Aug 132019
 

In reply to those who were confused as to why I have a strong aversion to they/them pronouns – there are two answers. The primary driving reason is the emotional one, so I’ll cover that first.

1. I don’t particularly care about anyone’s gender (unless they’re a romantic or sexual partner, in which case it’s relevant). I don’t know how many genders there are, but it’s at least three, and I’ve seen claims that they number into the dozens. I don’t have the time or interest to learn everyone’s gender. When I use he/him/she/her pronouns, I use them in their gender-neutral forms. My use of pronouns is simply a reflection of the perceived sexual characteristics of the person I’m referring to. NOT their gender.

I don’t think I’m weird in this. This is the societal default. It’s why tomboys retain the she/her pronouns, and fa’afafine retain the he/him pronouns.

Yes, it is dumb that our language has different pronouns for apparently-male-sex people and apparently-female-sex people. It’s dumb that our brains have different specialized slots for apparently-male-sex people and apparently-female-sex people too, but there it is. When I was young and my brain was being molded, the language parts of my brain were hooked up to the sex-recognition parts of my brain via methods that have been refined through cultural evolution to hook those two parts together very strongly. And it took.

When one insists others use pronouns that contradict with the one’s sexual presentation, I am required to overrule my own lying eyes and instead use arbitrary terms picked by that person. It feels like I am being told there are five lights every single time. Last time it was my church and parents who were telling me there were five lights. Now it’s my friends. :( I am being forced to lie every time I speak of them, and I despise it.

This is bad enough on it’s own! But in addition…

2. Misgendering suffers from Lie Inflation. Many trans people suffer from dysphoria, and successfully transitioning is an intensely laborious task that takes years of effort, and usually major biological intervention. And since perceived sex is socially mitigated, how people are treated can make a big difference to perception for those who are on the borders of passing. So intentional misgendering can be really harmful. “Misgendering” someone used to be the term for a malicious attempt to drag people backwards in their transition.

Of course, if you know your friend is trying to get better at something, the polite thing to do is to act like they’re already good at it. This is why writers can never trust feedback from friends and family. It is polite and affirming to use the pronouns that go with the sex someone is hoping to be seen as. So naturally the term “misgendering” has in time been inflated to include people who are unwilling to deny that a dude with a beard has apparently-male sexual characteristics. As a result, if I don’t constantly monitor myself I am in the same moral ballpark as the fundamentalist who is maliciously tearing apart the years of work of trans people.

And yes, my friends are kind and supportive, and they “forgive” me when I slip up, because they know this is a hard thing that takes a lot of effort. No one is about to disown me (I think), they just keep dropping polite reminders. But inside I am seething, because I don’t need forgiveness for accidentally blurting out that There Are Four Lights. I’m jealous of the people in my social group who haven’t yet been told that Person X is a Them now, because no one judges them poorly for using the obvious pronouns. I sure as hell won’t ever tell them, because I don’t want to the the jerk who has permanently imposed that cost on them. Honestly, if I would be better off not knowing someone’s mystery gender, I wish they simply wouldn’t tell me their gender.

3. This is where I came to see the parallels with my earlier life. I grew up with abusive relationships. As is typical, I recreated my past, so I was in several abusive relationships as an adult as well. A constant in nearly all abusive relationships (and certainly every one I’ve been in) is that the abused party is constantly monitoring their behavior and speech around the abuser so as not to set them off. The common phrase is “walking on eggshells.” Mistakes are rarely punished, of course, but that randomness makes things worse, because you can never be sure you’re safe.

The constant monitoring of my speech to not ever slip into using words that match the perceived sex in this one particular case invokes that exact same feeling. Never has anyone exploded on me for failing to use the neuter pronouns, but of course that just means it’ll be even worse once it does happen, according to my brain. Perhaps I could use this as evidence to slowly move away from this fear, if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the neuter-gender people I personally know have publicly announced “If you can’t respect me enough to use the right pronouns, I don’t want you in my life.”

This wraps up the emotional reasons for hating they/them. The lesser reason is a practical one – there currently is no neuter-sex, and trying to create one in this manner does social harm that isn’t worth the cost. But that’ll be a post for later in the week.

Aug 072019
 

I find myself distressed by the casual fading of my They friends.

I know a number of people who have jumped on the They train. I don’t care what anyone calls themselves, so at first I was all “OK, whatever, you do you.” But not long after that, several of these friends have made it clear they find anyone who doesn’t adopt their new pronouns to be moral degenerates.

I will not do that. I noped out of that game when I abandoned fundamentalist Christianity in my teen years, and I’m not about to bend over for the latest dominance move just because now it’s people on my side asserting moral superiority. But I also like my friends, and seek their acceptance and approval. Until I can figure out what to do about this, I’ve instead stopped using pronouns to refer to them at all.

In their presence, this is super easy. Generally you address people you’re with directly, with things like “Hey, what did you think about that latest episode?” and pronouns never come into it.

But when a friend isn’t present, I refer to them only by their name now. Or simply drop the pronoun from the sentence altogether in a sort of abbreviated slang. Both of these things are very inconvenient. They require constant self-censorship and interrupt the through process, which is a major cost in itself. Perhaps even worse, they remind me every time I want to mention this friend that they’ve joined with the moralizing puritans and are now part of a group that wishes me harm, which hurts.

So I’ve found myself simply not talking about these friends at all. Their existence fades out of my casual conversation altogether. I didn’t notice it at first, and I’m writing this blog post now because I realized just this week that this was happening.

I find that really depressing. It’s counter to one of the things I really like about friendships. :/

Aug 012019
 

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Synopsis: A meteor impact destroys most the east coast of the US in 1952, but no one notices because the real threat is global warming. Except no one notices that either, because the real threat is sexism and racism.

Book Review: The first section of Calculating Stars is fantastic. The meteor strike itself and the immediate aftermath isn’t just visceral and exciting… it’s a Matian-esque uber-science tour-de-force! The genius protag and her husband, in remote mountains at the time of the strike, are able to quickly deduce from physical clues what has happened. Based on knowledge of wave propagation through different substances they calculate roughly how large an impact it must have been, and how far away it was, and therefore how many minutes they have to flee before the blastwave hits them. It’s an absolute blast to see protagonists using science effectively to solve high-stakes problems under time pressure. Of course, surviving the initial blast is just the start. :)

Then the novel skips ahead X months, and all that stops. From this point on, it becomes a social justice drama. The first thing that suffers for this is the realism of the setting. Destroying the industrial and commercial base of the United States would have devastating consequences, a massive recession would be just the beginning. But Kowal clearly wanted to write a story set in our 1950s era, and so we get the cultural and societal reality of OUR 1950s, not a post-devastation one. I realize this is important for a story that wants to be about the racism and sexism of the 50s, but maybe don’t start by blasting away the eastern seaboard soon after WWII then?

There’s also very little actual feeling of racism or sexism in the novel. Like, some people are jerks to our female protag, and we hear about people of color being excluded from high-status jobs, but it’s rarely upsetting. To contrast, I was unable to watch past the first episode of Mad Men. The casual misogyny, the abject dismissal of anything a woman could possibly think, was so effective and enraging that I could not go back to the show. I felt my blood pressure spiking and my guts sickening and even one more episode of that was more than I could stomach. I could name dozens of similar works that enrage me by showing people mistreated, and fill me with righteous zeal to see justice served. Stars doesn’t do that.

Even as a climate-change warning it is ineffective. Bacigalupi writes good climate-change fiction. You want to make people feel, show them the people who are getting hurt. Maybe give us a scene from the PoV of the black families that are being passed over and ignored so white people can be evacuated. The closest we get is a mention of a food riot where no one even gets so much as a bad cut.

Everything that happens after that first time-skip is bloodless and boring. The protagonist is a well-off white woman married to a high-ranking government official. Her problems aren’t really problems. Her gaffes may offend her friends of color. Her interactions with stuffy old men are sometimes unpleasant. None of this matters much. What are the stakes? If she fails, what bad things happen as a result? She feels embarrassed and goes back to her comfortable life? Oh noes. It doesn’t matter though, because she never fails or even meets much opposition. Everything just kinda works out fine.

I think Kowal realized things were too easy and there wasn’t any conflict, so she gives her protag crippling stage fright. But, first, that’s not a very interesting problem. And second, it doesn’t actually change anything. There’s a few paragraphs describing nausea and sweats, and then the protag pulls over her presentation perfectly with great social grace and no one even notices.

Even the sex scenes are dull and awkward. I never thought a sex scene could be boring, but here we are.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of fretting about sexism and racism, some nausea and stage fright, and then things work out ok. This process then repeats itself three or four times, and then the book stops. There was no theme, no character development, no real challenge or stakes. It’s basically just a slice-of-life story of a super-woke white couple in the 50s.

As a novel, The Calculating Stars is a failure.

However I come not to bury The Calculating Stars, but to praise it.

For I have read this sort of work before, and I recognize that anyone who reads this like a novel is reading it wrong. This is not a novel. This is a web-serial. I’ve read a few of these before, and I know people who LOVE them. I know someone who said they don’t really get into a story until it reaches a million words. They basically want to be with a character as they go through their life. Calculating Stars is almost a coffeeshop AU in structure, although without all the relationships. Kowal has basically taken the web serial style of story and is trying to see if it can be monetized by releasing it as books rather than posted weekly online. If it works it’ll be really profitable, and it’s cool that it’s being tried.

I’m not really interested in reading this myself. I like the novel structure, it’s why I read novels, so I was disappointed that I got a woke 50s web serial instead. If you’re into that, you’ll like this. But if you’re like me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Whether this works for your book club depends on how sensitive your group is to culture war stuff. We had some discomfort talking about this book, because everyone had lingering guilt that they were being sexist or racist for finding this to be weak sauce. We did get to talking about how it could have been done better, and how we shouldn’t judge people for liking things we don’t like, and so forth. And it’s not like anyone really disliked the book. It was just kinda there. Honestly it’s possible this could spark some interesting conversation… but I wouldn’t really count on it, because it’s just not very forceful in anything it says. Maybe that’s a good thing, it kept us all pretty sedate and polite. But you’re probably better off discussing something with more oomph. Mildly Not Recommended.

Jul 252019
 

Hugo AwardI hate to say this, because I fear I’m going to isolate people I like. But we have to have a talk about the Hugos.

 

I. Trail of Lightning should never have been a finalist.

It’s not just that it’s a basic wire-rack monster hunter pulp-fiction novel. In my personal opinion, yes, that should be enough to disqualify any work. The Hugo is one of the premier awards in SF fiction. It should go to novels that are innovative, pushing the genre forward. Or that have something important to say about being human, or something urgent to say about the state of the world. It needs to have a higher purpose than just basic entertainment. Trail of Lightning is exactly the sort of pulp adventure that my father mocked me for reading when I was younger, because he didn’t know authors like Heinlein and Le Guin and Jemisin existed. The Hugo awards exist exactly for the purpose of highlighting works that mean more than just a thrilling read.

BUT I know not everyone shares that view. Some people do think that awards should go to things that are just very good at being very entertaining. (I contend those books already get the award of “Best Seller” status, but hey, I guess that’s not enough?). I know this in part because every year something is in the finalist list that makes me roll my eyes and feel like an elitist jerk for a few days.

Unfortunately, even if one contends that pulp adventure is worthy of at least being considered for an award, Trail of Lightning is not a great specimen of that species.

 

II. This is not Roanhorse’s fault, or issue!

I would first like to stress that I am not saying that Rebecca Roanhorse is a bad writer. We know from last year’s short story “Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(TM)” that she can write extremely well, and that she can tackle some very heavy social issues with incredible aplomb. That story was flat-out amazing, and deserved every award and bit of praise it got.

A digression – Simply looking at the timeline of when Authentic Indian Experience was published vs when Trail of Lightning was published, and knowing that the publishing industry never gets a book out the door in under six months (which is already breakneck speed), it is extremely probable that Trail of Lightning was written much earlier in Roanhorse’s career. I suspect as Authentic was gaining buzz, Trail’s publisher approached Roanhorse to ask if she had anything already written that she’d never sold, and she dusted off Trail. I could be wrong, but that seems more charitable than assuming it was a rush job.

The point is, Trail of Lightning is an example of an “early novel.” Many authors are lucky enough to have these – novels that helped them hone their skills, while providing a small paycheck and the validation/encouragement of getting into print, before the authors are very good. Some authors never get these early novels, and a few I’ve talked to say “I’m so grateful in retrospect… they weren’t good novels, and I’m so happy that only my best stuff is out there representing me.” But for every one of those, I’m willing to bet there’s twenty authors who got discouraged and gave up before getting to the X-th novel that was actually Very Good to the point that publishers couldn’t ignore it.

Again, this is NOT a bad thing. To take one example of a man who is rightly called a genius by all readers of genre, and is a British National Treasure – Terry Pratchett. His later writing is absolutely legendary, and you can’t read it and not be completely blow away. But his first several novels? They just aren’t that good. Even the best writers of a generation started out with wobbly fare.

There are authors currently writing in the monster hunter genre that have been at it for many years, with a dozen or more titles under their belts. While I don’t think the works are award-worthy (see above), they are, at least, among the best examples of the species. After so many repetitions of the formula, it’d be hard for those authors NOT to have improved. Some of these authors even openly state that their earlier books aren’t the best, and direct new readers to start a bit later in the series. It’s hard to compare their later works with Trail of Lightning and not see the difference.

 

III. This is not the publisher’s fault either

Trail of Lightning’s publisher, Saga Press, was doing exactly what a publisher should. They saw a rising talent, knew people would want to read more of her work, and snapped up anything they could get their hands on. They then published it in an effort to turn a profit. This is good for the fans, and good for the author. Bravo for Saga, I hope it works out!

 

IV. The Hugo Voters are to blame

Both the author and the publisher are simply doing the best they can in their careers/situations. It’s not their job to be the gatekeepers of quality, their job is simply to keep getting better and making the written works available (respectively). It is literally the job of the nominating Hugo readers, the gatekeepers of the Hugo award, to filter the best that our community has to offer. And yet a large number of these people came together and collectively nominated a less-than-stellar “early novel” of the mindless-pulp variety for one of the most prestigious awards the SF community can give out. How did this happen? Either a lot of people nominated Trail of Lightning without reading it, based on the strength of Authentic Indian Experience… or they did read it, and nominated it anyway.

The really dumb part is that Trail of Lightning isn’t even a social-issue book. It’s a straight-up plain monster hunter novel. The only way one could draw it into the culture-war narrative is by focussing on the author and looking back at her other works and noticing that last year’s Authentic Indian Experience was explicitly about cultural issues. “These two works are by the same author” is not enough to make a pulp novel have a social theme or message.

 

V. This hurts minorities

Look, the really despicable thing about the Puppies movement of a few years ago is that they decided to vandalize the Hugos because they said that authors were getting awards NOT because the works were of high-quality, but because they were minorities and were getting “affirmative action-ed” in. Jemisin specifically called this out in her world-rocking acceptance speech when she said her detractors claim “that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics”.” Her speech still gives me shivers, but one of the things that gave it such joyous strength is that it was so blatantly obvious that she had written one of the best things to have been published in years. She deserved every single ounce of praise that comes with that trophy, because she produced a work that shines with the light of the sun, and puts the claims of the Puppies to hideous shame. There is no need for affirmative action, you assholes, the work speaks for itself, just read it and see!

Nominating a work that is clearly not worthy of this honor doesn’t help anything. Instead it diminishes the achievements of authors like Jemisin or Chiang, because it throws previous nominations into some doubt. Most people don’t know of the excitement of a breakout work of genius like Authentic Indian Experience, and how that exuberance will lead people to snap-vote for the next thing an author puts out without even reading it. They won’t ever get to hear about that, they’ll just see a book that clearly shouldn’t be a nominee, yet is, and will draw their own conclusions… and given the current culture wars, not all those conclusions will be good. And those conclusions will tarnish other winners, those whose only failing was being non-white in the crap-ass world we have right now.

 

VI. The irony is not lost on the historically-aware

Perhaps the most ironic thing about all this is that this is exactly the sort of novel the Puppies wanted to see in the Hugos. Pulp adventure novels about tough-ass monster hunters. Books whose commercial concerns outweigh artistic ones. Someone I spoke with also claims that their baseless idiotic vandalism created a backlash that has put cultural concerns before quality concerns in the Hugos — in effect bringing the Puppies’ distorted claims closer to reality. I’m not so sure, I think it’s much more due to the rise of Trump than anything the Puppies did. Regardless, they probably got a chuckle or two out of it. >.<

 

VII. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Look, what’s done is done. But going forward, more focus on content and less on works viewed primarily (whether rightly or not) as anti-“the other tribe” would be good. Keep the Hugos out of the culture wars, please.

Jul 192019
 

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Synopsis: A monster-hunter hunts down some monsters while grappling with PTSD and trying to get over an ex, which causes her to miss that true love is right under her nose.

Book Review: This is a basic Urban Fantasy paranormal romance book. If you’re into that sort of thing, it could make for some decent trashy beach reading.

I am not into that sort of thing. I like my characters to not act like complete idiots for plot convenience. If the super-attractive magical boy’s eyes glow silver and suddenly people who were very hostile to him start doing whatever he asks, consider that he has persuasion magic. All of us realized it immediately, why is the protag an idiot?

I like my characters to have a reason for doing something, besides “the literal trickster god of this world wants us to do this thing but won’t tell us why.” That’s usually a reason to NOT do a thing.

I prefer to have the plot revealed to me through actions taken in the story, rather than by having the villain reveal it in a “Before I kill you, Mr Bond” monologue completely out of the blue just before his inevitable defeat. (And what an anti-climactic defeat it was!)

This book is the epitome of pulp fiction. It’s a bunch of tropes and events strung together in a story-like manner that can keep one pleasantly distracted with monster-punching if one just wants to turn one’s brain off for a few hours. There are a million books like it, usually found on spinning wire-racks in gas stations and truck stops.

I don’t hate this book, per se. I’ve been known to enjoy some trashy pulp myself, and I would never say people shouldn’t do things that bring them pleasure. But there’s a time and a place for this sort of thing. That time and place is NOT on the Hugo Finalists list. ಠ_ಠ

I have more to say about that topic, but that’s a post about the Hugos rather than book-review stuff, so that’ll be a post for another day. Perhaps after the weekend.

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Book Club opinion was universal – this is pulp. Most of our readers were able to enjoy it as pulp. Every now and then everyone likes to just let go. So there was plenty of time taken to gripe about the classic stupidities of the genre, which was mostly done in a humorous manner, and some admiration of a few of the fun points. It was pointed out that this is one of the few times (for one reader, the first time he could recall) that a kick-ass woman was written realistically as a real female hard-bitten ass-kicker (rather than the stereotypical “strong female hero” that’s never very believable), and I’ll give it that. Everyone also agreed that this is a book they’ve already started forgetting, and they’ll likely never think of it again. Those who have opinions about the Hugos were also dismayed that this was nominated, and those who don’t were surprised that it was.

There’s nothing special here, so unless your book club also follows the Hugos and wants to have a discussion about that specifically – Not Recommended.

Jul 152019
 

Calamity Jane

I’m using “gender” in the now-accepted usage meaning “societal roles,” as distinct from biological sex. I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.

Tomboys are not expected to behave like feminine girls at all. They play with boys toys, they wear boy clothes, the talk with boys vocabulary, and their primary peer group is male children. They sometimes have a hard time gaining acceptance with the local boys, depending on the region, but often find a way to gain acceptance and are included in boys games and rough housing. Other girls find tomboys odd and off-putting and don’t socialize much with them.

Upon reaching puberty many tomboys are reluctantly forced into feminine peer groups, but even so, many stay distinctly separate in demeanor and activity choices throughout life. They repair cars and don’t take shit, etc. You know the stereotype, if you live in an anglophone country you’ve met one.

I don’t think people realize this is a third gender, because this social role has been around for far longer than the idea that “gender” means “social role” has been around. Most people still equate gender with sex, and tomboys are overwhelmingly female. But its pretty easy to identify the female-bodied people who are feminine-gendered and those who are tomboys within just a few minutes of conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that, many are apparent from dress, attitude, and stance. Perhaps I’m overestimating how easy it is, I may have unconsciously developed the skill since I’m personally attracted far more to tomboys than any other gender. But I’d wager most Americans can discern between the two very quickly, as we run into so many of both types.

I believe that the presence of the tomboy gender is why clothes that were traditionally only worn by men (most famously trousers, but pretty much every man-gendered clothing) are acceptable clothing for women. The prevalence of tomboys moved male-clothing into ok-for-both-sexes territory, and the feminine-gendered benefited by this. There is no equivalent socially-accepted alternate gender for males, so the same thing never happened to women-gendered clothing, and thus it still looks “funny” for a man to wear a dress.

There are interesting parallels between tomboys and the Samoan fa’afafine. First, both genders are basically restricted to a single sex. Secondly, both are named for the sex that its members feel comfortable with, in contrast to their own sex. Ie:  fa’afafine comes from fa’a–, meaning “in the manner of”, and the word fafine, meaning “woman”. Tomboy comes from the English name “Tom,” which around the 16th century was such a common boy’s name that it came to be interchange for the word “boy.” “Tomcat” means “male cat” for example. So tomboy emphasizes just how boyish the girl is, so much so that the gender-name means boy twice. And finally, both genders are given the pronouns of their sex. So fa’afafine use the male pronouns (English equivalent of he/him) and tomboys use the female pronouns (she/her). (Note that I DO NOT have much knowledge of the Samoan culture or the fa’afafine gender, so these could be entirely surface-level similarities without much substance)

Much like the metaphorical fish that doesn’t notice the water it’s swimming in, Anglophone societies simply didn’t notice that there is a third gender within them. By the time the term “gender” began to mean what it does now, the two female genders had already been around for centuries, and no one really bothered to think of them as separate genders. They were both just “ways to be a girl.” But it very much seems to me that we have been, in fact, living with three genders all this time.

Or am I missing something? This is somewhat tentative, and I’m curious as to what others think about this.

Jul 082019
 

By ancient tradition, our book club reads the online-available Short Stories and Novelettes that have been nominated for the Hugo Award every year. Here’s my reviews.

 

Best Short Story Category

The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker

A fantastic tale about our quest for knowledge, and the price we’re willing to pay to understand. This is perhaps a tragedy, or borderline horror? Which means it’s perfect for me. :) But in the end, after the narrator asserts that the protagonist has given up, in the very last line we learn that the protagonist is still asking “How?” He still wants to know how the magic works, and I am willing to bet he could still cast the Spell if he wanted to. Which fills me with hope and happiness. Much like us, his desire to know is too deep. Even when he thinks he’s given up and moved on, it’s still there, prodding him and shaping his life. :) I liked this one.

 

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher

Oh man. There’s this tension in awards, or at least, in the Hugos, between “This should be a great work of merit that will be remembered for decades” and “This was so much fun it’s my favorite yaassssss!” For an award as prestigious as the Hugos, I think the works SHOULD have great SF/F merit. OTOH, it’s hard not to cheer for something that you love just cuz it’s a ton of fun.

I bring this up because this story is pure fluff. It’s literally a wish-fulfillment sex-comedy. And the thing is, I love it. I love Rose, I had a huge amount of fun reading this. I still brings a smile to my face. But, like, really, this is not award-worthy material. It’s pure candy. One member of our book club was actually angry, because its nomination took away a spot that an actual deserving work could have been in. I wasn’t angry, because I enjoyed this story so much, but I agree. This should not have been nominated. So, Recommended, but wtf Hugo voters? What happened to standards?

 

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark

This is not a story. This is nine vignettes that are probably world-building exercises for a novel that will be great. I say this because the world-building is absolutely fantastic. Revolutionary America with wearwolves and voodoo magic and all sorts of amazing mythological/magical forces that have their own vested interests in this war and it’s outcome. I’m super excited to read a story set in this world! I’m kinda sad that we don’t have one yet. There are no characters in this world-building exercises. There is no plot. It’s just setting a foundation.

I immediately compared this to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, because famously, it is another story without any characters or any plot, it’s simply a description of a world. And it’s one of the most well-regarded short stories in SF history. But there’s a major difference. Omelas has something to say. It takes utilitarianism, and it asks the reader “Do you really believe this, in your soul? Are you OK with this?” It is a critique of a moral philosophy, disguised as a story. And it’s only a few paragraphs long. Nine Teeth goes on forever without saying anything of substance. Maybe “slavery sucks”? But that’s not really interesting, and we all already know that. It’s certainly on the same level as “A major school of current ethical thought has this consequence, can you live with it?”

Not Recommended

 

STET by Sarah Gailey

I admire this story for its ambition. It tried to do something amazing, to tell a story through implication, wrapped in the footnotes of a dry tech analysis. It’s demands work from the reader. Doing this sort of thing is hard, and so it’s not huge strike against it that the story fails. What should land as a gut-punch is instead a glancing blow. The revelations are interesting, but lack the eye-opening character. A good effort, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I guess I’m reaching an age were I can compare new things to older things now, which is kinda weird. But this story immediately brought to my mind Kenneth: A Users Manual, which tries the same trick, but gets it RIGHT. Kenneth is gut-wrenching and beautiful, and tells a story in the addendum and footnotes of a “user manual.” I would recommend that story instead, it’s everything this one wanted to be, and still makes my blood sing.

 

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat by Brooke Bolander

Another one of those stories that are fun but don’t have any substance. It’s basically a straight-up adventure with some jokes thrown in. Less pure-campy fun than Rose MacGregor, this story is completely forgettable. I actually forgot it already, and I had just read it like 10 days ago. Pass.

 

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow

The most beautiful and heart-wrenching of all the shorts this year. Holy crap guys. Remember that tragic and soul-searching essay by Rainbow Rowell, “Learn To Read, Kid, But Don’t Fall In Love“? This story is basically an exploration of that, but taking the opposite stance. Escapism is important, and for some people, absolutely vital. There is only so much real-life that some people can take when their lives are absolute shit. And SF/F provides an escape world that is so much better than most other options of escapism. It’s heartwarming in parts. It’s wrenching in others. When you learn what these kids are going through, and you learn how the protagonist failed them before, it’s just… man. It’s hard. You feel the feels.

In the end I was left wondering, though. Is that escape REALLY a good thing. The kid that our protagonist helped… is he better off? And is this story dangerous, a memetic hazard, for those of us in the real world that DON’T have magic? It made me feel, and it made me think. It’s so good. It deserves all the awards, Strongly Recommended!

 

Best Novelette Category

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho

At first it seems this will be a story of the value of perseverance, which we’re not exactly lacking, ya know? But then it turns into a story of failure. The story of how to continue on with your life once its clear you never will achieve your goals, you have failed in your ambition in life, and you will never be good enough to fulfill your dreams. Basically what 99.9% of the population goes through when it reaches middle-age. This is not a story we have in abundance, at least not in the SF/F genre, and it was a refreshing change to read. What do you do after failing at life? It’s not like you’re going to kill yourself. You just have to keep on keeping on, and find joy in other things. Like relationships, and family. And, again, the despair makes it the sort of story I enjoy.

But then in the end it returns to “Actually, it’s never too late to achieve your dreams, just keep on trying and you’ll get there!” Which I guess makes for a feel-good ending, but felt cliche. Overall, I thought this one is OK.

 

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly

A revenge story, with beautiful, mouth-watering descriptions of food. The protagonist doesn’t actually do anything, which is unusual. She basically just tells the reader about how her husband exacts revenge on the bloodthirsty tyrant via clever trickery, and describes the poisoned treats he passes on. It’s strange to have such a passive protag, but overall a pretty good story.

 

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory

Frankly, I didn’t understand this story at all. It’s nine vignettes, describing nine days in the protagonists life, starting in his childhood and ending in late senescence, when he’s in his 90s. But like… there’s no story? And no theme? And we see how the character evolves over the years, but since each vignette is so brief we don’t really feel any life-changing moment. Smarter readers in my book club said that it’s basically a story about the human race adapting to circumstances beyond our control, fitting ourselves into the changing shape of an unfathomable world. Looking back over the story, I agree that there’s a theme of slow, gradual change and adaptation in the character arc. But overall, this felt like a literary story without much meat to it. All style and mood, without any point. I didn’t like it.

 

The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer

Meh. The protag cares for her mother as she slowly dies of Alzheimer’s, putting the rest of her life on hold. Afterwards she feels empty and doesn’t deal with the grief, since what was her mom died slowly over many years, and by the time the body passed her mother had long ago faded away. The ghost of her mom leaves the protagonist a sign that she’s OK, and she’s proud of her daughter, and there is a sense of closure. This basically reads like MFA Lit Fic, with a ghost thrown in. I disliked it. Interestingly, I was alone in this, everyone else in my book club loved it. Maybe I’m just jaded and grumpy.

 

When We Were Starless by Simone Heller

Now this — THIS was fantastic! For starters, the author makes the reader do some *work*. You aren’t spoon-fed anything, and the world in this story is drastically different from our own. As the people within it are used to the world, the reader has to slowly piece together from clues and descriptions what’s actually happening in our terms. It’s a delightful puzzle, and it’s not so hard that anyone can’t do it with a bit of perseverance. I don’t want to spoil the puzzle by giving away anything, but rationalists will find this world right up our alley.

More importantly, the story sparks within the reader a joy of learning, and the wonder of scientific advancement. You know that feeling you got when Harry shows Draco the photograph of astronauts on the moon, the feeling of “This is what we can do at our best!” that just gives you shivers? Yeah, that feeling. This story fills you with that just shortly after you resolve the puzzle.

Then soon after you realize that this is a crapsack, only-survival-matters world, where people who expend energy on anything other than survival will be wiped out. And you despair for the protagonist, who has discovered science but now can never use it. It is a goddamn tragedy. Except… maybe it’s not. Because the way that Heller resolves this tension is beautiful, and leaves one with hope and triumph in our souls, afterall.

This is an absolutely fantastic story, I loved every bit of it. Highly recommended.

 

Final Notes: Our book club is a liberal bunch. There’s only one person in our group that falls right of center, everyone else is leftist to various degrees. And yet, even we couldn’t help but notice that this year’s choices were nearly all, to quote a fellow member “very woke.” It’s obvious, and by the time you come to your 8th woke story it’s a bit of a distraction. Like, I hate to say it, but it does make one think “is it really the case that every work of SF merit this year happened to be woke?” Maybe. The world of everyone-who’s-not-a-Trumpist has been strongly affected by the rise of Trump, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this sort of thing is a constant weight on the minds of authors, and reflected in their work. And readers are likely to be drawn to things that speak to their current fears as well, thus resulting in the ballot we have this year. But man, there were a couple places it felt forced, and when it’s in nearly every work it starts to feel like a subconscious/unspoken requirement. Hopefully as the world reverts to sanity this sort of thing will occur less.

 

Book Club Reviews: As always, I highly recommend doing this once per year. You’re exposed to a lot of disparate things at once, and you get to learn a lot about the tastes of your fellow book clubbers. The reading goes fast, as there’s much less word count than a novel. And basically everyone will find something they like. It’s fun, quick, and a nice change of pace.

Jun 272019
 

I recently discovered that the term “woke” originated in the African-American community and referred to awareness of police violence against black people, as well as other forms of structural oppression. In retrospect, I should have guessed at its origin simply by the beauty and fitness of the word.

It was such a good term that it was promptly co-opted by the Leftist forces.

I find it more than a bit amusing that the same group that loses their minds over any slight against racial purity by shouting “cultural appropriation!” have, in fact, appropriated a word that used to do meaningful work for an important cause, and now use it as a label for their catalog of slights.

I propose that we endeavor only to use the term “woke” in its original, helpful form. And whenever we see affluent white people expressing outrage that someone doesn’t have enough bloodline purity to eg: drink certain teas, or wear their hair in a certain way, or attend Yoga sessions, that we instead refer to that as “whitewoke.” To highlight that it’s privileged white people taking power away from a phrase that did real good and using it for their own outrage porn instead.

Yes, it should be a slur, used against those who deserve it.

Jun 242019
 

Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: I only got 60 pages in, which wasn’t enough to discover the plot. It seems to follow the primary actors in a rebellion against a space empire.

Book Review: This series has been a downward slope for me. I loved the first book, and was kinda meh on the second one, and just found the third one so tedious that I couldn’t even finish it. I think I know why.

The attraction of the first book is the awesome, bizarre world that Lee creates. The laws of physics are shaped by people’s beliefs, and must be reinforced by worship, rites, and ritual human sacrifice. It’s a really cool premise that grabs the novelty-seeking portion of the brain.

However by the time you get three books in, that novelty has worn off. By the time I started Revenant Gun, I’d come to realize that there wasn’t that much being done with this premise, it was basically just another form of Space Magic. Which is fine, there’s lots of great novels with Space Magic, but those novels have other things that carry them once that novelty has worn off. Revenant Gun doesn’t.

The plot is pretty basic where it makes sense (empire is evil, rebels want out), and is often annoyingly disjointed. Problems are frequently solved through liberal application of Space Magic. The atrocities don’t ever make one feel much. We’re told of the nuking of a population center, and that the sacrifice rituals involve “lots of blood,” but come on, that’s not gripping.

Most of the characters are flat. They speak wooden lines and act like they’re there to move a plot forward, rather than be real people inhabiting a world. There is one exception, a character with depth of personality and interesting drives, but unfortunately he has to split screen-time with several other people so I didn’t see enough of him often enough to keep me interested.

Lee switches protagonists in each book, which doesn’t really work in this case. And his habit of keeping things from the reader for a big reveal later on is obvious and hurts the story, rather than building mystery.

Honestly, there just wasn’t much there to keep my attention after the cool concept behind how the universe works is explained. Even that could have kept me going if there was more to it… if something interesting was done with this idea that changed my perspective on the world. Instead everything worked more or less the same, except with magic added. That’s not enough to hold me if there isn’t a cool plot or interesting characters that I care about. I wasn’t sure why I was even reading this after a while, and so I stopped. Heck, I’m even getting bored writing this review. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Interestingly, this had a wide(ish) variety of reactions. I say wide-ish because we only had a sample set of four. More than half our book club didn’t come to this meeting, perhaps due to summer arriving, or perhaps because the novel didn’t interest them, or perhaps due to a coincidental confluence of personal issues. This is a strike against the novel for book clubs, as suppressing turn out is the opposite of what’s good for a book club… if that is indeed what happened.

However, among those four, I was the only one who hated it. Another reader thought it was kinda ok, and she got through to the end. One reader was new to the book club and hadn’t read the first two books. As this was his first time in this universe, he was super excited by the physics-manipulation thing and the weirdness of the world in general. He reminded me of me when I read the first book, which makes me think that anyone reading one of these novels for the first time will like the first one due to the great novelty-hook. It was fun going over all the cool stuff that grabbed me the first time again. :)

And the fourth member was a fan of the series, and didn’t particularly mind what I saw as the weakness. He though the world was interesting enough that it was worth reading even if the characters and plot weren’t very noteworthy. This range of opinions did strike up a bit of conversation, and it was a pretty decent meeting over all. I’m still prejudiced by my personal dislike of the novel, and the fact that so few even showed up for the meeting, so I can’t give it an actual recommendation. However, maybe consider it, if this sounds like your thing?