Minds of the future….

Today you can read a new story by me in Nature Futures, My Favourite Sentience. I’ve adjusted the spelling of the title because the characters in it are in fact British, and their teacher would mark them down if they spelled it the American way! So many sentiences to choose from….

There’s also a writing of the story blog post, but obviously read the story itself first.

One Day a Dot, by Ian Lendler

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Picture book readers vary. There are the ones who read every word faithfully, the ones who wander off on each page going, “do you see the flippers on the nice tetrapod, Moo?”, the ones who make things up that bear only glancing resemblance to the author’s original text. Then there are the footnoters.

I am a mix of all of the above, but oh, am I ever a footnoter.

Because…mostly picture books that are trying to inform kids are aiming for simple, and once upon a time I was given a superhero name by an ex-boyfriend, and that superhero name was The Great Complicator. (He was wrong. My superhero name is The Non Sequitess. But I digress.) And I know all the arguments that kids need simple, and that picture books need simple. I get that.

But part of simplicity is choosing which simplicity. And choosing carefully.

Which brings us to One Day a Dot.

One Day a Dot is telling a very simple, very small child oriented creation story. It is telling the story of how the universe got from nothingness to you, tiny child. It starts with the Big Bang and goes through planetary formation (in the blink of an eye) and evolution and all the way to your current family, where you live as the end product of evolution.

Did you wince at that phrase, “end product of evolution”? I winced typing it, but this is a very, very linear narrative. It is a directed narrative. It is a narrative in which the self-centeredness natural to a tiny human child is not the least bit disturbed: you, tiny human child, are not only the most important thing in your own life, not only the most important thing in your parents’ lives for a few years yet (as indeed you must be to survive), but the most important thing. The. Most important thing.

For example, when a comet falls, tiny human child is told, “When the big dot hit the blue dot…the explosion turned the whole sky red. The world was on fire…and all the land-fish burned. But one thing survived.” BZZZZT sorry wrong! It will be quite important to you, tiny human child, that more than one thing survived. You are a mammal; quite a few other creatures you like will probably be mammals; but guess what? It turns out that many, many other species that are *not* proto-mammals survived the Cretaceous-Palogene Extinction Event, and it will be important to the entire world and to you particularly–especially if you are the sort of tiny human child who is interested in these things–that they did.

So…this is a book with very cute illustrations, and it gives very cute My First Bible kinds of answers to not at all Biblical narratives. And if you are the sort of person who wants a simple narrative to footnote–if you find it useful to be able to say, “okay, but not quite like that”–then you can bounce around this book with a tiny human and say, look, yes, but also no. The Great Chain of Being was not fundamentally right, evolution is not a line, and resulting in you does not mean that you were its goal, any more than echidnas or the current coloration on the moths that have been peppery in various shades, but yes, One Day a Dot, and so on for billions of years.

Please consider using our link to buy One Day a Dot from Amazon.

Books read, early April

Graham Annable, Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths. Discussed elsewhere.

Deborah Cadbury, Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain’s Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII. I think one of the things that people who are from a non-royalist country find a little difficult to wrap their heads around sometimes is which kinds of influence royal families have in which cases, in a modern situation. This book was valuable for that alone: lots of very specific instances of what the royal family could and could not do, what was expected of it, how it influenced the government and how the government influenced it. Not a staggering, world-altering book, but does what it says on the tin.

Jonathan I. Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848. Jonathan Israel is my go-to author for things about Radical Enlightenment, and what he’s doing here is tracing threads of that going into and coming out of the American Revolution: how it influenced other countries and how those influences came back into America. He goes into places this kind of discussion often misses but shouldn’t: Haiti, Latin America, South Africa, Greece, the Netherlands. He is often trenchant and fascinating. He also has a very particular focus/fixation, and he wants his terms to keep meaning the things he wants them to mean, so “radical” is supposed to mean “Spinozist,” dammit, and round about 1848 it stops meaning that, dammit, and they did not ask Jonathan Israel. But it is generally, like his other doorstops, worth the read. He remembers that Gouverneur Morris existed and was important! He remembers Olympe de Gouges! It’s at very useful right-angles with a lot of other history of this period.

Leena Krohn, Collected Fiction. This is also a doorstop. It’s a rare opportunity in two ways: one, to read Krohn’s work in English (she is a Finnish author), and two, to read a prose writer’s work all at once, in sequence, the way one can do with the collected works of a poet. This isn’t quite everything. But it’s a substantial fraction of Krohn’s work, and it allows the reader to watch her style and ideas evolve. She does a lot of episodic/fragmentary style, which makes it easier to read such a large volume in small bites and still take it all in, the strange cities and their stranger denizens looping back around each other, insect people, plants, pelicans living among humans. I am so glad and so grateful that we have more translated strange works than we did when I was a teenager, so that I can have this.

Yoon Ha Lee, Raven Stratagem. I have always been a middle book person, and the end of this middle book particularly was very satisfying to me. I found how he handled the mathy/calendrical nature of the worldbuilding really fine. A lot of spoilers would lead up to that, so…yep, as of the end of this twisty volume I am glad to still be going with this series.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble. This is a warm and loving book about a Tejanx Latinx family that runs a magical bakery and misadventures of the youngest member of that family trying to claim–and understand–her magical birthright. I found it so charming, cozy without being cloying, highly recommended for kids on up. (Although it made me hungry for cinnamon rolls.)

Tochi Onyebuchi, Beasts Made of Night. For some reason I had gotten the impression that this was a very different kind of book than it is, but it was still fun. YA fantasy with lots of action and intriguing worldbuilding, young people struggling with the strictures of power and social bonds none of which fit quite right, but not using usual fantasy genre-furniture, building with very different blocks.

V.E. Schwab, A Conjuring of Light. The conclusion of a series, and wow were there a lot of ends to tie up in the parallel worlds here. Schwab had to just keep tying, and there were sections, set pieces, callbacks from previous themes…it wasn’t entirely tidy, but it did all fit together. I wouldn’t recommend starting here. This is definitely an ending. On the other hand: this series is now complete, so if you wait for that, here you go.

Michael Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor, Scarlett Hart, Monster Hunter. Discussed elsewhere.

Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. This is a rambling and personal account that touches on all sorts of interesting points in Southern cooking, and in the foodways of America in general. Twitty relies a bit heavily on DNA testing sites for my tastes, but he takes a long look inward and connects it outward in ways that end up being really interesting, and he’s done very concrete research into what things taste and feel like. I’m very glad I read this.

Jennifer Wright, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. I am not the target audience for this book. The target audience for this book does not read monographs about specific instances of yellow fever. The target audience for this book is looking for a breezy, humorously written book with a chapter each about different historical diseases. That…is probably a lot more people than a lot of what I read, honestly. Wright brushes past some issues in historiography (why, for example, some biographers decline to state for certain whether their subjects had syphilis: hint, it is usually because they do not know), but in general if you want an overview, this is probably an entertaining way to get one.

Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths, by Graham Annable

Review copy provided by First Second Books

This is a picture book story of two sloths who go on adventures separately and find each other again at the end. It’s graphic novel length but picture book age, so…long picture book? If a kid talks you into reading this for their “one more book” before bedtime, I hope they’re a pretty big kid, or you got conned.

The two sloths enjoy watching clouds, but one of them, Ernesto, wants to see more of the sky, different kinds of sky. Peter is more worried, less daring, but when Ernesto leaves on his adventure, Peter wants him home safe. So he goes out after him and meets his own new friends, sees his own new habitats…less enthusiastically, and in more detail.

There’s not really any kind of acknowledgment that their differences could be good, here, just: here are two personalities seeing the world, seeing the world is great, here is a cranky tapir, here is a flock of lackadaisical crabs. The illustrations have their own very specific character, minimalist without being sparse, and somebody will probably attach hard to Murphy the parrot or some other character in particular. I think this is probably more of a little kids’ picture book than an all ages’ picture book, but it’s reasonably charming, not going to be offensive to big people for the first forty-leven reads.

Please consider using our link to buy Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths from Amazon.

Pitfalls of lacking a high/low culture divide

I made a jokey tweet (…that is entirely true) about my lack of high/low culture divide. (Specifically: “I think you would be alarmed if you knew how often, “Sir Mix-a-Lot’s identical twin brother does not like big butts, and cannot tell the truth,” is my IMMEDIATE response to philosophical conundrums and logic puzzles. My high/low culture separation is nonexistent, basically.”) And some stranger came along and said, “And yet weirdly, you say that almost in a tone of self criticism, as if it were a /bad/ thing. :)” So first of all: good use of emoji to indicate tone in a medium not well-suited for that, stranger, well-done, I get that you are being extra-friendly.

And generally, I am in favor of this trait of mine. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t only select friends for it…but it’s strongly, strongly correlated with the people I’m closest to. The last person I talked to about Debussy, for example, is also the person who got “Hooked on a Feeling” in my head for the last 48 hours and counting (…THANKS). Another dear friend inspired me to write her a story because she loves classic space stories and mid-twentieth century British literary fiction, so I got the peanut butter and the chocolate together for her, since I like them too. It’s just…an ease of conversation thing, an approach that makes it easier not to have to signal conversational turns because we’re all up in those things together. But here’s what I mean about signaling conversational turns when I haven’t figured out whether someone shares that trait yet:

There’s the problem of someone thinking that a low culture reference in what they intended to have as a serious conversation is automatically a joke. Example: someone wants to talk about writers who handle family relationships well or interestingly. They bring up A.S. Byatt and we talk about her works for some time. Great. If they think I’m changing the subject or not taking them seriously if I mention Lois McMaster Bujold (long series space opera), Fonda Lee (kung fu movie-influenced fantasy), or Hilary McKay (children’s), that’s not going to work, conversationally. It’s not going to help. I know that some of my friends who focus on genre get immediately indignant, defensive, and declare that people who have that reaction are being jerks. But I think they don’t necessarily mean to, they just…are trying to work from context they don’t have.

Here’s my example: when I was in my mid-teens, I had a cousin I loved very much, and she loved me very much, and I noticed she was laughing at pretty much everything I said. Not, like, hearty deep laughter. But polite laughter, baffled laughter. And I realized that we had diverged enough that she was trying to figure out what on earth I was saying, what would make me say the things I said, and the only thing she could think of was: she would never say any of those things except as some kind of weird joke maybe? And it was polite to laugh at people’s jokes? Therefore hahaha, OUT OF KINDNESS AND CONSIDERATION. So sometimes people are not trying to be jerks about breadth of artwork included in a discussion, they’re trying to get the context for what you are signaling. It’s a pitfall, not a conversation-ender, if you can manage to signal clearly that, no, you are still talking about the same thing they’re talking about. Communication can be achieved here. It just sometimes takes work.

The other end of the spectrum comes when people have past bad experiences with people trying to one-up and show off with how superior their tastes are. This is a crappy thing to do to people, but pretending no one ever does it won’t make it go away. So…if someone is trying to have a fun conversation about stuff they like, and you are trying to have a fun conversation about stuff you like, the trap comes in when they have been conditioned to read your fun as a dominance game over them, a way to show off how much better you are than them. And it’s useful to try to listen to the other person’s reactions carefully, to figure out when they’re being ignorantly dismissive for fun and when they’re protecting a bruise, where they’ve been smacked a bit before. (Sometimes, sadly, even literally.)

So yah: it’s easy to just dismiss the line between high and low culture, to look at some of the fruitful and amazing art that comes from ignoring or even gleefully trampling it. To say, nope, we want none of those divisions here. I’m on board. And every few years someone writes a manifesto about doing just that, as though nobody who came before them ever did, instead of practically everybody. But…if we can ever leap to “maybe this person’s context is different and it’s worth trying a little more communication to be sure” instead of “JERKS!”…if we can think of communication pitfalls instead of insurmountable problems…that seems worthwhile to me, when I can make it work.

Scarlett Hart, Monster Hunter, by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Scarlett Hart lives in an Edwardian-esque world filled with monsters and horrors. Ghosts, mummies, tentacle beasts, it’s all there. Underage people aren’t supposed to be monster hunters, but since the death of her parents, she and her butler Napoleon White have been carrying on the family business, with Napoleon delivering their catches/kills to the Academy. (The acronym for the monster hunting academy convolutes itself to be TRAPEZE, which tells you a lot about the convolutions in this book and which ones the author considers clever.)

This is a graphic novel aimed at young readers. It’s adventure fantasy. There are gadgets, there is loyalty and frustration at the establishment, there are conveniently absent parents to be avenged. There are a lot of stock elements, which is not wrong, just…not a lot that is new here. Which perhaps its young audience won’t mind, and it goes quickly.

Please consider using our link to buy Scarlett Hart, Monster Hunter from Amazon.

Books read, late March

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up At the Crater School, Chapters 13-15. Kindle. This is quite episodic, but the episodes are fun, they’re literally kids having fun in a boarding school setting but also Mars. And on it goes. Don’t start in the middle, there’s literally no reason to.

Tobias Buckell, Necahual. Kindle. The way I report what I read is a little weird, but short stories that are individual ebooks get listed in my booklog as individual ebooks, so here this one is: colonialism on an alien planet, a soldier who learns unexpected things about empire.

C.J. Cherryh, Emergence. The latest Atevi book, the latest chunk of story carved off the giant story that is this series. This is really no longer a set of individual books, it’s ongoing story the way soap opera is ongoing story, except about alien-human politics. I love it and am fond of reading the latest installment even though I don’t usually like serials, and I have friends I gossip with about the characters. I’d love to have more friends like that if you want to join that number, but…it’s a lot of investment, I do admit. And I get frustrated with some threads submerged, but they do come around again, and…more great-grandmother! more Kyo!…okay, okay.

Rupert Christensen, Paris Babylon: The Story of the Paris Commune. You know how I often say “does what it says on the tin”? This spends about 3/4 of the book talking about lead-up to the Paris Commune, doing only sort of what it says on the tin. And I see why, and it’s sort of interesting, but…Paris Commune. Really interesting. Not just in its surrounding and more-imperial bits. Lots of decadence here. I have gotten past the point of thinking that if I learn more about post-Revolutionary French government it will make sense. Now I just keep learning more about the fractal nonsense, and this is another piece of that.

George Eliot, The Lifted Veil. Kindle. This is definitely not the first George Eliot you should read. (Middlemarch, you should read Middlemarch, in fact if you do read Middlemarch there is a serious chance that you will become permanently slightly wistful that you are not reading Middlemarch again AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT OF YOUR LIFE.) This is a very weird little novella that has sort of the…Lydgate family dynamics without the balance of the rest of Middlemarch…plus a weird Victorian run at a speculative element. It fascinates me when the Victorians do that, but not necessarily in a good way, unless you discovered that you loved George Eliot, which…I did when reading…yes…Middlemarch. But I was on a plane and did not want to commit, so…gosh, what an odd novella this is.

Andrea Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change. Two-layered historical novel, interesting angles of history and characterization and relationship, related to her other novel Redwood and Wildfire but it’s not necessary to read that one to get this one. Satisfying and fun with poignant parts.

Matthew Kressel, The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye. Kindle. Another short one in ebook format, a far-far future thing where everyone is learning something, just not necessarily what they thought. (And currently free. -ed)

Kei Miller, The Last Warner Woman. A Jamaican novel about foresight and caregiving and how we tell stories. I liked the beginning of it, but I am really kind of exhausted with books that collapse into violent misogyny even if the tone is not violently misogynist, so…be forewarned, I guess. Sigh.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Hermes: Tales of the Trickster. Discussed elsewhere.

Sofi Oksanen, Norma. Deeply weird book about hair and trafficking and magic. The American cover makes it look very sweet and dreamy, and…Lord, is it not that. It is noir magic with hair salons and a great many of you probably need that weirdness who would not have seen it in the pastels of the cover art. It looks princessy. It is very, very not princessy.

Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre, Monsters Beware!. Discussed elsewhere.

Timothy Snyder, Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine. This is a bizarre and interesting book. I think one of the things I loved about it was the sense of feeling of interwar Poland it gave. What was it actually like to be in Poland between the two world wars. (“Interwar” is probably a misnomer, because Poland was not really interconflict at any point, at least not emotionally reliably so.) I get very defensive of how historians write about Poland in that period, because some of them act like Poland could have…somehow magically not been on plains between Germany and Russia? And this gets into Poland: trying to deal with Ukraine having some sense of what on earth was going on in Ukraine during the Ukrainian Famine. Which is horrific, and this is a very difficult book. And yet also gonzo-weird, because Poland: they were basically like your group of friends, they had a bunch of mathematicians, some modern artists, a few classically trained musicians but not enough to make an ensemble coherently, a couple of people with horses, and they were like, right, this is who we’ve got, we’ve got to deal with authoritarians now from several angles, who’s gonna do it, I guess we’ll send the Cubist dude in? okay? because it’s not like any of us has commando training or something? And some historians are like, Poles, haha so stupid why did they send a Cubist to try to deal with the authoritarians, hahaha! But look, when you’ve got a hammer, you hammer in the morning, and when you’ve got a Cubist and the Ukrainian Famine, you don’t shrug and say sorry Ukrainians I guess, you try with the bloody Cubist, it’s not like it would have been better if he’d been representational by inclination, and this is that book, in all its very weird and incredibly upsetting glory. (This has been your Marissa Feels Strongly About Interwar Poland Report Of The Day. Tune in later. There will be another. Who knows when. Used bookstores spit these things out for me.)

Jonathan Strahan, ed., Infinity Wars. An anthology of far-future hard SF, at varying degrees of emotional remove, and you can basically map how the story will work for me by how far the emotional remove is.

Some short stories I have liked: early 2018

I have by no means made an exhaustive attempt to keep up on short stories–in fact, quite the opposite, I have several wonderful magazines to catch up on. However, I got to the point of having quite a few stories I have liked, so I wanted to recommend them before the list got overwhelming. More poems than usual in here. Yay.

She Still Loves the Dragon, by Elizabeth Bear, Uncanny
The Mansion of Endless Rooms, by L. Chan, Syntax and Salt
Bondye Bon, Monique Desir, Fiyah Issue 5
Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse, by S. B. Divya, Uncanny
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies, by Alix E. Harrow, Apex
Object-Oriented, by Arkady Martine, Fireside
More Tomorrow, by Premee Mohamed, Automata Review
Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013, by Amal El-Mohtar, Fireside
Drop Some Amens, by Brandon O’Brien, Uncanny
I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise, by Sarah Pinsker, Uncanny
it me, ur smol, by A. Merc Rustad
Four-Point Affective Calibration, by Bogi Tak√°cs, Lightspeed
Unplaces: An Atlas of Nonexistence, by Izzy Wasserstein, Clarkesworld
The Sea Never Says It Loves You, by Fran Wilde, Uncanny