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Archive for July, 2015

The Middle Narrative: Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Interstellar. Additionally, this forms part of a series that discusses works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky.  Links to other entries in the series appear at the end of each discussion.

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Grace of KingsHere is my Grand Theory of the Arts: humans are pattern-seekers extraordinaire, and the arts not only feed and feed upon that thirst for patterns, they also explore its limits. The visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, are not just about beauty or “accurate” representation but probe how in a few lines or a couple of dabs of paint we see images that cause us to rings with emotion. It’s true that much of recent and modern visual art challenges the casual viewer–but that’s the point. Just how abstract can a painting be and still “be” art?

While Jackson Pollack’s splatters of paint or Mark Rothko’s luminous squares of color can sell for millions of dollars (and they are art, for they ask of us difficult questions), it is harder in the written arts, poetry and fiction and essayism, to dance on the edge of randomness. Even writers who experiment with grammar and spelling and language do not completely abandon it; the burbling prose of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, while not light reading, still drinks from the well of formal grammar. There is no serious literary equivalent of atonalism.

Macronarratives–plot and story–have more leeway. In traditional storytelling, the protagonist faces a challenge and either overcomes it or fails. Odysseus comes home. King Arthur’s dream of peace breaks apart. But as in the visual and auditory arts, traditional structures of narratives have been broken apart and reshaped. And though we are pattern seekers, and enjoy neat, tight stories of good folk winning and bad people being defeated, as far back as the book of Job people noticed the world doesn’t always work like that.

This tug of war exists even in the literature of the fantastic. That Ur-document of anglophone fantasy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, depicts the battle between ultimate, depraved evil and noble and humble good. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, a.k.a., Game of Thrones (and Brothels), takes the opposite tack. History is random, and petty resentments can shift the course of history as much as “good” and “evil.” Martin kills off his ersatz protagonists so frequently it’s not clear anyone will survive to the end. In fact, Martin is so intent on being the anti-Tolkien that his world is gritty and dark to an extreme degree. There is no sex in Tolkien, helped by the lack of women and boy’s boarding schools, but there is almost no consensual sex in Martin–the biggest exception being an incestuous relationship. (In a world with few economic opportunities for women, considering prostitution as “consensual” is problematic.)

Much as Martin rebelled against Tolkien, Ken Liu’s first novel, The Grace of Kings, strikes out against both Tolkien and Martin. Liu’s society, set on an isolated archipelago, eschews the Europhilia of Tolkien and Martin but also avoids the jury-rigged society of Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series (which I wanted to like, but failed to). Liu’s carefully constructed society echoes China during the Warring States period, with echoes of Polynesian and Mesoamerican mythology and culture. The plot revolves around two friends who become rivals: one a minor criminal and trickster who nonetheless brims with empathy and compassion, the other the gigantic scion of a deposed family whose devotion to honor and bravery devolves into tyranny and slaughter. Both men struggle with the question of how best to govern and how best to deal with one’s opponents.

While two men are the central characters, women do play prominent roles in the novel. Liu’s society downgrades women–this is no social justice fantasy–but nonetheless they have agency beyond the victim-and-vengeance themes relegated to women by Martin (the tiny handful of prominent women in Tolkien are variants of the Virgin Mary; the exception of course is Eowyn, who is a different virgin, Joan of Arc sans hallucinations). While the sex is discreet, especially the few hints of non-heteronormitivity, it is mostly consensual and joyful. As all artists aspire to do, Liu for the most part manages to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of those who wrote before him.

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Ken LiuKen Liu had a couple of stories published in the early 2000s, but burst out in 2010, quickly snatching up Nebulas and Hugos and other awards almost as fast as he could e-mail out his quiet, introspective stories dealing with issues of displacement and generational conflict. In contrast, The Grace of Kings has little time for introspection. The narrative is nearly all narrative, and swiftly moving narrative at that, with barely any adornment. Tolkien’s characters are given to stilted speeches, while Martin believes in revealing character conflict through talky and often obscenity-strewn dialog. Liu frequently summarizes conversations and entire battles, and covers in a single if thick volume what would take his predecessors three. In his short stories Liu’s prose is spare, but they are not plot heavy, so the occasionally breakneck pace of events in the novel surprised and, frankly, disappointed me at first.

But classical Chinese novels such as The Dream of Red Mansions and Journey to the West, which Liu explicitly referenced in his story “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” are meandering, picaresque tales whose plain (in translation, at least) prose and burlesque events veil their underlying confrontation with moral issues. In particular Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is a trickster powerful enough to challenge Heaven and sentenced to serve a Buddhist missionary. As they travel from China to India over mountains and across rivers, Monkey bashes hordes of demons with his magic cudgel and wonders aloud why it is wrong to slaughter robbers–after all, it keeps them from coming back and bothering you again. With its rapid-fire plot and its own internal debates about what truly defines a monarch, The Grace of Kings follows in this tradition, and I suspect Liu owes as much to them as to his western predecessors.

In the same series:

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized
Shimmering Kaleidoscopes: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far
Ancestors Watch Over Her: Aliette de Bodard’s Space Operas

Mad Max : Feral Orphans and Chosen Families

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

“Tell me who you loved, the rest is dross.”
— Oysterband, “The Boy’s Still Running”

Vuvalini

Note: I will not revisit important points raised by other reviewers (links at the end of the article). Instead this article will focus on the larger context of the Mad Max universe.

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I’ve seen all four Mad Max films. In my view, they don’t constitute a series but variations on themes beloved by storytellers (and listeners) since we acquired language: the reluctant loner hero; the creation of kinship by choice; plus, of course, derring-do with fast chariots.

The first draft, Mad Max, is essentially throat-clearing on George Miller’s part. Mel Gibson still carries baby fat. So does the film, a by-the-numbers Bronson-style revenge fantasy fueled by the standard family-fridging event. It’s really a prelude to the sand-blasted hellscape of the successors in which society has regressed to least common denominators: young men as expendable weapons, fertile women and their children as owned assets.

The second take, The Road Warrior, is widely acknowledged as one of the apexes of action B-movies and one of the cornerstones of the post-apocalyptic film subgenre. Everything is pared down to bare essentials: dialogue, scenery, plot, Gibson. The only flamboyant notes are the outré costumes of Max’s opponents, a blend of cyberpunk and faux-tribal. There’s a half-hearted concession to the value of forging kinship bonds, but Miller opts for the Damnation Alley alternative: the potential new kin are slaughtered like Leonidas’ Spartans, an inevitable outcome of the decision to act as sacrificial decoys. This includes the woman who may be too “feisty” to pass on her genes or attitudes. The sole named survivors are the Gyro Captain – Sanzo Pancha to Max’s Quixote – and the Feral Kid, of whom more anon.

The third pass on the by-now-mythic franchise, Beyond Thunderdome, split reviewers – no surprise, as it’s two films. One continues the depiction of Max as a cross between Shane and Moses. This culminates with his descent upon a tribe of lost children stranded in a pocket Eden, whom he reluctantly must lead back to what’s left of urban civilization. There are again attempts at kinship, but Max remains outside the cooperation circle: as with Achilles, whatever he does is entirely from/for his own sense of amour-propre.

But there’s a second strand: Bartertown, struggling to make do in a desert empty of father gods. Crucially, Bartertown is shown as viable (if riddled with inequities), not dependent on gasoline… and ruled by a older woman king. Tina Turner’s formidable poise as Entity and her Pharaoh-like hairdo accentuate these points – plus she delivers a Parthian shot to would-be messiahs: “Today cock of the walk, tomorrow a feather duster.” It’s indicative of the direction Miller’s thoughts were taking that he allows Entity to survive and continue leading Bartertown, even if she’s stranded in the wilderness like Lilith. Not for her the glow of resurgent cities “when they sees the distant light, and they’ll be comin’ home.” It’s this strand that becomes dominant in the fourth variation, car chase ecstasies aside.

Max Women

When Fury Road appeared to near-universal acclaim, its subversive slant was duly noted by endorsers and detractors alike. Max is a secondary player in this round, he essentially acts as a witness. The pivotal hero – as is made explicit by the male form of her signifier adjective – is Imperator Furiosa. Much has been made of her central placement; but she doesn’t merely incorporate most of the stoic loner protector attributes hitherto allotted to Max. In fact, she’s a younger, more palatable version of Entity – because her dreams are not of hifalutin honor but of community and of survival beyond brutal coercion.

Underneath the heroism (and notwithstanding the unsubtle discussion of “redemption”), Furiosa is a competent pragmatist with a strong humane streak – an engineer, if you will. Like Entity, she probably did a lot of amoral or immoral things to get where she is. In many ways, she’s an alt-universe Anakin complete with the Cain mark of the prosthetic arm.

Whereas Entity is the proverbial lone Smurfette in Thunderdome (as is Savannah Nix among the lost children), in Fury Road Miller reverses the usual gender ratio – and focus – of action films. Immortans Joe’s War Boy horde consists of undifferentiated bobbing blurs punctuated by grotesques calculated to arouse limbic responses. In marked contrast, the women surrounding Furiosa are not only many and foregrounded; they’re also sharply delineated and inhabit a wide gamut of individual personalities, each with full agency.

The matriarchal foundation of Fury Road goes beyond just the demonstration that Joe’s rescued wives are more than mere pretty bodies. When Furiosa establishes her bona fides, she recites her matrilines — and crucially, she lists both biological and cultural mothers. And of course the sine qua non is the appearance of the Vuvalini, the eternally invisible old(er) women, the wise crones who fight without fanfare while keeping songs and seeds alive, the socializers of humanity. The name clearly derives from vulva but there’s an additional possible cognate root: “ox” – vouvalos, buffalo, denoting stubborn strength.

What of the two male co-protagonists, Max and Nux? Nux, who resembles the tentative, forlorn kodama of Mononoke Hime, is both literally and metaphorically an embryo: someone who must be (re)born among mothers and fully socialized by grandmothers before he can be accepted into a family. Max, beyond being played by someone other than Gibson, is clearly not the original person/a. My theory is that the character played by Tom Hardy in Fury Road is the Feral Kid of The Road Warrior, now grown up and at a decision fork about who he will become long-term.

There’s a major signifier of this unique provenance: the Max of the first three films had a now-dead son; the guardian spirit of the Fury Road Max is a daughter – one whom he may have, who’s leading him, Ariáthne-like, out of the labyrinth of isolation and away from Minotaurs like Immortans Joe. But she’s not just a helpmeet: she’s an assertive figure who will fit right in as Entity and Furiosa’s descendant, apprentice and successor.

Miller may choose to revert to conventional tropes in the inevitable next film in the cycle. However, if characters remain true to themselves, Furiosa and Entity will not fight like queen bees when they meet. They will trade: Bartertown fuel for Citadel water and food… and civilization may rise in the desert, aided by the many mothers and grandmothers willing and able to weave kinship tapestries. And the strands separated by the one-father – the Polynesians used as milch-cows, the Aboriginals used as miners, the European-descended used as enforcers and missiles – will reblend. It will not be a pyramid but a web, sets of intercalated wheels of equals. But first among equals will be Furiosa, with Entity and the Keeper of the Seeds smiling behind her – and around her, the co-parents of the once-feral kids who will no longer be either kindling or property.

Mad Kids

Related Articles:

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations
The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female
Where Are the Wise Crones in SF?
“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars
Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men
The (Warrior) Women Men Don’t See

Other Fury Road Reviews:

Tansy R. Roberts
Laurie Penny
Jacobin Magazine
Leah Schnelbach

Images: 1st, the Vuvalini; 2nd, the women kings: Entity (Tina Turner), Furiosa (Charlize Theron); 3rd, the past and the future: Glory Child (Coco Jack Gillies), Feral Kid (Emil Minty)

To Shape the Dark: Table of Contents

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Comet-Hale-Bopp“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

As before, I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony.

All the protagonists are scientists who transcend the usual SF clichés about that vocation, especially when undertaken by women. I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves.  For those eager for more, the projected launch is early spring 2016.

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Introduction: Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

Let the storytelling begin:

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

After all our weeks of travel, those final few miles in a wagon drawn by ox beetle seemed the longest of all. The wagon reeked of peat, and the ox beetle periodically dug its claws into the mud and surged forward to free up the wheels. McMurrin, our dour driver, actually managed a chuckle as his insect’s motions flung me and Gwen back and forth. Gwen kept her pet project, a custom high-eye, cradled protectively in her arms.

Every moment I knew that we were getting closer and closer to haunted, hated Can’t-Go-Home Bog, right on the southern fringe of settlement, where no other botanist had ever set foot.

M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water

“Afternoon, Dr. Yamamoto.” The old woman looked up from the flower seed display she had been studying while waiting.

“Afternoon, Billy. How’s your mother?”

“Good! She told me to thank your partner for the lotion, if I saw you. Her hands are much better.”

“I’ll tell Hina you said so. And how’s your skin doing?”

The boy blushed. “Fine.”

She smiled kindly. “Good. I’ll tell her that, too. Did my order come in?”

She trundled her round frame closer to a display of wind chimes. Hina would like one of these new copper ones, she thought, brushing her calloused hand against the metal pipes. A ceramic frog mounted on the top remained stoic as the chimes tinkled.

Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium

Yora spends her first night in cultural realignment training thinking about the isolation of a life lived between stars.

The Tagli came to Ila, her planet, ten years ago, having crossed unthinkably vast distances in slow increments, bodies and vacuum separated by a mere skin’s breadth of material. Full generations had passed with no knowledge of ground and sky. And then they came, a bombardment of unfamiliar life on Yora’s planet, their twisting ships suspended over fourteen cities like itinerant gods.

Kristin Landon – From the Depths

“Rinna!”

Rinna Heinonen turned, one hand on the hatchway that would let her out of the family quarters, and suppressed a groan. Her fifteen-year-old daughter stood across the small common room from her—in her iso suit, fluorescent orange, its hood and mask dangling around her shoulders.

Rinna sighed. “Just where do you think you’re going?” Sealed in, Petra would be ready to leave Hokule’a with a minimal chance of contaminating the air and sea with her human DNA and microflora.

Petra’s long mass of tight braids was tied back in a ponytail, and she carried her backpack. She smiled tentatively at her mother. “I thought you might need a hand today.”

Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork

“Grandma, do you think Ada Lovelace baked cookies?” We were in her kitchen and the scent of the cookies in the oven had nearly overwhelmed my childhood sensibilities.

“I don’t think so sweetie,” Grandma Fritzie replied. “She was English.”

“Oh. Mama doesn’t bake either.”

Grandma Fritzie shook her head. “There wasn’t any good food when she was young.”

“Did her Mama bake?”

“Maybe. But not after they left Earth. They only had packaged food on Europa, and no ovens or hot cookies or anything good. That’s why your Mama is so tiny. We’re going to make sure you get plenty of good things to eat so you grow up big and strong.”

Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire

I have been falling for most of my life. I see my village in dreamtime: an enormous basket, a woven contraption of virrum leaves and sailtrees, vines and balloonworts, that drifts and floats on the wind. On the wind are borne the fruits from the abyss, the winged lahua seeds that always float upward, and the trailing green vines of the delicious amala — windborne wonders that give us sustenance. But the village is always falling. Slowly, because of the sails and balloonworts, but falling nevertheless. We hang on the webbing, the children and babies tethered, shrieking in joy — and we tell stories about what might lie below.

Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate

Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it – thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later – after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet – she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.

Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn

It has been more than a decade since I first set foot in Anketil’s tower, and three years since she gave me its key. It lies warm in my hand, a clear glass ovoid not much larger than my thumb, a triple twist of iridescence at its heart: that knot is made from the trace certain plasmas leave in a bed of metal salts, fragile as the fused track of lightning in sand. Anketil makes the shapes for lovers and the occasional friend when work is slow at the tokamak, preserving an instant in threads of glittering color sealed in crystal, each one unique and beautiful, though lacking innate function. It’s only the design that matters. I hold it where the sensors can recognize it, and in the back of my mind Sister stirs.

Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan

“Thermoplastic,” said Kavi, working her mouth as she considered our architectural model, “is not sand.”

I relaxed. If that was her biggest grief, then we were in good shape for tomorrow. It was almost one-thirty in the morning, which meant that only eight hours remained before our final projects were due.

Knock on the door. Then Zeenat popped her head in, her round sleepy face indicating what she was about to ask. “Chai, guys?”

“Yes,” said Kavi.

“I’d like to look over the drawings one more time,” I said. “Make sure it’s habitable. The design is only—”

“She’s trying to say no,” Kavi explained to Zeenat. “You go ahead.”

“So let Velli look over whatever needs to be looked over, we can go have chai.” And then Zeenat added, “My treat.”

C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery

It was a milestone, no matter what, and so the lab celebrated. Roberto looked abashed as they toasted him. “Hey, guys,” he said, fidgeting, “I should get back to work.” Everyone laughed. Their supervisor Ms. Thalivar called out, “How fast can you do the next thousand?” and Roberto said, “Well, now that I’ve finally got the hang of it…”

Luo Xiaoxing, the publicist sent over from Shanghai, went around taking images and videos. She squeezed past a couple of technicians and stopped at Edith’s station with her all-in-one raised. “Do you mind?”

Edith shrugged. “The company sent you. But shouldn’t you…?” She pointed with her chin to Roberto.

Terry Boren – Recursive Ice

1. Heuristic

The afternoon wind, cool and rain scented, lifted Bret’s hair away from her neck as she gazed down at the Isar where it slid green and quick beneath the bridge. Her vision was blurred and distorted one moment, absolutely clear the next. Her palms rested gently on the pitted granite of the railing. It was familiar, safe. But though she had done her graduate work at the Planck Institute in Germany, years before, she still could not remembered what she was doing in Old Munich. Something to do with her work? She touched her face, probing gently at the swollen cheek. The eye itself seemed undamaged, though the area around the left socket and the left side of her face were bruised. The cheekbone probably had been cracked. Her cheek was wet, and pain made the eye tear again, distorting the green park along the green river. The wind was picking up. Hoping to reach shelter before the storm broke, she continued across the bridge toward Mariahilfplatz and the frozen spire of its church.

Susan Lanigan – Ward 7

The man from HR was speaking. She could not recall his name, even though it glinted from the bronze-coloured badge he wore below his left lapel. That was because the badge always seemed to catch the intense sunlight coming in through the south-facing glass wall, to which the HR man himself seemed immune, even though it was hitting the back of Vera’s neck so precisely that she felt as if the rays were burning a line on her skin above her collar. Both room and man were unfamiliar to her. Employees from the medicinal chemistry division of Gleich Enterprises rarely got summoned here. But her presence was “imperative”, she had been told, her offence too severe to be overlooked this time.

Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One

Aversion:

Meherenmet glared across the room as she watched an attendant feed Amagasat dates and tiny sips of beer from a serving tray. Disgust spiked through her body. She looks like an aging child, Meherenmet thought.

Morning light filtered into the eye-shaped antechamber, bathing Amagasat in a soft glow. She shimmered in her iridescent blue robe and golden collar and wrist cuffs—all intentionally worn, Meherenmet thought, to boast of her success. But Amagasat’s tremors—that fierce trembling of her hands—overshadowed her finery. Meherenmet doubted that Amagasat could still dress herself, or even attend to her own elimination.

Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project

I was sitting on the porch of the End Times Hotel with Abe Willis when the message from Harlow came in: Ronda, we might have aliens. Seriously. We picked up a radio transmission yesterday from the Sigmund Cluster. It tracks to ISKR221/722. A yellow dwarf, 7,000 light-years out. We haven’t been able to break it down, but it’s clearly artificial. You’re closer to the Cluster than anybody else by a considerable distance. Please take a look. If it turns out to be what we’re hoping, try not to let them know you’re there. Good luck. And by the way, keep this to yourself.

“What is it?” asked Abe.

“Aliens.”

Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

The Anthropologist Returns To Eden

She introduced herself by firelight, while the calm breakers on the shore kept up a background music – like the purring breath of a great sleepy animal. It was warm, the air felt damp; the night sky was thick with cloud. The group inspected her silently. Seven pairs of eyes, gleaming out of shadowed faces. Seven adult strangers, armed and dangerous; to whom she appeared a helpless, ignorant infant. Chloe tried not to look at the belongings that had been taken from her, and now lay at the feet of a woman with long black hair, who was dressed in an oiled leather tunic and tight, broken-kneed jeans; a state-of-the-art crossbow slung at her back, a long knife in a sheath at her belt.

Image: Comet Hale-Bopp (NASA, JPL).

OXI — No

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

Tassos SunI cannot vote in tomorrow’s referendum in Hellás; the ability to vote remotely has not yet been implemented in my country. But if I were there, I would vote No. I was there for the first three days of the brutal fear campaign unleashed on my people, treated by their supposed allies as if they were occupied subhumans, as if we were back in the days of ’45 — except now they’re using not guns and napalm on us, but fountain pens. This is essentially financial carpet-bombing to remove an elected government and enforce long-discredited punitive policies. I have more to say, much more. For now, this will have to suffice.

Etching by Tassos (Anastásios Alevízos)

A traditional 17th century song from Máni. The last sentence says, “And we learned there’s nothing as good as freedom.”