Indirection and the horrors of the moment

Last week I finished watching Season 2 of The Good Fight on CBS Some Access (that’s not what they call it, but…welp). I really loved the show from which it’s a spin-off, The Good Wife, and they kept some of my favorite characters and added a few new characters I like a lot. All the things that frustrated me most about the original show were gone, plus they had kept the rich and extensive universe of characters going. Yet I found watching this season a slog–I was going downstairs to watch it with my workout with a little distaste rather than a lot of excitement–so I had to think about why.

The Good Wife had fictional court cases inspired by real ones in recent headlines, starting from the first season. That wasn’t new. But The Good Fight doubled down on the contemporary references. It is a show that is entirely about American politics in 2018. There’s a lot that’s directly about Donald Trump and his effects on local and state level politics. There are also plotlines that are less inspired by and more copies of current events in other areas. Even plotlines that are supposedly about the characters’ love lives are often also about the fate of protesters or how candidates are presented in modern elections.

I sympathize. I do. There’s a lot out there, and sometimes just screaming into your pillow is not enough. Sometimes you really want to scream something in words, that someone else can hear. Words like, “What is even going on,” and, “I am not okay with any of this.” I get it. But I think that there’s a paradoxical effect where the closer you get to an actual nonfiction commentary without being one, the harder it is to take.

I think the people who wrote M*A*S*H are a great counterexample here. M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War, but even a cursory glance tells you it wasn’t about the Korean War. It was about the Vietnam War. Not only does the quagmire timeline not make sense for the US’s presence in Korea, none of the characters’ backstories do either. Anyone over the age of 22–so all of the main characters except Radar and maybe Klinger–but probably just Radar–should have WWII experience if they’re regular Army. If they’re not, they should still have the perspective that came of having their country in an all-out world war within the last decade. But they don’t seem to. What they do have, eventually, is Colonel Potter, the old-timer with world war experience that he’s always hearkening back to–but not recent experience, of course. This makes no literal sense, but it makes complete emotional sense when you consider that the show is really about the US troops in Vietnam instead.

Why bother? Why use one war to comment on another? Why remove your characters that far? If they wanted to talk about current events, why didn’t they? For me, one of the answers is: it can get overwhelming. Dealing with news stories and then having your fictional entertainment copy those same news stories exactly: it’s too much of one thing. Which is bad enough when that one thing is chocolate peanut butter ice cream, far worse when it’s a specific corruption charge.

Another answer is broader thinking. One particular policy discussion can start to fall into “denounce this one thing, this one thing is bad.” In real life, that can be necessary! But art gives us the chance to look for patterns. To ask, what kind of thing is this, where have I seen it before, where might I see it again, would it still be bad in those contexts too or is there something specific to this one. What are my actual principles here, when removed from the immediacy of people I already know I trust or distrust? How would I react to a situation like this one if there were a few things different? and what does that tell me about this situation?

Of course my bias is toward indirect comment because I’m a science fiction writer. M*A*S*H may have been the first Vietnam War commentary I encountered, in reruns my parents watched while they were making supper, but The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is also pretty influential in my line of work. Haldeman is a Vietnam vet who had things to say–and he used the depth of hundreds of years to say them. Haldeman also wrote War Year and 1968, both of which are non-genre novels inspired by his experiences–both of which are very different from The Forever War. Indirection and shift of perspective give you different art, even when it’s coming from the same person.

I’m not giving up on The Good Fight. I hope that it manages to find its footing and a place to stand where it can create commentary that stretches beyond the current moment, that gives us a lens that allows us to look into that moment without damaging our eyes with the intensity. But my preference as a reader and as a writer is going to continue to be work that tries to find a different angle for perspective and illumination.

Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I am deeply conflicted about how to talk about this book.

On the one hand, I am aware that the Anglophone world–particularly the US world–is resistant to translating works out of simple inertia, and that because of this, writers who write in a language other than English will be considered disproportionately representative of How Chinese Books Do In the US (or How Books Translated From Any East Asian Language Do In the US, or How Translated Books Do In the US). I really want to see more books translated from Chinese and in fact from every language. I want to listen more to basically everybody. Being able to talk and listen is good for art and also for the rest of the world. Yay, works in translation, yay!

However. However however however.

I don’t actually like this book or think it’s very good. I think its audience will be pretty narrow because of what book it is, not because it’s in translation. (Ken Liu’s brilliant anthology Invisible Planets demonstrates the diversity of Chinese SF! Let’s all read that and preorder the next one!)

Ball Lightning is a structure of book I read a lot of 25 years ago. It is the kind of science fiction novel that’s basically All (Zany) Science All The Time. Many people doing calculations, tracking down data, arguing about what data counts, running into dead-ends in The Science, finding new inspiration in The Science. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this structure of book, and I still enjoy some of them. If. IF.

If they are not entirely based around staggering levels of sexism, which Ball Lightning unfortunately is. There is exactly one female character of note, and she is by turns a psychopath and…well, here’s one line: “The old unshakable, goal-oriented major was now a fragile, helpless little girl.” Uh…huh. Our two choices are alluring unstoppable killing machine and alluring breakable child–now united in the same person! Because why would there be any other women in the world ever? And why would the one who exists have any depth?

At first I thought this was going to be an implicitly, peripherally sexist book–that all the pilots and all the officers and all the scientists would be male (okay, to be fair, there are two dead women, one a clingy mother and one a mysterious science-ghostly presence), and it would be a matter of the author just…not considering any other options. But no! No, the crashing sexism is central to the plot! The entire resolution of the book turns around it!

There are not many books that are speculation about ball lightning and various quantum effects (oh lord, the various quantum effects…), so if you like that and find it interesting and are willing to keep in your head that men are not the only people and this book is completely wretched about gender, by all means show the publishers that there’s an audience for science fiction in translation. Otherwise there will be more opportunities soon, and…you can go for those instead.

If after all that you still want this book, you can order it through our Amazon link.

Books read, August

Mishell Baker, Impostor Syndrome. The conclusion of the trilogy that began with Borderline. This book is so focused on consequences and relationship implications (two of my favorite things!) that it’s not the place to start this series. It’s only three books, the whole thing is out, go ahead and start from the beginning. But is it a satisfying ending? Yes. Oh yes.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapter 16. Kindle. The larger world implications at the edges of this boarding school serial are really coming into play here….

Lois McMaster Bujold, Flowers of Vashnoi. Kindle. This novella bookends “The Mountains of Mourning,” coming around full circle to mutation and radiation and how attempts to fix problems sometimes complicate matters. I don’t know that I’d say it was fun, but it was pretty satisfying–and I like to see Ekaterin and her skills take center stage.

Jeremy L. Caradonna, Sustainability: A History. A philosophical overview of the concept, starting with forestry and going through to the present sets of politics and concerns. Not particularly long, worth having.

Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Elvin has pored over who knows how many pages not just of farming records and court documents but also bad poetry (yes, really!) to glean environmental data from China and figure out how and when various environmental changes happened. The human-induced shifts in various parts of the Chinese environment–not just elephants but rivers and beyond–were fascinating to watch over this period. Very cool book.

Maria Dahvana Headley, The Mere Wife. I was captivated by this book. Maria has a way with her writing that tends to do that to me. This time the language, the way the Beowulf translation touchstones sang through the specific prose of the book, got my heart. I feel under-Beowulfed, generally, and this is a startling counter to that.

Kate Heartfield, Armed in Her Fashion. I am not much for grimdark and generally hate zombies, and yet I tore through this eagerly. It was not at all typical of either grimdark or zombie fiction, being set in the Low Countries in the late medieval period. Its treatments of gender, power, and sin were spot on for its period and for ours. I also appreciate reading a book where I can’t predict what the author will do next. I feel like Crash Davis here: don’t dig in, I don’t know where it’s gonna go.

Alex Hirsch, Gravity Falls: Lost Legends. This is four short stories in the Gravity Falls universe/characters, in graphic novel form. It absolutely has Gravity Falls nature. I giggled wildly. If you’re feeling the lack of Soos in your life (or whoever, but obviously Soos), this will fill a little of the void. No, not that void. That’s still infinitely empty, obv.

Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders. I think people talk about whether authors have idealized childhood or focused on its dark side, but they don’t talk a lot about the focus and intensity of being a particular kind of small child. I was that kind of small child. I think Ellen was too, because she completely nails it, and whatever the plot is, I am there for that kind of vivid writing about that part of life. This is a series of short stories, not all about childhood, but a lot; not all dark, but a lot. Recommended.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Fated Sky. Discussed elsewhere.

Nicholas P. Money, The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization. This was a lot more basic than I had hoped. He talked about the different products that owe their entire existence to yeast, beer, bread, okay, cool, but…it’s very pop sci, put it that way. If you have a science background, you may find it disappointing; if you don’t, you will not find it at all daunting.

Ryan North and Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. I too am up for beating up the Marvel Universe. Yes. I too. Also I love the off-the-wall way Squirrel Girl takes on basically every comics trope she comes into contact with. But really: you had me at beating up Tony Stark.

Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race. A lot of this stuff is very remedial: Oluo is writing with great kindness and patience about her experience as a Black woman in America, with asides about how all of this affects non-Black PoC. I picked it up because I didn’t want to be the progressive white woman who was all “oh I don’t need to learn any of this stuff” and definitely needed to learn this stuff. It was a beginning reading. That’s what it’s supposed to be. There’s more to be had, but this is a good starting place.

Charles Sheffield, The Amazing Dr. Darwin. Reread. I am constantly in a process of reevaluating our bookshelves: what am I absolutely sure we will never reread again, what do I remember fondly, what has fallen down a memory hole so I honestly don’t know what category it’s in. I picked up this Charles Sheffield book with some trepidation: I read it more than 15 years ago and have no memory of it, and that’s…often not a good sign. In this case, however, it was a delightful series of historico-scientific mystery short stories. It was several standard deviations above “it was like that at the time” in terms of sexism and treatment of minority figures–though it’s clearly not a contemporary book, it’s pretty solid on the treatment of persons unlike Sheffield himself. So if you want to read about Charles Darwin’s grandfather solving medical mysteries with the cutting-edge knowledge of his time, there’s this book, it exists, it’s fun, it’s worth my shelf space.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby and The Mother of All Questions. I have discovered that if I have a book by Rebecca Solnit, it moves to the front of the queue pretty automatically. She is a prolific and far-ranging author, and this holds true regardless of the topic. I didn’t even know what the topic of The Faraway Nearby would be when I got it, and yet: top of the stack. It turned out to deal with cold and apricots and Solnit’s health and relationship with her mother and…bunches of other stuff. I went and downloaded a Mary Wollstonecraft book because of that one, I told a friend about the Marquis de Sade’s burial, I…thought thoughts. And The Mother of All Questions, sort of the same but different thoughts. Angry sad motivated thoughts. I’m going to keep making an effort to read through her back catalog, because it’s always rewarding.

Abra Staffin-Wiebe, The Unkindness of Ravens. Discussed elsewhere.

Jo Walton, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 (discussed elsewhere) and Starlings. Jo doesn’t think of herself as a short story writer, but the short stories in this volume are fun and humane. Very few of the poems were new to me, but having them collected is very convenient. I was there for the first reading of the play, and now it’s in a real book. So. An eclectic and interesting collection.

Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol. MURDERBOT. New entertainments for–and from!–Murderbot! Particularly new dimensions in robot-human relationships, feelings about them that can’t be disposed of easily, plots to foil and figure out, all in one small novella. YAY MURDERBOT WE LOVE MURDERBOT.

Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance. Kindle. I read this with a playreading group, which is new for me. It’s structurally Really Weird (first act: why even; fourth act: wait what), but we had fun with it, laughing and gasping and all the things you would want. And there was a lot of “oh is that where that line came from!” (Be really careful about the cynical witticisms that are frequently just attributed to Wilde; in context they are often a clever thing for a villain to say that Wilde shows no sign of believing.) (The fox hunt one I kind of think he did though.)

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: Civil War II. Kamala Khan and a bunch of sidekicks becomes Kamala Khan vs. the proto-fascist state, Kamala Khan finds respite in family, Kamala Khan is not sure what to do next (and I want to find out).

J. Y. Yang, The Descent of Monsters. The latest Tensorate novella, epistolary, research-focused, fascinating, fun. I love these. More.

Jane Yolen, Tales of Wonder. Kindle. An assortment of short pieces across types of speculative fiction. I’d read about half of them already, and liked them, and the other half were new. A really good Jane introduction, I felt, and it held my attention even when I was exhausted.

Adam Zamoyski, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871. Zamoyski, in this book, is trying to look at cultural threads through a bunch of revolutions. One of his strengths is Eastern European history–he will spot the Polish people you didn’t even know were being neglected in other books. He occasionally goes a bit off the rails for some other areas (a lot of people would be surprised to hear that English colonists in the Americas did not have mixed race children, for example) and is not the most brilliant prose stylist, but the places where he’s in his element don’t have a lot of overlap with other books you can get on this topic. So…don’t make this the only one you read.

Present Writers: Jane Yolen

It’s still August for a few hours, so I can fit in my August Present Writers post. Whew! For the first one and an explanation of the series, see Marta Randall, with posts on Dorothy Heydt and Barbara Hambly following.

Jane Yolen is so incredibly prolific that this year she has passed the milestone where she can celebrate one book she’s written for every day of the year. While she was preparing for that celebration, more of her books came out, leaving the 365 mark in the dust. She has written science fiction, fantasy, mimetic fiction, nonfiction, poetry; she has written for adults and tiny children and every age in between. She has won the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award and SFWA’s Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. Jane is a pretty big deal, honestly. Once upon a time a reviewer called her “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” and every time I read that quote, I hear her son Adam Stemple’s voice in my head amending cheerfully, “More like the Hans Jewish Andersen!” Jane’s work on Jewish themes is staggeringly great, even for a Gentile like me, but she also has written on British themes, Greek themes, future themes. She’s collaborated with her kids. She’s collaborated with someone else’s kids. She’s done work of staggering originality, collected other people’s folklore, returned to her own successes to help children through the processes of growing up into reasonably functional people with delight and whimsy.

Are you getting the picture yet? Jane can do it all.

Recently I was on a trans-Atlantic flight and finished the paper book I was reading. I was exhausted, coming west, where the advice is “stay up late” rather than “sleep on the plane.” I poked my Kindle for something that would keep me awake and engaged, and I turned up Jane’s Tales of Wonder. Half the stories in it were things I’d read before, the other half new to me, but every word kept me captivated. It spoke to death and family and loyalty and a dozen other things.

I’ve had the privilege of being on panels with Jane (including one with Adam too, and my best advice there is to sit back and let the mother-son comedy hour happen; enjoy it). She’s as insightful as her novels, as intrepid as Commander Toad, as thoughtfully lovely as Owl Moon. She is a treasure and a joy, and we are so lucky to have Jane for one of our present writers.

I’ve got a little list

I always return from travel–especially long travel–with an extensive to-do list. It’s not just the inspiration, although there’s been a lot of that. It’s not just the stuff that didn’t get done while I was gone. It’s also the shifted perspective that makes me notice little things–like the hole in the pocket of my fall coat, now mended before fall arrives in Minnesota but glaringly apparent when I wandered around Icelandic canyons. Catching up is a matter of using the new perspective travel brought me in tiny, mundane ways as well as large, magical ones.

(This novella idea I got in Borgarnes: it is perfect for me. So excited. You will be excited too, when I get there. But there’s a long road between here and there.)

One of the things that my to-do lists do for me is to give me a little breathing room, to let me know that I don’t actually have to do everything I want to do right now today. Marking something as “THURS” or putting it on the list for two weeks from now is a clear mental barrier: yes, I want to accomplish this, I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, but not this minute. If I finish all the stuff on my list for today, I can sit down and rest. Rest is good.

But THURS and two weeks from now eventually become real, and one of the things I was supposed to do in the Grand Scheme of After I Return was set up a newsletter. Well, it’s After I Return, so I’ve managed to set up that newsletter. It’s at, and it will require confirmation once you’ve signed up for it. I expect to send something out roughly monthly, with publication news, recipes, thoughts and chatter, nothing frequent or lengthy. Please feel welcome.

The Unkindness of Ravens, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Review copy provided by the author/publisher, who is also a personal friend and also someone I was in a writing group with, so I critiqued this novella.

This is a novella about a magical, divinely backed caste system and the perils of xenophobia. It’s also about family and assumptions and trust. It also has some unflinching scenes of fighting, battlefields, injury, and disability.

It’s a lot in one novella, is what I’m saying.

Anari is the heir of House Crow, one of the eight Great Houses that runs his homeland and contributes possible heirs to the throne. He hasn’t ever seen himself as oba (ruler) material, and he had hoped that that would keep him out of the cutthroat competition. The world–as embodied by his siblings in the other Great Houses, and possibly by the intentions and desires of his House’s god–has other plans. Soon Anari’s entire worldview is upended, and he has to figure out a way for divine favor and Crow cleverness to provide real healing for his people–including the people he never thought of as his.

The resolution of this high fantasy adventure avoids some obvious pitfalls, holding interest deftly until the very end.

Please consider using our link to buy The Unkindness of Ravens from Amazon.

The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor Books. This is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, which I reviewed here:

I was really glad that the sequel came so quickly on the heels of the first book, because in some ways they’re more one story than two, and being able to finish the story promptly is something I really like. In other ways they’re not the same book and shouldn’t be–Elma York, our heroine, is in a very different place in her life.

There are short pieces of life on Earth at the beginning of this book, but for the most part it is a space mission book, it is travel to Mars and crew dynamics all the way. It’s the sort of book I read a lot of when I was in my teens: a book with the triumphs and pitfalls of crewed space flight, a book where a mission to another planet is made to feel as real as possible.

That place is a spaceship headed for Mars.

There’s a reason this is alternate history rather than projective science fiction this time, though, and that is: the mission to another planet is made to feel as real as possible for everybody. Not just for one demographic. All the stuff that was in the SF we grew up with implicitly is self-aware here: all the places where a character assumes that the proper person for the job has to be male, all the places where “publicity” and “marketing” dictate that white people do things to make them appealing to other (racist) white people…they’re there in the stuff this is an alternate history from, too. They’re just not there consciously on the author’s part. Here, they’re absolutely deliberate, and central.

Everyone in this book is allowed to make mistakes. Everyone in this book is allowed to differ from the people they care most about, and work on it, and work through it. It is not as centrally for me as The Calculating Stars was, but it’s a very satisfying conclusion to that story. With plenty of chess pie. Recommended.

Please consider using our link to buy The Fated Sky from Amazon.

If you didn’t like progress, here’s a tornado

Unexpectedly another thing of mine for you to read while I pack: this blog post on the Analog website is about the novelette I have in the current issue of Analog (“Left to Take the Lead”) and also about tornadoes and rebuilding and healing and community:

An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Once upon a time there was a teenager whose physics research equipment was broken two summers in a row, and she was stuck with a library on Library of Congress system, which is great for organization but terrible for browsing. And this kid decided that if she was going to do this SF writing thing, she should take it as seriously as physics–and she was the sort of physics kid who had research jobs at ages 18 and 19 to go wrong, so that was how seriously she took physics. So…there was the list of Hugo nominees and winners. And the list of Nebula nominees and winners. And a lot of long summer hours reading them when there was no possibility of getting physics done. And a lot of wandering off down side tracks when I liked a particular author or work very much, or even just when the library had a lot by that person.

I sometimes refer to myself as my misspent youth, but it’s actually stood me in really good stead for the career I ended up having, which is 0% physicist and 100% SF writer. It also means that when I read a lengthy discussion of the history of the Hugos, I have a good grounding in who’s doing what when. This book was a kind of perspective all at once that I didn’t have, though, even with having glanced at the original posts that comprise it. It was a fun, fast read despite its considerable size, and it left me with some thoughts I assemble for you here in no particular order.

Jo Walton is a nicer person than I am. Okay, I should have put in the disclaimer that she’s a dear friend, also, but that’s not why I’m saying this. Loads of my friends are not as nice a person as I am. (Not very nice to say that, but at the same time I can guarantee at least a dozen people are nodding happily along thinking, “She means me,” without the least trouble to their consciences.) But there were several places where Jo said, “I haven’t read this, but I’m sure it’s great,” and I said aloud to the book, “I HAVE and it’s NOT.” She gives a lot of wiggle room, a lot of benefit of the doubt. What she does not do is pretend to have read anything she hasn’t actually read, which is great, more people should be clear about what they haven’t read.

One of the fascinating things to me was watching the “I read this stuff when it was new” line kick in at a different place for Jo than it did for me. I knew hypothetically that books look different when they are ground-breaking for you than when they’re part of the status quo, but wow, there it all was. John Varley, for example, was always part of the world I could expect, one of the things stories just did–whereas for Jo and a few of the commenters who were adding to her posts, there was a period of adding those works to their world concept. It changes a lot. There are all sorts of definitions of a book “holding up” with time, many of which are discussed in this volume, but I think one of the interesting questions on that front is: how does it do as a novel if the concepts (stylistic or science fictional or whatever) that were startling have become familiar to the reader?

Another thing that became startlingly clear to me when I was seeing the lists of what came out in a particular year of my childhood all at once: it used to be that most of my reading was in one of two categories: the men I was reading because I was told they were the good stuff you read if you were serious about SFF, and the women I read because I found them on my own and wanted to. It was not quite that stark, but…it sure felt pretty stark when I was looking at the lists of Hugo nominees and thinking, oh yes, I remember reading that…and then looking at the lists of what else was published and thinking, oh, I loved that! oh, that changed my life!

One of the major questions Jo addresses in this book is: how representative was each slate of nominees of what the field was doing at the time? And this is a question that I found fascinating in this format and…literally could not care less about in real time. Reading about it in this format clarified how little I care about that. It was an interesting point of consideration academically; in the field, inasmuch as I care about awards at all, I care about people trying to give them to the things they like best, or to the things that fit some other criteria that is specified for the award. So: does it represent the field? Is it “the kind of book that wins a Hugo”? I don’t care. I literally could not care less. Award the books you think are good. Period and full stop.

This is the sort of book that makes more dent than the sum of its blog posts. It was different reading it all at once than once a week (or less, since I wasn’t totally assiduous about this). It’s the sort of thing that you should read if you want an overview of what’s been done and how it was valued in the 20th century, but especially if you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time talking about–arguing about–science fiction and fantasy. Because even if you’re not arguing much with Jo herself, the very substance of what she’s talking about here can start a hundred discussions–or arguments–if you want it to. Perhaps it will become a party book: take the book down, read a randomly selected entry, discuss. People have done stranger things. People in my social circles, even.

Please consider using our link to buy An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 from Amazon.