Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book review: Lauren Beukes "The Shining Girls"

This is a book about a time-travelling serial killer and a woman who survives her own murder attempt and sets out to catch him. The most interesting part is that she doesn't even consider time travel as a possibility (the book is set in the conventional reality), but gradually comes to accept it, based on evidence.

The weakest chapters of the book were the ones written from the killer's point of view. Those parts have a detached, distancing quality. I didn't get any clue as to the killer's motivation. At some point he feels forced by the House itself (a house where he lives that serves as a portal to different eras) to go murder all those women. But he does not respond like an ordinary person would if they felt compelled to murder someone. At the very least s/he would be upset and conflicted about it. Even more so if the urge was planted directly in their mind by a mysterious force. That should make anyone question their own sanity, but the murderer does not seem disturbed. He is very nonchalant about all that.

If the killer had been portrayed in a way that readers could connect with him (and yes, to enjoy a book you have to connect with the villains too; you need to get into their mind and understand why they do what they do, even if you don't find it justifiable), I would have added another star to the review.

It is in the victims' plotlines that the storytelling really picks up. Each of the eight murdered women were interesting, different, and vivid. They made the book worth reading. It quickly became clear why they were called the Shining Girls. Each of them was ahead of her time in some way, breaking the mold of what was expected from women of their time. In that way perhaps the House could be viewed as embodiment of evil reactionary forces of the world. But if so, that metaphor isn't developed in the book very well.

The story really takes off when one of the women survives the attempted murder and gets on the killer's trail; as level-headed as she is, she is eventually forced to accept the evidence that the killer might have traveled in time to commit murders. I really liked that she applies every ounce of skepticism to examine all the other possible explanations, and only after exhausting them settles on the seemingly impossible.

I will not reveal the ending, except to say that it was a quite confusing. Perhaps that was deliberate: time travel stories are very difficult to resolve in a satisfactory and logical manner. Once you start dealing with time paradoxes, there is no good way out. So even though the ending felt handwavingly dismissive and intentionally obscure, it doesn't detract from the story that much; its essence was about the journey, not the destination.

Rating: approximately 3.5 or 4 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 24, 2016

ArmadilloCon 2015: New Feminist Science Fiction

Beside book and story recommendations, this panel on the best recent feminist science fiction and fantasy involved a discussion on what the panelists would like to see more in the feminist SF/F.

Feminist speculative fiction writers, recommended by our panelists

Stina Leicht recommends:

Kameron Hurley, Elizabeth Bear, Ann Leckie, Nisi Shawl, N. K. Jemison, G. Willow Wilson.

Katherine Sanger mentioned science fiction written by men that has awesome female characters, but it went by too fast for me to write down the names (-- E.)

Nancy Jane Moore recommends:

Andrea Hairston -- her work "Mindscape" really plays with gender stuff. Jennifer Marie Brissett "Elysium". Also, Aqueduct books. If you need a reading list of feminist SF, just go to the Aqueduct books page. And anything on the Tiptree awards page.

Kelley Eskridge's collection Dangerous Space. It has a character named Mars, and I defy you to tell me whether Mars is male or female.

Going into fantasy world -- Laurie J. Marks, whose Elemental Logic series starts with Fire Logic. Gender politics, war and peace, you name it, it is covered in the Elemental Logic.

Caroline Yoahim recommends:

Nicola Griffith Hild -- historical fantasy. She is a really intelligent female character. There is a freedom for her to explore sexuality in the way that was not available to women.

Tina Connoly: IronSkin, Copperhead, and Silverblind: steampunk Jane Eyre with fairies.

Nnedi Okorafor Who Fears Death

Nalo Hopkinson writes fantastic feminist stuff, such as Brown Girl in the Ring.

Short fiction

Caroline Yoachim recommends the Crossed Genres magazine. Of the notable stories there she recommends these:

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley "Space travel loses its allure when you've lost your moon cup".

Rachael K. Jones "Makeisha in Time" -- story of a black woman who lapses backward in time.

Alyssa Wong "The Fisher Queen" is up for a Nebula this year. It is a mermaid story, and some themes in it require trigger wanings. Cost of not speaking up against injustice.

Sofia Samatar "Selkie Stories are for Losers".

Amanda Downum recommends:

Kij Jonhson short story "Spar";

Catherine Valente's Fairyland series for children that starts with "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making".

What they would like to see more in the feminist science fiction

Amanda Downum. I am a fan of playing with subtle things, instead of bringing a hammer. I like Trojan horses. I like books with an array of women doing an array of interesting things. Not just having one special woman, because then it becomes a token.

Stina Leicht. I'm like you. I don't like having one special, kickass token female character to who nothing bad can happen. (She refers to Arya from Game of Thrones as an example of a female character that's singled out for special treatment.) Arya is great! She's never going to be raped!

Amanda Downum. I like the normalization of women doing things.

Caroline Yoachim. I like a wider range of cultures represented in SF.

Amanda Downum. I also have hard time pulling feminist out of broader range of cultures. (Perhaps she meant that it is impossible to dissociate diversity of cultures from feminism. -- E.)

Caroline Yoachim. The broadening of feminism in science fiction is a good thing.

Nancy Jane Moore. [I like that] We finally moved away for the reality where white male is the default, and anyone else's existence needs to be justified.

Stina Leicht. Minorities and women are historically not permitted anger. You're supposed to have a sense of humor, laugh it off.

Nancy Jane Moore. The same issue as with Sandra Bland dying in a jail cell. She was not permitted to get angry when she got pulled over.

Stina Leicht. When the Hunger Games movie was made, a lot of people got upset, because they were convinced that Rue was white. They thought it was not OK for her to be a person of color.

Amanda Downum. You can describe your character very clearly, and some readers will still sail past what you're trying to do. (I think she means that some readers will visualize your character as white even if you described him or her as a person of color, simply because white is the default to them. -- E.)

Caroline Yoachim. It's tricky. I'm half Japanese, and I write a lot of Asian characters. But you don't want to bludgeon people with the character's race. When you're writing a modern Japense American character, they don't have to have a traditional Japanese name. And people will automatically whitewash it.

Stina Leicht. It happened to Ursula LeGuin, the Earthsea wizard -- people assumed he was white.

Left to right: Caroline Yoachim, Nancy Jane Moore, Katherine Sanger, Amanda Downum, Stina Leicht.
Left to right: Caroline Yoachim, Nancy Jane Moore, Katherine Sanger, Amanda Downum, Stina Leicht. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

Amanda Downum. One of the things that frustrated me in science fiction is that people stop questioning. They have their speculative idea, their fantasy world, but then they don't question and push -- they just stop. They found one thing they wanted to write about, and they don't think that anything else can be different. You have a world you are creating from scratch, so why don't you push yourself to imagine more? Why your gender relationships are like from the 1950s America?

Nancy Jane Moore. Academic book "Brain Storm" by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young -- most of research that find brain differences between men and women are bad science. When you look at differences among people, they don't break down along gender lines.

Amanda Downum. When you're a shallow writer, you're a shallow writer. It manifests in more than just not being able to write female characters.

More book recommendations

Caroline Yoachim recommends:

Collections of short stories: "Women destroy SF", "Women destroy fantasy", "Women destroy horror".

Nisi Shawl "Filter House" -- another Tiptree winner.

Amanda Downum recommends:

Jacqueline Koyanagi Tangled Axon books. The first book is "Ascencion".

Caroline Yoachim recommends:

Maureen McHugh: short story collections "After the Apocalypse", "Mothers and Other Monsters".

Nancy Jane Moore recommends:

"Necessary Ill" by Deb Taber. Her main character is a neuter. The neutter people go by "it". They are neither male nor female. They don't have genitals. They do very disturbing things. It is a disturbing book , and that's the greatest recommendation I can give for a book.

Amanda Downum. Talking about characters doing unpleasant things: I would like to have a discussion about female characters doing unpleasant things, and how audiences respond to them.

Stina Leicht. Women are people, and part of being people is making terrible mistakes. It happens, and it needs to be OK in the books.

Questions from the audience

Q1. How do you like the treatment of those issues in film?

Nancy Jane Moore. 10 minutes of Fury Road was a great movie. Overall I think film is way behind fiction.

All the panelists agree.

Amanda Downum. Marketing constraints, etc.

Stina Leicht. And there are very limited roles for women once they hit 35.

Caroline Yoachim. Also, other contraints like race, sexuality. When we celebrate the broad range of female characters in the books, that's totally not true for film.

Nancy Jane Moore. The only SF movie I liked last year was "Her". It is not feminist, but it is going someplace really interesting science fictionally. And the best feminist film of the last years is "Obvious Child", which is not science fiction.

Q2.Do you have high hopes for Ghostbusters?

Stina Leicht. I really don't, sorry to say. What does it say that our best feminist movei hope is a movie that's completely lacks in plot? It is just explosions. A woman driving a monster truck. I don't like what Hollywood is doing where we rehash everything. Hollywood caters to the established audiences, and they don't take chances.

They mention Geena Davis institute for women in film, and it is doing good work.

Q3 (not really a question, but a remark). A movie that was very interesting from feminist perspective was "The Age of Avalon" -- about a woman who doesn't age, and the difficulties she's going to have. She comes across one of her former lovers, who is 65, but she still looks 29. And she's dating his son.