Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Diversity and Review

As the annual "Year in Books" posts begin to take form in my head, and with it the realization that once again my VIDA score for this year will be rather less than ideal, this conversation about reviewing and gender is of great interest.

I honestly do take into consideration the author's background (gender, mostly, because the issue of pseudonyms aside, it's usually hard to tell sans author pictures and in-depth bios things like race or sexuality) when considering both what books to read and what to review on Bourgeois Book Club. I'm a white male, but by virtue of being gay not quite the "default," as well as being what I hope is a strong feminist and believer in racial justice, I like to think I'm committed to diversity and allowing all people's voices be heard. I'm far, far from perfect, however. We live in the society we live in, and it can't help but influence us, often unconsciously. The fact is that despite being aware of the issue, I continue to read and review male authors to a disproportionate degree.

Because of the usual lack of time resources, I've become incredibly picky in what I buy. Using various "Upcoming Releases" sources, especially that of, I go into bookstores with a list of books already filtered and vetted. (Of course, I look at more than just the books on my list, but in general it determines what I'm looking for.) If a book doesn't grab me in the first chapter in the bookstore, it just doesn't get picked up. Is this a problem with my tastes? Am I too narrow in my reading habits and unwilling to range beyond them? Are the compilers of upcoming release posts too narrow in their own reporting? Is it a failure of the book industry that fewer women are published in my favored genres than men? Probably a whole lot of "all of the above," all of which is directly related to the persistence of systemic sexism in our society.

As for reviewing: writing Bourgeois Book Club is an ultimately extremely rewarding, but, frankly, torturous, activity. As I've stressed before, what I write about is not all I read, or even all I read that I enjoy, but only what I, for one reason or another, feel I have something particularly to talk about. Even then it sometimes takes me literal months between reading a book and the review being posted (due to perfectionism, preference to review several books in one post). Therefore, due to the previously mentioned "all of the above" filters that seems to skew my reading towards the male side, my reviews are weighted towards male authors.

This topic has particular resonance for me at the moment because I've recently noticed that  I've grown disenchanted with urban fantasy/paranormal romance, a genre that is actually female author-dominated. The genre has developed various tropes and forms that I simply do not care for, particularly in regards to romance and sex, that I can't help but fear are my gender-biases showing. Writers such as Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, and Karen Chance, who I once enthusiastically read, have fallen by my wayside as their series have continued, and developed in these "womanly" ways. It makes me disappointed in myself.

In the end, I like what I like, and since it's not goat snuff scat porn involving trafficked children, there's nothing "wrong" with it. And I admit I'm weak, and lazy, and shy of venturing from my comfort zones. Therefore, I'm not sure how much, despite all this soul-searching and occasional writing, I'm going to change my reading habits, certainly not to the gender-swapping extreme of those in the Tor post. And that's "fine," but it isn't anything to be proud of, either. When the Revolution comes, I'm not sure how much mercy "But I wrote some blog posts and felt really bad about it!" will get me, but I suppose it's better than nothing. Not very much, though. I can only hope I can somehow at least contribute to the conversation, try to do better, and perhaps spark others to look at and evaluate their own reading habits.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Next Will Be "237 Nerd Sex Positions"

Yesterday, nerds, even divine ones, were the worst; today, they're totally dreamy! They must have read the book overnight.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nice Guy of Olympus

I don't know whether this is entirely fair to Hephaestus, since there are so few myths really about him that we don't get as much psychological insight (for lack of a better term) into him as with some of the other gods. For instance, we don't actually know if he loved Aphrodite because we're not told if he loved her or not. That's not "Hephaestus's" "fault." (But then there are those golden statue-women he made to help around the forge... Sex-bots?)

In any case, it's an interesting angle on Greek mythology and modern issues, and I'm all for that!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bourgeois Book Club

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

For millennia the Radch have dominated human space through the use of "ancillaries," AIs comprised of both ships and thousands of human bodies stripped of their individuality and used as totally loyal and fully synchronized soldiers. Using these implacable troops, bound by an endlessly syncretic religion and moral code concerned with purity, dominated by oligarchic Houses under the command of the clone-hive of the Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai, the Radch is an utterly ruthless expansionist empire fueled by the forcible annexation and cultural hegemonization of surrounding worlds.

But when cracks begin to appear in the seemingly immutable Radchaai system -- mutinies, an end to annexations, treaties with alien species -- and the mind of the Lord itself seems divided, a minor incident on a newly-conquered world spirals unexpectedly out of control, leaving one ancillary of the ship Justice of Toren the sole survivor. Thrust into sudden individuality, "Breq of the Gerentate" is left with nothing but a thirst for vengeance against the Lord and empire that betrayed it. 

I learned in college that, according to some French feminist theorists, we will never have a truly equal society until we have a truly gender-neutral language. The languages we speak now are based on and shot through with theories and assumptions of patriarchy that in turn shape our very minds in sexist ways. For instance, the use of the male pronoun as the "default" or some languages use of different endings for males and females of the same profession. Whether or not that theory is true, I don't know, but this novel highlights the assumptions we make about gender without even realizing it. Breq has difficulty discerning gender in the humans around her, and her native language of Radchaai does not distinguish gender in any way in its grammar or vocabulary. Therefore, her default pronoun is "she/her." This leads the mind to imagine every character is female, even when it is sometimes revealed that they are in fact male. It is a surprisingly disconcerting mind-bend. I couldn't help but envision an all-female cast, even though I knew that several of them were male. How easy it is to play tricks on our perceptions through such minor inversions of language convention. It was quite the eye-opener for me. I've read about the phenomenon in nonfiction, but to see it in action in narrative form is something else entirely.

Beyond the thought-provoking language, Ancillary Justice is just an excellent read, with solid world-building and great action. According to the interview with the author that appears at the end of the book, it's the first in a "loose trilogy," and I am eagerly looking forward to the next installment.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Friday, November 01, 2013

Zero Charisma

This review of a new movie about gamers called Zero Charisma is very much Pursuant To Our Interests with regards to the ongoing Sturm-und-Drang of geek/nerd culture I'm so fond of prattling about. I'll probably never see the movie, but it does sound interesting.

Bourgeois Book Club

The Milkweed Triptych (Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil) by Ian Tregillis

I thought it impossible that I'd never written about in the annals of Bourgeois Book Club. But, when I began to write about the climactic final entry of the series, I found to my utter shock that I had in fact not written about the two preceding volumes at all. This oversight must be immediately rectified. And perhaps it is for the best, since its recent completion allows for broader perspective, and also allows you, dear readers, to gain immediate gratification instead of having to wait between volumes.

The Milkweed Triptych is an alternate history of spies, magic, and mad science in World War II and the Cold War. Imagine that Hitler, the Holocaust, the Eastern Front, the firebombing of Dresden, the Blitz, all of the horror and death and destruction of World War II... was the lesser of two evils? That in order to save the world, it had to be condemned to one of its lowest and most dangerous eras? That condemning millions to suffering and death in order is required to save the human race from extinction at the hands of malevolent, omnipotent beings? Spy thriller, science fiction, Lovecraftian fantasy, supervillains and magicians, apocalypse and time travel, The Milkweed Triptych has it all.

The trilogy crackles with excitement, but overflows with pathos and human emotion. The heroes, an unlikely pair of British secret agents, and probably one of the best, and most diabolical, villainesses I've ever encountered, make it a thrilling, but still intelligent, read. I simply cannot recommend it enough.

A History of Ancient Egypt by John Romer

A History of Ancient Egypt is a history of hardnosed materialism. Romer's contention is that what we have are the debris of prehistory, and thus any "history" can only say what the objects tell us. All else is projection, often of the assumptions of 19th-century anthropological and imperialist ideology.

Using nothing but the artifacts of the Nile inhabitants themselves, Romer emphasizes the dynamism and contingency of prehistoric Egypt in contrast to the staid and conservative culture of later pharaonic history. Civilization did not emerge fully-formed, but was the natural consequence of developments centuries in the making. Kingship, the state, organized warfare etc. were all new innovations then; thus, we cannot necessarily project back onto them the ideologies and assumptions of empires and politics of later periods. Not splendid isolation, but intense contact and influence. Instead of grand wars of unification between Upper and Lower Egypt, for example, Romer sees simple cultural agglomeration. Instead of grand isolation, Romer sees an early Egypt very much plugged into the cultural ferment of the greater Fertile Crescent.

Though its committed materialism is a bracing contrast to more conventional treatments of early Egyptian history, A History of Ancient Egypt is Far inferior as a literary work to Toby Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, it has no real narrative force at all, and reads more like a report than anything. Romer is interested much more in specificity than in overview. He concentrates on specific archaeological sites and finds. To be fair, however, they are involved in different programs. Wilkinson's is a broader, more conservative, historiographical overview, while Romer is much more focused and a bit iconoclastic.

I'd recommend A History of Ancient Egypt for the committed amateur Egyptologist, if only as a bracing tonic to more familiar historical treatments, but not really for anyone interested in a good read.

The Daedalus Incident by Michael A. Martinez

Perhaps it says something about my reading tastes, or perhaps it says something about the inherent fluidity of genre, but you may have noticed over the years of Bourgeois Book Club, that a lot of the reviewed books don't fit neatly into just one genre category. One need not even look farther than the top of this very post to see an example of this. But nothing I've ever read before combines the strange and unexpected melange of genres that characterizes The Daedalus Incident.

Swashbuckling a la Patrick O'Brien. Lovecraftian horror. Burroughsian pulp adventure. Alternate history. Alchemy. Science fiction thriller. In one universe, a Royal Navy officer must struggle to discover how and why a supposedly dead Mars has suddenly come alive geologically. In another universe, a Royal Navy space ship, complete with masts, sails, and cannons, must race from the seedy ports of Mercury to the alien worlds of Saturn and the deadly sands of Mars on the trail of murderous alchemists. Conspiracy draws the universes together in a collision of science, alchemy, and ancient history that could shake the fate of both universes.

Martinez masterfully integrates all these strange elements into an entertaining yarn, while integrating what could have been two totally different stories together. It's a worthy accomplishment, and one I very much enjoyed.