Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Sixteen: Jeanne Gomoll

Jeanne Gomoll:

Early in 2008, I read Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice and Tim Powers' Three Days to Never for a book discussion group. We liked both books. I enjoyed the portrayal of a futuristic, space-going labor union’s camaraderie in Pushing Ice, and the time travel aspects of Three Days to Never. I’m a sucker for time travel stories, especially ones that deal intelligently with paradox, which Powers does in Three Days. The repercussions of time traveling characters’ future actions finally explain the bizarre happenings early in the novel. People owe their characters to their future self’s choices. Loved it.

Dan Simmons’ The Terror held me completely engrossed, though it did make a very cold Wisconsin winter even colder. The Terror might be more comfortably read in the summer or at a warmer latitude than Wisconsin. The Terror is mostly a historical novel about a lost British exploratory expedition in the mid-1800s whose mission was to discover the Northwest Passage. The sailors endure extreme cold, clothes that are never dry or warm, food that rots due to poorly sealed tins and food poisoned by lead used as solder for those tins, work loads that might have killed healthy men, and, of course, darkness. Simmons includes a monster in his story (which is the only thing that qualifies the book as a sort of kind of fantasy), but the actual horrors for two ships’ crews attempting to survive on the Arctic ice for several years provide more than enough terror. After reading it I searched out a non-fiction depiction of life above the Arctic Circle and discovered the excellent Kabloona — a journal written by a Frenchman (Gontran de Poncins) who lived for a year with the Inuit only a few decades after the period of time described in Simmons’ horror novel.

My partner Scott’s favorite writer is Iain M. Banks, and when I picked up a Banks book for the first time — Consider Phlebas — Scott suggested that we read it aloud. This turned out to be so much fun that we shortly afterward read Look to Windward, which is a sequel of sort to Phlebas. Later in the year we read aloud Banks’ Use of Weapons and The Player of Games too. I’m now firmly hooked on the read-aloud version of Banks’ Culture novels. I love the way he discusses utopia always from the outside, and usually from the point of view of someone who has left it / disdains it / fights against it, but who nonetheless shows by their actions that they actually endorse the same utopian ideas. Oh, and his books are funny too. That counts for a lot.

Sarah Hall won the 2007 Tiptree award for her novel, The Carhullan Army, and I read it before WisCon in hopes of meeting Hall at the Tiptree ceremony. Those hopes were dashed, of course, because Hall was unable to attend WisCon. But I’m still hoping to ask her someday about the very different way Brit feminism (as opposed to American feminism) informs her story. Hall makes a strikingly different statement than Joanna Russ or Suzy McKee Charnas made with similar raw (plot) materials in the American 70s. In Hall’s book, there’s a revolutionary group of separatist women living in the wilderness, but there is never a suggestion that they blame men for the disasters that have befallen humanity. In Hall’s world, Big Brother enforces birth control, whereas the evil method of control in U.S. feminist fiction has traditionally been the opposite: birth control withheld. Rather than an attack on feminism, Hall’s novel is a meditation on violence and gender. An excellent choice for the Tiptree Award, I think.

I spent a large part of the summer in 2008 recovering from surgery on my right hip. My left hip had been replaced several years ago, and so I knew what to expect: a marked decrease in my ability to concentrate. So I stored up some light reading that would be easy to get through in spite of medicinal interference. I figured it was the perfect time to catch up on some YA reading. My niece Rachel loves to read and had been begging her mom to let her read Stephanie Meyer’s series (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn); I decided to check out the books. If I liked them, I’d give them to Rachel for Christmas. As it turned out, I was intrigued by Meyer’s creative take on Vampire-Werewolf relations but, I have to tell you, the drugs weren’t nearly good enough to make reading this series a pleasant experience. Besides being a much-too-prolonged groan of repressed sexual tension, Meyer’s heroine is a throwback to the kind of female character I thought we’d advanced beyond … sometime in the late 1950s. The heroine, Bella, responds to every problem with the same solution: self-sacrifice. She sacrifices herself over and over and over and over again whenever she perceives her boyfriend, her father, her mother, her friends or her boyfriend’s family to be in trouble. She doesn’t even have to know exactly what kind of trouble they are in; she assumes she’s to blame and figures the best way to save them is to place herself in mortal danger in their place. Of course that means that her boyfriend, family, etc. end up having to rescue her over and over and over and over again. Bella is not my idea of a role model so I really don’t want to encourage my niece to read these books. Nevertheless, I suppose Rachel will eventually read them. But I’m hoping I have enough cool-aunt cred to suggest an alternate interpretation in contrast to the one she’ll be hearing from her friends (e.g., Ooooh, how romantic!).

Happily, the other YA books that I stocked up for post-operative pain-med-haze reading were far superior to Meyer: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras. Now there’s a great young-girl role model! I loved Westerfeld’s books, loved the excellent hard SF ideas, and loved his heroine, Tally, who found the strength in herself to change first her own life, than the lives of those closest to her, and then her whole society. But my sister Julie won the game of rock, scissors, paper, and she got to give Rachel Westerfeld’s series for Christmas.

Our niece got some good books this year. Besides Westerfeld’s Uglies series from Julie, she got the next three YA books I read when I wasn’t exercising my new hip: Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls, and Ellen Klages' historical/science books, The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace, all signed by the authors. The girls in all these books do things: they write, they make art, they do science experiments, they learn to understand themselves from within and resist letting others define them from the outside. They make life-long female friends. Completely the opposite of Bella.

I did eventually get back to reading fiction for adults. Ellen Kages’ anthology of short stories, Portable Childhoods, isn’t really for children, portable or permanent. And as it turned out most of the stories were familiar because I’d heard Ellen read them aloud at conventions. But it was fun reading them (with Ellen’s voice always in my ears) and thinking about how strangely sweet Ellen’s stories are. Not the first word I would use to describe Ellen herself. Ellen will be honored as one of the guests of honor at the 2009 WisCon (with Geoff Ryman), and I’m looking forward to new stories from her.

The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann is an amazing story. I had been vaguely aware of the history of the aborted women’s astronaut program, but was glad to read this book and know the whole infuriating story of how this group of women put their lives on the line to reach for their dreams and then were sabotaged by the Johnson administration, Congress, and by one of their own, a famous woman aviator who was too old to qualify for the program. This is one of those stories (“How to Suppress Women…”) that should not be forgotten, but sadly, that is exactly what almost happened. I’m glad Ackmann wrote this book.

Most mystery and western fiction fails to interest me. I am quite aware that I sound uncomfortably like those unenlightened folks who dismiss the entire genre of science fiction and then make an exception for a certain author, acting as if the exception merely proves the rule. Because I do like Nicola Griffith’s mysteries and I do like Molly Gloss’s westerns. But I AM willing to acknowledge that I am probably missing lots of good stuff. Molly Gloss’ The Hearts of Horses came out and I remembered how much I loved reading The Jump-Off Creek, so I began reading Hearts on the way home from the bookstore. I don’t know how likely it is that in 1917 a strong, independent, and shy horse-whisperer like Martha would fall in love with someone willing to contract such an unorthodox and enlightened marriage agreement, but I cheered her on and suspended my disbelief. Maybe it’s the science fictional attitude of this writer of westerns that attracts me.

Wit’s End, by Karen Joy Fowler, made for a lovely weekend read. It features a mystery writer whose characters start invading her real life with a little help from her fans. I’ve got the feeling that I missed quite a few references to well-known mystery fiction because of that previously mentioned prejudice against certain genres. Having read each of Jane Austen’s novels several times made Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club a more familiar experience for me. But I will brave any genre to experience Fowler’s brilliant wit. We may not have any more Austen novels to read, but happily, we have Karen Joy Fowler and I hope, many more books by her.

My sister Julie gave me a copy of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, a non-fiction journal of Norah’s year as Ned. Written at the start like an undercover exposé of the male world, Norah/Ned was able to convincingly disguise herself as a man and insinuate herself into a series of masculine subcultures: a blue-collar bowling league, patrons of strip joints, the dating scene, a sales scam company, and a male bonding group. The technical aspects of her disguise impressed me, especially how she faked a 5 o’clock shadow and adopted male speech patterns. I was less impressed by her conclusions, which generally seemed to boil down to: we’re all people; guys aren’t as alien as she thought.

In my opinion, Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan had far more interesting insights about gender than Vincent’s book even though gender is not its focus. Morgan refers several times to Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed in the course of this novel about a genetic superman who has no more place in this (slightly futuristic) world than does the macho dock workers that Faludi described in her book. Thirteen is fast-moving and packed with amusing and intriguing references to the political landscape and virtual/nano technology of its world, so it was great fun to read. I may also have enjoyed it because I read it soon after having seen the movie The Dark Knight, and so was already primed to look for themes of super-heroism-as-a-curse.

There were other books in 2008 for me, but these were the highlights.

Jeanne is a graphic designer who has been twice nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist. Probably her most famous design is the Space Babe icon, known and loved by all WisCon habitues. But probably her greatest claim to fame is her oft-cited manifesto, "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ." Oh, and back in the early days of feminist sf, she was joint editor, with Janice Bogstad, of Janus, a feminist science fiction fanzine.

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