Not much to add to the title. Life has been a series of curve balls covered in barbed wire, and I am exhausted. Will make sure to be back to regularly scheduled blogging next week.
Not much to add to the title. Life has been a series of curve balls covered in barbed wire, and I am exhausted. Will make sure to be back to regularly scheduled blogging next week.
I knew I had to write this review the moment I finished the book. Obviously, it is nowhere near current. In fact, as of this year, A Civil Campaign can drink legally in the United States. But it is just so incredibly unique in its place in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ouvre, and I enjoyed it so much, that I had to share.
Some housekeeping. While I won’t spoil the specific plots of previous novels, chronologically this is the 12th book in the Vorkosigan Saga. I cannot talk about it without referring to character developments that are likely to spoil some significant moments in the series. But with that said, if you are even remotely interested in reading this review, you are obviously up to speed.
Okay. Here goes.
A Civil Campaign is an impossible book. It shouldn’t exist, and if it were written by a lesser writer, it wouldn’t work. However, it is also possibly the best installment in the entire series. Bujold describes it as “A Comedy of Biology and Manners”. It centers around an upcoming wedding, intertwining several characters’ wacky romances and a number of political sub-plots, also of the wink-wink variety.
The reason why this does not crash and burn, when placed within a military space opera context, is simple. We care. Lois McMaster Bujold has built these complex characters and their relationships within story after story that focused on adventure and mortal danger. Now, she gets to have them relax (well, not really) and just have fun.
(But not Ivan. Never Ivan. Fuck Ivan in particular.)
And if we’ve made it this far, we want to see this. Sure, we know how Miles interacts with his psychotic clone brother Mark when the stakes are life and death. But who doesn’t want to know what their relationship is like when living under the same roof, and dealing with an infestation of genetically engineered bugs that produce butter? Or their perspective on each other’s absurdist love life?
Add to that a Vor lord who finds out that he is part Cetagandan Ghem. Then a Vor lady who goes to Beta Colony for a sex change operation, so she could inherit her dead brother’s countship. Now we have political stakes as the Council of Counts must vote on these, and the picture is complete.
Yet, at the same time, A Civil Campaign is a mature work that does not skip character building. The budding romance between Miles and Ekaterin is a glorious portrait of a hyperactive neurotic and a world-weary intellectual, both of whom have trouble realizing that they are really on the same page. Mistakes are made. Some of them hilarious. Some — meaningful. All of them gorgeously written.
A Civil Campaign also features a lot of parenting. We’ve known Aral, Cordelia, and the Koudelkas since before Miles was born. Now we get to see them dealing with the next generation becoming adults in their own right. The result is a mixture of fascination and exasperation. Hilariously, and thanks to Ekaterin’s son Nikki, even Emperor Gregor gets to do a bit of parenting. Which really completes some kind of circle of life that I am not even sure how to describe.
All in all, A Civil Campaign is a flawless work of fiction. It relies on the reader’s love of its world, and the characters whose relationships are interwoven throughout it. And the reader, if they know what’s good for them, does not let Bujold down. At least this reader didn’t. This book is literal therapy, and I cannot recommend it enough, if you’ve read the previous novels and some-crazy-how stopped yourself before delving into this one.
I am almost there! With the completion of A Civil Campaign, I am only one novel away from being finally done with the part of the series I had read as a teenager. Even though I also went through Ethan of Athos — another novel in the universe that I’d never read — this will mark the end of the “Re” portion of my reading adventure.
First, however, as suggested by this here page, I began Falling Free — the 200-years-earlier prequel story on the creation of the Quadies. The edition of the audiobook I stumbled on is pretty terrible. Both the man and woman reading it, do so in an extremely low, mumbling register, which means that literally any sound drowns their voices even with noise-canceling earphones. But as far as the book itself goes, I have no complaints so far.
Next is Diplomatic Immunity. What comes after that, is the portion of the late novels I have never read. Those have gotten mixed reviews, but I am hopeful. A Civil Campaign was far bigger delight than even my vague memories suggested. I am riding this high to the bitter end!
I have been thinking about how to approach the torrent of revelations coming out of Twitter in recent days. Not because I am in any way close to any of the people involved, but rather because I felt I needed to. And I fully recognize that this situation is not about me, and my thoughts are unlikely to enrich it. But this blog is part therapy, and I hope I also don’t cause harm by speaking on the subject.
Several notable authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy have been dragged out for various forms of harassment of women, non-binary folks, and queer people they perceived as vulnerable. Those include Myke Cole, Sam Sykes, Mark Lawrence, Max Temkin, and Warren Ellis. Some of them I’ve met in person, others I know only through their writing or reputation. None has made any overtly bad impression on me.
And I don’t for a second struggle believing the accusations leveled against them.
It’s not even about believing the accusers in this case. Most of these men have freely admitted to their actions, with varying degrees of accepting responsibility. Some have ran away from Twitter, preferring to act like victims. Others are so far standing firm and accepting their punishment, whatever that’s worth to anyone.
It made me consider my own behavior. As a pretty firmly established gay man who hasn’t been on any kind of “prowl” in quite a few years now, I have never considered myself any kind of threat to women. More than that, in my few and limited interactions with female and queer authors, I’ve made it a point to be respectful and considerate.
But I have no way of knowing how successful I have been. I have witnessed autograph tables of accomplished, wonderfully talented women stay empty. Meanwhile, one lane over, a male author would have several lines struggling to fit into the allotted space. I have been in some of those big lines, rather than the empty ones. Of course, sometimes the reason was the particular names involved, rather than gender.
But this raises another question — if a not-inconsiderable number of the most successful writers in the field are men, do they not have an even bigger responsibility to make our shared spaces feel safer and more nurturing for women and queer folks? And what message does it send to these people, when they come to conventions and conferences, only to be met by crude jokes, belittling behavior, and other forms of often overt harassment? Because let me tell you, a super buff dude grabbing me in his lap while telling me he wants to pee on me, would NOT make me want to return to that space.
We are all capable of calling this out. And I believe we are responsible to do so. As fans, as hopeful writers — scary though that might be to our proto-careers — and as people who believe in human dignity and every person’s right to feel safe in any public space they enter. We can uplift underrepresented voices, so that these public spaces are not ran by drunken cops or writer dynasty legacies.
And in the mean time, it takes more than a Twitter repentance. Many of these dudes are fairly successful in their careers. So, put your money where your apologies are. Make meaningful steps to help women, POC, and queer authors. If you need an apology tour, go donate to a charity, or check yourself into rehab. It is high time that “taking responsibility” means more than 240 symbols on a social network.
As I have already written here, I was less than happy with J.K. Rowling’s continuing quest to invalidate trans people. Of course, Rowling is in a tax bracket where nothing mortal can really impact her, but the same is not true of the people she is putting in danger through her willful ignorance.
There is very little I can do to help, other than be an ally myself, but I found a nice way to express my feelings.
Recently, I started work at my local indie bookstore (“Unabridged Books” in Chicago). It is smack in the middle of our gay neighborhood Boystown, so I convinced them to set up a display of trans and non-binary authors of fantasy and science fiction. So far the support has been overwhelming, and we are ordering other titles that we didn’t have in stock at the time.
If you too feel grossed out by Rowling’s transphobia, and wonder what you can do, supporting a SFF trans or non-binary author is a great first step.
This exercise asks the writer to take a story they are working on, then write a letter from one of its characters to another. The letter is never to be sent, so it needs to be deeply personal. It is never to become part of the actual story, so it’s more an exploration of the characters than anything else. I went full sap, while also trying to keep things ambiguous. Wouldn’t want to spoil my future NYT bestseller, yunno!
I marvel at my own capacity to write these words without breaking down. I have to face the truth of what is about to happen to you, and I find that I cannot.
I lost you once, all those years ago, and…
No, this is untrue. I have to start being honest with myself, even if it’s far too late for that.
I lost you for the first time all those years ago. And then I kept losing you over and over again, every second that you stood beside me. Beautiful. Kind. Unwitting. Broken. I could not tell you what had happened to you, for that would have been a loss far more final than all the rest combined. I could not give you the truth. So I had to watch you stumble in confusion, through a life you were no longer fit for.
He broke you, back then. I try reminding myself of that, and it rings hollow.
I told myself this lie over and over, even as I knew that it was a lie. Perhaps I accepted it for so long, because I took my cues from you. Your entire existence is a lie, after all, yet in the moments of lucidity you scrounge from the shattered mess of your mind, you seem happy. Content. You are incomplete, and it ruins my heart every time I see the knowledge of it on your face. But you are also content. Content to be with me.
I was not content. I never could be, with what was left of you. So I blamed him. Over and over, until my hatred of what he did to you seemed all that sustained me. But it is the end now, and I am about to lose you for the last time. There is no more point in lying to myself. He did not break you. He saved what could be saved of you. He did it in a rash, stupid, harmful way, but he had no choice. We all had left him no choice.
But now what happened to you back then is about to happen again. And I find that I no longer know if I have it in me to survive this. There is still a chance, maybe. He says there is. I have spent so long hating him, that I don’t know how to trust him. And I have seen this before. I have seen you before. What you become. How you have to be stopped.
It sounds stupid, and empty, and cheap now, because it is so very late. I should have said the words before. I should have told you the truth and given you the strength you needed to accept it. I should have…
These are the words then. I love you. I did then, and I have every moment since, even if you no longer knew it. A part of me hopes you still did. Another part knows that it doesn’t matter. Loving you was the one thing that made me feel capable of kindness. Loving you was the one thing that made me human. And even though I railed and raged when you were taken from me, I never lost loving you.
And until all hope is dead, I will continue to believe that you might know me again.
There is really nothing literary, or punny about this post.
AMC Theaters and assorted other chains have publicly announced that they won’t be enforcing masks when they reopen, because they don’t want to be “mired in politics”. Well, I won’t be going to their theaters, because I don’t want to be mired in COVID-19. With their businesses already flailing, this is the worst possible decision they could have made.
As more and more businesses take our mobster toddler of a president’s cue, wearing a mask has apparently become a POLITICAL issue. It’s not. Protecting yourself and — far more importantly — others, is NOT politics. It’s healthcare. It’s a public health issue.
Again, for all three of you reading this: wear a mask.
That’s it. That’s the post.
A little bit of cheating today, because I ran out of life for the day, and I didn’t want to have gaps in my regular posting schedule. In my defense, it kinda works. The exercise calls for describing a kind person doing something good out of sheer empathy, rather than requiring something in return. As it happens, I already have a situation like that in my current manuscript, so I picked it up, edited it a bit, and the result isbelow. With that said, it IS quite weird describing altruism without making it sappy, and I am not at all certain that I succeeded, even with the allowance that the text comes from a work of epic fantasy.
The narrow warrens with their protective awnings formed a shadowy labyrinth. Signs of the Convergence were everywhere. There were too many beggars in the corners, and people wearing clothes that had not been changed in days, huddled in groups around fountains and public buildings with an air of discontented desperation. Children fought with skax for scraps of food, the small rodents’ faceted eyes and angry hissing enough to scare many away.
Valen’s heart broke a little, as he saw a grimy infant in rags – a little girl, barely able to walk – stumbling around a woman who huddled by the dirty wall of a nearby building, too weak to move. The passersby ignored both, and he could not bear thinking what would happen to this child when her mother was gone.
Pity was replaced by anger. The nobility lived in wonders of walking architecture and threw lavish parties turning the Convergence into entertainment. Meanwhile, the unknown continent’s arrival had spelled utter despair for thousands of poor souls living along the edge. Valen was honest with himself – he didn’t steal from nobles out of a sense of justice. The poor were no less poor for his exploits. But it always brought him a little bit of satisfaction knowing that some of those void damned nobles truly deserved to be visited by him.
He also noticed the increased presence of city guards. Mean expressions, hands dancing over scimitar hilts. What the farinate of Kash lacked in hospitality toward the refugees, it made up for in escalating tension. The Sovereign no doubt thought the Convergence crisis a minor trouble from his high throne in Tallisar. Enjoy the civil war when it arrives, salar…
However, Valen also saw Gem Singers, the glass jewels in their colorful robes glinting with the light of the setting sun as the cultists distributed food among those in need. They were members of various cults – the remnants of the Chantry after the Dissolution, focusing on good deeds and charity, rather than oppressive dogma and moralizing. The selfless work of the Singers was something Abradel sorely needed. And something its rulers should be providing.
There were also a few followers of Amrodin, offering healing to the most desperate looking beggars. The leviathan Gods cared little for the fate of humans, but to worship Amrodin, The Last Pathway, was to worship both life and death. His cult attracted the most skilled healers, even though Valen doubted many among those walking Kash’s warrens had his gift. It is still more than you will do for them, though, is it not?
Valen went to a food merchant and bought some fresh fruit at an exuberant price. He spent a few extra seconds staring at the man, after giving him an entire ruby flame for what no doubt had cost no more than a sapphire chip to acquire. He knew he could create trouble for the merchant, if he wanted to, but then told himself that times were tough, and he wasn’t exactly above exploiting others for his gain. The interaction still left a sour taste in his mouth that fruit could not wash.
He made sure to pass first through a temple of the cult of Amrodin, and then turned back, hoping that he remembered the place right. To his great relief, the lone sick woman and her infant child were still there.
“Take this,” the thief said, kneeling next to her and handing her a succulent simtar.
She looked at him with bleary eyes under a nest of unwashed blonde hair, then reached a tentative hand and took the soft red fruit. While her child watched with curiosity, she put the simtar to her lips and bit from it. An expression of profound happiness came to her face, and she offered the fruit to her daughter, who took it with excitement.
Valen rose from the dirty ground and offered her a hand.
“There is an Amrodin temple nearby, where you and your child will be taken care of. I have arranged it with the cultists.”
He did not mention the large sum of gemshards the healers had demanded of him. It was no matter. For one like him, there were always other sources of money, and walking through the streets of Kash, he’d seen too much suffering. It was a tiny drop in a lake of pollution, but he needed to do something.
The woman stared at him in suspicious uncertainty, while the little girl played with her filthy hair. Then she nodded and took his hand. Valen knew that he could not save everyone. But sometimes, he told himself, even two lives were enough.
We live in tumultuous times. COVID-19 is here to stay, with incompetent governments mistaking wishful thinking for policy, exposing us to it on purpose. Massive global protests have finally forced us to face point blank the reality of police brutality against people of color. The economy is working for no one but the richest few.
Pandemic, economic collapse, MURDER HORNETS!
But nothing in this apocalyptic year so far is nearly as bad – nearly as horrifying – as… *checks notes*… uh, people who menstruate, according to J.K. Rowling.
In his original essay, La morte d’auteur, French literary critic Roland Barthes argues that the text is an independent entity from its author. His claim can be boiled down to ‘there are too many dimensions to any work of literature, for interpretation to be limited by the context of authorial intent’.
We live in an era of social reckoning. Trying to come to terms with how – frankly – awful many revered writers actually were (or still are). ‘The death of the author’ has acquired a new meaning. It is now used as a reason to continue enjoying works by shitty people. ‘The work is not the author, so why should I forsake both?’ There is merit to this position, but there are legitimate counter-arguments as well.
For one thing, it is easy to not care about the author when the author is no longer around. Sure, Wagner was a scamming homewrecker and a virulent anti-Semite. But Wagner is also incredibly dead, and his works are free domain. Ditto good old Howie Lovecraft, who may have been so shockingly racist, that even fellow racists of his time were like ‘Dude, come on…’, but plenty of wonderful people have since used his work to create diverse art that absolutely rejects his personal worldviews.
But what do we do when the author is very much alive? When they actively profit from our consumption of their work? Yes, I am very obviously referring to the newest TERF-y bullshit of J.K. Rowling. Who is apparently living through, and I quote, ‘the most misogynistic period I’ve ever experienced’. And seems to think it’s trans people’s fault. A horribly tone-deaf position from a person who has had every possible opportunity and privilege to learn better. She is not unique, of course. Plenty of artists have revealed themselves to hold one bigotry or another, be it because they were exposed, or because they wear it proudly on their sleeve for all to see.
There is no point in naming names. If you are part of ANY kind of minority, you know a bunch of living creators who think you are not entitled to the rights and dignity they have. Or that by you gaining anything, they will lose something.
So, do you want to give them your money? I know I don’t. But does their awfulness surgically remove all the experiences you’ve had with their works before you knew who they were? I do not believe that it does. Or at least not automatically.
I learned about Orson Scott Card’s rampant homophobia at a very intense period of my life. I was still adjusting to my own coming out as gay and my place in the world. The shock was too big. I’d had a lot of love for his books, but I could no longer read them without feeling grossed out. It affected me personally.
But Harry Potter has had a far bigger place in my growing up than Ender’s Game ever could. And I am not trans. I try to be as good an ally as I know how, but ultimately Rowling’s awfulness is not personal for me the way it is for my trans friends. And even to some of them, the messages, joy, warmth, and feelings of safety they’ve derived from these books are still there.
Are they wrong? Should they hate the books, now that the author has shown herself time and again to be garbage? Should I?
No. In the end, there is no ‘should’ here. Liking things is subjective. Supporting things has many levels. Nobody should be forced to reject something they love if they haven’t lost that love on their own. Having to separate the creator from the creation is already trauma enough.
I love Harry Potter. It is a flawed work from a flawed author, but it’s been with me for a very long time. I have too many good memories associated with it, and rejecting it would mean rejecting them as well.Will I give Rowling more money in the future, be it for books, or the movies based on them? Honestly, I don’t think I will. But this is a separate issue from appreciating a series I already own.
Art is subjective on every level. From its creator, through the work itself, to the one it’s meant for. It has to be considered on a case by case basis, or it stops being art. If J.K. Rowling is your Orson Scott Card, and your feelings of her works are too tainted to maintain any positive emotion for them, that’s ok. If you are disgusted by her, but you still love Harry Potter, that’s ok too. If her behavior has inspired you to find and read fantasy and science fiction from trans and non-binary authors – that’s AWESOME!
There is no rule for how to deal with disappointment, and anyone that tells you there is, doesn’t understand what art is.