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Ignorance, Anxiety, Lifelong Learning

This isn't simply about The Other Half of the Sky. It's also a story about me. But it's hard to separate my review of this collection from my reaction to this collection.

Last year I wrote a 1300 word review about The Other Half of the Sky. When I was finalizing, adding in links and quotes, I skimmed over some of the thoughts I had about certain stories and what I had said about them. Over and over, the phrase "I didn't understand this story" cropped up. "I'm not sure what was happening here." was another popular phrase. "I didn't get it," featured heavily. Then, nervously, I reread the whole essay. What I thought was a positive take on an anthology I was really excited to read, and was honored to have been offered a copy to review, looked like...I don't know, the response after giving an eight year old a copy of Critique of Practical Reason and expecting them to understand it.

I realized after reading my own review that this anthology made me feel really ignorant. Most of the time when I run into books that make me feel ignorant they make me want to learn more. That didn't happen here. How could an anthology, which has lots of the things I want in original science fiction, be making me feel this way? I was crushed and felt uneducated and stupid and the worst part was I didn't know how to fix it. Generally, when I run up against something I don't understand, whether it be a cultural, social, or other real-world issue, I have an idea of where to go. There are generous people willing to write about their experiences. But in fiction, especially new fiction, it's harder to find people I trust who have read that new work. I couldn't even name some of the things that were happening in some of these stories to know where to start identifying them for help. So in the end, I chose to do nothing; I deleted my work and gave up.

I've talked a lot with Ana and Jodie about how I often feel ignorant, light years behind everyone else's knowledge and accomplishments, and bitter about my educational background which often leaves me scrambling to keep up. I hold a lot of grudges against academia, especially how I experienced it after growing up in a rural culture where it was shameful to be too intelligent. At the same time the people around me praised me, not for hard work but for "being smart"; like it was just something I was with no effort. Like my brain didn't have to do any work to be awesome. Do that to a kid long enough, they think they don't have to work for the knowledge. And I never did, not until halfway through my university career, where I finally started trying only to be rebuffed by an institution that didn't know how to deal with my lack of critical thinking skills or ability to analyze or handle difficult concepts. I dropped out of my English program in frustration over the way I was treated for being wrong one time too many: dumb, unteachable, a lost cause. It would take me years to try again.

I've come to terms with these things. I'm better at self-teaching. I'm better at fostering curiosity to learn rather than harboring resentment (especially against other people, which was a problem for a long time) for what I don't know. The curiosity leads to confidence, I've discovered. It makes learning easier (surprise) and makes being wrong less of a terrifying abyss and more like a tall cliff where I can at least see the bottom of my inevitable crash landing. I really don't like feeling like a clueless moron who is missing something great that everyone else around me can probably see easily, even when I realize that's probably a false assumption. The internet makes everything seem so unequal: everyone's smarter than you, they have better vocabularies, they're not hitting google to define terms people are using in blog posts, on Twitter, or in anthology introductions. Everyone knows more and worse, how to compare and contrast all they know, and you're always, inevitably and forever, only able to figure out the nuances with help.

After this anthology I got angry at myself. That never leads anywhere but down a shame spiral of "you've wasted your whole life being a stupid hick moron and you're going to die a tryhard failure.". People tag me pretty often for how my fear of being wrong paralyzes me into silence, but there are complicated reasons for why I have cultivated my silence that make stepping out of that space terrifying. Imposter syndrome and self-criticism are things I live with and can sometimes push back against, but it really sucks when your brain wages war on you. I know all the platitudes: you're capable, you're good at research, come back to it later, it's just a book, right? I know these things are all true. It's fine if it's beyond my critical reading level right now because it's just one book. There are often people around me more than willing to put something I'm having trouble reading on their own reading list so we can co-read, and they can help me understand it. But the irrational fear is still there. It never goes away.

The last time I wrote about this anthology, I didn't know how to express that. Instead, I wrote a passive commentary that did a insulting disservice to the entire collection of stories because I got triggered by my inability to understand some of the texts, ashamed of my inability to parse them quickly (or at all), and shut down. Surprise! Welcome to anxiety disorders, where books can trigger the hell out of you and you don't even realize it until way past your breakdown.

I do this with a lot of original short fiction: I often don't get it, don't understand how to analyze it, am lost without the structure of a discussion group (the way I always read original short fiction before joining SF fandom), and ultimately bounce off. Not everything can be online SF magazines, with handy comment sections with multiple people explaining their reading of a piece so you can borrow some kind of understanding. I'm currently too ignorant for parts of this anthology and I'm finally, after almost a year, okay with that.

This collection is woman-focused but also an exercise in putting non-default genders, sexualities, and social structures in central positions in really small writing spaces, so in some ways parts of this anthology were inaccessible to me as a collected volume of work. As short stories they're good, but they often leave me unable to reach into the world the author is trying to sell me. This experience suggests this medium paired with specific social/political goals may not be for me. An entire anthology with constant re-definition from story to story about how interpersonal, familial, emotional, and sexual relationships worked was exhausting. Sometimes it felt like the science fiction part of the stories was lost in a whirlwind portrayal of women who weren't straight, white, heterosexual, and monogamous. I agree this is a good goal, because the key to fostering empathy is to demand readers to empathize with people who are distinctly different than themselves. But it felt like I was getting served a very specific agenda when I read straight through.

If the goal was to show women as central to story, the connections between women in social settings, and the different ways we form bonds with one another (or fail to form bonds), mission accomplished. If the goal was to create an anthology that feels like an academic exercise in representation, then also, hey, mission accomplished. I think the anthology was successful at telling really awesome stories about women individually, but as a whole it was pretty draining mentally. When some stories didn't try to break the mold in any notable way, I felt like I was missing something, and therefore like I was being deliberately tricked. It was an awful way to read, expecting a book to trick you, even if that expectation is coming only from yourself. If I could go back and read it again for the first time, I would read one story, and think about it for a week, or maybe two, then write about it as a single entity, divorced from its larger context. I finally did that here on my second pass (one story a week, no more), but the second attempt comes with a lot of baggage. I don't know how right or wrong I am. I gave up trying to figure it out and just went with my old plays from being put on the spot in undergraduate courses I wasn't prepared for full of 20+ people and experimental short stories: fake it until you make it.

And of course, what does this say about me, someone who could easily swallow a whole anthology of stories about men and women and "traditional" relationships and social structures with no problem and talk about it without feeling like a failure? Especially if men were the majority of the protagonists? I identified a similar problem a long time ago when I read Ash by Malindo Lo. You bring your own struggles to the books you read, and I mostly certainly brought mine to bear on this one in really unfair ways, which still make me feel ashamed and angry. I honestly don't know what to do about that but keep trying and recognizing where I'm struggling. The truth is, short fiction is already hard enough for me and destroys my confidence in my reading and analytical abilities at the best of times. At the worst...putting another struggle on top of that even if it's my struggle and something I want to see addressed is challenging, and it ended up frustrating and depressing me.

Well, they do say that fiction can teach us and help us become stronger, more self-aware people. Mission accomplished?

The Other Half of the Sky is a fantastically ambitious, if somewhat uneven, collection of stories by and about women and their lives beyond Earth in richly imagined futures. As per usual, I don't have a clever summary or a convenient rating; zero stars for triggering me because I'm a moron and had to look up words in the introduction to this anthology in the dictionary? Five stars for including beautiful stories? Three stars for including stories that made me go "WTAF?" One star for the stories I stared at blankly, feeling as if there was a secret just under the surface not meant for me? A simple rating isn't enough. My feelings about this anthology are so varied, as complex as all the women who populate the stories, and as innumerable as actual stars.

cover for The Other Half of the Sky

The Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis

"Finders" by Melissa Scott: The technology here was confusing, but the relationships were awesome. The world building through lack of excess, scrambling for resources, and the pain of chronic disease was perfect. I would read an entire novel set in this universe. What's the difference between a rapidly spiraling counter on your mortality, versus a stopped clock? The space between depression about the end of yourself and the people you leave behind when you die versus the depression about yourself and the people you leave behind when they die and you continue living is both eerily similar and yet light years apart.

"Bad Day on Boscobel" by Alexander Jablokov: I wanted more Dunya and Bodil adventures. :( I also really didn't understand the setting's a tree? In an asteroid? This story suffers for me because I wanted the story with Miriam and Dunya and Bodil that the end hints at, rather than a story about professional failure at the hands of an inept refugee and a man who was better at parenting and politics than the main character. This is one of the stories where I felt like I was missing something key; something that would make the narrative more sympathetic to Dunya, rather than hostile to her, and then I couldn't really understand why the narrative was so hostile to her, painting her at almost every turn as completely incompetent, both personally and professionally.

"In Colors Everywhere" by Nisi Shawl: If someone would like to sit me down and explain what's going on in this story, or what it's supposed to be about, I would be super grateful. Out of the whole collection, I found this to be the most inaccessible/upsetting piece for me, and really don't understand what I'm missing in the text that makes it so utterly baffling that I can't even figure out what's going on even after multiple rereads, especially since this author has in the past come so highly recommended to me. :(

"Mission of Greed" by Sue Lange: So this was politics in space. I'm bad at politics and also puzzling out motivations, so much like Lai I was completely dumbfounded pretty much the entire time until characters started explaining what the hell was going on. But perhaps that's the point. The derision with which Lai reacts to Genie's offer at the end of the story is really harsh (although she doesn't vocalize it), but is fairly indicative of the problem. Regardless of who you are, doing work for glory or personal gain can only take you so far, can blind you to the opportunities around you, and make you bad at your job. Also, it can get you eaten by space goo. Whoops.

"Sailing the Antarsa" by Vandana Singh: This is one of the most beautiful, introspective, heartbreaking stories, and one of my favorites of the collection. I felt at home here with Mayha, cocooned in both her loneliness and her quiet determination to continue on for the people that believed in her that she had to leave behind. The bubble of the little ship, the isolation at being so far from home, and the realization that similar life had been destroyed, moved on, or simply adapted beyond our means to connect with it on any level in our current stage of humanity was both gorgeously rendered but intensely sad. However, it was tempered by the simple joy of discovery. When I say I could read novels in some of these worlds, this is definitely one of them. I would love to have more pieces of Dhara before and after Mayha left, or to know the end of Mayha's journey.

"Landfall" by Joan Slonczewski: This story comes to the anthology as the first chapter of a sequel for another work by this author. This was a terrible idea. Far from a introduction to this author's work, this was like a scientific, literary attack. This story dropped me in the middle of so much jargon and new technology and terminology that the only thing I really understood was that a) there were some aliens and they were bad because cyanide and b) the Spanish. When I can understand more of the foreign language than I can the words in English, wow. This is one of my WTAF??? stories because I can't see the point of it at all. A first chapter is not a short story unless done carefully. A first chapter is a first chapter of a larger work that gives more context to that first chapter; they're different beasts altogether. What?

"This Alakie and the Death of Dima" by Terry Boren: This reads like a creation myth. I really don't like creation myths and continually flunked all my Mythology assignments where we had to write our own (unsurprisingly, I took my C in that class and ran far far away from any more like it). I struggled so much with this story; I read it three times, and every single time got more and more confused. This story is the story where, the first time through, I started to get furious at myself. I can track it back to this piece, which I even now find hopelessly opaque and impenetrable on my own. Help.

"The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard: I love this world so much, but find it difficult to discuss because I know there's so much here I'm not quite getting. But I do identify with the concept of trying to define yourself by very limited terms. We're all so complicated as people, with inner lives of immeasurable size. How do we fit something so immense into wider social narratives about who we "should" be, cramming ourselves into identities that are too limiting and that erase who we are? By trying to fit (or being forced to fit) we block ourselves from the vast expanse of who we could be. Looking at the same idea through race or nationality is horrific. It's possibly why I find stories set in this universe so fascinating, but heartwrenching. The tangible sense of being erased by another, dominant culture runs through this story. The way it's excused by characters who not only don't want to know anything but what they already do, but have deliberately fed themselves a narrative that's twisted and false is so sad and limiting. The nature of control here is one that even more malicious and harmful than the "society" that they're trying to "rescue" our characters from. I've made this story sound so depressing, and it is, at times, but it's also an adventure story, a story of reconnection, of family working together against dangerous odds even when the cost is high.

"The Shape of Thought" by Ken Liu: Dear Ken Liu, how do you manage to make incredibly difficult concepts about relationships and language so easy to swallow? There's so much great stuff in this story: Sarah's growing relationship with Tonjilu, her distance from her father, and surely the most heartwarming sex scene I've read in a long time (it can't claim the honor of weirdest because I read way too much fic, sorry dude). It was pretty weird, but I dig it. I wish, desperately, that I understood issues of colonialism better, because I feel like I would get much more out of this story. The father and mother both, in their own ways, kept the khanalani as "other": one trying to understand and transform them into an object and a problem that could be solved and categorized, and the other in a sad, all too human state of paranoia. But with Sarah, it became much more about personal connection, and because she cared so much, she changed. The colonist didn't erase the dominant culture, but rather allowed herself to be enfolded into it, for her knowledge and their knowledge to enrich each other.

"Under Falna’s Mask" by Alex Dally MacFarlane: My favorite thing about this story was the use of gender neutral pronouns which I only caught on my second time through the story (the first time I glossed over them completely). There's some other gender stuff going on here that I didn't understand, but it was really neat to see those pronouns used, without hesitation or exposition. They were just there and it was incredibly easy to roll with them. The interesting mix of science fiction in the body of what feels like a fantasy story threw me at the beginning, but by the end it really contributed to depth of Mar-teri's world. For me this was a beautiful story about growing up, finding a voice and a future that was, even if it's scary, a welcome adventure. But it also felt a lot like a story about accepting power even when it came with difficult work, both political but also emotional, and claiming that power regardless of age, because wisdom isn't necessarily attached to those things. The scene at the end with Mar-teri and Cani was so gorgeous, a perfect example of accepting and then working through conflict in ways that don't create deep fissures in relationships later. Yet another story I would love an entire novel about.

"Mimesis" by Martha Wells: This is how I like stories meant to introduce me to a larger world/book series to be framed. Although I've read The Cloud Roads, if I hadn't, this introduction would definitely have sold me on the books themselves because this story drops enough hints about the Raksura that it's interesting and not confusing. The simplistic and predictable plot (it was practically advertised in bright flashing lights! Oh, tropes, you're the best! ♥) that's wrapped around much more fascinating power dynamics of the court, Jade's development as a Queen, and Jade's power dealings with Pearl make this a really nice stop between The Cloud Roads and its sequel without overwhelming the reader with world building. Plus, a Jade adventure story, where she struggles like anyone else with decisions and leadership, makes mistakes but still manages to come out the other side, is perfect.

"Velocity’s Ghost" by Kelly Jennings: Unfortunately, this was one of those stories where while I really liked the setting itself (a crew! on a spaceship! taking jobs!), it left me cold because it felt like there was quite a bit of backstory I was missing in order to make me care about the characters. There were politics of taking certain types of jobs, familial politics, and things about killing spare kids that I never quite grokked to because there wasn't more space to expand on them.

"Exit, Interrupted" by C. W. Johnson: Saiyul is desperate for an escape, and that desperation combined with the nature of space travel, which pollutes planets and creates a miserable, toxic existence for people who work and live in those conditions, made this story so sad. The other characters are just as desperate, just as down on their luck, but Ashil especially stands firm in his care for Saiyul even when she does terrible things and ultimately throws her family away to escape to a better life, only to lose Ashil completely and stay trapped. She comes full circle in the end, as an adult caring for the child she was, and then is faced with a consequence of her decisions and desperation. Unfortunately I'm not quite sure what to make of the resolution itself, and can't really get what the story is saying about the limitation of hope -- maybe that there shouldn't be limits? I don't know. :(

"Dagger and Mask" by Cat Rambo: This was a story where the conceit of it was obvious immediately, and I couldn't decide if I was being tricked, and so spent the entire story wondering why the captain was casually baiting assassins. There were some weird power dynamics here between the assassin, who thought he had the most power, when it fact he was ultimately powerless except in what he offered Grania as a tool for her own ends. That led me to wondering if, in fact, turning an assassin for political reasons was the impetus of the story itself, or if it was just all related to power struggles without a specific goal, or if it was related more to revenge (perhaps for an attack she didn't see coming)? Both Grania and Eduw talk of love, and swear love to themselves about each other, but I really don't see how that works, given that the lack of trust between them in the end is so insurmountable, and sad.

"Ouroboros" by Christine Lucas: I have no clue what was going on here and gave up trying to figure it out. Sorry, story!

"Cathedral" by Jack McDevitt: Sometimes I wonder if this piece didn't color my perception of the entire collection (especially the first time through), since it's another one where I felt tricked. I might have bought the cold, brutal realization that politics and science are ultimately a disaster when merged in environments where science is seen as a luxury, and that drastic measures are the only ways we can keep pushing forward. I could see that future, the waxing and waning of interest in going to the Moon or Mars and beyond, the constant questions from political spheres about the value in investing in such endeavors, but I have problems when that future is purchased with lies. But maybe there's something else to this, and I missed it because most of this story is written from the perspective of a whiny character who spends a huge part of the story complaining about being friendzoned. Why a love interest? Why not a sister? Why not flip the perspective of the story to the Laura, period? There are both stronger stories and weaker stories in this anthology, but why did the collection have to end with the death of a woman who was framed as a prize, the memory of her on a field in sun romanticized by a man hurt she didn't want to continue to fuck him? I seriously don't understand.

Other Reviews:
Manic Pixie Dream Worlds

Date: 2014-03-29 02:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What a brave, thoughtful post, Renay. It's fantastic that you went and revisited this in order to understand your response to it; it speaks volumes about you as a critic. <3

Date: 2014-04-03 12:37 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Wow. This post, well, it sort of knocked me on my ass. It was a much needed reminder about how vital perspective is. See Renay, for so many years now, I've just had this almost sort of hero-worship thing going on. It's equal parts admiration and intimidation, and those feelings are so entangled that I can't even separate them. And much of it stems from how stupid I feel when I read the awesome things you write--to me, you're like a goddess of critical thinking. Sometimes I read your thoughts and am left feeling so lost and ignorant because you're just way beyond me, like I shouldn't be allowed in the same building let alone the same room with you. I dream of being able to analyze and critique things like you and Ana and Jodi can. And I think because of you all, I'm getting better. I'm at least making the effort, even if it's still largely in my head (because I still haven't gotten the hang of actually transferring the thoughts in my head to "paper" in a way that makes sense to anyone but me). So anyway, yeah--perspective. That you have ever felt, as you put it "dumb, unteachable, a lost cause" so boggles my mind that I'm sort of having trouble processing it. But I can't thank you enough for your honesty. I can be so horrible about making assumptions about people. As in "How could someone who is so insightful, so bold and gutsy, so obviously intelligent ever doubt herself or her abilities?" So yeah, thanks for sharing this. Thanks for always keeping me on my toes. Thanks for being the awesomeness that you are.

Date: 2014-12-31 04:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I also run into stories, particularly science fiction ones, where my brain makes a big giant NOPE DO NOT UNDERSTAND. (There's also a particular problem I have in that the visual and verbal parts of my brain seem entirely unconnected, so stories and books that demand that you "see" a lot of things to understand the action receive similar nopes.) In fact, with one of my favorite short fiction authors, I love about half her stories and the other half leave me scratching my head with a total lack of understanding of what I've just read.

We're in a field with a whole bunch of really smart people, who have different tide pools of knowledge. So I think this is probably very common. I myself run into at least one and usually a couple of stories in a given anthology where I'm all "???" I admire your dedication because I just nope.

Two things, though. One is that I was having a conversation just earlier today about how if the playing field were actually level, I'd be reading less... uninsightful... criticism by men on giant sites, and a handful of certain people would have regular paying gigs at said giant sites. You were among the names mentioned, to assent.

The other is -- would you be interested in being a part of a short fiction discussion group? Because I think that is something that could be a lot of fun and maybe is sorely needed. I'd have no idea where such a thing could be started, nor organized (I can barely organize lunch), but I could definitely serve as a filter in finding stories in zines to read and discuss. Maybe two a month, selected for commonalities of structure, theme, etc.?

Let me know if you'd be interested -- I think that is a very good idea and you are onto something!

--Cecily, not signed in


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