Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 5: Cheryl Morgan

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016
by Cheryl Morgan

2016 has been so busy that I can scarcely remember what happened early on. However, some great books do stick in the mind. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders was an early delight, though I suspect that you need to have some familiarity with Bay Area culture to fully appreciate it.

I fell in love with N.K. Jemisin’s work with her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I’ve been a bit distracted by other things of late, but I came back to her for her Hugo-nominated The Fifth Season and was blown away by it. It is a well-deserved winner of all those awards. The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, is a great book too.

With the Helsinki Worldcon coming up, Finnish fiction should be on everyone’s reading list. The brilliant Johanna Sinisalo has produced a feminist dystopia of a near future Finland where health concerns are used to control the population and all psychotropic drugs, even chili peppers, are banned. The Core of the Sun is a salutary lesson of how government concern for the population can be manipulated.  

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff is another excellent, and very feminist, Finnish novel. Sadly US publication has been put back to next January. Get it when you can, people.

A year in which a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is published is always a good year. Children of Earth and Sky does not disappoint. Of course it helps that it is set in Croatia, a country I have come to know and love. I was particularly pleased with the ways in which Kay found historically plausible ways to feature women characters in active roles.

History is also a major theme in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. The way in which Ruff uses Lovecraftian ideas to detail the horrors of being black in 1950s America is very clever, and very timely for all sorts of reasons. There’s some great research in this book.

I haven’t read a huge amount of straight science fiction this year, but Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars series, about robots who achieve sentience and decide to liberate themselves, has made a promising start with Dissidence. Another interesting twist on a well-worn theme is Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, in which aliens have established a city in Nigeria and have set about subtly transforming Earth to their liking.

Tor’s novella series is turning into a great publishing success story. The star book by far in my opinion has been Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. I’m delighted to learn that there will be further books in the same world. Also highly recommended is Kij Johnson’s Dreamworlds story, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe. Lovecraft’s world is very different when seen through a woman’s eyes.

On the subject of short fiction, my friend Jana Funke has been lucky enough to spend some time rooting around the Radclyffe Hall archives. The resulting book, “The World” and other unpublished works of Radclyffe Hall, is very interesting. I had no idea that Hall made so much use of science fiction tropes in her work. Sadly UK academic publishing is seriously broken and the book is ludicrously expensive. Hopefully you still have access to a library.

The most impressive book launch that I attended this year was for Fight Like A Girl, an anthology edited by my good friends Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke. The book grew out of a conversation on social media and features stories of women in combat. The launch included actual demonstrations of fighting techniques by some of the authors.

One of those authors, of course, was Juliet E. McKenna, who is a black belt in aikido. Just recently I was honoured to publish a brand new book by Juliet. Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom is a new departure for her, being based in a new world rather than her well-known setting of Einarinn.

Still with local people, one book that may have flown under the radar because it was published as literary fiction is The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen. This fascinating SF novel deals with the invention of a technique for allowing a human consciousness to occupy another body. Initially it is used for biological research, but the company has very different plans. Emma did a huge amount of research on animal lives for this.

Still with (fairly) local writers, I was very impressed with Stephanie Burgis’s debut adult novel, Masks & Shadows. It is heavily based on research she did for a PhD in the history of opera. It is also one of the few books I know of with a eunuch as a love interest. Carlo is a castrato, and they were very much the rock stars of 18th-Century music. But then androgynous musicians were also a thing in the early Islamic Caliphate. So little changes.

Stephanie’s book is one of many I read as research for an essay I am writing on trans characters in speculative fiction. Another was An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, which falls firmly into that splendid tradition of feminist SF exploring matriarchal societies. Foz has done a fine job and I’m sure her book will be of interest to Aqueduct readers.

Possibly my favorite treatment of a trans character has been Full Fathom Five. This is part of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. and at first sight there seems to be no particular reason why the character should be trans. That in itself is revolutionary, because so many writers only put a trans character into a book to talk about gender transition. But the more I thought about the book the more I came to the conclusion that Gladstone had done something very clever indeed, and found a role that positively required a trans hero.

The number of trans people writing fiction these days is growing rapidly. I was delighted to come across Hope Nicholson’s Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, an anthology of speculative fiction written by LGBT+ folk who also identify as Native American. Obviously it is a very narrow field, so the content isn’t necessarily always top notch, but it provides a very different view. There’s some really interesting trans history in the book too.

The stand-out literary book about a trans character this year has been When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. The quality of the prose, from such a young writer, is astonishing. McLemore is not trans herself, but she is married to a trans man and clearly knows the subject well. The book is probably better called Magic Realism than Fantasy, but I still strongly recommend it.

Finally in fiction, a brief glimpse into next year. I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of Dreadnought by April Daniels. It is a story of a young trans girl who, though fortunate circumstances, gets the body she always dreamed of. One potential downside is that she is now the world’s mightiest superhero. Dreadnought is a joyful but sharply observed book well steeped in superhero lore. I loved it.

Most of the nonfiction I have been reading this year has been ancient history, and fairly serious academic stuff at that. It is very much an acquired taste, though hopefully the resulting talks that I craft from the research will be accessible and informative. One book I can recommend is Sex Itself by Sarah Richardson. This is the history of the scientific quest for the origin of sex in the human body. Is it chromosomes, or hormones, or something more complicated? The book is an object lesson in how biological essentialism rooted in a desire to prove how different men and women are can lead to some very bad research. I particularly enjoyed the section on the 1970s panic over “XYY men”. Google it, there were some hilarious misunderstandings.

On to viewing then, and my first item is a live performance. In February I had the honor to spend a week looking after Stuart Milk of the Harvey Milk foundation. This meant that I had to ferry him to and from various public speaking engagements in local schools, colleges and so on; and occasionally share a platform with him. I do a fair amount of public speaking these days, so I know a bit about how it is done. Stuart is an absolute master at it. And his message is magnificent. I learned so much from watching him.

Later in the year Kevin and I made our first ever visit to Barcelona for the Spanish Eurocon. You know how everyone says that it is a really beautiful city, and the Gaudi architecture is jaw-dropping? They are right.

The cinema event of the year had to be the new Ghostbusters. It isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the premise is deeply silly. Also the theatre release has been cut to the bone to make it fit in under two hours. The extended edition on Blu Ray is a much more coherent movie. Having said that, it is a very knowing film. There’s all sorts of lovely meta stuff in it. Much of the time you are not laughing at the actual jokes, but because of how what they are doing riffs off some real world issue. And then there is Holtzmann, who can revive anything, given a big enough generator.

X-Men Apocalypse was also a somewhat confused movie, but meant a lot to me because I grew up on the comic. This was the first X-Men film that I felt had the Jean Grey of my childhood in it. Shame about poor Warren, but nothing’s perfect.

Captain America: Civil War had an almost impossible task living up to Winter Soldier. It didn’t fail too badly, despite the obvious issues of dealing with a huge ensemble cast of super people. There was enough fan service to keep me happy.

I was really nervous about Doctor Strange. That’s another comic I read all through my childhood. Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job portraying a rich, arrogant genius. The film hung together tolerably well too. However, all of the accusations of cultural insensitivity ring true. I’ve seen it said that they made The Ancient One a Westerner because of pressure from the Chinese government to not have a Tibetan in the film. Movie politics is so annoying. Thankfully the Cloak of Levitation stole the show. I will happily watch any movie with that cloak in it.

Meanwhile on TV I am still watching Supergirl and, thanks to the brilliant cross-over episode, have discovered The Flash. I’m disappointed that Cat Grant has been written out of the series, but I can quite see why, because she stole the show. As recompense in season 2 we have the Alex Danvers coming-out arc, which is just beautiful.

Finally back to real life. The other week I happened to be in London with some free time on just the right day. So I took myself along to the House of Commons to watch the first ever debate on trans rights. Back when I transitioned (in the previous century) trans people had no legal rights in the UK. When the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004 it was a question of how little could be done, and how difficult it could be made for us, for the government to comply with a judgement handed down by the European courts. To sit in the Public Gallery of the House of Commons and listen to MP after MP talk about how badly trans people are treated, and how the law needs to change to accommodate us, was a surreal and deeply moving experience.

As for music, it won’t surprise anyone to learn that I have been listening to a lot of Bowie and Prince this year. To lose one of them was a tragedy. To lose both in the same year is unthinkable. At Finncon this year I did a Bowie and Prince Memorial panel. Guest of Honor Cat Valente was kind enough to help out. I hope the Starman was proud of what us kids did.

I am of course biased in this, but I think the best Bowie tribute of the year was Strung Out On Heaven, the album put together by Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff. Amanda’s tribute show at The Proms was also fabulous.

For my radio show I don’t get to see much in the way of new music. However, I did my usual thing this year of helping out with the live coverage of Bristol Pride. Mostly the acts on the main stage sing over backing tracks. My interest picks up when I see someone carrying actual instruments. And wait, what’s this? Is that an all-girl rock band I see? Yes, it is. They are called IDestroy, they are a local band, and they are darn good. Here, have a listen.

Cheryl Morgan is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press. She blogs, reviews and podcasts regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings . Cheryl co-presents the Women’s Outlook show on Ujima Radio . In 2015 she was honoured to give a lecture on “Exploring Gender Fluidity through Science Fiction and Fantasy” at Liverpool University, available online here. Her work has appeared in Letters to Tiptree, The WisCon Chronicles, and elsewhere.

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