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Miles

A quick sketch of Miles Vorkosigan, aka Admiral Miles Naismith, the main viewpoint character (but not the only one) throughout the series. Will try to get a better version up eventually…

My current candy-reading (or listening, since I’ve subscribed to Audible) is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. I’d run across the series maybe 5 or 6 years earlier, but it had been 4 years since I’d last stalled out reading through the books (in chronological order, as opposed to the order written). These books are addicting–so much so that I’m inclined to call them a “guilty pleasure”, but there is enough nuance in worldview, enough (for a 80s-onward military space opera) expansion of representation, enough of a critical attitude towards cultural militarism in the same breath as a sympathetic rendition of characters who love military culture and action, that I don’t want to give the impression that this is “dumb” reading. It’s good escapism, sure, and tailor-made for that in many ways–but it is also a thoughtful exploration of our humanity and our contemporary cultural issues through the lens of space opera. And yes, this is pretty standard space opera/military sci-fi–or at least, it won’t surprise anyone as far as the setting or tech goes–but the elements are, I think, treated well and creatively, with enough twists that you can’t take this as a clone of any old space opera setting.

You can check out the list of books/stories in the series on Bujold’s website here, though the Wikipedia entry for the Vorkosigan saga also has a good chronological list, including info on the omnibus editions, which is where I first started reading–the omnibus editions are also nice since they include the short stories and novellas, which, as I’ve recently been reminded, are themselves at times very central to the overall arc (the novella “Borders of Infinity” certainly is). Personally, I love the narrator for the audio books, so I’ve recently started working through the series on Audible (alas, until I start a podcast or youtube channel I can’t become an audible affiliate–otherwise you would be able to support this blog by signing up for a free trial membership at Audible. Well, you can still sign up, it just won’t benefit me at all.).

The saga starts with Miles Vorkosigan’s parents, Aral Vorkosigan, from feudal, militaristic Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, from advanced, liberal, and progressive Beta Colony. I started the series with the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor, and I do recommend starting there–the two novels are good, if not as riveting (for me anyway) as the first Miles book (The Warrior’s Apprentice, which I’ve read at least 4 times), but all the rest of the series is all the more meaningful when you come to it already caring for the family–the backstory (really stories on their own right, the first of the two published before any of the Miles stories) really does enrich the rest. Miles himself is a great viewpoint character–well, this is not to say everyone will like him, but I’ve found him very engaging, and have found my own particular ways to resonate with his character, even if he is in many ways very different than myself. Additionally, Miles is a disabled character. Whether or not his portrayal successfully evades any degree of “abelism” I can’t speak to–we might extend this to other points where the Vorkosigan books are relatively progressive when in comes to representation, in that I’m reluctant to offer any authoritative judgement re: how well Bujold succeeds (this is of course not meant to diminish Bujold’s writing at all–we’re all caught up in systems of privilege, patriarchy, etc, and we all, whether we are the privileged or the unprivileged, have our path working our way out of that). Tung, one of the main characters, is Asian, and certainly the universe is not wholly white, but my impression is that it is not always a complete rainbow; there are many strong female characters, but the books I’ve read so far, minus the latest and those in Cordelia’s honor, are very thoroughly centered on Miles, and the female characters are viewed through the filter of his particular longings–but to be fair, they disrupt this wishful lens quite often; and homosexuality and bisexuality do come in, though the only book I’ve read here where it is especially prominent is one that comes off a bit awkwardly, with a whole planet of men that women are not allowed to visit. Well, I mention all this because I’ve seen others touting Bujold’s progressive representation, and I do think it’s worth celebrating (and it is an enjoyable part of the series, giving us a more realistically full universe)–it is definitely a selling point, but I don’t know that everyone will be equally impressed.[edit–I’ve read further in the series now, and my impression is that Bujold continues to expand and deepen the representation of queerness and genderqueerness–the whole series is, I think, a neat set of pictures of the potential and boundaries of (relatively) progressive (but still “popular”) sci-fi from the mid-80s till now]

Well, that’s my recommendation for now–I’m just this week further in my reading than in my previous reading, so it’s fun entering into new territory! If you are just trying to decide whether this series would be for you, I suggest checking out The Warrior’s Apprentice–if you like it enough to keep going, check out the Cordelia books (Shards of Honor and Barrayar–collected as Cordelia’s Honor), then move on through the rest in chronological order (or whatever order you want–they are all self-contained, but I find that much of the fun is in the references between books).

WP_20160419_11_40_43_ProI’m excited to recommend Marginalia to Stone Bird, a collection of poems by Rose Lemberg, one of my many friends from grad school and elsewhere who have gone on to make their marks in the world of letters (and art and music). I’ve been following Rose’s work since around 2010, when I found out about their creative work (about the time I got a few of my own poems out there, though I still see myself as a much more naive/amateur poet than Rose), and it has been fun to see the increasing recognition for their work in the world of speculative (fantasy and science fiction) poetry and short fiction–so many award nominations! And some wins too! And all this in spite of some really horrible circumstances and trials the last few years. You can find out more about Rose on their main site, their old blog, and their (more active) twitter. Note also their Birdverse Patreon page–for just $1 a day you can support Rose’s ongoing and expanding body of stories set in the “Birdverse.” One of the most recent of these stories is a Nebula Award nominee this year (the conference is happening RIGHT NOW!!!!), and one of the poems in Marginalia, also available online at Goblin Fruit, belongs to the Birdverse as well. Oh, and Rose is also one of the founders/editors at Stone Telling, one of my favorite spots on the interwebz for speculative poetry, so check it out!

Many of the poems in this collection have been published, starting in 2009, in a variety of online and print journals/collections, such as Apex, Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium and others–some of the more prominent platforms for speculative poetry, and many of these poems still available online if you want to get a feel for Rose’s work before committing to a book (or a Patreon). Themes of identity, particularly immigrant and (gender)queer, are prominent throughout Rose’s work, both poetry and fiction, and make for many of the more heartfelt and thoughtful passages in this collection. Rose is also an accomplished academic with experience in topics ranging from folkloristics to sociolinguistics, and I appreciate the ways in which this adds depth and nuance to their work without (at all) feeling pedantic–Rose is an inspiration and model to me as an academic creative writer. This reminds me, I need to get back to my own writing.

I was going to list many of the poems that I enjoyed that are still available online, but I’m short on time, so instead I refer you to the poetry bibliography on Rose’s webpage–many of these (not the most recent, I believe) also show up in the collection, so this is a good way to find out whether you would be interested in the book. A more thorough discussion of the collection is up on Strange Horizons. And check out Rose’s fiction bibliography as well–I know most of you fantasy and sci-fi readers out there read massive multi-volume novels, watch GoT, play WoW, or whatever, but short fiction and poetry are great places to discover new talent, support writers as they start out on their careers, and just find nice, quick, but very deep and thoughtful reads. Expand your horizons!

Some readers may be aware that I spent a year and a half (overlapping significantly with my time teaching at UCLA) translating a book on the theology and philosophy of the body by Swedish theologian Ola Sigurdson, titled Himmelska Kroppar: Inkarnation, Blick, Kroppslighet (Heavenly Bodies: Incarnation, the Gaze, and Embodiment). It was challenging work (my first professional translation, and both very erudite and quite broad in scope), but rewarding and engaging. Ola was very responsive and a pleasure to work with, as was Eerdmans publishing, and the book itself was like sitting in on simultaneous graduate seminars in theology, church history, and the philosophy (which, in turn, ranged from Nietszche to Heidegger to Foucault to Butler–and beyond, and with at least three dozen other major and minor figures as well). On a whim I searched for the English title of the book, and lo and behold it is scheduled to come out at the end of June (I was expecting Fall) from Eerdmans! You can preorder on Amazon — $60 and over 650 pages, but hey, that’s not bad compared to, say, your textbook for college Spanish, right?

Anyway, finding this was a nice bright moment in an exhausting week as I try to figure out whether I’ll manage to find a position anywhere next year. I would love to do a project like this again (as long as folks are willing to pay chapter by chapter, rather than at the end of the project), in case anyone has a text that needs translating–but that said, I would really like to get a book of my own out there finally, or at least some articles. The book may have to wait, but at the moment I’m hopeful about getting an expanded draft of my Cultural Memory conference paper done this summer…

Image taken from the Space.com story–for some reason none of the pictures carried over via the reshare feature…

 

Stephen Hawking is helping to lead Breakthrough Starshot, an effort to develop tiny, light-propelled spacecraft that could reach Alpha Centauri just 20 years after blasting off.

Source: Stephen Hawking Helps Launch Project ‘Starshot’ for Interstellar Space Exploration

I’m really excited about this, but not sure how optimistic I am–have read too many articles lately saying that the tech (and the $$) is not there yet… but we’ll see! It would be amazing to have a probe reading Alpha Centauri withing my lifetime, though I expect I would have to hang on as long as possible to see it happen.

In other space related news, my friend Elizabeth Segran has a new article out at Fast Company on a company that wants to build 3d printed homes on Mars. Cool stuff! It would be nice if all this stuff finally started to take off–we’ve been seeing that “take-off” just over the horizon for a long time now…

File:Lars Gustafsson in 2012.jpg
 Image from Wikipedia
 

Swedish poet, novelist, and scholar Lars Gustafsson has passed away (Swedish language notice here). A literary giant in Sweden, he also made a significant mark internationally. He has been widely translated in English and was included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. He served as a professor at the University of Austin, and the southwest of the United States figures prominently in his work (well, out of what I have read–which is not much, given his impressive output). His work could certainly be erudite (he was a professor in philosophy), but I found much of his fiction to be very accessible, and what wasn’t accessible (like some of the short fiction discussed below) was still quite interesting, even if a reread may be in order at some point (but a reread is in order any time you find something good).

Find a list of his work on Amazon here. I’ve read a bit of his poetry (currently A Time in Xanadu) and recommend it. I am a very casual poetry reader myself (despite most of my non-academic published work being poetry), but he is also quite well appreciated for his verse, so you don’t have to take my word for it! Check out a sampling of his verse here (the poems are listed in the right-hand menu). Out of his many novels some places to begin are Death of a Beekeeper (a novel written as entries in the diary of a man dying from cancer), The Tennis Players (set in Austin, a short comic novel with a professor as protagonist, touching on everything from Strindberg’s period of apparent insanity to early-80s hacking and accidental nuclear warfare), and Bernard Foy’s Third Castling (a novel within a novel within a novel, the first being a straight-up thriller).

Science Fiction nerd that I am, I first became (especially) interested in Gustafsson after randomly happening upon a minor work of his in the tiny science fiction section of Celsius bookstore in Uppsala: Det Sällsamma Djuret Från Norr (“The Strange Beast from the North”). I initially didn’t think it could be the same Lars Gustafsson–I hardly knew of him then, apart from the fact that he was “literary” and “respected”, and these were outright pulpy (well, not so pulpy) science fiction short stories, with a frame narrative on par with the best Space Opera, old or “New”. Not available in English, alas–nor is his much earlier set of short stories Förberedelser till Flykt (Preparations for Flight), a group of experimental short stories that edge into science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism. The two are collected in one hard back edition (which I have out from the UC Berkeley library), but still in Swedish. I’ve played around with translating bits myself here and there, but if I do get that done it probably won’t be especially soon–translation may be especially important for those of us who teach foreign literature, but you don’t get much credit for it academically, a problem when you are a young scholar still trying to find a tenure-track position. :/  But we’ll see–I may have a translation of one of the stories from Förberedelser till Flykt translated soon (one of Gustafsson’s favorites, according to his afterword), and the titular story is translated in, and gives, once more, its title to another collection, Robin Fulton’s collection of translations from Swedish Preparations for Flight and Other Stories (an old volume–1990 I think–but looks like Amazon has a few used copies available). This is one of my favorite stories from the collection in any case, with a very accessible premise (though some of my students still didn’t get what was going on…) and an otherworldly and quietly post-apocalyptic flavor (in my reading, at any rate).

Gustafsson’s blog is still up–mostly in Swedish, but every now and then you’ll find something in English or German. I’m afraid I’m at the limit of what I can recommend–but definitely someone to read, whether you are specifically interested in Scandinavian literature or not.

I’d been excited about Tor.com’s move to publishing longer novellas in addition to short fiction (or the novel-length material at their parent company Tor Publishing)–I love the vast tomes of epic fantasy that have been taking over the last few decades as much as anyone, but I also love the shorter novels of earlier eras, in particular the New Wave (I’m thinking in particular of the shorter novels of Ursula LeGuin and Samuel DeLany), and I think it’s a great move on Tor.com’s part to explore this middle-ground. While I appreciate getting a variety of lengths of fiction packaged together in one volume, when I encounter a novella in, say, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I tend to put it off, read the shorter fiction, and then forget about it–I enjoy the experience of reading mid-range fiction like this a lot more when I get it packaged separately (and the price is reasonable–$3ish for my digital copy. The paperback is nearly $10, which is a bit harder to swallow for something so short). Looking forward to reading many more from their growing list. I decided to start with Binti (click the link for a description and preview) by Nnedi Okorafor, and that is what this post will be about. Long story short–this is an excellent short Space Opera where competent world building fits perfectly with the central narrative of an engaging and believable protagonist, who in her turn fits the genre’s need for a “special protagonist” while remaining very relatable and realistic.

I’d been looking forward to this novella since it was first announced as one of the initial stories in the series. I confess the gorgeous cover influenced me a bit (that goes for all of these books though–my goodness, whether for their short fiction or for their novellas Tor.com has really got the cover game down), but I’ve also been wanting to read more by Okorafor since hitting one of her short stories a year or two ago. I’d picked up her novel Who Fears Death a few months back, but I’ve got too many novels I’ve been trying to work through lately–Binti was the perfect size to squeeze in while still working through my other books. It was definitely a quick read–the paperback is 96 pages, so you go through it a lot faster than you expect for an independently packaged text.

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch–I won’t say this is at all a canonical vizualization of Binti, and not exactly what I had in my head while I read, but it’s what came from my pen when I started doodling after finishing the book. Will hopefully get a better version (both scan and drawing) posted eventually…

The eponymous main character really makes this story–well, the fascinating far-future science fictional world, more glimpsed than spelled out in this short work, is also a main attraction here, but the narrative arc of the story, however filled with action and tragedy and problem-solving, is clearly Binti’s own character arc, and climax and closure are most satisfying when you look for them in the transformations she goes through, rather than in the resolution of the conflict on its own. Those used to longer and more complex stories (novels as opposed to short stories or novellas) may get frustrated, but you have to take it for what it is–more of a glimpse of a larger world, and a look at a particular transformative moment in the life of the main character.

To me the feel of the book is definitely YA, from the prose to the treatment of character and obstacles (as well as the youth of the MC), but if we want to think in terms of shelving at the bookstore this is definitely more at home with straight-up science fiction–this is Space Opera by someone who is well-read in the genre and has her own very competent take on the various tropes. In fact, I really loved Okorafor’s vision of a realistically diverse Space-Operatic future. Binta is Himba, and so right away we get a vision of what it looks like to enter the world of interstellar society from the perspective of a minority–and, gratifyingly, we get a vision of a future in which ethnic communities persist, rather than being erased in favor of a Star Trek-like liberal Western uniformity. Prejudice still exists, another bit of gratifying realism, and is, I think, treated very well–we get it all from Binti’s perspective, a realistically youthful one, and we get to see her reactions, her almost mundane expectation of prejudice, and the way this extra weight plays into this coming of age narrative (which it is, of course–practically a Rite of Passage in the anthropological sense. It even takes place in liminal space–literally the space between worlds–and she has a very different, in this case unexpected, identity, at the end). This all feels like a realistic element of this future world–it is specific to the concrete situation(s) of this future setting, rather than feeling like just a projection of our contemporary issues. Prejudice, systemic and otherwise, along with the drivers and mechanisms of imperialism and colonialism are real forces in cultures, societies, and individuals, and I appreciated seeing that realistically and appropriately explored here.

Communal and individual identity are also very central here, and Okorafor makes excellent use of the tropes of Space Opera in her exploration of Binti’s crisis of identity. Binti is 16 in this story, an appropriate moment for a coming-of-age story, and as I’d mentioned before she comes out the other end as, in certain ways, a very different person, but along with this movement at the level of her individual identity we also have the tension between her individual identity and her communal identity–or perhaps better to say on the one hand the tension between her identity as Himba and her identity as a member (or member to be) of the interstellar and interspecies academic community, and between her communal identity (Himba, family, culture, roots) and her individual identity as the “special one” (not meaning that to be sarcastic, despite the scare-quotes), her identity as the Space Opera protagonist with her special gift (she is marked as exceptionally gifted, and the moments when she starts “treeing” in the narrative seem like they must be intentionally reminiscent of that prototypical Special Spaceman Paul Atreides in Dune with his bred talent for seeing the future). So much of what happens (I’ll avoid spoilers) involves sacrificing what she used to be or could have been in favor (though not in all ways by her will) of becoming something new. She chose a path that would take her away from her previous identity, but ended up being transformed much more than expected, and against her will. The trope of “Special Protagonist” is so ubiquitous and overdone that it is on the one hand almost required for the genre, but on the other must be handled well and with an eye for loss and sacrifice, unintended effects, if it is to avoid turning into pure wish-fulfillment. Okorafor does this very well, and we get a story that is at once a meditation on loss (both in terms of personal choice as well as at the hands of other agents, both personal and impersonal) and a narrative of empowerment (in the face of, or alongside, the oppressive realities she is stuck with–her parents’ fears are ultimately well-founded, even if we see Binti learning to thrive as best she can).

For a spoiler-heavy review/analysis check this out. More historical context and nuance here (especially regarding the imperialist/colonialist overtones in the world of the story), and I admit it makes me feel like my reading is overly rosy (we should keep in mind, after all, that everyone else on the spaceship dies without any resolution on their behalf–and much of Binti’s transformation in the story is against her will and yet stays with her forever). Check out more of Tor.com’s novellas here–they look amazing, and I’ve got another 4 or 5 cued up on my Kindle–and of course check out Tor.com for short fiction and articles relating to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror. The two latest announced novellas (scheduled for next Fall and the one after respectively) are by Cassandra Khaw–I’d only just heard of her through this announcement, but have already read a couple of her short stories (“Disconnect” and “When We Die On Mars“) and am really excited to see what we get from her!

On Writing the Sequel

Can’t wait for the sequel! Alas, she’s only just started it.😦 In the meantime, this is a nice read about what went into the Oddfits, what is going into the next book, and Tiff’s new life as a professional writer.

Tiffany Tsao

“I’m writing the sequel.” If someone had told me two years ago that this would be my response to the question, “What are you working on these days?” I would have first collapsed into fits of laughter, then hugged my knees to my chest and sighed. I would have sighed not only because The Oddfits hadn’t yet found a publisher, but also because being the hopelessly impractical dreamer I am, I had already begun outlining the subsequent books I hoped would comprise The Oddfits series.

When I started writing The Oddfits, I had intended the book to be a standalone one. Singapore was as rich a setting as I could hope for, and I wanted to do it full justice. But as I continued writing and revising, more and more glimpses of the More Known World began to insert themselves in between scenes and into chapters. The cracks widened…

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