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I must confess that I had not, until now, read any of Carrie Fisher's memoirs or novels (at least some if which, I understand, are semi-autobiographical in nature). I am not an avid consumer of biographies or personal narratives of popular entertainment figures unless they have some other element to recommend them - a commitment to political action, say, or an unusual life experience, a career that contains some piece of work that affected me deeply or a particular gift for their craft.

However, the confluence of Fisher's untimely death and the publication of a memoir focused on her experiences filming Star Wars and inhabiting the very public image of Princess Leia impelled me to read Princess Diarist.

Fisher's style is light and easy to read without sacrificing perception or wit, and I thought that sections of the book that were taken from her original diaries, while overwrought in that "young woman on the threshold of everything" way that many of us probably remember all too well, contained flashes of her mature gift and showed some degree of insight and introspection amidst the angst.

I found her general observations on being trapped in an iconic role more interesting than all the business about her affair with Harrison Ford - unfortunately, there is much more of the latter than there is of the former. But then, I read bios of Laurence Olivier for insight into his acting process, not his relationship with Vivien Leigh. I'm odd that way.

It is, despite Fisher's light touch in the sections written by her mature self, a sad book, and one that bears witness to the utter wrongness of the sexual politics of the time (not that it's all that much better now). The early diaries reveal an intelligent, talented and witty young woman who cannot find a way to respect herself. The present day matter that bookends those diaries is a strange mix - wise and a little world-weary in speaking about the nature of celebrity, but oddly lacking in a feminist perspective on her younger self's issues with self-esteem, body image and sexual experiences.

The older Fisher, looking back, tells a disturbing story of the young Fisher and the start of her relationship with Harrison Ford without batting an eye. She recounts being the only woman at a party full of older men, being pressured into drinking far more than she is used to. As she becomes more and more inebriated, the men around her speak about her as a piece of meat, reducing her to an available sexual orifice - a scenario that screams prelude to gang rape. And when Ford intervenes, one breathes relief for only the minute it takes to read on about how he bustles her into a cab and has sex with her in the back seat. And this is the beginning of the affair that generates so much pain for her that it oozes off the pages of her younger self's diaries and poems. One wishes for the older Fisher to present some insight into this dynamic, but the closest she comes to this is to say:

"If Harrison was unable to see that I had feelings for him (at least five, but sometimes as many as seven) then he wasn’t as smart as I thought he was—as I knew he was. So I loved him and he allowed it. That’s as close a reckoning as I can muster four decades later."

I will always treasure the character Fisher created for us, both in the first Star Wars trilogy and in her return to the role some 40 years later, but her recollections and musings on the circumstances surrounding that creation saddened me more than anything else.

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Lately, I've been reading with an eye to making Hugo nominations, so this batch of short fiction reads is mostly selected from various lists of recommendations.


"The City Born Great," N. K. Jemisin; Tor.com, September 9, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/

An urban fantasy - though not the kind we're used to - about the gritty birth and life of the great cities, set in New York. Evocative and filled with a sense of urgency that pulls the reader toward its conclusion.


"This Is Not a Wardobe Door," A. Merc Rustad; Fireside Magazine Issue #29, January 2016
http://www.firesidefiction.com/issue29/chapter/this-is-not-a-wardrobe-door/

A story about imagination and hope and holding on to the magic of childhood when you believed you could change the world. At the end, I was crying.


"Checkerboard Planet," Eleanor Arnason; ClarkesWorld, December 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/arnason_12_16/

A new Lydia DuLuth talr from Arnason is always a treat. In this novelette, the AIs who control the interstellar stargates have asked Lydia to investigate conditions on a planet with a most peculiar ecology - the entire land mass and parts of the oceans are organised into giant squares, all of similar size, with all the life forms in each square the same colour. The planet has been colonised by a biogenetics corporation which, the AIs fear, is not acting in the best interests of the planet or humanity. An anti-imperialist first contact story with a gentle and at times even whimsical touch.


"Fifty Shades of Grays," Steven Barnes; Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/fifty-shades-grays/

Carver Kofax is a master at marketing and sales. But when he and his colleague (and romantic interest) Rhonda, land the corporation they work for a lucrative and highly secretive contract, the nature of the campaign demands all their skills - and leads to unexpected and dire consequences for all of humanity. Barnes handles the revelations in the narrative and the protagonist's growing unease with a sure hand. Content warning: this novelette contains sexually explicit kink.


"A Dead Djinn in Cairo," P. Djeli Clark; tor.com, May 18, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/05/18/a-dead-djinn-in-cairo/

In an alternate pre-WWI Cairo, where djinn and angels from other dimensions mingle with humans, Special Inspector Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities investigates the apparent suicide of a djinn, only to discover a mad plot to destroy humanity. Will the dapper young inspector solve the mystery in time? Clark's novelette is a delighful genre-bending fantasy thriller with a touch of steampunk. Cairo comes to life in complex and sensual detail, and Fatma is a character I'd love to see again.


"The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight," E. Lily Yu, Uncanny Magazine, Sept-Oct 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/witch-orion-waste-boy-knight/

A relatively young and inexperienced witch decides to accompany a young knight errant seeking dragons to kill, and learns a few bitter lessons about honor, trust and pride.


"The Green Knight’s Wife," Kat Howard; Uncanny Magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/green-knights-wife/

A compelling riff on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, told from the perspective of the Green Knight's wife, in which one of those women who is always on the sidelines in such hero tales, treated as merely part of the mythic machinery, takes up agency and acts for herself.


"Foxfire, Foxfire," Yoon Ha Lee; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 3, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/foxfire-foxfire/

A novelette blending fantasy and sf, set in a Asian- derived alternate universe where loyalists and rebels do battle with giant powered mechas. A young spirit fox with a great desire to become human - which he can only achieve by killing and eating 100 humans - is faced with difficult choices when captured by a mecha pilot. A story about transformations, and finding one's self.


"Unauthorized Access," An Owomoyela; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/unauthorized-access/

You would think a high profile hacker who's already spent time in prison for releasing government information that there was no reason to hide would be seriously radicalised - but for Aedo Leung, getting out of jail is only the beginning. A cautionary tale about the sequestration of public information that has suddenly become even more timely and appropriate.

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It has been said that the Inklings - the community of writers that surrounded C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams - was the most influential group of writers of the 20th century. In Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, Diana Pavlac Glyer traces the story of the Inklings as a working writers' group from its beginnings, detailing the evidence for the extensive influence the members had on each other's writing. The book itself is an adaptation of her earlier and more scholarly work, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in community, and has been organised in such a way as to offer not only illuminative anecdotes about the writers and details of the process of critique and collaboration that marked their interactions, but observations on what made the group so successful in fostering each other's work and the lessons other groups might draw from that success.

The story of the Inklings begins with Lewis and Tolkien. Both employed in teaching English at Oxford, their association began when Tolkien, who believed that study of mythology and early languages was essential to the study of English, started a club, named the Kolbítar (Old Norse for “old cronies who sit round the fire so close that they look as if they were biting the coals") for the study and appreciation of old Icelandic literature. Lewis, long fascinated by Norse mythology, joined the club.

Then, in 1929, Tolkien asked Lewis to read his early draft of the Lay of Leithian, the poem about the love of the mortal Beren for the elven Lúthien Tinúviel, which would eventually become part of The Lord of the Rings. Lewis praised it highly - but he also offered a detailed critique on all levels, from conceptual matters to word choices. Tolkien responded with extensive revisions. Lewis then shared some of his own work with Tolkien, and eventually the two began meeting regularly to read and critique each other's work. They were eventually joined by Lewis's brother Warren, retired from military service, who had engaged on a project of editing the Lewis family papers for eventual publication (Warren Lewis would later turn his efforts to historical research and write several well-respected books on 17th century France.)

Glyer notes that while we tend to associate the Inklings with writing and scholarship, a third key element - like the first two, a matter of commitment, even devotion rather than simple interest - that bound them together was Christian theology and faith. As C. S. Lewis wrote when inviting Charles Williams to join their company, “We have a sort of informal club called the Inklings: the qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write, and Christianity."

Over time, the group, which adopted the name of the Inklings, grew to include other working writers - poets, essayists, scholars in a wide range of subjects from literature to medicine, novelists and playwrights - though not all participated to the same degree and several members came and went during the years. In all, 19 men are considered to have been members of the Inklings - Owen Barfield, J. A. W. Bennett, David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, James Dundas-Grant, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, Colin Hardie, Robert E. “Humphrey” Havard, C. S. Lewis, Warren Lewis, Gervase Mathew, R. B. McCallum, C. E. Stevens, Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Wain, Charles Williams, and C. L. Wren.

Glyer focuses her attentions on the writers 'at the heart' of the Inkings - Tolkien senior and later his son Christopher, the two Lewis brothers, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams - detailing their influences on each other and their collaborative projects. What emerges is a remarkable portrait of a group of intensely intellectual and creative men who shared some of the most intimate aspects of their lives - their creative processes and their spiritual selves. A rich community of authors, whose individual works would influence many other writers beyond their circle. Without their connections to each other and the long ongoing conversation that encompassed them all, English literature of the 20th century - including genre fiction - would have been very different, and much poorer for the loss.

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André M. Carrington's critical assessment of race in science fiction, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, looks both at what he calls "the whiteness of science fiction" and "the speculative fiction of Blackness," thus examining "racialized patterns in the production and interpretation of speculative fiction" from two complementary perspectives.

In his Introduction, Carrington identifies himself as a Black man who is both a fan of speculative fiction and an academic, a critic of the genre. As such, his chosen focus in this critical work is:

"... what speculative fiction, in the many ways we encounter it and embody it, has to say about what it means to be Black. It is also about how placing Blackness at the center of discussions about speculative fiction augments our understanding of what the genre might be and what it might do."

Rather than taking a survey approach, Carrington selects specific areas of the broad spectrum of works and activities that make up the culture of speculative fiction, and examines these as representations of 'the whiteness of science fiction' or 'the speculative fiction of Blackness.'

"Speculative fiction is as saturated with race thinking as any other variety of popular culture, and it tends to reproduce conventional understandings of race for reasons I explore in this introduction and throughout the book. By analyzing works that represent the production and reception of speculative fiction, I also demonstrate that race thinking is a salient factor in the way actors on the media landscape employ genre distinctions and reproduce genre conventions in practice. Ultimately, I hope to establish a basis in the interpretation of popular culture for a more expansive understanding of what it means to be Black. I also hope to encourage SF readers and critics to acknowledge that race matters in speculative fiction; whether we realize it or not, our engagement with the genre entails a variety of complex relationships with Blackness."

The first aspect of the sff culture that Carrington presents as indicative of the whiteness of sff is fandom itself, which he views through the lens of fan reaction to the 'career' of Black fan writer Carl Brandon - a creation of several fan/writers, primarily Terry Carr.

"I have used Carl Brandon as a lens through which to view a moment in the development of a community around speculative fiction and the creative use of media, and I have reasserted Brandon’s Blackness as an essential feature in my examination of this moment because the fake fan made his participation in the network of relations among fans notable through his self-identification as a Negro. Although Carl Brandon emerged to inoculate fans against the charge of racial exclusion, the fact that he did not exist and disappeared before another fan identified herself as Black left the presumptive Whiteness of science fiction intact. By understanding the means of producing Brandon’s Blackness, however, we can recognize its continuity with the race thinking in science fiction fandom, rather than treating it as a lacuna. Interpreting the first letter that firmly identifies Carl Brandon’s textual persona with Blackness requires us to invoke a chain of correspondence reaching back to August 1954. When Carr made a splash by identifying Brandon as Black, fans were already in the middle, not at the beginning or the end, of a long dialogue about the meaning of Blackness in their community. This dialogue looks backward to James Fitzgerald [the first known black member of sf fandom] and forward to the continuing work of the Carl Brandon Society."

Carrington also interrogates the whiteness of the idea of space travel, a key element of science fiction, through the singular presence of Nichelle Nichols both as Uhura and as a spokesperson for NASA.

"Because of the ways in which Black women have been marginalized in the production of popular culture, including the relative alienation of Black women from the SF genre’s conventional ways of envisioning race, gender, and sexuality, Nichelle Nichols, I argue, has yet to be recognized for her transformative contributions to the public interrogation of questions at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and utopian discourse.

Carrington continues his examination of popular sff genre fiction, through a look at the various ways the Marvel Comics character Storm embodies representations of white ideas about Black womanhood. Staying within the graphic narrative genre, he also reflects on the brief career of Milestone Media, a black-owned comics publishing company, and particularly its flagship title, Icon, which he argues "positioned a highly intellectual Black female protagonist, Rocket, in a critical dialogue with comics fandom." In both examples Carrington situates his discussion of Blackness in speculative fiction, as represented by Storm and by the Black characters Rocket and Icon in the Milestone Media comic, in the midst of a genre that remains conspicuous in its whiteness.

Carrington returns to an examination of black representation in the Star Trek universe with his exploration of the Deep Space Nine character Benjamin Sisko. He places particular focus on the time-travel themed episode "Far Beyond the Stars" and on the novelisation of this episode by black writer Steven Barnes.

"The episode recontextualizes the television series, which was enjoying its sixth season at that point, by presenting a story within a story. Casting Avery Brooks’s Blackness in stark relief against the trenchant White supremacy of the mid-twentieth-century United States, the episode would raise troubling questions about the inspirational rhetoric of science fiction—and Star Trek in particular—by situating the dynamics of racial conflict squarely within the history of the genre."

In his final chapter, Carrington returns to fandom, and in particular the transformative activity of writing fan fiction. He selects as his point of examination the online archive Remember Us, which "catalogs representations of people of color in popular media through fan fiction, fan art, and music video, providing a space in which a variety of critical relationships to Blackness appear possible, now and in the future."

Through critical discussion of these specific topics related to speculative fiction in all of its manifestations, Carrington examines both the history - the past and present - of representations of race, and illuminates possible futures for inclusivity. As he concludes in his Coda:

"Much of Speculative Blackness has concerned how the entrenchment of speculative fiction in the norms of popular culture limits the meaning of Blackness in the genre, but in this work I am also constantly looking forward to what Blackness can do, with the aid of speculative fiction, to transform cultural politics."

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Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.

In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.

Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.

What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.

What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.

Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.

Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.

Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.

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In her novel All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders defies conventions and overthrows dichotomies with a joyous aplomb. A story that is both science fiction and fantasy, about a boy who dreams of rockets and time machines and a girl who can talk to the birds and the trees, about the war between those who value technology over nature and those who value nature over technology, about those who think man can be outside of, control and manipulate the natural world and those who think man is a part of and must live within and be guided by it.

As children, Patricia and Laurence are both outcasts - misunderstood, bullied, gaslighted, rejected by parents, schoolmates and the educational system itself. They form a fragile alliance, which even as it grows is being undermined by Theodolphus Rose, an assassin turned guidance counselor who has had a mystical vision that they will grow up to start an apocalyptic war between science and magic. Together they create a true AI, using Laurence's code and Patricia's non-linear conversations with the nascent intelligence - an AI that Laurence names Peregrine and sets free to evolve. Eventually their friendship, frayed by Rose's manipulations and lies, shatters when Patricia allows Laurence to see her doing magic.

Seven years later, Laurence is working with a semi-underground group of scientific geniuses trying to find a way to save at least part of the human race from the coming global upheaval being triggered by climate change. Their plan is to find a way to move large numbers of people to another planet, leaving the earth behind to face its destruction. Meanwhile, Patricia has been taken into the fellowship of witches, and trained in the two branches of magic, Healing and Trickery. The witches are devoting their energies to an attempt to balance the energies of the planet, serving nature through small acts of healing or prevention, developing their own solution, one that will preserve the earth at the cost of humanity.

When Laurence and Patricia meet each other once more, the path is set for a dramatic and violent confrontation, but beyond that, a chance for reconciliation of man and nature, science and magic, and for a future where empathy and understanding can open the door to the survival of all.

I've never been fond of Cartesian divides, and the skill with which Anders exposes the humanity vs. nature, intuition vs logic axes as barren and ultimately destructive was quite gratifying. I also appreciated the focus on ethical decisions - everyone in the novel is trying to do the ethical thing, based on their partial understanding - and the ease with which ethical reasoning can be subverted to questionable ends when it is not tempered with empathy and compassion.

But this is much more than a novel of ideas. The characters are appealing despite their flaws, the writing is crisp, and the style engaging. The story flows smoothly, and it isn't until you get to the end that you realise just how much there is to think about. Well worth the critical praise it has received.

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Katya Gould, the protagonist of Mary Robinette Kowal's novella Forest of Memory, is a dealer in Authenticities - artefacts from the past that have a provenance and a history of real use, a patina of use and wear that she and her clients call wabi-sabi. The world she lives in is one of constant connectedness - most people are hooked into a system that informs, records, communicates and tracks their every word and action.

Katya is returning from a buying trip when she accidentally encounters a mysterious man who is drugging and tagging deer. He blocks her connection to her AI, drugs and kidnaps her, holding her in a forest area while he tags several more groups of deer. Apparently wounded by a buck, he lets her go. When she gets far enough away to reconnect, she calls for help, but when a medical team arrives, and she leads them back to the site where she was held, there is nothing to be found but deer tracks.

At least, that's what she remembers. Because nothing of her experience was recorded, it's hard for others to believe her story. And when an unknown client hires her to write her story - a one-of-a-kind account on a typewriter the client has also bought - her hesitations and disclaimers show that she is not even sure herself of the authenticity of her memories.

The account she types out - typographic errors, false starts and all - forms the text of the story. It is her first person narrative of what she remembers. And what she doubts, and mistrusts, and the lacunae when she is drugged or asleep. It is the authentic human experience - which cannot, unlike the artefacts she appraises, ever be authenticated.

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The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi's first novel, is a romance-centred fantasy based on Hindu history, religion, myths and folktales. It is a delightful read - Chokshi's prose is rich and smooth, and her protagonist, the princess Mayavati of Bharata, is an enchanting character from the first time we see her, hiding behind a screen to watch the funeral of one of her father's wives.

In short order we learn that Maya is the only unbetrothed daughter of her father the raja, that she survived her mother's death in childbirth, that she has an unfortunate horoscope that warns of a marriage connected to death, and that she is a bright, strong willed, independent young woman who has some mysterious magical/mystical past/destiny that she is wholly unaware of. Growing up with the knowledge that no one would want to marry someone with a horoscope as disastrous as hers, she has imagined herself with a future outside the harem, perhaps even in a position of power and authority in her country.

Then it all changes. In order to bring peace to a war-torn country, her father announces that she will marry one of the leaders of their enemies, although he promises to allows her to make her own choice from among the suitors. But afterwards he tells her privately that it is all a ruse to lure his enemies to the palace, and that he expects her to kill herself so he has a pretext to destroy them.

When a dashing and mysterious suitor calling himself Amar interrupts her attempted sacrifice and promises to take her to his kingdom where she will rule beside him, Maya goes with him rather than take her own life. But Amar is not what he appears to be, his kingdom is not an earthly one, and he is somehow connected to the mysterious hints she has received concerning her past.

I must admit that even without much knowledge of Hindu religious symbolism, I figured out the basics of the mystery of Amar and her connection with him long before it was revealed in the text. But it was still an engaging, though not particularly demanding read.

Light, romantic fantasies often leave out the difficult issues. A review of the book by Samira Nadkarni [1] that addresses the ways in which Chokshi handled the historical and religious source material, points out some of the problematic areas, notably the exclusion of India's diverse peoples - the book presents everyone as Hindu - and the omission of issues of caste and class, and a downplaying of the sexism that pervades much of the source material.

The Star-Touched Queen is a light and enjoyable read, but I would urge readers to look at critical reviews such as Nadkarni's to gain more perspective.

[1] http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/the-star-touched-queen-by-roshani-chokshi/

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Many readers of speculative fiction have a conflicted relationship with H. P. Lovecraft. I'm certainly one of them. There's a power, an allure, to the Cthulhu mythos that's hard to set aside - yet there's also the pervasive racism that makes so many of the specific works that form that mythos so difficult to read.

Victor LaValle's powerful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is both a retelling of Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and a response to its appalling racism. I'd come across some reviews of LaValle's piece some time ago, and decided to reread Lovecraft's story before reading the novella.

"The Horror at Red Rock" has been called by some one of Lovecraft's most overtly racist works. It is set in a part of Brooklyn that Lovecraft populates with a "hopeless tangle and enigma" of "Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro element," "unclassified slant-eyed folk," and "swarthy, evil-looking strangers." The protagonist is a police detective named Malone, who works the human smuggling beat in Red Hook, investigating "the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island." In the course of his work, he encounters a reclusive scholar named Suydam who seems to be unaccountably involved with the more corrupt and violent elements of Red Hook society.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle inverts the characterisation of Red Hook, painting it as a vibrant multicultural community that suffers under the structural racism of American society and the callous brutality of the police, whose job it is to keep the people of Red Hook away from white New York.

The protagonist here is a young black man named Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler with a minor musical talent who skirts the edges of the occult world. Raised in poverty and always under the threat of race-based discrimination and assault, he accepts an invitation to play at a party being held by the eccentric and mysterious Suydam - and is introduced into the world of Cthulhu.

The general course of events outlined in Lovecraft's story unfold in similar fashion in LaValle's novella, but from the joint perspectives of Tester and Malone. A tragic act of police violence finally drives Tester to Suydam's side snd he becomes his primary lieutenant, Black Tom.

In LaValle's work, it is the promise of revenge for years of oppression by whites that draws members of the Red Hook community, including Tester, to embrace the worship of Cthulhu, and ultimately leads Tester to choose the end of human civilisation over the continuance of white supremacy. As Black Tom tells Malone at the climax of the story, " I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

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In Laurie Penny's novella Everything Belongs to the Future, science - corporate controlled science - has developed a drug that, taken daily, can extend the lifespan for years, perhaps centuries. It is, of course, extremely expensive, available only to the rich and to favoured scientists, entertainers, and others who make themselves of particular value to those in control.

The narrative focuses on a small group of anarchist activists. Joined by Daisy, the scientist who did the original research on the "blue pill' - now a woman in her eighties who looks like a teenager - their attempts to develop a generic life extension drug give way to something profoundly different when Daisy's research leads in an unexpected and potentially explosive direction. Although we know from the beginning that something goes wrong with their plans - part of the narrative consists of letters written from prison by one of the activists - much of the story's tension is driven by the fact that the reader learns early on that there is a covert agent of the establishment among them.

Penny writes about power and corruption, oppression and resistance, loyalty and betrayal, but her focus is so narrow that the reader is left with little understanding of how the existence of life extension drugs has changed society. We learn that, faced with long life, the world's elites have finally taken measures to curb climate change, but little else that's concrete about this future society.

We get a sense that, at least among those to whom the protagonists initially try to distribute stolen life extension pills, life seems grim and faintly desperate, but we are left unsure as to the reasons for this. Is it just the longing that everyone has for the virtually unattainable fountain of youth, or has the creation of an immortal elite altered social conditions in ways that have made a life of normal span less tolerable?

Penny also uses the dichotomous categories of eternal youth and premature aging to explore the ways that apparent age influences the perceived value and status of women.

The novella moves quickly, and Penny's prose is at times both deeply evocative and chillingly powerful. As an allegory of favoured elites, disfavoured masses, and discontented resistance, it offers considerable good for thought, but I found I wanted more.

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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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Bao Shu's novella Everybody Loves Charles, translated by Ken Liu, is an exploration of identity, celebrity and corporate greed and power. Bao uses the by-now familiar trope of being "wired" into the feeling and sensations of a celebrity to present a world in which millions of people would rather spend hours of every day being someone else - someone glamorous, who does exciting things and has sex with the 'beautiful people' - rather that live their own lives.

Charles Mann is the world's most chosen 'livecaster' - a daring race pilot who has love affairs with the world's most famous women and who, unlike many other celebrities, is online for his subscribers 24 hour a day. He thrives on the knowledge that millions love him so much they want to know his every feeling and sensation, to see the world through his eyes. Takume Naoto is one of his subscribers, a programmer who works just enough to support a spartan life, and spends all of his remaining time vicariously experiencing Charles' life.

When Charles meets a woman who is outside of his world of fame and constant livecasting, he is persuaded by her to limit his livecasting - she refuses to allow his time with her to be a part of the experiences of anyone who cares to subscribe to Charles' livecasts. But when he contemplates stopping his casts altogether, he discovers the world of corporate brandmaking that lies behind the livecasts.

An ultimately pessimistic, even dystopic view of a culture where personal identity and experience are felt to be inadequate beside the hyped-up lives of the rich and famous, and where even the cults of celebrity are ultimately nothing more than ways to make profits, Everyone Loves Charles delivers a serious critique of the virtual and vicarious lives we are increasing drawn to.

Bao Shu's novella can be found online at Clarkesworld. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/bao_01_16/

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.


[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2016/02/11/lovecraft-country-unearths-monsters-both-real-and-imagined/

Alex Brown, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books
http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/caught-after-dark-in-lovecraft-country/

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Andrea Hairston's novel Will Do Magic for Small Change is a celebration of the power of storytelling, the connection between past, present and future, and magic - the everyday magic that comes from such acts as taking a step into the unknown, opening your heart or trusting your sense of yourself - and how these things can heal, can make something that was broken, scattered, whole again.

Hairston gives us two narratives interwoven by magic, imagination and love. The first, set in 1980s Chicago, centres on a young black girl, Cinnamon Jones, child of poverty, myth and art. Her father is in a coma, shot while trying to help two lesbians. Her brother has died of a drug overdose that may have been suicide. Her mother, a city bus driver, is increasingly unable to cope. But in her blood is the magic and mystery of her grandparents, a hoodoo woman and a medicine man. What pulls Cinnamon forward is a love of theatre, the friends she meets at an audition - Klaus and Marie - and the gift from her brother of a mysterious book that writes itself, the story of an alien wanderer come to earth.

The second narrative is the story of this Wanderer. Starting in the late 1890s, the alien is caught up in the flight of a Dahomey ahosi, or warrior woman, after her defection from the Dahomeyan women's army. The warrior, Kahinde, names the alien after her dead twin brother Taiwo, for whom she left the king's army. Joined by Kahinde's sister-in-law Samso and her infant daughter, they travel to the new world of America seeking a place where they can write new stories of their lives.

Intersections of past and present, love and fear, the deep truth of storytelling, theatre, art - the tale of the wanderer becomes the tale of Cinnamon's life and as it finds completion, the path to Cinnamon's future is woven together and unfolds before her.

A magical book, with layers of meaning I'll be contemplating for some time to come.

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The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by author and social critic Kameron Hurley on being/becoming an sff writer and being a woman in that profession, on sff and geek culture and being a woman in that culture, and on the ways that sexism and geekdom play out in the broader 'mundane' world. In her Introduction to the collection, Hurley says:

"At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together."

The essays in this collection range widely: from the important of persistence in becoming a writer to a discussion of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. They are painful, inspiring, rage-honing, insightful, and even funny at times, and include the Hugo Award winning "We Have Always Fought." They are definitely worth reading.

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An interest in eugenics is one of the dirty little secrets that many otherwise progressive figures of the past share with the kind of folks they would never join forces with under other circumstances. Progressive eugenicists talk about improving the species, conservative eugenicists talk about keeping the race (usually the white race) strong and pure, and free of the taint of lesser races, "weak genes" and deviance - notably sexual deviance. Both have used poor science and questionable rhetoric to advance their cause, and relied on such strategies as immigration barriers and forced sterilisation to carry it out. As Nancy Ordover notes in American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism,

"Early eugenics proponents, drawn from the ranks of scientists, politicians, doctors, sexologists, policymakers, reactionaries, and reformers, held that through selective breeding humans could and should direct their own evolution. ... The legislation they drafted, the interventions they backed, the medical regimens they prescribed stemmed from a belief that everything from intellect to sexuality to poverty to crime was attributable to heredity."

Ordover's book is an examination of the arguments and methods of American eugenicists. Writing about the appeal of eugenics in that country, she says,

"The long-lasting appeal of eugenics has rested on its protection of the status quo, on its emphasis on individual and group "failings" over analyses of systemic culprits and on its bedrock insistence on scientific/technological remedies over fundamental social and institutional change. It has thrived in times of mainstream anxiety over genuine or perceived gains of marginalized groups, making it an attractive tool for conservatives. And so decades after litigants and activists, doctors and attorneys proved that African-American, Latino, and Native American women and girls were being singled out for coerced, eugenically informed sterilisation procedures, Norplant began to be forced it on the same communities with the full force of the judiciary and the medical establishment and with the blessing of both conservative politicians and liberal organizations. After generations of queers resisting pathologisation, exactly 25 years after the Stonewall uprising, at the time of increased visibility in the political, social, and cultural realms, The Science of Desire [1] appeared on the scene to cast us as genetically distinct from the rest of humankind. Eugenics is, once again, making a very public ascent."

In the first section of the book, Ordover traces the history, rhetoric and supposed scientific research that was a significant element of race-based eugenics propaganda and legislation. Beginning with early projects intended to keep America free from 'contamination' and 'protected' from the economic pressures of new immigrants, eugenicists sought to prove that Latin American, Asian, eastern and southern European, and North African immigration was a threat to a stable, healthy - and white - population.

"It was Charles Davenport of the American Breeders Association (and later cofounder of the American Eugenics Society) who first suggested ....[using] the Binet test to document the hereditary shortcomings of immigrants to the United States. In 1912 immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island became the first group in the country to whom the IQ tests were administered. ...[this] had a built-in class bias: only those who came steerage were subject to examination. According to his results over 80 percent of all Jewish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, and Russian immigrants were 'feebleminded defectives'."

The 'research' was undertaken to demonstrate the supposed scientific basis for identifying immigrants, and people of colour, as well as other potential dangers to the idea of a 'superior' primarily Anglo-Saxon nation. As Ordover demonstrates, such supposedly scientific evidence was based on "... stereotyping physical and mental characteristics of outsiders and insisting on recognizable, undeniable, immutable differences between "inferior" and "superior" people. American eugenicists armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable."

Eugenicists also used such research to support legislation intended to control 'internal threats' to their ideal nation, such as the poor, the physically and developmentally disabled, the sexual outcasts, African-Americans, prostitutes, alcoholics, addicts, and convicts. Instead of looking at socio-economic reasons for the various inequities they saw, eugenicists sought all their answers in biology, heredity and population statistics. As well, the force of eugenically framed discourses was increasingly aimed at radicals and anarchists, seen primarily as coming from immigrant and other marginalised communities: "These "interlopers," along with American Blacks, were viewed as both contaminated bodies and contaminators of the body politic."

Ordover demonstrates clearly that the current rhetoric aimed at immigrants to America - framing them as intellectually deficient, violent, likely to end up on welfare, a threat to the safety of the state and the jobs of 'real' (that is, white working and middle-class Americans) - is hardly new, nor is the racist construction of American Blacks as lazy, violent, prone to criminal behaviour and lacking in 'white' virtues such as diligence, intelligence, honesty, good decision-making and perseverance. Rather, these stereotypes are the continuation of over a century of eugenicist propaganda.

In the second section of the book, Ordover looks at the ways in which the concept of biological determinism, which has been the basis for eugenicist assaults on the human rights of immigrants and people of colour, has been used both for and against the queer communities in America. She begins by discussing and critiquing research into biological or genetic 'causes' of homosexuality, from hormonal influences on the fetus during pregnancy to differences in brain structures, and noting how this research has been welcomed by segments of the queer community and their allies, as well as those who see 'sexual deviance' as something to be cured.

"The warm reception that greeted these hereditarian hypotheses ... raises two issues: what is it about causation theories that is so appealing to mainstream institutions and heterosexual America?what is it about the research that has so many in the queer community looking to it for deliverance? Mainstream media and its predominantly straight consumers look for a good story; if it holds an unspoken promise of curatives, so much the better. More than that, a focus on what causes queerness eclipses the larger question: who wants to know and why? Significant segments of the gay community, on the other hand, hold that causation theories can be honed into a strategic tool and integrated into a larger legal and political struggle. For many, there may also be personal attachment to biological explanations, a comfort in being able to tell straight family and friends that "we were born that way." The stakes are clearly different but there is a commonality here. Genetic promises have been embraced without interrogation by a community and a larger society eager to accept any quick-fix explanations (and consequent solutions) that modern science had to offer. Whether the hope was for an antidote for homosexuality or homophobia, this embrace typifies the science-as-Savior prism that has created so many determinist enterprises."

As she did in the section of the book dealing with race-focused eugenics, Ordover examines the history of the medicalisation of homosexuality and 'sexual deviance' and the impact of physicians and medical opinions on legislation and mandated treatment of 'deviants.' As it had been with immigrants and American blacks, homosexuality was seen as associated with an inherited tendency to 'degeneracy' and the goal of eugenicists was to eliminate such tendencies from the American gene pool.

"Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, a flood of state sodomy laws were passed or amended to encompass a greater array of sexual practices. Doctors ... provided a legitimizing presence among lobbyists. There was a certain reciprocity involved as castration and like procedures were transformed from court-mandated penalty to medically endorsed treatment. Physicians saw their diagnoses legally sanctioned and thus their esteem and power consolidated. At the same time, the judicial system was able to mete out corporeal punishment while still appearing to have the best interests of the defendant/patient, the public, and the national gene pool at heart.

One of the most sweeping manifestations of this dynamic was the rash of sterilization statutes enacted by thirty states between 1907 and 1932. In almost every state that legislated sterilization, eugenics boards were convened. Essentially these were medical panels established to grant or deny doctors the right to sterilize anyone with a real or imagined physical or developmental disability. Usually these were prisoners or patients at hospitals or asylums and sometimes they were members of the public at large."

As Ordover notes, at the same time that the idea of sexual deviance as a product of heritable degeneracy was being used to establish court-mandated sterilisation of homosexuals, biological determinism was being adopted by early apologists as a defense of homosexuality.

"Lesbian and gay history is replete with champions who relied on evolutionary or biological arguments to agitate for our civil and human rights. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, for example, pursued this line in the mid 19th century. If homosexuality was recognized as inborn, he reasoned, gays could not be criminally prosecuted. Perhaps choice implied guilt, but the undeniable force of nature should not."

Unfortunately, as Ordover demonstrates, the history of homophobia suggests that focus on physical 'causes' of queerness, whether it be the search for the 'gay gene' or the idea that homosexuality (and by extension, transgender or genderfluid identities) is due to misfiring hormones or congenital abnormalities of the sexual organs, leads to more strategies on how to 'cure' sexual minorities of their 'deviance. Physical and chemical castration, sterilisation, surgical procedures on the brain, hormone 'therapy,' even fetal screening and selected abortion have been recommended, if not always carried out widely.

After examining the history of eugenist discourses and the effect these have had on legislative and other means of 'controlling' the health, purity and safety of the body politic, Ordover turns in the third section of the book to a closer exploration of the allure of the 'technological fix' - the widespread advocation of 'solutions' such as birth control and sterilisation - for eugenicists on both the right and the left. The goals, actions and politics of Margaret Sanger and her associates serve as a casebook study of the ways in which classism and racism influence the policies of the left as well as the right.

"Over the years, Sanger's work and the work of her ideological cohort refashioned eugenics rhetoric into the more palatable language of population control. Early eugenics attestations that society has a vested interest in which children were born of which women solidified in post World War II decades: the continuing investment in the techno fix as remedial to poverty in the United States and abroad, the singling out of entire regions for sterilization campaigns, and the resulting wave of reactionary legislation and welfare policies. Class bias, so central to eugenic policy (and a principal motivator for Sanger) came to the fore. This is not to say that class, in particular reliance on welfare, was a greater determinant than race, but rather that the invocation of economic rationales and the unchallenged vilification of the poor enabled eugenics to go unchecked and unnamed. Class is underscored here in an attempt to counter claims that Sanger and others were not eugenicists because they never publicly uttered racial slurs, and to highlight the vulnerability of low income women who found themselves snagged in various institutional nets (i.e., relief, Medicaid, welfare). An attack on the poor may have seemed more genteel and more viable than an openly racist attack on people of color but ultimately the same women were targeted."

Ordover goes on to document the ways in which poor black, Hispanic and indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities, were targeted by birth control advocates and by both private doctors and state laws which saw sterilisation as a way of reducing the numbers of 'irresponsible' and 'feeble-minded' women bearing children while receiving government assistance. The litany of cases of coerced sterilisation, sterilisation without consent, sterilisation without the knowledge of the victim is chilling, as is the record of forced or uninformed use of potentially dangerous hormonal contraceptives such as Depo-Provera and Norplant and the social and medical pressure in some situations to abort fetuses known to have genetic or other congenital defects. Nor has this latest thrust of eugenicist practice been limited to the United States. As Ordover notes, many foreign aid initiatives and pharmaceutical testing programs have distributed these contraceptives, from Depo-Provera to Quinacrine, to women in developing nations, often without full information on risks, and sometimes without the knowledge or consent of the women.

Ordover has delved deeply into the history of eugenicist theory and its reliance on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) research and technological solutions. In this treatise, she demonstrates the ways in which this continuing assault on the rights and bodies of peoples constructed as not only 'other' but as threats to the social, political, economic and physical health of the nation is manifest in current political, social and legislative action. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia - these are the theories underlying much of the rhetoric from both conservative and liberal camps, and as Ordover definitively shows, eugenics is a significant part of the praxis.

An important book, with much to say about the state of America (and by implication, other nations) today.


[1] The Science of Desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior, Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, 1994.

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The subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly's extensively researched book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tells the reader exactly what she will find within its covers.

Shetterly is well positioned to tell this story, as the daughter of a black engineer who worked at NASA's Langley Research Center during the 60s and 70s. Her father knew some of the women who feature prominently in the book, her childhood was spent in Hampton, in the same neighbourhoods these women had brought their own families to a generation earlier. In her preface, Shetterly talks about her own memories if her father's work, and pinpoints the enormous importance of telling the stories of these women.

"Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine."

So often, the face of science has been presented as that of a white man. To read the stories of these brilliant black women who persevered through the dual sets of assumptions they faced as mathematicians and engineers in a world where people of colour were associated with low or unskilled work and women with limited opportunities when single and even fewer when married is to understand how important it is to challenge that image.

Shetterly anchors her research into the hundreds of women, black and white, who held mathematical and scientific jobs at Langley on a narrative focused on the lives and careers of a handful of women: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and others, all of whom worked in the all-female, all-black West Computing Unit at Langley. These first of these women were originally hired to meet the research needs of what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during World War II, but their role was to continue well into the age of the Moon missions.

While recognising the rare opportunities - and unusual economic security - that the growing airspace industry offered women, Shetterly does not ignore the gender politics involved. While the 'computers' - the women mathematicians who performed all the calculations on which the male scientists and engineers depended on to be able to do their work - were often as well educated and as skilled as the men entering the field of aeronautics, they were still women working in a male field where men were individually valued and encouraged to advance, and women were seen in the perpetual role of anonymous support from which it was hard to emerge.

"Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers. The most promising of the acolytes were tapped to assist their managers in the operations of the laboratory’s valuable tunnels and research facilities, apprenticeships that could open the door to high-profile research assignments and eventual promotion to the head of a section, branch, or division. ...

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. She might spend weeks calculating a pressure distribution without knowing what kind of plane was being tested or whether the analysis that depended on her math had resulted in significant conclusions. The work of most of the women, like that of the Friden, Marchant, or Monroe computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all."

After the war, the anticipated downturn in employment at Langley did not take place. While in so many other industries, the return of men from the war pushed women (particularly white, middle-class women who had not worked before the war) out of the jobs they had taken on and back into the home, such was not the case in the aeronautical industry. Driven by the Cold War, research into aeronautics and space flight, the Langley 'computers' had become an integral part of the research process.

"Black or white, east or west, single or married, mothers or childless, women were now a fundamental part of the aeronautical research process. Not a year after the end of the war, the familiar announcements of vacancies at the laboratory, including openings for computers, began to appear in the newsletter again. As the United States downshifted from a flat-out sprint to victory to a more measured pace of economic activity, and as the laboratory began to forget that it had ever operated without the female computers, Dorothy had time to pause and give consideration to what a long-term career as a mathematician might look like. How could she entertain the idea of returning to Farmville and giving up a job she was good at, that she enjoyed, that paid two or three times more than teaching? Working as a research mathematician at Langley was a very, very good black job—and it was also a very, very good female job. The state of the aeronautics industry was strong, and the engineers were just as interested in retaining the services of the women who did the calculations as the aircraft manufacturers had been in keeping the laundry workers who supported their factory workers on the job."

Along with the potential of stability in a well-paid professional field that allowed them to use their education and abilities, however, the Cold War also brought the chill of the "Red Menace" which was increasingly associated with any progressive political movement, including those advocating civil rights and racial equality. The politics of race that turned the NAACP into a suspect organisation were also a part of life at Langley for the black women and men who had found careers there. While the book's narrative line is primarily focused on the women of the West Computing Unit and the part they played over three decades in the advancement of air and space travel, Shetterly relates events in the lives and career experience at Langley of both black women and the few black male engineers to contemporary developments in the civil rights movement, placing their story within the cultural, political and legal shifts of their times.

This approach makes clear the ways in which the story of how these brilliant women mathematicians became central to the successful development of the space program was deeply entwined with international politics, national pride, cultural change and the push to end segregation in the American workplace. In tracing the shift from NACA to NASA, Shetterly's account also follows the changes experienced by the black women mathematicians who had built careers at Langley.

As engineering projects diversified and became more specialised, the women of the West Computing Unit were moved out of the pool and into the various departments and working groups. Once there, the contributions made by some led to advancement from mathematician to the more respected, more influential and more highly paid rank of engineer. But though few of the 'girls from West Computing' reached such rarefied heights, their work was an essential part of the R&D that led to the first Americans in space.

And this is the real importance of Shetterly's book, that it makes prominent the contributions of black women, that it presents them boldly. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

"For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America."

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry in her long-running Vorkosigan series, is a domestic romance, with nary a hint of military action or undercover missions, and only the barest of political subplots. But that's just fine, because the romance is both sweet and mature, and it allows for many reminiscences that harken back to the earliest volumes of the series and remind us of a lifetime of events.

It also asks us to accept a revisioning of one of the central relationships of the series, that of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. We learn, with very little warning, that for the latter decades of Aral's life, their relationship had been not one between two persons, but one between three - Aral, Cordelia, and Aral's one-time military secretary Oliver Jole. From conversations and recollections, we learn that Aral had been the one to bring Jole into the relationship, and with his death, Cordelia and Jole had not continued the relationship, although they remained friends.

The book opens three years after Aral's death, as Cordelia, Vicereine of the Barrayaran colony of Sergyar - the planet where Aral and Cordelia first met - returns after a voyage to Barrayar. She is met, as befits her rank, by Jole in his capacity as Admiral and commander of the Barrayaran troops in Sergyar space.

Slowly, they discover that time has sufficiently healed the wounds made by Aral's loss that they are both ready to contemplate relationships again - and that they are drawn to each other even without Aral to be the bond between them.

Romance between mature adults is rare in fiction, and thus a delightful thing to read. One aspect of their growing relationship and how they handle multiple issues that could derail it is that being mature and intelligent people, they don't keep secrets or hide things, they talk to each other. They know that communication, not sex, is what keeps a a relationship of the level of intimacy they desire alive year after year. I was so delighted to read a romance that is not riddled with the standard foolishness of lovers who can't be honest with each other.

Family and continuance is also at the core of this gentle romance. Miles, Ekaterin and their children make a significant entrance, and Miles' clone/brother Mark and his partner are clearly part of the family even if not present. Even more, the developing relationship between Cordelia and Jole is woven around Cordelia's plans to use preserved genetic material from Aral and herself and extrauterine reproductive technology to have the daughters that she and Aral never had the time to bring into the world. And she offers Jole the use of some of Aral's genetic material, and several of her own ennucleated ova, so that he can, if he wishes, have sons who will be both his and Aral's.

In this novel, all the action, all the suspense, is driven by decisions surrounding relationship, and yet it captivated me as much as any high-octane thriller.

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To read Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria is to be immersed in glorious prose that ripples and flows as it presents a rich and complex world, itself filled with words and the love of books and an appreciation of the power of words and narrative and language and myth, and their role in creating, preserving and altering culture.

It is into this world of languages and changing cultures that the protagonist, Jevek of Tyom, comes, first through the Olondrian books given to him by his tutor, which make him a stranger in his own country as he absorbs the visions of Olondria he finds in those books, and again through his voyage, as a stranger and a merchant taking over his father's business, to Olondria itself.

And it is as a stranger in Olondria, as one who longs to enter into a culture not his own, even as he learns that his books have not prepared him for Olondria as it is, that he learns through words, through hardship, through violence and through mystery to know who he is, to value his own people's ways and words and to bring them a written language of their own, to preserve their own stories.

Reviewer Nic Clarke has written about this so much better than I can:

"In Stranger, Samatar is keenly interested in the connections between language, culture, knowledge, and the self: how language functions as a marker and shaper of self- and communal identity; how facility with language, both oral and written, confers confidence, status and power; how words turned into text can convey emotion and meaning across time and cultural boundaries; and the possibilities of cultural contact that language opens up, or (when misunderstood or misused) closes down. Whether that contact is constructive or destructive, and for whom, is another matter, of course, and one with which Stranger also deals." [1]

A Stranger in Olondria is a beautiful, thoughtful, magical book, and I cannot praise it highly enough.

[1] http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/a-stranger-in-olondria-by-sofia-samatar/

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"A Trump Christmas Carol," by Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, John Scalzi and Jo Walton; Uncanny, December 25, 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/trump-christmas-carol/

A brilliant piece of political fiction, a solid reworking of the ideas of Dickens' classic as the ghosts of 2016 teach the President-elect the true meaning and proper use of political power.



"The Orangery," Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam; Beneath Ceasless Skies, Issue #214, December 8, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-orangery/

Using the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Apollo and Dryope as central images, Stufflebeam gives us a powerful look at the responses evoked in women when confronted with men's desire and sense of entitlement to women's labour, bodies and love. When confronted with all the women, including Daphne and Dryope, who have chosen transformation into trees, Apollo asks “Why do you women fear men so much that you would rather be tree than give a kiss?” It's a question answered by this novelette, though perhaps not in any way that one who must ask can understand.



"The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt," N. K. Jemisin; Wired, December 13, 2016
https://www.wired.com/2016/12/nk-jemisin-the-evaluators/

A brilliant and truly terrifying cautionary tale told in modern epistolary style (excerpts from emails, reports and other documents) about the dangers of making assumptions and rushing first contact.



"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0," Caroline M. Yoachim; Lightspeed, March 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/welcome-to-the-medical-clinic-at-the-interplanetary-relay-station/

Having spent way too much time dealing with medical personnel and institutions lately, this grim little story about the futility of getting any real healthcare from a bureaucratic and underfunded system hit close to home.



"My Grandmother's Bones," S. L. Huang; Daily Science Fiction, August 22, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/s-l-huang/my-grandmothers-bones

A short and moving story about generational relationships and cultural changes, seen through a series of funerary behaviours.


"17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!," James Beamon; Daily Science Fiction, May 3, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/james-beamon/17-amazing-plot-elements-when-you-see-11-youll-be-astounded

An interesting approach to the retelling of a very old tale. Short, but worth reading for the way it's told.



"The Right Sort of Monsters," Kelly Sandoval; Strange Horizons, April 4, 2016
http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-right-sort-of-monsters/
Powerful story about need, sacrifice and how humans deal with difference. A strange and alien grove - the Godswalk - appears mysteriously beside a village, leaving most of the inhabitants unable to have children of their own. In the forest are the blood trees, whose flowers produce children in return for human blood, children that are not quite human, but human enough. But when Viette enters the forest to seek a child to fill the void left by a series of miscarriages, she learns that the Godswalk hides deeper secrets than she realised.

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