The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2015
by Fiona Lehn
This summer Vancouver was “smoke-bound” for over a week due to wildfires in the province. Smoke and ash filled the sky with a thick, grey-orange timelessness. Sunrise and sunset looked the same—a glimmering red orb haunting each horizon—and I imagined that was how the world would look without our intrepid ozone layer. This inspired some thematically-related reading I thought I’d pass on here, to help you keep your home fires burning throughout the winter:
I started with Elizabeth Hand’s Glimmering. Since discovering Hand’s work several years ago, I’ve been making my way through her oeuvre a novel a year. (BTW, Hand has won the World Fantasy Award four times, along with a bunch of other literary awards and accolades. I won’t list them here, but it’s an impressive collection by an impressive writer.) Originally published in 1997, and intended to be a cautionary tale, Glimmering is uncannily prescient: its world is overrun by fundamentalist-inspired terrorism, rising sea levels, melting polar caps, disease pandemics, economic crashes, etc.—these things were Hand’s imaginings of an over-the-top future dystopia in 1995 when she was writing Glimmering, yet our world looks quite similar now. Is the story dark? Sure. As Hand admits in her author’s notes from the second edition, the story’s main protagonists are “three gay men (two with AIDS, at the time a death-sentence), and a straight fundamentalist singer-songwriter who begins to lose his faith after an obsessive sexual encounter with a refugee from Eastern Europe.”
From Hand’s website: “It’s 1999 and the world is falling apart at the seams. The sky is afire, the oceans are rising—and mankind is to blame. While the spoils of the 20th Century dwindle, Jack Finnegan lives on the fringes in his decaying mansion, struggling to keep his life afloat and his loved ones safe while battling that most modern of diseases — AIDS. Jack gets mixed up with a bizarre entourage of rock stars, Japanese scientists, corporate executives, AIDS victims, and religious terrorists. While these larger players compete to control mankind’s fate in the 21st Century, Jack is forced to choose his own role in the World’s End, and how to live with it. Glimmering is a visionary mix of fantasy and science fiction about a world in which humanity struggles to cope with the ever-approaching ‘End of the End.’”
Yep, it’s dark, and it’s real, and Hand weaves a glimmer of hope throughout. The first edition is a piece of literary history that should have received more attention when first released and now should be hailed as a classic, among the likes of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.
Of note, Hand released a revised second edition of Glimmering in 2012 that apparently has a brighter outlook than “end of the end”. I’m curious to see how her perspective changed in fifteen years. It’s on my list of future reads, once the power of her first Glimmering, still resonating within me, fades enough.
Next, up, James Patrick Kelly’s novella, Burn (2005). Known as one of science fiction’s top short fiction writers, and a winner of Hugo and Nebula awards, Kelly has a hefty résumé and a catalog to be reckoned with. People seem to think, well, “Think Like A Dinosaur” when Kelly’s name comes up, and while that story packs an award-winning punch, I feel that Burn is a more important and enduring work.
A planet on the verge of environmental collapse is purchased and renamed Walden. People who want a tech-free life immigrated there and created an intentional community called the Transcendent State. They plant forests of trees to terraform the planet, much to the dismay of the native peoples, named Pukpuks, who want the planet left the way it is. Activist Pukpuks fight back by setting the forests aflame. Spur, one of many men and women who leave their sheltered community to fight the fires, is badly burned. While in a hospital recovering, he gives in to temptation and explores the technology available there, and inadvertently sets events into motion that he cannot control.
Most chapters open with quotations from Thoreau’s Walden. These idealistic meditations on a simple, natural life serve as foil to the heated conflict within the chapters, and the reader’s heart becomes embroiled in the complexity of Kelly’s tale. As Connie Willis says on the book’s back cover, “[Kelly] sends us to Walden, where simplicity is anything but, and even Henry David Thoreau begins to look disturbingly different.”
Burn is a story about a simple fruit farmer who finds himself fighting his brother on the front lines of environmental war. It’s a story about the relationship between technology, culture, and humanity. It’s a story of intention and ignorance, of fire and smoke and the utter devastation that is sometimes essential for growth.
Speaking of burning, Scott Hawkins released a fantasy novel this year called The Library at Mount Char. This story is original, compelling, feminist, freakish, laugh-out-loud while cringing in my chair funny and creepy, and, well, did I say original already?
Carolyn is an orphan of sorts. The man she calls Father just might be a God. When Father goes missing, the library that holds his secrets stands unguarded. She plans to stake her claim, but fierce competitors for this prize align against her, all of them with powers that far exceed her own. Carolyn has accounted for this. The only trouble is that in the war to make a new God, she's forgotten to protect the things that make her human. (Excerpted from the jacket copy)
The Library at Mount Char has also received praise from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Cory Doctorow, and Nancy Kress, to name a few.
Once the skies cleared in Vancouver, I got into a few detective shows. The plot twists and gradual reveals and countless suspects are so compelling!
The one that stands apart for me is The Bridge (Bron || Broen): A Swedish/Danish mystery TV series focusing on Saga Norén—a brilliant detective who is extremely lacking in social skills. In the first two seasons, she works with a Danish cop, Martin Rohde, who is well adapted socially. This show has it all—shady characters, dark and atmospheric settings, suspense, good cop, bad cop—but the thing that wins my fandom is the relationship between Saga and Martin. Their friendship spans two countries, two cultures, two languages and styles of communication. I also greatly appreciate the swap in traditional gender roles. Martin, a rather loveable teddy bear kind of a guy, shows compassion and emotes enough for the two of them, while Saga is rigid, no-nonsense, and refreshingly non-sexualized.
Happy ambling along the aqueduct, and all the best in 2016!
Fiona Lehn made her first professional sale of fiction in 2008 when “The Assignment of Runner ETI” won third place in the Writers of the Future contest. From 1993 to 2006, she co-produced several CDs of her original songs and performed across the U.S. From 2007 to 2011, Lehn served on the editorial collective of Room, Canada's oldest feminist literary magazine. Though Fiona grew up in Stockton, CA and is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, she lives now in Vancouver, BC as a Canadian citizen. Aqueduct Press published her novella The Last Letter as a volume in its Conversation Pieces series in 2011.