Quote of the Day

19 07 2010

In an effort to, you know, update this here blog more often, I’ve decided to post a quote of the day – something thought-provoking, or beautiful, or grotesque that I’ve found in what I’ve reading. Maybe it’ll spark interest in the book. Maybe it’ll spark discussion. But either way, it will help me remember that I have a blog to update.

Here is the first.

“But they can’t just go off into the wilderness,” said Luz, who had been listening to her thoughts as well as to her father’s words. “Who’d farm our fields?”

Her father ignored her question by repeating it, thus transforming a feminine expression of emotion into a masculine assessment of fact. “They can’t, of course, be allowed to start scattering like this. They provide necessary labor.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Eye of the Heron, p. 21

I like this. Luz (who is an educated woman in her early twenties) is in the process of figuring out her own economic and social privilege as she moves toward taking action (the cover blurb promised me action). She’s working her way through information, speaking up to her kingly father. And without missing a beat, he translates what she says – her feminine discourse (and it’s decidedly feminine, in this universe where City women are denied the right to participate in the power-structures of their community and men rule the world in a third-generation-removed parody of pageantry on earth) – into useful, authoritative masculine discourse. He re-expresses her thoughts as if they were his own, and takes credit for her insight.

I like this passage because in bold, obvious strokes, it demonstrates a couple of processes that happen much more often than one would think in our supposedly liberated twenty-first century world: the appropriation of subaltern speech and the way in which it is then re-interpreted and integrated into the dominant group’s power structures for their own purposes, and their own purposes only.

Needless to say, Luz and her father have quite different uses for this thought.





Help! I’ve been abducted by Atlantic Canadians!

27 06 2010

Salty Ink is an excellent blog on Atlantic Canadian writers and books by Newfoundland author Chad Pelley. He does make the dated and for the most part unnecessary distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, but his coverage is broad, thoughtful, and really gets into the meat of what’s great about Atlantic Canadian writing.

Right now he’s running Atlantic Canada Reads, in which a panel selected six reader-nominated books for a no-holds-barred fight to the death over which book every Atlantic Canadianone should read this summer.

So I’ve been a little distracted from reading SF!

The nominees are Lisa Moore’s February, a story about a woman whose husband dies in the ocean ranger disaster; Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco, a tale of the beauty and the ugliness of Newfoundland; Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing, in which a small island declares independence and hijinks ensue; George Elliot Clarke’s George and Rue, a stunning prose-poem about the last public execution in New Brunswick, the crime that led up to it, and the way racism perpetuates inequality and crime in a bigger-than-its-britches city; Darryl Whetter’s The Push and the Pull an antidote to the nostalgic pastoralism of too much Atlantic Canadian (or pseudo-Atlantic Canadian *ahem* The Shipping News) writing, about sex death and bicycling; and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, about an intersex child born in Labrador’s ultra-masculine fishing culture.

Blog-readers get two choices. Even then, what a dilemma!

I haven’t read any of the books nominated, but I have read Clarke’s Governor General’s Award-winning Execution Poems, and I’m tempted to vote for George & Rue on that basis alone. When Matt Stranach suggests that Execution Poems may be the best book of poetry ever produced by an Atlantic Canadian author, he is not exaggerating; Clarke’s writing is spectacular and the book is one of the most powerful works of Canadian literature I’ve read.

But the other nominators make strong cases as well. Lesley Choyce is a hugely prolific author who has produced nearly 50 works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in the past 30 years. I’ve read about a dozen of them, and I can’t say that I’m a fan of his style, but I’ve always had a soft spot for micronations. The Republic of Nothing is probably a fun, light read.

In a violent storm, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, killing all 84 men aboard. In his office, my dad has a piece of cream-coloured card, beautifully printed with the words Amateurs built the ark; professionals built the ocean ranger. A quick Google to find the source of the quote tells me that the real expression refers to the Titanic (another Atlantic Canadian shipwreck) and that it’s meant to encourage amateurs to trust themselves, to ignore accepted wisdom, and to take risks.

In an engineer’s office, I always took it as a reminder of the importance of humility, of professional responsibility, of the fact that every project touches lives. It was from that simple, letter-pressed card that I first learned of the Ocean Ranger disaster. February is perhaps particularly relevant in the wake of the more recent oil rig explosion off Louisiana.

The book sounds like everything that’s delectable about so-called literary fiction; vivid descriptions of the every day, events drawn so skillfully it becomes impossible to miss the layers, the resonance, the deep connections that give meaning to human life. It’s passion, tragedy and heartbreak that’s palpable. This story, of families spread apart by the need to find work, broken by disaster at sea (even today), could be representative of life in the region.

I’m curious about Kathleen Winter’s Annabel – dying to read it – but nervous about it as well. I wouldn’t vote this one the book everyone should read without having read it because I’ve read few novels written by cissexual, cisgendered authors dealing explicitly with gender, transgender and intersex, that aren’t sensationalizing and dehumanizing. Trawling reviews, I’ve read that Winter’s story is carried by the characters and avoids being political (hmm…), and that Annabel’s condition is a device to explore “more conventional issues.” It is dehumanizing and exploitative to use the body and experiences of a non-cis person as a device to explore cis understandings of gender and sexuality. The Globe & Mail‘s review of the book gives me hope, but this remains the one book of the six that I’m the most unsure about.

Thanks to Nicole Dixon’s lucid, concrete pitch, Darryl Whetter’sThe Push and the Pull is high on my to-read list. It sounds like Dixon and I are frustrated by much the same trends in Atlantic Canadian literature, and she’s really convinced me to give this one a try. As a cyclist and perpetual pedestrian, I sympathise with Andrew Day, the main character of this Halifax-to-Kingston cycling odyssey as he faces down “the consequences of our car culture.”

I prefer Whetter’s stories of educated women torn between heart, crotch and briefcase to outport Gran’s poultice recipe for the croup. – Nicole Dixon (Yes! – Ed.)

I’m finding Blackstrap Hawko a little difficult to grasp, because Perry Moore’s pitch for Kenneth J. Harvey’s 825 page behemoth talks a lot about Newfoundland, and what Newfoundland isn’t, but not a lot about what Blackstrap Hawko is. I know I want to read it, but I’m not sure why.

So this, Jessica Grant‘s delectable Come, Thou Tortoise, Farah Mendlesohn’s terrific, Hugo-nominated The Inter-galactic Playground, and an abortive attempt at reading Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love (does anyone want to talk to me about Bold as Love? Because it’s really not working for me and I’m feeling painfully un-hip over the whole thing) have kept me from my project. I’ll be back on track before long.





Why is there coffee on your planet?

18 06 2010

Recently I polished off C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen and Regenesis. Cyteen especially is delightful because Ari Emory is so smart and in control, in spite of raging teenage hormones; Ari gets PMS but is absolutely fit to rule. Still, it’s difficult not to find her socio-economic privilege overwhelming.

One of the markers of Ari’s privilege is that she can afford Earth things that are rare and very expensive on Cyteen. Coffee, a luxury good on an isolated space-base, costs 350 credits a kilo, and yet she and her cabal drink as much of it as we do here on Earth. As she moves Justin and Grant closer to her, to keep them safe and under her control, the quality of the coffee available to them in their office only increases. Here, coffee represents Ari’s wealth and power which she can use to get luxury goods from far across the universe.

In Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, the scientists and soldiers at Port Central drink coffee which came along with their supplies from Earth in addition to dap, which is “a local tea, (…) a mild stimulant, weaker than caffeine. It’s a common barter commodity, with (…) a standard value, rather like a currency.” By the end of the book, when the inhabitants of Jeep are finally cut off from Earth for good, they drink dap rather than coffee. Here, coffee represents both power, and attachment to Earth and its culture; no Earth, no coffee.

Coffee in science fiction is a thing; it turns up often. In a well-thought-out SF world, there will probably be an explanation of where that coffee came from. On Earth, a lot of people drink so much coffee that we forget that it’s a luxury good, that all coffee is not fair trade, and that even fair trade is far from adequate. There’s coffee on your planet, but what’s it doing there? How did it get there, and under what conditions?

I’m curious about other examples.





Does my science create or destroy: Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite

18 06 2010

Yesterday, I finished Nicola Griffith‘s Ammonite, which is a wonderful world-without-men story that tackles questions of inter-galactic colonization with greater sophistication than many other tales. This imperial project – to go forth and colonize the worlds, to take their resources for the powerful home planet, or company, or whatever – is a common trope in SF from right at the beginning of the genre and I don’t think I need to tell you how problematic it is.

Authors have tackled the problem over the years, turning to the exploration of culture and acknowledging the dignity of both sentient and non-sentient life on other planets, and using anthropologist characters as passionate cross-cultural interpreters. However, I find anthropologist characters, who treat other cultures as objects of knowledge rather than as equal thinking subjects, inherently suspect. This is why I find Griffith’s take on the subject so refreshing.

The story begins as Marghe, SEC (Settlement and Education Council) representative to the Durallium Company, prepares to descend to Grenchstom’s Planet (Jeep). Not long after Jeep had been rediscovered and the company – finding that this planet had the potential to be profitable – had landed its engineers, security, and SEC representative on the planet, they were infected by a virus that infected everyone on the mission and killed all the men. Marghe is being sent to the planet as a willing guinea pig to test a vaccine that could protect company employees from the virus and re-open Jeep to exploration and exploitation.

The Marghe of the beginning of the book is the typical ambitious, well-meaning, naively exploitative, curious anthropologist: six months on Jeep testing the FN-17 vaccine means “six months on a closed world to research a unique culture.” It’s “the most fabulous opportunity for an anthropologist since … since the nineteenth century.” The people of Jeep are secondary to Marghe’s pursuit of knowledge. From the beginning, wiser figures in her life offer her perspective, but Marghe, passionate scientist, perseveres. The vaccine could mean contact with this world, the opportunity to really share with its cultures, and to learn how they manage to reproduce without men! To give them the advantages of Earth and the opportunity to share what is wonderful about their way of life! Yes!

This won’t last long. Griffith introduces the parallel and the critique early:

Margue was tired. “Well, everything will be all right if the vaccine works.” She wished her head would stop hurting.
“All right for whom?”
“I don’t–”
“A vaccine is a counterweapon. it’s control. Imagine: mass vaccination of the women down there. If they need the virus to reproduce, then they’ll die.”
“You don’t know that they do.” Not even company would deal in genocide, would they? Hiam was paranoid, crazy. “You’re drunk.”
“Yes, I’m drunk. But not stupid. Loom me in the face and tell me SEC would stand up to Company on this.”
Marghe imagined her father, and what his opinion would be. Probably he would say nothing–just get up, search his bookshelves, pull down an old volume on the Trail of Tears and other, more systematic attempts at genocide, and hand it to her without comment.

Marghe did not know what to do with this information. She did not want to think about it. Her head hurt. She felt as though someone had been beating her with a thick stick.

That would be a clue-by-four.

Armed with her FN-17, Marghe descends upon Jeep, ignores the advice and attempts at building connection of pretty much everyone she meets, and marches off to the distant, dangerous Tehuantepec plain, because she is a Scientist, and she is Just That Awesome.

Oh Marghe.

The next several chapters involve some serious perspective-taking on Marghe’s part as the first people she encounters not only refuse to let her keep her artificial “impartial observer” perspective on their culture, but force her, with the threat of violence and death, to adopt their ways. “Change, or die,” as the jacket-blurb tells us. Marghe must abandon her beliefs, her knowledge, her culture, and even her status as a human being, in order to preserve her life. “You’re not mine to give away. You belong to the tribe,” Aoife tells her when Marghe asks for her freedom, reminding her that she is a possession. Marghe chooses death, and with another tribe, a more open tribe, is granted life.

As the story progresses, Marghe does change. She discovers the exigencies of the planet she is living on and eventually abandons the ways of Earth and Company, as Earth and Company abandon both her and the infected, women-only installation at Port Central. The structures of knowledge she brought with her to Jeep crumble and new structures develop as she begins life again, like a child.

In the end, Marghe is herself, human, and entirely different from what she was before – not a scientist, an observer, an Earthling, but a whole woman, a viajera of Jeep who teaches the residents of Port Central, the scientists and the soldiers, how to live without the support of the company. She does this not as a representative of Earth, but with her partner Thenike, as part of humanity on the planet, schooled in its ways and intimately implicated in its culture. She no longer tries to speak to or for Jeep and its residents, but with them.

Throughout her journey, Marghe suffers enormously physically and emotionally and emerges scarred and stronger. Her suffering and learning is the power and the lesson of this book: it is impossible to be an impartial observer of culture. To be a scientist of culture seems to be a noble task, but must be interrogated at its very roots. The scientist should ask, “Why am I here? What do I expect to gain from my encounter with this culture? What am I willing to give up, for this knowledge? What will this culture gain from my presence here? What will it lose? Really, setting aside immediate personal gain, does my science create or destroy?” and meditate long and seriously on his or her answers.

A culture other than your own is not inherently less or more, better or worse, and its people are not all the same. Every cultural encounter changes you, and the people you meet change by meeting you. Change hurts, even if it grants you a broader, fuller perspective. The new culture infects you, and like a virus – whether you wanted it or not – will not leave you. Change, like a virus, takes away even as it offers something in return. Is it worth the risk? And how?

This is the story, the beauty, and the complexity of Ammonite.





Diana Comet Presents… 75 Years of Fabulous Writers

17 06 2010

Diana Comet Presents is a wicked blog by Sandra McDonald, offering short biographies and notes on the great women of science fiction. Eye-opening for a newbie like me.

Best of all, she’s done a periodic table of science fiction writers. I’ve printed it off and am using it as a checklist; I just coloured in Nicola Griffith‘s square this morning, after I finished Ammonite (a wonderful book). Click here for a neat video pointing out different trends in the table, showing book covers, and sharing quirky bits of information about these writers.

I haven’t read Sandra’s new book, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, but having read her blog, I probably will.





The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and where does our food come from?

17 05 2010

Last night I stayed up until 3, long past my usual bedtime, reading. The book was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, which had come with raves from all around. A quick read, I was told, and I’m looking for quick reads because I intend to tackle C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen this month, and that thing’s a brick. A phone book. Somewhat intimidating.

The Hunger Games is set in a future North America organized into twelve districts, each responsible for the production of one type of resource required by the all-powerful Capitol. Each year, to remind the districts of its might, the Capitol requires a tribute from each district: one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who will participate in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised across the nation. Participants are selected by lottery, and both participation and viewing are mandatory. To all but one of the 24 tributes selected, the Hunger Games are a death sentence.

The story follows Katniss Everdeen, the tribute from District 12, the poorest district in Panem, from decision to volunteer to participate in the games in the place of her 12-year-old sister Prim, to the end of the games. She’s resilient, creative, and independent, and her adventures are a thrill to watch. Collins also subverts the typical YA romantic structure in delightful ways, and that’s a structure that, especially after Twilight, could do with some subversion.
Reading the book, I felt a little like I’d gone out to what I thought was a gourmet restaurant, only to be served family-oriented franchise fare. You know, the food isn’t bad, but it is disappointing? I’ll definitely look for the rest of the trilogy, but I won’t rave about it the way I rave about, say, Parable of the Sower. Am expecting too much of a YA novel?

The story follows the logic of a reality TV show and, while the action is intense, it provides as little explanation of the background of the world as a reality TV show does. Temptation Island is a place where people go to test the strength of their relationship for the entertainment of the audience back home. It doesn’t have a history, and we don’t expect it to have one. Every aspect of a potential future North America, on the other hand, should be shaped by its history and unfortunately, Collins doesn’t connect these threads very well. While there are brief explanations of how the Hunger Games came to be, Collins doesn’t really explore how contemporary North American society might devolve into such brutality.

An aspect of The Hunger Games which fascinated me was Katniss’s skills at hunting and foraging. These are skills that she learned both from her father, and from necessity; she lives in a district in which almost everyone is hungry, and had she not learned to hunt and forage, her family would not have survived.
The question of how to feed ourselves in a version of North America without factory farms, without grocery stores, has come up in several stories that I have read recently.

In Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olmina, worried about the brutal society in which she lives, teaches herself how to hunt, and how to prepare nutritious food from native plants and animals. The gates of the community in which she grows up, weak protection against the desperate hoardes outside, isolate them, and leave them vulnerable to siege.

While the adults cling desperately to memories of a society in which good food was easily available, Lauren is much more pragmatic. She knows that the gates will not protect her forever, and that her food sources cannot be merely man-made and controlled. Nature will be her saviour. Her philosophy of Change does not allow dependence on the illusion of stability provided by the food industry, whereas adaptability, and knowledge of ever-changing nature will allow her and her community to survive.

In Nalo Hopkison’s Brown Girl in the Ring, where rich folk have moved to the suburbs and don’t venture into anarchic inner-city Toronto (and those who remain can’t venture out, nor depend upon imports), there are wonderful community vegetable gardens which provide sustenance to Ti-Jeanne and her family. And in “A Habit of Waste,” the older gentleman lives on what he can hunt and gather within the city – edible plants which are treated as ornamental by those who get their food from shops – instead of the mediocre nutrition the foodbank provides him with (I’m having trouble digging up this reference as I’ve passed Skin Folk on to a friend, but I didn’t want to leave this story out). He forages within the urban environment.

In these stories, the characters do not rely on the food industry, because they cannot. While it feeds those of us who are in a position of privilege, it clearly (and yes, this is true in real life), does not look after those of us who are not.

In these stories, we’re not dealing with some misguided, romantic notion that the food of the past, when processed food was not readily available, was inherently better than what we’re eating now. This is a trap that is easy to fall into, as we mourn the loss of family farms, and look at the deplorable, inhumane conditions in factory farms and slaughter-houses, consider how exotic foods are trucked across vast distances to fill our bellies, worry about GMOs, hormones, and pesticides, listeriosis outbreaks, E. Coli, the earlier onset of puberty in female children, and all that sinister science lurking in our food supply. These are legitimate things to worry about; it’s scary, thinking about what we’re putting into our bodies.

But many of us need not look further than our own family histories, in which starvation was a frequent cause of death, to realize that the way we eat now, for all its flaws, is better than the way we ate then. No, in these stories, what Butler and Hopkinson, and even Collins are considering, is how we will survive if all of these structures that we have built for ourselves, to feed ourselves, which are imperfect and fragile, collapse. And the answer for most of us is probably not at all.
I haven’t figured out where I stand on this issue quite yet, what action to take, but I’m happy to keep exploring it.

Currently Reading: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison





Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

26 04 2010

I read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in anticipation of a trip to Seattle. Even though my Vancouver is still largely unexplored, my LP and I wanted to get out of the city and see something a bit different. Seattle promised good coffee, fascinating underground passageways, and, most importantly, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. With the Canadian dollar near parity, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to track down books I’d been having a rough time finding for my project.

(I wasn’t disappointed. Between trips to the Pike Place Market, the SFM, and a tour of Seattle’s underground, I tracked down Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles, Mystery and Mayhem, Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, James Tiptree Jr.’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon).

Like many cities, Seattle suffered a devastating fire in the 1800s. Seattle was a lumber town and as such, the original downtown was largely made of wood. After the fire, city officials decided that all future buildings must be made of fire-proof materials, and that the downtown streets, which had been built on a filled-in swamp and were prone to flooding, would be re-graded about a story higher.

The rebuilding of the streets was not a speedy project. It was inconceivable to shut down the city’s entire downtown core for the thirty years or so that the project would take, so the city did its best to work around existing businesses. Shop-owners opened their doors at the historic ground level, while workers built the new roads between high concrete retaining walls. To cross the street, residents had to climb wooden ladders up over the streets and down the other sides. When the streets were finished, the city built sidewalks, inlaid with glass skylights, over the now-underground streets and businesses began to move above ground. Pedestrians, however, continued to use the underground until 1907, when it was condemned because filthy and full of rats, it was the breeding ground for plague which was spreading throughout the city.

Now, visitors can tour the underground, and it has inspired plenty of eerie and fantastic tales. Much of the action in Boneshaker takes place in its dark, convenient passageways.

Boneshaker is a work of Steampunk*, which is a sub-genre of SF that has recently come to prominence. In some ways it is a way of reviving the heroes of the age of imperialism, the Extraordinary Gentleman and their un-named, but equally “enlightened” compatriots, and sending them on nostalgic adventures through an alternative modernity of clockwork and airships, promoting ideas that have long exceeded their best-before dates. I read Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en 80 jours at age seven with pure joy and fascination. What spirit, what determination, what Da Vinci-esque genius it took to invent wonderful machines and to pilot them around the world! But Verne’s ideas, his wonderful speculations, are the insights of the past. They teach us where we have come from, but no longer predict where we are going.

Since Verne’s time, technology has advanced, and hard-fought human-rights battles have complicated stories of adventure and discovery considerably. Steampunk, with its alternate history and its mad-scientist engineering, allows us to play in that gold-tinged adventure-world of yore, transforming the negative effects of the industrial revolution with its wonderful machines and the age of exploration with its treasures brought from afar on the lower-classes and on colonized peoples into a romantic aesthetic, and addressing issues of class, race, and gender only when expedient. It lets us ratchet the clock back, leaving our current social consciousness behind in the 21st century as we explore the 19th through nostalgia-tinged goggles. Steampunk is to the 19th century as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is to the Paris I grew up in.

In Boneshaker, we meet Briar Wilkes, whose husband Leviticus Blue, a mad inventor, built a machine that could mine gold from Alaska’s ice, padding the pockets of greedy Russian prospectors. Blue’s premature test of the Boneshaker machine has released a thick, yellow gas from the bowels of the earth. Anyone who breathes in this gas becomes the living dead, ever hungering for the flesh of the living. In response to this, the citizens of Seattle have built a near-impenetrable wall around the city’s core to contain the blight, and a life of poverty and misery continues in its outskirts. Ashamed that her now-dead husband brought about the destruction of the city, Briar avoids speaking of him if at all possible. This proves to have been a bad decision, when her teenaged son Ezekiel, sick of poverty and humiliation, sets out for the blighted city to resuscitate his father’s reputation.

Briar, knowing full-well what Zeke will find inside the city walls, cannot let him go to his death alone. She sets out after him, to catch him and bright him back to safety outside of the dank and filthy walls of downtown Seattle. Therein lies the plot of the story: Zeke runs off, Briar follows, they both meet quirky companions, some of whom are Good, some of whom are Evil, the GM rolls the dice and the story advances. There’s action, there are zombies, there are lengthy descriptions of unlikely steam-powered machines (Da Vinci’s machines were wonderful, but how few of them actually worked!), there are excuses to wear gas masks, and whenever Zeke or Briar faces a challenge, there is deus ex machina in a quirky Steamborg with just the right skills to save the day.

Boneshaker isn’t a bad book. Though the action is slow at first, it gains intensity as Zeke uncovers his family’s history and Briar’s quest leads her toward her son. But it is riddled with inconsistencies, rife with unexplained technologies that could not possibly work, and altogether uncritical in its approach to the material it tackles. Boneshaker is play, a dollhouse world populated by the tropes of yore, and having read it, I can’t say more than that it kept me mildly entertained for a few hours. I have yet to read any of the other books on this year’s Hugo ballot, but I do hope that they are stronger than this one, because if this one wins, it is a sad year for SF indeed.

* This is my still-in-development understanding of Steampunk based on the books and movies in the genre I have read and seen so far. I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise.