Kamo and Pep Together at Last – Pt. 3

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And so we come to the final round of this “meating” of the minds. We’d like to thank our sponsors, the audience watching at home, and all of the voters who have kept Kamo and Pep in through rounds one and two. Phone lines will open after the competition for viewers to submit their requests for the next pageant to be held.

Round Seven – Sexytimes (AKA: The Dance OF LOVE)

Kamo: There are five genders. What have you got?

Pep: While it would be amazing if The Spy and The Secretary had a magical moment, especially as The Spy is a mousy, female historian and The Secretary is a one-eyed savage, no such luck. There is a relationship shown in flashback that is torn apart by patriotism, but it won’t hold a candle to five genders.

Kamo: I dunno. It’s only the one culture with that wide a spread of standard roles (though most others have three), and while the Dhai are well down with the polyamory, as a whole the book is an unexpectedly sexless thing. There are a couple of narrowly avoided rapes, and that dysfunctional married couple get interrupted in flagrante (though that’s arguably marital rape as well), but aside from that the only instance of actual consensual sex is a soft-soap PG-13 tilt shot of entwined hands and rumpled bedsheets, followed by a jump cut to coffee and awkward small talk the next morning. Do we get to count this as a theme? There must be no fucking unless it’s awful?

Pep: May I recommend The Barrow for that sort of thing? You’d love it. Nothing but hateful sexytimes. Aside from a bit of human-affirmation-through-naughty-words at the end, we mostly get kind of a censored recollection in City of Stairs. Saypur does, to its credit, have the sort of progressive marriage ideas usually relegated to SF (gender equality, term contracts, hetero- and homo- options, etc), while Bukilov is typically repressive in the way we expect religious communities to be.

Kamo: I should probably clarify at this point that I am in no way clamouring for hateful sex, fictional or otherwise. Though on the plus side this is starting to crystalise for me how for all the novelty of ME’s world it is in many ways quite traditional. Screwing isn’t something that fantasy has usually done all that well, and we’re following that formula here. Gender (and to a certain extend ethnicity) switches aside most of this is your traditional Epic Fantasy pushed to the limits of complexity and then some. EF with a new bass riff and the volume turned up to eleven. I think we can all agree that that’s generally a good thing.

Round Eight – Disco

Kamo: That said, if I’m being perfectly honest the first half of this book just doesn’t work like it should. I’ll try to diagnose it more accurately, because a work with this many obvious and significant strengths deserves better than such cursory dismissal, but it may well prove beyond me. The Mirror Empire took me almost a month to read and, even allowing for its length and a whole host of untimely distractions in my personal life, it’s incredibly rare that a work of fiction I genuinely like (and I should emphasize again that I really do like this book a lot) will ever take me that long; not six seven eight so many weeks ago I disposed of the similarly sized Matter in the course of a long weekend. I keep vacillating on the exact reasons for this, but ultimately I think it’s a perfect storm of little misfires we might usefully group together under the heading ‘Tension Management’.

For example, the chapters feel fairly short which means you can read at a fair old clip, but also means that you don’t spend much time with any one individual, exacerbating that ‘slow-burn’ characterization. This is where those generic expectations start to matter, because two of the key tropes present are the now standard Massive Epic Fantasy Cast of POV Characters and the sprawling, byzantine political interplay of factions, nations, empires, and entire worlds. This is a lot to keep straight in your head and is, perhaps, one of the more comfortable/convenient excuses for why so much EF defaults to a mediaeval European setting; it’s nice and familiar and lets you devote more mental space to the characters and plot. When you’re trying to create meanings for scores of unfamiliar proper nouns, having to make further mental room for homicidal perambulatory trees and quintipartite gender constructions and cometary magic systems is a touch overwhelming. On the upside, none of the swords had fucking names, which is always a relief.

For all that innominate weaponry though, the first half of this book is also unexpectedly placid. You get a rip-roarer of a prologue and then I think I counted about two more fight scenes in the next 200 pages. This is obviously a pretty crude metric but is indicative of the lack of what, in this Post-Ned Stark era, I like to call* the Flick Factor – when a character’s chapter ends in suspenseful irresolution and you find yourself quickly leafing forward in order to confirm that they reappear, if not hale and hearty, then at least alive and in possession of most of their major body parts. To be fair, this improves as the book progresses and includes an almost joyfully literal cliffhanger, but early on there’s a lot of talk and treaties and positioning and most chapters are wrapped up a little too neatly. Too many natural breaks, which meant that once the book was put down I was under much less compulsion to pick it up again. But pick it up I did, because most of what I’ve just described is par for the Epic Fantasy course. The label implies making a certain commitment for the long-haul, though if I hadn’t been primed for that there‘s a small but real chance this book might still be on the bedside table.

Pep: I had no such difficulty with City of Stairs. The first section roused my semi-dormant love of spy fiction and I stayed right with Bennett as the story switched gears into politico-historic fantasy. Much of this can be credited to Bukilov’s compelling magnetism, but Shara is also the sort of character that many SFF readers will naturally gravitate towards. Reviewer bias should be noted here; if there’s anyone out there who wants to read politically and religiously charged stories about imaginary worlds that are narrated by nerdy history professors, it’s me. I should probably try to pick nits about Bennett’s craft or technique, but it’s kind of beyond me right now. Book Two is apparently in the works; I’ll be waiting in line for a copy.

Kamo: The absence of nits and the picking thereof is to be applauded, I think, but unfortunately not something I’m temperamentally inclined towards. It’s a personal failing, I know. Despite all that however, you (singular and plural) should read The Mirror Empire, as its weaknesses are nothing genre readers haven’t learned to deal with and are amply compensated for by its strengths, which are important in needful ways. Hurley’s last trilogy definitely got tighter as it progressed and I have every confidence that’ll happen here too; frankly she’s set up such a glorious playground for her characters that cool stuff can’t not happen. Now all we have to do is think up another tortured metaphor for our joint post about the sequels…

Pep: I am all for torturing metaphors, especially if we are doing it in tandem. Beauty pageants are no fun when it’s just me. All the more when I lose. Speaking of beauty pageants, this whole thing just reminded me of that one story in the Apex book we both read, about gladiatorial Miss Universe. I digress. Mirror Empire is on my list, though I may wrap up the Nyx-and-bugs books first. I suspect our tastes are close enough that you (and many of the Royal You out there) will dig City of Stairs. Until next time!

[Go on, embed a video of You Can’t Touch This at the end. If not now, then when? 😉 ]
[I … can’t. Some sort of reaction to parachute pants and high top fades.]

 

*By which I mean, “Here’s a pleasingly alliterative phrase I’ve just made up.”

Kamo and Pep Together At Last – Pt. 1

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Kamo (this is how she fight start): Unless you’ve been dead for the last couple of months (or alternatively completely uninterested in contemporary speculative fiction, in which case YOU’RE DEAD TO ME! DEAD I TELL YOU!) then you’ll have noticed that both Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett have recently released new books. While I plumped for a pre-order of Hurley’s Mirror Empire our estimable host here at Two Dudes ended up reading Bennett’s City of Stairs, and so some kind of joint post seemed like the thing to do. Pep, as is his wont, will probably be looking to tease out themes and draw Significant Conclusions about The State of The Genre, but I am both more capricious and more easily distracted and I quite fancy doing this as an antagonistic Jets vs Sharks thing for no other reason than since August these two books have accounted for about two-thirds of my Twitter timeline. So we’re going to have a dance-off. We’ll drag the books on stage, whack some MC Hammer on the boombox and see which has the better moves and more garish costume. Pep and I will champion our respective books, or, since we’re talking about fantasy here, I’ll be pitching for Team Edward and Pep for Team That Other One With The Eyebrows.

Pep: Go Eyebrows. I’m all ready to dance, with a playlist cued up of Westside Story, “Can’t Touch This,” and “Superfreak.” (That’s the Rick James tune that Hammer sampled, for all you young’uns out there.) I tried to wear my old parachute pants, but they don’t fit now, more’s the pity.

Round One – Contemporary Hip-Hop

Kamo: We begin, as we seemingly must, with considerations of genre. Both books appear to be characterized by the genre-straddling that seems to be in fashion at the moment: is it horror? is it fantasy? is it science fiction or new weird or slipstream? Who cares?

We do. We care. Or at least I do, for reasons I’ll try to tease out later on. In the meantime The Mirror Empire slots itself relatively neatly into the drawer marked Epic Fantasy. We can be fairly certain of this because there’s a map inside the front cover depicting the conveniently rectangular landmass upon which events are set to unfold. There’s also magic and intrigue and prophecies and children marked for greatness and a metric fuckton of blood. (Is that the correct unit of measurement for lots and lots of blood? An arselitre perhaps? A twatgallon?). There are some vague feints in the ‘indistinguishable from magic’ direction, but as this the first of a series we’ll have to let those bubble along for another book or two, I suspect.

Pep: I care a great deal about genre, or in this case, the breaking thereof. I suppose the catch-all is “fantasy,” but for me it’s more of Cold War spy thriller/steampunk/political fantasy/dead gods religious horror. Is that an official genre yet? If John Le Carre and Immanuel Wallerstein teamed up to write gaslight fantasy with religious underpinnings, we might get City of Stairs. Very little of this book conforms to convention, so the one giant nod to fantasy tropes stands out like a skyscraper in the Sahara. That would be Sigurd, the sidekick and “secretary” for the main character. Sigurd is a brazen archetype, almost a Platonic form of the savage Northern barbarian. It probably goes without saying that he totally kicks everyone’s butt, all of the time. He is certainly jarring, but I’m pretty sure it’s just Bennett trolling the fanboys. When Sigurd is offscreen, things focus much tighter on spycraft, historical analysis, and the governance of empire.

Round Two – Pasa Doble

Kamo: AH-HA! A theme! I told you there’d be some. Because if the genre of ME is relatively easy to define, what raises it above its peers is the way it interrogates, subverts, and generally abuses some key conventions of that genre. And this means we must gird whatever parts of our anatomy we feel most in need of girding and discuss worldbuilding; the storytelling equivalent of Stuart in Accounting who never shuts up about his static caravan in Dorset and that one time he met Carol Vorderman in Tesco but is also the only person in the company who knows how to correctly file VAT returns.

Pep: Apropos nothing really, I wish the US had VAT. It’s a revenue tool vastly superior to most of what we have in place.

Kamo: Now there’s whole other can of worms. Given Japan’s just called an election at least notionally as a referendum on a sales tax increase, with all the promised fun a Japanese election entails, you’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly well disposed to the subject right now. Which is a pain, because I’m usually not so well-disposed to worldbuilding, either, viewing it with a grudging tolerance as, at best, a slightly tiresome necessity for the greater good of the story. I mention this here because while I’ve read, enjoyed, and can highly recommend Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, she does have an approach to worldbuilding perhaps best described as, “KITCHEN SINK? FUCK YOU AND YOUR SHITTY TIMID SINK, BUDDY,” which means that there’s inevitably going to be a bit of tension on this point. (Read more about Bel Dame here! And here!) Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s an approach that works for me more often than not; whatever else you may accuse her of, she definitely commits to the universes she creates and if you’re going to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks you might as well throw it as hard as you fucking can. Things adhering with a resounding SPLAT! in this instance vary from the overtly ideological (one participant culture has five standard genders, and even in those with a smaller range of roles the male-female continuum is notably mutable), to the innovative twists on the familiar (magicians wax and wane in power according to whether their associated satellites are ascendant or not), to the just plain cool (KILLER BONE TREES! URSINE STEEDS! MAGIC NINJAS!). This book has many strengths, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them grow from the mindblowing universe that Hurley has set in motion.

Pep: Coincidentally, worldbuilding is really where Bennett makes his mark. City of Stairs has possibly the best setting in years; it’s completely irresistible. Imagine a city of the gods, animated by their power and filled with all the wonder and beauty that godlike power can bestow. Then imagine the catastrophe when the gods are killed – floating towers crashing to the earth, lines of reality redrawn, temperate weather reverting to a natural tundra, the works. With this description alone, Bukilov is one of fantasy’s most engaging cities, and this is just from the dust jacket. The Bukilov we see is a fallen capital, ravaged by poverty and disease as the empire it once commanded is ruled by a former colony, the upstart Saypur. The first fifty pages of the book felt like a spy novel set in post-WWII Warsaw, with all the paranoia, suspicion, and tradecraft in a rubble-strewn city.

Kamo: All to the good, I’m sure, but I notice that you nowhere mention Magic Ninjas. This must count against it, I fear.

On the upside, it looks like we can also tick off ‘messy colonialism’ (is there any other kind?) in our I-Spy book of Discourses in Contemporary SFF. The scope of ME is several orders of magnitude larger than a single city, but here too the cultures are marked, and to a large extent defined, by their previous roles as both colonizers and colonized. The history provided for each culture is vast, even if explanations of the accumulated waves of invasion, subjugation, decline, and re-invasion do occasionally bear an unfortunate resemblance to the recruitment scene in Hot Shots (‘They’re the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize…” It’s turtles all the way down). The in-play cultures also all seem to have names that start with D, which doesn’t help with telling them apart. I’m sure there are very sound linguistic reasons for some of the similarities, but what kind of loon would base an epic fantasy on linguistics?

Pep: Very true, there are no magic ninjas. Boo. Or killer bone trees. There is a lot of colonialism however. Saypur revolts, then conquers through science and economics. Once itself oppressed, Saypur now attempts to control the Continent by erasing its history. All references to the dead gods, no matter how obscure or unintentional, are proscribed. The conflict between heritage-burying colonizers and conquered believers flows through and around everything else that happens in the book.

Kamo: This does appear to be A Thing right now. Witness the recent World Fantasy win for A Stranger in Olondria (Note: I really hope this reference is still current by the time we finish this post). Is it that new though? I’m not asking as a rhetorical device either, I get the impression that you’re much better versed in ‘the classics’ than I am. Is it just more visible than before, or is genuinely being interpreted in new ways that extend beyond transparent proxies for The White Man’s Burden?

Pep: I think it is indeed a new thing. People probably touched on it during the New Wave (the period of SF I know the least about), but I don’t think there was a broad consciousness about the whole colonization issue until recently, even in society as a whole. It’s probably related to the ongoing globalization of SFF, at last no longer the sole preserve of white men. I’m trying to think of books that really took on issues of empire or oppressed people, and nothing really comes to mind until the last few years.

With this, Part One comes to a close. Kamo and Pep continued to ramble, at great length, so please stay tuned for Part Two, to be posted over on This is How She Fight Start.

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2

With a wait of just 24 hours, I am very happy to post the second half of my conversation with Gemsigns author Stephanie Saulter. Please check the first part here. I promise this wasn’t just a clickbait move on my part – this interview more than doubled my usual post count and I wanted to keep it easily digestible. I hope everyone enjoys her comments as we dig in things more deeply. And, for those who haven’t yet given Gemsigns a read, please do. It’s well worth the time. Even better, the sequel, Binary, is available now in the UK and next year in the US.

When I read Gemsigns, it only took about five pages before I said to myself, “Oh hey, it’s the Jim Crow South!” I would imagine that this is a common reaction here in the Thirteen Colonies. I’ve seen you say that the European reception is different. What is it that people over there connect the book to?

What’s been really interesting about the reaction to Gemsigns is that every community that reads it relates it to some issue which is current and relevant for them. In America, as you say, it resonates with the black experience: slavery, emancipation, reconstruction as the backdrop to lingering inequalities centered on race. In Jamaica it’s much the same, although as I said earlier the post-emancipation path has been a bit different in the Caribbean, so the nuances that people pick up on are different.

(Although appearances remain very important in both. You made an amused comment in your review – and no, it does not make you a bad person – about the gems’ brightly-coloured, glowing hair. That and similar observations have been made several times; always, as far as I’m aware, by white folks. It’s worth pointing out that for black folks in these countries, hair is hugely political, hugely fraught. A black woman in Jamaica thanked me, with tears in her eyes, for making the point about how having the ‘wrong’ hair can condemn you. So even within the same national group you get these very different readings: white people read the hair thing as a clever or maybe not-so-clever SFnal device, black people read it as a forthright political statement.)

In Europe there is a degree of removal from the legacy of slavery; people do recognise it as an element of the metaphor, but the impact tends to be a bit less visceral. However what a lot of people here thought I was specifically commenting on was immigration, which has become a very big issue in the UK, and Europe more generally. There’s a narrative around people who are not ‘us’ taking ‘our’ jobs and living in ‘our’ houses and enjoying the benefits of ‘our’ welfare state. And the counter-narrative, of the data that shows immigrant groups tend to put more into the system than they take out. And the counter-counter-narrative, which both disputes the numbers and complains about changes to ‘the British way of life’ – as though that hasn’t been in constant flux since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is a very complex, very emotive topic, and it has parallels in the Gemsigns story as well.

I will admit to never having thought of hair that way. Mostly I just worry about it thinning. You seem to be a vocal participant in the equality discourse within the genre community. Here, many of the arguments and talking points mirror those in US politics. Do things have a different tone on your side of the pond?

They do, because questions of equality don’t generate quite the same kind of political friction here. Even our most right-wing politicians don’t tend to suggest that everyone isn’t or shouldn’t be treated equally, and when someone does let some horrible sentiment slip (as has happened) the public, the press and other politicians generally land on them like a ton of bricks. That doesn’t necessarily mean our society is intrinsically fairer – we talk a better game than we play – but I think there is more of a shared agreement, at least in public, that every citizen should have the same entitlements no matter who they are or what resources they possess (the differing attitudes between the UK/Europe and the US to the provision of health care is an example of the kind of consensus I mean).

What’s interesting at the moment is the way grass-roots arguments and issues drive political responses. There’ve been a number of really horrendous Twitter campaigns against women who’ve taken a stand on various issues; that becomes a big story in the mainstream media, and then politicians weigh in to condemn the trolls’ behaviour, and, increasingly, the ones who make threats are arrested and hauled off to the clink. Our politicians and public institutions seem pretty clear that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to threaten rape and murder.

From your perspective, are things getting better in the community? For every Hugo/Nebula Awards slate we have a Gamergate; it’s sometimes hard to think we’re making any progress. (For the record, I think that the book community is far ahead of other tribes in Greater Geekdom.)

It’s hard for me to judge, because I am so new to the community; until I sold the Gemsigns manuscript I didn’t know it existed. It was my agent who told me about conventions and genre fandom and suggested I go along to a few things and start to get acquainted. This was in 2012 – really, I’m that new. He thought I would find them welcoming and friendly and supportive, and he was absolutely correct. It’s a bit astonishing that I have become part of such a longstanding tradition so quickly, but I’m still climbing the learning curve.

So I guess I have two comments about how things are. First, the fact that I have been welcomed so readily gives the lie to the notion of an exclusionary, hide-bound, horribly conservative group who want to remain the center of their imaginary universe; but of course, I’m in the UK. Most of the horror stories I’ve heard are US-centric, so it may be that there is simply less of that conservative, exclusionary ethos on my side of the pond.

Second, I have bought and read and enjoyed and shared SFF throughout my life, and wrote a science fiction novel that I very quickly sold (and on the back of which a trilogy was commissioned), without ever knowing the tribe existed, let alone being a member. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad now to know it exists, I’m very glad to have been admitted. But it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. It’s a big, big world out there. One of the wonderful things about this year’s Worldcon in London was that it felt broad as well as deep; it understood its context within the larger culture. It wasn’t insular.

Finally, and in a non-spoiler way, how hard was it to sit on Aryel’s secret, just waiting to let everything out? I have this image of you fist-bumping yourself in relief once the moment finally came. (Great moment, by the way. Very memorable.)

Thank you! It actually wasn’t very hard – I knew I couldn’t drop that bomb too soon. If anything I was worried about the reveal itself: whether I could do it justice, whether I had the skill to craft it so that my readers would experience the emotional impact that I thought it warranted. In that sense the entire Aryel narrative was very tricky. I really get into my characters’ heads, but she is such an enigma. It’s hard to fathom the willpower, the sheer depth of character, that enable her to do what she does; until you know what she’s hiding, you can’t really understand how hard it is for her to hide it. I just thought to myself, If she can keep this secret, so can I.

Thank you, Stephanie, for the insightful comments.

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1

I promised further explanation of just why I read Gemsigns when I did, and here it is. As part of Sci-Fi November, a mutual friend introduced me to Stephanie Saulter, Gemsign‘s author, after she graciously agreed to be interviewed. After reading and reviewing the book, I had plenty of things to ask Ms. Saulter. Luckily for me, it appears that our interests are mutual, as she provided lengthy, thought provoking answers to my questions. Lengthy enough that I can break this into two parts! Very exciting. I hope everyone enjoys reading our conversation as much as I did having it. A big thank you to Stephanie for taking the time to talk with me. And now, we’re off.

I suspect that many readers here are not yet familiar with Stephanie Saulter or Gemsigns. Can you give a primer for all the folks out there who are going to buy your books for the first time after reading this interview?

Hmm, no pressure then. Let’s see …

Gemsigns is the first book of the ®Evolution trilogy. It’s set in the near-ish future, and has been mis-described as a dystopia: it actually takes place just as a period of intense repression of a genetically modified minority, the gems, has come to an end. They have not been granted legal equality though, and there are huge disputes within the norm community about whether they are really human, and huge pressure from the gemtech corporations that engineered and owned them, and for whom their emancipation represents a catastrophic loss of assets. The background to the action is one of massive social and economic upheaval.

The story centers on a scientist, Eli Walker, who is trying to come to an objective, reasoned view of what gems are and how the law should treat them. That makes him a target for everyone else’s manipulations. Zavcka Klist is the gemtech executive who wants to roll things back to the way they were, but also has evidence of a very real threat the gems might pose. Aryel Morningstar is their charismatic leader, who seems to both contradict and confirm all the fears norms have of gems. Gaela is a gem whose engineered ability makes her extraordinarily powerful and valuable, even though all she wants is to live and work and raise her son in peace and safety. That child, Gabriel may prove to be the most dangerous of all. Against this backdrop are rumours of gem violence and perversion; the fears and resentment of the norm majority; media scaremongering; political uncertainty; and the godgangs, religious fundamentalists who believe that all gems should be destroyed. Gemsigns takes place over a crucial week in which all of these forces come together. It’s a thriller. There are twists and turns and highs and lows and reveals and deceptions and chases and sleights of hand. People get hurt; some may not make it.

However, and in spite of the advice I got from a neighbour when I was moaning about the difficulty of bringing everything to a satisfactory conclusion, everyone does not die at the end. This turned out to be a good call on my part, as it meant I could write more books following these characters and their story. Binary is already out in the UK, and will be published in the US in 2015. The third book, Regeneration, will hit your shores in 2016.

As for me … I’m the kind of person who comes up with layered, twisty stories involving genetics and information technology and social dynamics and business ethics and what it means to be human. There’s more below if you can stand it.

Here’s a softball to start (I hope). Gemsigns is a book about discrimination in a post-apocalypse setting. Did you come up with the apocalypse first and write a story about it? Or was the apocalypse a necessary background to explain the creation of Gems?

Closer to the latter, although it’s not quite such a linear process; things developed in parallel. It started with a very powerful mental and emotional image of a violent confrontation. I knew that moment was what the story was ultimately all about, but I had to work backwards to understand how the moment came to be. There was a woman with a small child on the one hand, and they were in mortal danger from a group of adults. I felt like I had been handed a puzzle: why would this group of apparently far more powerful people have such fear and hatred for this tiny woman and tiny child? What could they possibly have done? Was it about what they’d done, or who they were? Who were they? What was this power dynamic, this imbalance, really about? I puzzled over it for a long time … years, in fact. And many other things that I was thinking and speculating about, to do with technology and progress and culture, went into the explanation I built for myself of who they were, and who the other people were, and what had led them to that place.

I confess that themes of equality, be it racial, gender, or anything else, didn’t resonate with me until I moved to Asia and tried out life as a minority. Why did you choose this for your first book? Was there a similar watershed experience for you or has this always been a part of your life?

This is going to sound bizarre, but it was only as I wrote the novel that I became consciously aware of it as a story of inequality and prejudice and the way different communities try to negotiate their settlements with each other. That’s probably because there’s never been a time when those issues did not fundamentally inform my life; they are so intrinsic to my understanding of the world that framing things in those terms is natural for me. It’s like the structural elements of a building – you don’t generally see or think about them, but they affect everything about the shape and look and feel and function of the building itself.

I’m a Jamaican woman of mixed ethnic heritage. Because I’m very light-skinned, and a product of the more affluent and educated middle-classes in my birth country, I felt what it was to be in a minority growing up; but a privileged minority. Then I went to the US to go to university in the 80s, and discovered what it was to be part of a different kind of minority: for once I didn’t stand out on account of my appearance, but my accent marked me as foreign, I was looked at askance for identifying as mixed-race instead of allowing myself to pass for white, I had to deal with assumptions that I could only have gotten into my elite university because of affirmative action. I was accepted into the small African-American community there, and both in college and subsequently I learned a lot about the black and mixed-race experience in the US, which has both commonalities with and huge points of departure from those legacies in the Caribbean.

Then I moved to London in the early 2000s, which introduced me to yet more cultural perspectives on the minority experience, diversity and immigration. I was working on urban regeneration projects, among other things, and for the first time dealing in a very intimate way with poor white working-class communities who have been really left behind by the shifts away from manufacturing and mining, and towards the information, finance and retail sectors. You have the scenario of brown and black children of first and second-generation immigrants often doing better academically and going into the professions, while the children of the white folks who initially looked down on them have ended up on a lower rung of the attainment ladder.

The takeaway lesson from all of those experiences is that ‘equality’ as a concept is very simple in principle, but hugely complex in practice. I think we can talk about the complexity without undermining the principle, and I think we should.

Stay tuned for part two, where Stephanie digs deeper into questions about the book, the SF community, and equality concerns across two continents.

Mason Johnson Guest Post

When A Review Says Your Devoid Of Charm, It’s Probably Right…

[Ed. Note: Today we are excited to present a guest post from author Mason Johnson. He has recently released Sad Robot Stories and is touring the internet with it. I am especially glad that he has chosen to write about the relationship between authors and reviewers, something that seems increasingly relevant to what we do. I hope everyone enjoys this. Thank you Mason!]

“Summary: It is Pixar’s ‘Wall.E’ without focus and devoid of charm.”

That’s the first sentence to the only bad review (that I know of) for my book, Sad Robot Stories.

After reading that line, my first response was to laugh. After that, I thought, “No focus? Devoid of charm? Is she talking about the book or the author?”

I laughed again, because, like all terrible human beings, I laugh at my own bad jokes.

For a blog like Two Dudes in an Attic, books are examined, praised and criticized regularly. It seems fitting that I explore the relationship a reviewer has to the reviewed on a site that’s firmly on one side of the proverbial line in the sand. With the Internet connecting people like they’ve never been connected before, it’s easier than ever for authors and reviewers to tussle.

It is a truly beautiful world we live in.

Acutely aware of this potentially caustic dynamic the Internet fosters, Goodreads shows authors a warning before allowing them to comment on negative reviews for their work.

It’s pretty funny.

“Ok, you got a bad review. Deep breath. It happens to every author eventually. Keep in mind that one negative review will not impact your book’s sales. In fact, studies have shown that negative reviews can actually help book sales, as they legitimize the positive reviews on your book’s page.

“We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review…”

It makes sense that Goodreads would interfere in the squabbling that might occur on their website. The site is meant to turn the solitary acts of writing and reading into a more social endeavor — ideally for the better. I’d argue that they have a responsibility to keep things fun.

But! Goodreads wasn’t able stop my mother from being angry that a friend of mine gave my book a measly three stars.

Three STARS!

Three stars actually seemed decent. I mean it. As someone who barely graduated high school, I have no qualms settling for 60%.

Word that my mother was not pleased with the rating got around, and eventually the person who gave me the three stars heard about it and, afraid of mom’s wrath (I assume), knocked that up to four stars.

Sorry, Lizzie.

Coming back to the woman who downright didn’t like the book, she’s lucky I banned my mother from commenting about Sad Robot Stories on the Internet. I’d thought briefly about comically reviewing this woman’s review as a blog post, but that seemed like it could potentially come off as petty and even combative, so I decided not to. I also decided not to link her review here (you could easily find it if you wanted to), because that, too, could seem combative, as if I’m trying to lead a call to arms against her (that’d be really fuckin’ lame).

The thing is, her review ain’t bad. Who knows, maybe her review is right. My book has no focus and is devoid of charm? How is that opinion any more right or wrong than the compliments others have given my book? If she wants to call the voice of the book inconsistent, then she should be able to.

Hell, maybe the voice is inconsistent.

She may only be posting the review on Goodreads, but she’s also a computer scientist who teaches robotics (or so she says), so she at least has one avenue of credibility when she says, “I just did not care about any of the human characters and I certainly could not relate to the robots as described here.” (lol)

And even if she didn’t, again what would make her opinion any worse than mine or yours?

As the author, I don’t feel like I have the authority to disagree. I’m done writing the book. It’s off in the world. My opinions at this point might as well be as valid as the readers, especially considering the fact that my feelings about the book will never be the same as they were as I wrote the damn thing — I’ll never be able to recreate that.

Interestingly, a stranger commented on her review in defense of my book. He likes the book and ended his response to her with, “… while this writer is no Picasso, especially as far as not being a pioneer, he is obviously a master of his profession…”

And, similar to my response to the negative comments, this comment didn’t move me. I appreciate that this person has taken their time to say something nice about my work, and that’s a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling, but in regards to the book itself, I have no idea whether the writing in it proves I’m a master of anything. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?

Mostly, I appreciate the woman who left me a bad review. Like the guy who had nice things to say, she spent her personal time to read my book. That’s amazing! The idea that anyone would spend time reading something I wrote, let alone spend time writing a review for it!

I don’t care what she said, I appreciate the time she devoted to saying it.

I’d tell her that, but Goodreads is warning me not to.

Interview with Katharine Duckett

Interview with Katharine Duckett

As part of the ongoing, but soon to be over, Book of Apex Vol. 4 Blog Tour, we’re very happy to present a short interview with Katharine Duckett. If any readers haven’t yet read Ms. Duckett’s guest post from earlier in the month, please check it out here. More details, posts, interviews, giveaways and whatnot can be found at the above link. Now, on to the interview.

Please introduce yourself to your fans. What should we know about you, your writing, your favorite soccer team, etc.? Where can we find your work?

Hi, fans! (By which I pretty much just mean my fiancée.) I’m the publicity coordinator for Tor.com by day, and a writer, performer, and Central Asian food enthusiast by night. I grew up in Tennessee, spent part of high school in Izmir, Turkey, went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and spent a couple of years in Kazakhstan before winding up in New York City. You can find my work next in the May issue of Interzone: they’ll be publishing my novelette, “The Mortuaries,” which, I’m betting you can tell from the title, is just about as cheery as “Sexagesimal.” I’ll write something that doesn’t revolve around dead people and the futility of existence someday, I promise! Maybe. Possibly.

How has working at Tor.com changed the way you approach writing and the genre as a whole? Does being an insider alter your relationship with SFF or give you any special insights about success?

Well, I started out working at Small Beer Press as an intern in college, which gave me some insight into the world of publishing and the diversity of the SF/F genre. At Tor.com, my position involves keeping an eye on what’s new and interesting in the field, and keeps me tuned into what writers across science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction are producing. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily altered my relationship with writing or the genre, but it’s expanded my knowledge of what’s out there and what’s possible as a writer just breaking into the field.

You wrote about the sense of dislocation you felt after two years abroad with the Peace Corps. How else has this experience informed your writing? In what ways, if any, does the exposure to new lifestyles and world views influence your creative process?

I find that spending time in totally different contexts always helps me gain perspective on whatever I’m writing, and I’ve definitely always been prone to wanderlust. Writing’s a lot like travel, in the sense that you need to suspend your own judgments and turn off your own filter in order to engage with someone else’s mindset and experiences. I’ve benefitted immensely from traveling and living abroad, and it’s been central to my development as a writer. It’s helped me learn to experiment and branch out in my work, to take a step back and consider how a story looks in the light of all different sorts of perspectives, to stretch my skills and take on new challenges without remaining locked into my comfort zone.

*****

Thanks, Katharine, for taking time out of your busy schedule eating Central Asian food, publicizing Tor.com, and writing depressing stories about dead people, to talk with Two Dudes. I got a sneak peak at “The Mortuaries” and can assure everyone that it is every bit as mind-bending as “Sexagesimal.” Definitely worth picking up Interzone in May.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

[Ed. note: While there are a couple of big articles in the hopper, nothing was ready for today’s publishing deadline. Fortunately, the soon-to-be-promoted Brad was waiting in the wings, ready to step up at a moment’s notice. Another big thanks to Brad, who will soon be getting his own photo and byline.]

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke

Let me be frank:  I loved this novel.  I mean, I really loved it.  I know a lot of folks say they loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but for me my love of this book goes to an altogether higher level of affection and respect than may be typical for the hackneyed expression, “I loved it.”  Sort of like, Susanna Clarke would be my #2 choice[1] for telling me stories late at night on a chilly evening, in front of a blazing fire, with hot chocolate, roasted marshmallows, and snuggling.  Or like, the amazing feeling when you find Mr. or Ms. Right and discover this person feels the same way about you.  Or in guy terms, your favorite football team crushes its most hated rival in the Super Bowl, and your favorite band pulls of a dynamite halftime show with no bad notes and all the songs you loved as a kid, and Beyonce has a major wardrobe malfunction lasting more than 1 second.  Yeah, the novel is that wonderful!

Not only is it a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century, it is a superb work of literature that also just happens to be a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century.  And it has an oddly compelling love story as well.  Even grumpy old guys like me can have our hearts softened once in a great while, and the winsome Ms. Clarke does that quite well; the reader ends up caring very much about Jonathan and Arabella, the fictional lovers.  Summary:  There’s nothing in Jonathan Strange that I didn’t find absolutely wonderful, with one major exception.  The book checks in at a hefty 782 pages, causing me to offer up this one complaint:  It’s far too short!  And it cries out for a sequel.  No, for sequellae.

Those who haven’t read it may ask, “What’s so cool about this book?”  Imagine Harry Potter meeting up with Charles Dickens; the two of them then amble down the road to the home of the redoubtable Jane Austen, there concocting amongst themselves an epic tale of history, chivalry, valor, love and betrayal, all with a magical overlay.  Toss this tale into a witchery cauldron of your choice, throw in a dash of Oscar Wilde, a pinch of 21st century postmodern skepticism, and bring a very competent author—prepared to invest about 10 years in a labor of love—who pours in a thorough knowledge of English history from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (the kind you’d only get in an English public school).  Then skew your plot just enough so it’s charmingly cockeyed in places.  Bring this concoction to a slow boil, stirring constantly for about ten years; violá!–you have the finest work of alternative history it’s ever been my privilege to read.  There’s real history mixed in:  For example, the mad King George gets his moment in the limelight; and the English war to stop Napoleon Bonaparte form much of the novel’s sub-text.  In the richness of its world, Jonathan Strange is on a par with Lord of the Rings; better, deeper, more compelling than the aforesaid Harry Potter series.  In fact, Jonathan Strange very much resembles Charles Dickens’ finest work in this regard—those who have read any Dickens will find themselves in familiar literary territory.  The only modern historical novels I’ve read recently to which I can compare it in terms of depth and intricacy are Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, and Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx.[2]

But like LOTR and the later Harry Potter novels, Jonathan Strange—though it deals with rare magic, cunning fairy princes, inaccessible castles, and damsels in distress—is no kid’s book.[3]  In creating its own world, a world that hangs together throughout, it’s equal to LOTR and to the Dune mythos as well, as well as more outre works of science fiction or fantasy like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy[4] or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (works which remind me of each other—but that’s a subject for another—as yet unwritten—review).

This glorious novel is set in an England where magic exists but has gone dormant.  In a wonderful scene, conjuring up something oh-so-typically-English, the book opens with a meeting of the City of York Society of Magicians.  But the Society’s members don’t actually do magic.  In proper English fashion, they present to each other lengthy scholarly disquisitions about magic as it once existed, complete with footnotes, arcane quotes from foreign languages and obscure reference works (all of which Ms. Clarke duly cites in footnotes of her own, set out in proper scholarly fashion), and good old 18th century English stuffiness.  What could be more blue-blooded?

It takes Mr. Norrell (we never learn his first name) to show the York Magicians what real magic is.  And he creates a sensation.  Riding on the crest of his fame, he moves to London, where he becomes the toast of the town.  Reluctantly, he takes Jonathan Strange as a pupil, a pupil who will finally become the master (and where have we found that plot device before?).  Norrell and Strange complement each other, but also become rivals, because each has a different magical ethos.  That difference forms the heart and soul of this riveting book.  I won’t give away more than that—no spoilers here!  If you haven’t yet read the book, go for it.  (As a bookseller, I have it on good authority that new or like new copies of the hardbound edition can be found in many remainder bins or on-line at reduced prices.  You really have no excuse not to read this wonderful book!)

From now on, when we talk about the fictional worlds that mean something to us, that shape our personal identities, that resonate with our “real world,” we must add to Middle Earth, Dune, Hogwart’s, “a galaxy far, far away,” and 221B Baker Street, that achingly beautiful England chockablock full of strange magic, inhabited by Messrs. Strange and Norrell.  We must hope that Jonathan can dispel the Darkness and return to his beloved Arabella.  We must hope the good Ms. Clarke comes up with a true sequel to Jonathan Strange, one that has a happy ending.  Finally, we must believe (as all good children know in their heart of hearts) that magic is real, and can heal us like, well, like . . . magic.

Rating:  The World Cup finals!  I cannot recommend this magical book highly enough.  Buy it, read it, read it to your older kids, re-read it, immerse yourself in Susanna Clarke’s wonderful world of magic, and regret that our oh-so-skeptical age has marginalized magic—the magic that exists in each person.  Invite Messrs. Strange and Norrell into your home; they will be very good, polite, English guests, and you will enjoy their odd company immensely.

Musical inspiration:  No metal here, death or otherwise.  I wrote the first draft this review listening to Pat Metheny’s The Way Up; and did the re-write listening to Metheny’s magical and heartbreakingly beautiful song “Más Allá” (“Beyond”), from an earlier album, The First Circle.  I especially recommend the version with Argentinian vocalist/bassist Pedro Aznar performing with the Aca Seca Trio, found on You Tube at this URL:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWKPK-mZZWE&feature=share.  Aznar was Metheny’s vocalist for a time, and wrote the Spanish lyrics for this haunting tune.


[1]The #1 choice for this difficult duty is Brad’s significant other, since even grumpy footie coaches need lovin’.

[2]The Quincunx and An Instance of the Fingerpost are not a fantasy or sci-fi novels; they’re historical fiction.  Moreover, they are very good historical fiction.  When you, gentle reader, tire of either sci-fi or fantasy (assuming something so horrible could ever occur!), I highly recommend either book (or both) as worthy of your consideration.  (NB:  The OED defines “quincunx” as “an arrangement of five objects in a square or rectangle in which four occupy the corners and one the center.”  Such a pattern is the key to understanding Palliser’s multi-leveled novel, as well as a worthy metaphor for the novel itself.)  Much as I’d like to do so, I won’t ask Pep for leave to review either fine work in this esteemed blog, having exhausted my visitor’s privileges on non-fantasy/sci-fi by reviewing The Club Dumas a few weeks ago.  And I won’t even bother to ask José; he would simply utter an unintelligible growl, or try to poke my eyes out.  (Second NB:  If you find well-done historical fiction enjoyable, I understand Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall is also worth the time and effort.  I have the book, but have not yet had time to read it—too many cheesy vampire novels, too little time!)

[3]Thankfully, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a great children’s book!  Read a chapter a night to your kids.  All of you will be glad you did.  They’ll find LOTR on their own when they’re ready for it.

[4]Which Pep swears he will someday review on this esteemed blog—if he doesn’t, I’ll either do it myself or send José and his “magic fingers” after Pep.