Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 7: Nisi Shawl

2009 Best
by Nisi Shawl

Reading, viewing, listening.
I make my money by writing and performing other kinds of work with words, so the bulk of this post concerns reading. I’ll take these three in reverse order, saving the longest part of my report for last.

Listening Music is one of my main motivators, the thing that’s often responsible for getting me out of bed in the morning (and at other times). I’m currently setting up several stations on Pandora, which seems to do a fair job at helping its audience members discover new musicians similar to those they already love. Current stations: “The Auld Countaree” (British Isles folk), “Stoned Soul Sisters,” “Instrumental Newage,” “Shiney Bright Music” (second-wave ska), “Poppets,” (power pop with female vocals), “Wreckless Eric Radio” (OG punk), “WEFUNK.” Pandora introduced me to an old Boston band called “Letters to Cleo,” whose lead singer achieved even greater fame as part of Josie & the Pussycats. I like them a lot. I kid you not.

The only other music I found and loved this year is a 1989 CD by Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time. I came across it in the library of a woman I house-sat for. I was familiar with Raitt from my college years; she has a husky alto and plays a good blues guitar, and her taste in tunes is eclectic. My favorite on this album, the song I’ve learned to sing, is “Too Soon to Tell,” a swooningly slow ballad about recovering from a one-sided love affair.

Viewing I don’t have a TV. I know that’s no excuse nowadays. I could see most any program I wanted to on my computer. I haven’t.

I’ve watched a very few films, and only one, District 9, in a theater. Moving right along, I enjoyed some really fine DVDs. The best has got to be the 2003 fictionalization of the life of sex-worker and convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Monster. Charlize Theron deserved about eight Oscars for her performance in this film, though she only won one. My favorite scene is the one where she’s roller skating with the baby dyke played by Christina Ricci and visibly falls hopelessly in love. Class has a huge, unrecognized role in this story. It’s sad, funny, poignant, scary. I’m going to watch it again.

At the same house where I discovered the Bonnie Raitt CD I watched three Clint Eastwood movies--the canonical spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone. I was glad to finally get them under my belt. Eastwood was so young--in his thirties, but he looked about 18--and so sotto voce. And the corpses were so bloodless compared to those decorating movies today. I enjoyed seeing the source of many western and filmmaking tropes, noting the way they derived from budgetary necessities.

Reading I mostly do this in the line of duty. The least promising of these lines is the one assigned to me by the Science Fiction Book Club, but this year they sent me a most satisfying novel: The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham. Spring is the final book in Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, an unusual fantasy series set in an alternate world whose pan-Asianesque center cradles the remnants of an enormous magical empire. Male “poets” binding archetypal concepts (such as sterility and flow) to the service of city-states form the armature of the decayed empire’s power at the beginning of the series. The first three books describe the final years of that power’s undoing; this fourth describes a last ditch effort to restore it using female poets. Concepts as large as corruption and love fit cozily together with the intimate details of personal lives that seem too realistic not to be real. I read all four books in order: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring. If I had to recommend one to be read as a standalone, I’d choose Winter, but I bet that anyone who reads it will want to consume the entire series.

In my capacity as a reviewer for the Seattle Times I read dozens of books annually. I enjoyed several of these in 2009: China Mieville’s The City and the City, Jay Lake’s Green, Caryatids by Bruce Sterling, and The Quiet War by Paul McAuley. Over the years I’ve found audacity highly attractive, and we have that quality in abundance as Lake and Mieville venture outside the subgenres they’re associated with. City is at once a fantasy--sans Mieville’s trademark monsters--and a police procedural calling into question our acceptance of political boundaries as other than imaginary. Green follows the transformation of a peasant girl-of-color into an enslaved courtesan and then into a divinely-blessed and acrobatic assassin, with nary a steampunkly dirigible in sight. On the other hand, Caryatids maintains Sterling’s reputation as a science fiction writer rich in ideas. Racketing around in the near-future abandoned by many sf authors as too difficult to deal with, Sterling turns a jaundiced yet jaunty eye on the lives of four Eastern European clones. He has the technical support down pat for their careers in biotech, ecological remediation, thuggery, and Hollywood stardom, and he also manages a good sampling of the social changes said tech would cause and arise from, strangenesses his characters find familiar. And McAuley has written several good sf novels over the years, though none of my previous favorites are as space-opera-y as The Quiet War. The first volume in what promises to be a high quality epic of outer planets anarchy facing down Earth-based fascism, this book is fast-paced yet complex, beautifully involved and involving. It’s full of surprises: farms growing exotic vacuum-loving organisms; baths in sacramental piranhas; colonies of brain-augmented boys and chimpanzees. A bound galley of the forthcoming second book in this series, “Gardens of the Sun,” is near the top of my to-be-read pile.

Because I read for pay as well as pleasure, I sometimes see books before they’re published. Late last month I received African American author N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”, for possible review. Set in a gorgeous, fabulous, original universe whose diverse, warring gods have been enslaved by one JHVH-like winner, this fantasy conveys a decidedly romance feel when it touches on the attraction between the heroine and one of the losing deities--and I mean that in a good way. Strong visuals, a peculiarly resonant cosmology, and compelling characters kept me entranced, though at certain points I missed the rigor usually inherent in the world-building of speculative fictions. “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is due out in February 2010; in March another newly-emerged African American writer, Alaya Dawn Johnson, will see publication of her second novel, “The Burning City”, sequel to her 2008 fantasy Racing the Dark. It’s a great read--multiple narratives, weird magic, sympathetic witches and other villains, rich backstory, dire consequences. I also enjoyed Andrea Hairston’s second novel, “Redwood and Wildfire.” No release date for that one yet. It’s magnificent. Spectacular. A phantasmagoric tale of time-travelling conjure folks from the Deep South taking on Chicago and the World’s Fair of 1893. It has race riots and filmmakers and levitating blues singers, and it’s way, way over the top, exactly as out of bounds as it ought to be. Just you wait.

One work-related preview was vouchsafed me (how do you say “vouchsafed?”) when I got to index The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of SF Feminisms by Helen Merrick. Wow. I can’t decide if I was most impressed by the clarity of her writing, the usefulness of her ideas, or the number of my friends and acquaintances she named and/or quoted. The chapter on science and feminist SF sent chills all up and down my spine; also, it gave me a story idea. This one’s due out from Aqueduct any minute now. You need it. You love it. You want to decant its baby.

Not all work is paid for. Or anyway, not with money. On October 18 I appeared as part of a panel on Anarchism and Science Fiction. In preparation I reread Floating Worlds by Cecilia Holland. It’s as good as I remembered it from 1978. Holland is best known for her historic fiction, but this is far-future fare. As in The Quiet War, Earth is pitted against the outer planets and fascism against anarchism. In this novel, though, Earth is the anarchy, abandoned to stew in its own polluted juices. Mutant black-skinned pirates called Styth have claimed everything beyond the asteroid belt, but Paula Mendoza succeeds as Earth’s ambassador to the Styth, against the expectations of those who sent her. She first seduces a Styth leader and when he tires of her, his wife, and then, finally, his son. Mendoza’s pragmatism is conveyed by Holland’s buzz-cut prose: “There was a roar that hurt her ears. She was slammed back into the seat. Her eyes streamed. The pressure suit had failed.” In return for the time I spent reading, collating titles, driving to the panel’s location, and speaking, I received attention, publicity, and the privilege of reimmersing myself in Floating Worlds. As a bonus, when I attended the World Fantasy Convention in November I recognized Holland from her jacket photo, though thirty-five years had passed since it was taken. In San Jose she wore a knapsack and carried an alpenstock, as if the hotel’s marble steps were steep mountainsides.

Another task taken on primarily for the sake of prestige: writing “Solitude and Souls,” my contribution to a celebratory volume created in honor of Ursula K. Le Guin’s eightieth birthday. My essay is a response to two of her works: the 1994 short story “Solitude,” recently reprinted in Tachyon Press’s The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Cheek by Jowl, a collection of essays on children’s literature. The essays in the collection, which came out in April from Aqueduct, was new to me, and full of wonders interwoven with the startlingly obvious. “Solitude” is an old favorite, probably my favorite Le Guin. Heroine Serenity is loyal to what her anthropologist mother sees as a broken culture. The zeitgeist of Eleven Soro moves and attracts me, with its distaste for emotional entanglements and its focus on making one’s soul.

At last, at last, we arrive at the novels I read in 2009 purely by choice. They number seven. Two by Richard Brautigan were shared experiences, because I persuaded my book discussion group, the Octavians, to pick The Hawkline Monster for March, and I read In Watermelon Sugar aloud over the phone with a man I’d met through an online dating site. Both books were, strictly speaking, rereads. My first encounter with In Watermelon Sugar happened when I was a hippy. Everyone was reading it. The headshop down the street was named after it. I’d need as much time to tell you what the book is about as it would take you to read it. Hawkline Monster’s a little longer, a little less plot-challenged: it ostensibly pits two mercenary killers against a mad scientist’s spawn. After all these decades, I love both books as much as ever. One chapter of In Watermelon Sugar made my online date cry.

Samuel Delany’s mainstream novel Dark Reflections had been saving itself for me for three years. It is, of course, all kinds of marvelous: the life of a poverty-dogged, closeted gay poet described in delicate, precise, uncompromising language, the literary equivalent of a blazing chandelier. The beauty of Delany’s prose illuminates the aesthetic rewards for minor poet Arnold Hawley of living a life that often seems otherwise pointless and empty.

I attended my first science fiction convention because C.J. Cherryh was Guest of Honor. She has written some thoughtful examinations of what it means to be self-aware, (Hunter of Worlds and Wave Without a Shore) and some roguish adventures in reversing sex roles (the Chanur and Ivrel series). It was the latter vein I submerged myself in with her latest Foreigner novel, Conspirator. Human Bren Cameron translates official communications between his government and the alien atevi, on whose planet the humans’ starship has landed. The atevi are huge, intelligent, armed, and black, and Bren enjoys a sexual liaison with one of his female atevi bodyguards. What’s not to like? There have been ten Foreigner books so far, with an eleventh promised for May 2010, and a twelfth hazily projected for some date after that.

While house-sitting in Portland I came upon another series called _The Queen’s Thief. It is classified as YA (Young Adult). The author is Megan Whalen Turner. The titles of the three published books, which I read night after night, in swift succession, when I should have been asleep, are The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia. They’re set in a fantastic landscape modeled on the Byzantine Mediterranean, with irregular but indisputable appearances by members of an alternate Graeco-Roman pantheon. Eugenides, the hero, is clever, but not too, and as immediately likeable as Peter Wimsey or Wesley or any other fictional protagonist who’s ever given mere flesh-and-blood men a run for their money. Hugely enjoyable no matter what your age, I say. And the fourth--and alas, very likely the last--book in the series will appear in April, 2010. It’s going to be called “A Conspiracy of Kings.” To quote another gushing review, “as the pages were being turned I had only one thought in mind: this is why I read. THIS is why I read. THIS IS WHY I READ.”

But of course that also applies to the other book titles mentioned above.

My Picks for 2009 (in no particular order):

Conspirator by C.J. Cherryh

The City and the City by China Mieville

Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland

The Price of Spring and its predecessors: A Shadow in Summer; A Betrayal in Winter; and An Autumn War (The Long Price Quartet) by Daniel Abraham

The Thief; The Queen of Attolia; and The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief series) by Megan Whalen Turner

Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

The Quiet War by Paul J. McAuley

The Hawkline Monster and In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Green by Jay Lake

“The Burning City” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

“Redwood and Wildfire” by Andrea Hairston

“Solitude” and Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of SF Feminisms by Helen Merrick

Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany

A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Sergio Leone

Monster by Patty Jenkins

Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt

Nisi Shawl writes not only reviews, but also wonderful fantasy and science fiction stories. Fourteen of them have been collected in Filter House, which won the Tiptree Award and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. She is also the co-author, with Cynthia Ward ,of the acclaimed writing handbook, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach.


Anonymous said...

Two more books coming in the Queen's Thief series, I think . . .

Anonymous said...

Nisi: I dig that Hawkline Monster too. And a tiny bit less In Watermelon Sugar.

Jeff Ford

Nisi said...

Yay! More Eugenides et al! So a total of five books, then? Or six? Thank you for the link to the intyview.

Jeff, glad you know my old loves. In Watermelon Sugar edges out The Hawkline Monster in my estimation. Maybe you had to be there. Right next to the head shop of the same name was a place that sold waterbeds called "Lost Wax Method." And upstairs was "H. Buffalo, Esquire," a restaurant.

marcinko said...

"Wreckless Eric Radio" sounds pretty awesome.