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Elaborating on a Promise: A Tale of Series Fiction and Two Jo(e)s

In the last two months (since early August), I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the first books in two very different trilogies. In both cases, I read the first book in 1 or 2 days, choosing it over socializing and newsfeed-reading and the other things that tend to occupy my non-writing hours. It’s been quite a while (a few months at least) since I’ve had that kind of reaction to a book, so when it happened for the first time, I went out the next day and ordered Books 2 and 3 in that series, happy to know that I would be able to pick them up and devour them at my leisure. With the second series, though, I was more cautious; instead of running to the bookstore, I requested the sequel from the library. As it happened, I liked that book enough that I will probably add it to my permanent collection alongside its predecessor… but I had learned my lesson the first time around. Just because a first book catches your fancy doesn’t mean that the rest of the series will do so.

I’ve blogged here before about the relative joys and tribulations of standalone books and series, but my experience with these two trilogies prompted me to revisit the issue from a slightly different angle. The series I set down unfinished was Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy; the one I would endorse in its (admittedly as-yet unfinished) entirety is Jo Walton‘s Thessaly books. Both series are well-written; Goodreads confirms that both have lots of devoted fans. The two series also do some similar things from a craft perspective. Both present a word that is a mix of history and fantasy; both have multiple viewpoint characters; and perhaps most notably, neither author is afraid to make their second (or third) book very different from the first, and trust the readers to decide whether they want to continue along on the ride. Mild-to-moderate spoilers for both series follow.

The Shattered Sea books focus on a culture that bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to (mainstream cultural understandings of) the Vikings; a world where manhood is marked by one’s ability to go raiding, and wealth comes from what you can take when you burn a village. There are a handful of different nations (most notably Vanstermen and Gettlanders) whose cultures seem remarkably similar, and a few others that are more distinctive. Abercrombie also includes some interesting worldbuilding details which I think are invented; while the peoples of the Shattered Sea have distinct roles for men and women, those tasks apportioned to women include most financial and religious duties, and the pantheon includes some interesting reversals from the most traditional stereotypes (Father Peace and Mother War, for starters). In the first book, Half a King, our hero is Yarvi, the younger son of the King of Gettland, who’s been given to the priesthood (in a role relatively rare for a man) because his disabled hand makes him unable to hold a shield and thus unable to fight. In the first chapter of the book, he learns that his father and elder brother have died, and thus he is now King of Gettland; within the first 50 pages, he’s betrayed by his uncle, left for dead, and sold into slavery. The rest of the book is Yarvi’s struggle to set this situation right, and I loved it: he surrounds himself with memorable characters whose exploits I really cared about, a band of unlikely heroes making their way through the wilderness, and their adventures kept me turning pages right up until the end. I liked that Yarvi wasn’t the traditional hero; I liked that his disability was neither his only character trait nor something to be ignored when it became inconvenient, or cured by book’s end; and I liked the plot he found himself in, with a combination of action and character development.

The second book in this series, Half the World, is the tale of a ship making its way from Gettland to the other side of the known world to attempt an alliance with a far-off ruler. The journey has some of the same elements I loved from the first book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much — in large part, I think, because Yarvi is no longer the viewpoint character. Abercrombie trades him in for two new viewpoints, a man and a woman, and while they both had some interesting elements I didn’t feel that either was as distinctive (plus, there’s an awkward YA-style romance between them, with lots of miscommunication before the inevitable getting together). I made it through the book hopeful that the third, Half a War, would feature more screen time for Yarvi; instead, Abercrombie changes viewpoints yet again, bringing in three new protagonists, and sending heroes new and old off to battle. Given the title of the book, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there was more fighting and less opportunity for character interplay (never my favorite combination), but given how much I’d liked the first book, I kept holding out hope that this one would turn into something closer to what I’d loved in the first book. It didn’t, and I set it down halfway through.

In most ways, Jo Walton’s Thessaly series is as different from The Shattered Sea as it is possible for two books to be while remaining in the same genre (maybe unsurprising given how different Walton’s books and series are from one another). The premise of the first book, The Just City, is that the Greek gods Apollo and Athene have took it upon themselves to test out the model of a city laid out in Plato’s Republic. To do this, they transport a number of Platonic scholars from various points in human history to a remote Greek island in pre-history, and present them with a cadre of “blank slate” pupils — more-or-less contemporary slave children taken from throughout the Mediterranean. The goal is that the children will be raised in line with the Platonic ideals outlined in The Republic; the viewpoint characters include one teacher, one human student, and Apollo, who has elected to take on human form to participate in the experiment directly. Sokrates gets involved; there are robots; and as you might guess, things get complicated quickly. This book is unlike most other things I’ve read, and I loved it; it speaks to the worldbuilder in me, as the protagonists are forced to confront the problems with implementing an untested philosophical system with real people, and to the sociologist who loves stories of utopia and dystopia. I don’t usually like stories focused heavily around ideas, but this book was an exception.

The second Thessaly book, The Philosopher Kings, pushes the plot ahead twenty years: the children from the first book are adults, having children of their own, and the community has spread out beyond a single city and even beyond the small island where Athene originally placed them. Two of the narrators are the same, while a third disappears from the story in the first chapter. Philosopher Kings delves more deeply into theology (specifically issues of incarnation and the rights and obligations of demigods) and the effects of historical meddling, but it remains at its root a book about ideas, with the characters serving mainly as mechanisms to kick those ideas around. It’s not the sort of book I would ordinarily jump at, but I’ve been recommending it to all my fellow “book nerds,” and I expect I will be snapping up the third in the trilogy when it appears sometime next year. Which raises the question — why did I like one series so much and not the other?

I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think it’s specifically because of the changes the authors make between books. Other series, like Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, set their first narrator aside when the first book is done and I go on to enjoy the later books even more; George RR Martin has introduced new settings and characters galore in his later Song of Ice and Fire books and I’ve enjoyed most of them very much. And it’s not as though one series stays truer to its central themes than the other; Shattered Sea has Viking-esque warfare and cultural values throughout, while Thessaly is first and foremost an exploration of what happens when a set of philosophical ideals are implemented in the real world. The difference, I think, is that what I liked in Half a King was something other than Abercrombie’s central theme. I wanted to see more of Yarvi’s story from the inside, not just hear about how he was a great diplomat and priest from the eyes of other characters; Abercrombie wanted to let the world grow bigger, and I wasn’t interested in following along. By contrast, although Walton moved outside the Just City in her second novel, the things I liked about the first one were still central to the story she was telling.

The exercise of comparing the two series has been interesting, particularly since I’ve set myself to writing a set of linked series that will put my protagonist in drastically different circumstances. It’s useful to remember that while contemporary authors are more encouraged than their predecessors to stretch themselves, and new authors in particular are warned to avoid focusing too much on one type of project, every change you make in a sequel will alienate some of your readers. People fall in love with a book for lots of reasons, and not all of those will come with you when you move on in the world.

On the up side, I suppose that even a reader who doesn’t like where a series ended up can still be in love with the first book. I won’t be keeping Half the World or Half a War, but Half a King has earned its place on my bookshelf; and I’ll be ordering Philosopher Kings from my local bookstore at the next opportunity.

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A Breath of Fresh Air: On Attending (Half of) the 2014 Tiptree Ceremony

It’s not often I trek into San Francisco on a whim, but this past weekend I made an exception. Late Friday afternoon, I saw an email notification from a fabulous local nerdy organization, SF in SF, noting that due to a congruence of unusual circumstances, one of the bestowals of the 2014 Tiptree Award would be taking place in San Francisco instead of at this year’s WisCon. The site of the ceremony would be Borderlands, maybe the most fabulous genre bookstore to have ever graced the earth; the awardee would be Jo Walton, for her novel My Real Children.

I love Borderlands, enough to have been one of the first 100 people to join their sponsorship program earlier this year when they nearly had to close because of the new SF minimum wage law (more about all that here; linked post first, then others from February and March 2015). And when I picked up My Real Children on vacation last year, I loved it so much I almost didn’t leave the hotel room (my review is here). So when I heard the two were going to come together in a glorious awards ceremony, I figured it was worth a chunk of my Sunday to experiment with being a Tiptree audience member.

I am so, so very glad I did.

For those new to the concept, here is how the Tiptree Award (named in honor of author Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote her sci-fi novels as James Tiptree, Jr.) is described at tiptree.org:

In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. (To read her speech go to PatMurphy.pdf.) Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those women and men who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.

The essence of the award is fundamentally in tune with the larger issues WisCon seems to be primarily concerned with — issues of representation in genre fiction, of rethinking what sci-fi and fantasy “should” be about, and of opening the genre to a wider fan base and helping underrepresented fans and creators feel like they’ve got a place in the crowd. In short, it touches on a lot of the same concerns that I raise in this space: I’ve described it to friends before as “a convention for sociologically-minded nerds.” I thought about making the pilgrimage to WisCon this year, and finally decided I had too much else going on to justify the expense of a semi-random trip to Wisconsin on Memorial Day weekend. But the presentation this weekend reaffirmed my commitment: maybe not next year, or the year after, but soon, I will be there. And I hope that someday I’ll be able to become a regular.

Here’s what I saw on Sunday.

Once everyone had gathered, most of us chittering over newly-purchased books to be signed, emcee and author Ellen Klages called up a friend of Jo Walton’s, Ada Palmer, to first give a reading from her new book Too Like the Lightning (which I will definitely be reading when it comes out next year — intrigue and mayhem and toy soldiers! toy soldiers who come to life!) and then to sing, with her colleague Lauren Schiller, a song called “Somebody Will.” Which pretty much embodied the essence of what it seems like WisCon-oriented genre writers are trying to do, and what I’ve talked about here more times than any other topic, and how I like to live my life: the idea that change is slow but inexorable, and that each of us has a role to play in making that change a reality even if it doesn’t change in our lifetimes, and that the important thing is to do what you can with heart. Which, among other things, is a central theme in My Real Children.

Once the song had been sung and the audience had collected ourselves and stopped sniffling, Klages sat down to interview Walton about her experience as a writer; I’m not sure if this interview is available on YouTube, but it was very refreshing to hear someone admit that all the Truths about Real Writing (you must write every day and never stop; you must never give away your creative work on the Internet; you must pick a genre and stick to it) hadn’t applied to her, and that somehow her books were still winning awards (and not only “feminist” awards, either; in case you missed it, Walton’s Among Others won both the Hugo and the Nebula in 2012). Walton also discussed how she’d written My Real Children to deliberately blur the boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and “women’s fiction,” which she defined as literature whose principal tensions derive from issues central to many women’s lives — marital relationships, children, balancing work and family, getting old — that are rarely addressed in genre fiction (regardless of whether the main character is a woman or a man). She talked about how she thought these things were particularly important to include in our field, since not only was no one writing about them, but (paraphrased) “they’re unlikely to go away in the future — and if they do, then that will be interesting and worth writing about!” It resonated with other conversations I’ve read about the importance of telling all kinds of stories, and reminded me why I fell so in love with Gabaldon’s Outlander books despite their flaws. And it felt so refreshing in the wake of all the angry rhetoric that’s been thrown down in fandom this year about what kinds of stories “deserve” to be told.

And then, once the interview was done, the Tiptree committee gave Jo Walton her prizes: besides a plaque, they included money, and chocolate, and a piece of specially commissioned art inspired by the subject of her book. Ellen Klages then explained that the Tiptree winner usually has rights to wear one of the Tiptree tiaras for the duration of the WisCon weekend, and that Walton did get those rights (even though she was the guest of honor at another convention that weekend, a Tiptree representative met her there with a “spare tiara”); but that because Walton had expressed concerns that wearing a tiara was more stereotypically “girly” than she really felt comfortable with for herself, the committee had gotten her a tiara hat pin instead, to wear on her fantastic broad-brimmed hat. I was surprised at how touching I found this, maybe just because it was evidence that the committee not only knew the author but had actually taken time to take her wishes into account.

And then, before cake (because there was cake, and we all got a piece), the committee and the audience sang Walton a song. Two songs, actually; a combined round, to the tunes of Row Row Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques, with the words changed so that the songs were about My Real Children. And as I sang, with gusto, and as I looked up to the front of the room and saw Jo Walton’s face light up, I thought: this is the community I want to be a part of.

I’ve read a lot about the people in the genre fiction community over the last few months, good, bad and ugly. I’ve read George RR Martin’s long explanations of how the culture at WorldCon has changed; I’ve seen other authors I like and respect wade into the fray and try to speak reasonably; I’ve considered the Hugo nominations and decided how I was going to vote on as much of the material as I was able to take in. And honestly, it’s all left me feeling a little uneasy about pursuing a career as a professional writer. I know that all groups of professionals have politics, that there’s no getting around that — but somehow, I thought that maybe there was a niche within genre fiction where nerds who felt the way I did about the world could just get together and hang out and talk about books and how they try to use them to create positive change in the world.

This weekend, I think I found that place. And if this ceremony said anything at all about the rest of WisCon, I may have to get a ticket for next year’s Memorial Day weekend this week. Because this whole event, from beginning to end, was food for my artist’s soul. Thanks to all who put it together, and I hope I’ll get to know you better soon.

Book Review: My Real Children, by Jo Walton

“She wasn’t famous then,” Pat said. “Nobody is. You never know until too late. They’re just people like everyone else. Anyone you know might become famous. Or not. You don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will. You might become famous yourself. You might change the world.” — Jo Walton’s My Real Children, pp. 12-13

I’ve been hearing buzz about Jo Walton‘s new book for several months now; it got a favorable review in the May edition of Locus, on i09 and in other places where I go to see which genre books I ought to add to my ever-growing reading list. Walton’s last novel, Among Others, won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novel in 2012, and though it did pass through my hands in 2011 I can’t honestly say I’ve read it in the sense of having any memory of the fact (saying 2011 was a frenetic year for me is putting it mildly). My Real Children appealed to me in part because it offered a protagonist unlike those I’d seen in recent fiction, and also because it seems to be picking up on a theme from several other “light SF” books I’ve read and enjoyed.

Like Atkinson‘s Life After Life (reviewed here), My Real Children falls into a category I could shorthand as “alternate-history biography.” Like Niffenegger‘s Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s told by two different narrators whose stories don’t perfectly overlap. Where Walton’s book diverges from these others is that 1) its protagonists only get one life apiece, without redos; and 2) its two narrators are technically the same person.

At the beginning of the book, we’re introduced to Patricia Cowan, an elderly woman with dementia. Patricia knows that she’s confused and forgetful. She also knows that when she does remember things, they seem to be coming from two different lives. In one life, “Tricia” has four children with a husband she doesn’t love, gets divorced, becomes political and never leaves England; in the other, “Pat” has three children with a wife she loves dearly, spends half her year in Italy and is a successful guidebook writer. Oh, and by the way, in the first life President Kennedy was never assassinated and gay marriage was legalized in Britain in the ’80s; in the second one, the United States and Russia had a nuclear exchange in the mid-1960s that led to massive cancer outbreaks and other terrible things in the ’80s and ’90s.

I basically read this book in a day: I took it with me on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Although both of Patricia’s lives have sad and traumatic parts, there are also many parts in both sections of the book (Pat and Tricia alternate chapters, usually encompassing roughly the same period in time) that are really enjoyable to read. Pat’s life with her wife Bee, in particular, seems tailor-made to appeal to artistic types like your humble reviewer. The descriptions of everyday life are beautiful and the prose is well-crafted. The characters did seem a little one-dimensional in places, probably a necessary shortcut coming from the compression of time. Pat’s wife Bee in particular seems too perfect; even when bad things happen to them, the only portions of their life that appear on the page are the ones that end up with everyone happy at the end (on the other hand, Tricia’s husband, Mark, is almost too ugly). All that said, I enjoyed every page of this book: it also didn’t feel much like genre fiction to me.

I’d agree with the Locus reviewer, Gary K. Wolfe, who had this to say about the alternate history part of Walton’s book:

Walton… has to present two alternative versions of a history that stretches over nearly 60 years in 34 relatively short chapters. As a result, we’re in for some fairly quick historical summaries interspersed with individual dramatic scenes that focus on Trish and Pat and their various relationships, professional lives, children, and grandchildren. It’s rare for me to think that any novel might have been a bit longer, but Walton’s two worlds are so tantalizingly familiar yet estranged that I sometimes felt I needed a little more context for the various radical historical changes that occur mostly in the background or crammed into chapter-opening paragraphs.

The world where Pat lives with Bee is obviously troubled, with nuclear fallout causing the cancer deaths of several beloved characters and Britain clamping down on the rights of same-sex couples in a way that (I gather) is much harsher than what GLBT families would experience in real-life Europe today. On the other hand, the world where Tricia/Trish lives feels more like ours — while reading, I would periodically forget that it wasn’t — except that oh, yeah, there’s a colony on the moon where Tricia’s youngest son goes to work for the better part of two years. The alternate-history backdrop is there, but it definitely takes a back seat to the emotional story of the characters. And while I didn’t miss the historical backdrop while I was reading, when I stepped back and looked at the larger point it felt like Walton was trying to make with the book, I realized that the focus on the personal might have weakened the overall plot arc.

As the quote at the top of this review suggests, the big-picture question of the book is whether one seemingly-unremarkable person can make a difference in the fate of the world. For instance, we’re supposed to speculate on whether the fact that Tricia’s comparatively peaceful world comes from the fact that Patricia married her college sweetheart and became a peace activist as an escape from her unhappy marriage, as opposed to living a happy and apolitical life with Bee where they wonder, idly, if they should have gotten involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when they were younger. At the end of the book, Patricia wonders not about which was the real life, but which was the better one; whether personal happiness in a broken world is better than unhappiness in a more peaceful world, or vice versa. The answer’s purposely left up to the readers to decide, but if it’s supposed to be what the story’s about I felt like the contexts needed to be more foregrounded.

Part of this might come from my limitations as an American reader; although I obviously know that there’s no settlement on the moon, my familiarity with LGBT politics in the UK isn’t good enough to allow me to parse that aspect’s differences from reality when I was reading in the Internet-free island of my hotel room. I also find that this is a hazard of alternate history as a broader genre, that unless you’re very familiar with the eras the authors are changing, a lot of it tends to go over your head. Even if you miss some of the nuance of the alternate history, though, I’d say this story is strong enough to stand on its own anyhow.

This book’s prompted me to seek out Among Others again. If you like your genre fiction heavy on personal narrative and comparatively light on genre, I’d recommend giving Walton’s My Real Children a read.