Reading List, October 9th
The Art of The Folio Society's Game of Thrones, portals to new worlds and editing the futures
It's been a ... busy couple of weeks while we adjust to having a new child in the house. Thank you for the kind words about Iris — she's coming along nicely, and appears to be a fairly well-tempered child.
Getting a second child in the house meant that I needed to vacate my office, which meant scattering eight bookshelves around the house, and cramming the rest into a corner of the living room. I was hoping to have a standalone space at this point, but that simply wasn't in the cards this time around. But, I now have an office with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, along with enough wall space to hang some pictures and accessories, and I've installed an overhead lamp and folding divider to at contain the mess a bit. It'll do.
Thanks to folks who read "Ten steps to expedite a departure from Pantaga Station." I had a lot of fun writing that one. Let me know what you thought of it! The story is now available (with a grammatically correct title — gah!) on Curious Fictions.
With this newsletter, I'm making the switch from TinyLetter to Substack. You won't need to do anything — Substack allows me to port people on this list to that one, and the whole thing should be pretty seamless. This should be the second copy that you’ve received of this particular edition, and this is where the newsletter will live from now on.
Substack has the option for writers to include a premium tier, and that's something that I'm going to explore doing — unfortunately, there's no way to simply do a private post for subscribers. I'm thinking (given that I'm freelancing now) that I'll activate this tier for short fiction, and will work to increase my output of short stories on there to once a month. I'll let you know what I end up doing.
Okay, on with actual #content.
Illustrating The Folio Society's A Game of Thrones
I've been a fan of The Folio Society for a while now — they produce some really pretty editions of books that I really like, and one of their recent editions was of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. I can't overstate how pretty this edition is: it's a stunning pair of volumes, with some fantastic illustrations. The publisher outdid themselves with this particular set, and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Clash of Kings.
I recently had the opportunity to interview artist Jonathan Burton, who illustrated The Folio Society's edition.
When did you first read A Game of Thrones, and how did you approach the task of creating new artwork for it?
Well, to be honest I first read A Game of Thrones when The Folio Society approached me with the project. Of course, I knew what a huge cultural phenomenon the books have become, and that it would potentially be a major challenge but I welcome big projects like this. As an illustrator I’m constantly in search of projects that I can get my teeth into.
The process starts with me proposing the scenes to be illustrated, which is a task that I continually battle over. I do a detailed scene breakdown that I can constantly refer to which really helps give an overview of how and when to represent major characters and settings. The best way to start is to pick maybe 4 or 5 scenes throughout the book that I absolutely want to draw that then become like ‘fence posts’. Once they’re in place I can see what’s needed in between in order to hold the structure together.
A Game of Thrones has a long tradition of existing artwork — how did you go about
putting your own stamp on the world?
The only way to really let myself go in this project was to ignore all that’s gone before. I have of course seen some of the artwork and there are some amazing fantasy artists that I really admire but I think Folio had approached me to make this a distinctive set, away from the more obvious fantasy art styles that are readily connected with other GoT editions. I prefer to look at symbolist painters like Fernand Khnopff, Gustave Moreau and Franz von Stuck that are enigmatic, magical and surreal.
The TV series has obviously imprinted a certain image of the world on audiences. How did you go about making your art and vision distinct, and what do you hope readers will take away from your images?
Having not seen the TV series I thought it best not to start for the sake of the book. This illustrated version was to be a separate interpretation of the book, so I didn’t want to be overly influenced by how others have told the story. I was aware that some of the characters in the TV show are very different to those in the books so I really wanted to be loyal to how they were written. Also, George R. R. Martin’s team let me know to avoid certain scenes that may have been overdone or to show a scene differently than the TV series. For example: Daenerys as she comes out of the fire with the dragons, her hair and eyebrows should be completely burned off. Also she’s only 13 in the first book!
What was your approach for the chapter headings?
I knew I wanted something decorative for the chapter headings and black and gold go so well together. Each illustration is symbolic to each character while using their ‘house’ sigil. For example Tyrion’s strength is in his words and in learning so the Lannister lion is surrounded by books and scriptures. Eddard’s dire-wolf has the leaves from the gods-wood being so important to him. Bran is a little different as the three-eyed crow and his ‘third sight’ are a major part of his character.
Were there any particular scenes that are your favorites?
Daenerys having to eat the heart is just wonderfully gruesome as is the fight between Jon Snow and the white walker. The preface to the book also really got me hooked, the black-cloaked figures in the snowy forest is so evocative that I just had to draw it.
Are you working on art for the next installment of the series?
The Clash of Kings is well underway!
Alix E. Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Alix E. Harrow's debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an astonishing, beautiful novel about the power of stories and the doors that they open.
Harrow introduces us to January Scaller, a young woman who's the ward of a wealthy patron named Mr. Locke. He lives in a mansion on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, and has amassed a fortune and fancies himself as an amateur archeologist, collecting the curiosities from around the world to display in his home, or to sell to his wealthy friends. Locke employs her father to travel the world to find and procure objects for his collection, leaving January behind. When she's young, she accidentally comes across a door that leads her abruptly to another world, and later, discovers a book that tells of doors between a multitude of worlds, and that her own life is a key part of the story.
Speculative fiction is a genre that relies on tropes. Science fiction has its alternate reality stories, while fantasy has portal fantasies. Harrow's novel blends the two as January learns more about her past, her father, and the nature of Mr. Locke's collection. The book is part coming-of-age, part father-daughter narrative, and part thrilling adventure as January flees from her comfortable life in search of a family that she's scarcely known.
The book operates on a couple of levels. On one, Harrow examines the value of storytelling and diversity. In this particular world, she depicts stories and legends of fantastical creatures, monsters, magical abilities, and the like as a byproduct of a porous boundary between worlds: creatures and magic and stories leak through into our own. January's father (and others) is someone who tracks down stories to their origin, sometimes to alternate worlds. It's a wonderful thought: that the richness and prosperity of a creative society comes from the chaos of stories from different cultures and worlds.
On another, the novel examines the efforts people make to take advantage of the world, and to lock others out. Locke and his friends, as we find out, have benefited greatly from plundering treasures from other worlds, and seek to protect their own by shutting down the doors to other worlds. It's a tragic viewpoint, and Harrow makes the argument that it's a mindset brought on by extreme capitalism. By doing so, the book argues that a successful society is an open one, whereas a capitalistic one where a small number of people control the economy or its resources is will fail in the long run.
Those ideas power the adventure that January goes through. She's a mixed-race child, someone who doesn't quite fit in Locke's world, and upon learning of the presumed death of her father and making a couple of realizations about Locke's line of work and nature, she flees with the only friends she has in the world, trying to find her father and long-lost mother. The story takes a little while to get up and running, but once it begins firing on all cylinders, it moves. Harrow weaves together a powerful story about the nature of stories, the importance of family and love, and freedom. I don't often tear up over emotional swells in books, but this one brought out the water works by the end. It's certainly one of the best novels that I've read all year.
Annalee Newitz's The Future of Another Timeline
I finished Annalee Newitz's latest novel, The Future of Another Timeline, shortly after Iris was born, and like Harrow's novel, this was also an exceedingly appropriate one to mark the occasion of the birth of a little girl. (A disclaimer: I worked for Newitz while I was at io9, and I love their writing — take that however you will, when it comes to biases.)
Time travel is a long-standing trope with science fiction stories. It's a wonderful avenue for a thought experiment: change one thing in your past, and how does that alter your future? Films like Terminator and Looper have played with this idea in a number of ways, whether it's the T-1000 going back in time to stop its own destruction, or Joe being sent back in time to kill himself.
Newitz plays with this idea in a way that I haven't seen before: time travel is made possible with a series of deeply ancient, geological machines that allow travelers to move back and forth in time. (They can't go past their present). These machines are well-known throughout the world, and it's a common occurrence for travelers to mingle with their predecessors, studying and sometimes altering the past. Editing seems to be a difficult thing to do: kill Adolf Hitler, and someone similar shows up. It's a particularly astute view of history. When Donald Trump was elected president, many people jokingly noted that we were somehow in the wrong timeline — I still feel like this, like there is a weird thing about the world that's broken and off-kilter, waiting for a correction. What Newitz's characters realize is that while singular events are difficult to change, it's collective action that makes those changes take hold.
This story follows a pair of characters: Beth and her friends are trying to figure out life in 1992. She, along with her best friend Lizzie, kill Lizzie's boyfriend when he tries to rape her after a punk rock concert, putting her into the path of Tess, a time traveler from 2022. Tess and her allies discover that there is a group of people who are working to alter the timeline to fundamentally remove women's rights, and shut down the time machines forever to lock them into an oppressive timeline.
Newitz draws on some pressingly real-world events and figures. Her antagonists idolize a man named Anthony Comstock, a misogynistic crusader who sought to enforce obscenity laws and generally oppress women. His followers up and down the timeline have been working to edit the timeline in his image. In a bunch of ways, the book feels as though it's directly addressing the past couple of years of internet culture, particularly with movements like Gamergate and Sad Puppies, in which women were widely attacked over the years within the science fiction and gaming spheres — movements which have since been translated out into the broader public discourse. In a couple of ways, Newitz's approach reminds me of efforts for people to edit Wikipedia en masse, coming to a collective decision as to what an accepted truth or past might be.
The ultimate conclusion that Newitz comes up with is that this sort of war isn't won with a single battle or individual: it's work that requires continual maintenance and vigilance — again, lessons that are very applicable right now. The Future of Another Timeline is the book that's really needed right now — it's science fiction at its best: thought-provoking, angry, and ready to imagine a way to a better future.
AfroFuturism takeover. Science fiction historian Adam Roberts has an intriguing post up on The Guardian (well, from July), in which he asserts that the most exciting genre stories are coming from writers of color.
Company Towns. The New York Times has a new (well, as of the beginning of September) Op-Ed from the Future called Earth Must Intervene in Space Company Towns by Patrick S. Tomlinson. It's a neat look at how companies have treated their worked very badly over the centuries, and imagines what that might look like in the nearish future in space.
Destination: Moon: A couple of years ago, I published a pair of articles in Clarkesworld Magazine about science fiction's relationship with Mars and Venus. I've long wanted to continue this "series" and in the latest issue, I've got a new essay: Destination: Luna, about SF's relationship with the Moon.
Expanse season 4. I had an opportunity to watch the first episode of The Expanse's upcoming fourth season. It's very, very good.
Fan Fiction Lessons. Julie Beck has a fantastic read about the value of fanfiction in the wake of AO3's Hugo win earlier this fall. She writes about how a number of writers have found it to be a valuable field to play around in, and to hone their craft. There are some particularly interesting thoughts embedded in here: "Though writers may develop traditional two-person mentor/mentee relationships on fan-fiction websites, the researchers posit that much more often, people are being diffusely mentored by the entire community." I'm reminded of the times that I spent writing Star Wars fan fiction on FanFiction.net and a couple of other places.
InstaBooks. This is a really cool feature that the New York Public Library launched a year or so ago: an entire book on Instagram's Stories feature. It's been surprisingly successful, according to FastCompany. I don't think that it'll really be the future of literature, but it's a neat way to approach fiction in emerging platforms.
New Star Wars. Star Wars has always been more than just films, and with the upcoming Rise of Skywalker coming out, Del Rey is working on a bunch of upcoming novels, including a new Thrawn trilogy (!), a new Alphabet Squadron novel, and the novelization of the upcoming film.
October Reads. We're a little ways into October already, but if you're looking for something to read this month, I've listed 17 new books hitting stores in the coming weeks. There are a lot of really good-looking ones. I'm particularly excited for Future Tense Fiction's anthology, Theodora Goss's Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (I really need to finish her last one, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman), Secret Commonwealth, Supernova Era, and a couple of others that I'll hopefully have reviews of soonish.
Offbeat SF recommendations. Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar share a new column in The Washington Post, which looks as though it'll be an essential read for fans — they recommend a handful of books that look very cool, which I haven't heard about. The focus looks as though it'll be on international SF/F.
Problems at Fireside?Fireside Magazine has been a really interesting publishing experiment: it started out as a Kickstarted publication, pays high rates to its writers, and has done a lot of good work shining light on inequalities in the field. It seems as though there's been some bumps: publisher and editor Pablo Defendini announced that it was reverting contracts back to its authors on a handful of novels. That move has ruffled some significant feathers — Meg Elison said that she was one of the authors that was abruptly dropped, and that it seems as though it was part of a larger pattern of issues. I'm guessing that we'll see more about this in the coming days / weeks, but it underscores that a) publishing is difficult, and b) well-intentioned people can sometimes mess up. I don't have any particular insight here, but it's troubling to see. Jason Sanford has a good overview on his Patreon.
SF's responsibility for Climate Change. The other day marked a major climate strike around the world, and it got me thinking about what responsibility science fiction has as a genre that's largely come out of (and promoted) the industrial revolution. I'm coming down on the side that it's something that science fiction novelists really can't ignore if they're going to write stories that are intended to be relevant to readers.
Ode to used bookstores. I really loved this article in LitHub, which has the following line: "I’ve learned to treat a visit to a used bookstore less like a treasure hunt and more like a nature walk, with plenty of chances to enjoy myself along the way." There's a delightful nature to a well-curated used store: I almost always end up finding something interesting when I go into one.
I've been working my way through a bunch of books since my last letter. I've added a handful of new books onto my pile in the last couple of weeks that I'm working through:
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. I'm finally jumping on this one after everyone and their mother has gushed about it.
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. I really enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, the first of Pullman's long-awaited Book of Dust trilogy. I'm a chunk of the way into it, and I'm loving how I'm sinking into the world again.
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. This is a book that I've had for a while, and I'm finally getting around to picking away at it. I haven't gotten far, but it's interesting.
After that, I've got the usual long list. I'm planning on picking up Madeleine Roux's Salvaged in the next couple of days before it's released (to review), as well as Cixin Liu's next, Supernova Era. I'm also planning on picking through Joe Hill's collection Full Throttle. I love his horror fiction, and it's perfect for October. I've also got the September / October issue of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has a TON of authors that I really love in it.
As always, thank you for reading. Please let me know what's on your own reading list, and what's on your mind. If you know someone who you think would enjoy it, please pass it along!