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Most of the month has passed and is past, but that's all the more reason to get on with posting about the last one.
Sean Stewart, Mockingbird
Lois McMaster Bujold, CryoBurn
Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand (reread)
Little reports:

CryoBurn has the worst of Bujold's titles (much worse in my estimation than it would be without wiki-style BumpyCaps), but it is one of her better books -- not one of her best, but good enough that I am satisfied with it, as the first new novel in one of my favourite series since I started reading it in 2003.

Astute readers may notice that Stars in My Pocket is the only novel assigned in my class that I reread in full as it came around, in addition to reading it in preparation. This was necessary because I wrote my long paper on it, but it would have been even for the class conversations, because the book is so ambitious and dense with detail.

(I want to talk more about my class, and how it went, and I'm not sure that I will, but I'm marking my intention here in hopes that it will galvanize me regardless.)

This is all a bit vague and fragmentary because I am tired. I am writing in bed in a small, aging farmhouse in Ontario somewhere which belongs to Joanne's grandmother, typing on the internet because it's the future; we flew into Ottawa around the solstice to see her family, and drove out here for Christmas proper. (Her parents, with startling generosity, gave me several science fiction novels and a tiny video camera.) It's my first time hanging out in the part of my country home to more than half of its inhabitants (I'd slept in Toronto once and eaten dinner in Windsor another time, but on neither occasion really stopped to look around), but due to an illusion of scale -- the city I usually live in being more densely populated than anywhere I've stopped -- I have been able to avoid being provincially overawed. I am more daunted by the more local culture shock, the polite, slippery mass of family tradition not my own (but maybe it will become mine).

I am here because Joanne and I agreed after the summer that we didn't want to spend weeks at a time apart from one another ever again in the foreseeable future, which I guess is one of the more active definitions of family. She is in arm's reach of me instead of time zones away, chortling and exclaiming over a non-fiction book. She just told me about Skara Brae, a ruin in Scotland of a 5000-year-old settlement where they had locking doors and sophisticated furniture. I am always excited by places like this, where we have the gross physical record of civilization but no direct linguistic record. It expands the historically possible.
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I've been uncomfortably aware for a while that people who visit my livejournal without being logged in are subjected to garish, obtrusive banner ads all up and down the right side. Recently, even when I am logged in, livejournal is sometimes trying to make me view ads when I try to visit other people's content. I find both of these things unpleasant and embarrassing. I've also been aware, peripherally, of another blogging service using the same engine with no ads and an excellent reputation, so I'm now writing primarily at http://garran.dreamwidth.org ; I'm still mirroring on livejournal, but you may want to update links or what-have-you.

Book!
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
...which was about 200 pages and took me a month and a half to get through. The person who lent it to me swears it was not a deliberate attempt at sabotage.

The main difficulty is that it's written almost completely in a barely penetrable visual dialect, or actually rather an imaginary post-apocalyptic offshoot of English. Here's an example paragraph from early in the book:

"Dad and me we jus come off forage rota and back on jobbing that day. The hoal we ben working we ben on it 24 days. Which Ive never liket 12 its a judgd men number innit and this ben 2 of them. Wed pernear cleart out down to the chalk and hevvy mucking it ben. Nothing lef in the hoal only sortit thru muck and the smel of it and some girt big rottin iron thing some kynd of machine it wer you cudnt tel what it wer."

I've never even finished Huckleberry Finn; this didn't at any point stop being hard work for me to translate, and irritating, like somebody singing deliberately off-key. (Joanne, who is dyslexic, looked over the first page and reported that she hardly noticed the difference.) I would have probably stopped early except that it had been recommended by Karen, whose judgement I respect, and I have a bit of a weakness for stories about post-apocalyptic attempts at community. The story itself was odd but kind of compelling, brutal and thoughtful and wry, and it was interesting the tension between the narrator, who seems to be trying to present himself philosophically but straightforwardly, and the fog of language keeping his story obscure and treacherous.

I've been slacking off a bit teaching my class, because it turns out that I can -- if I come in with not a great deal prepared there will still be a lot of interesting conversation. This is awesome, but I'm trying to prepare more anyway. We weathered Heinlein with a general enthusiastic political horror, received a guest presentation that transformed a lot of our theoretical thinking about genre and gender (I remain vague because I believe the presenter intends to publish), and wrote our first papers, worked out and instituted what seems promising to be a successful marking scheme. My impression is that most of the short papers are about LeGuin; the longer, I suspect, will be dominated by Tiptree and Delany (the former of whom people have been vocally very impressed by, the latter of whose fiction we're just now embarking on), which is an outcome I'd be very pleased with.

It's November. Maybe I'll have a birthday party.
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Hi, I've been super-busy, which means the stuff I mean to write about but haven't got around to is piling up, which means that this entry keeps getting pushed back. Or maybe it's less that I've been busy by the standards I'm used to than that even everything day-to-day has taken on the character of the busy, being new and in need of active attention and adjustment. Joanne and her kids have come home and we are all living in what was formerly only their home and now is mine as well. I will probably have more to say about the many changes that is bringing to me.

My class has now met twice, and settled down, apparently stably, to nine people. The second one especially had a level of conversation with which I am very satisfied, and the democratic grading seems to be going smoothly. I am kind of drunk on the power of being able to dictate (or to have already dictated) the schedule on which people read, and to hear their reactions as they do -- also and relatedly, to say effectively, "Before we have this conversation, go and look at Foucault." We start in next week on Stranger in a Strange Land, which reminds me of August:
Samuel R. Delany, [Trouble on] Triton
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (reread)
Jo Walton, Lifelode
Thomas Disch, Camp Concentration
Triton is a difficult and unsettling book; I'd tried starting it several times before this one and foundered in the first fifty pages or so, which would probably have happened again if I hadn't been doing so much careful reading of Delany lately. It still came across as flat and chilly in those early parts, because it takes a while to become obvious just how unreliable a narrator the protagonist is; then, as it does become obvious and they flee from that revelation into further and more extreme attempts to embrace their narrative regardless, it became unexpectedly compelling to me. It's about how if you are a selfish jerk who refuses to self-reflect, you will not be happy wherever you go, but it would be easy to do that in a facile way, and Delany does not; he evokes the psychology very carefully, convincingly, and with an oddly unyielding compassion.

Lifelode is Jo Walton's most difficult book to find, which is a shame because I think it's probably her best. I made the NVCL pick up a copy, though! It is about housework and trying to deal honestly with the people around one (especially in a polyamorous context) and relativistic time dilation in a fantasy world with meddling gods, and it's sad and gentle and exciting and I really liked it.

This concludes year four (!) of my book log; stats will follow. Edit: Actually, I'll just put them in here. Cower before the felicity of my numbers!

In the year starting September 1st, 2009, and ending August 31st, 2010, I read 55 narrative books, of which 11 were books I'd read before and 44 were new to me. (That's an average of about four and a half books a month. For a while I averaged six, but for whatever reason I seem to read less in the summer.) 34 and a half were by women (with 17 individual authors represented) and 1 by someone who identifies neither male nor female. 13 (by 6 individuals) were by authors I know to be people of colour. I wrote at least a sentence of review or description of 18.
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Leaving to Oregon tomorrow morning! Meanwhile, here's some more detailed stuff about the current state of the the Transgressive Sexuality in Science Fiction class, for those who are interested in following that. First here's the finished, or nearly so, reading schedule, divided into 'parts' because it's my class and I can be as pretentious as I want.

Recognisably descended from my original plan. )

Second, a prospective student wrote me a while ago and asked me, among other things, about my vision for the course. I interpreted this as a question about what I wanted to deal with theoretically and went on about it at moderate length, which I reproduce (with minimal editing) here.

A rather obscure discussion I'd like to have about genre and discourse... )
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It probably looks like I'm really late posting this month, but I actually just didn't finish any books in July. Lots of other stuff has been going on, though. In particular, my class was approved, I set up a room and a timeslot with the women's studies department, and advertised on facebook and various department mailing lists; as of today, there are ten people registered, which is two more than the minimum to avoid cancellation and includes five people I either don't know or don't know to be taking it. I don't think there's anyone liable to be reading my journal who is a current UBC student, interested in both SF and queer theory, and hasn't already heard about it through other channels, but there are still five spaces left and it's up on the student service centre as WMST 425R. It's in the fall term every Wednesday from 10-1, which is a date I'm very cheerful about, since it means I won't lose any weeks to holidays; there's a brief PDF outline online here, and I'll be posting some more stuff soon.

Joanne left on August 2nd to go to Ontario for a month to see her family there, as she does every year about this time. Before she was gone we made a plan that I would housesit, and also spend the month moving in, so that when she got back we'd be living together, which is in fact what I've been doing. By a fluke of timing she's never gone away while we were actively dating before; I miss her more this time, then, because I have no reason to already be holding back from the possibility of connection. I'm glad we're taking this step toward there not being more such separations after this.

I'll be taking my own trip soon: on Thursday I'm leaving for Oregon, back the 31st (two days before Joanne is home). I will meet Rachel's baby! And reacquaint myself with other aspects of Rachel's local landscape.

Being August, it's sometimes been hot, but this past week the temperature when the sun is out has been exactly right for me, not uncomfortable but warm, breezy and peaceful. When it's a day like that I breathe it in and it buoys me up, and I've been noticing that more the past couple of years, or noticing a change in my relationship to it. To varying degrees during the first two decades of my life I thought of and talked about the weather as something baffling and mystical, something that carried encoded in it aspects I was drawn to, but couldn't figure out. I think now this is because it had this tendency to show me at least the potential to feel happy and grounded, at times -- especially in my childhood -- when I felt very far from having reasons to feel that way. Recently, as I've been able to build up such reasons around myself, it feels good to be out on a nice day in the same way that it did before, but I no longer articulate it to myself as numinous.

Because of the people in it (most especially but not exclusively the two mentioned above) and how they reflect me back to me, because of social institutions like university and Windsor House, because of my theoretical, artistic, and ethical passions, and because most of all I've been able to make and maintain a space of personal safety around these: my life is so much better than it was when I was 10. I suppose this is pretty obvious, but what remarkable corollaries it sometimes has!

Accosted

May. 7th, 2010 04:39 pm
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Yesterday I turned in my application to teach my class, a day early for luck. I'm not sure what I'll do if it gets turned down after all this work.

(Edit: At the request of the commentariat, I'll clarify that the rest of this entry has nothing to do with transgressive sexuality in science fiction.)

On my way home I was climbing up this back lane which is one of the ways up the hill to my house, and a boy emerged from the bushes ahead of me, holding a hollow stick about the right size to be his sword. He was nine or ten, white, blond. He said something like, "Hold it!", but I wasn't sure whether he was talking to me; he might just be playing. As I got closer, though, he watched me, reaching back with his other hand to pick up another stick of similar length, and moved to block my path.

"Are you challenging me?" I asked, as I drew level with him. "Yes!" he said. So I took the stick he was holding out closest to me and went vaguely en garde.

I had reach, a little bit of decade-old fencing training, and quickly claimed the higher ground. He was bolder, more reckless, and willing to hit at my stick harder and more often. He knocked the tip off of it early, showing me that I couldn't just play defensively and expect my weapon to survive for long. I don't know what would have happened if things had gone steadily against me; he might have been willing to accept my surrender, or I may have had to run for it. In the event, though, I got in a lucky blow and shortened his stick by half, forcing him to close, and shortly thereafter I saw an opening and was able to jab him decisively in the belly.

He made a sound of pain, and we put up. "Are you all right?" I said.

"No," he said, in a voice reflective and resigned. "I'm dead."

I nodded, shrugged. "You were a worthy opponent," I said, since it seemed like the thing to say. Then I cast my weapon aside, turned, and hurried up the hill, because I really needed to go to the bathroom.
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The student-directed seminar instantiation of my class is looking more and more likely. My thinking about it is starting to infect my negotiations of academics more generally, examples from science fiction novels cropping up in the paper on gender identity (I'm supposed to be) working on right now. Not entirely by coincidence, I've been especially interested lately in reading fiction that lends itself to that sort of analysis.
Elizabeth Bear, By the Mountain Bound
Charles Stross, The Jennifer Morgue
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (reread)
Maureen F. McHugh, Mission Child
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
China MiƩville, The City & The City
Months are long sometimes! I remember those first two books but not as things that I've been reading recently; the back of my mind puts the LeGuin through the MiƩville in a block together and expects those to fall somewhere nebulously before. Anyway, I'm just going to say things (at more or less length) about the last three on the list, but I could expand on anything if someone were curious. (Have we been here before?)

Mission Child is my new favourite McHugh. I've only read one other before but I don't care.

I used to think of Delany as a novelist that I admired more than I enjoyed, but now on the basis of the last two I've read he's turning out to be one of my favourites. I first heard of him when an online quiz suggested that he was which science fiction author I was, which would have been in 2002 or 2003, since I remember writing about it in my weblog; so, in the tail end of my teenage. At that time I picked up Dhalgren, bounced off it within a couple of pages, and came away with this impression of what it was like: a plotless prose-poetic experiment detailing a series of mysterious encounters between an unnamed protagonist and a series of equally opaque others.

Turns out that's not what it's like at all! Even though it would be easy to describe it that way. It's full of undreamy specificity, a post-apocalyptic story exploring the way that, in the wake of civilization-collapsing calamity, the people still there immediately reconstitute civilization, as they work out consciously and publicly how to live together. There's a lot about being an artist and a lot about being an artist's creation: there's one strange occasion on which the protagonist interacts directly with Delany, which I would have thought self-indulgent if anybody described it to me, but which comes across both deft and creepy. There is a lot of creepiness; the book is partially also a kind of horror story in which the horror is not being able to trust one's own memories or perceptions. On the back-cover blurb it's described as a work of "American magical realism", which I'm not sure is accurate or is not an oxymoron; but it might be magical realism by Jo Walton's taxonomy, which holds that fantasy has internally consistent laws by which magic operates, while magical realism has magical things take place because they are emotionally appropriate to the moment. One of the things that Delany does with that is to build up a sort of vocabulary of associations with certain recurring images, so that there's a sense of the frightening and/or the numinous about them despite our never understanding what they actually imply is going on. This is difficult to explain without examples, but the examples on their own, isolated from the rest of the text, probably wouldn't carry enough weight to make it any more explicable. Anyway, I really liked it.

The City & The City was just nominated for the Hugo, which doesn't surprise me. (It's nice to be a little ahead this year! I already had a hold on Boneshaker, too. Of course I don't end up reading everything I take out of the library, so don't be shocked if it doesn't show up here.) It felt very Hugoish, by which I mean that it was built around a clever speculative premise that was essential to the plot, intelligently explored, and such a new and yet such an obvious story element that after you've read it it transforms in a small way your conceptual vocabulary. The specifics of the plot are well-enough done, but it's the elaboration on the central idea that kept me fascinated. It made me think a lot of Judith Butler -- it's about the performativity of nations, how they're socially instantiated and in that sense real, but at the same time things that could be troubled and disrupted by performing differently, which is precisely why there are such strong socially punitive reactions to those who begin to do so.

Which could lead me rather suddenly on a tangent about nationalism more generally, with reference to the recent proliferation around here of enormous Canadian flags and to Stephen Harper's distressing tendency to respond to criticism by saying that "Canadians don't care about that," but it's late and this here is a long enough entry for now, so I'll content myself with mentioning the possibility and go to bed.
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Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand
Emma Bull, Falcon
Diana Wynne Jones, The Homeward Bounders (reread)
JM Coetzee, Disgrace
The Delany was research and I really enjoyed it*; I've had difficulty sometimes with his novels but for a while after reading this one I kept wanting to go back and spend time in that world. (Which is unlikely, alas, since he doesn't publicly expect to write the sequel.) The Coetzee was for class.

(* This has not been a universal experience. It turns out I can't stand Spider Robinson's writing anymore, at least when he's writing about sex. I read over a bunch but not all of Callahan's Lady anyway, because I'm feeling dedicated and quixotic.)

I hadn't read The Homeward Bounders for long enough that my memory was more of a description of it than of the experience of reading. I've kept naming it when people ask me which books are her best kind of on faith, and in fact it really is one of those, in large part because it is (despite being the sort of children's fantasy that never even swears) so willing to be brutal.
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I have this university class I think I'd like to teach; I've been fiddling with it as a thought experiment in a lot of the time that I ought perhaps to be devoting to the classes I'm taking. (But now it's the reading break, extra-long so that my city can draw campus into its bright and public post-apocalypse.) My interest in it has been steady enough that I'm looking into sticking around to do something in UBC's student-directed seminars program, but in the meantime this post is still about the thought experiment rather than whatever real things might come of it.

The course would be called "Transgressive Sexuality in Science Fiction". It comes originally from my noticing that all the polyamorous people I know are SF fans*, which is not a coincidence -- there's a definite subcultural current in that direction in fandom, which may not have had its origins in Heinlein but he obviously didn't hurt -- and which got me thinking further about how science fiction has this narrative about itself as politically and culturally progressive while at the same time often coming across as very reactionary, and how both of these things are true. SF is a broadly counterfactual genre, so it has the potential to show us what it would be like if social or even biological norms were radically different, but at the same time it is obviously written by people whose expectations and opinions about what is possible have been shaped by the political discourses available in the society they are writing in. So I want to explore both the successes and the failures of imagination, and argue about which are which, in a bunch of works of written science fiction, where it comes to presenting alternate possible worlds around sex and sexuality in particular. The focus on sex is for a number of reasons, including that it's a big thing that I'm interested in right now and that it's something just about nobody is ontologically apathetic about; another nice thing about doing these two topics together is that both sexuality and genre are prime sites for humans fractiously trying to shove difficult edge cases into one or another of our somewhat arbitrary categories.

(* When I shared this realization with my Sociology of Sex class last summer, the professor loudly booed me; she later explained, mortified, that she'd thought I was taking a cheap shot at someone. This is pretty much my favourite way that a professor has ever responded to me in class.)

People keep saying when I describe this idea that it's kind of narrow, but actually I've had to narrow it still further in order to come up with a reasonable imaginary reading list. I've ended up putting four extra restrictions on inclusion: 1) Written science fiction, 2) SF rather than fantasy, 3) written and consumed in the subcultural milieu of English-speaking science fiction fandom, and 4) written somewhere between 1960 and 2000 (so with a focus on New Wave-ish stuff). Here follows that reading list, which it ought to be just about feasible to shoehorn into 12 or 13 weeks. It comprises three novels, ten-ish short stories, and three guiding works of theory (which aren't actually in the draft list here but I'll talk about them after).

In here, I mean. )

The theory would include one major reading each about sex, gender, and genre -- my current plan is for the first 50 or so pages of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, vol. 1, something by Judith Butler, and some of Delany's literary criticism, respectively -- and a smattering of smaller stuff relevant to specific works (like this!).

So there you go. I originally planned to post about this and ask for suggestions for additions or alterations to that list, but I put it off for a while and in that time got more set in it as it appears. Nonetheless if anybody does have an opinion I'd be happy to hear it.

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Andy H.

February 2013

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