Friday, December 18, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 5: Cynthia Ward

2009: The Year in Review, As It Were
by Cynthia Ward

In one sense, a great deal changed for me in 2009: I moved to the L.A. area. In other ways, life remained static (I still don't own a TV, for example). I did increase the number of movies I saw in the theatre, to a grand total of four. Even more than in previous years, my reading was for review or research (so I still haven't read Nisi Shawl's Tiptree Award winning collection, Filter House [Aqueduct Press]; Sylvia Kelso's feminist SF novel Riversend [Juno Books]; Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn; or, especially sad to say, Our Hostess's novels).

But here's what I did read, and hear, and see:

Magnificent Views (Movies):

The movies I saw in the theatre were 2012, Twilight, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Star Trek. 2012 fulfilled expectations by having fantastic special effects, generic characters, tepid acting (even from Jon Cusack), and a dumb plot. Twilight is a well-acted and unusually faithful adaption (though I did appreciate the change of making the teenage heroine, Bella Swan, less of a hapless doormat). I enjoyed the movie, as I enjoyed the novel, for a reason the author may not have intended (its fascinatingly fucked-up relationship).

X-Men Origins: Wolverine tones down the misogyny and stupidity of the recent Wolverine comics (which have turned Marvel Comics's former free spirit into a hapless tool whose women always die). The plot didn't entirely make sense (would the mind-reading Professor X really leave Wolvie wounded and amnesiac while saving the rest of the mutants?). On the plus side, the movie had magnificent views. The scenery wasn't bad, either.

As for Star Trek, am I the only SF writer in existence who hasn't watched the TV series? I've seen three episodes total. That made watching the movie pretty puzzling, because I was trying to make sense of it in terms of what ST fans have told me about the TV shows. Apparently, this was the wrong approach. But, no worries, the movie didn't make a lot of sense for other reasons, too. And if the TV Kirk was anything like the movie Kirk, I don't know why he wasn't murdered by his crew early in the series. On the plus side, Zachary (Heroes' Sylar) Quinto made, unsurprisingly, a wonderfully intense Spock, and the special effects were also pretty intense. Despite itself, I enjoyed the movie, and am willing to watch the next installment (though I doubt I'll be catching up on any of the TV series).

On DVD, I saw Mamma Mia!. I enjoyed the many, mighty ABBA tunes. I also enjoyed the plot, which was so frothy, I'm surprised the cast and crew didn't drift into outer space, never to be seen again. I found it interesting that reviews of the movie tended to boil down to "Meryl Streep shouldn't have fun!"

In the future I hope to see Avatar, Milk, Precious, The Princess and the Frog, A Single Man, Up, Up in the Air, and the next Twilight Saga movie, New Moon. Will I pull it off? Tune in next year....

Light Me Up, Put Me On Top, Let's Fa La La La La, La La La La (Music):

I downloaded some free music this year, and found a couple of artists I'm curious to hear more of: Los Straitjackets and Lady Gaga. The gents of the former play awesome 1963-style surf-rock instrumentals while dressed in suits and Mexican wrestling masks. Great fun.

As for Lady Gaga, what can I say? "Don't just listen; watch." Lady Gaga infuriates and/or freaks out a good proportion of onlookers, and makes diehard fans of the rest. Is it because she's 100% artificial (which is not a criticism)? Is it because she's a drag queen trapped in a woman's body? Is it because she's a woman as forthright in her sexuality as a man? ("My Christmas tree's delicious," indeed.) She's the misbegotten offspring of Madonna, Freddie Mercury, the disco divas, the New Wave, and Laurie Anderson. But I wonder if she copped her pale stage looks not from Madonna or Marilyn Monroe, but from the original screen avatar of forthright female sexuality: Mae West.

Steampunk Rules OK -Or Maybe Not (Books):

Apparently, this is the Year of the Steampunk. You can hardly click a link without encountering a list of essential texts, or a photoshopped image of a pseudo-Victorian robot, or a real photograph of a computer that looks straight out of 1893, or genuine footage of a recently constructed difference engine (which was built only with Victorian technology, and works). Even Time Magazine has covered the phenomenon. And, given the form's wonderful imagery, it's not difficult to see why steampunk is becoming the "It girl" of SF/F.

The big knock on steampunk is that it lets writers and readers play in colonialist/imperialist alternate histories from which minorities may be neatly excised. The subgenre does seem pretty white, in my limited experience, though some of its practitioners are critiquing colonialism/imperialism, rather than embracing it. Here's hoping more writers (and artists) will pop the hood on the form's current assumptions and tinker with that steam-driven engine.

Some folks have already started. Cherie Priest's 2009 steampunk novel Boneshaker is uneven in terms of execution, but she does notice that not everyone in nineteenth-century Seattle was white. Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel, a big, staggeringly beautiful illustrated work of pseudohistory about a nonexistent Victorian robot, created by the husband-and-wife team of artist Paul Guinan and writer Anina Bennett, does not confine its incorporation of real history to white men.

In a pair of older works, graphic novels The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volumes One and Two, writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill set about bashing colonialism and imperialism while combining characters from pretty much every work of English-language fiction written in the Victorian Age, and more besides. So you get Jules Verne's East Indian hero, Captain Nemo, offering scathing critiques of the British Empire. You also get Miss Mina Murray, quite changed from her experiences with a certain Transylvanian count, and my favorite of Moore's female characters. On the downside, you can get the annoying feeling that Moore is condemning his racist/colonialist/imperialist cake while eating it, too.

Like the League books, another pair of older steampunk graphic novels, Scarlet Traces and Scarlet Traces: The Great Game by writer Ian Edginton and artist D'Israeli, mashes up Victorian fiction (mostly H.G. Wells) to condemn imperialism. The art is gorgeous, the writing solid, but the results end on a mixed note, as the second volume presents Martians who must all be destroyed to save the human race. This works as SF, but undercuts the critique. Perhaps we are supposed to see this conclusion as echoing Wells' anti-imperialist ending for his novel The War of the Worlds? If so, it still doesn't work thematically.

In an attempt to better understand the subgenre, I read Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's anthology Steampunk, which presents a wide variety of stories to fit its definition of steampunk. The variety is so wide, in fact, that I ended the book more confused about the definition than when I started. There's a lot of good work here, but I'll confess to getting tired of anthologies in which there are three or fewer women contributors, and even fewer writers of color.

To turn from steampunk, if not from white male writers, I really enjoyed Ian McDonald's SF collection, Cyberabad Days. Over the course of his linked stories, McDonald develops a high-tech India on its hundredth anniversary. If you read SF for its sense of estrangement, and/or enjoy travel to distant lands for the same reason, you'll find plenty of that frisson here. Among the book's other interesting developments, eunuchs have made a biotech comeback, and, thanks to extreme sex selection, Indian men outnumber women four to one (I hope Cyberabad Days is under consideration for the Tiptree Award). It's my favorite among the original SF/F works I read this year, and I'm glad to see McDonald is teaching at Clarion West next year.

The best SF/F reprint I read this year is Tanith Lee's Night's Master: Tales from the Flat Earth: Book One (1978), which has recently been reprinted by Norilana Books, and is no one's idea of politically correct. Melding the Oscar Wildean fairytale with Thousand and One Nights orientalism, this interwoven collection replicates some old problems (the characters look European despite the Arabian Nights influence; men are the active principle, women the passive). In its favor, the book celebrated gay sex at a time when it was frowned upon, and it uses beautiful prose to tell unpredictable, subversive stories (Satan as redemptive Christ figure, anyone?).

The best graphic novel I read this year is Incognegro, in which writer Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece explore identity and race in the story of an undercover reporter who must hide both his profession and his race in the American South of the 1930s. Full of morbid humor, plot twists, and noir mood, Incognegro is the best example I've ever seen of "the story that's told as a graphic novel because it can't be told as a prose novel." And the ending offers perfect poetic justice.

Other worthwhile new fiction books I read this year include (but, thanks to my faulty memory, may not be confined to):

Are You There and Other Stories, the first collection from new literary-SF writer Jack Skillingstead, which sets a new high-water mark for alienated-guy characters;

The City and the City by China Miéville, an urban fantasy novel that skips the vampires, werewolves, and magic to focus on urbanness, with a Borgesian flair (the novel's pair of cities occupy the same physical terrain);

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox, the first book in a high fantasy series inspired by ancient China;

The Hounds of Skaith, The Reavers of Skaith, and The Sword of Rhiannon, classic tough-guy interplanetary adventure novels by Leigh Brackett, a pioneer of SF by women;

Indigo Springs, the ambitious debut novel by acclaimed short fiction author A.M. Dellamonica, who herein remakes the urban fantasy novel as a rather polymorphously perverse tale of disaffected small-town youth coping with love, colonial evil, and access to seemingly limitless power;

Lace and Blade 2, edited by Deborah J. Ross, who has assembled good (and diverse) original fantasy stories in which wit or ingenuity, instead of violence, wins the day;

Mercy Thompson: Homecoming, an entertaining but ultimately thin-feeling graphic novel about the popular urban-fantasy character, with story by Patricia Briggs and David Lawrence, and artwork by Francis Tsai and Amelia Woo;

Magic in the Blood and Magic in the Shadows, the second and third Allie Beckstrom novels from Devon Monk, who dispenses with the usual vampires/werewolves/fae to give urban fantasy a new, interesting, and rather more science-fictionally rigorous direction;

Matters of the Blood, Blood Bargain, and Blood Kin, in which Maria Lima piles on the usual urban fantasy vampires/werewolves/fae, but sets most of the action in eccentric small-town Texas;

The Other Lands: Book Two of The Acacia Trilogy, in which David Anthony Durham gives post-Tolkienian epic fantasy a radical make-over (complete with African influences, an element pretty much absent from the rest of high fantasy);

Rosemary and Rue: An October Daye Novel, in which first-time novelist Seanan McGuire sets a hardboiled urban fantasy of the fae in San Francisco, to produce an entertaining work with a less entertaining side effect: it feels like everyone in The City is white and straight, which in terms of believability is like making everyone in Portland, Maine black and gay;

The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt, the influential and vividly colorful pulp fantasy classic, which wins zero awards for political correctness;

and Who Fears the Devil? The Complete Silver John, which collects every known story about Manly Wade Wellman's wandering Appalachian troubadour.

By year's end I expect to read Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak; Gail Carriger's Soulless, which appears to be a delightful steampunk urban fantasy of manners; and Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian's Mansfield Park and Mummies, which should prove a far more entertaining mashup than the one-note Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Proceeds of the sales of MP&M, I should mention, will help Ms. Nazarian avoid foreclosure in this economically distressed (and distressing) time.

And that's the year that was, at least in this quarter.

Cynthia Ward lives in the Los Angeles area. Her most recent fiction publication is in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XXIV (Norilana Books), edited by Elisabeth Waters. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press).


Anonymous said...

Cynthia: The first Steampunk antho largely captures a particular period of the subgenre wherein not many women or POC were writing any Steampunk (if you have examples of good stuff we missed we'd be more than happy to consider it for 2). The classic stuff first defined as "steampunk" was mostly by white males. Steampunk II, focusing on the last ten years primarily, should be more diverse. (If I personally were to do a general fantasy antho, it would be probably 85 percent women, given who I am most enthusiastic about at the moment as a reader.)

I am in total agreement about the dangers of writing about something where you strip out the political and social complexity so you don't have to deal with the implications of the crappy bits. My story in Extraordinary Engines at least partially addresses this issue.

The good news is that the Steampunk subculture is more diverse than the original literature, and a lot of the new fiction is coming out of that subculture. (Well, that's the hope.)

So part of what I am saying is that you can't change history either way.


Unknown said...

I promise not everyone in my San Francisco is straight and white! I tend to not mention sexual orientation unless it comes up (much like I don't wander around introducing myself as bisexual unless it's salient, or I have my girlfriend in tow); there's at least one homosexual main character coming up in the next book, and several minor.

I'm glad you liked the book, and I do appreciate the critique. I'm working on making the diversity of the cast a little more clear.