What’s in the Box?

Back in December, I made a donation to Worldbuilders – a charity started by Patrick Rothfuss that raises money for Heifer International, and gives out donated items as prizes to lucky donors. A few weeks later, I got an email telling me I was one of the lucky ones and asking for my address. And today, I got home and found this waiting for me:

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I had no idea what to expect, as I’d checked most of the boxes on what kind of prizes I’d be interested in. I decided to livetweet the unboxing, which ended with this:

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That’s a copy of board game Journey to the Center of the Earth, and a signed copy of graphic novel Porcelain. I’m eager now to try out the game next time I’m at Newcastle Gamers.

So this post is just to say thank you to Worldbuilders, and congratulations on raising $882,156(!).

Reading Statistics 2014

I was thinking of skipping my annual look at the stats of my reading in 2014, but today I read this article from Book Riot on reading diversely, and decided to go ahead and post some stats again.

This is based on the books in this post, and includes The Godless, which I began in 2014 but only finished yesterday. I’m not posting Excel graphs this time, just dropping the numbers.

Total books read: 25
Year of Publication: 2011 (1), 2012 (1), 2013 (10), 2014 (13)
Most common genre: Epic Fantasy
Most common author nationality: USA (20, 80%)
Books by non-male authors: 17 (68%)
Books by non-white authors: 4 (16%)
Books with non-male PoV characters*: 22 (88%)
Books with non-white PoV characters: 17 (68%)

*I have included one book in this count in which the gender of the protagonist is never specified.

It is interesting to note that this is the first year of tracking these numbers where the number of books I read by female authors was higher than the number by male authors. In the past it has been very much skewed in the other direction. I feel like the sample size is too small to really read much from these numbers, but I can say that I think representation in terms of race and gender within the books I read this year was pretty good. Obviously there was a strong lean toward white authors, however, which is something to think about.

I would have included sexuality of characters in this post, however I have not tracked those details and found I couldn’t decide where to place things from memory alone. Sexuality of authors seemed like it might be a little too personal to dig into.

Read in 2014: Comics & Graphic Novels

In contrast to the book list, I read a lot of comics this year. I’m actually thinking about cutting down, because it’s an expensive habit. As usual I generally only read in trade collections and not issues.

Rachel Rising vol. 3-4 – Terry Moore
Irredeemable vol. 3-6 – Mark Waid, Peter Krause, et al
Saga of the Swamp Thing books 2-6 – Alan Moore, John Totleben, Stephen Bissette, et al
Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh
Amelia Cole and the Unknown World – Adam P. Knave, D. J. Kirkbride, Nick Brokenshire, et al
Wonder Woman vol. 1-4 – Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chang, et al
Batgirl vol. 1-3 – Gail Simone, Ardian Siaf, et al
Ten Grand vol. 1 – J Michael Straczynski, Ben Templesmith, C F Smith
The Unwritten vol. 8-10 – Mike Carey, Peter Gross, et al
Dial H vol. 2 – China Miéville, Albert Ponticelli, Dan Green
Prophet vol. 3 – Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, et al
Red Sonja vol. 1-2 – Gail Simone, Walter Geovani, et al
Saga vol. 3-4 – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Rat Queens vol. 1 – Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Batwoman vol. 4 – J. H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman, et al
Sex Criminals vol. 1 – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Pretty Deadly vol. 1 – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, et al
The Movement vol. 1-2 – Gail Simone, Freddie Williams II, et al
By Chance or Providence – Becky Cloonan
All You Need is Kill – Nick Mamatas, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Lee Ferguson
Young Avengers vol. 1 – Kireon Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, et al
Velvet vol. 1 – Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Elizabeth Breitweiser, et al
Lazarus vol. 1-2 – Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Santi Arcas, et al
Avengers: The Enemy Within – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Scott Hepburn, et al
This One Summer – Jillian & Tamiko Tamaki
New X-Men Omnibus – Grant Morrison et al
Mara – Brian Wood, Ming Doyle, et al
Black Widow vol. 1 – Nathan Edmondson & Phil Noto
The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys – Gerard Way, Shaun Simon, Becky Cloonan, et al
Rocket Girl vol. 1 – Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder
Fantastic Four Ultimate Collection Books 1-4 – Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, et al
Runaways Complete Collection vol. 1 – Brian K Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, et al
Seconds – Bryan Lee O’Malley
Afterlife with Archie vol. 1 – Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Francesco Francavilla
Wraith – Joe Hill & Charles Paul Wilson III
The Superior Foes of Spider-Man vol. 1-2 – Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber, et al
Blue is the Warmest Colour – Julie Maroh
Superior Spider-Man vol. 1-6 – Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, Giuseppe Camuncoli, et al
Leaving Megalopolis – Gail Simone, Jim Galafiore, et al
Moon Knight vol. 1 – Warren Ellis, Declan Shelvey, et al
Through the Woods – Emily Carroll
Hawkeye vol. 3 – Matt Fraction, Javier Pulido, Annie Wu, et al
Captain Marvel vol. 1 – Kelly Sue DeConnick, David Lopez, et al
She-Hulk vol. 1 – Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, et al
Locke & Key: Alpha & Omega – Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez
Ms Marvel vol. 1 – G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, et al
Blacksad: Amarillo – Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guardino
Captain America: Winter Soldier – Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, et al
The New Avengers – Brian Michael Bendis, et al
Chew, Omnivore Edition vol. 4 – John Layman & Rob Guillory
Newt – Nicholas Mahler & Hans Wolf
The Suitcase – Dan Berry
The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath – H P Lovecraft & I N J Culbard
The Wicked + The Divine vol. 1 – Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
Three – Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, et al
Strong Female Protagonist book 1 – Brennan Lee Mulligan & Molly Ostertag

And I’m glossing over a hell of a lot of people with “et al” there – Jordie Bellaire stands out on particular as a colorist on a lot of those titles – but there are often too many contributors to list them all.

Read in 2014: Books

A short list this year, only 26 books. I really stalled and stopped reading much after about August. I did however read a lot more new books this year – starting off by reading 2013 releases for my Hugo nominations, then reading a bunch of new 2014 books during the year. There’s a lot of very good fiction on this list.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie
Rupetta – N A Sulway
Vicious – V E Schwab
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black
The Shambling Guide to New York City – Mur Lafferty
Parasite – Mira Grant
The Summer Prince – Alaya Dawn Johnson
A Stranger in Olondria – Sofia Samatar
Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer
The Last Weekend – Nick Mamatas
Authority – Jeff VanderMeer
The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson
Neptune’s Brood – Charles Stross*
Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes
Range of Ghosts – Elizabeth Bear
Shattered Pillars – Elizabeth Bear
Steles of the Sky – Elizabeth Bear
Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer
Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor
The Mirror Empire – Kameron Hurley
Scale-Bright – Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Lock In – John Scalzi
The Republic of Thieves – Scott Lynch
Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett
The Godless – Ben Peek*

* I’m still only about halfway through The Godless, and Charles Stross’ Neptune’s Brood is one of the only books I’ve ever abandoned without finishing.

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

First up, have you read Ancillary Justice? No? Well, go on then. I’ll wait.

…Well, no, obviously I won’t. But still: I don’t need to talk up the first novel in Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy – the six award wins, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C Clarke Awards, speak for themselves. Ancillary Justice is the undeniable hit of 2013, and deserved all the praise it got. And now it’s time to talk about the sequel.

I won’t waste time getting to the key point: I think Ancillary Sword is every bit as good as Ancillary Justice, and in some areas even better. This is a more focused story, one that centres upon the politics in and around a space station and one part of a planet in a single system, unlike the multi-threaded story bridging 20 years in the first book. It’s also a deeper exploration of the culture and social structures within the systems of the Imperial Radch.

There are so many things the book touches on I couldn’t possibly go over them all in detail without writing a novel’s worth myself. In fact it feels like already have in the many drafts I’ve started writing where I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of one topic or another. I have tried to restrain myself below.

As with Ancillary Justice, the book is in many areas a strong criticism of the structures of imperialism. We see the ways in which social inequalities are created and maintained; the way privilege begets abuse of privilege; the way the casting of the conquering force as “civilised” and the conquered as “savage” leads to the treatment of the latter as subhuman. One story thread concerns the abusive behaviour of a plantation owner’s daughter, dealing well with issues of privilege and the attitudes of a people living under a system that sustains such mistreatment.

The resistance of these systems to change is a major source of conflict for the novel. Breq, promoted to Fleet Captain by Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, enters the Athoek system as an outsider in a position of power, and immediately begins to challenge the status quo. The Radchaai base their cultural philosophy on the ideas of Justice, Propriety, and Benefit, but this has become perverted: they believe all that is beneficial must perforce be just and proper. As is always the case, it is in the best interest of those who benefit from inequality to maintain the inequality while pretending that it does not exist; from the beginning Breq sets out to make both impossible.

Running under these larger themes is the issue of Breq’s own identity, and the related issues of the Radchaai use of ancillaries. As a former ancillary herself, one part of an entire ship’s mind, not only must Breq live now as an individual human, but she must do so as captain of another ship, Mercy of Kalr. Mercy of Kalr has been stripped of its own ancillaries, while its human crew strive to recreate ancillary behaviour as faithfully as they can, which can even go so far as acting as cyrenoids for the Ship. And there’s a further element I will not spoil here which brings up the abominable ethics behind the creation of ancillaries. Breq is not the only character here having to learn to function as a fraction of her former self.

One issue which is omnipresent in the book but not addressed much is privacy. Aboard Radchaai ships and stations, nothing is private. The ship and station AIs are always watching, wherever you are. Personnel serving aboard a Radchaai vessel are directly linked to the ship; this connection allows the ship to view through their eyes, and to register the tiniest of physiological details in a way that allows her to read their emotions. The Radchaai do not seem to question this lack of privacy where AI are concerned, but in Ancillary Sword, Breq is able to use her ancillary implants to view the same things the ship sees. Throughout the book, Mercy of Kalr shows Breq conversations and actions that occur outside of her view, down to the most personal of situations. Nobody in the crew is aware that she can do this. It is a violation of privacy on the deepest possible level, and to Breq it is nothing – she is a former AI herself, and she is accustomed to seeing much more than what Ship shows her.

Also emerging from Breq’s past as the Justice of Toren is her attitude toward the people she interacts with. Accustomed to watching over and caring for her passengers and crew, she has a tendency to think of them in a way that renders them childlike. She is constantly reading the emotions of her crew members, and often her interpretations of those readings come across as somewhat patronising. I do not bring this up as a flaw: This element of Breq’s attitude exists subtly in the text, a decision of narrative voice that very much fits the person Breq used to be, a part of her personality rekindled by her now being connected – however incompletely – with a ship’s sensors.

Both of these issues of Breq’s perspective, her casual invasion of privacy and her condescension, are things I’d like to see explored – and, perhaps, challenged – in the next book of the series, as she adjusts further to no longer being Justice of Toren.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of gender. The novel continues the practise of keeping the majority of the characters ungendered, by use of female pronouns for everyone. For the most part this does not affect the novel at all – their gender is really irrelevant. What it does do, though, is bring a subtext to the parts of the novel that concern interpersonal relationships, particularly the abusive relationships I mentioned above. By not gendering the characters involved (or, in one instance, by gendering a character in a way that defies cliché), Leckie invites the reader to evaluate their assumptions about sex and gender in these subjects. An abuser might default male in many minds; this book simultaneously genders the character female and renders her gender unknowable, counteracting this default bias and making the story not about gender at all, but about behaviour and privilege. It’s turning out to be a very effective technique.

Ancillary Sword is a very, very good book. It’s a book that tells us Leckie’s debut was not a fluke: she can and will continue to produce fiction with exceptional worldbuilding, politics, and characterisation. In this second book, she’s given us a story on an intimate scale with a limited setting; I wonder if in the third, she’ll show us something big. Whatever it turns out to be, I will be looking forward to Ancillary Mercy with great eagerness.

Cyranoids – Who Are You Really Talking To?

This fascinating article on Wired has been bouncing around Twitter today – about an experiment into “cyranoids”, a term coined by psychologist Stanley Milgram for “people who do not speak thoughts originating in their own central nervous system: Rather, the words that they speak originate in the mind of another person who transmits these words to the cyranoid by means of a radio transmitter.”

As it turns out, people aren’t really primed to question the source of the words being spoken by someone they’re interacting with. Even when it seems incongruous – or impossible, as in a case described in the article where a group of 10 people answered questions simultaneously – you just don’t expect that a person is only repeating words whispered in their ear.

It’s a concept that sets my mind racing on all kinds of ideas. What happens to a society that knows you can never be certain who you’re talking to, even face-to-face? John Scalzi’s recent novel Lock In has a concept that can play off this idea: in it there are individuals called Integrators, who loan out their bodies to be controlled by others suffering from lock-in, who cannot use their own. When speaking to an Integrator, you might actually be speaking to one of their clients.

There are all sorts of interesting storytelling dilemmas you could create from the idea that you might not really know who the person standing in front of you is. Really very interesting to consider.

Book Posts I Want to Write But Can’t Seem to Finish

It has been a long time since I’ve written full length posts about books I’m reading. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to say anything – it’s that the times I’ve tried to write, nothing has worked. There are several posts I’ve started since, oh, April or May last year that wound up languishing in my Drafts folder, forever unfinished, some of which are still there now. Here’s what I tried to talk about but couldn’t, for whatever reason:

Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin – This was the big one, the one I actually finished. I wrote 2000 words on Tehanu, the fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and in particular on its strong feminist themes in contrast with the lack of women with agency in the three books that preceded it. I passed it to a couple of other readers to look it over before posting, and one of them came back and let me know that the premise of my post was fatally flawed. My option then was to completely rewrite the post with the new information in mind, which probably could be done. Turns out I’m terrified of revising. No idea where to start. The unaltered, incorrect post has been in my drafts for well over a year.

Women in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Until I sat down to write this bit right now, I could have sworn that last year I talked here on the blog about The Last Dark, the final book in Stephen R Donaldson’s ten-book, four-decade series, and mentioned that I wanted to write about the series’ issues with women. Looking back, I can’t find anything about it. Maybe I only tweeted it. In any case, I made a few attempts to write a big blog post, about the problems the series has in its depiction of women, and also the problems with fan response to the series’ female lead. I could never work out how to say it well, though, and found myself too often just describing plot points. Eventually I gave up trying.

Quick Book Thoughts on RupettaRupetta by N. A. Sulway was one of my favourite novels published in 2013, and was on my nomination ballot for the Hugo awards. Back when I was reading all those 2013 books for nomination ideas, I intended to do a quick thoughts post on each of them, but only got around to posting one – about Ancillary Justice, the eventual Hugo winner. I did make a couple of attempts to write about Rupetta, but could never quite order my thoughts in a way that formed a good post. I recommend the book highly, but still can’t work out how to write a full post about it.

The Eternal Sky Trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear – I’ve mentioned this one before, recently. I read the full trilogy in August this year, and it is really great. There are so many things I want to talk about regarding this series… but when I try to write them down, I can’t get it right. I have half a post written, but I can’t work out how to structure my thoughts in a way that works.

The problem I’ve been having for most of these, clearly, is “how do I put all these thoughts into the shape of a blog post”? When I try, I find myself very unsatisfied with the way my words are coming out. I’m much the same with fiction writing for the last nine months or so: nothing comes out right. I can’t say I’ve been all that good at book blogging in the past, but I’ve written some posts I still feel fairly happy about. I just can’t seem to hit that any more.