May 2015 #2

Madrigals and Manuscripts is a pretty good sampler of Renaissance music. I find the sharp stylistic division between religious and secular music in the period fascinating. Comparing it to the similar one today between what is played on the radio and art music is interesting (is it perhaps film music that bridges that gap?).

Every little penny in the wishing well
Every little nickel on the drum
All them shiny little heads and tails
Where do you think they come from?
They come from way down Hadestown
Way down under the ground

Way Down Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell (from Hadestown, 2010)
(a folk opera reimagining of Orpheus and Eurydice)

From Hadestown, Why We Build The Wall was my favourite structurally. On the Orpheus and Eurydice note, this story was an interesting/novel take on it.

“Not very like,” said Halla, admiring her long toes, which were decorated with gold and emerald toe-rings, but which were not quite long enough, nor nearly sharp enough for claws. “Perhaps I shall be more like you when I am older. I think I can feel my wings growing,” she added, looking backwards over her shoulder and scratching her back.

Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (first two chapters) is something I wish I had known before I read The Hobbit. It is quite a gorgeous story, and its take on dragons reflects in interesting ways on Tolkien and on Le Guin.

I’m just going to leave this here: “Pennsylvania Learners Being Ripped Off By Not Knowing This One Weird Kernel Trick“.

Our desires shall be from repressions free—
As it’s only right to treat them.
To your ego’s whims I will sing sweet hymns,
And ad libido repeat them.

The Passionate Freudian to His Love, Dorothy Parker

Catherynne M. Valente’s A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica and Kali Wallace’s The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars bounce off each other quite nicely. Both are set primarily in the Antarctic, and both involve explorers setting off in defiance of accepted science and the legacy they leave their children, but have substantially different emotional resonances.

What I found when I finally stood there, hands on bent knees, peering down into that tidal pool, was a rare species of colossal starfish, six-armed, larger than a saucepan, that bled a dark gold colour into the still water as if it were on fire.

But the longer I stared at it, the less comprehensible the creature became. The more it became something alien to me, the more I had a sense that I knew nothing at all—about nature, about ecosystems. There was something about my mood and its dark glow that eclipsed sense, that made me see this creature, which had indeed been assigned a place in the taxonomy—catalogued, studied, and described—irreducible down to any of that. And if I kept looking, I knew that ultimately I would have to admit I knew less than nothing about myself as well, whether that was a lie or the truth.

When I finally wrenched my gaze from the starfish and stood again, I could not tell where the sky met the sea, whether I faced the water or the shore. I was completely adrift, and dislocated, and all I had to navigate by in that moment was the glowing beacon below me.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a work that I would compare to Lovecraft, to Philip K. Dick, and to that moment when you realise that you have studied something in so much detail, in so much depth, that it has become meaningless. In this novel, speech is not communication: it is manipulation, obfuscation, a concealing of reality in favour of one’s preferred world. There are no names, or at least none that matter. There are no confidants; there is little trust, or knowledge, or sympathy, or meaning that is not cumulative. Even the novel’s writing style has its full effect only in sum. I was disorientated very quickly in what seems like a simple world: of pine forests, marshes, a beach, a lighthouse. A tower. Light.

I very much enjoyed reading these Complex Analysis notes. They assume high school maths and very little more.

Another story: Walkdog (Sofia Samatar) on high school and escape and loss (from Kaleidoscope; the very excellent The Truth About Owls (Amal El-Mohtar) was also originally published in that anthology).

To the extent that risk is experienced as omnipresent, there are only three possible reactions: denial, apathy or transformation. […] The expectation of the unexpected requires that the self-evident is no longer taken as self-evident. The shock of danger is a call for a new beginning.

Living in the world risk society, Ulrich Beck (Hobhouse Memorial Public Lecture)

Seanan McGuire’s new comic The Best Thing, carefully reflecting on the magical girls genre, looks like a very thoughtful and interesting piece. The first issue is available for free at that link (the others are available with a subscription to Thrillbent).

It’s easiest to blame external forces for why things didn’t happen. […] It’s equally easy to blame the inside. […] One of these problems comes from an excess of ego, the other from an unstable one. Neither are particularly healthy. At the same time, I don’t think that meditation or other methods that are supposed to help get ego out of the way will help with these things.

There Is No I In Ego“, Silveradept

May 2015

First up today, on permutations: Jonathan Bastile has created an online (semi-)Library of Babel (the books are much shorter than those described by Jorge Luis Borges, for the straightforward reason that generating all permutations of the lowercase letters, space, full stop and comma of some length gives one a rather large result rather quickly). Related is the quite cute Permuda Triangle twitter account.

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

Machines, Michael Donaghy (in Shibboleth, 1988)

Speaking of communication, Siderea’s post on the cost of it is very interesting (and has been heavily linked to by her in an explanation of why the cost of the healthcare system in the US has risen so uncontrollably).

So maths is a thing. Some interesting work: combinatorics/graph theory (Zarankiewicz Numbers) and algebraic-combinatorics-y stuff (matroids). In computer science, the Matasano Crypto Challenges and the Eudyptula Challenge (on the Linux kernel) both look like a great way to learn about their respective topics. (They assume no knowledge beyond some programming ability (in C for Eudyptula).) On Haskell specifically, this guide to what looks to be a large part of the language looks useful, while Write You A Haskell (though it hasn’t been updated since February) seems fun (is meant to guide you through “building a simple functional programming language from first principles”, to quote the site). The same author also has a tutorial for writing a small imperative language in Haskell.

…you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined–
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then…

Humpbacks, Mary Oliver (in American Primitive, 1978)

I’ve been enjoying the BBC’s podcast series The Conversation. Begun in October, each week consists of two women doing related things from different sides of the world quite literally in conversation.

Catherynne M. Valente’s now-defunct Invisible Games is an unclassifiable beauty (somewhere between short stories, alternate reality and the universe as I wish it was) I’ve stumbled across from a couple of sources over the last few years, each time to my delight. (This time was due to the release of the Press Start To Play (ed. John Joseph Adams) anthology’s TOC, reprinted in which is one of the stories from the site.) I would recommend all the stories in it, among the best of which is The Pentintytär Arcade. It reminded me of the now sadly defunct Black Crown Project, an online text-based game that I heartily enjoyed about two years ago. A collaboration between Failbetter Games and Random House, among others, it was unfortunately taken offline for economic reasons about nine months ago.

Along the lines of fiction, this fan-made translation of Qian Lifang’s The Will of Heaven looks to be quite interesting. It’s a 2004 science fiction novel I’ve seen referenced in relation to Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (excerpt), the first major-length Chinese work of science fiction published in English. That itself is excellent (and is nominated for a slew of awards this year, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus among them). I’m very excited for the publication of the sequel, The Dark Forest, in August. Its cover alone is spectacular.

Three-Body was translated by Ken Liu, an award-winning author in his own right (his short story The Paper Menagerie is particularly excellent) whose debut novel The Grace of Kings came out in April (and is very high on my to-read list; the link there is to a review by Amal El-Mohtar). (Among other stories, he won a translation award for Chen Qiufan’s The Fish of Lijiang.) I’m confident Joel Martinsen will do just as good a job on the translation of the sequel, before Liu returns for the final novel in the trilogy.

You can be the prime minister as a woman; you can be the head of state; you can be a mine-clearance diver in the military. There’s no role that you can’t have, but where we’ve moved to is a situation of “gender asbestos“: that is, indirect discrimination built into the walls, the floors, the ceilings, and the practices of organisations. It’s more difficult to combat. It’s more difficult to actually put your finger on it. And that’s why we need men stepping up beside women, and together promoting gender equality in Australia.

– Elizabeth Broderick speaking at 50|50 Future Leaders 2014 (emphasis mine)

Speaking of science fiction and fantasy, the stacking of the Hugo ballot by the Rabid/Sad Puppies group ballot happened — Strange Horizons has a pretty good summary of the situation, and Mike Glyer’s round-ups are generally fairly complete. Here are some voices I particularly like, in no particular order. Basically the SFF bit of the internet blew up recently due to a group of reactionaries getting organised (and working with some GamerGate people) and near-controlling the ballots for one of the most significant annual awards. For an indication of the extent of the dominance by this group, see the Puppy-Free Hugo Award Voters Guide.

Kameron Hurley wrote this cutting bit of fiction in response, and the editor of Scott Orson Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show (not edited by Card, although affiliated with him; they publish some quite high quality stuff) has, though he withdrew the magazine from the nominations, released the sampler he would have put in the Hugo Voters Pack. I would also like to particularly recommend Ancillary Sword, The Goblin Emperor and (again) The Three-Body Problem, all of which were nominated for the novel award (and were not on either of the Puppy slates), all of which I have read in the last year, and all of which are thoroughly excellent in distinctly different ways (to such an extent that I’m finding it difficult to not go on at length about each of them here).

My flute helped weave invisible threads in the web that is now us. Our notes caught in the black spaces between, illuminated the night like melodious fireflies.

My mouth on that alabaster relic was the taste of kin on my tongue.

Spider Moves the World, Dominik Parisien (in Lackington’s, Issue 6)

I should note that Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s debut novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus awards in 2014. Ancillary Justice does really, really interesting things with gender, colonialism and identity, as well as being a thoroughly fun ride. There’s adventure, a bit of travelogue, a quest for revenge, a fair bit of grappling with unfamiliar cultures, heavy influences from military SF and a nice bit of intrigue. I feel I need to reread both (well, finish rereading Ancillary Justice) to have another go at grasping the nuances of them — they are well worth it.

The Goblin Emperor does an interesting synthesis of identity through values and identity through connections with people. It’s connections that matter, and it’s Maia’s attempts to establish those connections that build the book. As such, though it is focused on Maia, “Edrehasivar the Bridge-Builder” is a very fitting title. It’s a story of an attempt to find identity in community; to find oneself through the roles and relationships in which one is put and which one forges. (Also, the formal language is rather catching.)

The Goblin Emperor is the most hopeful (and, for lack of a better phrase, well-mannered in spirit) book I have read in a long time. As such, it is incredibly idealistic. Such a well-meaning, kind main character isn’t something I’ve seen for quite a while (maybe never in books not written for children?), and was very refreshing. The focus on relationships, on connection and on people reaching beyond their place in life was lovely, and I found the court machinations fascinating. Although there is a list in the back of the (many, many) people and who they are, I read it without referring to that, and am glad I did. Having myself be just as confused as the main character as he fumbles his way around court life was quite an experience. Unfortunately, there will be no sequel; however, as a stand alone it is stunning.

With these recent events in mind, it seems timely to link to a few speeches: N.K. Jemisin’s Continuum GoH speech (2013), her Wiscon 38 GoH speech (2014) and Hiromi Goto’s GoH speech from the same conference.

To conclude, the opening and closing sections of that last one:

Story is what has brought me here, today. Story is what has brought you here. We are alike and very unalike in many, many ways. Our bodies, our genders, our sexuality, cultural and historical backgrounds, class, faith, atheism, migration, immigration, colonization, have had us experiencing our lives and our sense of place (if not home) in distinct and particular ways. These differences, at times can divide us. These differences can be used against us to keep us divided. But here we find ourselves. Look around you. The faces of friends and the faces of strangers. We came here because of story. There is much power in story.

To bring stories alive in this way is to try to make change in the workings and fabric of our world. If something is not of this world already, it first needs to be imagined. After it is imagined, it needs to be shaped by the parameters of language. And in writing, in the utterance, the story can begin its life. It can become.

And so we begin. With each telling. With every retelling. A slight skewing of the familiar toward a different plane. The perspective shifts and the way the light falls upon the world casts it anew, ripe with possibility.