G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

The order in which I’m approaching the things I said I’d do in this post has changed. I have to push the timeframe out by a month, so the last promised thing will be appearing in mid-October. And I’m switching the order of Lucian and Bowersock around, so Bowersock comes first.

G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam: a longer-than-500-word review.

This was not the book its title led me to expect. With a title like The Throne of Adulis and a subtitle of the Eve of Islam, one expects a contextualised discussion of kingship around the Red Sea within a relatively short timeframe. But in its 150 pages – this is not a long book – Bowersock ranges from the first to the sixth centuries CE and beyond, leaving one rather with the impression that The Throne of Adulis is not so much a coherent monograph in its own right, but rather the sketched outline of a longer work.

I’m not accustomed to finding academic works lacking in depth of field. In this case, the lack of depth which I perceive may be in part my lack of familiarity with the details of the Late Antique Red Sea, with which Bowersock may in fact be assuming that his readers are already familiar. If so, Oxford University Press have chosen poorly in how to present The Throne of Adulis to the public, for it is not presented in its cover copy or press release as a scholarly monograph appealing to a specialist audience, but rather as a book which “vividly recreates the Red Sea world of Late Antiquity, transporting readers back to a remote but pivotal epoch in ancient history, one that sheds light on the collapse of the Persian Empire as well as the rise of Islam.”

Nota bene, friends: it doesn’t do that. And, it fact, this piece of puffery is contradicted by Bowersock’s stated goal in his own preface. For Bowersock is not so much concerned with the wider Red Sea world, with its social and archaeological context – and let me say that I find the use of archaeological evidence in this book to be both limited and unconcerned with discussing the problems and benefits of said evidence for shedding light on people. Inscriptional evidence for important people, yes – but everyday persons, not so much.

Bowersock is interested in only one thing: an inscribed throne from the Red Sea port of Adulis, described by the sixth-century Christian writer known as Cosmas Indicopleustes. From here, he ranges outward to discuss the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, the Jewish Himyarite kingdom on the Arabian peninsula, and – briefly and in no great detail – the involvement of Byzantine and Persian interests in Axum’s wars in Arabia. When it comes to discussing the throne – the “throne of Adulis” of the title – and Axum’s situation in Ethiopia, it is a very straightforward, useful piece of research, comparing the description of the throne at Adulis with other inscribed thrones from the history of the Axumite kingdom and doing so in ways that I, as someone who knows little of Axum, can follow very well.

When he moves on to discuss Axum’s involvement in Arabia, and the Himyarite kingdom, his work stops being something that I can follow well at all. The discussion of the socio-historical context of the Arabian peninsula up to this time is lacking. Bowersock’s discussion of the Himyarite kingdom is seriously hampered by the fact that he does not take the time to lay out and examine the evidence literary and archaeological in a methodological fashion, so I am left not knowing if the lack of detail is Bowersock’s choice or a result of lack of data. The through-line of his narrative/argument is confusing, therefore, to follow, and he sketches a very limited picture of Byzantine and Persian involvement. Furthermore, he has next-to-nothing significant to say about Axum and Himyar’s impact on the rise of Islam.

And I’m left with a very odd feeling about the way in which Bowersock refers to Jewishness and Arabness. There seems to be an underlying subconscious strain of moral judgement there – not something one can easily put a finger on, but the choice of adjectives and adverbs strikes me very uneven at times. The discussion of the Christian kingdom of Axum’s interests in Arabia, and the Jewish Himyarite kingdom’s suppression of Christians, never rises to an acknowledgement that there are reasons other than pure religious sentiment to suppress adherents of a different creed: that religion is intimately political. That adherents of the creed of one’s belligerent neighbours can also be seen as Fifth Columnists.

Anyway. The Throne of Adulis is a book of interest to people fascinated by inscribed thrones, and of very limited use in explaining the social and political context of the Red Sea in the century before the rise of the Prophet.

A review of Charles Stross’ Neptune’s Brood

Over at Tor.com.

Neptune’s Brood, the latest science fiction novel from multiple award winner Charles Stross, could be subtitled a novel of adventure and accountancy. I’ve read what seems to me a lot of fiction, and a lot of science fiction: I don’t think I’ve ever before read a novel so closely involved with financial theory and the workings of money and debt. Stross has written a novel that works as both science fiction thriller and an exploration of how interstellar banking—interstellar economics—could work in a universe without FTL travel but with interstellar mobility.

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

The summer issue of Ideomancer is up, in which I have a review of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds:

The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a domestic work. It doesn’t centre around a domicile, around social interiors. But it is concerned with emotional interiority in a manner not often see in the wider SF field, a novel immensely – one might even say intensely – personal in scope and concerned with small-scale actions, despite the world-destroying tragedy lurking in the story’s near past and looming over its shoulder. This concern with the personal combines with a gentle nod at SF’s mythic furniture to create a thematic, tonal continuity with Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, although the two books are otherwise very different animals.

Tor.com review: The Gist. Written by Michael Marshall Smith, Translated by Benoît Domis, Re-Translated by Nicholas Royle

And you all can read it here.

The Gist, a novelette by Michael Marshall Smith, is the latest offering from Subterranean Press’s limited but honourable catalogue. To say it is by Marshall Smith—or at least, by Marshall Smith alone—is, however, something of a misnomer. Between The Gist’s covers are three novelettes and one novelette: Marshall Smith’s original, translated once into the French by Benoît Domis, translated again (without access to the original text) back into the English by Nicholas Royle. Two further recensions of the first text: three recensions of a single work.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Exiled Blade: a confession of unprofessional shirking

I was supposed to review this book. I wanted to review this book. (I really enjoyed the previous volume in the series.) JCG’s Orbit US publicist, a very personable person, sent me a review copy of The Exiled Blade

And, well.

There are some books that come along at the worst possible time for you to read them. Some books, regardless of their talent and ability – sometimes because of the directions in which talent and ability is bent – you can’t read then. Or sometimes ever.

I lasted eight chapters. I didn’t stop because Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a bad writer. I stopped because This should have been when we were happy [p50]; because JCG is in fact very good, and the level of pain and grief and despair he managed to evoke, the cold sense of lowering doom, heartbreak, incipient dread, made my teeth hurt. I stopped because this is a Hamlet, isn’t it? Nobody comes out intact, everyone comes out broken…

…And right now I need sweet little hopeful happy-ending lies in my life. I need stories that focus on joy as well as pain. Because I need to escape from hurting for a while, me, not face the world’s cruelty condensed and intensified in JCG’s viscerally-rendered courtly shadows, his dark and glittering Renaissance Venice.

One day I’ll be able to read this book without bile backing up in my throat. One day I’ll want a dash of bleak horror in my literary cocktail again. But not this month. Maybe not this year.

Until then, cheers. I’ll drink something sweet and sticky, and leave dry bitters to other folks.

Books in brief

Reading has been decidedly difficult for me lately: I lack some level of emotional energy necessary to involve myself in demanding texts at the same rate as heretofore.

Anyway.

Melissa Scott, Star Trek DS9: Proud Helios. Ebook.

Jean Lorrah, Star Trek Next Generation: Survivors. Ebook.

Diane Duane, Star Trek: Sand and Stars. Ebook.

So, these are all actually pretty good light entertainment, although Lorrah’s is a bit squicky and problematic.

Katherine V. Forrest, Amateur City & Murder at the Nightwood Bar. Ebooks.

Murder mysteries from the 1980s, starring a lesbian detective with the LAPD. Pretty excellent stuff, actually: I’d really like to get my hands on the other books in the series. I MEAN IT. THESE BOOKS ARE AWESOME. ACE. GIVE THEM TO ME I NEED THEM.

(I know their names, even if I don’t know what order they go in or WHERE TO GET HOLD OF THEM. Liberty Square. The Beverly Malibu. Apparition Alley. Sleeping Bones. Hancock Park. Murder By Tradition. GIVE ME THEM! LET ME FIND EBOOK (non-Amazon) EDITIONS OR SOMETHING.)

Ahem. This is because of a certain someone Who Knows Who She Is. Who sent me a box of delightful books (which I am slowly working my way through), but among them was Daughters of a Coral Dawn, which reminded me that Forrest had written murder mysteries, which led me to the discovery I could get the first two as ebooks.

(OH GOD I WANT THEM ALL.)

Claire McNab, Death by Death & Murder at Random. Gifts.

Lesbians. Spies. Whee? Whee!

(Everything’s better with lesbians.)

Ali Vali, Blues Skies. Ebook.

Lesbian fighter pilots. Rah military is boring. But everything is better with lesbians.

Sara Marx, Decoded. Ebook.

Serial killer thrillers are usually boring. But everything is better with lesbians.

Kim Baldwin and Xenia Alexiou, The Gemini Deception. Ebook.

Lesbian romance with espionage/thriller entanglements. Unbelievable setup! But – sing it with me now – EVERYTHING IS BETTER WITH LESBIANS.

Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls. ARC.

Reviewed for Tor.com. I did not like it.

China Miéville, Railsea. Review copy.

Reviewed for Vector. I LOVED IT.

New review up at Tor.com – The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I review The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes:

This is a novel about a time-travelling serial killer from the 1930s, his victims, the girl who survived him, and a burned-out murder-beat journalist. It’s competently, even excellently, written, makes brilliant use of a non-linear narrative to create and build tension, wears its American Literature influences proudly on its sleeve—

And for me, despite its technical competence, The Shining Girls is ultimately a frustrating mess of a novel, one whose climax falls apart under the weight of nested paradoxes.

Linky feels bad about not being more interesting

I promise, I’ll try to be original again soon.

Malinda Lo, On Space Opera: Why so many brothels in space?

So what’s with all the brothels? Because whenever I think of brothels, I think of one question: Who are the women working there? There was no indication in Leviathan Wakes that there were male prostitutes, even though one of the (male) main characters worked as a cop and seemed to have a lot (a lot!) of contact on the job with prostitutes. I’m gonna guess that sure, there might be male prostitutes, but the majority are probably female.

So who are these prostitutes? What kind of a future world is it that permits so much prostitution? Are the prostitutes regulated? Do they have health insurance? Are they part of worker-owned collectives so they don’t have to deal with pimps?

Foz Meadows, A Rule of Thumb for Escapism:

All of which is a way of saying that the big schism in SFF no more between leftwingers and rightwingers than it is between realists and escapists: rather, it’s between those for whom escapism is an extension of privilege, and those for whom escapism is a means of furthering representation. But even then, that’s far from being a binary position: there are many different kinds of privilege, after all, and in accordance with the principles of intersectionality, possessing one type of privilege doesn’t prevent one from lacking another. It’s simply a question of escapism: from what, into what, and above all, why.

Foz Meadows (is on fire lately), Sexism At Fantasy Book Café:

Let me get this straight: the way to get rid of sexism is to stop talking about gender? That’s like saying that the way to prevent STDs is to stop talking about sex: in both instances, the latter concept is integral to any meaningful discussion of the former problem, such that omitting it would render the entire exercise moot. And don’t even get me started on the pervasive cissexism of constantly defining gender in terms of plumbing and underwear: the issue at hand is concerns brains, not bodies, and trying to boil it all down to descriptions of bits is both childish and incredibly problematic.

Natalie at Radish Reviews, Over the Borderline: More on Genre, Gender, and Reviews:

This conversation about review coverage and gender parity isn’t about discrimination against specific authors–it’s about systemic discrimination. In short: the game is rigged and it needs to be un-rigged.

Sleeps With Monsters: Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite

A new column post at Tor.com: Sleeps With Monsters: Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite:

There are two ways I can go about writing this instalment of our Martha Wells focus….

…No, wait, there’s really only one way. Because I cannot pretend to be anything other than utterly in love with Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, her fourth novel. Originally published in 2000, by Eos (HarperCollins), I first read it in some dim, misty far-away past… possibly in my second year in college, so not really that long ago. I don’t remember having such a strong positive reaction on my first reading, which explains why this is the only the first time I’ve reread it since. Perhaps, like many things, it improves with time.

Jaine Fenn’s Queen of Nowhere, reviewed at Strange Horizons

Being distracted, I missed acknowledging the publication of my review of Jaine Fenn’s Queen of Nowhere, at Strange Horizons:

I don’t remember where I first heard, in relation to science fiction and fantasy, the axiom that the world of the novel’s action is as much a character as the personalities in the narrative. World-as-character is the reason that “sensawunda” remains a term to conjure with in science fiction, and part of the reason, it seems, behind the journey/quest narratives in the fantasies of Jacqueline Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, and others too numerous to name. In Queen of Nowhere, Jaine Fenn opens a window on a fascinating and vivid science fictional world, seen through the lens of an intriguing character—a world which, ultimately, proves more vivid and coherent than our protagonist.

Review at Tor.com: Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Guardian

I’ve a review up at Tor.com: “Very Much a Series Novel: Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Guardian:

There’s a small problem with reviewing a series that has run (thus far) to eight instalments and an ancillary spin-off: by the ninth volume in direct descent (to whit, this one, The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Guardian), the reviewer can assume that unless the author has chosen to do something radically different, readers who’ve come this far already have a fair idea of whether or not they want to keep going.

Linky brings a fine selection for your delectation

Maureen Kincaid Speller on Beasts of the Southern Wild:

Several days later, it’s still weird, I still like it in some ways, but having had time to think about it, there are things about it that make me uneasy. In many ways it defies categorisation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure whether that’s because it is actually sui generis or simply because it doesn’t really know what it is all about.

On reflection, my unease really began with the aurochs.

John Scalzi, Big Idea Gender Breakdown:

I see that Strange Horizons has done a gender breakdown of reviews in SF publications, and learns that more sf/f by men is reviewed than sf/f by women. This made me curious as to how my Big Idea feature here at Whatever has been doing, gender-wise, in terms of authors/editors featured.

So I tallied up the gender of writers who contributed Big Idea pieces between 4/23/12 and 4/24/13 (I’m counting tomorrow’s Big Idea piece, as I already have it in hand). Here’s how it turned out:

44 men wrote or co-wrote Big Idea pieces during that span of time;

48 women wrote or co-wrote Big Idea pieces.

Natalie at Radish Reviews has some data (and commentary) on the SFF reviews in RT Book Reviews:

The question really is this–why is RT consistently ignored when it comes to these annual surveys, both by VIDA and within the speculative fiction community?

I suspect that it actually has to do with the fact that RT‘s primary audience is women and that the bulk of what they review is romance novels. In the past, I’ve had to clarify repeatedly that there is absolutely no romantic requirement for the science fiction and fantasy section, often while there was snickering happening.

Linky comes bearing gifts and huddling away from the cold

Natalie at Radish Reviews on Kathleen Tierney’s Blood Oranges:

Basically, Quinn gets turned into a vampire-werewolf (a werepire? a vampwolf?) as an apparently indirect consequence of getting in the middle of a job gone bad and the entire plot flows from there. Quinn makes things up, revises her accounts of previous events in the book, and declares that since she finds action sequences in books boring that she’s not going to have any. It’s fantastic.

The Georgian Bawdyhouse on Beware the “Squeaking Woman”! (1728):

The people here, it seems, are extreme cautious of being out too late at Night because of the squeaking Woman, call’d Long Margery, who is a great Haunter of this Parish. This Apparition (as the Tradition saith) appears in various Shapes and Forms, and has been seen and heard by many of the Women in this Part of the Town. The particular Office of this Ghost being to visit the Doors of Women in Child-bed only, and if they are not for this Life, to give them fair Warning by three loud Shrieks; and if a Midwife or a Nurse do but report they have heard anything like this, though the Woman shall be in the most happy Way of Recovery, the Husband would be thought worse than an Infidel, if Preparations are not immediately made for his Wife’s Funeral.

Ursula Vernon on Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt:

The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things happening just out of sight. You don’t want to drag the world in and put it on the dissecting table—that way lies Silmarillion-esque prologues—you just want them to catch a glimpse of it, like an okapi’s butt in the rainforest, and go “Whoa. There’s a really big animal over there, isn’t there?” while it glides away into the shadows.

It’s a form of writer’s sleight-of-hand. It’s making it look like of course you know all about this, and the reason you’re not going into it is because it’s not really relevant and you don’t want to bore people, not that the whole of the Malarial Queendom is (possibly) no more than three lines of text in a book two inches thick.

Probably there’s a skill involved—knowing what makes an alluring okapi-butt—but that all happens down at the not-really-conscious level for me, so I can’t talk much about it, except that I just assume if I find it interesting, the rest of you weirdos do too. And the truth, of course, is that for me (and I’d guess for many of us) there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth. Possibly while making “Woooooooo!” noises because none of us actually know what an okapi sounds like.

Chaucer Doth Tweet translates “American Pie” into Middle English: Bye, Bye Englisshe Jakke of Dover. (Via Rushthatspeaks.)

Cora Buhlert on It’s Still Very Grimdark Out There:

And talking about the gender gap among rape victims in gritty speculative fiction, this is something that bothered me quite a bit about Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, which I otherwise enjoyed a whole lot. Interestingly, Green’s name never shows up during discussions of of gritty speculative fiction either. Quite the contrary, several of the review snippets on the backcover of my edition call the Deathstalker series “light and humorous space opera”. Because whole planets being slaughtered in graphic detail and the bodies of the victims being ground up and turned into a highly addictive drug is just so bloody funny. But I guess the fact that there is true love (lots of true love even for the least likely of characters) and hope in the Deathstalker series means that it cannot be dark and gritty.

Speculative Fiction 2012

Justin Landon and Jared Shurin are editing a volume of “The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary 2012”.

The list of contributors has been revealed, and yours truly is among them. Ten days ago, Shurin emailed me to solicit my contribution: the review from January 2012 that kickstarted my career (such as it is) as an internet crank.

Cranky person. Whichever.

For on January 13, 2012, Strange Horizons published Theft of Swords, by Michael J. Sullivan, reviewed by Liz Bourke” – a review which has, I believe, broken the all-time Strange Horizons record for the number of comments it attracted.

(Not everyone gets to experience two shitstorms in one week, as I did that January – the second time four days later at Tor.com, for “Admirals and Amazons: Women in Military Science Fiction” – but since it’s probably at least in part responsible for opening up some opportunities for me, I can’t really complain.)

It’s an honour to be included among the “Best” of 2012, and I wish Landon and Shurin, and next year’s editorial team, Thea James and Ana Grilo, the best of luck.

Books in brief: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Outcast Blade; Weston Ochse, Seal Team 666

Weston Ochse, Seal Team 666. Titan Books, 2013. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.

This book’s prologue begins with a thinly-disguised fantasy fictionalisation of Seal Team 6’s assassination of Osama bin Laden, in which the unnamed bin Laden figure is portrayed as sincerely and knowingly in league with demonic forces.

Me, personally, I found this immensely disrespectful towards any understanding of Islam. Look, lads. Leaguing with demons? Charged by Protestants against Catholics and vice versa. But there are no demons in Islam. The only power a “devil” has is to lead men and djinni away from the straight path:

He said: “Give me respite till the day they are raised up.”
(Allah) said: “Be thou among those who have respite.”
He said: “Because thou hast thrown me out of the way, lo! I will lie in wait for them on thy straight way:
“Then will I assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left: Nor wilt thou find, in most of them, gratitude (for thy mercies).”
(Allah) said: “Get out from this, disgraced and expelled.”

(Sura 7, Al-A’raf.)

And when continuing on from that in the next chapter, there was no attempt at explaining why there’d be demons involved, and it also proved rather dull – well, I have a lot of other things to read. A lot. So I stopped, and I do not intend to go back.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Outcast Blade. Orbit, 2012.

I may rag on “grimdark” fantasy a lot, but I like a good bit of gritty darkness as much as the next person – as long as it’s leavened with moments of emotional warmth and somewhat ethical choices. In The Outcast Blade, sequel to The Fallen Blade, JCG continues the story of Tycho, ex-slave turned knight, a trained assassin who craves blood under the moon; the sixteen-year-old noblewoman Giulietta, widow, key political pawn – or player – and the dark and troubled Venice of this alternate, fantastical, 16th-century Venice.

Caught between the Holy Roman Empire’s army and the Byzantine fleet, with scions of both empires offering for Giulietta’s hand in marriage, Venice, Tycho, and Giulietta are all in an uncomfortable position. One made more complicated by the dangerous rivalry between the regents for the mad/idiot Duke Marco: his mother, Alexa, aunt to the Mongol khan, and his uncle Alonzo. Tragedy, treachery, and international politics collide…

It’s a very good, very tightly written book. It never forgets the agency of its women, and its Venice is home to a wide range of people – Mongols and Mamlukes, rabbis and gravediggers, noblewomen and street children. I enjoyed it a lot, and I anticipate its soon-to-be-published sequel with some eagerness.

Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century

“The wolfhound century is on my back/But I am not a wolf”: Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins at Tor.com:

The epigraph of Higgins’ debut novel is a line from the poetry of Osip Mandelstam: The wolfhound century is on my back/But I am not a wolf. This image, as metaphor, is one that forms the novel’s thematic underpinnings: a contest between hunter and prey in which definitions are fluid, in which the world itself is fluid, in conflict with the cold, rigid requirements of the totalitarian state of the Vlast.

Reviews elseweb

Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, at Tor.com:

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber’s debut novel (out of Aqueduct Press) is a difficult read, but a worthy one. Difficult, because it asks hard questions and refuses easy answers; and because it demands you extend your sympathy to all sides: mass-murderers, liars, haters, the wounded and the bereaved and the betrayed.

M.C. Planck’s The Kassa Gambit, in this quarter’s Ideomancer.com:

Planck seems like an auspicious name for a science fiction novelist. With The Kassa Gambit, his debut, Australian-based M.C. Planck presents an auspicious if flawed start to his career.

Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City, also in Ideomancer.com:

It’s always interesting to read a novel written in the style and manner of a memoir. Such a book (fictional or not) succeeds or fails, rises or falls, on the vividness of the memoirist’s personality and the observed details of the surrounding world. The reader who enjoys the memoirist’s company and tone will find digressions and side-roads diverting: the reader who finds it tolerably entertaining will have less patience, and require more in the way of narrative coherence and identifiable character growth, to maintain a feeling of investment in the ultimate outcome.

Melanie Rawn’s Touchstone, also in Ideomancer.com:

It’s been over a decade – fifteen years, if we’re counting each and every one – since Melanie Rawn last published a solo work of second-world fantasy, The Mageborn Traitor. Before the long hiatus in her career, Rawn’s track record leaned to the sprawling family-saga, with a knack for believable interpersonal relationships and narratives that take years to come to ultimate fruition. Touchstone, the first in a new series and a new milieu, could not possibly live up to the weight of expectation this reviewer placed upon it. To its credit, it is a book that disappoints far less than it could have.


Yes, I’m the only review-writer for Ideo’s Spring 2013 issue. Fortunately there’s a bit more variety in the stories and poems. I recommend you take a look, and if the spirit moves you, donate. (Donations help pay for short fiction and poetry. I am not working there for pay.)

Books in brief: Csordas for research; Greenwood, Unnatural Habits; Anderson, Bitter Angels, Pegau, Rulebreaker, Caught in Amber, and Deep Deception

I am immensely behind in logging my reading.

Thomas J. Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. University of California Press, 1997.

Charismatic healing among Catholic Charismatics in the USA in the 1980s. Cultural phenomenology. Interesting theoretical frameworks. If this is your thing, you will like this book. If it is not, you will bang your head against the nearest table and moan.

I enjoyed it after I got used to it. And left it full of sticky notes.

Thomas J. Csordas, ed., Embodiment and Experience: the existential ground of culture and self. Cambridge Studies in Medical Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

A collection of interesting papers, some of them baffling, some of them working from referents with which I’m not familiar. But some of them really fascinating. Likewise full of sticky notes.

Kerry Greenwood, Unnatural Habits. Poisoned Pen Press, 2012.

The latest entry in the Phryne Fisher series. Hilarious and bitingly upfront about horrendous bits of 1920s society by turns: a much tighter entry in the series in terms of the logic of its scattered mystery-plot than the previous entry.

C.L. Anderson, Bitter Angels. Spectra, 2009.

Anderson is an open pseud for Sarah Zettel, and this is an interesting, complex work of science fiction. Brilliant characterisation and fascinating set-up, but it loses track of its loose ends a little too much to come off as a wholly good book: would’ve been, perhaps, better as a somewhat longer work with more room to breathe and develop (a trilogy, perhaps).

An interesting failure, though, and well worth reading.

Cathy Pegau, Rulebreaker, Caught in Amber, and Deep Deception. Ebooks, courtesy of the author.

Will probably end up talking about Rulebreaker and Deep Deception as lesbian skiffy romance elsewhere, I think. Pegau writes decent (if short) romance. Unfortunately, lacking in each of these stories is the eyeball-kick feel of science fiction: change a handful of references, and the basics of the background plot could carry on in any time during the second half of the 20th century. There’s not nearly enough what-if: it doesn’t feel nearly as science-fictional as the shit that pops up as news in my daily life. (“Natural nuclear reactor on Mars,” for example.) If one is going to take some science-fictional setting in which to set one’s romance plot, it helps an awful lot with the SF part if the skiffy is both integral and frontloaded, not just set dressing. SF is metal and flash and bang and futureshock.

More lesbians, please, but more flash and BOOM and (sod it though I hate the term) “sensawunda,” too.

Some thoughts on Dishonored

I spent much of the past four days sleeping and playing Dishonored.

Spoilers.

It’s an interesting failure, by me: I like stealth games, have ever since I played Metal Gear Solid for the old Playstation, but I like RPGs much better. And at least half my problem with Dishonored is that it would’ve made a very good RPG. A mixed RPG, like ME2. Some of the decisions made by the greater narrative were obvious from very early on. One Big Twist, that your allies are using you for their own ends and will end up betraying you, was pretty obvious from the get-go. But there’s no way to get the drop on them, even if you see it coming, or change the straightforward progression of the narrative.

Choices in-game are limited largely to performing the missions with minimum chaos or maximum bloodshed. This apparently affects endgame outcomes. (Save the child-empress and the city/cause everything to go to hell, it seems: these are the opposing poles of the outcomes.) For me, it would’ve been a far more satisfying experience as an RPG: interesting story-hook, but I’m not interested in playing through a film, y’know?

The other half of my problem is… I found its choices with regard to gender utterly alienating. You never see your own character’s face, and there is no real reason to gender that character. You could write all the incidental dialogue without gendered pronouns.

All of the other characters in the game, with the exception of servants, a dead empress, a child heir, an evil witch, random participants in a masked ball you have to sneak through and a woman who’s mainly important to eliminate because she’s Top Bad Guy’s lover – they’re all men. And all white.

Is it really so much to ask, in a game set explicitly in a port city, that they not be ALL SO WHITE? That some of the chief schemers and powerful movers-and-shakers be not ALL SO MALE?

I was pointed at this article from The Mary Sue when I complained about it on Twitter. Said article points out that there is subtle pointing-out of the unfairness/misery/unpleasantness of discriminatory gender roles.

Which is cool, but. I already know all this shit. (And it doesn’t explain why Dunwall, the port city of the setting, is so bloody white.) I don’t need the social disabilities of my gender (is “social disabilities” too strong? But there do remain bars to success for women that men don’t have to surmount in the same ways) in my face in a gaslamp fantasy stealth-assassination game. And if they are in my face, then I bloody well want more range: noblewomen scheming to control their dead husbands’ fortunes, courtesans getting in and out of the trade, struggling merchants’ widows on the edge of collapse: more women-as-active-participants, less women-as-passive-sufferers.

And the more I think about it, the more it annoys me. It’s a massive failure in a game that’s smart about all kinds of things – but only as long as white men are the whole of the foreground. Only that long.