tiny apology

More posts are forthcoming, friends! I was super busy and then away on holiday for several days, and am just getting back into the daily grind while combating the sociopolitical nightmare that has been November 2014 for both US and UK folks.

Coming soon (as in, if I don’t post about it, harangue me):
- a Diamond Dust post on Ann Leckie’s Ancillary-verse story at Strange Horizons
- commentary on the new SF documentary season on BBC Two

Speaking of, off to go watch some of those docs now, provided iPlayer for XBox allows browsing the factual category, and provided I don’t fall asleep.

diamond dust: the twilight of other worlds

It was a pretty damn good week for releases of shortform spec fic. While these three stories aren’t all of the good stuff I’ve read, they’re ones where I had far more than 140 characters1 of comment. (More on what these reviews are/aren’t here.)

All of the stories deal in a way with alien worlds and alien cultures, and with the difficulty of comprehension due to that alien-ness. That conflict drives these stories, but to very different conclusions, all meaningful.

Ur, by Iona Sharma (Expanded Horizons)

Ur itself is an alien world, but not the homeworld of the people of Xi Lyr who live there. Instead, it’s a planet whose civilisation is long dead or departed; the people of Xi Lyr are colonising it and have offered to make the colony a shared venture with humanity. The humans who live on Ur are of mixed feelings about their trial stay there, but not nearly as much as those back on the slowly-dying Earth, who are more than a little sceptical of the other people’s reasoning and motives…and a vote of whether to continue the project or not is imminent.

The protagonist, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, is the wife of one of the human government ministers on Ur, and the larger plot is driven by her and her household’s transition in understanding what Ur is, what it could become, and what humanity’s place is in the universe. This is Sharma’s beautifully nuanced way of analysing the much larger sociopolitical issue at stake in the narrative.  Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, her household help and their friends/family, her alien neighbours, and her husband (in this sphere, outwith his professional capacity) are all working to navigate the intersection of two species, and all in different yet equally valid ways.

‘Ur’ is sketched out in neat spare descriptive lines, with skill and initial reserve that blooms into deep emotional resonance like the flowers of the madi’s garden. (I almost cried at the last few paragraphs, right there at my desk, which is pretty damn uncharacteristic of me.) While I did have a question or two unanswered, Sharma clearly understands the structure and impacts of politics, culture clash, language shifts, and social transition, but with a difference. She reveals the big picture subtly and with great skill, never forgetting the personal element to make her tale seem entirely, palpably, real.

Stalemate, by Rose Lemberg (Lackington’s)

Our protagonist has awoken with no memory, in an oceanic habitat on a world that’s effectively inhospitable to life. He knows how to work the computers, he has excellent engineering skills, and he knows something is very wrong with the highly regimented people with whom he’s ended up. What that is, or perhaps if something is wrong with him instead, will eventually come back to him, and the truth is far bigger and more complicated than it seems.

Lemberg proves to be a master of the slow build with this piece which inspired the ‘Institutions’ theme of this issue of Lackington’s.  Perhaps almost in an institution way itself, ‘Stalemate’ takes a relatively traditional present day vs. dream/flashback narrative sequence, but it’s a mystery and there’s enough tantalising detail revealed, bit by bit, in both threads of the story, to keep the reader engaged. While you can see where Lemberg is going before the climax, all of the pieces don’t come together until the very end, and it’s a harrowing irresistible journey through immersive writing until then.

And in that end, we find that this mystery, as all good mysteries, is devastating in more ways than one. The stakes here are extraordinarily high, and while ‘Stalemate’ does have a touch of the morality play style to it, it’s a morality play where there are no absolute correct answers. (Would that, perhaps, be the inverse of a morality play?)

On that, I highly recommend reading Lemberg’s story notes after reading the piece. I’m trying desperately not to lead to spoilers, but very generally speaking, they provide a take on the completed narrative that I didn’t initially see. In fact, I ended up kicking myself for not seeing it due to some ideological tunnel vision–and ‘Stalemate’ has given me even more to chew on now than it had prior to the insight.

A Moon for the Unborn, by Indrapramit Das (Strange Horizons)

Vir and his partner Teresa have returned to Earth after some time doing research on the extraplanetary body Akir’s World. They’re  still haunted by what happened to them there, how all of the babies conceived on Akir’s World were stillborn. And, worse yet, how phantom children then roamed the near-airless camp at night, seen with eye and camera but disappearing whenever one tried to encounter them in the flesh. Vir keeps dreaming of them, even home in Kolkata, and we find he’s unable to entirely put the past away.

I’ve read a bunch of ‘ghost stories’ lately, or rather, stories of the dead being made manifest–probably because it’s that time of year.  ‘A Moon for the Unborn’ has all the opening characteristics of a ghost story, with spooky dreams, eerie imagery, and relationship discord, but eventually reveals itself to be far more than that. We, and Vir, begin to understand this to be about belief, and faith, and one’s own personal mythos. In other words, ‘A Moon’ ends up being about how we make our own ghosts–ideas, dreams, stories–flesh, and what weight they should have in the real world.

From a writing perspective, I found Das to be particularly good at providing a sense of place; all of the locations in ‘A Moon’ are incredibly evocative and meaningful to the story. While I had a few quibbles on the interactions of Teresa and Vir (this could just be because I’m not terribly romantic, good job me), I found he portrayed Vir’s trans identity with dignity and respect. Not gonna lie, I get excited every time I see a character who is trans in SFF, whose narrative is shaped by their identity but not driven by it alone, who are more than a plot piece or tragedy. It’s a pleasure to experience characters such as Vir who aren’t tragic but whose identity is, as it is for all of us, part of their lives.

I’m hoping like hell to have remotely as good a selection in the next few weeks coming up. Stay tuned, and check out my Twitter feed for more short thoughts about shortform in the meantime. Among the wide-ranging variety of other stuff I talk (rant) about, that is.

By the way, you can buy from or donate to to all three of the venues I mentioned above. Please consider doing so if you’re able to, so that they can publish more diverse, thoughtful spec fic. I particularly want to flag up Strange Horizons’ 2014 fund drive, which is on for the next several days from the date of this posting; check it out.

  1. Less! When you count the hashtag and the link and the author’s at-username… 

diamond dust: an introduction to some short fiction reviews

What’s this all about? There was recently a lot of discussion in SFF fandom about how the world needs more shortform fiction reviews. I read a lot of short spec fic. This seemed to be a pretty obvious match; in fact, it’s one reason I relaunched this blog, and I must say I was heavily inspired by what Bogi Takács and Amal El-Mohtar have done with regards to reviews/recs.

For a bit of background, in the last few years, I’ve found reading longform fiction difficult,1 but shortform fiction is something I find much easier to handle and fits a little bit better into my lifestyle these days. Along with the easing up on the brainissues, I have lunch breaks that suit themselves really well to several thousand words of narrative, for a start. At the same time, online speculative fiction publishing has skyrocketed recently (this list by Jha is super-handy as a goodly chunk of the venues, and more are coming all.the.time.), and a lot of the work coming out of there is not only excellent but considerably more diverse and more interesting to me in topic and concept than most of the novels I can get my hands on at my library. I’ve been signalboosting my favourite stories over the last year or so on the #lunchread hashtag on Twitter, but really needed more space to talk about some of them.

Because of that, this will really be more of the recommendation type of review, mostly because of the nature of the medium: I stop reading stuff I don’t really like. If it’s bad, it’s gonna have to be really bad for me to bother blogging about it. I enjoy other people’s wtfery reviews (uh, a lot, actually…this is probably a bad thing) but don’t generally have the energy to do them myself unless I’m really fucking angry.

Also, to tweak a turn of phrase from Martha Jones: I read what I like.2 I don’t read as much fantasy as I ought, and I’m fond of what used to be called (with derision) ‘social SF’, particularly stories that deal with worldbuilding, culture, language, all forms of marginalisation.  Military and hard science SF aren’t super-interesting to me unless they deal with the human impacts of those things.

So yes, on with the reviews. I’ll make that a different post, I’ve gone on long enough here and these stories deserve their own space.

  1. I suspect this is anxiety related; I have a hard time watching fictional television as well–even stuff I know I like. 

  2. Why is there not a GIF of this bit from DW S3? Fandom, you have failed. 

our mythical reality, live at Tanagra

So I’ve been chewing over this article (Ian Bogost’s ‘Shaka, When the Walls Fell’, at The Atlantic) since it was linked really heavily in my Twitter feed back in June. Then, in October, CBS Action launched its service on UK Freeview, just in time to show S4/S5 in its primetime rotation of Star Trek: TNG1 And that was pretty much that. I had to talk about ‘Darmok’.

and Jalad, at Tanagra, yes, okay.

I’ve felt really compelled to talk quite a bit about Star Trek lately, though I am scared everyone will scream NERD and run away in horror. But I saw Trek on three different UK channels in October (yay!), and I am more than okay with that situation, and feel compelled to Say Things. ‘Darmok’ seems a good place to continue this (though I recently watched ‘Space Seed’ and have a LOT of thoughts on Marla McGivers and Khan).

I don’t really want to directly address Bogost’s take, because while I think he’s probably right in at least some ways (my understanding of psycholingustics is not nearly sophisticated enough to say for sure)2. I have a far different sort of take when it comes to this episode and the language of the Children of Tama.

To put it simply: LESS LOGIC MORE FEELS PLEASE. All the thinky about allegory and what allegory is, which I don’t entirely agree with, and all the stuff about how the language works, is interesting but seems to me to mask a big picture analysis. Darmok’s generally treated by a lot of fans as a really nifty thought experiment and/or touching story about communication. That’s fine, but I felt, somehow, that I needed to keep digging.

a picture of Jean-Luc Picard holding a guitar, with text that reads 'Darmok & Jalad at Tanagra September 1991', made to look like a concert promo. art by nerdvana clothing.
this is a t-shirt by nerdvana clothing…and I would not be sad if it were purchased for me, just sayin’.

Firstly though, a bit of complaint: The episode doesn’t entirely make sense, nor does it have a ton of internal continuity, but that’s symptomatic of Trek overall. I will say that in rewatching ‘Darmok’, I find it a little hard to understand how someone with Picard’s diplomatic skills and resources wouldn’t get what’s going on a little more quickly.  Also, Riker is a douche throughout; I accept he’s under stress, but he knows as much or more than Picard does about how the Children of Tama communicate, and he doesn’t handle his frustration worth a damn. Shoot at them, okay, that makes sense. golfclap.

In other words, why the hell didn’t the Enterprise crew scour the texts, which they apparently had, and try to determine some of the context? You know Darmok and Jalad are at Tanagra, which is an island–so how would you not look to see how they got there and how (if at all), they left? There’d be a lot of nuance missing, yes. But that could be worked out, as Picard works out with Dathon via their experiences. Dathon really is the cleverest of all of them, Picard included–he knows what it will take to get the message across, through the bloodymindedness of the Federation, even as dangerous a prospect that that is.

But…and here I set my frustrations with the structure of the episode aside and actually get to why I like ‘Darmok’…

Understanding is dangerous. Comprehension, even if incomplete, of other cultures and languages, even simply of other people’s points of view, is a painful process, but it’s an utterly necessary process. It’s critical to our survival as a species.

There are a lot of people–like Riker, like Dathon’s first officer–who are obstructive to that, whether out of willful ignorance or frustration or hidebound convention to their own ways, are unable to cope with this.  There are people who try to understand, and fail, like Troi, because the concepts are new and their existing methods of processing the world don’t work.

And even with people who try, they’re often wrapped up in their own sense of how the world works, and within the hegemony. It takes time and effort and will to get past that, but as it was for Picard, it’s the only way to actually survive.

This is not to say that people, particularly marginalised people, should hand-hold and spoonfeed to their own detriment. Certainly not to the point of being mauled to death by a phasing monster-beast.3 The burden needs to be on the privileged, and they need to make a fucking effort.

Incidentally: Bogost doesn’t really pick up on the issues of what having a mythopoetic allegory based system would do to that culture’s understanding of reality and how any marginalised folks would express themselves. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but as I understand it, a myth only tells one side of a story and often the meaning is either commonly ‘understood’ (read: set by the dominant culture) or open to such interpretation as to have varied meaning.  If one considers what myths would go into a language like English, there’s quite a bit missing due to the nature of the Western ‘canon’. There’s something to be said for being able to express an idea in words, and marginalised people are regularly criticised for not being able to express themselves in an ‘understandable’ or ‘acceptable’ way, because of tone or word choice or structure. Could an allegory-based language where a specific meaning is commonly held appreciate differences in thought beyond wiggle room? What if there were ideas that were not covered, could not be covered?

Probably something for an essay of its own.

To sum up, my feeling is that ‘Darmok’ is itself an allegory.4  It’s a rather beautiful, though somewhat imperfect, myth about human interaction and our failures and successes to comprehend each other. It’s about the limits of the theory of mind and how we need to push those to succeed.

That’s my takeaway from ‘Darmok’, and I kinda doubt that that’s entirely what the Menosky/LaZebnik writing team was entirely going for, as my view on the world is not theirs. But that’s cool. Unlike Borgost, I feel no need to despair, no need to refer to Shaka, when the walls fell. If anything, ‘Darmok’ gives me hope that there are always going to be people who want to try, and that trying is worth something; even when it hurts, even if there are losses necessary to arrive at something better.

The world (and galaxy) are far more worthwhile when we look at it critically, when we try to comprehend others: when our minds are as Temba, his arms outstretched.

  1. CBS Action television schedulers: if you’re reading this, show more Trek of all kinds and far less NCIS and Nash Bridges, please. 

  2. Hence my ‘sorta think probably some’ language. 

  3. They never do say what that being is except a means to an end, which I find frustrating. What if the phasebeast just wants to have a quiet day without two alien dudes using their own space trying to come to a philosophical understanding? 

  4. We need to go deeper. BRAAAAAAAAP. 

REVIEW: Welcome to Night Vale @ Oran Mor – 22/10/14

NB: This review will attempt to remain as spoiler-free as possible, though there may be a couple of snippets.

I came to Welcome to Night Vale a little over a year ago. This was late for someone who keeps an eye on fandom, mostly because I didn’t think it would be my kind of thing. I find I can’t listen to fiction podcasts, much as I try (a shame, as I really liked audiobooks as a kid), and I’ve also never really been much of one for Lovecraftian style horror, so I thought I’d give it a pass.

As it happened, around that time, I was hard up for podcasts to listen to in the gym. I’d given up on Radiolab, the last straw being their appalling treatment of the Hmong community1 (though I’d previously found their story on Henrietta Lacks to be cringeworthy, and that among other things). That had been my go-to for drowning out the terrible music or television options in the gym I go to, and nothing else was quite right. So I gave WTNV a try.

It takes some getting into–I would say one needs to give it five or six episodes at least, if not ten–and to be fair, I don’t think I could just sit and listen to it all, which has been the barrier for several people I know. But for me, WTNV is a perfect storm, engaged storytelling in a radio style format while being both funny and poignant, diverse in a lily-white genre, and relatively limited on fail–or at the very least, a general commitment to doing better than the usual crap one gets in spec fic media.

I’m hooked on this little town, Lake Wobegon meets Derry meets Gravity Falls. It fills the Prairie Home Companion niche for this generation, who watch the fall of world they cannot control, struggle not to fully succumb to corporate interests and marketing, keep tongue firmly in cheek while making dark in-jokes, and fail miserably when it comes to being entirely jaded about life.

I love that. I love Night Vale, I love hearing about everyone in it, not just Cecil and Carlos. I love that it’s touching and sweet in places, that there is always deeper meaning; that it’s our world, to borrow a turn of phrase, as seen through a glass (or perhaps an old oak doorframe), darkly.  And I love that it actually makes me laugh aloud in public places wearing headphones, causing other gym patrons to give me looks of concern.

So, long introduction over? It wasn’t really much of a choice when I found out the Night Vale crew were bringing their live show over, not only to Europe, but to Glasgow.2 The live shows had been doing ridiculously well in the US, and one never does know if this option will come up again. Therefore I plunked down my £18.50 moments after the sale opened, then promptly remembered/forgot/remembered again over the past couple of months that I was actually going, before having a moment of anxiety about going to a gig mid-week, and getting past that and dragging myself to the West End on a weeknight.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I was not in the slightest way disappointed.

Oran Mor is a deconsecrated church turned venue/restaurant/bar, and I knew it’d be atmospheric. I’d been past it plenty of times in my old days in Hillhead. But the interiors are something else, particularly in the Auditorium where the gig was held–the bare bones of a church, with walls and steeple covered in paintings and slogans and busts of thinkers, stylistic modernist outsider art with a spiritual twist meeting 60s-style countercultural murals. Musical guest Mary Epworth noted it was the ‘most Night Vale venue’ they’d performed in yet, and that really does sum it up. If you’re in Glasgow, it’s worth a nosy.

The crowd was receptive and 100% behind the performers, though not quite as rowdy as I’ve heard ones in the US have been, which suits me, particularly as I was on my own. Though I hadn’t been in queue since 4:30, I didn’t have any trouble getting a good seat due to being a single ticket. Huge relief that, as I get very frustrated in theatres and cinemas when I have a rubbish view.3

Mary Epworth was a delightful musical guest–though I wasn’t certain the audience was with her initially, people soon picked up and cheered her on. Epworth is a stylistic heir to the British electric folk and progressive folk genres, and I can appreciate that taking a song or two to get used to (one never knows what the weather will be in Night Vale). If I had to pick a word to describe her work, it’d be ‘liminal’, somewhere between the real world and the supernatural, at once both grounded and ethereal. This made her a perfect match for the show, in retrospect, and one of the unobtrusive ways that the  performance was tailored to fit local audiences.4

By now the WTNV crew have long since ironed out any growing pains in doing live shows, and while I admit to being a bit sceptical at hearing about the first ones, I shouldn’t have been (more on this in a bit), and I certainly enjoyed the hell out of this one. As when listening to the podcast, time flew by and the performance was laugh-out-loud funny as well as just insightful and poignant enough to get to the heart; but in this case, the visual dimension really did add to the narrative.

Nowhere else was this more obvious than that all of the performers walked the thin line between remaining perfectly in character and completely smashing the fourth wall, even when it came to audience participation elements. The narrative, in fact, demanded this same liminality5, and it was a good reminder of just how talented the cast and creators of WTNV are, particularly fandom’s beloved Cecil Baldwin. I’ll admit here that he really is a joy to watch, and if you have the opportunity to see him in anything, do so.

What’s also testament to the talent of Fink, Cranor, et al, isn’t just that they pulled together an engaging, cohesive story that fits into the current plotline of the podcast6 without being plot-critical. It’s that ‘The Librarian’ is so engaging and so cohesive while incorporating so many call-backs to beloved elements throughout the series.

After all, any live performance generates certain expectations in the fan who turns up; they need some surprises but aren’t going to be satisfied with everything being new, and you better play the goddamn greatest hits while you’re at it. Avoiding spoilers, this show hit every single necessary note, as well as an unexpected one or two (a return from waaaaay back in the day). But above all, it’s proof of the solid writing and the belief and charisma of the talent that this came off without being clunky and overly obvious. When you add in the fact that this is a skeleton cast and crew working frantically under the burdens of international performance (travel and visas and show after show after show), the level of artistry here was pretty much stunning.

If you’re a WTNV fan7 –regardless of whether or not you’re just a faithful listener, a massive shipper, or the biggest analytical fangeek on the Tumblr dash–and you have the resources and ability, get thee hence to a live show. It enhances the immersive part of the fannish experience rather than revealing any backstage secrets, but I, for one, am more than okay with that. Night Vale needs to retain its mythos to fully function; it remains, even in live performance, snippets from another world just around the corner which tells us so very much about our own.

For more info with less rambling introspection:
Welcome to Night Vale
Mary Epworth
Òran Mór

  1. What do I mean? Interviewee and translator Kao Kalia Yang tells her and her uncle’s story here

  2. One learns to do grabby hands with this kind of thing, both when living in a flyover city in the US and off the beaten track…uh, really anywhere outside London…in the UK. 

  3. When possible, I must sit in the near-exact centre of a movie theater. It’s A Thing. 

  4. MINOR SPOILER: Though to be honest, I see Tamika Flynn and her reader posse as being as keen on the poetry of Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead as they are on Carol Ann Duffy’s, my friends. 

  5. Yes, that word again, shut up, I like it. 

  6. That is, ‘bonus material’ of the sort we’re apparently due to get for the month of November, as they recover from non-stop trekking over most of Western and Central Europe over three weeks’ time. Can’t really blame ‘em. 

  7. If you’re not, consider becoming one.