Author Archive

Quite a Trick

Back in 2007 in Portland, Oregon, I attended the Endeavour Award ceremony at Orycon for the first time. I was a starry-eyed new writer, with only a few sales under my belt, and being near the august personages of the judges and nominees was thrilling. But I’ll confess that when the winner was announced, it was no one I had ever heard of: Robin Hobb, for her novel “Forest Mage.”

Robin Hobb is a pseudonym for Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, and if you’ve never read any of her novels, I highly recommend them. Nearly ten years after my first Orycon, I’ve read seven or eight, and they all have one trait in common – the characters are so real that when I’m not reading I find myself wondering what they’re up to, as if they were real people.

Now, this is quite a trick. In fact I’m not sure there’s any other writer who’s had the same effect on me. And in my own writing it’s something I strive to emulate, so I find myself asking the question, “How does she do it?” And I have a partial answer, which I’ll share with you here. I think Hobb’s characters are so convincing because, like real people, they’re not the same every day. Yes, they’re flawed, and that’s certainly part of it. But lots of characters in lots of books are flawed. Hobb’s characters, though, have an additional type of “flaw,” which is that they might be heroic and selfless and totally on their game one day, but other days they’re cranky, or sleep-deprived, or injured or hungover or weary or just plain off. It’s fabulous. And, just as with real people, when they’re “on” their thoughts are fruitful and hopeful and they plan well and act well, and when they’re “off” they fall into despair and waste time and equivocate and fail to get shit done. On those bad days they’re petty with their friends, or not as loving as they could be, or distant or stubborn or they fail to communicate effectively. I find them by turns infuriating and loveable. I want to cheer them on, encourage them, comfort them, slap them – all of it!

I think that’s a big part of what makes characters spring off the page and into our hearts.

Reading In Translation

There are more good books published every year than I can read. This is one of those first world problems I’m awfully glad I have; but back in 2009, at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, I became aware of a new aspect of the problem. The panel was called “Fantasy In Translation,” and the panelists included a man named Zoran Živković, a Serbian who explained to the audience that there are fabulous writers being published all over the world whose work isn’t being translated into English. Big deal, you might say, but that was the beginning of something for me, an awareness that I live in a bubble of English and that getting out of it is not simple.

A confession: I wish I were bilingual. I had a shot at it – English is not my father’s native language; but he decided against schooling me in Arabic, like so many immigrant parents anxious to be “real Americans.” But the 2009 World Fantasy Convention was a turning point for me in another way: jealous of several translators I met, I decided to learn another language. I chose Japanese, and now, seven years of night classes later, I’m…well, honestly I’m still crappy at Japanese, but I’ve opened a door to an otherwise unreachable world. And I get it in a visceral way – some things can’t be translated. The sounds of words, what idioms tell you about culture. The way I felt when I was finally able to read a short piece by Natsume Sōseki, “father of modern Japanese literature,” it its original. The world is large and wondrous and bigger than what comes to us through English-language media, news, or friendships.

Fortunately for the English-speaking part of the world, some things make it past the language wall. Just in the past year two (soon to be three) books by Cixin Liu, one of China’s preeminent science fiction writers, have been translated. And I read them, and they floored me. The plot twists kept me on the edge of my seat. The scope of the story took me from elation to despair and back again. But there’s something else; Cixin Liu’s books expanded my vision because, steeped as they are in Chinese history, politics, ethics, and culture, they’re alien to me. And that’s a very good thing. There’s a huge world out there. I recommend trying to reach it in whatever way you can, one story at a time.

Postscript: For an anthology of world science fiction, try “The Apex Book of World SF,” edited by Lavie Tidhar. Zoran Živković has a short story therein. Cixin Liu’s translated books are “The Three-Body Problem,” the “Dark Forest,” and (coming in 2016), “Death’s End.”

Summer Reading – Sneak Preview

I know, I know – it’s not summer yet; call it wishful thinking. But let me start things out right with one book, and I’ll have more as the Eugene rains turn to sun and summer truly begins. I discovered G. Willow Wilson, who’s probably best known for authoring the new Ms. Marvel comics featuring Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen from New Jersey. When I heard Wilson was giving a talk at the public library here, it gave me the excuse I needed to finally read “Alif the Unseen.” Wow – a very enjoyable book. Crash a Middle Eastern computer hacker on the run from the law together with a bunch of jinn, then sit back and watch. Not only is this book tremendously entertaining, I think it’s a bridge between the average American reader and the modern Middle East. And it won the 2013 World Fantasy Award. Well worth picking up.

With that as the notable exception, this year I’ve mostly been reading as a preliminary judge for the Endeavour Award. But that’s coming to an end soon, so – look forward to more in the upcoming months!

Future Tea!

future tea

Writers like caffeine, right? Of course they do. Unlike many of my fellows, who enjoy coffee, I have developed an abiding love of tea. But there’s a problem. Have you ever noticed that some teas go stale if you leave them *ahem* on top of your refrigerator too long? Yeah, me too.

So imagine how pleased I was to learn that some teas don’t go stale at all, ever. In fact, they just keep getting better and better the longer you keep them around. The keys are buying the right kind of tea (for this story, roasted Taiwanese oolong), and storing it in the right (not-on-top-of-your-fridge-you-dummy) way. After sadly composting the rest of the hojicha I’d bought in Japan on my last trip, I decided to give this a try. Not just buying the tea to drink whenever I feel like it – oh no, that would be too simple. I went all the way, following the tradition of putting tea away for the future. Voila! I present to you a picture of the result: a gift to the me of twenty years hence. When the time comes, I’ll be sure to tell you how it turns out!

Summer Reading Part 2 – My Favorites

So far, my favorite of the books I’ve read this year is “Ancillary Justice.” It’s gotten a lot of hype, and rightly so I think. Ann Leckie’s protagonist, who tells her story in first person, inhabits many bodies at once, and the narrative thread flows effortlessly from one body to the next. A couple of times while figuring this out I had to put the book down and laugh from the sheer delight of it. The other thing this book did was show me how attached I was to knowing someone’s gender up-front. The protagonist’s language doesn’t include gendered pronouns, and Ann Leckie chose to represent all people with the pronoun “she.” So you would get sentences like, “She was male.” It was sobering for me to realize how uncomfortable this made me at first, especially if someone’s gender was never noted. I was just flailing around, trying to get to solid ground and failing. So it was equally heartening when, about two-thirds of the way through the book (I’m slow sometimes) I realized I was used to it. Let me emphasize what a big deal this was for me: for the first time in my life, when the protagonist would meet a new person, I wouldn’t filter my understanding of that person through their gender. It was amazing. I hope this convention catches on among writers – I’m ready to read a whole fleet of books like this.


My second great read this year was something completely different, “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker. I love the Arabian Nights, I’m fascinated by religious mysticism (here in the form of Kabbalistic magic), and running around in the Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods of a late 1800’s New York City so real I felt like I was there was definitely my idea of a good time. Wecker weaves the threads of this story so beautifully; it stayed with me long after I was done reading it.


Last but not least, a few days ago I finished “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson. I haven’t read Robinson in twenty years, since I picked up “Red Mars” in college, didn’t like it, and set it down again. Well, either Robinson or I have changed; I suspect we both have. I thought “2312” was brilliant. From Mercury, Earth, Venus, to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and dozens of terraformed asteroids flung throughout the solar system – up space elevators, through dozens of cultures and bioregions, and inside the hearts and minds of characters I grew to care about deeply – it was a ride through the future so well-thought-out, so thoughtful, and so loving I suspect I’ll still be pondering it months from now. The best thing – having been inspired while reading “2312” to look up articles on topics from quantum computing to Marina Abramović, I walked away from the book feeling like someone who knew more about my own world than I had when I began.

Summer Reading Part 1 – Why I Read

This spring I ended a year-long run of reading mostly nonfiction, and started up on fiction again.  To my delight, while I’d been away there’d been some wonderful things published.

Before I talk about that, however, I’d like to talk about why I read, which shines some light on why I like what I like (and hate what I hate).

The first reason is, quite simply, so I can have thoughts I’ve never had before.  Science fiction is particularly good at providing me with this one.  I want to know, when I’m done, that I’m a different person than the one who began the book; someone who sees the world differently, forever.  Bonus points if I get my prejudices challenged and my provincial word view widened.

The second reason is what I first heard my friend Nina Hoffman call “survival strategy.”  I read because I want to learn how to survive in a difficult world.  For me personally, that doesn’t mean just physical survival, but heroic survival.  I want to learn how to be brave, selfless, and compassionate under fire.  Although the chance I’ll ever have to fight off aliens or a zombie horde is slim to none, I want to be ready for what life does throw my way.  Tied up with this reason is why I don’t tend to read cautionary tales.  I already know how to fail.  (grin)

So.  Now that I’ve regaled you with tales of my inner life, we’re set up for the next installment – what are the best things I’ve read this year, and why do I think so?