“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.

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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.





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.





I didn’t like “The Female Man.” It will probably take three posts for me to tell you how much.

21 04 2010

I’ve read about four books since my last post, and I am terribly behind on the blog. If there is any excuse for this, it is that one of them was The Female Man by Joanna Russ, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about it. The books I read between The Female Man and this attempt to write about it have given me some insight and direction, but I still haven’t come to terms with the book. Perhaps the time has come to force it.

In The Female Man, we meet Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael, who live in versions of reality in which the conflict between men and women plays out in different ways. Joanna’s reality is the most like ours, that is, the most like ours was around the development of Second Wave feminism. Jeannine lives in a reality in which the Great Depression never ended and women’s role in society is quite restricted. In order to become a whole person, Jeannine must marry and produce children. Though she is not comfortable in this role, her family members remind her of it regularly, and she gives up hope for a better life. Janet is from a planet called Whileaway where all the men died in a plague about 800 years before the story takes place, and the women live a strange, communal lifestyle in which very young children are raised together in nurseries by mothers enjoying the one year of vacation they will experience in their lives, older children roam the world learning, young adults travel and do physically demanding work, and eventually join families, and the older women do sedentary, intellectual tasks. In Jael’s world, men and women are at war with each other – literally – and Jael uses violence in her interactions with men because she has long ago learned that attempts to achieve equality are futile. The book offers us insights into the feminine condition by sharing each woman’s reaction to the lives and difficulties of the others, potentially inspiring us to think about our own experiences as women.

Some critics describe The Female Man as one of the most influential and important works of feminist SF ever written, so it must have made it through to someone. There are certainly many works of wonderful feminist SF out there now, and Joanna Russ is responsible for blazing that trail, I am glad for this book. I don’t know enough about the history of feminist SF to guess at whether or not these claims are exaggerated. But there are other works of feminist SF from the 1970s that are much more radical and that resonate with me today. This one just makes me cringe.

My first minor complaint is a stylistic one. Each J-character takes the role of narrator, sometimes telling the story from an omniscient point of view, sometimes from a more limited first-person one, and it’s not always obvious when these transitions take place. At times, it is difficult to differentiate the narrative voices. This is surely a stylistic device, intended to demonstrate that the characters are in fact the same woman, nurtured by the environment in different ways, proving that women’s apparent weakness is the result of their upbringing, rather than any natural feminine deficiency, but it made it difficult to keep track of where the story was going and, more importantly, why the story was going there. I don’t need an easy-to-follow literature for dummies structure to appreciate a story – there are plenty of postmodernist texts that I adore and have no problem with, but reading The Female Man, I was more frustrated by the deliberately disconcerting structure than enlightened by it.

My second and third complaints – the important ones – are that The Female Man is surprisingly misogynistic, and horrifyingly transphobic. I realize that Joanna Russ is apparently no longer anti-trans, but the incredible, sexist disgust with which Russ portrays trans characters in the book is downright creepy by my standards. The fact that she no longer feels that way and that societal values are different from what they were when she wrote it doesn’t make me like the book any more. But more on both of those topics later; each one deserves a rant of its very own.

Currently Reading: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest