The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Full disclosure: Kameron and I are not besties but are the “have a long chatty lunch at a con” level of cordial. Do I always remember this kind of disclosure? I should. This field, ack.

If you follow Kameron Hurley’s blog, most of this book will be familiar to you. I say “most” because, in addition to the pieces written specifically for this collection, even the most adamant follower of a blog scarcely memorizes every post. There will always be the day when you were at your grandmother’s, the link you didn’t catch, the time when you totally meant to come back to that later…but never did. Also, blogs–even the best-curated–get choked down a bit with ephemera. There will always be a post that, in retrospect, turns out not to have been among the best. A post that needs an update, and you read it five minutes after it went up and missed the update.

These, then, are the selected favorites of Hurley’s blog posts, edited to be their best selves. They are the form she wants to stand by, the form she wants to discuss in the long-term. This is not her only argument, but this time around, this is her argument. This is her fight.

Some of the essays that were written for this collection are at least as important as the blog posts that went viral. They make it fuller, more rounded argument. They have perspective. One, in particular, “When the Rebel Becomes Queen: Changing Broken Systems from the Inside,” takes on one of the hardest topics for people in our culture in my generation and the one before it: admitting to power. Because, as Hurley points out, the difference doesn’t always feel immensely powerful on the inside. It doesn’t come with a sceptre or an army or a giant bank account. But that doesn’t mean that the power differential isn’t real and important in how you treat people, and I’m very pleased to see someone like Hurley–who is not a multimillionaire, who is not a household name in households other than mine–explicitly recognizing that and grappling with its implications in a book like this.

So the new content is well worth having, and if you want to, you can take a minute to find out what you think of that old. But I do think that if you’re having the kind of conversation that genre tends to be, putting this kind of essay online so that it’s widely accessible, and also publishing it in this kind of format so that it’s more polished and permanent, has a lot of value. I’ve been glad to see authors like Jo Walton and Cory Doctorow do it in recent years, and Hurley’s is a valuable voice in that thread of discussion.

Please consider using our link to buy The Geek Feminist Revolution from Amazon.

Interview with Ada Palmer

Today I am hosting an interview with Ada Palmer, the latest stop on her blog tour for her new book Too Like the Lightning. I’ve attempted to avoid spoilers in both interview questions and review, although both refer to the contents; you can read my thoughts on the book here.

1) Are you in some sense a dual-vocateur, or is only one of writing and history your vocation? or are they the same vocation? or is something else “how you introduce yourself at parties” (cooking, singing, art appreciation)?

I introduce myself as both.  I’ve been delighted to have a lot of readers respond enthusiastically to voker/vocateur, and I do think it’s something we see every day but don’t have a good name for, the difference between someone who works and then stops versus someone for whom work is an all-hours passion.  We have “day job” but that implies that it’s somehow not important, not the real you, whereas I have friends who love their jobs and are great at them but are still happy that the job ends when they clock out.  I like how voker/vocateur make clear that both kinds of relationship to one’s work are good and worthy of respect.  For myself, history and writing are very much intertwined sets of one vocation, born mostly out of reading figures from the past.  I talk in my author’s note at the end about what I call the Great Conversation, how authors in past eras responded to each other.  It’s a conversation across time, years and decades of human labor poured into writing works for later generations to receive, in the pure faith that there will be yet more scholars in the future to read, and to respond.  They worked so hard to pass things forward, copying them by hand as centuries made the papyrus crumble, and commenting and responding, continuing the conversation life by life.  Petrarch did it most overtly.  He wrote letters to Seneca and Cicero in response to reading their letters even though they had been dead a thousand years.  And he also wrote a letter to Posterity, just the same way, addressed to the later scholars for whom he salvaged Cicero and Seneca, expecting us to pass it forward too.  I want to read that, to discuss it, study it, share it with others, that’s the heart my scholarship, what I do as a historian and as a history professor.  But I also want to do more.  Petrarch didn’t want us to just measure and discuss him and his peers like so many specimens in a cabinet.  He wanted us to reply.  I don’t know how anyone can read Petrarch’s letters to us, and Voltaire’s, and Cicero’s, and not want to reply.  To pass it forward.  To pay it forward, all those years they gave us, trusting us, to give some years back, to them and to Posterity.  So I replied.  That’s the fiction.  And, like them, I trust there will be more replies to come.

2) You spend much of your time teaching people who are “blessed with newness,” though less blessed than Bridger. How do you think your experience as a professor has changed how you write sensayers, caregivers, and others who interact with the young?

Interesting question.  I think that transitioning from being taught to teaching has made me think a lot about what it was like being the student, doing a lot of analysis of points when I had good experiences with teachers, or bad ones, and trying to think from the other end what the big differences are.  I think a lot of it has to do with whether the person in the teacher position thinks of the students as peers/people equivalent to the teacher, or whether the teacher categorizes students as other/separate.  My worst student experiences tended to be situations where the teacher wouldn’t talk to us about why we were learning, what the bigger purpose was, and didn’t want to follow up probing questions.  Situations where we were clearly units to be given information/instruction like so many potted plans to be given water.  The best experiences were ones where teachers were eager to discuss the deeper purposes behind what we were learning, would step up at the outset to explain the why and what for, and the origins of things.  I felt that a lot of the difference came from empathy, whether teachers thought of students as coequal human beings with a natural right to understand why, and to ask questions, like anyone in a normal conversation.  When I write caregiver or teacher characters I think a lot about whether the caregiver/teacher thinks of interlocutors/students as equals, or as subjects to be protected/educated/guided by someone who knows better.  Carlyle very much empathizes and everyone else as coequal participants in exploring something Carlyle just happens to have explored more than most.  Other caregivers that we see have that to a lesser degree, or no degree.  Set-sets bring out this tension a lot, since their seeming inhumanity makes it extra easy for people to see them as other/not self.  The tension between good and bad teachers/caregivers, and the consequence of that difference for the world, will continue to grow over the four books.

3) Bash’es [deliberately formed quasi-family-type living groups] are of primary importance in this book, in this culture, but all the bash’es we see in serious detail are comparatively stable–that is, already formed. How tempted were you to do a side plot in bash’ formation? Can we hope for one in future books?

Yes, in fact I’m working at this very moment on a chapter which treats that quite a bit. The first part of this story focuses on the mature stages of large political plans and manipulations, and on the consequences of hereditary bash’es as opposed to new-formed bash’es.  So it didn’t make sense for a young college-age new bash’ to be central to that action.  I was also interested in focusing primarily on more mature characters, since there is already so much great genre fiction about young adults and coming-of-age, so it felt to me like I had more new things to contribute to a world of adults.  But in the later books, as we see the consequences of these “days of transformation” Mycroft is describing, then there will be some attention to new bash’es, and in particular to how challenging and frightening it is to be in the midst of trying to form a new bash’ when all this occurs.

4) The Hives carefully all have strengths and appeal and weaknesses/downsides. Do you try to guess which Hive your friends would choose? Do you mostly guess right? Or do they let you pick for them?

The question is usually “What Hive would you be if you weren’t a Utopian?”  Most of my friends are just as deep into science fiction & fantasy as I am, so Utopia is almost everyone’s first choice.  But it’s fun asking people which other Hive they would pick. Sometimes people have an instant answer that feels exactly right, and you think “Yes, of course he’d be a Brillist,” but sometimes people are torn and we have a great discussion, and talk about the merits and appeals of each.  It’s often especially interesting for noticing differences between friends, for example conversations where one friend finds the European and Mitsubishi Hives appealing because ancestry and nation of origin are important to that friend, and ethnicity/nationalism are important parts of those two Hives, but another friend in the same conversation may be baffled and find those two Hives totally unappealing.  In the course of the conversation we discover how unimportant ancestry/nation is to that friend in contrast with the other.  I think that many fictional stories sort people into groups by personality, or by the kinds of jobs people want to do, but fewer do it by political philosophy as Hives do, since they relate to fundamental ideas of how justice should work, or what the source of power is.  I’ve never thought of trying to guess or assign Hives to others, though, I think of it as such a personal thing, it would be an invasion of privacy to impose it on someone.  Some of my friends want to make an online quiz, which I think could be a lot of fun.  And I’ve found it interesting that, while almost all my friends say “Utopia first!” I’ve had several friends be deeply torn between Utopia and Cousins, and feel they would have to reluctantly pick Cousins over Utopians.  I think that the Cousins pull very differently from most of the Hives, based more on personality than philosophy in some senses, and it’s interesting to see the Cousins be the one that makes even SF fans torn.  I look forward to seeing how those who identify with Cousins will respond to the later books, especially the fourth.

5) The Terra Ignota series is substantial–several volumes coming from Tor. Do you have plans to do any shorter work, either in other universes or in other times/places in this universe? Or is Terra Ignota taking up all your fictional time and energy for the moment?

I find short fiction extremely challenging, it’s never flowed well for me, even though I love reading short fiction, especially short mysteries and ghost stories. I read a lot more short fiction than novels, but writing is very difficult (for which reason I’m a huge admirer of how you pour out so much incredible short fiction! [hey, thanks!–ed.]) I have one standalone short story that I’ve been trying to finish for… an embarrassing number of years, and do hope to finish someday.  I have one idea for a short story in the world of Terra Ignota, and I have the scene all picked out, but the structure of how to make it stand alone has never come.  So it’s just the novels for now, unless I ever finally conquer that short story.  But Terra Ignota isn’t taking up all my fictional energy right now, a lot of my energy is going into planning for the next couple of novel series I intend to start writing when Terra Ignota is finished.  I spent five years world building Terra Ignota before I sat down to outline and then write it, so I have several other series that are in that long preparatory stage, including two complete worlds that are just about ready to be outlined and written, and a couple other worlds that need a few more years of work to fill in all the gaps.

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. Her personal site is at adapalmer.com, and she writes about history for a popular audience at exurbe.com and about SF and fantasy-related matters at Tor.com.

9780765378002_FC Ada Palmer

 

 

Things I left behind in Finland and Sweden, a partial list

A terrible fantasy novel I didn’t care about. The $2 I would have gotten from it at Half Price was not worth hauling it around for three weeks once I realized on day two that I wasn’t going to read more than 50 pages.

Five worn-out pairs of underwear and two worn-out bras. This was by design. Going to get thrown out somewhere. Good-bye, skivvies! Good-bye!

The Finnish phrasebook that contained “Can I get this in gabardine?” but not “service required” or “oil change” or…really, gabardine? Gabardine? Also, the dating section: if all I can say is, “can I get this in gabardine?”, I feel that “dating” is perhaps a euphemism, and going ahead and labeling it the “picking up strangers for sex” section is better. There were not any phrases in this section like, “What do you do?” or “What are your hobbies?” with a list of common answers. Kids, we have words for this, and they are not “dating.”

My black ankle boots, with two new rips in the leather. Well done, boots! Your service was appreciated!

Three pairs of tights. Unlike the boots and skivvies, these were not planned. They were eaten by the boots in their ravenous last days.

The Finnish guidebook that blandly mentioned that Helsinki might have modern art museums but not what or where, and claimed that there was a market where there was no market. I found the market. Helsinki was great. The guidebook not so much.

My purse. Um. This one was even less planned than the tights. It became leprous and started losing chunks of leather. Purse! Don’t do that, purse! I had to buy a purse in a Stockholm boutique on an emergency basis.

My fear that vertigo means no overseas travel. Vertigo means carefully managed international travel. Timed around the meds, planned very precisely around certain parameters. Do I know a year in advance whether a particular trip will be possible? No. But will some kinds of trips be possible? I think so. Yes.

Any sense that I might go the rest of my life without returning to the Arctic. Oh. Oh, you guys. The light, the air. The rivers. The rivers. I was barely out of Rovaniemi before I started researching Tromsø, Kiruna, Hammerfest, more. More. More. I’m going back. It can’t be soon, but–I have to go back.

There may also be a single perfectly good purple sock missing. Laundry progresses and hope recedes.

More as I can, as logistics allow.

Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Further disclosure: while not a close friend, Ada is that next connection out: a close friend of a close friend.

My best history professor once said–to open a class, no less–that one needed a science fictional mindset to understand the past properly. Ada Palmer is a history professor, and she’s setting up this mindset in both directions. Too Like the Lightning is set in the Twenty-Fifth Century but calls upon the Eighteenth as a frame of reference for its events very first thing, as its mode of storytelling, its voice. This could easily be taken for a stylistic whim. That would be a mistake. Nothing here is accidental. It is all very, very thoughtful.

I am trying to avoid spoilers, but: the Eighteenth-Century very carefully sets up a frame of reference that is not our own in a number of ways–gender, politics, religion, questions of innocence, crime, and patronage. If you lose sight of that. If you think that this is a book that is really using the same ideas as you are for guilt and sin, family and priority and importance, you will find yourself abruptly quite wrong, and possibly as upset as one of the characters about it.

There are other historical touchstones. Victor Hugo is specifically called upon to justify the unhappinesses that crop up in the characters’ lives. Why are we not reading a happy book: like many other ideas, this one is touched on explicitly, discussed. There is an entire profession centered around the discussion of ideas about the universe, the sensayer, and a sensayer is a central character to this novel. There is plenty of room to discuss historical figures past and conjectured. What Palmer does not do is fall into the common science fiction writer trap of behaving as though the music and culture of her own teens were eternal to the universe forevermore. This is not just statistically more probable. It’s a hint: do not center 2016 and its concerns in your mind. The characters are not who you want them to be if you are feeling cuddly. They are very thoroughly from another milieu, with its assumptions built in. Even their faults are built into other assumptions completely.

For everyone who has ever asked: where are my flying cars? Fine, here, here are your flying cars. Did you expect them to come with pronoun emphasis changes, multiple interlocking/overlapping changes to the dominant social structure, and plots ranging from a family’s spiritual advice to the fate of what might pass for nations if nations still worked that way? With plenty of murder, gore, and implied sexual content along the way? And arguments between the characters but also between the reader and the narrator? No? Well, we can’t do you blood and love without the rhetoric in this universe, and we can’t do you flying cars without the pronouns and social structures. A lot of things turn out to be compulsory. Diderot does, and imaginary friends. You get a lot for free with your flying cars these days. George Jetson’s hair would curl.

George Jetson’s hair needed it.

Please consider using our link to buy Too Like the Lightning from Amazon.

Books read, late April

W.H. Auden, Complete Poems. Reread. If there is anything better to read as a writer preparing oneself for a trip to the north than “Letter to Lord Byron,” I can’t think what it would be. I love that thing so much. It’s such a strange thing to want to do, a chatty personal/general letter to Lord Byron about WH Auden’s vacation in Iceland and what the world was like at the moment, all the stuff that had been happening since Byron died with a few aside that Byron should tell Jane Austen when he got the chance. I love Auden as one loves a nerdy grumpy uncle. He has this whole cluster of things, liking Norse myths and tinkering but taking machines as interesting, fun, rather than transcendent. There are individual bits that I love, but also I actually love the whole 900-page experience, the bits like his horrible moon landing poem that make me mutter, “Oh, shut UP, Uncle Wys,” as well as his memorial poem for Louis MacNeice that made me cry for being so clearly a one-of-us in mourning. I last read this eight years ago. I will go back and read it again in another some years. He’s flawed and giggly and grumpy and wants to do the oddest things, and I love him.

Minister Faust, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. Reread. There have been a lot more superhero books since I read this one, and I wanted to see how it felt in that different context. The other thing that I was not fully aware had happened in that time, though, was that the word “intersectionality” had lodged itself firmly in my brain. So: this is an exercise in supremely unreliable narrator, and it is a(n authorially deliberate) tragedy of non-intersectionality cast as a comedic comic book narrative. What a singular thing to do. I still think it’s probably my least favorite Minister Faust book, but they’re generally worth reading, so it’s not like that’s a hearty condemnation.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring. Reread. I wanted to go back and see how this held up, since I haven’t read it since it was published. The answer is: beautifully. This is not the book Hopkinson would write today, but we get to have the books she writes today, too, so all’s well. I remember that the things she was doing with a setting that was both post-apocalyptic and fantastical felt fresh to me at the time, but they’re still detailed and specific enough that other people doing those categories has not made Hopkinson’s Toronto dated or less readable, and the characters are vividly themselves and relate interestingly to each other. Still very much recommended.

Jessica M. Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis. You know how badly we understand banking now? Wow, did we understand it even worse in the early 19th century. Reserve rate, what’s that? Oh dear. One of the most interesting points I took away from this book is that some patterns of didactic mass market fiction endure forever. Holding individual families responsible for a financial crisis that they could not have altered one whit by eating gruel instead of mutton, and writing fiction that showed how if only everyone was virtuous, we’d all get through this…that pattern repeats and repeats and repeats. (It’s not that there aren’t blue-collar jobs at union wages like there used to be, it’s that you’re too picky and he’s afraid of commitment! Quick, stamp out another romcom and clap, children, and Tinkerbell won’t die!)

Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway. I am a sucker for portal fantasies, and this is getting described as one. It is not. It’s a meta-portal fantasy, or possibly an urban fantasy wherein the fantasy conceit is that portal fantasies are real. If you’re looking for the essential emotional dislocation of the portal fantasy, this does not have it. Which does not make it a bad book–far from it. The teenagers in this book have all been through different portals, which are categorized, typed along various axes, and they are dealing with readjustment to this world. Or…not. And I found it fascinating and satisfying, except that the last page felt a bit abrupt. But it’s a novella, there’s only room for so much, and dozens of portals will have to be their own satisfaction. If you thought that the only justification for The Magician’s Nephew was the Wood Between the Worlds but were frustrated that they didn’t do more in it: here, here you go, without midcentury misogyny and with a whole lot of its own plot and characterization.

Alan Weisman, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. This is the sort of book that fascinates me and yet I always want to know the perspectives not covered by the author. Gaviotas is a planned community in Colombia, and from all accounts I could casually find upon reading this book it’s doing some really good things with sustainability for trees, the things that live in and around them, and also humans. It sounds like a very good idea. There is a part of me that wants to get, for example, a candid perspective from a woman living in Gaviotas, because that sort of thing is often where the cracks in a utopianist experiment show up. But: harvesting resin, cool, okay. Interesting stuff, another for my planned community shelf, and mulling.