Review of Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, Books One and Two of The Expanse

Cover image of Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey*

These books are the inspiration for the new SyFy series The ExpanseA few hundred years in the future, humanity has colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter. Tension among Earthers, Martians, and Belters erupts into all-out war with devastating consequences after unknown forces nuke the ice hauler Canterbury. The five remaining crew members  find themselves at the center of the conflict, driven from one disaster to another on the salvaged Martian warship the Rocinante as they attempt to determine the origins of the attack that killed their crewmates. Meanwhile, a detective on Ceres Station tracks a disappearing heiress and unravels a conspiracy that spans the solar system. The two plot lines converge on Eros, where an alien infection kills the entire population and threatens Earth.

One of the interesting subtexts of these books is the arbitrary nature of human prejudice. In the future, people of different skin colors and national origins freely mix and gender roles have largely disappeared, but it’s no utopia. Instead, the racial fault line falls between Belters and “inner planet” types. Belters’ lives in low gravity cause them to grow taller and skinnier than their counterparts from inside the gravity well and make it impossible for most of them to set foot on Earth or Mars. They’ve even developed their own argot, a mash-up of multiple earth languages plus hand gestures developed over generations of communicating inside space suits. As the Belters struggle for self-rule from the inner planets, these racial divides widen.

Cover image for Caliban's War, by James S.A. Corey
Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War continues in the tradition of Leviathan Wakes, following the adventures of disparate characters whose stories converge over the course of the book. An attack on Ganymede — breadbasket of the Belt — kills an entire platoon of Martian marines, leaving Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobbie” Draper as the sole survivor. In its aftermath, a father searches for his missing daughter as the colony slowly dies around him. James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante soon join in the search.

I’m in love with the crew of the Rocinante, who emerge as an unlikely family after their adventures in Leviathan Wakes: idealist captain James Holden, genius engineer Naomi Nagata, cowboy pilot Alex Kamal, and battle-ready mechanic Amos Burton. Ceres detective Joe Miller lends a touch of noir to the action-oriented story. Chrisjen Avarasala, the potty-mouthed UN power broker in the orange sari, is another favorite. And it’s a joy watching Bobbie Draper, the six-foot double-wide Martian marine in the power armor kick ass up and down the solar system.

This series reminds me of Dune with its grand sweep, but with more hard science and a touch of noir and horror. These stories explore how human curiosity and ingenuity go hand in hand with human fear and aggression. When should you negotiate and when should you fight? Is alien technology inherently evil or do we simply not understand its context? What happens when you try to harness forces you don’t understand? Is it better to release information to everyone or to withhold it until you understand its implications? The book offers no answers but shows the repercussions of different characters’ answers — all while delivering kick-ass action and satisfying character development.

* James S.A. Corey is actually the pen name for writing partners Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use

When the 2015 collection of Best American Poetry came out this September, the poetry world erupted into controversy. At the crux of the matter was a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseiden, Adam and Eve” by Michael Derrick Hudson. Why all the fuss? Because Hudson, a white man, published his poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson claimed that he was unable to find a publisher for his poem until he began sending it out under an Asian pen name (1). Asian poets and writers were understandably upset when the anthology came out and it’s sparked a discussion among academics and poets about the nature of cultural appropriation and the myth of reverse racism. Editor Sherman Alexie responded to the controversy in an article posted on the Best American Poetry blog. His thoughtful essay addresses the tension between the literary world’s desire to showcase diverse voices and the necessity of remaining faithful to aesthetic principles:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.

And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.

But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. (2)”

My own experiences as a queer woman and my friendships with people of a variety of races and nationalities have sensitized me to the issue of cultural appropriation. So what is cultural appropriation? It’s overwriting the voices of the voiceless with narrative constructed outside of the lived experience of a person who is a member of an oppressed class. Since there are many kinds of oppressed classes and since one person can belong to more than one of them, the issue can become complicated. The litmus test for me goes back to the question of lived experience. Does the person telling the story have the right to tell it? Is it his story to tell? As with many questions, there is no one right answer, but there are definitely some wrong ones.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use”

Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland

A much-decorated poet and academic, Lesley Wheeler’s accolades include a Fulbright scholarship, an NEH grant, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, and publication in many prestigious journals, including Poetry and Slate. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University and is an active member of the WOM-PO Listserv, an email discussion group for women poets that’s been around since before blogging and social media overtook online community platforms like Listservs. Her third book of poetry, Radioland, came out in October 2015. In spite of her rise to fame in recent years, Lesley remains a warm and generous correspondent. She took the time to answer some questions about her latest book, the po-biz, and the difference between writing and publishing.

Cover image of Lesley Wheeler's third book of poetry, Radioland
Radioland, Lesley Wheeler’s third book of poetry

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition for your work in the past few years. How have these changes in your career affected your writing?

It’s funny how happiness works—successes don’t warm you for long but difficulties worry you constantly. The life change came with my first two books, Heathen in 2009 and Heterotopia in 2010. Suddenly I felt able to call myself a poet. After the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, people seemed to take my work more seriously. The judge, David Wojahn, is highly respected by other writers, and that made a difference. “Fulbright” is a magic word—as well as representing an amazing opportunity—but I won that for scholarly, not poetic, research. My scholarly credentials remain fancier than my poetic ones and the two networks have surprisingly little overlap. In fact, having a foot in both worlds invites suspicion from both sides.

Continue reading “Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland”

Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press

Chapbooks and zines from Porkbelly Press arrive tied in pastry string with a handwritten note from the editors thanking you for supporting small presses. The chapbook I purchased — Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier — evokes a similar handmade detail, both in the object and the poems they contained. I spoke with Porkbelly publisher Nicci Mechler about the press and its creations.

What inspired you to start the press? Is there a story behind the name?

Photograph of Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press
Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press

Porkbelly Press came a year after our literary magazine, Sugared Water. I’d worked on lit mags for years, and produced zines, and my chapbook collection was growing. It seemed a natural progression to try out a chapbook line, to use my book arts and love of lit to craft some beautiful chaps. Porkbelly exists to boost the signal.
We make our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, not too far from the banks of a pretty fantastic river. Back in the days when the fathom was where it’s at, and people yelled stuff like, “by the mark twain!” (even Mark Twain himself), our architecturally-gorgeous (and besotted of beer) little burg ferried out a whole heap pork belly. We were big on pig. You can still see the evidence in 1) the city’s consumption of breakfast sausages (like goetta), and 2) the pig art and statuary all around town.

Naturally, we took that delicious callback to days gone by and smashed it into a press name; pork belly became Porkbelly and a press was born. In the words of one delightful Irishman, our “rather portly winged pig [is] a symbol of hope if I ever saw one.” Well, yes. Hope and bacon. (No bacon is harmed in the production of these chapbooks.) Continue reading “Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press”

Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Image of a woman with long hair and red lipstick wearing a red sleeveless shirt.
Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?

I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.

I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”

Interview with Tawnysha Green, Author of A House Made of Stars

Cover image for A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

A mother wakes her two little girls in the middle of the night and hustles them into the bathroom where they lock the door and hide in the tub. Outside, heavy thuds reverberate. “We’re practicing for an earthquake,” she tells her daughters. And just as Californians go about their lives on unstable ground, so does the family in Tawnysha Greene’s A House Made of Stars. Greene uses spare, concise language to tell their story with devastating clarity. In spite of its oppressive atmosphere—or perhaps because of it—the novel includes moments of sublime beauty. Greene took a few moments to talk with me about her book.

The narrator of your novel is a young girl of about 10 years old. Why did you choose to tell the story through her voice instead of an adult character?

I chose to make the narrator of A House Made of Stars a young girl because in doing so, I could use a simpler, more honest mode of storytelling. There are so many issues addressed in this book—poverty, illness, abuse—and I wanted to convey these issues in the most direct way possible. Children are far more honest than many adult narrators and can be acutely aware of their surroundings, so I decided that I needed a younger protagonist if I wanted this same kind of directness in my narrative. Continue reading “Interview with Tawnysha Green, Author of A House Made of Stars”

Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Alexandra Delancey’s novellas Always Her and Me and Her chronicle the love story between newly-out Elise and ultra-cool tomboy Jack. I caught up with Alexandra recently to talk with her about her characters, her craft, and the business of publishing in the age of e-books.

Your characters are well-drawn and idiosyncratic, especially some of the more minor ones like Tatiana, Christie, and Alyssa. How did your own experience of the lesbian scene inform these characters?
That’s really nice to hear. I didn’t base any of them on individual people that I know, but I wanted to reflect the experience of being in your early twenties and being gay, or thinking that you might be gay, and the insecurities and preconceptions that sometimes accompany it. I spent my twenties discovering the lesbian scenes of several countries, and they all have their own norms and cliques. They can be frustrating at times, but they’re a lot of fun too. What I’ve always loved about the scene is that it gives you an opportunity to meet a much broader cross section of people than you otherwise might, so I tried to make my characters diverse in order to reflect that.

Tell me more about how the characters of Jack and Elise evolved.
I like writing tomboyish characters. Continue reading “Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her”