Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Four Questions and Answers about Time's Oldest Daughter

Aqueduct Associate Editor Arrate Hidalgo Sanchez put four questions to Susan W. Lyons about her just-released debut novel, Time's Oldest Daughter:

Why Sin [the novel's protagonist]?

Because I always thought of her as, forgive me, more sinned against than sinning.  She has such an intriguing genealogy. I think about one of her literary ancestors as the Scylla in Homer’s Odyssey but also in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a beautiful virgin who is transformed by the jealous sorceress Circe into a woman fair above the waist but with dog’s jaws below (maybe the original vagina dentata) that whelp hellish creatures.


Another more recent ancestor, as described in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, is Errour: half woman, half serpent, who gives birth to all kinds of ugly little heresies.

Gender is destiny for them as well as both female characters in Paradise Lost, who are commanded to report directly to their authors rather than God. Eve reports to her author Adam from whose rib she is generated. Sin, less fortunate, reports to Satan, who births her parthenogenetically, the way Athena springs from the head of Zeus, although with none of his love or pride in her, nor with Athena’s early association with Wisdom. 

Come on, Milton!  Really?

Seriously, what kind of authority figure is Satan? To make matters worse, when Satan ignores her, it is God who assigns Sin to live with Death, bear more creepy monsters, and guard the gates of Hell. Where’s the free will in that? 

She’s a character begging to tell her own story her own way.

One of the things I love about Time's Oldest Daughter is its cheerful mingling of the chemical and the biblical. It seems to reflect your background in teaching science and literature at the same time. How has this informed your writing, and more generally, your approach to art?

I learned from Milton that distinctions between the metaphor, the metaphysical, and the physical are relatively recent. When, in book 2, he describes chaos with its “embryon atoms” (900) and “shock of fighting elements” (1014-15), can particle physics be far behind?  And while Milton’s timeline about Earth’s creation may be a little hazy, his ordering of light, water, and the “washy ooze” of the primordial (7, 303) travels companionably with evolutionary theory toward the origin of life. Sarah Tolmie, author of The Stone Boatmen and Two Travelers, has characterized Milton as the “domineering father of speculative fiction in English.” Although an irritating misogynist, Milton was also a marvelous world-builder who made connections between and among the emerging bodies of knowledge in 17th century metaphysics, natural science, and philosophy. 

Among more contemporary academics, the temptation is often to disaggregate knowledge into piles of specialized disciplines, but the metaphor remains as useful to a physicist constructing string theory as to a writer playing with time.  And who can resist a cosmic big bang?

You discovered feminist science fiction later on in life. How did it happen, and through whom?

It turns out I liked feminist science and speculative fiction all along, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called.  I admired the feminist writings of Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Marilyn French, Elaine Pagels, and, in particular, Carol Gilligan, but I didn’t associate them with the kinds of speculative literature I enjoyed by Madeleine L’engle, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter, Peter S. Beagle, and, later, Marie de France. I also liked the stories of John Milton, J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White, despite their offensive ground rules about race and women. I just didn’t put feminism and speculative fiction together.  Nor did I associate any of those stories with science fiction. You know—Chewbacca and outer space? 

Fortunately, my friend Pamela Bedore, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut whose areas of scholarship include popular literature and feminist theory, guided me gently into the vocabulary of literary genres. For non-theorists like me, Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (New York: Anchor Books, 2011) provides a wonderful introduction to the kind of world-building that can occur away from the patriarchal gaze.  In the introduction, Atwood describes an amiable argument with Ursula Le Guin about  fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, the genre borders of which, Atwood writes, are “increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance” (7). 

An insouciant little story shrugs her shoulders as she travels freely and charmingly across those genres still guarded by canons and other academic artillery. “You can call me fantasy,” she murmurs to the remaining gatekeepers, “or you can call me science fiction.” Then she whispers, “Just make sure you call me.”

You have mentioned in the past that something you admire about feminist science fiction is the ability to re-imagine myths and fairy tales that are traditionally told by authoritative male voices in new ways. What does it mean for you to reimagine Milton's particular view on Genesis, the source not only of religious dogma but also of deeply-running assumptions about humanity's purpose on Earth?

Fairy and folk tales, quests, and myths are our creation stories: the first ones we learn as children; they form the foundation of our understanding of what it means to be human and gendered.  How did we get here?  Why are we here? What is our purpose? Do we discover knowledge or construct it?

Genesis provides a fundamental set of western creation stories and not one but two versions of how God makes humans.  In the first, from the King James version (1.27) “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created he him; male and female he created him them.”  What a confusion of pronouns!  Robert Alter, in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), points out that “man” (the Hebrew is adam) is generic for human, and that ‘him’ is “grammatically but not anatomically masculine” (p. 5).  

The second version of this story occurs in the second chapter of Genesis: God creates Adam (Man) first and Eve (Woman) out of Adam’s rib, to be his helper.

Guess which version Milton chose?

But Milton was only reinforcing the dogma already in place for 17th century Crown and Cross, when the pronouns and sources of power had syncretized into the portrait of a ruler God who is singular, male, domineering, frequently angry, dangerously whimsical, and entirely transactional.  Eerily contemporary, yes?

And Milton was also writing literature that would find generations of Paradise Lost readers believing such a God was simply dull and overbearing when compared to Satan with his high energy, rhetorical flourishes, and championing of individuality. Talk about unintended consequences.

So you have to hope and believe that the dogma that locks Genesis in a dusty case in a dim room in the museum of the past can be trumped by literature that brings these stories out into the light of day and invites everyone to take a fresh look.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Time's Oldest Daughter by Susan W. Lyons

I'm pleased to announce the release of Susan W. Lyons' debut novel, Time's Oldest Daughter, in both trade paperback and e-book editions. As the cosmic Big Bang propels Time, energy, and matter into motion, God and Satan squabble over their respective domains while Sin and her son Death stew in squalor and despair at the Gates of Hell. All she wants is to care for her child, who has an enormous appetite but nothing to eat in their dreary prison, other than herself, of course. But then Sin notices, far above the stink and squalor of Hell, the clean and sparkling garden of Eden, where Death’s apple-cheeked cousins Adam and Eve enjoy delightful childhoods and plenty of fresh, wholesome food in a setting where Death himself could thrive. So what’s a good mother to do?

Sarah Tolmie, author of the acclaimed novel Stone Boatmen and Two Travelers, writes:
Time’s Oldest Daughter tells an impossible story of the world before the world, the time before time, when none of the categories we use to think with yet existed. Lyons spins out the intertwined beginnings of semiotics and physics, from the first separation of subject and object in language (Satan’s separation from God) to the necessary co-presence of matter and time in the universe (as Satan and his daughter Sin fall into the world of physical and temporal forces and order them through their experience). The primary agent who navigates the ongoing process of a creation that includes quarks and photons, bacteria and algae is female, and infinitely older than Eve: Sin, born in heaven before the fall, the shadow that fell as Satan stepped away from God. John Milton, Sylvia Plath, Stanley Fish and Julia Kristeva would all recognize themselves in this book, though none of them wrote it. Lyons did, and her remarkable rethink of Paradise Lost in the person of Sin, Satan’s daughter, struggling to find a place for her son, Death, in creation is wonderfully and determinedly original.”
Faren Miller, in Locus, notes, "Susan W. Lyons's lead quotes in Time's Oldest Daughter ignore the limits of fantasy, with a line from biblical ''Genesis,'' three from Paradise Lost, then Einstein at his most succinct: E=mc². The daughter (Sin) speaks in the first-person, addressing a Daddy who’s not Time (as the word always appears here, regardless of context) but Lucifer, Bringer of Light, AKA Satan.... Time's Oldest Daughter magnifies notions like winter-death to cosmic dimensions without excessive length, solemnity, or bombast. This Divine Comedy can be genuinely comic (raucous and vulgar, with a great cast of caricatures) yet manages to slip both wise and touching moments into its sly insights about life, the universe, et cetera.

You can purchase copies of Time's Oldest Daughter from Aqueduct here

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Guest post by Beth Plutchak: White Ladies, We Need to Talk

White Ladies, We Need to Talk
by Beth Plutchak

It’s been a ride. I’m feeling a little queasy. But honestly, we’ve been here before and we need to be prepared not to make the same mistakes. I had such mixed feelings when I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington, originally named the Million Women’s March. I thought, this is a great thing, this is going to be big, this is important, this is solidifying (at least once they changed the name from the one they appropriated from black women). I also thought, what? Now? Now, you’ve noticed that white women are under attack. What about everybody else? And where were you before the election?

I’m terrified by the profoundly anti-American changes that have happened in Trump’s White House, from his nominees for key positions, to the unprecedented types and circumstances of his executive orders, to the central role of neo-Nazi supporter Steve Bannon and the reflection of neo-Nazi ideals in afore-mentioned nominees and executive orders. My family is black, brown, queer, poor, and disabled. The people I love are under attack in dangerous and specific ways that don’t touch me as a white woman, even though I am also under attack.

I was happy to learn that sister marches were being organized for women who couldn’t make it to DC. I live twenty minutes outside of Madison, WI and expected many of my family and friends would make the Madison March. At the same time, black women started saying “Where y’all been?” It took white women no time at all to call them out for being divisive.

The whole thing had echoes of the “divisiveness” in the feminist movement of the seventies. For my white college classmates feminism was about access to birth control and legalized abortion. We were so young, so naïve. Family planning, we thought, was about putting off having children until we were settled in our careers, and managing the number of children we did have. But I got kicked out of white feminism when I got pregnant at nineteen. And all of a sudden black and brown feminists who wanted to talk about forced sterilization, leaving their children uncared for when they were at work caring for white women’s children, and the violence of poverty made much more sense to me.

White feminists, led by the National Organization for women, made a strategic decision to focus on narrow interests that centered white women’s concerns. The only family planning they wanted to talk about was access to birth control and legalized abortion. NOW’s singular focus on the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment meant burying the concerns of women marginalized across more axes than gender. It turned the focus of the white feminist movement away from radical change. Later Gloria Steinman famously quipped, “We’ve become the men we wanted to marry.”

White women didn’t want to end the capitalist patriarchy so much as we wanted to have equal access to its fruits. We took up the mantle of progressivism, promising the more marginalized that their turn would come. We misquoted Martin Luther King—“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We ignored the fact that the universe itself is amoral. The universe couldn’t care less about moral justice. That depends upon the acts of human beings. We settled for a rising tides approach to equality, and look what that got us: the Reagan revolution. Seriously, it was only a matter of time before we were fighting these fights all over again. Conservative forces learned what would satisfy white women and how easily they would betray women of color, queer, and disabled women. The Overton window was pushed further and further right. And it’s not like black and queer women didn’t warn us. They encouraged us to join the movements that they created to fight poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality. And what did we do? We doubled down. We bought over two million copies of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. We either declared the goals of black mothers “special interests” or used the tone argument on anyone who didn’t agree with us.

We, we white women, helped to set up the chain of events that got us to Trump’s America. And now there is only one way out. Inclusiveness is not the answer. We don’t need to bring more women of color into white movements.

We need to pay attention to what those more marginalized than us have been saying and what they are doing.

We need to ask humbly what we can do to help. We need to recognize and internalize the fact that our country was founded on violence against black and brown bodies.

We need to recognize that American art, literature, and music are infused with the courageous will to live in the face of genocide and slavery. We need to stop centering whiteness. After all, we are sleeping with the enemy. That enemy gave us a reprieve in return for upholding systemic racism. That reprieve is now over.

Beth Plutchak is the author of Boundaries, Border Crossings, and Reinventing the Future, just published by Aqueduct Press.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Beth Plutchak's Boundaries, Border Crossings, and Reinventing the Future

I'm pleased to announce the release of Boundaries, Border Crossings, and Reinventing the Future by Beth Plutchak, the fifty-fourth volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series, in both small trade paperback and e-book editions. The personal is political, and the political is personal. This collection of essays and an sf tale explores the intersections of representation, science fiction, feminism, social justice, and fandom, specifically in relationship to the feminist sf convention WisCon. Beth argues that to build a new future we need new stories, stories that tell us where we have been as well as show us where we are going, and she uses feminist theory to analyze feminist sf fandom's history, present, and future.

 You can purchase the print and e-book editions here.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Cynthia Ward's The Adventure of the Incognita Countess

I'm pleased to announce the release of The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, a novella, as the fifty-third volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series. It is available in both small trade paperback and e-book editions.

It's the easiest assignment a British intelligence agent could hope for. Lucy Harker needs only see the secret plans of the Nautilus safely across the Atlantic. As German spies are largely a fantasy of newspapers, she anticipates no activities more strenuous than hiding her heritage as Dracula's dhampir daughter. Then among her fellow Titanic passengers she discovers the incognita Countess Karnstein--and it seems the seductive vampire is in Germany's service. Can Agent Harker stake Carmilla before her own heart--and her loyalty to the British Empire--are subverted by questions as treacherous as a night-cloaked iceberg?

The Adventure is available now through Aqueduct's website, and will soon be available elsewhere.