so (because rushing around airports and train stations and hauling baggage wasn’t stressful or unpleasant enough) we have to worry about looking stupid as well.

It’s at times like this that I turn gratefully to the various fictional characters who are even worse at this packing thing than I am. Perhaps the classic example is the group of incompetents who make up the title of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The early chapters of Jerome’s book are taken up with planning and preparations for the trip, and at first they seem to have things well in hand. The three men manage the arduous tasks of making lists and gathering the items on them, and all that is left is to put them into the bags. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. Whole suitcases have to be unpacked and repacked, and many of their food supplies are inedible by the end of it. It’s particularly comforting to know that the narrator of Three Men in a Boat is the sort of person for whom the mere packing of a toothbrush is a challenge:

I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it.  And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.

I’ve been there.

I’ve also had nightmares about oversleeping on the morning of a journey. The three men (and dog) do just this, and start hours after they’d planned to. Another traveller who oversleeps is Bilbo Baggins, title character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Waking up mere minutes before he is due to meet the dwarves who are his fellow travellers (they, incidentally, have woken up on time) at a nearby inn, poor Bilbo rushes out of the house and is well on his way before he realises that he hasn’t even packed a handkerchief and isn’t sure he wants to go on this adventure in the first place.

But then, Bilbo’s bad luck with luggage is unparalleled. He and his travelling companions have their supplies refurbished at multiple points during the journey – and each time, some catastrophe befalls them. After a visit to the friendly half-Elf lord Elrond, both their bags and their mounts are stolen by goblins. Beorn, a strange man who can turn into a bear, offers them supplies to sustain them as they travel through the forest of Mirkwood, but the food soon runs out and they are forced instead to carry an unconscious (and very heavy) friend around. And finally, when the people of the town of Dale provide them with food and ponies on their journey up the Lonely Mountain, they are forced to abandon most of their luggage and their ponies are eaten by a dragon. It’s unsurprising that by the end of all of his adventures Bilbo (though substantially richer) seems less concerned with material possessions – he’s used to losing them in pressing circumstances.

I suppose there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of this, unpleasant as it may be. Those of us who can’t be as superlatively rich as Georgette Heyer characters will just have to learn to travel as light as possible. The characters in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy manage interstellar travel equipped with only a towel; surely the rest of us can at least aspire to a well-organised backpack?

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