… is where Altered Carbon‘s Lizzie Elliot knifes the entire patriarchy in the throat.
A couple of years ago, I discovered this amazing website called io9, full of sci-fi and weirdness, great writers, actually pretty good commenter community, and one day I clicked on the link at the top called Jalopnik and my love of hooning was reborn. This isn’t about hoonage though, it’s about sci-fi, and Charlie Jane Anders, one of the founders and former co-editor of io9, and her novel (which I thought was her debut, but it’s not) All the Birds in the Sky.
I’d been avoiding reading this for a while. Maybe because I like her a lot as an io9 writer, so heavy expectations here for a skiffy/fantasy novel. Maybe because I read the first pages and it didn’t really click with me. But I needed some fiction to read, so it landed in my backpack as part of a quartet on Friday. And now I’ve finished it. Bunked off ballet training this morning for that.
I’m sticking with my “like her a lot”/“didn’t really click” vacillating. If someone asked me if they’d like it, I’d say, “If Jo Walton’s Among Others, Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series and/or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory did it for you, and you’re fine with deeply San Francisco-centric story-telling — and I mean deeply, I can taste the locally sourced artisanal — you’ll probably get a kick out of it.” Or, “It’s a whiter, hipsterer, startup-er, unthreatening middle-class version of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy.” You can “To tha Googz” if what you’re looking for is a two-sentence synopsis, I’m kinda crap at those; my reading for pleasure concerns are more like chewing on bones.
Chewing on bones, then. I liked much of this. Charlie Jane is a smart writer and knows how to weave a story like tapestry over hundreds of pages. For me it’s a little too influenced by American-centric pop culture and the rather (also pop culture) Hegelian dialectic binarism that it views the world through. I’d like to read a novel from her where she forgoes these devices. I’d also like to read one without a whiny, verging on skeevy hetero manchild as one of the main protagonists. I know he spent a lot of his teens getting a kicking, but fuck me, he needed another and in the words of the great poet Chopper Read, harden the fuck up.
I was thinking about ballet choreographers, and the tendency for the gay male ones to make quintessentially heterosexual pieces, in fact to perpetuate that as the only possibility for ballet, and I was wondering why Charlie Jane, who’s hella queer, would go for such a white bread hetero pairing of the two main characters. It might be she was mocking/satirising/ironically depicting these binaries as a story structure, somewhat in parallel to the material activities of the two. If so, I’m not sure it worked or was necessary, and me being the bolshie one think ditching this conceit would have made a far less pedestrian narrative.
I often worry when I write like this that it reads as “Hostile to Everything”, when in fact I enjoyed quite a bit — enough to bunk off training this morning to finish it. Maybe to say this isn’t a review, it’s me trying to elucidate what didn’t work for me, to describe that in more considered terms than a string of obscenities. So, will I read her next novel? If it’s sci-fi, yes, yes I will.
In the previous instalment, the protagonists hitch a ride across the Atlantic on a boat with a dead woman. She’s an aside in the main story, but in The Entropy of Bones, it’s all about her. Chabi, half-black, half-Mongolian, mute, living on a boat and training her teens away in various occult martial arts practices under the tutelage of Narayana, who’s turned up in the previous two books and is the kind of entropic person who would altruistically build orphanages only to see them all burn down, children inside (yup, that’s how Ayize Jama-Everett describes him).
Martial art girl fighting her way into and through life as irresistible force, absent father, problem mother, street tough and walls all round. I like Jama-Everett’s world, writing, imagination—duh, obviously, I’ve just read all three of his books and got through this one between Friday night and Saturday morning (with sleep)—and taking the Liminal War series off away from Taggert, his daughter, that story line and axis of Morocco to London via Marseille, to a distinctly minor character in the second book and building a whole new line from her, that’s good story-telling.
Martial art girl, etc yeah, that’s a bit of a cliché. The most recent I’ve read of that stereotrope is Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer, and both indulge in and suffer from the endless descriptions of fighting, training, and corporeality, the body as a thing that only becomes true when it surmounts technique and training and finds its natural movement. There’s a shit tonne of essentialist problems in that model, as much as it is a fact—a fact that derives from the simple physicality of human bodies, how joints can articulate, muscles contract and release, nerves hold conversations, all the mess of having a body; and you can’t move outside your body without breaking it so, yeah, ‘natural’ movement—that fact doesn’t necessarily correlate to a truth. The truth being postulated is that of the authentic body and self, like Martha fucking Graham saying, “The body doesn’t lie” (yeah dunno if she said that or if it’s been corrupted from “Movement never lies” but much the same), or Star fucking Wars and “Use the Force, Luke” it’s an asshole full of orientalist shit.
And ’cos the protagonist always has to find the passive way, not be the irresistible force, be like wind or grass, which sure, is a legitimate way of fighting, Aikido, Tai Qi others work from these principles, but hitting shit until it breaks is also no less natural movement and authentic self (if we’re gonna talk in those terms), and the unspoken statement here is Chabi (or whoever else) is broken, incomplete, inauthentic until they find this ‘true’ technique-less movement. As someone who’s spent close to two decades training and suffering from the pervasiveness of that bullshit, I think I can say fuck off, and also, drop your essentialism and orientalism, it’s fucked up and it’s like you don’t even realise.
Otherwise, The Entropy of Bones is pretty bloody good. It’s not going to be book of the year—thinking there isn’t going to be a fiction one this year—partially for the above, partially for the stereotrope of ‘tough martial art chick grows up when irresistible force hits immoveable object’, partially for Jama-Everett’s need to mention one character in particular is gay when he never labels any of the others as hetero except for through their actions (a bit like Sullivan’s really awful attempt at a trans/kathoey/wtf?Idunno character), so it’s like he went through a checklist of tokens and … yeah, I’m as cynical as fuck about this stuff (no, I’m totally down with Taggert calling people “Faggot,” that’s the person he is) … partially cos there’s a darkness in these books that—I mean you can’t call any of the protagonists heroes or necessarily good people given what they do, but it’s not that darkness, it’s something underlying that, like a pessimism in the writing where everything is a rearguard action, like Anna Kavan’s Ice, brilliant book but God you come out the other side feeling hopeless and in need of a shot of heroin.
Like I said of the other Liminal books, read this if you love China Miéville (especially his stuff like Kraken, and Un Lun Dun) or Saladin Ahmed, or you’re looking for a world that isn’t full of hero white people.
One of the last of my current pile of reading, once again arriving because of Saladin Ahmed leading me to Fearsome Journeys and then me doing my anthology reading trick of lurking around authors of stories I liked then deciding to read the ones who seemed to have something interesting for me beyond the one story I’d read. The others were Elizabeth Bear, K.J. Parker, and Scott Lynch. Four authors. Pretty good for one anthology.
By the end of Elizabeth Bear’s collection I was thinking I’d remembered why I was not so interested in her, that perhaps I’d read some short story of hers online, or maybe her blog, anyway, something that had not convinced me. There were some very nice stories (and I especially love her theory of 4-dimensional surgery), but I found it a little tiresome for two reasons in particular, which are intertwined and so more like one convoluted, ill-considered by me reason.
The first was a heavy white US American-centric perspective. Possibly I find British/Scottish fiction less afflicted by this – it may be that I’m less conscious of its obviousness, or it may be simply that there is a somewhat hegemonic style in American fiction that is much more pronounced. It’s kinda like the cool gang at school that isn’t aware of how overbearing it is, and how claustrophobic it feels for everyone else. The other seemed to manifest in a few different ways but to me seem to come from the same source. Part of this was what felt like a habit of many of the stories having a character who had some kind of disability, or was not hetero- or cisnormative, sometimes a combination of them all. This came up against a protagonist who largely was both hetero- and cisnormative, as well as able-bodied.
So obviously I’m wondering as I’m writing this if I have not paid attention to some unease around reading stories with disabled characters, and thinking through what I can remember having read is I tend to have an unease with the author because more often than not these characters are a stand-in for representing The Other, or used as a pathetic symbolic plot device for the narrative process tension and drama. And it would be well-awkward for me to actually be writing that I don’t like those books because weird people make me feel weird – especially when I’m hobbling on crutches and having a first-hand experience of how people with visible disabilities get regarded in public.
So I do a bit of searching to see what others think and came across the RaceFail ’09 incident, which I think helped me consolidate my thoughts about what I find problematic in some of the structural tropes of eurocentric fantasy, both the more historical ones rooted in monarchy and racism, and the newer ones of ‘inclusivity’. I see some of Bear’s writing falling into both these problem-holes – particularly having just read Afrofuturism and having a bit of a perspective on non-white North American sci-fi and fantasy – as do I have with some of Ellen Klages stories in Portable Childhoods.
Both Bear and Klages had stories about a young girl growing up in far from ideal circumstances who discovers something magical (a Harpy in the former, a Parrotfish in the latter), and escapes her grim life by transforming themselves into this creature. A different reading of both is a young girl who suffering from severe environmental stress and possibly undiagnosed mental disorder commits suicide while in a hallucinatory state, which the author then romanticises.
I had planned to write about Portable Childhoods much more briefly, but it seems I’d been thinking about these problems with the authors’ position from which they write. I enjoyed Klages much more than Bear, who as well as the above suffers from a lack of rigour in her writing, her stories often feel belted out and left as-is, really needing some disciplined editing and attention – this evinced also in the utterly shoddy proofreading. Klages on the other hand is uniformly meticulous and careful; she loves books and words and is a reader, perhaps even before she is a writer.
I loved that some of her stories barely filled a page, yet this was clearly the length they needed to be. I also found her story of the child with Down Syndrome poignant and sensitive, clearly personal and not just another disability to be used for a plot device. I also loved her last story, In the House of the Seven Librarians, which I read sitting waiting to get my ankle seen to at 2am Thursday morning.
hmm … Curiously, when I read Afrofuturism, I found the lack of attention to feminist and queer issues within the genre by the author troubling, as though the default protagonist or hero of the afrofuturist milieu was a hetero black cisgender man. It seemed to me that there was a missed chance for addressing structural inequality in itself, beyond just reversing the polarity of one of the most obvious manifestations of inequality (kind of what radical lesbian separatist feminism did in the ’70s and ’80s). Subsequently, my decision to focus on women writers seems to have banged up against a similar problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t care. I think it’s an acceptable option sometimes – which is why I can sometimes enjoy hollywood action movies. There is a big ‘however’ after that which I am not competent to monologue on at the moment, but which does have the practical outcome that I will be more diligent in researching new authors before throwing euros at them.
Which sounds quite harsh on Klages. If I hadn’t read Bear first, I suspect I wouldn’t be throwing such an analysis on Klages; it was the similarity to me in certain stories that caused me to think about these issues of mental disorders, physical disabilities, racism, the use of The Other in works written by people who in some way (even if only as female writers) are themselves cast as Other. There are some great stories here, it’s just that some of them read odd when regarded from a certain perspective.
Before threw away a prosperous career as a writer and immanent tenure track in philosophy (post-modern, even) for the joy of airport lounges and other people’s beds to make dance, I had a real thing for a world of art and culture that can probably be encapsulated in RE/Search Magazine’s early 80’s edition Industrial Culture Handbook. I read this until it fell apart, as did subsequent photocopied versions, and the interviews with Throbbing Gristle, Mark Pauline, Cabaret Voltaire, Monte Cazazza, SPK, and other issues full of William Burroughs are in no small way responsible for the dance I make today. Naturally I wish I would be in San Francisco in August to see Survival Research Laboratories destroy robots and make loud noises.
Survival Research Labs
Mark Pauline, Artistic Director
Time: 10:30 p.m.
Location: Behind South Hall
Ticket Price: $25
Special Notes: Very Big, Very Loud, Very Exciting
Some things are purely mythic like Survival Research Labs, which springs from the shell of abandoned buildings, monster robotic history, and fire. An interdisciplinary mash-up like no other, SRL, brings a newly conceived performance to ZeroOne San Jose full of its legendary machines, flame-throwers, and bombastic sound. Humans are only present as audience or operators; in this show it’s all about the machines. As described by founder Mark Pauline, an SRL performance is comprised of “ritualistic interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices.” Whatever else you call it, (and the title won’t be announced until just before the show), we call it big fun, exciting, and something you won’t want to miss. This one is definitely for more than the brainiac crowd – it’s monster machine, meets hovercraft, meets huge sculptural creatures, meets fire. See you there.
And half a world away in glorious San Francisco, LEVYdance are about to start a season at ODC Theatre having just finished a rock n’ roll tour of the country. One of the dancers in the company is Lauren Slater, who I had a wild time in Vienna last year with. She’s one amazing dancer and we have plans to be back in Vienna next year.
LEVYdance will be presenting three new works this year with one returning favorite. Holding Pattern – originally built at ODC House Special 2003, is a work exploring the body’s retention of emotional memory and the way individuals develop addictions to behavior that alter and define our daily experience of reality. Playing with perceptions and fantasies about love.
That Four-Letter Word… is a journey into the illusory and mysterious world of preconceptions surrounding the most universally debated subject of all time. In this new work, the messy stumbling toward acceptance is as vital as the many lies we sustain to simply stay in the game.
Falling After Too – An intensely physical mens duet on the topic of time lapse in emotional relationships addresses the missed connections and the feeling of 20/20 hindsight in the search for shared clarity at different stages of readiness and revelation. And lastly, inspired by the manic physicality and irrepressible energy of childhood playgrounds, Romp explodes the paradox of deep vulnerability and unfettered spontaneity, that unspoiled cocktail of youth.