Monday, December 24, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 22: Cheryl Morgan

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening 2018
by Cheryl Morgan

I should start this year with viewing, because I have just returned from Austria, a country I have never visited before. I had been asked to give a keynote speech at a conference on science fiction worldbuilding at the University of Graz, and took the opportunity to see Vienna on my way. I loved both cities. Vienna is a riot of baroque architecture, museums, art gallerie,s and seemingly limitless supplies of cake. Graz, while much smaller, has Alpine cuteness and patches of medieval charm among the imposing imperial grandeur. It also has the biggest collection of medieval arms and armor in the world: enough to equip an army of 5,000 men.

My talk was on using Earthly examples as ways of thinking about how sex and gender might be different in alien species. Once we start to look at the creatures that share this planet with us, we quickly realize that heterosexual, cisgender nuclear families are anything but “natural.” My research for this involved reading two great books: Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden; and Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson.

There are two other nonfiction books I have read that relate to science fiction. Gods and Robots by Adrienne Mayor is an exploration of themes of artificial beings in the ancient world. Fans of Ray Harryhausen will remember the brass man, Talos, who is defeated by Jason and Argonauts. This is by no means the only example of artificial beings in ancient myth. There are even plausible stories of actual ancient automata. The ancient world also has several stories of people having sex with animated statues. These days sex robots are a reality. In Turned On, IT journalist Kate Devlin has produced a comprehensive survey of the field, from leading edge technology to the latest legal controversies. Inevitably she also covers science fiction: from Blade Runner to Westworld and beyond.

On now to fiction, of which there has been plenty as usual. Some of the highlights of my year, and apparently of many other people’s as well, have been Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente; The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley; Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse; Borne by Jeff VanderMeer; and Blackfish City by Sam Miller.

My local cohort in the South West of England continues to go from strength to strength. Emma Newman produced Before Mars, a fine continuation to the loose series begun with Planetfall, while Gareth L. Powell embarked on a fascinating new space opera series with Embers of War. This year I also read two debut science fiction novels by local woman writers. Everything About You is a cyberpunk thriller from Heather Child that postulates smartphones so capable that they can psychologically manipulate their owners. The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett is a character-driven novel that uses science fiction tropes to create the environment the author needs for her story.

Talking of debuts, I have been impressed by three new fantasy novels. Half-Witch by John Schoffstall takes some of the odder ideas about witches from European folklore, assumes they are all true, and runs with it. Even more off the wall is Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield in which a Hellmouth erupts in medieval France and the Queen of Hell comes forth with an army of demons that she offers to put at the service of the French king in return for land. I can’t resist a novel where a major plot point turns on a church court having to decide whether zombies have souls. Finally there is The Black God’s Drums, a wonderful steampunk novella by P. Djèlí Clark.

Novellas continue to set the market alight. My love for Murderbot is undying, and I am so pleased for Martha Wells whose career I have followed since The Death of the Necromancer. Other notable reads in this category include Time Was by Ian McDonald; In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard; and The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang.

Due to an essay acceptance for a book on Celtic influences in fantasy, I have been re-reading Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad books, specifically The Silver Branch and The Copper Crown. While my historian brain knows that much of the supposed Celticness in which the books are grounded was made up or misinterpreted by earlier scholars, my Welsh heart still thrills to the idea of a star-spanning Celtic civilization.

Finally, in fiction it would be remiss of me not to mention the one book that I published this year. The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E McKenna has been an amazing commercial success for Wizard’s Tower, and has by now probably outsold all of the other books I have published combined. As the publisher I am obviously biased, but Charles de Lint agrees with me about how wonderful the book is. Juliet totally deserves this success, and I’m delighted for her.

I haven’t read much in the way of graphic novels this year, but I have enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson’s foray into the Sandman universe with House of Whispers. I also highly recommend Conspiracy of Ravens from Leah Moore, John Reppion, and Sally Jane Thompson, which is perhaps best described as steampunk Sailor Moon set in an English girls’ school.

I was deeply unhappy with Marvel because Janet van Dyne did not feature in the movie version of their Avengers team. Of course the current wearer of the Wasp suit in Ant-Man and The Wasp is Janet’s daughter, Hope. However, the film did give us a guest appearance by Michelle Pfeiffer as Janet. If you have seen the film you will probably have noted Janet’s ability to be effortlessly glamorous and fashionable in any place at any time, even in the Quantum Realm. I’m convinced this is a secret mutant superpower that she has.

The latest Avengers movie, Infinity War, is perhaps most notable for the sheer audacity of Marvel in pulling such a stunt. Comics readers will know that being dead is usually a very temporary state for superheroes, especially if, like T’Challa, your next movie has already been announced. That didn’t stop people’s jaws dropping at the end of the film. And of course there has been endless speculation ever since as to how our heroes will get out of this mess. The replication of a comics crossover series as interlinked Hollywood movies is an amazing achievement.

My favorite film of the year is, of course, Black Panther. I was a huge fan of the Don McGregor run with the character back in the 1970s and I’m delighted to see T’Challa get a film of his own. The facts that the film is black-made and black-centered, and that it has so many great women characters, are very welcome bonuses.

In television Supergirl continues to impress. It is probably the most on-point political drama being broadcast at the moment. The presence of Nicole Maines, a trans actress, as the trans superhero character, Nia Null (aka Dreamer) is a very welcome bonus at a time when the US government is doing so much to roll back trans rights.

The highlight of my TV year, however, has been the new She-Ra. I’m too old to have watched the original series as a child, but I did catch it when it appeared on Netflix. Noelle Stevenson’s reboot is orders of magnitude better. I loved it so much I binged the entire season in a day. I’m amused that Swiftwind, despite his limited appearances, has all of the best lines. Though if he does achieve his ambition to liberate all of the horses in Bright Moon there may be a few feminist discussions about leadership of the herd.

As far as music goes, I was blown away by Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. As soon as I was able to get hold of the clean version I played the whole thing on my radio show. I was lucky enough to catch one of the Dresden Dolls gigs in London in October. And if harder-edged rock is more your thing, I recommend the British duo, REWS. Shauna lives in Bristol and I was delighted to get her on the radio. She and Collette are clearly destined to be big stars.

In podcasts the Galactic Suburbia crew have begun a read-through of Joanna Russ’s legendary How to Suppress Women’s Writing. If feminist ranting is your thing (and it is very much mine) this is perfect listening material. A very different feminist experience is provided by my friend Tamsin Clarke whose Naked Podcast does exactly what it says. Tamsin interviews women in the nude. All sorts of interesting conversations result.

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted some notable omissions from the fiction lists. Yes, once again I have been too busy to read everything I want to. Hopefully I will have a bit of time over the holidays to catch up. The books I am itching to read are The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera; European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss; and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. So I had better stop writing and get on with reading.

Cheryl Morgan blogs, reviews and podcasts regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings and Salon Futura. She is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press. Cheryl co-presents the Women’s Outlook show on Ujima Radio . She also lectures regularly on topics of queer history, including a 2018 talk(audio and slides) at Cambridge University on the evidence for transgender people in ancient Mesopotamia.

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