Nov 08 2018

An Interview with Aliya Whiteley, author of The Arrival Of Missives

Q: Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did The Arrival Of Missives evolve?

A: It started with the voice of my main character, Shirley, and grew entirely from there. I loved her straight away; she’s a teenager who is both naïve and confident, determined and doubtful, and she has all sorts of emotions rolled up together. So I tried to capture that first and as the voice grew I realised she wasn’t living in contemporary times. I placed her in 1920, in a village in Somerset, UK, and the rest of the story unfolded from there. It was a scary journey because I’ve never written historical fiction before but as the story progressed I realised that I was still writing science fiction too. It was only a case of approaching it from a different perspective, which made it a really rewarding challenge.

Q: I loved how both stories in this volume exploded traditional science fiction’s patriarchal bent, and I want to give copies of this book to every sci-fi fan I know. Which led me to wonder whether you write with any particular audience in mind, and if there are any particular audiences you hope will connect with these stories?

A: I’m a really selfish writer. I write stories that I think I’d like, and then just hope that other people will agree! But I don’t write to reach a certain type of person so much as think that it would be great if it reaches anyone at all. And if it fails to do that: well, at least I enjoyed the ride. I’ve always enjoyed stories that really take me by surprise, so I try to find that in the writing process. I hope Missives does that.

Q: Despite the very different ways it was presented — in a straightforward fashion in TAoM but in a far more metatextual, one could even say satirical, mode with The Last Voyage Of The Smiling Henry — I was struck by the theme of social conditioning that ran through this book. Do you consider yourself at all a political author?

A: I suspect everything I write is political without examining it too closely. I don’t really think about it while I’m writing because I’m caught up in the voice, and where it takes me. Afterwards I can see that themes have emerged and when it was time to choose a story to accompany Missives for the US release then The Last Voyage of the Smiling Henry felt like the right choice because it shares themes with Shirley’s story, but those themes are presented in an entirely different way. They’re both about how we respond to what we consider to be the status quo, I think.

Q: You’ve stated elsewhere that Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is the first book you read that struck you with its inventiveness, and credit William Hope Hodgson with inspiration for TLVotSH. What other books and authors have made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!” (and then possibly subvert it entirely!)

A: I think that all the time! Whenever I read something I enjoy I want to give it a whirl myself. But with the books that I’ve loved the most I sometimes feel as if I really wouldn’t want to even try to write something along similar lines. George Eliot’s Middlemarch scares me and inspires me in equal measure; imagine being able to write something so wonderful. And the novels of Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene are the places I go to when I don’t want to see the craft of writing at all but just get utterly lost in the magnificent prose.

I did find the courage to use DH Lawrence as my inspiration for certain key moments in Missives. I’ve loved Lawrence since first reading The Rainbow when I was sixteen (the same age as Shirley), and he was a huge influence on this book.

Q: How did you learn to write? Did you have a teacher who inspired you in the same way Mr Tiller initially inspired Shirley, though hopefully with less personal fallout?

A: I took a module in Creative Writing at University that absolutely captivated me, and from that point on I knew I wanted to be a writer. The strength of my feelings about it really took me by surprise, so I suppose you could say my crush was on the subject rather than the teacher! But my teacher for that module was amazing, and he has continued to be supportive since those university days. We keep in touch and I send him my books; I thanked him in the acknowledgements for Missives, along with other teachers I know and admire.

Q: Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?

A: I try to write every day but some days are easier than others! I write my first drafts in longhand and it’s the process of typing up those handwritten sentences (some more legible than others) that really brings the book to life.

Q: Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?

A: Absolutely a pantser, although that’s the first time I’ve ever come across that description for it. It’s all about finding the voice and the character for me, and then I let them take me wherever they want to go. Usually I have a few key moments in my mind, but that’s about it, and I never know the ending.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?

A: I mentioned Iris Murdoch earlier; I’m reading The Time of the Angels, which is dark and creepy and magnificent.

Q: Are there any new books or authors in speculative fiction that have you excited?

A: I’ve just finished Tade Thompson’s Rosewater – I’m hugely enjoying that mixture of big ideas, science fiction, and noir. And there’s a collection of ecologically-minded speculative fiction short stories called Lost Objects by Marian Womack that had me spellbound. Both of those books feel like they’re engaging with our rapidly changing future rather than recycling existing ideas.

Q; You’ve stated on your website that you tend to be drawn to writing about “the darker side of life.” How did this influence your choice of speculative fiction as your primary means of expression, after debuting in other genres?

A: I don’t think I ever consciously chose a genre, and that’s probably why my stories often use lots of different genre elements without really belonging to just one. I first wrote romantic novels and then crime for a while, but in all my books an element of weirdness, or speculative fiction, crept in and I think that’s probably because of my interest in darker themes. I’ve always been looking to explore the strangest elements and emotions of being human, whatever the genre.

Q: Is there any chance we’ll be able to look forward to reading Shirley Fearn’s continuing adventures? I, for one, really want to see what she does next.

A: I keep trying to picture what happens to Shirley next but my thoughts change on her future every single time, and considering the conclusion of the book that seems like a perfect outcome! I’ll just keep imagining all the adventures she might embark upon and maybe one day I’ll prefer one over all the others and I’ll write that one down.

Q: What can you tell us about your next project, Shirley-related or otherwise? And will you be reviving your Patreon project in the foreseeable future?

A: I’ve got a new book out in the UK this week; it’s called The Loosening Skin (published by Unsung Stories) and it’s a noir-tinged detective story that travels in unexpected directions. It will be published in the US by Titan Books in the near future. Titan will also be publishing a novel of mine called Skein Island, which involves archaeology and Greek myths. So there’s a lot going on right now! I’ve put my Patreon project (to write a strange short story every month) on hold for the time being but I’m hoping to get back to it at some point. What’s great is that The Last Voyage of the Smiling Henry grew from that Patreon project, as well as lots of other ideas that I’m still working on, so it’s been great in terms of finding new inspiration.

Q: Tell us why you love your book!

A: I love Shirley and her realisation that the world is so much bigger than her small village. She was a joy to write. She made me laugh but she also broke my heart a little bit. She brought back all those complicated feelings of growing up and realising that everything is not black and white, and people cannot be trusted, no matter how knowledgeable they seem to be. I hope readers love her too, and find a reminder of their own experiences in hers.


Author Links

Aliya Whiteley



The Arrival Of Missives was published in the US on November 6th 2018 and may be found at all good booksellers. My review of the book itself may be found here.

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Nov 08 2018

Vicious (Villains #1) by V.E. Schwab

Or, as I like to think of it, A Tale Of Two Sociopaths.

In a world where people with superpowers are called ExtraOrdinaries (or EOs, for short) two brilliant college students decide that it isn’t enough to study them and try to figure out how they came to be. Eli Cardale and Victor Vale are roommates with families who are neglectful or worse, and find in each other a kindred spark of, to put it bluntly, sociopathy. Both pre-med, they think they’ve figured out what makes an EO, so decide to see if they can undergo the process themselves. It’s not a spoiler to say that they do, coming out with vastly different powers and vastly different views on what to do with them. Eli’s betrayal sends Victor to jail for a decade, and when Victor gets out, he’s hellbent on revenge.

I really enjoyed this twist on the superhero genre, especially since our main characters aren’t really good guys. My favorite character by a country mile was Mitch, and I hope the sequel explains a little of his “curse”. Personally, I thought he was a rolling badass, especially on the climactic night of the book’s narrative. I also really enjoyed Sydney, and appreciate the fact that Serena, while nuanced, was still clearly a villain. And most of all, I really liked the way the book acknowledged the different levels of sociopathy, even if it sometimes felt as if all the characters were chosen to be illustrative of the lower two levels of the D&D alignment chart.

I’m probably looking forward to reading the sequel to this more than any of VE Schwab’s other novels, but it’s definitely raised my already rather high opinion of her writing. Good, solid entertainment that leans on the darker side of morality without descending into sickening, whether violent or maudlin, tropes.

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Nov 06 2018

The Arrival Of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

This is a volume that is dead set on subverting our expectations of science fiction, and succeeds at that goal brilliantly. Packaged together with the short story The Last Voyage Of The Smiling Henry, the title novel (I know that some might argue that its 133-page length renders it more of a novella, but I, for one, laud the return of the short, standalone novel) starts out as a fairly typical post-Great-War bildungsroman featuring the teenaged Shirley Fearn, who dreams of a meaningful life beyond her small English farming village. She is in love with her schoolmaster, Mister Tiller, a veteran of the fighting in France, whose body has been impossibly changed by a near-death battlefield experience. But he has plans for her that have nothing to do with his own physical desires, as he takes her into his confidence for a May Day celebration that he hopes will change the course of history.

And then? Things go amazingly crazy. It would be a disservice to tell you more, but I will say that when I finished The Arrival Of Missives, I desperately wanted a longer book, a 300+ page behemoth, a multi-part series of such behemoths out of this. I want to see where Shirley goes next, I want to see her fight and win. I was so impressed by how Aliya Whiteley takes this dreamy young girl, seemingly destined to play such a crucial role in the proceedings, and makes her even more important by virtue of her self-determination. It is an audacious coup of storytelling, and an excellent reminder of how each and every one of us is capable of breaking the shackles of expectations to claim our own ambitions and victories.

Subversive in a different, less subtle way is TLVotSH. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it’s essentially an adventure story very much akin to the popular fiction of the turn of the 20th century, only with the genders reversed. I grew up reading a lot of that type of fiction, and younger me never really grokked the casual sexism on display, filing it away in my brain as “this book could really use more interesting women” instead of truly seeing how damaging (and pervasive!) this worldview could be. I’m not sure if Ms Whiteley wrote this story as an antidote, as satire or as counterpoint to those predecessors, but reading it really hit home how little earlier authors thought of our entire sex. Ms Whiteley’s ability to put an entire subgenre of literature into perspective while still entertaining with a quality sci-fi read is astonishing, if not outright genius.

Anyway, I really loved this volume, not only for the wildly entertaining plots but also for the penetrating insight into the importance of female characters wresting their own agency in the face of all odds. More please, Ms Whiteley. With that in mind, stay tuned for an interview with the author herself, and check out the other stops on her blog tour!

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Nov 03 2018

Traitor to the Throne (Rebel of the Sands #2) by Alwyn Hamilton

I am so glad I decided to read this book! I had a bunch of misgivings after the overall good but uneven first in the series, Rebel Of The Sands, and had prepared myself for more of the same here, but Traitor To The Throne far surpassed my expectations. There were several annoying lapses in logic that could have been remedied with some thought and explanation: I thought the bit with Leyla and the djinn especially underwritten, in part because it felt Totally Obvious what was actually going on despite the confusion of events from Amani’s pov — a bit more storytelling from that last would have done the book worlds of good. Also? The last scene with Amani’s surgery and her thoughts of vengeance needed more writing. These are, however, minor flaws in the face of the sheer sweep of the book, as Alwyn Hamilton shows us both the flip side and the cost of rebellion.

It isn’t a spoiler to say that in this novel our heroine, the gun-slinging, half-djinn Amani, becomes a captive in the Sultan’s court, where she works feverishly to secure her position and earn his trust as a valued aide while siphoning critical information about his plans to the Rebellion. Ms Hamilton has written a really terrific book about politics and court intrigue, as Amani finds herself sympathizing with the Sultan’s quest to secure their kingdom (one should say sultanate really, but why quibble) of Miraji from foreign conquest. Because Miraji doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it is constantly encroached upon by foreign nations eager to take advantage of its unique weapons-making capabilities. Prince Ahmed’s Rebellion displays regime weakness to the powers waiting on the borders like carrion birds, and the Sultan is determined to crush it all, leaving Amani feeling like a traitor to her beloved homeland the more she spies.

In addition to excellent plotting, TttT retains all the wonderful world-building of the first book, as well as the sass and verve of our main characters. I liked that the romance with Jin didn’t dominate the story, and I especially liked the boldness of the twists Ms Hamilton threw in regarding the various characters, and especially Amani’s relatives. Shira is exceptional — a truly complex creation. And I loved how the book set up for the final novel in the trilogy, which I’m waitlisted for at the library now. I have no idea what to expect, tho, honestly. TttT was a game-changer, and I’m eager to see where Ms Hamilton goes with the series next.

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Nov 01 2018

In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

I kinda don’t remember why I placed this on my library hold list, but I finally got around to reading it and, hmm. It’s very readable. I tore through the last half really quickly, almost compulsively: it’s written in such a way that I just had to keep going to find out whodunnit. Unfortunately, it was really predictable, and the mystery itself far less compelling than the atmosphere.

Our protagonist, Nora Shaw, wakes up in the hospital after a car accident, with huge gaps in her memory. She’d reluctantly agreed to go to the hen night — or weekend, rather — of her childhood best friend, Clare, despite not having seen her in the decade since they were both sixteen. Something terrible happened back then between Nora and her boyfriend, James, and she’d left her childhood friends behind, moving away and eventually becoming a reclusive crime writer with a need for daily runs.

The hen night is organized by Flo, Clare’s current best friend who often seems more neurotic admirer/sycophant than friend. The other guests include Nina, another friend of Nora and Clare’s from school; Tom, a colleague of Clare’s, and Melanie, who’d gone to uni with Clare and Flo. They all gather in Flo’s aunt’s summer house, a gleaming glass structure in the woods, for what’s supposed to be a fun, wild weekend. Instead there’s malice, carnage and death.

I really enjoyed the scenes from the hen weekend. It reminded me a lot of a grown-up version of Robin Klein’s Games (tho with a completely different ending, of course. No spoilers here!) Unlike with Games, however, I didn’t really care for any of these characters (hi, Doug!) Everyone is a variation on a brittle asshole, except maybe Melanie. And honestly, how emotionally stunted do you have to be to not get over a teenage breakup ten years ago, especially when you live in cosmopolitan environs with constant outside stimuli and chances to meet new and exciting people? I kept expecting a twist — which is what likely had me turning the pages — but it was a fairly straightforward, obvious whodunnit, dressed up with the shifting timeline plot device. There were bits that surprised me — why Nora and James broke up, for example — but I rather expected better and more, and am still unclear as to why I put the book on my to-read list to begin with. Oh wait, it’s going to be made into a movie? That’s probably why: I always consider that a recommendation of some sort, tho I’m starting to reconsider.

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Oct 23 2018

Bless Me, Father by Neil Boyd

Bless Me, Father turned out to be just the thing for an autumn weekend afternoon. It’s short, light, breezily written and genuinely funny in places, which I hadn’t entirely expected — despite the recommendation that landed it in my set of books to read — from a book published forty years ago about events twenty years previous to that. Neil Boyd relates stories from his earliest days as a Catholic priest in a mixed neighborhood in London in the early 1950s.

If Bless Me, Father was a period piece, as I rather suspect it was, when it was published in 1977 — just a year before Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City how’s that for a world of difference — it’s more of a historical document now. The world that Boyd depicts is something I only knew from Andy Capp comic strips (and boy howdy is that a strange thing to put on the funny pages of a South Louisiana newspaper, now that I think about it) and the occasional black and white movie rerun on weekend television. The ex-con who has trouble landing a job, and the accountant who seems to follow him around to ensure that he doesn’t keep one if he does manage to find a place. The neighborhood bookie who keeps racing pigeons, who knew that that was even a thing? (Well, plenty of English people, I suppose, but it keeps proving the point about being separated by a common language.) The deep rivalry between Anglican and Catholic parishes in a local annual swimming contest.

The eleven stories in the book are generally 20 pages or less, such that the whole volume is only about 175 pages. This is a length that has virtually disappeared, presumably for commercial reasons, among the kinds of books I like to read, and I miss it a bit. Sit down with a book one day, finish it later the same day or, at a stretch, the next. I find that satisfying, especially if it doesn’t require staying up all night. By way of comparison, even the light and breezy science fiction mystery of John Scalzi‘s Head On is nearly twice as long. Publishers’ and readers’ ideas of what constitutes a short novel have changed over the years, yet another way in which Bless Me, Father is a period piece.

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Oct 21 2018

Soviet Mass Festivals, 1917-1991 by Malte Rolf

Every now and then, I like to read a book that is of interest mainly to specialists. Malte Rolf’s work uses the parades and other mass events in the Soviet Union as a lens for examining how that society developed over the course of its existence. Celebrations reveal a great deal about a society — what rulers think should be celebrated, what the population as a whole actually celebrates, how both rulers and ruled actually mark festive occasions — and that holds even more for the Soviet Union, in which people consciously set out to create new celebrations appropriate for the new era that the revolution had ushered in. Rolf looks at festivities throughout the Soviet period, although he concentrates on the 1920s and 1930s. Although he gives careful attention to the well-known spectacles in Moscow, he draws examples from a wide geographic range of places, including Voronezh and surrounding smaller towns in Russia’s “black earth” region, as well as Novosibirsk in Siberia. This diversity allows him to show whether and how the concepts that were developed at the center were actually implemented across Russia’s vast distances. (He occasionally mentions celebrations in the non-Russian republics of the USSR, but he focused his research on places that are now part of the Russian Federation.)

The overall story of Soviet celebrations moves from improvisation into standardization, although always marked by shortages, followed by a long period of repetition after World War II, with a growing divergence between public conformity and private diversity in the USSR’s final years. Public celebrations held a special place for the Bolsheviks because they came to power claiming to speak for the masses that the old order had repressed. Turning out large numbers of people for revolutionary celebrations thus illustrated the correctness of their claim and reinforced their power. At a time when Soviet power was explicitly set against remnants of the old regime, the Orthodox Church in particular, getting people to march in May Day events rather than in religious processions was another step in establishing the revolutionary order.

Rolf documents the chaos and improvisation of the revolutionary days, when masses of people on the streets affected the course of events in Russia’s capitals. He shows how early Bolshevik celebrations sought to recreate this fervor, and he looks behind the scenes to show how organizers competed with one another to define what Bolshevik celebrations would look like in practice. In the beginning, anyone who called himself (and they were all men) a celebration expert and managed to get people organized could have a significant effect, although the people drawn to this work tended to be “theater directors and artists, popular pedagogues, and agitation functionaries.” (p. 37) People argued about whether the celebrations should serve to educate the populace or whether they should provide space for members of the proletariat to articulate their own visions of what the revolution should bring.

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Oct 17 2018

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

This book first came to my attention when work was doing coverage of the Edgars the year it was nominated for Best First Novel, but I deliberately chose another book on the slate because the blurb was equal parts attractive and repulsive to me. It sounded very much like rich white people problems, plus every book compared to Gone Girl proves to be disappointing. But still, there was something about it that I couldn’t quite shake, so when Reese Witherspoon announced that she’d bought the movie rights, I figured I ought to read it sooner rather than later.

And oh jeez, am I glad I did. It’s been so long since I’ve read a book where the protagonist was so palpably and justifiably furious, whose radiant anger touched many targets but was primarily turned inward, punishing herself while building an impregnable shell against anyone who might possibly hurt her again. It is a brutally honest rendering of a woman who isn’t “nice” (I fucking hate that word when used to describe women: it usually translates to “doormat”) but who will do whatever it takes to get what she feels she deserves. And you know what? TifAni FaNelli deserves whatever she wants. After an adolescence of appalling degradation, she claimed her own needs and desires and rewards, and it made me fiercely happy to see her do it. I lauded her courage and ferocity, I related to her dreams and ambitions. I absolutely loved her.

But after reading the book, I hated the blurb even more. It declares that TifAni is hiding a secret that could destroy her entire life, implying that she once did something terrible for which she should feel shame. This is blatantly false, and weirdly anathema to the book’s theme of not apologizing for who you are, of holding wrongdoers accountable even as you let go of your pain. It’s like, can we stop blaming the victim here? I did really, really appreciate how Jessica Knoll didn’t try to pretty up any of TifAni’s inner thoughts, tho, especially when she was an adolescent desperately eager to please.

As to the rest of the plot, it’s twist after twist with a perfect ending exchange between TifAni and Aaron that has me bracing myself for her future. I loved this character, I loved Mr Larson (despite Whitney) and I haaaaaaated Luke and, especially, TifAni’s parents (tho I should have known from the way they spelled her name that they would be perfectly awful people.) I did think that everything after the rehearsal dinner felt a wee bit rushed, and I didn’t feel that we needed such a blatant spelling out of adult TifAni’s psycho-social motivations… but then again, many complaints regarding this book have to do with how she’s “unlikeable” so perhaps Ms Knoll wasn’t explicit enough. After reading some of the bonus material included in my library copy of the book, I’ve decided that I, for one, like and want to support this author as much as I do TifAni (and no, I don’t care what that says about me,) so I’ve already put myself on the waitlist for her next novel. Which is my poor person’s way of saying I highly recommend this book.

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Oct 15 2018

The City & The City by China Miéville

Don’t read the second sentence of this post. Don’t read the sentence that comes before this one. In this world, we do not acknowledge italics. Italics are the only text there is. If you see something written in another way, avert your eyes, unsee and unread before it is too late. We have some leniency with foreigners, but really you should accustom yourself to seeing only one thing, to observing the boundary between our text and that of its neighbors. You must choose one line, one mode, one city.

If you struggled to navigate that paragraph, you’ve already got a handle on the conceit that drives China Miéville’s 2009 novel, The City & The City. The story takes place in an Eastern European city of Miéville’s own intricate invention, or really two cities: Besźel, marked by nationalist paranoia and economic decline, and Ul Qoma, flush with foreign investments and world-renowned archaeological sites. The cities physically intertwine, but do not psychically overlap; a Besź child whose ball accidentally veers into Ul Qoma cannot run to fetch it, nor can an Ul Qoman cut across their Besź neighbor’s lawn to reach their own car, parked on the Ul Qoman curb. The boundaries between the cities are enforced both by the psychological conditioning—whose product Miéville describes as the act of “unseeing”—which all inhabitants receive from early childhood onwards, and by the mysterious organization known as Breach. Citizens of both metropolises are subject to Breach’s implacable judgment, and anyone who commits the crime of perceiving or interacting with the opposite city vanishes into the clutches of its black-clad enforcers. Any legitimate contact between Beźel and Ul Qoma must take place through a series of bureaucratic intermediaries: embassies,  websites whose domains end in .bz or .uq, international telephone calls.

And it is within this twisting, Byzantine landscape that Inspector Tyador Borlú, of Beźel’s Extreme Crime Squad, finds himself tasked with investigating a murder that becomes far more complicated than it initially appears. The novel begins with Borlú’s arrival at the crime scene, where he commences his examination with the observation that “Nothing is still like the dead are still. The wind moves their hair, as it moved hers, and they don’t respond at all.” This moment encapsulates the strategy that Miéville will employ throughout the rest of The City & The City: we are tied to Borlú’s gaze and voice, permitted to see only what he sees (and, generally, only after we’ve already learned what he thinks about the situation at hand). It’s a smart move, particularly in the context of a novel that draws equally on the traditions of two disparate-seeming genres: fantasy and crime fiction. A narrator whose perspective and knowledge are necessarily limited, and who performs sometimes-unreliable interpretive work on the page, can at once provide the type of worldbuilding information that’s vital for readers navigating the realms of the unreal, and help construct the shadowy, paranoid atmosphere so essential to noir. In his role as de facto guide and host, Borlú can both feed us an aside about Beźel’s DöplirCaffés, Jewish-Muslim coffeehouses with a long history in the city’s former ghettos, and half-obscure the fact that he routinely commits small acts of Breach, mentioning that “I always wanted to live where I could watch foreign trains.”

I won’t say much about the investigation itself, other than that, as it progresses, Borlú must journey from Beźel to Ul Qoma, and reevaluate the assumptions and alliances he’s held for years. As the story progresses, this increasingly takes the form of Borlú hunting down stories about yet a third place, a city between the cities. Miéville calls this mythic third city Orciny (a name I couldn’t help but read as a phonetic nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s own imaginary Eastern European country, Orsinia), and though we never see or visit it, its in-between nature comes to dominate the narrative. Sometimes Orciny is a menacing presence, one that stalks Borlú and his fellow-investigators with deadly precision, and sometimes it appears as a source of hope, a symbol of unification in a setting defined by its fractures. Ultimately, it embodies both.

It would be easy to read The City & The City as a political allegory, a fable about the ways in which many of us ignore those (refugees, homeless people, the visibly disabled and mentally ill) who don’t comfortably fit into the comfortable realms we forge for ourselves. But there are no easy binaries in this set of worlds, no one city that partakes entirely of the moral or the affluent; citizens of both Ul Qoma and Besźel grapple with racism, poverty, and addiction, and neither metropolitan government has a monopoly on corruption or red tape. (And, for what it’s worth, Miéville himself characterizes this reading as simplistic.) Rather, The City & The City enacts a threefold warning: our own worlds are endlessly complex; we ignore other modes of existence to our detriment and at our peril; the most interesting, productive, and dangerous psychological and physical places are those which bridge and breach. 

Yet this method of rejecting binarist thinking proves both a contradictory and an uncompromising vision; although those who inhabit the gaps between the cities find some level of community with one another, they are also utterly cut off from those who exist firmly in Besźel or Ul Qoma. And, in many cases, it is these people who end up violently enforcing the separation which they themselves have abandoned. It’s a far cry from Le Guin’s call, in The Left Hand of Darkness, for individual relationships that can shatter destructive binaries through their emotional intimacy, attaining a dynamic that moves beyond “We and They,” or “I and It,” to “I and Thou.” But it is very much in keeping with Miéville’s larger body of work—think of Isaac from Perdido Street Station, who’s full of iconoclastic swagger at the outset, but eventually flees the nightmare he’s helped create—and it speaks to the gaps that Le Guin’s I-Thou ideal occasionally skirts. Not all struggles can be resolved through intimacy and mutual understanding. Sometimes, the sinister, bureaucratic Powers that Be win out; often, this happens because revolutionaries decide that life as higher-ranking members of the system isn’t so bad, after all.  

In The City & The City, Miéville remains a puzzle-maker, a trickster, a consummate dungeon master. As such, his interest lies less in the isolated workings of each city—or each genre—that he’s working with, than in their interstices and sometimes-monstrous hybrids, and Borlú proves a fitting narrator for this exploration. You can trust me (or, if not, at least trust the people who run the World Fantasy, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hugo Awards, all of which The City & The City won) when I tell you that this one’s more than worth your time. 

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Oct 15 2018

Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin

Here is Ursula K. Le Guin on life in pre-Roe America:

My friends at NARAL asked me to tell you what it was like before Roe vs. Wade. They asked me to tell you what it was like to be twenty and pregnant in 1950 and when you tell your boyfriend you’re pregnant, he tells you about a friend of his in the army whose girl told him she was pregnant, so he got all his buddies to come and say, “We all fucked her, so who knows who the father is?” And he laughs at the good joke.
They asked me to tell you what it was like to be a pregnant girl — we weren’t women then — a pregnant college girl who, if her college found out she was pregnant, would expel her, there and then, without plea or recourse. What it was like, if you were planning to go to graduate school and get a degree and earn a living so you could support yourself and do the work you loved — what it was like to be a senior at Radcliffe and pregnant and if you bore this child, this child which the law demanded you bear and would then call “unlawful,” “illegitimate,” this child whose father denied it, this child which would take from you your capacity to support yourself and do the work you knew it was your gift and your responsibility to do: What was it like? (p. 7)

Here is Ursula K. Le Guin on writing and business:

Right now [November 2014], we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same as responsible book publishing or authorship.
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kinds. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. (pp. 113–14)

Not every essay in Words Are My Matter is as trenchant (nor, to be honest, is every one as good), but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and many of the parts are very good indeed. Le Guin divides the book into three sections. The first, from which the two excerpts above are drawn, is “Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces.” Many of them were written on commission, or for a specific event, but one of the best, “Living in a Work of Art,” was written to discover what she thought about a particular subject: her childhood home, which was built by Bernard Maybeck, a well-known architect of the first half of the 20th century. Discussing that essay in her introduction to the book, she discloses one thing she thinks about writing well. “When I can use prose as I do in writing stories as a direct means or form of thinking, not as a way of saying something I know or believe, not as a vehicle for a message, but as an exploration, a voyage of discovery resulting in something I dind’t know before I wrote it, then I feel that I am using it properly.” (p. iii)

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