Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ethiopian explorations in literature

I took a break from my Hugo Awards reading to finish a couple of overdue library books. Usually I stick to fiction during my time off, since I read nonfiction all day for my job, but these were an exception. I've been doing character-backstory research for a game I'm playing/writing at and needed more of a personal feel than the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Ethiopia could provide. So I turned to my lovely local New Hanover County Public Library and found two books pertaining to Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie. They are "The Wife's Tale: A Personal History" by Aida Edemariam and "The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat" by Ryszard Kapuscinski. They are about as different as two biographies can be that cover the same era in the same country, but they are both fascinating, and the combination of perspectives is illuminating.

Image: Cover of The Wife's TaleThe Wife's Tale (2018) is the story of Yetemegnu, an Ethiopian woman who lived from about 1916 to 2013, from feudalism and monarchy, through fascist invasion and occupation, back to monarchy, through revolutions, and into modern times. A child bride, married to an Orthodox Christian cleric, she was repressed for much of her life, but remained strong and smart. After her husband was imprisoned, she petitioned the emperor for his release, or at least a fair trial, and he agreed to hear the case. But her husband died, and she led her family after that, raising the children, and arguing court cases herself to protect their property, and eventually learning to read.

The memoir is written by her granddaughter, a journalist for The Guardian, who had heard many stories told by and about Yetemegnu. It is intensely personal, including details of beatings by her unjustifiably jealous husband, and many conversations with her relatives, and her dreams and religious experiences. It is also extremely immersive in Yetemegnu's way of life, everything from the expectations placed on her, to the food she cooked for her family and for her husband's many guests, to details of clothing and how the household was run.

Through all these personal details, and watching the rise and fall of Yetemegnu's husband, and what happened to some of her children, a vision of Ethiopian history is also revealed. Strict hierarchical traditionalism is combined with the arbitrariness of courtly and churchly intrigues, punctuated by the Italian occupation and conflicts of when cooperating to survive might turn into collaboration, and then the revolutionary periods affect Yetemegnu's family.

Parts of the memoir are a little hard to get through because of the emotions sparked by what is happening, but it's still a very accessible book, told clearly and plainly. This sometimes strict but always loving woman is worth getting to know, through her granddaughter's words.

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (1978) is not a personal book, though it contains personal perspectives. It is a compilation of interviews with some of the former members of Haile Selassie's court, after he was deposed and they went into hiding. Kapuscinski, a Polish foreign correspondent who'd reported from Ethiopia before, sought out these eyewitnesses and interwove their descriptions and anecdotes, with occasional explanatory bridges of his own writing, into a coherent narrative of what happened leading up to, during, and immediately after Selassie's ouster in 1974 -- as coherent as you can get when courtiers are explaining everything through the lenses of their own perspectives and agendas, anyway.

I was amazed and appalled to read about how the emperor maintained his power throughout most of his reign, until it melted away. He kept his entire court off-balance all the time, raising the status of some and lowering others' each day during the Hour of Assignments, so that the courtiers and ministers had a hard time trying to maintain any momentum, let alone power bases. He also disapproved of any efforts at reforms made by anyone other than himself; apparently, he alone was to be the dispenser of mercy, justice, and any improvements in the people's lives; he alone was to be their father-figure, their savior. He denied reports of mismanagement and waste by his officials, sometimes elevating them to show that they couldn't possibly be guilty (and he couldn't possibly have made mistakes by appointing them); he and his court decried "troublemakers" whenever complaints arose.

The emperor made ambiguous verbal statements, written down by the Minister of the Pen, so that he could claim any unpopular decisions had been misinterpreted. He was a master of evasion, avoiding capture by the Italians before World War II, and surviving the attempted coup by Mengistu in 1960; when the Army encroached on his power, making arrests in his name, he appeared to accept their decisions; when he was finally officially deposed, he said "If the revolution is good for the people, then I am for the revolution."

The interviewees often speculate about the reasons for their emperors' habits and decisions, but they don't know, because he rarely, if ever, trusted anyone enough to reveal his thinking. Some of the interviewees seem to maintain their adoration of the emperor; others use overtly respectful language that yet seems to be incredibly sarcastic, given the ironic juxtapositions with the events being described.

This book has an incredible way with words. I have no idea how true the 1983 English translation of the Polish book (probably mostly translated from Ethiopian originally) is to what those courtiers actually said, but the phrases are often poetic -- conveying mood and mindset with elegance.

Some examples:
"All the people surrounding the Emperor are just like that--on their knees, and with knives."
"In a poor country, money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery, and you do not hear the voices of the human dregs. But at the same time you know that all of that exists, and you feel proud because of your hedge."
"Yes, looking was a provocation, it was blackmail, and everyone was afraid to lift his eyes, afraid that somewhere--in the air, in a corner, behind an arras, in a crack--he would see a shining eye, like a dagger."
"There was such a fear of the precipice in the Palace that everyone tried to hold on to His Majesty, still not knowing that the whole court--though slowly and with dignity--was sliding toward the edge of the cliff."
"And how can anyone justify not having achievements in today's world? Certainly it was possible to invent, to count things twice, to explain, but then troublemakers would immediately stand up and hurl calumnies, and by that time such indecency and perversity had spread that people would rather believe the troublemakers than the Emperor."
"That's it, my friend--His Venerable Majesty wanted to rule over everything. Even if there was a rebellion, he wanted to rule over the rebellion, to command a mutiny, even if it was directed against his own reign."
I do wonder how many of those courtiers surrounding the emperor were out for their own advantage, and how many were just doing the best they could to survive in that court of chaos? It's hard to say, but it's pretty clear that anyone who'd told the emperor he was on the wrong path would have been swept away.

Anyway, I feel lucky that my recreational interests led me to read these two books. The Emperor, despite its specificity of period and place, has some important things to say about autocracy and access to power, and the wise and foolish uses thereof, which are relevant to here and now. The Wife's Tale tells us about a woman whose life was very different from most of ours, but she has a lot to teach anyone about perseverance.

Aside from the life lessons, it's really interesting to steep myself for a little while in another culture. These two books are both great, in very different ways, and I highly recommend them both.

Monday, July 9, 2018

2018 Hugos: Novellas

As I continue my Hugos vote-reading, I come to Novellas! This category has really been growing in accessibility for the past few years, not only in the voter packet but out in the wild. My lovely local library had several of them, and ebooks mean you can find novellas easily by themselves instead of just serialized in magazines or contained as the cornerstone of an anthology, with some short stories to pad out the publication to book length.

Mind you, I've read some "novellas" that just feel like Part One of what should be a book-length book, but the best feel like complete stories, with tighter focus than book-length books but a little more room for exploration than short stories or novelettes.

The nominees for this year's award:

  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
  • “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017)
  • Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
  • The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang ( Publishing)
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.Com Publishing)
  • River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)
"And Then There Were (N-One)" is mildly enjoyable, but I really don't see why it's drawn the accolades it has. The idea of encountering multiple versions of oneself, from various universes where one has made slightly different choices, is not new. I've heard several stories on this theme from Escape Pod and others in the past few years, my favorite being "Send in the Ninjas" by Michelle Anne King on Podcastle. The murder mystery here isn't all that special to me either. However, I'm OK with the open-ended ending, because the premise implies that all choices would be made at the end, spawning new variations of the multiverses.

"Binti: Home" is interesting, and let us find out much more about Binti, her homeland, and her conflicts. However, although "Binti" stood on its own as a first story, B:H really feels like a part-two excerpt from a novel. It posits as a fundamental piece of her origin something that, if it was even hinted at in the first novella, I never caught; moreover, the ending is a cliffhanger. So this isn't at all high on my list of votes.

"The Black Tides of Heaven" is interesting, although I never got emotionally attached to the characters. It's disturbing what happens to some of them, but it feels removed, like an old fairy tale. However, I understand from Paul Weimer's review on Skiffy and Fanty that the twin/sequel to this novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, explores the characters' choices some more, after the events of the first, and deconstructs some elements. I'd like to read that sometime.

"Down Among the Sticks and Bones" is a prequel to the excellent "Every Heart a Doorway," which I think was my top novella vote for 2017, although I might have voted for the amazing "A Taste of Honey" by Kai Ashante Wilson instead. EHAD is about a school for children who've had portal adventures in other worlds and have trouble adjusting when they come back home, and it's great. DAtSaB is about two sisters who were at that school, and their repressed childhoods, and their lives and choices after they go through the portal to a world that's grim in different ways, before coming out. But I already knew how everything would turn out for them, and how they would turn out, so while the prequel is mildly interesting, it lacks impact.

"River of Teeth" is a story with great worldbuilding and interesting characters. I love this alternate world where hippopotami infest the Louisiana bayous, which is a thing that actually almost happened. The people in this world are sharply drawn, if some of them are a little flat, and there's a lot of good action. However, stories where people feel impelled to do something that they know will probably doom them, and don't seem to struggle much against their fate, aren't compelling to me. I was very excited waiting for this to come out, and in fact pre-ordered it, but I haven't gotten around to reading the sequel.

"All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries" is my favorite in this category this year. I have loved Martha Wells' fantasy for a long time (Wheel of the Infinite, The Death of the Necromancer, etc.), so I was excited when I heard she was going to try science fiction, and pre-ordered it. What a debut this is! Murderbot, as the protagonist calls itself (I think the pronoun was "it" IIRC), is a guard cyborg who just wants to be left alone to watch its soap operas, and conceal that it's hacked its control software, but the people it's assigned to protect are attacked, and it has to figure out what's happening and how to save them, and itself. I just adore this story, and have reread it several times. I had been putting off getting the next one in the series, due to my mountainous TBR pile, but I just bought it, to save as a treat for myself (we'll see how long that lasts -- hopefully until after the Hugos voting period, at least) and to encourage one of my favorite authors to keep writing in this genre.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

2018 Hugo nominees: Movies

This year, I had actually seen all the Hugo nominees for longform dramatic presentation on the big screen. (Why don't they just call this categories movies, you may ask? Because one could nominate other longform presentations here, such as miniseries or audio dramas. But it's almost always movies.)

Best Dramatic Presentaton - Long Form
Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Alcon Entertainment / Bud Yorkin Productions / Torridon Films / Columbia Pictures)
Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele (Blumhouse Productions / Monkeypaw Productions / QC Entertainment)
The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro (TSG Entertainment / Double Dare You / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm, Ltd.)
Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi (Marvel Studios)
Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins (DC Films / Warner Brothers)

Blade Runner 2049 was an amazing movie, continuing, extending, and sometimes subverting the conversations from the original movie. For details, please take a look at the review I wrote for Skiffy and Fanty. I think my own best sentence from 2017 is the conclusion of that review:
You can keep refining the tests and moving the goalposts for who gets to matter or make decisions or be seen as one of you, but only at the risk of losing your own humanity.
However, as breathtaking as it was, it's at the bottom of my Hugo voting list. It was brilliantly executed, but it's not original. You can see it without knowing the first movie (let alone Philip K. Dick's book), but the movie would lose a lot of its resonance. All the other movies were amazing on their own.

The Shape of Water was a lovely movie, and I spent at least half an hour afterward discussing it with my friends in the lobby. And then I discussed it again on a Skiffy and Fanty podcast. I was really impressed by it, yet I don't feel much of an urge to see it again. I know other people who'll enjoy re-seeing it and reanalyzing it, but I feel like I pretty much got what I wanted to out of it. So it's fifth on the list for me.

The Last Jedi adds some original storylines to the Star Wars saga, and there were quite a few moments I really adored, and I'll happily watch it again when it comes my way. However, there were some eye-rolling moments too, and it really didn't hang together too well for me. I understand some of the meta reasoning and character development behind the "side quest," and I think those were good choices, but the movie just didn't quite cohere for me. So it's just fourth.

I'm having a really time with my third and second rankings. I've already gone back and changed my ballot once, and I may do so again. But for the moment...

Thor: Ragnarok is another movie that doesn't really stand on its own. Anyone who hasn't seen a significant number of Thor and Avengers movies already is going to miss a lot of callbacks and punchlines. But for someone like me who has seen them, it is SO SO good! I was laughing really hard through a whole lot of this movie, from the arena reunion to the classic "Get help!" maneuver. And yet, this movie also has great action, moving moments, and layers upon layers, literally, as Thor and Loki find out the covered-up truth about previously heroic-seeming Asgard's colonialist, conquering past. I'll definitely be watching it again when I get the chance. Ranked third, currently, for me.

Wonder Woman forever crushed the myth that an action movie starring a woman can't succeed. It broke the box-office ceiling in a major way, and it deserved all its accolades. It wasn't a perfect movie, but it got so much right, and moved me so much. I saw it twice, wrote a pretty glowing review for Skiffy and Fanty, and also discussed it in a podcast.

There was never any question about my first choice for the Hugo. Get Out absolutely blew me away, and it astounded a whole lot of other people, too. It proved that writer-director Jordan Peele is a master at drama and horror in addition to the comedy for which I first knew him. It very much deserved the Oscar it won for best original screenplay, and I'd have been happy to see it win Best Picture. I think it's a perfect movie, and I wouldn't change a frame. Here's a Skiffy and Fanty podcast where three crewmates, including me, and two guests all talk about the many reasons we all love this movie. Winner!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

2018 Hugo Nominees: graphic stories

For a really thoughtful look at the 2018 Hugo Award nominees for Best Graphic Story, I highly recommend my Skiffy and Fanty crewmate Stephen Geigen-Miller's analysis.  He didn't name his top picks, though. So I'll give my quick reactions here.

Best Graphic Story nominees
Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Time, written by Saladin Ahmed, illustrated by Christian Ward, lettered by Clayton Cowles (Marvel)Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles (Image Comics)Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher (Image Comics)Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
I really loved the first few volumes of Saga. But nothing moved me in this one; it just felt like echoes of what started out as big, fresh ideas. Moreover, in no way does Volume 7 stand on its own. The graphics are great, as always, but there's just not enough story for me. I'm not putting No Award above this on my ballot, but I'd be happier with any other entrant winning.

The 2017 entrants for both Paper Girls and Monstress were big improvements on their previous years, for me. The stories were much more coherent than in the first volumes, and that gave me room to feel more empathy for the protagonists.

Bitch Planet, Vol. 2 was a huge improvement over last year's entry, in my eyes. Vol. 1 just kept hitting me again and again with the horrors of a female-oppressing dystopia, but it didn't seem to be going anywhere. Vol. 2 weaves together disparate threads and gives considerable forward momentum to the story. This is one of my top three picks, and I'd be fine with it winning.

However, choosing my winner between Black Bolt and My Favorite Thing is Monsters is really difficult.

BB,V1 tells the story of a sometime king, imprisoned and learning about and from the other prisoners, and resisting torture with them. It tells a complete story, and a very satisfying one at that. The art is bold and striking. I'm thrilled that Black Bolt's success has led to other Marvel projects for writer Saladin Ahmed, and presumably Christian Ward too, although I don't follow his career (or Twitter) like I do Ahmed's.

MFTIM is something really unusual, told as the diary/art journals of Karen Reyes, a girl who pretends to be a werewolf so she can try to avoid being afraid and sad so much of the time. She tries to investigate the mysterious death of her upstairs neighbor, but she also writes and draws about other things in her life, and sprawls across the pages with asides and insets instead of filling them with panel-panel-panel like so many comic books do.  I don't feel quite right with where the story stops, but I'm enchanted to have had this chance to go through part of Karen's life with her. I'm very glad that my lovely local library has this graphic novel, and I hope a lot of people read it. That's why I'm giving My Favorite Thing Is Monsters my top vote for the Hugo Award, to try to boost awareness for this amazing debut work by writer/artist Emil Ferris.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Hugo podcast nominees, and other favorites of mine

The 2018 Hugo Awards finalists for best fancast (podcast by fans) are
The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Ditch Diggers, presented by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace
Fangirl Happy Hour, presented by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, presented by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce and Tansy Rayner Roberts; produced by Andrew Finch
Sword and Laser, presented by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt
Verity!, presented by Deborah Stanish, Erika Ensign, Katrina Griffiths, L.M. Myles, Lynne M. Thomas, and Tansy Rayner Roberts

I'll admit I didn't nominate any of these, because I only nominated the two podcasts in which I frequently participate: The Skiffy and Fanty Show, which reviews books and movies, interviews creators and editors, and occasionally comments on fan issues, and the Supergirl Supercast, a part of The Incomparable's family of podcasts, which reviews episodes of the CW's TV show. I didn't think the Supercast had much of a chance, but Skiffy and Fanty came close to being a finalist once, according to that year's Hugos longlist.

Most of this year's finalists have been on the list before, but I listened to at least three 2017 episodes from each show. That was a lot harder for some nominees than others, but I tried to ignore that and judge them on the basis of the podcasts as one would normally listen, not the faultiness of the links they submitted for the Hugo packets.

The Coode Street Podcast, however, once again had technical issues (echoes, reverb) with one of their suggested episodes. It features some very interesting interviews and discussions, but I'm not voting for it to win until they can submit at least three trouble-free episodes in one year's packet.

Ditch Diggers provides fascinating discussions about the craft and business of writing and other forms of creation.

Fangirl Happy Hour is a very pleasant listening experience. I really enjoyed their discussions about fandom and about books/media.

Galactic Suburbia has some very interesting discussions about books/media and fandom, but all the stuff about the hosts' personal lives and careers is only interesting if you're interested in those personal lives and careers.

If I were a regular watcher of Dr. Who, I would have voted for Verity. It's a great discussion of the show with deep analyses of the episodes and their implications, and the fandom, interesting even to an infrequent watcher like me.

Sword and Laser is my favorite this year. It starts out with "Quick Burns," news about new/upcoming releases, and then the hosts talk about a book. The discussions are thoroughly engaging. This is the one podcast on the list that I'm adding to my regular listening.

In case you're interested, here are the podcasts I've already been following:
Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me: The NPR quiz show, one of the few I'm compelled to listen to as soon as it comes out, because it's highly topical and highly amusing.
Cryptic Canticles Dracula RadioPlay Experience: A full-cast narration of Dracula by Bram Stoker, which releases an episode every day that the book has a diary entry, letter, telegram etc. Another I listen to every day it's released.
Coastline, a regional topic-focused newsmagazine produced by my local public radio station, WHQR.
Ken Rudin's Political Junkie: Topical politics with a lot of historical context. I usually either listen that day or skip it.

Revolutions, because Mike Duncan does a great job of bringing history alive.
In Our Time from BBC has great scholarly discussions about a variety of historical and sometimes scientific topic.
Ask Me Another has fun pop-culture quizzes.
Storium Arc has great discussions about Storium, a collaborative storytelling site, sort of like roleplaying games by bulletin board.
The Incomparable has great discussions about books, media, and culture, plus game shows, roleplaying games, radio plays, etc.
Tea and Jeopardy has interviews by Emma Newman of various writers and other creators, set in a very entertaining framework with an evil butler.

Finally, what brought me to start listening to podcasts in the first place: audio fiction!
There are a great many fiction podcasts out there. Many are magazines with self-contained stories:
The Escape Artist family is what I started listening to long ago. I'd be hard-pressed to choose between Escape Pod (science fiction) and Podcastle (fantasy), but I also listen to Pseudopod (horror -- it has great, thoughtful intros and outros by the host, although I can't always bear to listen all the way through) and Cast of Wonders (children's/YA speculative fiction).
Uncanny Magazine has great stories and poems, although there's quite a lot of chatter from the co-editors about their personal/professional lives chatter before the fiction starts. But they're very enthusiastic!
I also listen to Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Apex, although I tend to get backlogged on all of them. I used to have a long commute and don't now, so I tend to catch up while doing housework, exercising or going on long trips.

I also listen to some serial fiction podcasts.
Welcome to Night Vale is sort of like listening to public/underground radio in a very weird town. Many episodes are self-contained, but there are long ongoing arcs.
SAYER (I am Sayer) is sort of like a cross between Night Vale and a game of Paranoia, narrated by the computer. It's nearly always creepy, always interesting, and occasionally heartbreaking. I nearly had to pull over my car and cry at the finale ... but after a break, the show resumed with Kickstartered seasons, which I am enthusiastically supporting.
Metamor City (well, actually, it's The Raven and the Writing Desk now, but I'm old-school) is secondary-world urban fantasy with magic, vampires, shapeshifters, telepaths, cops... some short stories and some book narrations. Fantastic worldbuilding and characterizations.
This Kaiju Life: What's it like to work in a kaiju containment facility? Funny and wry.

Done but not forgotten:
The Drabblecast: Extremely interesting weird stories with a great host/narrator. Please check out the archive! This contains my favorite two-part podcast ever, Mongoose, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, about a guy and his cheshire, hunting toves and raths on a space station, trying to prevent a bandersnatch incursion.
We're Alive: Incredibly well-done full-cast zombie apocalypse tale. The story is over, although the creator has done/is doing a few supplemental projects, so if you're a completionist, try this.
The Mask of Inanna: Won the 2012 Parsec award. Combines a fictional old radio drama with modern intrigue. Amazing 10-part story!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Hugo/Nebula Shorts

I've started devouring the Hugo Awards packet for this year (voting in 2018, written in 2017). I'm going to try to write a post each time I finish and vote for a category, although work and life are likely to interfere with that goal.

I had already read all but two of the Hugo short stories for the Skiffy and Fanty podcast about the Nebula finalists, so that put me ahead. And since all these stories are free to read (or hear) online, I thought this category would be the best starting point.

The stories on both lists are
"Carnival Nine" by Caroline M. Yoachim, text and podcast (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" by Fran Wilde, text and podcast (Uncanny, September 2017)
"Fandom for Robots" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, text and podcast (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™" by Rebecca Roanhorse, text and podcast (Apex, August 2017)

The stories on the Hugo list but not Nebulas are
"The Martian Obelisk" by Linda Nagata, text only (, July 19, 2017)
"Sun, Moon, Dust" by Ursula Vernon, text and podcast (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

And the stories on the Nebula list but not Hugos are
The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, text only (, March 15, 2017)
Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls, text and podcast (Strange Horizons, June 5, 2017)

The Nebulas-only stories had points of interest, but neither of them felt to me like award winners, so I'll focus on the others.

"The Martian Obelisk" is an interesting character study of a woman amid an apocalypse, trying to build a monument so that something will remain after humanity is gone. It left me a little hopeful at the end, but that didn't feel quite earned to me.

"Sun, Moon, Dust" was a very warm-hearted story about someone who inherits a magic sword, which hosts spirits of great warriors, but he just wants to be a farmer. It's a fairly simple story, but deep, and if you want to read or hear something to make you feel good, try it.

"Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™" is unlikely to make any reader/listener feel good. First off, it's told in second person, and I always resist any story that tells me that "you" do this or "you" feel that,  but it turns out that this is a very good choice for this kind of story. It's about an Indian who works for Vision Quest, providing an "authentic" experience for the virtual tourists. Was he displaced, or did he ever belong in the first place? It's very meta, and interesting, and heart-wrenching.

"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" is also in second person, and also uncomfortable, by design. "You" are being taken through an increasingly disturbing museum, being confronted with hurtful things that have happened, and being transformed by the experience. It hints of horror in which "you" are somewhat complicit. It's creepy and very interesting.

"Carnival Nine" had the best worldbuilding among the nominees, in my opinion. It's set in a world where all the people run on clockwork, with a mainspring that the "maker" winds up in a limited number of turns each night when they're asleep, and everyone is keenly aware of how much energy they have to make it through each day. They can reconstruct themselves, and their children, to an extent, but only the "maker" determines how strong or weak your mainspring is. The protagonist, Zee, has a good mainspring, but she's faced with constant choices about what to do and who else to help. I really felt for her in those choices and situations, and was fascinated by the world. The story also made me and other readers think of Spoon Theory, in which real-life people with disabilities have limited, often random-seeming, numbers of things that they can accomplish in a day; this fictional world appeared to express that very well.

"Fandom for Robots" was an incredibly sweet little story about a sentient robot who becomes a fan of an anime show that features a robot and a human, and starts writing collaborative fanfiction set in that world. The readers believe that the robot is just a human writing AS a robot, who never breaks character. This is the kind of story that makes me want to hug it.

Voting for these stories was hard, because they're all good. But the two that I wanted to reread/rehear were "Carnival Nine" and "Fandom for Robots." I ended up making "Carnival Nine" my top pick because the worldbuilding is so interesting and Zee is such a sympathetic and interesting character. 

However, my actual favorite story from 2017 didn't make it onto either of these lists. I nominated it for the Hugos, and I'll be interested to see where it falls on the long list, when that's released in August. That story is "Texts from the Ghost War" by Alex Yuschik, podcast and text (Escape Pod, June 9, 2017). I adore this story; I've read it once and listened to it at least five times. It's a sort of epistolary tale, since it consists of texts back and forth between two people, and I enjoy that sort of story when it's done well. (In the text, the two texters are right-justified and left-justified, respectively; in the podcast, two narrators read them.) Despite that format, Yuschik provides a lot of worldbuilding, but as subtleties within the conversation, not as infodump. I heard enough to make me really interested in this world, with its ghosts that eat the present, and the mech-suit soldiers who fight them, and sharp class/money divisions, and other things. But as much as I love that subtle worldbuilding, I love even more the dialogue and interplay between the two characters, sometimes snarky,  sometimes silly, sometimes terribly serious, and sometimes, as their relationship develops ... well, I won't spoil it, but it's ADORABLE. Please read it or listen if you haven't yet!  

Note: "Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™" by Rebecca Roanhorse won the Nebula Award.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Roundup of My Podcasts: 2018

I decided it's time to create a new podcast roundup for 2018 instead of making people scroll down to my post from early 2017, that I just kept updating. I'll probably do this one the same way, though.

For posts from before, please see my original podcast roundup at 

Also, I did an individual post for The Child of the Moat, the Librivox book for which I read four chapters, in January at

For this year's roundup, I will include one post that didn't make it into the original roundup, which ended with the Supercast's review CW's 2017 crossover four-parter, "Crisis on Earth-X." The Supergirl Supercast, part of the Incomparable family of podcasts, did have one episode after that in 2017, although some of us felt it would have made more sense to end that part of the season after the crossover. The review of S3E9 "Reign" by Brianna Taeuber, Dan Drusch and me is here:

My first podcast appearance in 2018 was on the Skiffy and Fanty Show's 2017 wrap-up and 2018 forecast, "LOOKING BACK, MOVING FORWARD: THE 2018 EDITION" at -- which had a bunch of reviewers and creators talking mostly about high points in what they'd read and seen and what they were looking forward to seeing in the coming year.

Scheduling didn't permit me to join the S3E10 Supercast, but I was there on the S3E11 "Fort Rozz" review at with Michael Gabriel and David Schaub.

My next podcast appearance was on Skiffy and Fanty, reviewing "The Shape of Water" with Julia Rios, David Annandale and Caitlyn Paxson. Listen here:

Next on Skiffy and Fanty, Jen and I discussed "Black Southern SpecFic" with Eden Royce and Troy L. Wiggins, "including how the speculative is part of the Black Southern experience, whether or not standard genre labels fail speculative fiction written by black people from the South, what gatekeepers can do to promote Black Southern voices, and so much more."  I'll admit I said something dumb during the recording (misattributed a story to Eden), but lovely audio editor Jen edited that out, so although I didn't get to say a lot during this episode, at least I don't sound stupid.  And the discussion itself is really interesting.

Back to the Supercast, I couldn't make S3E12 "For Good" but returned for S3E13 "Both Sides Now" with David Schaub and Jess Viator:

In March on Skiffy and Fanty, I greatly enjoyed discussing "The Black Panther" with Jen; Brandon O'Brien, who has joined the crew; Justina Ireland; and Faridah Gbadamosi, who was last on S&F in our "Get Out" review. Here's the show:

In April, Skiffy and Fanty launched its new "Reading Rangers: Shorts" show, in which we discuss short stories. The main Reading Rangers show is still making its way through the Vorkosigan saga. For the initial Shorts episode, Brandon O'Brien, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and I discussed the six finalists for this year's Nebula Awards:

The Supercast did not return until the end of April, due to the CW's hiatus. In the interval, CW aired the 13-episode first season of "Black Lightning" -- it was really good and interesting, and explored how a black superhero would see a lot of different perspectives than CW's mostly whitebread heroes would (although Supergirl at least has lately moved beyond alien metaphors to reflect real-world racism problems), and I was blown away by the revelatory final episodes. I recommend it!

Supercast's S3E14 "Schott Through the Heart" was a duo with David Schaub and me:

I missed S3E15 of the Supercast but returned for S3E16 "Of Two Minds" with David Schaub, Brianna Taeuber and Michael Gabriel. Side note: At the beginning of the recording, I had called the show "Both Sides Now" -- but luckily, our wonderful audio editor Seth Heasley caught that, and I was able to record the real title and send the clip for her to insert. Here's the show:

David Schaub and I discussed S3E17 "Trinity" here:

I missed S3E18 but returned for S3E19 "The Fanatical" with Brianna Taeuber (and a recorded recap from David Schaub):

Updates will follow!

UPDATE, Dec. 17, 2018
During the summer, I participated in Librivox's 13th Anniversary Collection by singing the 13th Anniversary Song. I was one of nine Librivox volunteers who sang, separately and remotely. The Librivox editor combined our voices into one song. I'm a soprano voice and I also cheer occasionally.
Here's the 13th anniversary page, with our song as one listing:
And here's a direct link to the song, which autoplays:

Supercast episodes from June through December, not including the Crossover:
Supergirl S3E20: "Dark Side of the Moon" with Brianna Taeuber and David Schaub:
Supergirl S3E21: "Not Kansas" with David Schaub, Brianna Taeuber and Alan Yu:
Supergirl S3E22: "Make It Reign" with Brianna Taeuber:
Supergirl S3E23: "Battles Lost and Won" with David Schaub:

Supergirl S4E1: "American Alien" with Brianna Taeuber, Alan Yu and Jess Viator
Supergirl S4E2: "Fallout" with Brianna Taeuber
Supergirl S4E3: "Man of Steel" with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E4: "Ahimsa" with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E5: "Parasite Lost" with Alan Yu
Supergirl S4E6: "Call to Action" with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E7: "Rather the Fallen Angel" with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E8: "Bunker Hill" with David Schaub

The discussion of the CW Crossover series for 2018 -- "Elseworlds" -- recorded Dec. 16 will be found, when published, at

Skiffy and Fanty discussions from June through December:
Paul Weimer and I interview Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas and Matt Peters about the 5-year anniversary of Uncanny Magazine, published Aug. 20:
Reading Rangers: Brothers in Arms - Miles is in double trouble as our Vorkosiverse read-through continues! With Paul Weimer, Alex Acks and Stina Leicht, published Sept. 17:
Reading Rangers: Shorts #2 - The 2018 Nommo Award, in which Brandon O'Brien, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and I discuss the nominees for a short fiction award hosted by the African Speculative Fiction Society. Published Oct. 8:
Reading Rangers: Mirror Dance -- Paul Weimer, Kate Sherrod and I found uncomfortable things, and things to love, in this Vorkosiverse installment. Podcast went live on Nov. 19:
Reading Rangers: Shorts #3: Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World, with Brandon O'Brien and Daniel Haeusser, aired on Dec. 17:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Month of Joy: The Order of the Air by Jo Graham and Melissa Scott

I'm actually cross-posting this in June but back-dating to January because that's when the post I'm talking about here actually went up on Skiffy and Fanty. The science fiction and fantasy fan site that I co-edit had a "Month of Joy" in January, when creators from all over the blogosphere were invited to write an essay about something that provides joy to them.

My essay was about The Order of the Air series by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham. I said these are "some of my favorite comfort reads. Parts of these period adventure-fantasies are very cozy, but aside from the wonderful characters’ mutual support, love, and humor, there are also some tense and exciting action sequences, with almost ordinary people teaming up to resist evil and try to make the world better."

Check out the rest of my review here:

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Audiobook: The Child of the Moat

I'm pleased to announce that LibriVox has released the second audiobook in which I've participated: The Child of the Moat by Ian Bernard Stoughton Holborn. I haven't had time to listen to it all yet, but I very much enjoyed reading the book.

The Child of the Moat was published in 1916 but the setting is 1557 England. A little Catholic girl and her cousin rescue a Protestant fugitive and hide him, and adventures ensue, ranging from secret messages to swordplay, plus some side missions to help other people. Aline, the protagonist, is almost too saintly to believe, but she is an *active* saint, not a languishing one, and often disobedient for a good cause. The supporting cast includes a number of interesting characters.

This is a children's book, or more specifically, subtitled A Story for Girls. The backstory behind this book is perhaps even more fascinating than the book itself. From the Librivox description:
Ian Holborn (professor of archaeology and a writer) was on board the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed, and as it sank he rescued a 12 year old girl named Avis Dolphin. She later complained that books for girls were not very interesting, so he decided to write one for her "as thrilling as any book written for boys!" 
So although it's a slightly old-fashioned book in terms of style, there are some quite progressive elements: empowerment for girls and religious freedom. I recommend it.

If you're not an audiobook fan, you can check out the text at Project Gutenberg:

And here's the audiobook link again:

Both LibriVox and Project Gutenberg are free, done by volunteers.

Technical notes:

The book is 30 chapters long, and I read four of them: 3, 14, 18, and 21. Mine ranged from 14 to 48 minutes long; if I recall correctly, the longest was about 7,000 words.

The hardest thing was trying to keep reasonably consistent voices for characters when I was doing the recordings months apart, between Jan. 5, 2017, and Jan. 9, 2018, although of course I would listen to my previous chapters as a refresher. One voice that I changed quite a bit was Eleanor Mowbray, because I changed my mind on how to characterize her. However, I think I was pretty consistent for Aline.

I did my best to check out pronunciations before reading, but I found out later that I mispronounced Edinburgh, which I now know should be said edinbrugh instead of like burger. At least I pronounced edin correctly, like editor instead of Eden.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Movie Review: BladeRunner 2049 ('As Clear As Dreaming')

I reviewed BladeRunner 2049 on the Skiffy and Fanty website soon after the movie premiered. It was not a perfect movie, but I did think it was great in many ways.

I think this, the conclusion of my review, is probably the best single sentence I wrote in 2017:
You can keep refining the tests and moving the goalposts for who gets to matter or make decisions or be seen as one of you, but only at the risk of losing your own humanity.

*I'm really posting this on Jan. 10, 2018, but back-dating it to when the post went live on Skiffy and Fanty. Remember, the best way to keep current with my creations is to follow me on Twitter.