Darkborn goes academic

Derek Newman-Stille, author of the Speculating Canada blog*, who previously reviewed Darkborn, has just published an academic article on “Where Blindness is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” in the September 2013 issue of Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. He examines the trilogy in the context of literary portrayals and conventions of disability in general and blindness in particular, and compares and contrasts those with the descriptions of blind people themselves as to how they perceive the world. He points out the parts that worked, and the parts that did not, in places because of accommodation to genre and in places because, yes, I did not think something all the way through. It’s a very enjoyable read**, accessible to the non-English academic, and my one niggling criticism is that Mosaic is not open access. But I’m sure Derek has reprints.

* Which just last weekend won the Aurora Award for Fan Publication
** Which is not just authorial ego speaking!

Where’d the web go?

I had a minor bowl-of-petunias moments a while back. I was looking at another project compiling a list of works by women in an attempt to make them visible, when a quiet voice said in the back of my mind, “Oh no, not again.”

Because the list didn’t tell me why I should care about these books. It didn’t tell me why I should read them. It didn’t tell me where to start. It didn’t capture what was in them, how they were like and unlike each other, how they spoke to each other, to their moment, to the history and conventions of genre, which were romps and which were sober, which were controversial, which broke new ground, which refreshed the old, and which did neither but were still fun to read. It didn’t contain any indicators of if-you-liked-this-then-you’ll-probably-like-that or if-you-loathe-hate-and-despise-this-then-touch-not-that-book-with-tongs (so the reader doesn’t get ticked off and fire off one of those “SF/F is all _____” denunciations) . . . for which covers are a dismal guide [1].

All of that is already out there. People — many much more incisive and more knowledgable than I — have already said a great deal about these books, spanning several decades. We have reviews, articles, commentaries, forum-posts, critiques and commentaries and defences and controversies of decades, and they might as well be invisible to such lists. There wasn’t even an indication of such discussions even having happened.

Collective forgetting is a significant problem with women’s writing. We keep having to start at the beginning again, remaking the lists, rediscovering the books, rediscovering that other people knew about the books, and we all have to do it one at a time.

Back when I first learned HTML, several epochs and browser extinction events ago (I think it was the Mosaic-Navigator boundary), I made lists, too. I’d open my editor and a page, write out “a href=”, paste in the link, remember to close the quotes. These days, I’m still doing pretty much the same thing, though I get to click a button with an icon of a link and fill in form fields, and I only have to hack HTML if something breaks.

What I’d like to be able to do is, for example, directly connect someone else’s mention of Vonda McIntyre’s (terrific) Starfarers Quartet (1989-1994) to the ebook that’s available on Bookview Café, to the article McIntyre wrote about its inception (“It started out as a hoax”), to the article on “Changing regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s parodic astrofuturism” that DeWitt Douglas Kilgore published in Science Fiction Studies. Directly. So that if someone finds one, it will lead them straight to the others. Without having to do what I’ve just done, which is having to create an entirely redundant new web-page and stick myself in the middle where I don’t need to be when I’ve nothing new to say. (Although yes, it would be essential to flag the source of the new connections, in the interests of transparency, disclosure, and attribution).

It’s a challenging programming problem; although I am not a librarian or an information scientist, much less a programmer [2], I know that much. Not only to do it, but to get the interface not only straightforward but appealing enough that it could be widely adopted. It might not even be possible. But I also have the feeling that we could be further along than this, and I wonder if one reason might be the influence of commercial interests shaping development of the web over the past decade.

In its beginning, Google search was a significant advance, returning results that reflected links made by humans who were informed and interested on a topic, so that the substantial material would rise to the top, and the first page of a Google search was a valuable snapshot of the good material on any subject – or book. Google became the go-to aggregator of information.

Then the web went dot-com, and Google got into the advertising business. SEO became an industry, and now what floats to the top of a Google search for a title is Amazon et al, and Goodreads, and Wikipedia if there’s an entry, but where the citation quality is extremely variable, and assorted high volume review blogs which are so spoiler-fixated that they don’t even get past the skin, never mind anywhere near the bones of the book. Meanwhile the 3000 word (“tl;dr”) thoughtful consideration published 8 years ago in plain-vanilla HTML — which once would have been at the top of the search rankings — might show up around about page 7, and the three richly detailed articles published in scholarly publications and archived in JSTOR might not show up at all and even as they did, would be inaccessible to most people [3].

And now there’s social networking, and everything’s still lists, and everything’s still linear, and moreover, links vanish into the silos of Facebook or Google or Delicious or Goodreads, although with RSS (however long that lasts) or IFTTT, at information can be propagated across silos.

With the result that we’re still making new lists, we still struggle to be aware of previous work, and we still have the perpetual first steps phenomenon.

… Wanders off grumbling to brood on this more.


[1] Something I remember realizing when picked up early Joanna Trollope on the basis of the very similar cover design to Mary Wesley‘s novels. Trollope is a fine writer, but (at least in her early novels) was the antithesis of the very thing I most liked in Mary Wesley – Trollope’s characters who defied convention were always punished.

[2] I have been known to describe myself as a geriatric script-kiddie, although such facetiousness is begging to be misunderstood. I am law abiding (except when cycling the streets of Montréal, which is an exercise in getting in touch with one’s inner anarchist) and I can usually figure out what’s going on in several programming languages.

[3] And as someone who has been an supporter of open access academic publishing since the days of the first Harold Varmus proposal in 1999, all I can say is have we lived and fought in vain.

My wandering starship finds a small press home

Old news, now, in this social networked age, but two of the three novels I wrote between Cavalcade and Darkborn have found a home with Bundoran Press, a Canadian small press. Their (current) titles are Breakpoint: Nereis, which is due out in April 2014 (in time for LonCon3, hurray!), and Contagion: Eyre, currently scheduled for April 2015.

When asked what they are about, I have described them somewhat cheekily as “Star Trek meets medicine.” They concern the voyages of the 50-person starship Waiora (one of nine) on a mixed humanitarian and diplomatic mission to re-contact human colonies in the aftermath of a plague that collapsed an interplanetary human civilization. Their purpose is twofold, to try and ensure the immediate survival of the colonies they contact, and investigate the source and nature of the plague.

Sounds straightforward, right?

But the people on the surviving colonies have their own ideas about what they want, and they’re not shy about asserting them. Aeron Ivesen wants her lands back and its invaders defeated. Creon McIntyre will do anything to ensure his people’s freedom and survival. The history of colonization has left its own legacy of bitterness and distrust, and the sponsoring colonies of the mission are anything but united. And two of the crew of Waiora have a separate agenda that could threaten the whole mission.

Ninety years of rain

(Cross-posted from Kayak Yak Yak)

And some Novembers, that’s just the way it feels.

Inspired by this graphic, I have been playing around with the Canadian Daily Climate Data, available from Environment Canada National Climate Data and Information Archive. I’ll leave all the delightful geeky details of Python script and R code for another place and another time, but I wanted to show off my version of the plot, for the weather station at Gonzalez Heights (1898 to beginning of 1988). The area of the coloured circles are proportional to the rainfall, plotted per day along the horizontal and by year on the vertical (the San Francisco plot goes from mid-year to mid-year; mine currently uses the calendar year). On the right, the bars represent the total yearly precipitation. Rainfall is turquoise, snowfall is purple; snowfall is its liquid equivalent, not its snowy depth. During this period, the snowiest year was 1916 (199.4 mm by my calculation), with a one-day maximum of 53.3 mm (also in 1916). The rainiest year was 1933 (923.5 mm), although the maximum rainfall was 83.3 mm in 1979. Victoria International Airport has data from 1940 to 2004. None of these years (even 1996) was snowier, although the maximum snowfall, in 1996 (we know when that was!) was 64.5 mm. However the rainiest year was 1997, with 1159 mm, and the rainiest single day was in 2003, with 136 mm.

Precipitation at Gonzalez Heights weather station, Victoria