Vacation Reading: SFF

These will not be proper reviews, because I waited too long after reading the books. But I wanted to say something about them.

Aliette de Bodard, On a Red Station, Drifting

This novella was nominated for a number of science fiction awards, so there are proper reviews all over the place. It’s structurally complex, with three sections, each of which features the classic plot “a stranger comes to town” [or space station], setting change in motion. When I finished it, I thought “I need to read this again.” And I will. Here are some reasons I loved it:

  • It’s a rather “quiet” domestic story focused on female characters. But that doesn’t mean it’s not about “big” issues like war and power and culture and identity.
  • It’s not a white, Western future; the culture is based on Ancient Vietnam. There’s a wonderful author’s note in which de Bodard talks about her inspirations.
  • It has “strong female characters” but not in the conventional kickass sense. It made me think about different kinds of strength. Linh is a former magistrate whose education and role have given her authority. But she’s also a fugitive on the run who feels she had no power to make herself heard at court and effect change. Quyen is the “lesser partner” in her marriage (not because she’s a woman–that’s a status either partner can have), but in her husband’s extended absence she’s running Prosper station and thus her extended family. Despite her success in this role (housewife writ large?) she’s full of self-doubt and leans on the Honoured Ancestress, the artificial intelligence powering the station, for guidance. Each woman sees the other as arrogant and powerful, herself as powerless. Slowly, they come to judge each other differently.

I’m still learning to find science fiction that appeals to me, and I know I’ll be looking for more like this.

R. A. MacAvoy, Tea With the Black Dragon

This is another multi-award nominee/winner. I picked it up on sale because so many people mentioned it as an old favorite/comfort reread. Here’s how Jo Walton sums it up:

Tea With the Black Dragon is an odd but charming book. It’s the kind of book that when someone mentions it, you smile. It’s unusual in a number of ways. It’s set at a very precise moment of the early eighties, which can be deduced from the very specific technology, —but it’s a fantasy. It has an action-adventure plot with kidnapping, embezzlement and early eighties computer fraud —but that’s secondary to what it’s about. (If ever a book had plot to stop everything happening at once, this would be it.) One of the major characters is a fifty year old divorced single mother who may be a boddhisvata. Another is a Chinese dragon. The whole book is infused with Chinese mythology and CPM era computers. It’s very short, barely a couple of hours’ read, which was unusual even when books used to be shorter.

I really enjoyed this for any number of reasons:

  • The heroine is a middle-aged woman who is magical and special only in the way ordinary human beings are magical and special. And a rather powerful, magical, ancient being falls in love with her for that. And it works because MacAvoy shows what makes her special and lovable for him. 
  • The dragon is looking for truth, and truth turns out to be ordinary and human.
  • It’s a mystery story, mostly, but the fantasy element adds an inexplicable charm.
  • The early 80s computer tech gave me a pleasant mild nostalgia trip. It felt of its time, not dated, because it was just describing the technology of its world, not trying to be hip and cutting edge.

But. I will say that it’s of its time in less positive ways, which I noticed especially because I read it between two books about Asian characters by authors of Asian heritage (de Bodard’s and Hirahara‘s). Mayland Long, the hero, appears in human form. He’s described as “Oriental” or “Eurasian” and at times I felt he was being exoticized (but then, he’s really a dragon; it’s complicated). I accepted the terms because they were widely used at the time, though they aren’t preferred now. But the exoticism and the whiteness of the Northern California setting were more troubling (Walton points out the weirdness, even in the early 80s, of all the Stanford students being blond and white). I still found it a delightful, quirky read, but I there was a fly in the ointment.

Lest you think I’ve gone soft and love everything I read now, I also had a DNF in this category: Mark Hodder’s Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, the audiobook read by Gerard Doyle. This was a $4.95 sale impulse buy because I like the narrator and am interested in alternate Victorian settings.

I should have been less impulsive. I am not interested in Jack the Ripper (I didn’t even get that far in the book). I have issues with real people as characters in historical fiction (although it can be done well), and the detectives here are Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne. I have even more of an issue with presenting Burton in straightforward heroic terms, which was how the backstory info-dumping at the start of the novel struck me. I admit I didn’t get far and this could have changed later, but “remarkable guy” is not the same as “admirable guy.” The info-dumping was another problem: I didn’t find the book well crafted, and the opening was a mish-mash of genre clichés like Burton’s landlady and child helper [wait, it’s supposed to be Oscar Wilde? give me a break] straight out of Sherlock Holmes. But what made me press stop for good was realizing that the technology in the novel’s world is based on eugenics. Eugenics! (I realize that this, too, could have gotten more complicated as the book went on, but I didn’t want to read gee-whiz inventions–foul-mouthed delivery parrots!–based on a theory that did so much real-life harm).

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10 Responses to Vacation Reading: SFF

  1. Sunita says:

    I can answer the Stanford in the 80s question. If this is set in 1983, then it’s before Stanford’s undergraduate population really started to diversify ethnically. They had affirmative action from the late 1960s/early 1970s, but the student body and the faculty were overwhelmingly white. They were not all or even mostly blond, however. That stereotype is one that is really starting to annoy me. We used to call Stanford “the country club that gives degrees” and say that every student was issued a golden retriever and a Frisbee at orientation, but they were NOT all lookalikes for members of the Aryan Nation.

    People don’t realize it, but Silicon Valley wasn’t particularly diverse in the 1970s/80s, not until the mid to late 80s at least, and not really until the 90s. I worked summers in the hi-tech firm where my father worked, and there weren’t many Indians or Chinese engineers (I know!). There were a sprinkling of Asians, but most of the engineers I worked with were white.

    That MacAvoy book sounds dire. No one should be allowed “cute” insertions of real-life characters unless they’re really really good at it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, good to know! In the early 90s when I was at UC Irvine, my students were a very diverse group. But then, the public system is different from Stanford. I think Walton’s larger point was that to have Mayland Long marked as “exotic” in San Francisco was a bit odd.

      I assume you meant the Hodder book sounds dire. I know you don’t much like real people in fiction either.

  2. Sunita says:

    And I forgot to add: I’m so glad you liked the de Bodard! I love that story. It’s so different from the mass of what is out there, without drawing attention to itself. It’s just what it is.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The world-building was so good. I never felt utterly bewildered, but she also didn’t dump a lot of explanation on readers, ever. I thought the way she used things that were both important to the culture AND probably familiar to a lot of readers was very smart–like fish sauce, and how that tied in to history and food and hospitality. But I have a bottle in my kitchen.

  3. thanks for pointing me towards stories that i suspect i will enjoy immensely! (and i do not mean the last one in case you were wondering!) and speaking of sff, have you tried ann leckie’s Ancillary Sword? I quite enjoyed it.

  4. Janine Ballard says:

    I read Tea with the Black Dragon at least twelve years ago, or maybe as much as fourteen. I recall that I found it dull but not much about it beyond that. There are other books I read at that time that I remember much better, so it must have been fairly forgettable.

    I have the de Bodard in the TBR pile. Must make time for it soon. I thought it sounded wonderful when Sunita reviewed it, and your review makes it sound equally appealing.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Black Dragon is kind of slow, especially at the start. I think one reason I enjoyed it so much was that I was on vacation and didn’t feel like I was cramming in reading time. I had the patience for it.

  5. Kathryn says:

    I read TwtBD when it first came out and I loved it at the time (but haven’t read it in years). Part of the reason why I think I loved it so much at that time was because it felt so different from so many fantasy novels from the 70s and 80s, which were all too often Tolkien-inspired psuedo-western-medieval quest stories (they were the fantasy equivalent to regency romances set in “Heyer-land”). It was nice to read a book that tried to incorporate the world I knew and some non-western cultural ideas into it and had a woman in it who wasn’t just a princess waiting for the hero to save the whole world and her.

    I’ve read one of Bodard’s nominated short stories, which is also set in her Vietnam-inspired world. I liked it a lot and am planning to try some more of her work.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a really good point about how different it must have seen when published. Even today, at least for a newcomer/infrequent reader like me, it is hard to find fantasy that isn’t epic in scale, even if it isn’t set in a quasi-Medieval, Tolkeinesque world. I liked how the fantasy element was just a very subtle twisting of the ordinary world, and how they weren’t saving the world, just each other and her daughter.

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