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I’ll link you more with every breath, truly, madly, deeply do May 22, 2015

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So. Lots of stuff to get through this week, as my corner of the internet has been particularly full of people doing wonderful, clever and awesome things.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz had a busy week. Here’s Rochita on the uses of anger, her new short story, and being interviewed for Lightspeed magazine’s author spotlight.

Catherine Lundoff has had so many submissions to her ‘Older Women in SFF’ recommendations post that she’s had to split it into two. Part one, part two.

I really liked this review of Zen Cho’s writing by Naomi Novik.

This review by Sarah Mesle of the most recent episode of Game of Thrones made a lot of points I’ve been struggling to articulate. Content note for discussion of violence, abuse and rape.

I really appreciated this thoughtful post by Tade Thompson on safety, community and dissent.

Natalie Luhrs makes some really important points here:

This is part of the ongoing conversation about the importance of different voices in our community. About making space for people who have been told–explicitly and implicitly–that what they have to say isn’t worthwhile and that they need to sit down and listen and that someday, maybe, they’ll be allowed to speak.

This list of Best Young Australian novelists looks great, and reflects the Australia that I grew up in. Congratulations to all the winners!

I have to admit that the #hometovote hashtag has been making me cry.

I wrote two longish posts this week. One is here at the Geata: a review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The other is over on LJ/Dreamwidth, and is a primer to Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy.

My mother is a radio journalist. Her programme this week is on Eurovision, and you can listen to it here (not geoblocked). There are additional features here. I am an unashamed Eurovision fan, and as you can see, it runs in the family.

Texts from Hieronymous Bosch made me laugh and laugh.

Happy Friday, everyone.

Things we lost in the fire May 21, 2015

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I’m normally a very fast reader, but it took me close to two weeks to finish Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, because I had to keep pausing and putting it aside. What it was saying was too overwhelming, too upsetting, and too much to carry. I loved it.

Station Eleven takes a fairly conventional disaster novel trope – a virulent disease wipes out the majority of the world’s population in a very short period of time – and carries it further, imagining how society might reshape itself after complete collapse. Unlike a lot of recent dystopian novels, Station Eleven actually explores what societal collapse, a dramatically reduced population and scarcity of resources would really look like. People’s capacity for violence – sometimes presented as innate and given free rein in dystopian frontier communities – is restricted in that bullets run out so guns become obsolete, let alone more technologically advanced weaponry. As such, violence takes on a more intimate quality: people carry knives, heavy stones, bows and arrows, and tattoo reminders of the murders they’ve committed onto their skin. The world darkens as sources of electricity and other power are shut off, and fuel supplies run out (or too few people survive to be able to extract and distribute petrol), so cars fall silent and the skies are emptied of planes. Within months, people’s worlds become restricted to the distances they can comfortably travel, enforcing a limited existence more akin to that of pre-industrial times.

If that’s not heavy enough, the novel jumps between several different chronologies, so that a strand of it deals with the period just before the outbreak, a second strand follows several characters through the immediate aftermath, and a third deals with the world twenty years on. The focal characters in this third chronology were alive before the collapse, some as small children, others as middle-aged adults, which allows St. John Mandel to devote a significant portion of the novel to exploring ideas of grief, loss, and the effect of memory and the passage of time. Is it better to grow up in a post-apocalyptic world with limited options, but to view this as normal, or better to have had fifty years of full, well-lived life in the twenty-first century, only to have this brutally ripped away and viewed as science fiction by the generations who come after you? Is it fair to teach children born after the outbreak about the old world, when they have no frame of reference for its trappings and will only be angered by the relative limits of their existence (the book mentions, in particular, reduced lifespans)? What is the purpose of preserving artifacts and memories? Who is it serving?

If all this sounds pretty grim, there are moments of light. The world that remains after the outbreak has burnt through it is harsh, but not deliberately brutal. St. John Mandel recognises, as few writers of dystopian fiction seem to, that humanity has survived for so long because human beings are adaptable, and because they cooperate and compromise in order to ensure their own safety and survival. People in Station Eleven adapt. They form scattered communities wherever they wind up when they can’t keep running from the outbreak, in disused shopping centres, in highway petrol stations, in airports surrounded by rusting aeroplanes. They teach their children. They memorise Shakespeare and ransack abandoned houses for musical instruments, and form a band of wandering actors and musicians. In moments particularly moving for me, they set up libraries, and interview whoever passes through their tiny communities, preserving people’s stories because there’s still a sense that history, that stories, that the people behind them matter. They build museums of obsolete artifacts of the old world: driver’s licenses and credit cards and iPhones with cracked screens, and angst about whether these memories are things that should be dwelt upon.

Ultimately, Station Eleven is a beautiful, moving love song to humanity. It imagines a terrifying future, and it shows us how to have the courage to endure it.

Left me to linkpost/ what’s it doing to me? May 15, 2015

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Ambelin Kwaymullina talks about diversity in Australian YA literature.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Fear of causing offense becomes a fetish’.

Here’s Daniel José Older on diversity, power and publishing.

Laura Mixon talks about building bridges and healing divisions.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz talks about self-care and ‘staying in touch with the child-self’.

Aidan Moher discusses writing military SF without combat.

Astrid Lindgren’s Second World War diaries have been published in Sweden.

Ana of Things Mean A Lot reviews Pride in the light of the recent UK elections.

I love this review by Electra Pritchett of Stranger and Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith:

If I had to pick a post-apocalyptic YA society in which to live, I’d pick the community of Las Anclas hands down, warts and all: rather than a hierarchical dystopian society where something random is outlawed and the government controls something else crucial to society, Las Anclas represents a kinder, gentler post-apocalypse. It’s not quite a utopia, except in the sense that everywhere in fiction is, but that’s precisely what makes it a believable and desirable place to live: its busybodies and jerks are notable because they’re not the only kind of people in the town, and dealing with them would be a small price to pay in order to live in such a supportive and inclusive place.

The upcoming publishing schedule at The Book Smugglers makes me so happy.

I am really looking forward to the publication of Tell The Wind And Fire, Sarah Rees Brennan’s latest book.

Via Sherwood Smith, listen to the oldest (recorded) song in the world.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Hounds of linkpost May 8, 2015

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Let us not talk of the UK election results – I have no words. Instead, let’s talk about something much more pleasant: the return of my weekly linkposts!

Unlike the rest of my corner of the internet, I didn’t have a massive problem with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Sophia McDougall and Sonya Taaffe probably get closest to articulating my own feelings on the subject.

Joyce Chng, David Anthony Durham and Kari Sperring (moderated by Vanessa Rose Phin) have some interesting things to say on ‘Representing Marginalized Voices in Historical Fiction and Fantasy’, at Strange Horizons.

Athena Andreadis talks about the uses and misuses of cultural traumas (in this case, her own, Greek culture) in fiction.

Aliette de Bodard talks about Dorothy Dunnett at Fantasy Book Cafe.

‘For the Gardener’s Daughter is a fabulous poem by Alyssa Wong, published in Uncanny Magazine.

On Sophie Masson’s blog, Adele Geras talks about retelling fairytales.

One of my friends and former academic colleagues has started a blog looking at popular representations of monsters.

The History Girls is not a new blog, but it is new to me. It’s the work of a group of women who are historical fiction writers.

Today is pretty grim, so I will leave you with footage of a koala roaming around a rural Victorian hospital.

All is full of linkpost April 10, 2015

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I was going to devote this week’s post to the Hugo Awards situation, but to be honest, I thought better of it. Why waste my energy on the emotionally draining behaviour of a bunch of immature, selfish, cruel, destructive people? I’d rather talk about people who build, create, nurture and share.

At Safe, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz talks about words, actions, and using power for good. It’s a post filled with hope and compassion. (Content note for discussion of abusive behaviour.)

Rochita’s post refers to this one by Laura Mixon, which comes with a similar content note.

I absolutely adore M Sereno’s poetry. Her latest, ‘The Eaters, published in Uncanny Magazine, is gorgeous. Amal El-Mohtar reads it aloud here.

BBC Radio 4 is doing a programme featuring extensive interviews with Ursula Le Guin, Ursula Le Guin at 85.

Short stories I read and enjoyed this week include ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’ by Zen Cho (published at Kaleidotrope) and ‘Ambergris, or the Sea-Sacrifice’ by Rhonda Eikamp (published at Lackington’s, illustrated by Likhain).

Over at SF Signal, authors pay tribute to Terry Pratchett and Leonard Nimoy.

Ken Liu discusses his new novel The Grace of Kings at SF Signal.

This round-up post at Ladybusiness has some fabulous short story recommendations.

It’s always disorienting for me to see real-life friends and former academic colleagues getting discussed in SF publications.

This is the most Cambridge story ever.

Please spend your weekends being lovely to each other.

Linkpost is a stranger in an open car April 3, 2015

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This week’s post is a little early, as my partner’s parents are in town and I have to grab whatever time I have to myself when I can.

I really liked this essay by Kari Sperring in Strange Horizons. It’s ostensibly about Katherine Kurtz, but its broader point is that the ‘women who made fantasy [and science fiction]’ keep getting ignored, erased or forgotten in the genre’s history.

In a similar vein, Renay has written at Fantasy Book Cafe about recommendation lists that contain no women.

Also by Renay, a review of The Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan for Ladybusiness.

This post by Tumblr user allofthefeelings is a reaction to a very specific fandom situation, but I feel it has broader applicability, given that it talks about unexamined preferences, narrative default settings, and representation (within texts, of fandom and of fannish culture and preferences).

I have a not-so-secret love of ’90s teen movies, so this post on Tor.com by Leah Schnelbach and Natalie Zutter about teen movies that adapt or draw on Shakespeare’s plays was right up my alley.

Abigail Nussbaum reviews Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho for Strange Horizons.

Here’s an interview with Zen Cho by Sharmilla Ganeson in The Star.

My friend Raphael Kabo wrote this poem called ‘Axis’ for Noted Festival. He writes a lot about identity, alienation and place, which are themes very dear to me.

Still on the theme of poetry, Athena Andreadis shared an older post on Sapfó (Sappho) of Lésvos.

This is a raw, emotionally honest post by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz about the struggle to find her voice and courage after ill-treatment, silencing and the twisting of her words and judgement of her actions. I continue to be awed by her words, bravery and determination. SFF needs more people like her.

Raining on the linkpost parade March 27, 2015

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Today’s linkpost is a little early, and contains poetry, translation, and a literary treasure hunt of sorts.

This is a great interview of Zen Cho and Stephanie Feldman by Sofia Samatar.

Ted Hodgkinson interviewed Daniel Hahn and Fahmida Riaz about literary translation.

Samantha Shannon answers readers’ questions. (Beware Mime Order spoilers.)

The Book Smugglers announced their new slate of short stories, which should be great.

Zen Cho has set up a directory of Malaysian SFF writers and projects.

A new issue of Through the Gate is out. I particularly liked the poem ‘Juli’ by M Sereno, which I found heart-shattering and powerful.

I love the Where Ghostwords Dwell project. The site is dedicated to discarded text, forgotten words and the memory of dead manuscripts, and each entry embeds links hinting at its origin, or pointing the reader forwards towards further connections. It’s part Russian doll, part literary treasure hunt, and I love it.

I leave you with every argument about Buffy on the internet from 1998 to now. This is one blog post where you’re going to want to read every single comment, and it makes me ridiculously happy.

‘ “And what would humans be without love?” RARE, said Death.’ March 13, 2015

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This week’s linkpost is all Terry Pratchett. I came to his writing later than most, as I was in my early twenties before I read a single word of his. A good friend of mine and I had made a deal: he would watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I would read Pratchett. I think it was a good deal for both of us. I started with Guards! Guards!, and never looked back. My favourite Pratchett book is Small Gods, for all the qualities that made Pratchett such a powerful writer: warm humour, a perceptive understanding of human nature, an intelligent way with words that included rather than excluded, and a patience with human frailty.

This is a Storify of Pratchett’s last tweets. (Warning: bring tissues.)

Here Nymeth provides her reminiscences at Things Mean A Lot.

Jo Walton recalls her first meeting with Pratchett over at Tor.com.

I also liked this piece by Julie Beck at the Atlantic.

The obituary at the BBC is here.

As usual, xkcd says in a few words what would take me several thousand.

I think, however, that Abi Sutherland says it best:

He saw the monstrosities of our world: economic inequality, racism, sexism, religious bigotry, the abuses of narrative and myth. And he made them irresistibly ludicrous, laying them relentlessly out until their inner absurdity smothered them, until the least bizzare and most reasonable thing in the story was that it took place on a disc resting on the backs of four elephants standing on the shell of a giant space turtle.

He was both wise and kind.

The world could do with a bit more wisdom accompanied by kindness.

If you link me that much you will stick around March 6, 2015

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I have so many links for you this week! My Twitter feed has been very generous in sharing its fabulous internet finds, and I’ve gathered the best of them to post here.

First up, have a couple of short stories. ‘Translatio Corporis’ by Kat Howard and ‘The Monkey House’ by Tade Thompson absolutely rocked my world. They’re published in Uncanny Magazine and Omenana respectively.

I went on a massive Twitter rant about failures of imagination in historical fantasy novels set in medieval Britain and Ireland, so I found this post on ‘Celtic fantasy’ by Liz Bourke to be very welcome and timely.

Likewise this post by Kate Elliott on writing women characters touched on a lot of things that matter to me in storytelling.

Joanne Harris makes some good points about the economics of literary festivals.

This post by Renay is very perceptive on self-rejection, anthology-curation and the difficulties in amplifying the voices of others.

I found the conversation taking place at the #WritingNewZA hashtag on South African literature really interesting.

Tricia Sullivan writes about the pitfalls of being a mother who writes. (I would say that this potentially applies to primary caregivers of any gender, but there are particularly gendered elements of the problems she’s outlining that lead me to think her emphasis on mothers specifically is correct in this instance.)

Here is a Storify of tweets by Aliette de Bodard about the fallacy of devoting your entire life to writing.

I grew up on Sara Douglass’s books, and while they’re far from perfect, she herself was a really important figure in the history of fantasy literature in Australia. Here, Australian fantasy author Fiona McIntosh remembers her.

I’ve found Abigail Nussbaum’s recent Hugo recommendation posts useful. Here’s the short fiction one, and here’s the one on publishing and fan categories.

I want to see this film!

I’m thoroughly enjoying watching Ana discover the Dark Is Rising sequence over at The Book Smugglers.

This is a good summation of what made Parks and Recreation so great, over The Mary Sue.

Finally, have an Old English text about the wonders of books.

The sun is shining and the sky is clear here in Cambridge. It looks like this weekend is going to be excellent for me, and I hope it is the same for you.

Vaulting ambition March 3, 2015

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An alternative title for this post: Why Gymnastics Is Exactly Like An MFA Course (Sort of. Mostly).

Yes, this is another response to that article by (thankfully, former) MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. See also Foz Meadows, Laura Lam and Chuck Wendig for some further context. At first glance, I might seem an odd person to be adding my voice to the mix. I’ve never done an MFA (and don’t plan to), I’m not a writer of fiction and have no intention of ever being one in the future.

However, I was a gymnast for ten years.

You might be forgiven for wondering what the hell that has to do with Ryan Boudinot, creative writing courses or this whole kerfuffle, but allow me to explain. Gymnastics left me with a collection of bizarre anecdotes, excellent time-management skills, very good balance in certain contexts, and messed up feet and ankles. It also provided me with a clear example of something many people – including, it seems, Ryan Boudinot – fail to understand: nobody is born so talented at a skill that they cannot improve with practice and teaching. The myth that innate talent is enough to get someone awards, acclaim and success is profoundly damaging. It gets applied to creative pursuits all the time, but they are skills like any other, and if I extend it to gymnastics, the ridiculousness of the myth becomes apparent.

I started gymnastics when I was seven years old, encouraged by my mother, who had noticed that I seemed to spend every waking moment climbing trees, turning cartwheels and doing handstands against the walls of buildings. My initial classes were an hour a week, squeezed in on Saturday mornings after swimming lessons, and their aim was simply to get the children who attended moving, building up a collection of skills of increasing difficulty. By the time I was seventeen, I was training twelve hours a week, in three four-hour sessions which began with an hour of strength and conditioning, followed by three hours spent practicing the same skills again and again until they were consistently perfect, stringing the skills together into routines and repeating those routines until they could be performed with the illusion of effortlessness. The goal of all this was to perform those routines in annual regional and state-level competitions, and hopefully get good scores and win lots of medals.

I started with what might be considered the baseline requirements to get by as a gymnast: I was small, I was slim, I was able-bodied and physically fit. I was at a disadvantage in that I hadn’t started as a four-year-old, and because I was extremely inflexible. In other words, the potential was there.

But without lessons and training I wouldn’t have got anywhere: I would have been just another child turning cartwheels on the school playground. I got better because I practiced, and I got better because of teaching. Whether it was for one hour a week or twelve, my execution of various skills got better through repetition, and the difficulty of those skills increased over time because I was able to build on the basics I’d learnt to begin with and apply the same principles to more complex skills or combinations of skills. And I was able to improve because my coaches knew what to do to make me better.

I had multiple coaches over the years, but the best ones combined excellent communication (that is, they were able to convey with words what I needed to do with my body to make a routine look effortless) with a good feel for each of their coaching charges’ strengths and weaknesses, ensuring that we didn’t just work on the apparatus we liked or the skills that came easily to us, and creating routines for us that covered up areas of weaknesses and emphasised areas of strength. (For example, my lack of flexibility made certain common elements of floor routines really difficult and inelegant for me, so my coaches substituted them with moves which highlighted my upper-body strength.) And with coaching and practice, I got better every year: stronger, with the ability to do harder skills, and a more intuitive sense of what to do with my body if I wanted it to tumble, flip, twirl or leap in a specific direction. In my first ever competition I leapt up onto the beam, promptly fell off, climbed back on, only to lose my balance and fall off again. By the time I quit, I was learning how to do backflips on that same apparatus. I am profoundly grateful to the series of patient, perceptive coaches whose hard work helped to get me to that point.

I was never going to set the world on fire as a gymnast. I would never compete in the Olympics – the height of my ambition was a handful of apparatus medals at the annual regional competition. But I learnt a really useful lesson at a very early age: with practice and, crucially, proper training and support, I could start as an absolute beginner at something and show constant, steady improvement over a month, a year, or a decade. My point in all this is not to demonstrate that every able-bodied child who starts young enough is born with the talent to become an world champion gymnast. My point is that practice, repetition, and, above all, the support of teachers will lead to improvement in just about any skill. And writing is a skill like any other.

Nobody springs from the womb as a fully-formed, award-winning fiction writer. Writing is a skill that needs to be taught. It is improved by practice, and by working with teachers who can recognise areas of strength and weakness. Bestselling, award-winning novels don’t just fall out of a writer’s brain and onto the keyboard. They are honed and shaped by critique and training. Maybe that training takes the form of an MFA. Maybe it doesn’t – maybe a writing workshop, writers’ group or critique partner is more your style. And maybe you still won’t win awards or sell millions of copies of your novel, but your writing will be better. I’m tired of this almost mystical reverence for creative endeavours, whether music, fiction-writing or visual art. It’s a lazy justification for avoiding collaboration, training or criticism of your work. No, we do not start on equal footing when it comes to writing, even when you take away structural inequalities such as wealth, gender, race, disability and so on. As with any other skill, some people are going to find writing easier, some are going to find it more fun, and some might have a better sense of where the money and/or acclaim lies than others. But the fact remains that anyone who writes is going to get better through a combination of practice and the support of good teaching. I learnt that by doing gymnastics as a child and teenager. It’s a shame Ryan Boudinot didn’t get that same teaching.

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