Six observations on Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon

The five books that form Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series are enjoyable in the way they combine capable female characters with a fast-paced plot and familiar space opera setting with just enough unique features to hold interest. The following six observations contain spoilers for the entire series, although only a few general things and two major plot points. So if spoilers truly spoil a reading experience for you, it’s probably best to move on. If you’re like me and a couple of reveals (and really there is a ton that happens that isn’t mentioned at all below) don’t ruin a reading experience or you’ve already read the series, then read on.

  1. The abundance of female characters at the core of the narrative are both there because they are female, but the fact that they are female is not their primary/dominant attribute, which is cool. In other words, they come across as strong female characters because that who they are rather than that is what the story needs them to be. In addition to Ky Vatta, the lead character in the series, we get a substantial number of POV characters from Ky’s cousin Stella and her aunt Grace. They are the three family members who keep Vatta Corp. a viable enterprise. They are able to do so because of ingenuity, bravery and luck, but also because they were underestimated by their enemies who focused on killing the overt [rather thank covert [Grace/Stella] or emergent [Ky/Stella]) leaders of the family, all of whom were men. My only complaint is that Stella fades a bit in the later books. I would have liked to her have a slightly larger role, although I understand why the focus so much is on Ky, who is the main character in the series.
  2. I enjoyed the mix and scope of commercial and government entities. The Vatta-verse largely mirrors our own in the way that the private and public overlap and collide (productively or not) with each other. Justin Landon’s comments about the way politics and economics are dealt with in the first book is what originally led me to read the series, and I agree with his comments. I’d also note that it seems correct to me that an inhabited sector of the universe that is connected only by FTL jump points wouldn’t have strong cross-system government entities (a fact that the terrorists in the novels leverage) but would have a corporate monopoly for communications. Distance (and thus time) creates fragility.
  3. The first time a male authority figure worries about Ky Vatta being influenced by a possibly untrustworthy man because she might be sexually attracted to the cad, I thought that Moon was saying something interesting about sexism and patriarchy and how male authority figures are reluctant to grant full agency to precocious young women in command (like Ky [precocious because she is young to be a ship captain]). But then it happened again and then again and again, and it became such a tic that I don’t know what to think now.
  4. I also don’t know what to think about Moon’s psychologizing on those who are capable of killing and get a certain thrill out of it. It becomes a secret between some of the main characters in the book. Moon seems to be saying that it can be a necessary pathology of those fighting on the part of good (so long as it is kept in check). Ky is ashamed or scared of it at first, but as it manifests in other characters (Rafe, Grace, etc.), Moon appears to destigmatize it but at the same time seems to see it as a necessary condition of those who can be ruthless. Now I don’t doubt that people—even good people—can get a rush from killing a bad guy. But it is mentioned so often—but not complicated enough by Moon—that it comes across as a natural law or something. There are killers and then there are not. I don’t know enough to disagree, but this was another thing where it came up so often it seemed like a writerly tic.
  5. This is again something that I don’t know a whole lot about, but the way Moon handled Ky’s PTSD-triggered breakdown (due in part to all the trauma she experienced, but also to the haphazard way in which she had received her command implant) and the treatment of it struck me as realistic, interesting and inevitable.
  6. I also really like that as much of the action is about building resources and allies and dealing with government and commercial entities as it is about fighting bad guys in space.

Chalk stripes

A twitter mini-story:

The goblins snicker at my precautions. But this chocolate brown and mint green houndstooth overcoat has fended off many a ruthless banker.

The goblins have expressed admiration for my startling violet suede boots. They are beginning to come around to the genius of this approach.

And yet, the fear of the chalk stripe is still strong in them. I don’t blame them for this. I fear it too.

The lemon-scented blood-red hankies should help.

The shipment of pomegranate derivatives and passion fruit options has arrived. The goblins do fine work. I hope we have prepared enough.

Swap cinders. Hedge oil. Default slugs. The goblins are nervous, but resolute. As am I. We are off to battle, our banners shiny & cheap.

When I knew Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation had hooked me

I was, of course, inclined to like Annihilation before I even cracked the cover because I have enjoyed VanderMeer’s previous work immensely. And the opening line is excellent as is the entire beginning of the novel so really I was already on board. But when I hit the paragraph on the top of page 6 (which is four pages of text into the novel), I knew that this was exactly my kind of book (and was quite confident that it would continue to be so [which it was]):

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)

It really is a Wonderbook

Cover of Wonderbook showing a city on the back of a whalePartly because I am a writer of fiction and partly because I can’t seem to help but engage myself in the meta-discussions of any field I take an interest in, I have consumed quite a few books of writing advice over the years and have come to the conclusion that such books are reflective of the concerns and practices of the authors and editors who write them. This does not mean that if you like a particular author or editor’s works, that you will find their writing advice useful (or vice versa) — only that, generally, the limits found in their work also manifest in how they write about the production of that work.

This is why I was excited to learn about Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. I’m a fan of VanderMeer’s fiction (and editing). I don’t necessarily want to write more like him, but I did want to hear what he had to say about the art and craft of fiction.

Wonderbook did not disappoint.

It is an information rich book, lush and layered rather than dense. It is also deeply, unapologetically weird. The fantastic, imaginative illustrations facilitate both the richness and the weirdness, but that also carries over to the text itself: in the examples VanderMeer uses; in the way he describes certain processes; in the ingenious and effective (but weird) guides and helps and formulations.

And yet for all that weirdness, boil the carcass of the book down and you’re left with a sound, familiar, useful skeleton (albeit one that may have a sixth toe or an extra rib [by the way, this is a work that invites such a metaphor. In Wonderbook stories are creatures of bone and meat and fleshy and wiggly bits]). Its structure is rigorous and logical, and the layout is a work of design genius — it keeps the wildness of the illustrations from overpowering.

Just as welcome is that VanderMeer, perhaps aware of the limitations I describe in the first paragraph, recruits a multitude of voices to plump out topics that may be less in his wheelhouse or that present alternative routes from the ones that he traces out. These range from in-text citations, summaries and quotations to pull quotes that stripe a page here and there to full blown mini-essays embedded in the chapter (plus an appendix with more essays). These contributions open up the writing advice, creating a polyphonic marketplace of ideas in the reader’s head rather than carve out some monument to arid dogma. The writer comes away full of possibilities rather than anxiety to fit a system.

There could be a downside to this lush, multivocal, intense approach, of course. It could overwhelm. It could enervate. And if you can’t get into VanderMeer’s voice, it’ll fall flat. But I think it’s worth the risk for writers of all types. It’s also the rare book of writing advice that could be of interest to readers as well as visual artists and other creative professionals.

Finally: see that cover up above? It’s awesome right? Yeah, well, Wonderbook is chock full of illustrations that are just as cool and weird and evocative. The thing is worth the cover price even if you don’t read a single word (but I recommend reading all of them).

Two more observations:

  1. It’s quite amusing in places.

  2. The section where VanderMeer reveals and evaluates the various openings he attempted for his novel Finch is one of the most valuable sections in any writing book I have ever read.

Adjectives in fiction and the bourgeois project of evaluation

Cover of Franco Moretti's The Bourgeois: Between History and LiteratureFranco Moretti’s The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature is an interesting blend of digital humanities, post-Marxist theory, and straight up close reading of texts. Interesting because Moretti uses statistical analysis of individual texts as well as a corpus of (mainly) 18th and 19th century literature to surface patterns that then suggest a that the rise of bourgeois values can be tracked via literary texts.

One of the sections that I found the most illuminating is in the chapter Fog where Moretti discusses the use of adjectives in Robinson Crusoe in relation to later (more bourgeois) tects. He notes, for example, that in Robinson Crusoe the adjective strong is used to modify a raft, current, limbs and an enclosure; however, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 social novel North and South strong modifies will, wishes and temptation and in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (published in 1869) it precedes inspiration, individualism, belief and taste. Another good example is the adjective “dark”, which in Robinson Crusoe refers to the “absence of light period”.

But in 19th century works we find dark referring to:

  • North and South: look, “dark places of the heart”
  • Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens, 1864-65) attention, frown, smile, business, look, soul, expression
  • Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1871-72): ages, period, silence, times, “closet of his verbal memory”

Moretti goes on to write:

Other instances could easily be added (hard, fresh, sharp, weak, dry …), but the point is clear: in Victorian times, a large group of adjectives that used to indicate physical traits begin to be widely applied to emotional, ethical, intellectual, or even metaphysical states. In the process, the adjectives become metaphorical, and hence acquire the emotional ring that is typical of this trope: if, applied to ‘fence’ and ‘cave’, ‘strong’ and ‘dark’ indicate robustness and absence of light, applied to ‘will’ and ‘frown’ they express a positive or negative verdict–half ethical, half sentimental–on the noun they are attached to. Their meaning has changed; and so, more importantly, has their nature: their point is no longer to contribute to the ‘literal accuracy, unmistakable definiteness, and clear intelligibility’ of Hegel’s prose, but to convey a miniature value judgment. Not description, but evaluation. (127)

20th and 21st century fiction hasn’t quite thrown off this bourgeois use of adjectives for evaluation (literary modernism perhaps attempted to, but I think that was more an attempt to change the value judgments that are embedded in the adjectives rather than to free them from their evaluative weight), but it has complicated them quite a bit. And in my experience SF&F has been more ready than other genres of fiction to partake in this project of complication, especially since the New Wave of SF of the 1960s. I don’t have the data to back me up on this (it would be awesome to put together a corpus of modern SF&F for such a project, although I would imagine that copyright issues would make that difficult), but it seems to me that prying adjectives loose from bourgeois norms by combining them in futuristic, strange and/or startling ways (with other less mimetic adjectives; with unexpected nouns) changes literary discourse and perhaps even causes readers to see the world (real world and textual world) in a different way. What’s more the drive of genre authors to create the effects that SF&F (and horror) create can’t help but lead to innovation in the use of language, including adjectives. Or at least that’s my hope.

E.M. Forster on the fantastic

I have one more passage from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel that I want to share:

The general tone of novels is so literal that when the fantastic is introduced it produces a special effect: some readers are thrilled, others choked off: it demands an additional adjustment because of the oddness of its method or subject matter — like a sideshow in an exhibition where you have to pay sixpence as well as the original entrance fee. Some readers pay it with delight, it is only for the sideshows that they entered the exhibition, and it is only to them I can now speak. Others refuse with indignation, and these have our sincere regards, for to dislike the fantastic in literature is not to dislike literature. It does not even imply poverty of imagination, only a disinclination to meet certain demands that are made on it.

So fantasy asks us to pay something extra. (160-161)

I don’t agree with how Forster presents the fantastic. I think it’s just as much the natural state of literature as realism. More so, even. But I do like how he describes those who do and don’t like the fantastic. And I have always been willing to pay extra.

E.M. Forster on memory and plot

I’ve been reading E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel recently. It’s interesting to see that some of the truisms about fiction that have filtered their way to me over the years come from (or at least gathered in) it. What I hadn’t seen before, however, is his discussion of plot and how grasping it requires intelligence and memory.

He writes:

The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends. Every action or word ought to count; it ought to be economical and spare; even when complicated it should be organic and free from dead matter. It may be difficult or easy, it may and should contain mysteries, but it ought not to mislead. And over it, as it unfolds, will hover the memory of the reader (the dull glow of the mind of which intelligence is the bright advancing edge) and will constantly rearrange and reconsider, seeing new clues, new chains of cause and effect, and the final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will not be of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful. (133)

What the elBulli documentary taught me about SF&F

The movie poster for the El Bulli Cooking in ProgressLast week during my bus commute I watched a 2011 documentary on elBulli, the famed (and now defunct) avante garde restaurant in Catlonia run by Ferran Adrià. The restaurant was known for a voluminous tasting menu that delivered dishes that were creative and strange and innovative. In order to accomplish these dishes, Adrià and his staff used techniques and ingredients that were considered by some to be science-fictional. Things like liquid nitrogen, xanthan gum, soy lecithin, and edible films, gels and foams as well as techniques like spherification and emulsification. In order to create these new dishes, elBulli closed for six months every year so that its team of chefs could experiment with a variety of ingredients and techniques. Adrià and co.’s use of such ingredients and techniques led to the label “molecular gastronomy”, a label which he and some of his devotees (such as Chicago’s Grant Achatz) disavowed.

I was aware of elBulli and the world of molecular gastronomy prior to watching the documentary. I was also aware of the fact that some of the best chefs in the world hate the term. But it wasn’t until I viewed the documentary that I understood why. As Adrià explains at various points in the documentary, the food served at elBulli isn’t about the technique-no matter how untraditional it may be. The techniques and ingredients are simply tools. Instead, every dish is created in order to create emotion. Each dish–its ingredients, preparation and presentation– should surprise, delight, challenge, evoke, tantalize or punch you in the gut. And the entire meal is designed to take guests on an emotional journey. The problem with the term molecular gastronomy is that it puts what is a fundamental thing–eating–at a remove. It puts too much emphasis on the science of ingredient manipulation and not enough on emotion. And its technique are useless (or rather misapplied) in the hands of someone who isn’t focused on the emotion.

When I finished watching the documentary, I found myself thinking about the parallels to SF&F. Good SF&F is like the food served at elBulli: it has elements of the fantastic, of reality modified into new forms–forms that could be seen as strange even if they are rooted in everyday reality. But to focus solely on those fantastical or SFnal elements, to focus too heavily on the strangeness is to deny the core emotion and humanity that exists at their center. That is the mistake made by those readers who fetishize literary realism. They are so sold on realism as the key to character depth and emotion and so discomfited by the strangeness of SF&F that they miss the emotion found in the best genre works.

And just like some of Ferran Adrià’s admirers focused only on the techniques of molecular gastronomy, some SF&F writers focus only on the genre trappings. And why is that? Because avant garde techniques take a lot of experimentation. Ferran Adrià and his crew would shut down their restaurant and work like mad for six months in order to evolve their menu. What are you willing to do in order to create SF&F that is innovative and full of emotion?

The AI who sings: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieOf the many fascinating details that Ann Leckie uses to build the world of her debut science fiction novel Ancillary Justice, the one that was the most unexpected (partially because I had already read an excerpt about and commentary on Leckie’s brilliant approach to gender pronouns) was the use of music in relation to artificial intelligence. Ancillary Justice tells the story of the space vessel Justice of Toren, a tool of the Radch empire which is used to conquer and then occupy planets. Justice of Toren is the starship and the AI that manages it, but she is also her ancillaries–humans (bodies taken from those who have been conquered) who have had their minds erased and filled with the AI. The ancillaries are also all networked together and can communicate with the ship (assuming all the connections are working). The ancillaries are organized into military units and ranked (or at least numbered) starting with One and then followed by the name of the deck to which they are assigned. These ancillaries do not speak with or show emotion. They simply act as, well, ancillary units of the ship, which is why they have proven quite useful as occupying forces: obedient, equanimous, untiring, almost omni-present. They are without the quirks and passions that human soldiers possess. Except that is for One Esk, one of Justice of Toren‘s anicillaries–the lead one assigned to the lead deck, in fact–who has this one quirk: she sings.

I–that is, I-One Esk–first sang to amuse one of my lieutenants, when Justice of Toren had hardly been commissioned a hundred years. She enjoyed music, and had brought an instrument with her as part of her luggage allowance. She could never interest the other officers in her hobby and so she taught me the parts to the songs she played. I filed those away and went looking for more, to please her. By the time she was captain of her own ship I had collected a large library of vocal music–no one was going to give me an instrument, but I could sing anytime–and it was a matter of rumor and some indulgent smiles that Justice of Toren had an interested in singing. Which it didn’t–I–I-Justice of Toren–tolerated the habit because it was harmless, and because it was quite possible that one of my captains would appreciate it. Otherwise it would have been prevented. (23)

This quirk is important to the novel for many reasons. I won’t detail (spoil) them here: go read the book–it’s very good. I will, however, share the effect it had on me: It reinforced for me the realization that we shape the technologies we use and that, in turn, they shape us, and in that back and forth, because of the human element involved, there is quirkiness, creativity, individual-ness. We adjust things to adjust to us and the effects are not always the intended ones. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in science fiction about robots and other artificial or alien intelligences. It may simply be wishful thinking on our part–we have yet to create or encounter intelligences that can operate at the level they do in science fiction. But I hope not. I’d like to think, along with Leckie, that some of our AIs will sing.

at the intersection of the literary and the fantastic