Flying into Tegel from Brussels yesterday evening, north of Berlin. I sat in 20-F, the sun coming in over my right shoulder, as we cut a giant curve from the Berliner Ring to turn back west, I sang, “… As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid …”.
These lyrics. How she sings them. Just my regular reminder to self that after 24 years Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville is still one of the best albums ever.
I think I’m far too hard and cynical a person to be the audience of Becky Chambers’ novels, like them though I do. I wrote at length about her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and plenty of that holds true for A Closed and Common Orbit. I think this novel isn’t as successful though, perhaps because it alternates between only two characters and tried to build parallels between them that don’t really hold up.
The hard, cynic side of me also finds the general tenor of the characters flattened by a pervasive, apologetic niceness. There’s a scene early on where one of the two main characters, Pepper, at this time around ten-years old, escapes the slave scrap recycling plant she was born into and flees across the endless junkyard surface of the planet until stumbling by chance close enough to a destined-to-be-junked spacecraft she is rescued by the ship’s AI. So here’s a kid who’s obviously traumatised, dehydrated and malnourished — and we later learn the ship knows exactly what kind of planet and child this is — yet the AI spends pages before apologising for not flipping into emergency mode and doing triage, which the AI does not a little ineffectually. It’s a general over-caring niceness that ends up reading pathetic and monotonous, and grates against my “harden the fuck up” tendencies. Which may be my failure. “Always check the equipment for sensor error first.” As Iain Banks said.
Against me here, I wonder if the kind of world Chambers proposes is not a little of utopian, queer North American communities, and for people whose lives are made legible in such places, this novel might be really fulfilling to read, to see themselves represented in worlds which they yearn to live. And maybe if I’d been born 15 or 20 years later, coming of age in the LiveJournal and tumblr eras, I’d feel the same.
But I wasn’t.
But I like her novels enough to keep reading — even though I skipped a few pages out of boredom. I’d like to think she’s going to keep writing, have those glorious jumps in maturity and adroitness that happen to writers as they get a full handle on what they’re doing, cos for all my crapulous, old bitterness — which is going, “Frances, you’d fukkin hate being crew on their ship, haaate.” — I like reading her.
No idea why I decided to put this on my reading list, nor where I saw it. Speculating here, io9 has been doing these irregular monthly “Everything Sci-Fi & Fantasy you need to read next month!” which occasionally prod me to read someone new. I’m very much swayed by cover art aesthetics, and the couple of sentences for each is exactly the right balance of visual attraction and lazy attending to words. Mostly nothing grabs me enough to want to read as I’m being kinda stringent in adding to my Want list right now, currently holding 125 books of which several are forever on my Buy Next subdivision — remember, this is Germany, where books are apologetically cheap.
Elizabeth Moon’s Cold Welcome was on that irregular monthly back in March. I’d never heard of her — I think. But “Nebula-winning author begins a new series about an interplanetary conspiracy, featuring space-fleet commander Ky, the hero of her Vatta’s War series” pushes a lot of the right buttons: Space opera, Nebula-winner, new series (so I don’t have to commit to back-reading), military sci-fi (I dunno either, but when it’s done well, I’m a sucker for it), woman author (pretty much not going to happen otherwise), enough obviously for me to check it out further, which must have led to a “Yeah, I’ll give that a spin” decision, and a couple of months later I’m reading it.
I read this after Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders, which I unpopularly, profoundly disliked, and needed something of a palette cleanser. Interplanetary marine chick kicks arse while Shackleton-ing on a failed terraforming lump of polar continent? Plus espionage, vanished aliens, expedition survival and military fun stuff? It’s not massive or substantial, a brisk read that doesn’t make too many demands and telegraphs plenty of protagonist / villain setups from far out, but that’s what I’m good for right now. I want comprehensive and satisfying kicking of arseholes, competent female characters I get to know and like, space opera, a story that does the job … Jeez, I feel like I’ve achieved “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” and it’s glorious; I can’t even be bothered writing about what I didn’t like.
Occasionally, writers I love disappoint me so entirely I’ll say “I’m done with them.”
Neal Stephenson did it with Anathem, though I stuck round for Reamde, hoping he’d return to what I loved in The Baroque Trilogy. Maybe I drifted away from him, even while he committed fully to the least interesting facets of his story writing. William Gibson, around Spook Country and Zero History, though made something of a conditional comeback with The Peripheral (I’m not touching his ‘tranny with big hands’ embarrassment though, so that might be the last of him for me). Ada Palmer did it for me with Seven Surrenders.
People seemed to love Too Like the Lightning, enough that Crooked Timber did a whole seminar on it. I thought the beginning was some of the very best sci-fi I’ve read, which petered out mid-way, and ended deeply unsatisfactorily, and required the purchase of Seven Surrenders to (hopefully) get resolution. I’m not going to rehash what I said about Lightning, half-way into the second novel I can say with some certainty it all stands, and confirms my scepticism.
It’s also profoundly boring.
I want to care about these characters, but fucked if after a few hundred pages I even know who they are. I have serious reservations about what Palmer thinks about gender, identity, selfhood. I called her a crypto-conservative last time, and like I said about Lightning, “I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.”( Also fuck her for using ‘it’ as the personal pronoun for an intersex / non-binary character, whatever her reasons, it just smacks of yet another cis writer trying to be cool.) As for history itself, because she is a historian, there’s something uncritically Amerocentric about it all (and Anglo-Euro- at that), in the same way Gibson’s novels — for all their seductive near-futurism — have an inescapable post-modern Orientalism. And frankly for a historian she does a piss poor job.
A weeks ago I saw Wonder Woman with Dasniya in a small independent cinema up in Schöneberg. The trailers before the film were an insidious and horrifying glorification of war in a language I’d thought had been buried — or at least we had a degree of literacy to see it for what it is — all honour and duty and the noble sacrifice of dying for your mates. I was filled with terror, because I think the point of these films and this language is to prepare us for exactly this all-encompassing war. It’s to make us willing fodder. I don’t trust these stories, and I don’t trust the directors and writers or their reasons for wanting to tell them. I feel the same way about Lightning and Seven Surrenders.
A couple of years ago, I was at a conference in Berlin, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation. The last speaker was this trans woman punk from Italy, whose proposal for some kind of anarchist feminist utopia included slamming Islam and conflating it with terrorism.
This was followed by question time, which was kinda awkward ’cos everyone heard what she said and I was sitting there cursing and fucking under my breath. So I got up and returned the slamming. To which she replied with, “Oh, I was talking about ISIS, not all Muslims.” More muttering from me to those I was sitting with, “Nah, you said Islam, we all heard you, we know what you mean, and I’m not touching that reply of yours.”
After the conference, a friend of Ms. V.’s came up to me, he said, “Have you seen The Taqwacores?”
It’s the last Friday of Ramadan. A month ago I had no intention of doing this. The Friday evening before Ramadan started, I had a chat with myself, something like, “Just do the first day, you don’t have to do the whole month, just the first day.” “Awww but Sahūr, Frances, it’s at 230am, and Iftar’s at 930pm.” “Ok, so just have breakfast when you usually do, and then go till İftar.” “But that’s not Ramadan.” Can you hear me whining? I was whining. “You do what you can, that’s all. If that’s what you can do, even if only for one day, that’s what you do for that one day.” “But—” “Just one day, babe, just the first day, just for your Gran, that’s all.”
One day turned into another, into a week, into two, into a month. And here I am at the last Friday of Ramadan. Still here, still doing what I can.
This isn’t a post about why I do Ramadan, or how I do or don’t justify not doing it strictly — which for some is the same as not doing it at all. I know why I do it, just as we all have our personal reasons for doing it. I know who I am and where I come from.
Islam is a fucking surrender.
Knowing that you don’t run the show, staying mindful of it in everything you do.
Take your hands off the wheel. See how it feels.
Islam isn’t about ayats and hadiths, and niches, and lamps.
It’s about us. All of us.
Allah’s too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.
I’m so Muslim. I am so Muslim.
I can say fuck Islam.
You know Imam Husain said,
“He has no religion, let him at least be free in his present life.”
I love me some drone. I love it more when my awesome friends drone. Justine will be. Tomorrow, Saturday, afternoon, in Berlin, drone-ing bits of NASA. It’s going to be most excellent! (& If you’re not in Berlin, and are in Canada, then Drone Day has you sorted.)
Drone Day Berlin 2017
The sky opened and out came dr(((o)))ne
Please join us in an afternoon celebration of Drone Day (droneday.org) on a cloud of sound. Around the world people will be making drone sounds on this day.
You are absolutely welcome to come.
There will be drone, experimental, and ambient sounds. There will be paper and some art supplies for you to use. There will be free tea for you to drink. Come listen, relax, draw, work on quiet creative projects, explore your meditative mind, or catch some droned out ZZZs. Take some time for your ears.
There is an elevator and there are accessible bathrooms. Please contact us if you would like to arrange a ground-floor pickup.
Saturday, May 27 at 15:00 – 17:30
SoundCloud HQ, Rheinsberger Str 76/77, 10115 Berlin, Germany.
I’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.
The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.
Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.
I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.
So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.
We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.
Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.
It’s not like the days when Charlie Jane Anders was running io9 and her monthly roundup of all things skiffy getting published pretty much guaranteed at least one book I’d stick in my reading list — I suddenly realise I’ve gone off on a tangent here — but that monthly summary has returned or reinvigorated itself, and with the arrival of The Root and Fusion under the Gawker Gizmodo Media banner, I could hope that io9 might similarly get the love it deserves and be de-subdomained from gizmodo.com, because it is one of the best sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction/etc websites around.
Which is a long way of saying I’m pretty sure I heard about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet there, probably when it came out late-2015, but didn’t put it on my Must Eventually Buy list until a few months ago. I’m going through another phase of random experimentation with new writers, and she seemed to pass my rather strict interpretation of the Bechdel Test. And now I’ve read this, and yes, she does.
It’s a light read, in the sense that unlike say, Alasdair Reynold’s Revenger, we don’t have entire space ship crews annihilated just as we’ve begun to care for them, nor do the protagonists come out the other side morally terrifying. Almost all the story takes place on their moderately sized, ramshackle construction ship as they move ever core-wards in the galaxy. And the story, the actual story from which all those things we’re told are crucial come, narrative tension and arcs, conflict, and so on, all this is more like the background staging through which they move. What’s in fact the story is a group of individuals — well, for the most part individuals — let’s just say a small mob who we get to know as they live and work their daily lives.
I was thinking it owes something to Firefly, which is one of those series that’s either hugely pivotal in people’s sci-fi evolution, or entirely baffling. A more recent comparison might be Mass Effect. Either way, it owes a lot to fan fiction set in these universes. It also owes a lot to current critical discussions on identity — a word I’m very ambivalent about at the moment, and have been trying selfhood as a rickety replacement, not sure it’s much better, but the problem is with English (and English-influenced) language and its fixation on describing the world in a highly rigid manner going back to the Enlightenment — and you can’t easily think outside language.
In a lot of science-fiction set in the future — in writers who are actively trying to work through this stuff — I find that where we are currently around language, identity, selfhood, what constitutes personhood or a person, these massive discussions we’re having amongst ourselves and fighting against others who would deny us, are carried over into a future hundreds or thousands of years away. Or maybe it’s just a future where gender neutral ze / hir is used isn’t one I really aspire to. Perhaps also because this again proposes a future in which Anglo-American culture is dominant, something interestingly that Firefly tried to modulate with its use of Chinese language. And given English has a singular they (which is used in the novel), spoken Mandarin has nǐ, Cantonese has 佢 keoi5, Persian has او (yes, I’m imagining a future where Cantonese and Persian is in the galaxy), on and on, I feel like ze / hir is kinda redundant at best (plus I’m not a fan of Kate Bernstein). So on one hand I liked the novel and Chambers for working with this, and on the other, a far future where we’re still struggling with early-21st century identity is probably not a future we’d have survived to live in. Which is maybe to say, Chambers could be a lot more deliberate in thinking these ideas through to far more interesting and developed states.
Then I realise I haven’t said much about the story itself, like a review and all, where you get familiarised with a synopsis and a bit of who’s who. A crew of multi-planetary species mostly vaguely humanoid, one who I decided looks like a sloth, another a tardigrade with chin tentacles, another like Vastra the Silurian from Doctor Who, another who reminds me of Jewel the mechanic from Firefly, a ship artificial intelligence like Cortana from Halo (or pretty much any recent sci-fi with a ship A.I.); a hyperspace ship like a well-loved junkyard with modules and sections bolted on, one of which is a garden and kitchen, dining, hanging out area; the lives and relationships of this crew I both could imagine hanging out with and find their lack of boundaries a little off-putting. That’s not a review. You can find those everywhere. So, yes, despite my truculence, I read it and enjoyed it, enough I’ll read the sequel / offshoot A Closed and Common Orbit.