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Adilifu Nama, in Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, explores and interrogated (as he notes in his Introduction) "... the intersection of black representation and science fiction (sf) cinema." Acknowledging that actual representation of black people in sf film is extremely limited (even more so in 2008, when the book was published), he adds:

"... in spite of the overt omission of black representation and racial issues in sf cinema, I have found that both are present in numerous sf films. Albeit implicit—as structured absence, repressed or symbolic—blackness and race are often present in sf films as narrative subtext or implicit allegorical subject. Most important, for this book, is the cultural politics of race that such representations suggest not only in sf cinema but alongside the sociohis- torical place that blackness has occupied in American society. As a result, the sf film genre is not merely an imaginative medium primarily focused on the future. Sf film is also a powerful lens by which to observe the collective racial desires, constructs, fantasies, and fears circulating throughout American society."

In discussing the ways in which blackness is both openly represented and covertly coded in science fiction film, Nama acknowledges that he is examining the genre in unaccustomed ways:

"Too often the sf film genre is regarded as addressing only signature divisions in the genre: humans versus machines, old versus new, individual versus society, and nature versus the artificial. In this book, however, I place black racial formation at the center of these common dichotomies. As a result, a more complex and provocative picture emerges of how sf cinema, in imagining new worlds and addressing a broad range of social topics, has confronted and retreated from the color line, one of the most troubling and turbulent social issues present in American society."

Nama organises his analyses into six general topics. In the book's first chapter, "Structured Absence and Token Presence," he looks at the meanings inherent in the absence of black (and other racialised) characters in sf films, the implications of imagined futures in which only white people (and often only white Americans) survive, and the way blackness is coded through the use of symbolic characteristics and animals or animal-like others. While noting a number of films which do incorporate black characters - many of which, in the earlier years of sf film, were produced during the brief flourishing of 'blaxploitation' films which presented and validated black experience - Nama shows how these 'token' black characters often embody white concerns about racial issues. Examining films produced in more recent years, Nama looks at the emergence of the 'safe' black hero - in many instances portrayed by a single actor, Will Smith - as a reassuring figure for white audiences.

In the second chapter, "Bad Blood: Fear of Racial Contamination," Nama "examines the theme of racial contamination in sf cinema and, by extension, America’s fixation with racial boundary maintenance." Fear of racial 'contamination,' and the history of eugenicist responses to this fear, can be seen both in coded implication and overt symbolism in a number of science fiction themes and tropes - mutants, zombies, androids, shape-shifting 'things' - that, when associated, as they frequently are, with dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings, underline the belief that 'blood mixing' is the first step to the end of civilisation.

The third chapter, "The Black Body: Figures of Distortion," begins with the observation that the black body has long been depicted in a distorted or exaggerated fashion in American media. Nama goes on to discuss how "... the black body is often depicted in sf film not merely in ways that connect it with a sense of the grotesque or a source and site of phantasmagoric spectacle but also as a cultural and political metaphor for racial difference." Nama also notes the ways in which the male black body is associated with violent phallic and sexual imagery, suggestive of the construction of black men as sexually aggressive and threatening.

In the fourth chapter, "Humans Unite!: Race, Class and Postindustrial Aliens," Nama explores various unifying interests - class notably among them - that appear to override interracial strife or threats. In a number of science fiction films, the evil corporation becomes the threat which brings together black and white, while in others, the threat of an even greater Other - the invading or infiltrating alien - stand in for loss of jobs and disempowerment in a postindustrial economy and "... make racial strife obsolete." Ironically, while downplaying black/white racial tensions, many of these films symbolically depict fear of Latin@ immigrants 'invading' the shrinking blue-collar labour market.

In "White Narratives, Black Allegories," Nama begins his discussion by noting that science fiction film is a genre that, while superficially recapitulating many of the tropes of the white-supremacist, colonialist 'Western' genre, it is notably more open to resistant and subversive readings. In expanding on this, he "examines the allegorical import of sf film not only in breaching and buttressing the ideological constructs of America’s racial hierarchy but also as sources of subversive pleasure, meaning, and play that often contest the “preferred” meaning..." The chapter discusses a number of films that in Nama's analysis are "...open to racial readings that engage the legacy of American slavery, the racial injustice of the American legal system, black crime, police brutality, black liberation, and “race” riots, as well as racial pro ling."

In the final chapter, "Subverting the Genre: The Mothership Connection," Nama "... shifts focus from Hollywood representations of science fiction blackness to those independent and extrafilmic productions that stand not only outside the mainstream apparatus of cinematic production but in some cases outside the cultural conventions of mainstream notions of blackness." In particular, he examines films which consciously engage with race and the black community. Nama also explores the relatively new movement of Afrofuturism which includes not only film, but "... art, independent black comic books, black music, and even hip-hop videos [which] have functioned as alternative sites where futuristic fantasyscapes populated by black people can find expression." In considering the importance of the Afrofuturism movement in black-created and black-centred cultural productions, Nama asks, as his closing remarks, "... sf film is an important symbol of the social progress of a society still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of American racism. If we cannot look toward the future to imagine new possibilities and solutions for a history of race relations marred with fear, violence, institu- tional discrimination, and deep-seated ambivalence, then where else?"

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Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, edited by Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl, is a collection of essays and other works exploring communication, contact, power, community, boundaries, sexuality, reproduction and related issues in Octavia Butler's writing. As Constant Reader may recall, Butler is one of my 'touchstone' writers, the ones whose work I keep thinking about and seeing influences and traces of her in other works, so you would expect me to be excited and delighted when Aqueduct Press released this; and you would be correct.

In their introductory essay to the collection, "Strange Matings and Their Progeny: A Legacy of Conversations, Thoughts, Writings, and Actions," Holden and Shawl explore the many meanings of Butler's boundary-crossing matings:

"A mating between a human and a dolphin is far from the strangest of the strange matings in the fiction of Octavia E. Butler. Butler writes about matings between humans and a large variety of other beings, such as blue-furred aliens, tentacled aliens of three different sexes, insect-like aliens whose eggs hatch inside human hosts, and perhaps strangest of all, matings between all the varied categories of humans that we have divided ourselves into.

What is most significant about all of the matings in Butler’s work, however, is not their strangeness, but what such matings produce or lead to — and the necessity of those matings. For Butler’s characters, the inevitable crossing and blurring of boundaries such matings entail often bring with them physical and emotional pain. Still, Butler shows us that these matings are key to her characters’ survival, both for the individual and for the group. Sometimes that survival is raw, as in Dawn, when Butler’s human protagonists mate with aliens in order to avoid extinction, and in Kindred, when slaves mate with their masters in order to preserve their own lives. And sometimes it is much more, as in the celebration of survival that Anyanwu engages in with her dolphin mate above.

Butler herself crossed many boundaries — perhaps to ensure a certain kind of survival for herself and her ideas of what we might become. In the most obvious of these boundary crossings, she, an African-American woman, crossed into the then mostly white, male arena of science fiction in the 1970s, demonstrating that women of color could successfully inhabit the worlds of science fiction. At the same time, she refused to let either herself or her writing be solely defined by her race or her gender — though both affected her subject matter and overall themes. In this way, she also crossed into the mostly white, middle class arena of 1970s feminism."

The bulk of the pieces in this collection are critical explorations of Butler's work - there are essays devoted to the Patternist books, Kindred, the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Parable duology, and some that explore multiple facets of her work. There are also reminiscences by friends and colleagues, selections from an interview conducted by Nisi Shawl, and some creative responses in dialogue with her work. It's a good mix of the academic and the anecdotal, the formal and the personal.

The essays do an exceptional job of elucidating Butler's themes and ideas - for her books are, unabashedly, novels about ideas, novels to make the reader uncomfortable, to make her think about such weighty issues as gender and race, power, coercion and choice in a world of oppressors and oppressions, community, change, and the future of humanity. As Steven Shaviro writes in the essay "Exceeding the Human: Power and Vulnerability in Octavia Butler’s Fiction,"

"Butler’s novels produce feelings that exceed the human and that therefore imply new, different forms of subjectivity than are recognized in ordinary life (or in ordinary, “mimetic” fiction). They offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses to the traumas they depict (this is most notable in the two Parables ); but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses. Butler’s novels often envision the posthuman, the transhuman, and the hybrid-no-longer-quite-human; but they never portray these in the salvational terms that white technogeeks are so prone to. Above all, Butler’s novels never pretend to alleviate the pain that they so eloquently describe and evoke: in this sense, they are utterly, shockingly clear as to the forms of domination and oppression that are so often taken for granted in our (post)modern, highly technologized, and supposedly enlightened world. They bear witness to the intolerable, to how much of our social life today remains intolerable. This makes them indispensable, both aesthetically and politically. I think that we still have a lot to learn from Butler’s texts: about how to understand human limits and constraints without turning such an understanding into an apologia for the current ruling order; about how to construct a politics of the Other; and about how to think about the posthuman, the no-longer-merely-human. And above all, Butler’s novels teach us about a politics of affect — not a politics of emotions against reason, but one that rejects such binary alternatives altogether."

At the same time, the personal reminiscences by friends and colleagues give the reader a sense of the person, gifted and gracious but often struggling to refine her voice, that Butler was - and how deeply she affected and influenced a generation of writers who knew and studied with her, and how much she has been missed within the science fiction community.

This collection is many things - an introduction to critical thinking about Butler's work, a glimpse into the way her community saw her, and a tribute to her memory. And in my humble opinion, it's essential reading for serious Butler fans.
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Judith Merril was one of the most influential American science fiction reviewers and editors of the 1960s. She introduced and championed the writers, works and revolutionary aesthetics of the British New Wave in North American, transforming the genre in the process.

In The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism: Judith Merril’s Nonfiction, part of Aqueduct Press' Heirloom series, editor Ritch Calvin has brought together a number of works that illustrate the evolution of Merril's critical theory: review columns, anthology introductions, and other selected essays.

Calvin's introduction to the collection, which he titles "Introduction: The SF Aesthetics of Judith Merril," is in fact an essay that sums up the key aspects of Merril's thinking about science fiction - which she often referred to as science fantasy - as a mature theory of criticism. The essays of Merril collected in the volume show the development of that theory through her ongoing examination of the works of sff writers over the years. They also, as Calvin notes, offer

"...a history of SF, SF authors and editors, and SF publishing. In her reviews, introductions, and tributes, she chronicles the lives and work of many prominent and lesser known figures. She details the lives and deaths of a number of writers and editors. And she recounts the developments within the field as they happened. Over a period of twelve years, we get yearly, and sometimes monthly, updates on who is publishing, what is being written, and how the field is changing."

Reading through the introductions - the earliest of which is for the first edition of SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, published in 1956, is indeed very much a journey through history. As I read her discussions of the authors and works included in these volumes - some of the names still well-known, others barely remembered - I found myself transported back in time, to the memories of the child reading all the sff books she could find in her local library, spending her precious allowance on sff monthly magazines and the occasional new book she found in the carousel bookstands that used to grace variety, department and grocery stores.

I'm grateful to these reminders of the past, to have brought back to mind stories and authors whose works are rarely in the "Best SF Short Stories" anthologies that pick a topic or a decade and republish the great stories that are always republished. I'm also happy to be learning about authors whose work I somehow never encountered as a child - in the hopes that I may some day find an online repository where I can read them now.

A wonderful book for anyone interested in learning about, or revisiting, the history of the genre.

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What a joy it is to read anything by Ursula Le Guin. In this instance, the "anything" is a collection of non-fiction writing - occasional pieces, book reviews, forewords to other people's books, essays on writing and writers and life. Given the somewhat lengthy title and subtitle of Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 with A Journal of a Writer’s Week, this collection is a smorgasbord of delights from one of the finest writers and clearest thinkers of our time.

The essays presented here are collected into three sections. The first, titled Talks, Essays and Occasional Pieces, offers exactly what it suggests. Most of these essays deal in one way or another with writing, publishing, writers, books. About genre vs. "literature" and the effects of the new media on reading - she is optimistic about the future of the book, in some form or other.

One essay that does not focus on the worlds of words - her account of choosing to terminate a pregnancy during her university years, well before Roe v. Wade, and the importance of being able to make that choice - was difficult to read. In it, she says: "I can hardly imagine what it’s like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe vs. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime." But I could not stop thinking about the very real possibility that American women will face that reality again.

The second section, Book Introductions and Notes on Writers, contains an assortment of mostly commissioned pieces in which she briefly discusses - as is appropriate for an introduction to the text - authors and books she respects and loves. From Huxley's Brave New World to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic to Vonda McIntyre's Dreansnake, Le Guin's insights into these books are both profound and inviting.

The final essay section of the book collects Le Guin's critical reviews, most of which were published in the Manchester Guardian. These reviews cover books both literary and genre, by such authors as Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Doris Lessing, Salmon Rushdie, Jo Walton, Jeannette Winterson and others. Le Guin's critical eye is discerning and unflinching and she delivers both praise and critique with thoughtful analysis.

The last section of the book consists of journal entries made by Le Guin during a week spent at a writers' retreat for women. In her introduction to the journal, she talks about the practice of gender segregated events:

"I hold it self-evident that so long as we live in a man’s world, as we still do, women have a right to create enclaves of learning or work where, instead of obeying or imitating what men do and want, women can shape what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, in their own way and on their own terms. No enclave is the whole reality, no exclusivity is entirely rightful, but when a great injustice prevails, any opportunity of counteracting it, undoing it even temporarily, is justified. Intellect and art have been so wholly owned by men, and that ownership so fiercely maintained, that no woman can assume society will simply grant her a rightful share in them. Many women still find it difficult, even frightening, to name themselves thinkers, makers, to say I am a scholar, a scientist, an artist. A place where such fear has no place, and a period of time given purely to doing one’s own work, is for many men a perfectly reasonable expectation, for many women an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime gift."

In her journal she writes about the environment of the retreat - the natural world around her, the animals she observes - and about the other people in residence during her week's visit. She talks about the writing, the reading, the thinking and the drawing that she does. It is a small window into the creative process of a great artist under 'ideal' conditions - solitude, no distractions, nothing to dilute the flow of ideas and words.

All four sections of the book highlight slightly different aspects of Le Guin the wordsmith - the thinker, the lover of literature, the critic, the artist, while serving to demonstrate the truth of the volume's title - words are her matter, and her opinions and insights are, as always, well worth reading and thinking on.

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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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Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

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I've been eagerly awaiting the publication of Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell, since I first heard it was in the pipeline, for a very personal reason. Delany was one of the first authors - not just of science fiction, but of any genre - who wrote books that crawled inside my brain and stayed there. There are others - Suzette Haden Elgin and Naomi Mitchison among them - but I can honestly say that simply reading Babel-17 was such a world-altering event for me that, had I never encountered it, I might be a very different person today.

In short, Samuel Delany and his work are very important to me.

Contributions to this volume include fiction and non-fiction, and they are tributes, reflections of how Delany has influenced other writers rather than attempts to recreate Delany's aesthetic. As Kim Stanley Robinson says in his Introduction:

These tributes mostly don’t try to imitate Delany’s style, which is good, as it is a very personal style, one that has morphed through the years in complex ways. Imitation could only result in pastiche or parody, forms of limited interest, although a good parody can be fun, and I’ve seen some pretty good ones of Delany’s work elsewhere. A “Bad Delany” contest would be at least as funny as the famous “Bad Hemingway” and “Bad Faulkner” contests. But a better tribute, as the writers gathered here seem to agree, results from considering not style but substance. Delany’s subject matter, his mode or method, involves a characteristic mix of the analytical and the emotional, the realistic and the utopian. By exploring this delanyesque space (and I think delanyesque has become an adjective, like ballardian or orwellian or kafkaesque), the stories and essays here make the best kind of tribute. They perhaps help to make the Delanyspace a new genre or subgenre. However that works, it’s certain that Delany’s work has effected a radical reorientation of every genre he has written in. Time and other writers will tell the sequel as to what that means for science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, pornography, memoir, and criticism. Here we get hints of what that will be like.


There are no weak contributions in this collection, only strong, and stronger. Among those that hit hardest for me:

- Chesya Burke's powerful, heart-breaking short story "For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Abobua Need Not Apply)"

- Walidah Imarisha's essay on the importance of imagining black futures, "Walking Science Fiction: Samuel Delany and Visionary Futures"

- "Be Three" by Jewelle Gomez, a parable about forbidden relationships and the desperate need to find some way for love to survive

- Junot Diaz' "Nilda," a bleak story about the existential despair of the marginalised, the unvoiced pain of personal loss and the self-destructive roles we are pushed into by social forces beyond our control

- "River Clap Your Hands" by Sheree Renée Thomas is a powerful story about loss - loss of heritage and lineage, loss of home and comfort, loss of future hopes - and about going forward to find a new life in spite of it.

- "Jamaica Ginger" by Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl, a steampunk tale of a young woman who finds her way out of a seemingly dead-end situation.


*This anthology contains 14 contributions by women out of 34 pieces (including the Introduction).

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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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Every once in a while, I get a hankering to read some literary history/criticism that takes as its subject my favourite genre, science fiction. This time around, I picked up The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn. The essays in this volume cover a range of topics relevant to the study and understanding of science fiction. As Mendelsohn notes in the introduction,
The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction is intended to provide readers with an introduction to the genre and to its study. To this end, we have divided this book into three parts: an historical overview of the field which discusses the major authors and editors, the people and market forces which have shaped the literary structures of the field; a section on critical approaches to science fiction (sf); and finally a collection of essays exploring some of the issues and concerns which have been considered by both critics and writers to be intrinsic to the genre.
I was a bit disappointed at first - the volume begins with a "chronology" that starts off in 1516 with Thomas More's Utopia, but neglects Margaret Cavendish's 1666 publication of The Blazing World. At least Mary Shelley was included. (Though I must acknowledge that Cavendish and several other women who wrote utopias and scientific romances in the time before science fiction became a recognised genre are mentioned in the book's first essay, "Science Fiction before the Genre" by Brian Stableford.) However, things improved from there, for the most part.

After Stableford's quick survey of early science-fictional works, from Francis Bacon and Cavendish to H. G. Wells, Brian Attebery' contribution discusses the era of the pulp magazines, beginning with Hugo Gernsbach's Amazing Stories. Attebery reminds us that for over 30 years, magazines were the primary venue for science fiction. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas dominated the field, and most novels were first serialised in magazines before they were published as complete works.

The next chapter in the "history section," Damien Broderick's "New Wave and backwash: 1960-1980 addresses the excitement of the New Wave of the 1960s and its influences on science fiction. John Clute's essay on the development of science fiction between 1980 and 2000 was somewhat of a disappointment, virtually ignoring the contributions of women writers during that era, and leaving out altogether the beginnings of a more inclusive understanding of science fiction.

Mark Bould provides a quick trip through the history of science fiction in film and television, beginning with the sfnal short films of such pioneers as the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès (best known for Le Voyage dans la lune), early feature-length film director Fritz Lang, and sf serials such as Flash Gordon. After discussing the "boom" in sf films in the 50s, Bould looks at the beginnings of science fiction in television before moving on to a summary of the trends in recent decades in film and TV.

In the final essay in the history section, Gary K. Wolfe offers an interesting look at the editors and publishers who have helped to shape science fiction in a way not seen in other genres. As Wolfe notes: "While relatively few readers of other genres such as mystery and romance are even aware of the names of the magazine and book editors who select and sometimes shape the texts that collectively define those fields, sf editors have from the beginning played a more visible and sometimes even celebrated role; it is perhaps indicative of this that the leading American mystery award is named the Edgar, after Edgar Allan Poe, while the most publicized sf award, the Hugo, is named after an editor and publisher, Hugo Gernsback."

Following these essays on the history of science fiction, the next section of the book focuses on a survey of various critical approaches to science fiction. In these essays, critical theories are applied to key science fictional texts, demonstrating how these theories contribute to a deeper understanding of science fiction as a genre, its history, development and themes. Specific approaches examined in this section include Marxist analysis, feminist analysis, postmodernism, and queer theory.

The final section is devoted to an overview of subgenres and common themes in science fiction. Gwyneth Jones introduces the section with an overview of the "icons of Science fiction" - as Jones defines it, "the signs which announce the genre, which warn the reader that this is a different world; and at the same time constitute that difference." These include rockets and other self-contained space habitats, and virtual environments; non-human sentiences from robots and androids to aliens; imagined ecologies; and heroes with a knowledge of science.

Also included in this section are essays examining the wide range of themes taken up by science fiction writers:
The use of life sciences from genetics to reproductive biology to ecology and the environment;
The exploration of the utopian society;
Politics, or the variety of ways in which societies may be organised, regulated and governed;
The exploration of sociocultural understandings of gender;
Examination of issues surrounding race and ethnicity; and
Exploration of religion and its place in society.

This section also includes several essays on what may be identified as subgenres of science fiction, such as "hard science fiction" and its stepchild cyberpunk, space opera, and alternative history.

One of the best aspects of this Companion, for me, was how the various contributors made extensive use of examples in their work, thus reminding the reader of books and shorter fiction read in the past, and introducing the reader to works similar in some fashion that they may not have read or even known about before.

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I must confess that I skimmed many of the early pieces in Margaret Atwood's Second Words: Selected Critical Prose 1960-1982, for a very simple reason - Atwood's early critical work examines a period of Canada's literary history that is well before my time. Reviews of small literary magazines that ceased publication before I was of an age to explore such things, while interesting in terms of following the development of Atwood's choices of subject, critical voice, and style, were not easy for me to sink into. Nonetheless, Atwood is always interesting, and even in her early days she had important things to say, and was on her way to developing that sly irony and trenchant wit which is such a part of her literary voice.

In one piece, while lamenting the end of one of those small Canadian literary magazines, Atwood makes an interesting observation:
Give the same poem to a model American, a model English and a model Canadian critic: the American will say "This is how it works;" the Englishman "How good, how true to Life" (or, "How boring, tasteless and trite"); the Canadian will say "This is where it fits into the entire universe."
There is something about this that rings true to me - certainly in my own modest and sporadic attempts at criticism (and not just literary criticism) I always seem to be looking for the contexts, the connections. And it is something that can be seen in Atwood's work in full measure.

The collection is divided into three sections and contains fifty short pieces, obviously not all of equal interest to me. My attention in the first part of the book (covering the years from 1960 to 1971) was particularly drawn to her analysis of the works of poets I have some familiarity with - Gwendolyn McEwan, Al Purdy - and to a fascination exploration of H. Rider Haggard's presentation of women in his novels, culminating in She and Ayesha: The Return of She.

Another of the early pieces that was more than a mere academic exercise for me was written in 1971. In "Nationalism, Limbo and The Canadian Club," Atwood talks about her memories of attending graduate school in the U.S. in the 60s, and the beginnings of the Canadian search for a unique cultural identity. How true the following observation rings, even today:
"They" had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins. "We" on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were. A distortion of the truth in both cases, let us hope.

There were several disturbing corollaries. One was that we knew more about them, much more, than they knew about us; another was that they knew a lot more about themselves than we knew about ourselves. Another, related to our growing consciousness of economic domination, was that we had let ourselves come under the control of a people who neither knew nor cared to know anything about us. The most disturbing of all was the realization that they were blundering around in the rest of the world with the same power, the same staggering lack of knowledge and the same lack of concern: the best thing for the raisins, in their opinion, was to be absorbed into the apple pie.
In her introduction to the second section of the collection, containing works written between 1972 and 1976, Atwood notes that the publication of her book of Canadian literary criticism, Survival, and the growth of the women's movement had a significant influence on the nature of the requests she received for articles and speeches. Many of the collected pieces in this section are reviews of books written by women - Adrienne Rich, Audrey Thomas, Erica Jong, Kate Millett, Marie-Claire Blais, Marge Piercy - or
articles about literature or writing from an early feminist perspective. A must-read among these is "The Curse of Eve," in which almost every sentence identifies an entire library's worth of feminist cultural and literary analysis - most of which, at that time, was still waiting to be written. It concludes with this plea from a "woman writer" that is, in many ways still relevant today:
I will enter a simple plea; women, both as characters and as people, must be allowed their imperfections. If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have—hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy—without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example. I would also like her to be cunning, intelligent and sly, if necessary for the plot, without having her branded as a bitch goddess or a glaring instance of the deviousness of women. For a long time, men in literature have been seen as individuals, women merely as examples of a gender; perhaps it is time to take the capital W off Woman. I myself have never known an angel, a harpy, a witch or an earth mother. I've known a number of real women, not all of whom have been nicer or more noble or more long-suffering or less self-righteous and pompous than men. Increasingly it is becoming possible to write about them, though as always it remains difficult for us to separate what we see from what we have been taught to see.
The remainder of the pieces from the second section are articles on themes in Canadian literature, or on the Canadian identity. Reading these latter pieces bring back memories of those days when we as Canadians were becoming aware of not just who we were, but how vulnerable we were to cultural and economic imperialism and exploitation.
But there's another image, fact, coming from the outside that I have to fit in. This territory, this thing I have called "mine," may not be mine much longer. Part of the much-sought Canadian identity is that few nationals have done a more enthusiastic job of selling their country than have Canadians. Of course there are buyers willing to exploit, as they say, our resources; there always are. It is our eagerness to sell that needs attention. Exploiting resources and developing potential are two different things: one is done from without by money, the other from within, by something I hesitate only for a moment to call love.
The third section, which contains pieces published between 1977 and 1982, documents an expanded range of topics and perspectives on Atwood's part, as she notes in her introduction to the final section.
I have always seen Canadian nationalism and the concern for women's rights as part of a larger, non- exclusive picture. We sometimes forget, in our obsession with colonialism and imperialism, that Canada itself has been guilty of these stances towards others, both inside the country and outside it; and our concern about sexism, men's mistreatment of women, can blind us to the fact that men can be just as disgusting, and statistically more so, towards other men, and that women as members of certain national groups, although relatively powerless members, are not exempt from the temptation to profit at the expense of others. Looking back over this period, I see that I was writing and talking a little less about the Canadian scene and a little more about the global one.
Among the articles published in this period are reviews of a variety of books, some by authors still writing, some still part of the recognisable cultural canon even though their writers are no longer with us, and some that have passed into relative obscurity. Books reviewed include: A Harvest Yet to Reap, a book documenting the experiences and activism of prairie women; a posthumously published collection of letters by American poet Anne Sexton; Timothy Findley's novel The Wars; two works by recently deceased poets, Pat Lowther's A Stone Diary, and John Thompson's Stilt Jack; Tillie Olsen's Silences, a meditation on the obstacles facing writers, particularly women writers; Sylvia Plath's posthumously published Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams; Red Dust, a collection of short stories by W. D. Valdgardson; Nadine Gortimer's July's People; Ann Beattie's Falling in Place; E. L. Doctorow's Loon Lake; Jay McPherson's Poems Twice Told; and Midnight Birds, a collection of short fiction by Black women authors (concerning this review, Atwood examines not only the work, but the reasons why she has been asked to review a collection of American authors for a magazine devoted to "third world" literature).

In addition to the reviews, the collection includes a variety of articles and speeches, primarily on aspects of writing and being a writer:

"Diary Down Under," notes and observations made during her participation in 1978 in Writers' Week, an Australian literary event;
"Witches," a brief address on the persecution of authors and books - witch-hunting - whether they be North American feminists saying uncomfortable things, or revolutionary Latin-American poets saying things that get them disappeared;
"An End to Audience?," a lecture on what it means to be a writer, as a vocation, as a profession, as an art, as a moral statement - and on the changing nature of the writing and publishing landscape and the reading audience;
"Introduction to The Edible Woman" in which Atwood briefly discusses her own first published novel and its relationship to the feminist movement (incidentally, The Edible Woman is one of my favourite Atwood novels);
An address to a meeting of Amnesty International in which Atwood speaks passionately about the responsibility of the writer in a world where oppression and political censorship have become commonplace;
"Northrop Frye Observed," a discussion of Atwood's thoughts on having been a student of Frye's;
"Writing the Male Character," in which Atwood discusses the perils and pitfalls of writing a character of another gender than one's own, from a very feminist perspective.

In what is one of the longer pieces collected in this volume, "Canadian-American Relations" - a speech given to a US audience - Atwood traces the history of the quest for a Canadian identity, and looks at the ways in which the United States has alternately ignored and influenced this. In a somewhat prescient comment, she notes that both Canada and the US must now inhabit a changing world in which the lines are being redrawn:
The world is rapidly abandoning the nineteenth-century division into capitalist and socialist. The new camps are those countries that perform or tolerate political repression, torture and mass murder and those that do not.
Reading this collection, I was reminded once more just how much Atwood's critical perspectives on both art and the world we live in are worth reading.

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This is an odd group of nominees, several of which appear to have nothing to do with Science fiction or fantasy, and as such hardly seem to qualify for a "Best Related Work category. Which is sad, because there was quite a variety of interesting and unquestionaly relevant works published this year. But this is what we have to work with.


“Why Science is Never Settled”, Tedd Roberts

Published in two parts on the Baen.com website, this nominated related work is in part a fairly straightforward description of the scientific process as performed in the modern scientific community, from the basics of the scientific method through to publication in peer-reviewed journals. The author states clearly that he, as a research scientist himself, agrees with the process. But. There's the other part to this, which I find myself a bit uneasy about in terms of how it's expressed even though I agree with it in both principle and fact.

The author is very concerned with what he fears is a general belief that science is "settled" - and that this is a problem both of the general public who don't understand that science keeps moving, that theories are tested and sometimes re-evaluated, and sometimes replaced with a theory that better explains the facts, and of the scientific community, which he suggests clings to consensus even when new theories are shown to be more effective in explaining phenomena.

Yes, both these things can be shown to happen, but putting too much emphasis on them also opens the door to the kind of thinking that says intelligent design should be accepted as an alternative theory to evolution because it challenges the status quo, or that the near-universal consensus on the human role in climate change means it's an outmoded theory that is only being held to because people fear change. I may be reading too much into Roberts' essay, but there it is.

Above and beyond that, I'm not sure that this is all that strongly related to science fiction or fantasy. Certainly there were a good many works published last year that were more closely related - the second volume of Patterson's biography of Heinlein, Jill Lapore's Secret History of Wonder Woman, critical looks at the fiction of Greg Egan and Robert Heinlein, the second volume of Jonathan Eller's study of Ray Bradbury, and critical essay collections by various people looking at sff, to mention just a few.



The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside

The hardest of hard sf writers and fans insist that sf should always be based on science that works. No transwarp drives to get us quickly to the action, no ansibles to give us faster than light communications, no transporters to mysteriously beam us up. It's not an argument I agree with, although I'm one of those who is comfortable seeing science fiction and fantasy as a continuum, with a great deal of material that one might label science fantasy in the rich, yummy middle. Ken Burnside starts from the premise that hard sf should conform to physics, and proceeds from there:
Ignoring thermodynamics is one of the cardinal sins of science fiction authors writing military SF; the same authors who wouldn't dream of saying that a Colt 1911A fires a .40 caliber bullet will blithely walk into even more galling gaffes through simple ignorance and unquestioned assumptions.
In this essay, Burnside takes on many of the "errors" made by science fiction writers who fail to appreciate the way that the laws of physics would shape travel - and war - in space: "As combat moves from the bosom of the Earth, and into orbital and interplanetary space, it will be limited by increasingly complex logistics and by thermodynamics."

He addresses such topics as the impossibility of stealth in space, the need for plausibility in propulsion systems (you can take off, orbit and land, or you can travel from orbit onwards, but you can't do both in one ship), and the weapons and tactics that would work in real space combat.

There's some interesting technical material here, and it clearly has something that some of the other nominations lack: actual relevance to science fiction or sff fandom.

Discussion of a nominated work of John C. Wright behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )


Letters from Gardner, Lou Antonelli

The Hugo Voters Packet includes a "preview" of this book, which appears to contain roughly one-third of the material in the published version. My impressions are based on this truncated text.

Letters from Gardner is several things all at once - a folksy autobiography, a home for some early short stories that are, if they were ever published at all, not out of print, and some scattered advice on how to become a writer. Oh, and there's some correspondence with editor Gardner Dozois, hence the title.

Unfortunately, Antonelli is not really notable enough for anyone other than his fans, friends and family to find a memoir all that fascinating, the stories are, as early stories tend to be, somewhat lacking in many areas - not the least of which is female characters who are more than window dressing - the writing advice is pedestrian, and Dozois' notes to a promising novice writer are pretty much what you'd expect any editor to write under such circumstances. And - one of my personal pet peeves, having worked as a proofreader myself - the book is quite sloppily copyedited.


Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson

I am at a complete loss in trying to figure out what on earth this compendium of mostly unfunny one-liners has to do with science fiction or fantasy. Ok, he mentions Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and a few other sff texts that have become part of mainstream culture in North America, but I really don't think that's enough to justify the nomination.

And there's really not much more to say about it.

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Ursula Le Guin is one of the great writers of our time. I've been avidly reading her work for most of my life, I've grown up to become the woman, the feminist, the lover of books that I am today with my mind and passions fueled by the wide-ranging Hainish stories, the wonders of Earthsea, the unforgettable vision of the child in the cellar of Omelas, the challenge to established notions of gender posed by the people of Gethen (Winter), the ambiguous utopia of Anarres, the fascinating future of the Kesh, the recovered life of Lavinia, the annals of the Western Shore, and so many more worlds that Le Guin held open for us.

I love reading her work, and I love reading about her work and the life and mind behind that work. Recently, I've read two books that encouraged me to look at Le Guin's writing, and my relationship to it, in terms of its progression and change over time. First, a collection of interviews with Le Guin, gleaned from the past and covering most of her life as a published author, and second, an analysis of Le Guin's work from a feminist perspective, which examines how her work changes as she engages with feminist theory, and expressed her own developing feminist awareness.

Carl Freedman (ed.), Conversations with Ursula K. Leguin

This collection of ten interviews conducted with Ursula Le Guin by various people between 1980 and 2006, including one by the editor himself, gives the reader insight into Le Guin's thinking about writing - both her own and the craft itself - and many other subjects relevant to her life and work. I found these interviews quite fascinating to read, not just because they illuminate key aspects of a remarkable author's career, but also because Le Guin gives very good interviews. As editor Carl Freedman notes:
Le Guin takes every interview not as an opportunity to recapitulate long-held views but as an occasion for authentic intellectual discourse, with all the unpredictability that this implies and all the attendant dialectical give-and-take. She never hesitates to challenge an interviewer's assumptions when they seem to her to be inadequate to the issues at hand, and at least some interviewers return the compliment - that of conceptual seriousness - by issuing challenges of their own. The fundamental project of a Le Guin interview is learning, on the part of both parties to the interview and, of course, of the reader as well; and the topics about which one can learn are varied indeed, from U.S. foreign policy to the history of architecture, and much else besides.
this volume is, I think, an important piece for anyone interested not only in Le Guin's writings, but in what lies behind - and beyond - them.


Amy Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin's Journey to Post-Feminism

Amy Clarke has produced in this volume the first full-length examination of Le Guin's changing understanding and expression of feminism as seen through her work. As reviewer Sandra J. Lidnow comments in Science Fiction Studies,
This succinctly written book represents a thorough reading of Le Guin’s work and traces the evolution of her feminist thought from early in her career, when she professed to her mother, Theodora Kroeber, that she did not know how to write about women, to the present when Le Guin, along with authors such as Joanna Russ and Pamela Sargent, are acclaimed as the most influential speculative writers to have explored gender. (http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/review_essays/lindow112.html)
That aspect of the book is exciting and wonderful and makes it well worth reading. However, i feel a need to talk about the whole "post-feminist" element of Clarke's thesis for a bit.

Post-feminism is a tricky topic. It suggests a way of thinking that, while influenced by feminism, is no longer in need of feminist theory, analysis or praxis. It says "it's time to move beyond feminism" and leaves open to the listener the reasons why this might be so. Post-feminists, it is sometimes argued, don't want to exclude men, the way feminists did. They are pro-sex, unlike the oddly prudish second wave feminists. They are conscious of diversity and intersectionality in ways feminists never dreamed of. As Clarke says, quoting Ann Brooks's Postfeminisms:
...post-feminism is both porous and comprehensive, a "non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and post-colonial feminisms." The post-feminist embrace extends as well to theories like post-structuralism, especially in rejecting singular, master narratives and instead seeking out the individual story, accepting multiple points of view. Unlike the story-telling of the early women's movement used in consciousness-raising sessions, the goal is not collectivity by seeking sameness, but instead by accepting difference. Along those lines, post-feminism rejects the essentialism inherent in much feminist theory. Taking lessons from gender studies, post-feminism is more male-inclusive, building as it does on a belief that gender lies upon a continuum. This inclusiveness extends to matters of personal choice as well, including those of work, dress and sexual practices.
This is where my problem comes in, because unlike most post-feminists, I was there when the second wave got rolling, and it was never as homogenous as these critiques suggest. We knew we were at the beginning of a long period of analysis and theory-making, and that much of our early ad hoc thinking would evolve. Among us were women of colour, women of varied sexual inclinations, trans and passing women, proud sex workers and even (gasp) men. Many of us were sex-positive from the word go, we simply wanted to be sure that it was our sexuality we were being positive about, not a patriarchal society's self-serving master narrative about what our sexuality ought to be. Many of us questioned essentialist thinking from the beginning, and found it wanting. It sometimes seems to me that what those who make these critiques are reacting to is not second wave feminism itself, but second wave feminism as seen distorted in the lens held up by its enemies.

So.... I must ask, are we speaking of our (Le Guin's and other feminists') journey to post-feminism, or our journey to a mature and evolved feminism? My view is more the latter, and it is with that observation - and reservation - that I read, and now comment upon, Clarke's work.

Clarke's thesis, as stated in her Introduction, is that Le Guin's writing has been profoundly shaped by feminist theory, and has in turn contributed to the growing body of feminist literature.
Le ​Guin ​has ​also ​been ​a ​central ​figure ​in ​feminist ​theory. ​She ​has ​frequently ​said ​that ​her ​writing ​was ​utterly ​reshaped ​by ​a ​feminist ​awakening ​she ​experienced ​in ​the ​late ​seventies ​when ​she responded ​to ​criticisms ​that ​her ​work ​was ​anti-feminist ​by ​immersing ​herself ​in ​the ​feminist ​debate. ​ ​Once ​having ​accepted ​feminist ​principles, ​Le ​Guin ​evolved ​a ​poetics ​of ​non-linear ​narrative, ​emphasizing ​"female" ​values ​and ​experimentation ​with ​language ​and ​syntax.
This thesis is presented through an extensive analysis of Le Guin's work, including not only her speculative fiction, but also her non-genre fiction, her poetry, and her essays (although I must add that relatively less attention is paid to Le Guin's more recent work, including Lavinia and the three-volume Annals of the Western Shore). Clarke also draws on interviews, including her own conversations with Le Guin about her work and process.

Clarke sees LeGuin's career as a writer engaged and engaging with feminist theory as divided into stages (with some overlap); in her book, she devotes one chapter to each stage. The first stage encompasses all of her early work, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and is characterised by Clarke as a highly productive period in which Le Guin seeks to maintain “good manners” while still producing work which challenges the social order, a period in which she is clearly writing within a literary tradition based on male writing, but is exploring the social position of women and subverting the traditional image of the male hero. Clarke argues, in reference to early feminist criticism of Le Guin's works in this period, that "she ​was ​never ​as ​tradition-bound ​and ​
hero-oriented ​as ​has ​been ​described. ​In ​fact, ​with ​The ​Left ​Hand ​of ​Darkness ​and ​The ​Dispossessed, ​she ​was ​an ​early ​feminist ​voice ​even ​before ​she ​aligned ​herself ​with ​the ​movement."​

Clarke's analysis locates the second stage of Le Guin's journey as a period of reaction and re-evaluation, in which she produces (relatively) little original work and begins to "question her relation to gender issues and the literary tradition, to consider her art through a feminist prism."

By the middle of the 1980s, Clarke argues, Le Guin has entered a third stage in which her work becomes both more experimental and more explicitly feminist. She explores ways of storytelling that focus on non-hierarchical relationships and the patterns of women's lives, or that challenge the idea of linear narrative altogether. In this period, Le Guin incorporates into her writing the feminist literary theory of women such as Helen Cixous and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "writing the body" and "beyond the ending." Her approach to fiction altered by her deep engagement with feminist thought, Le Guin writes women and women's magic into Earthsea, explores women's varied experiences in the linked stories of Searoad, and produces the profoundly experimental and women-centred Always Coming Home. In assessing Le Guin's work of this period, Clarke notes that
In "Why Are We Huddling About the Campfire?" she suggests that we tell stories as a way of constructing reality, of making ourselves understand both that we do exist and offering explanations for why we exist. If we tell stories about men only, feminist theory has taught her, women will not exist. Her writing in this period has been in the service of women, telling their stories. What she has learned from feminism, are ways in which to narrate the lives that do not fit in men's stories.
It is following this period, which Clarke characterises as "high feminist," that she sees Le Guin moving into what she variously calls post-feminism and next-stage feminism (a conceptual tag that I prefer).

Examining the differences in both subject and style that separate Le Guin's work in the 1990s from that of her experimental period, Clarke asks
Having ​
followed ​the ​feminist ​tide, ​does ​she ​now ​emerge ​as ​post-feminist? ​Can ​she ​help ​us ​define ​this ​still ​ambiguous ​term? ​I ​argue ​that ​Le ​Guin ​has ​in ​fact ​moved ​into ​next-stage ​feminism. ​​Her ​return ​to ​the ​imaginary ​lands ​of ​her ​earlier ​writing ​is ​marked ​not ​by ​feminist ​essentialism ​and ​narrative ​experimentation, ​but ​by ​her ​seeming ​rapprochement ​with ​traditional ​forms. ​Her ​recent ​writings ​represent ​Le ​Guin ​at ​another ​artistic ​height, ​but ​they ​also ​indicate ​a ​narrative ​journey ​back ​to ​her ​own ​beginnings, ​her ​own ​"native" ​
content ​and ​style. ​Yet, ​she ​returns ​with ​the ​express ​aim ​of ​shifting ​paradigms ​and ​breaking ​with ​the ​literary ​rules ​of ​engagement, ​a ​legacy ​of ​her ​feminist ​empowerment.
According to Clarke, the hallmarks of this next-stage feminism in Le Guin's writing are greater inclusivity, an engagement with post-colonialism (though I would suggest that through her anthropological perspective, Le Guin was exploring post-colonial narratives well before they were identified as such) and post-modernism (particularly in its valuing of multiple narratives over master narratives), and a return to less experimental styles. In this period, Le Guin continues the project begun with Tehanu, writing women and other non-privileged voices into her prior creations, including the Hainish and Earthsea universes.

While Clarke attempts to equate this shift to a post-feminist stance on the part of Le Guin, she acknowledges that Le Guin herself has not embraced that label for herself and her work.
in Le Guin's world, true journey is return and her evolution into postfeminism marks a spiral trajectory, nearly coming back to origins. She does not reject her feminism but builds it into her mental architecture in a way that makes it seem second nature, so that the writing that springs from it seems more organic. But she moves on from some of the fervor of high feminism, including its experimentalism, essentialism and exclusion. Le Guin has not engaged in discussions of post-feminism. Nonetheless her work of this period shows a clear backing away from the experimental non-linear narratives of her high feminist period. She is certainly assessing the lot of men differently as well. ... There is less universalising of the male experience; more dimensionality and more recognition that men can be as constrained by social roles as women.
As much as I enjoyed Clarke's detailed analysis of Le Guin's works, and the ways in which they embody the feminist process, here is where I (and other feminist reviewers) part company with her thesis. As Sharon de Graw notes in her review, "Given Le Guin's extensive critical and fictional interactions with feminism, some weight should be given to the fact the she has not explicitly disengaged herself from the term feminist nor specifically identified herself with post-feminism in these contexts. (http://www.readperiodicals.com/201101/2560135751.html#ixzz3NIMxv4Kr)

Given that Le Guin's place in literature is well-secured, the fact of her very public espousal of feminist theory and concerns in her work is an important area of criticism, and this book is a good beginning to that project; I hope to see more feminist analysis of her work in the future.

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Brit Mandelo's momgraph, We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, is yet another of the wonderful volumes of feminist sf criticism and history published by one of my favourite small publishing houses, Aqueduct Press.

In this study, Mandelo examines what she sees as one of Russ' primary foci in both fiction and non-fiction - the telling of the truths that lie beneath, and are obscured by, the mystifications of sexism (and heterosexism), and by doing so, bringing those truths into everyday life.

It's hardly a secret to anyone who's followed this blog that Russ is one of my favourite wrtiers, both for her groundbreaking fiction and for her fierce and uncompromising feminist criticism (How To Suppress Women's Writing should be on the reading list of everyone who chooses to engage with the printed word/world). Mandelo's exploration of Russ's development as a radical truth teller deepened my appreciation and understandingof her work - and what more can one ask for in a work of criticism?

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Life's been too much of a bitch for me to keep on writing about books much, but I still read, and I may as well at least post lists of what I read this past year. Here's the first list.


Non-fiction


Much of the of the non-fiction I read was a bit of a hodge-podge. Cultural/political studies, feminism, history, biography. All in its way interesting and nothing I regret reading.

Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Adam Kotsko, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television
Arundahti Roy, Talking to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Tim Wise, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority

Lillian Faderman, Naked in the Promised Land

Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses
Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: The Family Story

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I did not read a lot of non-fiction this year, and what I did read was mostly personal narratives, biographies, and books about science fiction and fantasy.


Thelma J. Shinn, Worlds Within Women: Myth and Mythmaking in Fantastic Literature by Women
Gwyneth Jones, Imagination/space: essays and talks on fiction, feminism, technology and politics
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Suzie Bright, Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir
Nancy Mairs, Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith
George Takei, Oh Myy! There Goes the Internet

Jack G. Shaheen, The TV Arab

Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower
Tracy Borman, Elizabeth's Women
Stacey Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

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Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan

This is a fascinating collection of 19 interviews with Edward W Said, conducted between 1976 and 2000 and published in a variety of scholarly and other venues. Through these interviews, it is possible to follow the development of Said’s scholarship and his political activism, as they illuminate the range, penetration and passions in Said’s intellectual and public life.

Editor Gavri Viswanathan puts it best in her introduction:
The interviews Said gave over the past three decades boldly announce that neither his own books and essays nor those written about him have the last word. The first thing to note is not only th number of interviews Said has given, both to print and broadcast media, but also the number of locations in which they took place, spanning Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe and the United States. They confirm his presence on the world stage as one of the most forceful public intellectuals of our time, a man who evokes interest in the general public for his passionate humanism, his cultivation and erudition, his provocative views and his unswerving commitment to the cause of Palestinian self-determination... Together, [these interviews] reveal a ceaselessly roving mind returning to earlier ideas in his books and novels and engaging with them anew. One measure of the fluidity and range of Said’s thought is his ability to revisit arguments made in his books and essays, not merely to defend and elaborate on them but, more important, both to mark their limits and probe their extended possibilities, especially in contexts other than those which first gave rise to them.
Said’s topics range from discourses on the development of his own work, particularly on Orientalism and post-colonial theory, to ruminations on his childhood and how it affects his sense of self in the world, to his political activism and evolving relationship with the PLO, to reflections on other authors and areas from Austen, Conrad, Naipaul and Rushdie to Derrida and Foucault.

There’s a wealth of thought in these interviews, well worth savouring.

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This is the year I discovered Thomas King. King is a First Nations author and a professor of English and Theatre at Quelph University in Canada. He has been writing since the 1990s and has produced a number of novels and several collections of short stories, and in 2003 he was the first Native Canadian to deliver the Massey Lectures, which were published under the title The Truth about Stories, which I read earlier this year.

King has said that "Tragedy is my topic. Comedy is my strategy.” He writes about the Aboriginal experience in white North America, which certainly has many of the elements of tragedy, and at the same time, his work in the short stories I have read – from the volume A Short History of Indians in Canada - is so wisely and wittily funny even as it eviscerates the assumptions, attitudes, perceptions and actions of white North Americans toward First Nations and Aboriginal peoples that this white reader can only thank King for such a happy course of instruction, correction and illumination.

Reading the stories of King the author, and then reading the lectures of King the teacher on what story is and means and does in Aboriginal tradition, has been most rewarding, and I look forward to reading more works by this person who is so kind as to use his talent to make me laugh and think and learn.


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Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward are professional writers of speculative fiction who jointly developed and teach the workshop "Writing the other: bridging cultural differences for successful fiction." This book contains material adapted from their workshop, as well as two essays written by Shawl, “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere,” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.”

This volume is designed to be used by authors concerned about honestly, effectively and respectfully writing about people, settings and cultures that diverge from the dominant paradigm -the unmarked state. I can’t venture an opinion on how well it does this, because I am not myself a writer. But I have found it to be, whether by design or not, an excellent book for the reader who is interested in seeing more clearly how successfully the books she reads are at writing the other.

The authors give many examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at writing culturally diverse works. While there is a strong focus on race, they also consider sex and sexual orientation, culture and religion. Oddly enough, they seem to consider social class not a major category of "Other," at least in North American writing. I would tend to disagree, but I imagine that in a workshop, one must choose topics carefully, as there is not time enough to cover everything one might want to.

I was personally most engaged by the section on cultural appropriation, because it's something that I worry about a lot in my own life. I have a very strong sense of attraction, indeed resonance, to aspects of the art, culture, philosophy and religion of a number of other peoples, and it is often an inner struggle for me to try to work out whether I'm being a cultural poacher or a respectful learner. I'm still not sure I know the answer, but this essay gave me more ways in which to think about what it is that I do.

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Flirting with Pride and Prejudice, Jennifer Crusie (ed.)

Part literary criticism, part fluff, part fanfic, this is a highly multi-disciplinary approach to one of Jane Austen’s well-beloved, and perhaps most well-known of her novels, Pride and Prejudice.

The widely varied pieces collected here range from ruminations on why Austen remains so popular, to considerations of the influence of the Napoleonic wars on Austen’s writing, to examinations of the films based on the novel, to original short fiction inspired by the characters and situations created by Austen in the novel. In short, something for almost everyone who loves Pride and Prejudice. This is nothing less than a celebration of Austen’s work, by people who are devoted to it and want nothing more than to share their own delight with other Austen fans.

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