Mockingbird by Sean Stewart

I read Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird about a year ago, and here is a slightly revised version of some thoughts I posted in my LJ last year. It’s a very good book, female without having any of the annoying chicklitness, such as obsession over men — ok, there’s some. It actually fits nicely into some of the frequent blogosphere discussions about male writers writing female characters and vice versa (even though I would argue that female writers tend to do a better job of it, simply due to the fact that male viewpoint is a cultural default and women are familiar with it. Women, however, are frequently presented as mysterious other – e.g., “what do women want?”). Sean Stewart nonetheless writes his female characters extremely well. The book is excellent for many other reasons, but I will focus on the protagonist just becaue this is what especially impressed me.

The heroine, Toni, is not pretty — moreover, she REALLY is not pretty. None of that coy nonsense which is so irritating in fantasy, where the heroine is said to be not beautiful because her waist is too small, her boobs are too big and there’s a mole on her cheek. Toni has actual flaws. She does obsess over men some — but only after she gets pregnant (artificial insemination); due to her actuarial background she decides to find a guy to marry because kids do better in two-parent households. Stats play a bigger part in her life than emotion; yet, she can be hateful and mean. She tries her best and she is likeable; yet, the relationship with her sister is actually complex. And she is occasionally possessed by gods. So, good stuff.

I liked how Stewart writes her as an individual yet does not discount that being a woman informs her choices and her life; he wallows in the physiological grossness of pregnancy, he does a good job conveying how clueless Toni is about dating and sex. And all of it is believable.

Then there’s Candy, Toni’s sister, who is pretty and happy and rather desperately looking for autonomy from her (dead) mother and older sister, and she finds her liberation in sex. There’s a great scene where she shows Toni her stash of porn mags, some of which depict some heavy BDSM stuff. And she says (I’m paraphrasing) that some men just hate women — enough to really hurt them. And this is where I sat up a bit and thought, oh really? It took BDSM to clue you in? Because really, there are so many more pervasive forms of domination than BDSM. For example, the whole marketing illusion of empowerment, such as wearing a tight pink tanktop that proclaims ‘I hit boys!’ or some other inanity, this pretend strength while still remaining an object. This, after some reflection, is the problem I have with so many fantasy heroines — this repackaging of submission to the oppressive norm as something positive.

Sean Stewart actually does very well in that regard — I’m even willing to play along when Toni goes hunting for a husband with a new $600 jacket. She knows the rules of submission and she is very clear-headed about it — and that’s another thing. Submission can be necessary for a variety of reasons. It’s only when it is disguised as rebellion and freedom that it gets squicky. And doubly so when it is being sold in a shiny packaging that says ‘strong woman!’ on it.

The Mount by Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller is probably one of the most consistently great and underrated writers ever. I haven’t yet read anything by her that I didn’t like. The Mount is no exception — it is a gentle story of an alien invasion and human servitude, and it is delightful and funny and heartbreaking. The alien overlords (the Hoots) in this case think that they are benign — they are weak (with the exception of their giant strong hands); they rely on humans for transportation and quite literally breed them like horses:

“We’re not against you, we’re for. In fact we’re built for you and you for us – we, so our weak little legs will dangle on your chest and our tail down the back. Exactly as you so often transport your own young when they are weak and small. It’s a joy. Just like a mother-walk.

You’ll be free. You’ll have a pillow. You’ll have a water faucet and a bookcase. We’ll pat you if you do things fast enough and don’t play hard to catch. We’ll rub your legs and soak your feet.”

The protagonist is Charley (aka Smiley), a descendant of a long line of prize-winning Seattles (a racing breed of humans), and he is mostly interested in being a good mount to his host, and in winning races. Things, however, are changing.

It is a wonderful story in that it avoids easy answers — for example, it doesn’t position the Hoots as universally bad. Charley’s bond with his host turns out to be not just a shortcoming on his part, and saying anymore would be giving away too much of a delightful plot. What struck me about this book though is not just the obvious comparison between humans and horses, but also the fact that the Hoots treat all humans with love and yet this love is by its very nature restrictive and abusive. Humans are adored, spoiled, complimented, and objectified. One cannot help but consider that this is very much the way humanity is treating women.

It is simultaneously funny and enraging and oh so recognizable, the way Hoots treat people: you are so beautiful, we love you, we are nothing without you, now go back to your stable or you will be beaten. It is difficult not to recognize this dynamics, the same play of every abusive relationship. It is difficult not to fall under the spell of this prose:

“Your young will stay with their mothers until weaning. We’ll stroke them all over to make them love us. Four months is the crucial time for imprinting you predators. And your young do love us. You all do. We’re the ones with the treats. Leather straps will help keep you in line and help us keep our seat. There will sometimes be prickers on our toes. How and if these are used, and when, depends, of course, on you.”

Chilling, isn’t it? And yet, there is such loveliness against the terror, such a kind and humorous observer, that this one of the most sympathetic and endearing books I’ve read lately.

The Traitor by Michael Cisco

OK, so the next three posts will be about underrated writers and their books. These are not meant as any sort of scientific or comprehensive or even well-considered reviews; rather, they are the last three books I’ve read and felt that I should’ve been informed of their existence long before, and that all of them belong on every self-respecting bookshelf. All three are published by independent presses and all three are still in print, so you should totally buy those books and read them and love them to bits. Or buy them at the very least. So, here in order are some thoughts on Michael Cisco’s The Traitor (Prime Books), Carol Ermshwiller’s The Mount (Small Beer Press), and Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird (Small Beer Press).

The most recent read has been Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, a truly remarkable book that really ought to be recognized for various awards. Of course, it is simply not widely enough read for, say, a Hugo, but juried awards (WFA, for example) should pay attention. Anyway, on to the book. The plot is simultaneously simple and muddled — a spirit-eater named Nophtha follows a spirit-eater cum soul-burner named Wite, and becomes a disciple and a witness to Wite’s transformation; the book itself is a sort of gospel written by captive Nophtha. The interesting part is that in this case Wite’s message is pretty much unknown — he has achieved a sort of afterlife but through means which are not exactly sympathetic. It is the gospel without a Jesus and written by Judas, if one were to rely on Christian analogy, which doesn’t quite do the book justice.

As far as the book itself, it is narrated in an overpowering and yet flat voice, and is a handy demonstration to whip out every time someone fresh from a writing workshop starts talking to you about the necessity of characterization or plot or dialog or description or any of these things. Cisco’s narrator is so alien as to minimize the reader’s ability to relate to him, and he recites a series of events mixed with his memories and thoughts in a flat manner — and it really has no right to be so hypnotic, but it is. A part of the appeal is undoubtedly due to the very effective dreamlike imagery, and Cisco doesn’t make a common mistake of making it comprehensible. Consider this passage:

“I stood among them and the tombs, which were all covered with carvings of their faces and with dust, and I heard nothing but quiet and spiders. Sometimes it would rain outside and the water might trickle in. Occasionally the door would open for another one, who would enter head first and on the back. I could see thick stone columns and the tombs very faintly from the light that shone under the door. I heard footsteps coming very faintly near. Then they were close, heavy, and uneven. I saw a shadow appear in the strip of light under the door, all but blocking it totally — the door began crashing in its frame as whatever it was on the other side was battering it and I knew that the door would give way and something insanely violent will come bursting through.”

It perfectly captures the visual and yet nonsensical quality of dreams, the paralyzing terror, the fluidity of the imagery and scenery. And the entire book reads like this, like a fevered dream, and it is completely unlike everything else out there. This is the sort of prose that makes you almost ill and out of your head with its strangeness and intensity, and it is the sort of book that will stay with you for a long time.

What makes you stop reading a review?

Once again there’s a conversation in the reviewing blogosphere (via OF Blog of the Fallen) of whether the online reviews ought to conform to some standards. Which is a perfectly reasonable conversation to have, considering that we all expect different things from reviews. I do an occasional informal write up of a book or two, but I do not call them reviews mostly because they lack rigor – it’s just some thoughts that occur to me after reading, and I feel free to limit myself to talking only about certain aspects of a book or not do plot summary or whatever. However, once someone claims that what they are doing is a proper review, it seems to me that there are some things that would be best avoided. I am talking as a reader here, not a writer, and about other people’s books, not mine. Yes, I read review blogs looking for reading material. What follows is the list of statements that make me personally discount the entire review as invalid; your triggers may vary.

1. “Pretentious” – Hal Duncan and many others discussed the meaning of this epithet in great detail. However, to me it means one thing: a reviewer’s inability to differentiate between auctorial intent and the reviewer’s impression of said intent. It is a useless descriptor that only shows me that the reviewer is not a very good one.

2. “Style over substance” – the assumption here is that style is separate from a story, and that an artless narration of exciting events is somehow superior to complex language; a strange belief that language in literature is commonly used to obfuscate and not much else.

3. “Agenda story” – all stories are agenda stories; it’s just some agendas we tend to agree with or are used to. Tolkien wrote agenda stories. If the reviewer sees Tehanu but not Lord of the Rings as an agenda story, they have blinders on.

4. “Attempt to be PC” – look, if the reviewer can think of no reason to put women/protagonists of color/religious minorities in a story besides pacifying some imaginary PC police, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world feels the same way.

5. “I expected X but instead it was Y” – while a reviewer’s expectations are important to them, they are not important to me. Not to mention, that people usually form expectations based on other people’s reviews; penalizing the writer for someone else’s review giving you a wrong impression is silly.

6. Confusing opinion with fact – such as overlooking something present in text and then arguing that your interpretation is just as valid as someone else’s. Sorry, but there are objectively existing things, and saying that it’s all opinion rather misses the point – for example, one cannot very well avoid the eugenics subtext in Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, even if one prefers to pretend it’s not really there.

Well, that’s about it. What things annoy you in reviews?

Hello and Shared Worlds

Hello everyone. I am Ekaterina (Kathy) Sedia, and I’m here to guest-blog this week. For my first post, I’ve decided to talk about my recent trip to South Carolina, to the Shared World Workshop, of which Jeff is an assistant director.

My trip started in Philadelphia, where the plane took me to Memphis. I would complain about this detour, but thankfully Memphis airport is rich in barbeque. Also, popping off into another time zone just to change planes felt especially… quaint. The plane was delayed, and I arrived to the world’s smallest international airport of Greenville/Spartanburg at midnight. Our valiant host, Mr. VanderMeer, was awake enough to drive me to the hotel and then go in search of beer. Cigars he brought with him.

I was miraculously awake the next morning early enough to teach my workshop, dealing with representations of non-Western cultures in fantasy and science fiction, and how those kinds of things relate to worldbuilding. Basically, I talked about the predominant whiteness of both fantasy and SF, secondary or primary world, about monolithic cultures, about behaviors codified into every single member of culture as if it were genetic. My sense of it is that no matter where you look, OTHER cultures appear monolithic from a distance, but your own, the one you know up close, is full of diversity and lacunae and fissures in which non-dominant groups – cultural, ethnic, religious – live. The trick is to look at other cultures close enough to see the same variety you know in your own.

The class was really great — 22 kids between 13 and 16 yers old, all bright and interested and engaged in geekery. It was really more fun that it had any right to be, and in the second hour I asked them to develop a minority culture/subculture for the world they have been already building for some time before I got there. Their worlds were elaborate and fanciful, and they thankfully avoided any warrior people and simple holy people. I just wish I had more time to talk about reasons behind religions and rituals and behaviors, of how peoples make sense of the world and fit into it.

One of the interesting things about these kids — which are really the next generation of spec fic writers — is that to them multiculturalism is a default, and they are influenced by media produced in other countries (especially Japan) to a great extent. Another endearing thing was that they were already developing cultures based on China and India. I also liked that not everyone there wanted to be writers — there were aspiring artists and game designers, all the kinds of people who can actually use some worldbuilding skills and team work. Yay for youthful enthusiasm!

Another highlight, of course, was getting to hang out with Jeff. There is always that fear when meeting someone whose work you have admired for years — are they going to be interesting in person? Will they turn out to be unbearable? In this case, the answers are respectively yes and no. Plus, you know, beer and cigars.

Random discoveries in Spartanburg:

1) I can live in any town with beer and sushi restaurants.
2) If two genre writers get lost in a strange town and contemplate their possible demise, they will wonder what sort of Locus Blinks will their injuries generate. (Dear Locus: If anything happens to me, please refer to me as a ‘literary fantasist’. Thanks!)
3) Spartanburg’s Mariott’s lobby is decorated by sculptures of South Carolina natives who won various beauty pageants, and those dead-looking women in glass cases are creepy.
4) Parking lots can be relaxing places to sit and shoot the breeze. All you need is beer and cigars.

There was also a reading in which Jeff gave a hilarious talk about the intrusion of mayfly squid from the literary to real realms (and the readers of this blog are probably familiar with some of the story), and plenty of other pleasant moment that convinced me that I would like to go back next year. Seriously, if you have children between 8 and 12th grade, send them. Writers, if you get invited — go.

Finally, what to expect this week: some blathering about three very underrated writers and their books, some contemplation of things that do not belong in reviews, and olfactory descriptions and how not to do them. I am looking at you, Journey!

Ekaterina Sedia: Guest-blogging at Ecstatic Days (Aug. 4-8)

I’m very pleased to introduce Ekaterina Sedia as this week’s guest blogger on Ecstatic Days. Ekaterina Sedia was born and raised in Moscow, where her parents and the rest of the family still reside. She teaches botany and plant ecology at a state liberal arts college, gardens, and writes books. Her last novel, The Secret History of Moscow, received extensive praise from the LA Times and Neil Gaiman, among others. The new novel, which has some steampunk elements, is The Alchemy of Stone, to be published this month. My short stories sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies. Sedia was a guest lecturer at Wofford College’s Shared Worlds workshop recently, and I got to check out her writing journal:

That’s All Folks

Well, that’s my week blogging for Jeff. It went by so fast!

If you liked what you read, come on over to my blog at yuki-onna.livejournal.com, where I do this sort of thing all the time.

Or check out my fantasy series The Orphan’s Tales, or even better, my new urban fantasy, (meaning fantasy in a city, not a girl with a tattoo and a werewolf boyfriend), Palimpsest, out in February. There’s also my cyberfunded art experiment, The Omikuji Project. Many, many ways to skin a Cat.

Thanks for all your wonderful comments!

How SF Prepared Me for THE FUTURE

I was listening to the radio the other day, and they were very sternly reporting on drug violations at the Olympics, and how the Russian world-record holder in short-distance running might have to return her medal for using performance enhancing drugs.

My reaction? GO TEAM CYBORG!

This is my reaction to a lot of things. As a child of science fiction, hungrily devouring every story about what humans could be, I don’t worry too much about a lot of the things that seem to get the world all het up. I was prepared for the internet long before it showed up in my dad’s house because I read William Gibson and Vernor Vinge and I knew what to do with a Worldnet when I got one: jump into it with love, devotion, and both feet. And, you know, use it to watch porn.

SF raised me, and I think it did a damn fine job. It at least removed a lot of potential sources of anxiety.

I think all athletes should be able to take drugs if they want to, and also have cybernetic enhancements. They should be able to change and use their body however they like, to whatever extreme–let’s mod this fucker and see what it can really do!

I don’t worry too much about bio-proteins grown in vats. Yes, it will taste like crap. Everything in the future tastes like crap! It’s how you know you’re in the future! If it’s not grey and amporphous and vaguely morally alarming, it doesn’t belong in your face.

I don’t worry about stem-cell research. Yes, the government will try to stop it. They will fail. Yes, we will end up a race of mutants who have forgotten what it’s like to be human. It’s gonna be awesome! I’m gonna get a tail, and regenerating limbs, and gills. And all kinds of vibrating attachments so I can finally obey my spam and GIVE HER WHAT SHE WANTS. I can’t wait!

I don’t worry that machines will replace man–they totally will. I for one…you know the drill. We are going to be living down and dirty and close with garage-level AI and it is going to be so fabulous I can’t even tell you. Yes, they will probably imprison us and use us for fuel/fodder/whatever. They’ll get over it. Kids are like that. What did you do in the backyard when no one was looking when you were a kid? You just wait, we’re gonna be playing doctor with the robots in no time.

I don’t worry too much about the growing dystopian fascism, either. Yes, the government does listen to everything. Of course they do! I mean, come on. It’s kind of funny. It’s as if our government read all the dystopian SF ever and said to themselves: “These are fantastic ideas! Who can we get to implement these?” But! I’ve read the same books. Therefore, I know that dystopia is survivable and temporary, especially if run by a repressive religious nut, that there is always an underground, that Shakespeare can save me, that the human soul is essentially untouchable, and that if you can say one thing for oppressive dystopias, it’s that they usually have some pretty bitchin’ drugs.

I don’t worry about drugs. Hack your body, kids. Just learn to recognize malware.

I don’t worry about global warming. Yes, we will probably be forced to live underground and slowly forget that there ever was a surface world. We will be nameless cogs in a post-industrial nightmare. But the point is I’m ready for that. I have an awesome dog, after all. And free love in the bowels of the earth will probably make up lack of vitamin D, and the architecture down there is worth the trip alone. We’ll come out again, we always do.

Because really, what SF taught me was that we will always survive. There is nothing which is not survivable, nothing to which I, 21st century human female, cannot adapt. There is nothing in which I cannot find beauty, joy, rapture. The world will always change. I will always change. It’s ok.

Science fiction will save us.