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.
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.
About 18 months ago, I got an email from Georg Hobmeier. We’d met late the previous year and realised we know all the same people, courtesy Freiburg and other Germano-Austrian places filled with dancers. Georg wrote:
I’m sitting in a room making games. I might require your particular skillset. It’s the story of a woman who’s supposed to activate an unruly missile defence station on an orbital station. There’s drones involved, vending machines and a lot of death in space.
I replied, “… death in space? I say yes!”
And so, in May 2015 I became something of a copy editor, proofreader, translator, fact checker / researcher (just how big would a standard-ish Oort cloud object of slushy comet nucleus type, or d-type asteroid need to be to flatten a city?), co-writer of Georg’s text for Causa Creations’s and Gold Extra’s interactive sci-fi novella The Station. Which was released on Tuesday.
Which makes me a published sci-fi writer / game writer. I think. Woo!
What started out as a quick-ish proofread turned into a few weeks of ever more involved discussion on identity, feminism, colonialism, 500 years in the future. You know, my usual gear, the parts of my particular skill set you get when you require my particular skill set. Some people think they can get me without the politics, like it’s optional. Not Georg! He knows what I’m about.
Which led to me thinking about the main character — already a woman — thinking about utopian-ish futures, and deciding she was bisexual and brown. Georg replied, “So, did I get this right, our hero is an umber-skinned bisexual? Somehow I picture her now as Deborah Dyer aka Skin!” Or Hannah John-Kamen, or Korra, both of whom were in my sci-fi imagination around then. So when you play The Station you have three handy references for who you are.
You’re in space! But why? And how did you get there?
“The Station” is an interactive sci-fi novella set in turbulent times, which the protagonist has a hard time remembering. It’s an orbital rabbit hole tale developed by gold extra with Causa Creations’ support. Text by Georg Hobmeier and Frances d’Ath, Code by Patrick Borgeat, Sound by Juan A. Romero.
lots of accidents
zero gravity horror
one rather short labyrinth
visually compelling feature list
linux puzzles, but not too hard ones
a full menagerie of quirky & annoying maintenance machinery
Please also enjoy a full hour of magical space drone music with deep space bass. Available soon.
Some photos I’ve been sitting on since early-May from Dasniya/Shibari Express’ three-day rope & making performance workshop in Stockholm with NYXXX at Rökridån, co-organised by Kokoro 2. It was a truly awesome week.
Ebba, Tova & Gabriel host a conversation with the Berlin-based choreographers Dasniya Sommer and Frances d’Ath, that visited Nyxxx & KokoroTwo & Rökridånfor a working residency the 28th of April-4th of May in 2015. When the conversation starts, we have just participated in a shibari yoga class guided by Dasniya. From this point of reference, we go on to discuss among many other things exoskeletons, religious metaphors and the invention of rope as a parallel to the invention of the wheel.
I seldom see Flash on the internet anymore, which adds a sense of the archaic to his work, yet it suits perfectly; I can’t imagine having that same feeling of sublime and crappy if it was all HTML5 (though it might be possible and even look identical). It’s also been a long time since I last looked at his site, so without playing every game of poetry, I think Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise, is his best yet. I ended by walking into a beige void and keeping walking, keeping walking, falling, falling, falling off the screen, nothing. I aspire to make art this good.
There are five science-fiction writers — though this is a loose term, and none write in this genre exclusively — whom I will read whenever a new book arrives from them. William Gibson is the oldest of the lot; I’ve been reading him since some time around Neuromancer, though lately I’ve found him tired, his speculative fiction already out-of-date by the time it’s published.
Iain (M.) Banks I discovered next, and in truth, love the man. Some of his books don’t quite make it to the transcendental state I associate with him, but even the few I haven’t been so taken by, I’ve read at least twice. I don’t remember who came next, Charles Stross, China Miéville or Neal Stephenson, but the first two, though superficially different from each other and Iain Banks, I associate together. Certainly for their politics, which forms the core of their works.
Neal Stephenson is for me closer to Gibson: American, of a particular style and age, though equally not reducible to or interchangeable with. His Baroque Cycle was exactly that, the most colossal and ostentatious works of fiction I’ve read. It was very influential on me around the time I was first thinking about monadologie. Anathem I enjoyed not so much. Perhaps to say the colour of the work — if one could imagine the contents of the pages and their affect on my imagination being homogenised to an identifiable tone — was one I wouldn’t want a room painted in.
I was reading guest writer, Joan Slonczewski at Charles Stross’ blog, who has a new book out, and being quite taken by her ideas promptly went and ordered it. In the process of which, I discovered Neal Stephenson had a new bookshelf out, Reamde. I began it after class today. It’s uncomfortably large and will certainly cause anguish when it falls on my nose as I nod off. Still, if it’s anywhere within the universe of Cryptonomicon or The System of the World, I shall be quite distracted this weekend.
No, I don’t actually remember which Mac forum I discovered Jason Nelson and secrettechnology on. I do though highly enjoy receiving infrequent emails from him with his latest odd, poignant, beautiful pieces of art. Much happiness then, and wishing I had more time to play, when I discovered not one but three new pieces with Australianness… (yeah all nostalgic because of the too easily remembered winter and dreaming of Adelaide beaches and sun.)
Hope your world is more than curious.
I have some semi-newly birthed digital artworks/poems inspired by Australian locales to spread out across the net. And of course feel free to critique and/or send to anyone everywhere.