The Hugos, 2015: Chapter Four, What Were They Thinking?

To my mind, nowhere is the problem of the bloc-voting and the slate concept better demonstrated than in the Novella Category. Here is the short-list:

  • Flow by Arlen Andrews Sr. (Analog)
  • Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman (Castalia House Press)
  • One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C Wright (Castalia House Press)
  • The Plural of Helen of Troy by John C Wright (Castalia House Press)
  • Pale Realms of Shade by John C Wright (Castalia House Press)

If you love short SF, you read a lot of SF magazines, or you enjoy anthologies, that list may be baffling you. You might wonder why, since the Hugos are for the best work of the year, you have probably only read, or even heard of, one of those works. You might wonder why one press, which you’ve never heard of before, has four of the five works on the list.

Having read these works, here’s what I can say with confidence; if the splinter group (who call themselves Rapid Puppies) wanted to demonstrate with this list the kind of fine, solid story-telling that they think is getting overlooked due to the distraction of more “politically correct” fare, they’ve failed abjectly.

The best of the lot is “Flow” by Arlen Andrews Sr. This is the type of the story that the original slate group, the “Sad Puppies” frequently talk about and say they like. It’s a conventional story of exploration. The story opens with a wild ride on an iceberg down a rushing river. Rist, a person from the north, soon learns about the people from the Warm Lands. Andrews’s conception of adaptive changes and social changes on a far future earth is interesting. Rist’s reasoning, as he encounters new things, is fun to follow. He is fearful, nonplussed and enthusiastic throughout, and his decision at the end changes him from a dissatisfied son to a true adventurer. I liked the descriptions, and I disliked that women were treated as set dressing. I enjoyed the way Andrews let us know this was earth and showed us how humans have changed – and the ways they haven’t. That said, the story is slow, with a spike of jeopardy that the main character weathers  too easily, and the psychological choice at the end may be too subtle, after the intimation of danger two-thirds of the way through, to be satisfying.

I didn’t love “Flow,” mainly because of the pacing, but I am angry that Mr. Andrews’s  interesting world doesn’t get a better field of competitors than what follows.

“Big Boys Don’t Cry” by Tom Kratman is disturbing enough, and poorly enough written, to deserve its own post. In it, a sentient war machine, which identifies itself by the human gender-designation “female” for no apparent reason, uncovers the truth of its genesis and makes a fateful decision.

This story is way too long, and commits what has to be some kind of MilSF cardinal sin; it makes battle scenes boring. Instead of being a story, this is a collection of field notes for a Role-Playing Game. The ambush where “Maggie” is mortally wounded should be filled with tension and excitement. I mean, geez! C’mon, it’s an ambush! Instead the prose plods on with everything in exactly the same rhythm, until Kratman starts a paragraph (in the middle of a battle!) with this sentence, “Here a doctrinal problem interposed itself.” That is a quote.

While I read, I found that a doctrinal problem interposed itself for me too… Why was I still reading this? But I kept on. I read to the end.

“One Bright Star to Guide Them,” by John C. Wright… If I wanted to read Narnia fan-fiction I’d go do that. That’s really all I really have to say, but I’m going to say more anyway. If you’re going to serve up warmed-over Narnia as if it’s an original tale, then at least have the action sequences take place on the page, instead of having them happen offstage, narrated by a main character via stupefying monologues to other characters. And, dude, you can put wings on your majestic, talking, recently-resurrected lion all you want, but he is still Aslan.

“The Plural of Helen of Troy” is a time-travel story filled with the usual paradoxes, in a city of shifting timelines, run by the Time Wardens, where a hardboiled detective questions the motives of his client, who says he wants to kill the man who raped a beautiful woman. I liked the description of the city. Jacob, the detective, is an inconsistent character in some ways, but that is mostly due, I think, to the character narrating from an “older and wiser” future. The identity of the client and the rapist are supposed to be reveals, but it was easy to figure out who they are. The main problem here was that I didn’t care about any of these rather shallow characters. The second problem was that everything gets explained in an academic fashion, slowing down the action. “Helen of Troy” had a couple of strange editorial errors too. Specifically, the character of Queequeeg from Moby Dick has a small role here. In explaining the name, Jacob pronounces it for someone; “Quickwig.” Then, on two more occasions, he uses “Quickwig” as the character’s name. Where was the editor?

This reminded me of the Simon R. Greene’s Nightside books, only those are better.

In “Pale Realms of Shade,” another hard-boiled detective who was murdered has to figure out why his spirit is still hanging around. This has an interesting magical world and some nice descriptions. There is a lovely sequence involving St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a priest and a guardian angel that I liked very much. All too quickly, the story falls down a rabbit hole of strange, Wright-landian spirituality, with a  gratuitous slap at Islam and an ending that is not supported either by the religion presented in the story or “real world” Catholicism. A cliché-loaded opening, internal inconsistencies (Lorelei “stamps her foot with anger” in one sentence; two sentences later we are told she is “good at hiding her anger.” No. No, she’s not,) and a muddled ending suffocate the glimmers of humor and actual story here. Things are further complicated by paragraph after paragraph of purple prose that does not advance anything.

Well, maybe it was just a bad year for novellas, right? Possible, although unlikely. I read very few in 2014, and I can tell you there were at least two as good or better than the ones on this list; “We Are All Completely Fine,” by Daryl Gregory, and “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress come to mind.

The choices in this category made me understand why the Choice of No Award exists in the Hugos. “Flow” is a real story, but I would have loved to be able to compare it to some of the good published novellas of 2014. As it is, I don’t really think it’s fair for me to give Mr. Andrews a “best of a really rotten year” award. And this is why I’m angry at the bloc-voting fools who vandalized this category.

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The Hugos, 2015, Chapter Three: Lost Treasures of the Battle

Annie Bellet is one of the writers nominated for a Hugo in 2015. Her story “Goodnight Stars” was nominated on the group slate. Ms Bellet managed to be on the Sad Puppies Slate and also on the Rapid Puppies (the splinter group’s) slate. She withdrew her story from consideration, stating the following on her blog:

“I find my story, and by extension myself, stuck in a game of political dodge ball, where I’m both a conscripted player and also a ball.”

That’s a difficult analogy, and an accurate one, because no one who made it to the short list this year can really trust that they got there because people think their work was good. They have to wonder if their work was just a weapon, like a can of red spray paint, and whether behind their backs the people who used the spray-paint are saying, “She’s totally with us!”

I’m not a big short story reader. I wanted to read “Goodnight Stars,” mostly out of curiosity. It is part of The Apocalypse Triptych, edited by John Joseph Adams, and it’s available online here.

I recommend everyone go read this story. Now. Read it now. I’ll wait.

*

Having read “Goodnight Stars,” I’m not as sad for Annie Bellet as I was, only because, if she writes stories that combine this much convincing action, with characters as well developed as Lucy, while dealing with the themes she expertly handles here, she will have no trouble winning a Hugo. There is probably more than one in her future. (Flippancy aside, I am sad for her. This nomination should have been an experience of unalloyed joy, and that has been ruined. It’s always sad when a cherished moment is trashed.)

Here’s what’s disappointing:  the flap over the Hugos means this beautiful, scary tale of survival, sacrifice, and coming of age won’t get the marquee treatment it should. This is an excellent piece of short fiction. I am amazed at what Bellet was able to fit into a fairly small word count. We see Lucy’s attitude toward her mother change over the course of the story; we watch her wrestle with denial, and it doesn’t slow the action. We see the best and worst of humanity in what is, basically, a short road trip story. I may smirk a bit at how lucky it is that her boyfriend is both a war vet and a Boy Scout, so that they are “prepared” when the disaster happens, but that’s well-established early in the story, and fair. Lucy is a convincing teenager, and so is her friend Heidi.

For me, the Hugo material this year is sort of like a pile of rubble left after an explosion. John Joseph Adams had kept this gem from the pile of broken statues and chunks of cement. What I can do is help bring it to your attention.

 

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The Hugos, 2015, Chapter Two: The Slate Mailer Saga

I live in California, where individuals and interest groups can create laws through a “direct democracy” process. They can get an initiative on the ballot and it’s voted on by the people. This means that, come election time, I am flooded with “slate mailers,” as they’re called, in both e-mail and paper mail.

A slate-mailer is what it sounds like. An interest group (social justice, environmental, business-based) or a union, or the DNC/RNC will mail you out a list of candidates and propositions on the ballot, and recommend how you should vote. Sometimes they’ll include a one-line advertising slogan about why; often it’s just the list. Something like this:

(Cheerfully smiling business-person in background)

The Chamber of Commerce recommends the following:

  • Hugh Goboy for President
  • Agatha Shopkeeper for Senate
  • Yes on Prop 6,
  • No on Prop 12
  • No on Prop 18.

There’s nothing wrong with a slate of recommendations from an organization you are affiliated with. If you feel you’re too busy or just not interested in researching candidates and issues, and you trust the organization, a slate makes things easy, even though you are putting your vote into the control of someone else.

Basically, what happened at the Hugos this year was slate-mailing on steroids. There was another component to the process; bloc-voting, with a rumor (supported by some evidence) that the splinter group, the Rabid Puppies, recruited new voters to carry the slate.

I’m all for recruiting new voters, frankly. Recruiting more voters who will actually vote would probably have resolved the whole Rabid Puppy situation right off the bat.

There are a couple of problems with that solution though. One is that people aren’t that interested in nominating, or feel they haven’t read enough. The other is the cost.

It costs money to nominate a work for a Hugo, and to vote for the winner.

WorldCon – the World Science Fiction Convention – implies a global community of SFF fans in its name. Admittedly, the USA is known for putting “World” into the title of things that aren’t global (Hello, baseball!) but WorldCon allegedly tries to be inclusive… somewhat.

The “supporting membership” for WorldCon, the cheapest membership that allows you to vote, is $40 US.

Let’s stay with the US for a minute. For one stratum of SF fans, $40 is nothing. It doesn’t even require a second of reflection before clicking the PayPal button.

For many fans in the US, $40 is an expenditure that requires some thought. Spending $40 out of the household budget just to have a say about Best Book of the Year may be frivolous. It may reduce funds available for sports, a field trip or some other enrichment for your children. It’s not a slam-dunk.

And for many other fans, still in the US, it is out of reach. It isn’t a question of diverting the monthly Family Movie Day budget for one month. It is not even a discussion. Many of these people read, review and write SF; they blog, and some of them teach at the college level. They are shut out of the “democratic” Hugo selection process by economics.

Now let’s consider fans in Indonesia, Namibia, Lithuania. Can most of them afford $40 US?

If everyone who wanted to vote had voted, the Rabid Puppy slate might not have found such traction, even if they had a  newly-recruited voting bloc. If the cost of a supporting membership were $6, I wonder what would have happened. Just generally, beyond this year and next,I wonder what would happen. Would we start seeing SF best-sellers from Kenya and Estonia on the short list? Would we start getting more works in translation? In other words, would more nominators and voters introduce us to more good books (which, after all, is ultimately the purpose)?

WorldCon has expenses, and one of those is providing a reading packet to eligible voting members. There’s a cost associated with that, so I understand that there needs to be some money recouped. But $40 is excessive and snobbish.

This is a long-run and short-run problem, because WorldCon rule changes would not take effect until 2017. In the short run, maybe it’s up to the community to help. If you’re in the lucky don’t-have-to-think-about-it layer, can you afford to shell out $40 for a membership for someone you know? Maybe it’s a friend or a student, a family member; or maybe it’s someone whose blog you’ve read or comments you’ve appreciated. Maybe you will never know who they nominate of how they vote. Maybe, though, you can give them a voice.

Many people still don’t want to nominate – they think they don’t read enough, or they just don’t care. That’s another problem, as are the root causes of this year’s Hugo failure.

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The Hugos, 2015; Chapter One

The Hugo Awards, conferred by the World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon), are even more controversial this year than they were last year, and the odds are that they will be controversial next year too. Basically, a small but motivated group used bloc-voting, which is not forbidden in any way by the Hugo nominating process, to place a bunch of their friends’ work on the shortlist.

You can read about it here, here and here. Enjoy.

Then some people withdrew their works from consideration, which meant the next –in-line books made it into the finalist categories. You can read about some of that here.

This makes the short list just, well, kind of weird. I am mostly interested in the Best Novel category myself, and when everything shook out, here were the finalists:

  • Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie, sequel to last year’s every-award –winner Ancillary Justice
  • The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin Anderson, which looks like traditional space opera
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette), the first in a new fantasy series
  • Skin Game by Jim Butcher, the latest in the long-running Harry Dresden series
  • The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu, book one of an acclaimed hard science fiction trilogy from China.

*

It will take me a very long time to read The Three Body Problem because it falls into none of the categories I enjoy, but I probably still will, just because it’s so noteworthy. Many of the talking heads see it as an upset winner, (mostly those people who thought Sword would be the shoo-in).

Ancillary Sword was as good as Ancillary Justice, going in a different direction and providing more depth to the Radch Empire. Skin Game, to me, just another Harry Dresden. I love Harry Dresden, but really, it’s another good story and it’s like, what? Book fourteen? I think it suffers the same problem Wheel of Time had last year; how good is it, if you haven’t read all the previous books?

Normally I wouldn’t be in a rush to read The Dark Between the Stars, either, but I said I would for FanLit. It’s not a subgenre I love, and I haven’t been enamored of Anderson’s writing in the past.

While there are some strange omissions on that list (City of Stairs, no nod? The Peripheral?) it’s not a bad Best Novel list.

In future chapters, I’ll discuss what I think the solution is to “hi-jacking;”  and I’ll take a look at some of the other categories — which is where things start to get freaky.

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Benicia; the Scavenger Hunt

Last Saturday I went to Benicia, mainly just to window shop and walk around. Before I left I checked my e-mail and discovered that Main Street Benicia was offering an Art Scavenger Hunt. This is, simply, a fun, brilliant idea.

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The hunt took place at six Main Street galleries. There were 20 items to find, ranging from the very specific (“find a representation of the famous tower in France”) to the subjective (“find an artwork that uses your favorite color”). Some required knowledge of Benicia’s history or a willingness to ask questions. The process took me up and down Main Street and meant I discovered a few new places. Dos Gatos Gallery is upstairs at the end of the street away from the water and I would probably never have found it on my own. Downstairs is the Camelia Tea Room and I probably would not have found that either.

The galleries were: Benicia Plein Air Gallery; Dos Gatos Gallery; Gallery 621; Mernie Buchanan Studio and Art Gallery; Once Upon a Canvas; Parsons Gallery.

Those last two are in the Tannery Building, about two blocks from the fishing pier.

Steampunker with seam powered cell phone.

As an added bonus, there was a steampunk group in town that day. Obtainium Works is a Vallejo-based steampunk and art car studio. I picked up one of their cards and boy, do they have some interesting sounding events! How about Feast of the Tentacle? (Sadly, I missed it. It was in March.) Or Haul o’Ween in late October? And since the handcar regatta in Santa Rosa has ended, I have to say the Obtainium Cup,in July, looks pretty tempting.

The scavenger hunt was a fun event, running over the lunch hour, which meant that local restaurants and bars should have been happy. It’s held in conjunction with the Saturday Artwalk.

And, it turns out, not everyone was happy. At one business establishment I overheard this exchange:

Antique coffee grinder.

Man 1: Oh, shit. I better get home. It’s an Artwalk Saturday, I’ll be stuck here all day.

Man 2:  Too late.

You know who were happy? The gallery owners, that’s who.

This seems like a simple idea, although it takes some legwork, and since there was an “I (heart) Benicia” shopping bag for everyone who turned in a completed hunt form, and the possibility of a grand prize of a $100 gift card, it would take some work on the back end, but it’s got to be worth it, if your goal is to bring tourists to your main street.

 

 

 

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The Muir Tea Room; It Feeds the Spirit

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The beautiful yard caught my eye first, and then I looked up at the lovely white Victorian cottage that houses The Muir Tea Room. This building, located at 330 South Main Street, two buildings south of the Post Office, used to be Fork Catering. They have moved farther west now, and the Tea Room opened in December, 2014.

I was delighted by the fragrant wisteria on the porch (mine wasn’t blooming yet). The clean, airy interior with its pale floor and sweet china patterns embraced me. There is something civilizing about afternoon tea – or at least, the “afternoon tea” of my imagination, shaped by scores of British murder mysteries and numerous episodes of Downton Abbey.

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The “plant-based” menu was a surprise, though.

Christine Dzilvelis, who owns the tea room, says she is reluctant to use the term “vegan.” She is being scrupulous. She prefers “plant based” because the work required to verify that not a single vendor to them has any process that uses animal product would be onerous for a business of her size. There are no animal products in the food served at the Muir, though. I told her I was surprised. The clotted cream, or I guess I should write “clotted cream,” that melted into my scrumptious scone sure tasted like cream. And the cream cheese, on the finger sandwiches? That wasn’t cream cheese?

“We did tastings for one year to get the flavors right,” Christine said. She has a “sausage” entrée that uses a meat substitute. She doesn’t particularly like the “mimicking” of meat herself, she said, but wants to offer the best variety to her customers. She is exploring a vegan cheese from a producer in the Bay Area.

Since the Muir is based on Scottish and English high teas, I asked about plant-based teas in general. Christine said they are becoming a “thing.” She suspects there are more offerings around London than Edinburgh, but it is catching on.

Dzilvelis has another business beside the tea room; she manages green car shows in Santa Monica and the East Bay. AltCar is one of the largest alternate fuel vehicle shows around. Her hope is to scale back on the cars and devote more time to the tea room in the future.

Dzivelis moved here six years ago and loved the area, but felt the lack of a plant-based restaurant. “In L.A, I probably had seventy plant-based choices within ten miles,” she said. She wanted a local place that captured “the sweet spirit of Sebastopol.”

John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and writer who fell in love with California, seems like a suitable icon for the place in a couple of ways. The tea room is a risk, in a way, although it’s got a good location with plenty of on-street parking and a public lot two blocks away. Muir was not afraid of risk. Muir’s respect for nature ties in nicely with the food theme, and he was Scottish, so there’s the tea thing again.

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“The response has been so good,” Christine said. “We had the Red Hat society here, a couple of British groups that come in. They love our scones; they say they’re the most like British scones. Families come in. I have someone who brings in his mother every week. They sit by the fireplace and he reads to her.”

I’ve had two meals at the Muir, and I will definitely go back. About those scones; they are less cake-like and more like American biscuits, with bits of lemon zest sprinkled through them, adding a brightness without being overpowering. The clotted cream mix melted right into them. I’ve also had the split pea soup and a tomato-pesto sandwich. The soup was thick, tasty and hearty. The sandwich, served on whole-grain bread, was exactly what I wanted.

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On my second visit I had the Doorway to a New World tea, and I added two finger sandwiches. That meant I had enough to take a sample home to Spouse. By far my favorite finger sandwich is the walnut and pear, served also on a crunchy whole-grain bread, thinly sliced, with slices of ripe pear and walnuts. The whole thing is drizzled with a balsamic vinegar syrup. This combination of sweet, savory and acidic, combined with the soft texture of the pear, the crunchy nuts and the crisp bread, was perfect. I also liked the cucumber sandwiches, mostly for their presentation; they are cut in rounds and the outside rolled in chopped chive.

There was a one-square-inch decorated cake as well, a mini-dessert. My mom would have called it a petit four. It had a tiny pink rose in icing on the top and a layer of fruit preserve in the middle. The cake was vanilla. It was very sweet; I would say “sweet” was the dominant flavor. (I’m not complaining.) Anything larger than one bite might have been cloying, so it was just the right size.

Muir’s offers black tea and green tea as well as several herbal infusions. For the New World tea I chose the raspberry torte, a black tea with a slight chocolate-raspberry flavor. After I ordered it, I worried that it would overpower the pastries. I didn’t need to fear. I let the tea steep for about five minutes and it was slightly sweet but not overpowering, with a pleasant fruity taste.

I asked Christine about her pastry chef. She said Teka (I’m spelling that phonetically) cooked vegan at home for many years. She is, Christine says, a genius at capturing texture and flavor without resorting to animal products. Some Irish musicians who came in in March, for instance, told her she’d nailed the soda bread. Based on what I’ve tried Teka is amazing.

Christine has already made connections to the Main Street community, co-hosting a press conference with the West County Museum half a block north of her, to open their “Sebastopol Vogue” 19th and 20th century fashion exhibit. She is planning several themed events; a John Muir birthday celebration on April 25; a fairy tea in May and an event honoring Jane Austen on June 6.

(By the way, I harrrangued Christine into letting me take her picture when she really didn’t want to. When I got home and looked at it on a larger screen, I decided it didn’t do her justice, so it’s not posted here.)

This is the high tea of my imagination; a light airy place, filled with the scent of flowers, friendly staff who are helpful but mostly unobtrusive, delicious food and the bonus of eating lower on the food chain. I will go back, and I will bring my friends.

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Hours:

Tuesday through Sunday, 11:00 am to 4:00 pm.Reservations are recommended on weekends,

The shop also has a gift shop and offers a frozen nut-based confection called “Genuto,” and coffee drinks.
(707)634-6143

MuirsTeaRoom.com and find them on Facebook.

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Jane Eyre’s Sisters by Jody Gentian Bower; A New Model for the Woman’s Journey

Jane Eyre’s Sisters, by Jody Gentian Bower, takes a look at the old Hero’s Journey as delineated by William Campbell and analyzes it as a model for literature about women (and women’s own experiences). It’s no surprise to me that she finds the model doesn’t fit. Scholars have spent the last twenty years trying to force it into place, hammering it down over books like Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and The Color Purple. Bower points out that the woman’s journey is different in key ways and addresses those in this book. She reaches back to mythology. She uses contemporary fictional characters from science fiction, fantasy and TV. She leans heavily (a bit too heavily in my opinion) of the works of Carl Gustav Jung and his disciples, but ultimately she creates a working model that addresses women’s issues in a satisfying way.

One of my goals for 2015 was to read more literary criticism. Bower’s theme helps me look at classic works and contemporary works through a slightly different lens, and I always like that. It’s very accessible; so much so that I might recommend it more as a “pop” non-fiction book than an academic text – and I mean that in a positive way.

Right off the bat, Bower says that the word “hero” doesn’t work, and neither does heroine or “shero.” Bower wants a different word entirely for female main characters like Jane Eyre, and she chooses “aletis,” the Greek word for “wanderer.” The book charts the journey of the aletis in real life, myth and fiction.

Bower reviews the hero’s journey. The boy is often an orphan or a foundling. There is a Call to Action; a prophecy, a visitor to town who calls the hero to his quest. He may be a prince who has to save his kingdom, or a little boy living under a staircase.

The boy goes out into the world. He has a powerful male mentor (Galdalf, Merlin, Dumbledore). He learns much from the mentor but soon the mentor falls away, or the hero leaves him. The hero endures hardships and temptations. Temptations are often female, the witch or the temptress. The witch is someone who must be conquered or destroyed. Then the hero faces the Big Evil and beats it. He returns home in triumph where he is lauded.

Bower points out that the hero’s journey is a circle or a loop. Somewhat surprisingly for a male character, the Hero always returns home, raising up his community by bringing the crown, freeing the sword, winning the battle or whatever.

Women characters in the hero’s journey are few and far between. Mothers are usually dead or missing. Women who appear along the road are sometimes “helpmeets,” more often the beautiful temptress or the wicked witch. The “princess” is not a character; she is an object, a prize for good behavior – for winning.

Like the male hero, the aletis is often an orphan or a foundling. Like the hero, she has no mother. Unlike the hero, she hears no Call to Action. The aletis leaves her home or is driven out because she does not fit. Her beliefs, her passions, her selfhood are somehow not a fit, and often reflect a critique on society. Jane Eyre’s mother committed the social sin of marrying, for love, a man who was below her in social class. When Jane’s loving uncle, who took her in, dies, her cold and socially ambitious aunt shows Jane no love or affection and actively mistreats her. Jane get sent to a “Christian” school where the treatment is even worse. At a young age, she is making her own way in the world.

For the aletis, the home she is pushed out of often is a marital one. Part of the aletis story is the “wrong marriage.” Bower uses The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as an example with a protagonist (Helen) who runs away from her increasingly abusive husband, while Dorothea from George Eliott’s Middlemarch basically waits hers out. Jane Eyre escapes from a “wrong marriage” twice, in a matter of speaking; she refuses the illegitimate relationship Rochester offers her (and actually he offers it twice, in a way) and the offer of a cold, loveless marriage St John Rivers tries to force on her. Jane’s strength of will is such that even the intellectually impressive and super-controlling Rivers cannot order her about.

Like the hero, the aletis spends time in the wilderness or “the wild wood” too. Her reasons for going there are different, and the wild wood isn’t a place to be conquered, it’s a place to learn. When she encounters the Witch in the Wood, this person is not an adversary but a teacher – even if the approach is adversarial. Bower uses the Russian folktale of the Vasilisa the Beautiful, who travels into the wood and meets Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga has a habit of eating her guests, but most of them are male. Vasilisa is respectful to the witch and does not get eaten. When Baba Yaga gives her impossible housekeeping tasks to perform, the handless maiden does not complain but, with the aid of a magical helper, accomplishes them. When she has met the witch’s tests, she is given a magical gift.

Jane Eyre goes out into the world and meets Rochester in a magical, fairy-like way. His house is haunted; not by a spirit of the dead, but by a living being. Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, escapes from her room several times, and threatens damage to Rochester and her own brother. She approaches Jane twice and never injures her. She does tears in half Jane’s wedding veil; this seems more like a helpful hint about Rochester than a threat. It is Bertha that brings Jane to the truth of Rochester’s plans and allows her an escape that protects her own integrity and reputation.

The journey of the aletis is not a loop, because the wanderer does not end up back where she started. She always ends up in a new place. She is not cheered for saving society. Often, by being true to herself, she changes those around her for the better. Jane Eyre, by clinging to her morals, forces Rochester to become the hero he is meant to be. Dorothea marries a man who was squandering his intellect and together, they begin helping the poor. In The Color Purple, Celie reunites with the violent, controlled Mister at the end of the book. Because of her independence he becomes a helper instead of a batterer.

Bower ranges as far forward as Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold, which follows the journey of Ista, a grieving woman with a great magical power. She touches lightly on pop-culture female heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and uses a lot of late-twentieth century fiction to make her points.

The book made me think and gives me a new template to use as I read current books with women main characters. It’s published by Quest Books. Recommended.

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The Lady Trent Memoirs by Marie Brennan

While I had read reviews of The Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, they hadn’t really registered on my radar until I heard the author, Marie Brennan, speak on a couple of panels at FOGCon. She piqued my interest and I picked up both books. Because of circumstances, I read them out of order, which isn’t ideal, but didn’t damage things too badly (it did ruin one plot twist in The Natural History of Dragons).

I will probably add comments to the Fantasy Literature reviews, but I’m going to discuss the books generally here. I enjoyed them. They are not twisty, fast-moving action adventures. Brennan is playing with the narrative structure of Victorian travel writing, so the pace is a bit slow, and detailed. The narrative voice of Isabella Camherst is distinctive and inviting.

Brennan did a smart thing; she gave herself lots of room to maneuver by writing these as memoirs set down by Isabella much later in her life. Isabella wrote popular travel books in her youth about her various adventures seeking dragons; these are not those books. Now that she is old and socially secure, she is much more blunt about things; about travel, about society and about herself.

A Natural History Of Dragons gives us a bit about her childhood and her marriage to Jacob Camherst, and along the way tells us about Isabella’s world. She lives in a country that is much like Britain, certainly socially, even to having debutante seasons and high tea. It also has dragons and an intimation that there was, in pre-history, a race of draconic hominids. Brennan throws in some nice touches. The society has made progress with steam as motive power, but the expected technological boom is stymied by a dearth of iron. This explains certain aspects of the world and also sets the stage for the expansionism we see in the second book, The Tropic of Serpents.

Isabella is a smart, curious, capable woman of the upper classes, with little tact and no social graces. She chafes under the restrictions set for “proper” women in her society. When her husband takes her on a expedition to study dragons in a land similar to Romania, she is a useful member of the team, but creates some problems with the impulsiveness to which her curiosity leads her.

The “plot” in A Natural History of Dragons is a bit thin, but the writing and the characters are so engaging that I didn’t care. And I loved the dragons. In The Tropic of Serpents, the nature of the dragons in the equatorial area she is visiting took center stage for me. There are important political machinations of which Isabella is mostly unaware until the end of the book, that that worked well.  By the way, bonus points to Brennan for using menstruation as a plot point. A plot point!

Very enjoyable books, and I look forward to the Voyage of the Basilisk, due out in August.

 

 

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Quote of the Week; From Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I just started reading this over lunch. On page 14, I came across this passage and laughed so loud over my Asian chicken salad that other cafe customers stared:

“A precious performance, Blaine had called it, in that gently forebearing tone he used when they talked about novels, as though he was sure that she, with a little more time and a little more wisdom, would come to accept that the novels he liked were superior, novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness. She had read many of them, because he recommended them, but they were like cotton candy that so easily evaporated from her tongue’s memory.”

 

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@Large; Back to Alcatraz

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I visited Ai WeiWei @Large, the installation on the island of Alcatraz again on Sunday March 15, with two friends, Kathleen and Lillian. This exhibition runs through April 26, 2015. If you can get to it, I highly recommend it.

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To get tickets, go to the Alcatraz Island site. The cost of the ticket includes the short ferry ride from Pier 33 to the island, and back.

From the North bay, the Larkspur ferry landing to the San Francisco ferry building is the easiest way to get there. They run fewer ferries on weekends, but if you go during the week, do not expect to park in the landing’s lot, and allow an additional 20 minutes from your parking site to the landing.

From the San Francisco ferry building, as you go out the mail door turn right (north-ish) and it’s a pleasant one-mile walk/cab/pedicab trip to Pier 33.

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During the weekend it looks like they run a small tram on the island. Otherwise, wear comfortable walking shoes. Dress in layers. The Cellhouse has an elevator available for people with limited mobility.

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That’s not the elevator

If there’s any way you can fit this installation into your schedule, do it.

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