Fiction: better together than alone

Lots of requests right now for fiction recommendations for folks who need escapist or collectivist themes. For me these are more or less the same theme: when I summarise my fiction recommendations they tend to be “and this one is… another found family dealing with trauma and emerging better together than alone! Optionally with a chosen one who wishes they weren’t!”

Note that the trauma theme means that several of these contain on-page violence or recollection of it, etc.

Without further ado:

The Good Place, my only televisual recommendation: a woman dies and goes to The Good Place by mistake and begins to learn how to be a good person. And how to have friends and be a friend. Complete with moral philosophy classes. In a network comedy. And there’s a Rashomon-style episode. There’s also an episode-by-episode podcast, note that you should watch the first two seasons of the TV show before beginning the podcast. After that, they were taped at the same time.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison: an isolated and abused teenage boy already has good instincts about how to be a good person, and they’re sorely put to the test when he unexpectedly becomes His Imperial Serenity Edrehasivar the Seventh and has to learn to navigate court politics, his absolute control over the fate of all his female relatives, being half-black (goblin) in a world of snow-white elves, suddenly having life-or-death power over his former abuser, and not knowing how to dance. This one is a pinnacle of good people finding each other in a difficult world.

The Wayward Children series, by Seanan McGuire: a series of novellas about teenagers who each found a secret door to the fairyland of their heart, dwelt there for a time, and then were cast out for various reasons, and have come together at a survivors’ boarding school to form an uneasy version of found family, the found family you have when your real found family are in a different universe. It alternates between stories set at the school, and stories set in the fairylands.

The October Daye series, by Seanan McGuire: you’ll need a more substantial runup at this one, there’s thirteen full-length novels in it, several novellas, and probably another couple of novels worth of short stories on top of that. And it’s probably a bit more than half done. Secrets and lies of the fae of the San Francisco area, as slowly revealed to the half-fae and all-grumpy protogonist, the least pleased of all Chosen Ones. The found family here is more multigenerational than many found family stories, which I appreciate: the protagonist and her closest allies are middle-aged adults, but their crew contains many teenagers and also several immortal beings.

The Simon Snow series, by Rainbow Rowell. It starts, in a way, with Fangirl, a novel about identical twin sisters in Nebraska who write fanfiction about the Simon Snow magical boarding school series that exists in their world, and how they cope with leaving home for college, loss, sex, not wanting to be a twin any more, and still wanting to be a twin. However the main two novels, Carry On, and Wayward Son, are actually set in the Simon Snow universe itself and are fanfic aesthetic with a lot of Harry Potter fic tropes: outsider Chosen One, insider aristocrat, mysterious pasts, questionably moral Dumbledore figure. And how you assemble a found family to avenge your mother.

The Hidden Histories series, by Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming. Son of a fisherman discovers on his father’s death that he’s actually the bastard son of a nobleman, moves to the big city and needs to deal with class and birth status discrimination. Yes, you know this trope, but the adults are brave and competent, the nobleman’s acknowledged daughters are also bastards (because their mother refuses to marry if it requires her to forfeit her property rights), the pirates have better sexual politics than the empire, and otherwise, this series never takes the easy way out. But it’s the formation of Team Bastard Half-Siblings (when you find your blood family?) that merits its inclusion in this list.

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: if two time warriors from opposing undying galaxy-scale factions can fall in love through letters written in the blood of their enemies and the age rings of trees, who are we to doubt that there’s love in the world? It’s a novella, and it’s excellent, you have no excuse.

30 Day book meme, 1

There seem to be a lot of 30 day prompts around at the moment, and I might take on a few of them. The first is the 30 Day book meme, now that I’ve finally found a list of all the prompts. I am not commiting to 30 continuous days.

Day 1 – A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just freaking end already (or both!)

I’m ready for the ending of Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles. There are actually only five books to date (six in the USA, where the fifth book was split in two), and apparently only one more to come (again, two in the USA). But it started in 1987! I started reading it in about 1994 or so. Every book since has been supposed to be the last one. And it’s ultimately only one large plot arc, and thus very little has actually been wrapped up. Most of the subplots are still unravelling too.

I don’t know why Carmody has taken so long with this one. Perhaps she works slowly, or needs to spend time away from her worlds. But I’ve always thought that the single plot arc, and the first person point-of-view from the same character, is probably a mistake for this series. It’s become a really rich world politically and several of the secondary characters do a lot behind the scenes, but the structure requires the point-of-view character, Elspeth, who is a suspicious, traumatised introvert, to be present in order for the reader to learn anything.

It is nice to see an introvert done well (per Ursula Le Guin’s introduction to Birthday of the World, it isn’t often). Also, Carmody hasn’t made the mistake of making Elspeth’s arc terribly terribly boring in comparison to what is going on in the background (I’m one of the people who feels that JK Rowling managed to write the least interesting parts of events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by virtue of sticking with Harry’s point of view) but to be honest I am starting to get more interested in some of the secondary characters and plots than I am in her and hers. But it seems the Chronicles will conclude with the conclusion of her arc, and I’m ready for that.

Geekspiration of the fictional kind

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Here’s an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers (questions still being taken):

Reading Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls prompted me to crystallise this question: where are the female role models for young geek women?

I’m thinking of characters who have genius-level IQs, coupled with a lack of social skills and, for whatever reason, an absence of Significant Other. There are plenty of characters like this: Sherlock Holmes, Rodney McKay, Greg House, Spock … but where are the women?

Where are the isolated geniuses who are married to their work? Where are the women whose ‘problem personalities’ are forgiven because of their talents / gifts / abilities / focus? Where are the women who are single and don’t give a damn because they have better things to do?

I’m probably missing some obvious examples: I’m not a big media consumer. Remind me, enlighten me! TV, movies, comics, novels all welcome.

A few possibilities, from a fellow consumer of not very much media:

  • Dr Susan Calvin, in various short stories by Isaac Asimov. She’s the leading research roboticist on fictional near-future Earth, and a key employee of US Robots.

    Unfortunately Calvin is one of those fictional characters who is a little better than her writer: Asimov lumps her with some unfortunate embarrassing romantic and maternal feelings occasionally, and the song and dance other characters make about their immense forbearance in forgiving her ‘problem personality’ gets a bit wearing. But nevertheless she’s a key fictional influence on the development of robotics, and the main character in any number of the stories.

    The character Dr Susan Calvin that appears in the 2004 film I, Robot is young, movie-pretty, sarcastic and really resembles Asimov’s character very little, but I quite like her also and still think she’s a fictional geek role model if you accept that she’s very loosely based on the Asimov character: she’s abrupt, literal-minded, a high ranking research scientist and, something I really liked, she’s not shown as having any sexual or romantic interest in the lead character at all. (Shame she isn’t the lead character.)

  • Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan in the Bones television series; if, crucially, you can ignore or don’t mind (or like!) the multi-season plot arc about her mutual attraction with Seeley Booth.

    Bones is a forensic anthropologist prone to social mistakes or at least idiosyncrasies, but key to criminal investigations due to her unparalleled anthropological skills. The writers apparently think of her as having Aspergers, but haven’t said it in the script because you can’t have Aspergers on Fox, or something like that.

    I’m actually not an enormous fan of this show for reasons that are irrelevant to this entry, so I’ll point you to Karen Healey’s guide, since she is an enormous fan and that’s only fair if you want to try it and see.

Who would you recommend?

Reading habits

I intended to write this as a comment at Matt Zimmerman’s post on ways he reads, but it got rather long.

Let’s start with books. I also don’t read as much as I used to, but I am trying to do more of it and less of other reading. I was struck by Kate Harding’s post on reading:

… that’s a wonderful thing, especially for people who for various reasons can’t be physically present everywhere they might like to be, or who find it much easier to be social this way. But for me, the blessing and the curse of it is, I spend much more of my life than I used to thinking about what I’m going to say next. I’m composing a comment in response to what I just read instead of sitting with it; I’m having “chats” with friends where there can be no pleasant silences without one of us wondering if the other is still there; if I’m observing the world around me, half the time I’m thinking, “How do I make this a funny tweet?” When I was writing for Broadsheet, I read other feminist blogs desperately looking for fodder, rather than just taking it all in because it’s smart and interesting — which is exactly what got me interested in them and made me want to start my own in the first place.

All that thinking up something to say gets fucking exhausting.

I’m not going to insert the mandatory I love the feel and smell of paper thing about books here: I for one couldn’t give a toss about it and, except for the heavy metal aspect (and what an aspect it is), bring on the e-reader revolution. I will happily remove bookshelves from my home and hang nice things on my walls. But the thing about books is that, allowing for 95% of everything being crap, they’re planned, revised, edited, checked and they have a lot of space to say what they’re saying. There are exceptions, but the general rule is that I get a lot more out of one good book read over a few days than I do out of 100 good blog posts over that time.

I’m trying to work out what to do about news. The trouble with news is that I do need an editor: I like to know what’s going on in the world but I don’t naturally find out about it in my normal activities. I find out things from social justice blogs, which are important to me, and I find out things from the Sydney Morning Herald’s website, and there’s a lot of things in between I am missing out on. I tried Google News, but I think the cramming of all that news onto one page makes me run and hide. I actually suspect the answer here is TV news bulletins and I’m thinking of adding, say, the ABC’s and SBS’s evening bulletins to my life on a regular basis. Then I know roughly what’s going on and there’s plenty of detailed print journalism to turn to when I want to follow something up.

I read a lot of email still, although for years I’ve been limiting (non-work-related) mailing lists to a 75% test: if I am not reading 75% of the posts to the list, I unsubscribe. Regular readers of technical mailing lists will immediately understand how few mailing lists I am subscribed to now.

I was until recently fairly firmly on the mailing list site of the mailing-list-versus-web-forum debate. But I’ve realised that this is really more about tools, that is, mail readers are more mature than forum interfaces *and* you can use your favourite mail reader for all lists. Each forum has its own, bad, UI, on it’s own, regularly crashing, server.

But some of the features of forums, especially but not only the ability to move or delete or edit posts or entire threads after publication, are useful for high volume discussion. I’d love to see work on development of both standards and tools for more moderated threaded discussion that does not bind as tightly with a single UI. (I’ve used Usenet/NNTP. It’s not what I’m looking for.) Really I’d love to do that work, even, but it’s not a one-person job, buy-in is needed from software developers and users.

At the moment I follow a few web forums, mostly related to parenting things. I resist becoming too actively involved (ie, I’m not a regular poster at any and certainly don’t want to moderate, I keep the relationship to a state where I can regularly take breaks of months from a given forum and no one notices).

I read a lot of blogs (really, a lot). They get subjected to the 75% test too, largely, at least if they update frequently. About a year ago I gave up trying to be basically completionist: if I went away and you blogged during that time, I didn’t read it.

For a long time now I’ve been a fan of personal life-blogs over most other genres. I want to keep up with the educated, researched, niche blogs like Language Log or LWN (OK, the latter doesn’t think of itself as a blog, but it’s in my feed reader, so to me it is) but I find it difficult to be in the mindset to read it as I go through my reader and I can’t think of a good model for setting them aside and going through a bunch of them, especially since I do web reading at my desk. I also want to keep up with hypertextual discussions on social justice issues, but that also easily becomes a second full-time job.

I used to like the big aggregators, but now someone needs to do a highlights column. I care deeply about my baby and my PhD, but I don’t really care about the life milestones of, say, a given random Ubuntu developer. If someone else could pick the top three technical blog posts of the week and I could just read them, I’d prefer that.

I read less and less of microblogs or Facebook and I think it’s going to stay that way. I feel a bit bad about it, since I like writing a microblog, I just don’t like staying on top of my stream. I’m very over the 140 character limit too, it’s too easy to get into needless arguments because my teeny sentence missed a nuance and then I have to clarify with someone, 140 characters at a time. I read direct replies to me, and every so often I surf over and read the most recent 50 or so items I’m subscribed to and that’s about it.

There’s things about Facebook I like (more generous character limit, reply threads, the ‘Top News’ sorting) but I do intend to leave. Just, people keep announcing the birth of their babies exclusive to Facebook. Knock it off!

I don’t really find shared links as useful as Matt does, possibly I need a better tool for it. But I think the theme of most of this is that really, I am turning to edited content, sometimes by pros and sometimes by very smart people who spend a lot of time on the ‘net. I am not cut out to be an editor in that sense, at least, not most of the time. Probably no one is.