From the same work in progress as this, although that has changed in the meantime. I write very slowly, as you can probably tell (and yeah, I fudged the geography a little). Comments are still down because I haven't had time to fix them, but feel free to send me a message on twitter.

She hadn't anticipated the boat. She'd gotten her fake Canadian ID, some bright plastic money in a bunch of different colours, smartphone registered with a Canadian carrier and a Canadian SIM card, even paid extra to have a chequing account set up in her new name at the Bank of Montréal. She had pictured a night crossing in the back of an ancient Toyota, glare from halogen lamps whipping across her face as they drove through the checkpoint. Lying to the border guards or even trying to stay quiet in the trunk if it came to that, legs cramping and having to pee and hoping she didn't get sick from the fumes. She'd resigned herself to choking back the claustrophobia. But the boat, that was something else, a risk she hadn't planned for. Her arm could conceivably survive if she went overboard, it had been built rugged, but most of her luggage was less robust consumer-grade computer equipment and some purpose-built maintenance gear running software she'd written herself, all the backups in the same bag as the mains. The boat was not ideal.

It was dark, anyway. She'd been right about that. She'd paid a guy to introduce her to another guy, not a lot in the way of names, and that other guy had a sixteen-foot Lund rigged out for silent running, which meant awkwardly fitted oars on a riveted steel hull painted bright red. He'd piled her bags in the back and put a life jacket up front for her to sit on while he rowed her across the border not far from International Falls. After that she was on her own, but she spoke both official languages and had a pocketful of money; she would be able to more or less blend once she got to a bigger city, though the arm would be a problem.

The crossing went well, if slow, the width and high sides of the Lund's hull giving the guy problems with the oars. She asked him if the river was patrolled, and he said sometimes, but it was better not to take chances. He had a little outboard if necessary, designed for trolling. It wasn't any faster than rowing; its chief virtue was that it would stop the current from being a factor in where they landed. It didn't make much noise, but he didn't want to risk it if he didn't have to. When they got to the other side he asked if she had a GPS unit or at least a compass, but she said no, she hadn't expected to need one. Her phone had GPS, but for some unfathomable reason it wouldn't engage without a cellular signal. It would be tough walking, he told her, but if she followed the river east she'd be fine. Right, he said. Go right.

It took her hours to walk to Fort Frances, the town on the Canadian side. The bush had been thicker than she'd thought possible; tamarack and spruce grabbed at her bags, the Canadian Shield's blend of muskeg and bedrock beneath her feet like some spongy, leaking waterbed that, perversely, contained shoals. The guy had landed her only a few miles from Fort Frances, but she'd spent nearly her entire life in the messy, engineered glare of cities, and her walk was made longer by the ancient human fears of the forest and the dark. When she finally saw the wilted, yellowing grass of that first backyard, the town spread out flat and dry ahead of her, it was all she could do not to collapse.

She managed to stay on her feet until she got to the Greyhound station, guided by a phone that was suddenly useful again, reunited with the infrastructure the dev who'd coded its GPS functions had taken for granted, infrastructure that, strictly speaking, shouldn't have been necessary. The floor of the bus terminal was done up in vinyl tiles of marbled green that were split and coming unglued in places. The walls had probably started out white but had been stained with dirt and grease and who knew what else. It was still cleaner than she'd expected, and the little café sold poutine and perogies alongside the usual burgers and nachos with runny, fluorescent cheese. It was populated with the same collection of drug dealers, small-time hustlers, and panic-eyed homeless as an American bus station, maybe just not as many of them, and more sad than scary.

Her arm was hidden under unseasonably long sleeves, but Fort Frances was a place where it would stand out regardless. She was desperate for rest, but didn't plan to linger. She studied the schedule on the filthy flatscreen hanging in the corner. Fort Frances was so small a place that the entire schedule for the day was displayed on the one screen, not just upcoming departures. She would make her new home in Toronto, because she wanted to get lost in a major city and the next bus was headed in that direction. Two hours earlier and it would have been Vancouver.

If the woman at the ticket kiosk noticed the arm she didn't say anything, and neither did the man at the lunch counter. Nobody was looking at her, but she relaxed after realizing nobody was making a point of not looking at her, either. She bought deep fried perogies and a bottle of water and sat down to wait for her bus, studying the unfamiliar change. She understood for the first time that Canada really was another country, even if it was similar enough to feel familiar. The pictures on the coins looked strange to her, but a dime was still the size of a dime, a quarter still the size of a quarter. She could do it: she could make a life here.

She wished she'd brought a book.

From A Work In Progress (II)

Mar 26, 2016 9:19 PM

posted in: Writing

I don't know if the geeky things I choose to read online on a regular basis just aren't diverse enough (a strong possibility, given my recent analysis of my 2015 reading list), or if something has happed to cause a number of folks to write about the same or similar issues at more or less the same time, but regardless, people seem to be talking about or around the concept of "hardness" in science fiction. I'm going to throw some links at you, and then we can talk about them. Charlie Stross recently hosted a fascinating discussion on science fiction shibboleths on his blog (along with a similar one about Fantasy shibboleths, which is not relevant to us today, but worth taking a look at in its own right), Charlie Jane Anders put up a great piece about how to integrate character development into your action-oriented story (which is extremely relevant to this issue), and just this morning a post by Fran Wilde went up on that cuts right to the heart of the issue, and was the catalyst for this post.

The first thing we should talk about is "what do we mean by 'hardness' in science fiction?" Each of the authors surveyed in the piece took interesting stabs at answering the question, and I'm going to use the one by Linda Nagata, which I think most accurately sums up what it means in the everyday vernacular of geeks, or at least the geeks I hang out with. So this is what I mean:

[Hard science fiction is] science fiction that extrapolates future technologies while trying to adhere to rules of known or plausible science.

Someone named Random22 also posted a somewhat snarky definition in the comments that, sadly, experience tells me often works just as well.

A good way to define "Hard" SF is to go online and see if someone is using liking it as a way to sneer at people they consider less intelligent than them for not liking it. If they are, then chances are it is hard-SF.

This brings up a bunch of interesting stuff that I want to address later, but keep that in the back of your mind and let it ferment for a while.

Okay, so, when we talk about things like extrapolation and plausibility I hope we all realize that we're working with a sliding scale, and the thing that causes the slide is the reader.

Suppose we want to write about combat between spaceships, which I hear is something the kids are into these days. Now, I am big fan (a big fan) of historical adventure novels, specifically those written by Patrick O'Brian, sometimes called "the Jane Austin of the sea" because he also does sociological depth, satire, and really solid character work. Anyway, Napoleonic navies duking it out is my jam, so if broadsides in high orbit is how you set up your spaceship combat, while there will probably a little voice in that back of my head that says, well actually (because every buzzkill asshole, including me sometimes, likes to deploy that phrase), it wouldn't really work that way, that little shitheel voice will never get loud enough to drown out the boatload of fun I'm having, and there will probably be drinks and high-fives all around if I ever run into you at a bar.

Charlie Stross would take your book and throw it across the room in frustration, and he might scowl at you from across the room or something (I'm just kidding about the scowl; I've never met him, but he actually comes across as a pretty pleasant fellow online). His scale has a lot more friction to it than mine does. A lot of that is background, you know? As far a science and engineering stuff goes I have high-school-level physics and chemistry, was a pretty able biology student, once worked as the research assistant for the former Canada Research Chair in Biocomplexity doing some stuff on complex system theory, was twice the teaching assistant for an environmental responsibility course for mining engineers, used to teach courses on basic computer usage and how to write HTML/CSS (plus am slowly teaching myself Swift), and have training in how to read and draft blueprints. I am, on my best day, an average-citizen generalist. My speciality training is in English literature with a subspecialty in interdisciplinary humanities/policy analysis. (I only know all that other stuff because I have always believed I would be best-served by a well-rounded body of knowledge.) Mr. Stross, on the other hand, has some pretty hardcore computer science credentials (in terms of achievement as much as formal education), plus serious training in pharmacology. The things that bug me are going to be different from the things that bug Mr. Stross. You know how China Miéville does those italicized pseudo stream of consciousness sections? Yeah, they drive me up the goddamn wall. I've got years and years of formal education in techniques like that, having studied a body of literature that literally spans hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years, and I gotta say, he's really fucking bad at it (and I kind of have thoughts on why, but that's a digression). Iron Council made me want to throw the book across the room because to me those sections were showy and gimmicky with none of the obvious deliberateness behind it that you find in Sterne or Joyce or Woolf, or hell, even somebody like Coover. Stuff like that is, for me, what Napoleonic navies in space are for Mr. Stross.

The Science Fiction Shibboleths discussion hosted by Mr. Stross often looks, at first glance, like a list of places where writers have failed in their research, failed in their execution, or even failed in their imagination. But it's not. It's really just a long accounting of different places where the sliding scale can encounter friction. Luckily for everyone, some of the folks in that thread listed bad character work as their biggest shibboleth. (Is that how you measure shibboleths? By size? Whatever, I'm running with it.) That happens to be my biggest shibboleth as well. Let's bring Ms. Anders in to talk about that for a minute.

She's got this great listicle about improving your shorts stories (and, as an aside, can I say how upset I am that my spellcheck accepted "listicle" as a real word?) in which she skewers the concept that there are "plot-based" stories and "character-based" stories. Now, you can have stories where there's lots of plot and very poorly developed characters (I could pick on somebody like Steve Stanton here, but the really famous example is Lord of the Rings), but with a few exceptions for things like allegories and folk tale forms, we usually just call that bad writing.

It's really hard to go the other way, though. Nicholson Baker's novel The Mezzanine might be one of the most amazing things in the history of American letters, and it's essentially a novel about a guy buying shoelaces and riding an escalator on his lunch break. The reason for this is because, as Ms. Anders points out in the more recent piece—and I'm paraphrasing—is that plot is character. (And though that piece is particular to how to add good character stuff to action stories, you can substitute "science" for "action" or anything else your plot is heavy on and it still works.) Plot is stuff that happens. Stuff happens because people do things, even when "doing things" means making a decision or thinking thoughts. People do things because they have desires (and those desires run the gamut, from "I'm thirsty" to "I don't want these aliens to destroy the world"). Stuff doesn't happen without your characters having desires. It just doesn't. Even The Martian, which I think is by common consensus a hard science fiction book, has its entire plot driven by desire. Here's how (kind of spoilery, but I feel like the statute of limitations is up on that one): There are people up on Mars because humanity had a desire to explore and expand our collective knowledge. A consequence of that desire is that a bunch of humans got caught up in a really bad storm. These same humans had a desire to not be killed by the storm, therefore they hauled ass to their spaceship and tried to get off Mars. One human got left behind while they were hauling ass through the storm (an action they undertook because their desire to survive had consequences). The bulk of the rest of the book seems like it's all plot, all process, as Walter Jon Williams would say. But Mark Watney, our human who was left behind, had a desire to continue not dying, and that desire is what drives the process. He solves problems because of that desire. Everything single thing he does during his time alone on Mars is in service to that desire, right down to his decision about when and where to defecate. You might call that a fear rather than a desire, specifically the fear of dying, but fear is just the desire for a negative, the desire to avoid a particular outcome or set of outcomes.

Dan Harmon, creator of Community and co-creator of Rick and Morty has a whole system for putting this together in his stories. He's not the first one to come up with it, I've seen the same thing presented in a bunch of different ways over the years, but I like his and it's available online. Both of Harmon's shows are full of wacky, hilarious bullshit, and both shows have some of the deepest, most sophisticated character work on TV (you should also check out You're the Worst, which has a different flavour but is functionally identical in terms of how this stuff works). Harmon is a problematic figure, but he knows his shit. Here's the breakdown:

  1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
  2. Need (but they want something)
  3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
  4. Search (adapt to it)
  5. Find (find what they wanted)
  6. Take (pay its price)
  7. Return (and go back to where they started)
  8. Change (now capable of change)

Holy shit, you know what I just realized? That's The Martian! Okay, true story, I didn't just realize that. But you get where I'm coming from, right? Plot is character: Harmon's entire story circle, and every rule in Ms. Anders' second (quite good) listicle, every single one, derives from that first one. It's truly the one and only inviolable rule of realist fiction writing (in the J. Hillis Miller sense of "realist").

I'm a fan of a whole bunch of different science fictions. Give me the sociology of le Guin or Leckie. Give me Star Wars and Ex Machina. I fucking loved The Martian; it was big fun, and I want more like it. Give me John Scalzi and Charlie Stross. Give me Phyllis Gotleib and Emily St. John Mandel and Sandra McDonald. William Gibson has been my favourite living author for years, and I've recently come to love the work of M. John Harrison and Simon Ings. I don't really care where your science fiction falls in terms of hard or soft. It's always going to have a point of friction, and I'm cool with that. However: do not leave your characters behind. I've only read one book by Robert J. Sawyer, for instance, and professional interest means I'll probably read others, but Triggers didn't work for me because he had his interesting idea, but his action didn't derive from his characters' desires, so we wound up with sandpaper-on-genitals levels of friction. I did not believe in a tender love story between a woman who was the recent victim of extended abuse and the guy who could almost literally read her mind, whose earlier impressions of her were pretty focused on her "rack." I can believe that people become trapped by cycles of abuse and self-destruction and their desires will not always coincide with their best interests, but you can't make me believe those situations are healthy.

Look here: you know Rob Rinehart, that guy who makes that Soylent meal replacement gunk? Remember that time when he wrote that thing about getting rid of his kitchen? There's a reason he's the subject of a fair amount of ridicule from the population at large, and it's only partly because of the ridiculous name of his product, although the name is a symptom of the same problem. What's revealed both by that blog post and the product name is a complete and utter contempt for the human experience, a rejection as unnecessary and wasteful a set of cultural touchstones and rituals in which many, even most people find deep meaning and community. His rejection of those touchstones and rituals is in favour of the mechanistic, of process. It is analogous to the rejection of character for plot. He's like the living embodiment of thinking that getting the orbital mechanics right matters more than character. And you know what? He comes off as creepy as fuck, and your book probably will too if you treat characters like nothing more than counters to move around your plot.

Here's where we get to that second definition I posted above. Now, normally I'd rather fuck a pile of rocks with a snake in it than approach a topic like this, given the bullshit that's gone down with sad/rabid puppies and those gamer gater assholes when they've thought people were criticizing something they like, but it's time for some real talk.

There is this thing that runs through geek/fan culture—and it comes from our culture at large, but at this moment it seems to have become amplified and reached a kind of crisis point in geek/fan culture—where some members of the group have decided they need to impose a litmus test before they will acknowledge some other members' belonging as legitimate. This is some bullshit, and grows out of a strain of contempt and derision that has been under the surface (and sometimes not so under the surface) of geek/fan culture since probably well before I was born. Fiction outside the SF/F umbrella gets labeled "mundane," women are labeled "fake geek girls," and on and on and on. A number of the authors polled by Ms. Wilde for brought this up as well: "hard" science fiction has very often been used as a bludgeon within the community to try and police whether or not someone belongs. Very often this bludgeon has been wielded against people who didn't believe the "science" was more important than the "fiction," and also specifically against women and people of colour, especially when they believed that certain definitions of "science" (particularly those that include sociology and psychology) are more interesting to them and perhaps more relevant to their lived experiences. As Ellen Klages also notes in the piece, "hard" can also refer to difficulty, as in "difficult to do or understand." She points out that classifying something as difficult creates the perception of value, and we can use that classification to deny other things value, to close science fiction off and make it "members only." Even worse, this can start to feel like an "objective" way to determine who does and doesn't belong and—spoiler!—it is absolutely no such thing. If you're excluding people from having awesome fun just because it isn't exactly the same kind of awesome fun you like to have I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you're a bad person and you should feel bad.

Labels, and the "hard" label in particular because of its association with a very old-fashioned view of science as logical to the point of infallible, can be used to justify setting up artificial and discriminatory barriers to belonging. This, I think, is where all this talk of sliding scales and definitions and stuff about how to write characters all comes together. So: enjoy your hard science fiction, because it can be awesome! But don't be a dick about it.

Sorry kids, comments are still closed due to technical difficulties, but feel free to hit me up on Twitter if you've got comments.

On "Hardness" in Science Fiction

Jan 21, 2016 11:41 PM

posted in: Literary

I hope to get back to reviewing books again in the next couple of months, but as I didn't get much of that done at all in 2015, I thought I'd do another breakdown of my year in reading. This year I did not read to a program as I did in 2014. I decided to just let my spur-of-the-moment impulses guide my reading, and see how things compared to last year.

I read a total of 78 books in 2015, up by 6 from 72. Unfortunately, some of my other statistics, specifically those showing writer diversity, did not improve. In fact, they generally got worse:

51 books/65% by men, up from 30 books/42% in 2014
25 books/32% by women, down from 39 books/54% in 2014
2 books/3% by both men and women, down from 3 books/4% in 2014

4 books/5% by people of colour, down from 7 books/10% in 2014
1 book/1.2% by women of colour, down from 4 books/5% in 2014

17 books/22% were Canadian, up from 14 books/19% in 2014

There were some things I didn't track in 2014 that I did track in 2015:

3 books/4% in translation
4 books/5% were by Canadian women
1 book/1.2% was by both Canadian men and women
1 book/1.2% was self-published
15 books/19% were non-fiction
51 books/65% were genre fiction
12 books/15% were literary fiction

Here are the best books I read in 2015, not counting re-reads, in the order that I read them (interestingly, fewer made the list than in 2014; only 9 this year versus 13 in 2014, and the genre mix is quite different as well):

  • Light, by M. John Harrison
  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
  • Hot Head, by Simon Ings
  • The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
  • After Dark, by Haruki Murakami (trans. by Jay Rubin)
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Confidence: Stories, by Russell Smith
  • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
  • Open City, by Teju Cole

And here are the worst books I read this year, in the order that I read them:

  • The Unincorporated Man, by Dani & Eytan Kollin
  • All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (trans. by Alexander O. Smith & Joseph Reeder)
  • Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast, edited by Colleen Anderson & Steve Vernon

I've noticed a few things about my 2015 reading list that I find a bit interesting. In 2014 I made a conscious decision to read as many books written or edited by women as by men, and indeed I wound up reading more. Unfortunately I found that without making a special effort in 2015 my ratio of books written or edited by men/women returned to roughly the same as in previous years. I also read fewer books by people of colour generally and by women of colour specifically, although both statistics remained higher than in previous years. I did manage to read more Canadian books both in raw numbers and as a percentage than in 2014. What struck me was, that while I didn't track genre explicitly last year, I read more works of non-fiction than I generally do in a give five-year period. Typically I read one, perhaps two volumes a year, and in 2015 I read 15.

My only specific plan for reading in 2016 is to read classics of "cyberpunk" literature (thought I'm starting to see why that label is problematic) and design fiction, and additionally to read more non-fiction books related to urbanism (urban planning, psychogeography, as well as "smart city" technologies and urban computing more generally). I will also have to be more conscious of the gender and ethnic makeup of my reading list.

Last year I also did a short list of honourable mentions, books that I read in 2014 that I wanted to recommend that didn't necessarily make it on my best of the year list. That list was only two books long, but this year it's much longer:

  • Leviathan Wakes, by James SA Corey
  • The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
  • Burning Days, by Glenn Grant
  • Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis
  • Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
  • The Outback Stars, by Sandra McDonald
  • Kill the Messengers, by Mark Bourrie (no relation)
  • Conversations with William Gibson, edited by Patrick A. Smith
  • Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, by W. David Marx
  • Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James

Reading Breakdown for 2015

Jan 20, 2016 3:57 PM

posted in: Literary, Personal

I've been meaning to write about this book for quite a while, but if I had the time to be writing about books I'd still be doing it for money. So: my apologies for the delay, and for how short this is going to be.

Simply stated, The Stone Boatmen was the best thing I read in 2014. There's a blurb on the back of the book by Ursula K. Le Guin comparing it to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, which is pretty accurate. Tolmie's debut novel isn't nearly so slow, and it's far more optimistic in tone, but it shares with Peake's masterpiece a meditative preoccupation with time, with its variable pace and the thrill or stagnation that can accompany that variability.

The Stone Boatmen is about the reconnection of three societies who have lost touch with each other, their collective past, and even the true nature of their own cultures. It's a celebration of the joy of discovery on a civilization-spanning scale. But it's also about people. It's about a ruler and a fisherman discovering a profound friendship that transcends class and tells them as much about their community as it does about themselves. About the intersection of romance and the minutiae of court politics in a city built on words, and about finding your way via the beauty and stillness of the close observation and contemplation of nature.

That's a lot of things to be about, but The Stone Boatmen resists classification. It's a sweeping fantasy about the nature of culture! It's a multi-generational family drama! It's a romance! It's an exploration adventure! It's a metaphor for the European Renaissance! It sounds like there's too much going on to make a coherent narrative, but nothing about The Stone Boatmen ever feels busy or rushed or haphazard and everything connects to a degree that left me astonished. Tolmie shifts easily from the grand to the commonplace, and her prose is by turns lyrical and direct. This post is probably frustratingly vague, but honestly it's difficult to say anything about this book without feeling like you're leaving a dozen equally important, interrelated things out. Just buy the damn thing already.

Speaking of: I have an unfortunate feeling that The Stone Boatmen is not going to get the attention it deserves. The cover is serviceable but hardly striking (though it's very well made object), and Aqueduct Press, while clearly onto something with their publishing program, has no real distribution to speak of. I had to order Tolmie's short story collection, NoFood, direct from Aqueduct's website because my local bookseller was unable to bring it in (and because fuck Amazon).

Finally, a disclosure: Sarah Tolmie (forever Doctor Sarah Tolmie, to me) is a professor at the University of Waterloo, where I got my undergraduate degree, and she was in fact the professor who directed my independent study of AS Byatt's Biographer's Tale.

The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie

Apr 22, 2015 5:55 PM

posted in: Literary

Hey kids. Comments are disabled until I wrap my head around the current comment spam issue I'm having. Could be a while; I'm a touch busy at the moment.

Comments Are Down

Apr 21, 2015 6:28 PM

posted in: Site News

So apparently my only blog post for all of 2014 was a breakdown of my reading statistics for 2013 and a plan for how I was going to improve those statistics (specifically in terms of gender) for 2014. I had planned to write a few reviews—and those reviews will still be written and posted—but when you work between 70 and 90 hours a week thousands of kilometres from home, things like that fall by the wayside. I did, however, actually follow through with the changes to my reading program.

Specifically, I tried to reach gender parity in my reading for 2014 after realizing that I wasn't as close as I thought I was when I looked at what I'd read in 2013. I thought I was pretty close to 50/50 men/women, but it turns out I was more like 63/37, and my numbers on writers of colour were even worse.

So my statistics for 2014 are:

72 books total, up from 65 last year

30 books by men (42%)
39 books by women (54%)
3 books by both men and women (4%)

7 books by people of colour (10%), up from only 2 books last year
4 books by women of colour (5%), up from zero books last year

14 Canadian books (19%), down from 15 books last year

And here are the best books I read this year, in the order that I read them:

  • Against the Smart City, by Adam Greenfield
  • Infidelity, by Stacey May Fowles
  • Stoner, by John Williams
  • Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, by Elijah Wald
  • The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
  • The Children of Men, by P.D. James
  • The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie
  • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  • The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes
  • Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
  • The Inspection House: An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance, by Emily Horne & Tim Maly
  • Hild, by Nicola Griffith
  • Bone & Bread, by Salema Nawaz

I also had the weird experience of reading a book published this year that is not listed on Goodreads (and it's not self-published). It was also so good that it nearly made the above list. It was NoFood, by Sarah Tolmie. A second honourable mention goes to The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

I noticed a few things about my reading for 2014. First, I found myself putting off reading a lot of books that I really wanted to read because they didn't fit into my program. I have a backlog of about 20 books by men that I really wanted to read last year, but that I passed over because my program required me to be reading books written by women instead.

Second, for reasons that likely have to do with internalized prejudices, I find I'm less tolerant of "trash books" written by women. When I say "trash books," I mean books—usually genre fiction, but not necessarily—that are fun to read but otherwise have very little literary merit. Charlie Stross' Laundry books come immediately to mind, or Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate books. I am willing to pick up a "trash book" by a male author and give it a chance without thinking much about it, but I am far more demanding about quality when I pick up a book written by a woman. That's probably not a good thing (though it may go a long way toward explaining why 9 of the 13 books on my "best of" list for 2014 were authored or co-authored by women), and I'll have to be mindful of it future.

For 2015 I will be deliberately switching back to reading without a specific agenda/program, to see if my habits have changed in an internalized way, ie. will I come anywhere close to gender parity without making a deliberate, conscious effort.

Reading Breakdown for 2014

Jan 17, 2015 9:08 AM

posted in: Literary, Personal

I don't generally keep track of my reading on any sort of statistical level. I read what I read for reasons that are as much about the mood I'm in when it comes time to start a new book as anything else (probably more than any other reason, to be honest). This means that my reading choices over the course of a year tend to be not particularly considered.

But this year everything I read got logged into Goodreads, and for the first time in a while I wasn't actually paid to read anything, so I thought I'd take a look at what I read in the absence of any direction (beyond a handful of books that were for my steampunk book club). Here's the breakdown:

I read 65 books in 2013; 39 of them were written or edited* by men, 24 were written or edited by women, and 2 were written or edited by a mix of both men and women. Only 2 were written or edited by people of colour (to the best of my knowledge; I thought the number was higher, but at least one author who I thought was black turned out to be white and it turns out that several books I thought I had read in 2013 were actually from my 2012 list).

In terms of percentages, that's 37% by women, 3% by people of colour, and just because we should cover all the bases for our anxieties, 25% of those books were Canadian. Books written or edited by both men and women were not included at all in those statistics, as I felt they would cancel each other out, so to speak. I thought of looking into how many of the books I read were by queer authors, but that's problematic for any number of reasons. I know that several were, because I know the authors, but I'm not interested in prying into the personal lives of authors to the degree where I would know the details of their sexuality, so I can't give you any statistics.

My favourite books of 2013 (in the order that I read them) were:

  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
  • How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  • Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes
  • The Showrunners, by David Wild
  • Born Weird, by Andrew Kaufman
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  • The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved, by Joey Comeau
  • We Can Build You, by Philip K. Dick
  • Ghosts, by César Aira
  • Food and Trembling, by Jonah Campbell
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs

Anyway, back to statistics. What I learned from my reading list for 2013 is that I need to make more of an effort to diversify. I thought I had read more like 40-45% women authors last year, and closer to 10% authors of colour, but the numbers show that I wasn't as aware of my own habits as I thought.

So this year a minimum of 50% of the books I read will be written or edited by women. I've made no specific targets about books written or edited by people of colour, but I have already acquired more books by people of colour for my 2014 list than I read in 2013, and I plan to look for more. Books written or edited by a team of both men and women will, as in 2013, "cancel each other out," and count toward neither gender's total. Books I began reading in 2013 but did not finish will count towards the 2014 list (assuming I finish reading them in 2014). One additional rule: if, at the end of 2014, I find myself having read an equal number of books by both men and women and only have time to read one or two more books before the end of the year, those will be books written or edited by women.

I've already made good headway. I'm currently on my 9th book of 2014, and have so far read four books by men and four by women. I'm keeping things simple, alternating between books by men and women. Early in 2015 I'll write another post like this to let you folks know how things went.

Happy reading!

*I use the word "edited" throughout this post to refer to the editors of books that are anthologies and other kinds of collections, not to the editors of single-author volumes and so on.

2013 Reading Summary and the Plan for 2014

Jan 30, 2014 1:16 PM

posted in: Literary, News, Personal

Don't you just hate really earnest poetry? I don't mean the seriousness and melodrama of the Victorians, or the obliqueness of the Modernists, or even the loony bullshit of sound poets (well, okay, maybe I mean the loony bullshit of sound poets): I'm talking about the work of late-comers, the kind of folks whose work doesn't show any sense of self-awareness, of irony, of humour, or wit. I hate that kind of poetry.

So of course when I sit down to write a poem, that's pretty much all that comes out. Even worse: most of the time my poetry winds up being about women I've loved, or almost loved, or who loved me, or might have loved me, whether I want it to be or not. I make a conscious choice to write about, say, a tree, and by the end I'm writing about how ACYL broke my heart. Some of my fiction winds up that way too, but there mostly I know how to excise that nonsense and get on with the job at hand. In verse? Not a chance. It's not that these are inherently bad subjects to write about, it's just that Jesus Christ, man, get a fucking grip already.

I'm also fascinated by structure, so I write a lot of sonnets (well, a lot in terms of a percentage of the poetry I write; I don't write a lot of poetry anymore) and so on. I've even developed my own version based on the Sapphic stanza, because I am in love with Anne Carson's book If Not, Winter. And yet my sonnets don't develop ideas smoothly, if they develop them at all, my haiku don't crystallize, and my imagery doesn't cohere.

It's especially frustrating because years at university taught me how to write, and write well, about poetry, at least in an academic context. (I'm a fiction specialist because I like it more, but I actually wrote more about poetry while a student, mostly because you could say more about fewer words.) So I know, on an intellectual level, what elements tend to go in poems that I really like. I know how ideas are supposed to develop in specific structures. I know about different forms and line, and how spacing and emphasis and feet and so on affect readings. And then I sit down and write juvenile nonsense that is full of clichés.

I also struggle with trying to separate feelings I've had and want to express from the events they are entangled with. That, at least, is a problem I know that better writers than me struggle with, because I've read enough to know that what may resonate for me as a huge betrayal or a huge moment of triumph might just be trite or pointless or dull to you. And that's okay, because we're talking about stuff that's experiential. But as I see it, my job when I write fiction or poetry (as opposed to criticism or blog posts) is not, absolutely not, to validate or legitimize my feelings and experiences to an audience. I mean, on the one hand, fuck those guys, I don't need them to validate anything. And on the other hand, who the hell am I? No audience has any obligation to care about my feelings or experiences. No, my job is to try my best to bridge the gap between what I understand and feel into something they understand and feel. And hopefully there will be some overlap, and we'll understand and feel some of the same things, and that will be awesome. But getting them to understand and feel anything is a victory, really. But because I have a really hard time separating my experiences, feelings, and understanding—because those are different things, even though they have complex relationships with each other—then I can't really untangle them when I try to bridge that gap. So if I'm trying to get across the feeling of betrayal, I really only have the mechanics of a certain kind of experience to rely on, because to me, the feeling and the experience are one and the same.

So here is a terrible poem. I wrote it today, and there are a lot of things I hate about it. It falls into some (but thankfully not all) of the traps I've mentioned above, but because I wrote it, I think there's something in there that needs to get out, and not just onto a page where only I can read it.

Sonnet for a Complicated Friendship

Fortune authorized me to seek you out.
"Go forth," it said, or words to that effect.
I joined OKCupid and set about
Meeting people, being less circumspect.

But of course I didn't find you there. Fate
Has never made us lovers; our doom lies
Elsewhere, in other arms, with other hates
Germinating behind some other eyes.

We met at a company party. Your
Almost-drunk chatter about anal sex
May have been defensive, may have been for
Fun, but all I saw was the reflex,

A vulnerability too long borne.
You saw, too, where I was broken and worn.

I Write Terrible Poems

Apr 14, 2013 12:59 PM

posted in: Literary, Writing

It's been a long time since I've updated. Some things have happened that have kept this blog a low priority: I did some freelance work, switched jobs a couple of times, and have gone through some personal issues.

I've taken on a new job in northern Saskatchewan, where I will potentially be without regular Internet access three weeks out of every month, for non-business related things, anyway. The job is set to last about two years, so will be quiet for most of that time. I'm going to try and update once a month or so, mostly with quick personal notes or nature photos and stuff (there will be lots of nature to photograph), just to let everyone know I'm alive and still reading, but the silence that has become usual around these parts is probably going to continue.

The job is a good opportunity, for a whole bunch of reasons, but some things will have to go by the board to make it work. This is one of them. I'm not shutting down, but expect an extended hiatus.

A Bit of News

Jan 04, 2013 11:17 AM

posted in: Personal, Site News

"Friday Reads," if you're not familiar with the phrase, is a phenomenon on Twitter where folks use the #FridayReads hashtag to talk about, and usually recommend, the books they happen to be reading (you know, on Friday). It doesn't sound like much, but it's kind of fun and cute and whatever, the way Twitter hashtags are. I'm making this one a blog post because I found myself, only 136 pages into this book, wanting to post a really long string of tweets about it.

You know how every Philip K. Dick book blows your mind? If you watch some of the filmed version of his work, like Minority Report or that trippy rotoscoped take on A Scanner Darkly you would be forgiven for imagining Dick's work as pulpy and unrefined, accompanied by the slightly paranoid low-rent philosophy that comes with its own sour-smelling cloud of smoke and a really bad case of the munchies. And there really is that element to it. But Dick is also probably the most phenomenologically sophisticated writer since Proust (no, really), and the fact that he wrote slapdash pulp like Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and straight up crunchy, acid-trip weirdness like VALIS in addition to triumphs like The Man in the High Castle does nothing to change that. There is a moment in every Dick novel—every last one—where it backs your brain into a corner and says "I'm just going to stand here while you freak the fuck out. Don't worry, it's a perfectly normal response. Let me know when you're finished and then we can talk about it." If you walk away from a Dick novel without having had that experience, I'm pretty sure you did something wrong, or your copy is broken or whatever, because that's sort of the whole point of them.

Anyway, I'm not even 150 pages into Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife and I've already had that experience a couple times. It's that kind of book. I'm not even sure what it's about yet, to be honest. There's a lot of satire, and a lot more humour in it than Dick could ever manage (not that I blame him, given that he was pretty much the platonic ideal of the divinely inspired genius who also happens to be a complete nutjob). There are excellent takedowns of mass media and corporate boosterism for their very own hoi polloi (by which I mean Hotel and Restaurant Management Olympics for dishwashers like Woo-jin from the opening chapter, not the sitcom-grade retreats for misunderstood actuarials who have a two-car in the 'burbs and a Xanax habit). There are some genuinely interesting ideas about urban design, biotech and bioethics, and some next-level weirdness that masquerades as the supernatural but that I'm pretty sure is actually an application of a pretty hardcore principal of particle physics and how it shapes reality and what that means for the limits of our perception. I'm seriously not even halfway through the book, and that's all in there, and it's all blowing my grey matter out the back of my skull.

It also reminds me of Andrew Kaufmans' Waterproof Bible, only without the gentle optimism, or any of William Gibson's pre-Pattern Recognition novels, without the rigid application of realism (by which I mean the rules of Gibson's reality are pretty clear, and he doesn't break them; I'm not sure either could be said about Boudinot).

So yeah, my #FridayReads is Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot.

Friday Reads: Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot

Jul 13, 2012 9:46 AM

posted in: Literary