Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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It’s possible to misread anything

Here’s a post at BookRiot: Is it possible to misread Octavia E Butler?

Of course it is. The author of the post demonstrates how:

The titular tale in Butler’s one and only short story collection, “Bloodchild” describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses one child from every family to be impregnated and “host” Tlic eggs inside their body. In exchange for this service, the Tlic “allow” the humans to live inside a special compound and ingest sterile Tlic eggs, which work as a kind of opiate, keeping the humans calm and happy. Oh, and the humans are banned from possessing any weapons, for fear of an uprising….The first time I read this story, I assumed Butler has written “Bloodchild” as an allegory for slavery in North America. It seemed so obvious: the Tlic are the white enslavers and their controlling humans’ bodies for their own benefit, all while insisting the humans are fortunate to be subjugated….But Butler had heard this interpretation many, many times before, and wrote in her afterward to “Bloodchild” that she was “amazed” people kept viewing her story through this lens. And although the story does includes a group of humans that are, in a literal sense, enslaved, this reading is a vast oversimplification of what Butler was doing with the characters and their motivations.

Well, I agree that “Bloodchild” is a powerful story. But this interpretation never once occurred to me. Not to brag, but here is what Butler said about this story:

As Butler noted, “Bloodchild” is a love story, a coming-of-age tale, and what-if scenario about a man becoming pregnant with a weird, alien, bug-creature. In the afterward, Butler states she wanted to explore a scenario where a man could become pregnant not by accident or out of curiosity, but by love. … In this way, Butler explores gender roles within the family unit and societal structures. Gan takes on the traditional role of female not only in birthing offspring, but making a powerful decision in a scenario where he has very little power to begin with.

And even when I was a kid, I thought that was *very very* clear. Reduce the story to a parable about slavery and you remove practically all its power.

This is a good post; click through and read the whole thing.

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Forgetting

Interesting post via The Passive Voice blog: Are you forgetful? That’s just your brain erasing useless memories

Most of us think “perfect” memory means never forgetting, but maybe forgetting actually helps us navigate a world that is random and ever-changing.

So say two neuroscientists in a review published today in the journal Neuron. The argument is that memory isn’t supposed to act like a video recorder, but instead like a list of useful rules that help us make better decisions, says study co-author Blake Richards, a University of Toronto professor who studies the theoretical links between artificial intelligence and neuroscience. So it makes sense that our brains would make us forget outdated, irrelevant information that might confuse us, or information that leads us astray.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that “most of us” would have assumed that perfect memory, where you never forget anything, is not actually a great thing. If it were, why wouldn’t we all already have eidetic memories? Or better than eidetic?

Look, for example, at this woman who remembers everything. Thus we know it is possible for a human person to remember everything. Given that it’s in the possible human range, I think we can assume if perfect memory carried a big survival or reproductive advantage, lots of us would have that kind of memory.

What problems does this woman experience? Well, she remembers unpleasant things as vividly as pleasant things. For those who tend to dwell on the negative, that might well be a huge disadvantage. Also, another woman with the condition says, “It’s a huge temptation [to stay alone in her room and recall nice things]. I could, if I didn’t have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7.”

Imagine people in a hunter-gatherer society, filled with a lot of tedious but necessary work to do, but faced with that temptation. Or worse, an agrarian society with A LOT of GRINDINGLY tedious but necessary work to do.

So this article unsurprisingly discusses the advantages that accrue to forgetting.

None of which makes it less annoying when you walk into your bedroom, pause, and say to yourself, “Wait, why did I come in here?” I yield to no one in my ability to forget what the heck I meant to do in less than the minute it takes to walk downstairs, multiple times, before I finally remember whatever it was I needed to get or do.

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Good heavens, where is the year going?

So here we are, nearly in July, the year half over, and in some ways I feel like the year’s just started. Instead, it’s just about time for a retrospective: What are the best books I’ve read this year so far? I do keep a list of books acquired and books read, though generally I get behind and then have to try to remember what all I’ve been reading lately. But let’s just take a look:

January: I must have been busy with something else in January, as I only read nine books . . . oh, right, the puppies were born January 4th. Yep, now I clearly remember which book I loved best that month: Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand. I loved it partly because hey, Laura Florand, and partly because she very kindly emailed me a copy on January 3rd when I mentioned on Twitter that particular book would be perfect as a distraction from a tense situation and wasn’t it a shame it wasn’t out yet. I was right, it was perfect to while away the last uncomfortable day of Honey’s pregnancy, when nothing would stop her from having mild contractions but I knew the puppies’ heartrates sounded all right and didn’t want to rush into an emergency c-section. Of course that all turned out okay, but what a long day that was, and Bitter Orange made it much more bearable than it otherwise would have been.

February: Looks like I re-read The Goblin Emperor. Again. Other than that one, I really liked Grave by Michelle Sagara West. I notice I also bought The Cold Eye by Gilman. Huh. I still haven’t read that, mostly because I really want to re-read the wonderful first book before opening the second. Maybe I will do that soon now that I have reminded myself about this series.

March: I was revising this and that, and also writing fifty or so pages of this and the other to see if any new project seemed particularly inspirational, so just about the only fiction I read all month was a lot of the Shadow Unit series. I dipped into it all along the length of the series and then read the final book, the fifteenth, which had only recently come out. It was a brutal ending in a lot of ways, but it provided a good and appropriate wrap-up of the series. It’s a great series, btw, if you haven’t ever tried it. I think the first book is permanently free in ebook format if you want to test the waters.

April: Again, I barely read any fiction in April. I did read Silence Fallen, the latest Mercy Thompson book, and liked it a lot.

May: Ah, yes, in May I read a lot more books! More than five times as many as in April – seventeen compared to three. I concentrated on those from my physical TBR shelves, which had overflowed onto the floor and it would be nice to get the overflow whittled all the way down before the end of the year, though I’m not making any promises about that.

Let’s see, well, you know Thick as Thieves by Megan Whelan Turner came out in April. I loved it, although it practically drove me crazy that MWT never referred to Costis by name till right near the end. I was sure it was him, but I would have liked confirmation, especially after he gave a false name!

I finally read Railsea in April, and liked it far better than I’d thought I would. As is usual with China Mieville, I didn’t really believe in his world, but I enjoyed it anyway once the protagonist kind of grew up a little.

But I have to say, the standout for the month was Naomi Kritzer’s Freedom’s Gate trilogy. Excellent series, truly impressive, I’m sure it’ll go on my best-of-2017 list at the end of the year.

June: We’re only halfway through June, so it’s not really fair to pick out my favorite of the month yet, I guess. Especially when I can’t really because the month has been super-eclectic, filled with whipsaw transitions from sweet MG (Burgis’s The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, of course) to end-of-the-world apocalyptic military SF (Ringo’s Dark Tide Rising series. Historical romance (Carla Kelly’s Courting Carrie and a re-read of some of Bujold’s Sharing Knife books have been in the mix too.

So how about you? What books have you read this year that you particularly enjoyed?

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Groundhog Day, the Musical

“Groundhog Day” seems it would be hard to pull off as a musical, but hey, after “Hamilton,” I’m willing to believe that anything can work if it’s done well.

Here’s a review:

Over the past 24 years, Groundhog Day has proven itself to have a surprisingly long tail. When the film was released on Feb. 12, 1993, it was regarded as little more than a better-than-average Bill Murray comedy about an arrogant TV weatherman forced by the cosmos to relive the same day over and over…and over again. Since then, however, the film has taken on a strange (and I’d argue well-deserved) second life as a deceptively deep philosophical meditation on the meaning of life — a high-brow statement hidden in a low-brow wrapper. It may be the closest thing the 20th century gave us to A Christmas Carol and the myth of Sisyphus.

Now, the seemingly simple tale has been given yet another wrinkle of interpretation (Singing! Dancing! An Actor in a Giant Marmot Costume!) with the wonderfully inventive Groundhog Day: The Musical, a giddy highlight of the current Broadway season. Before we get into it, though, a word of warning about what isn’t in this Groundhog Day: There’s no “I Got You Babe” from Sonny & Cher driving you mental from the bedside alarm clock; there’s no live rodent on stage (too literal…and too feral apparently); and, of course, there’s no Murray. That last one, I’m guessing, might be a deal-breaker for some — a reason to walk in to the August Wilson Theatre with a skeptic’s cocked eyebrow. But the show’s star, Andy Karl, brings his own brand of smarmy charm to the role of meteorologist Phil Connors and makes it his own before the night is over. Where Murray was rumpled, Karl is pressed and blow-dried. Where Murray was toxically bitter with spiky edges, Karl has more of a slick smugness, his edges smooth and sanded down. Karl may not be as unpredictable as Murray (then again, who is?!), but he conjures his own breed of jerky egomaniac. His energy is oily cool whereas Murray’s was prickly hot. And yet it takes Karl all of five minutes to win you over completely (resist as you might). It’s easy to see how he earned back-to-back Tony nominations for 2014’s Rocky The Musical and 2015’s On the Twentieth Century.

Read the whole thing; you’re practically guaranteed to wish you had tickets.

I wonder how it works just as a soundtrack? Cause it may be a loooong while before I have a chance to see it on stage.

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Here’s something fun —

Many of you, for one reason or another, probably do not follow the blog Math With Bad Drawings (although it is well worth a look). For those deprived souls, I offer this link to a funny and not too mathematical post:

Life, in Coordinate Planes

Here’s how the post starts:

Historians will look back at this period and ask, “What mass lunacy gripped these people, that so many of them sought pleasure in running long distances?” Their books will have titles like “The 21st-Century Illness: How Marathons Brought Civilization on the Brink” and “26-Mile Masochism: Had They Not Heard of Cars and Bicycles?” and “Running in Giant Meaningless Circles: You Were Right All Along, Ben.” Then they will go play dodgeball, because the future is a better place.

Ha!

The next coordinate plane actually does deal with books, about which you might have opinions. I, for example, would put Ulysses waaaaay over at the bottom left corner. (Any Ulysses fans can weigh in about it’s proper position in this plane, if so inclined). But the comments about marathons made me laugh, so that’s the section I copied here. Click through to read the whole post.

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Sumptuary laws: building an unfamiliar world

Here’s a post by Marie Brennen at Book View Cafe about an element of worldbuilding we seldom see authors use: sumptuary laws.

You know what those are, right? Laws about what kinds of clothes commoners can wear and made of what materials and in what colors, vs well-born gentlemen, vs the nobility. Stuff like that. Such a peculiar idea compared to modern sensibilities. But quite common historically, of course.

Historically speaking, lots of cultures have treated class as a matter of birth or achievement, and have frowned heavily on people trying to use money to buy their way into the upper strata.

Those cultures tend to have something called sumptuary laws. You mostly hear about these in the context of clothing, but they apply to any form of consumption: food, furniture, the size of your entourage, even the way you build your house. Such laws reserve certain types of luxury only for the “right” kind of people, and impose fines or other punishments for individuals who overstep their bounds.

Let’s start with clothing, since the examples there are so abundant. Sumptuary laws may govern the use of certain fabrics (no silk for the hoi polloi!), dyes (Tyrian purple was hugely significant in ancient Rome), garments (Heian Japan restricted hat types by bureaucratic rank), cuts (restriction of necklines or sleeve lengths or just about anything else), embroidery (limiting both quantity and subject matter), jewelry (Islamic sumptuary laws discourage men from wearing gold), and so forth. What’s interesting here is that the purpose of the law may be to maintain the power of the elite . . . but it may also be to keep the non-elite down. Banning native dress in a subjugated population, or requiring disfavored groups like prostitutes or members of religious minorities to wear markers of their status, also helps to maintain the structure of the society.

Brennen’s phrasing there seems to imply that it’s somehow a secondary feature of these laws that they effectively keep down the commoners. I doubt it. I think that was probably the main driver of sumptuary laws in most or all cases. There are other ways of recognizing the people that matter — details of etiquette spring to mind — but heaven forbid you should have any of the hoi polloi be able to pass as well-bred just by learning to ape a gentleman’s manners, right? So forbid them to wear anything but brown or something, with criminal penalties if they do, and there you go.

Guy Gavriel Kay includes this kind of detail in some of his books, not surprising because he pours such deep worldbuilding into each novel.

I’ve done it only once — remember? In House of Shadows, there are rigid laws about who can wear what, and foreigners like Taudde have to be careful not to put a foot wrong because breaking the sumptuary laws would indeed carry consequences.

I’ll have to keep in mind that stratified societies where wealth is not considered an adequate entry into the upper strata of society are pretty likely to have sumptuary laws. It’s a nice detail that says clearly to the reader: This Is A Secondary World And The Culture Is Not Modern American.

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This AI did a pretty good job naming guinea pigs

At Gizmodo, something kind of fun: This is What Happens When You Teach an AI to Name Guinea Pigs


Earlier this week, research scientist Janelle Shane got a fantastically unusual request from the Portland Guinea Pig Rescue, asking if she could build a neural network for guinea pig names. The rescue facility needs to generate a large number of names quickly, as they frequently take in animals from hoarding situations. Portland Guinea Pig Rescue gave Shane a list of classic names, like “Snickers” or “Pumpkin,” in addition to just about every other name they could find on the internet. The rest is history.

“I used Andrej Karpathy’s char-rnn, an open-source neural network framework for torch (written in Lua),” Shane told Gizmodo. “I gave the neural network the list of 600+ guinea pig names that the Portland Guinea Pig Rescue assembled for me, and let it train itself to produce more names like the ones on its list….

Some of Shane’s explanation of what she did is absolutely impenetrable to me, but I get the idea of letting an AI train itself to produce “words like these.” The computer actually did a pretty good job. Most of those names are cute and seem pretty well appropriate for guinea pigs . . . though I do wonder about “After Pie.”

And hey, if you’re in Portland and want to adopt a guinea pig, evidently there is no shortage.

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Sentences like fine wine

So, I was re-reading Stray by Nicola Griffith the other day. I meant to just read one particular scene and wound up reading practically everything after page fifty. And then going back and reading the beginning. That happens to me. I don’t know if any of you ever read a book from the inside out, so to speak.

This particular sentence, on page ninety-seven, caught my eye and made me smile with pleasure: The light began to change, thinning from rich afternoon mead to a more sophisticated predusk Chablis which slanted in through the trees and picked up the wings of insects dancing over the surface.

Isn’t that lovely? Really, even writing these hard-to-categorize thrillers rather than beautiful, detailed historical fiction like Hild . . . let me see, the back cover refers to these thriller types as “literary noir,” which I’m not sure I agree with but I see where they’re coming from . . . anyway, Griffith’s literary thriller trilogy is so beautifully written on a sentence-by-sentence level, something you just don’t see all that often. And sometimes when you do, the sentences don’t add up to such a satisfying story. I’m thinking here of In the Woods by Tana French, which put me off her books permanently because the quite horrible villain totally got away with ruining a lot of people’s lives and I just . . . ugh, no. (I should add that it is the first book of a series, so maybe things work out better eventually. The first book repelled me so powerfully that I will never know.)

Anyway, I do highly recommend The Blue Place and Stray and Always if you are in the mood for literary thrillers, or even if you aren’t, particularly. Especially if you would like to sink into the pov of a deeply sensual protagonist; I don’t think you see such a perfect sensualist very often. Or of course you should try Hild if you would prefer a long, lovingly detailed historical with a cooler, more cerebral protagonist.

But, today I am (finally) reading a book published, let’s see, back in 2008, Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet. I think I’ve had it on my TBR shelves practically that whole time, and now that I’ve finally picked it up, I am enjoying it much more than I actually expected to. Certainly much more than I usually would with a book that seems to switch to a new pov character practically every chapter, which ordinarily I don’t much like. I’m thinking one of the authors wrote some characters and the other wrote some other characters, kind of like Wrede and Stevermer in the letter game that led to Sorcery and Cecelia, though who knows, it’s just that the voices are so very distinctive. Here are a characteristic couple of sentences from Margrave Royston, who has just been relegated to the country for a particularly unwise indiscretion:

The terrible thing about the country – and this was why I’d left in the first place – is that you can’t spit sideways without hitting a sheep. They’re smelly, cruel creatures, malevolent and unclean.

Okay, didn’t you laugh? Of course you did.

Havemercy is, of course, nothing at all like any of Griffith’s books, except in the way I’m lingering over the sentences. I’m just on page forty right now, and it’s going to take me days to finish this one because I’m going to enjoy lingering over the words. And, I’m pretty sure, the characters. That’s why I don’t mind switching pov often, because the characters are so beautifully drawn.

Stay and Havemercy, as different as they are, offer in this way a similar reading experience. The reading experience is almost wholly unlike that of reading, say, Ringo’s Under a Graveyard Sky and the other books in the Dark Tide Rising series, which I zipped through in doubletime because a) the story just carried me along, and b) there was no temptation to linger over the writing, lovingly re-reading specific sentences for their artistic perfection.

I recently saw some writer, don’t remember who, comment on Twitter that being a writer has made it hard for them to read fiction because they’re so much more judgmental about the writing than they used to be. Other writers were chiming in and agreeing and I am just so glad that this hasn’t been my experience because for me the world is still filled right to the brim with genre fiction I enjoy for one reason or another, whether or not the writing is flawless.

On the other hand, if you’re on the lookout for perfect writing . . . again, I’m just on page forty. But Havemercy might be one to try. Also, Griffith’s books certainly are.

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Radiohead Lyric or Emily Dickinson Phrase?

A delightful post from BookRiot: Quiz: Radiohead Lyric or Emily Dickinson Phrase?

As it happens, Emily Dickinson is probably my favorite poet ever, so this was especially intriguing. Though I would not characterize Dickinson’s poetry as giving voice to “quiet despair” as does Christine Ro in this post, the challenge is still an immediate draw. Can one actually confuse Radiohead lyrics with Dickinson poetry? I am not that familiar with Radiohead, but let’s take a look at this quiz. There are only 15 lines presented; I’ll show them here — click through to see the answers.

the mongrel cat came home holding half a head

inebriate of air

the distant strains of triumph burst agonized and clear

broken hearts make it rain

i felt a funeral in my brain

tie me to the rotten deck

how dreary to be somebody

howling down the chimney

disappointed people clinging onto bottles

he bit an angle worm in halves

why so green and lonely

he talks in maths

the truth must dazzle gradually

get the flan in the face the flan in the face

nobody wants to be a slave

Are any of these at all difficult? A good many are lines from very well known Dickinson poems; putting them in surely makes this challenge less, er, challenging.

Things that Emily Dickinson never used in any poem (you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not wrong): mongrel cats, rotten decks, bottles, flan, and slaves. I might not have thought she wrote the line about the worm, though, except I remember the poem clearly, so there’s that. Still. Flan? As if.

I bet I could find a group with lyrics that would be easier to mistake for Dickinson poems. How about Peter Gabriel?

wind was blowing, time stood still

if again the seas are silent

ten coaches roll into the dust

I used this website to look up Gabriel lyrics, btw; I recognize some of his songs, but I couldn’t have pulled lines out of my brain.

I maintain that any of those seem a lot more like Dickinson lines than anything ever written about flan by anybody.

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