Sunday, March 1, 2015

Armadillicon 37

It's my pleasure to announce that I'll be the Editor GoH at this year's Armadillocon, which will take place in Austin, TX, July 24-26, 2015. Stina Leicht will be the Toastmaster, and John DeNardo the Fan GoH. Nancy Jane Moore tells me she plans to attend, and I suspect at least a few other Aqueductistas will, also. I'd love to see a lot of Aqueduct's friends there. If there's any chance you might be able to attend, here's your heads-up!

Update: I'll be one of the instructors for the writing workshop. 


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Louise Cavalier Levesque's The Prince of the Aquamarines



I'm pleased to announce the release, in both trade paperback and e-book editions, of The Prince of the Aquamarines as the forty-fourth volume in the Conversation Pieces series. It collects a pair of fairy tales by eighteenth-century author Louise Cavalier Levesque, translated by Ruth Berman, and an essay by the translator on the tradition of early modern French fairy tales and Levesque’s contribution to that tradition.

Louise Cavelier Levesque was born in Rouen, November 23, 1703, and died in Paris, May 18, 1745. She was one of the eighteenth-century writers who continued the tradition that had begun in the decade before her birth of creating new versions of fairy tales. Her two fairy tales were reprinted in 1744 and again as part of the Cabinet des fées. A much-abridged translation of "The Invisible Prince" was included in Andrew Lang's The Yellow Fairy Book (1894), but "Le Prince des Aigues Marines" has not appeared before in English.

In "The Prince of the Aquamarines," the Prince is cursed by a Bad Fairy with the gift of the death-dealing glance. The heroine, the Princess of the Island of Night, is likewise condemned by a Fairy to live alone in the Dark Tower, until freed by a monster whose sight brings death. In "The Invisible Prince," the curse is a prophecy delivered by the priest of Plutus, the god of wealth, who announces that the young prince will undergo assorted dangers that will, however, lead in the end to good fortune. The Prince's guardian fairy gives him the stone of invisibility in the hope that it will help get him safely through the intervening dangers. Both tales are all-out adventure stories featuring princes, princesses, bad fairies, shipwrecks, magical gifts, and dark towers.

The Prince of the Aquamarines is available now from Aqueduct's site, and will soon be available elsewhere.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Three early novels by Eleanor Arnason

I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct Press has just issued e-book editions of three, out-of-print novels by Eleanor Arnason: The Sword Smith, To the Resurrection Station, and Daughter of the Bear King. Each includes a new afterword by Eleanor.


The Sword Smith tells the tale of Limper, a master sword smith running from an oppressive boss-king who forced him to make expensive junk, and Nargri, his young dragon companion. Written in the early 1970s, and published in 1978 by Condor, The Sword Smith is an anti-epic fantasy. In a new Afterword written for this edition, Arnason describes the characters as "mostly fairly ordinary people, rather than heroes, wizards, and kings. Their problems are ordinary problems, rather than a gigantic struggle between good and evil. There is no magic. The dragons are intelligent therapod dinosaurs, and the trolls are some kind of hominid, maybe Neanderthals. In many ways, it is a science fiction story disguised as a fantasy."

 To the Resurrection Station, Arnason's second novel (written in the 1970s), was first published in 1986. On a planet far from our Earth, it begins a Gothic tale: a moldering mansion full of secrets, a disturbing master of the house, a young and innocent heroine, and the mansion's robot servant, who drives the story. A motley crew escapes to Earth (now overrun by interesting intelligent machines, except for a clearly crazy spaceport) where they land and begin exploring the ruins of New York City.

In a new Afterword written for this edition, Arnason describes Resurrection Station as about people who can't fit into social roles. "Claud can't be a traditional Native. Belinda can't be a straight young woman or a traditional heroine. Shortpaw is not an acceptable giant mutant rat. Without being especially heroic, they all refuse to give in or give up."


 Not your everyday fantasy, Daughter of the Bear King clearly arises from Second Wave Feminism. A middle-aged woman discovers that she has a role in an epic struggle between shoddiness and integrity. And her battle flows across time and universes.

On a Monday morning, Esperance Olson is suddenly transported to another world where dragons fly and wizards divulge her heritage: daughter of the ancient Bear King, she is a shape-changer with magical powers. This strange world runs on magic, and the wizards have summoned Esperance to fight a creeping and shadowy menace. Her epic journey transports her back and forth between her birth world and Minneapolis, where the magic and monsters follow, wreaking havoc.

Samples of each book are available for free download at Aqueduct's site, where the books are available in both epub and mobi formats for $7.95.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Clarion West One-Day Workshop

The deadline for a writing workshop I'll be giving in Seattle is looming. Here is the condensed version of the description:


Join the founder and publisher of Aqueduct Press, L. Timmel Duchamp, for a Clarion West One-Day Workshop: "How to Read as a Writer."  This workshop is an opportunity to learn techniques for critiquing the work of other writers, and to learn how to apply those techniques to your own work.

Students who enroll in this workshop will be asked to submit a piece of writing in advance, which will be distributed for critique by a subgroup of the class. All students’ works will be critiqued by both the instructor and several other students. Duchamp will also cover techniques for reading critically and for communicating effectively.

This six-hour intensive workshop will take place on Sunday, March 15, in Seattle's University District. It is open to anyone aged 18 or over. Tuition is $150, and class size is limited to 12 students. For more details and to register, please see the workshop page on the Clarion West site.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Notes on "What Dreams Need Come: A Task List for Visionaries" Potlatch 24 panel



What Dreams need Come: A Task List for Visionaries

Glenn Glazer (mod), Janna Silverstein, Jeanne Gomoll, Dan Trefethen

Panel description (from the program guide): At the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin issued a call to auctorial arms. She warns of hard times to come, charges us to dream alternatives to the ways we live now. But is she right? Science fiction is rarely predictive, so what is it good for? I speculative fiction a tool for change, a gate to better futures, or just another obsessive technology of popular distraction? Other than amusing ourselves, what good do we really expect from dreaming new worlds?

The program guide provides URLs to a video clip of the speech and to a transcript:

As with my notes on the Women Destroy panel, these are partial and scattered notations of statements that interested me.



Janna: Editors now have to be advocates for books as different from other commodities. Publishers have a responsibility to be a standard-bearer for that.

Dan: I'm not an editor or publisher—I think she [Ursula Le Guin] was speaking for art for art's sake. In that speech, she is storming the castle. She has the credentials to do that. [Later, this is characterized as “speaking truth to power.”]

Jeanne: She was identifying science fiction to the people in the room as being a key part of any movement that seeks to change the world. She is posing the question: what kind of world are we ideally moving toward? So many people outside of the sf world do not think of science fiction in connection with revolution or change. Le Guin is pointing out its social value.

Glenn: These publishers [reference to the Big Five, and generally to the publishing people sitting in the audience Le Guin was speaking to] are driven by changes in the technology that we did not see coming. What do authors need to do to survive?

Janna: Ursula may be 6 months ahead of what's going on, but the publishers are years behind—when they should have seen it coming and prepared for it. Publishing is having a real hard time with this transition. 

Aud (Huw Evans): Le Guin talked a lot about freedom in her speech. Science fiction should be the first to embrace technological change. Readers are the gatekeepers.

Aud: Booksellers and librarians are mediators between books and readers and the books' authors.

[In the course of the discussion that followed, panelists and audience members displayed a diverse and contradictory range of notions about who or what are “gatekeepers” and how rating systems and algorithims work. Vonda mentions one of the earliest recommendation programs designed by Dave Howell and how well it worked, one with different aims to, say, Amazon’s recommendation algorithims.]

Janna: Signal to noise ratio is off-kilter with self-publishing. There's a higher proportion of noise now. But bloggers can be discriminatory filters.

Glenn: [Expresses worry about the vanishing of indie bookstore, which has been an important discriminatory filter. The sad closing of Borderlands came up during the ensuing discussion.]

Aud: There’s a difference between gatekeepers and arbiters. It's not always a good thing that gatekeepers have a diminished role.

Janna: We need something that provides a faithful reflection of readers' ratings and preferences.

Jeanne: Women Destroy SF is evidence about the myopia in the field.

Dan: WDSF was crowd-sourced, not produced by big publishing.

Janna insists that the reason it couldn't have been published by the Big Five only because it was an anthology, not because its contributors were all women. [Because anthologies don’t sell enough to be published with the print-runs all books published by them have recently come to need.]

Aud (Nisi) We need not more gatekeepers, but gate-openers.

(Aud) Readers ratings can be (and are) gamed. They can't solve the signal-to-noise ratio problem.

Aud: Le Guin is addressing two audiences-- writers (that they live with integrity and write with integrity) and publishers. I think she was trying to shove writers into greater integrity in their writing.

Aud: It's important to remember that writers are reflecting back the values of mainstream society.

Dan: I think if she were here today, she would say, “I'm talking about you people. Don't sell your soul for a mess of pottage, so to speak.”

Janna: These days, decisions have to be made more consciously than in the past (precisely because these conversations are happening). Everyone in publishing has become more conscious of how their decisions will be read.

Aud (Vicki R.) Often books are rejected because of the marketing dept. Editors might love a book and reject it because they think it won't sell.

Janna: That's the reason I left publishing.

Aud (Tom Becker) Amazon's algorithims are measuring biases & decisions people have already made; they don’t suggest departures [from what people are in the habit of reading]. Algorithims are not going to suggest paths of bold reading.

Dan: UKL says we need to know the difference between art and commerce.

Dan: Small presses are the one bright light in all this.

Janna: We as a community need to heed Ursula's clarion call.

Jeanne: One of the things Ursula does, more than telling us, is that she shows us by her own work. [Cites Tehanu, as an example of revisioning one’s own past work and ideas.]

This panel could have gone in one of several clear directions; instead, it took a scattershot approach. Because it began with an emphasis on technological change and the mainstream publishing industry's apparent cluelessness about it and its inability to do more than attempt to play catch-up, I began with the impression that the discussion would be centering on that. But when the audience entered the discussion (which, being Potlatch, was fairly early), the discussion got bogged down in generalities about the quantity of work being published and the lack of filters (authoritative or otherwise) for helping readers find what they want to read. Although both panelists and audience members made a lot of references to things Ursula said in her speech, I noticed a general avoidance of pursuing the ramifications of what the difference between art and commerce is and whether that difference will vanish (which is clearly one of the concerns UKL expresses in her speech). For all its excellent intentions, we were not collectively bold in our discussion. (I say "we" because I was present, even though I did not speak. As an indie publisher, I always feel I risk appearing self-serving in voicing my opinions on such matters.)

It occurs to me that it might be interesting to see someone unpack the sentences of that very brief speech. That wasn't, of course, the point of the panel, but such an exercise might be fruitful.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Notes on "Women Destroy Science Fiction: Not Again panel at Potlatch 24



Here are a few notes I jotted while attending the Women Destroy Science Fiction: Not Again! panel at Potlatch on Saturday afternoon:

Panelists: Kate Schaefer (mod), Eileen Gunn, Debbie Notkin

Kate notes that the iconography of the cover is pretty much the same as that of the second Women of Wonder books of 20 years ago: featuring a kick-ass babe.

Debbie loves the scope of the book but wishes that the nonfiction hadn't all been reprints of the fundraising pieces. She raises the question: What is the value of assembling all-women issues together?

I can’t help but note that this question is one that people have been raising for decades now. Are the answers different now than they were in the past. (Which may be to say: I feel as if this is yet another iteration of the constant reinvention of the wheel so familiar to experienced feminists.)

Eileen: How long will we have to keep destroying science fiction? She notes a string of authors who have destroyed science fiction (and of course the ease with which she could go on adding names to the list): Karen Joy Fowler destroyed science fiction. Pat Muprhy destroyed science fiction. Samuel R. Delany destroyed science fiction. Kelly Link destroyed science fiction. . .

Debbie: A big fear about this book-- is that no one who isn't already onboard will read these stories.

Eileen: We are the choir. And we're no longer a little isolated corner of the field.

Aud: What is it that needs to be done?

Nisi: Pardon me for pointing this out, but my essay in the book sets out some of the things that need to be done.

Kate: One of the things that needs to be done is that fiction needs to continue to be published. Print markets are limited, each market controlled by an editor, each with their own limitations. Gordon Van Gelder, to take one prominent example, has particular limitations. (I like Gordon, but I don't much care for his taste in fiction.) (And yes, I’m pleased to hear that Charles Finlay is taking over the editorship of F&SF. And as long as the stories by women have to be ten times better than those by men, we're not there yet.

Eileen: For myself, I'm wishing for liberation from all the little subgenres. Being a woman is being in one of those little boxes.

Debbie: How has the pressure against women in sf changed?  The people we are angriest at have very little power, unlike in the past. I think it's important to think about where the power is.

Aud: Would this book have had the same impact if it hadn't been packaged as "women destroy science fiction"?

Kate: No. There would have been a different impact.

Eileen: I thought on first hearing about the project that this was a marketing decision. Now that I see it, I think the book could have done well without the marketing tag. But with the marketing tag, it's political and angry—and produces a larger voice.

Debbie: “The Cold Equations” is consider a famous example of “hard science fiction.” In fact, it indulges in preposterously bad science; if it had been a woman's story, it would be characterized as "soft science fiction." Men get a pass for writing "soft science fiction."

Kate: Old science fiction isn't about the science-- the "science" was always a pretext. Old science fiction was about social and human relations.

Eileen: That’s true even of Hal Clement's work, long-considered the hardest of hard sf writers. How many people here have read Mission of Gravity? [only a few hands went up, one of them mine.] If a woman writes it, it's not really sf. If a man writes it, it is. For years and years I thought I was writing science fiction. Now people are telling me that what I write isn’t science fiction. It’s an unconscious thing they do. If I were a man, they’d accept that whatever I wrote was science fiction.

When Kate asked for last thoughts with which to end the panel, Eileen said: It's an sf writer's job to destroy science fiction, fantasy, and horror.



I'd be interested to hear what this blog's readers might have to say on the subject. My impression was that the audience contained a range of attitudes, many of them expressed in comments or questions from the audience. One older man apparently didn't see the relevance of the issue; some fired-up younger women apparently didn't realize that we'd been working on this problem for a long time already; some grumpy older women expressed pleasure in seeing young women energized and angry (because as Eileen put it, she's been angry for forty years, and it's good to be joined by younger women in that anger) and happy to see so much quality fiction by women getting recognition; and a lot of people wondered how it could be  that, as "the choir" (as Eileen put it) continues to expand so tremendously it is still being perceived as different and requiring qualification marking it as different.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Suzette Haden Elgin (1936-2015)

Feminist science fiction author and linguist Suzette Haden Elgin died on Tuesday, January 27. She was the author of numerous science fiction novels, a poet, and a prolific fan writer. In 1978, she founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association; the Elgin Award is named in her honor. She had a PhD from UCSD in linguistics, and in fact began writing science fiction to pay for graduate school. Her science fiction, especially the Native Tongue trilogy (for which she invented a new, feminist language, Láadan) exercised a powerful influence on feminist science fiction. Her 1969 story (and first sale) "For the Sake of Grace" was the inspiration for Joanna Russ's The Two of Them. She also wrote a series of books on "The Gentle Art of Verbal Defense" and other works of popular linguistics.

You'll find a bibliography of her science fiction here: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?204;
John Clute's somewhat critical discussion of her work here:  http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/elgin_suzette_haden;
and her wikipedia entry (which includes a list of some of her nonfiction writings) here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzette_Haden_Elgin

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sonya Taaffe's Ghost Signs


I'm pleased to announce the release of Ghosts Signs by Sonya Taaffe, in both print and e-book editions, as the forty-third volume in the Conversation Pieces series. Ghost Signs collects thirty-six poems and one story. “The Boatman’s Cure,” a novelette, is original to the volume.

"… A lantern hangs for the ghosts, both desolate and numinous. The white road and the black river run down into the dark and return again." In this collection of thirty-six poems and one story, Rhysling Award-winning poet Sonya Taaffe traces the complex paths between the dead, memory, and living.

A two-part cycle written over the course of seven years, "Ghost Signs" leads the reader through the underworld of myth to the hauntings of the present, where the shades of Sappho, Alan Turing, and Ludwig Wittgenstein exist alongside Charon, Dido, and The War of the Worlds. “The Boatman’s Cure” follows a haunted woman and a dead man as they embark on a road trip through coastal New England, an exorcism at its end. Sharply imagined, deeply personal, Taaffe’s work in Ghost Signs is at once an act of remembrance and release.

“Sonya Taaffe writes hauntingly of edgelands. Her poetic world lies on both banks of the Acheron, which may be crossed both ways. In Ghost Signs, she writes of uncompleted lives, of the lingering and commingling of the dead with us, the living. Where we meet are borderlands, uncertain spaces: in a saltmarsh, in the mud of trenches, in the realm of numbers, on the edge of sleep. There is darkness; but the journey is upward, into light. A transcendent book.”—Greer Gilman, author of Cloud & Ashes

Amal El-Motar has reviewed "The Boatman's Cure" in Ghost Signs for Tor.com. Here's an excerpt from her review:" In a collection—indeed, a congress—of ghosts, echoes, memories, and homages to ancient Greek literature, “The Boatman’s Cure” is a breath-taking culmination of its approaches and themes, a magnificent finale the intensity of which is derived from its quiet tension. Delia can see and interact physically with ghosts, and has discovered, through a great deal of trial and error, reliable ways of exorcising them; a personal quest requires her to obtain an oar with a strange history from an even stranger source. Nothing goes smoothly—except the beautiful structure of the story, which mimics the movement of an oar through water.

"It makes a beautiful arc: the story opens with Delia and a dead man named Evelyn Burney—the oar’s custodian—in a car, on their way to an unspecified “home.” The oar dips, and we see how they met; it dips further, and we see how Delia came to her understanding of ghosts and how to send them on; the oar rises and we return to Delia’s conflict with the dead man, before rising further to complete the circle of them back in the car. The narrative oar then inscribes a second arc of a different character: one that moves through Delia’s own past, her very being, and does genuinely brilliant things with the folk themes of boatmen’s curses in folk tales, where the acceptance of an oar is the acceptance of a burden that will only pass by giving it to another person."

You can purchase Ghost Signs now through Aqueduct's website.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Caren Gussoff's Three Songs for Roxy


 
I'm pleased to announce the Publication of Three Songs for Roxy, a novella by Caren Gussoff, in both small trade paperback and e-book editions. Three Songs for Roxy tells three inter-related tales: of Kizzy, a foundling raised by a Romany Gypsy family in present-day Seattle, as she is about to be claimed by the aliens who left her to be raised as human; of Scott Lynn Miller, an unstable survivor of Katrina and security guard who is deeply affected by what he witnesses when the aliens contact Kizzy; and of "Natalie," an alien assigned to retrieve Kizzy, who is befriended by the current champion of the "Night of a Thousand Stevies" and falls in love with Kizzy's adopted sister Roxy. Three Songs for Roxy explores issues of identity, gender, sexuality, and what it means to be an outsider.


“Some stories aren’t meant to be told. The more they get told, the more they change from what they once were, worn down and smooth like pieces of sea glass too beautiful to have ever been broken bottles. In the telling, mundane stories become colorful, colorful becomes fantastic, fantastic becomes legend, and legend becomes myth. Some stories aren’t meant to be beautiful or mythic, they are meant to be true—chachi paramcha—and so those are better not told.”—from Three Songs for Roxy

Gussoff, nevertheless, tells some of those stories in all their mundane (and colorful) details. When does the mundane become fantastic? And when is the fantastic mistaken for the mundane? Gussoff’s is a world of permeable borders.

The book, which is the forty-second volume in the Conversation Pieces series, is available now in both print and e-book editions through Aqueduct's website and will soon be available elsewhere. 


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 27: Vandana Singh

Of Words and Worlds: Books I read in 2014
by Vandana Singh

The problem of commenting intelligently about a book is perhaps in some ways similar to the challenges faced by translators or anthropologists – how to present a necessarily personal interaction with a stranger’s world/work in an honest, comprehensible manner to more strangers? The book is a product of the author’s being, imagination, and context, expressed inadequately through the means of words. When I read the book, I bring to it my own questions, history, desires and demands. When I write about it, I am translating through my own filters, capturing my thoughts in the porous cages of words, and that too, words in English, the second of my two first languages, a language that has its particular power, charm, and colonialist baggage. I’ve been reading some really interesting papers in archeological theory and trying to get this mere physicist’s mind around some profound ideas, and it occurs to me that as readers we fall into books as anthropologists might fall into worlds. Especially as readers of speculative fiction we try to inhabit that world of the book on its own terms, suspending disbelief, accepting the conceits of the story. If the story is compelling enough, it temporarily detaches us from our reality, although necessarily, in our interaction with it we bring our desires and prejudices, our history and context. So, in that spacetime interval when we are closeted with a book, we are creating a world that no other reader can create in the same way. If the book isn’t entirely unforgettable, I come away from it changed, subtly or deeply, so that the bubble universe that existed during my reading of it has leaked into my everyday reality. And in turn, by writing a review or comment of the book, or by recommending it to others, I may affect the book as well, at least hypothetically, at least if that review or recommendation affects another’s reading of the book.

So what I present below are impressions of the worlds resulting from my engagement with a dozen or so remarkable books.

One of the pleasures of speculative fiction of the best sort is that it reads at so many levels, literal and metaphoric and beyond. One of the books I regularly re-read is Ursula Le Guin’s classic Wizard of Earthsea, which engages me at once in the story, the language, the imaginative world, and at the same time it speaks to something at a deeper level that I cannot articulate. It is not simply that there is symbolism there – one can make too much of symbolism – real life, or superlative literature, or matter itself that is used to stand in for a concept or idea – all these are irreducible to mere symbols. In the hands of a writer with mastery over her/his craft, objects, people (human or non-human) become more than they appear to be, and in fact characters often violate their own expectations of themselves. But it is not only in speculative fiction that we have the experience of being, temporarily, part of a rich tapestry of worlds and meaning. There are examples in the realist genre that showcase the fantastic nature of everyday reality, whether that reality is the landscape of the human mind, or the way objects speak to us, or the exhilarating, frightening alien-ness of those we thought we knew.

So, for instance, Nirmal Verma, an icon of Hindi literature and master of the short story, examines in his collection Das Pratinidhi Kahaniyan (Ten Representative Stories) the delicate, ever-changing, fantastic landscape of our inner selves, barely known even to ourselves. For example, in his story Dahlij, he evokes with infinite tenderness the inner mind of a teenage girl and her first crush, as seen from the eyes of her older self: Last night it seemed to Runi that after many years an old dream was approaching her on silent feet… it begins, and Runi has jumped back in space and time to that place of her youth, experiencing it again -- the way the curtain rings sound when the March wind blows, and how the three trees on the lawn have caught between them a piece of the sky, that opens, closes, opens, closes. I don’t know if there is a translation of this story in English (the collection I read is in Hindi) – the only translation I’ve found is of a story called The Lost Stream, which gives some flavor of his writing. The fine-detail handling of the human psyche, even when exposing its most horrific aspects, is a characteristic as well of the Pakistani writer Saadat Hassan Manto, beloved in both India and Pakistan. In his short story collection Bombay Stories (English translation from the Urdu; here is a review) Manto goes into the seamy underbelly of the city of the 1930-40s, among its prostitutes and pimps and other riffraff. Manto has never flinched from writing about our infinite capacity for evil, for hurting each other in the name of faith or some other excuse – his most famous stories, written after he left Bombay, are satirical, angry, heart-rending tales of rape and murder during the partition of the subcontinent. (Some I read decades ago are burned forever into my mind). He rejects the authority of the state, or of custom, seeing what others cannot see, pointing out hypocrisy and falseness. His Bombay stories, too, mess with conventional expectations – prostitutes are characters in their own right, irreducible to stereotype. Manto writes with a directness that is very different from Nirmal Verma’s stories – he wields a scalpel, not a paintbrush, but in the hands of the true artist, either can be a powerful instrument.

A new writer I had the pleasure of discovering recently is another Bombayphile, K. Sridhar, who is a theoretical physicist at a major research institute in Mumbai. His book, Twice Written, is the story of three young people in the Mumbai of the 1980s who are trying to figure out the world, and themselves, including their relationships. It reminds me of my own college days in the same period, but in a different place: Delhi University, where five of us friends would stay up at night or walk the pathways or linger in the chai shops talking philosophy, discussing the big questions. In the book our three young people meet an elderly eccentric, who leaves behind him a mysterious manuscript in which they find an account of their lives. Are they living someone else’s story? Where is the missing last chapter? The book is eminently readable, odd in the best sense, refreshing in its lack of concessions to the reader, and although I found the ending somewhat abrupt, it seems the story might continue in a sequel. Life as a palimpsest, the city as character, the sense that there is a hidden subtext below the ordinariness of the world – all these are evoked here.

Amy Rowland’s novel The Transcriptionist, while distinctly different in style and setting, evokes in its own way the strangeness of the world we think of as normal. Lena, through whose eyes we experience the story, has the job of transcribing interviews and reports for a major newspaper in New York. She loves words and books, but her isolation in her eyrie of her office, her relationship with the pigeons on the window sill, her discovery that a woman killed by lions at the city zoo was someone she had met once, a blind court reporter – and her subsequent need to find out what happened and why – all make for a mesmerizing tale. From the power of words to the ethics of reporting, from tragedies that make the news to those that don’t, from the way we are alienated from each other and from other species, and the hell we make for ourselves and them – the book condenses a lot into a slim volume. Reading reviews of it online, I came across a comment that the book was a rip-off of Jose Saramago’s All the Names. Now I’d always intended to read Saramago after seeing Ursula Le Guin’s reviews of his work, and this was the final straw, so off I went to the library. I’ve written more about All the Names on my blog, but I want to say this much here: first, The Transcriptionist is not a rip-off of All the Names, although it is in a similar literary raga – and secondly, Saramago is a stunning writer, well deserving of his 1998 Nobel Prize. In All the Names, our middle-aged protagonist, Senhor Jose, is a clerk in the City Registry and lives so isolated a life that he talks to his ceiling. A chance mistake leads him to find the records of an unknown woman, and the rest of the book is an account of his search for her. Profoundly moving as this book was for me, I was not prepared for the way Saramago’s most famous work, Blindness, completely took apart my defenses. It is a terrifying book, and also exhilarating and deeply thoughtful, in the way that it strikes at the heart of the systems we live by. Imagine a city where people start to go blind with no warning or explanation (a very science-fictional what-if scenario). We follow the lives of a group of people who are incarcerated in an unused mental asylum in a completely inhumane manner – a doctor of ophthalmology, his wife, who can see but pretends to be blind so they can be together, and some of his patients, all of whom end up in the same ward. As the epidemic spreads, more and more people are shepherded into the asylum without anyone to take care of them, with containers of food left irregularly at the door. Fear turns people into monsters – we see this in the way the government, the soldiers who guard the asylum, and the non-blind treat those who are afflicted. Their normal capacity for compassion disappears (this is not unknown in our world – consider the way many people have reacted to those suspected of being sick with Ebola). But the afflicted also turn savage – all the pretenses of civilization fall apart when one needs to nurture the body, when toilets overflow, when the bowels have to be attended to, and you don’t have the benefit of sight. How quickly the façade of civilization collapses! Yet this is not a Lord of the Flies kind of book, in that it allows as much for compassion as brutality. Ultimately it is their mutual caring and shared suffering that allows a small group of people to survive, and escape. The scene where three women, their bodies covered with filth, finally get a chance to bathe naked in the middle of a thunderstorm, is one of the most powerful I’ve read in all literature. The book compels us to recognize that we are, in a profound way, blind – as one of the characters states, near the end: I don’t think we did go blind. I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see. And yet the story is not reducible to mere allegory.

If we cannot see any more, our writers must shine the light, illuminate the subtext of the world. A complicated path (and some recommendations from fellow writers) led me to the work of the great Guinean writer, Camara Laye, whose book The Dark Child is a classic of West African Francophone literature. At the surface it is a memoir of growing up, written by Camara Laye when he was studying engineering in Paris and very homesick. It is lyrically written, with the kind of poetry of language that lifts ‘realism’ into another realm, but that is not its only remarkable characteristic. In the town of Kouroussa, the boy Laye grows up in the traditions of his Malinke people, his father, the blacksmith, a person of great renown. The community is evoked skillfully – it is a joyful childhood, despite various fears and challenges, and the boy is much loved. The book has been described as being insufficiently critical of French colonialism, but perhaps in its very evocation of a rich, complex and happily remembered childhood before French colonial influence changed everything – perhaps in just such an evocation there is a quiet subversion. I found in this book the seamless merging of literal and metaphoric, symbolic and real, in a way that made absurdities of these categories. In the boy Laye’s world, Islamic practices (informed by Sufism, a Sudanese colleague tells me) exist amicably with animism. If all growing up is a journey, there are also journeys across landscapes, entanglements with ideas of home and exile, that make characters of geography. One of the books that initially piqued my interest in West African literature is a modern descendant of the classics, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Here, we see the African desert in space and time through the eyes of Onyesonwu, a child of rape, a fierce, angry one at that, growing up into her powers, unprepared for what she can do. But she doesn’t exist in magnificent isolation. Crucial to her journey are her family and friends, more than sidekicks they are characters in their own right – but also there is the desert, as much a character, with its moods and landscapes, its sandstorms and oases. There are magical creatures and wonderfully imaginative technologies, and there is transformation, literal and otherwise. A rich, thick, compelling book, I don’t think I’ve come across anything quite like it.

Oddly enough, Okorafor’s overtly fantastical work reminds me of another journey across a desert – Andy Weir’s remarkable science-fictional saga, The Martian. The desert is the Martian landscape, and the Martian in question is a human, left behind in that stark, unforgiving world. At first sight the two could not be more different – Weir’s style is journalistic, the work grounded in a scientific understanding of Mars. But they are both journeys through the unknown, internal and external. Weir’s book speaks of the most nightmarish isolation – not the last man left on Earth, but one man stranded on Mars, unable, for a long time in the story, to communicate with anyone. He must shore up his courage, use his ingenuity to survive, and to figure out how to let earth know he is there, he is alive. He gives in to despair from time to time – terrible things happen, plans fail – but he perseveres. The style is spare, but in the negative spaces, a lot is said. This did not read to me as a libertarian fantasy of the individual making it against all odds, but of one man’s determination to get home that would be impossible without the caring and cooperation of other people, some of whom risk their lives for a rescue. Without a coordinated effort, without communication with others, how would our hero have made it? The description of the Martian landscape is immersive and evocative – I must have held my breath for long portions of the book – and the scientific inventiveness a delight. When I finally shut the book, moved to the core, suddenly, the title “The Martian” made sense.

The landscape of eastern Oregon might seem tame after the Western Sahara, let alone Mars, but Molly Gloss’s remarkable book, The Hearts of Horses is no less rewarding territory. Gloss writes with sensitivity and elegance – her style is economical but not journalistic. In 1917 a young woman comes to a remote county in Oregon to work at breaking horses. The war is on, and there is a space for a woman looking for unwomanly work. Martha’s methods are unconventional – she tames by gentling, not breaking, and must prove herself in a community that is strange to her. The community itself is evoked with a deft touch and much compassion, but perhaps the most remarkable feature of the book is in its evocation of developing relationships, between people, and between people and animals. We get to know the people, the horses and the place. This is to me the most subversive kind of ‘frontier tale’ – when I was a kid I went through a brief period of reading Westerns, which I enjoyed unabashedly and unreservedly at the age of eleven or thereabouts, only to realize much later that for all its pleasures it represented a particularly pernicious fantasy. The lone avenger who lives by his wits is a trope that is dangerously prevalent, lauded in a culture that celebrates extreme individualism – but who we are and how we grow, and our very survival, depends on our ability to form meaningful relationships and take care of each other – and this is something that shines through this book.

Women in the world, women as subject and object, women under patriarchy’s boot – all these have been written about, most crucially by women themselves. It is often true that women’s everyday worlds, even when comfortingly familiar, are hostile territory in ways that men may not even be able to imagine. It is probably safe to say that many women know what it is like to be the alien, the other, the one always looking over her shoulder. Education and opportunity give us a chance to speak and to own our voices. But when grinding poverty, abuse and exploitation are added to the picture, how might a woman speak? Consider the remarkable tale of a maid in a suburb of New Delhi, a woman who was abandoned by her mother at the age of 4, married off to an abusive husband at 13, who took courage into her hands and left with her children, becoming a single mother at 25, earning by working as a maid in middle-class and upper-class homes in Delhi. Here is courage, tragedy and endurance, but what makes the story most powerful is the fact that it is an autobiographical account written by the maid herself. I’m talking about A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder, translated from the Bengali and published in English by Zubaan Books in New Delhi. Halder’s good fortune was to work in the home of a retired anthropology professor who discovered her interest in reading, encouraged her to write an account of her life, and edited and translated her work. Prabodh Kumar, the professor in question, who is a father figure to Halder, happens to be, by a cosmic chance, a grandson of the great Hindi writer Premchand, whose stories of social justice and the rural poor still inspire today.

Such stories of individual struggle might reveal, overtly or subtly, underlying structures of oppression. The greatest such superstructure of oppression is the world-destroying monster that has brought us social inequalities, environmental disasters and the looming horror of climate change. If only this were fiction! But climate change is all too real, and what is perhaps as horrific is the deafening silence and denial on the issue. So what is a historian of science, one who has been engaged with investigating the history of climate change denial as well as the history of development of the science – what is such a historian of science to do? Naomi Oreskes at Harvard, and her colleague Erik Conway at Caltech, have written a remarkable little book, a curious mélange of fact in fictional garb, called The Collapse of Western Civilization. It is a future history, assuming a ‘business as usual’ scenario, written by a fictional Chinese scholar writing a couple of centuries into the future. Based on what we know now about climate, it performs a thought-experiment, an extrapolation to a dire future indeed, in a mere 52 pages. It is an intense, angry book, more so for its factual, restrained scholarly tone. Perhaps the most incisive (and darkly humorous) is the “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” at the end of the book, which includes explanations of such terms as “capitalism,’ ‘communism,’ ‘bridge-to-renewables,’ ‘market fundamentalism’ and the like. To me as someone who studies climate change, this was the best part of the book. I hope and suspect that like good fiction, this book will give its readers the experience of a disorienting destabilization, when all you take for granted is suddenly apparent, and questionable.

How could we have ended up with climate change? How could it be that science could be appropriated for industry, profit and pillage so we are left with a despoiled world where our very existence is threatened – but at the same time, it is science that is warning us of where we are headed? Perhaps a closer look at science is warranted. This is a topic of both depth and great breadth, which I certainly can’t condense in a paragraph. I have examined in a column series elsewhere how science has come to be seen as a coldly unemotional enterprise, where the bottom line is the data. But that is not how it is in many instances, nor does it have to be that way. Science is a human enterprise, often an emotional one. By pretending that it is anything but, we also distance from it any consideration of ethics. Most people, it is likely safe to say, dislike science, sometimes for good reason, while enjoying, or suffering from the technology that results from its marriage with industry. But relinquishing science to the powerful and to the experts is to give up a part of human heritage, and to put it in dangerous hands – and to give up the possibility of an alternate aesthetics of the universe. A charming book by Pakistani string theorist Tasneem Zehra Husain argues for science and art and emotion and humanity to come together again. Only the Longest Threads is a blend of scientific exposition that sometimes borders on the poetic, and fiction. Fictional witnesses to great discoveries in physics – from Newton’s laws to string theory – write about these ideas and what they might mean to them. While I think Husain could have been more critical of the scientific enterprise, that wasn’t the point of her book (maybe that other book is a book I have to write some day) and there were many nuggets to give joy to this physicist’s heart. Taking back science from the powermongers, transforming the scientific enterprise, bridging the two-cultures gap by bringing the human element back to the sciences – the first step may well be an unabashed emotional appreciation of scientific discovery.

Good books, for me, break and rearrange conventional boundaries – they throw us into alternate worlds, mess with our expectations, destabilize our sense of what’s normal, compel us to look deeper, and in doing all that, enable us to see again. To write well, I think, is to muster up a lot of courage, the courage to face oneself as much as the world, to be willing to suffer with strangers and for strangers, to say things that must be said, and sometimes to pay the price. Our artists dream other dreams so we can see more clearly. The poet Sahir said Khwabon ki aasre pe kati hai tamam umr – I have lived my life on the foundation of dreams – and musicians have also collaborated with poets in opening our eyes. So I’ll end with a tribute to the imagination, that fount of creativity, empathy, revolution and change. Here is a video from the great Indian Sufi music group Chaar Yaar (very personal to me also because two family members are in this performance), singing a mélange of Rumi’s poetry and John Lennon, in three languages.





Vandana Singh is the author of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (Zubaan, 2009), numerous fine short stories, and two novellas published by Aqueduct Press in the Conversation Pieces series: Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances, which won the Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Award and was on the Tiptree Honor List. She lives near Boston, where she teaches physics.