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.





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.





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





“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

22 04 2010

There’s plenty of furor over Bill 94 in Quebec. This bill will regulate the way in which Quebec institutions and officials respond to minority groups’ religious and cultural traditions and preferences, and it has been suggested to me by Quebecois friends that Quebec is the national leader on this issue; other provinces will soon follow suit.

With this bill following on the heels of the expulsions of two Muslim students from Quebec colleges for wearing niqabs – full-face covering veils – to class, it would be difficult to deny that one of the main issues Bill 94 is intended to address is the question of Muslim women’s clothing.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest says, “the bill is a solution to the need to balance individual freedoms with the values of Quebec society, including the equality between men and women and secular public institutions.” It appears that, beneath the racist rhetoric, this is a bill that is intended to protect women. Certainly, the Taliban forces women to wear the burqa, and we don’t want to support the Taliban in its oppression of women.

But do the burqa and the niqab oppress women, or do the people who would decide how women should dress oppress women? And by forcing niqab-wearing Muslim women to reveal their faces, is the Quebec government protecting them from oppression, or is it putting them in a position in which they are vulnerable to further victimization by male members of their communities, who come from countries in which it is acceptable to treat women in ways that would never be tolerated here? Muslim feminists point out that Islam is not inherently oppressive to women, and that many of the oppressions faced by women in Muslim countries result from too much emphasis being placed on certain passages in the Qu’ran while others are ignored. They oppose the burqa and the niqab as part of a broader system of oppression that limits women’s bodily integrity, their access to education and their right to participate in public life.

By expelling students from government-sponsored language classes for wearing the niqab, is the Quebec government not putting much the same limits on Muslim women? Assuming a cultural vacuum, in which everyone a Muslim woman encounters treats her exactly as they would a white woman, it is easy to say, “If you want access to these services, you can’t wear that outfit.” But no one lives in a cultural vacuum, and chances are good that the decision to remove the niqab will not be an easy one for many women. Especially if she has worn it for much of her life and feels unsafe without it. Especially if – and this is not a generalization, but an if, an in-the-rare-case-when – she is unsafe without it. In that case, the Quebec government has forced her to forfeit her bodily integrity. If she’s afraid to, or not permitted to take off the niqab to attend language classes, there goes her education. And if she doesn’t learn the language that would allow her to integrate into the society she now lives in because she cannot attend language classes, there’s goes her involvement in public life. Someone who does not speak the local language is always extremely vulnerable, and the Quebec government is making it very difficult for immigrant women to overcome this vulnerability.

Canadian society is on its way to becoming one in which men and women are treated as equals. We’re not there yet, but most Canadian women experience a high quality of life with protection from domestic violence, and organizations to help them in times of trouble. It is conceivable that in time, in this environment, an immigrant or refugee woman from a conservative Muslim culture might choose to give up her veil. If she doesn’t, perhaps her daughter will (who doesn’t love Layla in Little Mosque on the Prairie?). But it is not our place as western feminists to force her to do so against her will, denying her a voice. She may have a reason for choosing to wear the niqab. Why don’t we ask her what it is? And listen really carefully?

It seems to me that the Quebec government is hiding racist backlash under the rhetoric of feminism, and making victims of some of our society’s most vulnerable members.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein, a Muslim author from Bangladesh, is a wonderful feminist utopia that imagines a world in which men and women’s societal roles are reversed. This reversal results in many of the same effects as in the societies without men in stories such as James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and other classics of the genre.

“Sultana’s Dream” was published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, in 1905. Muslim women have been imagining freedom from masculine oppression since long before Quebec could even begin to claim they were liberated themselves. And whether or not to wear a veil is only the smallest part of it.





Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

12 04 2010

I love Nalo Hopkinson so much that it would be impossible for me to write an unbiased review of any of her books. Her prose is so vivid and exciting that even if I believed it were possible to erase the person from the critique and objectively evaluate the quality of the writing, I would leave my critic hat at home and just rave. Nalo Hopkinson is one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction these days.

Today I’m going to talk about Skin Folk, which is a collection of short stories loosely connected by the theme of skin. That is, the surface under which we hide our darkest secrets, the burdensome appearances that we maintain and shed, the external forces that confine us, and the way some people can see through these images to find truths that we aren’t yet even aware of ourselves. Many of these stories are about breaking free from the skins that we wear, that we have chosen for ourselves or had imposed upon us, or that have grown over us so quietly that we didn’t notice them until they had covered us completely. This is how Hopkinson introduces the book:

Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you’ll find stories about people who aren’t what they seem. Skin gives these folk their human shape. When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge. They may be owls. They may be vampiric balls of fire. And always, whatever the burden their skins bear, once they remove them – once they get under their own skins – they can fly. It seemed an apt metaphor to use for these stories collectively.

This is a thick, delicious collection of stories, each concerned with very contemporary and important questions. In “Something to Hitch Meat To,” Artho, who edits photographs for pornographic magazines, airbrushing out imperfections, exaggerating models’ natural assets, is beginning to find human bodies – real, living human bodies – pretty creepy. Like when you say a word too many times and it loses all meaning, he has looked at and “corrected” too many bodies, and now the people he crosses in the street seem awkward and ungainly.

Artho was thinking of something to say to him, some kind of opener, when the man’s ears caught his gaze. They jutted out from the side of his head like knurls of deformed cartilage. There really was nothing odd about the guy’s ears – that’s just how ears were – but they still gave Artho a queasy feeling. With one hand, he worried at his own ear. He looked around at other people in the food court. All their ears seemed like twisted carbuncles of flesh sprouting from the sides of their heads, odd excrescences.

Unfortunately for Artho, whose life is about to change dramatically, an ugly little girl in a Spiderman backpack, who isn’t the least bit afraid to talk to him, follows him back to his office, and changes the way he sees things. No, this isn’t one of those heartwarming clichés where the little girl teaches the mean old man how to love. This little girl has glasses with jam-jar thick lenses, which refract and multiply her eyes, hair in dark medusa strands, ashy brown bumps of dry skin for knees, and her name is Nancy. Wrongs are about to be righted, but not in the way Artho had in mind.

Throughout the story, Artho finds that people’s real-world perceptions of him and reactions to him – often distrusting – don’t match up with the way he sees himself. People react to him with fear and distrust, and he absolutely can’t get a date. Who would want to date the guy who sets the standard of beauty and sexual attractiveness at a level that is unreachable to most people, who creates the images that make most of us feel ugly? Who would want to date a guy whose job it is to tell us that the beautiful bodies we already inhabit are not worthy of the camera’s lens? Nancy is about to sort this out, too.

Media images may not be the scourge of our generation (there was oppression of the powerless long before there was Maxim), but in this story, a Nancy fixes a little wrong with a little right, sending out a subtle corrective that just might spread, making the people in Artho’s world (and us readers, maybe) a little more comfortable in their skins.

There are fifteen stories in this collection, each as thoughtful as the last. My favourites are “Fisherman,” “Slow Cold Chick,” “Snake,” “The Glass Bottle Trick,” and “A Habit of Waste.” I may have a few more notes on these later on.

It occurs to me that if I’m successful at my project, I should (will) actually go to WisCon.

Currently Reading: The Female Man by Joanna Russ