Some more links of interest

Ann Leckie on there not being any such thing as apolitical fiction:

Most times, when someone complains that they just don’t like stories with politics, or with a message, what they mean is they don’t like stories with messages or politics that disturb or confront their own assumptions about how the world is, or could be, or ought to be. This is worth remembering the next time you’re tempted to assert that Reader A only likes Work Z because it contains a fashionable or approved political message, while you, Reader B, value a good story, thank you, without all that political crap. Guess what? Those good stories you love are crammed full of that political crap–it’s just the politics are different.

Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) on Of Better Worlds and Worlds Gone Wrong:

My point, aside from remarking that both Tolkien and Le Guin are arguing that escape means hope, and hope is one of the great virtues of fantasy, is what Tolkien says at the end of the passage: they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Because I think that’s exactly it. The denigration of “escapism” comes from an implicit belief that it is brave and necessary and heroic to face “reality,” where “reality” is grim and dark and nihilistic (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as that tremendous pessimist Thomas Hobbes puts it), and that if you turn away from that “reality,” you are a deserter and therefore a coward.

There are a number of fallacies here, as Tolkien notes. One is the claim to the exclusive right to define “reality.” Second, if this is an accurate definition of “reality,” it is a fallacy to believe that it is even possible to desert from the front lines by anything short of suicide. Even if your consumption of fiction takes you away from “reality” for an hour or two, you’re always going to have to come back. Clearly, if we accept this definition of “reality,” “escapism” can only be the most tremendous blessing fiction has to offer.

Some links that may be of interest

Rose Fox, “‘It would not be logical.’”

Every time a lesbian dies, every time a wife is widowed, every time a mother grieves the death of her child, every time rape is used to define a woman’s character, it serves the story that the author wanted to tell. And I am no longer content with “it makes sense in the context of the story” as an explanation or an excuse. That “logic” is just as suspect.

TELL DIFFERENT STORIES.

James Davis Nicoll, The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein.

One of the impressive things about this book and the series in general is the way Kirstein resists having Rowan deduce too much too quickly; she’s smart, she’s good at working out how things behave but there are many moments where the reader will work out what is going on and Rowan will not, because Rowan’s context denies her information about phenomena like electricity or gunpowder.

Paul Roberts’ LIFE AND DEATH IN POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM

At last, I fulfill the pledge I made last June.

Paul Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Oxford University Press in conjunction with The British Museum Press, Oxford and London, 2013.

The first thing that strikes you about Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (hereafter Life and Death) is how very large, and how very glossy, it is. It’s a hardback volume, approximately 30cm tall and more than 20cm wide. It stretches over 300 pages, with more than 400 full-colour interior illustrations, and it’s a heavy, unwieldy book to try to read anywhere but at a desk or table. (Don’t try to read it in bed or on your lap: it’ll wreck your wrists. I speak from experience.) It is a book built around the exhibit Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the British Museum, and part of its mandate is clearly to be the kind of visually gorgeous coffee-table book that wealthy visitors to museums buy in the giftshop – without, necessarily, any prior knowledge of the thing exhibited – and take home to display, or to show their friends, or to bone up with later. (The dustjacket offers a RRP of USD$45.00.)

And it is visually gorgeous. It’s also a rather well-thought-out and useful book for the student of the Roman world, whether serious academic or interested dabbler, in many ways because of its visual component: it isn’t often, outside of a museum catalogue, that so many different types of things – everyday items, tools, wall-painting, graffiti, sculpture, plans and interiors of houses, etc – are pictured in this quantity and quality. And museum catalogues rarely give quite so much contextual information.

A brief note on where I’m coming from in relation to this book: my research focus has never been primarily with Roman things – although my undergraduate education and the fact that I research things to do the ancient Mediterranean means I have a reasonable degree of competency with the matter of Rome. I can see if something is largely accurate or inaccurate, is what I’m saying, but details are likely to escape me one way or the other.

That said, Life and Death is decidedly on the largely accurate side, as well it should be: it’s written by one of the British Museum’s Roman art and archaeology curators, Paul Roberts, who has a fine track record in other publications.

It’s divided into nine chapters, not including the introduction, and includes notes, bibliography, list of exhibits, and a decent but by no means entirely comprehensive index. (But I’m of the school that believes indices should include absolutely everything humanly possible.) Those chapters are structured in such a way as to move from the urban environment of the town and the streets deeper into the house, so that it is as though one starts out walking around the towns and proceeds to tour more intimate spaces – that is, until the final chapter, which is about the death of the cities rather than the ways of dying and dealing with death of the cities’ inhabitants prior to the catastrophe of the 79CE eruption.

Although there is, I suppose, a case to be made for death as the most intimate space of all.

“I: The Urban Context” deals with the world in which the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum moved: the shape of their streets, the history of their towns, the structure of their civic offices, whose voices can be reconstructed as having a public presence, the images that lined their streets, social mobility and the role of women. As we move from “The Urban Context” to “II: Living Above The Shop,” with its discussions of trade and industry, production and domesticity, and the relationship of both to the wider civic landscape, and from there deeper into the house with “III: Atrium,” “IV: Cubiculum,” “V: Garden,” “VI: Living Rooms and Interior Design,” “VII: Dining,” and “VIII: Kitchens, Toilets and Baths,” it becomes clear that Roberts is engaged as much in writing a social history of the cities as he is in presenting the archaeological remains. Pompeii and Herculaneum lend themselves well to social history, due to the much more comprehensive than usual nature of what was preserved by the disaster, but Roberts’ social focus has odd gaps.

This is, I suspect, due as much to the focus of the British Museum exhibit (with which, we recall, the book is directly associated) as it is to Roberts’ own lack of broad academic engagement with a cross-section of ancient Campanian society: the exhibit, and thus the book, focuses on the houses of the wealthier sort – the kind with extensive decoration, atria, gardens and so forth – so that, unlike in Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, there’s no real discussion of the smaller sort of houses and the people who must have lived in them. But within the limits of the exhibition’s focus, Roberts does a solid job of reconstructing a broad cross-section of the kind of people, and the kind of activities, that took place inside those houses. He is especially good at pointing out the variety of statuses of people who moved inside those houses, slaves and freedman as well as freeborn citizens, and the various uses to which spaces in the houses were put; and also at drawing attention to, and complicating the reader’s understanding of, the position and the roles of women within the society of the cities, and within and outside their houses. He reminds us that it might be fruitful to consider the Roman women of the first centuries BC and CE in light of what we know about the women of the much-better-documented 16th-18th centuries CE, as their legal statuses are comparable.

The chapter on “Kitchens, Toilets, and Baths,” is particularly interesting to me for how Roberts draws attention to the close colocation of food storage, cooking, and waste disposal. In houses from Pompeii and Herculaneum, the privy is often located near the hearth.

The final chapter discusses the death of the cities, and the people inside them. In this chapter are two large glossy pictures of dead people: one carbonised skull, and one preserved in clear resin. It is a very interesting discussion of the volcanic eruptions and how we know what we know about the cities because of the state of preservation and so forth, but do not read this chapter over dinner if you are disposed towards a tender stomach.

The tone of the volume is, on the whole, conversational and enthusiastically informative; the information is well-structured (though damn do I get bored easily hearing about August Mau and the Four Styles of Wall-Painting: I didn’t love that part of my coursework as an undergraduate and it turns out I still don’t find it fascinating) and the illustrations well-laid-out. The images are never crowded or difficult to follow, which is excellent in a book with this many of them.

If you’re interested in the history and archaeology of the ancient Roman world, or even just in how premodern cities worked? This is a damn fine volume to have on your shelves, I think.

Sleeps With Monsters: How About Those Hugos

I forgot to mention this yesterday, but I have a column up at Tor.com too about the Hugo Award list.

The John W. Campbell list this year, quite frankly, delights me. I haven’t read anything by Ramez Naam and Wesley Chu (I’ve heard good things about them both, although second-hand opinion indicates that I’d probably enjoy Chu’s work more than Naam’s), but Max Gladstone and Sofia Samatar and Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who has been nominated in her first year of eligibility on the strength of her short fiction? HELL YES. Gladstone’s work is innovative and exciting (and Two Serpents Rise and Full Fathom Five are barefaced challenges to naysayers in the diversity stakes), and Sriduangkaew’s short fiction that I’ve read consistently blows me away. Samatar’s work doesn’t give me the same kind of emotional reaction, but I understand why other people love it: her talent and technical skill is obvious, and on the strength of the last two years, she bids fair to mature into an important, influential voice in the field.

On the Campbell slate as a whole, in fact, Kameron Hurley may have said it best: “Welcome to the fucking future.”

Review copies arrived: pictorial evidence

Two of which I have to read before the end of tomorrow...

Two of which I have to read before the end of tomorrow…

That’s Kelly Armstrong’s SEA OF SHADOWS, Douglas Hulick’s SWORN IN STEEL: A TALE OF THE KIN, and Brian McClellan’s THE CRIMSON CAMPAIGN: BOOK TWO OF THE POWDER MAGE TRILOGY.

I need to read the first two before the end of tomorrow. And then review them by the end of Thursday. Wish me luck.

Sahar Amer, CROSSING BORDERS: LOVE BETWEEN WOMEN IN MEDIEVAL FRENCH AND ARABIC LITERATURES


Sahar Amer, Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2008.

This is an interesting, illuminating analysis of literary connections between medieval French and Arabic literature in the area of love between women. Amer’s arguments for reading the presence of silent “lesbian” or “lesbian-like” relations in some medieval French poetry are not always convincing, but her arguments about the limited nature of only seeing intertextuality in direct textual influence are persuasive. Too, this is perhaps the first book I have read that incorporates an accessible English-language introductory summary of same-sex and particularly lesbian love in medieval Arabic literature. All of this makes it an engaging book to read: and Amer has a very readable style.

I’ve added several titles to my list of “medieval Arabic texts in translation I want to read,” even if some of them are in French. (Perhaps one day I’ll have the leisure to learn classical Arabic. One lives in hope.)

Books in brief: Weekes, McGuire, Garcia, Gladstone

Patrick Weekes, Dragon Age: The Masked Empire. Tor, 2014. ARC from Tor.com.

Read for review at Tor.com.

Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road. DAW, 2014. ARC from Tor.com.

Read for review at Tor.com.

R.S.A. Garcia, Lex Talionis. Dragonwell Publishing, 2014. ARC via a friend who is a friend of the author.

This is an interesting debut effort that shows promise. The prose is good, and the characterisation is well-done. However, structurally the execution lacks coherence and the novel as a whole suffers from a case of and also the kitchen sink in terms of what kind of story it is trying to be. Some aspects of the formatting (whole sections are written in italics) make it harder to read than I would’ve preferred, which may have some impact on my opinion. In many respects setting itself up as the first novel in a series: it’s not satisfactorily complete in itself, in my view.

Warning: novel contains gang-rape. It is treated with a reasonable amount of sensitivity, but if that sort of thing puts you off your reading experience, be prepared to encounter it here.

On the other hand, Garcia shows promise, and this is an enjoyable novel if you can live with its structural problems. Thematically it is having an interesting argument about power and responsibility and politics, even if the structural issues mean this is not brought fully and coherently into view. Recommended, albeit with significant hand-wiggling and many caveats.

Max Gladstone, Two Serpents Rise. Tor, 2013.

Gladstone’s second novel is one that I found difficult to get into at first. In fact, it wasn’t until I read his third novel – and discovered that yes, he did certainly know what he was doing – that I went back and tried again. Oce past the hump (past page fifty or so) it turns into something tense and great: not quite as good by my lights as Three Parts Dead or Full Fathom Five, but still an excellent entry by a writer who’s shaping up to be one of the field’s best new voices.

Max Gladstone, Full Fathom Five. Tor, 2014. ARC from Tor.com.

Read for review at Tor.com. A novel I really enjoyed.

BSFA Awards.

I didn’t win, but I predicted who did in two and a half categories.

Nonfiction: Jeff Vandermeer, WONDERBOOK.
Art: Joey HiFi, with the art for DREAM LONDON.
Short Story: Nina Allen, “Spin.”
Novel: an unexpected tie, with both Gareth L. Powell’s ACK-ACK MACAQUE and Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE.

I called WONDERBOOK, Joey HiFi, and ANCILLARY JUSTICE. There are some sceptics out there who owe me a drink…

Hugo Award Nominations List

Find the complete list of nominees in any number of places, including here.

I’m a Hugo nominee! In the Best Fan Writer category, a slate which is filled with too many other brilliant people.

There’s a lot to like about the Hugo list this year, and a lot not to like: we have Ancillary Justice – which is a very good debut, and a novel I loved – in the novel category, but we also have The Wheel of Time, which is a saggy-albeit-entertaining monstrosity. The nonfiction categories have a better gender balance, I think, than almost any other year – and the fiction categories aren’t terrible at it, either.

On the other hand, there’s evidence for a concerted campaign to game the nominations, indications of organised bloc voting, which I find rather petty and sadly against the spirit of the awards, and the name of one of the nominees in particular leaves a vile taste in my mouth. I think I will be deploying NO AWARD quite happily in a couple of the award cases, although I will do my best to be fair-minded about everyone who is not a gleeful racist shitstain.

As Renay said on Tumblr:

I will die on the hill of authors being able to self-promote for this award, to let their fans know they’re eligible, and to encourage people to get involved, but what these two authors did was unacceptable and shameful. The difference between authors who encourage their fans to take part, to nominate what they like the best whether its work by themselves or other creators, and what Correia and Day did is stark to me. One is about love: of genre, of fans, of fans being passionate about things they love. The other is about malice and jealously. If the only way you can be celebrated for your work is by gaming the system, fellas, I gotta say, you’ve already lost.

Maybe it’s not about malice and small-mindedness. Maybe.

But let’s focus on the positives. ANCILLARY JUSTICE! THE BOOK SMUGGLERS! PORNOKITSCH! ABIGAIL NUSSBAUM AND KAMERON HURLEY AND FOZ MEADOWS! JULIE DILLON! And the Campbell slate is an excellent slate if ever I saw one.

Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy

I am talking about it over at Tor.com:

The trilogy opens with vultures, and it ends with them, too.

The prose is honed, lustrous, precise and pointed as a knife-blade. If it weren’t so sharply visceral, I’d call it “polished” or “elegant,” but it has violence as well as grace. Chiselled, perhaps, is one word for it: it draws me back and sweeps me along with it every time I open a page. It doesn’t efface itself, and I love it for its descriptive brilliance.

Links on CAPTAIN AMERICA:TWS and Roman Ostia

Rose Fox talks about Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

After all that stuff about how individual people can stand up and do the right thing and effect change, after that brilliantly tense showdown in the launch room (which looked just like a NASA launch room, by the way, in a little love letter to all the places where ordinary techs and scientists do extraordinary things every day), we’re told to just sit around and hope the superheroes will save us. We are supposed to tear down all the corrupt institutions while valorizing superheroes, even though people with superpowers are just as prone to corruption as any government agency or industrial project. I understand that the Marvel universe requires this, but it’s still really jarring. If this had been a novel I was editing, I would have told the author, “Having clearly laid out all these problems, you need to envision a possible solution and then commit to it.” And I suppose they did… but it’s manifestly unsatisfying, because it’s not a solution we can actually enact in the real world. Superheroes are a very personal sort of wish fulfillment, not a plan-for-world-peace sort.

New results from research out of the Ostia and Portus survey project looks set to change our understanding of the scale of Roman Ostia:

Previously, scholars thought that the Tiber formed the northern edge of Ostia, but this new research, using geophysical survey techniques to examine the site, has shown that Ostia’s city wall also continued on the other side of the river. The researchers have shown this newly discovered area enclosed three huge, previously unknown warehouses – the largest of which was the size of a football pitch.

Director of the Portus Project, Professor Simon Keay, said: “Our research not only increases the known area of the ancient city, but it also shows that the Tiber bisected Ostia, rather than defining its northern side.The presence of the warehouses along the northern bank of the river provides us with further evidence for the commercial activities that took place there in the first two centuries.”

Interesting link discussing CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and Black Widow

CATWS gave us the most complex look we’ve seen of Black Widow so far. Her characterisation was just as subtle as we’ve come to expect, but this time round it fit much better with the film’s overall tone as an espionage thriller. Plus, she was actually given second billing on the cast list, which is practically unheard-of for a female character who isn’t a love interest. In the action/adventure genre, we typically see a central cast that either focuses on a male hero + female love interest, a team where men outnumber women by about five to one, or a female hero + large supporting cast of men to “balance it out.” Black Widow is a rare example of a female action movie character being given the kind of platonic ally/partner role that would usually be taken by a dude.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier review, Part 3 — Black Widow & Falcon” – Hello, Tailor, April 7, 2014.

Books in brief: Moyer, Larke, Hodgell, Bourne, Duran

Jaime Lee Moyer, A Barricade in Hell. Tor, 2014. ARC courtesy of publisher.

Read for review for Tor.com. An improvement on the previous novel. Interesting-if-flawed ghost story/murder mystery set in San Francisco during WWI.

Glenda Larke, The Lascar’s Dagger. Orbit, 2014. Copy courtesy of publisher.

Read for inclusion in SWM column. Interesting fantasy clearly influenced by the mercantile 16th and 17th centuries. Pacing sags in the middle, much like Larke’s other books. Will discuss elsewhere.

P.C. Hodgell, The Sea of Time. Baen, 2014. Ebook. ARC courtesy of publisher.

Read for review. The latest P.C. Hodgell novel, which I’ve been gasping for. It is, alas, something of a middle book. But still full of Jame apologetically breaking things.

Joanna Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady, My Lord and Spymaster, The Forbidden Rose and The Black Hawk. Ebooks, 2008-2013.

Romance novels set during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Heard of via Marie Brennan. I have a serious weakness for spies. There is not enough entertainment with spies in.

Meredith Duran, Wicked Becomes You, Your Wicked Heart, That Scandalous Summer, Bound By Your Touch, Fool Me Twice, Written On Your Skin. Ebooks, 2009-2014.

Historical romance novels. I probably shouldn’t have bought them all, but I was at the point in the scrabbling anxiety cycle where I needed to read something – compulsively – and romance novels were safe. Duran is good at her chosen genre.


Failed to get very far into A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor, 2014, ARC courtesy of the publisher). There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it’s a sort of portal fantasy and the tone and approach hasn’t grabbed me.

Books for review arrived since last we spoke of such things…

I arrived back at my regular address to find that in my absence some review copies had piled up inside my front door:

Review copies!

Review copies!

I’m no kind of professional photographer, that’s for sure.

That’s Will Elliott’s THE PILGRIMS (Tor US, first published by JFB in the UK); Karl Schroeder’s LOCKSTEP (Tor); Katherine Addison’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR (Tor); Ramona Wheeler’s THREE PRINCES (Tor), of which I already have a copy that I haven’t had a chance to read yet; Glen Cook’s WORKING GOD’S MISCHIEF (Tor), the fourth book in a series which no doubt I’d be more interested in reading if I’d read, or even had, the first three; Deborah J. Ross’s THE HEIR OF KHORED (DAW); Jane Lindskold’s ARTEMIS AWAKENING (Tor), and Tor’s publicity department must really want me to read this one, since this is the second copy I’ve received; Paul Park’s ALL THOSE VANISHED ENGINES (Tor); E.C. Ambrose’s ELISHA MAGUS (DAW); Joshua Palmatier’s SHATTERING THE LEY (DAW); and Ben Hatke’s ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, LEGENDS OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, and THE RETURN OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL (First Second Books).

I’m open to bids and recommendations (from this and from the previous review copy posts) on what I should read in the interstices of my already-contracted reading and reviewing.

WHILE WE RUN, on the go in Athens with CALIFORNIA BONES

Since taking a picture of a book in the agora yesterday, I decided I should chronicle my other paper readings.

I tried to take another picture from inside the agora, but the staff yelled at me and made me delete it. “You have no right to take this kind of picture!” the woman said. “This is a sacred place!”

I was practically on top of the Great Drain, but still on the path. I’m not sure how sewerage installations become sacred.

That rather baffled me. No putting inanimate objects in the picture? But, hey, I don’t want to get hauled off, and I’ve been a tourist-herder, so I obliged the woman.

And took my pictures from outside the fences.

At the Roman agora.

At the Roman agora.

Still at the Roman agora.

Still at the Roman agora.

At a restaurant on Adrianou.

At a restaurant on Adrianou.

Just squeezing the Hephaistion into frame.

Just squeezing the Hephaistion into frame.