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.

What I’m Reading, #24-26

#21-23 will take a little while longer to write up.

24. Samuel Delany, Babel-17/Empire Star

I like my Sapir-Whorf hypotheses like I like my coffee: very strong!…no? Tough crowd. What I like about Delany is how central poetry and song and storytelling are to him. Poetry doesn’t seem really important nowadays, at least to me. You can’t make a living as a poet or anything. But in Delany’s stories (and maybe especially in Babel-17) poetry is vitally relevant. Rydra Wong, as a poet, can see the world in a different and valuable way, and her work makes a tremendous difference to people.

I liked Babel-17 well enough but preferred the convoluted timeline of Empire Star, which follows a boy coming of age and ascending in consciousness, and in which there’s fewer characters than first appear to be.

25. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

In a postapocalyptic Sudan where magic coexists with (sparse, deteriorating) technology, a “child of violence” is destined to reshape her society. Brutal and uncompromising. Fills my head with vivid unearthly colours. The prose could be better, but it gets the job done.

(I have many more thoughts about this book, but they’re kitchen-table thoughts, not impersonal-Internet thoughts.)

26. Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

Enjoyable but not terribly memorable. Miles solves a mystery while he and Ivan are on a diplomatic mission to the heart of the Cetagandan empire, which is ruled by a genetic elite—ruled, in turn, by women working behind the scenes. I laughed out loud at “I don’t think it was ripe, Ivan.” I wondered if Bujold even knew about epicene pronouns.

One interesting aspect is how Miles uses disability stereotypes to fly under the radar—or, if you’d like, cover his ass:

“You would have taken the investigation away from me, you know you would have, sir. Everyone in the wormhole nexus thinks I’m a cripple who’s been given a cushy nepotistic sinecure as a courier. That I might be competent for more is something Lieutenant Vorkosigan would never, in the ordinary course of events, ever be given a chance to prove.”

Sadly, the library system has only one copy of the next book, Ethan of Athos, so it seems that I’m not going to be continuing the series for a while.

Sunday in Toronto

Last week I met up with G. and D., two friends I hadn’t seen in a while. We went out for dim sum, which was excellent, though we had to wait a while to get a table. Highlights included curried cuttlefish (G. and I are fans of Life and took the opportunity to explain cuttlefish mating habits to D.) and chicken buns—BBQ pork buns will always be my favourite, but the sharp green onion-spiked filling contrasts very nicely with the sweet steamed pastry. From there we wandered to a nearby Chinese bakery and then into Kensington Market to pore over potted herbs and spices and fruit.

G. suggested a trip to Riverdale Farm, which none of us had visited yet; it’s a long walk from Kensington, but it was fine weather. We meandered down College—G. works in the area, but D. lives in the suburbs and only comes to campus for classes, and living in the West End I don’t often visit those parts of town, so a walk through the downtown core (crowded, happy and unhurried as it can only be on a really beautiful Sunday afternoon in Toronto) is a rare treat.

We stopped at Allan Gardens to coo at the dogs in the park and wander through the greenhouse. The park’s lovely right now: tulips and daffodils still out, the maples adorned with spring-green spangles. Inside it’s an idyllic seasonless garden. (Took lots of boring up-close photos of flowers and such. My favourite room was the one with the cacti, though.)

From there it wasn’t that far from the farm, which is tucked away at the end of a sleepy residential street east of Parliament. It’s not really a farm, it’s more like the zoo in High Park but with farm animals; there’s barns you can wander through, with fowl and rabbits and baby animals, and outdoor enclosures with horses and goats and a donkey and such. There’s also little trails through the woods by the Don and lookouts over the trees and the wetland, where we sat for a while in the sun eating egg tarts and sesame balls and singing cheesy 80’s and 90’s songs, till the farm was closing (5 p. m.) and we walked back and went our separate ways.

I took the subway down to Queen Street and took the 501 west. There was a man sitting a few rows behind me in the very back of the streetcar, playing a peaceful melody on acoustic guitar. So I took out my earbuds for once and let the music and the city’s background noise soundtrack my way home.

What I’m Reading, #18-20

Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)

This came in an omnibus edition with the next Riverworld book, The Fabulous Riverboat, but I disliked TYSBG and felt no compulsion to read on. It’s got a delightfully cracky premise but also a barrage of the crassest and most worn-out stereotypes imaginable, plus an unengaging hero (the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, who may carry a romantic, adventurous air for some, but for me just exemplifies imperialism, Orientalism and basically everything I fucking hate about the era). And I hear the series goes downhill, so yeah. It kills me to return a library book unfinished, but sometimes it’s justified.

Stephen Jay Gould, The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000)

Collected essays, mostly dedicated to exploring various episodes from the standard boring-white-guy history of science with unusual nuance. Gould takes special care to debunk standard narratives of scientific progress, emphasizing that scientific breakthroughs are just as much a matter of shifting preconceived worldviews as making new observations. (In fact, the most radical discovery may still be overlooked or misinterpreted if we are overly constrained by our conceptual frameworks.) Among many other things, he examines Galileo’s colossal misinterpretation of the rings of Saturn, how Lamarck came to embrace a model of common descent, and the various cases held to be examples of observable evolutionary change. He also discusses the interplay of science and social issues in eugenics, chemical warfare, and cloning. There are weak bits—some incongruous obituaries and blurbs, his own prejudices and Baconian “idols”, etc.—but in general I think this is a must-read. I can’t help but feel that if Gould’s subtle, gently subversive, and self-questioning approach, not Dawkins’s harsh reductionism, had taken root in the public mind, the world would be a much better place.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

The other night in a dream I found myself in the rain on a city street in an unfamiliar part of town, around midmorning, with an appointment at least a few hours away. I had this book in my bag, a lot of change largely in toonies and loonies (the easier to spend on frivolities), and nothing to do till my appointment—the perfect pretext to sit in a café having tea and pastries and reading. Then I realized that, since I did not want to loiter but had a lot of time to kill, I could go to another café afterwards. Multiple cafés! (In the dream and out of it, this is the purest, most delicious indulgence I can think of.)

My appointment got postponed, and postponed, and I came to feel that I had no need to rush. So I set off through the grey drizzle of an eternal weekday midmorning to sit by the window in an infinite series of cafés waiting for an appointment which might serendipitously never arrive, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and drinking tea forever.

It was like a Kafka story, but with a happy ending. It’s too bad I don’t have more dreams like that.

What I’m Reading, #12-17

12. John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (2005)

Thought I’d re-read this, as Tor.com readership recently voted it best of the decade. I don’t think it’s nearly that good (especially compared to contenders like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Blindsight), but it’s funny, poignant, and almost consistently enjoyable — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t normally touch military SF (aside from Bujold).

13. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

You can tell I’m getting close to exhausting the library holdings when I start dipping into its meagre stock of popular science books. Bryson is an entertaining writer, but geeks won’t learn anything new here. I would recommend this book as a starting point for people who have never taken a science class, ever, even in public school — with the caveat that they watch a whole lot of Mythbusters and keep Wikipedia open, because there is an irritating amount of myths, massive oversimplifications, and outdated material.

14-17. Scott Westerfeld, Uglies (2005), Pretties (2005), Specials (2006), Extras (2007)

Tore through this YA dystopian series set in a city-state where everyone is beautified and promoted to a life of carefree luxury on reaching sixteen. Through the hero, a teenage girl named Tally, we get a whirlwind tour through various social classes: insecure young Uglies, rebellious runaways, vapid Pretties, the covert ruling class of Specials. Extras portrays a “reputation economy” a little like the one in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but actually done well. The big reveal at the end of the series is totally bogus, but it’s a well-established genre tradition, so I can hardly nitpick.

The Uglies books are especially interesting for a couple of reasons. First, while most dystopias are portrayed as more or less immutable thought-experiments, throughout the series we see Tally’s society changing quite radically in response to inside and outside pressures. The story also deals extensively and unusually thoughtfully with themes of the body, dis/ability, “nature”, and medicalization.