Reading: Becky Chambers — A Closed and Common Orbit

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.

Reading: Becky Chambers — The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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, 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.

Reading: Charles Stross — Neptune’s Brood

Excitement! Not only a new science-fiction, it’s a new Charles Stross, and it’s one set in the universe of Saturn’s Children (which I’ve read I think three times), and hardback with the UK cover (as much as I like porn, I prefer my sci-fi sans use of gratuitous nekkid female bodies that have nothing to do with the story, and the US cover makes me embarrassed to read).

I picked it up from Shakespeare & Co. in the first district, then peddled to Café Prückel for a Große Braun and an hour or so of very, very enjoyable reading. I’m strenuously pacing myself, because it’s also going to be my back-to-Berlin by train reading, and I don’t want to find myself bending the back cover when I’ve got five hours to go of clickity-clack.

Now that dear Iain M. Banks is too busy being dead to write, my triumvirate of skiffy writers has taken quite a dent. There are possible newcomers, depending on what they write next, but my annual cycle filled with Banks, Stross, and Mieville is finished, and as much I love Stross, I love some of him more than others. His Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise are two of my favourites, but sadly he’s said several times he won’t return to that universe due to some world-building issues he thinks are terminal. Saturn’s Children then, is my next favourite universe — yes, even more than the Laundry Files or Halting State series.

The politics and intellectual qualities of these three writers certainly contribute substantially to why I always read them and why they dependably often appear at the top of my favourite books of the year, and of these qualities it’s their conscious commitment to feminist and somehow queer politics that I like the most. Saturn’s Children dealt with this, not merely because the protagonist was nominally female (saying what is female is elusive enough with humans, let alone with synthetic organisms), and Neptune’s Brood continues this, with the added brilliance of considering David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, which should be compulsory reading.

Thirty or so pages in and I’m really holding myself back from buying large blocks of chocolate and holing up in bed for a couple of days and knocking this off in one protracted binge; addiction reading at its best.

Reading: David Graeber — Debt: The First 5000 Years

This is one I haven’t been able to pretend I wouldn’t eventually get hold of, having been greatly discussed on quite a few blogs I read. From anthropology to science-fiction, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years has been peculiarly unavoidable in a way that’s usually not seen outside book launches in specific fields that gets everyone in that field excited, and elsewhere no one’s heard of it.

Crooked Timber even devoted a substantial online seminar to it, in addition to the many posts and vast comment threads, and Charles Stross said he rewrote much of his upcoming Neptune’s Brood because of it. This in addition to seeing it mentioned across feminist blogs, language blogs, and even astrophysics blogs.

Graeber is an anthropologist, who incidentally (according to Wikipedia) is an anarchist (yay!) and was involved in the beginnings of the Occupy movement. Three good reasons alone to consider reading him, even if I hadn’t seen a blog onslaught of him in the past several months.

I’d planned to grab a copy for the train back from Brussels, but was thwarted by Belgium’s national day holiday, and had been pretending St. George’s didn’t exist out of a combination of 30º days and a large pile of books waiting for me (Books! Buy all the books!), so yesterday I finally split open the red cover.

This isn’t a review; I feel compelled to say this often when I write about what I read. The original idea was just to document what I read with no remarks, and then it became a few sentences on how I came to be reading whatever, before I started it. Now it’s often part-way in before I write a contorted mess of that into a crypto-non-review/unreview; I can’t not write on what I’ve read because I can’t unread it.

So. It’s very easy to read. Which is good because I have now three exceedingly dense anthropological works on China I’m suffering under at the rate of single pages per day, and wouldn’t want to add more anguish. There are a lot of endnotes, which are worth reading, even though they inevitably break the flow of the argument. 1/5th of the way in, perhaps the most concise thing I can say is that it’s made me reevaluate my entire political outlook as completely too narrow (which in light of the 1% having been found to have stashed $21 trillion in tax havens is probably self-evident for all of us).

I could probably stop there, but I do have some criticisms thus far. The generalist nature of the work given the scope of the subject — 5000 years and most civilisations getting at least a mention — means there is some oversimplification of either arguments or the examples cited. While this is understandable, and necessary if the book is to remain readable, I sometimes have the sense that this oversimplification misses some crucial points. I notice this sometimes when the discussion turns China-ward, particularly in combination with the next criticism.

There are some assumptions in the language Graeber uses (which perhaps reflect the habits of the intended audience), which for me imply a slightly more serious problem: There is something of a lack of women.

Possibly this will change in the remaining 4/5ths, however, both the example Graeber continually refers to (Henry and Joshua), and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ in the universal sense (cf. ‘mankind’), is oddly old-fashioned. When the appearance of women tends towards as chattel objects for exchange (marriage, alliance etc), and seemingly without agency or subjecthood, I wonder perhaps if something has been missed.

Certainly my recent reading, Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, Rosemary Joyce, all working somewhat in anthropology, shows unequivocally that any argument which fails to consider women (explicitly, not merely as an aside) is at best only part of the story, more than likely to have missed something crucial, and should be treated as potentially misleading at best if not outright suspect.

Joyce herself shows that it is the inherent bias in researchers which results in the apparent lack of evidence for women and their contribution, rather than any real absence, and Mann also, specifically in the heretofore ostensibly male-dominated and -centred world of Qing Dynasty.

There is a tendency to think, “Oh well, it’s a big topic, debt, and he can’t cover everything,” which is obviously true. However, to say that advancing a discourse which is significantly absent of women is missing something fundamental is also obviously true.

Hopefully this is something of an artifact of the first fifth of Graber’s argument, and not a general theme, as I would hope a book like this does more than merely stir some conversation, because if we — collective we, all of humanity — don’t do something, it’s plain we’re fucked.

Reading: Susan Mann – Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century

Shortly before departing for Brussels, I finished Susan Mann’s brilliant The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, and began Gail Hershatter’s equally sublime The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, which I’m still slowly chewing through. Both these books mark something of a specific beginning or new direction in my reading, one which has been obvious before now, but with these two authors and some recent others either read or waiting to be read, I think it is worth noting.

My reading has drifted eastwards from Central Asia and Afghanistan (at least until Poetry of the Taliban is published) to arrive once more in China, and a China I am embarrassed to say I have neglected. It is easy to read on a subject such as these and follow the grand narratives – politics, culture … the longue durée, and yes, these matters are intriguing, essential to an initial general understanding, and can even consume one’s entire inquiry for years. It is also easy to unintentionally fail to consider nuances in these, to partially or wholly miss entire facets due to the relative unimportance they are afforded, or to only perceive them in a particular context, an aside to the central theme.

I am careful to say also, that these absences do not, by their being brought to the fore, constitute a ‘truth’ in opposition to the other, they do not substantiate themselves as the ‘real’ story. Merely, they provide another way of regarding things. Equally though, they should not be reduced solely to this regard; they are not symbols, representations or stand-ins for a singular agenda. They exist in and for themselves, without which any understanding can only ever be said to be partial and conditional.

That my reading is lately drifting from Central Asia and those western borders of China is in part because there is scant new to be said, when what is being said is either traditional generalist or filtered through the narrow gaze of America’s incoherent imperialism, both of which fail comprehensively on the subject of women. (And framing women as variously marginalised or emancipated in a dialectic centred upon the Taliban, pre- post- or during, is not equivalent to a proper attention given to the subject.) I would certainly read anything from the region of the likes of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter, but with the exceptions of a couple of monographs have so far been experiencing disappointment.

So then, I arrive at Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Perhaps to say, Susan Mann shows unequivocally that no account of the Qing Dynasty can be said to have genuine worth, or be a work of serious scholarship without giving equal weight to women and their place in this history, and by obvious extension, this applies to all fields of study. That she is a beautiful, subtle, poetic and sensitive writer with a serious and diligent intellectual approach of course means I’m having a thrill to be reading her once more.

transmediale 06 talking about china

In December last year, Martijn de Waal contacted me about as part of the Chinese Mediaculture project. It was a pretty interesting project that was circulating alot of the ideas of the Pearl River Delta that was the focus of the 第二届广州三年展 2nd Guangzhou Triennial. Over in Berlin at the moment, the 19th Transmediale Festival is making lots of cool art noise, and Martin and V2 were there talking about the Chinese blogsphere and Chinese media arts. we-make-money-not-art, which should be on everyone’s daily rss-art-whoring list has excellent coverage of both Transmediale and the The China Connection Part 1 and Part 2.

Continue reading