Of late I’ve been rereading Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin, in preparation for Potlatch 18. It’s my second time through the novel, and I have to say that it’s as good upon reread as it was the first time–maybe better.

LeGuin is my favorite author. That’s putting it badly, though, because I don’t just enjoy reading her books: her writing embodies everything that I would want to accomplish as a writer. Ursula LeGuin is who I want to be when I grow up. And Always Coming Home is my favorite of the books of hers that I’ve read (which is most, but not all, of everything she’s ever published). It is the perfect combination of those traits that make her admirable: a piercingly beautiful description of a place that doesn’t exist, painted with such realism that one can hardly believe she didn’t actually go there; a fierce and overwhelming critique of modern civilization, not at its margins but at its core; a story of a place so unlike this world that it seems impossible to achieve, but nonetheless not a utopia or a city of angels, but a place inhabited by people with dirty feet. The first time I read the book it changed the way that I looked at the world. The second time has changed me again.

LeGuin is often polemical but not political, didactic but not condescending–but her politics and her teaching conflict with mine in many places. This makes it a hard book to read. It cuts me to the quick. It bites against things I believe deeply to be true. It speaks honestly, and forces me to be honest. I come away from reading it exhausted, spent and sweaty and in love. Rereading it was exhilarating but tiring, and leaving me with the need to process and consider what I saw. Hopefully, over the next several days I’ll be able to post a few articles discussing this book and my reactions to it. If I’m not too lazy, and if my thoughts settle into a pattern that fits into words.

Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.

I find that I fully agree with David Levine’s analysis of the cultural appropriation imbroglio. Because it’s basically the same thing that I said when a similar brouhaha came up last year.

I heard about the supposed firestorm late, after the major participants had already had their say. The only thing that I want to add is that the original Elizabeth Bear post is actually a fantastic piece of advice for writing the Other.

This may be one of the best science fiction short stories in the form of a music video that I’ve ever seen. It’s got everything!

Androids? Check.
Outlandish costumes? Check.
Social commentary? Check.
Awesome dance moves? Check.

The only thing I can’t figure out is why the future cops arrest the umbrella-wielding vampire (I think that’s a vampire, anyway) in the middle of the show. (Yes, this really happens. If your reaction to the phrase “umbrella-wielding vampire” is OMG AWESOME, then you’ll like the video.)

I’ve embedded it below, but you might do yourself a favor and click through to get the high-definition version.

HT: Eve Tushnet.

This has been around the blogosphere a couple of times, but I finally took a look, and it’s as good as promised.

Dirk Benedict, the man who played the (male) Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica, has written rant against the sissified, womanly reimagined Battlestar Galactica. The rant itself contains gems like this:

“If Dirk doesn’t quit playing every scene with a girl like he wants to get her in bed, he’s fired.” This was, well, it was blatant heterosexuality, treating women like “sex objects.” I thought it was flirting. Never mind, they wouldn’t have it. I wouldn’t have it any other way, or rather Starbuck wouldn’t. So we persevered, Starbuck and I. The show, as the saying goes, went on and the rest is history for, lo and behold, women from all over the world sent me boxes of cigars, phone numbers, dinner requests, and marriage proposals.

As a lifelong heterosexual and advocate of heterosexual rights, let me say that I am deeply offended by the conflation of heterosexuality and womanizing.

Wait, it gets better:

I’m not sure if a cigar in the mouth of Stardoe resonates in the same way it did in the mouth of Starbuck. Perhaps. Perhaps it “resonates” more. Perhaps that’s the point. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this…

Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Hans Solo as Hans Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women “hand out” babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone’ round.

Wow. I mean, wow. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. And I’m even sympathetic to the point he might be trying to make, which is that men and women have significant differences and you can’t just swap one for the other. But of course, the new BSG doesn’t do that: the neo-Starbuck’s femininity is important to her character, what with her having been sent to a pregnancy farm and thinking she was a mother for a while, among other things. Benedict is right that a female Starbuck could never have been what the old Starbuck was, but he acts like that’s a bad thing.

Anyway, the real gem is the comments, in which many of his commenters point out that he’s a whining ninny upset that he didn’t get a role in the new BSG. My favorite is this one:

Dude, Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck has a much bigger pair than your femme, hairbrushing, mirror-loving pipsqueek ever did.


I have to mention that the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is pure excellence. Do you like fantasy stories? Do you like interesting characters and riveting storytelling? Then go and read both of its current stories, now.

The first story, The God-Death of Halla is one of those “elaborate religious ritual” stories that I’ve talked about before, but completely unsubverted. That is, it turns out that the God is being manipulated, but the reality of the God is unambiguously established throughout the story. The conclusion was exciting and glowed with the numinous–something hard to do in a short story.

The second, Precious Meat could easily pass for science fiction. The narrator is non-human, and nothing magical happens. What I loved about it, though, was the fact that it takes place at the moment the narrator’s species is passing into a social mode of existence; which is to say becoming fully sentient, and becoming something that we humans can relate to.