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Well, I should get at least one blog post out this month–sorry this is coming so late. June tends to be a busy month for me, and this was more so, with a kidney stone procedure (blegh), job search drama (only in so far as I was waiting to see what would happen), and packing and prepping now that I’ve accepted a one year position at Gustavus Adolphus college (those of you who have been around will remember that I taught there for another one year position back in 2012-13). Whew. Lots going on. But after my Sweden trip in May (yes, I should probably post about that later…) I have been doing some more digging into the world of Nordic science fiction and fantasy, and this led me to one new source. Consider this a supplement to my previous post on the topic, except not limited to just Swedish (actually, just expanding to include Finnish here…), and now I’m focused on what you can find online for free, here and now. 🙂  (Incidentally, illustrations here are just random examples of my own sci-fi/fantasy sketches–go to the linked websites for their own art…)

Inktober 10 19 16 Vista by CallegoThe surprise discovery for me was the online magazine Brev från Cosmos (Letters from Cosmos), put out by Club Cosmos, a science fiction society out of Göteborg, Sweden. The issues are all available for free online. All in Swedish, I’m afraid–except the story “Sixty thousand and one” in issue 4, so you non-Swedish readers can check that one out if you want. To a degree it does feel like a club publication, a product of fandom, but I recognize at least a few of the authors as those who have been publishing short stories in the various Swedish collections out there, along with a few published novelists, so I think it is really just indicative of the fact that in smaller, non-Anglophone countries the fandom side of genre fiction and the professional side are much more closely intertwined and interdependent. How’s the quality? Well, I think I have to repeat my impression of the speculative short fiction collections I’ve reviewed in Swedish–a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes within the same story, though I’m waiting until a second read to make up my mind about some of them. Generally this magazine seems focused on science fiction, largely confined to the usual tropes, though at least one of the stories I read, Liv Vistisen-Rörby’s Nattramn (Night Raven, though using a dialectical or archaic Swedish word for Raven…) feels like it would fit in well with the creepier side of the Finnish Weird. Anyway, if you read Swedish, or are learning, and are, as they say, a geek (I am), you ought to check these out. But as noted in my previous post on this topic, if you are looking for more a more consistent quality and a higher one, better to check out the examples I give of more mainstream/”literary” authors who, for whatever reason, have decided to go “slumming” (sorry, that’s a bad metaphor to use…) in the speculative fiction ghetto–Vallgren, Gustafsson, etc. I personally feel like Swedish literature has an unusual number of great stories in this latter category, and this unfortunately makes it difficult (as I approach these stories, at least) for this new wave of more dedicated speculative fiction writers to shine in comparison. But I’ve seen some great stories out there, and I hope they will continue to rise to the challenge.

Two by Moonlight by CallegoI’ve mentioned the Finnish online magazine (also free) Finnish Weird before, but it fits our topic here, so I’ll mention it again. It is obvious from the start that a lot more money has been put into this publication, so it is a bit of an unfair comparison with the Swedish magazine above–like comparing a pro-magazine with a semi-pro mag or fanzine (I believe that is the terminology used by SFWA…). I have not read every story in each of the issues, but generally I think it’s comparable to the quality you would get in an Anglophone magazine at the pro-level (pro vs semi pro is determined by the amount paid to the authors, but I am thinking in terms of literary quality–according to my own opinion, of course…). The Finnish Weird is also, as the name suggests, more about that mingling of fantasy and horror that we find in the old Weird Tales and related magazines, more recently revived as a more sophisticated “New Weird”, a term then appropriated by Johanna Sinisalo to describe this particular literary movement growing out of Finnish speculative fiction/pop culture fandom.

Finnish Weird is in English, so apologies to those who wanted to practice their Finnish. I’ve found a few stories (one Swedish, two Finnish) on Strange Horizons and its new extension Samovar (which publishes translations), so here are a few more stories in English for you:

Palimpsest by Anders Åslund is dystopian sci-fi, and while I haven’t nailed down what it is that makes Swedish sci-fi Swedish, I will note that this story feels similar to those I’ve read in the Swedish collections–one of the better quality ones, of course. And you know, dystopias are pretty big in Swedish lit… of course, they are everywhere, but for some reason I see the theme returning in the Swedish stories in a way that feels similar… Well, dystopia is prominent in Swedish literary history, with such heavy-hitters like Karin Boye’s Kallocain and Harry Martinson’s Aniara, plus there is a contemporary dystopian feel to all that crime fiction that Swedes love so much, so maybe there is a genealogy to trace here… I will have to work on it. 🙂

The Dying Embers by Inkeri Kontro is weird enough even for Finnish Weird, with a sauna as a narrator. A steamy story, in more ways than one. Fits well with the weirdness that Strange Horizons so often publishes (I mean that as a compliment, for the record), so I hope to see more Finnish Weird on their site. Though of course, now that will probably end up on Samovar, their translation site–which is where we find our next story.

Wither and Blossom, by Suvi Kauppila, a dark fairy tale with a lovely podcast version read beautifully by Anaea Lay. Be sure to read the interview with Suvi as well!

Angry Tomte by CallegoA little prelude to the differences between the Finnish vs the Swedish material–not so much riffing on identifiably Swedish culture in these stories, versus a more conspicuous interest in that sort of thing in (many but not all of) the Finnish stories. While I’ve posted my “Angry Tomte” picture here, I’ve been surprised to find so little Swedish fantasy riffing on traditional Swedish folklore/culture–possibly an aversion to anything that might look reactionary? I think the appropriation of traditional Germanic/Scandinavian culture by white supremacists has, along with just being shitty and evil, made it difficult for folks to bring, say, Swedish folk creatures into their stories without having to somehow mark that they are not trying to make a white supremacist argument by doing so (according to a paper I heard several years ago, this is also a problem faced by Swedish folk musicians). Personally I think there is a lot of potential for digging into the traditional material in a subversive and progressive way–but to be honest, I think the lack of this in the Swedish material is more a matter of Swedish fandom being more engaged with the tropes and styles of Anglophone spec fic–to get away from that, you have to go to the “mainstream” authors, as I’ve noted.

I do like that the Finnish Weird is more of a defined literary movement–not that you need to be a defined literary movement to be good and interesting, but I think that it is clear from the stories I’ve read that there is something local (specific to Finland), thoughtful, relatively coherent and unique, that is coming out of that milieu (well, could just be excellent branding, but hey…)–the ‘local flavor’ of my post title, and something that works very well in this particular case, whether it is simply the general “Finnish grimness/melancholy” that you get in many of these stories, or the use of local material within this international genre (for example, Sinisalo’s novel about a troll, or Kontro’s story about a sauna). The fantasy and science fiction I’ve read in Swedish (again, focusing on this current–90s-2010s–crop of genre authors) may be good, bad, or amazing depending on the story/novel, but for the most part seems simply to be a part of these international genres, rather than a more localized and unique contribution to that world scene–but I expect to find some more specifically Swedish tendencies as I go. And of course, the Swedish Steampunk I’ve read (so far primarily the collection I varje ångetag, though I’ve started a more recent collection now) has as a particular strength its focus on an alternate steam-power Sweden, versus the focus on reimagined Britains and Americas in Anglophone (and so more visible and internationally accessible) steampunk. That’s probably another blog post though…

Yikes, this means my own 40th is just over a year away… Hm, let’s not think about that… Enjoy some of my Star Wars fanart instead! 😀

Inktober 10 24 16 Rey and Kylo by CallegoBut Star Wars! I loved Star Wars as a kid, even if I encountered the toys first, and then read the novelizations (in 2nd grade) before seeing the movies (I take this as contributing to my ability to still enjoy the spaceships and lightsabers of the prequels, however painful some of the writing–for me SW has always been more about stimulating my own imagination than spoon-feeding me Lucas’ vision). I wanted to be Luke Skywalker so badly (and will still brag occasionally about having the same MBTI type as Luke–INFP), and confess that I still have a few lightsabers lying around the house. Alas, my hairline no longer allows me to wear a Skywalkerian mop.

Jedi Birthday doodle by CallegoGiven how strong a driver Star Wars was of my personal fantasy life (and my creative ambitions–started writing my own science fiction novel in 3rd grade, though I never completed it), I had a complicated relationship to the Expanded Universe stuff when I first became aware of it with Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn series. I mean, sure, it’s great to see other people enjoy exploring that universe with the same passion as I wanted to, but it also suddenly made it all feel less personal (I had a similar crisis when I first realized Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was already super popular–I still tend to gripe about the movies, even if I do watch them…). But I came around, and even if the quality of the EU material varied wildly, I figured, hey, there seems to be some degree of canonicity in these from Lucasfilm’s perspective, may as well enjoy it. (nothing against fan-fiction, btw, but having something count as “canon” implies more coherence with the greater whole, and so lets it feel more substantial to me…)

Forest Moon Viking by CallegoAnd then they go and change it all. Argh. OK, I do agree that there was a lot in the EU that should never have been (I didn’t get all that far with the EU stuff, but saw a fair sampling), but I sympathize with those Star Wars enthusiasts, who got into writing or illustration because of the original trilogy, who were suddenly left out in the cold (and the feeling that the Star Wars Universe had suddenly become incoherent as a whole was not pleasant). I’ve met/corresponded with one of those authors, Kathy Tyers, a handful of times over the years, and appreciated hearing how Star Wars had inspired her to pursue her own writing career (I believe Kathy is involved with Lucasfilm in a different role now, but didn’t find any info on that online so won’t make any claims…). I’ve picked a bit at the new EU novels, and am not thrilled so far–but then again, most of what I looked at was written for the YA level, and I confess I tend to get quite frustrated with the quality of prose in that market. Similar gripes about the latter half of Episode 7–I love love love the new characters, and the story runs quite well for the first half, but once the plot gets caught up in the recycled McGuffin of Star Killer base the story becomes way more formulaic and way less interesting–same with the dialog which suddenly becomes abysmal even by children’s movie standards (Episode 1 all over). But ya know, that’s how it is with such a huge franchise, more so once the MBAs are given a say…

All in all I think I’ve given up a bit of the feeling that I grew up with that Star Wars was “mine”–maybe for the best. I’ve got too many of my own projects to pursue, and somehow never enough time for them all. As far as space opera goes, I would still like to pursue this project one day–should have done more on that this past year, but again, just too many things I’m trying to cover. :/  Meanwhile, whatever support you can send my way via my online shop would be greatly appreciated. 🙂  Hopefully will have an Etsy shop or something like that up soon too for my traditional art. My fan art in this post is not for sale, alas–don’t want to get in trouble with the Jedi…

I was recently asked about Swedish science fiction, and since my response ended up approximately blog-post length, I figured I’d edit it and put it up here. Also, I’m heading to Sweden for three weeks starting tomorrow, and not sure whether I’ll be posting anything while there–we’ll see. Possibly some vacay photos on Instagram though, and maybe some art, if I can find the time.
As far as science fiction and fantasy goes (or speculative fiction more generally), I would divide the texts I’m aware of into three sets: 1) fantasy/sci-fi/horror in the “mainstream” of Swedish literary history, whether genre authors or “literary” authors “slumming” (I’ve included a couple non-Swedish texts here just to fill out the range a bit more), 2) children’s lit, and 3) the pulp fantasy/sci-fi/horror that is more clearly derivative of/participatory in international fandom–this latter has been growing (English language material has always been popular, but the vernacular element has been increasing a lot), though this outgrowth of fandom/geek culture has been more “pulpy” in Sweden, vs the more literary “Finnish Weird“, which, according to a conversation I had with Johanna Sinisalo, is otherwise very similar in it’s fandom origins.

1) Mainstream

Potuan Maiden by Callego[not Swedish, but–Niels Klim’s Underground Journey by the Norwegian Ludvig Holberg seems like a good book to mention just in terms of the genealogy of otherworldly literature generally. From about the same time as Gulliver’s Travels, and perhaps even more suitable as a sort of predecessor to what we think of as science fiction now–plus Holberg is pretty prominent in Scandinavian literary history. See my previous post on this book here.]

Kallocain, by Karin Boye–this is dystopian literature from the same (general) period as 1984, Brave New World, etc (Boye’s novel came out in 1940 I think? she committed suicide not long after). You should be able to find this in Sweden no prob (I think it is considered a somewhat peripheral classic), and I thought the English translation was fine (click the title for a link to the online version–I believe it is still available in print too though) and had a good introduction to the author and the work. Translations of her poetry are available online as well.

Aniara by Harry Martinson–so yeah, pretty sure this is the only epic poem about a doomed spaceflight written by a Nobel Prize winning author that exists out there. Hard to find an English copy, last I checked (saw some translations going for crazy amounts of money), but shouldn’t be a problem getting Swedish copies over in Sweden, as Martinson is quite central to the canon. There is also an opera version, but I can only find small clips on youtube. 😦  A pretty difficult read, if you are accustomed to more popular sci fi and less experienced with poetry, but I still recommend it.
While I don’t have specific titles in my memory at the moment, Swedish physicist Peter Nilsson is worth looking out for, though I’m not sure how much his titles are still in print (I believe he passed away quite some time ago), and I don’t believe there were ever any English translations made (but of course, if anyone wants to hire me for such a project, I have a free summer…). I have an omnibus of three of his books, and have read the first (a long time ago). For the most part it was like a Carl Sagan book, imaginative and poetic meditations on science, the vastness of the universe, etc (though keep in mind that the science involved is from the 80s, maybe 90s at latest), with a final chapter that turns to straight-up speculation of the hard sci-fi sort. I believe his other work is more of the usual sort of science fiction narrative art, but I will need to find out myself one of these days…
Urminnes Tecken by Kerstin Ekman–another major name in Sw literary history, though this book (I’ve read part but it got pushed out of the way by more urgent reading) is very different from the crime novels she got her start with–a very literary take on the idea of the “small folk”, fairies, underearthers, whatever you want to call them.
[not Swedish, but: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg is a crime novel that evolves into something with more of a science fictional premise. His novel The Quiet Man is a also interesting, more of a paranormal theme. Haven’t read anything else by him yet, alas.]
Books by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Sweden’s writer of “philosophical horror”. You’ve probably heard of Let the Right One In, either the book or the movie–I’ve only seen the movie (the book is pretty long I believe). I’ve taught his Handling the Undead, a sort of low-key zombie movie (this one probably edges more towards sci-fi, vs LTROI), and he’s got several other books out. I would think of him as a Steven King type, but that is not at all to suggest that he is derivative.
WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProThe Merman (Havsmannen) and The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot (Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia), by Carl-Johan Vallgren. I haven’t read anything else by him, and am on-pause with the latter book because the next plot point was apparently the rape of a young girl and I am not sure I have the nerve to read that atm (he seems to have pretty intense stuff in his books, so be warned), but as far as literary fiction with science fictional and horror elements, these two books seem to be the most obvious recommendations to me. I thought Havsmannen was really great, essentially sci-fi in that the Merman is the novum, but set in 80s small town Sweden–and involves enough trigger warnings that I’m hesitant to teach it…
And I’m currently reading Alkemistens Dotter (The Alchemist’s Daughter–not to be confused with an English-language novel of the same name) by one of the “Stockholm Surrealists” Carl-Michael Edenborg–really enjoying it. Nominated for the “August Prize” (named for famous Swedish author August Strindberg–and whoops, forgot to mention above that Vallgren won the Augustpriset in 2002 for Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia). Not sure to what degree it is period fiction, fantasy, sci-fi (or “steampunk” with the alchemy?), or horror, and given what else Edenborg has written it could turn into erotica. In any case, it seems very well done so far.
2) Children’s Literature
Astrid Lindgren is the obvious starting point here. Her Pippi books are great of course, but her The Brothers Lionheart, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, and Mio My Mio (and probably others) will fit well enough with the expectations of fantasy readers. The last I found hard to read because it was so clearly written for very young kids, but TBL is pretty intense, despite some similar “oh my darling brother” moments. TBL deals with topics like premature death, suicide, and war, so, you know, brace yourself…
IMG_2948Tove Jansson’s Moomin/Mumintroll books are great, in case those fit what you are looking for. I used them to help improve my Swedish and found them slightly more difficult than, say Pippi.
Back in the 90s Niklas Krog started writing historical fiction and fantasy for young adults–I think he was sort of a prelude to the stuff we will see in the next section. I’ve read half of his En Krigares Hjärta, generally enjoyed the premise, pretty standard worldbuilding, what I’ve seen of the YA romance part of it is not so much my thing, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I don’t read YA (well, that is changing…). Looks like he has been pretty prolific since I first came across his work–Niklas, if you need a translator, I’m happy to oblige! 🙂

3) The Fantasy/Sci-Fi ghetto–this maybe mostly covers fantasy, which seems more connected to the gamer culture that, from what I’ve seen, drove a lot of the publication of Swedish language speculative fiction in the 2000s–I didn’t start seeing these till mid 2000s, but I think they were building momentum throughout that decade.
http://www.neogames.se/ (NOT .com) is the company I saw behind most of these books–Andreas Roman is a name on a lot of the books I picked up from that time, but… I actually haven’t read them yet (hard to prioritize fantasy reading when it doesn’t have to do with your PhD or teaching…). 😦  I did find an audio short story of his somewhere once–maybe even on amazon. The one book I did read of these (Korset och Tronen) was a fine enough read for a franchise novel–and I think that’s what you have to expect quality-wise for most of these (though it does look like Roman has transcended that pigeonhole a bit). Here are their novels: http://www.neogames.se/se/shopwindow.php?id=45876&shopwindow=8093605   I read “Korset och Tronen” quite a few years ago–I believe the “Cross” bit had a weird backstory in order to be able to bring this Christian symbol into a world that had no Christianity–I think it represented a faction that filled the “Christian” role… So you can kinda see how the worldbuilding is fairly “gaming-centric”, building with categories that will feel familiar to a broad range of folks.
WP_20150909_10_58_10_ProMore recently I picked up a huge tome, first in a series, called Svavelvinter. Seems to be very Game of Thrones/Malazan Book of the Fallen style fantasy. From what I understand it is related to another gaming system (don’t have links at the moment, sorry), and I think the first book originally came out in 2004–anyway, I’ve gotten a good way in and as far as I can tell it’s on par with the usual epic multi-volume fantasies on the market here. Story set-up is taking a while, but I believe that is standard enough for multi-volume fantasy…
So I think the gaming angle is still going strong, but two years ago when I was there I saw that different groups have been putting out collections of short stories. The collection Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep is in English, but I’ve been slow to get into it–two or three of the first stories I tried just did not sit well with me quality-wise, but I don’t want to write the whole thing off.
The collection Maskinblod has some sequels, so it seems there is a market for short sci-fi in Sweden. I did feel like there were still some weak stories, and many I’m a bit undecided about quality-wise, but others feel like they would be at home in some of the usual journals I read. Several are prize-winners as well, so worth a look even if you don’t end up liking all the stories…
WP_20150909_10_57_15_ProSimilar mixed feelings for I Varje Ångetag, Swedish “Oscarian” (sim. to Victorian) Steampunk–this one really feels like a franchise publication again, quality wise, and I think it is supposed to feel that way. Not sure to what extent it is a shared world, but it looks as though there are efforts in that direction. It’s fun, but most of the stories feel like a quick dip into an interesting “gee whiz!” world without the stories feeling as developed in their own right as I would like. But I think I may appreciate the stories better now that I know what to expect.
I also picked up a collection by the author KG Johansson, “translator, rock music professor, and prize winning author”, called Fyra Kvinnor Fyra Flickor (I think referencing the main characters in the stories). Seems promising from the little bit I’ve read so far, and Johansson does have an impressive list of awards. Hoping to get through more of Johansson’s work soon.

Final notes–the “big names” in the first set are your best bet if you are primarily interested in literary quality or literary history (though most of these are peripheral to the canon). The children’s books are fun (esp. the Moomin ones)–I don’t know whether you speak Swedish, are a learner, or are a native speaker, but the Moomins are great for an intermediate learner. Krog’s books and the ones in the third section are what you want if you want pulpy, geek-culture fantasy in Swedish (this is not to say you can’t get “literary” quality from this set, but it may be more hit or miss) and are able to get the books from Sweden (both the “Science Fiction Bokhandeln” and “NeoGames” have an online store, but I don’t know whether it is possible to order from outside Sweden).

I am really looking forward to visiting the Science Fiction Bokhandeln in Gamla Stan again in a couple weeks–as usual I can’t just buy out the store (as much as I would like to), but I may try ordering by mail some time (not certain whether this would work–ordering books from Sweden is not always an available option).

Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalences in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy who had been licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

Whoops, I think I was supposed to post about this over a year ago. @_@ It was at that point that this book came out–too late for me to use in my teaching at Berkeley, but I have it in mind for next time I might get to teach Swedish. 🙂

WP_20170331_18_35_03_Pro (2)Swedish Tutor: Grammar and Vocabulary Workbook is by MY former Swedish teacher (twice! At Uppsala International Summer Session, which anyone who wants to study Swedish should go to!) Ylva Olausson. I’ve had many Swedish teachers over the years, and in the last decade have found many more as colleagues, and amazing as they all are, Ylva is among the best. In addition to teaching in Sweden, she has also taught in Spain, Korea, Finland, and Scotland, so she is quite familiar with the needs of international Swedish learners of all sorts.

My own read-through of this book has been a bit light and scattered so far, as I got it when I already had my texts set for my beginning Swedish course. This is the sort of book I would recommend after taking a full year of Swedish at an American school (first year covers levels A1-A2 at the institutions I’ve been at, though you might find it useful earlier than that as well), and while it might be nice to teach with as a supplementary text, it is designed with the independent student in mind, the person who has a working knowledge but wants to brush up, review, or fill in the gaps. While each chapter does take the time to introduce the grammatical concepts covered (all in English, note), this is still very much a workbook, rather than an introduction (like Rivstart) or a grammar (like Essentials of Swedish Grammar or Swedish: An Essential Grammar)–the descriptions and explanations here will be most useful as reminders, or as an alternate way of explaining things (I have always found it helpful to have grammatical concepts articulated in different ways at different points in my learning process–seems to provide the space needed for those “aha!” moments).

Note that this is the first edition, and there may be some typos, etc to be fixed in the next edition. I only have one in mind that I noticed in my most recent flip-through: the rubric at the top of page 72 says “Expressing put in Swedish,” but going by what the exercise actually does, I think it is supposed to say “Expressing position” (or location, or “place”–instead of “placement” as the title implies) with verbs. The verbs used in this exercise (är, ligger, sitter, står) are used to say where something is, as opposed to where it is placed (in which case we would use transitive verbs like lägger, sätter, ställer). My guess is that this section originally also covered these latter verbs and they ended up getting dropped without the rubric being corrected. That said, the exercises themselves are still fine here, and the little marginal notes very helpful in sorting out the proper usage of the verbs used (which can bit a bit tricky for English speakers).

In any case, a great book and I gladly recommend it for anyone who wants to brush up on their Swedish for fun or who is getting ready for/in the midst of second or early third year Swedish (though very advanced learners may find it less exciting). And of course, you are always welcome to use some of my illustrations from my time teaching Swedish if you want to give those place/placement verbs a workout. 😉

Kan du beskriva Strindbergs rum?

Recent Art Projects

 

Hey folks! Since most of my non-academic time lately has been taken up with making art, I thought I would share a few of my recent projects–and of course, I don’t update my art here very often, so keep an eye on my sketchblog, my deviantart, and my instagram. And if you would like to support me (PLEASE DO!) I have my print on demand store at redbubble as well as a wishlist on Amazon, primarily for art supplies that are a bit more difficult for me to afford. My traditional media paintings and prints will hopefully be available soon either on etsy or through a gallery, but in the meantime if you are thinking you might like to pick up any of these, just leave a message and we can get in touch!

 

First up are a couple cartoony viking pics that were commissioned for a grad student conference at UC Berkeley–I was giving a talk at another event on campus at the same time, but a former student of mine was helping organize things and requested some pics for the meal tickets. 🙂  The Valkyrie one is my favorite, but too detailed for the little tickets, alas. A print will hopefully be available soon. Thinking of adding color…

Hungry Viking by CallegoDrinking Buddies by CallegoAnd then there is my linocut printmaking–a few pics here of my carvings, test prints, and a sketch for a potential larger future print. I’m using oil-based black ink and then when dry adding in the sky with watercolor.

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Design will change a bit I expect… Gotta figure out something carvable.

And finally here process photos of three of my favorite paintings so far. Info on materials is posted for each on my deviantart, but paints for all of these are my Daniel Smith extra fine watercolors (I also got some Chinese watercolors for Xmas that I enjoy, which I used for my fanart for Sorcerer to the Crown).

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Not that we should confine our celebration of authors of the African diaspora to just one month (belated happy Black History Month!), but to close out February I thought I would highlight some African American authors I’ve either been reading recently or have loved for a long time (and maybe a few I’m still looking forward to reading). But to open–there’s a new Afrofuturist short fiction magazine out there called FIYAH, and it looks great! As has been pointed out lately, the world of speculative fiction is not immune to racism structural or otherwise, and black authors have suffered in the short fiction market as a result. The establishment of FIYAH does not let us off the hook, of course–the goal (or a goal) with this journal and its predecessor Fire!! of the Harlem Renaissance is for the larger discourse (or more concretely, you and I and all concrete individuals engaged in this as readers, writers, editors, etc) to see and repent its(/our) complicity in the marginalization of black voices.

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Delany has been one of my favorites for a while now. Note the cover for Babel-17, which does feature a female protagonist, but an Asian one. Ursula LeGuin had similar problems with her EarthSea characters being portrayed as white on the covers of her books.

The two authors always brought up in a discussion of black science fiction and fantasy are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and that will be the case here as well, though I do recognize that there were times when they were awkwardly bundled together solely for being the only black people in the room (which is not to say we can’t speak of them together as black authors–I’m doing that here, duh–but prioritizing that connection at random can certainly reinforce the marginalization we are trying to counter here). Delany, along with Ursula LeGuin, is one of the New Wave authors who became favorites of mine post-college (and to a degree post-Tolkien, or at least the point at which I embraced fantasy that was not just imitative of Professor Tollers). Delany’s science fiction writing is mostly confined to that period from the 60s to the 70s, followed by a foray into poststructuralist fantasy in the 80s, but to my tastes his early sci-fi remains fresh and original even next to the more avant-garde elements of today’s market. I especially love Nova, a novel which anticipates cyber-punk while remaining solidly in the genre of space opera, incorporates the Tarot in an interesting way (as does Calvino–lots of potential work meta-narrative moments there), and to my mind also has some nice echoes of Ahab and his white whale, though I wouldn’t push that too hard. Babel-17 is an interesting and trippy space opera with a linguistic novum at its heart, and to my mind a must-read for fans of the New Wave. Empire Star was apparently meant to be packaged with Babel-17, though this was only done more recently–equally trippy, and I hope to teach it one day. The meditations on cognition, intelligence, and the arts are all very worthwhile, and well-woven into the fabric of this weird but engaging story.

The late Octavia Butler I am less familiar with, I’m afraid, though I have been impressed with what I’ve read. I’d heard of her before, of course, but I was primarily turned on to her by Orson Scott Card’s in-depth analysis of her prose in his book on on writing science fiction and fantasy. What I’ve read of hers can be pretty uncomfortable–she had a knack for weaving the despicable and the morally ambiguous into disturbing but productive and interesting stories–but it is well worth it. I’ve been especially wanting to read her Lilith’s Brood novels for a long time, and will hopefully get to them soon!

There are two more recent authors I want to specifically mention here: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. I’d read Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few months ago and have been meaning to write a review, but I like to have an illustration ready before I write reviews, and never got around to making one. Maybe after I’ve read another book of hers… In any case, THTK was a solid, entertaining, and highly original bit of fantasy, and I strongly recommend it. An original cosmology, a realistic and rich diversity of cultures, courtly intrigue, and a well-developed apotheosis–this book has got it all! Again, maybe a more thorough review later. I’ve read at least one short story of hers as well, but simply with regard to her novel writing have to note that she has been quite prolific since her debut. If her other books are even half as good as THTK they are well worth reading. Do yourself a favor and check her out! You can find her website here.

wp_20170228_12_55_34_proI discovered Nnedi Okorafor through her collection of short stories, Kabu Kabu (I’ve read several so far and gladly recommend the collection on their basis). While I love Jemisin’s work as well, I feel more kinship to Okorafor’s narrative style. Her first fantasy novel for adults, Who Fears Death, is a skillful blend of both science fictional and fantasy tropes, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa but primarily focused on a realistically drawn and ethnically complex society featuring supernatural elements and magic practitioners drawn (to what degree I am not qualified to say) from African culture. I’m still working through this–the story is quite dark in a lot of ways (that tends to slow me down), and we are clued in early on to the fact that there will be some tragedy involved in the conclusion, but don’t let that scare you. This is a beautifully written coming of age story as well as a fantasy of the somewhat “messianic” sort (think Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, etc). The prequel to this book came out in 2015–I wish it were a sequel, because then I would be able to pretend the tragic foreshadowing in WFD are red-herrings, but alas…

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A quick sketch from when I reviewed the first book–not as cool as the covers for the actual book, alas.

Okorafor is (deservedly) getting the most attention at the moment for her novellas for Tor.com Publishing, centering around the young heroine Binti. I’ve read the first and am making my way through the second now. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, so check that out! In sum–space opera, with a lushly developed far-future that, alas, can only be hinted at in a shorter work like this, but also a story which acknowledges the continued existence of marginal communities and nicely works the tension between globalization (or here, galacticization?) and local identity into the main plot. It is also a story about a university, so of course I like it. 🙂  I’ve noted before that the Binti series feels a bit YA to me, though I don’t believe it is being marketed as such. I think this is a function of the age of the protagonist (though the same could be said of Who Fears Death, but that has some clearly adult themes going on), Okorafor’s experience as a YA writer (that is where she started), and the shorter form of the novella. In any case, it is delightfully good, and I heartily recommend it! You can find Okorafor’s website here.

A couple of authors on my radar but whom I have not gotten to yet: Nalo Hopkinson, who has been a significant figure in speculative fiction for a while but who does not get as much press as some others mentioned here, and Kai Ashante Wilson, who has had two novellas published with Tor.com as well.  From what I have been hearing he is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in fantasy, so check him out now!

WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProFinally getting around to reviewing one of the books I picked up in Sweden a couple summers ago–Havsmannen, or The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren. Already translated into English, alas–I would have liked to take it on myself.

“Havsmannen” means “the merman” in Swedish, hence the English title. Regular followers of this blog may remember that a couple years back I reviewed two fantasy short stories about sea-folk, Alyssa Wong’s intense but powerful “The Fisher Queen” and JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt”, itself actually more rooted in Scandinavian “merman” and “draug” traditions than Vallgren’s novel–Havsmannen only references the general Western tradition of mermaids (even if we have a man rather than a maid here), rather than specifically Scandinavian traditions of people living in the sea. Incidentally, both Alyssa and JY are rising forces in the world of speculative short fiction, and I heartily recommend following their work.

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Not a scene from the book–just one of my earlier mermaid pics. 🙂

Vallgren is no slouch either, of course. I first encountered him through his prize winning novel Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia (literally “The story of monstrous love”), in English as The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Both that novel and Havsmannen are great examples of a “literary” or “mainstream” author making use of the tropes of speculative fiction, something that seems to happen more often in Scandinavia (or perhaps these are just the stories I pay attention to), where the sci-fi and fantasy market is fairly anemic when it comes to native genre authors, but the related tropes find their way into “respectable” literature often enough (including, for example, Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s epic space poem Aniara). A Danish review of the book cited on the inside cover describes Vallgren as blending “hyperrealism” with the supernatural element of the merman–as is often the case with the trope of “realism”, we can take this as referring to the novel’s close, “unvarnished” view of the lives of some of the most vulnerable. I assume this is an element in much of Vallgren’s work–I still haven’t finished Barefoot because I couldn’t get myself to read further once the madame of the brothel the main character grows up in decides it is time to put his very underage playmate “on the market.” Havsmannen has some tough stuff to read as well, and it is very worth a trigger warning–if you have abuse in your past, or just know that you would not be able to read through accounts of severe abuse/bullying of children, then this book is not for you. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the comparisons to Stephen King (I don’t know whether I would call Havsmannen horror per-se, but there is a definite family resemblance). Speaking of horror, this novel also reminds me very much of Sweden’s biggest writer of philosophical horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead, and others. I don’t know to what extent the rest of Vallgren’s oeuvre lines up with these sensibilities, but in my mind I have them grouped together as a particular way in which the supernatural shows up in contemporary Swedish literature (for a slightly different [and Finnish] realistic take on that theme, see Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll).

So once more: Trigger Warning for graphic accounts of the abuse and bullying of children (and no, I don’t mean “he pushed me” type bullying), and Spoiler Alert for my final comments below.

The narrator of the story and the main protagonist is Nella, the protective older sister of Robert. Their parents are a mess (drunks, addicts, criminals, whom they can’t help but love at the same time their parents continually betray and abandon them), Robert has a learning disability, and throughout the story they are plagued by the increasingly serious persecution of Gerard, initially a school bully but much much more as we proceed through the book. The merman doesn’t come “on screen,” so to speak, until relatively late, though, knowing the title of the novel, we guess early on that he is the secret held in a boat shed by the mildly criminal brothers of Nella’s friend Tommy. To an extent the merman is incidental to the central action: Nella’s efforts to preserve her life and Robert’s, escape as much bullying as possible, and keep the two of them together. The desperation of their situation and Nella’s willingness to sacrifice herself and others for Robert is at the heart of everything that happens, though we do catch a nice blend of ecocritical and social themes, as the abuse and plotted exploitation of the merman (as well as the bloody business of the mink farm, where the merman is later kept) is at the hands of down-and-out working class men grasping at whatever they can to get by, or, preferably, to get-rich-quick–it saves us a bit from creating too easy an ecological villain, instead showing a messier reality “on the ground” as it were.

Perhaps as part of its “hyper-realism,” the story, or at least Nella’s narration, gestures towards a lack of narrative coherence in the “real-world.” The novel opens with Nella saying “There is no beginning and there is no ending. I know that now. For others perhaps there are stories that lead someplace, but not mine.” (my translation) Of course, the novel does actually have a narrative arc, and when we reach the end we know we have reached the end–but of course, we get to walk away. In the prologue that opens with the quoted lines, we discover that for Nella stories are what she uses to soothe Robert with the promise of a brighter future. We also know that she is aware that her “victory conditions” are likely impossible, in particular staying with Robert if they are taken away from/abandoned by their parents. This drives her distrust of adult authorities (who, to be honest, are often revealed to be incapable of resolving many of the at times quite horrific predicaments the children find themselves in), in turn prolonging the conflicts revolving around Gerard and the Merman. I find it a realistic portrayal of the reality for many children in this situation–surrounded by horrors and adults who are either untrustworthy or incompetent (or simply bound by the often problematic rules and aims of the adult world). Fulfilling the potential of speculative fiction as a genre or narrative practice, the irruption of the otherworldly merman into this perhaps too-familiar world serves to draw out these complications and make them visible in a new way. The epilogue shows the two children separated, though back in touch again–Nella’s key victory condition of staying with Robert (who is now safe, but not in the friendliest of foster care situations) has not been met, and so this story has not fulfilled the function she has for stories. No beginning and no ending, only the ongoing tension regarding Robert’s well-being. This is a story of trauma, and insofar as trauma entails a lifetime of working-through, we are certainly not meant to hold this gloomy perspective against Nella.

There are nevertheless spots of hope and positive momentum in the narrative–not the sort of nice-and-tidy happy endings of the stories Nella tells Robert (which, we must be honest, are the stories you need when you are in the position of our two protagonists–is there a sense in which their story cannot be a story “for” them? I suppose that is the case with any story about kids but written for adults…), but sacrificial love shines bright throughout, even if caught up in all the horror and impossible choices that confront our protagonists specifically as well as any neglected and vulnerable children. The merman, in addition to the thematic functions addressed above, also comes in to the semiotic system of Nella’s relationship with Robert and their parents, and his disruption of this system (or resolution of the underlying tension) is the arc and closure this story provides, even if, being a story of trauma, we must agree with Nella that in an important sense there is “no beginning and no ending.” Initially the merman is just another victim–not even one Nella is related to, and so a potentially dangerous distraction from her efforts to ensure her own and Robert’s survival. But Nella is compelled to help him, at increasingly great risk to herself. So initially the merman’s victim position reinforces Nella’s usual position of surrogate parent, stepping in where the actual adults have abused or neglected the victim. But from there the relationship is complicated, breaking up the fixed positions of Surrogate (Nella) Victim (Robert) and Adults (incompetents). The telepathic merman is physically adult (and dangerously so in spite of his weakened condition), but must be cared for. As the story progresses he uses his telepathic connection with Nella not only to request help, but to reassure and comfort–where Nella was the one to tell Robert comforting stories in which everything ends up all right, now it is Nella’s turn to be told all will be well. Can an adult promise that? No, and Nella will be more aware of that than most–but she has personally gone to great lengths to back up her reassurances, at significant cost to herself and others, and at the end, just as she is doing the same, she is finally displaced from her position as surrogate adult and gets to benefit along with her brother from the sacrificial action of the merman.

I will have to finish up here–forgive my lengthy notes at the end, this was my first opportunity to “think out loud” about the book. This novel would fit in perfectly with my “Nordic Otherworlds” course, and I was going to assign it (while I was still reading it myself) last time I taught Reading and Composition–but on realizing how graphic and intense some of the abuse was (no, it is not like that constantly–just some high points) I decided to put it off for the time being. I haven’t read the English translation, but I’m sure it is fine. I recommend it, with all the reservations I mentioned above. No shame in deciding it is too much for you.

Dayanna has been a dear friend since our time at Berkeley, over a decade ago now. I really appreciate her willingness to be vulnerable and share her experience as a way of fostering sympathy for those affected by the current administration’s actions.

Viking Specialist at Large

A free morning leaves me able to make the explanatory post for yesterday’s image. Long time followers of this blog have probably noticed I do not comment upon politics very often. There are a variety of reasons for this. Recent political machinations being made by those in control of the US Executive Branch of government mean that I’m breaking a very painful silence, one I do in the hopes that in some small way it will help prepare people. I’ll stress now that these views, like all statements on this blog, are ultimately my opinion, but one based in a very real series of experiences. First a bit of context for those who have only met me online.

I left UC Berkeley in 2004, after receiving my BA in Anthropology. I wanted to become a medieval archaeologist specializing in the Viking world. I had 2 years of translation experience with…

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My poor amateur watercolor skillz… A practice sketch, inspired by Leckie’s series, though done a while after reading, so I won’t claim it matches the universe of the books… Apologies for the bad scan, can’t seem to manage a good photograph or scan of my watercolors, and my photoediting options are rudimentary at the moment.

 

Since news of the first book came out, I’d been looking forward to reading Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. From the beautiful (if generically sci-fi rather than plot-specific) covers by John Harris to the buzz over the protagonist’s confusion over gender grammatical and otherwise (an anthropological touch that I found very well done), it seemed like just the sort of sci-fi I would like. Took me way too long to get to it though–I always have way too many books going at once (there are some many I started over a decade ago in the chaos of grad school that I haven’t been able to finish yet…), and between fun reading and work reading I just always have too much to cover–so Audible has been a Godsend lately, and I finally caught the series as an audio-book. I had a different narrator for the first book than for the other two–looks like you can get the same narrator for all three, so look into that if you go the audio route.

I am going to try to avoid a very in-depth review, since there are surely plenty of those already, and I don’t want to overdo the spoilers. I suppose my elevator-summary would be that this is a great far-future space opera, escapist fun at the same time that it brings intelligence and (let’s say) anthropological nuance to its world-building, plot, and character development. Some have pointed out a sort of kinship with Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though we should note that Leckie has stated that she had not read Banks until after her own work was well developed. The comparison occurred to myself as well, but it is a matter of family resemblance (late 20th/early 21st century New Space Opera), rather than clear and direct inspiration–far future cultures, prominent if not main characters who are the AIs for spaceships, politics dirty, idealistic, and otherwise at scales ranging from hyper-local to galactic, the complications inherent in dealing with alien species, etc. There are significant differences as well, in particular in the political settings for the stories. Banks’ Culture is a sort of Utopian projection of liberal ideals into a post-scarcity future and the problems the Culture encounters when interacting with those very different from it, whereas Leckie’s story is set in a militant, religious autocracy that dominates the human population of the galaxy, but has run up against some very strange aliens that far outstrip them in abilities. Leckie suggests reading the work of CJ Cherryh for a more accurate precedent, and regardless whether you find them similar or not I heartily second her recommendation.

The books follow Breq, the assumed name of the last remaining ancillary (human body integrated into the consciousness and control of the AI of a ship) of the troop carrier Justice of Toren (slight spoiler, but not much–this all becomes clear fairly early). The first book is woven of two threads, Breq’s present (and the contemporary storyline of the whole series) and past (the events that resulted in Breq being the last survivor), and I felt like this was very nicely done–I was a believer by the end of the book, at any rate. The two sequels are entirely rooted in the “present” and are a bit more connected as far as plot causality goes, so you could almost think of the trilogy as two books, the second one in two volumes (but don’t worry, the middle book has a complete plot arc).

Feminine pronouns are used throughout, regardless of gender, as the Radchaai (the culture Justice of Toren belongs to) do not distinguish between male and female either grammatically or socially. I felt this was believable and well-done, and a welcome bit of social speculation added to the far-future prognostication–and it proves an interesting bit of color for plot and character development when Breq is forced to deal with cultures that do distinguish (think of a “grammar-heavy” language like Icelandic, where the forms you use must change according to the gender of the person referred to). The gender-play of the book also ties in to the central plot points of Radchaai imperialism and the question of the personhood of AIs (check out this recent article at Strange Horizons for more on that as well on the ways the term “gender” is used with expanded range in contemporary discourse on the topic–though I suggest you wait till you’ve finished the trilogy). I can’t get into these threads too much without spoilers, but I will say that I liked how Breq’s development as/insistence on being a person and not a thing is done in a way that nicely emphasizes the intersubjectivity of personhood, with Breq’s own (somewhat deeply hidden and often grudging–Breq is BAMF AF) love and compassion infecting those around her (and incidentally, the ship AIs provide a nice opportunity to bring both BAMF and rather maternal characteristics together). The divided self, recognized as itself an inescapable part of subjectivity since at least Freud, if not the Apostle Paul, is also productively exploited, as the sheer complexity and extent of the transhuman intelligences in the story entails the possibility of more obviously divided selves–and this in turn provides opportunities to explore the ways in which the “self” is more an artifact of one’s place in a social network than it is some mystical singularity out of nowhere–and all this in ways that are essential to the plot and which make the whole thing more interesting.

It’s been a decade since I’ve read CS Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, but I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to gesture towards the interests of later Reception and Reader-Response theory. In particular he argues that there are two types of reading–reading that transforms us, and reading that is purely escapist and “fun.” Neither is necessarily morally superior to the other, and he suggests that this is more a factor of the way in which we come to a book, rather than something inherent to the book itself. But of course, the text is not absent–it is as much a part of the process as the reader (otherwise we are just projecting onto a blank screen), and a person will find some texts more challenging and difficult because they demand more of you (what texts work this way can vary depending on the person, of course), while others seem tailor-made for escapism (escapism not in-and-of itself a bad thing, in moderation–but I would suggest this is also where we tend to become more prone to masturbatory power-fantasies). Science fiction and fantasy at their best can sustain the tension between these two ways of reading quite well, and Leckie’s books, as well as many others I’ve reviewed here (Zen Cho, Lois McMaster Bujold, and short fiction from Rose Lemberg, Alyssa Wong, JY Yang, and others) do very well on this count. Highly recommended. 🙂