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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where are the WOACAs?

posted by Adrienne Martini @ 11:06 AM 

A recent Making Light post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden about her invisibility at Home Depot got me to thinking about women of a certain age,* one of which I am rapidly becoming. Not only are we difficult for Home Depot employees to see, we also seem to be largely invisible in science fiction as well. ** In fact, I'm not sure I can think of more than a half-dozen. And even a couple of those are fraught, like Maureen in To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

But what's more interesting to me is that the WOACAs who do show up, don't get to do all that much. I can list quite a few men in the same age range who are the SF story's main actor. But women like Bujold's Cordelia don't get to do all that much once they are done with having their young. Is it that they stop being interesting after that point?

I feel as if I'm missing quite a few of these characters, however. Who would be on your list? And what part in the story does she play?


* Note one: quick definition, which may get refined as we go: WOACA means those who are past the knitty-gritty of childbearing (yet may still have children under age 18) but not yet old enough to qualify as a crone. Patricia Heaton, Catherine Keener and Daryl Hannah are WOACA, if stunning ones. Betty White is not. I think Meryl Streep is; however, many may not. In terms of SF, Cordelia in Bujold's A Civil Campaign is. Cordelia in Shards of Honor is not. Celebrities aside, most of these women aren't seen as objects of desire anymore but do not yet have the sheen of wisdom.

* Note two: Fantasy has its own set of baggage about WOACAs. That's a different post.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

28 days later

posted by Graham Sleight @ 9:59 AM 

Jonathan Strahan sent an email a few days ago to the Locus reviewers reminding us that the deadlines for our year-end pieces (to appear in the February 2010 issue) were coming up at Christmas time, and so we should start thinking about what we wanted to discuss there. So I went back and looked at my halfway-through-the-year-novels-post, started making a list of what I'd read and liked since, and...something odd happened.

The thing is, as a reviewer, your interactions with new books tends to take a certain form. You get the book, you have to read it and write about it quite quickly, and you move on to the next one. So you don't often get the luxury of looking back on a book from the distance of three or six months. You don't often get the chance to say (in print, at least) "Well, after some reflection, my views have shifted..." I hear a lot of writers say that they'd like to put completed manuscripts away in a drawer for three months. It'd be nice - though obviously not practical - for the same to happen with reviews.

Example. Of the books I mentioned I liked in my half-year post, the one that has grown on me most since is China Mieville's The City and The City. I haven't read it again, though I did take part in an energetic discussion about it at Readercon (excerpted for the Aug 22 edition of Hour of the Wolf). The Mieville has preoccupied me not particularly because of the noir story or the writing per se but the central metaphor, and my thinking what an extraordinary, haunting, political way it is to see the cities most of us now live in.

Another example. As I've mentioned here before, I'm gobsmacked - as we Brits say - with admiration for Greer Gilman's Cloud and Ashes. It's not a book I can claim to understand anything like fully and so, as in the past, I'll duck out of offering a full review. But individual bits of it, images or aspects of its use of language, keep coming back to me like depth-charge puns you only get three months after the fact. (The same is true of another great playing-with-language novel, Damon Knight's Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.)

And sometimes the stuff that stays with you is just plain weird, like the cliff made of earlobes in M John Harrison's otherwise seemingly mimetic Climbers, the description of the desert in Joanna Russ's "Bodies", or - perhaps my favorite piece of prose anywhere - the two pages about toothpaste tubes in Gravity's Rainbow. Nothing really links all of these examples, except that for me (an enormously subjective measure, I know) they stick with me. I can't even articulate any comprehensive reason why - some of them are visual images, some not; some are specific passages of description, some are more generalised ideas or concepts. I suppose the most prominent example in the field is Delany's Dhalgren. As William Gibson says in his superb introduction to the current (Vintage) edition, it's not a book that makes sense in any orthodox way; but if it works for you, it becomes a particular climate of the mind, a way of understanding and perceiving the world that you can't ever forget.

So, to broaden this out a bit, what stories or books have for you the effect I'm describing? That is, regardless of how you feel about them on first reading, they wind up having a greater effect on you in the weeks and months that follow? And - fully aware that I've failed to answer the question myself - why do you think this might be?

journal of the plague week

posted by Adrienne Martini @ 8:05 AM 

Schools in my area of the U.S. are shutting down because kids and staff are too ill to work. My oldest was just sent home sick, even though she's not overly sick, because the nurse is understandably twitchy about keeping everyone contagion free. I wouldn't say that anyone is hysterical about the whole thing -- we Northeasterners are not known for our flights into hysteria because we learned a lesson after the whole Salem witch debacle -- but we are keeping a firm eye on the situation.

Which, of course, doesn't concern you at all, really, unless you live nearby. But it did get me to thinking about great genre books about pandemics. The first that leap to my mind is King's The Stand. The second was Willis' gorgeous The Doomsday Book. I couldn't come up with a third, however. Or, at least, not one that I'd recommend.

So I thought I'd toss it out to you. What are the great genre books about pandemics?

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Recovery reading

posted by Graham Sleight @ 5:16 AM 

I try to shy away from first-person writing about books, but there's no other way to do this post. On October 6th, I broke my leg while on my way into work, and after four days of excellent treatment in hospital, I've been recuperating at home. All the indications are that I should get back to normal eventually - after 4-6 weeks - and I'm already contemplating a gradual process of starting to do my day-job from home. But in the meantime, as you can imagine, I've been reading a lot.

The first thing I did was plough through the pile of books I'd accumulated for my December Locus retrospective column, on Brian Aldiss. (I'd originally contemplated covering Gene Wolfe next, but felt that "under the influence of morphine" was not the best state in which to arrive at stable readings of The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Book of the New Sun.) But now, as you can imagine, I have a large pile of to-be-read stuff looming over me and (especially tempting in my current state) an equally large set of books that I know I like and could re-read. To be clear, it's not that I'm having a problem concentrating on long works, or ones that require some memory of past events - one of my projects, which is going fine, is to get through all of Shelby Foote's 3000-page trilogy on the US Civil War. But there are some things I'm bouncing off at the moment: the more affected or baroque prose styles, stories that mess around with the whole one-thing-entails-another thing that constitutes the spine of story, stories that spend too long foreshadowing and not getting to the point. (I'm probably forming a very unfair impression of the new Iain Banks, Transition, for this last reason, but it has a Prologue that consists almost entirely of trailers for the half-dozen plot-strands the Prologue is delaying me from reading. My patience was quickly exhausted.) On the other hand, the things I've been enjoying have been things set in self-contained worlds which knit themselves up neatly (too neatly?) within that frame - Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories, or almost anything by P G Wodehouse.

So... from your own experience, or from what I've said above, any more suggestions for recovery reading?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yes but what's it for?

posted by Adrienne Martini @ 12:34 PM 

Amy Hertz' lead-off column for the Huffington Post's new books section has bunched up the undergarments of some folks in the industry. Some commenters think her "no reviews" stance is pure genius; some think it's delusional. Myself, I vote for a bit of both but that we won't know if it leads more toward genius or delusion for a few months yet.

But that's another discussion.

What struck me was this passage: "Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you're living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere."

So what purpose do book reviews have in this "age of engagement?" Are they a dinosaur waiting for the information of its death to reach its brain? Or are book reviews about something else, especially in a magazine like Locus?

I don't know that I have any good answers. I'm hoping that you all might have some thoughts. Why do you read book reviews? What do you hope to get out of them? Or are they already a dead medium?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Commonplaces

posted by Graham Sleight @ 8:17 PM 

A couple of things that have caught my eye lately in contexts unrelated to sf. First, the opening lines from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:
PHILO. Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.

[Flourish within.]

Look where they come:
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transform'd
Into a strumpet's fool: behold and see.

[Enter ANTONY and CLEOPATRA, with their trains; Eunuchs fanning
her.]

CLEOPATRA. If it be love indeed, tell me how much.

ANTONY. There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.

CLEOPATRA. I'll set a bourn how far to be belov'd.

ANTONY. Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
It occurred to me that, if no-one has ever used this quote as the epigraph for an sf novel, they really should. (And if they have and I wasn't aware of it, please tell me in comments...) It seemed such a wonderful idea that love could become so much of a solipsism that it could be used as a justification for remaking the world. One of the glories of Antony and Cleopatra is that the lovers' inward plight (and, yes, solipsism) seems almost to turn the world. Sf offers the chance to literalise an idea like that: what would the new heaven and new earth be? A virtual world? A terraformed planet?

Second - and I realise I'm about to get the Pretension Police called on me for this - is something from the philosopher Wittgenstein's Blue Book.
A great many philosophical difficulties are connected with that sense of the expressions "to wish", "to think", etc. These can all be summed up in the question "How can one think what is not the case?"
[...] Supposing we asked [instead]: "How can we imagine what does not exist?" The answer seems to be: "If we do, we imagine non-existent combinations of existing elements." A centaur doesn't exist, but a man's head and torso and arms and a horse's legs do exist. "But can't we imagine an object utterly different from any one which exists?" - We should be inclined to answer: "If redness, roundness and sweetness did not exist, we could not imagine them".
I don't know offhand of any other passages from major philosophers that are so directly about how to create cool aliens in science fiction stories. I find it very difficult to think of any sf stories where the aliens are not in some respect created by analogy. Even in a book like Stapledon's Star Maker - rightly considered as the definitive work of sf-nal radicalism in its speculation about life on other worlds - the creatures are modelled one way or another on earthly examples. So far as there are aliens in sf that are really, irreducibly, strange, (I think) it's not so much in their physical forms but in how they relate to humans or respond to the universe. (Greg Bear's "Hardfought", a very Stapledonian work, is one of my benchmarks here.) So...any counterexamples to Wittgenstein? Are there any sf creatures not composed of elements we already know?

Thursday links

posted by Graham Sleight @ 10:57 AM 

I've been trying to finish a book over the last few weeks, hence my relative silence round these parts. However, some links that have got my attention lately:
[1] ETA: Just after I posted this, the latest issue of David's Langford's irreplaceable Ansible arrived, with the following news: "John M Ford (1957-2006) is still fondly remembered, but his non-fan family would rather we didn't. Rumours of awkwardness have been circulating for some time, and NESFA's Instant Message 825 reports that a hoped paperback reissue of their Ford collection is unlikely: '... it does not appear that the Estate will license any further printings. This appears to be the policy for all of Ford's works, not just the Nesfa Press book, so that only those works under contract can be reprinted." I know I'm a Ford-fan, I have no idea what the Estate's reasons are and, as DL says, these rumours had been circulating for a while; but this just leaves me speechless.
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