Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.6: Liz Bourke

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017
by Liz Bourke

This will be a short list. It's been a long year, and this December is being a strange month. But L. Timmel Duchamp has graciously invited me to commend some items for your attention, and so I will:

 - J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fate

- Cynthia Ward, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess

- Ruthanna Emrys, Winter Tide

- Ann Leckie, Provenance

- Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home

- Erin Bow, The Scorpion Rules

- Helen S. Wright, A Matter of Oaths

- Elizabeth Bear, The Steles of the Sky

- K. Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger's Daughter

- Fonda Lee, Jade City

- Foz Meadows, A Tyranny of Queens

- Martha Wells, All Systems Red

- Fran Wilde, Horizon

- A. Merc Rustad, So You Want To Be A Robot

- Jared Shurin and Mahvesh Murad, editors, The Djinn Falls in Love

- Max Gladstone, Ruin of Angels

- Ursula Vernon, Clockwork Boys

- Star Trek: Discovery

- Wynona Earp season one

- Killjoys season one and season two

These are the fictions that gave me joy this year, that lifted me up and kept me going when I felt low. Some of them gave me hope. Some of them argued deeply for the power of kindness. Some of them showed people with the determination to keep caring, even as the world crumbles. All of them gave me something ineffably, indescribably powerful: the feeling that the world, or at least one's life, can be different -- can be better, at least incrementally -- if we don't give up.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who has opinions about science fiction and fantasy a lot. She holds a PhD in Classics from Trinity College Dublin, which means she also has a lot of opinions about history. Her reviews and nonfiction have appeared in Locus, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Vector, and online at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Ideomancer. Earlier this year, Aqueduct Press published her collection of reviews and essays, Sleeping with Monsters.

The Pleasures of Reading, Listening, and Viewing in 2017: pt. 5: Andrea Hairston

585.6 Million Miles
by Andrea Hairston

What a year, hurtling 585.6 million miles around the Sun! And the Sun was racing around too, with the whole solar system, billions of miles, and yet it is such a struggle to feel like we’re getting somewhere. Here in the US of A, still fighting the Civil War. Cannons smoking, bullets raining down, monuments falling—flesh and blood, brick and stone, crumbling. It’s hard to see or feel or reach each other. War mongers are thriving in the lethal divide. So I am reading thick books or sitting in a theatre waiting for the curtain to rise, or going to the movies—for my life, for our humanity.
In 1990 (billions of miles ago), Pearl Cleage writes in a self-published volume, Mad At Miles, A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth:
Can we make love to the rhythms of “a little early Miles” when he may have spent the morning of the day he recorded the music slapping one of our sisters in the mouth? Can we continue to celebrate the genius in the face of the monster?

After women at École Polytechnique in Canada were shot for being feminist (or wanting to be engineers or for just being women…), Pearl Cleage declares she is writing, writing, writing for her life. I had the good fortune to read Pearl’s essays again this year. Her words call me to clarity in this war on truth.
Returning from sabbatical to Smith College in September 2017, I am greeted with a crisis over words. An all-college gathering is convened once again to discuss the words we use/have used to crush spirits, erase history, and steal agency. And there I am again, sitting on a panel explaining the special power of the spoken word, of performance. I mean, if you stand up and say the words, you can get our skin to crawl or our spirits to soar or our hearts to ache or, well, you know what I’m talking about. I have been sitting on this same panel for almost forty years. Performers, writers, artists, teachers, politicians, anybody and everybody can tap the magical powers, the actual super powers of words and stories and art. Speak the spell and we transcend our skin and feel the world, the whole universe. This is a sacred power. Any person wielding that power ought to take the time to understand what they’re doing.
So for the 585.6 million miles of 2017, reading (and writing) has been a refuge, an inspiration, an act of defiance, an act of solidarity. Reading (and writing) has been certain joy. I taught a course this fall: Rehearsing the Impossible: Black Women Playwrights Interrupting the Master Narrative. I got to spend time with writers who’ve been holding on and turning back murderous lies, who’ve been celebrating joy and requiring truth—good medicine in these times. At the last class, students confessed that they don’t usually read everything on a syllabus, but they read these plays and even reread what at first seemed impossible to understand: Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy. This anti-realist one-act lets us experience the distorting mirrors of the American house of horrors. Students were haunted by Kennedy’s play, kept coming back to it, kept feeling Kennedy’s insights creeping up on them. Funnyhouse of a Negro changed us all.
The class went together to Lenelle Moise’s performance, “Black Feminist Queer Immigrant Love Poems” and got a taste of K-I-S-S-I-N-G, a play about the possibility of love and romance in the worst of times, when hate seems poised to obliterate possibility. (http://www.lenellemoise.com/KISSING.html). Lenelle also got the Haitian revolution in her poetry and surprised and delighted her audience with what they didn’t know but were longing to hear. Revelations in the theatre. Look for Haiti Glass, K-I-S-S-I-N-G or Lenelle’s solo performance coming to a theatre near you!
My students were also thrilled to read Flyin’ West by Pearl Cleage and discover the black pioneer women who got fed up with lynching and Jim Crow and, heeding Ida B. Wells’ call, headed West in the late 1890’s. Flyin’ West is an afro-futurist delight, a recovery of lost history and a speculation on what might have been as black women struggle to make a new world, as they work to create a utopia for themselves and their families. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/flyin-west-and-other-plays-pearl-cleage/1122982978?ean=9781559361682
I have had the pleasure of reading emerging writers at Clarion San Diego in the summer and this fall in creative writing classes at Smith. Students write about imaginary friends that won’t die; the violence that haunts women’s loves but doesn’t define who they are; and what men have been getting away with, but no more. Frustrated mothers wrestle with daughters over unrequited dreams, and being possessed by a demon leads to romance. They also write about coming of age and facing the dragon in the mirror; women zooming off to one of Jupiter’s moons to seek out new life; and the spirit quests of Jewish women mystics over a hundred years ago.
Hope for the future.
In On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century, Timothy Snyder offers us insight and action so that we can recognize tyranny and resist it, defeat it. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/on-tyranny-timothy-snyder/1125454355#/

Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman is good brain food.
Back in February, I was invited to Princeton to contemplate the possibility of life on Europa (or somewhere beyond Earth) with scientists, theologians, historians, and folks from NASA. For this gathering, I reread The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/159094/the-sparrow-by-mary-doria-russell/9780449912553/  She takes us on a wild ride. Jesuits fly off to a new world near Alpha Centauri and make first contact with sentient extraterrestrial life. Of course, to discover an “alien” new world/society, we must transform our minds so as not to experience the new world as simply an extension of the world we come from.  The real journey of the book is to a new mind. That’s what I’m working on.

Andrea Hairston is author of Will Do Magic For Small Change, finalist for the Mythopoeic Award, Lambda Award, Tiptree Award, and a New York Times Editor’s pick. Other novels include: Redwood and Wildfire, a Tiptree and Carl Brandon Award winner, and Mindscape, winner of Carl Brandon Award. All her novels were published by Aqueduct Press. She has also published essays, plays, and short fiction and received grants from the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, and Ford Foundation. Andrea is a Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.4: Sofia Samatar

The Pleasures of 2017
by Sofia Samatar

I devoured This Young Monster by Charlie Fox—a dazzling collection of personal essays on monsters, the monstrous, art, and culture. It’s the perfect companion to the horror show of today’s America, and also to Stranger Things, which I watched with the avid passion of a teenage Winona Ryder fan, since that’s what I actually am. 

In poetry, I loved the questing spirit of Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, the way black-body radiation meets the radiant black body in Samiya Bashir’s Field Theories, and Bhanu Kapil’s urgent, delirious, vagabond writing in Ban en Banlieue and its companion chapbook, entre-Ban.

Further pleasures: 

Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, a philosophical investigation of grief, time, and the practice of art. 

Danielle Dutton’s magical biography, Margaret the First

Lynne Tillman’s mischievous, erudite, and delightfully weird The Complete Madame Realism

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, which I’d never read before—a hallucinatory series, like King Arthur but with space travel and spleen. 

Kathryn Davis’s Labrador, which I’ve probably read 15 times—it’s still one of the best fantasies ever written.  

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien (he was a really good translator!). 

And finally, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, an absolute treasure. I love it when the hyena tears her face off. 


Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the William L. Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She is also a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist and the recipient of the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her latest novel, The Winged Histories, was published by Small Beer Press in 2016.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: part 3: Nancy Jane Moore

Pleasures for 2017
by Nancy Jane Moore

I just read – on the same afternoon I bought it – Mary Beard’s Women and Power: a Manifesto, two essays on women’s public voice and power. This short but powerful book demonstrates how classical ideas underlie our current cultural ideas about the place of women. Beard begins with the scene in the Odyssey where Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to shut up because women don’t speak in public. She goes on to bring other classical icons – Medusa, Athena – into a discussion of women and power and how such things are perceived.

Right after I read it, I found Julie Phillips’s delightful take on the book in Four Columns. Her review adds depth to the experience, so I recommend reading it together with the book. Here’s a teaser: “The willingness to expose that clumsy, artificial join—to be a public intellectual without glossing over the awkwardness of being female—is what distinguishes the outspoken British academic Mary Beard.”

Given that I am working on both fiction and nonfiction that deal with women and power, these thoughts are of vital importance to me right now. Given that women speaking out about abusive men is the hot topic in the U.S. right now, the subject of how women speak and how they take power are crucial to our society as well. This book provides important insights that will expand the discussion in fruitful ways.

Hidden Figures was a major highlight for me this year. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and the book is a stunning tour de force. Yes, of course it was a Hollywood feel-good movie, but in the first place, it made me feel really good. And in the second place, how many Hollywood feel-good movies have you ever seen about mathematicians, much less women mathematicians, much less African American women mathematicians? It was fun to cheer.

Margot Lee Shetterly’s book on the subject is much better than the movie (which, of course, altered the facts to fit into Hollywood ideas of storytelling). It was researched in detail – she was able to interview some of the women who worked in the space program – and beautifully written. This was history I didn’t know, even though I grew up with the space program (literally – the Johnson Space Center is about five miles from my childhood home). I’m sorry I didn’t know it as a kid, but I’m thrilled to know it now.

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a more sobering look at the racist history of the United States. This detailed book explains the laws – not just the practices – that segregated our cities after the Civil War. Federal law and policy required separate public housing and prohibited use of federally insured home loans in segregated neighborhoods. I knew a lot about housing policy and discrimination, but this book uncovered stuff even I was not aware of. Everyone needs to read this book and understand just how racist – legally racist – our history has been. Until we make this right, we will not solve this country’s racial divide.

One of my responses to the electoral debacle in the U.S. was to read some work on political activism. I highly recommend This Is An Uprising, by Paul and Mark Engler. This history of successful resistance actions worldwide – all of them non-violent – provides us with an understanding of what will be effective.

Among other sources, the Englers’ book draws on the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, whose heavily researched Why Civil Resistance Works provides the data to back up the value of nonviolent civil resistance. Nonviolent activism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been significantly more successful than violent action and, in general, has had very positive outcomes when at least five percent of the population gets involved in some way. Understanding the value of this has given me something to fall back on when I look at the daily disasters out of Washington, D.C.

Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, is a very valuable book on how to deal with climate change. This book lists one hundred things, in order of effectiveness, we can do right now to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere. One of my favorite parts of the book is that the number six and seven items taken together would be number one. Those two items are educate girls and provide family planning to women.

Much of the fiction that has most moved me this year came in the form of novellas. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, as the first two books – Binti and Binti: Home – were imaginative science fiction building on cultural histories new to me. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange was also delightful, a creative fantasy built on some real San Francisco history.

Among the novels I read, Jessica Reisman’s Substrate Phantoms was particularly satisfying because of its imaginative aspects. I love science fiction that incorporates highly creative speculation into the mix.

But the universe, or rather the Solar System’s little corner of it, provided my best experience of the year: The Eclipse of the Sun. We took back roads to eastern Oregon so we could see the full eclipse, and it was worth the effort. Even when you know that the sun will be right back, there is something wonderfully disconcerting about seeing it disappear.

We watched it on a hillside in Brogan, Oregon, where the local community organization had set things up at the volunteer fire department. There were maybe fifty people there, including several with telescopes. Just about the right size for us.

I recommend getting out in nature when you can in these troubled times. We also went to Pinnacles National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore this year. Cell service is nonexistent at Pinnacles and scant at Point Reyes, so we came back from both trips to the shock of how many horrible things can happen in a few days, but for those days we were blissfully out of touch.

Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out from Aqueduct in 2015. Her most recent story is “Chatauqua” in the Book View Café anthology, Nevertheless, She Persisted. At present she is working on a book on self defense from a feminist perspective and a novel inspired by her desire to have the adventures when reading The Three Musketeers

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.2: Tansy Rayner Roberts

Awesome Books of Joy & Love
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

I’m not going to even pretend to be unbiased here. I am glad these books exist, and you should be too. It’s been a trashfire of a year and some books make the world better. These are some of them.

Luminescent Threads, edited by Alex Pierce & Mimi Mondal, is a joyous tribute to Octavia E. Butler featuring letters and essays about race and identity, by some of today’s most exciting writers including K. Tempest Bradford, Joyce Chng & Steven Barnes.


The wonderful, smart, and cynical Liz Bourke has a book out! Sleeping with Monsters is a collection of Liz’s critical work on SF books and culture from her fantastic Tor.com regular column.


If romance is your escapism drug of choice, but even enjoying something fluffy and fun in the current political climate feels a bit wrong, check out Rogue Desire and Rogue Affair. These romance anthologies are a direct response to 2017 and the Trump administration by presenting a variety of love stories in a time of protest and Presidential anxiety. Read about grass roots politics, hackers, whistleblowers, policy wonks and whether or not it’s possible to flirt while debating if punching Nazis is OK.

I backed Some Girls by Nelly Thomas and Sarah Dunk on Facebook. This brilliant picture book features vivid art and the important message that girls don’t have to buy into other people’s expectations of their gender.


Tansy Rayner Roberts is a SFF author and the co-host of popular feminist podcasts Galactic Suburbia and Verity! Check out her recently-published short story “How To Survive an Epic Journey” at Uncanny Magazine, and her superhero novella Girl Reporter, which will be released on 19 December.


Friday, December 8, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.1: Sarah Tolmie

Pleasures 2017
by Sarah Tolmie

2017 was, for me, The Year of Harry Potter. Not so much because of the 20th anniversary hoopla but rather because I taught the series for the first time. Like every English department in the world, seemingly, battling declining enrollments, my institution just rolled out a first-year Harry Potter course. I taught it this fall. It was the only course I have ever taught in which all the students had actually read all the books before term even began, and which stayed at capacity, with all the students sticking it out to the bitter end. I assure you that this does not happen in my Middle English classes. Anyway, Harry Potter made for a great class: discussions were lively, and I taught a surprising amount of theology and some Latin and semiotics. It was cool. So thank you J.K Rowling, and I will even forgive you for The Cursed Child.

On a related-but-diametrically-opposed note, I read Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, volume 1. It was characteristically atmospheric and pacey, though it felt thin to me: I think the whole three-volume idea is a cop out. If we must have a prequel, can’t it just be one big fat book? The one element that felt a bit forced to me was the monstrous League of St Alexander, in which his British libertarian flag was flying a bit high. Child informers! Political correctness in schools! I appreciate that Authority takes many forms, but it came off as waspish and inauthentic. This is a shame, as I admire his whole project and it remains a pleasure to read this kind of imaginative fiction written by an atheist.

I read a great book of poems by Pam Mordecai called Subversive Sonnets. Absolutely fabulous and a great bang for your buck, as each numbered sonnet is actually a suite of a couple of them, so you get tons of them and some great storytelling. Living proof that the form is as gripping as ever; what she does with them is as powerful as Seamus Heaney. A super book. Read it if you read poetry.

I have to do a plug for Year’s Best Weird Fiction vol 4, edited by Helen Marshall and published by Undertow. I have a story in it, so I got a free copy, and read everything in it. Very, very interesting. And all exquisitely written. As a poet, I really appreciate this. Lyrical writing seems to be a thread connecting weird writers. I still don’t feel like I have a complete grip on the weird genre, but this collection is that strange thing: diverse and consistent. I recommend all of them, but perhaps Katie Knoll’s “Red” especially.

In between bouts of editing, as usual, I watched a lot of trash on Netflix. Little stood out except Marvel’s The Punisher, which I thought was by far the strongest of their recent outings. A slightly different set of clichés than usual (for me, anyway, as I don't watch much military stuff) and the lead guy is reassuringly ugly. The Dutch movie Admiraal was great historical fiction about a really important man (De Ruyter) and a critical period in Europe (the Anglo-Dutch wars). Best naval sequences ever. I watched Besson’s Valerian movie and thought it was ghastly, but it was nonetheless amusing that he had the whole cast of Avatar tucked in a box at the centre of his film, which was a very French thing to do. Gotham continues to look excellent and broody and be utterly silly. I continue to admire Robin Taylor as Penguin; he’s doing a great job in a very traditional sissy role.

That’s it from me for this year. Keep reading and writing, Aqueductians! Best wishes for 2018!

Aqueduct Press has published three of Sarah Tolmie's marvelous books: The Stone Boatmen in 2014, NoFood in 2014, and most recently Two Travelers in 2016. One story from it, “The Dancer On The Stairs,” appears in Year’s Best Weird Fiction 2016. Sarah is also a poet; McGill-Queen’s UP published her sonnet collection Trio in 2015, and a new volume called The Art of Dying will be out in spring 2018. Her agent is Martha Millard of Sterling Lord Literistic, and her author site is sarahtolmie.ca.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017

Our annual series of posts on reading, viewing, and listening is about to begin. Once again I've solicited pieces from a bevy of writers and critics to tell us what they particularly enjoyed reading, viewing, and listening to in the last year. This year's edition will include posts by Andrea Hairston, Eleanor Arnason, Sofia Samatar, Cheryl Morgan, Nisi Shawl, Sarah Tolmie, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and others. I'll be adding links below as I upload each new contribution, to provide a list for convenient reference. I hope you'll enjoy reading these as much as I do, and perhaps even find them helpful for slow-thinking our way through these difficult, painful times.

Part 1: Sarah Tolmie
Part 2: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Part 3: Nancy Jane Moore
Part 4: Sofia Samatar
Part 5: Andrea Hairston
Part 6: Liz Bourke