Friday, December 13, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.7: Nisi Shawl

Books, Actually
by Nisi Shawl

This year my youngest sister died.

I was listening to my “Strict Machine” Pandora station when Dad called with the news: Gina had not survived her emergency surgery. The songs playing were Zero 7’s “Destiny” and Massive Attack’s “Paradise Circus.” The lyrics of neither pertain to what had just happened. But if the evocation of grief is a pleasure, these songs, and, in fact, all of Zero 7’s music, give me pleasure—the kind wet with tears.

Upon returning from the funeral I became infested with the worst of classical earworms: Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# Minor. Like Massive Attack and Zero 7 it roused in me thoughts and feelings about unsought death: intimations, denial, struggle, acquiescence. Pop earworms can be evicted by simply replacing them with other, more insidious melodies. Not so with “The Prelude.” I tried overplaying it, usually a sure path to revulsion, but that only deepened my addiction. Fortunately the pianist in the apartment below mine began practicing several Inventions, and the sewing-machine-like regularity of Bach finally overcame the haunting melancholia of Rach.

Since the only music I care for these days makes me sad, I’ve turned for solace to books. Fortunately, as a reviewer and reviews editor I have access to lots of them for free. So many of the books I’ve enjoyed—though not all—are about sisters. And immortality. Which I wish she had had.

The sisters in Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood are robot clones. They don’t have bodies, though they can be murdered, or die due to misadventure. Following Stross’s narrative across interstellar space, into forced surgery, and down through thousand-foot layers of icy slush, I realized that I was following him. A novel experience for me with this author, and one that makes me recommend Neptune’s Children to anyone who wants to read a really accessible thinky-nerdy-economicky-space opera.

J.M. Sidorova’s debut, The Age of Ice, tells the story of an accidental immortal living for a couple of troubled centuries. It was finely absorbing,a funny and sensual and surprisingly sympathetic rendering of a man who can’t seem to come to terms with his fortunate problem. Sea Change, another debut novel—this one from S.M. Wheeler--was a Grimm and gritty take on fairy tale quests. The heroine wants to save her friend. I was enchanted, drawn below the mirror-bright surface of this book to the rough depths Lilly descends to. She loses everything in trying to save her friend. In the wake of Gina’s death, non-romantic love has come to mean much more to me.

Then there was Hild, by Nicola Griffith. It is, simply, the best book I read this year—and there were others that came damn close. But Hild wields more beauty, strength, passion, wit, sex, fear, glory, grue, delicacy, and magnificence than any book has a right to. Griffith, as Eileen Gunn put it, “writes like a commando”—she takes you away to wherever she wants and you can’t refuse to go. I went. I’ll go back again willingly for any sequels she cares to manifest.

If not for Hild, perhaps A Stranger in Olondria—a third debut novel—would have been my pick for the year’s best. Sofia Samatar’s story of a colonial smitten with the immortalizing power of the written word would have been enough of a tour de force for most new authors. But to that she adds the most compelling ghost I’ve ever come across, and realistic political manipulations that threaten to kill her naïve hero. And Samatar’s lovely language is to swoon for.

Or, perhaps, I would have gone for my most recently completed read of the year: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Sisters again. Trans-species sisterhood. Questions are raised about memory, reality, sentience, intentions. In a moment that tears aside narrator Rosemary’s assumptions about her chimpanzee sister Fern, I saw a reflection of a behavior commonly accepted as human, but rejected by her as bestial. What, I wondered, was the difference? I’m still wondering. That’s what Fowler does for me. Makes me wonder.

I’d rather dwell in wonder than sorrow. I’d rather be taken away to another time, another place than live where I am, in the midst of my regrets. Until I finish writing my own novel, “Everfair,” which I now classify to myself as work Gina would have wanted me to do, I’ll seek what comfort I can find in the writing of others.

 Nisi Shawl is the author of Filter House, which won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, Something More and More, her WisCon GoH collection, and, with Cynthia Ward, the co-author of the celebrated Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, and the editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 5: Writing and Racial Identity, all of which are published by Aqueduct Press. This year Aqueduct Press published Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, which Nisi co-edited with Rebecca Holden. She reviews science fiction for the Seattle Times, is a member of the Clarion West board, teaches writing workshops at Centrum in Port Townsend, WA., and is the reviews editor of The Cascadia Subduction Zone

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