End-of-the-year books

The best-of-2011 lists are coming out and, as every year, they make me feel sorry for any book published in the last few weeks of the calendar year. They don’t make it onto best-of lists published before the year is over. They’re out after the brightest glow of holiday-season publicity. As a result, they don’t do as well on awards lists.

From Locus: New Books Dec 6, Dec 13, Dec 20. (Post by week received, so not all December books.) Here are some of December’s, listed by Kirkus. Here are some of the fantasy novels out this month, by date.

There’s work there from Emma Bull, Connie Willis, Bruce Sterling, Rob Sawyer, and the BSFA’s own Ian Whates. For non-fiction, there’s Jessica Langer’s Postcolonialism and Science Fiction in the UK (out in Jan 2012 in the US).

Which December books do you think need a higher profile than they might otherwise receive? Which of these do you most hope won’t be overshadowed by being left off of the end-of-year profusion of best-of lists?

Coming up: Lavinia

Next up in reading the Future Classics is a novel set in ancient Latium.

For November, what’s left of it, I’ll be looking at Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin’s retelling of part of the Aeneid from the perspective of a character who, in the original, has no lines. The book was contentious as science fiction at the time: does it even count as part of that genre? Whether or not it does – we’ll reconsider the arguments – it’s certainly a fascinating and admirable book. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Lavinia was published in 2008 (meaning we’ve skipped 2007). In that year, Fidel Castro resigned as president of Cuba, Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, the island of Sark lost its distinction for preserving feudalism, the summer Olympics were held in Beijing, and the Large Hadron Collider was officially opened. Arthur C Clarke died, and Terry Pratchett announced that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The BSFA began its experiment with running Matrix as an online magazine.

I can promise you a discussion of Lavinia before the end of the month. I’ll be posting on it starting a week from today.

P.S. These year recaps paid off at the BristolCon quiz for me, when, thanks to doing them, I knew in which year Pluto lost its planetary status.

Coming up: The Carhullan Army / Daughters of the North

The next book on the Future Classics list we’ll be reading is Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, published in the US as Daughters of the North.

We’re moving steadily towards the present now. The Carhullan Army was published in 2007 and did extremely well for itself. It won the Tiptree Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. It was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (which was won by Richard Morgan’s Black Man). The book was her third novel, the previous one having been shortlisted for the Man Booker award.

2007 was the year that Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. The book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. The Writers Guild of America began the strike which would go on to give us, the following year, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. The Hugo shortlist for best novel included Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, the only work by a female author to be nominated in that category since 2005 or until 2010. Madeleine L’Engle and Ingmar Berman died.The Science Fiction Foundation held its first-ever Science Fiction Criticism Masterclass. It was also, apparently, the Year of the Dolphin.

Tony will be leading discussion of The Carhullan Army / Daughter of the North.

(I leave it up to Niall and Tony whether we’ll be looking at Farthing or The Carhullan Army first.)

Farthing update

Niall’s been swamped, between the Strange Horizon fund-raising drive and travel, so while his posts are Farthing are still forthcoming, I can’t say when.

In the meantime, there’s some news on the subject of the book’s availability in the UK! Regardless of why it may or may not have been unpublished in the UK before now, Jo Walton has now sold world English rights for the book to Tor. The major immediate impact of this is that the audio book version of Farthing is now available in the UK (from Audible or wherever else you choose to buy it from).

The Conflux Cookbook: First Encounter

At yesterday’s BSFA London meeting, Jo Fletcher used as her example of the difficulties of timing in buying books published in America the example of Jo Walton and Australia.  Jo Walton, author of Farthing, our Future Classic of the month, isn’t published in the UK because her agent waited a little too long before offering the rights; by which points, there was no chance at all that the UK edition would be available in time to sell in Australia, and Australia, although a tiny market by American standards, is really quite large by British ones. Without any hope of being able to sell the prospective UK edition in Australia, the plans was scuppered, and those of us now reading Farthing in the UK are reading imported copies.

In contrast (in so many ways), The Conflux Cookbook will almost entirely be sold to Australians, in Australia, at the Conflux convention this weekend. The edition is only 200 copies and is likely to sell out quickly. It’s the last book from the going-out-of-business Eneit Press, done in by the collapse of Borders in the US.

The cookbook commemorates the last five years’ worth of historical recreation banquets held at the country’s national sf convention. (It includes the menu development for this year’s banquet, for which it’s too late to buy tickets, a recreation of a meal in August 1929, aboard the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin) It features illustrations by Kathleen Jennings and an introduction by Garth Nix.

But it’s not just a cookbook. It’s a history of a series of much-loved meals. It’s a study in how to do meticulous recipe testing, and in valuable sources for researching the history of food, menus, and eating habits, it’s an examination of what Australian tastebuds are habituated to, the availability (or lack therefore) of all sorts of ingredients, and it’s a portrait of part of Australian fandom. It made me grateful that my local (Sainsbury) supermarket stocks walnut ketchup.

One aspect which I appreciated was the passing consideration of what kinds of historical periods are likely to appeal to sf convention-goers, the periods which cross both available recipes with something likely to spark the interest of a costume-maker. Costumes, I think, double as good physical reminders of expected behaviour, and many of these feasts came with etiquette guides, encouraging the attendees to behave as closely as possible as did those for whom the recipes were originally written. Give or take language, of course. And lower fat content. And with vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Inspired by the convention’s imminence, I finally made time to start looking at the ARC that Gillian Polack sent me the other week. Her labour of love may lack all the wonderful illustrations promised for the finished version, but I still was sucked right in. It helps that I know her (as, I’m sure, many of you do), and her voice was vivid in its pages. I was up to the third banquet, set in the fictional Hotel Gernsback on the eve of the coining of “scientifiction”, when I remembered that really, I was in the middle of the finishing touches on the overdue issue of Vector and should get back to that. (And I did, and the files are all sent off for layout now!)

I haven’t finished reading the cookbook yet as a result, and I haven’t tried out any of its recipes yet, but I have every intention of doing so.

If for some reason, you are a reader of this blog who was somehow unaware of The Conflux Cookbook and will be attending the Australian national convention this weekend – buy your copy while you’re able to. They’re going to sell out fairly quickly from all accounts. And the only copies in the UK will be, as with Farthing, imports.

P.S. It’s a cookbook with a trailer!

Coming up: Farthing

The next book in our ongoing Future Classics series is Jo Walton’s Farthing.  Niall will be leading discussion, likely starting before the end of September.

Farthing was published two years after Gwyneth Jones’ Life, which means 2005 is the first year of the last decade we have skipped. None of the books published that year made it onto our list of the top-10 science fiction novels by women of the last decade.

2006, however, gave us Farthing, the first of Walton’s Small Change trilogy. It was also the year that Pluto was demoted from being a planet; novels by five male authors were shortlisted for the best novel for the Hugo Award; and Octavia Butler, Stanislaw Lem, Jack Williamson, and Jim Baen died.

Farthing was shortlisted for a slew of awards, including the Nebula, the John W Campbell Memorial Award, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and the Locus award.  It won the Romantic Times 2006 Reviewers’ Choice Award for Science Fiction.

I hope you will be able to join us in reading and discussing Farthing.

Life: Recap

(Isn’t that a fantastic title for a post?)

Over the last few weeks, Nic has posted a series of thought-provoking explorations of Gwyneth Jones’ Life, looking at its relationship with institutions and attitudes towards scientific practice; its self-consciousness as feminist sf, as a commentary on the role of women in a science fictional world; the core of the relationships which define the plot of the book; and the fictional scientific discovery at the heart of the story and how it affects gender.

Life, the seventh book we’ve examined in the Future Classics series here on Torque Control, is our last book from 2004, the end of the first half of the decade this book list covers.  The remaining four books cover the rest of the decade. For planning ahead, those are

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (in late September)
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North (October)
  • Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia (November)
  • Gwyneth Jones, Spirit (December)

My thanks to Nic for joining us for this discussion (and perhaps more in the future?), and to those of you who read along and participated in the discussion. It’s never too late to come back to these posts and do so.

Discussion: Part 1 – Science and Sensibilities; Part 2 – Feminisms; Part 3 – Roles and Relationships; Part 4 – Gender and Conclusion

A recent, related post:

bookgazing asks for insights into what new things cis-gendered women could become “in the middle of a pre-existing world full of pre-conceptions about gender and behaviour?”

Life, #4

Having discussed science, feminism, and character relationships in my earlier posts on Gwyneth Jones’ Life, it seems only natural that I should bring this series to a close with some remarks on how the book deals with gender. In many ways, this is likely to be more recap and summation than a substantially new discussion, because gender pervades all the aspects of the book I’ve looked at so far.

The novel’s central sfnal idea – the discovery that Anna spends her professional life finding and demonstrating – is that there a virus has emerged which affects how genes, and the traits associated with them, are “shuffled” during sexual reproduction (198). Usually, only the parents’ X chromosomes take part in this process; the Y chromosome, which (by and large) only males possess, is too small and unlike its counterparts to do any swapping. Genes on the Y chromosome, therefore, are passed only from father to son, whereas X-linked genes can show up in either male or female offspring. Where the phenomenon that Anna calls Transferred Y deviates from this pattern is that it allows the Y chromosome to get involved in gene-swapping. In the long run, according to experiments and simulations run by Anna – and, later, by other teams around the world – TY looks set to lead to the disappearance of the Y chromosome from the human race.

As far as I understand it (and not being a scientist, I’m not completely sure I do…), there is no suggestion, at least from the scientist characters, that this will lead to the end of biological sex differences within human beings; there will still be biologically-male (and fertile) individuals, but they will, like females, have two X chromosomes. Gender, however, is a rather different matter.

Anna steadfastly refuses to spend much time worrying over the implications of all this, focusing on it as a purely scientific issue – a question to investigate in the lab – and ignoring the warnings of colleagues that she could be playing with fire. It is, after all, already happening (indeed, there are already a number of unknowingly-XX males around, living perfectly ordinary lives but for a higher risk of infertility); she is not the cause of the phenomenon, and she had no intention of interpreting it, either. But science does not happen in a vacuum.

It is only late in the book, when her TY investigations have become a media storm – nothing stirs up public fear and anger like a perceived threat to masculinity – and her marital problems with Spence are coming to the surface, that Anna faces what she has learned. Angry and upset over the revelation that Spence is having an affair with insipid Meret (“the not-too-clever sweet feminine younger one” (326), as Anna puts it), Anna finds the temptation to fall back on gendered ways of thinking and fighting about their relationship horribly alluring. “I have become woman”, she reflects; in the Joanna Russ sense, that is: for all her attempts to escape it, she has finally been confronted with her role in the battle of the sexes:

I can be a matriarch like Rosey, who though she loves Wol truly, never forgets to treat him with contempt. Throws him out when he fails to satisfy, allows him back on sufferance. It is what they expect, it is the way relations between the sexes have to be. You have to keep the whip hand, or else they will turn on you. […]

I was afraid of Transferred Y, and I pretended other reasons, but this is why. I didn’t want to think of what it meant for real people because that means me, that means Spence… all that dirt about sexual relations, that I didn’t ever want to handle. (320-1)

I’m not completely sure how to interpret Anna’s thoughts, here (and would welcome suggestions). After some discussion on this point with Niall, my sense is that, regardless of whether or not TY will affect biological sex – or even most of the visible physical traits linked with it – the cultural narratives surrounding gender, and linking gender with sex, are sufficiently powerful that TY is dynamite. Is this Ramone’s “something new”, that will change relations between human beings beyond recognition?

Above and beyond the fact that previously Y-linked (and thus male-only) genes would presumably begin to turn up in females, simply the idea of the chromosomal difference between men and women being ‘lost’ is something that would – and, in the book, apparently does – be profoundly disturbing for some. This is regardless of the fact that, as far as I can tell, there would still be two main biological sexes (my genetics knowledge doesn’t really stretch to speculating upon how this would affect rates or presentation of intersexuality); males and females would all be XX at a genetic level, but nonetheless there would still be as many differences between any given two individuals, regardless of sex, as there ever were.

Consciously and unconsciously, people have so much invested in narratives of gendered thought and behaviour – and, in particular, in narratives of gender and of the battle of the sexes as they shape family life. Rosey, again:

“I used to think Steven and Joe were aggressive because of the childhood they had before they came to us. But boys will be boys. I was so relieved to have a girl.”

If you put a child in frilly ankle socks at birth, thought Anna, by the time she’s three no one will ever know whether genetic predisposition or nurture made her turn out wet as a haddock’s bathing suit. (285)

The possibilities are not spelled out in the book, so I can’t be sure I’m thinking along the right lines, here, and would love to know if anyone has any other suggestions. In particular, does anyone else get the sense from the book that the ‘loss’ of the Y chromosome could make a measurable difference to men – and/or to women – without an accompanying cultural shift? Are there likely to be physical or chemical implications to TY? Or might something like TY itself be enough to prompt a cultural shift? And what about transsexuality and transgenderism?

Cat Women of the Moon, Part 1 – Bibliography

Cat Women of the Moon, the two-part documentary of science fiction and sex hosted by Sarah Hall, was on BBC Radio 4 just now. (Part 2 will be next Tuesday at 11:30 BST).

Part way through the episode, I realized that this was a prime opportunity for book recommendations, and to consider just what the show has collectively mentioned. Here, then, for your contemplation, are the books mentioned in the program for whatever reason.

The programme is now available on Listen Again.

  • Nicola Griffith, Slow River
  • Nicola GriffithAmmonite
  • Mike Ashley, Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  • Jane Webb Loudon, The Mummy, or A Tale of the Twenty-second Century
  • Joanna Russ, The Female Man
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
  • Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
  • Iain M Banks, The Player of Games
  • China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
  • Isaac Asimov, Robot series
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula (Mentioned in such a way it could be a film reference instead)
  • John Christopher, Death of Grass

Also, in other media, Bladerunner, the titular movie, Cat Women of the Moon,and Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco of the Creation of Man.