Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Jaran by Kate Elliott

When I try to think about what I want to write about in this review, I have to keep coming back to Roger Ebert's famous and useful maxim "it's not what it's about, it's how it is about it." He's talking about movies, of course, but it's just as applicable to books. And that's where my troubles lie. I will defend strongly the idea that science fiction and romance should not be mutually exclusive categories, although I have to admit that I haven't loved the couple of entries into that hybrid genre I've read so far. I do not, however, think that good romance science fiction books can't be written.

I just...I'm not sure this is one of them. In many ways, the romance part is fine, with some major quibbles about tropes it embraces wholeheartedly instead of interrogating. But you bill a book as science fiction, it somehow makes it more difficult to turn my brain off and just float along in romancey goodness. (I'm not that good at floating along in romancey goodness anyway, but for a select few authors, I can manage it.)

If it's science fiction, I want to be engaged with the universe being built, with the underlying ideas, and how they're used, and whether the author is exploring the boundaries of their creation, or is content to build science fiction dressing on older tropes based on race, civilization, and what my husband aptly dubbed "simplicity porn," and ignoring anything problematic in favour of a passionate tale of love across cultural lines.

Uh...yeah. I guess that previous paragraph sets out many of my problems with this book. There are a lot of ways in which I feel like I'm being too critical. It's obviously supposed to be fluffy and fun, and I really wish I could treat it that way. But once I started to notice the similarity in narrative to colonial/race-based tropes of finding freedom from the horrible cities in the simpler, purer culture of the natives...I was sunk. You start to see it, you can't unsee it.

And here is my primary problem with it, and why I dragged Roger Ebert into it. I do strongly believe that there might be a story to be told with science fiction, and maybe even with romance, that tackles these kinds of issues in ways that are engrossing and powerful. A book that takes its "how it is about it" in incisive ways to write something really interesting. But that's not the "how it is about it" that happens here. Here, we pretend that it's okay to play around with the tropes being used without ever considering issues of race and/or discourses of what is "civilized" and what is "savage" because science fiction gives you the freedom to just make everyone white.

This is an answer that is not okay.

(To be fair, everyone in the tribes the main character ends up with is very white and if I remember correctly, blonde. Tess, the main character, coming from off-world, is a brunette. I believe she is also white, but I will admit that I am not entirely sure, because I read this digitally, and in that format, it's a hell of a lot harder to flip back through quickly and look for a description. I will concede that she might not be white, but even so, I'm not sure that would make anything better. Using science fiction to make it so that white people are the tribal people without ever really engaging in any thought about the historical and cultural baggage wrapped up in stories of the freedom of the plains and the tribes who ride there is not clever. It's simplistic, and it tries to use cultural tropes without dealing with the history or weight of those tropes.)

So, what's the story about? Humanity has long spread to the stars, but ran smack into a race, the Chapalii, who already control most of it. After hundreds of years, one human led a rebellion against them. He failed, but was rewarded with a dukedom in the highly hierarchical society of the Chapalii, in which deviance from hierarchical norms is perverted and unthinkable. (I'd have to go into a very deep read to parse out why the way in which they are talked about made me think uncomfortably about late nineteenth-century North American ideas about Chinese culture, so I'm not going to pursue it at the moment.)

His sister and heir, Tess, is coming home after a failed relationship at school, and she hates the responsibility she's going to have to assume as his heir, and doesn't seem too fond of intergalactic "urban" culture. On her trip, she becomes aware of some shadiness on the part of Chapalii on a world that is part of her brother's demesne, and follows them down, finding herself adrift in a vast plain, where she is picked up by a horse-riding nomadic clan.

Does she become accepted into the clan with open arms because they're less suspicious of outsiders and frankly a little naive? Of course.

Does she find lots of freedom in their gender norms, more than she would have found out in the stars? It seems so, even though what the intergalactic gender norms are is more than a little sketchily drawn.

Does she break the gender norms in the tribe she's adopted in ways no woman ever has before, becoming more proficient than any woman before her in horse riding, sabre fighting, and travelling, while still being totally accepted? You bet your sweet bippy.

In other words, does she Dances With Wolves the shit out of this?

Oh, and because this is a romance, does she fall in love with the hotheaded leader of the nomadic tribe and he with her, even though they are both too damned stubborn to admit to it for most of the length of the novel?  Do you even need to ask?

The writing is not bad. The romance is not bad, if you could truly divorce this plot from the stories that we have told over and over again in our culture about the decadence of civilization, and the purity of the uncivilized life. Which you can't. You really, really can't. Or rather, you shouldn't. This draws so heavily on familiar stories from Earth that are so steeped in racial and cultural assumptions that to use them while trying to ignore those assumptions made me so frustrated, again and again.

It's not that a book can't be written about these themes. But how this book is about it, or rather, how it tries to have its cake while ignoring it too, is the problem. You want the cake, you've got to deal with the history of the cake, and how it tastes, and what the cake does to people.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

It is remarkably hard to hunt down some of the earliest books that were nominated for a Hugo at either of the libraries I have access to, but I assumed that one of Heinlein's juveniles would not particularly pose a challenge. Turns out I was wrong. Then again, it popped up at a local used bookstore, and so it was, in the end, not really an issue. I was just surprised that it had been a problem at all, particularly since the one I picked up used was a recent re-issue.

So I carried my new find around in my purse for about a week and a half, and when I was out and about and had a few minutes, read a few pages. It went by remarkably fast, which was pretty much what I expected from a Heinlein juvenile. I generally find Heinlein remarkably readable, even when I have other quibbles with his writing.

This was apparently written to be a serial about Scouting on places other than Earth. Venus and Mars being at least partially occupied in Heinlein's ficton, humans look to settle on Ganymede, eking out farms from the rock, seasoned with bacteria and worms.

The main character was an Eagle Scout on Earth, and due to rising population pressures, rationing, and crowding, decides to go with his father and his father's new wife and stepdaughter to Ganymede to homestead. Of course, with the sensitivity of many policies, many more settlers are sent than the planet is really ready to handle, given the entire dependence on Earth for just about everything but food.

(Spider Robinson makes some nice allusions to this book in Variable Star, the book he wrote from Heinlein's notes. I didn't know there was that particular homage until I read this.)

 (I do not remember the main character's name, which is a pretty good sign that there's not much of a character there other than upstanding Boy Scout with the usual attributes of a juvenile Heinlein hero - that's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean that character is not the story here) On the way, the main character runs into a lot of people who are dipshits. That's not of course the language that is used - these were marketed to kids, after all - but people who are too dumb to research, question, or accept that there might be reasonable boundaries on their behaviour. Main Character Dude, though, is the opposite. For the most part.

He's quite stubborn when it comes to his father, who wants Main Character Dude to go back to Earth for his education, even if he ends up settling on Ganymede in the long run. But he's not dumb, and while his father works in the town to handle the influx of settlers, he's the one who breaks ground on their family farm. He's helped by a nearby family that is one of the most prosperous settlers.

There are disasters of early settlement, including an earthquake knocking out the power source that keeps Ganymede from freezing all the pioneers to death. There is family sickness, there are difficulties in obtaining equipment, and the question runs through it whether hewing our own homestead out of the barren wilderness of another planet is worth it.

Is there really a question there? This is a Heinlein juvenile novel, after all. Do you really expect anyone to decide that roughing it isn't worth it? That living in urban surroundings might be a more pleasant choice?


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive Episode One - "The Drop Off"

We sat down for the pilot episode of this haunted house campaign last week, and it feels like we hit the ground running. The supernatural manifestations haven't shown up yet, but Bill kept a sheet where he conspicuously marked down at the end of every scene how close each character was to unleashing the supernatural on a PbtA-style countdown clock. Two of us filled up our clocks by the end of the evening, and the third was only one pie-piece away from joining us.

Because it was the first episode, it felt like a lot of the evening was setting up how the characters interacted, and feeling out relationships. Even more than that, and a little surprising-but-gratifyingly, we started pushing on the secrets and deep divisions right away. To be precise, some of the major underlying secrets came out, but each of our characters held on tightly to their personal secrets. There were hints, but there's plenty of stuff to be revealed. And then, of course, tasty, tasty aftermath. And ghosts. And probably death.

It wasn't plot-heavy, so I'm not sure I can tell you what happened chronologically in the session, but if I take it by two-character interactions, I can probably remember most of it.

Oh, and Bill has decided that the name for each episode will be the title of a Tragically Hip song.

The Characters:

Michael, the "good son," head of the family whiskey company (with roots back in Prohibition, when it was legal to make alcohol but not sell it), and the only one who really knows that the family is in deep financial shit. The company's on the verge of going broke, and he's committed fraud to try to hide that for long enough to sell the company and make amends. His brother and sister don't know this, and have continued to go through money like water. More notably, his wife doesn't know this. He has a lot invested in being the good man in the family, and might go to some bad lengths to maintain that image.

Jo, (Me!) Michael's wife, is up to her neck in stress, and isn't really good at recognizing that or taking constructive steps to deal with it. She's a very good surgeon, mother to two teenage kids, and has been helping take care of Michael's mother, who is very ill and living with them (I think living with them?), nursing her through failing health. Jo's driven, not very good at recognizing her emotions, can be aggressive, and while her marriage used to be good, it's gotten very strained. She slept with a colleague recently, and I think that she feels guilty about it, but also that it was such a break from the usual stress in her life that there's a huge temptation to burn everything down and walk away. More about her later, when I get to character thoughts.

Lisette, the unacknowledged granddaughter of Miss Maudie, the recently deceased matriarch of the family. She is the child of Miss Maudie's son-out-of-wedlock, and the woman who became the groundskeeper on the island. As a teenager, she and Michael had a fling, not realizing they were half-cousins. Urged on by Miss Maudie, Jo framed Lisette for stealing, and that was used as an excuse to send Lisette away. Later on, Miss Maudie sent Lisette money regularly, and has written her into a large chunk of the will. In the intervening years, Lisette battled drug addiction, but has been clean for the last few years. She's been working on her career as a singer-songwriter.

"The Drop Off":

We opened with a tense ride across the water to the island, with Michael, Jo, and their kids, Madeline and Tyler, at the stern, and Lisette alone at the bow. As they neared the shore, the kids started whining about the lack of reception out here, and their mother encouraged them to think positive about their time on the island. She brushed past Lisette to get on shore, and Lisette asked Michael caustically if Jo remembered this was a funeral, right? Jo's face was visibly softened by the sight of the island.

Michael and Lisette

Michael and Lisette had a couple of scenes together, both around the reading of the will, and when he sought her out in the gardener's shed before the service scattering Miss Maudie's ashes. Michael was obviously probing to find out why Miss Maudie had written Lisette into the will on an equal footing with his own mother and aunt (she's actually the only child of Miss Maudie's deceased illegitimate son), even though it was the kind of family secret where there were enough hints that he'd more or less pieced it together.


Lisette, for her part, wanted to know how much Michael knew about her disgraced exile from the island back when they were teenagers. He knew that she'd been sent away, even that it was for stealing, but didn't know Jo's part in the whole affair. There was a lovely moment when Michael was asking if Lisette might prefer just being bought out rather than going through a court battle when his siblings challenged the will, and she accused him of going right for the money, not even asking how she was. With perfect timing, he asked "How are you?"

The scene almost ended there, but I wanted to see what happened next, so I used our table shorthand and pleaded that was only the "first pause" and the scene continued and it was so great! It was tense, with obviously some feelings underlying the interaction, even with the new knowledge that they were half-cousins. Lisette pushed Michael hard on whether or not he was really happy in his life, with Jo, with the business, and he couldn't say yes.

Lots wasn't said in these scenes, and much implied! (Also, for the first pause/second pause thing, I can't remember quite where we got that from - possibly Graham Walmsley's wonderful Play Unsafe. The idea is that often, the first pause in a scene is not where the scene should end. A lot of the time, that pause happens because the weight of what really needs to happen in that scene is looming, and people need a second to gird their loins before going after it. It's after the second pause you can break, because then probably what needs to have happened has happened. It's not set in stone, but it's good shorthand for keep pushing/we're done.)

Lisette and Jo

I found the interactions between Lisette and Jo very interesting! They used to be friends, you know, before Jo set Lisette up as a thief when they were teenagers. When we were writing down character goals for the episode, Lisette's player wrote down that she wanted to hear that Jo felt remorse for what she'd done. I wrote down that Jo wanted to provoke Lisette to lose her temper in front of Michael. Neither of us succeeded. (But there's always next session!)

Every time Lisette pushed Jo on the guilt front, Jo pushed back hard, claiming it was something she barely remembered. When Lisette tried to explain what it had done to her life, Jo said she must be lucky if the worst thing to ever happen in her life was being sent away from the island when she was a teenager. (Yeah, I'm not playing a character who is great at being vulnerable or open.)

But even more interesting was that as soon as Michael's siblings arrived on the island, Lisette, who desperately wants to be acknowledged as part of the family, got to see that even though Jo has been married in for 20 years, she isn't treated as part of the family either. Weirdly, this got the two of them relating to each other in friendlier terms, like the patterns of conversation set down when they were teenagers were coming back unconsciously.

In fact, by the end of the evening, they were almost warming to each other - and then something happened with Michael that will have Jo being even frostier to Lisette the next morning.

Jo and Michael

Even though Jo isn't the nicest person in the world (particularly when she feels guilty - not a great trait!), I had to start her off softer than usual, because coming back to the island strikes such a chord with her. And since Michael wants to sell the island and house, and she wants to keep it, I felt like I had to have how intense her attachment to it is, right away. So the first interaction between Jo and Michael had her being much sweeter than usual - reminiscing about the island, the summer they fell in love, and trying to get him to join her in swimming or just enjoying the island like they used to. Without realizing it, she was asking him to rekindle their relationship. He sort of uneasily agreed, and it felt like she got to him a bit. 

In retrospect, that's probably good. The other part of that first scene between these two was Michael pressing Jo to go to her father to invest in his family business. Her father hates his family, and she argued that even her being married to Michael hadn't changed that. She reluctantly agreed to talk to him, but I also feel like she won't try very hard to convince her father.

 Then, of course, she felt excluded around his family, and we closed the evening with the two of them before bed, and what had been a little bit sweet before turned ugly, fast. When talking about Lisette, Jo dodged talking about her involvement in the long ago scandal, but she was more than willing to talk about Lisette being Michael's cousin - she found Lisette's inclusion in the will more amusing than anything else.

There were two phrases I kept using, knowing they would be upsetting for Michael - the first, whenever money came up, was to have Jo keep telling him that she trusted him to handle the money stuff - after all, they're very comfortable. She makes quite a lot of money, and he runs a large distillery business.  (Of course, he hasn't told her the company is in huge financial trouble, so emphasizing the trust was twisting the knife just a little bit.)

The second was, once the details of the will came out, and she figured out that Lisette was related to Michael, was that Jo kept calling Lisette his cousin, and every time, he countered with "half-cousin" - it's important because to her, it's vindication that Michael and Lisette should never have been together. And for Michael, the "half" is important because that way he can hold on to the fantasy of a life as it wasn't.

And then, at the end, talking about Lisette revealed that Michael had been keeping track of her all these years, googling her to see what she'd been up to - he knew about her music career. Jo took that like a blow and got angry that he was googling old girlfriends, which led Michael to counter something that insinuated he knew about the affair she's been having, or at least suspected. She didn't quite twig to that, and they went to bed angry.

So...yeah. The next morning, Jo's going to be frosty beyond belief to Lisette, and Lisette will have no idea why.

Mechanics

Broadly speaking, we're using DramaSystem for interpersonal conflicts, and in theory, a knockoff of PbtA for anything procedural, but nothing procedural happened in the first episode. We had scenes where tokens were slid across the table during play, and some where after the scene was over, Bill identified where he thought the asks were, and tokens exchanged accordingly. Both ways seemed to work.

Bill also asked each of us to write down a goal for the episode - I think most of us wrote one down for each of the other two players. After the session was done, we shared our goals to see how they'd played out. If we'd gone after them, whether or not we succeeded, we got a drama point to go towards seeing who got the benny to keep for next time (and naming rights for the next episode!)

In another homage to some PbtA games, we each had a countdown clock to the first manifestations of the supernatural. Bill told us one of the triggers, but kept others secret, and at the end of every scene, we could see them filling up! At the end of the evening, Jo and Michael's clocks were full, and Lisette's was one-pie-piece from completion. So two of us got handed a small deck of index cards, each with a different manifestation written on them, and Lisette will get to pick hers probably at the start of the next game. I picked "The Mirror" and Michael's player "The Door." Eep!

Character Thoughts 

Jo is not one of my nicer characters. There are ways in which she's not terrible - she cares for her mother-in-law, she's dedicated to her job, she and her husband used to have a good marriage. Strangely, it's becoming apparent to me that the harder she pursues "being a good person," the worse she is. She needs that part of her identity so badly, she pushes back hard when people call her on bad things she's done - how can she have done bad things if she's a good person? It's interesting to play someone who is more interested in the self-identity than the actual acts she commits.


In a way, that makes her an interesting foil to Millie, my TimeWatch character. Millie is a genuinely good person who is doing bad things because she's been entirely taken in by someone who is manipulating her when she's emotionally vulnerable after the suicide of her brother/lover.  Jo, on the other hand, does dicey things because she wants so badly to preserve the image of herself as a good person. To protect that image, rather than the reality, she's capable of being fairly nasty - in a way, not unlike her husband.

Jo and Michael both want to retain their self-images, and because of that, they've hidden so much of themselves from each other, which has taken a huge toll on their marriage. Too great a toll? Things aren't looking great at the moment, but I don't think we know yet. The answer is very possibly yes, but not inevitably so. Of course, now the haunting is coming for us all, and some of that may be moot! Or not. We shall see.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I picked up Sunshine through a Humble Bundle several months ago. This particular bundle had enough books I was interested in reading, and a couple I really wanted. In this particular case, I’d heard the name of the author before, but knew very little about her or her books - I had no particular objection to reading them, but it wasn’t one of the reasons I was buying the bunch.

Having read it, it was a fairly light and enjoyable experience - that is to say, the protagonist goes through harrowing experiences in the books, but I didn’t find that I was harrowed along with her. I always felt enough detachment to figure that things were likely to be okay in the end, even if there were some difficulties along the way.

But the one thing this book feels like, more than anything else, is a response to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books. I can’t check publication dates at the moment, but I apologize if it turns out this one came out first because, damn, does it ever feel like it came out second.

We have a main character who works in a cafe as a baker, not a waitress. She lives in a world where it has recently become apparent that vampires and other supernatural beings are very real - although in this case, McKinley is obviously trying to go a bit darker, having a human world that is just barely recovering from “The Wars,” against primarily but not only vampires, and hanging on by a thread.  Much of the world was destroyed, and vampires as a whole are definitely less interested in integrating than in conquering. But of course, the main character, Rae, is, like Sookie, interested in the idea of vampires. Also of course, even though vampires are supposed to be much more dangerous and evil here, Rae manages to find the one who is really not all that evil after all, and maybe even has sexy feelings towards him.

See what I mean? It’s not out-and-out as much a romance as the Sookie books, but there are some definite and strong similarities. Oh, and did I mention that as the book goes on, Rae starts to discover that she has more than a few supernatural powers of her own, coming from both her father, who was a sorcerer, and possibly some demon blood in her aggressively normal mother?

At any rate, Rae is kidnapped by vampires who think she's just a normal human, and left as lunch for a chained-up vampire, who ends up being the one vampire who can control his hunger and ally with her, at least as long as it takes them to escape, and then as many times afterwards as the plot makes possible.

Rae, as the title and her name suggest, turns out to have a particular affinity for sunlight, which makes her a little deadly to vampires, even as she tries desperately to hang on to normalcy. Her experiences bring her to the attention of the SOF, (I forget the meaning of the acronym), which are special forces trying to bring down otherworldly creatures that threaten what remains of humanity. But she knows that there’s one vampire on her side, even if there’s not supposed to be any such thing.

So, yeah, it’s a wee bit predictable. But for what it is, it’s entertaining. I was never bored, often amused, and it went down smoothly and without making me angry because characters were being stupid, which is a bit unusual for paranormal almost-romances. (This doesn’t go down the full path of romance. Yet. If there are later books, I presume that what in this book is only rubbing up against each other turns into full-on vampire sex.) We don’t by the end know why Con the vampire doesn’t seem as vampirey-evil as the others, but the convention is well worn, and if it’s a little old, at least it’s not bad.