“How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade” by Nick Poniatowski

19 07 2010

I read short fiction, too.

How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade by Nick Poniatowski is a sweet, smoothly crafted, heartbreaking fantasy about what it’s like to be queer (in both senses of the word) and smart in junior high school. It’s about those silly assignments teachers make you do and the dream (which I’m sure every bright kid has) of doing work that has real value, even if no one recognizes it.

I call it fantasy, because there’s a lot about what happens in this story that isn’t quite believable. Why would an alien ship lurk in the Earth’s atmosphere, ignoring every attempt at communication but that of a lonely seventh grader with a model rocket? Were they on safari? Poniatowski leaves that up to the reader’s imagination, and thinking of a plausible explanation takes more than a little imaginative yoga. But the story has deep emotional resonance, and I suspect that many readers who spent the ’90s watching the x-files and dreaming of something better will find a lot to relate to in Ashley and Tyler, and this slice of junior high.

Either way, “How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade” is a compassionate story well worth the read. You can find it at Strange Horizons.


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.

In which I discover Pamela Sargent, and a bookstore you should check out

18 07 2010

Well, Pamela Sargent’s Starshadows: Ten Stories was a little disappointing: bleak stories of doomed humanity, skirting daring statements and ideas, but never quite making them. It deals with all the important topics – the role of technology in society, social inequality and privilege, colonialism, crime, poverty, violence, extreme environmental degradation – but lacks the punch to truly make the ideas convincing. The blurbs on the back of the book and the introduction all speak of “potential,” so I’m assuming that Sargent developed considerably as an author after the publication of these stories. I have The Golden Space and a couple of Women of Wonder collections in the queue, so I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve made it through those.

Image of the cover of Pamela Sargent's Starshadows

“Clone Sister” presents an interesting family, but its understanding of cloning is all muddled. “Gather Blue Roses,” which tells of a hyperempathetic Jewish character whose mother survived the Nazi camps, shows a lot of possibility, but stops before it gathers any depth. “Oasis,” explores what another hyperempathetic character, driven to the brink by others’ pain, might do to escape his own suffering but is little more than shocking. And “If I ever should leave you” reminded me of The Time Traveler’s Wife (which was Dr. Who fanfiction y/n?) with a lot less romance novel and a lot more darkness.

“IMT” was a favourite of mine because (no, I don’t mind admitting it) I’m a bit of a transit geek. The idea, here, is that the city of New York has in hand the plans for a teleportation-based public transit system, the eponymous IMT, that would solve its transportation woes. City manager Lisa Fernandez isn’t ready to reveal and implement the plan yet, but Joe Taglia, the head of the transportation research group, forces her hand. This move, rather than resulting in the immediate implementation of city-wide commuter teleportation, ends up revealing Lisa’s real concerns with and ambitions for the IMT, which extend to the structure and daily movements of society as a whole. In a way, it’s suburbia taken to its logical extreme, but it’s a striking idea nonetheless.

In the title(ish) story, “Shadows,” aliens invade the earth to save its inhabitants, to bring them enlightenment and eternal life among the stars. The earthlings don’t understand, are horrified by the loss of their homes, by their relocation to domed huts, by the forced and seeming pointless labour that the aliens make them do, and conspire and rebel against their captors. The aliens lash out at the rebels, killing them for their disobedience, then mourn those who have died. It seems a fairly obvious metaphor for the furious colonialism of the so-called Age of Discovery and, intergalactic expansion and colonization being a common theme in science fiction, particularly apt. What makes this story particularly interesting is that the earthlings never do mount a successful rebellion, the focus-character almost willingly gives in to the aliens’ religion, and the author never explicitly condemns the aliens actions. She leaves this up to the reader to do.

View of fields, lake and hills from Mission Hill winery in the Okanagan Valley

It’s been a while since I’ve had an update. I was in heartstoppingly spectacular Kelowna for several days, and I’ve been busy with various commitments since. It’s difficult to blog, having fallen out of the groove. In Kelowna, I worked my way through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles, Mystery and Mayhem. I’m always a little uncomfortable with Bujold’s work – there’s always something that doesn’t ring quite right – but her books are so addictive and fun. In Ethan of Athos, her manic hero, Miles Vorkosigan, doesn’t appear as anything more than a name dropped, which was pleasant because love and admire him though I may, Miles, with his boundless energy and his schemes, is exhausting, and I have no idea how anyone keeps up with him.

Readers in the Vancouver area should check out Booktown in New Westminster. It’s a huge used bookstore with a great SF collection, and it’s having a going out of business everything must go sale. Older SF titles range in price from as little as $1.95 to $7.95 and everything’s 50% off, so they’re going for pennies – you can really stock up. The selection is fantastic; I’ve filled some of the holes in my to-read list without even having to pay shipping charges. It’s a short walk from the Columbia SkyTrain station and there are a couple of coffee shops nearby in case, like, me, you can’t wait to get home to start reading your new books.

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.

Sometimes, the way people write about women really makes me squirm. SF anthologies c. 1959.

27 05 2010

About once a week, I walk or bike down to Gerry’s Books in Steveston Village, to poke around in their surprisingly large science fiction section. It’s my favourite part of the week: 10k of exercise, amazing wildlife along the dike (turtles, ducks, sandpipers, herons, blackbirds, bald eagles…), beautiful views, and a treat at the end. Treasures reveal themselves to me as I discover new authors; the books were always there, I just didn’t know that I wanted them. And the skinny paperbacks – the ones that can be really difficult to find in more mainstream (or less perched-on-the-edge-of-the-city) places – are usually around $2.99; less than the library fines I would probably end up with if I borrowed the books from the public library.

The selection is wide enough, and the prices low enough, that I pick up books by authors I’ve never heard of because I like the blurb, because they’re women writing in a certain period, and sometimes, because of interesting, quirky little paratextual things or their relevance to the history of women in SF in general. It was there that I found Tiptree’s Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and Russ’s Souls as a double volume. And an anthology with a story published under the name “Raccoona Sheldon.” I often flip through older anthologies, looking for short stories and novellas by women authors that interest me.

Last week, I picked up Star Science Fiction 5: Nine Top Original Stories Never Before Published Anywhere, edited by Frederik Pohl and published in 1959 because it had a story by Katherine MacLean, whose work predates much of what I’ve been reading. It also had a story by Rosel George Brown. Both are introduced by wonderful blurbs, which fit in nicely with the story of women in SF that Helen Merrick traces in her “Resistance is Useless? The Sex/Woman/Feminist ‘Invasion'” in her The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, which is a chapter all about women gettin’ all up in ur sf, participating as full, intellectual, interesting and interested members of society in their own right (how dare they!).

This is a gem. Brace yourself:

Katherine MacLean is a young lady of charm and talent — not the only one such among science-fiction writers, but nearly the only one who turns her back on the feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in order to compete with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory. How well she succeeds, this story (her first in collaboration with Tom Condit) amply demonstrates.

The language there is just brilliant. “Young lady,” “charm,”; she’s one of the few playing with the grown-up toys, but don’t worry; she’s not a threat. She may be “compet[ing] with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory” (ed: wtf?) but this story was written in collaboration with a man, so it’s okay; if she wins, she had help*. The blurb is a wholesale dental extraction; in this story, at least, Katherine MacLean will not bite.

By 1959, Katherine MacLean was 34 years old and had published several well-received short stories and novellas. She had done post-graduate studies, and worked in fields beyond the traditionally feminine ones. Her works had been in print for ten years. In 1959, she was nominated for a Hugo. To call her a “young lady of charm and talent,” at this point in her career, emphasising her age and personal graces rather than her work, diminishes her as a skilled writer.

I do like that he said that she has “talent,” because it does contradict some of the contemporary blah blah out there about how girls can’t be brilliant (like boys) (in math and science), but achieve what they do through hard work and determination alone. However, in this collection, the only authors who are described as having talent are the two women who bookend the collection — both of whom achieved considerable success — and a young male first-time writer, whose work is also described in infantilised terms.

The male writers ” burst like a bright exhalation,” are “bright young star in STAR’s firmament,” are “are lighter, brighter,” and “beam with pride.” They are “incomparable,” they have “mastered,” they tackle “complicated” things. They have “versatility,” and reach “flavorful peaks.” They do not need “talent,” because they are Great. And they are never described in terms of “grace,” and “charm,” which are pleasant, but ultimately superficial qualities which have very little to do with their work.

Here is what Pohl had to say about Rosel George Brown:

A young Louisiana housewife sat down to a typewriter one day last year to find the answer to a question: Was there anything hard about writing science-fiction stories? The answer, it turns out, is “no” — provided you have the wit, the talent, and the grace of Mrs. Brown. Because of the idiosyncrasies of publishing schedules, this may not be the first of her stories to see print, but it’s the first she sold– and STAR is proud to present it to the world.

While in 1959, many women were ‘housewives,’ and it would be foolish to argue that the work that women who stay at home do is not very important work, this is a term that marginalizes women and excludes them from public and intellectual life. If you consider the fact that Brown is identified in this way together with Pohl’s dismissal of the so-called “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children)” earlier on in the book, Pohl’s use of language definitely pushes Brown to the margins of the book. In 1959, she was 33 years old, and held an M.A. from the University of Minnesota. She may have been a housewife, but she was no child, and no intellectual lightweight.

In 1959, she was also nominated for a Hugo.

One can see how the ways in which editors have written about men and women’s work have differed in the past. Given these examples, it’s really not surprising that this made for a field somewhat hostile to anyone who was not a cisgendered, heterosexual man.

(This post was intended to lead into a discussion of some works that have handled the “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in sophisticated ways, and have demonstrated how these topics, like all aspects of human life, do deserve to be present in the worlds of SF. But the language was just so –ugh!– distracting, and this post has got rather long, and that will have to wait.)

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