You know: the thing with stories I’ve liked lately

And maybe a poem or two or a hundred. And you can chime in, because even things from a particular magazine do not mean I’ve read all of that magazine.

What to Expect from the Large Hadron Collider as a college roommate, by Betsy Aoki (Uncanny)

Search History, by K. T. Bryski (Daily SF)

Junebug’s Magical Magnificent Mercurial Barbershop, by Malon Edwards (Fireside)

A Late Quintessence, by Justin Howe (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship, by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Packing, by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny)

elemental haiku by Mary Soon Lee

Red Bark and Ambergris, by Kate Marshall (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Stars That Fall, by Samantha Murray (Flash Fiction Online)

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex)

For Now, Sideways, by A. Merc Rustad (Diabolical Plots)

Sun, Moon, Dust, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny)

Auspicium Melioris Aevi, by JY Yang (Uncanny)

The Mechanism of Omelas

One of my friends has gone through a deeply unpleasant divorce and continues to struggle with custody, and an unfortunate thing that I keep observing is that it’s almost impossible to write civil law around people whose main interest is making other people miserable. Almost every piece of family law assumes that people will act in their own interest or, if they are parents, ideally at least somewhat in their child’s interest. Structuring a law that will protect the vulnerable and allow for people in the structurally identical role who are purely destructive forces to not act destructively is incredibly difficult.

Which, given what I do for work, makes me think of dystopias. And specifically it makes me think of what I do and do not find interesting in structuring them.

There’s a certain school of writing, of teaching writing, that claims that we’re all the hero of our own story, and sure, I buy that, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all heroes with great or even good motivations–even internally. Not all of us even bother to lie to ourselves about our motivations. There are people in the world like my friend’s ex who will be very up-front about their desire to hurt. They are, however–and let me be very clear about this–quite boring. They are boring in real life. They are not particularly more interesting in books.

So if you choose them as your core dystopian power structure–if the heart of your dystopia is that some genuinely mean jerks have come to power, not because of an ideology or a clear set of concrete goals beyond themselves but just to screw with people in ways that aren’t even all that effective compared to what they could do if they were more rational–well. I can’t tell you that never happens, can I. But for me–for me personally as a reader–the fact that it’s real doesn’t give it a lot to grab onto. Especially if there’s a speculative element to the meanness.

Here’s where “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” contrasts for me with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season–where they’re not doing the same thing and not trying to. The children in torment in the former are in torment for the sake of the point being made. (Perhaps that point is walking away from utopia in fiction writing. There are worse points, if so.) But it is not, I think, intended to be practical; it is metaphorical, poetic, nonlinear. You are not supposed to be able to draw a line between the single child’s suffering–and the next one when it dies, and the next–and what, exactly, about that suffering makes Omelas a supposed paradise. It Just Does. In The Fifth Season, on the other hand, it is very explicit, very extremely clear, how the suffering creates–not a paradise–but a livable society–what the consequences would be for ending it. What is being purchased and at what price.

There is value in making a general, stirring point, in rallying people to the cause of Goodness And Truth In The Larger Sense. But it’s also pretty easy. Not…not as easy as we would have hoped, is it? “How do you feel about Nazis?” is supposed to be the canonical easy question: I AM AGAINST THEM. Still. Still, even with people failing easy mode, this is easy mode. Pushing a bit harder on people, handing them a decision that’s made for heartbreaking reasons instead of dreadful ones, giving them characters who are trying to figure out where their compromises become counterproductive instead of characters who never had any morals to compromise…that’s not the only reason to write dystopia. But it’s a pretty solid one.

Last week one of my friends was saying on Twitter that he wants more of basically everything, more variations at every scale, so that there are more chances for it to lead to something cool, and I’m with him on that. And I think this is where the mechanism of Omelas comes in: I, personally, tend to default to thinking that it matters how and why your dystopia exists and is maintained. I tend to think that’s relevant to its stories and its downfall–on average. But there are going to be times when you have a particular story that is just not accounted for in the laws of people behaving according to their own interests. Or when that just can’t show up in the story, when the story is very short or very distracted into something else quite specific. It’s worth asking yourself about the mechanism of Omelas–you can wind up with a geologic masterwork like The Fifth Season. But occasionally the answer to that question is nope, nope we’re not answering the mechanism, the thing I’m doing is worth doing without poking at how. And that’s okay too. Some people will–yes, sorry–walk away from it. But–variety, more, more. Humanity is impossible to account for under one set of “I’d like to see more of” or “I really prefer it when.” So is its fiction.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, by Curtis Craddock

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This book both swashes and buckles. It has an actual no-kidding Musketeer, although the king he serves is not quite King Louis, and the country he’s from is not quite France. There’s fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love…though not of the romantic sort…there are airships, there are lots of different kinds of magic, and just when you think you’ve got a good handle on how many kinds of magic, there’s another kind of magic.

There is a protagonist who is a girl who likes math a heck of a lot and has learned to cope with a disability pretty darn well, and then has to re-learn around different parameters. The main point of reviews is to alert people to what kind of book it is, and I realize that that sentence right there had neon signs flashing “MY JAM” for some of you. And for a few more of you: there’s a heck of a lot of loyalty to friends and not a heck of a lot of loyalty to blood relations who don’t deserve it, and the people who save the day are not always the obvious people, and there are disguises and tricks and double-crosses and plots.

I did not find myself deeply engaged with any of the characters. But I didn’t have to be; it moved along, it never left me yawning, it was doing the thing it was doing, and that doesn’t have to be everything. This is book one of a series, but there’s significant resolution at the end of the volume; plenty of room for more in this universe, but also not the feeling of “wait, shouldn’t there be more words here?” at the end.

Please consider using our link to buy An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors from Amazon.

Books read, early August

Christopher Brown, Tropic of Kansas. Apparently two different professional reviewers described this as “the feel-bad book of the summer,” which makes me laugh and yet is not entirely wrong. (I enjoyed this book.) It’s an alternate America torn apart by climate change, a fascist government, the surveillance state, and…alternate. Yes. It is indeed alternate. But there are parts that make you wince, and the “ultimately hopeful” ending promised on the cover is a…conditionally hopeful ending. It’s the kind of hopeful ending that involves burning down institutions that need burning down. Which, depending on your personality, may be upsetting for you right now or just what you need.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Mira’s Last Dance. Kindle. This is the latest Penric novella, and I felt that it completed the arc of a previous story rather than standing on its own. It explores a bit more of what exactly it means to have all of Desdemona’s previous hosts living in Penric’s head with their own identities, but it’s at novella length, not novel, while juggling action and romance along with it, so while it seemed to me to be handled respectfully, there was plenty of room to go into more of it if she continues with this series.

Italo Calvino, Collection of Sand. This was a series of essays, all very short, very erudite, very much in the vein of, “Huh, wouldja lookit that.” If someone is not going to get intimidated by it being Calvino, it’s an ideal bathroom book, despite not being screamingly marketed as Italo Entertains You On the John or anything like that. Short attention span theater of letters.

Zen Cho, The Terracotta Bride. Kindle. Another novella, this one set in a Chinese-Malaysian hell with all the theological implications of same–with technological developments appropriate thereto, and interpersonal relationships the same. There’s a lot packed into novella length here, and I liked it.

George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets. A history of the Scottish-English border and the wars and raids they had and the period when they settled down into not so much having them. This had been on my library list for awhile, and I thought, well, I’ll give the first few pages a chance and send it back rather than have it languish indefinitely on my list. Fraser doesn’t do what a modern historian would do with the topic, but he’s plenty engaging. I had had quite enough of the exploits of various clans and their scions by the time I was done, but it was a fast read for its size and worth the trouble of getting it from the library; I’m glad I tried it rather than thinking that anything that was on the list that long was clearly not a priority.

Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. A novella prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, and…I feel like it undermined that book weirdly. Every Heart a Doorway did the not-obvious thing, it did the “what happens after” thing. Down Among the Sticks and Bones gives you the portal fantasy that begins it all. Except that of all the fantasy worlds hinted at in Every Heart a Doorway, it picks the most obvious, least interesting one to portray–and only one–and then gives a backstory that makes the plot of EHaD feel…like it makes a lot less emotional sense to me. I don’t want to be more spoilerific than that, but people who have read both and would like to talk should email me about the experience.

Naomi Mitchison, The Fourth Pig. This is a collection of Mitchison’s retold fairy tales, done in the 1930s. It is fascinating in its own right, it’s fascinating if you’re passionately interested in the Great Depression (which I am), and it’s fascinating if you’re interested in retold fairy tales and want a look at what they looked like before Angela Carter got at them. I’m slowly working my way through Naomi Mitchison (she and Gerald Vizenor and Rebecca Solnit are the triumvirate of the moment that way–write me a joke where they walk into a bar) and I’m very very glad to have gotten to this one.

Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West. And speaking of whom. This is not what I thought it was. It is mostly about nuclear testing. It is a bit about Yosemite and how we construct ideas of wilderness and other legends of The West. But it is really, really substantially about nuclear testing, which is something I mostly had focused on when it was interesting from a physics standpoint; what Solnit illuminated in some ways and could not illuminate in others, was not trying to, was the category of nuclear testing that occurs when the physics has been settled, and as a recovering physicist that had an extra-special horror. I think there are ways in which she made some stabs at understanding the physicists involved and got some part of the way there and some ways in which…eehhhh. I love me some W.H. Auden, too, but he is not a source of all models for everything in life maybe? I mean, maybe I’m wrong, maybe he is, but we can at least talk about this. “W.H. Auden handed me a dichotomy!” You’re allowed to hand it back I think. Uncle Wystan is dear and beloved, but so are your 6-year-old cousins, and some of the things they hand you can be deposited in the trash and your hand washed thoroughly after. I am still glad I read this. But I spent moments making faces of not-really-no.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Cary Pietsch, et al, Lumberjanes: Sink or Swim. What is better than Lumberjanes? Lumberjanes with a focus on water myths. Yes. For sure.

The Panel Not Taken

One of my friends was recently talking in Slack about his role as a moderator at a Worldcon panel, and one of the things people agreed was a moderator’s role was keeping the panelists on topic.

And I wanted to put a word in for the times when that doesn’t happen.

The times when you have all sorts of keen ideas–either as a moderator or a panelist–about what this panel will be, and you get up on the panel, and it’s interesting, and it’s active, and it’s going places, people are engaged, discussion flows freely…and the places it’s going are not where you thought. Sometimes really not where you thought. And you have to use good judgment, because when you have a panelist who has already been bloviating for five minutes about book five of their own fabulous off-topic series and takes a breath to start in on book six, it’s time to jump right on in and get that panel back on track.

But when you’re having a really good discussion among lots of people, and it just doesn’t happen to be the good discussion you thought you were going to be having? Square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and wave goodbye to the panel not taken.

It might have been a beautiful panel. A lovely panel, an insightful panel. It might have been such an important panel that you can propose it again under a different name. (Or y’know, the same name. Sometimes audience members notice that there is more–or something in the first place–to be said.) But it is not the panel you are having right now. And taking a panel that is full of inspiration and ideas and energy and turning it into a panel that has been stopped in its tracks and wrenched around is not a success condition. It’s just not.

I was on a panel at Readercon where Maria Dahvana Headley was the moderator, and she asked the panelists a question, a good question, an insightful question, a question that might have taken us interesting places. And Max Gladstone said, “I’ve been reading about hyperobjects.” I think I blurted out something encouraging like, “Good!” so this is also on me. (I have been known to encourage Max. Maria has been known to encourage Max. Random passersby…well. You get the idea.) And then Max kept talking about hyperobjects, and it was interesting, and everyone in the room was interested, and…I caught Maria’s eye…and we could both see her question disappearing over the horizon. We traded little smiles as we saw it go. Goodbye, little question, goodbye! Because then we went from Max’s hyperobjects to whatever else that made the other panelists think of and then whatever questions the audience had and then the audience still had questions but the panel was over…and it was fun and everybody was talking after with thinky thoughts…and saying, “Stop, Max, stop! do not talk about this interesting thing! Talk about the other interesting thing!” would have made everybody feel stifled and weird and the total number of interesting things talked about would almost certainly have been fewer.

Sometimes there is still time to say, “Wow, cool, that was really interesting, but I wanted to get back to this idea Maria had twenty minutes ago/the panel description/that question Beth asked that I don’t think we fully answered/whatever.” But often there really, really isn’t, and that’s okay.

And this is true in less formal conversation, too. Extremely often I come home from my monthly lunch with one friend, I think, we didn’t even get to this bit, I forgot to tell him that–or I’ll be driving him back to his office and trying to quick hit the highlights of major life areas the leisurely lunch conversation missed. The Minnesota Long Goodbye is legendary in these parts, possibly because of this, possibly because it just takes us a long time to put on winter gear and you might as well catch up on how auntie is doing in the meantime, but possibly because there are always going to be The Conversations Not Taken, and oh crud now that you’re leaving it occurs to me what they were.

I think we all know about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that’s relevant here, but there’s also not letting the good be the enemy of the other quite good. And you can tell yourself you’re not aiming at the perfect panel, you’re just aiming at the on-topic one, and that’s all very well, but writers and fans and sometimes editors and agents and artists being what they are…goodbye, panel that might have been, farewell, you were interesting, on to the panel that is and how it can be its best self.

Books read, July

Traveling in mid-July means a combined post, so settle in, friends, this is going to take a minute. Especially because travel this time meant a lot of reading short things on my Kindle on public transit.

Kate Bernheim, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales. This is mostly fairy tale-esque and fairy tale-inspired short stories. They are published with the gimmick–and I do feel that gimmick is the right word–of one paragraph per page, which means that some pages contain a single line. If you’re not reading much that’s fairy tale related, this volume will probably be a revelation. If you are, it’s another contribution to the sub-genre, fairly far over to the self-consciously literary end, but not particularly a stand-out.

Michael Bishop, One Winter in Eden. Reread. I could see that these stories were decently well-written, and yet none of them really got to me anywhere emotional. Very Cold War, I should have reread this for the Cold War Fantasy panel. Ah well.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 5. Kindle. Moves the plot forward considerable-like. Probably will not get to another chunk of these until I’m traveling again, as I am not a good serial reader, and they are acutely and deliberately pieces of a thing rather than whole things on their own. Still, there is plot and to spare here.

Marie Brennan, Lightning in the Blood. Second novella in its series, still using memory loss and identity to good effect, still doing action fantasy things but not solely action fantasy things. Quick and fun.

Octavia Butler, Mind of My Mind. Reread. This is an incredibly nasty book about telepathy and its implications for a caste system and parenthood and interpersonal relationships. It being Butler, it’s incredibly well done, and I’m going to want to reread the rest of the series before I have fully formed thoughts about what it’s doing, but it made me squirm quite a lot.

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. A novel in pieces, reflecting the effects of a man, a torturer working in a prison for a totalitarian regime and then moving on, moving away to America, on the people around him. Fascinating and kaleidoscopic, although in some places too successful at getting me invested in one character or another who was going to disappear into the rest of the background and never become foregrounded again.

Bradley Denton, One Day Closer to Death. Reread. Oh, you can smell the prairie coming off Brad Denton’s short stories. They smell like the dust that comes off corn fields in August, the weeks when the highs are all over 100 F. Some of these are incredibly nasty work, some only mildly unpleasant, and I still love them, they are still worth rereading, they still hit me in the places where I know where the hits are coming. I reread this for a Heartland Fantasy panel that went completely different places than I expected, so we only brushed by it briefly, but I still don’t regret the reread. I look at some of the old pieces differently than I did–oh, the women in “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians”–but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them.

Chynna Clugston Flores et al, Lumberjanes Gotham Academy. This is the first crossover issue of a comic I’ve ever read where I’ve been reading both streams being crossed. So now I can say for sure: I just don’t like crossovers. I particularly think they’re a terrible idea for two ensemble cast comics like Lumberjanes and Gotham Academy, where you’re juggling large casts anyway. What’s Maps doing plus what’s Ripley doing would have been quite enough to keep track of without throwing in every single other character. It’s kind of a mess, and for me there was less fun than a single volume of either comic, not even the average of the two, much less the sum of the two.

George Fosty and Darril Fosty, Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. Kindle. Come for the hockey history, stay for the history of Black Canadians. Wow, the Fostys are going to make sure you get schooled whether you wanted to or not. (I did want to.) And they make a quite solid argument for Maritime Black hockey players making serious strides in the game decades ahead of white players. If you’re a hockey fan, if you’re interested in history of the icy regions, if you’re interested in how different cultural groups have interacted–and an unflinching look at how power has corrupted that–this is a solid and not unduly long look at all of that.

Lisa Goldstein, Tourists. Kindle, reread. Why didn’t I hate this book? I still can’t tell you. The title comes from the observation that we are all tourists in each other’s lives, which does not have to be true and I think is not in better lives true, but wow do these characters ever live as though they’re determined to make it true. Nor do they have a great deal of growth over the course of the book. Meanwhile the pseudo-Arabic country they’re visiting is entirely backdrop for their own (lack of) character arcs, its mythos writing itself on the messed up visitors’ minds, sometimes literally, and…why don’t I hate this book? It’s pretty messed up, honestly, and I can’t recommend it. All sorts of better books do better things with culture clash and visiting. Maybe I just want to keep it around to contrast with Hav or The Necessary Beggar or…something? I am still turning this over in my head.

Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. Hiking memoir in four seasonal sections. This has some of the best writing about hiking while cranky I’ve ever read. There are also more traditionally lyrical sections, but I howled with laughter as Gruchow got more terse, his sentences more clipped and bitten off, as his dreadful day hiking wore on…and then he told of the same hiking buddy teasing him for the foibles of the day on a trip together three years later. This is the first of his books I’ve read since the memoir of the depression that eventually killed him, and I could see the shadows of that here, but not enough to make it a sad book for me, not to spoil my love of his nature writing. Which feels like an honor and a relief.

David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors. This is a set of essays on different specific trees in different parts of the world. Conveniently for me, one of the types he was talking about was very familiar, very close to home (chert-rooted fir), so I could gauge how he talked about things I don’t know by how he talked about things I do. I would happily read more of this sort of thing all the time.

Billie Holiday with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues. This is the sort of autobiography that’s done as an “as told to,” and my golly do I not recommend it for a day when you’re already feeling dubious about humanity, because Holiday’s life, particularly her childhood, was utterly harrowing. Dufty captures her voice in a breezy, very readable way. I read that there was some question about some of the fact checking, but human memory is fallible, and there were limits on what she was permitted to tell of her truth in the late 1950s; I was moved to seek out a later, more comprehensive biography from the recent past, when a biographer would be permitted to be clear about interracial and same-sex relationships while still focusing on the strength of Holiday’s music. That’s just come in from the library; stay tuned. In the meantime, while her life was harrowing, her voice is not. Pick a day when you’re feeling strong, but it’s worth your time if you’re at all interested in jazz.

David King, Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World. Kindle. Oh lordy this book. The title does not tell you what it is actually about. It is actually about this Swedish speculative archaeologist in the seventeenth century, Olof Rudbeck, who decided that Atlantis was located in…Uppsala. And he kept going, he kept finding all the other Greek mythological stuff elsewhere in Sweden. No, all of it. No, really, all. He just. Kept. Going. There is that seventeenth century thing where you have someone genuinely erudite–Rudbeck discovered the lymphatic system–and then he goes completely off the rails and finds an entirely new set of rails to go off of, like, builds an entirely new railway system just to go off it. I was talking to my friend L about this and they mentioned autodidact syndrome. I think that the entire seventeenth century has that–there was the thing where they were largely self-taught by modern standards–and hoo boy, did Rudbeck ever. He decided that it made no sense that Greek could be derived from Phoenician when Phoenician had no vowels and Greek did, but! But the runic alphabet did! So clearly the Greek alphabet was derived from the runic alphabet! Also the derivation of Hercules (Herakles) made no sense to him because of that hero’s rocky relationship with the goddess in question, so he “found” an alternative Swedish derivation meaning “dressed in warrior’s clothes” that made much more sense to him. And it just keeps going. And I sat and read this while eating sushi by myself in a restaurant and thinking, surely he will come to his senses, and no, he decides that they have to teach classes at Uppsala in the original Swedish, which, great, except, wrong reasons, and everyone is all in a dither, and oh this book. Oh. This. Book. It was a great lunch.

Nancy Kress, Tomorrow’s Kin. Discussed elsewhere.

Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World. Reread. I think my main complaint about this book, nearly two decades later, is that it isn’t, it’s mostly a Basque history of Basque country, which is very interesting and I liked it a lot and found it worth keeping around, but there was a Basque diaspora. He mentions it. He mentions having cousins in America. He just…doesn’t talk about what they did there, what the cultural effects were both directions. So…that, maybe? But early microhistory is hard, determining what belongs in it. Still cool.

Ellen Kushner, Thomas the Rhymer. Reread. Captures the fairy tale voice of the ballad, goes on beyond the original ballad tale’s end into implication, picks up perspective from other characters. Unlike some others in this series, the setting is very much the setting of the original ballad, more or less–country appropriate, generically time appropriate to when such a tale might have been set by those telling it. So from here it feels like the least revolutionary of Kushner’s books. But it was a comfortable and lovely read, and certainly made me think not at all of the plane around me, and very few things in the world can be The Fall of the Kings; only one that I can think of.

Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. These stories are the kind of very short dark fantasy/horror that feel like they have the same kind of messagey twist at the end, a revelation that is not as startling as it could be, but is supposed to make you gasp at the prose and also make you think. And they are all of a piece. I think they will work better if you read them one at a time with long pauses between, instead of the whole book at once. There will be some that really will be revelatory both in prose and in twist. But it’s a lot to ask of every story with the same structure all in a row.

Elizabeth Lynn, A Different Light. Kindle. So there is an artist who has gotten stale because he has to make art living on the same planet all the time, but he has a genetic condition that is going to kill him much quicker if he travels off-planet. And I thrashed a bit at this premise, because literally every artist we have ever known has had to make art living on the same planet all the time. Like, ugh, you are cramping my style, entire planet! This guy has gotten to be all of the elderly age of thirty and he is so stagnant because one planet is not enough, and I just eyebrowed so hard and thought, how am I going to get through an entire book with this spoiled damn brat of a man. But okay, okay; some of us are not really all that happy in some settings, I decided to go with it. And it worked out all right, he ran around and figured out some things and met some people and there was plot and there were relationships and Lynn carried through on the premise: there was no magic hey-presto your genetic condition is all fixed now yaaaaays. So there were interesting things about this, and if you can get past the initial moment of are you kidding me thirty years on just one planet poor you, I found it worth reading.

Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String. This is the kind of very short story where the author has aimed at surrealism by substituting in words nonsensically, often proper names for common nouns, giving you the rhythm of language without the sense of it. Sure, fine. I get it. I decided to keep reading in case the cumulative effect was more pleasantly disorienting or gave me a different angle on what he was doing. Not really. Eh. Quite often people who write this sort of thing want to categorize readers into those who love it and those who don’t get it, and: eh, fine, sure, if you like that, but: not really.

Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. The thing that I really appreciated about this book is that it was willing–alone among the environmental and nature writing I read–to seriously interrogate what is practically possible for habitat restoration and–here’s the important bit–what we are doing it for. Marris did not entirely pretend that she had complete answers, that any one person had complete answers. But she was willing to ask questions that feel fairly taboo in other nature writing, or that feel…too reverential, perhaps? That feel as though their writers don’t want to ask them because asking them is used as a rhetorical device to say that there is no answer, rather than that there are several answers.

Colin Meloy, Wildwood. Meloy is the frontman for the Decembrists. You can tell. One, because there are occasional word choices that feel very familiar if you know the Decembrists, and two, because children’s books are not mostly permitted to ramble quite this way if the author isn’t either established or Somebody. This is an urban fantasy with its urban not-really-wild-erness tucked into Portland, Oregon, and it’s not quite coherent about that. The wild creatures are basically entirely citified, inside their “Impassable Wilderness”; they are mostly anthropomorphic birds and animals but some humans also, and they have things like postal services and militias. Very wild. The villain is going to use an invasive species and infant sacrifice to destroy all the other species, but not in favor of, y’know, development or something, because the city here is Portland, and Portland can’t be bad. Portland also can’t be specific in any way. You get the feeling of Portland from the characters if you’ve spent any time in Portland, not from the details of the setting. It is very, very white and very, very hipster, and very, very Portland. I like Portland. I never thought that I should put down this book with its cyclist heroine and superhero-drawing hero and go read something else. And yet I kept noticing all the opportunities it missed.

Judith Merril, Daughters of Earth and The Tomorrow People. Reread. I read these for an appreciation panel about Judith Merril, and most of the people on it also clearly had reread some of her work too, which was a joy. One point I did not get to on the panel: I think The Tomorrow People is the only portrayal I can think of where vestibular effects and anxiety effects are correctly tied to each other. Well done. Also: in what other work of that early era is a returned astronaut allowed to be a drunken wreck? She was doing all sorts of things other people were not even thinking of.

Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary, Better to Have Loved. Reread. Fascinatingly juxtaposed with her fiction, not always in an entirely self-aware way. For someone who claims never to have internalized stereotypes, she certainly could reproduce some of them to specification…and yet there are some amazing and fascinating stories here, some of which made me want to cry and punch people on her behalf. Even having read them before. Maybe especially having read them before.

L.M. Montgomery, Short Stories 1896 to 1901. These are in some ways fascinatingly linear compared to her novels. Good intentions always carry the day. “Let’s do something nice for someone–yay, that was nice!” is not at all how it works in Montgomery’s novels. In these short stories? Always. Nothing ever backfires. Strange to see the contrast, especially with such little investment required.

William Morris, News from Nowhere. Kindle. This is the kind of utopian fiction that is entirely didactic: you go around with the protagonist and hear how well things work in the future, tra la. How much nicer it all is. And in fact this works far better than when Morris is trying to make fiction go, so I enjoyed it better than with plot–but the time travel aspect is frustrating, knowing that the protag will awake and find him on this cold hillside of the Victorian present.

Carrie Anne Noble, The Mermaid’s Sister. What a weird and uncomfortable book. The message is ostensibly about accepting people for who they are. But actually there is a metric buttload of modesty politics (ew) with a side order of weirdness about “Gypsies” (WHAT NO STOP THAT). Also the love story is basically 95% pining and then 5% surprise this all worked out, so…yeah, that did not work for me. At all.

Henry Petroski, The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. This is mostly a book about roads and bridges, with a digression in the middle about whether our perception that things used to be built better in the past is about survivorship bias. There is so very much about infrastructure that Petroski barely skims or does not even touch on. (Ports. Waste treatment. Need I go on.) And…it’s a short book, but he chose to write a short book. This is okayish as far as it goes. Like most of our infrastructure planning and funding, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Marta Randall, Journey. Kindle. This is a book with a family taking care of refugees and having fallout from different choices and different reactions to those choices. Why did no one tell me about Marta Randall two decades ago? Well, never mind, we’re here now, with family relationships and consequences and being the political back end of the galaxy and new tech that isn’t quite what we wanted it to be and all sorts of other things I like in science fiction.

Robert Reed, The Dragons of Springplace. Reread. This is another set of short stories that was quite well written in some directions and made no emotional impact on me whatsoever. I put it back on the shelf so that when I pick it up to reread in another fifteen years, it will be entirely new to me again. I wanted to love something here, but alas, I just didn’t.

Pamela Sargent, The Alien Upstairs. Kindle. The title made this look like a romp to me. It was not. It was a quietly panicky book about a real dystopia, not a flashy thing with sorted categories but a society in which everyone is poor and struggling and everything is falling apart and everybody is making do the best they can. And into this comes an alien with more resources, and he turns things upside down in some ways, for the characters, between the characters, and they have to sort themselves, they have to figure out what to do about the entire situation, what to do with themselves, what they want to do with themselves. This book feels very modern in that way that things from the beginning of the Reagan era with the late ’70s remnants of gas shortages and some mysterious disease coming up and who knew where that would even go can feel very modern in the beginning of the Trump era when everyone you know is in some direction not okay, and I recommend it conditionally: if that will feel comforting, companionable, this is the book for you, and if the opposite, back away.

Ageeth Sluis, Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939. This is a brilliant work that weaves in fashion, colonialism, post-revolutionary work for women, and various aspects of architecture. It is like literally nothing else I have ever read in the types of thought and human interaction it is trying to discuss together, and I found it wondrously useful and interesting. You probably can’t find it at the corner market, but I absolutely recommend finding it somewhere.

Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game. Reread. Various people treating each other as various kind of object and rebelling against same, or not, in their own ways. I found this immensely absorbing on the second read, many years after the first read; its speculative conceit is a very particular kind of destiny, and I’ve had conversations with Jo about the different kinds and concepts of destiny since I first read it. I think not the book of hers she would want you to start with, probably not even the book of hers set in this universe that she’d want you to start with, but I was glad to return to it all the same.

Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with more ways). What a brief and delightful book. It deconstructs a Chinese poem in detail, from the character level upward. By the time he got to the first decent version, he had shown me enough that I could blurt out loud, “Now, there you go!” There are forays into translation from Chinese into Spanish, German, and French; there are discursions into single prepositions and also bits where Weinberger gets quite sharp with other translators about botany, there is a point at which he makes a dire academic enemy, and more than one member of my household had to look up for absolutely certain whether Eliot Weinberger was a real person or a joke Octavio Paz was having on all of us. It is hilarious, sometimes intentionally so. It grasps a great many important points about translation extremely keenly. There may be a point or two about the philosophy of the original poem that fall by the wayside along the way. But there are only 88 pages in this volume, so it will cost you very little time to find it and judge for yourself.

Barbara Willard, The Lark and the Laurel. Reread. This is an historical YA romance from my own youth, and it doesn’t really do much plot except for the plot twist that is simultaneously predictable and alarming. However, the prose rattled along briskly and there wasn’t much of it, so I felt entirely fine reading it until it was done; I just don’t think I’ll want to reread it. It’s set at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII, but far from court and focused on non-courtly virtues, which I would expect to like more than I did. Maybe if the romance plot twist hadn’t been so much itself.

Patricia C. Wrede, Snow White and Rose Red. Reread. Another fairy tale retold, this one very very Elizabethan. It has John Dee in it, and I do not pitch the book across the room when he appears, so you know that it is well-done, because: John Dee. I like stories with bears in them, but not enough to make up for John Dee without some other things well-handled also.

Isabel Yap, Hurricane Heels. Five girls grow to young womanhood fighting the forces of evil as superheroine avatars of a goddess, in anime mode but in a story told in prose. They become close friends, not entirely by free choice–but very few of our relationships are shaped entirely by free choice. This is very much a story centered on women’s friendships. Two of them also have a romantic relationship for part of the book. I think it would not have worked at a much longer length, but it didn’t have to; it was the length it needed to be. It was sweet and fun and had characters whose backgrounds were ethnically and personally specific. I am so glad there is this book.

Moderation in All Things, Dammit

I was talking to someone who is planning on doing programming for a convention, because I think everyone, or nearly everyone, who is on panels has opinions about how they should be done–certainly everyone who has helped with programming, which I have. And I wanted to say this in no uncertain terms: if you do not have a moderator, you do not have a panel.

I don’t care if you choose to have a participating moderator or a non-participating moderator. That’s up to you, your con, your topic, whatever. Do that as you will. Use your own judgment. But I can count on one hand the number of panels I have ever seen that would have done all right with completely freeform participation from the panelists and in the panelists’ interactions with the audience. I have seen several where the participants said they’d do fine that way. And generally having someone moderate either turned out to be the best decision or would have turned out to be the best decision; and quite often which person mattered a great deal.

Let me say that again: which moderator matters a great deal.

I know that it’s really hard to know who will be a good moderator if you’re doing programming for a large convention and you don’t know all the personalities of your panelists. You don’t necessarily know who will be shy, who will be balky, who will tend to ramble and then stop completely, who will talk over other panelists, who will talk over audience members, who will talk over audience members who absolutely need to be talked over…who will get a good balance of calling on rambly but interesting pros in the audience with calling on concise question-askers…moderating is hard, and moderating each specific panel is different. I know it’s hard to know. I’m sorry.

But you need a moderator. And you need to know more than five minutes in advance who is moderating, because panel prep is a thing for everybody, but it’s really, really, truly a thing for the moderator. The questions that keep a panel from being shallow and surface-driven can arise naturally and organically–but they don’t always. Sometimes the moderator brings them up. Sometimes the moderator brings them up in such a natural way that it looks like they’re natural and organic. The pitfalls that will make a panel truly dreadful: a prepared moderator can sometimes start to see them coming and steer frantically away.

And lately (at multiple conventions! I am not calling out any one convention!) I have seen a lot of “who wants to be the moderator?” as a means of choosing the moderator, and I’m sorry, but that is not enough. Quite a few people want to be the moderator who should not be the moderator. It is not quite to the level of “anyone who wants the job shouldn’t have it,” but…there are at least a great many obviously experienced people who have not been practicing using that experience to boost insightful voices with less experience. This is one of the cases where “I’ve done this ten million times and am comfortable with it” is maybe not always the thing to reinforce. Sometimes! Sometimes experience combines with awareness to give you a moderator who will help bring out new ideas, and that’s great. And other times you get someone who makes the panel their own personal pulpit, or who has vast experience with moderating badly, or any of a number of other problems. So: “I’m comfortable doing it” doesn’t always map to doing a good job.

Which may mean that I, personally, should not always be the moderator. I will try to do a good job when I moderate, but guess what? I will be the right moderator for some panels. And I will be the wrong moderator for some panels. I think that when someone comes in saying, you need a moderator to do these things, it can get read with an implication of like me, me, I would do this perfectly, I am the right choice, me. I want to explicitly say: nope. Sometimes it’s absolutely me, sometimes it’s absolutely not, and sometimes I’m the least of evils for the panelists you have. Me, personally.

But the worst panel horror stories invariably have someone asking, “And what did the moderator do?” And the answers are either: “Nothing!” or, “That was the moderator.” So: convention programming staff. Please, please, please. I know it’s a difficult question, I know you will not be able to get it perfect, and I don’t blame you when you try and it goes wrong. But I do blame you when there isn’t a moderator assigned. Please at least try. Think about the moderator as a careful part of how you do panels.