Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 1: Cheryl Morgan

The Year in Review
by Cheryl Morgan

For me 2011 was primarily the year of the invisible women. Yes, we have been through another round of the “why are there no women science fiction writers” debate. I was honored to be asked to write a post for the SFWA website on this subject, but as usual the great deal of hot air expended doesn’t seem to have got us very far. That, at least in part, appears to be down to publishers being more gender-conscious in their marketing. It may be my imagination, but the level of “pink v blue” marketing seems to have increased markedly this year in all areas of commerce. I guess that the Patriarchy is feeling under threat and is trying to strike back by imposing gender norms on all aspects of life.

Anyway, I am trying to do my bit to redress the balance by reading and reviewing works of science fiction by women. There are more than I can manage to read in the time I have, but I have definitely read some good ones. Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder series is a fine take on the generation ship trope, and I’m delighted to see Kathleen Ann Goonan back with This Shared Dream. I’d also like to mention a book that you probably can’t get hold of because it is only published in Australia: The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood. This is near-future SF in which Australia has been taken over by religious extremists and political opposition comes mainly from the queer community, sex workers, and other marginalized groups. It provides a fine example of the use of a gender-fluid character as its focus. I believe that the Tiptree jury has copies, and I would not be surprised to see it shortlisted, or even winning.

What I have noticed, however, is that publishers will find any excuse they can to label books by women as “fantasy.” Justina Robson’s recently completed Quantum Gravity series is “fantasy” because the alien species from parallel worlds include elves, demons, and fairies, even though the heroine, Lila Black, is a cyborg with a nuclear reactor in her chest. Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron is steampunk, while The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells is set on an alien planet where some species can shape change to a winged form. These are books which, in another time, or written by a man, might have been labeled “science fantasy” or even “science fiction, but are now “fantasy.”

Sometimes, of course, the science is genuinely powered by generous dollops of handwavium, and that’s been true of some of my favorite novels of the year. I put this down to experimentation with genre-blurring. After all, if China Miéville can do it, why can’t women? Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel are very clearly set on another planet in the far future, but just how the “bugpunk” technology works is by no means clear, and the fact that the scientists who make it work are known as “wizards” confuses things further. I like confusion. There’s also no scientific rationale provided for the powers of Boss, the ringmaster from Genevieve Valentine’s wonderful Mechanique, but whatever it is she does, there are very clear rules that govern it.

Even when a book is clearly a fantasy, it can still be written with a science fiction writer’s sensibility. That’s unsurprisingly true of Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken , which is after all her first departure from straight SF, at least at novel length. It is also true, however, of Glenda Larke’s Watergivers series, which is marketed to the fat fantasy trilogy market but is very rigorously worked out and could easily be sold as post-apocalyptic SF.

Catherynne M. Valente has gone a step further in her new series, A Dirge for Prester John. The first two volumes, The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World, were published in 2011, with a third, The Spindle of Necessity, yet to come. The books take the rather extreme fantasy world of the medieval bestiary and play it absolutely straight, even down to the existence of bizarre creatures such as the Blemmyes, who have no heads and their faces in their chests. The scenes with poor John, a devout Christian, trying to cope with the fact that the beautiful Hagia can’t cover her breasts, because her eyes are where her nipples would be on a human, are some of my favorite bits of feminist fiction in a long time.

Back with Australians, one of my discoveries of 2011 is Tansy Rayner Roberts. Her Creature Court series is proving very interesting, and I very much enjoyed her Love and Romanpunk collection.

This year I got to read a classic of feminist SF that I had missed when it came out: Shadow Man by Melissa Scott. Despite the obvious datedness of the theory on which Scott’s 5-gender system was based, I found the book fascinating and very contemporary in many ways.

I have also been reading a lot of YA this year. Malinda Lo (Huntress) and Alison Goodman (Eona) are firm favorites. I have started reading Patrick Ness and Philip Reeve, but I’m most excited about the number of women writing SF for the YA market. This includes people like Moira Young (Blood Red Road), Beth Revis (Across the Universe) and the whole developing phenomenon of “dystopian” fiction (which appears to be a publisher term for YA science fiction).

Of course I should mention the boys as well. China Miéville continues to impress and garner critical acclaim with his latest offering, EmbassyTown, while J.M. McDermott has produced a wonderful fantasy in Never Knew Another that appears to be being unjustly ignored. Daniel Abraham has a new fantasy series started with The Dragon’s Path, and while it hasn’t yet grabbed me the way his Long Price Quartet did, I will certainly be following developments. And Jon Courtenay Grimwood has an interesting new take on vampires with his new series, starting with The Fallen Blade.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have been amazingly busy again, producing such varied products as The Steampunk Bible, Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and the mammoth anthology, The Weird.

Finally in books this year I had the pleasure of meeting one of Egypt’s foremost science fiction writers. Ahmed Khaled Towfik has written over 400 books (mostly novella length), though by no means all of them are SF. His latest hit, Utopia, which rolls political trends in Egypt a decade or so into the future, has been published in English translation by Bloomsbury Qatar. I have an interview with Mr. Towfik in which he talks about the current situation in Egypt and how it has influenced his work. That’s currently with Locus and I hope it will see print soon.

The comics scene has been notable for the DC re-launch. Most of these books have been quite disappointing, if not downright repulsively sexist. The issues have been well documented elsewhere online. A couple of series, however, are worth a look. In Demon Knights Paul Cornell once again makes use of a Muslim hero, and manages to deal well with his women characters despite the fact that, for historical reasons, some of them have to wear chain mail bikinis. He also has what may turn out to be an actual trans character rather than just a girl masquerading as a boy.

The stand-out comic of the year, however, is Gail Simone’s Batgirl. This came in for a lot of flak, particularly from disability activists, for the fact that Barbara Gordon has been miraculously cured of the spinal injury that caused her to give up the cape and become the tech genius, Oracle, instead. (This was not Simone’s doing, it was a management decision.) The first couple of books were not particularly special, but in #3 Simone has Barbara getting irritated by the fact that all of the men in her life: Commissioner Gordon, Batman and Dick Grayson, keep trying to protect her. It’s a wonderful explication of the “I know you love me, but I can’t live my life in cotton wool” argument.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of Australian podcasts this year. The Aussies seem to be much better at it than anyone else. Maybe they have some natural talent for banter or something. Obviously I follow Galactic Suburbia, in which Alisa, Tansy, and Alex fight the good feminist fight on a regular basis. I’m also a big fan of Jonathan Strahan’s rambling conversations with his friend and fellow Locus contributor, Gary K. Wolfe, on The Coode Street Podcast. But if you were asking me to review podcasts I think I’d have to make my top pick The Writer and the Critic. Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond have great chemistry, and also provide fabulous in-depth reviews of the books that they cover.

The SF&F Translation Awards, which I mentioned last year, gave their first prizes in 2011. The Long Form category was won by A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer Press) while the short form winner was “Elegy for a Young Elk,” by Hannu Rajaniemi, translated by Hannu Rajaniemi (Subterranean Online, Spring 2010). Both winners have been very warmly received, and I’m looking forward to some more fine discoveries next year. The full short lists can be found here and the results, with jury comments, here.

On a personal front I managed another five issues of my literary review magazine, Salon Futura, before we ran out of money. I very much enjoyed producing it, and think we ran some great articles, so I’m continuing to look for new sources of funding.

Meanwhile Wizard’s Tower Press published two ebook reprints by my friend Ben Jeapes. His Majesty’s Starship is fine piece of space opera with some really innovative aliens (and the last vestiges of the British Royal Family) while Jeapes Japes is a collection of Ben’s best short stories, mostly published in Interzone. I have plans for quite a lot more books in 2012, so please look out for announcements.

I continued my work with Clarkesworld in 2011. We published some fine stories and nonfiction, and much to my surprise won another Hugo Award. I’m retiring from the magazine at the end of this year, but I’ll still be doing what I can to support it and wish my successor in the nonfiction department, Jason Heller, all the best. My current favorite short stories from the 2011 run are “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, 4/11) and “The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book)” by Nnedi Okorafor, (Clarkesworld, 3/11).

Finally I’d like to mention two museum exhibitions that I have been lucky enough to see. Over the summer the British Library, in conjunction with the Science Fiction Foundation, staged a very impressive and hugely successful exhibition called Out of This World that traced the history of science fiction literature. Some of the older books that they were able to put on show were absolutely amazing. And more recently Tate Britain has staged Apocalypse, an exhibition of the art of John Martin, whose titanic visions have been a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy art and movies.

Cheryl Morgan edited the online book review magazine, Emerald City, for 12 years, winning a Hugo Award for Best Fanzine along the way. She subsequently won another Hugo for her writing, and two more with Clarkesworld Magazine. You can learn more about Cheryl at her personal blog, Cheryl’s Mewsings.


Sean said...

Cheryl, we've always been good in Australia, it's just taken a little while for the rest of the world to notice :)

Cheryl said...

I've just realized that The Habitation of the Blessed was a late 2010 book, not a 2011. Apologies to Cat and Night Shade.

Jared said...

"And more recently Tate Britain has staged Apocalypse, an exhibition of the art of John Martin, whose titanic visions have been a huge influence on science fiction."

Tate recognised this as well, and didn't try to bury JM's SF relevance, which I really appreciate as a fan.

The gallery team also threw themselves into supporting our SF anthology of short stories based on JM's work. Which, of course, I appreciate even more...