Cartoon: People Grow Old, Excuses Live Forever

excuses-live-forever

This cartoon was created in collaboration with the wonderful Becky Hawkins.

Transcript:

Panel 1
A young man (20s or 30s) is talking with cheerful optimism to a woman who is about 60 years old. In the background a female secretary works on a laptop.
MAN: The reason most executives are male isn’t sexism. It just takes time for women to get promoted! In thirty years lots of top executives will be women!
WOMAN: Do you ever get deja vu?

Panel 2
A caption says TEN YEARS EARLIER. The same woman, who looks about 50, is listening to a different cheerful man talk. In the background, a different female secretary works on a computer with a flatscreen monitor.
MAN: The reason most executives are male isn’t sexism.

Panel 3
A caption says TWENTY YEARS EARLIER. The same woman, now about 40, is listening to a different cheerful man. In the background, a female secretary works on a computer with a huge boxy monitor.
MAN: It just takes time for women to get promoted!

Panel 4
A caption says THIRTY YEARS EARLIER. The same woman, now about 30, is being talked out by a cheerful man with a big mustache. But the woman has turned and is listening to the secretary in the background, an older woman working on an electric typewriter.
MAN: In thirty years, lots of top executives will be women.
SECRETARY: Do you ever get deja vu?

CAPTION FOR ENTIRE CARTOON: People grow old, excuses live forever.

Further reading: Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap | Center for American Progress

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 32 Comments  

From Guernica: “The Teaching Class,” by Rachel Riederer

This is a really interesting and thought-provoking essay that I think anyone concerned about the state of higher education should read. Riederer makes a complex argument. Here are some excerpts:

The rise of adjunct labor in universities is also a student issue. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And when the average graduate of the class of 2014 leaves school with over $30,000 of debt (nearly twice what the average was twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation), it’s an important consumer issue, too. Students deserve to know how their universities are spending their money, and how they’re contracting with their teachers, especially those teachers who have the most student contact. Courses like composition—a universal requirement at most colleges, and given in small groups—are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts. For such courses, many colleges employ “small armies of adjuncts,” and at large universities where large classes are divided into smaller discussion sections, those are often taught by grad students. Yet students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?

When Andrew Scott, a composition instructor in Indianapolis, explained adjuncting to some of his students, he wound up being called into his supervisor’s office for a scolding. A group of his students at the private university where he was adjuncting (he also had a full-time position at Ball State) had arrived early for class, and were talking in the hallway. When one student mentioned a history teacher who seemed eager to get the students to like her, and whose class didn’t have a lot of work, Scott explained how her work situation was involved: “I knew the instructor was an adjunct, and that she taught at several places to cobble together a living. I told the students that she was an adjunct, and that the class was easy because she was afraid of losing her job.” Adjuncts are often evaluated solely based on student evaluations. As Rebecca Schuman put it in her Slate article “Confessions of a Grade Inflator,” “popularity is the only thing keeping them employed.”

Scott had this conversation with his students outside of class, because the students had brought it up, and because he considered it “a teachable moment.” But it still got him into trouble, probably because of this comparison: “I said that the university pays the janitor who scrapes the gum off their desks more per year than me and most of the people who teach their first-year classes. My private university students couldn’t believe that, but it was true. Even a low estimate shows how that’s true. Ten bucks per hour for forty hours a week equals an annual salary of $20,800.” One year Scott taught seven courses at that college, and made under $15,000 for that work.

Ten days later, Scott’s supervisor called him into her office because she’d heard about a “classroom incident” in which he had “ranted” about adjunct faculty pay and working conditions. “The director was especially worked up about my janitor comparison. She wanted to know if I’d really said that, and how I could possibly say that,” Scott recalls. The situation worked out for Scott—his other job made it possible for him to leave Marian, and he told his supervisor during the meeting that it would be his last semester. But not all adjuncts would be in such a position. And this dynamic is one of the reasons that adjunct conditions remain obscured from students: for workers without job security, the line between scolded and fired is uncomfortably thin.

***

Last fall, Karen Gregory was teaching a labor studies course in the City University of New York system when she found herself the object of media scrutiny because she included in her syllabus a short text describing the adjunctification of CUNY, and what it means for students:

“To ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY, we ask that you do not call us ‘Professor.’ We are hired as adjunct lecturers and it is important that you remember that. You deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship.”

The text, which was developed by the CUNY Adjunct Project and distributed for teachers to include in their syllabi, briefly describes the history of CUNY’s increased reliance on adjuncts. It explains how adjuncts are paid and what that means for students:

“Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers, or prepare materials or lectures for class. We are paid for one office hour per week for all of the classes we teach. We are not paid to communicate with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation. Out of dedication to our students, adjuncts regularly perform such tasks, but it is essentially volunteer labor.”

***

Another exchange in the IHE comment thread handily brought up a problematic rhetorical strategy that arises often in the discussion of the adjunct bubble: the comparison to fast-food workers. One commenter wrote, “You know what’s demeaning? Earning a PhD and making less money than a manager at McDonald’s.” And another replied, “You know what’s demeaning? A PhD who thinks she’s better than a manager at McDonald’s.” This exemplifies a serious problem in the ways that advocates for better working conditions for adjuncts make their argument. (A related problem is that adjunct advocates sometimes dramatize their argument by using phrases like “slave wages,” “slave labor”). Yes, college-level teachers should make more than cashiers at McDonald’s. Not because they hold advanced degrees—to pay someone for merely holding a degree is naked credentialism; to believe you deserve more money because of your credential itself rather than what you do with it is to misunderstand the value of work—but because as a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.

***

American universities are on a dangerous trajectory of “corporatization,” operating from the view that students are consumers and instructors are just one more cost of doing business. It used to be common for administrators to be professors who took a break from teaching to perform administrative duties for a short period of time, or took on admin duties in addition to their classes; they were people whose first commitment was to research or teaching. In his book The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor of political science Benjamin Ginsburg writes that “Forty years ago, America’s colleges actually employed more professors than administrators.” But while the faculty-to-student ratios have remained constant (with both groups growing at around the same rate), the administrator-to-student ratio has increased dramatically. And Ginsburg notes that though administrators often extol the virtues of using part-time contingent labor for teaching, “they fail to apply the same logic to their own ranks.” In 2005, 48 percent of college faculty were part time, compared to only 3 percent of administrators.

But to talk about these structural issues is to deviate from the idea that work is sacred, and that—especially in this economy—to have a job at all is a gift. Advocating for better pay and conditions is not just impolite, it’s ungrateful. This dynamic applies to any group of workers that speaks out on its own behalf, but there’s a special factor at work in the way that people critique adjuncts who want better conditions. Teaching college is a white-collar job. It is not dangerous or degrading; it happens on college campuses, which often are pleasant and have trees and sometimes inspirational phrases about learning carved into stone buildings; it is—except for the low pay and lack of benefits and constant uncertainty about the future—a good job. Gregory calls this a “cruel double standard: you’ve made this choice to go into a bad career that has high social status.” Many of the comments directed at her, and others who raise the adjunct issue, are concerned with protecting the sanctity of teaching. A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.

***

When I was adjuncting at Columbia, I remember calculating the maximum number of hours I could spend on my class before I reduced my pay rate to under $15/hour. It was less time than I would have liked to spend, but I couldn’t work for less than that. So I taught differently: I assigned fewer drafts, I held shorter and less frequent conferences, I read student essays faster and homework assignments hardly at all. When I realized I was not going to be able to do right by my students, I stopped classroom teaching. In part, this anecdote is just that—a little story about me. It depends on the particulars of my financial situation and personality. I didn’t want to have a job in which my time was so undervalued that I felt I was either doing a poor job or giving my time away as a gift. But it’s also not just about me. Others have written about how the circumstances of adjuncting force them into grade inflation, or into designing easier courses so that they’ll get better student evaluations.

***

Will you forgive me a moment of English-teacher pedantry? I may not be a professor but I am certainly an English teacher. Throughout this piece I’ve been taking the liberty of using adjunct as a job title and even as a verb. The term actually means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college [remember, we’re talking about the people who do most of the teaching on college campuses across the nation], why go?

Go read the whole thing.

Cross-posted.

Posted in Education | 54 Comments  

Reading Journal: Verses of Forgiveness, by Myriam Antaki – 1

I started a new novel not too long ago, Verses of Forgiveness, by Myriam Antaki and translated from the French by Marjolin de Jager. Antaki is a Syrian novelist who writes in French. Verses of Forgiveness, which is narrated in a lyrical, dream-like prose by Ahmed, a Palestinian suicide bomber preparing his attack, is her first book to be translated into English.

I’ve read the first 30 or so pages of Verses and I am fascinated. The first section of the book is Ahmed’s lyrical evocation of his own identity. “I am,” he begins, “a terrorist, a dreamer. I have removed my mask of bliss for that of fear and sweat. I have lost.” He hints at his first loss, that of his parents, on the very first page, pointing out that they did not name him, but the loss he spends the most time talking about in this section is of Iman, “the most beautiful girl in the Baalbek brothel.” He loves her, or at least thinks he does, despite the fact that he has shared her “with so many others,” and he seems to regret the fact that his feelings for her, rooted in the sex they’ve had, are not strong enough to sway him from his course.

Forgive me, I cannot change my way of thinking despite your body and your pleasure. Do not forget me, it is easier to remember someone who is dead than someone alive who loves another. I am taking our night cries with me. (4)

It’s interesting that Antaki chooses to begin Ahmed’s meditation with this farewell not just to a woman, but to the pleasures of sex and the human connection sex creates, or, perhaps more accurately, the humanizing effect of sex on him. In this way, Antaki both reveals and begins to critique the hypermasculinity of terrorism, while at the same time, because Ahmed’s voice is so lyrical and poetic, rendering the beauty terrorism has, the allure and inevitability it has because of that beauty, for those who choose to enter into its ideology.

It would be easy to deny Ahmed’s meditation as mere, if nonetheless dangerous sentimentality, except that doing so would mean failing to read his words in the context of the similarly hypermasculine Israeli occupation. He is, in other words, his ideology is, a product of his time and place. Both he and it, therefore, need to be taken seriously, not just because terrorists kill innocent people—so do the Israelis in pursuing and maintaining their occupation (and it does not matter for my purposes here whether you think this pursuit is justified in the name of self-defense or not); we need to take Ahmed seriously also because the question of how to step outside his hypermasculine logic is one to which the Middle East, and the world in general, desperately need an answer.

Antaki confronts her character with this question by throwing him a real curveball. His Palestinian mother, whom he thought was dead and who, after a long search, finds him one day in the arms of Iman, hands over to Ahmed his Jewish father’s diaries. It turns out that his father escaped the Nazis during World War II.

“There are not many Jews in your town, but your name is David, I cannot believe it. The joy of finding you and then suddenly losing you, obliterating you. Father, you are a Jew! It is you whom I deny and assassinate. Life’s effrontery produces buried mysteries, trembling and shouting voices. I am afraid of the truth, it sometimes delineates accursed and irreparable destinies.” (21)

I assume that much of the rest of the novel will be about Ahmed’s coming to terms with this truth. At this point, all he does is imagine his father’s childhood in Europe at time of the Nazi occupation of France. What interests me here is Ahmed’s evocation of the Shabbat services his father attended and the how, in Ahmed’s imagination, the prayers connect the Jews who are praying under occupation to the land of Israel. “In the clergyman’s words [the people at the service] unravel the mysteries of a distant land beyond the seas, a country of prophets where milk and honey flow” (34).

As Ahmed understands it, it seems, Israel is a mythical place to the Jews of Europe, a place that exists only in their imaginations and that, in their imaginations, is the “land of milk and honey,” not a contemporary place, inhabited by people, with an economy, a politics, a history of its own. I don’t want to make more of this in terms of the novel itself, since I have not yet read enough to know what Antaki is going to do with it, but it struck a chord in me nonetheless because it is a central tenet of one argument people sometimes use to delegitimize Jewish nationalism—and I use that term rather than Zionism simply because I want to name the feeling that I am talking about and not get caught up in the question of whether, given the actions and policies of the Israeli government, Zionism can only signify the political ideology of that government.

I am aware that what it means to say that the Jews are a people, a nation, is complicated, not least by the fact that European Jewish nationalism, with its focus on establishing the State of Israel, was not unequivocally embraced by Jews in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, to suggest that the feeling itself is purely fantasy, rooted only in ties to a mythical place and not in a felt cultural and historical connection between and among Jews is to deny the Jews’ own understanding of our identity. I’m not arguing that this feeling gives Jews the right to a Jewish state in the land of Israel. That’s a whole other question. I am just wary of the kind of thinking Ahmed displays in quote above.

Like I said, I don’t want to say more in terms of the novel itself. I am, however, very interested to see what Antaki does with this.

Cross-posted.

Posted in Jews and Judaism, Palestine & Israel | 6 Comments  

Mandolin’s Novella “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” Nominated for a Nebula Award!

fotosjcmdotcom-dance-prints-721w-008

Congratulations to Mandolin on being nominated for a Nebula award, for her 2014 novella Grand Jeté (The Great Leap), published under her meatworld name “Rachel Swirksy.” You can read the novella here, and read Brit Mandelo’s review of it here.

Incredibly, this is Mandolin’s sixth consecutive Nebula nomination. She has won twice in the past, for her novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window, and last year for her short story If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love.

(Photo by Jesus Armand.)

Posted in Mandolin's fiction & poems | 7 Comments  

Open Thread And Link Farm: The Dress Is Bigger On The Inside Edition

tardis-dress
I think that’s the best Tardis dress I’ve ever seen. (I don’t know the name of the cosplayer, but her Facebook page is here.) (UPDATE: Her name is Sasha Trabane, and thanks to Daran for finding that.)

  1. Safe Space For Possibly Unpopular Thoughts on Feminism, Leftism — Crooked Timber
  2. Trading the Megaphone for the Gavel in Title IX Enforcement (Thanks, G&W!)
  3. Also the thought that men being hurt is okay or deserved so long as they’re being hurt at the hands of other men is pretty awful. Like, firstly, women police masculinity and enforce gender roles. But even if that weren’t true, are we really saying that we don’t care about people who are suffering because they happen to be the same gender as the people who set up the system that causes the suffering?
  4. A Jew in Paris | The American Conservative
  5. Did Falling Testosterone Affect Falling Crime? | Slate Star Codex The short answer is “no,” but (as the post points out) that just raises the question – why didn’t it?
  6. For Those of Us Who The World Is Not Ready, Qualified, Able, or Willing to Love: Happy Valentine’s Day -
  7. GOP’s Scott Walker so anti-science he can’t affirm Evolution | Informed Comment
  8. Amp’s comment: I’m not saying there aren’t Democrats who are also fools. I am saying that no Democrat who was this blatantly anti-science would be a highly plausible contender for winning the primary and being the party’s candidate for President. See also Climate Change, of course.

  9. Drug Testing Welfare Users Is A Sham, But Not For The Reasons You Think | Slate Star Codex
  10. Obama’s “Limited” Perpetual War | The American Conservative
  11. The Revolution Will Not Be Plus-Sized | Tastefully Ratchet Amp’s comment: Although I thought about it for days, I don’t think I agree with this. The availability of clothing that fits well and is affordable is a basic necessity in our society, not the frivolous concern as this blog post paints it. And because the ability to look in a mirror and think there’s any positive value at all in what you see is one that has been systematically denied to fat people. The left should be advocating for both better clothing for fat people and better treatment of clothing workers; being in favor of the latter doesn’t require not advocating for the former.
  12. ‘I Just Had an Abortion’ – Wellness & Empowerment – EBONY
  13. Millennials living with parents: It’s harder to explain why young adults return home than you think.
  14. Anti-Feminist stereotypes about feminists haven’t changed much in 200 years, as these old political cartoons show.
  15. Who Should See Recordings From Police Bodycams? – The Atlantic
  16. “The acceptance of reason as an idol, on whose altar you sacrifice the earth, while you called it a slip loop, which I dropped over her face.” A Twitter account which mashes up John Norman’s Gor novels and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. (Via).
  17. The White House is taking a big step to let addicts get the medicine they need – Vox
  18. Obamacare is costing way less than expected – Vox
  19. CA: AG Harris Drops Appeal in Wake of Judge’s Suggestion Prosecutor be Tried for Perjury | The Open File
  20. Black teens who commit a few crimes go to jail as often as white teens who commit dozens – The Washington Post
  21. In ‘Mark of the Beast’ case, EEOC defends the religious liberty to belief it thereby proves to be factually untrue
  22. Could the Fast Food Industry Pay $15 an Hour? – Lawyers, Guns & Money
  23. Mike Huckabee: ISIL Beheadings Threaten U.S. More Than ‘Sunburn’ Of Climate Change | ThinkProgress
  24. My Fair Lady: A Series of Text Messages — Crooked Timber
  25. Why Have Jews in the U.K. Never Won a Reported Discrimination Case Against Non-Jewish Defendants? – Tablet Magazine (Note: This article is by David Schraub, who blogs at “The Debate Link” and has sometimes posted here at “Alas.”)
  26. Horrible Vanderbilt rape case shows how much we do have a “rape culture”
  27. Black Workers With Advanced Degrees, White Workers With B.A.’s Make Roughly the Same – COLORLINES
  28. “This was essentially a political trial designed to scare the bezeejuz out of anyone who goes anywhere near Anonymous”: Hullabaloo

dog_12

Posted in Link farms | 108 Comments  

The Politics of Being a Man Who Survived Childhood Sexual Violence 2

(You can read Part 1 here.)

I have been remiss in not telling you about a book in which two of my poems have been published, Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement. Both poems are from my first book, The Silence of Men, and I am pleased that Voice Male’s editor, Rob Okun, chose them to close each of the sections in which they appear: “Fathering,” which ends with my poem “After the Funeral” and “Male Survivors,” which ends with “The Taste of a Little Boy’s Trust.” (The poem appears at the end of this post.) The latter section is the one I want to talk about here, but first I’d like to tell you a little bit about Voice Male, which is important in its purpose and really quite remarkable in its scope.

Rob Okun has been editing Voice Male magazine since 1983, when it was the newsletter of the Men’s Resource Center for Change. Since then, Voice Male has chronicled what Okun calls, in the title of his introduction, “One of the Most Important Social Justice Movements You’ve Never Heard Of.” Starting with The Oakland Men’s Project in 1979, he sketches the history of profesminist men’s organizations not just in the United States, but internationally as well. Okun writes about groups like Men’s Resources International, which has contributed to important profeminist work in countries as far flung as Nigeria, Nepal, Albania, and Ireland; like Promundo, which does work in Brazil and Rwanda; and like the Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa. Indeed, reading Okun’s introduction, it is difficult not to recognize a movement among men intended to turn what it means to be a man into a way of living more invested in empathy, compassion, and connection with others than in the all-too-often violent pursuit of power and authority around which traditional manhood and masculinity are built.

It’s not surprising, then, that Okun devotes an entire section of Voice Male to the voices of men who have survived sexual violence, for our refusal to be silent, to allow ourselves to be silenced, calls the very foundation of traditional manhood into question. Richard Hoffman’s brief essay, “Ten Thousand Children: A Turning Point,” concludes on precisely this assertion:

When a man chooses to break his silence about boyhood sexual abuse, he becomes a kind of defector from an ideology that sees the world as an arena in which other men are all competitors and each new circumstance yields only victims and victors. It is my belief that only those men with the courage to refuse this conceptual imprisonment and instead choose wholeness can begin to lead us out of the nightmare of patriarchy.

Whether or not you are comfortable with Hoffman’s overtly political language—defector, ideology, imprisonment—Hoffman is right about this: the moment a man reveals himself as a survivor of sexual violence, the moment he insists that a full recognition of his humanity must include recognition of that violation and how it has shaped his life, he calls into question the fundamental characteristics that we associate with “true” manhood, i.e., that a man has to be strong, in control, dominant over others, and, perhaps most especially, sexually inviolate. In the same way, in other words, that there is an inescapable politics to the truth-speaking of women who have survived rape, whether or not those women are intending to speak politically, when men who have survived sexual violence tell the truth about our experience, that truth, whether we intend it or not, is political.

For me, embracing feminist politics was where my healing began. The language with which the women’s movement both named the male dominant culture enabling men’s sexual violence and placed responsibility for that violence squarely on the shoulders of the men who perpetrated it not only helped me to name what my abusers did to me as abuse; it also gave me a target for my rage, a framework for understanding that I was no more at fault for what those men had chosen to do to me than a woman is when a man chooses to rape her. It’s not that I didn’t feel the shame that sexual violation inevitably brings with it. I did. At least intellectually, though, because of the feminist theory I was reading, I understood that shame not as something I deserved, but as a tool my abusers had used quite successfully to keep me silent, even though neither of them had been a part of my life for many years. Feminism, in other words, helped me do some of the intellectual work of healing long before I was strong enough for the emotional work.

That intellectual infrastructure, if you will, was a source of real strength at a time—this was in the mid to late 1980s—when almost no one was talking about the sexual abuse of boys. I remember in particular a summer-camp training session that left me speechless. With the absolute certainty of expertise, the session leader pronounced that he was going to use she as the generic pronoun for children who might choose to tell us they’d been sexually abused. While boys did sometimes experience abuse, he said, their numbers were so very small that he didn’t want to skew our perceptions of what he was going to tell us, perhaps causing us not to recognize the signs of abuse in girls, by including boys in our training. I did not yet have the strength to out myself as a survivor in that kind of situation, but neither was I devastated by what the trainer said, as I might have been without the certainty that feminism provided me.

For me, in other words, healing and feminist politics are inseparable, which is slightly different from the connection Richard Hoffman makes between speaking out and defecting from patriarchy. Speaking out, after all, is by definition a political act, one that positions the speaker in relation to a community and that can be as much about differentiation as about affiliation. Healing, on the other hand, whatever politics may be attached to it, is much more normative, focused primarily on helping someone learn to live as a welcomed member of a community; and the only person who should be allowed to decide whether or not their healing is political, in the sense that mine was, should be the person whose healing it is. This is a line I have not always been successful in walking, neither in the prose I have written about being a survivor nor in the poems I’ve written about that experience since The Silence of Men was published. I often lost sight of the distinction that Hoffman implicitly makes between acknowledging what happens when a survivor chooses to speak out and suggesting that survivors are obligated to do so. This is why, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t written much about this topic in quite some time. It feels good to be able to do so now, almost like a homecoming. In that spirit, I offer you “The Taste of a Little Boy’s Trust:”

The Taste Of A Little Boy’s Trust

Snow still falling this late,
when each house framed
by the window above my desk

is dark, and even my wife’s breathing
has grown indistinguishable
from the quiet, snow still falling

as a truck rolls by, big-cat-svelte
on eighteen wheels, orange
running lights spreading

up and down my block
a Halloween glow
in mid-December,

like a space vessel landing,
bringing me the boy I was
standing in the courtyard, searching

the descending whiteness
for the shapes of ships
I longed to fly away on,

snow still falling this late
when I could be sleeping,
the way I should have been

the night I saw my mother nude,
and her friend on his back, and them both
too slow to hide what they were doing,

and I told my brother and we tried it,
and we tried to understand
why grown-ups did it—how could you let someone

pee in your mouth?—snow
still falling this late
is the whisper we tried to laugh in, breath

the old man dropped, syllable—
when—by syllable—will I
see you?—into my ear, and I

couldn’t move, wouldn’t, and so it wasn’t me
who followed him upstairs, who listened
to the lock click shut in the door, and it wasn’t me

whose belt he unbuckled, and when
his pants joined mine on the floor, it wasn’t
me he pled with, whose head he used

both hands to pull towards him
when I balked, whose mind
at this moment always whites out

until it wasn’t me
who unlocked the door and walked
to where the snow is still falling

as if even now he waited
in the apartment above mine,
and no matter how many times

my brother asks, I won’t go out,
not even to be first sled down
a virgin hill of the season’s new snow.

Cross-posted.

Posted in Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | 3 Comments  

Rachel Swirsky’s Recommendations for 2014 Young Adult & Middle Grade SciFi/Fantasy Novels

So! I’m on the Norton jury this year, which is the jury that’s responsible for reading widely for the award (which is given to young adult and middle grade science fiction and fantasy novels). After SFWA voters wisely nominate their own slate, the jury has the option of adding 1-3 worthy books which voters may not have come across in their travels. (The assumption is that most SFWA voters are primarily writing and reading fiction for adults.)

To that end, I’ve read (or at least read part of) about 75-80 books. The process for acquiring these was less difficult than it can be for me in other categories because the books came to my mailbox. So many books. Droves and droves of books. For a while, we’ve had books sprawling across many of our surfaces. Thank you to all the authors and publishers who trusted us with their work.

I did add books to my reading that didn’t come straight to my door. I gathered these via recommendations, although that wasn’t a big part of my process this year. I also tried to follow books by authors who I’ve previously enjoyed, which is why I bought A. S. King’s novel, for instance (although her publisher did also generously send us the book a while later). Finally, I was really surprised to see the Locus Recommendation list for young adult sf/f as there were a number of pieces I didn’t have my hands on. I don’t know why there was such a disparity in what we were seeing and what the Locus reviewers were seeing. The Locus list alerted me to Emmi Intarata’s MEMORY OF WATER, for instance.

Being on the jury, I was able to participate in a collaborative process of figuring out what to read. For instance, if a book got negative reactions from another of other jurors, I generally didn’t pick it up.

I have a couple of books on my kindle that I didn’t get to because I ran out of the time I’d allotted for this. There’s also a small pile of hard copy books. I was also frustrated by the fact that, because I had to go through so many books, I ended up abandoning several books 1/3-1/2 of the way through which I would have liked to finish. If I’m reading at full speed (and not doing ANYTHING else) I can do about two and a half full young adult/middle grade books per day. In the end, I just didn’t have enough time. I could have only read Norton books and ignored the other categories, but this late in the game, my doing more Norton reading doesn’t really help–there’s not enough time for me to recommend books to the other jurors and reasonably expect them to be able to read them.

Since I read so many books, I also find that I have a LOT to say about them. I don’t think I can adequately do so in a recommendation post. Firstly, because I don’t have the time to write out reviews of everything I recommend or enjoyed. Secondly, because it would take up way too much space, and be confusing. So, for some of the books, I’m going to resort to short sentences. I can always go back and do fuller reviews in separate posts, I tell myself (although I will probably get distracted by other things because I tend to).

I’m trying not to just default-link to Amazon, so there will be a lot of links to people’s websites and other places where you can find multiple retail options. But I’ll probably also include some Amazon links.

GEMS:

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A. S. King (young adult) – I’m a big fan of A. S. King and her direct, forceful writing. She’s kind of like Chuck Pahlaniuk for kids, but with a Dorothy Allison vehemence and emotionality. That makes her work sound darker than it is–to be fair, sometimes it’s quite dark, but generally her young adult protagonists begin to find their way as they grow up. This story is about a girl and her friend who decide to drink the powdered corpse of a mummified bat, and find that it endows them with visions about other people and their pasts, presents, and futures. The main character pieces together her own future life by watching visions stimulated by other people. It’s not clear if the future she sees is fixed (I sort of imagine it’s not). The characters and clarity of this book are excellent, as is characteristic of King’s work. It’s a very strong novel, beginning to end.

Greenglass House, Kate Milford (middle grade) – I’m also a big fan of Kate Milford, though her writing morphs more from book to book than King’s does. This middle grade is a charming, fun tale about an adopted boy who lives with his parents at an isolated, east coast inn frequented by smugglers. Several mysterious guests arrive just before a major snowfall that traps everyone together. The main character and his accomplice, a young girl, scramble to find the heart of the mystery before the smugglers do. It’s extremely well-executed with the whimsy supported by a strong framework of character detail and emotional development. It’s a compulsive read, weaving the mystery skillfully and demanding attention. It also does some really cool things about considering the main character’s interracial adoption, and his sense of isolation and curiosity about his family, and how those things make him feel intensely guilty. There’s a sense of real love and well-being between him and his adoptive parents, and it’s lovely to see how that can be drawn in the story while still leaving room for the main character to feel unresolved about his identity. The novel is beautifully shaped as a whole.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED:

Ambassador, William Alexander (middle grade) – This novel is a departure for Will Alexander, a contemporary and fanciful science fiction novel about a young American boy with Mexican parents who is chosen by a strange alien creature to become the ambassador for the earth. The science fiction bits are just a lot of free-wheeling, engaging fun. As the ambassador, the main character is immediately thrown into a situation where he has to investigate and resolve an interstellar conflict while trying to avoid the attention of a nearby genocidal alien race. Simultaneously, his real life is thrown into chaos when his father is pulled over at a stop sign and discovered to be an illegal immigrant. The story has really smart threads about immigration and cooperation. I particularly liked that the main character’s super power is that he’s extremely perceptive about people, and kind and empathetic as he tries to make sure the people around him are safe and happy. It’s wonderful to see someone writing a well-developed young boy with those traits because they’re pretty awesome and boys can have them, too. (It reminds me of the debate I’ve had online about Dr. Who, wherein the arguer says that Dr. Who is a rare beast because he’s a male character who solves things with intelligence and diplomacy while actively avoiding violence.) The ending of the novel was weird; I think I know what Will Alexander was doing, and I suspect it’ll all be resolved in a satisfactory way in the sequel, but I felt the last couple paragraphs were a misstep when presented without follow-up.

Girl on a Wire, Gwenda Bond (young adult) – Two rival circus families with a complicated Past end up traveling together; the main character, Julieta, who does a high wire act, falls for a son of the rival family, Remy, also known as Romeo. The thing that worked for me least here was the Romeo and Julieta naming convention; the parallels to Romeo and Juliet are clear enough in the set-up, but the story goes its own way plotwise (which was good), and I wasn’t persuaded that it was a good idea to tie it so closely to Shakespeare. It does prepare the reader for the death of one of the teenage characters, though, and I wondered whether that was the point. This is a fairly straightforward young adult romance with magical underpinnings, but I thought it was particularly well-executed, with memorable events and a memorable character. The romance employed several tropes that usually bug me a lot, but that only irked me slightly in places here, perhaps because while the main characters are star-crossed in their fates to love despite their families, they never go into much of a will-we-or-won’t-we oh-but-you’re-my-enemy tailspin, and instead all in love and move on from there. I also really liked the secondary characters, Julieta’s cousin and nana, and Remy’s sister. The circus imagery really distinguishes it, especially the main character’s passion for the high wire, and her love of past high wire peformer, Bird Millman, who did walks between skyscrapers while holding a parasol.

Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (young adult) – People I’ve spoken to have really polarized reactions to this book which I find interesting as I thought it was straight-up good. It’s traditional science fiction with a lot at stake and an interesting slant on character. It seems to me that some of the divide over the book had to do with whether or not people resonated with the voice. I did. I thought this novel moved in the same space as Alaya Dawn Johnson’s SUMMER PRINCE, in terms of putting real, well-done YA in unusual science fiction settings. In this story, the main character is born as part of a fundamentalist cult that lives in space. The cult appears to be based on fundamentalist Mormon cults, involving non-consensual plural marriage of minors, and abandonment of young boys. (This could describe other cultural situations as well, but the material trappings of the cult seemed to indicate a fundamentalist LDS inspiration.) I should emphasize here that I don’t think the word Mormon is ever used, and even if it were, the novel would not be a reflection on mainstream Mormon practice. Inhumane fundamentalist cults don’t represent whole religions, and it is a pet peeve of mine when people conflate the two out of ignorance. The novel is depicting a problematic cult. Anyway, when her father announces that she’s going to be married, the main character thinks she’s going to be the first wife of the son of the visiting ship captain; the son thinks so as well. They meet tenderly and in private to discuss how pleased they are, but are discovered, and it’s revealed that she was actually meant to marry the ship’s captain himself. She’s declared dead for having sullied herself and exiled to Earth where she learns to navigate the strange-to-her cultures. She also tries to help other people who have been ill-served by the cult, including boys who have been exiled from their families in order to sustain the polygynous system. While the structure is a bit lumpy in parts, I thought this was a well-done and unusual novel and I recommend it strongly.

Otherbound, Corinne Duyvis (young adult) – This was the right novel for me at the right moment; I descended upon it and devoured it from first to last page, totally compelled by the storyline. There are two main characters (who don’t romance each other!). One is a boy who lives in our world but suffers from visions wherein he is fully immersed in a painful and jarring fantasy world, a situation that no one in our world knows how to explain, and so they call a variety of epilepsy which he goes along with so as not to be considered psychotic. (For people who have a sensitivity to the trope, that does mean that the novel falls into the “magical disability” category; I felt it navigated the issue well enough, but others may disagree.) The other is the girl whose mind he drops into when he has those “seizures” — an enslaved magic-wielder who has been violently dealt with by her owners, who have cut out her tongue, regularly beat her, and do things like burn her hands (she has healing powers so they can cause her extreme pain without risking her life). She is bound to protect a captive princess who tries to mitigate the excesses of her treatment but has very little power to do so. They’re on the run from a curse. I found the girl’s storyline completely, viscerally engaging, and I thought there was sharp character development, and really well done rendering of trauma, especially given that it was leavened by opportunities for action and escape. I gave my copy of this book to my niece (who was a couple months shy of eleven); my brother looked up reviews which were very upset about how violent it is. I was worried, but my brother shrugged, and said if she didn’t want to read it, she’d stop (that’s how I was raised, too, but I don’t assume all parents give their kids free range). Instead, she started it on Christmas day and read it with such constant attention that we often had to break her out of it to get her to participate in family activities. As soon as there was a lull, she was back in the book.

The Glass Sentence, S. E. Grove (middle grade) — I fell in love with the beginning of this strange and beautiful novel about a girl who lives in a world where time has cracked, causing different parts of the world to tumble into different eras, past and future. She’s from nineteenth century Boston and crosses into strange territories looking for her uncle, a kidnapped explorer. The novel has this beautiful imagery about maps, and the types of maps, and how they function. I was utterly enchanted by the voice and world building, and some of the story was quite haunting. When I started, I expected the story to be about the main character’s journey with her uncle; when he was removed from the picture and replaced with a romantic interest, I was less enchanted. The adventure part of the book got bogged down, I thought, and was less interesting than a quieter story against this stunning background might have been. But that’s quite possibly my idiosyncratic reaction; I often want more subdued stories and get bored by world-saving. Despite that, it’s quite a good book, and definitely notable for its odd loveliness.

Egg and Spoon, Gregory Maguire (middle grade) — In this sweeping epic, Maguire takes on Russian mythologies, particularly that of Baba Yaga, in a Tzarist setting of both poverty and grandeur. He takes two pre-adolescent protagonists — one, a starving member of the proletariat, the other an aristocrat — and forces them together in what looks initially like it will be a Prince and the Pauper mix-up but eventually becomes more sophisticated. As always with Maguire, the descriptions are very beautiful (especially of manmade objects), and there’s a sort of breathtaking grace in the sweep of his world-building. Another reader wondered if this cribbed too much from the Russian epics; I can’t really speak to that because I haven’t read most of them. Baba Yaga is a time traveler, constantly throwing out anachronisms, which is often something that bugs me, but for some reason, worked for me here. I also liked that the aristocratic girl’s aunt had foibles but also generosity, as did her governess and butler. The novel works smoothly up to the halfway point; after that, I thought it got bogged down with itself and some of its detail and started to move slowly. But it’s really gorgeous and striking and I expect I’ll remember it for a long time. I also expect it would reward rereading.

Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (young adult) – An adopted piano prodigy feels stifled in her regimented life with her perfectionistic mother. She meets a homeless teenage runaway with psychic powers and they decide to run away from the city together. The story of their travels is interwoven with the story of their meeting and pasts, as well as mysterious encounters with a figure who is heavily implied to be the devil. The speculative thread of this (the devil figure) is never particularly developed or resolved, which didn’t bother me as much as it did other readers I talked to, but did actually seem like a drawback. I wanted something more from the ending than what it gave me, and further development of the devil figure seems like the easiest way for it to have achieved that, although there are other methods, too. (Looking at the amazon page for the book, it looks like this may be part of a longer sequence of novels, which might be why it’s not particularly resolved.) The character development, language, and detail are sharply and astonishingly developed. There’s a lot of non-moralistic depiction of heavy drug use in the book which makes it unusual for YA, but also makes it feel very honest. As a gift-giver, I’d probably skew toward giving the book to people near the top of the young adult age range–probably sixteen or over–but younger teens may well be fine with it. I’d just want that to be something they negotiate for themselves/with their parents. I certainly read pretty honest and dark stuff as a teen.

RECOMMENDED:

Witch’s Boy, Kelly Barnhill (young adult) – Trademark Kelly Barnhill whimsy with omnipotent, distinct storyteller voice. A witch’s son and the daughter of a bandit use the last of the world’s magic to stop a war. Also trademark: Barnhill is surprisingly good at creating folk tale imagery and threads that have the same feel as the folk tale lexicon, but are in fact her own, new creations. Not as unique as IRON-HEARTED VIOLET, but perhaps better structured.

Death Sworn, Leah Cypess (young adult) – I find Cypess easy and engaging to read, as in this story of a sorceress sent to teach magic to a cloister of assassins. Liked the magic system, liked the main character, liked the read. Felt the ending flattened out a little, and it didn’t seem as distinct from other YA as some of her work has been. Good, enjoyable read.

Chasing Power, Sarah Beth Durst (young adult) – Durst is always an enjoyable read for me, and is here, too. A girl with the power to move very small objects with her mind finds her life upset when a boy reveals that he’s discovered her secret and blackmails her into embarking on a risky endeavor to rescue his kidnapped mother. Really liked the main character lots and got really attached to her. Also liked the clear love for archaeology in the text. Didn’t feel as unique to me as Durst’s work can be, and felt that it got bogged down in the last third.

Memory of Water, Emmi Itaranta (young adult) – Debut science fiction novel. World after environmental crises have caused global warming, severe droughts, and loss of many advanced technologies. A young girl who inherits her father’s role as a tea master guards her family’s secret, a hidden spring, which has to be concealed from a military obsessed with controlling all access to water. Absolutely exquisitely written, with many beautiful contemplative passages, and gorgeously evocative sensory details. Loved the development of the secondary characters, especially the main character’s best friend. This was another one that got bogged down for me toward the last third with what felt like a lot of repetition of the same kind of emotional moments. Also, it was coy with giving information, which is a minor peeve. Let me reemphasize its beauty, though.

Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (young adult) – I generally adore Alaya Dawn Johnson’s work, but for some reason this one never really grabbed me, narratively. I felt like there was a tension between the personal plot, which was about the main character’s assertion of her sense of identity against her parents, and the action plot, which was about secret agents and plagues and drugs and terrorism. The two intertwine structurally, but somehow seemed to resist each other in my reading. I liked the personal plot more. The writing is really sharp, the characters are well done, and the scenes between the main character and her paramour Coffee are often intriguing and unexpected.

Evil Librarian, Michelle Knudsen (young adult) – This wasn’t particularly unique, but it was surprisingly fun. Like a really good and satisfying episode of Buffy. (Not like it was copying Buffy, just it had that sense of “let’s go and have fun, and be teens going through emotional stuff, and face ridiculous supernatural threats”). High school student faces down demon librarian. Plus Sondheim!

Mortal Heart, Robin LaFevers (young adult) – The third book in the HIS FAIR ASSASSINS trilogy which is about a convent of nuns who are the daughters of the God of Death and who train as assassins to act as his hands in the world. In this final book, the main character, suspicious of the abbess’s motives, runs away from the convent, risking the anger of her god and his hell-riders. What really impresses me is that it’s so unusual for a third book: it’s as good or better than the earlier books, and I think it would even stand alone. That’s some talent, right there.

Black Dog, Rachel Neumeier (young adult) – Three children, one of whom is a werewolf, flee north after their parents are murdered to find the pack that their father had abandoned and beg to be taken in. As they try to adapt to the new pack’s hierarchy, they also have to fight off hostile their parents’ murderers who have followed them northward and are trying to kill their new pack, too. This story dealt with a lot of themes I like and that are common to Octavia Butler’s work, including characters struggling to negotiate biological imperatives that force them into hierarchical social orders. Because of that, I kept sort of reading a shadow Octavia Butler book as I was reading this one, and wishing that the characters had been drawn with just a touch more of Butler’s sharpness and ambiguity. This probably didn’t serve the book well. On the one hand, it meant I was really into it; on the other, I was preoccupied with considering other ways it could have been written. I felt it suffered a bit from bluntness, but was still quite striking.

OF INTEREST:

Drift, M. K. Hutchins (young adult) – Some of the most unique worldbuilding I’ve seen in young adult novels. May be particularly interesting to those with an interest in anthropology.

The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, E. K. Johnston (young adult) – Does not include a romance!

Lockstep, Karl Schroeder (middle grade) – Got my hands on it late & had to abandon mid-book for time reasons once I realized it wasn’t a top spot contender for me. Will go back to it when I can. Old-fashioned gosh-wow adventure with lots of hard SF cookies.

The Cure for Dreaming, Cat Winters (young adult) – Interesting take on women’s suffrage movement.

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Rachel Swirsky’s Recommendations for Novellas Published in 2014

Every year, I try to binge read short fiction and make recommendations on it. I am not able to do a very comprehensive job this year. First, because I’m on the jury for the Norton Award (given to science fiction and fantasy young adult and middle grade speculative fiction) which ate a lot of my reading time. Secondly, my health has been poor.

Novellas are the one reading category which I didn’t have to significantly abridge. I admit that’s because I never read too many of them. This year, I looked at eighteen, although if I had another day or two, I’d expand that to at least twenty. I gathered these novellas by:

1) Requesting recommendations directly from other writers, and looking at their posts recommending stories. This year, I did a lot of reading from lists by Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard.

2) Reading the year’s run of Asimov’s, which is a regular novella publisher.

3) Picking up the most commonly recommended novellas on the SFWA message boards. Also, I went through the (relatively short) list of novellas which had been placed in the forums, and downloaded several.

4) Asking individual authors to send me things they were particularly proud of.

I tried to put priority on looking at the newer, less established authors that my process turned up, though I also picked up very highly rated works by authors like Nancy Kress. (It’s why I put low priority on Scalzi’s novella, though, which I didn’t get to… sorry, John.) I also admit to having given priority to novellas I could easily get my hands on, with the exception of the Valentine novella, which I had to go buy. (The horrors! It was completely worth it.)

MY BALLOT

“A Necessary Being” by Octavia Butler (in her collection, Unexpected Stories)

I didn’t think I’d ever get to read another new piece of writing by Octavia Butler and I am astonishingly grateful for being able to do so.

This novella deals with many of Octavia Butler’s accustomed themes. She often wrote about communities formed and maintained by biological necessity. This appears here, also, as the aliens*, who are vaguely reminiscent of insects, have biologically determined castes, including rare individuals born to be rulers. Ruler-class infants are born so rarely that cities vie to make sure they have one; if none are born in a generation, they’ll kidnap and mutilate one in order to force it to stay.

Another of Butler’s common themes–in her more optimistic stories, particularly–is finding ways to navigate biological necessity in order to create better, more peaceful outcomes. Rather than simply breaking the rules, characters have to find a way to get what they want within them. In the SF tradition, iconoclastic rule-breaking is probably more common, but in real life, people are almost always constrained by biology and culture. I value Butler’s attempts to ask: if we have limits, how can we negotiate them anyway? Since I invariably read these as, on a distant level, parables about the biological tendencies toward hierarchy, conflict and xenophobia that appear in human societies, I find her writing very delicate and hopeful. Despite a realistic, bleak view of the terrible things those qualities can force, Butler often writes her way out of the biological traps she poses, imagining strange, often ambiguous, ways through.

This is one of the more unabashedly optomistic stories. I’m not going to say it’s one of her best — it lacks the fast, emotional gut punch of “Bloodchild,” for instance — but it’s still strong. The science fictional elements are interesting; the narrative is intriguing; and her ever-insightful eye is present here, and a wonder to see again.

Hath No Fury” by Kat Howard (Subterranean Online)

In this urban fantasy version of New York, wherein magical and mythical creatures coexist in a surreal way with mundane ones, Medea and her furies continue their work from the Greek tragedies. The main character is a woman who was murdered by her abusive boyfriend, and now — as a fury — avenges other women murdered by their intimate partners. (I appreciate that Howard explicitly includes trans women.) When omens indicate that something is very wrong, she works with Medea, the fates, Odin, and others to chase down the monster at the heart of the labyrinth.

I have a low tolerance for urban fantasy settings wherein mundane things exist alongside mythical ones, which I have no particular excuse for. It’s just a thing I don’t usually like, perhaps because it often seems glib or cute. Kat Howard’s mythical New York City works for me–I think I like that the story takes the presence of the mythical figures as accepted fact, and moves from there. It doesn’t try to reconcile the two views of the city, or make the process make logical sense (a lot of urban fantasy loses me when it tries to make logical sense out of something inherently illogical). It’s surreal; that’s it; the reader is now invited to move on with the story.

Some of Kat Howard’s descriptions of the city and its surreality are lovely, for instance, when the main character describes a section of the city which is perpetually stuck in Tuesday mornings. I also found a number of stand out lines like this one: “The hidden meaning of vengeance is too late” which I feel perfectly encapsulates both the temptation of vengeance and the howling, despairing uselessness of it. This is particularly resonant for me in the context of uncovering some terrible things that were done to a loved one. I furiously want to attack it, avenge it somehow, while knowing it would be fruitless; it wouldn’t change things for my loved one or protect them. The time when I could have interfered to stop the damage is decades past.

I also thought she did a really good job of describing the dynamics of abuse. In particular, I liked the main character’s attempts to reconcile herself as the strong, avenging fury she is in the present with the person who had been thoroughly isolated and wrecked by her boyfriend.

Then I saw myself. My self as I had been, before I became a Fury, before I gave myself a new name. Hollow-eyed and hunched, and walking like I was waiting for a blow to fall.

Near the end of things, I thought, but I couldn’t be sure—I hadn’t recognized how bad things were when I had been living them. I tell myself now that if I had, I would have asked for help, but that’s probably a lie. I see that girl now, and I am embarrassed to have been her, shamed, that I let someone else turn me into that shadow of a thing. We’re supposed to be strong, and it feels like failure to realize you’re not.

“Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress (published solo by Tachyon)

In this novella, a scientist who has recently discovered a new subgroup of mitochondrial DNA, is summoned by the government to participate in meetings with the aliens who have established an embassy in New York. The aliens, it turns out, are humans, transplanted 150,000 years ago to a new world. They are also members of that mitochondrial subgroup and want to identify their relatives, who turn out to include the scientist’s adopted son.

The aliens also reveal that earth is in the path of a catastrophic event, wherein a cloud of “spores” (like those theorized by panspermia) will infect humans with a fatal disease. Many human scientists go to live in the embassy where they can collaborate with the aliens to research a vaccine. The main character’s adopted son also goes to live there, where he can learn more about the alien’s culture, and decide whether or not to join them.

This was a fairly typical Kress novella for me (that’s not a bad thing)–if you like them, you’ll probably like this. If not, I have no idea (since it depends on why you dislike them). It’s grounded in classic science fictional speculation, merging a number of ideas and theories to generate a plot. However, the characters and details are sharply grounded enough that the stories don’t feel dry; there’s emotional resonance, too. There are also a lot of genuinely surprising plot turns, and those that I can anticipate are well-executed. I also appreciate the ways that she creates difficult, upsetting situations, but always leaves a note of benevolence. Characters–and species–are often good faith actors, even if they don’t always seem to be, and even if bad outcomes result from their good intentions. As some writers say, she demonstrates generosity to her characters.

As in many Kress stories, there are a few moments that make me eyeroll a tad–mostly, amid her interesting science fictional speculations, she often includes one or two that I consider ungrounded enough to break the illusion that the story is hard science fiction. I don’t have a problem with stories that aren’t hard science fiction, but when all the signals in the story are saying “this is!” then I get a little frustrated with things being included that are seriously unlikely because they end up being wrapped up in this veneer of truthiness. In this novella, my eyeroll moment was that one of the characters was somehow sensitive enough to people’s physiology to be able to pick up other people’s mitochondrial groupings; he immediately, viscerally feels a loving connection with those who share his mitochondrial DNA. This is eyerolly for me because it’s extremely improbable, and it also plays into some weirdness about the inherent importance of “real” families that I expect would aggravate some of my friends who have strong, nonbiological family ties. (I don’t mind the portrayal of a difficult adoption in this at all, but the implication that it would have automatically been better if the people were more closely related irks me somewhat.) I have some friends who are very sensitive to this theme; they might not enjoy the novella. But I did, a couple eye rolls aside.

I’m not doing much of a thematic analysis here, but it’s a strong work, and very successful at being the kind of story it sets out to be (not an easy task). I enjoy its complex plot and all the intellectual bells and whistles that keep my science fictional brain happy.

The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Rickert (Tor.com)

I have often had trouble immersing in Rickert’s work, although I admit that I was usually trying in high school so my reading taste was suspect. I acknowledge this as entirely my issue, given the number of people with really good taste who adore her writing. But that’s why it was especially nice to sit down to this story and find it absorbing.

It tells the story of a number of women — the mothers of Voorhisville — who were all seduced and impregnated by the same man. They all gave birth to pretty baby boys with metal wings. They tried to hide this, fearing societal reactions, aided by the fact that the babies could retract their wings. Once they got old enough to start flying, though, the women were no longer able to hide the secret. They form a frightening, creepy collective to try to protect the increasingly sinister babies.

The story is told in a sort of consensus format, with the idea being that one of the women is transcribing events, flipping points of view frequently. There are periodic interjections from the group as a whole, speaking in second person. Occasionally, someone else writes a section. There are a large number of characters to keep track of, and I sometimes failed, but several of the stories are interesting and distinctive. (I expect that which ones resonate with which people will differ.)

Rickert does a masterful job of weaving in disturbing details so that the reader is overwhelmed by an increasing sense of doom. This is where I confess I’m a bad horror reader; in the moment when I’m reading it, I am very engaged by all that disturbing stuff. But once I’m done, when I think back on the story, I remember that oh-so-successfully evoked sense of anxiety, and that makes me not want to think about the story. It’s like I get the emotional impact of disliking it, even though what I disliked wasn’t the story, but the emotion which it was supposed to (and did) evoke. I have that problem a little bit with the Valentine below, too. Rickert was just too successful. ;)

I think I would have preferred the story to be pruned by one or two threads, as it would have helped my tracking, and I think the story got weighted down by so much detail at points– the number of characters meant that the pacing of less interesting parts of the story (to me, at least) still had to be quite slow. But that was a minor feeling, and mostly (again, for me) concerned the middle. The beginning was intriguing and pulled me in, even while it spun a mood of trepidation; the ending was fast and visceral and horrifying.

I’m not sure I would read this again (because: disturbed), but it was an interesting read, and is definitely an extremely well-crafted piece that I admire for its skill.

“Dream Houses” by Genevieve Valentine (list of where to buy on her website)

The main character is a trucker whose impatience with staying still has eventually driven her to becoming auxiliary crew on a cargo ship that transports goods to an outlying colony. When the crew’s hibernation pods are sabotaged, only the main character survives, leaving her both awake (because she cannot return to the sabotaged pod) and alone. She calculates the time she’ll have to stay awake during the trip — six years — and prepares for a grueling journey of isolation and deprivation, alone with the ship’s AI, Capella, who appears to have been sabotaged itself so that it can’t (or won’t) tell her what the cargo is that apparently inspired someone to murder the crew.

The novella weaves the present timeline of the main character’s journey with revelations about her past. There’s a theme about choral music as well, which made me wonder if Valentine might be writing in response to Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE, although it could also be a coincidence. I found some of the relationships in the flashbacks hard to sort at first in a way that didn’t feel like it necessarily served the story, and I also question the placement of the first one — which is about choral music — as I found myself unpleasantly disoriented for a bit in terms of big questions of setting and timeframes which I didn’t want to be thinking about. So personally, I had to push a little bit before I got into the story, but that may well be an idiosyncratic reaction.

This is a deeply disturbing novella with lots of visceral, painful moments. There’s a lot to like here, including Valentine’s impeccable skill with craft and language, but I think the thing I most appreciated was the main character. She had a very strong, distinct presence, which was informed by her traumatic past without being overwhelmed by it. I also loved the touches of surreality where the main character started to get confused–for instance, when she begins to believe that one of the dead crew members is alive — they are presented with utter frankness. The main character believes this impossible thing; she also understands the limitations of reality (like, that the crewmember can’t respond to her); she can’t reconcile these things and doesn’t even try, they’re just part of her life. It felt like a refreshing and realistic way of talking about breaks with reality.

I keep going back and forth on which of these novellas is my favorite, but this one may be it. It’s very distinctive and worth chasing down even though it’s harder to access than many of the others on this list.

Recommended

“The Regular” by Ken Liu (list of where to buy the anthology Upgraded on Clarkesworld’s website) – There seem to be at least one or two science fiction mysteries every year in my novella reading. This year, there were two–Liu’s and Murphy’s–and I’ve listed them both. Science fiction mysteries are a harder sell for me than many other forms, as I think the two genres can mix in a glib fashion that I find predictable, and/or the science fiction conventions can actively get in the way of the murder mystery conventions. I prefer a mystery in which I can track the clues and, on reread, see how the author has cleverly left a trail that would have lead me to the correct conclusion. In science fiction, the turning point is often on clues that the reader would have no way of deciphering, because they depend on advanced technology (or, worse, unpredictable fantasy rules); this can work if the writer does enough foreshadowing, but sometimes they don’t.

Liu manages the combination deftly here, producing a good story that is very satisfying in both genres. There’s an emotional arc of character development here, too, which distinguishes the story. It’s much more action-oriented than most Liu and an engaging, fast-paced read. For some reason, it seemed like it would adapt very well into a graphic novel.

My favorites of Ken Liu’s work are distinctly him — they’re stories which just couldn’t have been written by anyone else. For me, this wasn’t one of those stories; it’s not unique. But it’s a deftly done, satisfying science fiction mystery, and I definitely recommend it for people who like those and want a good, entertaining read.

“Claudius Rex” by John Murphy (list of where to buy on his website) – This is a good complement for the Liu. The Ken Liu mystery is more emotionally resonant; the Murphy mystery is more funny and just plain *fun.* It’s a really energetic and compulsive read with a hellaciously obnoxious AI whose voice I really liked. There were a couple places where I felt like it got bogged down in details and back-and-forth, particularly in the ending sequences, but it was just really fun to read. And when it got a bit dry for me, or there was a trope that felt a little too baldly inserted, all I had to do was wait a bit–there were always more treats coming.

The Things We Do For Love” by K. J. Parker (Subterranean Online) – A few of the Parker stories I’ve read have been about diffident, talented-but-rebellious young men. This one is, too–a Duke’s son, turned thief, meets a witch who loves him with disturbing obsessiveness and won’t let him age, leave or die. The thief is therefore sentenced to a sort of monotonous, unending ordeal of carrying off heists that he doesn’t want to do, and that they don’t need to do, because the witch thinks that’s the way to make him happy. I liked this; the voice is engaging; it had lots of interesting moments. I felt that the ending dragged (my guess is that’s because he had two timelines going at once, and one ended a lot earlier than the other), and I found myself less willing to suspend my disbelief about the witch character as the story went on; once she was given a(n interesting) history, I had trouble believing in her vapid, unchanging obsession with the thief. But definitely fun, and strongly in Parker’s ouvre (assuming what I’ve read is representative).

“Boar and Apples” by Ursula Vernon (in her collection Toad Words) – This is a pretty straightforward Snow White retelling, leavened with humor and practicality. There are substantial changes to the ways the characters interact, and the dwarfs have transformed into delightful, magical boars. This isn’t a deep thematic intervention like many of the more serious fairy tale retellings, so people shouldn’t go in with that in mind; it’s not trying to be Valente’s “Six Gun Snow White.” It’s quite successful at its aims: it’s a charming, fun read, enriched by Vernon’s witty dialogue and turns of phrase.

*It’s possible there’s some backstory that makes these genetically modified humans or something, since someone told me this novella connects to one of Butler’s novel-length works. But, at least in the story, they seem like aliens.

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Recommending Fiction from “Across the Aisle”

At some point, I’d like to put together a recommendation list of awesome stuff (science fiction and fantasy, probably only short fiction because that’s where I feel like I really have a specialty) by conservative or right-wing authors.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to do it in the next couple months. :( But I hope it is a project I can get to sometime.

I don’t know everyone’s politics, so I wouldn’t know who to include. Are you a conservative or right-wing author who would like me to look at your work? Please let me know. Or do you have someone to recommend?

Of course, since it would be a recc list I’m assembling, it would reflect my taste. But I think it would be fun, interesting, and worthwhile to have a list of works by conservative or right-wing authors that do suit the taste of this particular bleeding-heart liberal.

I would like to do this in a spirit of celebration of our common love of science fiction and fantasy. We have our differences, and they can be major. But, I hope, there’s lots to appreciate from each other, too.

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As an Alternative to Sea Lions …

I would like to humbly propose ‘ant swarms.’

2015-01-23-Debate

Comic courtesy Robot Hugs, whose other comics are similarly fantastic.

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