2017 was a sad year for me. I lost three very good men who were central to my life, my family, my history. It made no sense. It made me angry. It made me numb. Every book I read tasted like cardboard. Every song reeked of cheap sentiment. Television series and movies all felt too glossy, contrived. I was bereft of my usual comforts and pleasures.
Then along came The Stars are Legion. I don’t think I need to describe this book — Kameron Hurley has rightly won prizes and plaudits and widespread recognition for her all-female space opera. I don’t want to talk too much about the politics of the work either — Hurley’s exploration of the relationship between power, sex and violence was interesting but not entirely unexpected. Her philosophical contemplations ran deeper — the concept of total recycling and women giving birth to parts of a world was perfect fictional musing for the existentialist in all of us — but that was still not what hooked me on this work. What I really loved was the way that Hurley’s powerful evocation of emotion under pressure — anger, despair, passion, compassion — managed to budge my frozen heart and blow out the cobwebs settling into my mind.
Suddenly I could feel and think again. Women fighting futile and inexplicable battles against enemies they don’t fully understand, in the name of misguided ideologies and loyalties, for the sake of saving a world that is randomly cruel and falling apart anyway. Death on every page, death of the body, death of the planet, death of dreams, death of relationships. Talk about parallels with absolutely everything. I stayed awake at nights for a week completing this book. I was of course awaiting some kind of pay off — rebirth, realization, hope — and luckily I got it. This is a book that has strangely helped me to accept and process the inevitable cycle of life.
At around the same time that I completed The Stars are Legion I finally found something that was emotionally, politically, and philosophically compelling to view as well. After spending too much time bingeing on Netflix series that feel generic to me — too slick, too many hooks, no true end in sight, just a never-ending bag of glossy tricks that didn’t satisfy — I discovered a BBC1 (UK) box-set of a six-part drama series called Broken. This is the story of a flawed (but decent) Catholic priest who is struggling with his faith as he attempts to help parishioners in one of the poorest of northern neighborhoods. There is a single mother struggling both to make ends and to curb her temper, there is a woman with a humiliating secret planning suicide, there is a mother seeking justice for her mentally ill son, shot dead by the police, and there is the policeman struggling with his conscience. Those are just the main characters. Every single person on screen matters in this drama — every single human interaction reveals a little something about the nature of our endless human struggle with forces both without and within. Television drama used to be like this — writ on a smaller scale, digging deeper, speaking to things we know or want to know, giving us pause rather than cheap distraction. Written by one of the keenest observers of the English class system — Jimmy McGovern — and with a cast led by Sean Bean and Anna Friel I cannot recommend Broken highly enough. It is not a Netflix series. You will have to work a little harder to get it, same as you will have to work a little harder to watch it, but I like to think that you will feel better for it. I did. I felt genuinely uplifted by it.
In a year filled with bitter-sweet memories I sought out new, not old music. No endless replays of David Bowie and Tom Petty for me. Instead I looked for music that would not remind me of anything, music that would take me elsewhere. Shazam helped. I would sit in bars and cafes, point my phone at the speaker and discover new tracks. This is how I found Alice Merton, a German-Irish singer-song writer, who sounds more like Sia than Sinead. Her debut single, No Roots, is a brightly soulful number that will have your shoulders dancing in spite of yourself. In a year when I had no choice but to confront the practical and emotional consequences of a nomadic life this song spoke to my soul. Rather than choose to be sad about her own lack of deep geographic roots, Merton embraces a life in motion. No Roots is a song of honesty, reflection and acceptance. It is my song of 2017.
Happy New Year, Fellow Aqueductistas.
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2016 was a hard year for feminists, humanists, and our troubled, struggling, divided world in general. The news was depressing and incessant. Facebook was worse. So I turned off the noise whenever possible and sought refuge in books that transported me to wonderfully different and remote places. Which is too say, that I spent a lot of time off-world. Accordingly, my greatest hits list for this year is a selection of books that take the reader far away from the buzzfeed of the here and now. In spite of the fact that they all explore the ubiquitous contemporary problems of inequality, suffering, and the damage that self-serving politics do to societies, these books nevertheless proved a great salve for my weary mind. The best kind of science fiction not only opens our minds to other ways of seeing, thinking, living, and relating; it changes the very way that we feel. There is nothing that renews the spirit quite like getting Very Far Away sometimes.
Emma Newman: Planetfall (Ace/Roc, Nov 2015) One troubled woman’s account of the perils of following ideology to the end of the galaxy.
Carolyn Ives Gilman: Dark Orbit (Tor/Macmillan, 2015) First contact, literally in the dark, great stuff for stretching the imagination.
Lily Brooks-Dalton: Good Morning Midnight (Random House, 2016) Loneliness and the human need to connect, even when there’s nobody else out there.
Cixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem (Tor, 201) The cultural revolution meets a metaphysical first encounter story.
(Our own) L Timmel Duchamp: The Waterdancer’s World (Aqueduct Press 2016) An array of formidable women shape the destiny of a very unlikely planet colony.
And luckily for me as I head into the winter reading season, some of these great books already have sequels (or companions). Look for After Atlas by Emma Newman and books two and three of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series—The Dark Forest and Death’s End—by Cixin Liu.
For a full year’s supply of great recommendations you can check out the whole Aqueduct End-of-year review series — The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016 — at Ambling Along the Aqueduct.
I am very happy to report that Flesh & Wires is on Locus’s 2015 Recommended Reading List in the First Novel Category – along with work by fellow Aqueductista, Nancy Jane Moore (The Weave). I look forward to reading every single other book on the list in 2016 – as part of my Good Reads Challenge goal of 100 books this year! First up, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance.
Reading Inspires. Reading Rewires.
Aqueduct Press recently asked 28 of its author/contributors to reflect upon their most memorable reading, viewing and listening in 2015.
What a great source of inspiration in 2016.
Check out my recommendations @AmblingAlongtheAqueduct
In 1977 I didn’t yet read science fiction and was only able to view feminism through the crooked sexist lens of suburban Australia. Fortunately there were enough hard-fighting, hard writing women out there, forging all sorts of new paths for those of us struggling out from the mainstream.
WisCon — the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention — will be celebrating it’s 40th Anniversary in 2016. As an historian, I look forward to revisiting and reimagining the early days of feminist science fiction. As a feminist science-fiction writer, I am looking forward to celebrating just how far we’ve all come in those forty years. I hope to see you there!
In September I attended my first Milford Writer’s Conference. Net result: a fresh new take on a second book that needed some serious plot triage and a newfound sense of what it means to be part of the larger genre writing community. It was a real pleasure to exchange ideas with this group of clever, funny and kind working writers — and it really helped me improve my work.