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I've long been meaning to read Katharine Burdekin's classic dystopia, Swastika Night, and given the political climate of the day, now seemed an appropriate time to finally get around to it. What makes Swastika Night stand out among the other anti-fascist dystopias of its era is the explicit connection that Burdekin makes between fascist ideology and what we would now call 'toxic masculinity.' As Daphne Patai notes in the Introduction to this Feminist Press edition:

"Though Burdekin’s feminist critique appears in her realistic fiction and even in her children’s book, she excelled above all in the creation of utopian fiction, and the special vantage point afforded by the imaginative leap into other ‘societies’ resulted in her two most important books: Swastika Night (1937) and Proud Man (1934). When these novels first appeared, contemporary reviewers tended to miss Burdekin’s important critique of what we today call gender ideology and sexual politics, though on occasion they noted her feminist sympathies, which, indeed, led some to guess that ‘Murray Constantine’ was a woman. With this reprint of Swastika Night, Burdekin’s works may finally begin to find their audience.

Like fictional utopias (‘good places’), dystopias (‘bad places’) provide a framework for levelling criticisms at the writer’s own historical moment. But in imagining in Swastika Night a Europe after seven centuries of Nazi domination, Burdekin was doing something more than sounding a warning about the dangers of fascism. Burdekin’s novel is important for us today because her analysis of fascism is formulated in terms that go beyond Hitler and the specifics of his time. Arguing that fascism is not qualitatively but only quantitatively different from the everyday reality of male dominance, a reality that polarises males and females in terms of gender roles, Burdekin satirises ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ modes of behaviour. Nazi ideology, from this point of view, is the culmination of what Burdekin calls the ‘cult of masculinity’. It is this connection, along with the strong argument against the cult of masculinity, that set Burdekin’s novel apart from the many other anti-fascist dystopias produced in the 1930s and 40s."

In Burdekin's vision of a Fascist future, Teutonic myth, warped medievalism, and the history of a Hitlerian victory in WW2 merge into a religious cult of masculinity, where God the Thunderer and his holy son Hitler preside in heaven over a hierarchy that begins with the German political elite - the Fuehrer and the Ring of Ten - and then widens out to include the Knights, the rank and file Nazis, and then foreign 'Hitlerians' (the 'converts' from other, conquered and occupied countries), all of whom are men. At the bottom of the social order are women - deemed barely more than dumb animals - and Christian men and other 'heathens.' Men are seen as heroic, beautiful, noble, women as ugly, weak, fit only for bearing sons for the glory of Hitler. But in the first pages, the reader is let in on a dire secret that has greatly concerned the upper echelons of this society - fewer and fewer female children are being born to Hitlerian women, a trend which if continued will mean an end to the Hitlerian edifice and possibly to all of humanity.

The novel focuses on three men, of different stations in life: Hermann, a young German of the Nazi class, content to work on the land as his ancestors have, and a devout believer in Hitler; Alfred, an Englishman with whom he became friends (and possibly lovers, there is much homoeroticism in the relationships between men in the novel) during a period of military service in England, a sceptic who believes that if the mystery cult of Hitlerism can be broken, the German Empire can be destroyed; and the old Knight Von Hess, who has seen too much and knows too many secrets - even the secret of history - to believe in anything.

It's a dark dystopia, and much like Orwell's 1984, a dystopia in which even the occasional candlelight of understanding and rebellion against the oppression flickers only for a few minutes, and then is blown out. At the end of the novel, there's no breaking of the bonds, only the faintest hope that some knowledge of the past, of the idea that things could be different, will survive, and someday be found by someone who can use that knowledge to begin a change.

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Trials by Whiteness, edited by science fiction author Jayme Goh, is the latest in Aqueduct Press' series of published essays and conversations arising from the annual WisCon (the oldest feminist-focused science fiction convention, held in Wisconsin). In recent years, Wiscon has ben making attempts to make its focus on feminism an intersectional one, looking at issues of representation, and safer space for POCs in conventions, among other things. In this, the Chronicles of the 40th WisCon, Goh has chosen to interrogate whiteness:

"I want to start a conversation on whiteness. We talk a great deal about representations of people of color in science fiction, because they are erased, invisiblized — they need to be foregrounded, in order to combat the overwhelming whiteness of the genre.

What we do not talk about is how whiteness, so pervasive, all-encompassing, is also invisible, like the water that fish live in. To talk about it is like naming racism — it’s bringing the bogeyman to life. In this logic, racism would not exist if we simply didn’t talk about it — similarly, the problem of whiteness, the problem of white culture, the problem of white supremacy, simply would not exist, because we do not talk about whiteness, do not pinpoint its murky edges. It is only a problem when Nazis are involved, and even then, mostly unremarked upon, because Nazis are not normal, so let’s not normalize them by talking about them."

She goes on to specify her theme as 'trials by whiteness': "... trials by whiteness that people of color face. The slow and steady stream of microaggressions and invalidations. The sudden eruptions of violence. The cold betrayals from loved ones in what should have been a safe and understanding space. We could talk about just white people, but the problem with whiteness is not really about white people per se, but about them in relation to non-white, the Other. To center white people in an analysis of whiteness is to repeat the problem."

The essays and creative works collected in this volume touch on this theme from many perspectives, in many voices. There's much to learn for this white reader in them. And much to remind me of how much I wish I could be a part of this community, these conversations, this learning and teaching and sharing.

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I was not familiar with Erin Wunker before I decided that her collection of essays, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, sounded interesting and possibly something I'd like to read. In looking her up on the Internet, I've learned that she is a feminist critic, author, and academic, having taught at Dalhousie University, where I was a student for one year, many years ago, and also at Acadia University - my alma mater.

I was won over by her preface, "Letter to My Daughter" in which she wrote:

"When I write about having a gendered body in the world, I think, now, about your tiny infant body. I think, now, about the only kind of prayer I utter with fervency: May you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours. If your body doesn’t fit you, may we find ways to make it yours. May your body only know pleasure and empowerment. May we give you the language to say yes, to say no. May the world be gentle with you. May you not lose that unselfconscious you-ness we hear from your crib when you wake up, singing. May you know the fierceness of strong friendships with women. May you be kind. May you feel held. May you write your own stories."

Yes, I thought, this is someone whose thoughts I want to know more of.

In her introduction, she says of this book:

"This book is a record of me trying to write about feminism at the interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking. At the intersection of those methods and epistemological routes is me. I’m writing in the I. I’m inserting myself in a long and varied tradition of women and other marginalized people working from a situated position of knowledge. I’m also busting in on and turning over tables within the other long tradition of speaking subjects who use I without thinking twice about the privilege that entails. Me, I think twice, three, even four times about that privilege."

Reading this book, I ran across something on almost every page that made me want to share it with the world. That's rare. Some of those passages are definitional sorts of things, from her Introduction. Let me share a few of these with you, dear reader.

"Patriarchal culture is by definition a culture in which masculinity—in people and in things—is privileged as inherently foundational to other states of being. In a patriarchal culture, systems, institutions, and social interactions reinforce this hierarchy. When you live in a patriarchal culture, as in any culture, you begin learning its rules and regulations, as well as the way you fit into them, almost immediately. It’s important to note that patriarchal culture is not an equitable culture. It’s unfair for women and women-identified people, and it’s also unfair for men, though these unfairnesses are not the same, nor do all people experience them the same way. Like any culture or way of being, patriarchal culture appears to be inscrutable. It is so entrenched in our psyches and our ways of moving through the world that it seems impossible to change. "

"Feminist: one who recognizes that the material conditions of contemporary life are built on inequities of gender, race, and class. One who recognizes that patriarchal culture is inherently coercive and stifling for women and other Others. One who works to make those inequities visible and one who works to tear them down. One who recognizes the enormity of the task. One who keeps working."

"Intersectional feminism is a feminist methodology—a way of being, thinking, and moving through the world—that takes into account the multiple factors that shape an individual’s or a group’s lived experience. For example: if we take as a common denominator the category “woman” without an intersectional approach to feminism, we might be tempted to suggest that all women everywhere have certain shared experiences. And then let’s augment this claim with Hortense Spiller’s observation that when people talk about “women” in feminist circles, they usually means “white women.” 15 An intersectional approach, however, takes into account the ways in which different oppressive conditions—sexism, ableism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, classism and so on—are interconnected. We cannot talk about one system in utter isolation from another. The lived experience of a working-class white woman is not identical to the lived experience of an upper-class Black woman or a middle-class trans woman or a woman student who is paraplegic. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw points out, we would do well to employ an intersectional lens when looking at different systems of oppression. An intersectional feminist approach takes time and vigilance and practice. It requires that we attune our perceptions to more than our own experiences, thus opening the possibility—the necessity—of attending to the experiences of others."

These are, to me, clear and powerful explanations of some of the most basic, and most foundational and important ideas of feminist thought.

Following on the Introduction, which bears the perfectly apt subhead "Notes for You, Reading," and is an introduction, not just to the book, but to the kind of feminist thinking on which the book is based, Wunker includes three 'essais' - deliberately using the French to invoke the sense of attempts - from the perspective of a feminist 'killjoy' - one who seeks to kill the kinds of joy that take place in a patriarchal culture, that are grounded in the oppression of the Othered - on the topics of rape culture, friendship, and motherhood.

Her writing here is both deeply personal and deeply theoretical, and she cites and discourses on the work of many other women - often women of colour, and women from French-speaking Canada, something that I deeply appreciated, having seen too many books that quote only from the usual white American sources - with maybe a little something from bell hooks or Audre Lorde thrown in as a token non-white voice. And it was a welcome change to read feminist analysis situated in a Canadian perspective.

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Rebecca Solnit's latest collection of essays - The Mother of All Questions - is comprised of pieces written between 2014 and 2016, before the seachange in American life that followed the election of Donald Trump. It seems ironic to be reading, now, of Solnit's guarded optimism on some of the goals of feminist action, such as this passage from her introduction:

"This book deals with men who are ardent feminists as well as men who are serial rapists, and it is written in the recognition that all categories are leaky and we must use them provisionally. It addresses the rapid social changes of a revitalized feminist movement in North America and around the world that is not merely altering the laws. It’s changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice, and representation. It is a gorgeously transformative movement led in particular by the young, on campuses, on social media, in the streets, and my admiration for this fearlessly unapologetic new generation of feminists and human rights activists is vast."

I say guarded, because she does follow this with a comment expressing her "...fear of the backlash against it, a backlash that is itself evidence of the threat feminism, as part of the broader project of liberation, poses to patriarchy and the status quo."

Well, the backlash is ramping up - defunding of Planned Parenthood, insane laws surrounding access to abortion that harass not only women who seek to terminate pregnancies but also those who suffer miscarriages, attempts to deny health insurance coverage to all kinds of women's health issues including childbirth - and so it is the more pessimistic parts of these essays, rather than the ones that look at some degree of progress and hope tor more, that resonate with me in my reading. Maybe some day I'll be able to reread this volume and feel the hope.

The cornerstone of the collection is a long essay on silence - the meanings of silence, who is silenced and when, and why, who does the silencing, who is not silenced. It opens thus:

"Silence is golden, or so I was told when I was young. Later, everything changed. Silence equals death, the queer activists fighting the neglect and repression around AIDS shouted in the streets. Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.

"English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed and quiet as what is sought. The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning."

What follows is a discussion of the ways that the voices of the marginalised - Solnit focuses on women but acknowledges that her observations are true of any similarly oppressed and silenced group - are dismissed, ignored, repressed, and stopped, so that they cannot speak the truths of their lived experience, of discrimination, of targeted violence, of injustice and unregarded pain and suffering.

Other essays in the collection take on a variety of feminist issues, from the prevalence of rape jokes, to the expectation of motherhood for all women to the falsehood of the anthropological myth of man the hunter as the ingrained template of our gender-based social roles and expectations.

Solnit is always readable, and her critiques of misogyny and patriarchy are as always well thought out and expressed. I do, however, find myself wishing for more acknowledgement of intersectionality and the ways that the issues she addresses affect women of colour, queer and disabled women as distinct from 'women' - which too often means white women. But it must also be said that she does make such acknowledgements more often than other white feminists whose work I've read.

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"After We Walked Away," Erica L. Satifka; Apex Magazine, November 21, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/after-we-walked-away/

A literalised response to Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," this story follows two young people, man and woman, who left "The Solved City" - clearly based on Omelas - because they could not accept the violent magic on which the city is founded, that the deliberately caused unending suffering of just one child could produce a utopia for everyone else. They find our society, where almost everyone suffers, from systematic oppression and cruelty, and in different ways regret their decision. It's a strongly written and emotionally disturbing story, but it misses one very important thing. Le Guin's story is not about rejecting a utopia based on horror for some other existing world; Omelas is our society, or at least an an allegorical reference to it. Those who walk away are the rebels who reject our acquiescence in the very real cruelty and oppression in our world, the comforting lie that the poor will always be with us, with its corollary that therefore we need do nothing for them. They are the ones who would change the paradigm, who would give up their privilege to end the horror others experience.

It's a well-crafted and moving story, but at its heart it is dishonest in setting up a straw man to refute, and disingenuous in using that straw man to argue that the suffering of one is easier to accept than the suffering of many. I would rather remain with the vision given form by Le Guin, that there are those among us who realise that as long as one of us is chained, none of us is free.


"Crocodile Tears," Jaymee Goh; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/crocodile-tears/

Goh here reworks a traditional folk tale of revenge. In Goh's version, a crocodile brings brings news to a successful man who has abandoned his family, telling him of the fates of his mother, his lover and the unborn child he left behind.


"That Game We Played During the War," Carrie Vaughn; tor.com, March 16, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/

A sparsely written but deeply moving story about war and what happens when war is over and two sides try to make a peace, summed up in the interactions between two veterans, one from each side. Calla is a military nurse; during the was it was her duty to keep Valk - a member of a telepathic race - and other prisoners of war under sedation to dull their abilities. Later in the war, fortunes have shifted and Calla is the prisoner, Valk her keeper. Remembering the games of chess he watched her play with he other staff, he asks her to teach him, and together they find a way to enjoy playing a game of strategy between one who reads minds and one who does not. When a peace finally comes, Valk, recovering from wounds in hospital, asks Cala to visit him and bring 'the game they played during the war.'

Working together on the game creates a bond that can become a bridge, a way of understanding and building a trust that may support the fragile peace. A story of hope, a microcosm of good will between people tired of war.


"Bargain," Sarah Gailey; Mothership Zeta, December 27, 2015
http://mothershipzeta.org/2015/12/27/bargain-by-sarah-gailey/#more-289

"Bargain" is 2017 Campbell Award finalist Sarah Gailey's first professional sale, and it is a fine story indeed, in which old woman offers her soul and her life to a demon in return for health and youth for her dying wife - with such will and love that even the demon looks for a way to subvert the nature of the deal. Told with a surprisingly appropriate light, even humorous touch, it left me with tears brimming in my eyes, and a goofy smile on my face.


"Of Blood and Bronze," Sarah Gailey; Devilfish Review, Issue 17
https://devilfishreview.com/issues/issue-seventeen/of-blood-and-bronze-by-sarah-gailey/

Framed as a steampunk fairy tale, this is haunting and horrifying story of the mechanisms of corruption, and the truth that the ends cannot justify the means because they are changed and tainted by them. An alchemist works a terrible magic to save the life of the innocent and good young bride of a mad old king, so that she may rule the kingdom until the heir comes of age, with the best of intentions, and the unhappiest of consequences.


"The Art of Space Travel," Nina Allen; Tor.com, July 27, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/07/27/the-art-of-space-travel/

Thirty years ago, the first mission to Mars ended in tragedy. The second mission is about to be launched, and two of the astronauts are scheduled to spend a night at the Edison Star hotel, where Emily Starr is head of housekeeping. Emily's mother Moolie, formerly a physicist, is mentally impaired and slowly dying as the result of forensic work she did on a plane downed by a dirty bomb. Sometimes she hints that Emily's father had some connection with space, perhaps even with the doomed Mars mission. The only physical link Emily has to her unknown father is a book, The Art of Space Travel, that Moolie says once belonged to him.

While this novelette has a sciencefictional setting, the real story is about daughters watching mothers age and become infirm, about children seeking, finding, and losing parents, about family and secrets and love, and about aspirations followed and aspirations left fallow. The Mars mission stands as a symbol of hope and persistence, but truly there are a hundred things that could have taken its place. Still, the implications of venturing into the unknown add to the poignancy of Moolie's terminal condition. A strong story about families and finding one's place and purpose, well written, but somewhat lacking in the 'what if' one looks for in science fiction.


"Jackalope Wives," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 7, 2014
http://www.apex-magazine.com/jackalope-wives/

I read this because I knew I was going to read Vernon's "The Tomato Thief," which takes place in the same setting and shares a key character, and I wanted to know the backstory for that character.

Vernon's writing in this story is poetic and realistic by turns, which is appropriate considering it is a story about those who cross the boundaries of the magical and the mundane. There's wonderful sense of place - the southwestern American desert becomes a fairytale landscape where all sorts of magic are possible, and creatures out of myth are as real as the sun and the dry earth and the animals and plants that make a home there.

One one level, this is a story about making choices, and accepting consequences and shouldering responsibilities, and setting things right. But it's also a commentary on the way that men see women and assume that what they want, they can take - and how the consequences of that fall only on the women.

The key character, Grandma Harken, is a woman who has suffered a great loss at the hands and through the choices of a man, but has learned to accept what came from it, and make the best of her circumstances, and to come to terms with a changed life, making it her own. When given the choice between regaining what was lost, or saving another from the fate she accepted - a loss caused by another man, one she is kin to - she takes on the responsibility for setting right her grandson's wrongs. She is willing to make whatever sacrifice must be made - but though this is presented as a kind of pragmatic heroism, at the root of it, what she is doing is choosing once more to accept the consequences of a man and his unchecked desires.

The story bothers me. Its beautifully crafted, and the characters live and breathe just as the desert cones alive in the mind. It's a really good story. But It leaves me wondering how to respond to what it's saying. In a sense, it's about women who choose to live with the things men do, to clean up their messes and live with the consequences of them, because someone has to do the right thing, and the men in their lives certainly aren't going to do it. Are we to admire Grandma Harken, or pity her, or just to hope that someday men will stop taking from women - and the world around them - without thought for the consequences?


"The Tomato Thief," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 5, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-tomato-thief/

This novelette is a return to the magical fairytale desert Vernon created in "Jackalope Wives" and to its central character, the shapeshifter-become-human Grandma Harken, with her sense of responsibility and duty. There's a certain similarity of theme here as well, in that Grandma Harken finds herself - grumbling about her age and mortality but still shouldering responsibility for making things right - setting out to save a woman caught in a powerful spell by a man of power.

There are some marvelous touches to the story that show the desert magic as a growing, evolving thing, adapting to the changes forced on it by the encroachment of man. The building of trains to cross and divide the desert has brought about the existence of the train-gods, and fittingly, their priests are found among the descendants of those forced to work on the railroads for the benefit of men of power living in the industrial east, the children of Asian labourers and indentured European workers.

Grandma Harken needs the intervention of the train-gods to find the hiding place of the sorcerer, who has folded the land around himself - and when she enters his domain, she will need all her wisdom and cunning, and the allies she makes along the way, to set things right again, defeat the sorcerer, and undo the damage done to people, animals and land.

Again, I find myself loving the story, the words, the imagery, the worldbuilding, the characters, the skill that went into its creation, while being unsettled by the story's implications. The underlying politics - in the sense of power relations - are clear, as they were in Vernon's earlier story. It's a reflection of the politics of our own world. Men of power, rich men, white men, men who think they can take and use and make everything they want their own, do as they will, which mostly causes distortion and harm to the land, to the creatures of nature and to the people without power. And because someone has to do it, it's the ones who have suffered who do what they can to ameliorate the damage. It's accurate, but I think what bothers me is that as Vernon writes these tales, it's just the way it is. There's no sense that it's not just the actions of the powerful, but the basic underlying dynamic that makes the powerless responsible for the work of mitigating the wrongs of other, is in itself wrong. There's just Grandma Harken, and the train-god priests, and the little girl who will be Grandma Harken's apprentice, who heroically shoulder the burdens that belong to others.

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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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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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For those who don't know (and until I read a passing comment on the Internet about her and the book she'd just written, I didn't), Lindy West is a feminist, fat acceptance movement activist. That was quite enough for me to be interested in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

Shrill is, like Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things, a heady combination of personal narrative, political analysis and call-to-arms.

She talks with humour and honesty about growing up as a shy, overweight child, about reaching menache in a culture that seeks to ignore the biological processes of female bodies, about living as a fat woman, about struggling to come to self acceptance and to raise the consciousness of colleagues in the media about the effects of public fat-shaming.

She writes matter-of-factly about her abortion, and I recognised some of my own reactions on having mine. It was no horrible tragedy, no wrenching drama, simply a thing that I chose to have because I was not interested in having a child. What she says about the right to abortion, to control one's body, is short and exactly on the mark.

"The truth is that I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no “good” abortions and “bad” abortions, there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don’t, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies."

West writes movingly about the psychological consequences of the violent and obscene harassment - often minimised as "trolling" - of women on the Internet. She pulls no punches - she calls it what it is, abuse directed at the marginalised inhabitants of the net:

"Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered."

One of many interrelated topics she addresses is the idea of socially responsible comedy - comedy that does not make marginalised people, be they women, people with a disability or a socially awkward disease such as herpes, or any other marked status, the punchline of the joke.

"When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demigods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr), and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions—maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two—but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom."

She pays particular attention to the phenomenon of the rape joke.

"Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes—we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."

I enjoyed reading West's lived experiences - some of which, in certain ways, seemed similar to some of mine - and her strong, bold voice. Not shrill, Lindy, though frightened misogynist men might label it so. Just strong, and true.

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Anyone approaching Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago with the expectations of reading a standard medieval fantasy will quickly find it necessary to revise their expectations. This is not a standard fantasy, and it's not just because the protagonist is a transwoman of colour. (But how wonderful it is to read a novel where the protagonist is a transwoman of colour.)

Robins in the Night is a post-modern, post-colonial fable that takes the Robin Hood mythos as a starting point for an examination of classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, gender identity and the revolution of the commons. The setting is somewhat ahistorical - castles with dungeons and houses with indoor plumbing - and without strong indications of place - there's a town, a forest, another town that people are born in or visit or pass through, and an island or two which are foreign places that people come from or go to. The style, language and sensibility are very modern. And it is a lot of fun.

There are some awkward passages, some places where the narrative falters, or overreaches, but for the most part, it is a satisfying and often delightful story, told with humour and full of adventure, women with tons of agency, and the romance of two revolutionary women falling in love.

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Invisible 2: Personal Essays about Representation in Science Fiction, edited by Jim C. Hines, is the second collection of essays about the visibility - and invisibility - of people who are not straight, white, cis, nominally Christian, able-bodied, and most likely male in speculative fiction.

I haven't read the first Invisible collection, but I am certainly going looking for it now that I've read the second.

These are essays about never finding someone like yourself in the genre that you love, or only finding yourself rarely, usually as a side-kick or bit player, or maybe a villain, but almost never a real hero. Or finding only caricatures of people like you, stereotypical images that are almost as bad as never seeing yourself at all. And some stories about what it's like to find somebody like you, a fully realised character, a hero.

As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Introduction,

The trouble with stories, of course, is that they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped, too, by the culture in which they were born—and worse than that, by the dominant culture. Stories tell you what to value, and what not to value—they teach you, over and over, that some people get to be heroes and some don’t. That some behaviours like violence are acceptable and heroic; others (like mothers sacrificing themselves to the bone year after year to raise their children) aren’t even worth a mention.

And stories, in the end, shape that dominant culture. Telling the same story that we ourselves have been told, over and over, erases all the others. It tells some people—those outside the dominant cultural paradigm—that they don't deserve to have stories told about them. That people like them never get their own books or their own stories; that they are not worth writing about; which a lesson no-one should have to learn.


These essays remind us of all the people who are all too often invisible in speculative fiction, the people we need to see if we are to have stories that reflect the breadth and depth of the human condition. The people represented - and representing - in this volume include people of colour - not just the generic Latin@, Asian, Black, Indigenous groupings, but Vietnamese and Puerto Rican and Japanese and Cherokee and other members of specific cultures who want to be seen for themselves, not as part of some general non-white conglomerate.

The people writing these essays are queer, and trans, and genderfluid, and asexual, and survivors of abuse rather than victims, and think that they deserve to have their stories told so that others, especially young people growing up without any one who shares their experiences around them, will know they have a right to exist, that they are not alone.

They are Jewish, and pagan, they are immigrants, they are older women, they are disabled and non-neurotypical, they are fat, they are people with life histories and experiences that lie outside the straight cis able-bodied white male paradigm that it so often seems our understanding of humanity is based on.

Some of them are even examples of that paradigm, talking about how they have come to treasure the stories that are not about them. And it's all good reading.

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This is what you need to know about Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce:

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both Tiptree and Sheldon on the field, Twelfth Planet Press is publishing a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago. [1]


Either you know who James Tiptree Jr. - the primary pseudonym used by Alice Sheldon in her writing - was, what she did, what she wrote, how she was viewed, or you don't. If you do, you will understand and celebrate this book. If you don't.... Well, I am sorry that you have not yet encountered some of the greatest and most provocative short stories in the canon of science fiction, and that you have missed out on a long, thoughtful and vital conversation on the meaning of gender. I heartily recommend that you join the conversation by reading Tiptree immediately.

The book is divided into four parts:

Section one, “Alice, Alice, Do You Read?”, is composed of letters written to Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr., or Raccoona Sheldon (or all of them). The second section, “I Never Wrote You Anything But The Exact Truth”, presents selected letters exchanged between Sheldon and Ursula K. Le Guin, and Sheldon and Joanna Russ. Sheldon had had a long paper relationship with both women as Tiptree, and this continued well after the revelation of Tiptree’s identity. ... In “Everything But The Signature Is Me”, we have reprinted academic material on Tiptree’s work and identity.

Finally, the editors include their own letters, and their thoughts on the process of editing this volume, in the fourth section, “Oh Joanna, Will I Have Any Friends Left?”

The contributors to the first part of this volume speak to the person, the work and the conversation. They speak to each contributor's personal thoughts on gender, identity and writing, and on how Tiptree's life and work relates to that. They raise questions about the things we cannot know about Tiptree, and speculate on possible answers. They show us where others, touched by the fire in Tiptree's words, are taking us. Each of these letters to Tiptree - or Alice, or Raccoona, or some combination of all the personas - is unique and fascinating, but I must mention Rachel Swirsky's contribution, a marvellous tribute of a poem that draws on the images in Tiptree's story titles to make her own contribution to the conversation.

In the next section, Tiptree's correspondence with Le Guin and Russ opens windows into all three women's hearts, a generous and intimate sidebar to the conversation.

The third section contains introductions to Tiptree's works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Micheal Swanwick, an excerpt from Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction which discusses one of Tiptree's iconic stories, "The Women Men Don't See," an excerpt from Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal discussing the evolution of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an essay by Wendy Gay Pearson on "The Text of this Body: “Reading” James Tiptree Jr. as a Transgender Writer" and finally, an article on being Tiptree by Tiptree/Sheldon herself.

The final letters to Tiptree from the editors wrap up and revisit the themes expressed in earlier letters in the volume.

When she was outed as being Tiptree, Sheldon wrote to friends, wondering if she would have any friends remaining after the science fiction world learned of her "deception." I, like others, wish she had lived long enough to see this book and know how many friends her work has made, and continues to make.

[1] http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/products/ebooks/letters-to-tiptree

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Fatima Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam is framed as a direct response to the outcry against the election of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. In telling the story of the women who have previously held political power of the Islamic world, Mernissi is countering both the resistance to women being active in public life, and the tendency of male historians to overlook the contributions of women.

When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan after winning the elections of 16 November 1988, all who monopolized the right to speak in the name of Islam, and especially Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the then Opposition, the IDA (Islamic Democratic Alliance), raised the cry of blasphemy: 'Never - horrors! - has a Muslim state been governed by a woman!' Invoking Islamic tradition, they decried this event as 'against nature'. Political decision-making among our ancestors, they said, was always a men's affair. Throughout 15 centuries of Islam, from year 1 of the Hejira (AD 622) to today, the conduct of public affairs in Muslim countries has been a uniquely male privilege and monopoly. No woman ever acceded to a throne in Islam; no woman ever directed the affairs of state, we are told by those who claim to speak for Islam and who make its defence their battle cry against other Muslims. And, so they say, since no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988, Benazir Bhutto could not aspire to do so either.


Because the concept of separation of church and state, of religious and secular authority, is not a uniformly accepted thing in the Islamic world, Mernissi takes care to differentiate between caliph and mulk, between the leader whose authority is divine, who can claim descent from the Prophet, and the leader whose authority is only of the world.

The caliphate is the opposite of mulk in that it represents an authority that obeys divine law, the shari'a, which is imposed on the leader himself and makes his own passions illegitimate. And therein, Ibn Khaldun explains to us, lies the greatness of Islam as a political system. The caliph is tied by divine law, his desires and passions checked, while the king recognizes no superior law. As a result, the caliphate has another advantage that mulk lacks. Mulk deals solely with the management of earthly interests, while the caliphate, given its spiritual nature, is also in charge of the Beyond.


Mernissi goes on to explain that in the Islamic workd, a woman can not be a caliph, but that she can - if she is able to negotiate her society's networks of secular power - become a mulk.

Not just anyone can claim to be a caliph; access to this privilege is subject to strict criteria. By contrast, titles like sultan, the linguistic origin of which is salata (dominate), and malik (king), which has the same connotation of raw power not tempered by religion, are available to anybody. And that is why women can carry them; they do not imply or signify any divine mission. But women could never lay claim to the title of caliph. The secret of the exclusion of women lies in the criteria of eligibility to be a caliph.


But even though there have been no female Caliphs, Mernissi finds examples of many women who have held other titles which speak to their exercise of secular power - sultanas, malikas, al-hurras, sitts, sharifas, amiras, khatuns. But in examining the rise to power, and subsequent fall of many of these women, Mernissi frames the history of female political power in Islam as a struggle between women seeking power and the line of male caliphs, whose claim to spiritual power places them, at least in theory, above any secular leader, male or female.

... this one constant endured throughout the empire and its states: as soon as a woman came close to the throne, a group whose interests she threatened appeared on the scene and challenged her in the name of the spiritual, the name of the shari'a.


In writing this history of female leadership in the Muslim world, Mernissi is not just telling histories of the queens and their deeds. Rather, she is using the history of these women to explore what female power means in the Islamic context, examining how it occurs, what forms it takes and limitations it encounters, how it is understood in the Muslim political tradition of male-led theocratic institutions. In her examination of the meanings of women's political power in the Muslim world, Mernissi's text discusses the instances of secular rule - whether failed or successful - of women across a range of states and eras, begining with the first woman to assume secular authority in a Muslim community - A'isha, the widow of Mohammed.

A'isha was the first woman to transgress the hudud (limits), to violate the boundary between the territory of women and that of men, to incite to kill, even though the act of war is the privilege of men and belongs to territory outside the harem. A woman does not have the right to kill. Deciding on war is the function and raison d'etre of men. 'A'isha, as the first woman who took a political decision by leading armed men, remains forever linked in Muslim memory with fitna (disorder and destruction).


Just as she draws a distinction between the highest position of power, the caliphate, which being both religious and political in nature can not be held by a woman, and the mulk, which is a secular leadership that some women can achieve, Mernissi also differentiates between sovereign secular power and other forms of leadership. In the Muslim state, the primary signifier of true sovereignty is the proclamation of the head of state in the khutba, the Friday sermon.

The Friday khutba is both the mirror and the reflection of what is going on in the political scene. In the case of war, one learns what is happening at the front by listening: the name of the sovereign that is mentioned is the one who currently controls the territory by military means. And the name changes with events in periods of political trouble.


Mernissi notes that very few women have held this level of sovereignty - rather, most who have, by
Western appraisals, indubitably ruled, have done so while invoking the sovereignty of another, a man. A second indicator of sovereignty - the minting of coins with the sovereign's name - has likewise been limited to a very few among the women who have held power. Mernissi refers to the work of another modern scholar, historian Badriye Ucok Un, who identified 16 women who have held sovereignty in Muslim history by both criteria - none of whom ruled in Arab states, but rather held power in Muslim states in Asia (largely in those under Mongol control) Turkey (including Egypt under Mamluk rule) Iran, and Indonesia and other south Asian island states. Mernissi adds to this list two women rulers in Yemen whose sovereignty was proclaimed by khutba, but whose existence appears to have been, not just forgotten, but actively suppressed - not just because they were women, but also because they were Shi'ite monarchs.

After her discussion of women rulers of the past, Mernissi returns to the implications of Benazir Bhutto's election. In the election of a woman to sovereign power, two key aspects of the traditions of leadership in the Muslim world were broken - the assertion of a woman's will, to rule in her own right, and the aristocratic tradition of rule by dynastic elites, gaining sovereignty by association or inheritance (including all of the sovereign queens) or conquest.

That is why, as the fundamentalists well understand, the election of Benazir Bhutto constituted a total break with caliphal Islam. It represented the dual emergence on the political scene of that which is veiled and that which is obscene: the will of women and that of the people.


What began as an exploration of female rule in the Muslim world ends as a question about the future of both universal suffrage and democracy in a tradition that has long vested power in a male-dominated aristocracy in which secular power depends on religious authority.

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Carin Gussoff's novella Three Songs for Roxy is a delicately executed exploration of family, gender, love, identity and being an outsider, told in three parts. This is also the first piece of fiction I can remember reading that featured Rom culture, by an author of Rom heritage.

The first section, Free Bird, is the story of sisters - foster sisters but raised together from infancy - Roxane (Roxy) and Kizzy. Roxy's parents, both Rom, found/were given the infant Kizzy shortly before Roxy's birth, in circumstances that strongly suggesting that Kizzy is not human. Sensing that Kizzy's people would return for her some day, they and their extended family have stayed in the place where Kizzy was left. This section is remarkable in its portrayal of a culture which so values its children that Kizzy comes to wholly identify with her human Rom family and culture, despite any number of obvious and not-so-obvious signs that she is different. But at the same time, this traditional and family-oriented culture leaves the free-spirited Roxy feeling like an outsider as she comes to realise she is a lesbian. The climax of this section comes when the aliens do in fact return for Kizzy, only to find that she does not want to go - but Roxy does, despite her realisation that her lover Natalie, like Kizzy, is not human.

The other sections focus on the two other people present at the moment of return - Katrina survivor Scott Miller, who knows Kizzy through her job at the local mall, and Natalie.

The second section, Across the Universe, features Scott. Divorced with one child, he has fallen in love with Kizzy - only to be shocked and profoundly disturbed by the revelation that aliens have visited earth, and that the woman he was attracted to was one of them. Fearing what the aliens might do now that he knows, his response is to flee - taking with him his son Danny, who he fears may be abducted. This section contained several ambiguities, among them Scott's mental state, what happens to Danny at the end, and whether Danny is a transgender child whose sense of self is being disregarded by one of their parents, or is being misgendered by Scott. The core image for the last of these ambiguities is Scott's early job experience as a chicken sexer - young chickens being very difficult to identify by sex, with even experts getting it wrong from time to time. I've read this section twice, and I am still not certain what happened from an objective point of view - though I know what Scott thinks has happened.

The final section, Seven Wonders, features Natalie's story, from her design and training to search for and retrieve Kizzy, up to the point where she arrives at Roxy and Kizzy's home, her initial contact and courtship of Roxy, and her brief but with Steve, a drag queen and Stevie Nicks impersonator who cannot stop mourning his dead sister and move on. In helping Steve to come to terms with his loss, Natalie herself learns what love and relationship mean in human terms.

All three sections tell stories about families, about identity, about gender and sexuality. They feature characters who are outsiders because of these things. The stories are layered, sometimes ambiguous, often sad. And they are beautiful.

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Ancillary Mercy, the final volume of Ann Leckie's outstanding Imperial Radch trilogy, is a satisfying and fitting conclusion - which is ironic, considering that the story ends in many ways in media res. What makes this somewhat risky choice work perfectly is that Breq's story has always been only a small fragment of the vast web of narratives that the revisioning of a galaxy-spanning empire would require.

The thing to deal with in trying to talk about any of these books is how much is packed into them, at so many levels. The structure of the book itself is a metacommentary on the role of the individual in the history of nations, on the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the fall of empires and the agency of heroes in those falls. No man - or being - can command the future, I once heard said. But I have also heard that pebbles can become an avalanche. (Quotes from other space operas seem appropriate to what is, after all, a story about a ship who sang.)

Realistically speaking, Breq - or any heroic protagonist - could never bring down an empire the numbers hundreds of solar systems and has lasted for thousands of years by herself, or even with the help of assorted other beings, human, AI, and alien. But she can and does upset the imperial project in a small corner of the gameboard, and what she manages to achieve (with the help of those other beings) may last long enough to spread.

And speaking of AIs, another major theme of Ancillary Mercy - indeed, of the entire trilogy, but brought to a climax here - is the agency and personhood of created intelligences such as Breq and the other ships. After three volumes of listening to Breq's inner thoughts, and observing her interactions with various other AIs, it's clear to the reader what the resolution should be, though the novel ends without a formal settlement of the argument. There's a delightful exchange, however, between Anaander and a representative of the powerful alien species the Presger, whose ultimate decision on the matter will have a significant effect on the future of the Radch - or what follows it. Anaander is arguing that the AIs cannot be Significant Beings - the Presgar term for a species whose group agency allows them to be participants in interstellar treaties and negotiations - because humans have created them. The Presgar representative responds “I’m given to understand that most, if not all, humans are built by other humans."

Ancillary Mercy also carries forward other themes from the previous volumes : the examination of the effects of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and cultural assimilation on conquered peoples, and the exploration of the meaning of justice and how it may be incorporated into daily lives as well as into overarching social movements and structures. The text provides instance after instance of incidents of subtle (and not so subtle) abuses of power, in interpersonal relationships, in class and colonial interactions, in policing of protest actions, and explores the just - and merciful - way of resolving them through Breq's eyes and developing conscience.

Then there is the whole issue of disability awareness, which had been a running theme throughout the trilogy. There is Breq, who has lost so many of her selves, her former abilities, and who is injured beyond the possibility of full recovery in the first novel when she saves Seivarden's life (she lives with constant pain in one leg from that point on) and who in the third volume is once more injured and spends signficant tine dealing with a temporary prosthetic. There is Seivarden, struggling with drug addiction. And there is Tisarwat, the survivor of a shattering mental trauma, who requires medication to function effectively.

These disability issues are themselves a part of a larger theme of loss, recovery and adaptation - loss of self, loss of place, loss of autonomy, loss of loved ones, loss of cultural identity, loss of trust, loss of personal integrity, and on and on. And yet, most of these characters recover in some fashion and find ways to move on, always bearing the marks of loss but learning ways to cope, to function, and perhaps, from time to time, to transcend.

And of course, there is the choice to avoid gender distinction. When I consider how the lack of gender has influenced my interpretation of the work, I'm reminded of some of the analysis that's been done around the topic of cisgendered heterosexual women who write and read both romance and porn based on same-sex relationships between men. The theory argues that this enables women to explore the emotional dynamics of a relationship without gendered power differentials. That, in a way, is what the lack of gendering in these books has done for me - it makes it possible to consider all these themes - agency, personhood, loss and coping, just and merciful action in personal and public spheres - as human issues, not gendered ones, to see the commonalities in how we as humans do, and could, respond.

And of course, it's a space opera. It's exciting, engaging, entertaining storytelling at its best. There's intrigue, and action, and military encounters and political entanglements and danger and heroism and all that great story material, well organised and presented. There's heroes and villains and all sorts of in-between folks, all multi-faceted and fully realised characters. There's danger, and humour, and tragedy, and triumph, and duty, and hope and even love. Quite simply, there's all you could really want, and it's done very, very well.

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Jo Walton is a fearless writer, which is part of what I love about her work. She's willing to experiment, to explore new themes and subjects and styles, to reinvent herself almost every time she begins a new project.

In The Just City - the first volume of the Thessaly trilogy - Walton combines Greek gods, robots, some judicious time travel, a thought experiment that brings together some of the greatest philosophers in the history of European civilisation and an extensive critique of Plato's The Republic to create a novel that is as narratively compelling as it is thought provoking.

The story begins with Apollo and Athena. Apollo is confused because his latest sexual adventure has ended, not in the enthusiastic compliance he believes all his previous advances have evokes, but in the desperate prayer of his quarry to be transformed into a tree rather than submit to his embrace. Unable to fathom why Daphne would rather give up her life as a nereid than give in to his desires, he seeks out his sister Athena, who tells him: "But she hadn’t chosen you in return. It wasn’t mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn’t ask, and she certainly didn’t agree. It wasn’t consensual. And, as it happens, she didn’t want you. So she turned into a tree.”

Apollo grasps this at an intellectual level, but fails to fully comprehend the concepts of volition and equal significance behind Athena's explanation. He considers incarnating as human in order to explore the matter as a human. Athena suggests that he take part in her experiment - she is in the middle of creating a city based on Plato's The Republic. He agrees.

It turns out that Athena has drawn together around 300 scholars from many time periods, all of whom have at one point in their lives prayed in her name for the realisation of The Republic. Assisted by highly developed worker robots Athena has brought from the future, these "masters" have worked for five years to plan and build a city, situated well in the past on the volcanic island of Kallisti (and later, after the explosion that destroyed half of it, Thera), that would operate on the principles laid out by Plato. When all is ready, the masters are sent out into various time periods to purchase 10,000 ten-year old slaves to be the experimental population. Apollo arranges to be born as human at a tine and place where he will be one of these children.

As the experiment proceeds, we see what works - and what does not - through the eyes of three people: Apollo, now known as Pytheas; Simmea, another of the children who becomes a friend of Pytheas; and Maia, a master from the 18th century who was drawn to The Republic because of Plato's inclusion of women as full participants in his imagined society, capable of being philosopher-kings.

Indeed, as Walton explores the importance of volition and equal significant in the quest to create a truly just society, the issue of gendered justice and free choice in sex and reproduction becomes an important part of the conversation that runs through the novel. Slavery, misogyny, sexual violence, exploitation, the essence of sentience - all these are a part of the examination of freedom and justice that is the heart of The Just City.

I know it has had some mixed reviews, but for me The Just City was one of those books I couldn't put down until I finished it.

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Ellen Klages' YA historical novel Green Glass Sea is a wonderful read. Set during World War II, it is the story of ten-year-old Dewey Kerrigan, whose mathematician father has been recruited to work on the top-secret program to develop a nuclear bomb.

Dewey's mother left the family when Dewy was a baby, and she has grown up being shuffled between her father and her maternal grandmother - but now that her father is settled for the time bring in Los Alamos and her grandmother has been incapacitated with a stroke, Dewey rejoins her father and tries to make a life with him in the closed community of scientists, engineers, technicians, military personnel and their families that make up the core of the Manhattan Project.

It's not easy for Dewey to fit in. She's short, needs glasses, and wears a shoe with a lift because one leg is shorter than the other due to a childhood injury. And she isn't all that interested in typical "girl" things - she's a born scientist and engineer, and spends her free time tinkering with gears, radio parts, and other useful things she finds at the Los Alamos dump.

Still, Dewey is happy to be with her father - until he's called away on business and she has to stay with the Gordons and their daughter Suze. Suze - tall and solidly built, with a creative mind and an artist's independent spirit - doesn't fit in either, but she wants to. She misses her home in Berkeley, and she resents the time her parents spend working on the project, something that affects her more than most other kids because both her parents are scientists. And she resents having to live with "screwy Dewey."

In Green Glass Sea, Klages portrays the reality of life at the heart of the war effort, where secrecy is paramount and building "the gadget" that it is hoped will win the war is on everyone's mind.

By telling the story through the uncritical eyes of a child, Klages is also able to explore issues of class, gender and race in the late 1940s, amidst the fervour of war. From the social distinctions on base reflected in who is housed where, to war propaganda that is focused on Hitler when referring to the European theatre, but on "Japs" as a group when dealing with the Asian theatre, to the peer pressure on Suze and Dewey to be "normal girls," Green Glass Sea is an unflinching look at wartime society in the U.S.

But it is in the characters Dewey and Suze that the book gives the young audience it is intended for its greatest gift. As they come to know and feel comfortable in the things that distinguish them from the other girls, and develop a friendship that empowers them both, they become role models for every girl who is drawn to a different set of interests and goals from those society sets out for her.

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Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown is a most delightful debut novel. This combination of Regency romance and historical fantasy works very well, and the grounding of the characters and story in the midst of Britain's colonial project, complete with trenchant observations on matters of race, gender and class gives the narrative depth and - odd though it may seem to say - realism.

Zacharias Wythe, the new Royal Sorcerer, is beset with difficulties. The magical power available to Britain's thaumaturges is dwindling, no one has been able to contract with a new familiar in years, the Crown is badgering him to help a foreign ally deal with a rebellious group of - perish the thought - female magicians, the circumstances of his accession to the post have left many of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers suspicious of him, his predecessor is haunting him, he is suffering from a strange malady, and someone is trying to kill him. Oh, and he is the only black freed slave to ever have become a thaumaturge, in a land where the practice of real magic has traditionally been restricted to gentlemen - that is to say, men of family, breeding and wealth, the cream of British society, and unquestionably white.

But there's worse in store for Zacharias, when he learns that the only person who may be able to help him resolve these problems is Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of mixed English and South Asian heritage, who has the potential to become the most powerful sorceress in all England - if only it were permissible to teach women the use of magic.

The interplay between Zacharias and Prunella is delightful, as they move from teacher and student to allies, friends, and more, and as they slowly discover each other's magical and personal secrets.

Deceptively light in tone, this is a story about two outsiders who will come together to save their nation, but in doing so, begin a process that may change it utterly.

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Roxane Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist, expertly navigates the intersections between feminism and racism. In many of these essays Gay performs a kind of doubly focused analysis - in exploring issues from the desire for happy endings to the nature of rape culture through cultural elements - books, television and film, pop music, celebrities, art - she also critiques these cultural elements from these intersectional perspectives.

Other essays are personal, indeed intimate narratives about being a black woman, a child of immigrants, in American society, a woman trying to separate the mythology about being a feminist from the reality.

I'm not entirely sure why Gay calls herself a "bad feminist." In one of her more personal essays she says:
At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.
In the same essay, she talks about feminism as a performance she is failing at, harkening back to comments in another essay about Judith Butler's theory of gender performance and extending that to performance of a feminist identity:
I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.
She goes on to list ways in which she "fails" at being a feminist - liking the colour pink and rap culture, wanting a partner and a child, not understanding cars, negotiating relationships that don't seem sufficiently independent and egalitarian... And all I can think is, where did we, the generation of feminists that went before her, go wrong that she has this doubt about her feminism.

She adds:
Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.
And this us where I find myself saying to her, Girl, this is what makes you a feminist, and a good one. We are all human, and making certain choices in one's private life has nothing to do with fighting for a society in which all people are free to make any of those same choices without gendered baggage and fear of performing one's role wrongly - in which liking pink, or understanding cars, or wanting a family, and feeling like being taken care of, is entirely a matter of personal taste and interest and desire, and not a marker of maleness or femaleness.

Because in what she writes, Gay is a very good feminist indeed, and her insights into our society and culture are very much worth reading.

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When Kate Bornstein wrote Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, back in 1994, trans* issues were still a thing not many people talked about, unless they were, or knew, people who were trans. Bornstein's writing and advocacy was part of the reason this has changed.

Now she has co-edited, with S. Bear Bergman, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, a collection of essays and personal narratives by people in and around the trans* community today. The editors have made selections representative of the diversity to be found in the global trans* community - those sharing their thoughts and experiences express a range of gender identities - and some decline gender identification all together. While many of the voices come from North America, there are contributors from all around the world - Spain, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina, Kenya among others - and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds.

The contributions range from the deeply personal to the highly theoretical, from formal essay to autobiographical narrative to poetry to visual art.

Taken together, these works form a kaleidoscope of proudly oppositional images, of all the ways to genderfuck, to trans/scend the rigid boundaries of immutability and binary thinking about sex and gender. They remind us of where we have been, what we still face, and where we are going in the journey to deconstruct the old labels used to control sexual identity and expression, and to create a new world where people can truly become who they know themselves to be.

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Thendara House (pub. 1983) is a direct sequel to The Shattered Chain - it details the events immediately following on Jaelle n'ha Melora's freemate marriage to Terran (but Darkovan born and raised) Peter Haldane, and the entrance into the Thendara Guild House of Terran Intelligence Agent Magda Lorne (known among her guild-sisters as Margali n'ha Ysabet) for six months of training and seclusion.

For both women, it is a time of self-discovery. Jaelle, who has repressed her early life in the Dry-Towns, and who has lived since then among Renunciates, finds that her relationship with Peter raises those early memories. She is faced with an internal struggle between the deep, repressed conditioning that drew her to Peter - who is slowly revealed as a domineering and potentially abusive mate - and her identity as a Renunciate - a struggle that is only exacerbated when she realises that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Magda is challenged to question her Terran values and sense of privilege, and is brought face to face with the reality that she is more deeply attracted to women than she is to men.

In addition to struggles with conditioning and culture shock, both women are dealing with the adult onset of powerful laran - Jaelle because of the resurgence of her childhood memories, which were shut down along with her laran when she experienced her mother's death while in rapport with her, and Magda as a result of her increased contact with other telepaths, including Jaelle.

Thendara House is not only a sequel to The Shattered Chain, however. It is also part of the story of the Forbidden Tower, in which both Magda and Jaelle will play a part. For both women, the connection that leads them to Armida is Andrew Carr, now known as Ann'dra Lanart.

Jaelle, in her role as cultural consultant in Terran Intelligence, is tasked with helping a visiting Terran official, Alessandro Li. Li is a Special Representative of the Senate, sent to investigate whether Cottman Four should retain its Closed World status or be reclassified, and to make recommendations about a Legation. Li is at first very interested in finding out all that he can about the Comyn and the rumours of telepathic abilities among the Darkovan ruling class. When the wreckage of Andrew Carr's downed plane is discovered and it is learned that Carr survived the crash, Li becomes fixated on finding out what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Magda meets Andrew when, along with a number of other Renunciates, she travels to the Kilghard Hills near Armida to help in fighting a fire. While they do not know each other, she recognises him as Terran - and vice versa. She believes him to be an Intelligence agent in deep cover, and later on, when she meets Alessandro Li, she innocently mentions seeing an agent at Armida. Li makes the connection between this unknown Terran and the missing Andrew Carr, and when all other attempts to contact Carr are thwarted, he sets out alone, unaware of a severe storm coming, to travel to Armida and confront him.

When Jaelle discovers what he has done, she determines to go after him, knowing the danger he is in. Peter attempts to stop her, threatening to have her declared temporarily insane due to her pregnancy, and placed in restraints. Jaelle lashes out and Peter is rendered unconscious (though Jaelle believes she has killed him). Jaelle, in emotional turmoil and psychic distress, heads out after Li, stopping briefly at the Guild House where she tries to see Magda. Magda, unfortunately, is in a meeting with the House Guild-Mother, and doesn't learn that Jaelle was asking for her until much later. Reaching out with her untried laran, she is able to discern where Jaelle is headed and why. Coming suddenly to understand that she is in love with Jaelle, she rides out after her. Magda finds Jaelle just in time for them both to find shelter from a sudden flood, but they are trapped by the rising waters. Jaelle miscarries and once more, Magda's laran enables her to reach out for help. A rescue party led by Andrew arrives, having also found and rescued Alessandro Li. During Jaelle's recuperation at Armida, both women realise that they have grown beyond both the limitations of their respective cultures, and the oppositional renunciations that form the essence of the Guild. Possessed of powerful laran, the next step for them is to join the Forbidden Tower - thus bringing together in Jaelle and Damon Ridenow the parents of Cleindori Aillard.

In Jaelle's experiences, we see through her encounters with other Terrans and with the cultural assumptions inherent in the way life and work are structured in the Terran Zone, the sexism of the Terran culture.

From the Terrans, Jaelle must deal with having her identity elided in a way that goes against her Renunciate's oath - among the Terrans, she is no longer Jaelle n'ha Melora, but Mrs. Peter Haldane. She is Haldane's wife, Haldane's girl, even Haldane's squaw. On the other hand, she encounters men in the Terran Service who accept her competence without question and work beside her without concern that she is a woman.

However, because Peter is Darkovan-raised and (as we are reminded several times) psychosexual development is fixed before adolescence, Peter's responses in intimate relationships are more typical of a Darkovan man who has acclimatised to Terran surroundings, than of a citizen of the Terran Empire. As Peter and Jaelle embark on their marriage, we see how the patriarchalism of Darkovan society affect relationships between men and women. Jaelle herself comes to think that it is the Darkovan in Peter, not the Terran, that creates problems between them: "Maybe it is not the Terran in Peter I find objectionable; maybe it is his Darkovan side which insists I must be no more than his wife and mother of his children… other Terran men are not like that."

Jaelle faces endless criticism from Peter over her inability to behave like a good wife, in either the Terran or Darkovan sense. When she acts "inappropriately" due to culture shock or the need to preserve her sense of autonomy, he lectures her on how this reflects poorly on him:
"I'm working under Montray now, and I'm in enough trouble with him without having him think—" he stopped, but to Jaelle, surprisingly, it was as if he had spoken aloud what was in his mind; think I can’t manage my wife.

As their relationship worsens, Jaelle comes to see that for Peter, love is equivalent to possession, and that he expects her as a matter of course to see to all his needs: "...and suddenly she knew him as Magda had known him, he really believed that he could treat her as valet, comrade-in arms, personal servant, breeding-anima, and somehow repay it all just with the ardor of his lovemaking..."

Nor is Peter's sexism limited his attitudes toward Jaelle. Because her heightened laran enables her to sometimes read his thoughts, Jaelle gains awareness of how he thinks about the new head of Intelligence Cholayna Ares, and his former wife and colleague Magda.
Not fair, dammit, I spent five years setting things up so that when Darkover got an Intelligence service I'd be at its head, and now some damned woman walks in and takes over. Bad enough playing second fiddle to Magda..."
When she finally tells Peter that she no longer wants to remain married to him, he responds that he will not allow her to leave - asserting his belief that she belongs to him and cannot break their connection without his permission, despite the fact that in Terran marriages, a married woman is not property, as she is under Darkovan law.
She detected a glimmer in his mind of logical resentment; women were damned unreasonable creatures, yet a man was at their mercy if he wanted children, and how else could they have any immortality? It almost made her pity him. “Don‟t be silly, Jaelle. I‟m not going to let you divorce me, not with a baby coming. I owe it to my child at least, to protect and look after his mother, even if we‟re not getting along too well.”
Thus in the short space of a few months, the intimate portrayal of the deterioration of their relationship brings into sharp relief the glimpses we have had previously of the traditional Darkovan marriage and the attitudes that shape it.

Magda's experiences in the Thendara Guild House mirror in some ways the early years (late '60s and early '70s) of the feminist movement - in particular the use of consciousness-raising groups to become aware of - and change - internalised sexist conditioning and to examine gender roles, institutionalised sexism, and nature of the differences between male and female. The other significant themes explored through Magda's life as a new Renunciate are lesbianism and transgender issues (through the emmasca character Camilla).

As a newly sworn Renunciate, Madga is expected to go through a period of training and seclusion, during which she may only leave the Guild House with permission of on the Elders of the House. At one of the first group meetings, the Guild Mother tells her and the other trainees "... you will learn to change the way you think about yourselves, and about other women.”

During her time in the Guild House, Magda comes to realise how pervasive same-sex attraction is on Darkover - and not just among Renunciates, although same-sex relationships between women are taken more seriously in the Guild than outside it, where such relationships between women are seen as adolescent fancies or secondary relationships, insufficient to keep a woman from her primary function, to marry a man and bear children.
Men may swear such oaths. And yet for women, such an oath is always taken, it seems, as a thing for untried girls, and means only, I shall be bound to you only so long as it does not interfere with duty to husband and children…”
In this perspective, it would appear that the frequent accusations against Renunciates, that they are all lovers of women and seduce honorable wives away from their husbands, refers not to the fact that many of them are in fact lesbian or bisexual, but that they value such relationships - and indeed, all relationships between women, sexual or not - as highly, or even more highly, than they do relationships between women and men. It is not that they love women, but that in doing so they choose not to be available to men.

Through the struggles of both women to find their true selves and desires, MZB explores much of the feminist analysis and praxis of second wave feminism of the 60s and early 70s. The nature of the patriarchy, the role of cultural conditioning, attitudes toward child bearing and rearing, alternative family structures, instititionalised sexism, the effects of sexism on men, the question of living separate from men as much as possible, even the debates over the role of lesbians in the movement, all have their expression in the inner journeys of Magda and Jaelle. It would be a rare woman of that era who did not see something of her own experiences and struggles somewhere in the pages of this novel.

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