Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: The Core of the Sun

The Core of the Sun The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one gets a lot of comparison to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," and deservedly so - both are dystopian futures focused on women and gender relations. Sinisalo's tale has its own spicy flavor as part of the Finnish Weird genre, but the similarities to Atwood's tale are strong: women are divided into distinct castes based on their desirability and kept essentially illiterate, and while men are allowed to work and learn, most of the men are not necessarily fulfilled or happy with this arrangement. Sinisalo has been getting a lot of buzz lately in the English-speaking SF world, partly due to this translation and partly due to some good press from the Vandermeers (who are established fans of Weird in all its forms).

The story centers on Vanna, who has lived her whole life pretending to be a gender she isn't. She has the body (or "phenotype") of an eloi - she's a blonde, sexually desirable woman - but unlike the rest of the airheaded, brainwashed eloi, she's a sharp and intelligent woman, and that makes her a morlock. She's spent her whole life in the country with her grandmother (who's old enough to have a special immunity from gender assignment) and her sister (a happy, oblivious eloi). When she moves into the city to go to eloi college - where they study how to keep house and bake - she gets caught up in the illegal chili trade.

And that's where the weird comes in. Chilis have been banned like alcohol and drugs because of their addictive, mind-altering properties. That's also just about where the weird ends. The story reads as familiar to me as a non-Finnish reader. It focuses on the relationship between the sisters and Vanna's struggles as a false eloi and chili addict. Much too much of the story is devoted to basic exposition for this very familiar landscape and still doesn't fully explore little gaps where things would be most interesting. What are the lives of morlocks and minus men like? How permeable are Finland's borders? The third act hints at answers but it's not given quiet enough space in the story to explore them.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this so much. I read the whole thing in one late night with a tiny booklight - something I don't do so often anymore. But there were definitely some flaws - it did feel too familiar, the feminist critique of patriarchal societies felt flat and unsubtle, and the story relied too heavily on flashback and "newspaper-article" insert exposition. I think I would've loved it unreservedly if I hadn't already read "The Handmaid's Tale" and other, more nuanced feminist dys/utopias. But the flashback/article format meant that the relationship between Vanna and Manna, upon which the story rests, doesn't get fully explored or have its full weight until late in the story.

The things "Core of the Sun" does that no other story like it does that I love are 1) critiquing not a patriarchal capitalist society but a socialist one and 2) loving its zany bits. The first is something you don't see in contemporary, revolutionary American literature, and it's interesting to see that whether the government i s capitalist or socialist, what we fear about it is over-regulation and prescription of our lives. I'd love to read this in conjunction with "Herland" or "The Woman at the Edge of Time" or "The Female Man" as part of a course on feminist dys/utopias. The second is mostly rewarding but occasionally a bit of a stumble. There are lots of little tidbits and facts in the books - lots about chilis, some about psychological and evolutionary research, a bit about synesthesia - and clearly Sinisalo enjoyed researching and writing about them. But sometimes they're just not as interesting to me, or they don't weave in to the story in any meaningful way. Vanna's synesthesia is an example of that. I think the writing is beautiful because of it, but having a character comment on it in the last 10% of the book made me think it would matter, and it really doesn't. Still, I learned a heck of a lot about chilis and evolutionary psychology.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, and would highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Review: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley copy of this book (as separate issues) from NetGalley.

Monstress is my favorite currently-running comic. Hands down. The artwork is gorgeously lush and elegantly stylized. The story features kickass action sequences *and* quiet character moments. The pacing is perfect - you get exactly enough information early on to pique your interest and it keeps giving you bits and pieces of backstory at just the right pace to keep you eagerly waiting for more.

I can't wait for this series to be over. Is that weird? It's probably weird - usually you want your favorite series to last forever. But I want to skip to the end because this series has the deep, intricate mythology of a 500-page fantasy novel and I suspect it will best be served as one indulgently delicious dish. And once it's over, I'm pretty sure this will go down as one of the classics of comic canon.

The story has a steampunk vibe and follows a young girl, Maika, who harbors the spirit of a violent being. She, like many in her world, is half human and half *something else.* Her people are being "studied" (read: experimented on) by a group of magical human women, women who control human politics. We see Maika grapple with the monster inside her while she becomes more involved in the war between her people and the human scientist-witches. The book balances her personal journey - vengeance against those who killed her mother and learning to control herself - with the larger story that mixes science, magic, and gods. Think Bioshock meets anime tropes. There are also talking cats.

I can't do this its proper justice. Please, please go read Monstress. It's fantastic.

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Review: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was on my (physical) to-read shelf for over a year before I finally picked it up. I think it's good that I waited - I read Jeff Vandermeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy in that time, and having an idea of how he writes is really essential to understanding his guide to writing. He writes weird (the genre, not the pejorative), dreamlike fiction, and I think this guide is most helpful for writing that particular flavor of speculative fiction. I also like that he focused on his process as opposed to the technical aspects (getting an agent, finding an editor, etc.) but that those aspects also weren't completely absent, as the book generally follows the creation of a story from idea through publication.

There were times I loved this and times I thought it was completely useless.

Most of the former were Vandermeer's descriptions of his publishing experiences and writing process or "guest post" moments where other writers contributed a few words. Reading advice and anecdotes from genre authors about the process of writing and publishing was illuminating, and the book's biggest strength is in Vandermeer's networking abilities. Lots of big names contributed bits and pieces that were substantial and worth reading on their own and complemented or contrasted Vandermeer's perspective.

Most of the latter were the completely horrendous visual aids. Honestly, I get that this is a book by writers for prospective writers and that writers are probably better at the written word than at graphic design, but someone involved with this book should have, at some point, checked to see if the graphics made any sense at all. Visual aids are there to *aid* you by *visually* organizing the information into something interesting and/or easy to digest. A good graphic stands on its own. So many of the graphics were so not good - they were just words thrown on top of a picture. Forget about checking the visual aid before reading to get a sense of how to mentally organize the material you're about to read. They didn't make sense even after reading the corresponding pages, and in some cases they managed to completely obfuscate the point. And on top of that, I wasn't a huge fan of the aesthetic that many of the graphics seemed to push, a kind of scrapbook steampunk. Since this is advertised as an "illustrated guide" I was very, very disappointed in how simply unhelpful the illustrations were.

The writing exercises were fun and interesting (though I'll confess I didn't do the ones that *didn't* seem interesting to me). I was partial to the editing/revising ones but that doesn't surprise me one bit. I'd rather reorganize and restructure book matter than generate it on my own. It was very cool to see exercises tailored to speculative fiction. I did think there would be a bit more on the accompanying website than there actually is, especially in terms of exercises, but ah well.

Overall - I enjoyed the process of reading this, and even sometimes enjoyed how angry the completely nonsensical graphics made me. It inspired me to write more and I think it improved my writing. Definitely a good read (or good gift!) for speculative fiction writers.

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