Tag Archives: books

UK cover for Sorcerer to the Crown

Book Club: “Sorcerer to the Crown”, postcolonial wish fulfillment, and impulsive women

The votes came in and we decided to read Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. It’s a fast-moving period fantasy with a bunch of women and people of color, and it’s the first novel by this British-Malaysian author. Come for the dragons and stay for the social justice, or vice versa! You can read the first chapter for free online. Spoilers under the cut!

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Book Club: What should we read next?

Attention constant readers! It’s time to choose our next book!

Here are three candidates, two fiction novels and one research paper:

Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy

will be published 6 October 2015; 368 pages

I’ve pre-ordered this final book in the Ancillaryverse trilogy and will be eager to talk about it with other geek feminists starting, probably, on October 7th. Protagonist Breq used to be a starship, connected instantly to multiple bodies, and hasn’t quite gotten used to being singly embodied. I think the first book in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice, integrated fist-punching-related adventure with flashbacks and thinky conversations and interstellar intrigue and music really well. It’s about power and institutions, about the lived difference between true mutual aid and imperialism, and about how to be loyal to imperfect institutions and imperfect people. And explosions.

Ancillary Sword, the middle book, shifted settings to concentrate on one spaceship near one station orbiting one planet, helping us compare societies that are functional, dysfunctional, and broken. Leckie compares othering, oppression, and possibilities for resistance across urban and plantation settings. And I utterly bawled at one character’s soliloquy on the way to her doom, and at tiny hopeful steps of mutual understanding and community empowerment. Also, again, explosions.

Here’s the first chapter of book three, and in case that’s not enough, here’s some fanfic based on books one and two.

The Ancillaryverse is scifi that argues with other scifi; you can see the Radchaai as Borg (ancillaries), or as Federation (per the “root beer” and Eddington/Maquis critiques from Deep Space Nine), and you can see Justice of Toren as literally the ship who sang (see the comments in Leckie’s post here, around the novels’ feminist lineage). I’m looking forward to seeing more of Leckie’s conversation with other speculative fiction, to more critiques, and more explosions.

Photo of Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle. Photo by jeanbaptisteparis, CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert, “Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete”

published 1991; about 31 pages

Sociologist, psychologist, and technology researcher Turkle authored this paper with constructionist education researcher Papert, and reading it gave me new language for thinking about me as a programmer:

Here we address sources of exclusion determined not by rules that keep women out, but by ways of thinking that make them reluctant to join in. Our central thesis is that equal access to even the most basic elements of computation requires an epistemological pluralism, accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking….

“Hard thinking” has been used to define logical thinking. And logical thinking has been given a privileged status that can be challenged only by developing a respectful understanding of other styles where logic is seen as a powerful instrument of thought but not as the “law of thought.” In this view, “logic is on tap, not on top.”….

The negotiational and contextual element, which we call bricolage….

Our culture tends to equate soft with feminine and feminine with unscientific and undisciplined. Why use a term, soft, that may begin the discussion of difference with a devaluation? Because to refuse the word would be to accept the devaluation. Soft is a good word for a flexible and nonhierarchical style, open to the experience of a close connection with the object of study. Using it goes along with insisting on negotiation, relationship, and attachment as cognitive virtues….

I appreciated the case studies of programmers and their approaches and frustrations, the frameworks analyzed and suggested (e.g., relational and environmental), and the connections to other feminist researchers such as Carol Gilligan. If you feel like your approach to engineering makes you countercultural, you might like this piece too. Here’s a plain HTML version of the paper, and here’s a PDF of the paper as originally typeset and footnoted.

Cover of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown

published 1 September 2015; 384 pages

Author Zen Cho’s speculative and historical fiction foregrounds the perspective of women of color, specifically the Malaysian diaspora; she has non-US-centric views on diversity which I find both disorienting and refreshing to read! You can read the first chapter of her first novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, for free online. It’s a fast-moving period fantasy with a bunch of women and people of color. The blurb:

Zacharias Wythe, England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, is contending with attempts to depose him, rumours that he murdered his predecessor, and an alarming decline in England’s magical stocks. But his troubles are multiplied when he encounters runaway orphan Prunella Gentleman, who has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries.

I’d love to discuss themes in this feminist Malaysian-British author’s work with other geek feminists. In her postcolonial historical romance novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, her short story collection Spirits Abroad, and in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho depicts adventurous, mercenary, or blasé women who use, disregard, or otherwise play with expectations of femininity. She illustrates how both mundane and magical institutions use gatekeeping to prop up their own status hierarchies, and how that affects people trying to make their way in. Intersectionality, diaspora and immigration, the culture of British education, and queer relationships also appear in Cho’s stories over and over.

if you read The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo then you might be forewarned of the kind of genre switchup Cho is doing — I definitely see Prunella Gentleman prefigured in Jade Yeo. I particularly like that, in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho writes in a genre that often has kind of a slow tempo, and moves the speed up so there are more exciting plot developments per page, and adds more Wodehouse-y shenanigans and off-the-rails conversations, without ever sliding into unbelievable-silly-farce-romp or territory. And there’s a spoiler I badly want to talk about with other people of color!

Something else altogether

You tell me! Let’s try to wrap up voting by Wednesday October 7th.

50 simple ways to spam the links (13 August 2015)

  •  More data on gender and literary prizes | Nicola Griffith at Goodreads (6 August): “[…] here are two new pie charts, following on from my previous post about what kind of book wins awards, this time on the most recent 15 years of the IMPAC Dublin Award and the Costa Novel Award. IMPAC CostaAs you can see, the IMPAC, one of the richest book prizes in the world, given for “excellence in world literature,” gives zero out of the last 15 prizes to stories by women about women—but 11 to stories by men about men.”
  • Uncomfortable conversations about money | Accidentally in Code (5 August): “When it comes to speaking at a conference which involves some travel costs, there are four main options: 1. The conference pays. 2. The company you work for pays. 3. You pay. 4. You don’t go.”
  • Why BioWare’s games inspire a unique kind of fandom | Sam Maggs at PCGamer (23 July): “the knowledge that we all feel the same passionately intense emotions for these lumps of pixels, no matter how well-written and complex they may be, gives us an instant connection—and isn’t that the best part of belonging to any fandom? We’re all in on the joke, all on the same level, and that’s what brings us together. But not all fan-created content is made completely in celebration of BioWare’s games; part of being a responsible and engaged fan is also writing constructive criticism of media we know could do better. And though not always perfect, BioWare is one of the few companies with a readily-accessible creative team that really takes note of and utilizes thoughtful, fan-written criticism. And being listened to is paramount to a fandom who dedicate so much time and emotional energy to these characters.”
  • Frances Oldham Kelsey, Who Saved U.S. Babies From Thalidomide, Dies at 101 | Robert McFadden at The New York Times (7 August): “[…] some data on the drug’s safety troubled Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a former family doctor and teacher in South Dakota who had just taken the F.D.A. job in Washington, reviewing requests to license new drugs. She asked the manufacturer, the William S. Merrell Company of Cincinnati, for more information. […] Dr. Kelsey, who died on Friday at the age of 101, became a 20th-century American heroine for her role in the thalidomide case, celebrated not only for her vigilance, which spared the United States from widespread birth deformities, but also for giving rise to modern laws regulating pharmaceuticals.”
  • Lost in Transition: ‘Rat Queens Special #1: Braga’ | Charlotte Finn at Comics Alliance (6 August): “Hi, I’m Charlotte Finn. I’m a lifelong comics fan and last year, I admitted to myself that I was transgender. Coming out as transgender means reassessing a lot about your life, your place in the world, and what that world’s been telling you about yourself before you even realized who you really were. In this occasional series, I’m going to be applying that reassessment to comics that feature people like me, or close to being like me, and look them over with a fresh set of eyes. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they somehow both, at the same time? In this regular series, I’ll offer my thoughts.”
  • How to Ensure You Don’t Hire Anyone | Morgane Santos at Medium (7 August): “A while ago I was looking for a new job, and as such, I interviewed at hella companies, from Big Names™ to tiny start-ups no one’s ever heard of, looking for the ~perfect place to trade my labor for wages~. Throughout this process, I had some hilarious interactions with companies who clearly aren’t actually trying to hire anyone. Let’s examine some of their fumbles and mishaps, and learn how to really turn people off from ever joining your company!”
  • Play Your Way: Women and Magic the Gathering (part 1) (part 2) | Nicole Jekich at Across the Board Games (13 July): “in April there was some internet hubbub over recent articles written by male Magic the Gathering players and their advice on how to get more women into the hobby. I have no qualms with men looking to help diversify the MTG fan base and to make official events and tournaments more welcoming. I do feel that what these articles lacked is input and experiences from women gamers. I wanted to learn more about how other women enjoy MTG – to understand, through reading their experiences, preferences, and suggestions how we as a community could help make women feel more welcome and how to bring more women into the MTG game and community. So I created a survey for women participants who used to or currently play Magic the Gathering. I asked women to answer questions about their history with MtG, the hows and whys. The survey was shared via social media and within 2 weeks, I collected 97 responses.”
  • Call for submissions: Instar books finction Anthology #000001 Almost Void | Instar Books (15 June): “For fiction that involves some or all of the following qualities: Privileging imaginative transformation of experience over experience directly (i.e., not necessarily memoir by other means); Concerned with atypical subject matter; Concerned with atypical emotional states (trauma, isolation, Zen acceptance, etc.); Concerned with sex; Written by people who haven’t necessarily had access to traditional means of publication by the literary establishment; and/or Funny, yet about something terrible.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

cover of TRADE ME by Courtney Milan

Book Club: Thought experiments around privilege, and more Trade Me thoughts

Apologies for getting this up late; I’ve been travelling back from WisCon (where I also praised Trade Me at length!).

So as you saw in my April post announcing Courtney Milan’s contemporary romance novel Trade Me as a GF book club topic, I love this book for multiple reasons. From here on out I’ll be indulging in spoilers, so, more after the jump!

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cover of TRADE ME by Courtney Milan

Book club: “Trade Me” by Courtney Milan

Hello! I’m helping relaunch the Geek Feminism Book Club, with a bit of a tweak in the interests of getting us going again swiftly (details at end). The book is Trade Me, a new contemporary romance novel by Courtney Milan, and we’ll talk about it in a comment thread here on May 28th.

In January, I snarfled up Trade Me. It stars a Chinese-American woman studying computer science at UC Berkeley. It’s about class and classism, deconstructing the Prince Charming/billionaire trope in romantic fiction, a product launch, Bay Area tech, ally fails, how to deal with cops, authenticity and adaptation, safety and freedom, trust, parents, and work. And one of the main secondary characters is trans, and all the physicality in the relationship is super consensual, and there is a kind-of reference to Cake Wrecks, and (maybe only I see it) to Randall Munroe’s “What If?” blog. I link it thematically to Jo Walton’s The Just City, Ellen Ullman’s The Bug, and the good parts of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. It’s pretty great, and you can read the first chapter for free at Milan’s site. (ROT13’d content warnings that are spoilers: qvfbeqrerq rngvat naq gur arne-qrngu bs n cnerag.)

Overall, Milan’s work is funny and loving and moving and smart. I like how she sets up and calls back to other books within series, I love that The Heiress Effect included an Indian guy, and I’m happy that she depicts queer characters and characters with disabilities. As a woman of color (“half-Chinese” in her words) she’s also especially aware of the importance of writing fictional representations of women of color in STEM, and of fixing broken standards that lead to unequal representation.

And she’s not just a geek, but a geek of my persuasion — specifically, an open source software maker. She wrote and wants people to reuse a chunk of GPL’d software to autogenerate links to a particular book at multiple online bookstores. Also she used to use Gentoo Linux. Of course she gives her readers permission to strip DRM from their copies of her books. Basically I would not be surprised if there is super flirty pair programming or a double entendre in a bash script in a future Milan book.

So this is the book for the next book club; usually we vote on what book to discuss next, but in the interests of getting momentum going again, I figured I’d choose this one by fiat and we’ll vote on the next one. Trade Me costs about USD$5 via any of several ebook retailers, and may be available via your local library‘s ebook lending program as well. Read it sometime in the next month and then come back here and we’ll talk about it!

The linkspam instinct (24 May 2014)

Announcements etc:

  • Long Hidden, a Kickstarter-funded anthology of spec fic centering marginalised characters, is now available for purchase.
  • Registration for Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing (June 13–15 at MIT) is open.
  • Model View Culture’s Queer issue is out! Individual articles will be scattered over the spam over the next week, but check out the whole thing.
  • FOSS4G — a conference for open source geospatial software, to be held in Portland Oregon in September — is dedicating 50% of their travel grants funding for women and minority attendees. Applications close May 30. They’re also looking for donations to the travel fund; you can donate when you register for the event.

Gender diversity data and tech companies:


We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Drupal for Women Who Just Googled It

This is a guest post from Nikki Bailey. Nikki is a queer feminist lady: barista by day, web developer and feminist bookworm by night. She’s just launched a website for crowdsourcing knowledge about science fiction/fantasy books by women, and things she enjoys while that’s not taking up all her free time include gardening, aikido and Minecraft; you can reach her on Twitter at @kwerey.

Update by Mary, May 24: the site Nikki discusses in this post is at kwerey.com: Kwery, genre fiction by women.

About a month into the new year, during the winter lull at the cafe I work for, I decided to make a website.

Well, no, that wasn’t quite how it worked. I decided I wanted to learn about programming, and when CodeAcademy didn’t really hold my attention, I figured I might have more fun making something myself. Something small but practical: I’d make a site to keep track of books I’d read. That sounded like it’d be simple but useful, and I’d probably be done in a week and I’d be able to put “knows HTML” on my CV.

That plan changed pretty quick. I asked some techy friends on Facebook: One of them recommended WordPress, and then a couple of people mentioned that Drupal was cool at the moment. It’s probably a bit more versatile as a CMS overall, someone reckoned, but it’s difficult to get into – you might want to start with something a bit more simple.

I’ve been hacking stuff into working in Linux for more or less a decade now: the words “it’s not user friendly” lost all effect on me a while back. I took a look at Drupal and found a tool someone had written for it that looked up any ISBN in an open database and populated a form with the results automatically. That was me sold then and there: I went straight to the Very Basic Tutorials page on the Drupal site and started putting together some mysterious thing called a LAMP stack…

Three weeks later I’d got pretty carried away. I moved from learning my way around Drupal to learning about CSS and HTML and version control and PHP arrays. I learned to troubleshoot. I fixed problems – I even nervously published a few patches.

I hadn’t worked this hard since final year exams, or been so excited about what I was learning. I cycled to work daydreaming about UX and faceted searches, came home and filled my Firefox bookmarks with tutorials.

Eventually, I got there. My finished project is this: an online catalogue that stores books with all kinds of metadata: reviews users have added, publication date, genre, and the kind of questions things like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign asks: there’s a field for ‘are there LGBT characters?’ and ‘is there a person of colour as a central character?’. In the end, I made it a catalogue of just books by women, because that’s an axe I’ve got to grind with the science fiction & fantasy community: hardly anyone ever recommends me books by female writers.

The site went live a few weeks ago, and last time I checked in on it, there were all kinds of cool sounding books on it I hadn’t ever heard of: I’ve made a way to find to provide myself with infinite new books to read, and put a resource out there I think could be really useful to people: I was over twenty by the time I read a book about a lesbian character that wasn’t totally depressing, and I’m pretty proud and excited about putting something out there to help marginalised people find themselves in fiction.

I always thought of the phrase ‘web development’ as referring to some kind of very structured skill, with a budget of thousands and probably more than one Gantt chart involved. That changed pretty much as soon as I started googling. Thanks to open source technology and the generosity of geeks with their secrets, it’s taken me under 2 months and £20 to put together a website that’s getting 1000~ unique visitors a day in its first few weeks of life: it’s been an act of creativity and collaboration, and it’s left me really excited about all the cool stuff the internet makes possible.

Thanks for everything, geeks of the internet. I hope this is gonna be the first of many projects you’ll see from me.

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part II: Codes of Value

In Part II of Coding Freedom, Biella begins the vital work of problematizing the meritocratic ideal.

“Hackers will publicly acknowledge… acts of “genius” and are thus fiercely meritocratic – in ideology and practice. Yet given that so much of hacker production is collective, a fact increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated in the ethical philosophy of F/OSS, a commitment to individualism, meritocracy, and independence is potentially subverted by the reality of as well as the desire to recognize their fundamental interdependence. The belief in the value of individuality coupled with the constant need for the help of other hackers points to a subtle paradox that textures their social world.”

Who among us picked up any technical skills whatsoever without the help of someone more skilled who helped us out just because, in the spirit of paying it forward? Patient friends, lucid documentation, gentle answers on mailing lists: these are the familiar stepping stones from n00b to basic competence. Depending on your point of view, they exist in dynamic tension with, or in stark contrast to, the Romantic hero, powered only by genius and Mountain Dew. You know, this guy:

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

There is for sure a seductive aspect to the idea of meritocracy, an aspect that’s maybe especially potent for adolescent people – or nations – who are trying to separate their identities from their progenitors in order to individuate and develop their potential. It’s understandable, but it shouldn’t survive contact with the real world, which is nothing if not More Complicated Than That.

“The United States is often thought of as a living embodiment of meritocracy: a nation where people are judged on their individual abilities alone. The system supposedly works so well because, as the media myth goes, the United States provides everyone with equal opportunity, usually through public education, to achieve their goals. As such, the hierarchies of difference that arise from one’s ability (usually to achieve wealth) are sanctioned by this moral order as legitimate.”

You’ve got to love the strategic deployment of qualifiers in the above passage, especially if, like me, you have come late in life to the conviction that meritocracy is bullshit. Yeah. I said it. The single biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is the proposition that there are people who are without merit. This is, to put it mildly, not the case.

The second biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is that it’s just a recursive modern gloss on the Divine Right of Kings. Leaders in the (ostensibly-meritocratic) open source community are entitled to exercise power because of their merit. The proof of their merit? Is their exercise of power. The word “meritocracy” is an ungainsayable defense of the status quo. It’s conservatism in a nutshell. As Alexander Pope once, infuriatingly, put it: “Whatever is, is right.”

This week, in which Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp advanced the revolutionary notion that programming could be carried on without ad hominem attacks, has added special piquancy to this passage from Biella’s book:

“When Torvalds and Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian, respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency. Participation was encouraged, and recognition was given where it was due. Accepting more contributions was also, of course, seen as a way to improve and encourage technical efficiency.”

Biella acknowledges that Linux and Debian grew up to be very different projects, and goes on to discuss Debian’s Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines and Constitution. She has some sharp observations on the fear within the Debian community that the “meritocracy” will be “corrupted.”

I’d like to propose that the notion of meritocracy is itself corrupt. Ideas may have, or lack, merit. People have worth, and every person is worth more than we can possibly imagine. Inclusive communities are likely to write the best software because in them, ideas can compete on their (yes!) merits; and because software written by the other communities has exclusion coded into its very DNA.

But, y’know, I’m not a kernel coder, so who the hell cares what I think? ;) More to the point, dear readers: what do you think?

Wednesday Geek Woman: Mary Anne Mohanraj, Author and Editor

Photo by Alberto Yáñez.

Photo by Alberto Yáñez.

Mary Anne Mohanraj started one of the Internet’s first blogs, back in the wild days of 1995 when we still called them “Online Journals,” and everyone had to do all their html by hand.

She founded the award-winning speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons, and the Speculative Literature Foundation, which promotes literary quality in speculative fiction. She has made a lot of her own short fiction available for free on her website.

She’s also a co-founder of the Carl Brandon Society, which works to “increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.” Her essays about race in fandom have had a substantial impact on my own understanding of racial privilege. For folks looking for a solid introduction to these issues, I strongly recommend her two guest-posts on John Scalzi’s Whatever on race in SFF fandom: Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part I and Part II.

Mohanraj has an essay in Queers Dig Time Lords, which is coming out on June 4th. Her latest book, illustrated Science Fiction Erotica The Stars Change, is currently available for pre-order. It’ll be released on October 1st.