Over the last several months, my reading time has largely been split between genre classics and recent political nonfiction. (And short fiction.)
Let’s start with the genre classics.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ. Originally published in 1975.
This books succeeds by the strength of its wild prose and daring, imaginative worldbuilding. There’s certainly a plot here; although I confess, I couldn’t follow it very easily. But I hardly cared about that! The prose was so much fun! It was playful, smart, powerful, and surprising.
Looking for daring new wave feminist SF? Something that’ll make The Left Hand of Darkness look tame? Go read this. It still deserves to be read, and it’s tons of fun.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Originally published in 1959.
For first being published in 1959, this story has held up surprisingly, impressively well. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a powerful set of three post-apocalyptic novellas set in a Catholic monastery in the Southwestern American desert. The first novella is set in the nadir of a dark age, the second at the start of a renaissance, and the third takes place in a rebuilt civilization on the edge of war. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation series; both works chronicle a bastion of civilization and culture attempting to bring a dark age to an early end.
As a whole, A Canticle for Leibowitz is funny, powerful, and stunningly unique. The third novella is the pièce de résistance—it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. It’s basically speculative theology, situating an informed, sympathetic take on the Catholic teachings on euthanasia beside a nuclear holocaust. It’s disarmingly brave and challenging. This book left me changed, in the way the best books do, especially to younger readers.
Honestly, the third novella is stunningly original; at multiple times as I was reading it, I literally set the book down and thought, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m reading this. I can’t believe this was written. This is amazing!” In this way, A Canticle for Leibowitz reminds me A Wizard of Earthsea, another classic of the field that somehow still feels all to original, all too contemporary, important, and challenging.
Now that I’ve squeed at maximum volume for too long, I’m slightly concerned I may have given you overblown expectations that will ruin your reading experience. So let me boil my thoughts down to these two more restrained observations: (1) This is a deserved classic—it still holds up; (2) Admittedly, I love this book a lot because A Canticle for Leibowitiz hits a grand slam on one of my genre obsessions: serious, sympathetic treatment of religion and theology.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. Originally published in 1973.
This book was okay. Although the prose was sharp and clear, the social norms were aggravatingly outdated, and the ideas were interesting but tame compared to more modern SF. I enjoyed this book well enough as I read it, but when I finished, I set down it and had no desire to read anything else by Arthur C. Clarke. Which is good. My TBR list is way too long. It’s actually really nice to have had a taste of an author and to be able to confidently remove them from your reading list. There’s so much other stuff out there, it’s nice to be able to narrow down my reading.
Relatedly, I also tried to read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester just the other month. I read 20-30 pages of it, but it was doing nothing for me, so I gave up, returned it to the library, and scratched it off my reading list. I was proud of myself! I displayed an important skill: being able to shamelessly give up on a book that’s not working for you.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.
I hadn’t read these before. This series was enjoyable, but I needed to adjust my expectations to enjoy it.
Each book in the series starts with a warning and a suggestion. Snicket admonishes his readers that the events portrayed in the book are dreadful and terrible, and Snicket attempts to persuade this readers to put down the book and choose another. At first, I thought this was a cute bit of black humor to set the tone for the story. I was foolish and wrong. Snicket’s warnings, as unexpected and funny they may seem, are earnest. These are not happy books. The moments of levity and joy the Baudelaire siblings experience do not counterbalance their hardships. The first book was especially tough for me to read, as I watched the Baudelaires experience abuse, neglect, and exploitation—three harms I had to undergo training for before starting my last job.
But once I adjusted my expectations, I largely enjoyed the series. The prose is comfy. The plots are engaging. The overall series arc is intriguing and skillfully executed. The books become increasingly thematically complex. Interestingly, however, the final book of the series caught me off-guard again. Despite my experience reading the first twelve books in the series, I started reading book thirteen expecting (or perhaps just blindly hoping for) a nice ending, in which questions were answered, compatriots reunited, and safety reasonably assured. Instead, the final book answered some questions, raised new ones, left several threads either loose or knotted, and delivered a scene with shocking thematic and symbolic weight. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s my fault.
In the Pockets of Small Gods by Anis Mojgani. Write Bloody Publishing, 2018.
I’ve been waiting this book of poetry since 2011, when I read The Feather Room by Anis Mojgani. Sure, Anis has had two books out since then, but neither of those were books of dedicated new poetry. Songs From Under the River (2013) collected Anis’ performance repertoire. It’s a treasure to own, but it didn’t include much new work. The Pocketknife Bible (2015) is awesome and featured lots of new work, but it’s just something else altogether.
The Feather Room basically taught me how to write poetry. Eventually, I realized that 90% of my poetry was derivative of Anis’ style in that book. Which is fine, really—imitating good work is how we improve our craft. But I’ve been dying to see how Anis himself would improve his craft, wondering in what new directions he would take this future work. In the Pockets of Small Gods provides the answer. In this book, Anis blends mythology with his own life, and turns his joyful talent for magic realism to the waters of grief. It’s accessible yet deep, and I imagine I’ll be rereading this one quite a lot.
The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent edited Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
The Imperial University is an academic anthology, collecting essays addressing the history and politics of power at universities. This book did a good job introducing me to the field of critical university studies, and it also hooked my interest in the field. I’ve been interested in critical pedagogy since I was a junior in college, and critical university studies is a fascinating extension of those same questions.
My favorite essay in the book is “Teaching by Candlelight” by Vijay Prashad, a fascinating examination of how students’ academic freedom is subtly yet powerfully affected by neoliberal capitalism. I walked away from the essay with a clearer awareness of how my own studies have been affected and shaped by social trends. I highly recommend this particular essay, and the book as a whole is also worth reading.
The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village by Henrietta Harrison.
This is a really cool book, but it was a little too academic for my liking. Basically, it’s something like a 500 year history of one particular Chinese Catholic village. Harrison puts forth and illustrates a few interesting observations about acculturation, and it’s fascinating to see how the terms “Chinese” and “Catholic” can actually seem not contradictory and possibly even complementary. It’s a cool, interesting book, but it’s dry. There were a lot less tales and a lot more academic legwork than I was hoping for.
The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power edited Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi. Harvard University Press, 2018.
This book is cool! It’s a collection of 36 essays about China, addressing politics, international relations, economics, the environment, society, history, and culture. The essays are written by a bunch of Harvard scholars writing for a general public audience, which is fantastic. The essays are detailed and intelligent yet still generally accessible. The essays are also short, which is nice, although some are surprisingly dense. I can easily imagine the scholars pulling teeth to make these essays as short and accessible as they are, and frankly I love it. We need to make academics write for general purpose audiences more often.
The China Questions was just published earlier this year, which makes the essays delightfully timely and up-to-date. If you have any interest in China, I recommend you pick up this book soon and read any essays that pique your interest. I most enjoyed the essays relating to politics and society, but I read the whole book and discovered something interesting in most of the essays.
The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age by Adam Segal. PublicAffairs, 2017.
This is a great book to pick up if you want to learn more about the increasing role of “cyber” in geopolitics. This book is accessible, readable, interesting, and also fairly information-dense.
I was somewhat surprised by how many topics covered by the book I was already familiar with. It made the book slightly less engaging than I’d hoped, but it was also a nice affirmation that, after following news and commentary about these issues for several years, I’ve actually learned a thing or two.
Posted on 16 July 2018.
The Skiffy & Fanty Show is a science fiction and fantasy podcast network, mostly focused on prose fiction but with some regular coverage of movies as well. The show also runs a blog filled with reviews of recent genre publications. Skiffy & Fanty is a great place to find interesting interviews, discussions, and reviews.
And now, I’ve joined the team! I’m writing a monthly short fiction review column for the Skiffy & Fanty blog. My first three reviews are already up.
Since falling down the SF rabbit hole a few years ago, I’ve been looking for ways to build community with fellow SF nerds.
This has been tough.
None of my friends have the same passionate interest in literary SF that I do, and for the last few years, I’ve been moving around a lot and working jobs with weird hours, which has prevented me from connecting with local communities. Mostly, I’ve fed my desire for SF community by vicariously listening to The Coode Street Podcast, Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Skiffy and Fanty Show. More recently, I’ve also been looking for ways to do some labor for the community, to get involved and give back.
Then, back in January, I noticed that Skiffy & Fanty was looking for more contributors to their blog. I knew I should apply. Writing reviews for Skiffy and Fanty would be a great way to fulfill both goals: finding community, and getting involved and giving back. Suddenly, it seemed that the last year and a half of book blogging I’d done actually had a purpose: I had experience writing about SF literature, and I had a portfolio of work I could point to.
Now What Exactly?
I’m reviewing short fiction, at the pace of one review per month. In my reviews, I’m trying to be mostly positive and minimally critical. Short stories are super subjective, and I’m new to this; no one needs me to be negative. (More on this in the next section.) Also, the short story market for SF is massive, so I’m trying to do what I think is most useful for me to do: shout out my favorite stories, encourage folks to go read them, and offer my thoughts on those stories. To couch it in “Skiffy and Fanty” speak, I’m going to squee about and signal boost my favorite stories, and in particular, I’m trying to highlight stories by new writers and writers with marginal identities.
In the interests of transparency, here’s my method. First, I read all the original fiction in my favorite genre magazines. Then, I branch out and read as much short fiction from across the field as I can each month. Then, I go back and reread the stories that I might want to review: those are the stories that I enjoyed the most, that I found the most interesting, and that are by new writers or writers with marginal identities. Lastly, I write about them!
Again, in the interests of transparency, I want to name some of my favorite magazines, short fiction writers, novelists, and themes. (This is not an exclusive list!) If our favorites overlap, then hopefully my reviews can help point you to some stories that you’ll enjoy. If you don’t like my favorites, that’s fine—my reviews might not be for you.
Favorite magazines: Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Escape Pod.
Favorite short fiction writers: A. Merc Rustad, Bogi Takács, Ken Liu, Carrie Vaughn
Favorite novelists: Ursula K. Le Guin, Ann Leckie, James S.A. Corey
Favorite themes: (1) Feminism! I love feminist stories, especially stories that include and center QUILTBAG folks. (2) Religion! I love invented and actual religions, I love worldbuilding that pays attention to religion, and I love stories that feature people of faith (especially liberal people of faith!). (3) Community! I love stories that feature intentional communities and stories that rethink the heteronormative nuclear family as the base unit of society. (4) The Commons and Free Culture! If a story is influenced by David Bollier, Lawrence Lessig, or Richard Stallman, I’ll probably like it.
Three things I’ve read (and loved!) recently that engage these themes are: (1) Capricious Issue 9: Gender Diverse Pronouns (QUILTBAG feminism); (2) “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang (religion with QUILTBAG feminism); and (3) “Where Would You Be Now?” by Carrie Vaughn (community with QUILTBAG feminism).
Identity, Labor, and Sustainability
I will try my best to ground my reviews in the language of opinion. That means focusing on how I react to each piece rather than saying any given piece of short fiction is “objectively” good or bad. I’m not going to recommend the “best” stories in any given month, just my favorites. I’m not covering the whole field, and I’m not trying to. I make no pretenses to providing objective, critical, authoritative reviews.
I think it’s important that I take this approach for several reasons. One, short fiction is super subjective. Two, I’m a relative newcomer to the field. Three, there’s so much short genre fiction being published that there’s no way I can even pretend to cover it all. (And if I tried to cover it all, there’s no way that’d be sustainable.) Four, there are some serious cultural politics at play in short SF reviewing, and I’m entering with significant privilege. (Simply put, I’m a white cishet man.) In April, Rose Lemberg wrote in a fantastic Twitter thread:
Of ALL the reviewers who highlight their favorite/standout work, it is telling that only white men get asked to provide more critical reviews. […] There is an underlying problem with our field, that people expect and even DEMAND a certain kind of authority (and criticizing gaze is definitely an expression of authority) from white men. […] I want to break the underlying assumption that only one demographic should offer an unbiased critical view.
You should really read Lemberg’s full thread. You should also read Bogi Takács’ related thread on the cultural politics of critical/negative reviews. Charles Paysuer has also written insightfully about “objectivity” in short fiction reviewing.
So yeah, short SF reviewing has diversity issues, and as someone with significant privilege, I think it’s important that I work to ground my reviews in the language of opinion.
Relatedly, in a thread posted last November, Bogi Takács wrote:
The reason SFF reviewing and especially short SFF reviewing has diversity issues is very similar to the general state of publishing - It is very frequently unpaid. A lot of the people who can afford to do it thus tend not to be marginalized.
That’s true! Case in point: me! I can afford to write unpaid monthly reviews. This is why I’ve made the choice to intentionally highlight work by new writers and writers with marginal identities. I’m trying to counter the diversity issues inherent to the field, which is especially important for me to do, given my cultural positionality.
Relatedly, I’m also conscious about the unpaid labor I’m doing in writing these reviews. On Twitter and across the web, I’ve seen writers warn other writers against undervaluing themselves and doing too much unpaid/free labor. That definitely makes sense, and it’s caused me to reflect on my own relationship with this form of unpaid labor. I don’t have any real misgivings about it. I have the time for it, it benefits the community, and it benefits me: writing for Skiffy and Fanty is helping connect me with the SF community and gain experience writing about SF literature. (Also, it’s not like anybody is profiting off my labor here either.)
More interesting than the mere fact that I am doing some form of unpaid labor are questions of sustainability, endurance, and burnout. No, writing one monthly column is not causing me to burn out, but it has caused me to think more about productivity and sustainability. How productive do I want to be? What exactly do I want to produce? What does a healthy, enjoyable, and sustainable pace look like? I’m someone who knows my own limits very well, and it’s important to me to abide by them. Often, I’ll at look other writers’ outputs and be simply confounded as to how they do it all. And then I’ll see them post about how burned out they are, and I’ll think, Oh. That’s how they do it all. Okay, I’ll pass. I’m happy here in my slow zone.
I just find this all interesting, because I’m already aware of how reviewing short fiction has affected my productivity. In just these last three months, I haven’t blogged as much or read as many novels as I used to. It’s a fair trade off: less blogging, less books, more short fiction, more experience writing about SF lit, more engagement with other SF geeks. But I imagine these questions only get more challenging and balancing it all only becomes more difficult as times goes on.
Going forward, I’ll still try to periodically post about what I’m reading, but instead of writing relatively detailed posts about what I’ve read each month, I’m going to focus more on writing good short fiction reviews for Skiffy and Fanty. My blog posts about reading will be fewer and shorter. Perhaps I’ll find other interesting things to blog about. (I currently have a couple essay ideas percolating on the sidelines of my mind.)
Anyway, now I review short fiction, and those are my thoughts on it. I welcome feedback and advice! Let me know if you like my reviews or if/when I’ve said something problematic. You can tweet me @camncoulter or email me at moc.retluocnc@mac. See you in the future.
Posted on 1 June 2018.
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. Tor.com, 2018. https://publishing.tor.com/beneaththesugarsky-seananmcguire/9780765393586/
In the subgenre of portal fantasy, children are liable to stumble through a doorway into a world of magic, daring, and adventure. Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas asks the question: What happens to these children after the adventure, once they return to our world? Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school for such children as they attempt to process their fantastic experiences, adjust to life back upon our comparatively mundane planet, and dream of a chance to return to their magical homeland. Beneath the Sugar Sky is Seanan McGuire’s third Wayward Children novella to be published by Tor.com. McGuire’s second book in this series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was a prequel, and Beneath the Sugar Sky picks up shortly after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, the first book in the series.
In the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire writes likable, delightful, and diverse characters, and I get seriously attached to almost all of them. In Beneath the Sugar Sky, we get introduced to a new character, Cora. She’s the main character, through whose eyes we experience the story. Cora is a new student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, and she’s a mermaid! Or at least, back in her portal fantasy universe, she was. She’s a swimmer and a runner, she’s kind, self-conscious, and brave, and she’s fat. I note that she’s fat because it’s important to her character, and Seanan McGuire writes and characterizes Cora so well. It’s sad and absurd to say it, but it’s unfortunately too rare that writers include fat people in their stories, and it’s even rarer when fat people are the main characters of a story (and even rarer when the story doesn’t centrally focus on the character’s size). Instead, Seanan McGuire writes a developed character through whose eyes I deeply enjoyed experiencing the story, a character whose size is only one fraction of her complex identity.
Although Cora may be the main character, I’m not sure she’s the protagonist. In Beneath the Sugar Sky, we also meet another new character, Rini, who literally falls out of the sky. Rini shows up with a quest: she needs to stop her mother Sumi from being dead so that Rini doesn’t disappear and get erased from existence. Rini’s from a nonsense world, which explains the unique logic behind her quest. Rini is a fun character; she pulses with nonsense, color, and energy, and she has high stakes motivating her to accomplish an impossible quest—if she can’t stop her mom from being dead, she won’t exist! The balance between Cora and Rini works great. Rini drives the story forward, and Rini’s nonsense is all the more strange and enjoyable when seen through Cora’s viewpoint. (Cora herself went to a world of Reason.) To my pleasure, Kade and Christopher, who both originally appeared in Every Heart a Doorway, also join in on Rini’s quest. I loved getting to spend more time with both of them, to learn more about their back-stories, and to see them take on a new challenge.
It has to be said: Seanan McGuire handles diversity so delightfully well. Basically all of her characters have a marginal identity along some axis (or more than one axis), and in the Wayward Children series, McGuire makes space for main characters with identities that are all too rare in fiction: Nancy, the main character in Every Heart a Doorway, is asexual; Jack, the main character in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is queer; and Cora in Beneath the Sugar Sky is fat. Another character in Beneath the Sugar Sky has a physical disability. Another character is Mexican-American, and another character is transgender. In all cases, Seanan McGuire pays attention to how these identities affect and shape the characters, but she also writes round, developed characters who are so much more than just their marginal identity.
Beneath the Sugar Sky significantly deepened the world-building for the entire Wayward Children series; I think this was my favorite aspect of the book. The first book, Every Heart a Doorway, introduced readers to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children and attempted to categorize fantasy worlds along two axises: Logic and Nonsense, and Virtue and Wickedness. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a beautiful and moving story, and it dove deeply into the back-story of two of my favorite characters, but it didn’t ultimately contribute much to the greater world-building of the Wayward Children series. Beneath the Sugar Sky does. It examines the connections between worlds and how those connections affect people, inter-world travel, and magic, and in doing so, Beneath the Sugar Sky answered a few questions I had leftover from Every Heart a Doorway.
Moreover, the world-building in this series is outstandingly unique. As Seanan McGuire further develops the universe in which this series takes place, she also deepens my own understanding of the whole subgenre of portal fantasies. After reading Beneath the Sugar Sky, I now swear that McGuire has hidden a dissertation on portal fantasy subgenre within her Wayward Children series. I want more of this series because Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books are fun stories told in beautiful prose with delightful and diverse characters, but I also want more of this series because I want to read more of McGuire’s developing dissertation on portal fantasies. In the meantime, while I wait for the fourth volume in this series, I find myself already wanting reread the first three volumes, this time in chronological order.
Seanan McGuire has written a fabulous series. If you enjoy portal fantasies, gorgeous prose, or delightfully diverse characters, read Sean McGuire’s Wayward Children series. I recommend you start with either Down Among the Sticks and Bones or Every Heart a Doorway.
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor. Tor.com, 2018. https://publishing.tor.com/bintithenightmasquerade-nnediokorafor/9780765393128/
Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up right where Binti: Home left off. So much so, that I recommend reading Binti: The Night Masquerade immediately after reading Binti: Home. I didn’t do this, and consequently I was a bit confused for the first couple chapters.
Binti: The Night Masquerade is delightful and surprising. There were at least two moments in the book that made me pause and ask myself, Wait, did Nnedi Okorafor actually just do that? I wasn’t just surprised, but blindsided. Near the end of the novella, I finally started picking up on what Nnedi Okorafor was actually attempting to do with Binti: The Night Masquerade (and the whole Binti trilogy actually). At that point, I started to have immense fun watching Okorafor put it all together. I’d say more, but I don’t want to risk spoiling a delightfully surprisingly book.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy of novellas is one of the most unique and surprising things I’ve read, and I want to re-read the whole thing so that I can better understand, appreciate, and savor it.
The Plays of Roswitha translated by Christopher St. John. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923. https://archive.org/details/playsofroswitha00hrotuoft
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim was a 10th-century German canoness, dramatist, and poet. She’s awesome. She was one of the first, if not the first, person to write drama in the West since classical antiquity. In her plays, Hrotsvitha tries to Christianize the work of Terence, the Roman comic playwright. In a prologue to her work, Hrotsvitha mentions how many of the nuns of Gandersheim Abbey enjoyed the plays of Terence for his beautiful Latin and his comedy despite the immoral content of his plays. Terence’s plays not only offended the sensibilities of medieval nuns—his plays offend modern sensibilities as well. In Terence’s play The Eunuch, a man disguises himself as a eunuch in order to rape a woman whom he lusts after. But it all turns out okay (according to Roman sensibilities) because he marries her at the end of the play. You can imagine why medieval nuns would feel conflicted reading his work. So in her six plays, Hrotsvitha takes the comic disguises and misunderstandings of Terence and reworks them into plays that not only glorify God but also deeply honor women, celibacy, and faith.
Hrotsvitha’s plays are funny. Some of the humor is intended, such as one scene when a man attempts to rape three Christian virgins and instead, through the grace of God, mistakes dirty pots and pans for the women and ends up covering himself in soot. Some of the humor in Hrotsvitha’s plays, however, is created through the act of reading these medieval plays through our modern sensibilities. The characters often seem simple, naive, and overly zealous in their faith (as well as overly excited by the prospect of martyrdom). However, for being so committed to medieval values (especially celibacy) Hrotsvitha is refreshingly contemporary in her call. She values celibacy, yes, but she doesn’t stigmatize or look down upon the prostitutes in her plays. She doesn’t worship a harsh God of rules, as we might imagine of medieval Christianity. In Hrotsvitha’s plays, the paramount sin is despair, losing faith in the immensity of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace. Two of her plays feature prostitutes who convert to Christianity, and while the plays definitely look down upon prostitution generally, Hrotsvitha still treats her women characters with respect and admiration. Indeed, the heroes of Hrotsvitha’s plays are the women, not the men, which is—how to say—fucking awesome, especially considering her historical context.
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. 10th-century German canoness. One of the first, if not the first, person to write drama in the West since classical antiquity. Feminist par excellence. Yeah—I kind of have a crush on her some days.
Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard V. Reeves. Brookings Institution Press, 2017.
In Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves examines the problem of class in America. Although Reeves doesn’t absolve the “one percenters” of their sins, his critique is aimed primarily at the American upper middle class—the top twenty percent. Reeves argues that the upper middle class is not only privileged in general terms, but also engages in unfair “opportunity hoarding,” that is, privileged in ways that directly harm the rest of society. Reeves examines the role meritocracy plays in class stratification and argues that the upper middle class create an unfair “glass floor” to pass their status down through generations, at the cost of true upward mobility for the bottom eighty percent.
The book is written in generally accessible prose, is great on details, and gives the reader a few clear take aways and action items. If you’re in the upper middle class (or think you might be close to it), read this book and think it over carefully.
Posted on 8 February 2018.