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The Birthday Manifesto - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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September 12th, 2013


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12:35 am - The Birthday Manifesto
I came out of Worldcon this year with an epiphany: I have wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, and, goddammit, I am going to make that happen. From the time I wrote and illustrated The Disastrous Dino War, it's all I've ever wanted from my life. I had practically given up on the notion, assuming that I would never see my name in a bookstore. See, I wrote nothing but sci-fi/fantasy/horror fiction until I took creative writing courses in college, where they frown upon genre fiction. Granted, I improved greatly as a writer as I wrote these realistic stories, but as a result, I figured that my writing future lay in literary fiction, which was ~*respectable*~. When I started writing plays, however, I fell back into genre without even realizing it: Vishnu Claus, an epic sci-fi drama on a spaceship, superheroes in a bar, a talking beer, a talking bow, etc. It was calling me back. I focused on playwriting because I found a supportive community who would believe in my work and bring it to an audience, and at Worldcon, I realized that I have a similarly supportive community in SFF. Saladin Ahmed let me present "Origin Stories" with him as a show of support for a new author of color in SFF, and I intend to become one. I can be diversity in SFF. I can create diversity in SFF. I haven't written a short story in five years, but my fiction drought is over. It's time to make my dreams come true. Today is my birthday, and it's my gift to myself: this time next year, I'm going to be a published author. Is that too ambitious? Oh well, I'm living by Stina Leicht's motto: Dare to suck.



2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is perhaps the most ambitious science fiction novel I have ever read, as Kim Stanley Robinson attempts to truly capture the state of humanity in the 24th century. Three hundred years from now, humans have terraformed and/or colonized most of the solar system. Animals are preserved in offworld terrariums inside asteroids. The concept of binary gender has all but disappeared. Many people have personal A.I.'s, called qubes. Genetic modification and introduction of animal DNA is not uncommon.

By far, the best thing about the book is its meticulous, thoughtful—and thought-provoking—worldbuilding. Much of it comes in the form of interstitial Extracts, chapters of, well, extracts from fictional texts—and they are truly extracts, cutting in and out mid-sentence—that provide scientific and societal background. I found these sections both interesting and frustrating, as the jumbled, partial nature of them made them deliberately obtuse, as if Robinson didn't really want you to understand any of it. They walk a fine line between a clever form of infodump that gives the reader just enough information and a cruel tease that makes the reader feel stupid. Worse are the interstitial Lists, which are, well, lists, and it's even less clear what information they're supposed to be imparting. Finally, the interstitial Quantum Walk chapters are stream-of-consciousness gibberish that approach coherence at times but appear to be satisfied with not making sense.

Robinson succeeds in painting a picture of the future; even when the details seem impenetrable, the impression comes across because his prose is so evocative. There are some lovely lines buried in the 500+ pages. What does it mean to be human? What does life mean, when life now lasts over a hundred years? What is love in a world that spans the entire galaxy?

Sadly, the book is 80% worldbuilding, 20% story. It begins promisingly enough, as Swan Er Hong, a Chinese-Mercurian who lives in Terminator, a city on rails, learns that her recently deceased grandmother was into some secret cloak-and-dagger shit. This leads her to a potential terrorist conspiracy and thoughts of interplanetary revolution. The pacing of the book falters, however, as it quickly loses its initial momentum and then never regains it, content to wallow in subplot after subplot and occasionally remembering there's something interesting going on. The passage of time is also very unclear, and it was only when a date was finally given that I was certain we were in the year 2312, although I had no idea how much time had passed since the book began. It doesn't help that much of the book is summary rather than scene; Robinson is content to paint his picture in broad strokes rather than give you a visceral sense of being there. As a result, it's hard to get sucked into the story as a story, and after a while, I wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible not because I cared about what was going to happen but because I could move on to another book.

2312 is a fascinating look at the future, to be sure, but I prefer an engaging narrative to go along with strong worldbuilding.



Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, came out the same year as The Killing Moon, and although they do share several similarities—fantasy by person of color about people of color, multiple third-person POV protagonists, a strong focus on religion, a superficial similarity in plot—they are quite different beasts.

Like The Killing Moon, the book eschews the traditional model of European fantasy, creating an Arab-influenced world populated with djenn, ghuls, and shape-shifters and ruled by a Khalif. Coming off 2312, it was a relief to learn about the world as the characters lived in it, with no clumsy exposition or awkward explanations; Ahmed deftly weaves the important information into the descriptions and the characters' thoughts so that the reader never feels lost. The world feels lived in, not too fantastical but with more than enough magic and supernatural elements seamlessly incorporated into the basic understanding of how it operates.

Although I found the worldbuilding itself refreshing, even more refreshing are the characters, who are not your typical fantasy archetypes. Three of them are middle-aged, one of them a fat, aging demon hunter who is too old for this shit. These older characters are allowed to have touching romances and kick a lot of ass. The younger characters are a warrior priest and a barbarian girl with the fury of a lioness. Ahmed switches between the characters' perspectives, but he frequently goes against expectations, telling the story from a wide swath of viewpoints rather than focusing on the ostensible main character. I grew attached to each character for different reasons; each one was complex and interesting.

The worldbuilding is somewhat flawed, though. I found it distracting that the religion in this Arab-influenced world was a thinly disguised version of Christianity, with references to the Traitorous Angel and the Lake of Flame and verses from the Heavenly Chapters that sounded like Bible verses. While it's a clever transplant, I expected something more culturally appropriate. Similarly, the dialogue can sometimes sound awkward when it mixes in more modern constructions with the heightened speech.

The book is the first in a trilogy, but, thankfully, it stands alone quite well and has a fairly satisfying ending. Our heroes investigate a series of grisly deaths committed by a creature who threatens the city of Dhamsawaat; meanwhile, the Falcon Prince plays Robin Hood and raises questions of morality and misuse of power in his little rebellion against the Khalif and the upper class. Although the villain is underdeveloped, the well-paced narrative builds to an exciting climax with important plot and character moments.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a swift, engaging read with a world and characters I look forward to returning to.



After having enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon, I was hungry for more by Saladin Ahmed, and, as luck would have it, here in Engraved on the Eye was a short story collection that even featured some stories set in the Throne world, including the first meeting of the Doctor and his apprentice. Another Throne story is one of the best in the collection, and I hope to see the main character in the books proper at some point, as I believe her story has only just begun. By and large, Ahmed's strength is in his mood and atmosphere, crafting new worlds unlike the typical fantasy fare. The stories all feature non-white protagonists, and many have a Middle Eastern flair. You'll find ghuls, jinns, and, um, a rabbitwoman. While I must admit that I didn't really love any one story—although "Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions," a very short story about supervillains that has a different tone from anything else in the collection, is cute and successful because of its brevity—I found each one pretty interesting and different. Ahmed certainly has a thing that seems to be found in a lot of his stories—Arabic influence and focus on religion, for instance—but, in that sense, Engraved on the Eye is a perfect way to get a taste of his voice as an author.
Current Mood: optimisticoptimistic
Current Music: The Smashing Pumpkins - Daphne Descends

(26 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:the_partyman
Date:September 12th, 2013 10:26 am (UTC)
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Do it. Published Author? I absolutely believe that you can.

Also? Happy Polter-Birthday! :)

Edited at 2013-09-12 10:26 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 02:12 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, man!
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From:etherealclarity
Date:September 12th, 2013 01:29 pm (UTC)
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Congrats on your epiphany :) I will definitely read/buy whatever you write!

And Happy Birthday, Sunil.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 02:13 pm (UTC)
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YOU BETTER. MULTIPLE COPIES. I mean, thanks.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 02:13 pm (UTC)
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I could always just publish my LJ entries. IT'S BEEN DONE.
[User Picture]
From:k8cre8
Date:September 12th, 2013 02:28 pm (UTC)
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Happy Birthday to you! And yay for invigorated writing and writing goals! Dare to suck is a perfect place to start, and to work from.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 03:02 pm (UTC)
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I am going to suck SO HARD.
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From:k8cre8
Date:September 12th, 2013 03:16 pm (UTC)
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*AWESOME* To paraphrase Anya "You Suck the hardest, go YOU!"
[User Picture]
From:musesfool
Date:September 12th, 2013 03:33 pm (UTC)
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Happy birthday! Good luck with the goals!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 03:37 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!!
[User Picture]
From:sophia_helix
Date:September 12th, 2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
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Re: epiphany: :) :) :)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 03:37 pm (UTC)
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I AM SO TERRIFIED I DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO ANYTHING.
[User Picture]
From:ethanvahlere
Date:September 12th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
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Good luck with the writing. Having tried to write fiction before, I know how tough it can be, but I have faith you can do it.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 05:52 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! It's pretty tough. I'm scared.
[User Picture]
From:shygryf
Date:September 12th, 2013 08:23 pm (UTC)
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Happy Birthday!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 08:38 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!
[User Picture]
From:prophetkristy
Date:September 12th, 2013 10:40 pm (UTC)
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*waves pompoms* can't wait to read more fiction by you!! *\o/*

(and I was so excited by that prospect I almost forgot to say: Hippo Birdies!)

Edited at 2013-09-12 10:41 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2013 10:47 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for the mutant animals!
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From:thetheatremouse
Date:September 13th, 2013 05:18 am (UTC)
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Happy birthday, dude.
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From:lembeau
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:02 pm (UTC)
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You are going to be unbelievably amazing and your book is going to kick ass!! I can't wait for it. Your epiphany is somehow making me happy which makes no sense but I'm going to roll with it. Happy Birthday, dude. What a great present to yourself, indeed.

(I've been meaning to ask, if you're cool with it, might I add you fb? I'm not on lj all that much but you're one of the few I check up on every now and then.)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 15th, 2013 09:06 pm (UTC)
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Yes, please add me! Thank you for asking.

And I am glad my epiphany is making you happy. We'll see what comes of it.
[User Picture]
From:lembeau
Date:September 18th, 2013 08:40 am (UTC)
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Polter-cow, sharer of joy. :)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:September 18th, 2013 02:12 pm (UTC)
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Wait a second, was that you who just sent me a friend request and I rejected it because who the hell is this person? ...Oops. Let me accept it now.
[User Picture]
From:lembeau
Date:September 29th, 2013 03:41 am (UTC)
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I just saw this, lol. Would've done my fragile ego harm had you not accepted. :OP I even sent you a message when I friend requested you to let you know it was me but it said it went to your Other folder. I forgot to come back here and let you know.
[User Picture]
From:soleta_nf
Date:April 22nd, 2014 11:07 am (UTC)
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I've been meaning to read both of those books! Really interesting reviews. I'll definitely check out the latter before the former. Thanks so much! :)

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