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The Long Price Quartet (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, A War in Autumn, The Price of Spring), by Daniel Abraham, Tor, 2007-2009, collected into two volumes called Shadow and Betrayal, Orb, 2012, $17.99, and The Price of War, Orb, 2012, $18.99.
The Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis, Candlemark and Gleam, 2013, $22.95.
The moral of Pooh and Piglet's Heffalump Hunt is generally taken to be that Heffalumps don't exist. But in fact there is a more subtle (and useful) moral to the tale: When your opinions are so airtight that you can't take in new information, it's hard to learn much about the thing you think you're looking for…including whether it was right there under your nose the whole time.
Lately, we've had several bumper crops of Heffalump Hunts in the sf/f community. It would be fun to review them all in detail, but I'll limit this column to my personal fab four:
The Game of Thrones Smackdown kicked off in 2011 when Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times TV Section offhandedly wrote off the entire epic fantasy genre as low-grade literary fodder for male geeks in search of kitchen wenches and sexbots. Bellafante clearly intended to be provocative when she told readers that HBO's Game of Thrones series "ought to come with a warning like, 'If you can't count cards, please return to reruns of 'Sex and the City.'" But I really don't think she had a clue what she was getting herself into when she dismissed G. R. R. Martin's books (and by strong implication epic fantasy in general) as "boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population's other half." She may not have enjoyed the resulting outcry from female readers and writers of epic fantasy…but I certainly did!
In the next Heffalump Hunt, Paul Kincaid of the L. A. Times read a few best-of-the-year anthologies, quoted William Butler Yeats a few times, and implied that: (1) the entire genre of science fiction is in a state of "intellectual exhaustion" because (2) it "has lost confidence in the future," and (3) James Tiptree, Jr. was a better writer than most people in the genre today. Well, one out of three ain't bad.
Our third Heffalump Hunt—which I'll dub Women-in-SF-Fail—can't really be assigned a year and an Internet address.2
Most Women-in-SF-Fail outbreaks start out civilized, but they all eventually turn into rambling, offensive, and occasionally hilarious comments wars. Things get personal. Mr. A. Nonymous Troll participates enthusiastically. Otherwise sensible people suddenly contract severe cases of foot-in-mouth disease. And though the details may differ, the outcome is always the same: a lot of sound and fury changing nothing.3
Our last Heffalump Hunt was something of a dark horse. You really don't expect silly science fiction commentary from The Jewish Review of Books. However, for a first-time competitor, JRB provided truly exceptional entertainment value. To be fair, Michael Weingrad's essay, "Why is there no Jewish Narnia?" probably deserves better company. He sidestepped all the obvious insert-foot-in-mouth opportunities and displayed real knowledge of and affection for the genre. But still…was it just me, or did Weingrad seem to be unintentionally channeling Groucho Marx when he first staked out the bold claim that there is no "major Jewish fantasy writer"…and then shot down all the obvious candidates for MJFW status (paging Beagle, Chabon, Gaiman, Le Guin, Silverberg, Yolen, and Morgenstern) by basically shrugging his shoulders and saying: "Mnehh…if you say so…but do they have to be so Jewish?"4
But despair not, Gentle Readers! (Or Gentile Readers, for that matter.) In this month's column, I offer respite and solace for all foot-weary Heffalump Hunters! I've got one of the best anthologies of women's sf since Pamela Sargent's classic, Women of Wonder. I've got books that would make Gina Bellefante run screaming from the room in search of light entertainment like A Game of Thrones. And I might even have a Nice Jewish Epic Fantasy you can take home to Bubbie.
The Other Half of the Sky, a new collection of women's sf edited by Athena Andreadis, stands as a 443-page refutation of all Heffalump Hunters who have ever marched in self-referential circles while loudly lamenting the inexplicable failure of women to write "real" sf. However, I intend it to do double duty in this column…because I can't think of another anthology out this year that so utterly refutes Paul Kincaid's assertion that our genre has succumbed to intellectual inertia.
Editor Athena Andreadis has collected an impressive list of new and known female writers. But she's not just hunting Heffalumps. No, she's after…well, shall we just say she's more interested in missing possums? And Andreadis's Introduction, "Dreaming the Dark," provides a crisp definition of the parameters of this missing possum hunt. Andreadis is looking for strongly science-oriented sf with a New Wave meets Space Opera sensibility that will appeal to a "non-feminine woman who is a practicing scientist and an unapologetic feminist; an avid reader of literature across genres in several languages; and a native of a culture that's far different from the [Anglo-Saxon] dominant." She also has quite a bit to say about the field in general. I found myself shrugging several times while reading the opening essay—generally at scathing characterizations of "thin as cardboard" characters or "1950s suburban" gender roles that, while not entirely lost in the mists of time, are still not representative (at least in this woman's opinion) of where sf is generally at these days. Still, Andreadis makes several excellent points. Her lament about space opera's "immense, systemic failure of the imagination" struck a real chord with me. Likewise I think there is much merit in her proposition that the obsession with Campbellian coming-of-age quests has cramped our genre's style and limited writers to exploring only a narrow slice of the many possible themes and subjects that space opera offers. And last but not least, what longtime fantasy reader wouldn't laugh at a phrase like "the Hero's Journey Obligatory Team Assembly"?
The stories in The Other Half of the Sky live up to their introduction and go a long way toward answering Paul Kincaid's lament about 2012's lackluster "year's best" anthologies. Two stories in the anthology deserve specific mention. Nisi Shawl's "In Colors Everywhere" singlehandedly jumped her books to the top of my ever-growing to-read list. "In Colors Everywhere" takes place on a planet called Amends, which gradually emerges as a sort of interstellar equivalent of nineteenth-century New Zealand. It is a penal colony that serves to warehouse the criminal, the deviant, or the simply poor. And yet what at first appears to be merely an escape valve for its parent society soon emerges as the first beachhead of an extraction-based empire…with a truly sinister twist on the old British trick of leveraging penal deportation into full-fledged colonization. Nisi Shawl cuts back and forth between a tale told by a young matriarch in the penal colony's developing local culture and terse excerpts from the Mission Guidelines that dictate the rules that "Dr. Ops" and his "Trustees" have to follow in exploiting their captive colonists. Both the Mission Guidelines and the story itself begin with established space opera tropes:
Clients must not be killed. WestHem has opted to destroy their original bodies while preserving psychoemotional components. Transport to Amends completes the allotted punishment, taking into consideration the impossibility of return to Earth, along with the harsh experiences certain to arise from atechnical living conditions.…
But readers will soon find themselves taking a detour into more sinister territory:
…Resource extraction may be greatly improved by the wide establishment of surface stock suitable for hosting multigeneration downloads of reliable trustees. However, anticipated benefits must be weighed against highly probable costs such as lander production fuel expenditure; embryo manufacture, storage, and implantation tools; remote downloading equipment; and of course against the risk of hostile client reaction to this initiative's primary agents.
What really made the story for me—and what makes me hope that it is indeed the novel opening that it seemed to be—was what Shawl did with this setup. In lesser hands, it could have devolved into a monster story or a clichéd (if heartfelt) plea for women's reproductive rights. Instead, when Shawl's matriarchal society figures out what is about to be inflicted on them, their reaction resonates with an emotional depth and historical sensitivity that sf very rarely achieves.
Equally memorable—though so different that it's astounding to imagine they belong to the same genre—was Vandana Singh's "Sailing the Antarsa." The writing style reminded me of both Cordwainer Smith and Ursula K. Le Guin stories. In just forty pages of resonant, rhythmic, striking prose Singh manages to pack what seems like a novel's worth of backstory, worldbuilding, and character development. I won't give away the ending, which is gorgeous. But here's a particularly fine passage to give you a taste of the whole:
Of all the stories in the anthology, this one might perhaps be my favorite. It pushed my personal fan-geek buttons with unerring accuracy: Cordwainer Smith-worthy paeans to voyagers upon the Deep and post-Le Guinian ecofeminist mythology and philosophical musings on the future of human evolution. But even if it doesn't push your personal fan buttons, you will agree it is a sublimely written and thought-provoking first contact story. And it has good company in an anthology that truly deserves a wider readership.
I had been hearing about Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet for quite a while before I got around to reading it. But the four-book series looked formidable enough that it took me a while to work up the nerve to tackle it. And then there was that pinprick of doubt that one always feels when a lot of people praise a new fantasy series as "serious" or "beautifully written" or "fantasy for grownups." Will it really be the fresh, original, thoughtful in-genre fantasy novel you hope for? Or just another Mass-Market Extruded Fantasy Product?
Well, I stopped worrying about that by the time I'd read the first two paragraphs of chapter one:
As the stone towers of Machi dominated the cold cities of the north, so the seafront of Saraykeht dominated the summer cities in the south. The wharves stood out into the clear waters of the bay, ships from the other port cities of the Khaiem—Nantani, Yalakeht, Chaburi-Tan—docked there. Among them were also the low shallow ships of the Galts so strung with canvas they seemed like a launderer's yard escaped to the sea. And along the seafront streets, vendors of all different cities and lands sold wares from tall, thin tables decked with brightly colored cloths and banners, each calling out to the passers-by over the cries of the seagulls and the grumble of waves. A dozen languages, a hundred dialects, creoles, and pidgins danced in the hot, still air, and she knew them all.
What do we have here? First the obvious things. We have a fantasy world built around scribes and merchants. We have a non-laughable economic system—one in which the kingdoms on the obligatory rectangular map (yes, there is one) actually sell stuff to each other in between the obligatory bouts of smiting and ensorcelling. We have an East-meets-West theme in which the main characters span multiple cultures and social classes and have complex backstories and potentially conflicting loyalties. And of course we have Amat Kyaan herself: a fantasy protagonist who is old, female, and lame into the bargain—and who seems more likely to influence the fate of nations with her intelligence and determination than with Uncle Somebody-or-Other's magic sword/wand/scepter.
But above all, this opening promises the underlying theme that defines all serious fantasy: a deep preoccupation with the way things work. If the War-of-the-Roses-inspired A Game of Thrones needs a public service label warning off non-card counters, then perhaps The Long Price Quartet should have one warning away all readers whose TiVos aren't full of recorded PBS specials about the history of the Chinese Imperial Civil service or the British East India Company.
These books are extremely plot-focused (but in a good way), so summarizing them runs the risk of seriously diminishing the fun of reading them yourself. That said, the whole series follows the lives of a group of characters whose dramatic rises and falls of fortune span the entire breadth of Abraham's imagined society. And the series also takes Abraham's world through one of those cosmological shifts that have fueled fantasy epics ever since Tolkien: the death of a magical system and the birth of a new world which is either unmagical…or magical in an entirely unexpected way. The result is an intellectually and emotionally satisfying story about the evolution (and sometimes revolution) of societies, individuals, and ideological systems.
This is all great stuff, obviously. But as I was enjoying it there was one small question lurking at the back of my mind…probably because I've sat on way too many Heffalump-hunting panels about Jewish Fantasy. What's with the name? Is he Jewish or isn't he? Should I ask? Or would that be rude…perhaps even reminiscent of the infamous "bed checks" that some Lambda Awards judges have objected to in past years?
In the end I didn't ask. And reading the Long Price Quartet with a question mark in my mind about the author's ethnicity was more revealing—about my own preconceptions, among other things—than reading the books with an easily categorizable label attached to them.
In fact, the Long Price Quartet has a number of characteristics that I personally associate with Jewish fantasy—and especially with fantasy written by multiethnic or "Jewish but it's complicated" writers. Among other things, these include a sense of history as cyclical rather than linear; a strong interest in chronicling life along the margins or in the interstices of larger systems; a marked skepticism about messiahs (be they individual, magical, religious, or technological); and a tendency to imagine cosmologies and societies with a strong and clearly defined women's sphere, where women actively shape the world alongside men even if the overarching system is patriarchal.
This list covers a lot of territory, however. Any attempt to define "a" Jewish fantasy based on such vague criteria seems doomed to failure. But attempts to come up with a narrower definition inevitably seem to devolve into arguments about whether writers whose extended families were decimated by the Holocaust are "really" Jewish. And that ultimately drives home for me the total futility of trying to define "Jewish Fantasy" at all—let alone hunting for the "Jewish Narnia" that Michael Weingrad set out to find.
Surely it is not accidental that the two examples of "Christian" fantasy Weingrad selected were Catholic and Anglo-Catholic. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis weren't just "Christian" writers. Rather, they were Englishmen who belonged to a narrow segment of Christianity characterized precisely by their top-down, hierarchical structures. Both Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism are relatively young religions (at least by Jewish standards) whose entire theologies are based on the power of a single leader to define doctrine for all the faithful. In contrast, Judaism is basically a four-thousand-year-old family argument. There is no one top-down version of Jewish ethics, Jewish theology, or even Jewish history. It's all been up for grabs ever since Babylon. So the kind of proselytizing, culture-defining unitary narrative Weingrad seeks is basically antithetical to Jewish theology. Nor does top-down unitary theology get good press in Jewish history. Don't get me wrong. Plenty of famous people have tried to tell Jews what to think and how to worship. But those people had names like Pharaoh and Herod and Hamon. Conversely, the heroes of Jewish history are mostly eccentric characters like Rabbi Hillel, whose many pithy definitions of Judaism (the most famous of which he recited while standing on one foot) all boiled down to poking good-natured fun at the idiots who looked to famous rabbis to define Judaism instead of looking within themselves. (Nor is this approach confined to Hillel. A similar story is told about Rabbi Akiva, who replied to questions about the proper rituals for a major holiday by shrugging and saying, "Look out the window and see what the Jews are doing."
So basically Weingrad is asking for a centralized, authoritative, clearly defined hero narrative… from a culture that has always been deeply ambivalent even about its own heroes, and whose most revered spiritual teachers spent their entire lives trying to get people to stop acting like sheep and think for themselves. To which I can only respond by repeating Rabbi Akiva's dictum: Look out the window and see what the Jews are doing.
The same advice applies equally well to all Heffalump hunts. There are problems in our genre, most acutely the inability of writers to earn a living wage and the serious barriers to publication that face women and minorities. Nonetheless, the reports of science fiction's demise are greatly exaggerated. Out here in the real world, our genre is alive and well and frenetically evolving. Talented writers of diverse creeds, colors, and genders are writing fabulously original books that don't fit neatly into a Narnia-shaped box (or a Middle Earth- or Harry Potter- or Golden Age SciFi- or any other shaped box). But if you refuse to "see" writing that doesn't fit your preconceived image of the genre, then you will be doomed to wander in circles looking for something that exists only in your imagination.
That would be a pity, since reading real books written by real people is generally a lot more interesting than sitting at home talking to yourself. And therein lies the moral, friends. Our genre is a wild and wonderful party where the guests come as they are and tell their own stories in their own ways. Or at least it should be. And it would be too…if we could all just spend a little less time opining about what other people should be writing and start reading what they actually are writing.
So let's call off the Heffalump Hunt and take some time to stop and smell the sf.
1 Ginia Bellafante. "Game of Thrones: A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms," New York Times, April 14, 2011. Paul Kincaid. "The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies," L.A. Times Review of Books, September 3, 2012. Michael Weingrad. "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia," Jewish Review of Books, Number 1, Spring 2010.
3 And lest anyone come away from this column with an overly optimistic picture of our genre, I hasten to add that the Fail phenomenon is not confined to women sf writers. We have also had Race-Fail, LGBTQ-Fail, and countless other fails. Plus ça change and all that.
4 And that wasn't even the best part! The best past was the heated comment war over whether writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman were Jewish enough to count as Jewish Fantasy Writers…and whether Weingrad himself was Jewish enough to decide whether they were Jewish enough. OMG*d! This is so Jewish! We can't even start an argument without having an argument about who gets to be in the argument!
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