the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘satire

I discovered this wonderful short story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.  I did some research on the author, and learned about her incredible legacy. Read the story because it’s fun,  learn about Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (also known as Begum Rokheya) because she’s freaking amazing.

 

 

One of the many wonderful things about fiction that’s older than 100 years old, is that you can often read  it for free, online.  If a fifty pound anthology isn’t for you,  you can read “Sultana’s Dream” at Strange Horizons, where they reprinted the story as part of a series on Utopias.

 

Because all science fiction (and a lot of art) is a reaction and reflection of the time in which it was written,  here are a few contextual things you might want to know before you read “Sultana’s Dream”.

  • Begum Rokheya was born in 1880,  in what is now known as Bangladesh, and at the time was British India
  • She is considered the pioneer feminist of Bengal
  • She was raised in an intellectual, multi-lingual home that was wealthy but also very traditional.  This combination meant that she learned Arabic and Urdu, and then English and Bengali.
  • You may want to understand what purdah is. (or not. up to you)

 

Reading this story sent me down a google rabbit hole of the phrase “gender-flip”.  That term has to be fairly new, right?  hahahaha, NO.    I love that gender-flipping has been having a moment for the last, oh, 20 years,  but the concept has been around for quite a while.   My brain is also going down the rabbit hole of “what was social media way back when?”  more on that at the end of this post.

 

“Sultana’s Dream” plays with gender flipping (and women’s rights!),  with the idea that in this Indian Utopia,  the women run the country and the men are kept in seclusion.

 

The plot goes like this:   Sultana is drowsing away the afternoon,  when a woman walks into her room and invites her out for a walk.   Sultana at first thinks the woman is her friend Sister Sara,  but later realizes the woman is a stranger.   Upon leaving Sultana’s home, they end up where not-Sister Sara lives,  and Sultana states that  she feels weird walking around in public unveiled, as she is a purdahnishin.

 

The rest of the story  is not-Sister Sara explaining to Sultana how her women-run world, called Ladyland, came to be.  A young Queen insisted that all women in the country have access to education,  thus women’s universities were started.   The women’s universities used their discoveries and inventions for the good of the whole community, while the men stayed focused on military might.  The men insisted that the inventions that came out of the women’s university’s were nice, but nothing compared to the value or importance of military strength and other men’s work.

 

When the country finds themselves on the losing side of a war,  the Queen and her female advisors come up with a plan, which I won’t spoil.   They win the war, and in the process transform the country into one where women can be in public unveiled, and the men are kept in seclusion.  When the men ask to be let out of seclusion, the Queen’s response is “if their services should ever be needed, they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they would remain where they were”.

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You buy books that looked interesting at the time, or came highly recommended, or had some buzz when they came out. You buy them, the buzz settles down, you forget about them. And then  years later you find the book, it’s been shoved to the back of the bookshelf, but you find it decide to give it a whirl. I can’t be the only person who does this.

So I came across one of those books.  Once upon a time it had been advertised like a Steampunkish-Firefly.  And who wouldn’t want a Firefly type story told in a Steampunk world??  no one, that’s who!  Yeah, I’m half way through the book, and it happens to be a total dude-bro book.

Ten years ago I don’t think I would have noticed female characters who are barely given any page time, that ALL the “important people” in the story are guys, that all the places where “important deals go down” are populated by men, and the only women there are the beautiful waitresses. in some cases the only women in the room are the whores.

I do want a Firefly-Steampunk with pirates and cool magic.  Just not this book.

moving on . . .

Do you have Netflix?  Check out a show called “The Politician“.   The preview for the show felt like five different MTV music videos were playing at once, it seemed like none of the people in the preview actually had anything to do with each other’s story.  It looked over the top, technicolor, gorgeously designed, absolute FTWery.  it looked fucking ridiculous.  I couldn’t wait to watch it!

I’ve been binge watching this show since last weekend, and I just finished the last episode.

It might be one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.  (and I’ve seen The Good Place S3. I cried the entire time. So maybe I like The Politician so much because it didn’t make me cry as much as The Good Place?  anyway).  The Politician is basically a rich-kids soap opera that goes off the rails.  The premise is gloriously stupid:  a rich ambitious high schooler in California, Peyton, decides to run for President of his high school. Rich kids whine a LOT.   That is basically the premise. And a ton of satirical pretension.

It goes beautifully off the rails from there.  The art direction is perfection.

I don’t know if it’s called “art direction”??   it’s the thing in movies and TV, where someone decides if the shot should be symmetrical or not, where someone decides exactly what color blue someone’s suit should be, exactly when an actor should smirk or scratch their nose or nervously play with their hair to give a non-verbal signal of what’s going on,  where someone determines that a particular haircut matched with particular jewelry gives a very specific connotation, where it’s determined that certain characters need to be very tall, so that other characters have to literally look up to them. Where certain scenes are lit in specific ways to give a certain meaning, where how someone walks or how they hold themselves can tell you so much about them before they ever say a word.  maybe it should be called “Context direction?”  I don’t know, but I love it when a show does it just right,  and this show does it just right.  if this was a book, we’d call it worldbuilding, characterization, and “show don’t tell”.

I also like how things go so wrong for Peyton.   He’s got this plan, you see?  And if he can just stick to the plan, everything will go perfect for him.  Because he has the plan, he never has to be himself, he can hide his feelings behind the plan.

And then the plan goes to hell.  And he can’t hide anymore.   (And it’s a little bit hilarious, because all these actors look, dress, and act like they are 30, but they are high school seniors, and freaking out about high school senior things)

The Call Me By Your Name-ish romance didn’t hurt either.  I am also a sucker for handsome men with deep voices.

I feel bad for Peyton.  But I cheer when his plans go off the rails.   What he saw as pain, I see as freedom.  What he saw as the melodramatic end, I saw as the beginning.

I always saw a “plan for my life” as a recipe for regret.  If I plan to accomplish such and such by 30, and then I don’t, will I feel like a failure because I didn’t do some arbitrary thing? Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have goals – run a 5K,  eat better,  read 30 books each year.  Whatever the difference is between plans and goals, I’m good with goals, but am somehow allergic to plans.  I dunno, I guess goal feels like something I’m choosing to do every day, and plan feels like something where you just go through the motions with no emotional connection to anything you’re doing.

Anyway,  watch The Politician.  Pay attention to how perfectly designed it is, everything from haircuts to clothing to the pancake make-up, to the angle of people’s chins to the pitch of their voices.  And yes that is Ben Platt from Pitch Perfect.    He is an adorable puppy with the voice of an angel.  Ben Platt doing a Billy Joel cover album is what the world needs right now.

oh, you want an entire  blog post just about my too many feels about this show?  ok, i’ll see what I can do.  Darn, in that case I’d have to watch the entire show from scratch, poor me.

 

And last but certainly not least,

My husband and my dad have been enjoying Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past series.   These books intimidate me,  but listening to the two of them talk about the books has kept me interested.  I enjoyed The Three Body Problem.   I liked the big ideas of The Dark Forest but struggled with the pacing and the characters.  I’ve not been super excited about the third one, Death’s End.  My dad said it had a slow start, but once he got into it he couldn’t stop reading it.  My husband said the end was traumatic, and that it reminded him of Sheri S Tepper’s book SideshowSideshow is one of my favorite books of all time.

Well, now I gotta read it so I can stay part of the family book club!  Also, I really really need to know what Cixin Liu and Sheri S Tepper have in common!

 

For the first entry in this series, and more info on The Big Book of Classic Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, click here.

 

This isn’t braggable progress through The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, but darn if I didn’t enjoy the hell out of this week’s stories!  This week I got to enjoy folklore, cautionary tales, and satire from 1819 to 1918.

When I was a little girl, my mom would tell me the story of Rip Van Winkle as a bedtime story.  I don’t remember if she ever read the story out of a storybook, but I know she didn’t need a book to tell us the story.  Washington Irving published “Rip Van Winkle” as a short story in 1819, and it has been part of New York folklore ever since. (Does anyone remember an animated movie of this? I can’t tell if I’m getting my cartoon memories mixed up with the old Legend of Sleepy Hollow animated movie??)   My parents grew up in New York, and Rip Van Winkle was the local story that everyone knew, and that everyone told to their children.  If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of a bumbling husband who shirks his obligations, and is one day walking through the woods with his dog and his hunting rifle.  He follows a strange man through the woods until the come upon the strangers friends, who are playing nine-pins. The sound of the pins is the sound of thunder. Rip drinks some of their beer, and on the way home he sits against a tree and falls asleep.  He wakes up and decades have passed. He was raised in the Catskill mountains as a loyal British subject, who the hell is General Washington, and where is his wife??? The story has a happy as possible an ending. I got shivers reading this, this, this was the story my mom told little me as a bedtime story! And now it is in this big book of classic fantasy?   I did not expect to have a personal connection with anything in this book, that is for sure!

 

Everyone has heard of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Even if you’ve never read Frankenstein you surely have seen a movie version or at least have some concept of the story. I always knew that Shelley wrote other works, but never came across any. Until now!  Her short story, “Transformation”, first published in 1831, is considered an early example of “doppleganger” fiction. To be honest, the first half of this story was painfully boring, and I almost stopped reading. Businessman’s son gets everything he wants, is totally spoiled, flaunts his wealth. Dad dies, he inherits, and instead of buying a house for he and his betrothed to live in, he blows it all and makes a complete idiot of himself.  I was bored by this point, but good thing I kept reading, because the story got good! As he is walking along the beach having a pity party, he sees a shipwreck off in the distance, and who should float to shore, but a dwarf and chest of gold! The dwarf says “trade bodies with me for 3 days, and I’ll give you this chest of gold”. Figuring he has nothing left to lose, our hapless narrator agrees. Surprising no one, the dwarf in his body apologies to his betrothed, and is about to marry her, leaving our narrator in the dwarf’s body forever.  He attacks the dwarf who took his body, and this is where Shelley blew my mind. About to be mortally injured, the dwarf-in-his-body says

“Strike home! Destroy this body – you will still live many: may your life be long and merry!”.

If the narrator-in-dwarf’s-body kills his human body, he will never be able to return to his true body. What to do??? Boring start, fan-freaking-tastic ending.

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Open Road Media is publishing the complete short fiction of Clifford Simak’s short fiction, so far there are twelve volumes. From what I can tell, the first three volumes are available in print, and right now the rest are only e-book.  The short fiction isn’t in chronological order, for example, this first volume, titled I Am Crying All Inside and other stories showcases fiction from as early as 1939’s “Madness from Mars” to “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” that was written in 1973, but hasn’t been actually published until 2015.

 

I bopped around the table of contents in this collection, and read whatever caught my fancy. Some stories really grabbed my attention, and others were great fun, but forgettable.

 

I quite enjoyed “Small Deer”, in which a mathematical genius and an engineer create a time machine, and the engineer goes back to the days of the Dinosaurs. He discovers something horrifying about the history of life on Earth. What he learns is so outlandish, who would possibly believe him?  Can a horror story be gentle? This one is.  I always get a kick out of time travel stories, especially when weird Kage Baker or Ijon Tichy stuff starts happening.

 

“I Am Crying All Inside”, is well worth a read, and deserving of being the title track. What will happen, generations from now, when we’ve all left Earth for somewhere better? What will happen to the people and robots who get left behind? What kind of society will they build? Told from an obsolete robot’s point of view, this poignant story feels a little like the movie Wall-E, only much, much sadder.

 

“Ogres” was a super fun, and super smart story about what a vegetable society might be like. We’ve landed on a planet and are trying to figure out what we can exploit, sort of “Little Fuzzy” style. The intelligent species on this planet are all plants. No bones, no vertebrae, no central nervous system, no wheel, no invention of fire. Lots of telepathy and strange music. Maybe we can export the musical trees!  Nothing is what it seems, and the human explorers eventually figure out something fishy is going on. But what threats could we possibly make that would scare a planet full of trees and vegetables? Hmmm…   I loved the evolutionary ideas in this story, and I got a laugh out loud chuckle out of the end.

 

Usually fun, smart, and gentle, Simak stories always feel timeless. Give him a try if you haven’t.

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I am out of  bookshelves, and there are now stacks of books next to the shelves, stacks that grow taller by the week and are threatening to fall over. I may have to start hiding books under the bed. There is a book cull in my future, that is for sure.

So of course I couldn’t help myself, and bought some more books!

At book club last week, instead of having the whole group read the same book, the club’s organizer put a stack of Hugo award winning authors on the table and told us each to pick something that looked interesting.  I grabbed The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin. I may have read this when I was a kid? But if I did I was too young to understand it.

Over the weekend, I went to one of Michigan’s largest used bookstores (not the largest, but it’s pretty big!!) with a friend, and although I wanted to buy everything, I came home with just a few items. And yes, I got lost in the bookstore.

from the non-fiction rooms

Maximum City is about Mumbai, and the Carl Sagan book is, I’m not 100% sure what it covers but it is sure to be enlightening.  I hope that while I read it I hear Sagan’s comforting voice.

 

And now for the scifi!

Connie Willis is one of those authors I keep meaning to read more from, as I recommend her Doomsday Book novel to anyone who will listen.  I’ve been meaning to read Blackout forever. As for Venus on the Halfshell, I’ve been a Vonnegut since high school. If the book is as entertaining as the opening biographical sketch of Trout, you’ll be hearing me laughing from miles away. For those of you not familiar with Kilgore Trout, I’ll just leave this here.

 

Happy Reading!

vonnegut galapagosGalapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

Published in 1985

where I got it: purchased new

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Galapagos was the first Vonnegut title I read. I must have been around twenty or twenty one at the time. I’d never been into American literature as a student, our required reading in high school never included Vonnegut, so what possessed me to get their weird book out of the library? Timing.

It must have been right around the year 2000. I was right in the middle of my college career, and I’d realized that while I enjoyed my classes and respected my instructors, that I had zero love my for major and was at peace that I was never, ever, going to be a drafter, designer, or engineer for a living. That kind of peace brought, well, peace. In 1998, the song “Free to wear sunscreen” came out, and was on heavy rotation on the radio, and it was rumored that the speech had been written by Kurt Vonnegut. His was a name people mentioned, sometimes in awe, sometimes with disdain. My high school English teachers mentioned his name, but didn’t encourage us to read him. Were we too young? Was it something else?

So, now that I had time, and mental energy, it was a great discovery to learn that the local library owned a stack of Vonneguts. Why did I choose Galapagos? Maybe because it had a neat cover. Maybe it was the first Vonnegut on the shelf that day. Who knows.

 

What a mental mind fuck that book was! It wasn’t told chronologically, you’re told in the first chapter who is going to die later, and the narrator is a ghost who never actually explains anything. I didn’t understand a word of it. It was absurd and surreal, and I loved it. It was a new taste that I suddenly couldn’t get enough of. Over the next 4 years, I would read every Vonnegut the library owned (which turned out to be not that many), fall in love with Cat’s Cradle, and start collecting used copies of Vonnegut titles. Yes, I could have purchased them brand new and owned a collection instantly, but this kind of thing is about the journey, you know?

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madonna and starshipThe Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

published in June 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tachyon!)

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With a cover like this and promises of provocative satire, how could I not read it?

 

Kurt Jastrow has the best day job a science fiction writer could ask for. In the 1950s, at the peak of live television, he’s the lead writer for Brock Barton and his Rocket Rangers.  A show every nine year old loves, Jastrow writes three shows a week (with Monday and Wednesday’s shows ending in cliffhangers, of course), and squeezes in a few minutes of actual science at the end of every episode.  It’s not a glamorous life to be sure, but Kurt has plenty of time to polish his science fiction stories, harass his shellshocked editor, and try to convince fellow writer Connie Osborne to go out on a date with him.

 

Everything was going swimmingly (if rather ho hum) for Kurt, until he gets a visit from extra terrestrial ultra-rationalists, who want to thank him for doing such an amazing job promoting scientific enlightenment via Brock Barton and the real science demonstrations at the end of the show. The aliens want to give Kurt his award on live TV! And oh, they want to punish anyone who isn’t rational like they are, namely the few million people who tune into the network’s religious programming every Sunday morning. Almost sounds like the alien invasion script someone like Kurt would write for a much better TV show than Brock Barton . . .

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installing-linux-on-a-dead-badger-by-lucy-a-snyder-largeInstalling Linux on a Dead Badger, by Lucy Snyder

published 2007

where I got it: purchased (and she signed it!  awesome!)

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How is anyone supposed to say “no” to a book with a title like that??   And I promise, you do not need to know anything about Linux, or be an IT geek or professional (same thing?) to enjoy this book.  All you need to enjoy this  book is a sense of humor.

Weighing in at barely a hundred pages, you can easily read this collection in an evening.  It might only take you an hour or two to read, but you’ll be reading snippets of it out loud to friends and family for at least a week afterwards. The opening chapter is exactly what the title refers to: how to install Linux on a dead badger, with details instructions of which shareware to download for which devices, how to draw the blood rune, what to do with the origami, and most importantly, what to do if something goes wrong (take shelter in the nearest church. You may require an exorcist). I can already see the side of your mouth curling up.   Did I mention the book is illustrated?

Following the technical writing opening is a collection of journalism style articles about the new state of the world. With titles like Dead Men Don’t Need Coffee Breaks, Unemployed Playing Dead to Find Work, and the gut bustingly hilarious Trolls Gone Wild, Snyder takes aim at corporate bureaucracies, human resources departments with good intentions, how to make a fortune with a video camera, jobs you’ll take when you’re really *really* desperate, and how businesses  keep up with the fast pace of changing technology.  There are a few short stories right at the end, but I liked the business magazine article-esque pieces much better.

Satire. This is how you do it.

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SAM_2429The Case Against Tomorrow (collection) by Frederik Pohl

Printed in 1957, stories originally published between 1954 – 1956

Where I got it: bought used

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America in the 1950s – WWII had ended but Korea and the Cold War were ramping up, the American economy was booming, with more production, more consumerism, more home ownership, more children entering school, and a new concept called “suburbia”. Public schools became integrated, racial tensions and national anxieties soared, McCarthyism was born.  It was a time of changes. Frederick Pohl observed and satirized everything around him – society, consumerism, politics, hubris,  and conservative views on race and class.  His matter of fact writing style feels like Vonnegut at times, and chillingly like Shirley Jackson at other times. Not every story in The Case Against Tomorrow is satire, but in my opinion most of them are.

Here are my thoughts on the 6 stories included in this thin little volume.

The Midas Plague (1954) –  Morey Fry has just married his beautiful bride, and at first everything is blissful, as is often the case with young love. They certainly aren’t rich, but they work as hard as they can and dutifully get their quota book stamped and inspected for their clothing and food and furniture.  But how much veal and expensive liquor and fancy clothes and opera tickets can two people possibly go through?  As the robots tirelessly work to efficiently build and manufacture as many consumer goods as they can, the consumers must work just as tirelessly to use all these consumer goods. It’s a closed system, after all. Wealth means escape from the system, thus a poorer family is required to eat more three course meals, use up more luxury goods,  go through more pairs of shoes, have a larger house that’s filled with yet more furniture.  And when Morey accidentally comes up with a solution, will he be labeled traitor or hero? A highly entertaining and eye opening satire of consumerism and an unchecked manufacturing industry.  The longest and best story in the collection.

The Census Takers  (1955) – this is one way to solve an overpopulation issue.  Cities can only handle so many people, so when a count is taken the overage must be handled.  And there is no escaping the census. Told through the eyes of our narrator, who passes judgement on large families (and everybody else), and convinces one patriarch to make the ultimate sacrifice to save his children. So obsessed with counting, overing, and handling, the supervisors and enumerators are blinded to what’s happening right under their eyes. Satirical and creepy!

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Vintage SF badgeThe Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006) was known for his works in science fiction, satire, and philosophy.  His writing style is detailed, subtle and literary, making translations a challenge.  I got into a great discussion on twitter with Joachim Boaz about the Lem translations. Apparently much of his work was translated to French and then translated to English, doubling the chances of wit and puns being lost in translation. By sheer luck, the copy of The Cyberiad that I read was translated directly from the original Polish by the amazing Michael Kandel. I’ve got to wonder if crappy translation is directly responsible for my mixed luck with Lem titles I’ve read in the past. Note to self:  seek out the Kandel translations!

Cyberiad

The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem

published in 1965, first English translation available 1974

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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Subtitled “fables for the cybernetic age”, many of the short stories in The Cyberiad have a bedtime story fairy tale feel to them.  Featuring quests and adventures and demanding royals  and hermits and pirates and even the phrase “once upon a time”, alongside literary devices such as alliteration, punny phrases and nested tales, I quickly became desperate for a nerdy 8 year old to whom I could read these out loud to.

The series of stories follows the robotic constructors Trurl and Klapaucius.  The two friends build amazing machines either for their own amusement or to help (for vast sums of money, of course) people on other planets.  As with many parable style fairy tales, the machines and prophecies never quite work as intended, and on more than one occasion Trurl and Klapaucius are forced to destroy their creations and/or escape their insatiable clients. Most of the Sallys (as in To Sally Forth) are 10 pages or less, making the whole of The Cyberiad easy to digest in small portions, if you’re able to put it down, that is (which I wasn’t, and devoured this dense little package of amazing in just a few days).

Since Trurl and Klapaucius (and nearly every other character we meet) are robots, and can’t die or experience physical pain, there is a surprising amount of violence – people getting kicked and repeatedly beaten up or thrown off or into things. Since no one ever gets hurt, it’s humorous, not unlike an old style Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Beyond the hysterical and madcap adventures and Klapaucius egging Trurl on every step of the way, the writing is absolutely brilliant, with a level of literary humor and intelligent wordplay that is absolutely off the charts. Imagine if Charlie Stross and Terry Pratchett rewrote a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, and then ratchet the whole thing up a bit more.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.