Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 19: L. Timmel Duchamp

Highlights of Reading and Viewing in 2009
By L. Timmel Duchamp

Since starting Aqueduct Press, my reading has tended to get short shrift—except for ms reading, of course (some of which is reflected in Aqueduct’s list). This year I’ve determinedly made more time for reading.

The novels that really stood out for me were Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, a faithful, loving homage to Virgil; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, which bodies forth in powerful prose much of what scholars have been learning in the last twenty-five years about the paradoxes of Enlightenment science and notions of personal autonomy and civil liberty; Three Women by Isabelle de Charrière, an extraordinary novel written after the French Revolution, offering a feminist re-evaluation of sexual morality and its intersections with class relations among women; and Total Oblivion, More or Less by Alan DeNiro, a novel that illumines the ongoing apocalypse that these days passes for normal (about which I've written here).

I won’t mention the novels I found dull or mediocre or poorly written (as usual, I read more than enough of them), but only those I found beautiful, interesting, or entertaining. Compulsively I read the last four books of Gwyneth Jones’s Bold As Love series (Castles Made of Sand, Midnight Lamp, Band of Gypsies, and Rainbow Bridge), riveted to the page even as I wished the last two books had received at least some editing; the series is a tour de force with such a distinct, concentrated sensibility of its own that I never once balked at its wildly imaginative blending of science fiction and fantasy tropes. I read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov slowly, slowly, savoring the clarity yet allusiveness of its prose style. I whipped through Ken MacLeod’s entertaining The Execution Channel at top speed, trying not to notice the silliness of its premise as I shot through the slick, slippery convolutions and contortions of its plot, agog to know which if any characters were on the same side. I reread C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen in preparation for its long-awaited sequel, Regenesis; the latter’s pacing didn’t equal the former’s, and although its story picks up smoothly from where Cyteen’s left off, the two books read as though they were written in different eras—which of course they were. I finally read Illicit Passage by Alice Nunn and The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, two books of feminist sf that have been on my to-read list for some time, and enjoyed each just as much as I expected to. The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod, One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, and Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin offered me quietly intense reads that made their fine writing look simple and easy. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao dazzled even as it saddened me (though I think I prefer his short fiction collection, Drown). I found Salt by Adam Roberts a provocative (in a positive sense) though occasionally aggravating read. And I loved Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which bristles with edgy insights while risking sentimentality.

The last two novels I want to mention, both published in late 2009, make an interesting pair. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield, much of which is set in the sea, moved and impressed me, even if it set my inner historian grumbling about the author’s failure to extrapolate how church institutions, doctrine, and theology would have explained and accommodated (or not) the existence of humanoid sea creatures set on the thrones of Europe. Questions about species, hybridity, and identity permeate In Great Waters, just as they permeate the novel I’m extremely happy I managed to snatch up a copy of at World Fantasy Con: Sylvie Bérard’s Of Wind and Sand (translated by Sheryl Curtis, from the Canadian publisher Edge). Of Wind and Sand is a colonization story that turns that subgenre not on its head, precisely, but rather inside-out. Though the styles and narratives of these two novels are completely different, and one is set in the desert and the other in the sea or near the sea, both novels take on many of the same questions about difference, otherness, identity, and the body. I highly recommend that you read them in tandem.

I’ll just list the short fiction collections I enjoyed most this year: The Signorina and Other Stories by Anna Banti (see my post here for more); The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet by Vandana Singh (see my post here for more); Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet; and What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going by Damion Searls. The Banti collection includes a work of science fiction; Vandana Singh’s excellent collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy.

As for other short ficton: I loved Rachel Swirsky’s “The Memory of Wind” (at I enjoyed a lot of the short fiction in Eclipse 3 (ed Jonathan Strahan)—particularly Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things,” Karen Joy Fowler’s harrowing “The Pelican Bar,” and Nicola Griffith’s “It Takes Two.” And though I always try not to mention work that Aqueduct Press has published in my recommended lists, I feel I must mention Claire Light’s “Vacation” (published this year in a CP volume titled Slightly Behind and to the Left), because its unsettling images and conceits continue to linger long after reading, as though permanently unsettled in my own mind.

Though I do more new reading than rereading of fiction, the reverse is (sadly) true for poetry. I think this may be because some time ago I unaccountably stopped automatically browsing in the poetry the sections of the bookstores I patronize, and perhaps also because I usually know exactly which book of poems to take off the shelf when I’m in the mood to read poetry. Still, I continue to love to venture into new poetry. A book of poetry I bought this year that really worked its way under my skin was Disobedience by Alice Notley. I know I'll be going back to it again soon.

My escapist reading was, as usual, mystery novels. The most unusual of these I read was Miyuke Miyabe’s Shadow Family. But mostly I read a lot of the Dalziel & Pascoe novels of Reginald Hill.

I always find wonderful nonfiction to read, and this year was no exception. The standouts were:

Dr. Johnson’s Women by Norma Clarke (See my comments here.)
Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution by Jacqueline Letzer and Robert Adelson
Women, Writing and the Public Sphere: 1700-1830 ed. Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Cliona O’Gallchoir, Penny Warburton
On Joanna Russ, ed. Farah Mendlesohn (See my review here.)
Queer Universes, ed. Wendy Gaye Pearson, Joan Gordon, and Veronica Hollinger (I have a review forthcoming in Science Fiction Film and Television)
Slaves on Screen by Natalie Zemon Davis (See my blogpost here.)
Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed by William E. Connolly
Conversations with Samuel R. Delany ed. Carl Freedman
Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History by Jillian Heydt-Stevenson

About the last book on the list I must remark: Heydt-Stevenson’s revelations of the multitude of sexual double-entendres and smutty allusions in Jane Austen’s novels (intelligible to her contemporaries but not so much to us) are stunning. That’s not all she does in her book by any means, but it pretty much makes the point that very few of Austen’s twenty-first-century fans have any notion of how Austen’s contemporaries read and understood her novels. For about a decade now—ever since I read Eve Sedgwick’s essay on Sense and Sensibility—I’ve suspected that significant aspects of Austen’s work was sailing clear over most of our heads. Given the socially contingent nature of language, it really doesn't take long for certain (often important) aspects of texts to become either invisible or unintelligible.

Best Re-read:
The Language of Inquiry by Lyn Hejinian

As for the category of "viewing," this year, excepting my viewing of plays and art installations and exhibits, it was all done at home, on the small screen, via DVDs. The best movie I watched was The New World, Dir. Terence Malick. The best television series I watched was The Wire. And I have to admit, my favorite short video was of an octopus, here. (Note: I'd be really grateful If someone could point me to a good one of a jellyfish...)

L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of the five-novel Marq’ssan Cycle and Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, a collection of short fiction, as well as the short novel The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) and other works of short fiction. She is also the founder of Aqueduct Press and the editor of Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies and The WisCon Chronicles, Vol.1 , and co-editor, with Eileen Gunn, of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol.2. In March 2010 Aqueduct Press will be releasing a new book that she's edited, titled Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, containing essays by Samuel R. Delany, Nicola Griffith, Eleanor Arnason, Rachel Swirsky, Andrea Hairston, and others.

Don Belton

For a couple of years, my official bio (in, for example, the Daughters of Earth anthology) read, "As of this writing, Dr. Lukin teaches in the English Department of Temple University, where he and novelist Don Belton occasionally bemuse the staff with their renditions of classic show tunes." I was friendly with Don in Philadelphia from 2003 to 2006 and then lost touch with him: I think hearing of my brother's abrupt death in mid-2006 really unnerved him because his own brother had killed himself in the mid-nineties, within fourteen months of both his parents' deaths, leaving him very isolated. "I can go to gatherings of my remaining extended family," he said, "but they'll scowl at me and remind me repeatedly that I'm destined to burn in Hell." He had a sister too, but she'd disappeared into the slums of Newark many years earlier, and no one had been able to find her.

Notwithstanding these catastrophes, Don managed to remain an extremely open and generous personality, full of wit and enthusiasm. He was a big fan of my wife, disability studies maven Ann Keefer, whom he affectionately called "Reefer." He had an amazing baritone voice that he used to sing "We Shall Overcome"; he also did an awesome Randy Newman impression ("How about that," he said of himself one day as we walked across the quad, "a black guy imitating a Jewish guy who imitates black guys!"). His critiques of Terry Gross and Tavis Smiley were hilarious and on-target. I learned from conversations with him about Toni Morrison, Bertolt Brecht, and several other great artists. I helped him edit his job application letters; he advised me on strategies for teaching Morrison's Song of Solomon. Walking through West Philadelphia with him, I was introduced to a great Ethiopian restaurant; when I tried to take him for dessert to a branch of the coffeehouse chain Cosi, he demurred: "What is this? Looks like some white girl's birthday party!" Which is now the phrase that Ann and I use for that franchise.

A very sensitive guy who wore his vulnerability on his sleeve, he predictably became something of a bully-magnet: seven out of eight students loved him, but the eighth who hated him were very aggressive about it, being disruptive in class, asking hostile questions ("Are you going to give us more guidelines for our paper's argument, or is this assignment just more liberal Creative crap?"), grieving their grades to the Dean ("How dare a man like that give me a C?"), and, on one occasion, taking the time during which he'd left the class so they could fill out their course evaluations, drawing a little gallows on the blackboard under the word "lynch." And, I'm sad to say, I and a few other colleagues were sometimes more unsettled than compassionate in our response to the tears he shed on such occasions.

Don worked extremely hard at his courses and his one-on-one interactions with students. Throughout his career, outsiders sought him out for sympathy ("When I was at Macalester, the Jewish students came to my office for support, because I was the only non-WASP they could find to sympathize with the problems of minorities."). He won a plaque from Temple's Queer Student Union for being the professor most supportive of LGBTQ students. As an adjunct and a lecturer, he brought a level of expertise to his classes in World Cinema, Creative Writing, African-American Literature, Modernism, and other fields that outdid that of some tenured professors. He could improvise an on-the-spot explanation to a casual interlocutor of how Brecht helps us understand Nina Simone (and vice versa) or how the theories of Julia Kristeva might illuminate The Bluest Eye.

Don had worked as a science journalist in Philly and been a folklorist in D.C. (where he'd been called on the carpet at the Smithsonian for "Asking an insubordinate question of Bernice Johnson Reagon").
He'd studied under Bernard Malamud in college, been friends with James Baldwin (and had a big cache of Baldwin's papers), and worked with queer theorist Eve Sedgwick and playwright August Wilson -- all of them now gone. He was as serious as anybody about a meticulous writing style --the chief frustration for me in reading his black masculinity anthology, Speak My Name, was that few of the contributors could live up to the prose style of his introduction. Writing ethically was also an obsession -- he once or twice read passages of fiction to me to make sure the depiction of Jewish characters was not offensive.

I only just learned that, a couple of years after we'd fallen out of regular contact, Don had gotten a job as an Assistant Professor at Indiana University.
The fact that he was hired by a public ivy like Indiana with only a master's degree (an M.A. -- he'd received a few letters from Creative Writing programs in the past saying, "Don't waste our time by applying to us without even an MFA.") is a testament to the breadth of his knowledge and his abilities as a great educator. And also gratifying just because he was so eager, when teaching four courses a semester in Philly, to find a tenure-track job that would allow him time to return to his first love, writing fiction.

I received an email from Chip Delany Tuesday evening reporting that Don Belton had been murdered by a homophobic veteran in Bloomington. I hope to write more about that, and the public response to it, in my next post.

ETA: It seems that I was too hasty in implying that he had no sympathy in his extended family: a Philadelphia cousin of his, one Leigh Harold, is showing up in the blogosphere to praise Don and to decry the claims made by Don's alleged killer.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 18: Lesley A. Hall

Reading and Looking, 2009
by Lesley A. Hall

My top book of the year has to be A. S. Byatt’s magnificent The Children’s Book, which does so many fascinating things, and is just so plain compelling a read (why was it not on more people’s Best of the Year lists? I’m baffled). I’m going to be extremely picky about someone writing about people in vaguely progressive, life-style experimental, circles in Britain at the end of the Victorian era and up to the aftermath of the Great War, but Byatt got this dead right. The world-building is superb. She also (for me) got right the thing of writing something that’s clearly inspired by actual historical figures, but genuinely transmuting them through imagination into separate characters and situations, rather than just doing search/replace on names. The Wellwood ménage clearly owes its origins to the marital complexities of Edith Nesbit, but Olive Wellwood is not a lightly fictionalised Nesbit. The novel also does very well the playing out of themes in different variations among the characters and contexts.

There’s a lot in there, about art of different kinds, the life of art and artists, stories and fantasy, families, social change. While there’s a good deal about traditional stories and motifs, we see in the specific stories of the various characters the new narratives that are being made with their lives – the women in particular, with Dorothy striving to become a doctor and the not entirely chosen but beginning to be possible ‘free motherhood’ of several of the other characters, but also chances to escape the paths set by class backgrounds. Byatt - quite bravely, I think – while including the militant suffrage movement and the Great War, doesn’t give either of them disproportionate amounts of space within the narrative.

A number of historically real individuals feature throughout the novel, one of them Edward Carpenter, the socialist, early ‘green’ simple-life advocate, anti-imperialist, suffrage supporter and homosexual rights campaigner. Another of my top reads this year was Sheila Rowbotham’s long-awaited biography of Carpenter, which was well worth waiting for. He was perhaps a very British figure of a reformer, and I’m not sure whether he had much following in North America (though he himself was profoundly influenced by Walt Whitman). After being somewhat forgotten and neglected following his death in 1929 he was rediscovered during the 1970s, but this is the first full (very full) biography. The best biography I read in 2009.

A book I was sent by the kind friend who was one of the co-editors and also a contributor, Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (eds) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (2009), though a bit of the mixed bag interdisciplinary edited volumes tend to be, is nonetheless an extremely good introduction to this neglected but vitally important area of study and I recommend it.

Exhibitions: I was thrilled to bits that there was a (relatively small, and only on for a brief time) exhibition of Louise Nevelson’s work at a rather obscure (and frankly, not easy to find) space in West London this summer. I have been mad about Nevelson’s work since the epiphany of first gazing upon her Waterfall in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC in the mid-nineties (I think it might have been on loan rather than part of the permanent collection). This was not anything like as extensive as the major exhibition I managed to see at the De Young in San Francisco during a brief visit there in 2007, but there were some large pieces that I had not seen before. Nevelson, of course, is a lovely example of the artist as forager and repurposer, picking up junk and cast-offs and turning them into breathtaking constructs.

The installations of the Walking in My Mind exhibit at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank were a mixed bunch, but I was very taken with Yayoi Kusama’s space full of inflatables.

Given my interest in the Bluestocking circle, I am very much looking forward to the arrival in London of the exhibition currently at the Yale Centre of British Art, Mrs. Delany and her Circle, while feeling very thwarted that it seems highly unlikely that I shall manage to get to Manchester to see the highly-praised Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, but may give myself the book as a New Year present.

Lesley A. Hall is an archivist and historian resident in London (UK), who has been a feminist since before she discovered the word. She has published several books and numerous articles, chapters, and reviews on gender and sexuality in the UK during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her biography of British feminist socialist sex radical, Stella Browne, should appear in 2010. An annual attendee at WisCon since 2005, she also reads and writes speculative fiction. Her reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons and Vector and her biographical and critical study of Naomi Mitchison was published by Aqueduct in 2007. Her essay, “Beyond Madame Curie? The Invisibility of Women’s Narratives in Science” will be published in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, forthcoming from Aqueduct Press in March 2010.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 17: Vandana Singh

Best Books and Movies of 2009
by Vandana Singh

For me 2009 was a year of much-hoped-for change, particularly in the area of climate politics. Although the Copenhagen summit was a dismal failure, the rise of youth and citizen climate movements around the world, and their catalytic meetings in Copenhagen, have given birth to a new hope for this beleaguered planet. Jim Hansen of NASA has pretty much come out and said it: the only hope we have left is global civil resistance. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it bluntly in an interview: the war is now between science and capitalism. We live in tumultuous times where new paradigms must be born --- or old, discarded ones find new relevance.

In my reading and viewing this year (necessarily curtailed by the demands of a full-time job and various personal responsibilities), I found much that reflected the current critical state of the world. Some of what I read only obliquely echoed these concerns, but I found insight in them nevertheless.

For intellectual highs I needed to go no further than Anathem, Neal Stephenson’s magnum opus. Although this is a flawed work (with one particular science flaw that stood out to this once-particle-physicist) it is a GREAT flawed work. I’d rather read something ambitious that doesn’t quite reach its goal than something competently mediocre. Well, Anathem was mindblowingly ambitious. What I liked best about it (and what made me weep with envy) was the conceptualization of an intellectual community where philosophy and gardening and physics and sociology were happily combined, minus the artificial barriers we raise in our educational system between subjects of study. Among the failures of the book are the poorly imagined romantic and familial relationships that felt trite and false to me. The plot was really quite interesting, especially the integration of philosophy and physics with action, but the other thing that stood out to me was the sense of place, and the lovingly lyrical and precise descriptions of different locations on the planet Arbre. It came as no surprise to me to learn later that Stephenson’s college degree is in geography. I also loved all the expositions, whether philosophical or mathematical, that littered and enriched the book. If I lived on a world like Arbre you’d know where to find me.

Another intellectual treat was the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. The opening reads like some kind of traditional fantasy, as we follow the protagonist, Steerswoman Rowan, in her search for a mysterious jewel, fragments of which have been found in disparate locations on the planet. The Steerswomen are truth-tellers and knowledge seekers, and theirs is also a community of intellectuals, with the difference that the steerswomen are wanderers who go into the world seeking knowledge. So as we follow Rowan we discover how, through careful observation and reasoning she finds the truth about the jewel fragments. A lovely fictional elucidation of the scientific process! My favorite in the series was The Lost Steersman, in which I came across the most interesting invention of an alien species and civilization that I’ve read recently, or ever. This is great science fiction indeed.

Both books, however, either ignore or only glancingly address what to me is a major concern: the issue of science and ethics. For instance, in the Steerswoman series the need to know, to learn and to understand, is elevated as a virtue --- it is in fact a criterion for being selected as a Steerswoman or Steersman. In Anathem also the yearning to know and understand distinguishes the mathic world from the Saecular one. But in neither book is the question raised as to the possible costs of wanting to know. The Nazi scientists who experimented on Jews during Hitler’s reign were presumably doing science, wanting to know and discover truths. Yet nobody in their senses would excuse them on those (or any) grounds. So why is it that when we teach science or write science fiction we don’t talk about the ethical limits that we must impose on the search for knowledge? When is it appropriate to say: my wish to know must come second to the well-being of another? Perhaps we do not ask this question because we still experiment on lab animals, even knowing from modern science that many of them are sentient, aware, intelligent beings. In fact in a terrible scene in one of the Steerswoman books, Rowan has to become a party to torture in order to extract information --- something that made me stop reading the series for many months. Later Rowan appears to redeem herself in her interaction with the alien species that I mentioned, but again there is no explicit discussion of the ethics/cost/philosophy of knowledge-gathering. And I write this as one who is as susceptible as the next person to the gosh-wow charms of scientific discovery.

Perhaps it is this divorce of science from ethical constraints that has contributed to the crisis in which we find ourselves. There is much in science fiction that warns about the dangers of technology, from nuclear war to climate collapse. Apocalyptic scenarios are very common and presumably intended as warnings that if we continue on our current course we cannot avert disaster. Yet however lofty the aims of these works their ubiquity points ultimately to a failure of imagination and of courage among us science fiction writers. If science fiction is about re-imagining the world, toppling tired old ways of being, then we have failed hopelessly. It is easy to write apocalyptic scenarios --- much harder to imagine a way of life, a movement, a historical path that would avert the apocalypse. The latter takes research, exploration, personal life changes, the guts to make mistakes, to go out on a limb, to reject consensus reality, to examine one’s most beloved assumptions. Hard work. And yet it must be done.

A book that I read this year that comes closest to such a re-imagining is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, part of his Three Californias trilogy. We are introduced to a utopic community and its struggles and human entanglements mainly through the eyes of Kevin, a fascinating, innocent and determined young man. The central plot point in the book has to do with control over water, and arguments in the town council about whether the last untouched hill in the area should be built-over. This sounds mundane and boring in the extreme, but it isn’t. It is a realistic and unpretentious evocation of relationships --- among people, and between people and the land --- in an imperfect utopia. It is also one of the most moving books I have ever read.

A counterpoint to Pacific Edge is The Gold Coast, Robinson’s imagining of a California (specifically Orange County) where runaway capitalism/consumerism has taken hold. It is a story of the struggles of a young, rich son of an arms engineer who tries to rebel against the system. Set in a backdrop of giant malls and freeways and designer drugs, the book asks the question as to whether it is possible to rebel against such a system while one’s survival depends on it. A deep and uncomfortable question.

Imagining a utopic community is one thing --- getting there is another. This is where L. Timmel Duchamp’s novel Renegade comes in. An unflinching look at the politics of power, where conventional assumptions and loyalties are overturned by the coming of the mysterious alien Marq’ssan, this second in the series continues the story of Kay Zeldin and her confrontation with the US Security forces. What power can and will do to destroy the will of the renegade is realistically and horrifically portrayed --- in fact it took me a long time to recover from the conclusion of the book, even as I had to admit (and admire) its rightness in the context of this long and rich saga. There is a lot more to this book that cannot be captured in a paragraph --- read it!

The role of power on the global scale is revealed just as unflinchingly in a remarkable play by Delhi-based writer Manjula Padmanabhan: Harvest. I’ve been wanting to read it for a long time and finally got the chance this summer, since it was one of the readings at the IIT Science Fiction Workshop in Kanpur, India. A clever, moving, devastating drama about organ transplants, featuring a lower middle class Delhi family and the affluent Americans they serve, it is a remarkable work by one of India’s best SF writers in English. I also had the chance to read Padmanabhan’s first novel (she has mostly written short stories before): Escape. The journey of a young girl through a land where women have become rare, if not extinct, where she must travel disguised in the company of a relative to the boundaries of another country, it is a great and frightening portrayal of a destroyed civilization and its wounded inhabitants. The coming-to-awareness of the protagonist, who hardly knows what it means to be female when she starts on her journey, is one of the most beautiful things about the book.

Anil Menon’s YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet made its debut this year also. A complex, scary, phantasmagorical ride through a futuristic Pune (in the year 2040), a city caught in the grip of new technologies co-existing with poverty and exploitation, it is a story of a friendship between the protagonist, Tara, and two very strange children, Ria and Francis. It is full of uncomfortable things, such as the loss of love, the alienation of brother and sister, father and son, the persistence of poverty, the promise of a new age with terrifying possibilities. And yet these are the issues that young people must face in the world we are creating for them, and therefore this is a brave and necessary book. It is not perfect, having some flaws that come with first novels even from seasoned writers (Anil is an exquisite short-story writer), but its steadfast refusal of despair and its celebration of friendship are worth noting.

Science fiction writers have re-imagined our world in various ways, creating or uncovering paradigms that overturn our assumptions about how we exist in the real world. Going into a possible future is one such approach; I’m thinking of Ursula K. Le Guin’s stunning work, The Dispossessed, and its sophisticated sociological world-building (which makes similar attempts in Anathem seem quite naïve). I’ve read The Dispossessed many times, and to me it is one of the seminal works of science fiction. More recently Le Guin has done it again with her novel, Lavinia. This time she has gone into the deep past, into an imagined history. I found Lavinia to be a spare, beautiful evocation of a time long past, where humans, animals, and landscape were not separate from each other. The voice of Lavinia, given only a mention in Vergil’s Aeneid, is very moving and believable in this novel. A rare celebration of the notion of duty (in a form I recognized to be quite similar to the Hindu notion of dharma) in the context of a civilization deeply connected with the non-human world, it is a unique work, subversive in a subtle way because it tells us without actually telling us that there are other ways to be in this world. Better than my ramblings is to read the actual book and to listen to this videotape of the author reading a section aloud.

I’ll mention only two non-fiction books I read, mostly in the interests of conserving space: one is a small and elegant book by MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel: What We Know About Climate Change. Written for the Boston Press as part of a series of works explaining important ideas to the public, this tiny book is very readable and communicates with enviable clarity the science of climate change. The other book is ethologist Marc Bekoff’s The Emotional Lives of Animals, which brings the reader up to date on what science and experience have taught us about animals and their emotions. Which is, that we share with them (and mammals, certainly) quite a wide range of emotions. This is a delightful work and a necessary one in a society where animals have been considered little more than commodities. To what extent this attitude has contributed to the crisis of global warming is left as an exercise to the reader.

I don’t get to see many movies but this year was different. I saw quite a few. Two of them were Hindi movies, the first being Delhi 6. While deemed by many to be a flop, this movie from Mumbai’s great film industry is really quite enjoyable. The music is awesome and wildly eclectic (a signature of the genius of A.R. Rahman) the story --- of a young man settled in America who goes back with his dying grandmother to the ancestral home in Old Delhi and finds not only love but himself --- oscillates between realistic and surreal, and it has enough of the good old Bollywood masala while dipping into serious issues like religious conflict. The other movie I saw was the classic 1951 Bollywood movie Awara. I grew up with its songs and its story but had somehow not managed to see it, even though it is iconic, and wildly popular in and outside India (at least among earlier generations in China and Russia). It is the story of a wastrel, a wanderer whose mother was thrown out by his rich judge father after she was kidnapped and released by a man wrongly accused and imprisoned by said judge. The songs are wonderful and the movie is surprisingly daring for its time, not only in terms of clothing worn by the actors but in its characterization of Rita, a passionate, brilliant young female lawyer, wonderfully rendered by the inimitable Nargis.

The movies Up, The Battle of Terra, and Avatar all have a common theme of exploitation of natural resources by greedy humans. Of these Up is enjoyable but lightweight, The Battle for Terra has more substance and good animation, set on another world whose inhabitants have given up war and high tech for peace, but are then invaded by humans. As for Avatar, it is a stunning gem. I saw Avatar in 3-d, which enhanced the immersion into a truly other world, but the technical oomph was not the only thing to rave about. Although the story of Avatar is not uncommon in the genre, the medium and the world-building, with its astounding biological and geographical detail and complexity, made the story real. It is, to me, the story of the American Indians the way it should have happened. I am curious to find out how people of the various American Indian nations have reacted to this sad, tragic, familiar story that had the ending Black Elk and others dreamed of. Since I read Black Elk Speaks last year, I couldn’t but help think of it as I watched the movie. So while it descends to cliché at times, it is not simply a white-man-to-the-rescue kind of movie and it avoids some of the problems of the much older movie Dances with Wolves. It is a story of going native, of the unambiguous embracing of a way of life that we’ve lost with the genocide of the Indians and the homogenization of the world. I remember reading that in the old days when the Americas were being settled by Europeans, settlers kidnapped by Native Americans did not wish to return to their original white families, whereas Native Americans captured by whites tried to escape at every opportunity. This is not to romanticize or trivialize the dangers of living in the wilderness (nor am I unaware that different Native American cultures were different in their interactions with the environment, or that various indigenous peoples haven’t done great environmental harm --- the Sahara being a case in point, perhaps), but to point out that perhaps in giving in to our fear of nature we’ve lost something really important. When I think about such ideas and movements as transhumanism and so on, I see in them that alienation from the environment, and the fear of natural, biological processes, such as death. People who live more connected lives on this Earth must fear death too (who doesn’t?), but perhaps they don’t give in to this fear as readily as we, the so-called civilized, do. Perhaps being connected to something larger takes the edge off this fear. And in fact one of the great pleasures of Avatar is the invention of a humanoid people who are such an integral part of their environment --- an environment rendered in stunning and luminous detail, rich with stupendously imagined flora and fauna. (Incidentally the written work that came to mind when I watched Avatar was Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest).

A couple of other stand-out movies included 9 (the animated post-apocalyptic movie, not the more recent movie of the same name) and Steamboy. Both deal with scientists whose work unleashes the potential of evil, although the ending of Steamboy is rather ambiguous on the subject. Another movie that deserves wider distribution and reviews and publicity is the remarkable work Ink. A low-budget art film about a girl who is taken away by a mysterious, damaged soul in her dream, it is a great genre movie that transcends genre. It is about the transformation of a man’s soul, the lure of money (again, the evils of capitalism make an appearance) and the attempts by various storytellers (people who bring humans dreams) to rescue the girl. It is moody, atmospheric, rich with metaphor and general weirdness. I loved it.

We find ourselves, at the end of 2009, faced with a dying biosphere, insensate greed on the part of nations and corporations, and a growing human population content to sit in front of their giant TV screens like the mindless consumers of Fahrenheit 451 while the world burns. But we also have a growing civic movement for a sustainable world, and writers and film-makers imagining alternate endings for our great, shared story. Although I don’t believe Art has a purpose apart from the pleasure of creation (at least, on the few occasions when I’ve attempted to create something with an explicit message, my Muse has run away screaming) --- I do believe great works of art have the happy side-effect that they make us think. And thinking differently might change us enough to change our world.

Vandana Singh is the author of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (Zubaan, 2009), some very fine short stories, and two novellas published by Aqueduct Press in the Conversation Pieces series: Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances. She lives in Boston with her family, where she teaches physics.

Pre-release Special for The Secret Feminist Cabal

Aqueduct Press has taken delivery of Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. For a brief time, we'll be selling it at a reduced price through our website. Here are a few descriptions of the book:

The Secret Feminist Cabal is an extended answer to the question Helen Merrick asks in her introduction: "why do I read feminist sf?" In this wide-ranging cultural history we are introduced to a multiplicity of sf feminisms as Merrick takes readers on a tour of the early days of sf fandom, tracks the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s and the explosions of feminist sf in the 1970s, and contextualizes subsequent developments in feminist sf scholarship. Her history is expansive and inclusive: it ranges from North America to the UK to Australia; it tells us about readers, fans, and academics as well as about writers, editors, and publishers; and it examines the often uneasy intersections of feminist theory and popular culture. Merrick brings things up to date with considerations of feminist cyberfiction and feminist science and technology studies, and she concludes with an intriguing review of the Tiptree Award as it illuminates current debates in the feminist sf community. Broadly informed, theoretically astute, and often revisionary, The Secret Feminist Cabal is an indispensable social and cultural history of the girls who have been plugged into science fiction.—Veronica Hollinger, co-editor of Edging into the Future, Blood Read: the Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, and Queer Universes

I really enjoyed this. It's a wonderfully thorough, analytical, and inclusive account, sure to become an indispensable resource. Better than that, it's a terrific read. Here you'll find everything you always wanted to know about women in fandom, women in publishing, women as writers. . . with the added value that the snippets of tasty vintage gossip are woven into a rich fabric of discourse. Helen Merrick's style is unassuming yet authoritative; she manages to be a scholar and an entertainer at the same time. Years ago, I read Women of Other Worlds, edited by Helen Merrick and Tess Williams, and was impressed. The Secret Feminist Cabal is more demanding, an ambitious project, but equally successful: this is a fine book. —Gwyneth Jones, author of White Queen and Deconstructing the Starships

An amazing book for cultural analysts of all kinds. This is a story-laden feminism, one that weaves together not only the historical contexts for women’s presences in SF and the varieties of feminisms women did and did not espouse, but tells us HOW all this happened. Merrick’s work allows us to learn how to practice this kind of story-telling ourselves, demonstrating how many knowledge worlds co-created feminist SF. She has a genius for letting us feel out what one knows and embodies when trafficking among worlds of academic critique, commercial publication, visionary futures, institutional intervention, and science studies. She teases out how dynamic networks linking stories and publications respond to new contexts, newly reattaching meanings to feminist SF itself, the body and embodiments, cyberpunk and cyborg feminisms, feminist versions of naturecultures, and sexual and racial politics. The very basis for what might count as feminist SF, for better or worse, is de-normalized and re-genred year after year, as told in cautionary stories about the James Tiptree Jr. Award, titled after pseudonymous feminist author Alice Sheldon’s pen name. Perfect for teachers, theorists, authors and critics, and for fans, The Secret Feminist Cabal is a new kind of transdisciplinary writing, a demonstration of the spaces that are continually coming into being for increasingly complex practices known as feminisms in SF. —Katie King, author of Theory in Its Feminist Travels: Conversations in U.S. Women’s Movements

A reminder: an excerpt can be found in the winter issue of the Aqueduct Gazette. You can revisit my earlier post about Rick Kleffel's review here. And to purchase The Secret Feminist Cabal now, go here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Alan DeNiro's Total Oblivion, More or Less

One of the fiction writer's principal aims, regardless of genre, tends-- at least for writers who want to do more than distract and amuse their readers-- to be about depicting and representing the world in which the writer lives. Representing the world one lives in is less straightforward than advocates of the style of "realism" (which is less concerned with verisimilitude than with supplying the reader with familiar and comfortable conventions that produce the illusion of "transparency") would have one believe-- and that's without taking into account that "the world" differs considerably from person to person.

To me, it makes eminent sense that in trying to find a way to write about our world-- a world which is shifting constantly around us, altering radically, often without our even noticing it, and, for middle class white people in the United States, a world in which the institutions that produce and secure white middle class values are, under the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism, inexorably disintegrating and vanishing-- a writer would choose to represent the current and near-future state of US life and culture in the way in which Alan DeNiro does in Total Oblivion, More or Less, his debut novel, released last month by Ballantine. (I almost wrote Bantam instead of Ballantine, because the imprint is Spectra.) I would go so far as to argue that DeNiro offers us one of the closest representations to the current state of life in "Middle Amerca" than any I've recently read.

In my discussion of the novel that follows, I will talk about the entire book, without worrying about spoilers. This is not the sort of book that draws the reader on by way of suspense and desire to know what happen next. Rather, it is an and-then-this-happened, and-then-that-happened, and-then-this-other-thing-happened kind of story, from beginning to end. The mysteries of the narrative lie in other areas entirely, which I will only begin to unveil and hint at.

So here's the novel's basic story: sixteen year old Macy Palmer is displaced, with her family, from their "normal" middle class existence in Minnesota, becoming economic and war refugees. Her mother is the chief casualty: there is no place for the traditional stay-at-home mom in the world the Palmers now find themselves in; her brother becomes a soldier or terrorist (depending on how one interprets his loyalties), her father-- previously a professor of astronomy-- becomes an astrologer, her sister--previously a college student-- becomes a slave, and the fetus in her mother's plague bubo-- her brother, apparently-- becomes a dog. Macy spends a large part of the trip traveling on assorted dubious craft down the Mississippi.

Macy herself is a 21st-century Candide: self-confident, impatient with everyone around her, largely trusting of people she doesn't get a nasty vibe off of, not much understanding the world she lives in, lacking in self-direction, unthinkingly bestowing her affection on those who have bestowed it on her. Through the book she moves from one bad situation to another, for the most part unscathed. The turning point in her story comes when her family is broken apart and her movement and action takes on direction, that of attempting to find and rescue her siblings from the dire fates that never threaten her. As she writes of herself:
I was desperate, beside myself as to how fucked up my family situation was. One brother a dog, the other in prison, my sister an indentured servant. And I hated being sorry for myself, because their problems were a hell of a lot worse than mine. The worst problem I had was not understanding myself one lick, and I could at least hobble along with that. It wouldn't' kill me. (262)
The basic structure of the novel corresponds perfectly to the constraints of honest representation of US middle-class reality in the first decades of the 21st century. The narrative voice is that of a teenager (i.e., Macy), occasionally supplemented by interpolated snippets that might not have been written by Macy. (The reader seems to have been meant to infer that someone other than Macy put her narrative together with the snippets to make a book. Or else an older Macy, the one who wrote the epilogue, did this.) Macy's narrative "I" presents the illusion of ego stability as it continually shifts to reconstruct itself to fit the different, almost episodic narratives it strings together into the kind of shaggy-dog road-trip narrative arcs people typically make of their lives. But while her ever-shifting narrative logic remains familiar and reassuring despite its passages through harrowing experiences, the world around her constantly alters, making her the center-- or even the eye-- of a chaotic hurricane. Surely the most familiar narrative voice found in fiction in the first decade of the 21st century is that of someone whose "worst problem I had was not understanding myself one lick," someone who knows the problems of most people around her are "a hell of a lot worse than mine." The familiar stories, the narratives that "work" because they are intelligible and accessible, are precisely those written about people who fit the description Macy gives of herself in the passage above.

But DeNiro then takes that familiarity and stability and messes with it. The reader may feel comfortable with the illusion of Macy's stability, but in the meantime, the social, economic, political, technological, and ecological landscape around her is radically shifting and alien-- just as our real world actually is. I've seen a few reviews of this novel, and so I know that at least some readers have constructed a narrative in which an "ordinary, middle-class family are set down" in a "post-apocalyptic" setting, or in which ordinary reality is invaded by 16th-century armies. But for me, neither of these readings work (any more than the catch-call "surrealistic" label works). What I find obvious is that DeNiro has found a way to depict the reality we live in that gets at that very instability in the way in which the changes constantly underway are immediately recuperated into the norms of middle-class American life and rendered ordinary and virtually invisible to those who are sufficiently privileged. If other readers don't recognize our world in this book, I suspect it's because they've got great shielding.

Grace and Carson Palmer and their children see their world and reality as "normal" until they slip out of their comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. The book offers us examples of people who have retained that lifestyle and sense of normality that the Palmers lose-- people who may be vaguely aware of the chaos people less privileged than themselves live in. Within the novel, whether the world looks chaotic and overwhelming depends entirely on whether one's socioeconomic status is sufficiently resilient and privileged to allow one to live a "normal" life. And since the various members of the Palmer family have different experiences of "normality," they almost never share a single collective vision of their world.

But we all know, don't we, that in our world (not the book's), such chaos and displacement in reality can befall any middle-class family through, say, catastrophic illness. We all know that it happens all the time. (Don't we?) And we know that all over the world (and in the US as well), being a refuge and immigrant (for a whole variety of reasons) has thrust millions of people into that same situation of chaos and displacement and loss of "normality." People who live "normal" lives need to believe it won't happen to them-- that someone in their family won't fall sick and/or lose their jobs, that they won't as a result lose their homes, that they'll end up in a camp with other homeless people (or in a shelter or living in alleyways), that they won't end up drifiting along without the rudder that normality provides. And so it is in Total Oblivion, the "'values" of middle class Minnesota life belong to those who can afford the middle class lifestyle.

Thus for Crystal, also from Minneosta, the wife of an ad executive who owns slaves and lives in Neuva Roma, Minnesota "is our homeland, and we should be proud of it, the values it stood for." But for Macy, who has, with her family, "fallen through the cracks," "Minnesota was broken and ravaged."(233) Concomitantly, the "values" that gave her mother a place in the world are vanished, taking her mother with her.

The narrative offers numerous clues, scattered throughout the book, to help the reader see that this is a head-on depiction of post-911 neoliberal capitalist society. We all know that science has fallen under serious attack in the US on ideological grounds. More to the point, though, science that doesn't pay for itself is of no value to our neoliberal capitalist system (which may be something many people don't like to think about). Carson, Macy's father, goes from being an astronomy professor to an astrologer: the fact is, neoliberal capitalism, which takes no interest in protecting the practice (or teaching of) pure science, has no need for astronomy professors. Pure science, like literature or philosophy, and like the basic liberal arts education, is considered a luxury. And so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that once classics and philosophy and literature departments are abolished, astronomy departments that aren't underwritten by NASA or defense contractors will soon follow. For neoliberal capitalism, universities are trade schools and the laboratories for profit-oriented science. That's why the federal and most state governments aren't interested in preserving them through hard economic times.

The Empire, which has its capital in Nueva Roma, strikes me as a version of the Bush regime made permanent and allowed to achieve its dearest desires. Here's a bit on the Empire's attitude toward science:
One of the prized conquests from the Empire's counterinsurgency was the laboratory of an immunology lab [sic] from the Centers for Disease Control, and five immunologists. The lab was a small one, in relative terms, and some of its sanitary nature was compromised by its transport and final internment. The Emperor didn't want anyone to see the lab, or take credit for its potential future accomplishments. Science was dead-- head had declared this. On the other hand, science, being a lost art, needed to be recovered to a point, and then reconfigured into something else more useful and unnameable. (283)
Isn't this brilliant? It captures perfectly the attitude of neoliberal Christian fundamentalists who hate science for being Darwinian, hate science for revealing global warming in all its gory details, hate science for discovering that genes for race don't exist and that smoking tobacco can cause cancer and heart disease, and yet need science for keeping big business going and producing ever bigger and more powerful weapons of mass destruction.

Another brilliant touch is the narrative's Tower of Justice in Nueva Roma. First, you need to understand that in Nueva Roma, "the street" (literally located at street level) is irrelevant: it's inhabited by the underclass and ruled and fought over by gangs of charioteers distinguishable by their colors (teal and turquoise being the most prominent) who murder and maim one another and anyone who gets in their way. (These gangs are apparently sponsored by corporations.) People who aren't in the underclass get around via the skyways linking the skyscrapers in which people and businesses reside. One of these skyscrapers is the Tower of Justice. Macy accesses the twenty-fifth floor of the Tower of Justice via skyway, and then Wye, the secret police spy, leads her
down a side corridor that got darker... I noticed faint writing carved on all of the walls. It was an alphabet I didn't recognize, wavy in places, blocky in others. I asked Wye about it.

All the laws and codes of the Empire, he said, are written on these walls. The oldest regulations are on the lower floors, and they get newer the farther up you go. That's why they keep adding floors to the Tower, because they keep writing and reinterpreting laws. The script here-- he ran his fingers along the walls-- is a few hundred years old. It's readable, but barely. Only a few scholars can read the script on the lowest floors.(247)
An apt allusion, I thought as I read it, to the Bush Regime's approach to law and "justice." Nueva Roma, by the way, is located just south of the Mississippi delta. As I read, I wondered what (if any) relation it bore to New Orleans. DeNiro chooses to leave that open to speculation. It is striking, though, that the Empire has no need of New Orleans and doesn't recognize it (which fits the Bush Administration's take on Katrina, certainly.)

And then of course there's the narrative's slave trade, which the narrative tells us was restarted by the oil companies when they could no longer sell oil, and which the narrative shows us has been taken up by backwater penny-ante entrepreneurs looking to make a buck. What DeNiro shows of it is a bit more benign than the current existing versions, but again, it's something that can happen to anyone who has "fallen through the cracks" of middle class existence. Its function for DeNiro's world is to allow the wealthy to retain the comforts that technology previously afforded them (before technology and oil failed): slave-power basically makes up for the loss of technology.

Macy's sister Sophia, naturally buying into the neoliberal ideology she has spent her entire (albeit young) life steeped in, believing she is striking out on her own and proving her autonomy, signs herself into slavery. She is strong, she is smart, she is willing to work hard: as far as she is concerned anything at all that she chooses to do is an act of agency, especially if it means doing so without anyone to help her. Let's hear it for personal autonomy! The narrator--Macy-- says when her sister leaves (not revealing whether this is hindsight or her thought of the moment:
I tried to be happy for my sister, I really did, but I didn't think personal choice and personal freedom--whatever that was-- worked well as a survival tactic anymore. (123)
And so Sophia's ecstatic, confident exercise of personal choice and personal freedom is to hand herself over to slavers. She will do anything for her career, she assures them, and a moment later finds herself owing "5000 golden horns" and has no career in sight. (Surely there's a certain uncomfortable resonance here with the sad all too common occurrence of young people, anxious for a professional career, succumbing to a terrible burden of debt they'll be bound to for decades to come.)

Though he depicts some of the ugliest parts of our world, DeNiro's Candide retains her optimism: because in spite of it all, in the world as he depicts it, people are basically decent, there are beautiful things in the world, and love is as real and as strong as the coldness and indifference of those who profit from and even delight in the misery of others.

If I ever had any doubts that DeNiro wasn't depicting current and near-future US middleclass culture, the third paragraph to the end, from which the title is taken, nails the connection between the narrative voice with its illusion of stability and the flux and strangeness of the landscape it negotiates and leaves the reader with a lot to think about. But that's to be expected. Total Oblivion, More or Less, is for people who like to think.