Friday, February 29, 2008

Myths have a way of "supplanting" history? Tell me about it!

We have Potlatch here in Seattle this weekend, in the University District. For anyone who might be intereted: I'll be doing a reading tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. (I still haven't decided whether to read from Blood in the Fruit or Stretto.)

I've only this week gotten around to reading the Autumn 2006 issue of Foundation and tonight finished it in the tub after I arrived home from Potlatch. (But then I often don't read journal issues in the order in which I receive them.) Consequently, I had already read reviews (in other publications) of some of the books reviewed in this issue. For instance, I'd read a review of a book with the apparent mission of saving women sf writers from feminists last summer in Science Fiction Studies. (See, women writers have never at any time found it difficult to be published or read in the sf genre, for the real problem has always been that feminists have brainwashed women writers into believing that even the most conservative male editors and readers haven't all along been falling all over themselves encouraging women to write sf, and thus feminists themselves held back women writers and, even worse, deliberately erased the work of earlier women writers of sf. I don't know the reason for such sinister behavior. But perhaps we are to take the reason as self-evident? I'll never know, since not even Foundation's praise of this masterpiece can tempt me to read it.) The SFS reviewer says in summary:

I am highly sceptical of anything else in the text [except bibliographical information]. His approach fails to satisfy my standards for scholarship: the use of newspaper articles to support scientific claims; the way he dismisses the actual words of Katherine MacLean and Samuel Delany in favor of his own interpretations of events; and the repeated distortions of feminist scholarship are examples of how this book goes wrong. Luckily, there are other studies of women in early sf to turn to...

The Foundation reviewer, however, not only loves this book and repeats its author's accusation that Jane Donawerth is guilty of "shoddy scholarship," he even delivers a bitch-slap to Katherine MacLean, implicitly chastising her for her ingratitude to John Campbell, that Great Defender and Promoter of Women Writers:

Perhaps most surprising of all is that one of the most accomplished women writers, Katherine MacLean, also falls into the trap. In a fascinating piece of deconstruction,* Davin uses MacLean's own evidence against her in disproving her belief that John W. Campbell was anti-woman at Astounding and establishing how much he had helped and encouraged both her and Judith Merril, a fact that twenty years after the event, MacLean seemed to have completely forgotten.

As the reviewer has it, MacLean is either an ingrate or an idiot.

But that's not the worst. The reviewer surpasses himself with his next sentence: "Clearly myths have a way of supplanting history."

Please don't imagine that the reviewer is talking about the myths that women writers and artists have constantly to deal with. Far from it. Rather, he goes on to say that the author of this atrocious book "makes it his quest here to set the record straight and he does it very thoroughly."

Ack!!! Where is Joanna Russ when we need her?

Enough of this frivolous banter. I have to be in the dealers room at an ungodly early hour in the morning, and so I'm off to bed.

*Never fear, we can be certain that the reviewer is using the term loosely, since the SFS reviewer notes in her review that the author is constrained by rigid, binaristic thinking, which means he could never in a million years manage to deconstruct a single sentence, much less Katherine MacLean's "evidence" and probably wouldn't recognize an actual piece of deconstruction if it walked up and bit him.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Links for a Sunday Afternoon

The Angry Black Woman has posted a Guest Essay, "How Can We Conjure the WondrousWorld We Believe In?", by Andrea Hairston. Trust me, you don't want to miss it.

Oursin posts about Norma Clarke's new book Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington.

And Damien G. Walter blogs at the Guardian on New Women's Worlds in Fantasy (link via Locus Online).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

When Is Fiction Adequate?

Today I found myself wondering what quality or qualities in a piece of fiction that is less than brilliant make it adequate-- which is to say, worth my time and attention regardless of its flaws?

I imagine that many people would reply in terms of the piece's characterization, its narrative drive, the beauty of its prose style, or its thematic coherence (or lack thereof). But when I was thinking the other day about what for me marks beginning writers as promising (even when their grip on craft is tenuous at best), it struck me that this must first and foremost be their ability to create a patch of what I think of as "thereness" in whatever fiction they write, however deficient it might otherwise be. "Thereness" is what draws me into a story and holds my attention. Even when every sentence is grammatically perfect, the narrative arc follows the rules, and the characters are well-delineated, a story without "thereness" makes me itch to toss it aside the way I itch to block up my ears when forced to hear a tedious diatribe I'd do just about anything to escape. On the other hand, if the story has "thereness," I'm likely to stick with it, even as consciousness of its flaws steals over me.

Let me offer an example. The novels of an early 20th-century English writer, Mary Butts, are deeply flawed. But Butts' novels nevertheless engage me, no matter that I don't much care for her characters and find her plots decidedly lame. The other day I read a passage in Death of Felicity Taverner in which a pause sets in during the middle of an intense, deeply emotional conversation among four people. Most writers would simply say, "There was a pause." And maybe depict a small piece of business. And then resume. (Or else would say baldly, "After a long pause, X said...") The pause is depicted in this way: One of the characters raises a question that Butts follows with an em-dash and a paragraph break. The narrative continues:

There was silence again, while Scylla prepared the next sequence, and the room had its turn. Instead of four voices, the fires spoke, the voice of flames disintegrating salted wood into the quiet light of light ash. The crack of old panels responding to heat, and behind them the ground-scratch of mice. A door in the kitchen quarters opened and shut. Nanna's feet and the maid's mounted the stair. The heavy shutters bolted-out the interminable conversations of the trees. Behind these incidental breaks, the pulse of the long room in the delicate candle-light beat in time with the house and the wood. In time with its own time, a pace inaudible, yet sensible to each. Felix had said that a sonata could be written on the room's tempo, whose finale should be a demonstration of relativity.

Then the long room took advantage of their silence, and its shadowless walls seemed to move each in its own direction to some uncharted place. Happy lovers, asleep together, sometimes imagine their bed sails out, indifferent to walls, and visit those countries which lie east of the sun, west of the moon. In this second silence the walls left them behind, preoccupied with Felicity's passion and death; aware only that something was happening to the place where they sat, to describe which the comparisons of poets have been used to obscure reality. So that a literal description passes, even among poets, for metaphor, as when Wordsworth said: "as if to make the strong wind visible"; "as if" discounting what he had to say, who had seen the wind, and not dared say so...

This is a somewhat exaggerated style, true; and no, in case you're wondering, Butts doesn't typically spend that amount of time on pregnant pauses. This elaboration of a pause in the conversation follows several pages of straight dialogue without description. Since the reader already knows well the house in which this pause takes place, these paragraphs effectively evoke the moment's reality within the narrative's overall emotional logic.

My guess is that it's that evocation that lies at the heart of "thereness"-- certainly not description, per se. Description, after all, can often be so dull, so banal. (Maybe because it lacks "thereness"?) That evocation can be accomplished by other means (and often is), perhaps depending on the work's genre, perhaps depending on the author's technical strengths. One might suppose that for sf, world-building would be a prime source of "thereness." Still, even extremely detailed world-building often fails to yield "thereness." Maybe because the world-building itself ignores whole parts of what must necessarily be included any world to grant it "thereness"?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Mundane and the Magical: an Interview with Vandana Singh

by Jesse Vernon

The newly released Of Love and Other Monsters, by Vandana Singh, explores the boundaries that shape our world—distinctions that we often take for granted: between man and woman, body and mind, human and other. Arun, the narrator of this novella, takes readers on a journey across the globe and through the minds of many captivating characters he encounters along the way. His unique ability enables him to see beyond bodies into the complexity of identities and interactions surrounding him. Through a series of emails, I asked Vandana about the ideas and influences that shape this story.


How has your own experience with gender/your gender identity influenced your writing?

I have to start by admitting that I might be the least qualified person to comment on my own writing. I can tell you about my life experience of gender issues but I can’t tell you why or how I wrote a particular story except at the most mundane level. One reason is that I often don’t know what I am trying to say in a story until months or years later, or unless someone asks me and forces me to think about it.

Having made that disclaimer I can tell you that as far as life experience goes, I’ve been involved in various ways in gender issues, not least of which is being female. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that in the West some people expect me to write about downtrodden females because of course I must be one, or must have escaped from India because I was one in the past, because of course all women in India suffer so much and bear their sufferings meekly. The truth about being female in India (and probably elsewhere, too) is a lot more complex than the simplistic assumptions of people here. I grew up in a middle class family with hordes of strong female relatives (where “strong” does not necessarily mean “strident” but might include it). My brother and sister learned to cook; I didn’t. We had female cousins who were denied treats by their grandmother in favor of their brother, but my sister and I were never treated that way. At the same time it was obvious that women, including all the tough ones, did the housework even when they worked outside the home. I learned early that Hindu goddesses were people you didn’t want to mess with, but somehow men got most of the perks.

I got interesting conflicting messages: women were weak, so had to be protected, women were powerful, they had to be contained or else they might destroy the universe. When trekking through the Himalayas as a teenager I came across indigenous women’s movements initiated by illiterate village women who had never heard of Betty Friedan. I marched in Delhi streets against the murderous abuse of the custom of dowry, shouting slogans that translate as “we are women of India, we are fire, not flowers.” Later, when I found myself living in the U.S., I volunteered in a couple of Asian women’s support groups for victims of domestic violence.

I suppose what fascinates and puzzles me about gender is that only a small fraction of it seems to be rooted in biology; the rest is a social construct, which is why gender roles can differ across cultures. The rigidity of gender can be very limiting if you want to be a complete human being.

And conversely, how has the creative space of speculative fiction influenced your experience of gender (your own or others’) in everyday life?

The wonderful thing about speculative fiction (of the best kind) is that it allows you to play in so many ways. For me one inspiring eye-opener was Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Left Hand of Darkness” which showed me one way to be creative about gender. Since then I’ve read other spec fic works that play with the notion in interesting ways. I think imagination is the key to freedom: you have to dream a dream before you can realize it. In my own writing I’ve noticed (upon looking back) that I talk a lot about boundaries that people—particularly women—have to negotiate in order to find out who they are or to become complete in some way. Sometimes those boundaries lie between human and animal, sometimes between childhood and adulthood, or the mundane and the magical.

When your main character, Arun, perceives the mind-signatures of strangers, he cannot determine if they are male or female. Later he observes:

My ability to sense minds enabled me to see human beings as entities beyond man-woman categories. I decided, after some months of informal study, that rather than two sexes there were at least thirty-four. Perhaps “sex” or “gender” isn’t right—perhaps a geographical term would be more appropriate—thirty-four climactic zones of the human mind!

Will you talk more about this perception and how it affects the rest of your story?

Some years ago, when I shared an early draft of this story with some American writers (on various occasions), there was a very vocal reaction from some of the men and also from a couple of women. They complained that Arun didn’t come across as male. One woman even said to me that since Arun didn’t watch sports or drink beer, she couldn’t think about him as a man at all. I was rather flabbergasted by all this. Later I thought about it very hard and those thoughts led to the next draft, including the extract above. I realized that there are some rather rigid notions of how gender is expressed in America, at least in urban middle-class America. In India, despite the rigidity of gender roles (which again can be different depending on family, religion, class and region) there is a lot more fluidity in terms of how gender is expressed. I mean, I’ve met men like Arun, for heaven’s sake! (All this is apart from the fact that Arun isn’t exactly typical in any way).

To give a small example, men in India often walk around with their arms around each other. It is just fine to express physical affection if you are the same gender as another person. It also does not mean you are gay, although if you are, it is very convenient. There’s no gender police out there saying if you do that you are not a man. Although, if a man walks around in a sari everybody would laugh at him unless he is a hijra (the traditional sub-culture of gelded men) or a male shopkeeper in a sari shop modeling a sari for a customer. Also if you watch Bollywood movies you’d see that the traditional hero is in some ways aggressively male, fights like a man, but cries unashamedly “like a woman” if his friend dies, and wiggles his hips like a seductress during the dance sequences. There is a lot of androgyny in Indian culture—look at our Hindu gods, especially my favorite, Shiva! He’s cool!

So I guess what Arun is trying to say is that at heart the difference between one individual’s mind and another’s may be greater than (or at least as important as) the difference of gender. Gender is just one dimension of a person’s being; there are so many more. I think (but can’t be sure, since he hasn’t told me in so many words) that Arun finds gender differences fascinating because they seem so artificial to him; yet they provide a sort of analogy for him to understand the boundary he’s negotiating: that between human and alien. And that’s all he’s telling me about it now.

Many people tend to conflate sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation—i.e., a biological male who identifies as a man will necessarily be ‘masculine’ and therefore attracted to women. Your character Arun challenges these assumptions across various lines of identity and relationships. Can you talk more about encountering these assumptions (in readers and perhaps yourself) and what it’s like to play with boundaries?

I think my childhood and young adulthood in India has a lot to do with how I perceive boundaries. In my first published story, “The Room on the Roof” (Polyphony, Volume 1, from Wheatland Press), the protagonist is a thirteen year-old girl in New Delhi, who, in the beginning of the story, has just realized that she lives within the intersection of many worlds. I used a mathematical analogy to explain that—Venn diagrams—and it is exactly how I felt growing up. Whether the boundaries were between animal and human, male and female, body and mind, I felt I was in some kind of space where these categories overlapped. Not everybody growing up in India has this experience so it was also me: I was the kind of shy kid who got along better with animals than with people. My friends included the local pariah dogs that throng Indian towns and cities along with the occasional human. My experience of gender was also interesting because I saw strong women at the helm of things in my family—matriarchs in all senses of the word—but mostly acting within roles defined by the patriarchy. At the same time education was a big deal in my family and women were as likely to have advanced degrees as men. So the complexity of it was really interesting.

I don’t really know how readers react to what is in my stories apart from the few people to whom I have shown my work, or the few who have written reviews. I have a sense that what I write isn’t really of interest to “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy in the U.S. although I hope I’m wrong about that!

You also write children’s literature. In an interview with author Samit Basu, you comment that you “read happily and indiscriminately across boundaries” of age categories in fiction. Do you notice a difference in the way you portray gender in your children’s characters compared to your novels for adults?

I should make clear first that when I set out to write a story I have no message or intent in mind. Most of the time I have a character in my head, sometimes with an image, and a feel for when the story has brewed enough in my mind and is ready to be written. Often I vaguely know the ending or the beginning but not much else. The first sentence leads to the next one and so on, and there are all kinds of surprises along the way. So for me writing is an act of discovery as well as a deliberate act, which is what makes it so interesting and addictive.

So I don’t deliberately set out to write something about gender, for instance. There are stories of mine in which it plays a limited role. But if I’m asked to look back I might be able to see a pattern in my work (or not), which is what I’m attempting to do now.

My Younguncle books for children do comment on gender, although in a subtle way. Younguncle, the main character, is a maverick problem solver who follows his heart and his whims and cares nothing for the frowns and disapproval of the world. He has no problem helping a Great-Aunt shop for saris, or dressing up as a bride to play a trick on an unpleasant man. He is likely to tap dance on the street if the impulse takes him, or burst into song, or cook the most incredible food for his nieces and nephew. When chased by villains he runs away, screaming “help,” while at the same time having some aces up his sleeve. And he’s no less a man, for all that.

These books also feature resourceful women, including one who is a super-manager and talks in capital letters, and another who uses tears and melodrama to cleverly get what she wants. Yet another young woman is a brilliant mathematician who considers marriage neither necessary nor sufficient, and figures out a solution (with Younguncle’s help).

Many of my short stories for children (published mostly in India) feature girls who discover important things about themselves: one in the context of a trip to Mars, and another in a situation set in a totalitarian future Delhi where she has a chance to change the course of events. So I guess gender issues do permeate a lot of my writing, although I may not always be aware of it until I look back.

How have different cultural contexts in this novella—rural India, the metropolis of New Delhi, small towns and large cities in the U.S.—influenced the identities of your characters?

Well, geography, including its cultural aspects, does affect character—hence the stereotype of country mouse and town mouse. Growing up, I experienced life in a big city, in small towns and also visited the ancestral village. Since I was mostly brought up in the bustling metropolis of New Delhi, the contrast between it and the small town and village scenario was striking to say the least.

One of the most obvious things that is affected by cultural geography is one's sense of time. I remember summers in the town where my grandparents lived, and where we also lived for two years. Time ran thick and slow as honey. Then there is space too. In the smaller places there was more of it to wander in. Time to explore ditches after monsoon rain, look for tadpoles, watch out for cobras, time to wander through the neighborhood at four in the morning and find our way to the fields where a lone farmer drove his oxen. A largesse of time and space make it possible to participate in and experience life in a completely different way, to mull over things, to wonder idly. This, I think, is important to have at least in one's youth. It shapes who you are.

In the story, Arun had that. I think his special ability might have helped him to retain that need to participate in the world, to be a taster of its mindscapes, its joys and sorrows, like a curious kid in a magic shop. It kept him from ambition, from becoming obsessed with getting to the top of the ladder like other young men. In a way it kept him from so-called growing up. Sankaran was like that too, in a different way from Arun, though. That's my astute observation of the day. I leave the rest of the analysis to interested readers.


For more information about Vandana Singh, visit her website. To purchase Of Love and Other Monsters, go here.

And so the SFNAL Imagination Kicks In...

Helen Thomas, one of the last genuine journalists in Washington D.C., reports that Repblican candidate John McCain is predicting a "100 Years War" if he's elected to the US presidency. Thomas writes:

If Americans want to continue the Iraq War, then Sen. John McCain - the apparent Republican presidential candidate and relentless hawk - is their man.

It seems McCain was not kidding when he said the U.S. might have to remain in Iraq for 100 years.

At a town meeting in New Hampshire, McCain was told that President Bush had indicated the possibility of U.S. forces staying in Iraq for 50 years.

“Make it a hundred,” McCain responded.

Presumably McCain means that still would be with a volunteer U.S. Army because even the “straight talking” senator would not dare to suggest that a military draft would be needed to carry out his grand imperialist plan for Iraq. Not if he wants to get elected.

Hmm. Recent estimates for the cost of the war (to the US only) put it variously at $1.3 trillion (according to Congress's Joint Economic Committee), at least $1 trillion (according to the Congressional Budget Office), and between $1-2 trillion according to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz (who factors into his calculation the interest on the debt incurred to finance the war). Considering the apocalyptic pronouncements about the near-future US economy lately bruited about, I'm having a difficult time imagining what life in the US might be with 100 more years of this war. (100 years is a bit more concrete than the "Endless War Against Terrorism" of Mr. Dick C, but because of its concreteness, 100 years sounds a lot more ominous than a vague "endless," which could be-- and probably mostly is-- taken by most of us as mindless hyperbole.) And of course as Thomas points out, an important catch for imagining 100 more years of the US's occupation of Iraq is that of nailing a source for the necessary cannon fodder.

It's doubtful the US will be able to find a heavy enough stick or sweet enough carrot to re-assemble a "Coalition of the Willing" of sufficient size to keep the occupation going. So how is McCain imagining this 100 Years War will work in practical terms? Even more mercenaries (meaning: even more debt, not to mention lawlessness and violence)? Or the reinstatement of the draft (this time for both men and women)? Or should we assume that he's strategizing before thinking, as the Neocons who got us into this war so notoriously did?

You've gotta wonder.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Just so you know...

This now in from Agence France Presse:

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a bid by journalists and professors to challenge the legality of the US administration's wire-tapping program.

The program, brought in after the September 11, 2001 attacks, allows US national security agencies to monitor suspect telephone calls and emails between the United States and overseas without first obtaining a judge's order.

In 2006 journalists and teachers filed a suit against the program maintaining it violated their right to privacy, saying because they had regular contacts with the Middle East, their freedom of expression would be restrained.

They specifically targetted the National Security Agency in the case which has now come before the country's highest court.

Read the rest of the article here.

Reading Joanna Russ's The Country You Have Never Seen

I'm slowly working my way through Joanna Russ's collection of essays and reviews, The Country You Have Never Seen, one or two pieces at a time, usually at bedtime. You've probably heard a bit about this book already-- that it doesn't collect all of her reviews and essays, only an assortment, and that its overriding characteristic is that of sharp, critical clarity, which is both salutary and a pleasure to encounter, even though many (though not all) of the books reviewed have long since been forgotten.

Certainly I appreciate the sharpness of that clarity, which strikes me as singular-- that is to say, it's something I don't find in any current reviews that I can think of. Part of that singularity may be a matter of style, but not all of it. Russ's critical faculties could be fairly characterized as surgical, and her style of rendering judgment unflinchingly straightforward and even plain. But what interests me above all is her care and honesty. Anyone who has read her nonfiction (from her essays to How to Suppress Women's Wrirting to the lengthy What Are We Fighting For?) will know just how devastatingly witty she can be. Though she is often witty in her reviews, she seems mostly to have resisted the temptation to make witticisms at the expense of the authors of awful books. Not that she doesn't make cracks about the books themselves (or the books' editors/publishers). One of my favorite examples (so far) is the ending of her review of Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites, published by Arkham House, of which she remarks, "Devotees of HPL will be disappointed, however, and so will everybody else; the Outsider's latest is not in the Lovecraft tradition but in the Boy's Life Gee Whiz tradition... It is one of the worst books I have ever read and very enjoyable, but then I did not have to pay for it." She briefly quotes a passage from this gem, then delivers her parting shot:

I have an announcement to make too. It concerns a severe letter to August Derleth (who seems to have suggested this book, possibly out of exasperation), a gallon of kerosene, a match, a certain 222-page home-cooked romance, and a copy of The Shadow Over Innsmouth to relax with afterwards. Howard Phillips, you never looked better.

"It's narsty," she writes, "to beat up on authors who are probably starving to death on turnip soup but critics ought to be honest. Both books are juveniles, though not so labeled, both books are awful, and I wouldn't want any juvenile to read either of them." Though she chooses to be honest with the reader, she never forgets the human being behind the book (who she knows damned well will be reading the review).

Another aspect of her reviews is her care in tracing the progression of individual writers' careers-- downs as well as ups-- making no bones about the fact that authors of good or even brilliant books do on occasion turn in mediocre or poor performances, which she clearly believes does not make them bad writers. I've been fascinated to read her reviews of several books by Kate Wilhem, talking successively about Wilhelm's promise as a writer and then the development of that promise as each new book comes out. Russ's 1971 review of The Abyss particularly piqued my interest, especially given her essays on female characterization in fiction and science fiction that she was writing and publishing around the same time. Here's a chunk of it:

The two novellas that make up Kate Wilhelm's Abyss are flawed, the first ("The Plastic Abyss") because it attempts more than most successes and the second ("Stranger in the House") because of Wilhelm's entirely original set of virtues and defects.

As George Orwell has pointed out, most human "worlds" are not represented in art at all, for to be a member of such a world demands that one not be an artist. Orwell's example is Kipling, who managed somehow to become a full member of colonial Anglo-Indian society and yet keep enough of an antithetical self alive to report well on that same society. Not only to describe but also to embody in oneself a world-view that leaves no room for art takes quite a lot of doing.

This is Russ's elegant way of setting up an analogy to assist people too blinkered by gender ideology to be likely otherwise to grasp the point she goes on to make about what Wilhelm is attempting to do in her work and why accomplishing that end is almost impossibly difficult. (Yes, indeed, Virginia, there's much to be learned about rhetorical tactics from Russ's reviews!)

And so Russ continues:

Kate Wilhelm is an escapee from the feminine mystique. As Shulamith Firestone points out, women and men live in different cultures though neither group knows it-- men consider the male experience to be the only reality, and so do women, who therefore distort and deny their own experience. Until recently we have had of the female experience only versions sentimentalized and distorted in the service of self-glorification and the status quo. Good women artists have generally had atypical experiences; as a friend of mine put it, they've brought themselves up as men, since "man" --in the general view-- was the equivalent of "human."

Russ has a footnote here to remark that she herself and Anne McCaffrey offer examples of women artists who've "brought themselves up as men." It's interesting, though, to note that in the passage above Russ uses the expression "in the general view." I find myself wondering what she meant by that. Did she mean that this view was shared by both men and women? Or that "the general view" is, simply and always, a view shared by most males? Given the context, the ambiguity seems eerily significant.

She continues:

Like Kipling, Kate Wilhelm manages to be both an artist and the voice of an experience that is already defined by its not having a voice. To find a voice one must move out of this culture and yet stay in it; Wilhelm almost does this. "The Plastic Abyss" is the eerie fusion of women's-magazine "reality" and real reality, as if sentimental pictures had suddenly begun to move and speak. There is a tall, glamorous, hard, patronizing husband in "The Plastic Abyss" who is breathtakingly close to the Ideal Husband of bad fiction; there is the Sweet, Ideal, Passive Wife of romance who almost makes it into artistic definition; and there is the magnificently irresponsible playing-around with reality only possible to those who don't have the conventional stake in it and are therefore wise enough not to believe in it. Still, there are vestiges of un-ironic cardboard. The heroine of "Plastic Abyss" says she "should go back to work, back to writing articles, to traveling, prying, learning" although it is perfectly clear from her character that she has never done any of those things; the heroine of "Stranger" has a "fashion" job that is never made real to her or anybody else. There is a stepdaughter in "Plastic" who (we are told) will do better than the heroine, although her situation is in no way different.

Russ continues evaluating the characters and Wilhelm's drawing of them, then notes:

I was struck in both novellas by what seemed to me the unearned adulation given to both women, but I wonder if this simply reflects our not being used to feminine protagonists who are involved in real activity. Most male protagonists in s.f. are glorified (or unrealized) in exactly the same way. It seems to be an occupational hazard.

I recall hearing someone at WisCon complain about Russ's saying in one of her essays written at around the same time as this review (early 1970s) that sf has mostly "images" of women as characters and not real women-- and my sense was that the argument waged against Russ for having made such a claim some thirty years back showed a lot of confusion about what Russ was actually talking about. I think her discussion of Wilhelm's novellas makes it pretty clear. An interesting pair of questions for me now is (1) to what extent this can be said to be true for sf written in the first decade of the twenty-first century (and for which sorts of characters), and (2) whether different sub-genres of sf rely more heavily on images than on fully-realized characterization.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Other US War-- A Progress Report

In case you missed it, The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) issued a communique on Dec. 10, 2007 (Universal Human Rights Day), "The US and Her Fundamentalist Stooges are the Main Human Rights Violators in Afghanistan."

The communique doesn't pull its punches:

The US and her allies tried to legitimize their military occupation of Afghanistan under the banner of “bringing freedom and democracy for Afghan people”. But as we have experienced in the past three decades, in regard to the fate of our people, the US government first of all considers her own political and economic interests and has empowered and equipped the most traitorous, anti-democratic, misogynist and corrupt fundamentalist gangs in Afghanistan.

In the past few years, for a thousand times the lies of US claims in the so-called “War on terror” were uncovered. By relying on the criminal bands of the Northern Alliance, the US made a game of values like democracy, human rights, women’s rights etc. thus disgracing our mournful nation. The US created a government from those people responsible for massacres in Pul-e-Charkhi, Dasht-e-Chamtala, Kapisa, Karala, Dasht-e-Lieli, 65,000 Kabulis and tens of mass graves across the country. Now the US tries to include infamous killers like Mullah Omer and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar into the government, which will be another big hypocrisy in the “war against terror”.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Readership or Readerships?

As I've been going about my work today, Alice Notley's notion of "disobeying one's readership" has been knocking about in my head in the background. And I've realized that I don't think of my own readership as in the singular. Rather, I think of myself has having multiple readerships. ("Readership" strikes me as being a narrower, more particular entity than "audience"-- audience, after all, includes in addition to a work's readers both potential readers and readers who aren't particularly interested in the author so much as in the individual work or class of work of the type they see the work as being an instance of.) My sense of the plurality of my readership is likely a symptom of my writing in different genres (fiction, reviews, essays...) and writing in different modes within those genres. I can't think of a single person among my most devoted readers who loves every single thing that I've ever written. (I know for instance that among these, one loves [she claims] everything except "Portrait of the Artist as A Middle-aged Woman" [a story published in Leviathan 2], which she detests.)

Do writers (poets, novelists, short fictionists, essayists, reviewers & so on) who have a singular readership (i.e., fans devoted to all their novels-- or all their poems, or all their essays, or all their short fiction-- because they expect to get a particular sort of reading experience every time they pick up that author's work to read) feel a greater pressure to write in deference to the wishes and desires of their readers than do authors with multiple readerships? I have no intuition about this because I've never imagined my fiction appealing to a broad audience, much less that the set of readers who've loved one novel or story would necessarily enjoy any of the others.

I wonder how many f/sf writers see their readerships as plural? I realize that a consistent fan base is considered necessary and desirable for those who hope to make a living from their writing, but surely that need not be the goal of those of us who have no idea of living off their fiction? I also wonder whether the assumption that a consistent fan base is essential for commercial success is really correct. I can, after all, think of a few examples of commercially successful writers with multiple readerships. (Octavia Butler, for one.) Works may not appeal to all of a writer's readerships, but really, ought they to?

By corollary, I know very well that Aqueduct Press's books appeal to multiple readerships. Large publishers presumably don't expect their books to appeal to a singular readership, but some small presses do, and at a guess I'd say that's probably a smarter strategy than Aqueduct's.

Argh. I'm writing here as though I know what I'm talking about. There are, in fact, people who buy every book we publish (just as there are readers who read all of my work that gets into print), so it's obviously more complicated than opposing the singular to the plural...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Going through a pile of papers (and believe me, my office is filled with many such piles, some of which have been accreting for several years, containing stuff in the bottom layers that I'd forgotten the exstence of), I ran across a printout of an essay by poet Alice Notley dated February 1998, titled "The Poetics of Disobedience," and of course I had to reread it, knowing that I'd kept it because it interested me.

Notley begins by noting that she considers her job to be "bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well." She then talks a bit about her history of disobedience in her work. I'd like to quote two passages from the piece, to give you a taste of its thinking. (It's available here, for those who'd like to read the whole thing.)

Like many writers I feel ambivalent about words, I know they don't work, I know they aren't it. I don't in the least feel that everything is language. I have a sense that there has been language from the beginning, that it isn't fundamentally an invention. These are contradictory positions but positions are just words. I don't believe that the best poems are just words, I think they're the same as reality; I tend to think reality is poetry, and that it isn't words. But words are one way to get at reality/poetry, what we're in all the time. I think words are among us and everywhere else, mingling, fusing with, backing off from us and everything else.


I think I conceive of myself as disobeying my readership a lot. I began the new work in fact denying their existence; it seemed to me I needed most at this point to work on my own existence so I couldn't afford to cater to them if they got in the way of my finding out things. But this is a work of mine, it should be published sometime. I'm now in a predicament I can't get out of, a form I can't manage for the reader, which just keeps leading me on and leading me on.

I can imagine many fiction writers saying that only a poet could seriously think of "disobeying [their] readership." Most fiction writers have an inbuilt reverence for their readership that is sternly articulated (by writers and readers both) in every discussion of what good fiction is, and this is usually the case regardless of how devoted the writer may be to making commercial fiction that is also art.

I remember now why I saved the printout; it struck me as worth exploring the implications of "disobeying one's readership" for what it might tell me about the state of our art. Hmm. Another time, perhaps...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Unintentionally Feminist: Looking at Synthajoy by D.G. Compton

By Nancy Jane Moore

I've recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas, and all my books are still in boxes. Since the only consideration in packing the books was making sure no one box was too heavy, I haven't got the foggiest idea where any particular book might be. So when I want something to read -- a daily occurrence -- I just open a box on top of one of the many stacks and rifle through it.

Using this method, I came upon a book I not only had never read, but don't even remember acquiring: Synthajoy, by D.G. Compton. (In fact, even though I somehow ended up with a copy of the book, I knew nothing about Compton, a British writer who has been honored by SFWA as an Author Emeritus.)

What I discovered was something I've decided to call an "unintentionally feminist" novel; that is, a book that makes a distinctly feminist statement even though I don't think that was the author's purpose.

The book, which was first published in 1968, is about a doctor who develops "sensitape," a recording of brain processes that can be played for others. Using sensitape, one can listen to great music with the mental processes of a great musician. Of course, it's only a matter of time before the doctor adds "sexitape" to the mix.

What makes this novel feminist is that it is told from the point of view of the doctor's wife -- a nurse, of course. Compton does an excellent job of developing this character, Thea Cadence. She rings true to me, as a woman of the changing times of the mid-60s. (The novel isn't particularly clear about when it's set, but I'd guess it was intended to be the 1990s, more or less. However, outside of sensitape, Compton didn't bother to create too many new technologies. Nor did he assume any changes in gender relationships -- another reason I'd call this book "unintentionally feminist.")

Thea starts out besotted by her husband and eager to help with his work, but gradually begins to think the work is wrong. Her doctor husband's treatment of her is emotionally abusive -- she is useful to him, and that is all she is. The doctor is a classic ambitious man who considers himself a genius and neither respects nor loves anyone else.

I've no way of knowing what Compton was thinking when he wrote the book, though I assume from the context he thought the doctor was a bastard for the way he treated his wife and a dangerous man for the way he developed his invention. But it is easy to view Thea's experiences through a feminist eye, to see her as a woman sucked in by the modern version of the traditional wife -- a useful support tool for a genius -- instead of pursuing any work of her own. And one can also view her as someone blinded by the love myths of the time, and a passive participant in her own life.

The book is written in a complex format: Thea has been convicted of killing her husband and is being treated in the clinic she helped found with guilt sensitape. She has few periods of actual consciousness, so the story is told through her memories as they come to her (in the disordered way of memories). The whole truth doesn't emerge until the end.

The whole truth is important to what I assume was Compton's purpose, but it's not to the feminist reading of the book. If one applies a feminist eye to Thea's life, a different understanding emerges, one that fits in well with the ideas of The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex.

My feminist impression has more to do with the overall effect, rather than any particular sentences in the book, though there is a nice fantasy sequence in which Thea imagines being tried by women, who acquit her on the grounds that her husband deserved to die.

One passage that struck me particularly might be considered feminist, though it could equally as well reflect what I'd call Sixties values. Thea says of another male character in the book -- a decent man:
He was a man whose work was his life, yet the outcome of this work was inconsistent with everything he believed most deeply. This dichotomy I found infuriating.

I've noticed a similar attitude in many men over the years, and now see it in many professional women as well. They throw themselves into their jobs, and tamp down any questions they might have, perhaps convincing themselves that their doubts are not important when it comes to earning a living.

At any rate, this novel provides a great deal of food for thought and is worth a look. It's out of print, but used copies seem to be available.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The 2007 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Short Fiction and Other Work

This just in...

For Immediate Release – Please Distribute
February 7, 2008
Contact: Rob Gates (

Washington DC: -- The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards Council is pleased to announce the winners of the 2007 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Short Fiction and Other Work – Novel winners were announced in October 2007. The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards were created in 1999 to honor works in SF/F/H that deal positively with gay characters, themes and issues. The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards Council was created in 2002 to manage and further the mission of the Awards, which is to educate and raise awareness of GLBT content in SF/F/H. Nominations for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards are open to everyone. Winners and a short list of recommended works in each category are selected by a jury.

For 2007 Awards were being presented in three categories. The Novel category recognized works originally released in 2006 in the US/North America. The Short Fiction and Other Work categories recognized works released in 2005 or 2006 due to a one year jury break.

Three stories were selected by the judges as the best science fiction, fantasy or horror short fiction with significant positive GLBT content from 2005 and 2006. “In the Quake Zone” by David Gerrold from the anthology Down These Dark Spaceways, “Instinct” by Joy Parks from the anthology The Future Is Queer, and “The Language of Moths” by Christopher Barzak from the magazine Realms of Fantasy were identified as the three winners in the Short Fiction category. In the Other Work category the jury also identified three winners. They were the anthology The Future Is Queer edited by Richard Labonte and Lawrence Schimel, the television series Torchwood created by Russell T Davies, and the film V for Vendetta directed by James McTeigue.

The jury for each category also identified a Short List of Recommended works. The complete Short List for each category is below. The short lists reflect the remarkable diversity in the speculative fiction arena, with titles from a variety of publishers and distributors, publishing technologies, authors, genres, literary styles, and GLBT content. “The judges were extremely impressed with the variety and quality of the works considered. Indeed one judge commented that the difficulty was not in finding quality works, but whittling a pool of quality works down to a Short List” reported Rob Gates, Executive Director of the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards Council. The juries encourage readers to seek out not only the Short List titles, but all of the nominated works.

Nominations for the 2008 Awards are open and the 2008 Awards will be presented at Gaylaxicon 2008 in Washington DC in October 2008.

For more information about the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, including a complete listing of all nominated works from 2007, a handout listing winners and short list recommendations with brief descriptions, or to nominate works for the 2008 Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, you can visit the website at or send email to

In The Quake Zone, David Gerrold (Down These Dark Spaceways – SFBC) – WINNER
Instinct, Joy Parks (The Future Is Queer – Arsenal Pulp) – WINNER
The Language of Moths, Christopher Barzak (Realms of Fantasy) – WINNER

The Beatrix Gates, Rachel Pollack (The Future Is Queer – Arsenal Pulp)
Bones Like Black Sugar, Catherynne M Valente (Fantasy Magazine #1 – Prime)
The Captive Girl, Jennifer Pelland (Helix SF, Issue 3, Fall 2006)
Caught by Skin, Steve Berman (Sex in the System – Thunder’s Mouth)
Facing Down Your Demons, Alexander Potter (All Hell Breaking Loose – DAW)
Fairy Tale Ending, L-J Baker (From The Asylum – March 2006)
Obscure Relations, L Timmel Duchamp (The Future Is Queer – Arsenal Pulp)
Plums, Camilla Bruce (Shifting Again – Torquere)
Sleeping Bears Lie, Alex Draven (Shifting Too – Torquere)
The Specter of Sin, Kristina Wright (Call of the Dark – Bella)
There's a Hole in the City, Richard Bowes (SciFiction –
Voce, Kimberly DeCina (Sleeping Beauty Indeed – Torquere)
We Recruit, Julia Watts (Stake Through the Heart – Bella)

Other Work Winners and Short List

The Future Is Queer (anthology), Richard Labonte and Lawrence Schimel et al – Arsenal Pulp – WINNER
Torchwood Season 1 (television), Russell T Davies et al – BBC – WINNER
V for Vendetta (film), James McTeigue et al – Warner Bros – WINNER

The Dance of Uzume-no-Ama (poem), Catherynne M Valente – Prime
Doctor Who The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (television), Russell T Davies et al – BBC
Drawn Together (television), Comedy Central – Comedy Central
Eerie Queerie (manga), Shuri Shiozu et al – TokyoPop
Gaylaxicon 2006 Sampler (anthology), Don Sakers et al – (Speed-of-C)
Hard Pill (film), John Baumgartner et al – (Baumgartner)
Sleeping Beauty, Indeed (anthology), Joselle Vanderhooft et al – (Torquere)
Young Avengers (comics), Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung et al – (Marvel Comics)

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Carl Brandon Society's Recommendations for Black History Month

The Carl Brandon Society has put together a list of recommended readings of speculative fiction books by black authors in honor of Black History month. Claire Light explains:

The idea is for you to read these books this month, forward this list around to your friends, take this list into your local bookstores and ask them to display these books this month, post the list on your blogs and websites, etc. I hope you’ll all strongly consider at least picking up one of these books and falling into it. It’s a wonderful list, and your February will be improved!

Here's the list:
  • So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  • Mindscape by Andrea Hairston
  • Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell
  • Futureland by Walter Mosley
  • The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu


• PARALLAX AWARD given to works of speculative fiction created by a person of color:

47 by Walter Mosley

• KINDRED AWARD given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group:

by Susan Vaught

Story Collection, Two Authors

I just heard from my publisher in India, Zubaan books, that the release of my collection "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories" has been delayed to the beginning of March. On the plus side, the cover is done and the final corrections are being made by the typesetter. The cover is designed by my very talented editor at Zubaan, Anita Roy, using collages from the artwork of the brilliant Delhi artist Chitra Venkataramani. You can see it at the Zubaan website for the book,

Zubaan is descended from India's oldest feminist press, Kali for Women, and is publishing some of the most exciting stuff in English from Indian authors, including translated works from various non-English Indian languages. Their catalog is well worth checking out. One of their upcoming releases that I am really looking forward to is a science fiction novel called Generation 14, by Priya Sarukkai Chabria:

I've recently discovered the works of British YA writer Kate Thompson, and am wondering why she does not seem to be well known in the US --- or if she is, how I've managed to be unaware of her for so long. On our way back from India this January my daughter and I were ransacking the Borders in Heathrow airport, desperately looking for something to read for the next flight (having finished reading everything we had) when my daughter found "The Fourth Horseman" by Kate Thompson. After she finished it she had a stunned look on her face and declared that this was one of the best books she had read in a long time. So in the remaining three hours over the Atlantic I read it, and had to agree. It is a really compelling science fiction/fantasy story that engages with such themes as war, fundamentalism and prejudice as seen through the lives of three children. Very relevant to our times, and as the Guardian blurb puts it, it is "unputdownable."

So when we got back we ordered a bunch of her other books from Amazon (our local Barnes and Noble didn't have anything by her), and have just finished reading her Missing Link Trilogy. Bold, compelling science fiction; although some of her ideas about language and genetics seem a bit simplistic, the manner of telling, the shades of grey, and the imaginative sweep of the story are something to celebrate. The first and third books are particularly good.

Here is Kate Thompson's site:

Her works have won the Whitbread Children's Book award and the Guardian Children's Book Prize.