Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Science Fiction Angle on Sarah Palin

By Nancy Jane Moore

At the now-obligatory panel on diversity issues in SF at ArmadilloCon a couple of weeks ago, Debbie Smith said, "I don't want people to buy my work just because I'm a woman." To which I responded from the audience, "I don't want people to not buy my work because I'm a woman, either."

Both Debbie and I are right, but it's Debbie's point of view that applies to the Sarah Palin nomination. Palin was chosen because she's a woman with extreme religious right viewpoints, not because she is qualified to be vice president.

So Republicans, who have screamed for years that affirmative action means unqualified women and minorities are hired over qualified white men, are going to choose an unqualified woman for their ticket. It's either a deeply cynical action, or an effort to show the supposed errors of affirmative action.

I'll go with cynicism.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

It's Mary Shelley's Birthday

Today is Mary Shelley's birthday. Just in case y'all forgot. Yesterday was the third anniversary of the devastation of New Orleans at the hands of Katrina (aided and abetted by corrupt government). Today, people are evacuating New Orleans, preparing for Gustav, now said to be headed straight for Lafayette, Louisiana, where many members of Tom's family live...

Here's some interesting stuff to check out:

--Karina Meléndez has made a vid for Kelley Eskridge's "Strings" (the opening story of Dangerous Space). You can watch it here.

--Micole has gone to see The Dark Knight, and likens the experience to watching a movie by Leni Riefenstahl.

--The Mumpsimums offers a splendid miscellany of Words from a Few of America's Women, 1790-1920.

--Katha Pollitt, in Sarah Palin, Wrong Woman for the Job has a few things to say about the desperation evident in John McCain's choice. And she nails the abortion issue as the crux of the matter:

Palin is a rightwing-christian anti-choice extremist who opposes abortion for any reason whatsoever, except to save the life of the girl or woman. No exception even for rape, incest, or the health of the woman. No exception for a ten-year-old, a woman carrying a fetus with no chance of life, a woman on the edge of suicide-- let alone the woman who is not ready to be a parent, who is escaping domestic violence, who is already stretched to the limit as a single mother. She wants to force over one million women and girls a year to give birth against their will and judgment. She wants to use the magnificent freedom the women's movement has won for her at tremendous cost and struggle--the movement that won her the right to run those marathons and run Alaska -- to take away the freedom of every other woman in the country.

Her selection does not tell us McCain is a "maverick" who is just stringing the christian right along wink-wink . It tells us that he has thrown in his lot with James Dobson, the Family Research Council, the Catholic hierarchy and others for whom criminalizing abortion is the number-one issue. His record of votes against abortion and birth control -- 125 votes out of 130 in his congressional and Senate career-- apparently wasn't quite enough for them. By choosing Palin, he wins their enthusiastic support.

McCain is gambling that women will vote their gender, and not their interests.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"...a particular, awkward kind of SF feminism"

The new issue of the SFRA Review arrived in my mailbox today, and it has the text of Gwyneth Jones's acceptance speech for the 2008 Pilgrim Award, which was read at the SFRA's awards ceremony in her absence. It's fairly long, so I'll quote only a couple of chunks. It opens:

First, let me say how sorry I am that I can't be with you in the home of the Apocalypse (as Mark Bould reminded me, temptingly), and that I'm missing my only chance-- on the return trip-- to use one of my favourite iconic sayings in its original context. I'm not in Kansas, and it's a real shame, but I've given up flying, until further notice-- and it'd be a sad thing, after my rash, intransigent pilgrimage through SF criticism, if I dumped a rash, quixotic vow to come and collect the Pilgrim award.

I'm honoured, I'm astonished, I'm very proud to be a recipient of the Pilgrim Award. Despite Adam's kind protestations (I think I initially responded to his phone call by saying, are you sure this isn't a joke?) I still feel bemused. What did I do to deserve this? Caused a little trouble, maybe, occasionally, once upon a time (which seems, according to previous Pilgrims' accounts of themselves, to be something of a trend...) But I'm both glad, and sorry, to feel that this is an honour for a particular, awkward kind of SF feminism. Not the "girls get to be guys" type of feminism. Nor the equally anodyne "women are morally superior" variety-- but the deeply offensive contention that our whole global culture (and specifically, the future of our culture) could stand to be a little less masculine. Could stand a strong infusion of the values designated as "weak," and "feminine"--negotiation above conflict, empathy above self-interest, and all the rest of that repertoire. So, I'm glad I'm getting this award as a feminist, and I'm sorry-- because I'd much rather that my ideas and opinions were *individual* but mainstream, and didn't merit a special label.


I'm not sure exactly when I got started in SF critical venues. I wrote a book called Divine Endurance. As soon as it was publisehd I was hailed, by a community which I hadn't known existed (I'd read a lot of SF, but never been to a convention, never been a "fan" in the technical sense of the term). Someone must have sent me one of those alluring free gifts, and off I went, reviewing for Vector, for Foundation, having a troubled, on-and-off relationship with Interzone-- and later, maybe most significantly, writing regularly for David Hartwell's New York Review of Science Fiction. Things became a little heated, from time to time. There was a correspondence with Brian Stableford, in Foundation, on the subject of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale... I remember contacting the then editor, Edward James, and asking him, is this Stableford chap okay in a scrap? He understands about play-fighting? I won't make him cry or anything? Edward duly assured me that I ened have no fear. Mr. Stableford was bulletproof.

What I chiefly recall about those gunslinging years is that I never, or very rarely, chose the books that I reviewed. (The exceptions that spring to mind our Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty and Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire.) I would tell the reviews editor, don't worry, just send me whatever you like. I'm not primarily interested in giving people tips on what to buy, and I don't want to have advance guidance on what I'm supposed to think. It doesn't matter to me if the novel is obscure. I want to see what's happening in science ficiton, I want to take books apart, find out how they work. How they relate to popular culture, sexual politics, global politics. How SF writers are using the constructive or destructive interferences between technology, science, human life... I didn't realise, way back then, that I had crossed the line: I was no longer reviewing books, I'd become a critic. I didn't even realise how different, in practice and in purpose, those two activities are-- and this blissful ignorance could get me into trouble. I remember the look of hurt astonishment in the eyes of a certain illustrious cyberpunk, when he'd read my review of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in the New York Review of Science Fiction. But Bruce (no, I didn't say this, but I thought it)-- surely you noticed that this book positively licks the boots of mindless violence? You're a decent human being, surely you were repelled by Hiro Protagonist's smug, shallow, machismo...?

Those were the days. I wouldn't dream of behaving in the same way now. For one thing, thanks to the internet explosion, it's become almost impossible not to know what the community thinks you should think, about any given SF novel... For another, I'm older and a little wiser. I no longer think it's such a great idea to stand alone, and shoot the bad guy full of holes in the middle of Main Street...

The issue also has a lengthy review by Ritch Calvin of Stretto. I'll quote its last paragraph:

From the very beginning of the series, Duchamp makes it clear that one of her interests in the series is to examine how revolutions take place. Too often, the narrative conceit is that a revolution had already taken place in the past and a new society has emerged. For Duchamp, the interest is in the very messy process of working through the changes, the personalities, the conflicts, the contradictions. Too often a novel will show individuals and scoeities that are united, at times over generations, by a single cause-- terraforming a planet, for example. However, the case of 9/11 demonstrates clearly that such unanimity and momentum are impossible to create and sustain. Duchamp and the Marq'ssan series demonstrate this beautifully. Perhaps it does not create the sort of narrative arc to which we are accustomed; perhaps it does not create the sort of resolution and closure we would like to see, but just as she resists the marketing strategies, she resists such easy narrative devices.
Practically speaking, the books and the series would be difficult to teach, at least in most classroom settings. However, they do raise interesting and important thematic issues as they challenge contemporary conventions of narrative and plotting.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

WisCon Chronicles: Call for contributions

WisCon Chronicles 1 and 2
Call for Ideas and Contributions
WisCon Chronicles Volume 3 - WisCon 32

Were you at WisCon 32 in 2008? Aqueduct Press would love to hear from you with ideas and materials for Volume 3 of The WisCon Chronicles.

ANY panel, event, or paper you'd like to write about is fine.

Here are a few that we've noticed people talking about:

* Maureen McHugh and L. Timmel Duchamp's Guest of Honor readings and speeches
* Women and Hard SF
* Elves and Dwarves: The Racism Inherent in Fantasy
* Fanfic and Slash 201
* The Battlestar Galactica panel
* The Eclipse One Cover Debate
* Not Just Japan: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy
* Writing Working-Class Characters

We'd also like to see writeups of your hallway conversations: What fantastic discussions did you have in the interstices? In the hallway, in the lobby? At parties, at dinner, in your room, or online?

If you were at WisCon and would like to participate — to offer ideas or to submit an essay — please get in touch with us. Don’t be shy.

If you were blown away by a WisCon panel that we haven’t mentioned and would like to see its ideas expanded upon in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 3, please let us know. Tell us the name of the panel, which participants (including audience members) most engaged you, and what was valuable to you about the discussion. What was thought-provoking, inspiring, enraging, hilarious, worthy of deeper discussion? If you’re interested in writing an essay on the topic or contributing to the book in some other way, let us know.

Please query before writing an article. If you want to submit an article or essay, please email a query or proposal by September 15, 2008. (The earlier the better.) The deadline for the submission of finished essays will be October 15, 2008. We’re looking for essays of 800-3000 words. If your submission is published, you will receive a small payment and a copy of the book.

Feel free to forward this call for submissions!

Liz Henry
email ideas and submissions to:

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama's Choice

I formed my final judgment of the man Barack Obama has chosen as his running mate years ago, during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, who'd been nominated to the Supreme Court, when the Senator offered the world the spectacle of a sleazy sort of male-bonding that came close to provoking me to smash my television set. Such outrage and disgust, obviously, was simply an emotional reaction. Calmer, less resentful commentators have in recent days been delivering more cogent judgments. This morning, Josh kindly directed me to the Guardian's Medium Lobster, who succinctly sums up the man's character:

Pros: One of the Senate's oldest and most respected experts in the field of Joe Biden; vast bullshit reserve could be tapped for its methane, powering nation for decades; fondness for partition and ethnic cleansing could be a valuable asset during the Second American Civil War of 2013.

Cons: As a wholly-owned subsidiary of DuPont, may be ineligible to hold office.

Here's David Sirota's judgment (What Biden Means):

The Good: As the Drum Major Institute shows, Biden has a fairly progressive record on basic economic issues, and has gotten more progressive on specific issues like trade. He’s also been a strong voice opposing unilateral war against Iran. And rhetorically, he seems comfortable painting a stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans on issues.

The Bad: He is one of the most arrogant and conceited people in Washington - one of the jokes in D.C. when I was there is that Biden uses the term “I” more than anyone else. Because of this self-importance, he consequently shoots his mouth off in ways that can undermine progressives. For example, he has made insulting racial comments about African Americans and Indians. This might not only be dredged up by Republicans, but Biden may commit additional errors in his new platform as VP nominee. Additionally, Biden is an insider’s insider, having spent most of his life in Washington, D.C. That doesn’t exactly underscore Obama’s message of change.

The Ugly: He was one of the most ardent supporters of the credit card-industry written Bankrupty Bill of 2005, which was one of the most regressive pieces of economic legislation in the last generation. And though he cites his foreign policy experience as an asset, he used his position as one of Democrats’ top foreign policy voices to support the Iraq War.

So, all in all, the Biden choice is a shade on the good side of mediocre, though Obama’s willingness to anoint a senator who voted for two landmark travesties - the Bankruptcy Bill and Iraq War - gives us some disturbing clues about the Illinois senator’s attitude toward the economic progressive movement and the antiwar movement. It also shows how much work those movements have in front of them - and how, in particular, the antiwar movement’s strategy of focusing all attention on Republicans has actually helped create the situation whereby the Democratic Party feels perfectly comfortable rewarding supposed Serious Foreign Policy Voics like Biden even after they voted for the war.

Robert Dreyfuss, writing for the Nation, offers a column warning that On Iraq, Biden Is Worse than McCain:

Barack Obama may be doing the one thing that might have seemed impossible: he's picking a running mate whose ideas about Iraq are even worse than, and stupider than, John McCain's.

Obama, whose mushy Iraq plan excites no one, is marrying his own's flawed ideas -- which mostly revolve around beefing up US forces in Afghanistan and unilaterally attacking Pakistan -- with Biden's discredited notion of partitioning Iraq into three squabbling mini-states.

Indeed, last year it was the passage by the US Senate of a resolution in favor of Biden's dangerously misguided ideas that sparked an outburst of Iraqi nationalism. More than the Blackwater killings, more than US efforts to forcibly privatize Iraq's oil, it was the Biden idea of splitting Iraq into three pieces that galvanized Iraqi Arab nationalists. (It does, of course, excite the Kurds no end.)

Dreyfus concludes:

Need we point out that, in addition, Biden joined McCain in voting for the war resolution in 2002 that propelled the United States into Iraq? How, exactly, does Obama enhance his anti-war stand by selecting a pro-war hawk as his running mate? Among other things, Obama makes it impossible for himself to criticize McCain's pre-2003 Iraq bloodlust by selecting a bloodthirsty Democrat as his running mate.

M.J. Engh to be honored by SFWA

Russell Davis, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has announced that SFWA will be honoring Mary Jane Engh as the 2009 Author Emerita at the Nebula Awards Weekend next April. Here is a portion of SFWA's press release:

"Well, I hope 'emerita' doesn't mean 'over the hill,' but I'm truly honored -- blown away, in fact," Engh said. "It's nice to know that somebody has noticed me."

Under the pseudonym Jane Beauclerk, Engh published her first science fiction story, "We Serve the Star of Freedom," in the July 1964 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Over the next four decades, her short fiction appeared in a wide range of markets including Universe 1, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and Arabesques.

In 1976 Engh published her first novel, Arslan, about a future United States conquered by a third-world power, to widespread critical acclaim. She followed that with Wheel of the Winds in 1988 and Rainbow Man in 1993.

"The reason I haven't been turning out SF in recent decades is that I'm up to my neck in historical projects," Engh said. "I've been working on The Womb of God, a projected trilogy of historical novels on the life and times of the 5th-century Roman empress Galla Placidia, and--the biggest time-absorber--collaborating with my historian friend Kathy Meyer on a massive reference work to be called Femina Habilis: A Biographical Dictionary of Active Women in the Ancient Roman World from Earliest Times to 527 C.E."

"Plus, I do have a few chapters of a science fiction novel I hope to finish someday," she said.

Engh's other works range from non-fiction (2007's In the Name of Heaven: 3,000 Years of Religious Persecution) to children's fiction (1987's The House in the Snow) as well as poetry. Her past honors include the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship Grant, 1982, the Mellon "Starving Artist Award," 1997, and the Women's Classical Caucus Oral Paper Award for 1999, shared with Kathryn E. Meyer.

For the complete press release, go here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Links

Nisi Shawl reviews Sarah Hall's Tiptree-winner Daughters of the North for Ms. Magazine, in Grimness and Grace. Here Nisi suggests that Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents might offer a closer parallel to the novel than the dystopias of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and Ursula K. Le Guin that the book's publicists have emphasized. And she speculates:

Perhaps the publicists don’t compare Hall to Butler because of racial differences; Butler was African American, and Hall is not. Yet Daughters, unlike many works of speculative fiction by white writers, refuses to let race remain the unmentionable elephant in the living room.

Meanwhile, Brian Charles Clark reviews Nisi's Filter House for Curled Up With A Good Book.

The real, here, is animated, alive, and Shawl's sentences weave a rhythm that gives voice to (secret?) desires: for divine intervention, for allies and challengers in rocks and trees and dragons, for love and imagination to be made simple, practical and transcendental. Her stories' trajectories are wonderfully entertaining, but her sentences are magical. Through dialogue and observation, Shawl frequently pierces the veil separating reader and writer, bringing her characters delightfully to life.

Check them out!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Geeking Out in the High Desert!

by Andrea Hairston

Launch Pad was a trip!

Twelve SF and F writers—Alma Deckert, Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, David Levine, David Marusek, Jay Lake, Cheryl Floyd-Miller, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nancy Kress, Deanna Hoak, Christine Stebbins, Paul Witcover, and I—converged on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie where the host, Mike Brotherton, his co-conspirators—Jerry Oltion, Jim Verley, and Scott Humphries, and other stellar guest lecturers led us boldly through the Universe, which is, as Douglas Adams said, “vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big.”

NASA picked up the tab. Their reasoning is simple—if you want to reach a wide audience with astronomy’s great insights, accomplishments, and possibilities, hit the storytellers with everything you’ve got. We twelve SF and F writers were a voracious, knowledgeable, creative bunch, eager to take in what they threw at us. Indeed Mike Brotherton and crew tried to upload a full course of astronomy into us in a week! We writers tried to remember the physics or astronomy we had forgotten while sweeping away the misconceptions that clouded our perceptions. It was truly amazing to discover how many misconceptions were/are “running in the background,” silent but strong! Of course, if we writers hope to challenge our audiences to reconsider conscious and unconscious assumptions, it is critical to know what and how people think—from the causes of the seasons to the significance of black holes at the center of galaxies. Motivation ran very high, and we were not daunted, but inspired by the complexity of the material.

Light was our guide. Astronomers can’t get their hands on test subjects, but we rode the light through vast spaces, contemplating almost fourteen billion years of interstellar dust, white and brown dwarfs, ring nebulae, novas, supernovas, quasars, pulsars, and black holes. We gazed through small telescopes and also drove to the summit of Jelm Mountain, altitude 9656 feet (2943 meters), to visit the 7.5 foot (2.3 meter) telescope at WIRO (Wyoming Infra Red Observatory) as it collected infrared images. We worked the star data from WIRO to clear out noise and dabbled in spectroscopy—trying to read the “fingerprints” of the objects we observed, hunting red shifts in the gassy spectrums.

Listening to Dr. Ruben Gamboa discuss computing in astronomy, we learned that you could send a robot off to Mars and upload its programming later—after you’ve had time to tweak the bugs in the code. This was the fate of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, who had to fly “empty headed” to make their launch window. Talk about learning your lines on the fly! Dr. Gamboa also had us pondering Chris Anderson’s suggestion that Google is the end of theory. (You'll find an interesting discussion of the idea here.) Searching and correlating all that data, scientists could dispense with the scientific method, with Tycho Brahe carefully observing planetary motions, Johannes Keplar recognizing a pattern in the motions, and Isaac Newton theorizing the cause of the motions, gravity? Discussing how the search engine might “end science” was a lively exchange.

We considered extra-solar planets and wrote communiqué’s to extra-terrestrial intelligent beings. With Jeffrey Lockwood, we debated what would constitute the best message. Should we send off Fibonacci numbers, poetry, and/or an elegant combination? This sparked debate over our “scientific way of knowing with its mathematical mapping of the Universe.” I don’t subscribe to the romance of numbers. For me, they are not transcendent of our embodied minds, “out there to be discovered,” but cognitive metaphors used in mapping the Universe. The map is not the territory. This is an important question as we consider alien encounters or knowledge produced in non-western societies. I’ll be thinking about this as I write my next book.

Grand and lofty discussions were had throughout the lectures and labs, at mealtimes, over drinks and hikes through the mountains. We writers were relentless questioners, challenging each other and Mike and crew. People who disagree with you make you smarter and certainly inspire wonderful story ideas.

Launch Pad will happen again next year. It’s a great experience. Check this website for updates: or

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"A striking freshness linked to unique points of view"

The new issue of Realms of Fantasy, just out on the newsstand, offers this review of Nisi Shawl's Filter House from Jeff VanderMeer:

Aqueduct Press, headed up by L. Timmel Duchamp, continues to offer unique, thought-provoking fiction by authors readers often cannot find through other publishing houses. Nisi Shawl's excellent collection Filter House is a good example. These fourteen stories, including three originals, share a striking freshness linked to unique points of view. Sometimes Shawl opens with a great hook, as with the opening of "The Water Museum": "When I saw the hitchhiker standing by the sign for the Water Museum, I knew he had been sent to assassinate me." Other times, she invokes African and African-American folklore or weaves a unique riff on fairytales, as with "The Princess Pragmatic" or "The Beads of Ku". "Good Boy," meanwhile, is a crazy and unique post-cyberpunk novelette. The provenance of these stories-from the Dark Matter anthologies to Asimov's SF Magazine, Strange Horizons to Detroit Noir-also provides proof of the diversity, and talent, on display here. The common thread to all of these stories is Shawl's pragmatic, sharp yet comfortable voice. Filter House is a great treat for anyone who likes good writing and, come awards time, Filter House deserves serious consideration.

"Summer Political Fiction"

The Huffington Post published a column by Jeff VanderMeer today: "Summer Political Fiction: From Jessica Z to Black Clock 9." He writes that although summer is the proverbial time for sinking into frothy beach books,

[T]his summer has seen the release of some engrossing novels (and one magazine) in which politics and social commentary take center stage. These texts reflect a post 9-11 sensibility that assimilates and responds to the last seven years of absurdity, horror, heartbreak, stupidity, and dueling cynicism-idealism. That many of these recommended reads use the near-future as a way to comment on the present shouldn't surprise you. What writer really wants to dwell in the here-and-now given all the challenges facing the world? And who can really make sense of it all without a little distance?

The books he covers range from Shawn Klomparens's Jessica Z, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, David Ohle's The Pisstown Chaos to L. Timmel Duchamp's Stretto, John Joseph Adams's anthology Seeds of Change and perhaps most interesting of all, the ninth issue of Black Clock:

But there's still a distance, a way to escape our present, in each of the novels recommended above. In the new political issue of the highly respected literary magazine Black Clock (California Institute of the Arts), that distance has all but evaporated, and the anger, the satire, and the quest for understanding have a necessarily raw edge. Taking the short view, and focusing on the current election cycle, Black Clock #9, edited by iconic American surrealist Steve Erickson, features fiction and nonfiction by Jonathan Lethem, Brian Evenson, Rick Moody, and many more. Seth Greenland inhabits the point-of-view of Al Gore in "Al Agonistes." Brian Evenson's "The Body Politic" examines elections after something called the Collapse. Ben Ehrenreich's "The Coup" includes a "Minister of Feathers" in a wryly satirical modern fairy tale about governance, while this correspondent's "Goat Variations Redux" describes alternate realities in which Obama, Clinton, and McCain all win the election.

In the magazine's introduction, Erickson writes about this year's election from the point of view of a fiction writer all but frozen by the possibilities: "But an election with three great characters? If you're a writer, peering beyond the ideological agenda involved, the imagination almost can't grasp its good fortune. This year the three are the stuff of pulp archetypes, out of an Allen Drury novel. [See JV's column for the description.] Can you make this up? Well, yes, but it's not as good." Indeed, that's the challenge for any fiction writer today: when the world of politics is so strange, so fertile with outlandish stories, how do you compete with reality?

You can read the rest of Jeff's column here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Armadillocon and a Review

By Nancy Jane Moore

I'll be at Armadillocon this weekend -- Aug. 15 -17. I'll be reading from Conscientious Inconsistencies Friday at 6 PM, and will also read as part of the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading on Saturday at 1 PM. Additionally, I'm on panels about space opera (Friday at 10 PM) and the "Crazy Grrlz" of slipstream (Saturday at 4). And I'll autograph on Sunday at 11.

I'm also pleased to note that Conscientious Inconsistencies got a very nice review from Norm Rubenstein on Horror World. It's always great to get reviewed, and it's even better when the reviewer likes your work, but it's absolutely wonderful when it's clear that they get what you're doing and like your work.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lois McMaster Bujold Talks about Genre

Lois McMaster Bujold has posted her Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech here. In it she offers some interesting thoughts about genre(s). To start with, I certainly find her definition of "genre" congenial:

Although I don't dare a definition for our genres specifically, I do have a definition for genres generally. To my mind, a genre is "any group of works in close conversation with one another". I like this definition for its inclusiveness -- because there are genres in painting and architecture and music and a host of other human arts as well. This is also a working definition with the emphasis on the working part, genre from the creators' point of view.

There is a second definition of genre, from the reader's point of view, which may be described as a "community of taste", closely allied to but not quite the same as the first. Writers by nature have a foot in both camps, creator and audience -- we do not go into the sometimes-maddening trade of writing because we are indifferent to books, but because we are ravished by them.

There is yet a third definition for genre, confused, as are many terms in the English language, by being attached to the same word, which is: genre as a marketing category, signified by all those labeled sections in the bookstore. Such labels had to be invented as soon as there became too many books for any one person to sort through in a reasonable amount of time, which turns out to be longer ago than I'd thought -- certainly well back into the 19th Century, and possibly as little as 15 minutes after Mr. Gutenberg's invention. These categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren't perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels can become toxic.

And, she notes:

Our genre conversation is a chaotic system, full of weird covert feedback loops and odd links to outside forces. Any idea of consciously directing it to some utilitarian end seems as wrong-headed to me as the notion of the writer as the heroic lone creator, a picture held and advanced by many non-writers, which is an outright lie, and evil insofar as it is taught to children. I know of no writer or other artist anywhere who hasn't come out of some context of other artists and a supporting community, with its own conversation -- or argument -- even though those contexts are usually edited out of the historical picture for simplicity. And I have deep misgivings about various attempts to rank art by its social utility. So while I may applaud for style various earnest attempts to direct Movements in SF, I have no belief that they will ever succeed in getting this herd of cats to the railhead in Abilene. And anyway, I was heading to Albuquerque. (Yes, that is a Bugs Bunny reference, for any who were in doubt.)

A bit more unexpectedly, Bujold advances this interesting claim, which she situates as flowing from her recent experience of writing a blend of Romance and SF:

There are indeed problems for this Odd Couple partnership between SF and Romance, but subtly not, or not only, the ones I necessarily thought. I certainly learned some lessons about how genre boundaries are maintained not only by publishers but by their readerships. And I'd long been aware of our genres' allergy to the domestic, with rare exceptions like the stories of Zenna Henderson. But it also brought up an element I'd actually played with in my earlier SF, about the peculiar tensions in Our Stuff between the personal and the political.

I expected to learn a lot about romance through writing one, and I did. I was more surprised to learn something new to me about fantasy and science fiction -- which is how profoundly, intensely, relentlessly political most of the stories in these genres are. The politics may be archaic or modern, fringe or realistic, naive or subtle, optimistic or dire, but by gum the characters had better be centrally engaged with them, for some extremely varied values of "engaged". Even the world-building itself is often a political argument. And, oh boy, are the political aspects of the fiction ever valorized in the reviews. I had not noticed this the way a fish does not notice water. Only when I'd stepped onto the shore of the neighboring genre and breathed a contrasting air did I discover there even could be a difference -- and what a difference it was.

Romance and SF seemed to occupy two different focal planes, to steal another metaphor, this time from photography. For any plot to stay central, nothing else in the book can be allowed to be more important. So romance books carefully control the scope of any attending plot, so as not to overshadow its central concern, that of building a relationship between the key couple, one that will stand the test of time and be, in whatever sense, fruitful. This also explains some SF's addiction to various end-of-the-world plots, for surely nothing could be more important than that, which conveniently allows the book to dismiss all other possible concerns, social, personal, or other. (Nice card trick, that, but now I've seen it slipped up the sleeve I don't think it'll work on me anymore.)

In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. All three genres also may embody themes of personal psychological empowerment, of course, though often very different in the details, as contrasted by the way the heroines "win" in romances, the way detectives "win" in mysteries, and the way, say, young male characters "win" in adventure tales. But now that I've noticed the politics in SF, they seem to be everywhere, like packs of little yapping dogs trying to savage your ankles. Not universally, thank heavens -- there are wonderful lyrical books such as The Last Unicorn or other idiosyncratic tales that escape the trend. But certainly in the majority of books, to give the characters significance in the readers' eyes means to give them political actions, with "military" read here as a sub-set of political.

Comments, anyone?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Invisible Suburbs

Invisible Suburbs: Recovering Protest Fiction in the 1950s United States, edited by Josh Lukin, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi.

Here's the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Thirty-Three Years of the Fifties
by Josh Lukin

Good Old Boy Masculinity and Same-Sex Desire in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Bitterweed Path
by Harry Thomas

Postwar Left Feminism and Antifascist Resistance in the Culture Work of Martha Dodd
by Kathlene McDonald

Anybody's Protest Novel: Chester Himes and the Prison of Authenticity
by Stephanie Brown

Rewriting Patriarchal Paradigms of Retardation in Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza
by Ladislava Khailova

The Mid-century Pulp Novel and the Imagining of Lesbian Community
by Jennifer Worley

Afterword: The Conditions of Reception
Josh Lukin

Alluring, no? For more about the book, or to purchase it, go here.

Update on the Update on the Bolivian Struggle

Morales prevailed against the recall with more than 60% of the vote. Agence France Presse reports

Despite his solid win — improving on the 54 percent support that elected him Bolivia’s first indigenous president in December 2005 — Morales was facing a polarized country.

In the eastern lowlands, where the opposition governors rule, his authority was just as roundly rejected.

The divisions are ethnic, economic and historic.

The president relies on massive support among Bolivia’s indigenous majority, which accounts for six out of 10 of the country’s inhabitants.

They live mostly in the Andes to the west and have become increasingly assertive under Morales in their demands for a greater share of the national wealth.

But the elite, mostly of European descent, sitting on much of that wealth in the eastern lowlands in the form of farmland and gas fields, are just as determined to resist.

The governors of the states of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni overnight celebrated their own strong wins in the referendum.

Ruben Costas, of Santa Cruz, struck out in his speech against the president’s “dictatorship” and vowed Morales would not be able to step foot in his state.

Of the other four state governors whose jobs were also on the line in the plebiscite, three were seen to have been ousted — two of them Morales critics, and one an ally. Another Morales ally was reconfirmed to office.

One of the opposition leaders rejected in the referendum, Manfred Reyes of the central state of Cochabamba, has vowed to fight any attempt to make him stand down.

That raised the prospect of violence in his state, which has already been shaken by clashes early last year between his supporters and Morales loyalists.

Analysts said the referendum did not change the standoff between Morales and the opposition. He is expected to now organize another referendum, this one to approve a new constitution that would enshrine many of his reforms.

Read the whole article here.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Handful of Reviews

Booklist (July 2008) reviews Nisi Shawl's Filter House:

In these stories, characters lack power in a traditional sense yet are strong and resourceful in worlds running a gamut from nearly contemporary to the strangest of futures. Beginning with "At the Huts of Ajala," the story of a girl with two heads, and proceeding to "Wallamelon," in which watermelon vines protect a neighborhood, magic is drawn from many sources and is disguised as science fiction, as in "Good Boy," in which a colony is stricken by a mysterious disease and healed by a woman possessed by the spirit of Elegba. The collection ends with the haunting fable "The Beads of Ku," about a woman who bargains in the marketplace of the city of the dead, and the foolishness of her husband. Shawl's stories afford fascinating glimpses into the magical underpinnings of worlds springing from all sorts of places within the world we all know.--Regina Schroeder

Rich Horton reviews Maureen McHugh's story in Plugged In in Locus (August 2008):

"The Kingdom of the Blind" is a good new Maureen McHugh story, from Plugged In, published in honor of her and L. Timmel Duchamp's appearance as WisCon Guests of Honor. This piece intelligently speculates on the nature of spontaneously arising AI in a medical system-- and even more intelligently looks at the work life of the computer system's programmers, particularly the protagonist, Sydney, who learns to better understand the nature of her coworkers [sic] intelligence-- and hers-- as well as the AI's.

And Joe Sherry reviews L. Timmel Duchamp's Alanya to Alanya at Adventures in Reading.

Zeldin’s journey through the invasion and her role as an agent of a government which hates her as much as it needs to use here is not only an interesting concept, but well executed by Duchamp. Most importantly Duchamp has written a highly readable and compelling narrative. Compelling is possibly the perfect word for Alanya to Alanya because most readers will feel compelled to keep going, to turn the page, to find out what happens next all the while being told a story which happens to be “challenging, feminist science fiction””. Alanya to Alanya works and works well enough that readers will want to seek out, run not walk, and grab a copy of the second volume of the Marq’ssan Cycle: Renegade.

You can read the whole review here.

Update on the Bolivian struggle

Yesterday Code Pink's Medea Benjamin posted a report at on the struggle that the indigenous majority in Bolivia, who elected Evo Morales, one of their own, two and a half years ago, are facing as the US-backed elites pursue all the usual dirty tactics that tend to be used to suppress the political agency of indigenous peoples. Their latest move is to force a recall vote on the president and vice president. The corporate-owned media, of course, have formed the front-line of attack, but Benjamin warns that "a win at the polls is crucial, but it is not likely to stop the growing tensions that have polarized the country, created a crisis between national and local legal institutions, dried up private investment and led to increasingly violent clashes between supporters on both sides."

For those who haven't been following this, Benjamin's piece summarizes the situation:

On one side of this struggle is the impoverished indigenous majority in the western highlands who, along with Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, are trying to redistribute power and wealth towards poor communities. Pitted against them is a mostly white elite based in the eastern part of the country who want to keep tight control over the nation’s wealth and are using their money and control of the media to foment widespread discontent. Sadly, the U.S. government, instead of embracing social transformation in Latin America’s poorest nation, is aiding and abetting the opposition.

At the opening meeting of a group called International Intellectuals and Artists for the Unity and Sovereignty of Bolivia on July 26, Bolivian President Evo Morales put the division in simple terms. “Two models of government are on the table,” he said. “One is a colonial model where a few families control the nation’s resources. The other, which we defend, is based on the nationalization of natural resources for the benefit of everyone.”

Morales’ government nationalized the nation’s most important source of revenue, natural gas and has used the profits for social programs that fight poverty and inequality. These include free school meals and a cash payment to mothers who keep their children in school. Morales has also raised the minimum wage and expanded the number of eligible elderly people receiving pensions from 489,000 to 676,000, providing them with the equivalent of 27 dollars a month. [Nearly 60 percent of elderly people in Bolivia live on less than one dollar a day.] He is also trying to institute a land reform that would take non-productive agricultural land from wealthy landowners and give it to poor, landless families.

Morales has appealed to progressive governments in the region to help with his program of social transformation. Cuba has sent thousands of doctors and teachers to rural areas and is building dozens of hospitals. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Lula da Silva are investing in the expansion of Bolivia’s gas industry and helping to construct new highways.

Turn on the radio or the television these days, however, and you’ll hear a different story. A barrage of opposition ads encourage people to vote against the President in the upcoming recall. They scare people into thinking that Morales is going to take away their private property, like their homes or their cars, and paint him as a “Chavez-style dictator” who has indebted the country to Venezuela.

“I apologize to the journalists here,” Morales said at the scholars’ meeting, “but in Bolivia the press is engaged in media terrorism. I know it’s not you, the journalists, but the owners of the means of communication. They manipulate the news and the polls; they lie to the public.”

He gave a recent example. He had just come from visiting Camiri, a town in the department of Santa Cruz, which is the home of the opposition. A large group of people came out to welcome him and listen to his speech. At the end of the rally he heard some firecrackers and was told that there were a handful of protesters. On his way back to the airport, however, he heard a local radio station say that the people of Camiri had blocked him from coming to the city. “I had to laugh,” said Morales, “because there were perhaps 20 young protesters compared to crowds of supporters. But that’s how they reported ‘the news.’”

You can read more of Benjamin's report here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The writer and the world

This is Joyce Carol Oates in an interview for the Paris Review in 1976. I wonder if she'd still use the adjective "all" today...

All of us who write work out of a conviction that we are participating in some sort of communal activity. Whether my role is writing, or reading and responding, might not be very important. I take seriously Flaubert's statement that we must love one another in our art as the mystics love one another in God. By honoring one another's creation we honor something that deeply connects us all, and goes beyond us.

Thinking more about this, it strikes me that the "all" can't be that far off when I think of how a solitude freak like Emily Dickinson felt a longing to be part of the conversation, even as she felt that she needed isolation to make that possible.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tangerine Silk

How many people in the world, I wonder could have the sort of dream I had last night? Probably, they could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Though shrinks reputedly find dreams remarkably easy to parse, still, the particular personal vocabularies of dreams probably tend to be highly idiosyncratic.

So in this dream, I'm on a shuttle bus with a dozen or so other writers attending a conference something like Sycamore Hill or Rio Hondo. (The usual suspects, right?) We were driving into town to hang out for the afternoon. The next thing I know, the bus is parked in town and two of the writers, both heavy-set men, have dressed up in armor and are tumbling about inside the back of a garbage truck, wrestling for our entertainment. (We're watching through the windows of the bus.) Then suddenly we're all in a cafe checking our email, and the cafe's sound system starts playing a song one of us has written and everybody rushes to a dance floor (that I hadn't noticed was there) and dances to the embarrassment of the person who wrote the song. [You will notice, of course, that I'm not naming names here.] But the best is yet to come: I'm anxious to get to a bookstore, to pick up the latest issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society , because it's a special issue edited by Linda Martín Alcoff on-- get this-- the election of two women in their thirties to be President and Vice President of the US, one of them white-skinned and wildly redhead, one of them brown-skinned and wildly big-haired. (From the cover I couldn't tell which was the POTUS and which the VPOTUS.) So I leave the cafe and track down a bookstore that carries the journal, and I'm ecstatic when I find the special issue (in the dream, it had a catchy title, which I've since forgotten) and can still see the cover in my mind's eye: the new POTUS and VPOTUS in their inauguration garb-- knee-length, sleeveless dresses in tangerine silk, lightly belted, loose but stylish, with sandals. Both of them are smiling and confident. I'm certain the essays about the election will be fascinating and can hardly wait to tear into them. The dream, of course, has other ideas, and I'm thwarted.

Damn. I'd love to have gotten to read at least one of those essays. I don't suppose I'll ever get another chance...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ah, Romance

Here's a story almost too romantic for Real Life: In the summer of 1997, an Italian woman, Cristina Dazzi, discovered the ms of a story by Mary Shelley in the family archives, tucked away with some old letters. It seems that Mary Shelley had written a story for Dazzi's husband's great-great grandmother. The existence of the story had been known to scholars but been assumed to be lost, for Shelley had referred in her journals to writing the story over a period of three days, but her father, William Godwin, had deemed it too short for publication, and so it had never seen print. The ms is in longhand-- recognizably Mary Shelley's-- and "tied in two thin bindings with a pale blue cover," with the words "For Laurette from her friend Mrs. Shelley" written at the top of the first page.

The story is well-written and entertaining (though also rather romantic: a boy is snatched from his well-off, middle-class parents as a baby, raised in harsh, impoverished circumstances (but turns out well, nevertheless:presumably because of his true parentage), and discovered by his father many years later. What interests me most about the book containing this story [published by the University of Chicago Press, titled Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot: A Tale] is that the introduction by Claire Tomalin, which situates the ms and Mary Shelley's history with Laurette and her parents, is not only longer than the story itself, but also more fascinating (for me, at least). Laurette's mother, who was for a time the Countess of Mountcashell, had been a pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley's mother) and had taken on board many of Wollstonecraft's ideas and values, with the result that she ended up parted from all seven of the children she had had with the Earl of Mountcashell and forced to live abroad because neither Irish nor English aristocratic society would have anything to do with a woman who flaunted her independence. Ironically, the man she chose to live with, Colonel George Tighe, for a time at least regretted that she hadn't chosen to obey her husband.

Having recently read Naomi Novick's The Black Powder War, I was interested to read that the Countess and Tighe were in in Germany in general and Jena in particular in 1806, when Novick's characters were-- in fact, judging by a poem Tighe wrote, present at the battle of Jena. The intersection of Novick's fictional world with that of an aristocratic woman living in exile because she is no longer "respectable" fascinates me. The reality of the conditions under which women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and the Countess of Mountcashell lived, oftentimes on the verge of starvation-- all intelligent, well-educated, and even studious, all living their feminist principles beyond the limits of "respectability"-- sheds light on that peculiar nexus of imaginative choices made within a context of seemingly impossible constraints.

One last note, about the story itself. I was bemused when the narrative characterizes the wife of Barnet, the fisherman who takes in Maurice, "of little help to him not being able to move from her armchair without great difficulty"-- while it shows her not only making a home for him, feeding him, tending his nets, etc., but also educating the children in the neighborhood (which work the neighbors repay with fresh produce). And when she dies, Barnet has such a difficult time managing that he almost decides to give up fishing:

[A]fter her death when he returned from sea he was obliged to go hungry and sometimes dripping wet to the market at this town; and when he returned he was not handy at cooking his food or cleaning his room: besides he was no obliged to mend his nets for himself, and that took up a great deal of his time so that he did not catch so much fish as before.

In what sense, I wonder, was she "of little help to him"? He obviously can't pursue his livelihood without her labor backing him up. When Maurice arrives on the scene, he basically takes over her duties and saves Barnet from having to retire. But note: Maurice gets no pay for his labor, it's considered so negligble. He receives room and board (such as it is!). (Being a "good boy" he's very happy with the arrangement.) And is allowed to take nothing from the cottage when Barnet dies-- not even the geraniums he'd tended!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Third International Blog Against Racism Week

For 2008, IBARW will take place between August 4 through August 10.

If you would like to participate, here's what to do:

  1. Announce the week in your blog.

  2. If you use a blogging system that allows post icons/pictures, switch your default icon to either an official IBARW icon, or one which you feel is appropriate. To get an official IBARW icon, you may modify one of yours yourself or ask someone to do so. Here's a roundup of IBARW icons.

  3. Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of color, portrayals of race in fiction, review a book on the subject, etc. The optional theme this year is intersectionality.

  4. Comment on the daily links roundup post at the IBARW LJ community or tag your post at with "for:ibarw" with your post's URL, title, and tag suggestions for it to be included in link compilations.

For inspiration, here are the previous years' IBARW posts and last year's People of Color in SF Carnival: IBARW edition, which includes a history of the event and recommended posts. You can also check out this post or delicioused recommended reading for further resources.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Grace Jones's "Corporate Cannibal"

Thanks to Steven Shaviro's discussion of it on The Pinocchio Theory, I've just seen a fantasmic, fantastic video by Grace Jones (directed by Nick Hooker), called Corporate Cannibal. It gave me one of the most powerful aesthetic experiences I've had in a long time, fusing images flowing entirely from Jones's body with music and prose in a frightening confrontation with the world as it currently is. The images of Jones's teeth and the words coming out of her mouth made me feel as if I'd been swallowing razor blades. Nothing has ever made me feel more like I'm "living in the future" than watching this video (not even be herded through the security lines at Sea-Tac at 5:30 a.m. with hundreds of other people, being bombarded with creepy Big Brother tape-loops the entire time).

Here's some of what Shaviro says:

“Corporate Cannibal” is entirely consistent with Jones’ past experiments, and in fact pushes them to a new extreme. Our technologies have ramified and changed since the 1980s, and Jones has followed them by emerging as the new video flesh (in a manner that was prophesized by Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that came out at the same time as Jones’ greatest hits — the early/mid 1980s — but that today, in “Corporate Cannibal,” is no longer a matter of prophecy and science-fictional extrapolation, but simply one of sheer present actuality). In the video, Jones is frightening, ferocious, predatory, vampiric. She has become pure electronic pulse, materiality of the electronic medium (which we were always wrong to consider intangible, dematerialized, or disembodied) — and she will utterly devour and destroy (convert into more image, more electronic pulse, more of herself) whatever thinks it might be able to stand apart from the process.

All this is made explicit in the lyrics to “Corporate Cannibal”: but conversely, these lyrics only have their extrarordinary effect because they have found the proper regime of images to make them operative. Jones’ voice is at first wheedling (”Pleased to meet you/ Pleased to have you on my plate”), before it turns stentorian, imperative, and threatening; and at the end of the song it modulates again, beyond words, into a predatory growl or snarl. She is telling us flatly that she will destory and devour us (”I’m a man-eating machine… Eat you like an animal… Every man, woman, and child is a target”). She is a vampire, but not a romantic one: rather, the song expresses Jones’ absolute identification with Capital as a vampiric force (remember that Marx long ago described capitalism as vampiric: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks”). Jones sings: “I deal in the market… A closet full of faceless, nameless, pay-more-for-less emptiness… You’ll pay less tax but I will gain more back… I’ll consume my consumers.” Her lyrics absurdly juxtapose the cliches of corporate-speak (”Employer of the year”) with those of pulp horro (”Grandmaster of fear”). All this is set against a grinding, dissonant musical accompaniment, with harsh backbeats and shrieking guitars that are, however, more downbeat than metal (a number of blogs have compared the music to that of Massive Attack a decade ago, at the time of their album Mezzanine).

Go watch it, then read Shaviro's post in its entirety.