Dec 26, 2016

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

An interesting thing happened when I was about halfway through this collection of essays from noted feminist science fiction author Kameron Hurley: I was watching the movie Tombstone, a classic with a boatload of (then) young 80s stars portraying the infamous Wyatt Earp and his band of lawmen, and it just wasn't doing it for me. I'm not usually one for Westerns but it felt like something else was going on with my feeling of distaste. I do enjoy a good action flick and there were snarky one-liners aplenty, but something just felt off to me. About an hour in I realized that it's because the movie is just one big machismo-loaded circle-jerk. It's about MEN BEING MEN out in the wild west with guns and horses and gambling and liquor. The romantic story is between a MARRIED MAN and a beautiful entertainer, while his wife sits at home getting high on opium and looking oh so helpless. Despite the fact that women made the west what it was just as much as the men (and let's not forget the Mexicans, Chinese, and Blacks who were all equally active participants [not to mention the Native Americans who got trampled on in the process]), this story hardly includes them except as complications to a MAN DOING WHAT A MAN'S GOTTA DO.

Now, I'm not saying that before reading Hurley's essays I wasn't a feminist, or wasn't aware of the whitewashing and male-washing of history. But spending a week reading these essays about the abuse women and people of color and non-binary gendered folk deal with on a daily basis from both the world at large and the science fiction community in particular throws everything into high relief.

Especially enraging are the essays that detail the abuse Hurley and authors like her endure from within the SFF community, one you would think would pride itself on inclusivity. Of course it doesn't. Like nearly every aspect of life, SFF is dominated by white, economically privileged men. This is rapidly changing, though, as evidenced by the failure of the Sad Puppies to dominate the Hugo Awards when they tried to. More and more people are standing up for themselves and each other, speaking up when someone says, "I'm the norm, people like you don't exist or don't matter," fighting back by showing that, in fact, "people" are not monochromatic or mono-gendered. It's a big wide world out there, and we all live it in together. If those of use who are different never speak up, then those who assume we don't exist will never be forced to change their worldview.

I found her essays on writing particularly interesting, and important for creators of all kinds to take to heart. There's so much emphasis on talent that it's easy to forget how much incredible hard work goes into writing well. Even the best writers have editors. Hurley points out writers need very thick skin because every writer endures so much rejection; but writing is a skill that can be developed just like any other, and you CAN get better at it the more you practice.

My one complaint about the collection is repetition. I can probably now recite Hurley's life story from memory, so many times did I read about its progression. This is, of course, the danger of an essay collection along a tight theme. Hurley writes for all kinds of outlets and often writes about the same topic in different forums, so the redundancy isn't surprising. I did get a little tired of hearing the same things over and over again, but thankfully the different slant to each piece helped mitigate possible boredom.

While there's certainly an aspect of "preaching to the choir" here (who do you think is going to pick up a book called The Geek Feminist Revolution?), it's important because it serves as a notice to all those feeling along in the world that there are PLENTY of people who agree with them. Thank you, Kameron, for being brave for those who are still working up their courage to speak out. We've got your back.

Dec 15, 2016

Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig

When you hear the phrase "writer of the West," your mind probably jumps immediately to John Steinbeck, deservedly so. But there is another author who writes the West brilliantly, albeit in a very different fashion: Ivan Doig. Doig's milieu is the rugged cowboy West, the West of Idaho and Montana and Wyoming, rather than the sun-soaked Central Valley West or rain-soaked coastal California West of Steinbeck. Doig's characters invariably display an approachable erudition, a homesteader's know-how, and gumption to spare. These are the backs upon which were built the farmlands that feed America, and the gold mines that made her rich. Doig's writing is incredibly smart, with a nearly-British cadence that no doubt contributes to my admiration. As a bookseller, Doig is my go-to for that certain fiction reader who wants smart without snobbish, excitement without lurid details.

Sweet Thunder follows a certain Morris Morgan, learned as an Ivy Leaguer with a rather colorful past that (of course) comes back to bite. Morgan and his wife live in Butte, Montana, home to the massive copper mines that are helping to electrify the nation - the year is 1920, by the way. Morgan is tapped to write scathing editorials of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which makes obscene profits while paying next to nothing in taxes and endangering the lives of their workers with horrible conditions while paying them a pittance. The Thunder, as the new newspaper is called, is meant to work in concert with a newly elected state senator to right these economic wrongs. But a company that big and wealthy doesn't go down without a fight...

While it's not my favorite Doig novel - Whistling Season takes that title for me - this is still an utter pleasure to read. Funny, exciting, smart, it's just a darn fine book, especially on these wet, winter nights.

Dec 8, 2016

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

I received this collection of science fiction short stories through a Reddit gift exchange. Despite the fact that I adore sci fi short stories, the cover of a human head made out of mathematical equations intimidated me, and it sat on my shelf for four whole years. What changed? People started talking about a movie called Arrival, and a week or so later, I realized that the movie is based on a story in this collection. Intriguing! So I put it on my nightstand as my next read.

Whoever that anonymous Redditor was four years ago has impeccable taste. Ted Chiang's stories display an astounding intelligence and originality. The story on which Arrival is based - "The Story of Your Life" - marries physics and language in a stunningly brilliant manner, all while paying equally careful attention to character development. "Seventy-Two Letters" is another fine example of uniting two wholly different ideas into one consistent, unique worldview. In this case, it is the Jewish golem and Hebrew numerology added to an old explanation for how life forms, wherein each organism exists fully but in miniature until an impetus causes it to grow.

What's so impressive is how technically advanced these stories are while simultaneously being beautifully written. I almost want to hate Ted Chiang for being so damn smart and talented all at once; it's hardly fair to the rest of us that one person can be this gifted. I know that sales have picked up very nicely for this book after the movie's release, and I hope people enjoy it as much as they have the movie, and that Chiang gets the readership he deserves.