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Recent Reading: December 2018

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately: Liu Cixin, James S.A. Corey, and Carrie Vaughn as well as queer and trans short stories and comics.

Crowded bookshelves in an independent bookshop.
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings by Sarah Graley

This adorable and fun comic is adorable and fun. It features: a college student who’s a part time grim reaper + a lesbian romance + cats + ghosts + zombies + pretty artwork. I want more please.

Moonstruck Vol 1: Magic to Brew by Grace Ellis and Shae Beagle

This gorgeous, queer comic is about a handful of friends living their life in a college town filled with magical creatures of all sorts. This comic made me feel all warm and cozy inside because of its beautiful art, laid-back attitude, and diverse cast of characters.

The Bride was a Boy by Chii

This manga is a cute and heartwarming love story, created by a trans artist, sharing about her marriage and her husband. It’s a quick read, and I liked it.

Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom by bell hooks

Teaching Critical Thinking is the third book in bell hook’s teaching trilogy. (The other two books are Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community.) I have now read and enjoyed all three essay collections.

The essays in this book are short, accessible, intelligent, and thought-provoking, and they’re rooted in hooks’ commitment to critical pedagogy, to education as the practice of freedom. If you teach, I recommend you read all three of these books. In my experience, they’ve been great reads before starting a new term.

I am sure that I will return to these three books in the future. I’d found that reading these books has been a good way for me to break down my assumptions and default routines when it comes to teaching, a good way to pause and reflect on what I really want my teaching to do.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 23: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! edited by Dominik Parisien and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

This special issue of Uncanny Magazine is really worth checking out. First off, it’s just really good. I especially loved the fiction and the personal essays about disability and SF. Secondly, I don’t think we have nearly enough disabled representation or stories that seriously engage disability, so this issue — which is all about that — felt like a welcome breath of fresh air.

Back in November, I reviewed “The House on the Moon” by William Alexander, my favorite story in the issue. At the very least, you should go read that.

The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End by Liu Cixin (translated Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen)

I really enjoyed these three novels, which together comprise The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Each novel is filled with really cool, really awesome ideas (mostly taken from physics) that are clearly explained and beautifully written. It’s translated from Chinese and centered around Chinese characters, which of course I enjoyed a lot, although the trilogy as a whole is much more a story about humanity at large rather than just China.

In my option, the highlights from each book were the video game in book one, the deterrence theory in book two, and the fairy tale embedded in book three. The fairy tale was especially awesome. Book three takes a three-chapter (14,000 word) detour to tell an original, wildly colorful, and imaginative fairy tale that’s littered with metaphors drawn from theoretical physics. It’s a key piece of the overall plot of the trilogy, but honestly, the fairy tale could stand on its own just fine. It’s a mark of how expansive and skillfully written the entire trilogy is.

I was a little less impressed with the ending, but I think that has less to do with Liu’s writing and more to do with my own reading. After reading Robert Charles Wilson’s short story “Utriusque Cosmi” and Excession by Iain M. Banks, the wonder of the finale felt, well, less wonderful, perhaps even slightly derivative. But I still as heck enjoyed it.

Leviathan Wakes and Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey

Over the summer, I got to reread Leviathan Wakes and read for the first time Babylon’s Ashes, the first and sixth books in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. I had so much fun! Honestly, this series is the most fun I’ve ever had reading. It’s filled with excellent scifi action, character conflict, and political drama. The prose is sharp, accessible, and immersive, and the worldbuilding and themes are interesting and engaging.

Since in the last paragraph, I described the series as “filled with excellent scifi action,” I feel compelled to pause and reflect on the role of violence in stories, because I think too often in scifi in particular, we tend to glorify (or at least mindlessly enjoy) violence.

In general, I have mixed feelings on this subject. On one hand, the stories we tell these days are so violent that it can be a little hard for us to tell stories about non-violent conflict. I don’t like this, and I wish we had more stories about good people trying to sort out their differences or overcome adversity through non-violent means. (One of the most impressive and mind-bending aspects of Le Guin’s Earthsea books is how thoroughly they eschew violent conflict.) That said, humans are all too often an all too violent species, so it does makes sense to include violence in the stories we tell about ourselves. The Expanse series is filled with violence, sometimes violence at a mind-bogglingly large scale. The series doesn’t glorify violence, and in fact it often analyzes the tragic and toxic effects of it and features protagonists who are trying to stop it. Moreover, I’d argue that the series does include its fair share of non-violent conflict as well. So when I describe The Expanse as “filled with excellent scifi action,” I guess what I mean is:

  • The series treats violence seriously and doesn’t glorify it.
  • The series uses violence to more powerfully engage its themes.
  • The series uses violence to create a suspenseful and exciting reading experience.
  • Also, the action in the series forces me to think about physics and space and thereby feel in awe of both nature and science.

I loved Babylon’s Ashes. It’s my favorite book in the series so far. It’s probably the most fun book I’d ever read. I liked all the viewpoint characters, the book skillfully balanced human political drama with wild and mysterious alien elements, and the pacing was damn near perfect. Some of the other Expanse novels have given me a sense of fatigue near the end, as the setbacks and challenges kept piling on top of each other, but I did not have that experience with this novel. Babylon’s Ashes was fabulous.

If you like SF and if you like reading things which are, you know, fun, you gotta check out The Expanse (both the book and the TV series).

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Often, I find myself returning to this idea: our expectations greatly affect our experience of reading a book, sometimes more than anything else. For more of my thoughts on this, see my posts about The Left Hand of Darkness and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

For whatever reason, my expectations were somewhat off base for this book. I Am Providence is about an H.P. Lovecraft convention. The book examines the politics of exclusion and racism within the Lovecraft community, and it begins with a rather grotesque murder. I had expected there would be more otherworldly elements to this book. There were some. A recurring narrator POV was the dead man, his ghost (or something like it) tethered to his body in the morgue. Beyond that element, however, much of this book felt to me like a relatively straightforward murder mystery.

I enjoyed the books’ commentary and exploration of Lovecraft, the Lovecraft community, and the unsavory, unjust, and problematic elements of those (racism, sexism, ableism, etc). But — because of my misguided expectations — I kept waiting for Cthulhu to rise from the deep, or something like that anyway, so I was ultimately disappointed when that didn’t really happen.

The Remnant Fleet by Geonn Cannon

I picked up this book in the 2018 LGBT+ StoryBundle back in June. It’s a short novel, and it looked like a fun, queer space opera, so of course I could not resist.

I like this book! This book was fun! And queer! And filled with many of my favorite space opera tropes! Such as: dozens of humanoid species, each with their own quirks and customs — a spaceship crew that calls to mind Firefly — weird, creepy aliens — and many more. It also featured a lot of different character POVs, something which I really like, and it handled that really well. While there are certainly a couple main characters, the book is mostly concerned with a community of characters. Also, one of the main characters is nonbinary and uses ze/hir pronouns, which of course I also loved.

I must also raise content warnings for this book for rape and sexual abuse. There is some very heavy stuff in this book. I think it handles it well, and all in all the book still felt relatively upbeat, at least for me anyway, but you should definitely be aware of this before you start reading.

Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by K.M. Szpara

Of course I loved this. Look at the title. Look at who edited it. My favorite stories were:

Carrie Vaughn is such a good writer. I wish I could write prose like her. Her stories are lush, detailed, and immersive but also accessible, character-centered, and skillfully plotted. Before reading Amaryllis and Other Stories, I had read a lot of her short fiction published online and also her novel Bannerless, which I loved. It was one of my favorite novels of the year, and I still find myself thinking about it fairly often.

So I figured it was time that I check out her collection of short fiction. It was fabulous, as expected.

I especially loved the final three stories, which all take place in the same universe as Bannerless. I’m looking forward to reading The Wild Dead, the sequel to Bannerless, next summer. (I know The Wild Dead is already out, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.) I really hope she writes more stories set in this world. I also think I need to write an essay looking at the series as an ambiguous utopia in the tradition of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

I tried to select some of my favorite stories to shout out, but … I like practically all of the stories in this collection! To list out my favorites would be nearly the same as listing the table of contents. (Have I mentioned that Carrie Vaughn has become one of my favorite writers?) So in lieu of listing my favorites, I’ll just shout out the three stories that take place in the Bannerless universe. These stories are a great point for jumping into Carrie Vaughn’s work.

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to also mention that earlier this year, published “Where Would You Be Now?” by Carrie Vaugh, another short story set in the Bannerless universe. I super loved that story also. Check it out!

Recent Short Fiction

And of course I’ve also been reading lots of short fiction for my short fiction review column over at Skiffy & Fanty.