Over the surface

The sky above a frozen lake is the same color as it is above a road, a soccer field, a housing development, on the same day. I know that, but I don’t feel it. There is that clouded over slate blue-grey that has the feel of reaching perfection from the middle of a frozen lake, on a windy day, alone.

The winter I was twelve cooperated in my liminal state. It was cold enough for the lakes to freeze solidly and stay that way, no worries of open water or even thin ice, but not cold enough that anyone would worry about a newly-grown girl-child bundling herself into scarf, mittens, boots, coat, and heading off on her own for hours.

Twelve is big enough–at least, it was for me–that you can watch smaller kids, that no one needs to be deputized to watch you. Twelve is small enough–again, at least it was for me–that no one needs to worry that you’re sneaking off to do something worrying on an adult scale. I was adult sized at twelve, this height, very nearly this body shape that I have twenty-seven years later. I was very recognizably myself. I had been street harassed already, at twelve. I had started to grasp the edges of what so worried my mother about me growing up. But while I’ve been harassed in parkas that come down to my knees and hoods up over my head, winter is safer: fewer people on the street means less street harassment.

And I wasn’t going on the street.

My mother and I had been spending the last year and a half in what I then thought was a companionable understanding, which I now recognize as a productive misunderstanding. I thought that we mutually understood that I was too big for playgrounds (although I have never lost my fondness for swings), that I would stay safe and not do anything stupid but of course would not be going to a playground for hours. What would I do at a playground for hours? I was twelve, for heaven’s sake. I was big.

(Now that my goddaughter is eleven, now that her mother and I repeat to each other, “she’s so big now!” on at least a weekly basis, I understand how it was that my mother could have missed the fact of my bigness.)

So I thought that we understood that I was going to hike and not do anything worrying. My mother, on the other hand, thought that being away from the main road and out of shouting distance of the rest of humanity was something worrying and naturally I would not be doing that. This misunderstanding between us turned out to be formative for me, and I stand by it. I was immensely safer–I am safer now–in the woods than on the road. Twenty-seven years of experience tells me over and over again that the rest of humanity is the problem.

But I was speaking of the year I was twelve. In the summer, this had meant hours in the woods, sometimes up a tree, sometimes with my sneakers tied to each other hanging around my neck so I could walk down the rocks in a shallow brook. It was green and quiet and peaceful, and I was competent there. One of my best friends got a rampaging case of poison ivy to start the seventh grade. I had told her not to touch it, it most certainly was not Virginia creeper. I was the one who knew the difference.

My new longer legs were useful in the woods, and my new curves were…not absent, exactly. But they had room to just be part of me, just present, neutral. Nobody told me to do anything like a lady. Nobody shouted that I was a cunt. If I set off at a fast lope through the trees, I bounced a little more, and it didn’t have to matter.

In the winter, the bare trees didn’t provide as much cover. But my clothes did, and the cold. When it’s cold enough, you can escape a crowded, smoky house full of relatives and no one will wander out after you. The outdoors will be quiet and still and empty. The ice is its own protection.

There are only a handful of other walkers on frozen lakes. You are almost guaranteed you will not run into them. If you are very careful, you can avoid all human companionship. If you’re not feeling that antisocial, you will walk past the ice fishers. The ice fishers will not make you talk. The protocol with ice fishers is simple: you can nod, or you can say, “Ayeh.” And they will do one of those two things back.

They will not say, “Awfully cold for you to be out, isn’t it?” They will not ask if you aren’t very young to be on your own. The ice fishers do not want to talk. They want to fish. And you want to walk. This works out well for everyone. The ice fishers may well be escaping a loud, smoky house full of relatives as well. Fishing is the thing that they are allowed to say they are doing, not “getting away from you all.” I had an aunt who would say she was doing both, but she was widely regarded as eccentric.

I loved her for it.

She was not in the house I was walking away from.

You pass the ice fishers, then, and you keep walking. You fall into a rhythm. If there’s a good crust of snow, or if there was wind when the lake was freezing, you can walk like you can on any land. The wind matters because it pebbles the ice, gives it a texture, your feet can find purchase. If it was a still day, you shuffle along like a purposeful penguin, not lifting your feet too far, moving straight from the hips.

(What about skating? they will ask. Well, no. Skating ice takes maintenance. It has to be a really still day, or more likely water that is carefully sprayed and smoothed, to get really good skating ice. You can’t skate on just random ice, mostly it’s far too rough for quality skating. Random lake ice is much better for just walking.)

The cold seeps into your legs. Your coat comes down over your upper thighs, your socks up over your calves, so it’s the middle, your lower thighs, where you really start to feel the cold first. Everything else is too well bundled, but the wind will hit your knees and start to numb them. But you keep walking. You’re going to go all the way across the lake to the trees on the other side. No one can take this from you. The cold can’t. So you walk, and the blood flows back into you with exercise, and gradually you get warm again, the warmth of exertion.

With the rhythm of walking, you regain the ability to notice things. Clouds. Cars on the distant road, the noises they make. Your own crunchy footfalls, whether there’s a difference in their sound. That difference is important.

In the present day, as an adult, I had gone on the assumption that everyone knows how to gauge ice thickness visually, that while you hear stories of people falling through, you also hear stories of people setting their microwaves on fire. Sensible people, ordinary people–certainly everyone you would socialize with–know you need at least two inches of ice to bear human weight. Sensible people know what that looks like.

But when I went to talk to my friends about it now, as a grown-up, other perfectly competent grown-ups had no idea. They worried about this. How would you know. That doesn’t sound safe. What are you doing. This is not sensible, stop it, come inside, surely this is not something you do.

It is. It’s something I do. Every chance I get.

And even as a twelve-year-old, I knew what good ice sounded like, even if it was snow-covered and I couldn’t look at it. I knew what it felt like to have a run of days cold enough to freeze the lake solid enough to hold me. I knew what patches to avoid until it had been good and cold long enough–rushes and ducks would be near open water, don’t go poking at the rushes and ducks, just keep walking.

These things were so intuitive that more than twenty-five years later, when my friends, my southern friends, my coastal friends, my city friends, balked at the notion of walking out on frozen things, I had to interrogate my own mind: I know this, but how do I know this. What does good ice look like. Good ice is milky, good ice shuts you out from the waters below. Clear ice that holds you up and lets you watch the fish below is a cinematic dream. Good ice, firm ice, is opaque enough that you know that it is doing some serious ice business below your feet. It does not creak or crack. Some parts of it might crunch, but that’s different.

And yet you know you are not walking on the ground. You know that you are walking on ice. How do you know? You know. The sky is not a different color, the air does not taste different…rationally. Notionally, liminally? It might. It does.

Twenty-five years later, walking out on Lake Superior was not the same as a small lake. It is full of many jagged points and miniature cliffs–its limnology has structure and nearly seismic activity in a way that a smaller lake never could. And of course, walking all the way across, walking the whole lake, is impossible for any human. There is always the wall of spiky mist at the horizon where the giant body of water is subliming even when the temperatures are below zero Fahrenheit.

And yet. And yet the crunch and slide of ice, the penguin slip beneath my feet was the same. The feel of walking away from shore, out on the ice, squaring my shoulders and knowing that everything beneath me was water, everything above me was steely sky, and around was…nothing. No one and nothing. The perfect silence and wind is the same, exactly the same, always the same.

And getting warm after is the same, the excessive feeling of blood rushing into cheeks and fingers and thighs, burning and tingling, gulping hot tea too fast and burning my tongue. Not wanting to talk. Not wanting to speak a word. Wanting to keep the frozen lake wind in my ears.

I have never let myself collapse to my knees in the snow, upon attaining land again. Someday perhaps I will. I have always made myself keep moving, onward to warmth and the rest of humanity and its noise and hum and frustrations. I have never let myself kneel and feel the difference between snow on ice and snow on dirt in my hands, not just through my boots.

Someday I will. For now, I let myself be quiet when I come off a frozen lake. I don’t have to go into the hubbub of a family gathering. I can reenter the world of humans gradually, warmth first, light second, then tea and noise. And so I do.

Because of how geology works, frozen things are lower than their surroundings. Water, down in a hollow. So you find yourself looking up, up at the trees, up at the buildings, even up at the roads. Up at the clouds, and suddenly up at the clouds isn’t as different from looking at the manmade things as it usually is. Everything is at least a little up, and you are down, set apart, set aside, protected.

My friends who are not from the frozen north will find that feeling of protection strange, I think, but ice is like the poison ivy/Virginia creeper problem in the summer woods: safety comes from knowledge. You know how to walk, you know where and when to go, you’re fine, you’re much safer than you are on the street. And the quality of silence alone on the ice is impossible to replicate any other way.

#Prettyboy Must Die by Kimberly Reid

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a teen spy novel that stands alone perfectly well. There’s room for a sequel, but no sequel is required, and I imagine that if there was a sequel it could also be written to stand alone perfectly well–that Jake and his girlfriend Katie and his best buddy Bunker could all be introduced very swiftly, very easily, in the short chapters and pithy style of the spy novel as it intersects with the short chapters and pithy style of the action YA, allowing for getting on with it as quickly as possible.

Jake has been part of Operation EarlyBird, a program of very young CIA operatives, and the book opens with him on an actual real live mission. But oh no! he has to go back to high school! Does this cramp his style? Of course it does not! Hijinks continue to ensue! Trouble finds Jake wherever he goes, under whatever alias he uses!

This is a very, very contemporary book. The hashtag in the title is no accident–getting tagged #prettyboy on social media is one of the banes of Jake’s young would-be spy existence. There is slang that…I’m pretty sure will be “oh God that’s so 2017” in 2022. But it is not 2022 now, and it’s not offensive slang; in my memory part of reading kids’ books is the wonderment of learning slightly outdated slang while the plot rips breathlessly past you. There is camaraderie, there are twists and turns that all click neatly into place, there is wish fulfillment like whoa, and even if it doesn’t happen to be *your* wish fulfillment–as it was very much not mine–it’s a fun read that doesn’t take that long. So if you’re in the market for a teen spy novel, you could do a lot worse than this book, which understands friendship, pacing, and the aspirational potential of a girl with a ready supply of poisons.

Please consider using our link to buy #Prettyboy Must Die from Amazon.

Books read, January

Ben Aaronovitch, The Furthest Station. Abigail is great. Why do I always like the supporting cast better than the main characters in this series? I don’t know, but in this novella we meet Peter’s young cousin Abigail, and she is great. More Abigail. Blah blah rivers, magic, ghosts: Abigail. Yay.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Fox. Kindle. A particularly metaphysical installation in this novella series. What do nonhuman species contribute to our experience of life and knowledge, in fantasy novella format! So!

John Crowley, Totalitopia. Very short collection of short stories and essays. The very first one did white ethnicity as a presence rather than a default, very thoughtful, I enjoyed it a lot. I think I like Crowley better as a fiction writer than an essayist, but that’s okay, that’s where the bulk of his work is too, so that’s good for me.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, and Racheline Maltese, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13. Discussed elsewhere.

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. This was fascinating, about a woman who was kept from credit substantially by the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. She not only worked in wartime codebreaking but also in Prohibition and other projects. Codebreaking was in its infancy at the time, and Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William were crucial to the American effort. If I had one complaint about Fagone’s focus it was that he sometimes was not at all alert to the nuances of some of the things he said, in his hurry to focus on achievement rather than obstacle. At one point he said that asking whether she faced sexism was like asking whether Mme. Curie faced sexism. I blinked at that and said, “So…yes, then. Really really super yes.” (He was making a different point about being ground-breaking, the first in your field, etc. Sure! And sexism STILL….) Focus on achievement rather than obstacle is admirable, but let’s not actively minimize the obstacle along the way, dude.

Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens. This is a New England-and-Guatemala novel. Its sense of place and relationship is fascinating, and the way it handles both is not like anything else I’ve read. The title misled me completely and then once I had read the book very much fit. It’s very contemporary, deals with modern immigration and adoption issues…I’m not sure what else to say about it. Very interesting book that I’ve only been able to discuss with one other person because it just isn’t widely known in my circles.

Elizabeth Hand, Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories. Kindle. Reread. This was the source of insight for me about short stories pivoting rather than unfolding, and I think I prefer Hand’s work when it unfolds. Several of them had a very strong sense of place that I enjoyed, and it was a reasonable thing to revisit when I was exhausted on an airplane I did not expect to be on.

Janet Kagan, Mirabile. Reread. A mosaic novel of genetic emergency, made of fun, reread for my disaster response panel only to find that it was not as relevant as I’d hoped. Still pretty much always worth the time.

Lydia Kang, The November Girl. A runaway kid and a spirit of Lake Superior in the winter find each other, help each other…this is a fast-paced and deeply felt YA, and I liked lots of things about it while not being the main target audience for it. Although. It’s still my lake, so…yeah, soft spot here.

Fonda Lee, Jade City. I have been recommending this everywhere, because it’s just plain fun. Lee draws on fantasy novels but also kung fu movie structure in ways that make her plot less predictable than a lot of novels for me, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. First in a series, yay! Magic jade, clans warring, people trying to stay true to themselves but also to people they care about…oh yes. Yes please.

Naomi Libicki and Alter Reiss, eds., The Scintillation Collection. Kindle. A small convention jam-packed with people I know and like is going to be great, and I am so excited…but it meant that a lot of these stories were rereads, because I follow pretty much everybody’s work. On the other hand, it also meant that I liked a lot of these the first time around and was glad to see them again (on an airplane…I did not intend to be on…).

Leena Likitalo, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress. I expected this to be very much an ending, since it is the second book of what I thought was two. But instead it felt very much like a middle. The worldbuilding and the family relationships continued to appeal to me, but…the ending felt…ongoing, very much ongoing…well. Perhaps we will be going on with this series.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Extremely quirky and surreal stories, mostly focused on Southern India. Very, very short, so easy to read in short bites if that’s a thing you’re looking for.

Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman. A structurally unusual accounting of first contacts. Mitchison is one of the women you still occasionally run into, who mistook the limitations placed on her personally for gender differences in general and yet who did not mistake them for a general inequality, and so there are all sorts of ways of trying to write about this galactic explorer and communicator in ways that are weirdly warped by Mitchison’s own upbringing. What communication means and what the protagonist brings to her interspecies communications…this is a weird and fascinating plot, not really much like anything else.

David R. Montgomery, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. This is very popular-level science. Any of you has enough science background to understand it, and in fact in the first few chapters he is a bit patronizing in prose tone. After that he settles into the nuts and bolts of how farming should be revamped to be better for the soil, less costly in terms of chemicals, better for people and plants and even herd animals. He’s immensely convincing and in places even touching. I did not expect that so much of this would take place in the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota, in places where I have people. I cried in spots, where families managed to save not only the soil but their farms thereby. It’s good stuff, inspiring.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: The Night Masquerade. The last in its trilogy, and definitely do not start here, as a great deal of the emotional weight rests on knowing the people and their meaning to each other. A satisfying conclusion but not a satisfying start by any means.

Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. This is a beautiful book, essays from a Black woman visiting American landmarks. It’s nature writing from an angle I don’t see often, looking at the land from a different angle, from a very personal and human angle that illuminated it. Highly recommended.

Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, Viking Friendship: The Social Bond in Iceland and Norway, c. 900-1300. There is some very interesting stuff here about chosen social bond as opposed to family in saga and history. There are also some places where Sigurdsson…well, look, if you don’t listen to what people know, you won’t know it. And there were places where I just rolled laughing because you could ask any Nordic auntie, any at all, some of the things that he thought were mysterious, and they would either tell you or snort in disbelief that you had to ask such an ignorant question (why women were so prevalent in wedding seating disputes, dear God, do I even have to unpack that for you in the comments), so look, it is not their fault if you look like a fool in your book sometimes, they’re right there, child.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. This was, I think, the first book I read this year, and I was so glad of it, its wanders and focus on wandering, its meanders through thought and relationship and landscape. I am so very much enjoying making my way through Solnit’s works.

Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts. Spaceship life through an incredibly intersectional lens, with detailed attention to how relationships change in confined spaces around power in so many ways, energy in so many ways, so many assumptions examined. Powerful, reaching, fascinating.

Kanishk Tharoor, Swimmer Among the Stars. Lovely short stories, amazing. I am not seeing these discussed among genre readers, and they’re mostly not traditional speculative genre stories, but they range through space and time in beautiful ways that I would like to see more of, and I’m so very glad to have found them, and I wish more people were finding them.

Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus. I think I’m very glad that I started with late period Vizenor, because this is whimsical and interesting, and of course it’s good that Vizenor has learned better on some issues, especially some gender issues, and yet…and yet there are some places I sigh and roll my eyes a bit and am glad this is not where I began. And I would not necessarily recommend that you begin here either. There is some magic to this recasting, this…re-legending?…but if you have to pick just one Vizenor, really probably not this one.

J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven. I was absolutely enchanted by this story of siblings and power and gender and empire, by the worldbuilding, by all of it. I can’t wait for the other novella in this pair.

you little non-punks, get off my lawn

The hopepunk panel at ConFusion was mostly not about the -punk part at all, but Nisi Shawl’s punk past weighed in for a moment, when she talked about doing it all with three chords if that many, not with complex technique, just jumping in and bashing out a song on feeling and momentum.

And I thought…wait…but…

That’s not cyberpunk at all.

In a lot of ways the cyberpunk movement and the subsequent -punk movements have meandered around how much they are or aren’t living up to punk’s rebelliousness, sticking it to the man, going against the establishment, corporatism, whatever else they have identified as punk roots.

But musically. Let’s be honest. Three-chords-if-that? Is not an accurate parallel to what cyberpunk was doing. Or any of its heirs.

Do you think they’ll get offended if I call them cyberprog? Steamprog?

Can I write some solarprog? Like solarpunk but with lots of obscure chord structure and orchestration?

Should I go back to twitter now? Okay.

better lines this time

The second half of Uncanny’s Issue 20 is now available for free on the internet, and with it my story, Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage! Or if you’d prefer to get your fiction through another medium, it’s also on their podcast, along with an interview I did with editor Lynne Thomas. Marvel as we wrestle the technology! Gape in awe as I attempt to minimize my Minnesota accent for listener comprehension! etc.! Anyway just go enjoy the story, however you enjoy it. It’s got iron giants and cherry trees, and it came about because I was messing around on twitter with my hoodlum friends, what more could you want.

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Some biographies are interested in getting to the complex truth of their subjects. This is not one of them. Focusing interviews on the people who loved the subject best will sometimes give close, personal stories, and that can be great. It can also give a skew toward the whitewash, and that’s what has happened here. Bob Zmuda and Kaufman’s brother Michael appear to be two of the major emotional touchstones for Box Brown’s account, giving it a sweet and personal nature with no teeth whatsoever.

There’s a lot about mid-twentieth century pro wrestling here, how a young boy could fall in love with it and be drawn into it as an aspect of show business. There is no hint that pro wrestling might have flaws other than insularity. None of the things we now know about how so many wrestlers struggle with painkillers and concussion/brain trauma and die young. Just: hey, it’s showbiz. Oh. Okay I guess.

And in this year of 2018, a major publisher feels perfectly comfortable putting out a book whose explicit thesis is that Andy Kaufman was “brilliant and kind,” that “Man on the Moon” was wrong to portray him as “a mean spirited buffoon.” Aww, isn’t it sad that his brother was sad about that movie? When even this book shows page after page of him spewing misogyny in order to get women angry so that they will wrestle him for–it’s very explicit about this–his carefully hidden sexual gratification, to which they have not consented. But if he privately tells his brother and his best friend that he’s for women’s rights, that’s fine, that’s his true self, and the rest is “all an act.” And his actual acts–his actions–don’t matter. It was a joke, hey, can’t you take a joke?

One of the many things this book is completely uninterested in examining is: if what Kaufman was interested in was surrealism, was unsettling people’s sense of reality, why did he choose to rehash exactly the same tired stereotypes that immigrants and women were hearing day after day? What’s unsettling about that reality? What’s daring about that? In a sense this is a common thread through forays into attempts at dadaist/surrealist humor going back to Marcel Duchamp’s “LHOOQ”: when Duchamp went to undermine what he saw as our reverence for fine art, he did so by repeating exactly the same crap that women hear on the streets every single day. By recapitulating the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Again. Did he say, “She is an echidna”? “She is an ice augur”? Did he overturn our sense of reality by making us think what on earth that could mean? Nope. Just: she has a hot ass. Har. Thanks, Duchamp.

And Kaufman’s another such, getting credit for being a brilliant and daring ground-breaking comedian–encouraging another generation of male comedians to see “I upset people and therefore I’m edgy and funny” as a standard–when he was repeating very, very tired tropes and reinforcing them. Any desire to examine that? To consider what kind of atmosphere it’s led to? To think about what it means when you’re saying something as a joke and the people who are listening to you are thinking, ha ha yeah, you tell those stupid bitches?

No?

Oh.

You know, one of the men in my field who turned out to have harassed dozens of women also is a man who told some pretty sexist jokes in public for years. Who still tells them, I expect, to people who are still speaking to him. And if you call him out for them, how can you not know that in his heart he believes in women and can’t you take a joke. It’s just that he also wants to be able to use women for his sexual gratification when he has power over them. Whether they want that or not. So…I read this biography of Andy Kaufman, and I thought, yeah. Hilarious. It’s always us humorless bitches who just don’t see the joke in the guy standing there saying, ha ha, that dumb bimbo…but you know that was part of the joke, right, you know I don’t really mean that.

I don’t know that, actually, Andy.

I don’t know that, Box.

I don’t know that, guy in my field, guy in your field, guy in everybody’s, everybody’s everybody’s everybody’s field.

I don’t know that. You don’t know that. What I do know is that when push came to shove, this is the material you decided to build your career on. And when push came to shove, Box Brown decided to give it a complete pass and keep building his career on it. Because hey, he talked to Zmuda and to Michael Kaufman and they said what a sweet guy Andy Kaufman was, and he could make a nice little book about how Andy Kaufman wanted everybody to be friendly to one another, especially if the women parts of everybody would sometimes get mad and do what his penis wanted without him having to talk to them about it like a grown-up.

Kaufman worked with women on SNL, on Taxi. He knew women in his life. Brown doesn’t list any women in his personal interviews for this book. I bet that’s a total coincidence, though, and reflects nothing about his mindset.

I bet.