Now we’re out of my non-English vacation reading and back into English territory with The Seep, the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s selection for October.
Straight off, I really liked The Seep. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one marathon session was because I started reading it in the middle of the night and exhaustion eventually overtook me. To get into slightly more detail, The Seep uses the framework of first-contact and utopia genres to examine grief, how it feels to be left behind by seismic shifts in society, and which struggles are worth having. It’s also very queer, very trippy, and very short: the perfect book for getting out of a reading slump.
By the time you read this, I’ll have been in Östersund for several days. With any luck, I’ll have already finished one of the books on this list. Nothing like a long vacation to really dig into some tricky reading.
Rules for Radicals
Världen av i går
La Gloire de mon père
Le Château de ma mère
I also have an issue of Karavanwith me for train reading. Even though I randomly stumbled on the magazine several years ago, I only got around to subscribing last week. Goes to show where my head’s been, I suppose.
I picked up Bellwether entirely on a whim. I was at The English Bookshop in Stockholm with time to kill and I recognized Connie Willis’s name from The Doomsday Book, which I had enjoyed immensely in high school. Chaos theory? Sheep? Sure, why not!
I don’t quite regret reading this, since Willis is a wordsmith par exellence and the story itself is breezy and cute. Our narrator is a scientist at your generic corporate research lab, researching fads and their causes. A series of events lead her to meet and collaborate with another scientist focusing on chaos theory. There’s a lot of snark, a lot of mishaps, but eventually our heroine winds up with her hero, wins the grant, and comes to a breakthrough in her fad research, all in one fell swoop. It’s a science fiction screwball comedy.
But Bellwether is also a very dated book. A brash young person once asked Connie Willis to put out her cigarette in the 90s and she decided to write a whole book about it. Okay, I can’t know that happened, but it sure seems like it. Willis’s bile for The Youths and the anti-smoking movement, at first incidental in the story, become pervasive and inescapable through lines that make a lighthearted romantic comedy much less palatable. (I complained about this to my boyfriend, who was willing to cut Willis some slack…but then he picked up the book and opened to a random page and immediately lighted upon a rant about smoke-free environments. “Oh, I see what you mean.”) The Youths see some redemption in the end, from a narrative perspective, but the rage and incidental conflicts stemming from smoke-free workplaces are entirely irrelevant to the plot. And the rage is palpable.
Nor has time been kind to that particular element of the book. The narrator (and, presumably, Willis) write off the anti-smoking movement as a fad on par with Kewpie dolls or prohibition, which is a weird thing to read 25 years later, now that fewer people smoke and that the anti-smoking public health campaign seems to have made a permanent cultural difference. It’s enough to make me wish that someone would put out a revised edition of Bellwether with all the screeds about not being allowed to smoke edited out. More than Power Rangers, fax machines, or Barney, that’s what dates the book the most, and is the one thing that keeps me from recommending the book wholeheartedly. It’s not hurtful or offensive, it’s just embarrassing. Go read Doomsday Book instead, it makes a much better first impression.
Once in a while I like to revisit things I hated when I was younger, usually in the form of either books or food. Sometimes I leave with my aversion even more fully cemented (still hate ham, still hate Nightwood) and sometimes I discover that my palate has sophisticated in the intervening years.
Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those authors, to my shame as a science fiction fan. My first encounter with her was when I was too young and too impatient to really appreciate the complexity of what she was doing: I had to read The Tombs of Atuan for an extracurricular reading event in middle school. I didn’t enjoy the experience, to the point where I gave up midway through the book—unusual for me, especially at that age. A few years later I gave The Dispossessed a try. It was a fancy edition from the Science Fiction Classics series put out by Easton Press, with leather binding and shiny gold trim. Despite the luxurious trappings, once again my brain wasn’t having it.
But this tale has a happy ending! Well into adulthood, the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picked The Dispossessed and I liked it just fine. Maybe my prefrontal cortex just needed to finish developing. Who knows.
And here’s the happy postscript to the above happy ending. The two founding members of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club were married in 2021 and, as a sort of long-distance wedding favor, sent all of their originally intended guests random science fiction paperbacks that one or both of them had really liked. This is how I came into possession of The Left Hand of Darkness.
There is a lot of intrigue in The Left Hand of Darkness, and from what I recall in The Dispossessed as well, and maybe that’s what kept my brain from taking to Le Guin to begin with. I’m a simple creature, naive and without guile. All of the political maneuvering in both books is lost on me, but I can still enjoy the complexity of the societies Le Guin creates, whether it’s anarchist collectives of Anarres or the ambisexual population of Winter. And considering our shifting and broadening cultural understanding of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness is a particularly apt example to revisit right now.
Someone in one of the more obscure online corners I haunt was waxing nostalgic about Monica Furlong’s Wise Child a few months ago. My interest was piqued, since it sounded like something I would have loved as a middle schooler, and luckily I was able to find a copy without much trouble at all.
After the death of her grandmother and without other family who can support her, the eponymous nine-year-old protagonist in Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, the village cailleach. Over the course of the book, Juniper helps Wise Child transform from a bit of a brat into someone more considerate, thoughtful and self-sufficient. She also teaches Wise Child the healing arts and some of the basics of magic to prepare her for becoming a witch, what Juniper calls a doran.
The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. There is certainly a fantastical element but, like Cooper, Furlong keeps the magic grounded in Scottish folklore (or at least appears to, I’m no expert). The prose is a delight to read, even as an adult. Furlong also has an informed understanding of everyday life in medieval Scotland, always specific in her description of foods, textiles, and buildings. This isn’t hand-wavey Ren Faire style Ye Olde Europe.
Unlike The Dark is Rising, and most other fantasy novels, the story in Wise Child is fairly low stakes. The conflict is entirely interpersonal—rivalry between Juniper and Wise Child’s mother, Maeve; the village priest’s animosity towards Juniper. That’s all pretty small potatoes compared to the thousand years of darkness, hurricanes a-blowin’ and rivers overflowin’, cats and dogs living together mass hysteria you usually expect in the genre. This probably accounts for the difference between the distinct characterization of Wise Child versus the sort of bland everyman (everyboy?) of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. When you’re coming up against the end of the world, the drama overshadows the characters and flattens them. But for interpersonal conflicts and personal development, you need nuanced, layered characters.
I don’t know how I missed this gem as a child. I would have seen a lot of myself in the awkward and precocious Wise Child, I’m sure. As an adult, it was refreshing to dip my toe back in the kind of middle grade reading that wasn’t trying to stealth market to adults (what’s up Young Adult) but that also didn’t condescend to its younger demographic. Wise Child was exactly the light summer reading I needed in a world that’s going up in flames.
Sisters of the Vast Black was a long-time suggestion from one member of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Club and it finally made it to the agenda for our July meeting last Sunday.
Science fiction is usually pretty critical of religion, especially contemporary established religions like Roman Catholicism, so it’s interesting to see a book take it seriously. Not so much for its cosmology or morality, but for the importance it plays in people’s lives, the good it can inspire them to do, and the soft power it can wield in the name of international (or in this case, interstellar) relations and colonization.
Sisters follows a small spaceship of nuns who find themselves caught up in political intrigue, with a potent biological weapon (and its cure) at stake. Also, their ship is a giant sentient slug who has suddenly imprinted on a mate and needs to change course drastically. And because they’re nuns, of course there’s at least one crisis of faith and a character on the run from a very sinister past.
This was a fun read because the world was so creative and rife with interesting thought experiments, but in the end there were a few too many ideas crammed into the space of one novella. (Rather mentions in her acknowledgments that this started as a short story, which must have been very crowded indeed!) A longer book, or fewer plot threads, would have allowed Rather to give each idea the consideration it deserves and to tie everything together a bit more seamlessly. Maybe the sequel will do just that.
I’m back from a whirlwind vacation in Paris, my first-ever trip to The Continent proper. I quickly realized that tourism in The City of Light leans a great deal on its literary history: the exclusive, posh Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris; the ascension of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore into sightseeing destinations; the queue to get into Shakespeare and Company. This isn’t a post about my vacation, though. It’s about a book I bought (and read) in Paris. I mention Paris and my vacation because that’s the only reason this book fell into my lap. I was unaware of it, wasn’t looking for it, and wasn’t necessarily intending to ever read it.
Even though my travel companions and I stopped by Shakespeare and Company shortly after it opened for the day on a Thursday, the store was already crowded. Between the jostles and the bumps of people, and the knowledge that there was likely a queue building outside, it was hard to get into the mindset of leisurely browsing the books. In the stress of the moment I decided to focus on getting something either in French or about Paris, rather than something I could buy any old time. Et voilà: A Waiter in Paris.
Edward Chisholm and his girlfriend move from London to Paris and he decides, for nebulous “I’m going to prove something to myself” reasons, to become a waiter. A Waiter in Paris is his account of an eight-month stint at a fashionable bistro and a book-length expansion on his 2013 piece for the New York Times, “Notes from a Parisian Kitchen.” (Link is to an unpaywalled PDF version for your ease of reading.) Less generously, it’s an overly self-serious version of Rob McKittrick’s 2005 comedy Waiting.
A Waiter in Paris has glowing reviews everywhere. Publishers Weekly, Radio New Zealand…even the 3-star reviews on GoodReads are still faintly positive. Most of them seem spellbound by one, or both, of the following:
Chisholm’s depiction of the labor conditions in a French bistro
Chisholm’s observations of French (or at least Parisian) society
While I won’t fault reviewers who haven’t lived or worked in Paris, I’m concerned that anyone in the Year of Our Lord 2022 could be genuinely shocked and appalled at restaurant labor practices. Did anyone writing these reviews ever work a service job?
Bereft of the one-two punch of “working class tourism” and “cultural observations,” there isn’t much left of interest in A Waiter in Paris. Chisholm’s writing is fluid and readable, certainly, but there are a couple tics he has that border on purple prose (overblown Greek mythological allusions) or just plain “trying too hard” (too many attempts to work “liberté, égalité, fraternité” references into the narrative). He also cites Down and Out in Paris and London as a major influence, which—never remind people in the middle of your own book that there’s a better one they could be reading instead. You’re only going to invite an unfavorable comparison.
The unfavorable comparison in this case is that Chisholm could learn a thing or two from Orwell about narrative distance and detachment. Down and Out leaves plenty of room for the other people Orwell encounters, while A Waiter is essentially The Edward Chisholm Story, with his fellow restaurant staff as background characters. This reaches its peak in a couple episodes that have a very powerful r/ThatHappened vibe. Not that I doubt they happened, but rather that they serve no purpose in the book except as evidence that the other waiters like Chisholm, maybe even see something special in him.
And that’s kind of where it falls apart for me. Underneath the razzle-dazzle, it’s just The Edward Chisholm Story, and Chisholm is, demographically speaking, exactly the kind of guy I went to college with—the kind of guy reading this book to begin with. A kind of guy with which I’m well familiar by this point. The real interesting part is the other people working in the bistro, but at the end of the day we don’t get all that much about any of them.
Of course, eight months isn’t exactly long enough to build enough trust with someone to find out their life story. Especially in a chaotic atmosphere like a restaurant where there’s not necessarily a lot of downtime to make smalltalk, and when you haven’t yet mastered your French, and when people will come and go at random. But whatever part of personal biography you can’t access or divulge, you can make up for by providing larger context and history, even if a nutshell version, and there’s nothing of that in here. What conflict was our Tamil Freedom Fighter actually involved in? What’s the prevailing French attitude towards the Portuguese? Are there historical or social reasons the Maghrebi waiter is so (seemingly hypocritically) dismissive of les africanes? The intersection of politics and history in the kitchen of just about every restaurant in Paris (and probably in most of Europe, if not the world) is a great lens through which to examine colonization and globalization. Missed opportunity, in other words.
At the end of the day, though, it was the writing that put me off A Waiter in Paris more than anything else. I’ll close out my thoughts by returning to that aspect of it, because this was the most damning aspect of all.
There is a sort of arch tone that expats take in their writing, including yours truly. (I’m the guiltiest of all.) On one hand, we make evident our limitations by conceding we don’t speak the language well enough yet, or loudly bemoaning that this or that thing is utterly opaque or impenetrable to us. But on the other hand, we relish the idea of others considering us insiders or experts, since from their perspective that’s exactly what we are, and so we continue to hold forth. Maybe I recognized too much of myself—or projected too much of myself—in the writing and in my imaginary version of Chisholm to really enjoy the book.
This was another pick for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club, one of the few times we decided on a sequel. I touched on the first book, A Memory Called Empire, in my most recent GoodReads Roundup post. I wish I’d found the time to write a more in-depth review, but so it goes.
Desolation follows fast on the heels of Memory. Very fast. Memory focused on intrigue and the politics of empire and national sovereignty; Desolation takes that conflict and then throws it into a first contact scenario. Considering how much of a plot point the alien threat ended up being in Memory, part of me suspects that they started out as one single volume. If this is indeed the case, then I think the surgical separation went well. Memory had a satisfying, clearly demarcated ending. I would have been perfectly satisfied if I never got around to reading Desolation.
But I still loved A Desolation Called Peace.
Desolation takes our ambassador Mahit, freshly returned from the events of Memory, and throws her into acting as a negotiator and xenolinguist alongside her former cultural liaison, friend, and maybe-lover. The alien threat, meanwhile, is a good ol’ fashioned hivemind with an incomprehensible spoken language so hideous it induces vomiting. As if that weren’t enough, tensions are high at Mahit’s home station and she might not be welcome back. Like Memory, there is still plenty of casual bisexuality, intrigue, and lesbians.
Martine left herself an opening in the end of Desolation. Several openings. Maybe that’s job security on her part, or a cash grab on the part of her publisher. I choose to see them as a gift to the reader. Sometimes the vast imaginary potential of a story is better than any follow up.
Once bitten, twice shy, so I went into Sea of Tranquility with no small amount of trepidation. I lovedStation Eleven so now the stakes were higher. Would Mandel stick this landing? Or would this book suck and thereby lead to retroactive mixed feelings about a book I loved? (I also want to say that I’m glad I read Station Elevenbefore a devastating flu-like pandemic happened.)
Good news everybody! It didn’t suck! There is so much in Sea of Tranquility to make it sci-fi, but as with what I think is the best kind of sci-fi, the point isn’t “story for the sake of cool sci fi ideas” but “using sci-fi ideas to tell an interesting story.” The entire story hinges on 1) a very pernicious and annoying pop philosophy “problem” and 2) time travel, but neither of those are really what the story is about. A lesser author would have exhausted the reader with their preferred solution to The Problem, or at least a detailed explanation of The Problem and its ramifications, while Mandel cuts through the Gordian knot of pontificating by telling a story that arises from The Problem but leaving any specific philosophizing or moralizing out of it.
I normally don’t discuss covers much, but this time I will.
The anglophone books available to me are more often than not UK editions. Sometimes there’s no difference from the US covers, sometimes there’s a huge difference, but never before have I encountered such a mood whiplash between the two.
Going strictly by the cover, I would assume that we were looking at a fluffy romantic comedy in a sci-fi setting. Either that or a parallel lives kind of story, similar to My Real Children but more light-hearted. Compare that with the UK edition:
The latter more accurately encapsulates the mood of the book for me. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the US cover, but I have a feeling that it’s probably led to a lot of disappointed readers. Is there fluffy romantic comedy hijinks? Not really! Is there a lot of grappling with the unknown and with morally repellent choices? Yes!
Is there a fair chunk of domestic violence? Also yes.
There is a lot going on in this multiverse story and my brain isn’t really built to handle those kinds of ins and outs. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I don’t know how many times at this point, and I still can’t string together the chain of events surrounding Bunny’s disappearance, the ransom note, and her reappearance without sitting down and drawing a lot of diagrams and timelines. And that’s a story where the intrigue is just the background plot for brilliantly executed scenes and snippets of dialogue—in The Space Between Worlds the intrigue is basically the entire story.
Guess I need to adhere to a stricter drug regimen to keep my mind even more limber.
Getting back to The Space Between Worlds, all of this is potentially a Me problem and not a Book problem. In addition to my troubled relationship with intrigue, I also took a break from the book for almost a whole week, which couldn’t have helped. Keeping track of the different multiverse versions of characters wasn’t necessarily the hard part, but keeping track of all the different Earths and their politics was a lost cause for my addled brain. Earth 0 is the prime, principal Earth on which the bulk of the intrigue plays out, but events on Earths 22 and 175 are also important. Not to mention I think there’s a third Earth that our traverser protagonist Cara visits, but I don’t think it had much to do with the actual plot.
Likewise there are some world-building elements that were not really laid out cleanly for my addled brain, or that were introduced way too late in the story, or that maybe I just happened to skim over. Unfortunately those elements are kind of plot-essential, so from a technical standpoint I wish they had been made clearer earlier on in the story. (Assuming that I just didn’t miss them, which I totally might have!)
But I was able to overlook all of that because I could see that the point for Johnson wasn’t “wow multiverses sure are cool.” Instead, it was more “how would multiverse traveling get integrated into the world as we experience today” and “how can the idea of parallel lives and parallel selves be used as a metaphor for Real Life Stuff,” and I was along for that ride. It seems, judging by other reviews, that some people weren’t along for that ride. And that’s okay! But since one of my own paradigms for years has been the idea of alternate universe versions of myself, Johnson’s take on the multiverse was a lot of fun for me.