Potlatch 18: Feb. 27 - March 1, 2009

Books of Honor

From the beginning, Potlatch has not been an ordinary science fiction convention. It did not have a Guest of Honor, choosing instead, to be about everyone participating in the discussion, and of course about supporting Clarion West. At Potlatch 2 we thought it would be neat to have a Book of Honor, starting with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This has become a Potlatch tradition.

Potlatch 18, for the first time, has chosen two Books of Honor. This is also the first time we have chosen a book by a living author, and the first time we have chosen a Young Adult book. We hope you will find discovering (or rediscovering) these books interesting, and enjoy the discussions around them at this year's convention.






Always Coming Home

         Ursula K. Le Guin

Always Coming Home is a book that everyone in S-F knows about. It is part of the zeitgeist. But there are a lot of people who haven't read it, or who last read it 20 years ago. It is an unusually good match for our Potlatch book of honor criteria -- people will have lots of ideas about why they are reading Always Coming Home, but they may learn things they weren't expecting.

My memories of reading Always Coming Home are that it is a joyful book. I know there is conflict and suffering, but it is a story of survival, of life and culture and hope going on. In many ways it is the exact opposite of The Dispossessed. I think the joy in Always Coming Home can be shared.

                 Tom Becker

You can buy a copy here or here.



Growing Up Weightless

             John M. Ford

Mike (John M.) Ford is/was a brilliant science fiction writer whose work is not as well known and well read as we feel it should be. Growing Up Weightless covers territory that's particularly relevant and interesting in the climate of the current YA boom in science fiction. It's a story that features a creative, sympathetic protagonist, opening the door to comparisons with protagonists in other popular S-F YA novels: Matt Ronay and his friends vs. Tally Youngblood and her friends in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy vs. Heinlein's Podkayne and Thorby Baslim vs. Marcus in Cory Doctorow's new Little Brother, etc.

               Lenny Bailes

You can buy a copy here or here.



Thoughts on Always Coming Home

Always Coming Home is one of the books everyone assumes I’ve read. Nope. I hadn’t. So, to prepare for Potlatch 18 and come up with some programming ideas, I sat down to read its Books of Honor, "Always Coming Home" and "Growing Up Weightless."

On reading "Always Coming Home," my initial reaction was that I had to struggle to suspend my initial reaction, which was something like, “Why not just go read Jerome Rothenberg, or go to some original sources? Isn’t this just more cultural appropriation, a ripoff of a few Pacific NW Native American cultures, set vaguely in a post-apocalyptic future?” Also, while I like a nonlinear narrative and I like poetry and specifically Le Guin’s poetry (and translations) I felt like I was missing the point of the book. Despite that, I read on: because I was curious; because it’s the Potlatch book of honor; because it’s
Ursula Le Guin and therefore likely to be awesome (and capable of being way over my head); last but not least, because so many people I respect, like Cynthia1960, Alexis/heyiya, and Laura Quilter, have praised it so highly. It was disconcerting to have enormous doubts while reading a book I expected to love. “Do I even like this book?” I kept asking myself. I was not sure, even days later. I have settled now on liking it and wanting to talk about it.

There is a linear narrative, told by a woman named Stone Telling, of herself as a young girl, when she was named North Owl. On page 41 the story is interrupted and there are extensive footnotes. If you want to read the linear narrative, you can follow the “Turn to page 173” and continue on. If you don’t skip, there are chunks of poetry, a play, folktales, maps, histories, and all sorts of stuff. But it’s not like reading the appendix of LOTR; it’s like reading "Technicians of the Sacred" or "American Indian Myths and Legends" or some book like that, that tries to present many different kinds of story, many literary forms of a primarily oral tradition, mixing them up and giving a variety of perspectives. If you have read anthropologists’ writings from before 1900, or often, translations of stories into English from many other cultures, oral histories or not, they are re-told in Western European style as folktales or fables. I’m no expert in anthropology, but methods of trying to represent one culture to another have definitely changed. Whether these methods succeed in being less colonialist or imperialist is debatable. But by being “difficult”, literature presented in a non-linear way can definitely kick my mind into a new frame of reference as I try to understand a new context.

So, as readers of science fiction, what if we approach stories of future people like we might a culture we aren’t a part of, whose context we don’t understand, who don’t speak or tell stories in our ways of narrating? The practical advice I give you-the-reader is twofold. Either plow through like I did, trying to keep your mind very open, and let it cook a while before you judge the story. This requires patience. If you don’t have that kind of patience, or you can’t stand poetry, I totally respect that. I recommend you skip around, read the linear narrative of Stone Telling, and dip into the other bits of stories and histories as you please.

That story of North Owl is a good one, about a girl, her town, her family background, and her desire to experience new things and to prove herself. In the fine tradition of Feminist & Utopian SF, she comes out of a somewhat free (though not perfect) existence and enters a horrible patriarchal dystopia, where she is oppressed, imprisoned, and enslaved. We should list off a whole bunch of those “descent into being controlled by patriarchy” and perhaps think of them as political descriptions of what happens when a relatively free girl child hits puberty and crashes into a wall. (And, often, returns or recovers or escapes.) If that is your experience surely you know what I’m talking about! So, North Owl visits the horrible Warlike patriarchy who view women as property and have a patrilineal aristocracy. I won’t spoil the rest of it.

Anyway, I’m still thinking about "Always Coming Home" and letting it wash over me. I raised the idea of cultural appropriation and of the Kesh people of the Valley. The book presents a future heavily influenced by western Native American cultures, which did not necessarily “evolve” straight from Native American sources but which may have been adopted by whoever happened to survived the the Fall of Civilization. That is completely unclear. So there is an implied cultural appropriation in the very setting of this future history. It’s not rewriting a past where Native Americans remained predominant, more powerful, or in control of the area. And I don’t think it posits a survival of specific people or races; more like whoever avoids the fatal mutations. The presentation of a new culture with roots in older ones looks quite interesting, and makes me think about the role of written records, histories, computers, etc.

Another thing left quite unclear on purpose is who is telling or receiving the story; it is not “for” the people it is about. None of this is, well I’m not saying it’s not problematic. But I don’t find it to be the ripoff I halfway feared. It succeeded for me in making the immersive experience of the book very complicated. What does, or would, or could, the future of culture in this place look like? Making the future be in this place, on this world, identifiably in future California, instead of in space on some other planet, with some other “race” of humans or aliens? I still feel uncomfortable and uncertain about what the book is doing, considering how people read anthropological works, or the literature of other cultures; the way white people in the U.S. fetishize Native American cultures, etc.

What do you think? Does it succeed, does it offend you? I’d like to talk more about cultural appropriation issues. I enjoyed the book and continue to enjoy thinking about it especially in the context of utopian & feminist SF. I’d like to talk more about war & utopia, and what are the conflicts in a utopia. Also, what makes the Kesh culture seem utopian at all? I think the key is war and violence, consent and autonomy. In the war scenes, it is made very clear that particular people on both sides of the conflict between the valley people and the others is a personal choice – not always made for the best of reasons but all the warriors decide to become warriors and to go risk death & to kill others. Then… they stop. Fabulous, much better than the total lack of war and killing in some utopian fiction (Herland, I’m looking at YOU.) I liked the discussion of the aftermath of the war in the Valley, very much. The larger war with the Condors, I’m still thinking about, and it’s a bit hard to discuss without spoilers.

I also liked the plays very much, and the ways that the poetry feels imprecise, like struggled-over translations (I’m a translator of poetry, so notice that stuff.) Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on Always Coming Home.

Thanks to yonmei, Prentiss Riddle, Marguerite Reed, heyiya, Rosa, Coraa, Heather W, therem, Bene, Fuschia, and Frowner for a great discussion and many long, thoughtful comments where this post was first published on FeministSF: The Blog!

--Liz Henry

Middle of the Night Reaction to Growing Up Weightless

Growing Up Weightless is good – dense – circular – I mean it seems best to read circularly in order to get the depth of it.

Really unusual & haunting. The scene with Avakian the old designer, as good or better as any similar weirding propheticism from Gene Wolfe – evocative of Hathor’s damaged speeches about the sails – The larping teenagers and their raw naive gestalt (reminding me of that story of the children raised in the floating sargasso sea-cities ) Aware of each other but not knowing how to talk to each other’s depths other than in game space and not even then. The idea – so floaty & soap bubble – of kids raised in the sort of way I imagined as the utopian future, kids bopping around, running as a team, learning stuff, doing projects, joining a theater company, inventing a microchip – from the outside, an incomprehensible cluster of age-mates, like twin-speech – And their utopian angst at being always watched, always eluding their cleverer parents – What would they do? What would they learn? What is the plot in that sort of micro-utopia even if it’s just the utopian ideal of a sensible education system and children with a decent set of human rights? The failed delicacy of the parents and of their own relationship – all very weightless itself – the composing scenes and the composer sleeping and waking as if full of music or light and noticing a hair from his busy partner’s head on the pillow. I enjoyed the poetry. The light & shadow – and the dragons. The girls of the bunch, the kid’s mom too, significant and with their own agency clear – their own thoughts, dreams, burn with ambitions, on the cusp of decisions, thinking things they hardly dare hope, no one is overdetermined; beautifully.

It’s a plot that achieves being poetic. I am extremely unbored. Will reread while taking notes for the linear thinking bits of us all, because it does need notes and lines and character lists and some explaining. Potlatch ought to be interesting if anyone will get their hands dirty in here.

–-Liz Henry





More Thoughts on Always Coming Home

Some editions of Always Coming Home identify it as a novel, but it’s better to think of the book not as a story, but as a still portrait of a civilization with a specific location in time and space. The space is here in Northern California, and Le Guin is as good at portraying the feel of the landscape in words as
any writer. The time is the far future, “a long, long time from now.”

Are the Kesh quaint devolved primitives chanting “Quant Suff!”? Well, they may seem that way at first, but look carefully: they’ll surprise you. Technology is not just high tech, electronics and rockets that zap and whoosh. To anthropologists, technology is a society’s entire relationship to its environment through tools and knowledge. The Kesh contain multitudes. They have access to something very like
the Web: they call it “The City of Mind.” But they also love handcrafted tools, including their handcrafted railroad. They are homelovers, but also travelers. They live in an almost idealized peace with their landscape. But they are also materially poor, suffer from genetic disease, and quarrel with each other and their neighbors.

This is not utopia. It’s a miscellany of life stories, poetry and drama, cultural outlines and calendars, maps, and music. It’s Le Guin’s largest single book and, I think, her masterpiece so far.

--David Bratman