Limyaael

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05:44 pm: Moar Book Reviews
Once again, only three paragraphs on each, or I would be here forever.



Octavia Butler, Kindred

This is the kind of book which the “speculative fiction” label fits nicely. It has time travel in it, but there’s no real explanation, either scientific or magical, for the time travel, and the focus is much more on how the time travel messes up the characters’ lives than how it works.

Edana, or Dana, is an ordinary African-American woman in the 1970’s, who’s just moved into her new house with her husband, when the time travel snatches her away to a river to rescue a drowning white boy. She’s threatened by the boy’s parents, and finds herself almost instantly transported back home. That’s the first in a series of strange journeys which can happen at any time—Dana is afraid to drive or leave her house, quite sensibly, for fear of what might happen if she vanished elsewhere—and which each time results in Dana saving the boy’s life. She figures out fairly quickly that the white boy is Rufus Weylin, her own distant ancestor in the 1810’s, when Maryland was still a slave state, and if he dies before fathering her great-grandmother, she’ll never be born. But each time she rescues him, she stays longer, and while minutes or hours pass at home, days or months can pass in Rufus’s time. And of course, Dana’s only way to survive is to pretend to be a slave, which leads to whipping, heavy labor, and the constant threat of rape, sale, and death.

This book is exemplary in the illustrations of what slavery does to human beings, not only to Dana, but also to the slaves she meets in Rufus’s time, to Rufus and his family, and to Kevin, Dana’s white husband, who accidentally comes with her on one trip back in time. It cripples their souls, and even if she survives physically, Dana’s worried, and not without cause, about being changed forever. The story puts the focus firmly on the moral problems of racism, rather than the pragmatic ones that are so often addressed in arguments about it, and reading it was rather like being transported myself. I’ve got to read more of Butler’s work, because she uses exactly that combination of effective characterization and unflinching realism and transformation that captures me in my favorite fantasy writers.





John Crowley, Little, Big

This is one of those books I Kept Meaning to Read. I own a copy of it, but the copy is packed away in storage, so when I wanted to read it, I finally had to fetch it from the library and sit down with it over the course of several days.

The story—insomuch as there is one—starts out focused on Smokey Barnable, who is coming from the City (New York City) to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, one of an odd family who live in an even odder house called Edgewood. The narrative then shifts back into the past to deal with Daily Alice’s ancestors, especially her great-grandmother Violet Bramble, who could see fairies. There’s constant contact between the Drinkwaters and the fairies, but the contact is neither completely fulfilling nor completely inimical; it’s mostly coexistence. If the Drinkwaters do what the fairies tell them, and don’t question it too strongly, they and their children will be part of the Tale that the fairies weave.

One very odd thing about the floating, dream-like way Crowley writes is that, even as the world outside Edgewood shudders into dystopia, it refuses to feel like a dystopia. The despair is muffled. The peculiar things that a woman called Ariel Hawksquill can do with the Art of Memory may indeed be magic, but they don’t feel like it; they just feel like an art. Likewise with Violet’s cards, which her daughter and then her great-granddaughters inherit and use to ask questions about the future. I suppose this is why it left me not knowing how to feel. I had emotional engagement with the story, but I also felt as if my emotional engagement with the story didn’t matter. Perhaps the best word I can find is “artful,” since the notion of the Tale is never far from the surface, and it is a conscious work of art.





Joanna Russ, The Female Man

I enjoyed the hell out of this—which confirmed for me that, while I find most feminist fantasy shrill and annoying (go to hell, Anne Bishop; die in a fire, The Mists of Avalon), feminist science fiction may just be my thing.

Russ writes about several women, including an alter ego of herself, all with the initials J. R. They’re from various parallel worlds, such as a world where the sexes live separated, continually at war, and one called Whileaway that is populated only by women. No one on Whileaway feels a lack because the male sex died out, apparently of a plague, long ago; they have daughters just fine, live in lesbian pairs when they want to, wander the planet at will, and raise their daughters communally after they’re four years old. The men from 1970’s Earth are brought into sharp, and unflattering, contrast with women who can take care of themselves, are highly educated, and see nothing wrong with breaking a man’s balls when he tries to touch them more than they want to be touched.

Some of the sharpest insights of the feminist movement for me are those that take in the small things—such as why, even in “equal” households, it’s still women who end up doing 90% of the housework. Russ focuses on those, which is one reason why I loved this book. The other is that the experimental style has a reason. No other kind of writing will convey exactly what Russ wants to convey, so naturally she turns to the one that will. This is a huge improvement over writers who do it for no reason I can discern, which just makes me want to scream, “Tell a story first and gaze into your navel on your own time!”





Joanna Russ, The Two of Them

This is an even angrier book than The Female Man, which before I read it I would not have believed possible. Its main characters are Irene Waskiewicz, a woman rescued as a teenager from stifling 1950’s Earth to become part of a secret organization which sends its agents from alternate world to alternate world securing economic advantages and plotting sabotage, and Ernst Neumann, the much older agent of the organization, who rescues her. They’re lovers and partners, and fairly well-balanced with each other, until they get sent to Ka’abah, a world established along pseudo-Islamic lines.

Irene promptly meets Zubeydeh, the daughter of their host, who wants to write poetry and is making a stab at it, but will never be allowed to complete her training in art; she will be surgically altered to fit into a beauty mold and then sold as a wife, where she will probably spend her days drugged to the eyeballs like her “nervous” mother and her “mad” aunt. Her own father rips up her poetry, and her mother pushes her towards normality as the only possible refuge for her. Irene promises to take her away, but runs into conflict with Ernst, whose concerns are pragmatic: Will they be able to escape with Zubeydeh? What about the difficulty of convincing suspicious eyes they have a right to her? What are they going to do with her beyond Ka’abah? Irene, who never suspected Ernst would react like this, begins to question her own relationship to him, and especially her “equal” stance, after being sure for most of the novel that she is free and that her life is much better than that of any woman on Ka’abah.

Lately I’ve been seeking “welcoming” fiction: fiction that extends its sympathy to all its characters, rather than manipulating some of them around their roles in the plot or making them into incarnations of simple evil that only exist to torment others. I wouldn’t call The Two of Them welcoming in the same way. It doesn’t exactly love all its characters in spite of their flaws; it sees their flaws, and points them out mercilessly. But it still resonated strongly with me exactly because of that equal treatment of all of them. This is what a feminist novel should be like, I think, rather than putting women on a pedestal or insisting that female characters are only good enough to be “heroines” if they fight like men and never have children or emotions.



I am now wondering if I should start The Virtu by Sarah Monette, the sequel to Melusine, or not. Melusine is unfortunately one of those books I was very enthusiastic about at the time I read it but which I’ve lost the favorable impression of since. Monette having a fundamental misunderstanding about the term slash doesn’t help.

Current Mood: cheerful
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Comments

[User Picture]
From:[info]mhari
Date:August 14th, 2007 10:14 pm (UTC)
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Butler is so awesome. The only novels of hers that I've read are Wild Seed (on, of all people, Orson Scott Card's recommendation -- bigoted old fart that he is, he knows AWESOME when he reads it) and the immediate sequel Mind of My Mind; those are also excellent and thinky about race and gender.
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 14th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
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Oooh. Those I've heard of but never read. (Kindred and Parable of the Sower are the only ones I've read). I want to get hold of them ASAP, though.
From:[info]malus_servus
Date:August 15th, 2007 12:54 am (UTC)
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I usually don't read much feminist fiction, because it usually makes me feel weird. Of course, I'm a guy, but still. There is always that thing, like a bad taste in my mouth, that just senses the dripping polemic under the suface. Or if your MZB, on the surface.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:14 am (UTC)
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Good feminist fiction isn't any more polemical than good fiction about war or race or class, I think. I mean, if every piece of it is shrill and wrong, that would be tantamount to saying that no one can write well about women having equal rights, which, um, I'm pretty sure they can.
From:[info]malus_servus
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
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I know, but the student in me usually senses the "moral of the story".

I think the biggest problem with this is that I had to read and analyze about five feminist fiction books back-to-back for school. Very annoying, and I think it ruined it for me for a while. All in the name of tolerance.

*sigh*
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From:[info]gamera
Date:August 15th, 2007 12:55 am (UTC)
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I am now wondering if I should start The Virtu by Sarah Monette, the sequel to Melusine, or not. Melusine is unfortunately one of those books I was very enthusiastic about at the time I read it but which I’ve lost the favorable impression of since.

I rather have the same problem-- I should never have read Sarah Monette's LiveJournal, because while I like her books I've found that I don't care much for her, which sort of ruins things.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:15 am (UTC)
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I can stand what she says; I just think it's weird. Like there was one post (I think it was there, anyway) where she talked about not writing female characters because they just didn't speak her, and how it was much more effective to construct a feminist story around a male character in a woman's place. That says, to me, icky things about why Felix goes through so much mental suffering.
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From:[info]sister_coyote
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:23 am (UTC)
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much more effective to construct a feminist story around a male character in a woman's place

That sounds... extremely odd. I can't even articulate quite why, but it makes me uncomfortable, in theory at least. I have not read anything by her, so I can't speak to how it works in practice.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
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I'm probably misrepresenting her argument; I know that, the first time I read it, it seemed clever and insightful. But the more I thought about it, the weirder I felt. The point was something like: More readers empathize with male characters, so make a male character suffer what a woman does, and they'll come to see that what women suffer is wrong.

...Except that I can't quite work out how these readers, who already have a (hypothetical) block against empathizing with women, will actually decide that the man is suffering like a woman, instead of being a suffering male character for them to call a woobie.
From:[info]lilacsigil
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:50 am (UTC)
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I read Kindred when I was about 14, and it terrified me into nightmares and put me off Octavia Butler for about a decade - not because it was a bad book, but because I wasn't tough enough to be able to read it. I found the Xenogenesis books a lot easier to "live" in, despite apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic scenarios being something I generally dislike.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
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I want to read Xenogenesis. It sounds like it has several themes that would intrigue me immensely.
From:[info]branewurms
Date:August 15th, 2007 02:50 am (UTC)
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I enjoyed Melusine and The Virtu immensely - they're not exactly high lit or anything, but damn, they were fun. Out of curiosity, what do you mean about her having a fundamental misunderstanding about the term slash?
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:52 pm (UTC)
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She was offended at a few reviewers calling her canonical gay relationships slash. She said that slash should refer only to uncanonical relationships found in fanfic, both homosexual and heterosexual.

...Except that, while it used to mean that, an entire chunk of fandom has moved on and now uses it just to mean homosexual relationships in fanfic. Trying to control language and what other people say about a book in their own space is usually doomed to failure.
From:[info]vulgarweed
Date:August 15th, 2007 03:33 am (UTC)
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I think one of the things I really love about the way the dystopian slide in Little, Big is drawn is that it is so very blurry--that very counterpoint illustrates how those who live at Edgewood are getting further and further out of touch with the "mundane" human world as time goes on and becoming more and more like the fairy folk. Really only the younger generation living in the City--Auberon and Sylvie--really experience it (George always has one foot in another world anyhow). And when Auberon tries to explain it to his family, he can't. They no longer speak the same language.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:52 pm (UTC)
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I liked the blurriness, but at the same time, it left me unsure what emotional effect Crowley was striving for: the muffled despair or something else.
From:[info]othercat
Date:August 15th, 2007 06:01 am (UTC)
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What's Monette's misunderstanding about slash?
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:53 pm (UTC)
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She thinks it should refer to uncanonical relationships in fanfic- both heterosexual and homosexual. If the characters aren't together in canon but are being written about as together, that's what slash should mean.

A bunch of people tried to tell her that to them slash just meant homosexual relationships, canon or not, and that's why a few reviewers had called the relationships in her books slash. She refused to listen.
From:[info]othercat
Date:August 15th, 2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
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...

She sounds very very stupid. But then, I write slash. And het. And gen. And I know the difference between all three.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 02:32 pm (UTC)
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The statement someone made to me at the time was that she wasn't stupid, but that no one who regularly reads her LiveJournal really disagreed with her, and so she wasn't prepared for disagreement when she voiced this. (It also got linked on metafandom, and she said they didn't give enough context to her complaint).
From:[info]othercat
Date:August 15th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
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Not being prepared for disagreement sound pretty stupid to me (or just very conceited...)

How much context would "I think slash should mean non-canon relationships homo-and-heterosexual" need?
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 03:00 pm (UTC)
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Supposedly, she was talking about it solely in the context of original fiction, and then a bunch of fanfiction people invaded.

Here is the post. I'd forgotten how topheavy it was with literary criticism terms, and the fact that I got what she was talking about scared me.
From:[info]merditha
Date:August 15th, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)
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Oh, right, that's why I couldn't take her seriously.

( . . . what? As an English major, I reserve the right to think ninety percent of what my discipline babbles on about is bunk, and the minute you start using its terminology without irony or apparent self awareness, I can't take you seriously.)
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 03:16 pm (UTC)
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The funniest thing is that she's also said traditional litcrit can't talk sensibly about speculative fiction, because so many of its assumptions and terms are unsuited to handling genre fiction.

Since she writes genre fiction, I am left unsure why she decided to apply litcrit terms to it.
From:[info]spartezda
Date:August 15th, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
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Ah! I love your icon, fellow Pat Hodgell fan!
From:[info]othercat
Date:August 15th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
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Hodgell is made of win and awesome. So is Jame. :>
From:[info]othercat
Date:August 15th, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)
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You should also read Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy, and also Fledgling, for they are made of awesome.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 15th, 2007 01:54 pm (UTC)
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I've heard great things about Xenogenesis but mixed things about Fledgling. How different is it from other vampire stories?
From:[info]othercat
Date:August 15th, 2007 02:35 pm (UTC)
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It's lighter, and science fiction instead of supernatural based. There might be some slight underage squick, as the character appears to be ten (but in fact, is fifty years old, and entering adolescence for her species) I liked it, partially because it *was* lighter (in comparison with Bulter's other works), and obviously written for fun/entertainment. (Specifically, the writer's...)
[User Picture]
From:[info]ide_cyan
Date:August 15th, 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)
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The Two of Them (which I love) has some interesting intertextuality with Kate Wilhelm's The Clewiston Test (which it directly references).
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 16th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
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Huh. I didn't know that, and hadn't run across anything saying so. (The only thing I've read of Kate Wilhelm's was her short story in the collection Daughters of Earth). Thank you for pointing this out!
From:[info]darkredd
Date:August 15th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
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Kindered looks entertaining; I like those eccentric time travel stories like Donnie Darko that don't feel the urge to explain away the magic. I'm also studying American history right around that period, so it would be interesting to read about in a fictional context.

>_< That Whileway story was totally my idea. Well, almost, but I still was going to write about a planet without any men. *sulks*
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 16th, 2007 02:35 pm (UTC)
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Well, as I said, the focus is not always on the time travel...more on the mess of what time travel produces.

I don't think "single-gender society" is one person's idea so much as a trope of SF. What Russ did with it that was new was show the women living happily and self-sufficiently on their own. Before that, the all-female planets tended to get conquered and wail about how much they needed men to survive.
From:[info]darkredd
Date:August 16th, 2007 11:26 pm (UTC)
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See, that's exactly what I was going to do! I had it all worked out. The women in my setup were going to be portrayed as self-sufficient, competent, and well capable of self-defence. I wanted it to be a homage to all the old feminist works, but hopefully with less stilted dialogue than Marion Zimmer Bradley. It was a proper feminist tale, minus the shrillness.

Let me explain my dilemma: A technical failure killed everyone in the men's cryogenic's plant of the colony ship, which was traveling at slower-than-light speeds to a distant star. When the women woke up, they found the men dead, but discovered an abundant and life-friendly planet, and were able to survive with artificial ensemination and cloning. The leaders went to great lengths to protect the environment, not wanting to repeat the fate of Earth, which was ravaged by global warming and several nuclear detonations.

Over the centuries, various nations formed on the planet, and occasionally they fought, but mostly they were at peace. In fact, when the novel starts, the planet is in something of a golden age. The population is booming, taxes are low, war is over, and the arts and sciences and blooming. The women have lesbian couples and raise their children communally. It's something of a utopia.

Until, that is, a group of men came, and there's a big war because the men are maurading space bandits who want the unspoiled planet with its population of potential sexslaves. Luckily, the various woman nations were all armed, and they defend themselves with guns, missiles, robots, and even nuclear weapons (not good for the environment, but something of an insurance policy against alien invasion).

It's all there! The all-female society that exists stabily and peacefully, but can defend itself. The communal birth. The men who are utter jerks, but are warded off. *sulks* Sorry if this is something of a MEMEME post, but I needed to explain it to someone.
From:[info]sparrow-wings.livejournal.com
Date:August 17th, 2007 05:11 am (UTC)
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Oooh, The Female Man sounds really neat. *takes note*

I didn't like The Virtu as much as Mélusine, for a couple of reasons: Malkar remains flatly Evil, and stuff happens offscreen to Gideon and Mavortian that is never satisfactorily explained, and some of the magic also remains fuzzy, which was acceptable while Felix was crazy but is rather annoying when you know he's now capable of explaining. And he does explain the rest of the magic very well, which makes the fuzziness doubly annoying.

On the other hand, I loved The Mirador, and you kind of have to read The Virtu to read The Mirador, the same way you have to read The Thief to read The Queen of Attolia. (Have you read Queen? I can't remember if it was your review or somebody else's that I'm thinking of here.) Most of the dangling threads from Mildmay's arc in Mélusine are resolved, Felix reaches impressive new heights of assholery, and we get a much more nuanced portrayal of the aristocracy, especially Stephen Teverius (and Shannon, of all people, is revealed to actually have a brain). And there is a new narrator, the actress Mehitabel, who in my opinion wins all the awesome.
[User Picture]
From:[info]limyaael
Date:August 18th, 2007 11:50 pm (UTC)
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Ew. The one thing I really, really hated about the book was that Malkar was evil, since all the other creatures/people in the book seemed to have reasons for their reactions.

I've read The Thief, but not Queen. My main reaction to the first was that the promised twist ended up being less twisty than I thought it should be.

I would look forwards to Shannon having a brain! I'm just not sure it's worth the struggle of getting through a book that might not be very good to see it happen.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 5th, 2007 09:18 am (UTC)
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I really liked Melusine, but thought it had some weird problems in the beginning -- namely how Felix's multitudinous suffering begins only a page into the book, when you're still like, "What? I dunno a single thing about this guy. Is it supposed to be HUGELY SHOCKING that he used to be a hooker? Is this revelation going to change things? Do I even care about him?"

Those questions -- at the very minimum -- should have been answered before she started raining shit on Felix, preferably with some character development so that we know who Felix is and care about him.

I wrote her a long and enthusiastic fan email when I was drunk one time, but I spent most of it rambling about the problems with Melusine (because the good bits were self-evident, and not so much worth talking about, went my thought process). She never emailed me back. :(
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