Review of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.


More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking


In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

Review of The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera


This is the debut novel for Rivera. It runs about 500 pages and was published by Tor in October 2017. Rivera is Puerto Rican and currently lives in New York City.

Qorin tribeswoman and warrior Shefali Arsalayaa writes a letter to her friend and previous lover O-Shizuka, Empress of Hokkaro. In this letter, Shefali details their childhood together beginning at age three, and follows Shizuka’s growing conviction that the two of them are divine, favored by the gods and destined for great deeds. Shizuka becomes an accomplished swordswoman while Shefali favors a bow. The two of them slay a tiger at a young age and then move on to tackle the demons that are sucking life out of the kingdom. This is a difficult and dangerous task, and they both suffer for it. They become lovers, but are separated when Shefali is exiled by Shizuka’s uncle, then Emperor of Hokkaro. Can the two of them find one another again?

Tor’s announcement bills this as Mongolian inspired, and Shefali might be, but Shizuka and her culture come across as heavily Japanese. This generated knee-jerk complaints on Tor’s website about a “white” woman appropriating Asian culture, which degenerated into something of a mess when others pointed out that Rivera isn’t white and others questioned whether non-whites can appropriate culture. Certainly Rivera hasn’t written the book about her own cultural heritage.

Good points: The Tor editor described this as “stunning,” and the prose is very well done. The imagery, especially Shefali’s descriptions of her lover, is sometimes striking. Characterization of the two main protagonists is also well-done, as the two of them have depth and substance. There’s a suggestion of power plays in the court, but the intrigues aren’t the main story.

Not so good points: I like women’s adventure, but the literary device of the letter made this primarily about the love story. It also removed all immediacy from the action and events. Who writes a 500 page letter detailing whole lives and mooning about the attributes of their lover? The result was that I got bored about 1/3 of the way through and had a hard time finishing. Despite the imagery, the world isn’t well defined, and I had a hard time integrating the steppes and the kingdom. Characters other than Shefali and Shizuka tend to be flat and don’t always ring true. There’s a huge gap of years here, and no indication of how Shizuka displaced her uncle to become Empress. Did he die childless? Did she off him in some way? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Three stars.

Thoughts on Atlantic’s Interview with N.K. Jemisin


In the run up to the Hugo Awards, Atlantic magazine’s writer Vann R. Newkirk II interviewed N.K. Jemisin on her finalist position for the Best Novel Hugo Award. Of course, The Fifth Season went on to win the award.

Jemisin’s nomination and win in the Best Novel category are historic, as she’s the first black writer to achieve this milestone. Newkirk notes the brilliance of the ideas in the novel, and Jemisin admits that a story of this length and scope has been somewhat difficult for her to deal with. Then they go on to politics in the SFF genre (i.e. the Sad/Rabid Puppies) and what has informed the content of what will be a trilogy with The Fifth Season as the first installment. Jemisin notes that she has read a lot of history that will go into the oppression theme of the trilogy. She also suggests she will add “hints” from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust to the extant slavery theme and what Newkirk calls the “racial critiques” the first book presents.

In light of current social trends, Jemisin’s comments seem confusing. One of the hot-button topics in the culture war is cultural appropriation (already featured in other blogs here). Some people might consider Jemisin already privileged because of her American birthright, and with her nomination and Hugo win, she has now joined a privileged class of SFF writers. No one questions her right to comment about slavery and oppression, as she comes from a heritage of African American slavery, but is it cultural appropriation for her to borrow from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust? Will it be transgressive for her to be putting words in the mouths of Asians and Jews? Also, as an American, is it transgressive for her to be making assumptions about Africa and African history?

I’ve asked these questions before just as a theoretical, but here we have an actual example. Is Jemisin planning something that will be considered cultural appropriation? Or should she not be limited by her race and heritage to writing only about certain racial groups and a certain cultural experience?

A Bit More on Trangressive Fiction

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I was having a conversation with friends while I was on holiday, and the subject of transgressive fiction came up.

“I had a great story idea a while back,” I said. “It was full of drama and conflict, and I was really in love with it.”

It was also one of those wonderful stories that arrives fully blown—a story that writes itself and only asks you to take the time to make it live.

“You did finish it, didn’t you?” asked my friend.

“No,” I said. “It was transgressive fiction.”

So what was the problem? It was set during the US Civil War and happens from the African American point of view, while I’m pretty much white-bread American. That mean’s I’d be putting word in the mouths of slaves and ex-slaves and projecting feelings that don’t come directly from my own cultural heritage. In other times, it would have been fine for me to write a short story or a play about Reconstruction. I mean, look how well Margaret Mitchell did. But in the current climate, I’d be certain to step on someone’s toes with this story. It’s cultural appropriation, and social commentary about issues like slavery and the Holocaust are very touchy. Even if I spent the time to write the story/play, what editor would feel safe publishing it?

So, my judgment has to be that this is an unwriteable story. Regardless of the richness of the idea, it’s just not worth the effort to put it on paper (er, Word document).

I’m still in love with it though. It does exist, still hanging there in the back of my consciousness, just waiting to be born.

Review of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

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This is a 2016 Hugo Finalist in the Best Novella category. It was published by

Binti is of the Himba people, and a mathematician. Her father manufactures electronic astrolabes and Binti has learned to be a harmonizer through working with him in his workshop. Without telling her family, she has applied to Oomza Uni, a school in another part of the galaxy and has been accepted. She slips away during the night and takes passage on a living starship. Everyone on the ship but Binti and the pilot die when the ship is overrun by Meduse, aliens that look like jellyfish. Binti seems to be protected by her edan, an ancient artifact that she found in the desert. She hides in her quarters and the edan translates for her. She finds the Meduse are making war on Oomza Uni because scholars have stolen their chief’s stinger. They also want Binti’s otjize, a cosmetic made from oil and clay, which they realize from touching her has healing power on their flesh. They negotiate, and she offers to harmonize the situation with Oozma Uni. The Meduse agree to let her try. Can she make this work?

On the surface the tale looks like science fiction, but none of this is at all supportable in SF terms. In other words, it’s about magic. The main theme seems to be cultural appropriation. The Meduse are making war because they want the stolen stinger back, and Binti is offended by the Meduse’s demand for her otjize. There are also strong themes about leaving family behind to follow your dreams, and about respecting alien races. On the negative side, this moves slowly and repeats a lot. Okorafor could have easily made the same points in a short story. It was an interesting look at Himba culture, but more sentimental than thought provoking. Still, I’m going to bump it up half a point for its optimism.

Three and a half stars.

More thoughts on the 2015 Nebula winners

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FeatherPenClipArtNow that the gender discussion is over, let’s have a look at the winning stories. For my taste, this year’s crop of winners was an improvement over the recent trends. Nothing really eye-rollingly sentimental won this year.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” runs a little that way, but actually it’s more of a nostalgia piece about people who are lagging behind social and technological change and really don’t want to cope with it. That’s reasonable social commentary, but I read a lot of other stories this year that I liked better. I’m not really surprised by Uprooted. I personally think it has structural flaws, but it’s hard-hitting, includes (sort-of) romance, and got a lot of early buzz as being outstanding. Hard science fiction lost out again this year. Of the four winners, Binti is the only science fiction piece, and it’s about cultural appropriation—a trending issue in the recent culture wars. “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is also a hard-hitting, unsentimental piece (at least until the end), running to dark fantasy/horror rather than the heart-strings direction the other short story contenders took.

I was disappointed that “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer didn’t even make the list of finalists. It’s not hard SF, but this was the thought-piece of the year, projecting a reproduction issue into the future and then investigating how it would play out. I’m glad to see it’s on the list of finalists for the Sturgeon Award.

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