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This is not a review, only a brief note. I don't know Westerns except as cliches, and in this case I only knew the names. Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the gunfight at the OK Corral: I couldn't have told you stories that went with them, indeed wasn't consciously aware they were part of the same story. Which made reading Mary Doria Russell's latest novel an odd experience, at times. Doc is part of the story of John Henry Holliday. From context, I gather the summer of 1878 is one of the parts that is less-told, but at least as Russell tells it, it's the summer when, living in Dodge City, Kansas, Holliday and Earp became friends. A relatively quiet summer; unlike The Sparrow there's no shattering personal tragedy to uncover here, unlike A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day no geopolitical event giving shape to the story. Dodge is a frontier town, but there are precious few gunfights (though Russell does allow herself one "get out of Dodge!"); set pieces are more likely to focus on a party or a poker game, and most of the novel is taken up with the texture of daily existence.

But it's a novel that's aware of and comments on the fame of its protagonists, and the other inhabitants of Dodge City. The cast list is even longer than that of A Thread of Grace, I think (although the only other name I recognised was Bat Masterson), and the narrative voice is as temporally free as that of Dreamers of the Day (though without the fantastic enabling conceit), making reference to the OK Corral even though the novel stops years before the event itself, and considering the later exaggeration and distortion of certain events. The result is a novel very aware of the contingency of life, whose emotional peaks often involve evocation of the "ghost lives" that its characters might have lived if certain events had gone otherwise; usually as grace notes, but in one chapter there is a sustained imaging of an unremarkable alternative life for Holliday, hanging off a turning-point in his relationship with a prostitute, Kate Harony. Such explicit self-commentary did ensure that I wasn't as adrift as I might have been; and made it clear that the novel is in part an intervention into the dialogue of the Western, and the processes by which people have been made into myths; yet also made it clear how much of the detail of that intervention I must be missing.

Perhaps it also played into the fact that Doc took a while to win me over. Russell's writing is always a mix of sentiment and steel, but the balance seemed off in the first half of this novel, too much of the former and too much of the latter. But as more perspectives are brought into the mix -- Jau Dong-Sing, proprietor of the town laundry; Bessie Earp, the madam of a Dodge brothel; Alex von Angensperg, S.J.; Captain Elijah Garrett Grier; I gather some of these were real people, some are invented -- the more Holliday and Earp and Dodge itself are seen from a variety of angles -- the better the balance, and the more Doc drew me in. Unlike Ron Charles I don't hunger for a sequel (in fact I think a sequel would rather miss the point), and by some margin it's not my favourite of Russell's books. But Doc contains some exquisite moments, and taught me some things, and I'm not sorry to have read it.

This entry was originally posted at http://coalescent.dreamwidth.org/601507.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
I have finally got around to moving my home from Livejournal to Dreamwidth. Whether or not this will actually lead to me posting more frequently, who knows, but I'm glad I finally got around to making the leap.
It's been a while since I felt so completely out of step with what polls and elections tell me is the national mood. A friend of mine just emailed the list of places that actually voted Yes to AV -- Hackney, Glasgow Kelvin, Islington, Haringey, Lambeth, Cambridge, Oxford, Southwark, Camden, Edinburgh Central -- which makes some sense of this, because it is to an almost comic degree a list of the places where I and my friends live or have lived. But part of me still can't really believe it. I genuinely thought that when people in this country started voting that they just realised how pathetically inadequate putting one X in one box is as a method of expression, and how tragically unrepresentative our governments have been as a result; I didn't encounter formal descriptions of electoral systems until later, but I remember thinking how absurd it was that SF awards have fairer voting systems than the UK parliament. And I genuinely thought -- still think, if I'm honest -- that AV was so transparently a solution to part of the problem that winning the referendum shouldn't be that hard. But the No campaign won thumpingly, 70/30. And now I'm angry, because now it feels like I might as well not bother voting for the rest of my life, and God forbid the referendum on Scottish independence is won, because then the country will be fucked as well. (Probably not me personally. But that just makes it worse.) Fortunately there's enough blame to go around on this one. I blame the No campaign for fear-mongering and lies, and the Yes campaign for a lack of imagination and clarity. I blame David Cameron for giving the fear-mongering and lies legitimacy and approval; and Ed Miliband for being either unable to convince his party, or not really trying, I'm not sure which; and Nick Clegg for not managing to get PR on the table, so that the Yes campaign wouldn't have been split by the ridiculous bickering about whether AV was worth it or not, and for not shutting up when it was clear he was doing more harm than good. I blame Conservative voters for being reactionary entitled shits, and Labour voters for being ignorant tribal shits, and Liberal Democrat voters for being condescending high-handed shits like me. I blame the people who enabled No to so massively outspend Yes that the playing field was tilted from the start. I blame the media for not challenging the claims made about AV -- particularly those of the No campaign, but also Yes -- and I blame whoever wrote the rules on public broadcaster impartiality so restrictively. I blame the national curriculum for not providing a basic grounding in electoral systems, and teachers for not providing it anyway. I blame the economic climate and the political climate. I blame everyone who voted out of political calculation, rather than on the merits of the question at hand. I blame everyone who obsessed about edge cases, either not understanding or not caring that the failure modes of FPTP are worse and more common than the failure modes of AV, and I blame everyone who thought an incremental change wasn't good enough. I blame everyone who didn't vote. I blame you. I blame myself. Of course, I don't really mean all of this. Of course, I mean every word. Who did I miss?
For anyone wondering about the results of that poll, see here and here, and links to all the other posts from the past week here.
A couple of months ago, Tricia Sullivan gave an interview in which, among other things, she discussed the fact that the proportion of Arthur C Clarke Awards going to women has nose-dived in the last ten years -- one winner between 2001 and 2010, compared to five between 1991 and 2000. I spun this off into a discussion at Torque Control, which eventually ranged far and wide over possible causes and effects.

As part of the follow-up to the discussion, and specifically as a counter to Gollancz's all-male "Future Classics" promotion of a couple of years ago, I've been running a poll to determine the best science fiction novels published in the last ten years by women. You can see examples of peoples' lists here and here, and I'll be announcing the overall top ten at torque_control over the next week, starting tomorrow.

So, this is a final trawl for votes! I'm looking for the top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). You can email me, or fill in the poll below. All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December, that is, the end of today. I am looking for science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, because in the discussion it was generally felt that in the UK science fiction by women has a much harder time than fantasy by women. But your own definition of science fiction applies; whatever you think counts, counts. Also, you don't have to rank your nominations; they all get equal weighting. And if you only want to nominate five, or one, then please do so -- the ten will emerge from the wisdom of the crowd.

Thanks in advance for voting -- and feel free to link to this post.

Poll #1653362 What are the best science fiction novels by women published between 2001 and 2010?

Novel one:

Novel two:

Novel three:

Novel four:

Novel five:

Novel six:

Novel seven:

Novel eight:

Novel nine:

Novel ten:

The nominating deadline is upon us, so if you are a member of Aussiecon 4, or were a member of Anticipation, get to it. Nominations close tonight, Saturday, March 13th, at 23:59 PST (in other time-zones that's Sunday, March 14, 2010 03:59 EDT, 07:59 UTC/GMT, 18:59 AEDT). (And if anyone's interested, here are my noms.)
Those who follow grahamsleight on Twitter will already be aware of this, but: he took a tumble while getting off his train this morning, and his broken his leg. He's now in ward T1 at University College Hospital (first floor, and -- use this information wisely -- bedside phone number apparently 07081 396234), where he is likely to be staying for a couple of days. He reports that visitors are very welcome, except between noon and 2pm. His iPhone battery is low, but so far as I can tell his spirits are good, considering.

EDIT: Further update here.

New Doctor Who logo




Raising the retirement age


This year's Booker shortlist


Google Wave






Doing a GOOD or BAD poll while ninebelow is away and cannot participate


New FTC guidelines on blogging


A new regime of early starts


Michael Tomasky


Stargate Universe






The thing that Niall meant to put in this poll but forgot

An extraordinary novel in many ways, one of which is the way in which I think this, from Rosemary Ashton's introduction to the current Penguin Classic edition, is dead wrong:
We have seen that Lydgate's own ideal of womanhood is damagingly limited and egotistical. So too is Casaubon's ... Yet there is some authorial ambivalence here. Just as, while criticizing Lydate's expectations of a wife, George Eliot seems also to blame Rosamond for not putting her husband's view and needs before her own, so with Dorothea she moves between sharp satire of Mr Casaubon's requirement of complete devotion in a wife and warm authorial endorsement of Dorothea's desire to serve her husband selflessly. (xvii)

I don't think there is any ambivalence here: all are being judged by the same criteria, which is the extent to which they are able to enter imaginatively into other's lives. Lydgate, Casaubon and Rosamond are criticized for (in different ways) failing to do so, or doing so only to a limited extent; Dorothea is praised because she does so, even though it is in many cases to excess.

The great strength of the book, of course, is the astonishingly generous omniscient voice in which it is told, which has time for every character's particular desires, and (though it chides) has sympathy with every one of its inhabitants. More people, I want to say, should write omniscient voice like this, and this well. The voice enables some of the things I enjoyed most about the novel -- its wit, and its social acuity -- things which, it strikes me, are what Jane Austen fans say they get from her writing, but which I have never been able to find there. For me, in fact, the voice was often the most compelling thing about the book; Ashton is right that
[Ladislaw] is the least successfully imagined character in the novel, partly because he is obliged by e plot to be rootless and have mysterious origins, and to function as a handsome, youthful foil to his fading older cousin Casaubon. (xv)

-- with the result that his relationship with Dorothea is supremely unconvincing (if entirely predictable; I'm a little astonished that Jo Walton can write "I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen in Middlemarch, even from half way through", because it's blindingly obvious that Dorothea is going to end up in a suitable marriage at the end of the book, it being unthinkable that she might live happily as an independent; the only questions are ones of detail, exactly how the marriage is going to happen), although he's not the least interesting character: that would be Bulstrode, most of whose chapters nearly put me to sleep.

I wonder whether that voice isn't ultimately a vice disguised as a virtue, in some ways; its message is -- quite rightly -- that we can never know the full circumstances of anything, never know another person entirely, but its existence undermines that message. Makes it a bit too comfortable. Although this was never a book where I sank through the page. I think that was in part because for all the precise delineation of the various relationships -- Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage is the best, because it would have been so easy to make one or other of them unambiguously the villain; this is where the narrator's limitless sympathy and empathy are most admirable, and the hard edge to their ending feels right -- the geography of the setting was more than a little vague. Every time I thought I'd worked out where one place was in relation to another, I would be (it seemed) contradicted, and my inhabitance of the book disturbed. Yes, reader, I wanted a map!

But it's a book I will probably return to in five or ten years, nevertheless.
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