Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012 Year in Review

I noticed this post over on Neth Space and realized that I have all the information needed to do the same (I try to track my reading on Library Thing, and was getting my list up-to-date for awards nomination season).

However, before I get to the numbers, I want to let people know how happy I am to have been nominated for the BSFA award in the non-fiction category! It's for the essay on spacesuits that I did for Ian Sales' anthology Rocket Science, and I'm really amazed by how much attention it's gotten, first from the reviewers and now from the BSFA nominating population. 

I don't expect to win this award--Farah and Paul have both won before, Maureen did a brilliant job with her extended review series, and the World SF blog is a wonderful on-going resource. However, they're not kidding when they say it's an honor to be nominated. I'm also rather pleased to see that I appear to be one of the only nominees ever in this category for a piece that deals more with science than with literature. For one that makes me very happy as I hope to expand out into doing more science popularization writing in the future; and for two I hope that I can act, even in a small way, as a role model: women can't just do science, we can have fun doing science.

In the spirit of Science then, on to the numbers!

Books read in 2012: 30
Fiction: 19
Non-Fiction: 11
Collections of short stories: 7
Published in 2012: 15
Specifically read for review: 13
Specifically read as research for the Egan book: 8
By male authors: 17
By female authors: 7
Avg rating as awarded at the time: 3.4
Avg rating as adjusted after reflection: 3.33

(The male/female numbers don't include the short fiction anthologies unless they were single-author collections)

My highest rated book for the year was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, followed by The Wiscon Chronicles Vol. 5, Timeless, and Beyond Binary. None of the books I read got less than two stars. 

So I'm running about 30/70 Female/Male, which isn't great. And only 30 books? In 2011 I read 53! Aaargh! Already the impact of having little Gadget running around is making itself clear. But I did better at reading things published in 2012 than I'd feared, although I still feel quite a bit behind the curve there. I've got high hopes for 2013 though, as I've already polished off four books so far, with a gender split of 75/25 F/M gender split (although two of those are from 2012... still playing catch up!)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Driftings and Endings

I read Ian McDonald’s short story in the January issue of Clarkesworld, and it got me thinking about endings. If you don’t want spoilers, you’d better either stop reading or go read “Driftings” first because this essay is going to be spoilerific.

The story is about an artist who picks up debris from the ocean, much of it from the Japanese tsunami, and uses it to make art which he then sells to galleries. He meets a mysterious young woman and shows her what he does. She tells him a story about the pain that goes along with some of these artefacts. Meanwhile the water in the air over the seaside town is turning to salt water: salt fog, rain of salt water, the smell of rotting fish permeating everything. Acting on the woman’s gnomic pronouncements, the artist lovingly collects some of the debris he recently picked up, and offers it back to the ocean.

OK, now at this point the story gets three endings.

1) Reith drove back slick as a seal in his wet-suit. As he stepped out of the car the air caught him, breath to sigh to near-sob. Clean. Fresh. He turned his face to the clouds and let pure, sweet water fill up its hollows and stream from its angles.

I think that if the story had ended there, I’d be satisfied. The character realized that there were angles that he hadn’t considered regarding the kind of art that he was making, and he started the journey towards increased thoughtfulness, metaphorically speaking. But the next paragraph says...

2) Mouse Heart Robot: he had a pure, sweet idea for it

He’s got a new idea for an art piece. Is this idea a continuation of what he had been doing, showing that he hadn’t really learned anything? Would it be art in a radically different direction, incorporating his greater sensitivity and awareness? Having put this sentence in there, I would prefer that the author follow through and develop the consequences. Otherwise, it doesn’t add much--could go either way. It’s ambiguous, but not necessarily in a way that leads to greater understanding or reflection. And then...

3) Reith opened the door.
The living room was filled with hair. Long, sleek, black hair, hanging from ceiling to floor, sleek black hair, dripping with sea water. The door closed behind Reith. The wet hair rippled, as if someone were moving through it. The End.

OK, now what? The story just stops there--what happens next? I believe it’s a sign of a strong story if you wish that the author had written more rather than less, but I seriously feel that ending the story at this point does it a disservice. Yes, it is ambiguous.  But the character has taken actions, and those actions have consequences. One consequence is that the rain stops. OK, that’s a neat ending point. Another consequence is now a room full of hair, probably connected to the mysterious young woman. The consequences of that are not played out--the story just stops.

I was thinking about endings as well when I read a reprint of “Solitude” by Ursula K. LeGuin in Diverse Energies, an anthology edited by Tobias Buckell and Joe Monti. “Solitude” is about a woman who was raised by her anthropologist mother to be a bridge to another culture. Realizing that children adopt culture more readily than adults, she raised her daughter and son in this particular culture from about elementary school age. When they grew older she wanted to take them back to her home culture, a more “civilized” place, so they could continue their schooling, etc. The boy was ready to go, but the younger girl wanted to stay. She was now part of the culture, and returning “home” felt very alien to her. The story has a lot to say about growing up under the pull of two cultures.

However, one thing that really struck me was the structure. Midway through the story there comes a climax when the girl has to rebel against her mother in order to stay. She has to make a choice and then fight a battle to make her choice stick. When she returns to the planet, it serves as a resolution to the central conflict of the story, right? Having a read a whole lot of stories for Strange Horizon’s slush pile a few years ago, I can tell you that a less confident author would end the story at the moment of choice, not telling the audience which way the character chose, leaving it “ambiguous.” In the hands of a better author, you could have ended the story with the choice made, returning to the planet. And it would still be a darn good story.

But LeGuin is LeGuin, and she is brilliant, and so the story follows the protagonist into middle age. She re-integrates with her culture, has children, raises them, makes sure that they know about her original culture, and even makes sure that she communicates some of her observations back to her mother’s ship. It completely plays out the consequences of the choice that was made in the climax. There are other sub-plots with sub-climaxes in the latter part of the story; it’s a long enough story that there’s room to do that. To be fair to McDonald, he was working at a much shorter length. But that said, I would argue that the shorter story either needed to end with the fresh water rain, or a longer story was needed to develop the consequences of the room full of hair. Having the room full of hair without any further development seems unnecessarily frustrating.