“I am not a beautiful Asian”

I am not a beautiful Asian. I am not beautiful. There is a difference between petite and short; one is more attractive than the other. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter about my lack of physical beauty. My beauty lies beneath a tough surface, like a pomegranate, my Okasan is fond of telling me. Slither thinks all I need is a good orthodontist, a professional makeover, and a haircut done without a pair of toenail scissors. Maybe she’s right, but I refuse to succumb.

I am not beautiful, but I am a collector of abandoned shopping arts who has the most expansive collection of pajamas in the western hemisphere.

Clothing does not fit me. My big-boned arms, my daikon legs, my beta-beta feet, and splaying toes. My bratwurst fingers and nonexistent neck. And my head. My poor colossal head, too huge even to dream of a ten-gallon hat. It was excruciating torture when what clothes I’d finally found started threading into tatters. I held out as long as I could until the state of my unraveling would lead to public nudity. Then, I’d sigh, turn my money socks inside out and pick out linted coins to roll into dollar bills.

I spent years cursing the racks in the malls of despair. Jeans designed for long-legged hips. Slacks with no slack. […] Clothing either squeezed material across my square body, exposed my neck-gaping lack of chest, or confounded me with pant hems traling like a bridal train. I buttoned, squeezed, choked, sweated years snarling at lovely salesclerks, crying in the changing rooms. Until I stumbled across a pajama store closing down on its opening day, because no one was interested…

—Hiromi Goto, The Kappa Child (p. 51)

Sci-fi for wonks

As any readers (do I have those?) may have guessed, I’ve become a bit of a political junkie. Cast your eye through the audience of concerned citizens at a City Council meeting and you can easily pick them out: scribbling notes for a possible post to pitch to one of the big Toronto blogs; tapping out tweets on their iPhone or scrolling through the #TOpoli hashtag; typing away on a netbook. It’s totally new to me—until three months ago, I’d never even set foot in City Hall, and when it comes to urban affairs I am not very well-read. Well, unless you count science fiction. There’s a lot of political sf—and some of that you could even call policy wonk sf. Here’s what I would put on a wonks’ reading list:

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Mathematician Hari Seldon pioneers the science of “psychohistory”, which can predict the long-term future of societies, but is suppressed by the Powers That Be. The Foundation he creates grows immensely in power as it uses technology to shape the course of history. The Foundation series is a classic example of science fiction that’s conceptually brilliant but stylistically plodding, so not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the many people it influenced is wonk extraordinaire Paul Krugman, who cites it as the reason he went into economics.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga (1986-present)

This long-running series, which combines military sf, political intrigue, and space opera, centres on Miles Vorkosigan — a diminutive, hyperactive, physically disabled nobleman-turned-mercenary-turned-diplomat. Born into the militaristic, feudal culture of the planet Barrayar (to a mother from freewheeling Beta Colony), Miles compensates for his lack of physical prowess with his ability to talk himself into (and out of) anything. And thanks to his aristocratic connections to Barrayar’s Imperial family, he often finds himself in the middle of high-stakes political plots. Bujold is a smart, witty writer who handles humour and deep psychological themes equally well. I’m reading my way through the series now and enjoying it very much.

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996)

Wolfe is one of the most gifted writers in the genre, and his take on the classic generation starship story (where after many years the passengers forget the outside world and end up worshipping the ship’s computer or whatever) is profound and unique. In the city of Viron in the vast “starcrosser” Whorl, a priest from an impoverished neighbourhood finds out that his manteion (church) has been sold off to a wealthy gangster (who, no doubt, is going to build upscale condos). A divine epiphany commanding him to save his manteion causes him to take drastic measures. He ends up leading a popular uprising against the Ayuntamiento, the deeply corrupt city council, and (eventually) delivering the citizens of Viron to their new planet. There’s also robots, blasters, prostitutes, animal sacrifice, lesbian legionaries, exorcisms, airships, gods, and the nastiest city councillors this side of Mammoliti, but it would all take too long to explain. It’s also deeply and unashamedly Christian, but more like Lord of the Rings than Narnia. Just read it.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998)

In a Toronto devastated by economic collapse, the government and everyone else with the means have moved to the suburbs, leaving the downtown core a postapocalpytic urban wilderness. While enterprising denizens farm in Allan Gardens, eat squirrel meat, and take over running the libraries, hired thugs lurk in the shadows seeking to kidnap people for their organs…and even more sinister rituals take place at the top of the CN Tower. Young mother Ti-Jeanne, who leaves her no-good boyfriend to live with her grandmother at Riverdale Farm (RIVERDALE FARM!), must master spiritual warfare to save her family from zombies. And stuff.

This was Hopkinson’s first novel and it’s flawed as first novels tend to be, but no Torontonian—especially on the East Side—should pass this up. Even if it hits a little close to home lately.

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Evil killer robots from outer space, who rebelled against their human creators long ago, come back and bomb the shit out of the planets called the Twelve Colonies. Only some 50,000 humans survive due to being in space at the time, including aboard the titular battleship. The first season in particular deals with the political fallout: the highest-ranking member of the government left is Laura Roslin, the Secretary of Education who is now automatically the President and must go from resolving teachers’ strikes to, you know, defending humanity against evil killer robots and finding a new place to live.

In subsequent episodes BSG explores resource shortages, labour strikes, the uneasy balance of power between Roslin’s administration and the military, ethically sketchy interrogations, a terrorist getting elected to public office, martial law, black market economy, abortion law, and presidential elections. Among other things. Political junkies will have a ball. Personally I think the series goes downhill after the end of Season 2 and didn’t even bother watching season 4, but your mileage may vary.

Stuff I just thought of but am too lazy to recap because I’m going to an election party soon:

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (2006). Cozy English murder mystery in a world where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany. First book in the “Small Change” series.
  • Star Trek: DS9 (1993-1999). Do I even have to mention this?
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (1998). Parable of the Sower‘s brutally depressing sequel. A new religious movement struggles to survive in a dystopian America where the Tea Party won.

“He really thought those old buildings were priceless”

“…Then Silk came out here. The great Caldé Silk himself! Nobody would believe that now, but he did. He solved my house like a thief. By Phaea, he was a thief.”

Maytera Marble sniffed. It was at once a devastating and confounding sniff, the sniff of a destroyer of cities and a confronter of governments; Blood winced, and she enjoyed it so much that she sniffed again. “So are you, Bloody.”

“Lily.” Blood swallowed. “Only your Silk’s no better, is he? Not a dog’s right better. So I saw a chance to turn a few cards and have a little fun by making the whole wormy knot of you squirm. I’d got your manteion for twelve hundred like I told you, just a little thank-you from Councillor Loris, and I was going to tell Silk thirteen hundred, then double that.” Blood crossed the room to an inlaid cabinet, opened it, and poured gin and water into a squat glass.

“Only when I’d talked to him a little, I made it thirteen thousand, because he really thought those old buildings in the middle of that slum were priceless. And I said I’d sell them back to him for twenty-six thousand.”

—Gene Wolfe, Caldé of the Long Sun (chapter 10)

What I’m Reading, #32: Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977)

“You are living with it, Bob.”

“Do you call this living?” I sneer, sitting up and wiping my nose with another of his million tissues.

“[…] Let me strike home for once, Bob. Let this sink in: you are living.”

“…Well, I suppose I am.” It is true enough: it is just not very rewarding.

Yesterday [July 13] was a rough day, but at least it was productive and I can rest for a bit instead of excoriating myself for being lazy. I have always had a very hard time getting myself to make phone calls. It’s even worse now because, living in a basement apartment, I get poor reception and often have to go outside to ensure the person on the other end of the line can hear me and I don’t get cut off. And sometimes I have trouble getting to the point where I can leave the house, which is probably hard to understand for anyone who has no experience with clinical depression. It takes a long time to wake up and get dressed and feed myself, and sometimes the mere thought of being around other people—even just fellow tenants or passersby on the street—is just too intimidating.

Hence it had been weeks and I still hadn’t called to schedule a doctor’s appointment or get in touch with my social worker. I finally decided that it was easier to go to the hospital (where my family doctor is) and make an appointment in person than to phone (and it was, despite being about a gazillion degrees out), and on the way back I stopped in the park to read Gateway and work up my nerve to call the social worker.

Gateway is a Big Dumb Object novel, set in a future where Earth and the colonies on Mars and Venus have become desperately overcrowded and resource-poor. Gateway is an asteroid-turned-spaceport long since abandoned by the (apparently) vanished alien race known as the Heechee. It’s filled with small ships programmed to go on round-trips to specific destinations. The problem is, there’s no way to figure out where they’re going to go and what’s at the other end. Enterprising prospectors might bring back priceless Heechee technology—or end up burned to a crisp or dead of radiation sickness or simply travelling so long they run out of rations and starve.

Our hero, Robinette Broadhead (“in spite of which I am male”), heads to Gateway hoping to strike it rich and escape the mines of Wyoming forever. The story switches between his time in Gateway and when he has returned to Earth, fabulously wealthy but spending a lot of time with his robot psychotherapist, alternately denying he has a problem and shying away from a place of acute emotional pain. Something awful happened during his trips out, and nearly all the book is spent hinting at and building up to that revelation.

I was expecting sensawunda along the lines of Chiang or Watts, but Gateway is primarily an exploration of the human mind. Well, one very fucked-up human mind, at least. When Broadhead gets to Gateway he loses his nerve and spends most of his time in a state of boredom and terror, distracting himself with other prospectors’ going-away or coming-home parties, or sex—with a woman who, despite her previous experience, has also become too scared to ship out. Of course, eventually he does go—and most of the trip is also stultifyingly boring, spent crammed in a can uncomfortably close to his fellow explorers.

(Some novels are said to have a good “sense of place”; Gateway has sense of time. The way anxiety drags out time, or compresses it.)

The therapy scenes (lying in the grass, sweating through my shirt even in the shade of a tree) really got to me, a lot more than I thought they would. I hate talking to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers and such, I generally don’t like telling them about that kind of thing, and I’ve had to do it for years. So even the scenes in Gateway, with Broadhead snarkily parroting Freudian jargon to Sigfrid, rattled me.

I think what I hate is the feeling of exposure. Self-loathing, maybe; I feel like I’m an ugly, mediocre mess beneath a fragile veneer of normalcy. So having to open myself up to examination, whether it’s a psychiatrist asking about my depression or a social worker inspecting my bank statements, is just the most terrifying thing. Perhaps because of so much therapy in my childhood, or not getting a lot of privacy growing up in general, I have an urgent need for privacy now.

(I couldn’t explain any of this to my social worker, though. I could only say, yes, I know I should have phoned you weeks ago. No, I can’t explain why I didn’t. No explanation is coming. I just want to be let alone.)

You just sort of have to keep going, and let yourself feel things as they happen. Looking back on things, I think I prefer the fear and anxiety and self-recrimination and all that. It’s better than numbness, because it feels like you’re actually losing time—like time is going by and you haven’t spent it doing anything. I hate drifting. It’s just hard to pull yourself out some of the time.

“It is exactly what I call living. And, in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.”

What I’m Reading, #27-31

27. Mary Gentle, Golden Witchbreed (1983)

An envoy to the planet Orthe, dominated by a low-tech, communal, quasi-medieval culture, learns it’s not so “primitive” after all. The hard way. If you don’t look too hard at the science and focus on the political intrigue and culture-building*, it’s great. I don’t want to say more, lest I spoil it. I think I only counted three uses of “sardonic”.

  • Orthe’s. The Earth that Lynne Christie comes from seems positively old-fashioned, especially with regard to gender, or maybe I just live in the future.

28. Joan Vinge, The Snow Queen (1980)

Picked this up because of Revisiting the Hugos. It’s sci-fi heavily steeped in fairytales and mythology. An oceanic planet named Tiamat cycles between long periods of Winter and Summer, each ruled by its own Queen. During Winter, interstellar trade and travel are possible; come Summer, which is dominated by traditional clans, offworlders leave Tiamat, taking new technologies with them. The current Snow Queen, seeking to maintain her power after the Change, secretly implanted several Summer women with clone embryos. The lone surviving clone, Moon, becomes a sibyl—a sort of oracle-mystic forbidden from the Winter city of Carbuncle. Nevertheless, she goes in search of her cousin Sparks, who has become the Snow Queen’s lover, and eventually to meet her own destiny. (Wow…I feel like I’m writing back-cover copy. Sorry.)

The part I enjoyed most, however, was the subplot about Jerusha PalaThion, a world-weary Carbuncle policewoman who gets drawn into the Snow Queen’s far-ranging schemes. It’s the little details that bring The Snow Queen from the mythic down to earth.

29. Octavia Butler, Dawn (1987)

The first Xenogenesis book. After an apocalypse, a woman named Lilith finds herself in the hands—well, tentacles—of aliens aspiring to redeem the human race, one hybrid baby at a time. There’s weird yet pleasant alien sex—does anyone write weird alien sex better than Octavia Butler? I’d like to read the rest of the series before making any grand pronouncements.

30. Geoff Ryman, Air (2004)

Trippy and awesome blend of magic realism and near-future sf. I loved Mae, the main character; she’s stubborn, petty, cunning, and dauntlessly entrepreneurial. Desperate to stave off poverty, she takes advantage of her access to the soon-to-be omnipresent technology called “Air” (the Internet in your head, basically) and attempts to educate—and prepare—her tiny village in the fictional Central Asian nation of Karzistan. She also has to contend with her failing marriage, rival neighbours, the return of a devastating flood, and Mrs. Tung, an old woman who upon death took up residence in Mae’s head. As you do.

31. Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels (1995)

“In my dictionary, romance is not maudlin, treacly sentiment…It is a curry, spiced with excitement and humor and a healthy dollop of cynicism.”

I was SO ON BOARD with this Regency romance. You’ve got Jessica Trent, this feisty, ridiculously competent, nearly anachronistic bluestocking, and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain (just “Dain”), who is Tall Dark and Handsome Brooding Bad Boy squared. No, cubed. After an extended fiery Slap Slap Kiss flirtation, they get caught in a compromising position and Jessica lawyers up and gets him to marry her to Preserve Her Honour and all that. However, it takes them a little longer to become reconciled to each other. It’s so smartly written and consciously not quite over the top that I can forgive (and, hell, even enjoy) the spurts of bodice-ripping purple prose.

And then the plot made a sharp left turn that left me cold, and by “cold” I mean “throwing up in my mouth a little”. Jessica crosses paths with Charity Graves, a prostitute who has a young child (now a “ragged, filthy urchin”) by Dain. Dain explains how when Charity found out she was pregnant she wrote to Dain’s lawyer asking for—well, child support, basically.

“How much do you give her, by the way?”

“Fifty,” he said tightly. “More than enough to feed and clothe him—and let her spend all she makes on her back on herself. But I daresay the rags were all part of her game: to make me appear the villain of the piece […]”

“Fifty a year is more than generous. How old is he?” Jessica demanded. “Six, seven?”

And they also talk about how Charity totally could have gotten an abortion so she’s just a greedy bitch, plain and simple, and not once does Jessica get mad at Dain for, I don’t know, his habit of frequenting prostitutes all the friggin’ time. I was willing to chalk up the earlier slut-shaming to Jessica being jealous, but this just…yeeeeah. ?Did not finish.