Tag Archives: science fiction

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

blog-ursula-le-guin-omelasWelcome to the first installment in the Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read, in which I geek out about her work and invite you to join me! We’re starting with her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, because (a) it’s so well-known, and (b) it’s short, so it makes a good read-along.

The story was first published in 1973. To put that in context, her first novel was published in 1966. Here are the dates for some of Le Guin’s best-known novels:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea #1) — 1968
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1969
  • The Lathe of Heaven (standalone) — 1971
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea #2) — 1971
  • The Farthest Shore (Earthsea #3) — 1972
  • The Dispossessed (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1974

So by the time she published “Omelas”, she was already at the top of her game as a professional science fiction writer. And it shows…

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The story starts off like any other fantasy story — describing the city of Omelas and its people in grand, sweeping terms. Sounds pretty typical. But a few paragraphs in, we get this:

Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

Whoa…suddenly we’re in a meta-story. The narrator is making comments on the story, in first person, while telling it. This isn’t a normal story at all–in fact, there aren’t even any characters (except one, whom we’ll get to later). It’s a thought experiment that actually works.

Having said that, there’s also some beautiful, lyrical writing. From the same paragraph:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit … of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.

…and then she goes on to show, through the rest of the story, how happiness can be complicated, even poisoned. Do the people of Omelas have true happiness? …I don’t know, what do you think?

She goes on in this vein for a while, speculating about what Omelas does and does not have (cars? probably not. orgies? sure, let’s give them orgies. Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything just then…). The point is to illustrate that Omelas isn’t an inane utopia, it’s complex enough to be believable.

And then we get to the real meat of the story: the child hidden in the closet, who must be unhappy so that everyone else in Omelas can thrive.

I knew this about the story going in, so I was surprised how effective it still was for me as I read it. Le Guin describes the child’s circumstances in unflinching, brutal detail after detail. The pure happiness described earlier begins to sound horrifically callous.

Then the narrator explains how the people of Omelas justify the suffering to themselves, once they learn of it around the age of puberty: the child is too far gone to benefit from kindness, they can do nothing to change its circumstances anyway, and all the good in Omelas depends on this one child’s misery. It all sounds fairly reasonable to most of the people in the city, since they go along with it.

…except for the few who refuse to participate, and just opt out by leaving the city. They don’t come back and start a revolution to rescue the child, they don’t take their loved ones with them; they just make a decision, one at a time, to leave.

The question is left hanging: would you accept this deal? To have a prosperous society, everyone in it happy and content, at that price? But…no matter how awful the price, would you really be able to walk away?

There are any number of parallels one could draw. It’s tempting to ask: What is this an allegory of? What is Le Guin really writing about? We could come up with any number of answers, based on contemporary issues or issues that were big at the time when she was writing.

My copy (the ebook edition) includes an afterword by Le Guin herself, who talks about her influences, and then writes:

In talking about the “meaning” of a story, we need to be careful not to diminish it, impoverish it. A story can say different things to different people. It may have no definitive reading.

And a reader may find a meaning in it that the writer never intended, never imagined, yet recognizes at once as valid.

What do you think? How should we read the story? What does it “mean”?

As I mentioned earlier, I knew the basic premise of the story ahead of time, but I was amazed and delighted by the mastery of craft woven around it. The story’s not just a fable or a philosophical question; she has fun with it too, and knows exactly when to throw in meta-commentary or immerse us in the moment, when to draw on our emotions and when to make us think. And I was blown away by the ending. That’s quite a feat for a story with only one character (and no character arc…unless you count the society as a whole, or the reader’s reaction? What do you think?).

Over to you! Did the story work for you? How effective is it in what it sets out to do? If you’re familiar with Le Guin’s work, is “Omelas” a good representation of her writing?

Next up: We’re going back to the beginning! I’m aiming to read the Hainish Cycle (both novels and short stories) straight through in publication order, with maybe some unrelated short stories thrown in for variety. Here’s what’s lined up for the next couple of posts:

 

  • “Semley’s Necklace” (short story; also published as “The Dowry of the Angyar”)
  • Rocannon’s World (novel; note that it starts with a prologue, which is actually “Semley’s Necklace”)
  • [short story, TBD]
  • Planet of Exile (novel)

…and then we will see! Hope to see you back here to join the (re)read on May 7.

 

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Announcing: The SF&F Genre Classics (Re)read

Heya, blog readers! Just a quick post today, to tell you about a new blog series I have planned…

As an author trying to keep informed about the market, and a reader excited about new books, I tend to read a lot of recent-ish publications. For example, in 2017, all but 4 of the books I read were published sometime in the last 15 years.

But every once in a while, I like to go back and read a classic — either something I read long ago, or a work I never got around to reading. This often means science fiction and fantasy classics. I also read classics that aren’t part of these genres, but for the purposes of this blog series, I’m focusing on SF&F.

As a former English major, I firmly believe that it’s important to go back and revisit the classics — to understand where one’s genre came from, to trace its development, to understand the basis for the conversation that is happening among the works in the genre. (I didn’t come up with the idea that a genre is a conversation, but I can’t find the correct attribution. If you know it, please chime in.)

Reading something old can be a little disorienting — it might feel trite until you realize that, no, actually, this book was the first to present the idea, or to put two things together this way. All those other books you’ve already read on the same topic? They were riffing off this one — expanding its central idea, complicating it, interrogating it. Here is where it came from. (For example, YA dystopians look a little less fresh if you’ve already read ’80s author William Sleator, and of course Bradbury, Atwood, Orwell, and Huxley.)

I plan to focus on authors who are dead, but I may also dip into very well-known, older works by living authors — works that have attained the status of classics.

To recap: this will be an occasional blog series in which I read (or reread) an SF or fantasy classic and then talk about it here. One work per post. Books, short stories, even films…I’d love for you to join me.

First on my list are works by Le Guin, Tolkien, and Octavia Butler. If there are any other authors you’d love to talk about, drop them in the comments below!

If you liked this post, you might enjoy: Strong Girl Characters: YA and MG Classics

 

My Top 5 Books of 2017

First, a quick note to say that my short story The House Robot is now up at Turtleduck Press!

blog-Kindred-coverAnd now, on to the main affair…my favourite reads of 2017. (I know, it’s already February 2018. Shhhh.)

Standard disclaimer: I’m often discovering older books for the first time, so when I do these yearly posts, I don’t limit myself to books published in that year. That means this is an eclectic mix of older titles. But hey, there’s no reason they shouldn’t still be celebrated!

Runners-Up

Octavia Butler, Kindred. A nuanced exploration of the Black experience of slavery — subtle where it needed to be, but pulling no punches — through a time travel story. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and utterly brutal.

Georgette Heyer, Cousin Kate. I know many romance readers love Heyer, but she’s new to me, probably because I’m not much of a romance reader (I prefer grand adventures with a side of romance, not the other way around). I am told that this one is atypical Heyer, being a Gothic, but I seriously enjoyed it — it hit all the same reader buttons for me as my top book of the year (more about that below).

blog-Safety Protocols-martinez-coverAngel Martinez, Safety Protocols for Human Holidays. Another romance! *gasp* This one is a novella, short and sweet, but it makes the list because it’s absolutely adorable and hilarious, and was just exactly the sort of comfort read I needed. It’s science fiction, set on a multicultural spaceship. The aliens’ attempts to figure out the inner workings of human culture and psychology were so perfect, and they balanced beautifully with the romance arc.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races. Okay, Stiefvater is not exactly an unknown fantasy writer, but again, she’s new to me. Really loved the writing style. She clearly knows horses, and she did a beautiful job of capturing both the normal horse-and-rider relationship and the fantasy angle of the dangerous but alluring water horses. Plus the sea. I was a sucker for Marguerite Henry’s books growing up (like Misty of Chincoteague) so this was a shoo-in.

The Winner

blog-To Say Nothing of the Dog-coverMy favourite book of the year was To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Ironic, because it was a gift and I wouldn’t have picked it out for myself. I had previously read Passage by the same author, and enjoyed it but found it overly slow for my taste. But since I had this book already, I decided to give Willis another shot.

And boy, was I glad I did! To Say Nothing of the Dog is a riff on Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (which I haven’t read). It’s brilliant comedy writing (screwball, maybe? Madcap? Something like that). It’s also a time travel story in which, unusually, the time travel mechanism itself plays a central role and creates the main mystery of the book. Did I mention part of it takes place in WWII, which is definitely not treated like comedy, and yet everything hangs together? And it’s all very British-Edwardian-upper-class – even though Willis herself is American, she nails it. And, of course, the titular dog is adorable.

Honorable Mentions

blog-Ancillary Justice-coverTwo books that I found really intriguing but didn’t like quite as much as I wanted to: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. The first was a bit too dense for me to follow, and the second a bit too thin on plot for my taste (to be fair, it was a novella — not my favourite length — and I knew that going in).

I am planning to continue on with both series, if that tells you anything.

Common Themes

Every year I like to look back and identify the common themes in my reading — what did I love about these books that I identified as my favourites?

  • This year they actually fall into two categories — excellent but heartbreaking (Kindred and The Scorpio Races) and warm, fuzzy, and/or funny (all the rest).
  • Strong character relationships were at the centre of each — sometimes a dangerous dance, other times crackling dialogue.
  • Strong sense of place — I love stories where the location is so vivid it becomes a character.
  • Intimate stakes — some years I love big epic stories, but most of these are about the fate of one person, or one tiny community, or a family or found-family…but no less tense for all that.
  • Diversity — from the Black central characters of Butler and Martinez, to the asexual protagonist in Every Heart a Doorway, to the gender-in-storytelling experiment of Ancillary Justice, my reading is getting more diverse. This is not an accident, as I’m seeking out more diversity in the books I pick up, but I’m pleased to see that many of those are also turning out to be my favourites.
  • All of the authors are women — this is certainly not true every year, but in 2017 my reading was more heavily weighted towards women than usual.

 

And there you have it! Have you read any of these? What were your favourite books last year?

 

If you enjoyed this post, check out my previous reading recaps: 2017 reading stats | 2016 reading recap | 2015 reading recap | 2014 reading recap | 2013 reading recap | 2012 reading recap

 

 

How to Write Good Flash Fiction & Announcing “When the World Stopped”

Quick post this week to share two pieces of exciting news.

First, I have another flash fiction story out–my first pro sale! It’s magical realism, titled “When the World Stopped”, and you can read it for free at the Daily Science Fiction e-zine. (Flash fiction is defined as a really short story. This one is a little under 600 words, plus the bonus “making of” blurb at the end.)

Second, if you want to polish your own flash fiction writing skills (or are just curious about what goes into making a really short story effective), you’re in luck! Last weekend I was a guest at an online seminar on writing flash fiction, a roundtable hosted on Facebook by the website Queer Sci Fi. Read the results here: How to Write Good Flash Fiction.

Now I have no more pending publication announcements, so I need to get busy and write some more shorts…

Reading Recap: 2017

blog-Kindred-coverHere I am to return this blog to its non-marketing roots! My most popular posts are the ones where I geek out about books and movies, with occasional appearances by travel posts. Luckily for you, that’s exactly what I have planned. To kick things off, here’s Part 1 of my annual reading recap (read my 2016 reading recap).

I read 21 books last year, one more than the previous year. That’s a little lower than past years, but it seems to be my new normal.

Genre breakdown is as follows:

  • 6 adult fantasy (same as the last 3 years!)
  • 4 adult SF (same as last year)
  • 3 unclassifiable/other adult speculative fiction* (2 last year)
  • 2 YA fantasy (same as last year)
  • 1 YA SF (same as last year)
  • 2 non-SFF adult fiction (same as last year)
  • 2 non-fiction (1 last year)
  • 1 anthology (same as last year)

Ever Touched final cover 3-30-17* This includes genre mashups like Justin Cronin’s The Twelve (near-future vampire apocalypse) and Erin Zarro’s Ever Touched (futuristic world with fey), as well as stories where something inexplicable happens but it’s not clearly treated as either SF or fantasy, like Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I usually put magic realism and other literary stories into this category as well.

13 of the books were parts of series – about three-quarters of my genre reading. In last year’s post, I declared my intention to focus on series I was already in the middle of. That had middling success – I started 7 new series. (Some of them I won’t be continuing.) I didn’t actually finish any series, but I read 4 middle books of series with defined ends (trilogies or tetralogies). So 2018 will be the year of finishing. …And starting more new series, because who am I kidding?

Author Breakdown

14 of 20 books were by women (the 21st was an anthology), a slightly higher ratio than my reading in most years. I attribute that to the political climate.

blog-Profession-of-Hope-Butler4 of the authors were people of colour, one more than last year – Tobias Buckell (Crystal Rain), Jenna Butler (A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and Octavia Butler (Kindred).

Only 2 of the books were by fellow Canadians. That wasn’t a metric I was particularly paying attention to this past year.

6 of the books had strong LGBTQIA+ representation – my new metric to track.

11 of the authors were new to me, same as last year. I love discovering new favourites, but it does explain why I’m not getting through the backlists of authors I already know and love! This year will require more Lois McMaster Bujold, Naomi Novik, and Elizabeth Bear.

Publishing Years and Formats

Of the 21 books I read, only 7 were published in the last 5 years (and 17 were published in the last 15 years). That’s slightly better than last year (5 and 11 respectively), but still not good for a writer like me, who needs to keep up with the market. I’m pretty good at hearing about new books, but not so good at reading them in a timely fashion!

blog-Twelve-Cronin15/21 were ebooks, or 71% – the highest ratio of ebooks to paper books ever (I’ve had a Kobo ereader since 2012).

This is for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest is that a lot of books in my genre are no longer coming out in mass market paperback size, and I find the larger sizes uncomfortable to hold, especially since I do a lot of my reading on public transit, when I may be standing up. I have started buying the occasional trade paperback (mainly in an effort to support my local indie SFF bookstore, Bakka-Phoenix Books), but only the lighter ones – anything that’s bigger or heavier gets bought as an ebook. I’m looking at you, Cixin Liu’s and Justin Cronin’s publishers!

 

If you can’t get enough of book stats geekery, check out 2017 Books in Review by my City of Hope and Ruin co-author (and fellow Turtleduck Press author), Kit Campbell. And stay tuned for Part 2, wherein I discuss my favourite reads from 2017…

 

Chappie: Gender Influences At Play

blog-Chappie-Movie-PosterThis weekend I saw two films about the performance of masculinity, coming-of-age stories about struggling with machismo, as well as surrogate fatherhood and flawed role models.

One was the critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning Moonlight.

The other was the critically panned Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s answer to Robocop.

I don’t feel qualified to talk about Moonlight (though there’s a great discussion here: “Masculinity and ‘Moonlight’: Eight black men dissect Barry Jenkins’ momentous film”), and besides, this blog is mostly about science fiction and fantasy. So I’ll just say that the accidental juxtaposition of the two films gave me a different lens for Chappie, and one that I think improved the viewing.

In Chappie, an escaped police robot is taught how to behave, how to think, how to be by two very different influences: the cultured but amoral engineer Deon and the countercultural trio Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. (I’d call them punks, but the Internet tells me they’re “Zefs”, the South African equivalent.)

A good chunk of the film revolves around Chappie’s education: Deon brings him paints and books, going for a well-rounded education of the mind, while Ninja teaches him how to swagger, swear, and shoot (and Yolandi provides an unconventional yet feminine, nurturing touch). Chappie veers into feminine pastimes and Ninja tries to “man him up”. Simplistic and played for laughs? Yes, but also poignant, as Chappie tries to navigate these competing influences, please everyone who matters to him, and understand what makes a man.

Deon’s rival at work, Vincent, is yet another representation of masculinity: an ex-soldier full of repressed rage, trying to get approval for his military-grade killer robot, whose ambitions are being held down by his female boss (the fabulous Sigourney Weaver–capable but sadly underused in the role). Deon, slim, bespectacled, and feminized or perhaps asexualized, is everything that Vincent hates.

Chappie’s level of success at integrating these influences determines the outcome of the film…but I won’t spoil it.

If you’re looking for an accurate and nuanced depiction of AI learning, you won’t find it here, but as a more metaphorical exploration of what it means to be a man, Chappie is worth seeing.

 

 

In Defense of Sense8

Apparently I’ve never blogged about Sense8, the Netflix show whose cancellation is making waves in the news this week. Time to correct that…

sense8-trailer-pic

The show first came to my attention because it was created (and written and directed) by the Wachowskis of Matrix fame and J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5. Then I learned about the hyper-diverse cast and concept, and I was sold. It features eight people from all around the world who are telepathically connected. They’re also being hunted by shadowy figures, but the focus is really on their connection, and it’s a joy to watch.

What does a Detroit cop have in common with an Icelandic DJ living in London, or a trans hacker in San Francisco, or a Nairobi bus driver, or a closeted gay Mexican actor, or a Mumbai pharmacist, or a kickboxing business heiress in Seoul, or the son of a mob family in Berlin? Perhaps not much…and yet…

It’s really neat to see all these people who don’t usually get stories, especially not science fiction stories. I know people who identify with one or more of the characters so strongly, and are devastated by the cancellation, because they never get to see themselves onscreen in the genre they love. Of the eight characters in the ensemble, only two are straight white men. The show is L, G, B, T, and Q-positive; it’s even poly-positive. It treats its diverse cast and their homes, families, and cultures with respect.

Granted, the depiction of the San Francisco queer scene is better fleshed out and relies less on obvious tropes than some of the other settings. (Our man in Nairobi is caring for his mother, who has AIDS; there’s a Bollywood-esque dance sequence in Mumbai.) But the tropes are gradually explored and deepened. It’s a start, and better than a start.

You do have to be patient: as noted above, the story is more interested in exploring the slow development of interpersonal connections than in plot or explanations. But there’s plenty of action and excitement as season 1 draws to a close and in the Christmas special. (I haven’t seen season 2 yet.)

And…it’s going away.

There are petitions. Netflix has a “request new material” feature where you can put in “Sense8 season 3”. If you haven’t seen it yet and are interested, now’s the time to watch it so Netflix can see the viewership soar.

Fan mobilization worked to save Star Trek (the original series). Maybe it can work here too.

In author news, I have two things to share!

First, my short story “The Data Carrier” is now posted at Turtleduck Press.

renewal-book-selectionSecond, my flash fiction piece “Urban Renewal” has been accepted to an upcoming anthology published by Queer Sci Fi. The anthology also includes a contest — three winners, judges’ choices, runners-up, and honorable mentions — and the results aren’t out yet, so keep your fingers crossed!