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A Year of Reading Differently

I’m listening to ‘A Long December’ for the first time in 2015.

I don’t let myself listen to this song much.  I tend to melancholy; if I didn’t impose some rules I’d wander around in a haze of mono no aware 24/7.  I’d go full Toreador, and you never go full Toreador.  But if there’s a time for listening to a song about looking back, and looking forward, it’s the hinge of the year, and this has been a year of moments for holding on.  A lot of what’s happened is too personal for the public space: friendships forged and built, relationships deepened, communities cultivated, and a general development in directions I’ve never moved before, even as (and possibly because) I’ve written a truly enormous amount, for me anyway.

There’s a story that before 1905, before Einstein, the scientific establishment regarded physics as essentially a solved problem.  There were a few weird corners to finish filling in, some shading to correct—that pesky perihelion of Mercury, for example—but we thought we understood the world in which we lived, at the macro scale.  And we understood so little!  What we thought was the world was in fact the corner; what we thought was the corner was in fact the world.  Adulthood, or this reasonable facsimile of it I’m growing into, feels like that for me.  I keep turning around and realizing how much more there is out here.  I’m thirty-one now.  When I was younger, I expected to have everything figured out by this point.  I didn’t even know, back then, what there was to figure out.

But all that stuff is too big to tackle in one essay, so I’ll focus on one particularly cool aspect of the year.

In June of 2014, I caught dinner with my friend Chris, who mentioned that he was taking a year to read exclusively books by women.  That seemed an interesting and praiseworthy project; I had initial doubts, but I know well enough to suspect those doubts, so I sat with the idea for a while.

There were minor professional issues: I read my own books, and I receive books to review and blurb, some of which are by dudes, and I receive friends‘ books to beta read, and some of my friends are dudes.  Any reading project, then, would need a touch of flexibility for professional commitments.  That said, I don’t read particularly quickly—about a book a week, if they’re not terribly long books—and the dynamics of kyriarchy are such that I might find myself unconsciously prioritizing books by dudes that I “had” to read.  Tack three or four “haves” together, and all of a sudden I would have abandoned my project for a month or two.  Also, I wanted to read more widely across a number of spectrums, of which gender was only one.

In the end, I settled on a related project: I wouldn’t read two books by straight white cis men back to back.  (I excluded graphic novels, since I read a trade paperback in under an hour.)  I started late that summer.  2015 has been my first full year of this approach.

The easy executive summary is that this project hasn’t changed my reading habits much at all.  I’m still reading fantastic books by authors I know and love, and uncovering new authors at the same pace.  I expected I’d have to adjust my reading patterns a lot to compensate; in fact I’ve rarely had to delay reading something I wanted by even so much as a week.

But there are subtle differences, and they bear mentioning.

I’ve been slightly less likely to reread series by white dudes.  Not that I go on series kicks much in general—I think my last was in college, if you don’t count a Name of the Wind reread before Wise Man’s Fear hit shelves—but I, for example, did not embark on the epic Terry Pratchett reread I considered, or my always-threatened second time through Book of the New Sun.  But those books aren’t going away, and Pratchett doesn’t need to be read in a solid streak.  This is, however, the reason I haven’t yet read the Iremonger trilogy, even though a great friend whose taste I trust implicitly has been urging me to for most of the year.

regularly found myself reading some fantastic book that I’ve known for years was hugely important, pivotal, groundbreaking, and just kept putting off for, you know, reasons.  “Why the hell,” sez I on the train, gasping, exhilarated, overcome with awe, “did it take me this long to read To the Lighthouse?”  “The Fire Next Time is every bit as brilliant as people have been telling me for a decade, and it’s only like eighty pages long.  Why did I not—”  Midnight’s Children!  Fucking Midnight’s Children, which is a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed literary novel about the X-Men, what was I waiting for.  I knew I loved Woolf.  I loved Satanic Verses.  So why did I read [stack of mediocre novels] before these?

… Oh.



One exists, of course, within a karmically determined universe.  One’s choices, even at the most minute level, are shaped by overlapping fields of power arising from the movements and injustices of history.  If we’re not conscious in the way we engage with those fields and manipulate them, we perpetuate them.  But it’s scary to see that face to face, to recognize its presence in one’s migration of one’s library.  (I owned all the books I mentioned in that paragraph already, and had for at least five years.  I just hadn’t read them.)

I became a lot more aware of authorial identity—which was great.  Dumas was black!  Foucault was gay!  The author may be dead, but authors aren’t, and it’s cool to open up these authors as characters in history, think about who they were, who they might have been, what they saw and felt and how it shaped their work.  Of course, including sexuality into the question is a bit tricky for modern authors I don’t know personally.  I don’t stress about that too much.

I read a lot of recent SF and fantasy, both off the heritage genre shelf and out of  YA.  The field is thriving and awesome.  More new great writers arise every week.  I went for months reading fantastic book after fantastic book before I realized I hadn’t read a book by a straight white guy since April.

There’s a bullshit narrative about how projects like this amount to “eat your vegetables,” and nothing could be further from the truth.  My reading list was enormously diverse purely from a genre perspective: formally experimental literary fiction, essays, voice-dense urban fantasy, poetry, hard science fiction whatever that is, fantasy with swords, fantasy without swords, fantasy with Regency Romance, soft SF, space opera, postcyberpunk, actually every goddamn permutation on -punk you could imagine, nonfiction of every stripe under the sun, apologetics, literary theory, historical fiction, mystery…  I read books that made me cry for the first time in years, books that made me punch the air, books that made me hallucinate a heavy metal soundtrack, books that made me scratch my head, books that made me eagerly text friends quotes.  I read books that changed me, books I loved, books I liked, books I shrugged and set down.  In fact, one of the many ways this project helped me, was by encouraging me to think about reading as a project: what’s after this?  What’s next?  Why?

Nonfiction proved trickier than fiction.  If I wanted to read about some particularly narrow topic, for research purposes I might find myself choosing between three white dudes—which, notes for a future discussion about authority and technocracy.

I’ve read great books this year, and I’ve had a fantastic time.  I could talk about local and absolute maxima of pleasure, about the risk of reading and the gravity of power.  If I had more time, or wasn’t in need of breakfast, I probably would.  But the simplest takeaway’s probably the empirical one: I can name more books I’ve read from the last year that I’d stack among the best books I’ve ever read than I can from the three years before that.

I wish I’d kept a more comprehensive Goodreads list this year—for next time, certainly.  But, glancing back: Read Dhalgren.  Read Seraphina and Shadow Scale.  Read Code Name Verity.  Read Uprooted.  Read White is for Witching and Mister Fox.  Read To The Lighthouse.  Just read, you know?

Go forth and have a pleasant holiday.  May this year will be better than the last.

I’ll be a Star Wars geek again next week.

World Fantasy Convention This Weekend!

Friends, I had a whole bit to write you today, about metrics and the tyranny thereof, about the importance of casual conversation and soup dumplings, but I can’t write it in the time I have before my ride gets here to sweep me off to World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs.  Suffice it to say:

  • Writing is big and complicated and it’s easy to cling to metrics (wordcount!! Book sales per convention as sole indicator of con’s value! etc.).
  • But writing (and publishing!) are network effects: words look linear but they web to other words (and memories, works of literature, etc.); people connect to other people, conversations to other conversations.
  • There are metrics in writing (sunt lacrimae rerum), but whatever metric you choose is just a finger pointing at the moon.
  • If you don’t know what I mean about fingers and moons, let Bruce Lee help.
  • When you’re trying to maximize for a metric (wordcount, bench press max weight, whatevs.), it’s easy to forget the actual goal, which is: good work?  Fitness?  (You’ll have to figure out your own goals.)
  • I’ve spent whole years stuck on plateaus in my fencing because I focused on one metric—points scored per bout. You might think the number of points scored in a bout is really important, but in training points per bout turns out to be a trailing indicator of quality of form, depth of strategy, psychology, etc.
  • That said, ain’t no shame in targeting certain metrics, so long as you understand that’s what you’re doing.
    • Obviously, there are moments when you really should be trying to maximize points per bout—e.g. in a tournament or a duel to the death.
    • Not that I do that sort of thing.
  • Sometimes the most important thing you can do for your writing, or for your life, is step away from the keyboard and go meet a friend for soup dumplings.

That said!  Here’s my schedule for the next few days.  If you’re NOT going to World Fantasy, the big takeaway for you is that next Tuesday, Nov 10, I’ll be in Cambridge, at Pandemonium Books, signing with Adam Christopher!  And there will be booze!:

Wednesday, 7pm, Northshire Books

Tor World Fantasy Kickoff!

Tor’s hosting the most star-studded bash you can imagine—just look at that guest list on the link above!  I’ll be trying to keep it cool—my reflex in this situation would be to run around asking for autographs.  Whee!

Thursday, 2 pm, City Center 2B

Magic is the essential ingredient of Epic Fantasy… except when it isn’t.
Can a story be Epic Fantasy if there isn’t a spell hurling mage? Do all quests need a wizard? The panel will discuss how magic is used in Epic Fantasy and some of the texts that do things a little differently.
Paul Di Filippo (mod.), Max Gladstone, Kate Laity, Amal El-Mohtar, Karl Schroeder

(I expect this panel to answer the first two questions ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the first five minutes, then move on to larger considerations of how magic functions in epic fantasy, what ‘epic’ means as a genre term anyway, and what, if anything, takes magic’s place when magic’s absent.  Should be fun!)

Friday, 6:30 pm, Broadway 1

Reading: Me!

I’ll be reading!  I don’t know whether I’ll be reading from Four Roads Cross, or from something even further in the future.  If you come, you can contribute to the decision!

Tuesday, 7:00 pm, Pandemonium Books and Games, Cambridge MA

Reading and Signing with Adam Christopher!

Adam Christopher, he of the SHIELD comic, has a new book out, a robot detective novel called Made to Kill that looks fantastic.  Come hang out with us!  There will be booze!  And blood too—at least, presumably those attending will contain blood, but it probably won’t be shed.  We hope.

That’s all for this week, though.  See y’all at the con!

Covers are Love



Um, sorry.  But—well.  Tor Books has a pleasant surprise to share with you over on their site.  I’ll post it here later this afternoon, but you should go over to their site for the surprise, along with a good deal of context for the surprise, and a video you should probably see.  Yes, it’s a video of me.  Yes, I am full clothed.  Get your mind out of the gutter.

And go check it out!

Also, this week, on the internet: my editor, Marco, posted an excellent and kind essay about the trouble he experienced getting a printable blurb for The Traitor Baru Cormorant out of me.  It’s a fantastic book—I’m scratching my head to think of an epic fantasy so well written.  As a result, I had a very hard time presenting my enthusiasm in, um, marketing-friendly terminology.

And, since it’s Wednesday—there’s a new Bookburners episode live on Serial Box!  Margaret Dunlap spins a tale of rare book sales, yacht management, the importance of proper archiving, mudslides, and the tour guide business.  Subscribe today!

Bookburners Episode 2 LIVES!

The second episode of BOOKBURNERS is live right now on the Serial Box website!  Brian Francis Slatterly’s written a skin-crawling tale of film management, household maintenance, and onboarding. Episode Two, Anywhere but Here, cemented Brian among our little group as the go-to guy for the deep weird.

And since we’re all weirdoes, that’s saying a great deal.

I didn’t mention last time, since I’m not much of an audiobook listener myself, that the Bookburners episodes are all available as audio.  Groove to the story on your headphones!  Probably the easiest way to subscribe to Bookburners is through our website, but there’s also an iOS app—Android version coming soon.  You can buy episode-by-episode, or subscribe to the entire season for a discount.  (Of course, you can also acquire the ebooks through the retailer of your choice.)

And if you haven’t read, or listened to, the first episode, it’s free!

You’ll see the Bookburners writer team—Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Slatterly, et moi—all around the internet promoting the series in the next couple weeks.  I kicked it off with a Big Idea post on John Scalzi’s blog, talking about how the Bookburners concept makes me pretty deeply uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing.

Also: join me in congratulating Margaret Dunlap, who locked in her second Emmy last night!

Books You Should Read in September if You Care what I Think

As R.E.M. would remind you, September is coming soon—so soon, in fact, that it’s already here.  And, in a sort of head-spinning coincidence, a lot of books are hitting shelves that I had the privilege of reading early.  Many of these come out with a quote of mine somewhere on the cover, but since blurbs are an imperfect critical mechanism, I’ll tell you why you might find this particular month hard on your wallet.

But first, an order of business!  If you want signed copies of any of my books, the fine folks at Porter Square Books, my local bookshop, can hook you up.  They just set up a clickthrough signed copy order system—you order through them, I drop by and sign your book, and it’s shipped out to you with all due haste.

You can visit my author page on their site, which seems to think I wrote The Dante Club for some reason but I’m sure we’ll get that cleared up presently—for direct links, though, check out Three Parts Dead in Hardcover and Paperback, Two Serpents Rise in Hardcover and Paperback, Full Fathom Five in Hardcover and Paperback, and Last First Snow in Hardcover!

And with that out of the way: BOOKS.

Out this week

Updraft, by Fran Wilde – A story about a young woman coming of age in a society where people live in bone towers growing out of a bank of impenetrable clouds far, far below.  Folk use artificial wings to fly from tower to tower!  The wings would actually work!  (There’s a lot of wonderful observation here about wind-reading and -riding; if you’re an SF reader and the high concept sounds too much like fantasy to you, don’t make the mistake of giving this one a miss.  You’ll regret it.)  Eyeball kicks, they are here, in the Mieville-esque bone towers and societal weirdnesses and the giant invisible sky squid. (Did I mention the giant invisible sky squid?  No?  Sorry.  Sky squid, we have them.)  I love how Wilde plays with the initiation story tropes—and how she addresses their often-underlooked underbellies, like how initiation ceremonies reinforce complicity in society’s Faustian bargains.  (Every initiation has an Omelas in it somewhere.)  Also people have knife fights in midair.  And there’s a bright bloom of language over the whole work—definitely read it.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson – My blurb for this namechecked Gene Wolfe, Samuel R Delany, and Fritz Leiber, and I think I was entirely justified.  That will be enough for some of you.  To expand: in shockingly few pages Wilson constructs a dense layered science fantasy combining the allusive hidden pipe blink-and-you’ll-miss-it worldbuilding I love in Wolfe’s work with Delany’s personal and social and erotic vision & verbal pyrotechnics.  The Leiber—well, it’s a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, sort of, a kind of sword-and-sorcery (or sword-and-planet? I have my theories…) tale about hard folk traveling through a hard cosmopolitan world that takes many cultural cues from a range of African societies.  Wilson’s prose keeps sharp rhythm, twists, goes for the hamstrings and throat.  There aren’t many women in this book—it’s a book about men traveling together, and it seemed to me that women were intentionally present in their absence, if that makes any sense, which sets it apart from, say, The Lord of the Rings, where no characters ever seem to notice how few women are around, and few think about women much at all.  The absence feels more like a decision and less like an oversight, is what I’m saying.  Still, you may disagree with me on this score, or you might not care, depending on your goals.  Regardless, I think this is an important book, and a great book, and you should get it now so you can say you read it before it was cool.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho – I have not read this book yet!  But Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo was the best surprise of 2013 for me, and I’ve been waiting for her to publish a novel ever since, and this is that novel.  Cho has a fantastic vision and a crisp, joyful prose style, funny and sharp, like a good Riesling.  She cares.  Advance praise for this book has been swelling.  I have no doubt it’s deserved.  Check it out.

Out September 15

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson – The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a sharp-edged brilliant revenge drama in which the injustice to be avenged is the murder of a way of life.  We see the murder take place—our hero Baru is a young girl when she watches her island home colonized the modernist way, through trade agreements, education, and managed disasters rather than raw force of arms.  (Though of course force of arms is deployed, when needed, to “protect trade.”  Sound familiar?)  Baru, a genius, decides to destroy the colonizing empire from the inside—to join their system, climb its ranks, and break it from the heart.  I’m scratching my head to remember a book I’ve read in genre that more aptly displays the vicious process and logic of modern hegemonic colonialism.  (Should-be-obvious disclaimer: I have not read all books in genre.)  This is a well-written, passionate, fast-paced, burning book.  It says in pages stuff I feel like I’ve taken books to try to say.  It points fingers.  Most of the fingers it points are pointed at us.  (I mean here technocratic hegemonic high modernist kyriarchy, AKA The Song of My People.)

TBC also engages, obliquely and sneakily, with the often-ignored central challenge of “destroy the system from within” books (I’m thinking especially of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising here)—often the secret revolutionary ends up replicating the system’s practices and values in their attempt to destroy it.  (In RR Darrow fights the Golds, rulers of his far-future Neitzsche-esque caste system, by becoming better than the Golds at being a Gold, which means that according to Red Risingthe Golds’ value structure is correct.  To beat the Masquerade in TBC, Baru must become better than them at Masquerading, literally, which means… eek!).  Audre Lorde’s on point—the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.  (A point on which Lorde and Tolkien agree—huh, there’s a Lorde of the Rings essay to be written somewhere in here.  For future work.  Unless someone’s done it already?  Please tell me someone’s done it already.)  But—the master’s most vicious trick is to convince you those tools can.  Baru’s out-Masquerading the Masquerade, but out-Masquerading the Masquerade may only replicate the Masquerade, and many of her moves actively further Masquerade goals.  The ending is the conceit, and the ending is viciously ambivalent.  But I think that’s Dickinson’s entire project, and I’m eager to see where he takes it in the promised sequel.

That said, this is a book about the full court press of modern kyriarchy—the Masquerade are viciously exploitative, racist, sexist, and homophobic to the foundations of their thought; doublethink and desire suppression and false consciousness and bordering infinities are tools in their arsenal.  People who do what they want pay horrible prices here, if what they want doesn’t align precisely with the Masquerade’s exploitative, racist, sexist, homophobic worldview, and to succeed at her quest, Baru must appear to conform to those standards.  (Which often means actually conforming, outwardly—see previous graf.)  It made me feel the costs and sorrow of living under such pressure, in such a system, in my gut, but then, while I was joking a few grafs ago when I said technocratic hegemonic high modernist kyriarchy was The Song of My People, I wasn’t wrong.  As someone who’s about as privileged as I can be without being me and also rich (as I’ve mentioned before), such oppression isn’t my day-to-day lived experience—I can be struck and harrowed by Invisible Man, for example, it can (and does) inform my life and politics and art, but I don’t live Invisible Man, which, hard to deny that changes my experience of the text, is all I’m saying.   Someone on the day-to-day receiving end of the kinds of oppression this book depicts and damns might have a different experience of it than mine.  This is vicious and complicated stuff.

(I’m reminded here of a great scene in early Family Guy: Peter’s in prison, and a huge inmate has threatened to shiv him at midnight.  Peter’s freed a few minutes before the hour.  The inmate arrives at the promised time, with his knife, and finds the cell empty.  Sits on the bed.  Stares at his knife.  Gets a sort of wondering expression on his face.  “Hmmm….”  Stabs himself, shallowly, in the gut.  “OW!”  Stares in horror at the blood, the knife.  “Is that what I’ve been doing to people all this time?  I belong here.”)

Dickinson and I had a great conversation on Tor.com a while back about all these questions, which you should go read if you haven’t already!  My blurb compares his book to DUNE; there’s not much higher praise you’re gonna get from me.

Out September 29

Last Song Before Night, by Ilana C Myer – I’ve not read this book either!  Myer and I share an editor, and I keep hinting, but I still haven’t read this book! *Glares at editor with great glares.*  But she and I have talked about her project—a fantasy about art and music and creation and growth—and I’m so looking forward to taking a nice long late September evening with this novel and a very large cup of tea.  Join me.  Join me in tea and late September and Last Song Before Night.

Three Things

Three things about books, sort of:

  1. I recently finished Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.  I loved it.  I loved it so much that I was kind of clutching it like a security blanket on a first read-through during a mad con weekend, drinking the prose in little sips, and as a result I’m not sure how much I trust myself to have made an accurate appraisal of the book, which is great because the only way to make a more accurate appraisal is to re-read it.  Here are some books I hold close to my heart and you should too:
    • Robin McKinley, especially The Hero and the Crown
    • Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale
    • The Wizard of Earthsea
    • If you like those books, read this one.
    • If you don’t know any of those books, read them. And read this one too.
    • Actually Robin McKinley’s Sunshine may be the closest point of comparison, even though that’s a lot less of a fairy tale; anyway just, you know, read.
  2. I’m almost done with Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Short Fiction.  One of the last tales, “Skywalker of Earth,” is tremendous high-octane fun—and one of the few cases of the SF genre reading itself back to itself, in the Warren Ellis tradition, that I can call to mind.  What I mean by this: Ellis, in, say, Planetary, responds to and refigures previous works of popular culture, by capturing those works within his own vision so as to attack, confront, or analyze them.  Any given issue of Planetary refigures another genre within the Planetary universe—so we find out what HK gangster cinema looks like in the Planetary universe, who Doc Savage is in the Planetary Universe, what’s up with the Fantastic Four etc. etc.  SF does this much less, in my opinion.  It seems to me that while we engage with the conceptual frameworks of previous stories, we rarely engage with their character archetypes or story structures.  When we [SPOILERS for Anathem] reach the multiversal spaceship at the end of Anathem, we don’t expect to meet Corwin coming the other direction.[/SPOILERS]  “Skywalker of Earth” hinges on a modern SF protagonist encountering, basically, Doc Smith characters; to win, she has to reinvent SF for a modern age.  It’s pretty cool stuff.  (Other examples of “reading back” that spring to mind: John Varley’s Steel Beach, which reads Heinlein into itself, and Chip Delany’s Dhalgren, which reads science fictional rhetoric as a whole.)  Anyway, if you miss Planetary, find a chance to give “Skywalker of Earth” a read.  Unfortunately it’s only in Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction as far as I know, so that might be a touch difficult if you can’t find a copy.  No, you can’t have mine.
  3. So, they’re making a movie of The Martian.

    I haven’t read the book yet. I know that amounts to science fiction heresy for a subset of fans at this point, but, hell, what isn’t? I know I have to read it. I will! But for the most part I retain my undeservedly proprietary joy that the guy who wrote Casey and Andy, this goofy, geeky MS Paint-esque webcomic I read back in the day starring two mad scientists, their friend, a quantum police officer, Satan, a pint-sized planet-devouring critter, Grover Cleveland, and King Karl Gustaf (many of those commas should be semicolons probably) is now a mega-bestselling SF author with a movie due out starring Matt Damon.

That’s all I have for you this week, though, sadly.  I have books to write.

Mad Max and the Liberation of Tom Hardy

Mad Max: Fury Road hit theaters a week and a half ago!  This film is a pretty big deal for Maxkind, and by the most important rubric, that of how Max-ish it is, it performs quite well!  “My name is Max,” while it may not be as epochal as Sam Keith’s “I am the Maxx.  Answer your phone,” is nevertheless a solid identity claim for the tribe.

The core of the movie is an intense chase scene with powerful feminist moral logic, but I’d like to focus on a smaller-scale, subtle reading of a prominent supporting character: actor Tom Hardy, portrayed struggling with his place in the action cinema universe, and specifically with his role as Batman villain Bane.

To be clear: this is all in good fun, and if you’re taking any piece of this reading seriously, please calm down.  It doesn’t reflect my actual views on Hardy, action movies, Batman, or whatever.  Still, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since Saturday night, so I share it with you now!

The film begins with Tom Hardy / Mad Max, who, since a brief violent appearance on the mainstream screen…


has wandered in relative peace through the world of underground (and unshaven) theater.


But no one can hide forever.  Tom Hardy’s ambushed and dragged back into the transmillennial action cinema machine…


(Due to a piece of fantastic character work, by the by)

And ends up in a world dominated by plutocrats who peddle artistic solace and comfort to a starved and scared populace, to prop up their own power…


Imprisoned—branded—and used to prop up a caricature wearing an evil mask and riveted-on muscles…




Literally being bled for his strength to support the Warboys.  (I’m sorry, I couldn’t find a good screencap for this one.)  Trapped behind the mask, Hardy’s chained at the head of a kyriarchical warband out to perpetuate a horrific status quo.


From which he can only free himself by reaching out, however awkwardly, to a community of resistance.


But, of course, he must learn humility and work together with his fellow actors.


Which is hard!  For a while he decides to try working alone…

?Mastery of small, telling gestures?: Tom Hardy as a man who goes awol in Locke.ëMastery of small, telling gesturesí: Tom Hardy as a man who goes awol in Locke.


But in the end, he can only achieve true liberation from the character of Bane, and all he represents, by joining an ensemble action picture about armed resistance to the kyriarchy.


At the end of which the Evil Mask is torn away for good—and he’s finally able to enter his character enough to say his name on screen.

There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this film, of course, but I really appreciated the sensitivity and generosity of spirit (for a postapocalyptic road rage thriller) Miller brought to supporting character arcs like Hardy’s!

Reading, Challenge, Strength

I’m headed to ICFA this week, which means that as I write this I’m staring, despairing, at all I have yet to pack and prepare. I’ve meant for a while to write a piece about reading challenges, and it’s always seemed like there was too much to say for me to even start. But I had a long chat with a friend about the subject a while back, and realized I’d told that person much of what I wanted to say already. So, with their permission, I’ll share a somewhat edited version of my side of the chat with you now.

Now, this is my take on reading and reading challenges as a writer. I approach my reading the way fighters approach their diet, or the gym. Barth Anderson has a similar angle on the topic here. People coming from different backgrounds, or coming to reading for different goals, may have different priorities. I recognize that; still, it’s my blog, so I’ll testify about my own experience.

Also NB before you venture below: I’ve left this in its original form for two reasons. First, so you can all understand that this is an internet chat ‘script, and not an essay, which invites different approaches to language, punctuation, etc. Second, the internet chat is its own wonderful and weird literary form. I can’t think of another style of English communication that uses enjambment, for example. Rendering the following in paragraphic prose would be an exercise of adaption, rather than of ‘cleaning up.’ So, here you are.


When I was in China I took along shelves of books to read with me.

Big meaty stuff to last through the winters

So, like, a bunch of early 20th century theology, and Thomas Hardy, and boatloads of Russians

And in the process of not having any actual spoken English around, and reading all these books, which, never read Hardy without heat in the wintertime it will make you want to build a time machine to go back and set Hardy himself on fire

Or at least it did me?

Even though he’s unarguably great etc

Jude the Obscure jesus christ


So by the time I leave China, 2008, I sound

like Thomas Hardy sieved through a bad translation of Dostoyevsky simmered for a long while with, like, Martin Buber and Heschel and Tillich and stuff

I’m talking about my fiction, understand. Clunky weird sentences. Vocabulary no one should use

So, after arguing with my father about the dubious quality of my latest literary achievement, I decided that for a year I’d only read American fiction. In fact, that I’d only read American realist fiction. No fantasy, no SF, no genre nothing


And some of that stuff? Was trash. And some of it was amazing.

I’d never read any of it before! Like I missed all the classes where it was taught ‘coz I was taking Shakespeare over at the local college!


Faulkner oh my god, all the stuff nobody I knew down south ever talked about but IS THERE but we’re all so good at not talking about it I barely realized it *was* still there like that until I read Absalom Absalom

Even Poppa Hemmingway, though I don’t like him quite as much as Faulkner coz I agree with Ralph Ellison he kind of cheats & forgets that race is a thing

And it helped! My writing got better. My reading got better. My comprehension got better.

And I fell in love with authors! New authors! Authors I’d completely written off!

But then at the end of this year I realized, shit, I’d read

like a billion dead white dudes

So I thought, I need to read more women! So I started on a Year of Reading Women

North American women, or else I’d just have reread Dunnett and McKinley and all that again

and some of the books I read I couldn’t stand!

but I read Tiptree

and I read Margaret Atwood

who, again, in younger days I’d been all “Margaret Atwood pretending she isn’t writing SF, what the hell”

But Younger Max is a moron

1. Margaret Atwood can write whatever the hell she wants and call it whatever the hell she wants

2. there is no 2

except for 2. publishing is hard and you do whatever you have to and for her? if you can hit that crossover market, and can hit it only by distancing yourself from core genre, which I think was the case in the 80s and 90s? DO IT
hm, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away here, it’s the old Southern Preacher mode

And I rediscover LeGuin

who MY GOD

Like I’d read her stuff as a kid! So I didn’t know from what!

I was like “That was great, now imma read some David Eddings farmboy fiction”

but then I go back to her and it’s just


And then I saw some folk online talking about reading writers of color in genre, and I realized that my reading list was overfull of white dudes

and dudettes

and a bunch of 700 year old Chinese guys

So I changed my habits again! Read more Delany, read Okorafor (ALWAYS BE READING OKORAFOR), read Lord (ALSO), read read read.  And so it goes

and again and again the pattern repeats

I’ll start reading people I’m not reading

and some of them I won’t like because whatever reason, and sometimes I’ll be right and sometimes I’ll be wrong
and sometimes when I’m older I’ll realize that younger me was a critical imbecile

like I suspect I might even like Madame Bovary now though when I read it the first time I wanted to throw it out my dorm window on a per-chapter basis


I love those moments when I recognize young-me was wrong; they remind me of my insufficiency

And each time I’ve intentionally adjusted my reading habits, I’ve found new writers to love

Library’s like a gym. Too many people are New Years Resolutioners when it comes to reading

“Yeah bro I totally lift like three epics a year”

Trainers help. Routines help.

Trainer tells you:



People doing a reading challenge with good heart will discover muscles they didn’t know they had

Develop reading str_max! Develop reading volume! Develop reading isometric strength! Develop reading speed strength! Develop reading endurance!

Be pretty through strong!

“oh but Trainer I just read books with good stories”




And then we drifted off topic. Now, again, this is my take on reading *as a writer*: reading is training, is development, is mat and sparring partner and heavy bag and weight set. Reading is the uncomfortably cut bastard you see doing muscle-ups at the gym and think, god, if I worked harder maybe *that* is possible. Just reading what comes natural is never enough, because what comes natural will stew you in your own juices. Read to grow stronger, faster, sleeker, to hit harder and climb further. And some wild training magic happens when you start: you find you like being strong, and fast, that it’s fun to be sleek, to hit hard, to climb far.

People read for all sorts of reasons, though. Maybe yours are different.

Special Guest Paradoxes!

Hello friends!  I’m on vacation after finishing a very long crunch period that produced, mirabile dictu, a first draft of The City’s Thirst, my next Choice of Game, which is about hunting water rights for Dresediel Lex in the years after the God Wars. Bit of Western, bit of Noir, bit of giant scorpions, a skeleton or three, a roving reporter—all sorts of fun.

Things are Afoot in the Wider Internet.  Specifically, a ring of book bloggers are running a readalong of Three Parts Dead!  Which is a lot of fun, and if any of you want to catch up, or just to see what some folks reading the book for the first time have to say, definitely go and give them a shot.  Here are some links to the first third of the readalong: Lynn’s Book BlogOver the Effing RainbowViolin in a VoidOn Starships & DragonwingsThe Bastard TitleLittle Lion Lynnet’s, and Dab of Darkness.  I’m a storyteller at heart, and I love the notion of people reading my books and then mulling over them.

But since I’m on Vacation this week, I don’t have an essay of my own to share with you.  To make up for it, I’m going to share an essay my friend Matt Michaelson wrote about paradox, authoritarianism, worldviews, and progress.  I hope you like it!


I would like to tell you some stories of long ago and far away, which have more power over us than we know. One is about a man named Gongsun Long. He can be said to have witnessed none of the things he hoped for. Another is about someone you may have heard of, named Zeno.

The best known story about Zeno is that he wrote something called “Zeno’s Paradox”, which in the story you know may not be described in detail. In fact according to other stories, Zeno is said to have written of more than 40 paradoxes, of which nine come down to us today secreted away inside the shells of harder-to-kill texts. Zeno was tall and fair-haired. He was a teacher and a student. Pericles sat at his lectures. In Plato, he argues Socrates to a standstill. He died trying to kill the Tyrant of Elea, his home.

If the name Zeno’s Paradox refers in popular consciousness to one in particular, it probably refers to The Dichotomy. More or less: To cross a distance, first you must cross half that distance. To cross half a distance, first you must cross half of that. And so on. How can you cross any distance at all? And yet of course you do.

This, along with Zeno’s other paradoxes, was said to be a defense of Zeno’s mentor (and perhaps lover) Parmenides. Many thinkers disputed Parmenides’ arguments about the nature of reality. But, wrote Zeno, if you believe all of what you’re saying then how can you refute The Dichotomy?

Over the centuries this challenge was taken up, Zeno’s paradoxes have been taken as jokes or an affront. Obviously wrong for this reason. Or for that. And anyway what is the point? It has no depth. It’s a trivial game of words. You cannot speak of infinity in the way Zeno does, wrote Aristotle. It is terribly wrong. The charitable might admit his paradoxes were mystical. But certainly there was a limit to what anyone could say about them.

Graham Priest:

An abhorrence of contradiction has been high orthodoxy in the West for more than 2,000 years. … As Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism, declared:
“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”

Zeno died having failed to persuade the world of Parmenides’ truth or to kill the man who despoiled his city. One story goes that he was the kind of man who, in failure, held back by the tyrant’s men, with nothing left, bit off his own tongue with his teeth, and spit it in his enemy’s face.

Some part of Zeno’s work, which no one knew how to understand, was never wholly lost. And since the development of calculus, and especially since mathematicians and philosophers developed transfinite math, analytic philosophy, and forms of logic Aristotle did not know — since then the learned of the west have started to think of Zeno’s paradoxes somewhat differently. Not just outdated or mystical ideas. Perhaps something useful; an intuition pump. 19th century mathematician Karl Weierstrass’ analytic methods, which form the basis for the math of real analysis, can propose a very serious “solution.” Georg Cantor was partly inspired by Zeno to develop his math of numbers larger than infinity. It is now possible to speak, with analytic rigor, of how a person crosses a distance. It is possible to speak of types of infinity. It is possible to say, thanks to scholars who stood on Zeno’s shoulders, what type of infinity is described in his paradoxes, and some of the things that type of infinity can and cannot do. The Dichotomy is now widely taught in the humanities, the arts, the sciences, and in math. By the 20th century some paradoxes had become tools.

The story of Zeno’s life and work is a story about beauty in an unexpected depth. There are further depths.

In Zeno’s day the philosophies of the non-Greek world were just as rich. I do not know enough about them. But I know that if you want to see the world differently, go to another country and learn to see the world as they do there. Even among the things you both share, certain ideas may be larger or smaller. The Law of the Excluded Middle was smaller in the ancient east, and Synthesis was larger. Kant’s noumenal was larger, and Zeno’s Paradox was smaller. It is a sad story why Zeno’s Paradox was smaller. It brings us back to the beginning, and to ancient China.

Gongsun Long lived in a time when war was common and few could read. Rome fought the Samnites. Ashoka conquered the lands of the Indus, the Ganges, and the Kalinga. Doomed Qi was hegemon in the far east.

Nobody now knows very much about Gongsun Long. He was a student of the rites, and the old kings. He was a traveler. He enjoyed the patronage of noble men. He was said to be a member of the School of Names and a follower of Master Mo. He spent his life creating word games and advocating an end to war. Some of Mo’s followers — Mohists — were the sort of people who, if conquerors would not lay down their arms, would arm the conqueror’s enemies and fight on the side of any who could not defend themselves. Gongsun Long likely did not fight or design weapons for the downtrodden. At the court of a local lord in a small northern kingdom, he argued for peace in his time. He thought. He took students. It is given to us that the products of Gongsun Long’s teaching were recorded, written by his hand or his students’.

Statues overturn and the things bright people build disappear. Of his books, six short scraps of characters survive attached to his name, buried in fakes and attempted reconstructions by medieval scholars a thousand years after his death. That was another dangerous age, and there were more after it. Today those medieval savants’ copies are themselves incomplete.

Like other Mohists, Gongsun Long wrote about argument and about logic. Of the remains, however, only perhaps two or three short items are truly his. They are mentioned in the Chinese canon in much the way Zeno is mentioned in Aristotle. A thorn in the palm, to be pulled. So many, many scholars attempted the removal, but the more who tried, the less likely they were to succeed in forgetting him. Master Zhuang mocked Gongsun Long along with other Mohists. In Master Zhuang, of course, to be mocked and to be upheld are not necessarily dissimilar.

Before the establishment of the Empire of All Under Heaven, Mohists and Confucians competed for influence in the courts of the Nine Countries (though nine was merely a traditional number, and the true number varied). After the establishment of the empire, books were burned and thinking was consolidated, and the organs of the state sided with the Confucians.

Bulgakov said that manuscripts do not burn. Shakespeare himself noted, however, that time would come and take his love away.

Much was forgotten of Mohists, perhaps more than any the other Hundred Schools. More than Zeno in the west, their work was said to be trivial, sophistic, or simply useless in the construction of ideologies of power. People decided to say such things, to forget the words, or to burn the work and cut out tongues. Even before unification, it is written that the men of Jixia Academy in doomed Qi did not approve of Gongsun Long. No less a great player of the game of kings than Lord Shang Yang, who dreamed of totalitarianism long ages before the word was first spoken, who built the war machine that ended the 800-year Zhou Dynasty, who designed new punishments for the masses and said none would be above them and was executed in his own fashion along with everyone he ever loved — he took from the Mohists the idea of collective responsibility and made it a tool for the state to control people. He was worse in his way than the Eastern Han ministers of the left and the right who sided with the Confucians, and burned Mohist books. I do not know their names. They did not entirely succeed. But Shang Yang is still quoted in the halls of Chinese power to this very day. He took what the Mohists made to be a defense against conquerors and used it to conquer things they held dear.

Today of the writings and deeds of the Mohists there remains very little, and there remains of Gongsun Long more or less only one paradox, which is called the Discourse of the White Horse. A white horse is not a horse, it says.

???: ??????????
[A]: Can it be that a white horse is not a horse?

[B]: It can.

[A]: How so?

[B]: “Horse” is how the shape is named; “white” is how the color is named. That which names color does not name shape. Thus I say: “a white horse is not a horse”.

For a long time the wrongness of this was a given and arguments attempted to brick over it. Or perhaps it was a joke or an insult. You may have the same reaction. But to you and all the scholars of dead dynasties who turned away I say: there is beauty in unexpected depths.

Recently, some scholars in the west have applied new types of logic or analytic philosophy to the white horse who is not a horse. Mathematicians who study what it means for things to be equal — scholars of isomorphism — have become interested again. Like infinity, sameness comes in different kinds, and there is much work to be done to study how it works in different fields. I wish I knew more about it, just like I wish I knew more about the Buddha.

Graham Priest again:

When Western philosophers look East, they find things they do not understand – not least the fact that the Asian traditions seem to accept, and even endorse, contradictions. Thus we find the great second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna saying:

The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.

The Buddha argues that existence does not end, that there is no self, that suffering exists but is an illusion. There is much to be said of this beyond what I can write here. It is enough to say that Buddha’s is a vast country.

Many of the learned in the west have called the philosophies of the east “illogical.” Some have said philosophy as such is a product of the west and the west alone. Heidegger said that only Greek and German were languages sufficient for philosophic thought. Over time, translations were made. By Russel and Cantor’s time, serious responses were being made, and admixtures. Deep relationships were formed. Schopenhauer obsessed over the Upanishads. Jung loved the Yi Jing. Perhaps you expected the depth here.

I want to ask you something now. Do you know who Nagarjuna is? Do you know why the world is on fire? Do you know whether a white horse is a horse? Do you know of every great paradox humans once thought they knew?

Sometimes it is said that we in our age have a poor understanding of what progress is. It cannot simply be that money or volume or even a scalar index of human health can capture the essential thing about what is happening as time passes. Are we richer? Are we warmer? Are there more of us? Are we more happy? More free? Messrs. Zeno and Gongsun Long share a number of things in common, from a certain point of view.  They were each relatives of a movement that failed, and thoughtful men with principles. They died failures, and their work was hounded across the world. They are of course different, and well that it is so. Gongsun Long reminds me very much of Bertrand Russel as well, in a rhyming sort of way. If there is such a thing as progress, is that what progress is? Could it be exactly that which makes it so that Bertrand Russel’s pacifism and paradoxes were not abhorred but studied? I can write to you all of Master Mo and Gongsun Long and no political event in my imagining could lead to my being killed for this. I can think to myself that, as ridiculous as it sounds, I am not at all put out that the NSA might collect my tired ramblings to use for some purpose no one yet knows. I do not know.

I feel optimistic, however, because it seems that some beautiful ideas can survive against ignorance, contempt, or misuse.

The Grace of Kings & Narrative Form

Hi friends!  Deadlines march along, but I wanted to share something really cool with you.  Tumblr user (do we capitalize tumblr at the beginning of a sentence? I imagine we must) wichago made a God Wars playlist on 8track.  Some great music on there—good lyrical references, too.  I really need to listen to more Metric.

Also!  A number of book blogs are assembling to do a Read-along virtual book club sort of thing on Three Parts Dead this month.  Check it out!  Join in!  This seems like a really fun way to read things.

ALSO ALSO Super bonus post-publication fun time edit: Full Fathom Five was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror!  I’m so excited by this!  But I wrote another blog post already, so I’ll talk about that next week!

I’ve been thinking a bit in the last couple days about storytelling toolboxes, because I’m one of those unconscionably lucky bastards who ended up with an advance reader copy of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.  This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading, but I can tell you already that you should pre-order it if you’ve ever been excited by a book in which one individual swings a sword at another.

I’ve written at great length elsewhere about wellsprings of fantasy tradition outside the Western mythological canon.  In these essays I tended to focus on the stories themselves—who does what within them, what kinds of situations and worlds are portrayed, etc.  For example: the Mahabharata is an immense philosophical epic in which warriors with psychic weapons that can break the planet in half fly around in diamond chariots piloted by gods and end up in sorta-poly romances, occasionally with other gods.  WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT TO READ THAT?

This style of geeking out about myth is great, but it obscures the forms of the original texts—as, to be fair, do many translations.  (There are many prose renderings of the Mahabharata, which is a work of epic poetry; the Genji Monogatari was originally heavily illustrated IIRC, or at least historical editions of it were.)  Obscuring textual form encourages people to sort of project the content of these stories into familiar forms—like, say, the epic fantasy novel.  (I kinda did that in my retelling of Drona’s Death, recasting a key Mahabharata tale in the form of a Zelazny-esque SF short story.)

So this is fine!  But it ignores a whole different way to use these sources.  The way the story’s told can be as cool as its content!  (I mean, of course, but I usually think about this sort of thing in reference to more intentionally pomo stuff, rather than historical and literary sources.  The more fool I!)

In The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s telling a version of the fall of the Qin dynasty, and the Chu-Han contention, in an alt-Hawaii-ish setting with gods and zeppelins and it’s totally great.  But more to the point (for this essay, anyway), he’s using storytelling tricks which remind me a great deal of Ming Dynasty classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it’s these techniques as much as (or even more than!) the setting that make the book feel so fun and deep at once.

Here’s the thing about Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  It’s this vast sprawling 100-chapter epic that swings from battlefield to boudoir to roadside village, zooming in and out through time without breaking a sweat.  We’re not following a main character, exactly—we’re following a huge historical event.  We can glom onto central characters now and again, maybe even for most of the chapters, but all our heroes will die sooner or later, even if only from old age.

Because of its scope, and because it was presented by traveling literate storytellers to an eager illiterate listening public, Rot3K doesn’t let itself bog down in angst and soliloquizing.  A character plans a grand betrayal?  It’s generally executed within three chapters.  If she feels bad about it afterward, she commits suicide or confesses or commits a counterbetrayal or something with due haste.  Peasants rebel, gather thousands of followers, and overthrow major governments during a chapter break.

One interesting side effect of this approach is that, while Rot3K is brutal—people get butchered alive and subjected to all sorts of torture—it doesn’t fetishize brutality.  Someone’s eviscerated in the public square?  It happens and we move on without needing to linger on the knife tugging on abdominal skin, or the particular cadence of the scream.  Which, if you think about it, is even more horrifying, since it speaks of the readers’, and storytellers’, casual familiarity with acts the witnessing of which would cause modern folk who think of themselves as hard men to lose bowel control.  Rot3K establishes its viciousness the way Hammet establishes his characters are good brawlers—by not describing events that seem utterly routine to their participants (like disarming a guy who’s broken into your bedroom).

And the story takes a similar approach to fighting.  When Rot3K really wants to highlight a fight scene, it uses actual honest-to-god poetry to describe the combat.  Some day I’ll do this in a book and my editor will try to kill me.  But when we’re not watching something spectacular, the fights boil down to “And then Lü Bu entered the fray and killed several hundred men,” which tells you just about all you need to know about Lü Bu.  The style leaves blow-by-blow choreography to actors and acrobats, and lets the reader’s mind do most of the heavy lifting (outside of the occasional flights of poetry).  And it’s glorious lifting.

All this allows the story to swing back to characters faster—so that, even though we face a cast of thousands, we really know those thousands, from common folk to true heroes.  (At the same time, we grow to understand that the line between the two is very thin.)  But even as we grow to love these people, we must accept that the narrative structure allows any of them to die at any time for no reason whatsoever.

I don’t know if this was Ken Liu’s plan, but The Grace of Kings uses all these techniques masterfully.  The first couple hundred pages have covered at a gallop territory standard epic fantasy (and let’s reflect on how silly we are as human beings, that such a phrase makes sense to say) would linger over for an entire book.  And while all the above may sound as if the book skimps on the smaller moments, in fact these techniques lead to the exact opposite effect.  Whenever the pace slows to describe a single event—say, to show a character blow on a dandelion—it lands.  Many books would drown such key thematic moments in oceans of descriptive text, all those clothes, parades, and meaningless meals; here, they snap into sharp relief.

It’s a bracing and exciting approach.  Epic fantasy, in failure mode, feels like swimming in a pool filled with lukewarm Mrs. Butterworth’s.  The Grace of Kings is a dart through a crisp clear stream at dawn.

Here’s the preorder link.