Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 19: Cynthia Ward

2016 in Review: Birthday Presidents, Mass Media, and Other Monsters
by Cynthia Ward

"He is the October Surprise!" (Radio and Film)

In 2016, it seems, I did not pick the best day for a birthday.  So far, I haven't figured out how to return my president-elect, er, present.  Suggestions welcome.

Despite my politics, I did not share the widely held liberal view that Trump would be defeated.  Once he won a primary, I began researching international moves and finding conversations with many of my fellow lefties maddening.  "Trump'll be taken out by an October surprise," one assured me.  Familiar with white voters' tendency to lie to look good and with black swan and grey swan events (9/11, stock market crashes, etc) --not to mention with history--I replied, "He is the October surprise!"  Those who do not learn history doom everyone to repeat it.

It was hard to be surprised when the media mentioned Trump about 60 times more often than any other presidential candidate, if not every other candidate combined. I like variety in news sources, but I rarely listen to commercial radio during election years, since a little logic translates to a lot of headache with every commercial break.  Still, I would've sworn there were a couple dozen other presidential candidates across 2016.  However, I literally couldn't tune in to a National Public Radio newsfeed without hearing discussion of or interviews with Trump voters (no graphic for NPR, but an aggregate of PBS candidate mentions may serve as a proxy. I finally flipped entirely over to the Internet feed for radical SoCal station KPFK and the Progress channel on SiriusXM.

On a related note, it was indeed truly, truly horrible about Hillary Clinton's e-mails--so horrible, I've only heard them mentioned once in the media (KPFK) since Election Day (I'm finishing this on 12/21/2016).

But I don't want only to gaze into the abyss of 2016.

Joe and I have just watched the '50s-set 2015 film Carol, which is based on a pseudonymously published novel by the late Patricia Highsmith:  the first-ever happy-ending lesbian romance, The Price of Salt . I read this 1952 novel in the 1990s, so my memories are hazy, but I suspect the pyrrhic victory of the movie's ending essentially recapitulates the novel's. I also suspect the book may be more ambiguous generally, given it's from the author of such disturbing modernist thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley et seq. Whatever the case, Carol is reasonably subtle and well worth a watch.

Recently, Joe and I revisited Suffragette (2015), that affecting if ultimately limited film about the British suffragist movement in the early 20th Century. I don't think it's unreasonable to make a movie about the transformation of a fictional young, white, heterosexual Englishwoman as she learns how the feminist movement intersects with her working-class concerns as a low-income wife, mother, and factory worker.  But I wish the film's creators had intruded such aspects of reality as the movement's racial and sexual diversity, or put the English-born Sikh princess, Sophia Duleep Singh, on the balcony with her fellow radical suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst (real women who deserve movies of their own, not that I'm holding my breath).

Earlier, we saw the acclaimed 2014 hit, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Why? we were left asking ourselves.  Why was it a hit?  The only thing we liked about this science fiction pic was the intelligent evolved tree, Groot, played--in, ironically, the only non-wooden portrayal--by action movie hero Vin Diesel.  Though not even present physically in the film, he brought nuance and sensitivity to his role, reminding me it's time to revisit his excellent early movie of shady stock salesmen, 2000's Boiler Room.

Still earlier, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), which is the best of the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back (1980), perhaps because it basically pastiches Empire and its 1977 prequel.  Regarding Han Solo, a seventysomething friend exclaimed in wonder, "A movie with an action hero my age!"  I similarly appreciated that they let Princess Leia Organa show her age, which is close to mine.  I also appreciated that the young woman co-lead, like Leia before her, got to enjoy competence and fighting abilities without intruding the cliché that "girls must be traumatized to gain agency."  I got a little statue of Rey to keep watch as I write.

 * * *

"For this disaster we will all be present" (Books)

At press time last year, I had not yet finished reading Star-Lord: Guardian of the Galaxy, the graphic novel collecting the Bronze Age (1970s-1980s) solo adventures of Peter Quill, the future leader of the subsequent Guardian of the Galaxy comics and movies.  Alas, what started out so promisingly degenerated into a patch of cheesecake costuming sufficient to make Red Sonja's chain-mail bikini look reasonable.  Eventually it dissolved like Jell-O crystals in generic bad writing about some other guy assuming Quill's role.

In other graphic novel reading, Marvel's controversially gender-flipped Thor: Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder proved disappointing, especially in light of Marvel's excellent race-flipped Hugo Award winner, Ms. Marvel: Volume 1: No Normal.  Thor as a woman is promising in concept, but not so much in a storyline devoted largely to fight scenes and concealing the identity of the new Thor from the old.  To be fair, I might've enjoyed The Goddess of Thunder more if I'd known what role the new deity's mortal identity plays in the Marvel Universe.  Alas, the Marvel Universe, like DC's, has proliferated far beyond the comprehension of any mortal who's not a fanatic with a photographic memory.

There's also some gender and ethnic (but not racial) flipping in the graphic novel DC Comics: Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, which combines female DC heroes and villains like Wonder Women, Catwoman (white comics version), etc, with Rosie the Riveter-inspired female variations on Batman, Superman, and other prominent male DC superheroes in a World War II setting.  Interesting, yes?  No.  While some of the changes (lesbian Bats, Soviet Supes) are promising, others are ridiculous.  That Batwoman's heiress alter ego is literally a professional "girl" baseball player isn't bad, per se…but she goes on to dress like one--complete with bat weapon--as a superhero (one can only assume sports fans in this alternate history are all blind or stupid).  John Constantine retains his male identity and biology…but as a rabbit.  More generally, the writer seemed to be losing the struggle with the concept.  Given these issues, I was unsurprised to learn this alt.WWII series is based on a line of collectible statuettes. Had I but known. Actually, I should've known to avoid any project which incorporates the annoying yet boring villainess Harley Quinn, who was apparently created only to provide unconvincing evidence the Joker is an allosexual het.

I re-read the uneven alternate-history graphic novel, Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons, after learning more about British suffrage.  The aggravating fate of Mrs. Pankhurst is not an event in our timeline, and not even necessary to trigger the GN's subsequent events, which include an alternate cause of World War I.  On the plus side, it's true many suffragists in our timeline learned martial arts.

In the interests of completing this post before the end of the century, I'm not going to discuss every book I read for research last year, but I'll mention a few titles which seem likely to interest Aqueduct Press readers:

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild (a history of the [mostly British] Left in the Great War; despite the subtitle, it covers earlier years as well)

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by the late Barbara A. Tuchman (lives up to the praise)

Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front by the late Mary Roberts Rinehart (personal account of the first and only visit by a woman war correspondent to the Western Front)

The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin (he interviewed the last U.S. WWI veterans, including a woman, before they were gone)

Testament of Youth by the late Vera Brittain (the self-unsparing memoir of the feminist author, skeptic, and WWI nurse, and the basis of the rather different but also excellent recent movie)

Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics by Kathryn Atwood (aimed I suspect at YA readers, this is a good starting place for learning about some remarkable women rarely remarked on in the histories)

Three of my research reads I want to discuss more fully.

West With the Night is the 1942 memoir of Beryl Markham, the Kenya-born, partially indigenous-raised British aviatrix, bush pilot, and racehorse trainer who became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.  Written in beautiful prose envied by Hemingway, this matter-of-fact recounting of a remarkable life makes me appreciate memoirs which are not tell-all.  It also left me wondering if Circling the Sun, Paula McLain's smoothly written but almost piloting-free 2016 novel about Markham, which centers on needy romantic interactions with Denys Finch-Hatton and Baron Blixen, had anything to do with Markham's personal life. I hope not.

A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, is a fascinating and well-researched cross between an encyclopedia and an almanac.  As you've probably deduced, this reference work is centered on all things Holmesian--a broader subject than you might think.  The entries are arranged by date, letting you read a timely entry every day and not feel intimidated by the impressive whole.  While this oversized 352-page softcover is not inexpensive ($34.95), it would make a wonderful gift for anyone who loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, enjoys either of the current TV series, or has a general interest in Victoriana, British mysteries, or steampunk.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, the British journalist Anita Anand's first book, is the fascinating biography of the above-mentioned Sikh princess, Sophia Duleep Singh. A goddaughter of Queen Victoria, the tri-racial radical suffragist simultaneously experienced great power and absolute powerlessness, which must have caused her much frustration (surely it contributed to the stretches of deep depression).  As one would hope, the work intersects meaningfully with British and Indian history.  It also presents captivating if inevitably too-brief glimpses of Sophia's parents, ancestors, and full and half siblings.  I hope Ms. Anand is overwhelmed by the desire to write a biography about Sophia's intriguing fellow feminist and beloved big sister, Catherine Duleep Singh, who was unique in their family in finding a happy relationship, a life-long partnership with a German woman.

Researching late 19th-early 20th Century European history brushed me against three noteworthy novels.  One is Mary Robinette Kowal's 2016 alternate history of WWI, Ghost Talkers, in which Allied spiritualists can communicate with the new war dead for intelligence purposes…unless the Germans figure it out.  Another is the late British author Radclyffe Hall's uneven, decades-spanning 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, in which the woman writer protagonist serves in WWI as a volunteer ambulance driver. I also read The Friendly Young Ladies (sometime U.S. title, The Middle Mist), a 1943 work of contemporary fiction by the late Mary Renault, a British author better known for her brilliant novels of ancient Greece. Like Hall's book, The Friendly Young Ladies is a novel about a woman novelist. Renault's look at bohemian 1930s London is considerably stronger and less melodramatic (and, I would say, more mean-spirited) than Hall's title, but both books' central lesbian romances make it clear why The Price of Salt was so radical when it appeared.

I could've, given its time period, but I didn't read the new, feminist alternate history of the Belgian Congo, Everfair, because it's set in my current era of research.  I read it because I know Nisi Shawl is a great writer, and I knew it would be a great novel.  I'm right, but since I'm her Writing the Other collaborator and her friend, you may deduce I'm biased.  You can check out the reviews, though. They agree with me.

When I left the 19th-20th Centuries it was for Georgette Heyer's Regency romance novel, The Corinthian.  It's a witty mix of assumed identities, jewel thieves, cross-dressing, lies, and murder, with a plot so intricate, I frankly cannot tell you if it makes sense.  I can tell you it was a most diverting and entertaining read, which was useful in the immediate aftermath of Election Day.

The Corinthian reminded me I love Ellen Kushner's Regency-inspired, largely fantasy-free Riverside fantasy novels.  Happily, Kushner and several collaborators have released a new one--or two.  They're serial novels, and the sequel's chapters haven't all been released yet.  I'm just getting started on the second sequence, but I quite enjoyed Tremontaine: The Complete Season One by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, and Patty Bryant.  Sex, swordplay, scandals, secrets, intersectionality, chocolate, wit--what's not to like?

Another fantasy of manners a la Heyer is Zen Cho's impressive debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. It concerns a scandalous development in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, by which I don't refer to the failing of magic as the threat of Napoleon rises.  I mean the society's new leader is a freed slave.  Furthermore, he seems not entirely opposed to magic by women!  I daresay you'll want to see what develops, shocking as it must prove.

In a far different mode, I re-read a few cyberpunk classics.  Interesting, the difference time makes in perception. William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) seemed so diverse when I read it in the 1980s. Richard Kadrey's Metrophage (1988) didn't seem so much like a pastiche. Chairman Bruce's exhortations against effete, decaying older forms of science fiction didn't seem like a rejection of 1970s feminist SF. But you can have feminist cyberpunk, and you don't need a new wave of cyberpunk writers to get it. You can read the Queen of Cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan.  Good entry points for this past WisCon guest of honor's science fiction, fantasy, and horror are her excellent collections, Patterns (1989) and Dirty Work (1993).

Speaking of feminist science fiction, you'll find a fine example of feminist first-contact SF in 2015's The Weave, the debut novel by Nancy Jane Moore.  In contrast to many other tales of Earthlings on a new world, this diverse work thoughtfully explores alternatives to exploitation. It also offers an exploration of gender unique in my experience.

Neither highly feminist nor highly diverse at this juncture are the two issues of old-school Weird revivalist magazines I read last year, Skelos #1 (2016) and Weirdbook #31 (2015).  This doesn't surprise me overmuch; I grew up with Weird and pulp speculative fiction as my preferred reading material, and, as far as I can tell, such subgenres are where hard-boiled detective fiction was when women, PoC, and queer authors began transforming it in the 1980s and 1990s:  heavily white, cis, het, and male in authors and characters.  I know at least one editor involved in these projects pursues diversification, so I expect to see a broadening of contributors and characters going forward.

While I don't foresee Aqueduct Press fans stampeding to acquire the 'zines I've mentioned, Skelos #1 does include an article of feminist interest:  Nicole Emmelhainz's "Blades:  C.L. Moore and the Gender Dynamics of Sword and Sorcery."  I was particularly intrigued by her exploration of an idea new to me, which is that "in the imaginary worlds of the best sword and sorcery, gender becomes a strategic performance rather than an essential source of identity."  I've always assumed my teenage immersion in sword and sorcery, sword and planet, and other forms of adventure spec-fic contributed to my nascent development as a feminist largely in a negative manner, by annoying me with sexist clichés; this suggests the subgenres played an important positive role, as well.

For The Cascadia Subduction Zone  I've most recently reviewed Hugo Award winner David D. Levine's diverting debut novel, Arabella of Mars, which blends elements of Heyer with clockpunk, Patrick O'Brian, and the interplanetary romance (although if you go in expecting Jane Carter of Mars, as some promotional material suggests, you will be unpleasantly surprised).  My review is available, along with other nonfiction, poems, and art from divers hands, in this free downloadable issue of CSZ.

Most recently I've read the multi-genre writer Tade Thompson's excellent new book, Rosewater, which provides the quote that opens this section.  This second novel moves Thompson to book-length science fiction, but retains many of the successful suspense elements of his West Africa-set debut novel, 2015's Making Wolf (which I discussed last year). Rosewater is the second "first contact" novel out of the three I've read lately that takes place in Nigeria, but that's almost the only thing Rosewater has in common with Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon (also discussed last year). Rosewater is thoughtful and compelling--and, I fear, prescient.  It's another demonstration of what a powerful and important writer Thompson is.

Up next:  Black Panther: Marvel Masterworks Volume 1, collecting the ground-breaking comics about the titular black African superhero originally published in Jungle Action (1972-1976), from the Bronze Age greats Donald McGregor (writer) and Rich Buckler (artist), and Marvel Comics' best-selling graphic novel of 2016, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Volume 1, written by MacArthur Genius Grant and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by long-time sequential artist Brian Stelfreeze.

Cynthia Ward has sold stories to Asimov's SF, Shattered Prism , Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications , she edited the diversity themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West V.1-2. She has a pair of reprint anthologies forthcoming in collaboration with the eminent editor, Charles G. Waugh , the first science fiction professional she ever met.  With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach . Her short novel, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, is forthcoming in 2017  from Aqueduct Press .

No comments: