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The Just City, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor. Also the author is a dear friend of mine, and I read this book in manuscript before I read this published version.

This is a book about time travel, robots, and eccentric philosophers using ancient slave children to experiment with approximating Plato’s Republic, with the help of the goddess Athene.

It’s also a book about consent. Once you bring Platonism in this far to the front-and-center, theme is not going to be an optional extra that can sort of sneak up on you, and The Just City is not an exception to that rule. Consent–not just in a sexual context, also in a work and personal context–goes from first page to last. If you don’t want a book that’s dealing with consent (and with historical figures and Greek gods not always having a great grasp of it), then this is not the book for you.

I think substantially because I never had a Mediterranean focus, I never had the, “I want to live there!” or “I want to try that!” reaction to Plato’s Republic–which makes it more fun to watch it twist and disintegrate than if I was a hard-core Platonist, I think? There may be hard-core Platonists about who can give me the report on the experience from their perspective. But mostly I got to enjoy Simmea and Maia striving so hard for this strange thing that kept shifting under them, and what I do like that it was like is the kind of utopian commune experiment that 19th-century America was chock full of. Um. What I do like to read about. Because I would not live on one for love nor money. Really: no. Really really: no.

One of my consistent complaints about fantastic fiction is that it’s hard to find books that treat the Greek gods as genuinely not very nice. This is a definite exception. The Greek gods in The Just City are not horrible brutes, but they are definitely not your pals–they take some of the worst aspects of being human and being alien, without becoming nuance-free monsters. I also enjoyed how thoroughly Socrates was rolling his eyes at people’s reactions to Plato. Also just structurally, the last sentences of the chapters are so very well done. But my favorite thing is probably the robots, actually. I like the robots quite a lot, and all the stuff around them, most of which is spoilery. More robots. Robots yay.

Please consider using our link to buy The Just City at Amazon.

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Year in review 2014

I know, it’s not the end of 2014 yet, but I will be Christmasing merrily away for much of the rest of the year, and then collapsing in a heap. So it seemed like a reasonable time to talk about this year in writing.

My bibliography tells me that I have twelve things with 2014 publication dates, which seems like a goodly number. (Right now it actually has thirteen things with 2014 publication dates, but one of them is a tyop it is on my list to fix.) I appeared in new places! I reappeared in old places! I made my first invitational anthology sale! Hurrah stories! They are:

The Young Necromancer’s Guide to Re-Capitation (co-written with Alec Austin), On Spec, Winter
Ask Citizen Etiquette, Asimov’s, February
The Suitcase Aria, Strange Horizons, February
The Stuff We Don’t Do, Nature, April
The Salt Path, Apex, June
Maxwell’s Demon Went Down to Georgia, Nature Physics, June
Calm (co-written with Alec Austin), Analog, September
Emma Goldman: A Biography for Space Aliens, Daily SF, October
The New Girl, Apex, November
Boundary Waters, Nature, November
A House of Gold and Steel, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December
The Hanged Woman’s Portion, Not Our Kind, December

Also I wrote a lot more stuff. I didn’t finish any novels this year, but I worked on some that will pay off next year, I think. And so far–this is one that could easily change depending on my mood and everyone else’s mood at the lake house with the in-laws in the last week of December–I’ve finished twenty short stories. Which is quite a few short stories, actually, even for me. I looked, and that’s how many I wrote last year, too, but I don’t plan on doing it every year. Also I have more short stories waiting to come out (six) than I did last year at this time, so that’s good.

(One of the things about that is that I calibrated how many short stories I should have in circulation at any time back when I was not quite as good at short stories. So I was selling a smaller percentage of them. Still, I am adjusting what “a reasonable number of stories out in circulation” means for me. Some things are a process.)

Last year I talked about having the spigot, just being able to write and write and write. This year I did not have the spigot turned on. And I wrote anyway, and it was good, and other people liked the stuff I wrote, and I liked the stuff I wrote, and I even had fun with the stuff I wrote. So that is its own kind of victory: to be there, to be hanging in and doing it and making the art work, when it’s not in free flowing amazing mode.

Also I led the Fourth Street beginning writers’ seminar, which I will do again next year, and ideally next year I will do it when I am not recovering from such a bad virus. (As I said at the time: on Wednesday of that week, I was still so sick that we had to put a stool in the shower for me to sit on, because standing up long enough to shower was still too much for me–not because of the vertigo, because I was just that sick and weak. On Friday morning I went to lead the writers’ seminar. I think it went well! I just think it can go better next year when I am not quite that wretched.) And I have learned a great many things this year about process and about people in one’s writing life and about a great many other things, so I will have different things to say next year. So that will be good too.

So onwards.

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Merry merry tired and many stories

The thing about coming back tired from vacation into the making of holiday cheer is that there are all sorts of things that are almost but not quite slipping my mind. Entirely possible that there are all sorts of things that are completely slipping my mind, too, but I can’t remember what they are just now. I was so tired this morning that I had to stick my head back under the shower once I’d gotten out, because I couldn’t remember whether I had rinsed my hair or not, and it seemed like probably I should make sure.

Of course, I was trying to remember something like five different plot points on two stories that had come up while I was in the shower, so you can see where something like “did you perform the basic functions for which you were there” might have fallen off the bottom of the list.

Which reminds me–and thank heavens something does, because see above–that I’ve been talking on Twitter to Matthew Bennardo about working on multiple projects at once. He was feeling alone because most of the people he was asking claimed to work on only one story at once. And no, that is not me, really not, really no. I have dozens of stories in different stages of completion. I would worry about this if I didn’t write so dang many stories of different types and lengths anyway, but clearly I’m finishing stuff. Clearly I’m selling stuff. So what we call this is process, not problem.

Before I left for Montreal, Kameron Hurley had a blog post (somewhere…oh, look, here it is) called “Why I Finish All My Shit.” And I read it, and I thought, “huh, no, glad it works for you, but no.” Because yes, you have to finish stuff to learn how to finish stuff–both in the sense of completion and in the sense of making endings work. Absolutely. But there is a very strong sunk cost element here. If I get 200 or 2000 or 20000 words into a story and realize that it is just not working, forcing myself to finish its non-working self rather than writing some better story is what we call a colossal waste of time. And unless something is under contract, if one story is working and another is stalled out, for me there’s no particular reason to sit and stare at the stalled out story when I can be productive on the story that’s working.

(I’ve talked in the past about working out of sequence on longer projects–longer short stories as well as novels–and this is part of why. It works on a chapter-by-chapter basis for me, too. Why should I stare at Chapter 3 going, “Guhhhhh worrrrrrds,” when I could be humming merrily away writing Chapter 16? Yes, Chapter 3 will eventually get written, and for some people it really does have to happen chronologically. I am not one of those people.)

Look, here’s the thing. I have a chronic illness. I have chronic vertigo, and it stinks, and the meds that (sort of) work for it also stink. But one of the things it does is make me aware of limited opportunities. Of giving myself the best chance to succeed, to get things done, to even enjoy myself along the way. For some writers, sitting down and writing one story, start to finish, chronologically, and only writing another one when the first is revised and sent out, is the way to do that. That’s great for them. But it’s not my process, and it may not be your process, and that’s okay too.

If there’s one writing rule I would like to see enshrined for beginning writers everywhere, always, it’s this:

It’s okay if you don’t do it like anyone else, as long as you do it well.

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Books read, late November and early December

Combination post due to travel at the end of last month.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs. This is some of what I want in secondary world fantasy: weird post-colonialism and interesting magic things and plot plot plot, with room to grow but self-contained. Creepy and horrible in spots (that part is optional for my taste but wants flagging for those for whom it’s either a very good thing or a very bad thing).

Jim Butcher, Working for Bigfoot. Kindle. I had given up on the Harry Dresden books, and I still mostly have, but I got given this collection of three stories earlier than the part in the main sequence where I quit, and they were reasonably entertaining. They center around a set of characters who are not the main set Harry usually interacts with, so if you read the Harry Dresden books for the Molly-Mouse-and-Murphy Show (as I used to when I read them), these will disappoint dreadfully; as it was, the fact that they had self-contained entertaining-enough plot in a series I have quit on was fine with me.

Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Lots of interesting bits about a part of history I don’t know much about. More influenced by the Seven Years’ War than you might think. More complicated racial history than people really want to talk about. Well worth reading.

Francesa Forrest, Pen Pal. Kindle. A kind of science fiction that is not much like much else. This is the story of a young girl on the Gulf Coast corresponding with a political dissident in Southeast Asia, how their lives twist and turn and come together, and while it takes a bit of suspension of disbelief to get them into writing letters in the first place, the story is well enough told and interesting enough in its details of two slightly-future cultures that it was worth the leap it took to get there. Recommended.

Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History. (Now a decade old.) Another piece of history I did not have as much of as I felt I should. Gott succumbs a bit to the tendency to think of his own subject as the most central and interesting of all things, which only historians of the Seven Years’ War should do, and some of his explanations are less convincing than they could be with some poking, but in general Cuban histories are not long on the ground in this part of the world, so still worth having. (Also, etymology of “buccaneer”! So thanks, that guy.)

T. H. Huxley, Mr. Gladstone and Genesis. Kindle. An essay continuing to hone my sense of Huxley’s voice for future fantasy projects. Not about Max.

Diana Wynne Jones, Deep Secret. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Lady Astronaut of Mars. Kindle. (Usually I don’t talk about the short fiction I read, but when I read it as an ebook on Kindle, it gets counted as an ebook, so here we are.) Brief, engaging tale of Mars and exploration and the passage of time. Recommended.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword. More space operas should be about tea. The small-scale focus of this compared to the first one in its series was welcome to me–I’m glad that Leckie is willing to demonstrate range. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door. Reread. One of the books I imprinted on at a very young age. I hadn’t gone back to it in awhile, and I notice a different set of things each time–how she was developing how she wanted to handle the twins, this time, and how Calvin and Meg’s knowing/not knowing each other doesn’t really quite work for me in the context of A Wrinkle in Time–but mostly I just like the focus on the work of love and loving people for the unlovable people they are.

Garth Nix, Clariel. I was looking forward to this, and I didn’t really enjoy it much. The various characters’ idiocy was not unbelievable by any stretch, but one spends enough of one’s own life saying, “God, what an idiot,” without wanting to spend books that way too. And the titular character’s arc was…um. Well, let’s say that if this was not in a series I liked, I would be doing even more metaphorical wall-flinging than I was, and I would be happy to discuss it on email with anyone who doesn’t mind spoilers.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon. African-setting first contact SF. I love first contact stories, and this one was good fun and chewy and interesting with its different assumptions and touchstones. Being my favorite Okorafor book would be a high bar to clear, but this is still a good one.

Luke Pearson, Hildafolk. The first of the Hilda books, paperback and less substantial than the others but with the same art style and ideals. The kind of lovely setting where the strange is taken for granted and introversion has a place. I like these very much.

Colin Powell and Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey. Grandpa’s. In retrospect, this simultaneously was positioning Powell for a presidential run and contained the reasons why he would not be a viable candidate. Mostly interesting, with flashes of totally appalling.

Jose Saramago, Journey to Portugal. This advertised itself as being history, legends, and travel guide. Ha. It was a highly literary-ized travel guide, with Saramago referring to himself in the vague third person constantly, and history and legends were scarce on the ground. What they really meant by that blurb is that it was not the sort of travel guide that would tell you where you could get good cod balls in Lisbon on bank holidays or what the best museum deals for children under ten were. Which: fair enough, except that histories and legends of Portugal are hard to come by, so I was quite frustrated by this book.

Elizabeth von Arnim, In the Mountains. Kindle. A contemporary novel at its time. A young woman is recovering from grief and loss after the First World War, returning finally to her beloved Swiss vacation home. The ending plot is very predictable, though not upsetting for that, but for whatever reason this is not a setup/period/situation we see much of in books that get recommended into the present day as classics, particularly in its effects on young women’s lives. Engagingly written, interesting stuff.

Charles F. Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru. Not a good first book on the topic, because it focuses on the provinces and periphery, but that’s an interesting space to have filled all the same.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Gold Bat. Kindle. One of the school stories, not particularly outstanding among the school stories but a reasonably entertaining thing to read when exhausted in airports and doctor’s offices, which is where/when I read it.

Tobias Wolff, ed., Writers Harvest 3. Reread. This was a gift, years back, when my extended family discovered that I wrote short stories and were pretty surprised by it. It’s a random book of literary short stories, and there was not one that caught my interest for character, situation, or even language. Frankly the language all seemed very pat and stilted. I had been keeping it as a memento of that milestone in my life, starting to be published as a short story writer, but I’m far enough along that I don’t really need that, I can just say, eh, bunch of slice-of-life stories, not really doing it for me, and move on.

Evan Wright, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War. Wright was embedded with a unit going into Iraq, and like many embedded reporters, he ended up buying into some of that unit’s assumptions without many apparent questions. For example, he regurgitated the internal explanation of racial dynamics and composition without a murmur, without analyzing how some of the training exercises described might have a differential effect on different groups of people going through them, and not because one group was inherently better suited for the job or was better trained for the actual job. It’s interesting to read the up-close accounts of modern warfare, but it’s troubling that there seems to be an insistence on splitting them into the people who, like Evan Wright, are willing to be mouthpieces for their subjects, and those who are active opponents of the US military as an entire system, with a complete elision of the many potential nuanced positions in between.

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Better late than never

The last of the lussekatter are just out of the oven now, and it’s noon. When I woke up, I could smell yeast and saffron all the way from upstairs, but not because they were baking, because the yeast was good yeast and the dough had risen overnight.

A friend of mine was in the hospital this week quite unexpectedly, and she came home yesterday and was well enough to visit finally. And there was enough Mris to stir up the lussekatter dough and visit my friend or to make the lussekatter all the way through and make sure they were ready the minute I woke up on Santa Lucia Day. But not both, and well. Here we are, and I could still smell them when I woke up, promising: don’t worry, we’re still here, you didn’t miss it. There’s still time.

It’s never too late to kick at the darkness, to do your part to beat back at it until the sun returns. It’s grey and wet here, too warm for December but not in a way that does anyone any good. Mark has had to go out of town too much this fall, and he was glum having to get up so early, and I didn’t have a saffron bun to cheer him; I’ll have to save one out for his return.

But Tim brought the guitar upstairs so that we could sing “This Year” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “In the Dark” in the kitchen while the lussekatter baked. And this year I have homemade orange curd to put on them, because part of figuring out gluten-free baking for our loved ones this year is extra egg yolks. From limitation, abundance. Orange will go well with saffron and blueberry. Not in the way we expected, but we find our way around to good, even in the dark days.

2006 2007 part one 2007 part two 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012

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Home and House

I am home from Montreal and digging out from under the mountain of things that will pile up when you take a vacation. It was lovely, it was grand, and now it is lovely and grand to be home. And oh, so much stuff. So much stuff. Presents to wrap, more presents to buy and wrap. Stories to revise, more stories to write. The laundry is starting to feel a bit under control, although I know that this is an illusion, as the laundry hamper is almost full again. There are several things that want cooking, and more that want backing, and…well, most of you know what day it is, Saturday.

While I’m doing all this stuff, the magic of publishing brings you things I worked on much earlier. I have a new story up on BCS today, A House of Gold and Steel. Go, read, enjoy.