Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 24, 2011

Women in fantastika – an alphabetical meme

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 12:46 pm

In lieu of real content, have a meme. Here’s a list of women who write/wrote fantastika, one for each letter of the alphabet. (Where I couldn’t think of one beginning with that letter, I’ve doubled the previous one—if you know one I don’t, let me know and I’ll insert them.) Bold means I own some of their work, italics mean I’ve read and remember something they wrote. If I’ve mis-alphabetized any of the non-English names, again, let me know.

Since it’s only one per letter, I’ve purposely picked less well-known women, or ones I haven’t seen on most lists.

Aiken, Joan
bes shahar, eluki (also writes as Edghill, Rosemary)
Cooper, Louise
Dean, Pamela
El-Mohtar, Amal
Furey, Maggie
Gloss, Molly
Hambly, Barbara
(I) Hunter, Mollie
Jones, JV
Kerr, Katherine
Lee, Tanith
McKenna, Juliet E
Nimmo, Jenny
Okorafor, Nnedi
Pierce, Tamora
(Q) Priest, Cherie
Reichert, Mickey Zucker
Swainston, Steph
Tepper, Sheri S
(U) Tuttle, Lisa
Volsky, Paula
Williams, Liz
(X) Willis, Connie
Yolen, Jane
Zettel, Sarah

June 10, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My re-read project, over at Fae Awareness Month, is going apace:

Chapters 1-5

Chapters 6-10

Chapters 11-15

June 2, 2011

Fae Awareness Month

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 5:11 pm

Long-term readers, or even casual readers, will know all about my Thing About Fairies. Real fairies don’t get nearly as much love – or helpless adoration, or sheer gut-wrenching terror, or all three – as they deserve, so some of us have put together a month-long blog project to celebrate Faerie in all its forms.

You can find it at Fae Awareness Month, and my first post has just gone live, so go and read all about the fae of A Midsummer Night’s Dream here.

May 25, 2011

Charles Yu – How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe

Filed under: review,signal amp — Sam @ 4:10 pm

I’ve reviewed this for The Future Fire. Shorter summary: it’s good. In fact, it’s absolutely amazing, in a quite literal sense.

May 9, 2011

Reprinted

Filed under: meta,signal amp — Sam @ 1:25 pm

My essay “The Time-Binding of Nostalgia” has been reprinted over at Starship Reckless, with added images and an afterword by Athena Andreadis, and with some interesting discussion in the comments.

I’m very grateful to Athena for this, and I expect to be even more so when “Privilege & Fantasy” goes up soon—keep an eye on her blog for that! In fact, I wholeheartedly recommend it in any case.

April 28, 2011

Here Be Cartographers – Reading the Fantasy Map

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 8:28 pm

If you enjoyed my essay ‘On the Meaning of Maps‘, you’ll really like Nicholas Tam’s excellent and well-illustrated essay here, courtesy of Jonathan McCalmont’s “Horizontal Connections” column at Strange Horizons (which everyone should be reading).

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.
(more…)

April 14, 2011

Dan Abnett – Prospero Burns

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:23 am

This is part of the Warhammer 40k franchise’s Horus Heresy line; whilst I’ve not read any of these before, I’m familiar with the general outline through picking up a few Black Library books here and there over the years. This one is billed as what happens when one entire army of super-soldiers turns to the dark side, and another is sent to destroy them. It’s actually deceptive, since that plotline is only introduced properly two-thirds of the way in; it’s possible to interpret the early part of the book as building up to the Space Wolves’ destruction of the planet Prospero, but since we hear almost nothing from the first army (the Thousand Sons) before then it’s very hard to feel invested in this plotline. Also, “Prospero Burns” sounds like a Victorian theatrical impresario.

Fortunately, the main story the book tells is much more interesting. Scholar Kasper Hawser decides to abandon his comfortable life on Earth to live amongst the Viking-themed Space Wolves, taking the name Ahmad ibn Rustah in a nod to history, and record their unique warrior culture. He is accepted, for reasons that seem arbitrary, as their skjald. His developing relationships with the warriors and his increasing awareness of his own role are absorbing, and deftly done, bringing an interesting dimensionality to what would otherwise have been an absurd cliché of a culture. Like all franchise writers, Abnett has to work with what he’s given, but he does a good job of it.

Speaking of what the franchise requires: the denouement is unsatisfactory in itself, being an utter diabolus ex machina, and it would have been nice to have encountered said diabolus before. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense (and is entirely necessary) when viewed as part of the overall arc plot, and these books aren’t really intended to be read on their own. It does give a good sense of the nihilism and meaningless inherent in the 40k universe, and the mind-twisting gulf of scale between the successes and failures of a human life and the long sweep of time on a galactic scale.

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

April 4, 2011

The time-binding of nostalgia

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 1:43 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay recently (Under Heaven, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and have therefore naturally been thinking about identity, passion, and pride.

It’s a commonly accepted trope amongst many fantasy critics, scholars, and commenters that fantasy is, at its root, about nostalgia. I’ve never quite agreed with this, but I think that’s partly because nostalgia comes in several flavours. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain, and was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries’ longing for the mountains of their home. (As a Welshman, I can relate to that! The Welsh word hiraeth is mostly untranslatable, but Schweizerheimweh does seem like a cultural analogue.)

In recent decades, however (and especially by the English) it’s been coopted to describe a kind of early 20th century idyll. You know the one—ploughmen, foaming nut-brown ale, small children waving at steam trains, The Countryside or The Beach two hours’ journey away, a distinct lack of brown people. It’s basically thinly disguised neo-mediaevalism, or rather neo-mediaevalism (in fantasy writers of a certain age, at least) is a proxy for their yearning for the kind of social certainty that supposedly existed in the recent past.

I feel compelled to point out here that that past (either of those pasts) never really existed, and the only way to pretend that they did is by wholesale erasure of the experiences and histories of women, the working classes, nonwhite people (there have always been nonwhite people in Britain, at least back to the Romans if not before) and Jews. Not to mention (and people rarely do mention) those who are more than one of those. It’s fairly safe to blame the Victorians for making up the mediaeval idyll. We’ve been reimagining recent history ever since, and it’s not as though revisionist history started in 1820 for that matter, but it was the Victorians who pioneered the mass production of History.

So that’s one way in which nostalgia is expressed in English-language fantasy fiction: the desire for an imagined past. That can be a joyful escapist wish, as with William Morris, or a heartfelt elegy for something that could never have been, as with Tolkien. In either version, the past (in the context of the novel, ie. the created world’s own imagined past) is seen explicitly as a good thing, a lost Golden Age.

There’s another version of nostalgia, however—nostalgia in its most etymologically strict sense, the pain of longing for a homecoming—and that is the one experienced by those whose home is contested, denied, erased. The interesting thing about that is that in the latter, the past-within-the-text is usually unpleasant, problematized, or generally Not Even Slightly Golden.

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