Tishrei is Coming!

by Ariela

Today is the first day of the Jewish month of Elul, which means only one thing.

Brace yourselves....

Image shows Ned Stark blowing a shofar, with the words "Tishrei is Coming."

Image shows Ned Stark blowing a shofar, with the words "Tishrei is Coming."

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAGGHHHHHHHHH!

 

Ahem.

For those of you who aren't Jewish, or aren't observant, you may be wondering what all the yelling is about. 

Rosh HaShanah, or Jewish New Year* is on the first of the month of Tishrei. It kicks off an entire month of festivities. Rosh HaShanah runs two full days in the lunar calendar (meaning it starts in the evening and ends two evenings later). It involves going to very, very long prayer services and eating a festive meal each dinner and lunch, usually shared with other people. Think four Thanksgiving meals in two days. So that's the first two days of the month.

On the 10th day of the month is Yom Kippur. That's a day of fasting and atonement. There's no eating or drinking during the day itself, but that means lots of hydrating leading up to it, and we are supposed to eat a large, festive meal before the fast starts.

On the 15th day of the month starts the holiday of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles. If you have Jewish neighbors and see them putting up an oddly flimsy looking hut-like thing in their yard with a bunch of dead plants on the top of it, that's a sukkah, a booth or a tabernacle. Said booth is not supposed to be built before Yom Kippur, but it must be completely finished by the time Sukkot starts. We spend the next 7 days eating in these booths, starting with two more days of holiday (or one, if you live in Israel or are Reform, about which more below**), during which we spend more time praying and eat another four Thanksgiving-dinners-worth of meals. Yes, in the hut, we eat all that food in the hut. There are lots of bugs, and sometimes raccoons, skunks, and coyotes.

On the 22nd day of the month is Sh'mini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly. It's another festival day, with more long prayers. Eating in the tabernacle is optional on this day, but there are still two festive meals to be eaten.

On the 23rd day of the month is Simchat Torah (in Israel and on the Reform calendar, this is combined with Sh'mini Atzeret), the Celebration of the Torah. This is when we celebrate completing the annual reading of the Pentateuch and begin the lection cycle anew. It is a relatively new holiday, but there's still lots of praying and eating, though not outside anymore.

All of this is in addition to regular Sabbath observance, which involves more festive meals and praying. Also, those of us who are observant of the Jewish prohibitions against work on the holidays have to take a whole mess of days off from our jobs, but deadlines don't get pushed back.

In sum, in the space of a month we need to prepare and host or be hosted for about 13 Thanksgiving dinners, spend 7 full days in synagogue, still observe the Sabbath, and meet all of our regular work deadlines. Hence the screaming. All of this goes double if you actually work in a synagogue and have to orchestrate this at a professional level as well as for yourself as an individual.

Some Additional Notes

*Rosh HaShanah is usually referred to as "the Jewish New Year," but we actually have four new year celebrations each year. Rosh HaShanah commemorates the creation of the world and is the start of the Jewish calendrical year. The other three are:

  • New year for the trees, happens toward the end of winter, also was the start of the tax season in historical Judea;
  • Liturgical new year, happens in the spring, on the first of the month of Nisan;
  • New year for animal tithes, happens in the summer (today, in fact, first of Elul).

**Why is the holiday calendar different in Israel than for Jews outside of Israel, except for Reform Jews?

Okay, buckle in.

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. In the days of the Temple and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish High Court) in Jerusalem, instead of having a fixed calendar each new month was declared when two witnesses came and swore that they had seen the new moon. Once the new month was declared, the proclamation was spread by means of signal fires, think the Warning Beacons of Gondor. While Jewish holidays listed in the bible have only one day of Festival observance (with the corresponding abstention from work, feasting, sacrifices at the Temple, etc.), the rabbis declared that those living outside the Land of Israel should observe two days of each Festival, in case of any lag or confusion caused by the time it takes to transmit the proclamation of the new month. (The exception is Yom Kippur, since telling people to go without food or drink for 48 hours is impractical and, in many cases, dangerous.)

Before you ask, yes, they had astronomy and almanacs back then, everyone could have worked it out for themselves when the holidays would occur, regardless of location. That wasn't the point. The point was that the new month did not begin until the Sanhedrin declared it so.

Most Jews who live in the modern State of Israel no longer consider themselves obligated to follow the requirement of the additional day of holiday observance. (Whether that is because they are in the historical location of the Land of Israel or they consider the modern State to be a new manifestation of the historical Land is a point of serious debate. Let's not go there now.) Likewise, the Reform Movement has declared that, in light of the calendar now being fixed as opposed to each holiday being individually declared, they see no need to retain the second day observance. The Conservative and Orthodox Movements outside of Israel retain the additional day.

Except Rosh HaShanah is still observed for two days within the State of Israel and by most Reform congregations. Why? I don't know.

Ariela's (Partial) Hugo Ballot

by Ariela

Logo of the Hugo Awards

Logo of the Hugo Awards

Voting for the Hugo Awards ends in a little less than a month. Terri and I are both supporting members and, when not attending Wiscon, prepping for other art shows, and working on new products, we've both been steadily working our way through as many of the works up for voting as we can.

I am by no means done, but here is my ballot for some of the categories that matter most for me, with some notes as to my thoughts and choices:

Best Fan Artist

Because the Hugos have not changed their criteria for Professional Artist since they were invented, the Fan Artist category is the one that most artists fall into, whether art is a source of income for them or not. So this is actually where most of my artistic colleagues are up for awards. I will be voting as follows.

  1. Likhain (M. Sereno)
    Mia is an astonishingly talented artist and if I could place her higher than first, I would do it. Her use of color is breathtaking. And I have an extra soft spot for her work because she occasionally incorporates calligraphy, and does it very well.
  2. Vesa Lehtimäki
    Vesa does some truly gorgeous photo editing. I do photo editing for my day job and know exactly how hard it is, so this blows me away. 
  3. Spring Schoenhuth
    Spring does some of the most beautiful geek-themed jewelry, and works at a size that increases her difficulty factor exponentially. While I see geeky jewelry at nearly every con, most of them are made from premade, mass-produced pieces. Spring is the only one I know who does this kind of work from scratch.
  4. Elizabeth Leggett
    Elizabeth is an extremely technically accomplished artist, but she doesn't rank higher for me because I see lots of similarly themed art around. For art to be Hugo-worthy for me, it needs to not only be technically skilled, but also original.
  5. Ninni Aalto
    I suspect I am missing the best parts of Ninni's work due to language barrier; the ones without language don't really do it for me.
  6. Steve Stiles
    Steve is an amazingly prolific artist, but since we are judging just based on output in the past year, I haven't seen anything from him in the past year that really grabbed me.

Best Novel

Novels are my favorite thing to read and what I read the most of. I had already read a number of the nominees before nominations opened, much less after they closed.

  1.  A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
    I adored The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which was an utterly delightful reading experience. But it lacked the emotional punch that the sequel delivers here. I'm a sucker for "what does it mean to be a person?" books, and this one comes at it from both ends in a devastating way.
  2. Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
    I will admit that I couldn't finish this one, which I started before award season. I bounced off it in much the same way I bounced off Ancillary Justice my first time around. Serious culture shock, working too hard to absorb the world to be able to sit back and enjoy the story. Though I finished AJ on my first attempt, it took me until my third readthrough to just enjoy it. I suspect it will be the same here. As is, I recognize the technical accomplishment already.
  3. Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer
    This is another incredibly rich worldbuilding work. I am impressed, but I suspect that the later books will bring more payoff. If this volume doesn't Hugo, I suspect the third book in the trilogy will.
    While I was impressed, I am also somewhat troubled by feedback I have heard from the trans and non-binary communities about some of the gender views expressed therein. I hope that the later volumes address this.
  4. The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin
    I voted for The Fifth Season and was incredibly gratified when it won. While this volume is no less skillful, it suffers from middle-installment issues - we've already met most of the characters and we've been introduced to the world. While there are astonishing revelations (Sassun's sections broke my heart), it's all about building up to The Stone Sky.
  5. All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
    This book is skillfully written, but it just didn't wow me as much as everything above. Frankly, it wasn't my cup of tea, but it might be yours, so you should still check it out.

I didn't actually read Death's End by Cixin Liu. I voted for Three Body Problem, even though I didn't enjoy it at all, because I felt that it was both technically brilliant and extremely innovative, and that it made a significant contribution to the field of SF lit. However, there are limits to my dutifulness, and having not enjoyed either of the first two installments in the series, I'm not going to put myself through the third. So it is not on my ballot. Mind you, I am not voting it below "No Award," I am just leaving it off the ballot entirely, as I haven't read it and cannot rank it.

Best Novella

This is a partial list, as I have not yet finished reading everything in the category, and I do intend to.

  1. The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
    This one blew me away. 
  2. Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
    Years ago I came to the reluctant conclusion that, though my friends love it, Seanan's writing is not my thing. This, however, really impressed me. It's a fresh take on the very tired trope of portal fantasies.
  3. Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold
    I adore everything Bujold writes, and though liking something isn't enough to make it award-worthy, in this case, I think it is. I am enjoying the exploration of the magical and theological issues Bujold is taking us through with this entire series.
  4. A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante
    This was well executed, but it didn't have the wow-factor of the works above it.

I haven't read The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe or This Census Taker yet. I do plan on reading them both, despite This Census Taker being on the Rabid Puppy ballot. I don't always dignify a Puppy nominee with reading, but Mieville doesn't seem to be wrapped up with them like, say, Wright is.

Best Series

Ah, the one-time category. Thank goodness I had read at least some of almost all of them before now, because if I tried to read them all in Award Season, I would have drowned in the attempt.

  1. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
    I mentioned my love of Bujold above, and the Vorkosigan Saga is where she has done almost all of her most innovative work. It is always one of my first recommendations to someone looking for new reading material in the SFF field. It also covers an astonishing breadth, from space opera to political intrigue to romance.
  2. The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
    Again, I love "what does it mean to be a person" books, and Temeraire's struggle to get dragons recognized as people in Europe speaks deeply to me. Also, I happen to love Regency period stuff. A+ highly recommended.
  3. The Peter Grant/Rivers of London Books, by Ben Aaronovich
    I only started this series, but 2.5 books in, I am mostly enjoying it. I love Peter's constant efforts to approach magic scientifically, and I love that he is foiled not by magic being magical (or not just by that) but by his lack of access to resources, and sometimes by his own distraction. I'm less thrilled by his constant commentary on the women he meets; it gets really tiresome.

I haven't read any of The Expanse by S. A. Corey, and I don't expect to have the time to do so before the close of voting, but I will check it out later. October Daye was my first introduction to Seanan McGuire, and as I mentioned above, really not for me. I read the first two books and decided I didn't need any more. Likewise, I read 1.5 books from The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone and decided it wasn't my cup of tea. I will be leaving all three of these series off my ballot. Again, I am not voting them below No Award, I am just leaving them off.

So that's a partial look at my Hugo ballot. I am still working my way through the novelettes and short stories and have no idea when I will have a chance to watch Arrival, which is the last of the Long Form Dramatic Presentation nominees I want to watch.

What's on your ballot?

Love Interests and Agency in the Face of Adversity: Analyzing Lois McMaster Bujold Characters

by Ariela

Be warned, this post contains spoilers for Mira's Last Dance, and everything else written by Lois McMaster Bujold.

This post did not turn out the way I thought it would. I have been wanting, for a few weeks, to burble about Lois McMaster Bujold's latest novella, Mira's Last Dance, the Penric series in general, and LMB's ouvre as a whole. I was all set to talk about how LMB writes male protagonists interested in women, but that the women they are interested in are not Love Interests but rather fully-realized characters with their own motivations and how awesome that is. Shortly before I could take some time to sit down and write it, Lindsay Ellis came out with a review of Beauty and the Beast and why it is not about Stockholm Syndrome but does have a bunch of other problems. At 14 minutes in, Ellis starts a thought that culminates in this quote:

[Women's] narratives usually have them being less active agents than being thrown into circumstances which they must then survive

Ouch.

"Thrown into circumstances which they must then survive" sure sounds like it describes a lot of LMB's love interests. (Note, this is female characters who are not the primary protagonist and are the subject of romantic interest by the male protagonist; Cordelia Vorkosigan, Royina Ista, and Fern Bluefield aren't included.) But does the first part apply? Let's take a look.

Love Interests or "Love Interests," And does that Preclude Agency?

I'm going to start with Miles Vorkosigan's love interests, because for me the Vorkosiverse is the baseline of LMB's writing.

Elena Bothari

Elena Bothari

Elena Bothari

Miles' first love interest, Elena, is definitely born into circumstances which do not endow her with much agency. The daughter of a deeply disturbed father who views the degree of her success at the societally prescribed female role as the measure of his redemption from his past sins, she is also the foster daughter of Cordelia Vorkosigan who views Barrayaran society with a mix of anthropological indulgence and Betan horror. The social messaging surrounding her says that the only worthwhile vocation is to be a soldier, but bars her from enlisting by sex. Barrayar is, to Elena, a situation to be endured.

Miles creates the Dendarii Mercenaries for a whole host of reasons, but in the processes uses them to gift Elena with her childhood aspiration of becoming a soldier. But Elena does not then turn around and fall into his arms. She takes the opportunity he offers her, but refuses to be beholden to him for it. Instead, she marries someone even lower on the Barrayaran social ladder than she, a deserter; someone who has been completely excommunicated by Barrayaran society. Marrying Baz is a complete repudiation of her father's expectations of her, but also of the narrative's expectations of her as a Love Interest.

Later on, in Memory, Elena quits the Dendarii as well.

"All my childhood, all my youth, Barrayar pounded into me that being a soldier was the only job that counted. The most important thing there was, or ever could be. And that I could never be important, because I could never be a soldier. Well, I've proved Barrayar wrong. I've been a soldier and a damned good one...And now I've come to wonder what else Barrayar was wrong about. Like, what's really important."

Elena was certainly born into circumstances she needed to survive, but when she was offered an out, she took it. And after some time, she also re-evaluated her life goals and changed direction. This doesn't sound to me like a character lacking in agency.

But Elena was never actually Miles' lover. Let's take a look at some others.

Elli Quinn

Elli Quinn

Elli Quinn

Quinn is the one on this list who fits neither clause of Ellis' statement. She is not put in circumstances she is forced to survive more than any other mercenary. She chooses to be a mercenary, chooses to become Miles' lover, and when he leaves the mercenaries, she refuses to go with him. She wants Miles on her terms or she won't have him. While her motivation is never delved into much, she clearly loves her job and wants to do it to the best of her abilities. She will not sacrifice her career or herself for a boyfriend. Quinn has as complete agency as anyone can who chooses to live in a society with rules and in relation to others.

Sergeant Taura

Taura

Taura

Taura is in many ways Quinn's polar opposite on this scale in that she gets to choose almost nothing. Bred as an experimental genetically-engineered super-soldier, she grows up as a prisoner. When she meets Miles, he is on a mission to retrieve her creator and kill her, or rather, recover the tissue samples her creator had stored in her and dispose of the evidence. Miles offers her the chance to leave the Dendarii at Escobar after her rescue, but considering that would leave her in a strange society, knowing no one, with no coping tools, it's not surprising she refuses. She is bred to be a super-soldier, after all, and she does grow into her role in the Dendarii. Later she sets out to live life as fully as she can and seems to succeed. Based on characterizations, if she decided later that she wanted to give up mercenary life and take up woodworking, or anything else equally disparate from being a soldier, I believe Miles would have supported her fully. But the fact of the matter is that of his love interests, she seems to be the least independent, to have her choices most constrained by circumstances. I don't think this necessarily makes her a less realized character, but in light of general trends of the narrative arcs of female characters, it's kind of troubling.

Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson

Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson Vorkosigan

In many ways, Ekaterin is the embodiment of the kind of female story arc Ellis named in the quote up top. We first meet her trapped in marriage with an emotionally abusive man, held to it by her son, her social conditioning, and her family's expectations. It is the quintessential circumstance a woman is forced to survive in the Western narrative. When her husband is killed, the range of possibilities available to her opens up somewhat, but when she returns to Barrayar in A Civil Campaign, her family promptly tries to marry her off again, being unable to conceive of her in any role other than wife and mother.

While she has more options in A Civil Campaign, she still feels herself to be in very straightened circumstances. Miles, having apparently learned nothing since his effort to give Elena a military career, attempts to give Ekaterin a career in gardening, or at least a jump start on one, as a ploy to keep her close to him. His plot comes apart, he asks her to marry him at entirely the wrong time, and Ekaterin feels backed into quitting both the garden project and her association with him lest she lose her independence. This is one of the points where Ekaterin's agency becomes apparent: her rejection of her other suitors up until this point could have been a plot device to have her end up with Miles, but here she shows that it's an intrinsic character trait. But honestly, while it's agency, it's really minimal agency. She has said no to Miles, but she has not had any chance to say yes to herself yet.

Ekaterin does eventually choose Miles after her family forbids her from interacting with him. Ekaterin herself lampshades the reverse psychology involved by comparing it to how her son carried on about toys. And ultimately she chooses him not because she feels backed into a corner by her family but because she decides that Miles can aid her in her self-actualization, now that he has been talked out of trying to do it for her. Still, the lack of exploration of other options for Ekaterin in the narrative - aside from her insistence that she is going to remain single, which is brushed off by all the other characters - is troubling. We do see her stand up to Miles in later books, but "I can stand up to my husband" is not much of a life goal.

Ivan's love interest: Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua

Tej

Tej

Like Ekaterin, half of the story of Tej and Ivan's romance is from Tej's point of view. And the main character arc of the story is hers: how will she reconcile the demands her family places on her with her own inclinations? Ivan's arc, realizing that he loves Tej and enjoys being married to her, then trying to get her to stay with him, is not nearly as interesting.

Tej almost seems like an answer to the profusion of Strong Female Characters TM* that we have in the genre. Tej's family wants her to be a Strong Female Character TM (for their purposes, of course), and she wants none of it. Her self-actualization involves sitting on a beach drinking fruity alcohol and reading. Her character arc highlights the difference between action and agency. And marrying Ivan is not the way she fulfills herself; the way she does that is by refusing to go back to Jackson's Whole with her family. If anything, Ivan is the reward she gets for standing up for herself.

So ultimately, Tej is not a standard Love Interest with no motivations of her own, nor is she a woman who lacks agency and must merely endure. She surely has to endure at the beginning of the story, but it is the same sort of endurance any hero might have to undergo whose character arc is started by the murder of their family; the difference is that LMB doesn't give short shrift to the emotional toll and the exhaustion such a tragedy would evoke.

Not Pictured Here

I'm going to skip Rowan Durona, who is only briefly present in the narrative of Mirror Dance, Beatriz from The Curse of Chalion, because she very nearly is a standard Love Interest off the assembly line, and Ijada from The Hallowed Hunt, because I didn't actually like that book all that much. Which brings me finally back around to the character who inspired this post in the first place.

Nikys Arisaydia Khatai

Nikys Khatai

Nikys Khatai

When we are first introduced to Nikys, she has definitely been thrown into circumstances she must survive. Her husband, chosen for her by her brother, has died after a long, lingering illness. Now a ward of her brother's, she endures his imprisonment on false charges and his refusal to take advantage of her attempt to rescue him. And then she must endure the flight to save her brother's life, to a destination not of her choosing.

At the end of Penric's Mission, it seems like she will end up together with Penric. At the end of Mira's Last Dance, it seems like she has declined, but Penric is staying to pursue her. But while she exercises a choice not to follow Penric back to Adria, it seems like a choice made from a place of fairly profound powerlessness. She is, ultimately, being asked to choose between following her brother or following Penric, with no option to follow herself.

No, Nikys is not a standard Love Interest in that she is a fully realized character with her own desires and motivation, but of all the women listed here, she seems to be the one most lacking in agency. Nikys seems to fit Ellis' description of women's narratives.

My Fave is Problematic. Now what?

Cover of  Mira's Last Dance  by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover of Mira's Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

There really ought to be a "My Fave is Problematic Dance." Whenever I realize something uncomfortable about something I love, I am taken with a desire to run away, and frequently I do put down the book, or pause the movie/tv show, and take a lap around the room before coming back. It would be a lot easier if there were a short dance I could do that would also communicate to anyone watching why I suddenly have shpilkes (Yiddish for "nervous, restless energy").

But after I would do that dance, I would come back to the thing, whatever it was, that I put down, because it is okay to like problematic things. Sometimes the good aspects outweigh the problematic ones enough that it doesn't stop you from enjoying something. And that's okay! Just don't pretend like the problematic parts aren't there. And maybe also seek out some works that are not problematic in that way (though they may be problematic in others).

Speaking of different ways to be problematic, a word about the criteria used in this post. When Lindsay Ellis referred to the troubling trend of women's narratives involving less agency and more survival, it was not a blanket condemnation of survival narratives. Survival narratives, where characters are thrown into untenable, uncomfortable, or even lethal situations they must then endure can be fascinating! For people suffering oppression in particular, such narratives can be empowering because they recognize the truth of their experiences and the strength it takes to persist in such circumstances. Problems arise when those are the only narratives told about certain classes of people.

I adore Lois McMaster Bujold, and she is generally quite good about not writing Love Interests TM who are woman-shaped props in the narrative there for the male hero to win. But it would be nice to see her write some more narratives where women aren't merely enduring. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen was a lovely break from this pattern. More, please! (Also more non-white, non-straight, non-cis protags, too, while we're at it. A Bel book, maybe?)

New Doodle: Michi vs. That

by Ariela

Today's doodle is once again brought to you by antics on Teh Interwebs.

Among her many hats, Michi Trota is Managing Editor at Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Last Monday, Aidan Moher commented on Twitter:

Michi responded:

I found the mental image too charming to leave alone, so I quickly scribbled this:

Michi-vs-that.png

P.S. You should definitely check out Uncanny Magazine, which is the only non-Puppy nominee for the Hugo Award category of Semiprozine in 2016. Michi is the first Filipina to be nominated for a Hugo Award. We're rooting for her and the whole Uncanny team this weekend!