Books read, late June

Carlos Bueno, Lauren Ipsum. The problem with working in a very small sub-genre is that you get compared to the greater works in that sub-genre quite directly. In this case, Lauren Ipsum is doing computery versions of the things The Phantom Tollbooth and Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Alice in Wonderland did. That’s…pretty heady company. Sadly, I don’t think Lauren Ipsum lives up to it. It was mildly entertaining as an adult already familiar with a lot of the electronics and computer and math jokes in the text, but I’m pretty sure it would be boring, incomprehensible, or both if you didn’t already know the stuff. So…possibly for adult computer nerds feeling juvenile.

Julie Dillon, Imagined Realms Volume 2. Lovely images from the Kickstarter. Glad to have a chance to support Julie’s art.

Amanda Downum, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters. This is darker, both in terms of fantasy tropes and in terms of real-world referents, than I generally prefer my fiction, but I knew that going in since I critiqued it ages ago. It’s vivid without wallowing, fast-paced without being shallow…and I can’t take credit for any of that! Artists and literally reality-warping drugs and old friendships strained and rewrought. Good stuff.

John B. Duncan, The Origins of the Choson Dynasty. I suspect that this author needs a refresher course in the difference between an appendix and a chapter. I mean, the tables about what surnames of people from what locations had which bureaucratic positions were admirable. But: appendix. Really only recommended if you’re passionate about medieval Korea (inasmuch as “medieval” can apply to non-Europe locations).

Pat Murphy, The City, Not Long After. Reread. I had forgotten quite what a hot mess this book is. It’s trying to do things with the necessity of art in/after crisis, but it has a very narrow view of art as performed by full-time artists, and it’s completely uninformed/incoherent about warfare. The sentence that I went around marveling about was one in which the general’s troops–ad hoc troops conquering a post-apocalyptic very-near-future Northern California–were used to organized traditional warfare. Guh what? The farmers and scavengers they were trampling were forming ranks and marching? No. No they were not. Guerilla warfare is not something invented by artists to be elegant, it’s something invented by desperate people–usually poor people–in desperate circumstances. Also: northern California: irrigation. Water and sewer. Potable water is not optional. The only way this book really works is if it’s read as a stylized and garbled origin story from later, and even then it doesn’t work well.

Alistair Reynolds, Slow Bullets. Novella about soldiers on a spaceship and disasters therewith. Entirely readable but not one of his more outstanding works. Also fairly dark.

Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Too much boyfriend Jesuit, not enough roller derby China. Still interesting and worth reading, but so far this is my least favorite of his books because of the preponderance of European stuffs, which I feel is not Spence’s strength.

Genevieve Valentine, Persona. This is a near-future sponsorship diplomacy thriller done right. Very fast read. Enjoyed very much and would recommend, especially if you have high tolerance for thriller pacing.

Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings. Discussed elsewhere.

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: No Normal. Very much an introductory story for this superhero, but I had a good time with it despite it being substantially beginning without much in the way of middle or end. That’s the nature of the beast. Kamala Khan is good fun.

Things I didn’t get around to saying at 4th St.

One of the great joys of a good panel is that there’s always more to say about the topic than will fit in the panel slot. When I was moderating, I had probably twenty names on my “so-and-so has a comment, call on them next” list, and almost all of them were people I already knew, and all the people I already knew were people I knew to be smart and insightful. And we often get smart, insightful new people too. Never enough time!

So! Here are some bits and pieces of things I didn’t get around to saying, labeled if I can remember when/why I wrote them down. Also a few things other people did say, because I wanted to pull them out and look at the shiny.

(Does the arc of fantasy bend towards justice? panel) I think one of the hardest parts about countering the narrative of the American White Secessionist South is that almost all the story templates we have are of the empire enforcing things on an unwilling populace being a bad thing. That makes the empire the villains. We don’t tend to tell the stories of the empire enforcing civil rights on a populace that is attached to keeping them from a minority. And it’s particularly difficult to construct that narrative because we’ve seen the (very very) down side of colonialist narrative about Bringing Enlightenment To The Savages. Yet I think that at least some counter to the dominant “if you’re rebelling, you must be on the side of right” narrative would be a really positive thing if people can figure out how to construct it–both as a social good and as a different story.

Post-apocalyptic lit references I didn’t get to talk about on the post-apocalyptic lit panel: Kathleen Ann Goonan Queen City Jazz, in which the serious disruption comes from positive-ish or positive-looking tech developments; Nalo Hopkinson Brown Girl in the Ring; Gwyneth Jones Bold As Love; Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu The Shadow Speaker; Nick Sagan Idlewild; S.M. Stirling; John Crowley Engine Summer; Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle; Walter Miller A Canticle for Leibowitz; Robert Charles Wilson, king of sudden disruption; “Attack on Titan” (anime); “Wall-E” (movie); Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith Stranger; Kim Stanley Robinson The Wild Shore and the climate change trilogy; Laurie King/Leigh Richards Califa’s Daughters; Michaela Roessner The Vanishing Point; “Tank Girl” (movie), which we later categorized in conversation as Lori Petty battling the camera and winning; Karina Sumner-Smith Radiant; Lois McMaster Bujold The Sharing Knife; Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World; Orson Scott Card, The Folk of the Fringe; Lisa Goldstein A Mask for the General; Gregory Frost and the 7th Day Adventist apocalypse that wasn’t; Bradley Denton’s Blackburn and Laughin’ Boy, two of the best personal/individual apocalypse books I know, completely the feel of post-apocalyptic.

Yes, we did manage to talk about post-apocalyptic books even excluding all of the above. There is quite a lot to say. Max Gladstone said, “If you love something, smash it with a hammer,” and that was good, and Sarah Olsen said, “We’re searching for what’s valuable in our culture to preserve,” and that’s good too, especially the verb tense she chose, and then Elizabeth Bear said, “One of the most exciting things about post-apocalyptic literature is that you can treat society like a character.” Which is a fun thing to do generally but almost required in post-apocalyptic. And Emma Bull noticed that everyone is necessary for the rebuilding in John M. Ford’s The Last Hot Time, which, yes, oh yes, thanks Emma and as always thanks Mike. We are all needed. We are none of us optional.

Starting a comment with, “I’m probably the only one here who’s read this,” is not very useful and just makes you look pompous. People will have read things or won’t have. Flagging obscurity is not necessary unless the discussion is explicitly about highly popular works, and flagging it in that particular way is just self-aggrandizing.

On the music panel, people ended up talking about thinking through who in a scene was carrying the melody and who was doing different kinds of harmony, and I thought that the concept of ensemble-building analogies with musical groups would be useful in building an ensemble cast in general–that if you don’t have enough rhythm and/or enough bass in your character list, the whole will fall over. Also suddenly my proclivity for low-pitched instruments lined up very well with my preference for supporting characters in semi-ensemble cast shows, and all was clear.

Max Gladstone was talking during the sex panel about different lines between private and public behaviors/standards/etc. in different cultures, and I really would like to see people do a lot more with that. There are some ways in which the author’s choices of what to show and how to show it in depictions of sex and sexuality can either mirror or distinctly contrast with what privacy/publicity would be expected in the culture portrayed, and that would be cool, but also playing with the private/public lines for non-sex issues gets a big thumbs up from me.

I would also like to see more speculative fiction that’s extrapolated from current culture and doesn’t assume that religious developments will be linear. Because as Mark’s recent rantings about naked Anabaptist parades demonstrate, things that are directly motivated by a known religious context can still go off completely unpredictable haywire directions.

Elizabeth Bear said, “The absolute hardest thing about writing is limiting your options.” This = true. It’s one of the reasons that people who are depressed struggle so much with their writing: because depression worsens choice paralysis. So basically people who manage to write while depressed should get ALL THE PROPS EVER from the rest of us, because it is a Harrison Bergeron sort of deal and they are MAKING IT ALOFT ANYWAY DESPITE THE GIANT WEIGHTS.

(Ahem. Strong feelings: I have them.)

A friend of mine commented that they had not thought through the emotional difference between having a meal alone at a con because you know (and like!) dozens of people and did not make the logistics work and having a meal alone at a con because you’re new and know nobody, but once somebody pointed it out, friend felt that it was very clarifying. So good then.

Relating also to new people and their reception, I feel that there is a line at about six friends. If you have one or two friends at a con, it can be pretty scary, and while it’s still a good idea to reach out to people you don’t know, you don’t have as much of an emotional base for doing it with one or two friends. It’s harder. But once you have six or more friends at a convention, if you complain that it’s cliquish but you don’t reach out to new people, sorry, you are part of the problem. Six friends gives you a base. It gives you a place to stand while you reach out. It can also give you your own clique while you are complaining about the cliques of others. I know it’s hard for some people to make social overtures, but “I have a hard time making social overtures” is a different problem from “other people are behaving exactly like I am, but when they do it, it’s bad.” Especially if you are not visibly a minority at the convention you’re attending. Especially if you’re a published pro. Especially if you’re not struggling with health problems. Etc. But in general: a good convention comes with a lot of reciprocity, and if you have half a dozen friends there, you’re in a much better position to make the first conversational move than some people.

You can always choose not to reach out to people. That’s your prerogative. But choosing that while complaining about how they are not reaching out to you…is pretty sketchy at best.

Skyler White had two comments on the same panel that fit really well together for me. It was the panel on how you play the cards you ain’t been dealt–that is, how to get better at things that are not natural to you. Skyler first said, “Asking yourself progressively better questions before you start writing is one of the best ways to deal with the cards you weren’t dealt.” Ooh. Yes. Then later she said, “Anything I do before I start writing, if I do it past the time when I could have started writing, becomes a handicap.” That has nice nuance and edges to it. It balances out the thinking/questioning with action, and it can be iterated throughout a long writing process, and…yes. Go Skyler.

I felt that Steven Brust demonstrated the importance of the vivid detail when we were all deciding on That’s A Different panel for the end of the con. He proposed a panel complete with a slate of panelists. Entirely possible that his topic would have won anyway, but he gave the audience the crucial ability to imagine themselves at that panel by saying who would be on it. Very meta. (And not a technique limited to Steve, if people find themselves strongly partisan about a particular panel in future similar circumstances.)