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I'm continuing to work my way through Gwyneth Jones' Top Ten novels by Women SF Writers. This was Fowler's first novel, which I read when it was published in 1992, and it's just as rich and strange as when it first came out. To call it science fiction is to acknowledge that it was published as such. It's by no means a traditional genre novel. A strange babbling woman shows up in the Washington Territory in 1873. She becomes attached to a Chinese railway worker named Chin, whose uncle is concerned that a white woman in Chinese company will lead to trouble for the Chinese, so he asks Chin to return her to her people -- a risky business. Along the way they acquire other followers, including the innocent, delusional dreamer, BJ, and the menacing, guilt-ridden Andersonville survivor, Harold, and the crusading feminist lecturer on the female orgasm, Adelaide.

As much a story of the Old West and an American quest novel as a work of science fiction, Sarah Canary features a protagonist who is all thing to all people -- an immortal, a madwoman, an incomprehensible alien. It's full of folk lore, scientific speculation, tall tales, and magic realism. It's an extraordinary literary debut by a writer I haven't kept up with, although she's gone on to great success.
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The latest MRI is bad news that's paradoxically good news. Going into it I was thinking that if it showed improvement of the tumor (which I thought was likely) I was going to press the oncologist to tell me how much longer I was going to take Avastin and what she could do to help me feel less crappy. As it was, the MRI showed that "the tumor (non-enhancing portion, whatever that means) is growing into both thalami giving me a "Parkinsonian walking and getting up problem." It had also occurred to me in the past couple of days that the tumor might be growing, since my problems of failing strength and balance and fine muscle control have been getting worse. At Crooked River last week I frequently needed help getting off the couch and out of chairs.

The paradoxically good news in this is that my oncologist, Dr Taylor, feels that the treatments are making me worse rather than better, particularly when it comes to quality of life, although she was also worried that the Avastin was encouraging the tumor to spread and go deeper into the brain.So she's recommending that I take a break from chemo, Avastin, and the Optune and let my body find its current balance and then reassess how I want to proceed. I think I've exhausted all the normal treatment options at this point, so I'm not sure what would next anyway. Clinical trials? Isn't that the Hail Mary stage of thing?

In the meantime I'll continue with physical therapy to work on my balance and strength, although she thinks my problems with strength are neurological at this point rather than muscular. I'll have an occupational therapist come out to assess the safety of the house for someone in my condition. She can also arrange for some home care from hospice, even though she doesn't think I'm actually down to my final six months, just to get a sense of what services they offer when I do need them,

I'll continue to get an MRI and visit Dr Taylor every two months and we'll see how things go. I'm soooooo ready to take a break from treatment that I have to be careful not jump to the conclusion that I feel better already. I'm still basically an invalid who needs to keep his eyes on the road and his hands upon the handrails. Let it roll, baby, roll. Until about 8:30, or whenever I'm ready to go to bed. Quality of life, that's what I'm all about! May it improve a bit during my vacation from treatment.
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It's been a couple of weeks since I last posted about my health. So here's the latest.

I had another seizure. It didn't fully develop, because I felt it coming on and ran upstairs to take a Lorazopam, which is intended to stop seizures in their tracks. This one kept coming on, moving past the shuddering in my chin and jaw that is the first sign of a seizure for me. So I ran back upstairs (evidence that my seizures are NOT grand mals) and took another Lorazopam. I also told Denys what was going on, and he called the nurses station at the Alvord Brain Tumor Center. By the time he got someone on the line, the second Lorazopam had pushed the seizure back, and I was able to tell Mandy Myers (yes, her real name, which has given us a special bond) what was going on. She didn't seem too concerned about the seizure, and basically told me that the increase in dosage of my regular anti-seizure med (a generic version of Keppra) probably hadn't taken effect yet. I was to call if I had any more seizures.

Previous to this episode my sister and I had seen a new physician's assistant at the Center, and along with increasing the dosage of the Keppra, she told me that the plan was to switch me to a new chemo called Lomustine and discontinue the Temodar. This was fine by me, since it felt like my body was done with Temodar after thirteen monthly rounds, nor to mention the daily "micro-doses" that I took on my Micronesian trip. I felt exhausted all the time, could no longer walk more than a few hundred yards at at time, and was sleeping more than half the day. I felt very uncertain of my balance and felt miserable in general. I liked the physician's assistant, whose last name is Stockhausen (I didn't ask if she was related to the composer, but I probably will if I see her again).

Hopefully switching to a new chemo will help with some of my problems. It has taken quite a while for my insurance company to agree to subsidize it, and I'm supposed to receive my first dose today. This one is a pill that I'll take once every six weeks, rather than the five days our of every 28 of the Temodar. I'll still be getting infusions of Avastin every two weeks, and I'm beginning to wonder if that's what's making me feel so worn out and weak. Or it could be that sixteen months of treatment has taken its toll on me.

Anyway I haven't had any further seizures, although I've given up caffeine because it was causing premonitions of seizures, and I've taken a precautionary Lorazopam a couple of times when it felt as though something was getting started. The PA also wants me to work with my physical therapist to build up my core strength, but the PT has been sick for a couple of weeks, so we haven't started on that yet. I've been trying to take little mini-walks every day to see whether that helps. I hate feeling this weak!

But I'm trying to be patient. In a way, none of this is a surprise, but just because you know chemo is going to knock the stuffing out of you doesn't mean you'll be ready for how it FEELS. It feels like crap, and I begin to wonder how much more treatment I can take. I guess I'll see how the Lomustine makes me feel and what the MRI in August shows.
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cover of Gwyneth Jones' LifeI first encountered the fiction of Gwyneth Jones when her novel White Queen was published in the US in 1991. I immediately felt I'd discovered the heir to Joanna Russ and went back and read what I thought were her earliest novels, starting with Divine Endurance, although I see that Wikipedia now list four earlier novels. Her American editor was David Hartwell, and we discussed the rest of the Aleutian Trilogy, which started with White Queen, as it came out. Something about the third book, The Phoenix Cafe, with it's cavalier attitude toward men as an eternal danger to women and children, really put me off, however, and I gave up on Jones after that, although I was still curious enough about her to pick up the first book of her next series, Bold As Love at the Eastercon on my TAFF trip in 2003. I don't think it ever had a US publisher, nor did the rest of that series. I took it off my To Be Read pile not long ago, and bounced off what I found to be a very confusing story about European politics (seemingly very prescient in the post-Brexit world) and countercultural defiance. I switched to another book of hers in the Pile, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which I found completely fascinating. Having consulted with Claire Brialey about her own experience reading Jones, I settled on Life as the next novel to try.

Suffice it to say that I liked it a lot better than Bold As Love. In the meantime I also realized that one of the things that makes her an heir to Joanna Russ is her pessimism about the battle between the sexes and the ability of feminism to solve the problem. Life is a very complex meditation on this question. It's a story of gender and genetics, which poses the idea that genetics is what makes the difference an unbridgeable breech. She then imagines a genetic solution to this problem that is probably beyond my ability to describe, but basically it's a non-Darwinian way for genes to be selected. The upshot of this is that genetic sexes (based on Y and X chromosomes)seem to be on their way out evolutionarily.

It's also a novel about life as she is lived, following a group of friends who meet at university, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out of contact later in life. The protagonist, Anna, is a geneticist who discovers the change in the X/Y exchange and spends her life trying to prove it to a disdainful scientific establishment, where her gender is held against her. Spence is her husband -- the apparently ideal house husband and lover -- who still manages to interfere with her research with his emotional neediness. In many ways their frenemy, Ramone, is the most interesting character -- a feminist who despises women and becomes a media star as a pundit, along with her mentor, the mystical old schizophrenic Lavinia. Jones' novels are always sprawling, contradictory affairs, full of crisis and pain, and Life is no exception. Two of the female characters are raped under circumstances in which they are unable to report it without unacceptable repercussions, there's also a heartbreaking miscarriage, and Anna's career seems to be a long series of firings by petty assholes.

What kept me going through all the carnage was the fascinating characters grappling with their messy lives. In her note about the book "Life: an Explanation" Jones writes, "The story of Anna Senoz is not my life story (the scruffy and pugnacious Ramone, Anna's shadow girl, is more like me, if I could imagine myself a feminist media star). But in many ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me; the future I imagine." There's a personal, heartfelt, career-summarizing quality to Life that's refreshing. The science fictional content is relatively small scale, but it has a lot of layers, and I appreciate how Jones confronts the limitations of feminism while tackling the underlying problem with a grand SF concept that ultimately completely reimagines what it means to be male or female.
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I read Synners not long after it was published in 1991, but I don't remember what I thought of it. I liked it a lot the second time. It's a novel full of furious energy and lots of ideas. What surprised me a little bit was how much it's about a counterculture, but also how realistically the countercultural life is depicted. At time it reminded me of Delany's Dhalgren on that front, with free spirits squatting in utter squalor, eating badly in filthy surroundings. It's not a very romanticized portrait.

Cadigan is also more sympathetic to the corporate drones than I remembered, especially to Gabe, who is a mid-level corporate toady just ttying to get by as best he can, which is not actually very well. Of course the corporation he serves is an amoral profit-consumed machine that makes a bad situation worse by trying to capitalize on a new neural computer interface that threatens to integrate human brains into the internet and thus expose them to hackers who have nothing but chaos and viruses on (and in) their minds.

This is a novel of many characters that weaves back and forth between the members of the large cast. I had a hard time at first keeping track of everyone and their agendas, but eventually I mostly figured it out. After that the weaving of character points-of-view and ideas about consciousness and perception became hypnotic. This came out at a peak moment in cyberpunk history, and it is loaded with tropes and ideas of the era, practically an encyclopedia of the form.

Basically one character -- a video artist who wants to be a machine -- creates a video that goes viral and and starts to cause people to stroke out. The novel has a romantic resolution to this problem that seemed a little out of tone with the rest of the story. The other problem I had with it was the attempt to create a future slang -- e.g. "stone home" this and "stone home" that -- which sounded just as phoney as any attempt to create future slang. TANSTAAFL, anyone? For the most part, however, I found Cadigan's linguistic riffs to be rich and dense.
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The third installment in my trip writeup. I'll post the final installment tomorrow, for anyone who is saving them up to binge read.
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I'm having trouble working with pictures in Dreamwidth, so I think I'll be posting my personal posts to my old film blog from now own. I've started with my first post about the Micronesian trip. Feel free to comment here, if you're on Dreamwidth.
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I've been doing better at keeping up with my life here than I remembered. I was going to recap the Coachella Valley and Corflu trips, but I see I don't have to. Now I'm back from Micronesia, which I'll be writing about at greater length later. Short version is that it was an epic trip, both geographically and emotionally. However, one of the unpleasant occurrences out there, fortunately toward the end of the trip was that I had two seizures, the second of which I was able to nip in the bud with a drug called Lorazepam. I'll write more about this experience in my fuller trip report. My instant assumption was that the seizures were an indicator that the cancer had continued to spread and was interfering with normal neurological function.

Yesterday was the day of reckoning, as I got my first MRI since the one with the bad news in April or late March or whenever it was. My sister was here, having driven me up from Portland, where the Micronesian trip originated and ended. The MRI was not the only medical item on yesterday's agenda. First off were lab tests for the Avastin infusion scheduled for later in the day. Then the MRI. Then a visit with Dr Shetabi, who is a medical oncologist helping my neuro-oncologist, Dr Taylor, until she can hire more specialists. Dr Shetabi is a kindly old gent who has retired from his practice at Virginia Mason, but is temporarily helping out at the Alvord Brain Tumor Center. He wanted to know how my Micronesian trip had gone and seemed genuinely pleased that it had mostly gone very well. We talked about how I was feeling (exhausted) and about the seizures.

To my surprise, he didn't seem to care much about the seizures, other than to tell me to up the dosage of the daily anti-seizure drug I take. Then he let the cat out of the bag: the MRI showed that the cancer had been diminished since the previous MRI. That was completely the opposite of the news I was expecting, so it was kind of hard to digest. Shetabi advised us to savor the news and not get carried away by it. Time will tell whether the cancer is truly being beaten back, or whether it's just taking a breather. Still, it was hard not to feel like I'd gotten a reprieve. Shetabi thought it was the Avastin that had done the job, although I'm not sure why he thought it was that rather than the microdoses of chemo that I took daily during the trip, not to mention the emotional/spiritual boost of the trip itself. He didn't care to speculate about the cause of the seizures, but said it could have been any number of things (the long trip, the heat and humidity, etc) or combination of things.

In any event, I'm feeling a little whiplash, but I can't say it hurts. Going forward I'll continue with the biweekly Avastin infusions, and I'll get back on the Optune and on the old schedule of five days of 300 mgs of Temodar every 28 days. We'll see where I'm at at the end of the year, but Shetabi was hopeful that we'd be able to beat the cancer back enough for me to finally take a break from treatment. Other than having to get back on chemo, this was all welcome news. Dr Taylor had said we might try another form of chemo, and she'd even hinted we might try another form of radiation, like the cyberknife. Fortunately, the diminishment of the cancer in the meantime apparently pushed them in another direction, and I'm fine with that.

Despite the advice to take the news cautiously, I'll be celebrating this for a few days at least. I'm now taking a break from the Temodar until the heavier doses start next Wednesday or so.
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I haven't been keeping up with my busy life on dreamwidth. Last weekend I was in LA for Corflu, where my name was drawn out of the hat as Guest of Honor, to much acclaim. I'll be writing more about that experience for Nic Farey's fanzine, BEAM, when I get back from my next big adventure, which is a trip to Micronesia. I see I've already written about the medical considerations of this trip in "Interim."

The trip itself will include a day in Pohnpei, where we will visit the mysterious stone city of Nan Madol -- the Venice of the Pacific, the Reef of Heaven. This is a place I've wanted to visit since I first heard about it many years ago (and a place that my friend Stacy Scott has visited, when she lived on the island with her father in the '70s), and now the bucket list is finally being checked off. Pretty cool!

Then it's off to Yap Island in the Federated Islands of Micronesia, where my family lived for four years in the sixties and where I've returned with various parts of the family twice before -- in 1998 and 2002. This time I'm traveling with my brother and his family. It'll be great to see our old friend Thinnifel and his wife. Thinnifel has promised to have some of the sweet little bananas I love so much waiting for me. I just hope my defrosting frozen shoulder won't prevent me from snorkeling.

In general I'm anxious that I won't have the stamina to enjoy the trip. I'll be taking 100 mgs of chemo every night. This is considered a microdose (it's a third of what I was taking during the main phase of chemo), and therefore it's not supposed to debilitate me. I took my first dose last night and don't feel debilitated yet. We'll see what it does to me over the course of three weeks. Also, I feel weak and easy-to-tire from the year of more intense treatment I've just been through. Of course, I'm also concerned that the cancer is now spreading through my brain and will cause problems while I'm traveling. Still, the hope is that the chemo will keep it in check, and since I'm not dragging the Optune with me, that will be reassuring.

I honestly don't know what I want to do on Yap. Visit old haunts, eat sweet little bananas, listen to Thinnifel's stories, smell the old smells, soak it all in for probably the last time. Maybe I'll sit and contemplate the stone money as I did in elder days.

Childhood photo from Yap


Apr. 20th, 2017 08:02 am
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I'm just back from spending a week and a half with my family in Desert Hot Springs in Coachella Valley. When my bad health news hit, my mom and sister conspired to bring me down to Mom and Dad's winter home to spend some time in the sun being pampered. So LaVelle came to Seattle, and we drove south from here on I-5, picking up my brother in Corvallis along the way. The trip down was two days in which LaVelle and Lonnie did all the driving. I was theoretically capaable, but I honestly didn't feel like it, especially with a stick shift, which is something I'm no longer used to.

It was great to hang out with my parents and siblings, who once again rallied around me in a time of distress, and then my sister-in-law made a surprise visit, so the old gang (circa 1983) was back together again. The surprise was one of the many things that we had a good laugh about -- in this case that LaVelle and I were so oblivious to all the hints and near-revelations along the way. Our family is big on teasing, and this kind of thing gets spun around through teasing a dozen which ways. For example, why didn't we ask "What the hell?" when Lonnie said he was going off to meet somebody that none of us knew.

The laughter and self-mockery was good medicine, but I suppose in my current state of mind I couldn't help but be touched by two of the health crises happening while we were down there. One was my parents' friend, Russell, who suffered a terrible stroke around the time we arrived, which left him paralyzed and unable to swallow. His wife, Letha, stopped by toward the end of our stay, and she was barely holding it together. We had dinner guests that night, my parents' Canadian friends, Merv and Lorraine, and I could see that the stoic Merv, who is having health problem of his own, was barely holding back the tears.

Th other health crisis arrived with the couple from Manitoba who has just bought my aunt and uncle's house in the park, which is right next door to my parents. We had heard that the husband was having health issues, but by the time they arrived he'd had surgery that revealed a tumor on a blood vessel that the doctors thought could take him at any moment. His poor wife was completely distraught, because she was away from their medical system, away from home, and her phone didn't work in the US, so she had no phone if an emergency struck. She asked my mom if it was okay if she came and pounded on our door in the middle of the night. Of course it was. They had bought the vacation home before they knew the severity of the husband's problem, and now they were going to have to turn around and sell it immediately. The least of their worries, I'm sure.

Anyway, those two crisis certainly put my own crisis in perspective. Between that and the fun expeditions to look for the superbloom (a week past its prime, alas), ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and eat date shakes, I was feeling quite a bit better about my own predicament, at least until we started heading north. We took three days on the way back, taking Highway 395 up the East side of California for a change of view, and with our parents in tow as they migrated north to their summer home in Portland. This time I was able to help with the driving. (Another bit of teasing: because Lonnie had kept forgetting the clutch when he drove LaVelle's car and thus killed the engine quite impressively a number of times, I was always able to remember to use the clutch. Thanks, Lonnie!) The first day I drove I started to feel teary because it used to be something I did without thinking, but now I was hyperaware of what I was doing -- and thus hyperaware of the self-confidence that I had lost. I also felt completely decrepit getting into and out of car. When we got into Oregon, I started feeling teary because I wouldn't have the security blanket of my family around for much longer. Both Mom and LaVelle told me I was always welcome in Oregon if I needed a dose of family love.

LaVelle and I drove on to Seattle, and she stuck around to visit the oncologist with me yesterday. This was the first visit since the bad news that the cancer had returned, and I wanted another pair of ears with me to hear about what was next. It was a bit of an anti-climax on that front, because the main topic of conversation was about whether it was a good idea for me to go to Micronesia for three weeks in May with Lonnie and his family. We went around and around on the topic, discussing the question of how dangerous it was to leave the cancer untreated for three weeks. Dr. Taylor thought that the cancer had returned as soon as I stopped taking Temodar, and maybe that's why she came up with the idea of sending microdoses of Temodar with me on the trip (too small to debilitate me, but enough to combat the cancer). We're still working out the details of that idea, but I confess I felt relieved that she had thought of a treatment plan that would work while I was traveling. Knock wood.

When I get back from Micronesia, they'll do another MRI, and then we'll talk about the future. For now, however, the other interesting little thing that came out of the discussion was when LaVelle wondered whether my hoarse voice, which started as soon as we hit the road, was a byproduct of Avastin. Dr Taylor said yes, Avastin attacks blood vessels in the cancer, and sometime it attacks one in the vocal chords by mistake, with the result that your voice gets hoarse. Mystery solved, and it's not an answer I even considered. Once again, my family came through for me.

So, all my love to all my family. I feel completely vulnerable and uncertain about my future right now, and I can't begin to say how much their love and support helps me feel more safe and secure, whatever tomorrow may bring. I'm happy the Micronesia trip is going to happen, after it had started to look shaky. Next up on the travel front, however, is heading to Woodland Hills, CA for Corflu the weekend after next.
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Just a quick note to let people know that last Friday I had my first infusion of Avastin. I'll be getting these every two weeks going forward. Avastin is an artificial antibody that attacks the blood vessels that supply cancer tumors with sustenance, and thus prevents them from growing and spreading. The tech who started the infusion for me said that the drug is designed to seek out chemical markers for cancer, so it doesn't attack healthy tissue. They said the main side effect is usually elevated blood pressure, although they warn you that all kinda of bleeding problems, including strokes, happen in rare cases. So far, I'm experiencing no problems.

The goal, as briefly discussed with my neuoro-oncologist after I had the MRI done on Tuesday, is to make sure the tiny tumors don't grow while I'm traveling in the next month (first to Corflu outside LA at the end of April, and then to Micronesia for three weeks in May). When I get back from that it sounds like they'll be putting me on another form of chemo too, simultaneous with the Avastin. And of course I've still got the Optune glued to my head. It sounds like I could also try some clinical trials if I wanted to, but I can't say I'm too thrilled by the idea of being a guinea pig right now.

Ah well, friends have been stepping up to divert me from my woes, and next week I'm going out to my sacred place (the Olympic National Forest) with my cancer buddy Kristal for at least a couple of days. It's discouraging that the cancer has already returned, but life's not over yet, I'm actually still in pretty damned good shape, and I can always dream that other treatments will be more effective. Go, Avastin!
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As some of you have no doubt heard through the grapevine (and others no doubt have not), I got my first post-chemo MRI yesterday, and the results were not good. They found tiny dots of cancer in the area where the tumor used to be, and, much scarier, they also found tiny dots of cancer on the other side of the well of spinal fluid in the center of the brain. That's a new location. My neuro-oncologist isn't sure whether it was still in the area hit by radiation, or on the edge of that, or outside the radiation treatment area entirely. Determining that is one of the first things she wants to do, because it will help her decide whether to advise me to get further radiation treatment or not.

Further treatment of various kinds is definitely going to happen. They are pushing to get me onto an IV drug called Avastin, which is the standard treatment for when GBM returns after the first-stage treatments. I don't fully understand how Avastin works, but I believe Dr Taylor said it attacks the blood vessels in the cancer. It's injected every two weeks, and if they can get it approved by my insurance company I'll take the first dose on Friday. Supposedly the most common side effect is elevated blood pressure, but there's a whole list of horrific side effects that are less common. The blood seeping out of my left nostril this morning is likely because my platelet count has crashed, according to the nurse I just talked to.

None of this was what I was expecting to be facing when I went in for the MRI and consultation yesterday. I thought I was going to be told that I was done with treatment (other than the Optune) for the foreseeable future. Instead I was essentially told that the past fifteen months of treatment didn't work, or was only a temporary restraint, and now we get to try some different treatments. The immediate goal is to prevent the tiny dots of cancer from growing and spreading. If that happens, there's danger that I will start to lose my cognitive abilities and physical coordination and/or start having seizures again. The hope is that we can stave the cancer off long enough for me to make my long-anticipated trip to Yap in May.

Probably needless to say I'm feeling deeply discouraged. All the talk of surviving onto the long tail now seems like a complete fantasy. Now I need to ask my friends to let me know if they observe me acting in an erratic way, and life begins to seem like a race against the cancer eating into my ability to think and communicate. If I can make the trip to Yap, I'll likely be trying another form of chemo when I get back. As for radiation, not only do I really, really NOT want to do more radiation, I question whether there's any point, considering that I've got cancer in the area they treated previously.

Ah well, no reason to worry myself to death right now. There's time to figure out what the next steps are, but I am, as the Little Feat song has it, sore displeased. Sorry to bear these bad tidings.
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Russ The_Two_of_Them.jpg
She thought that it wasn't David, it wasn't even sex; it was some kind of deeper trouble, not only painful but unbearably, exasperatingly boring, something that would've been a lot better if it had been tragic and easier if it'd been sad.

Something unbearably disillusioning.

And old. Very, very old.

I've been working my way through a couple of different lists of Best/Favorite science fiction by women in Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space, mostly recently Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World and McIntyre's Dreamsnake. For Joanna Russ, Jones quite rightly recommends The Female Man, but because the Tiptree and McIntyre were both published in 1978, I chose to re-read The Two of Them, which was also published in 1978 and has long been one of my favorite Russ novels. I've always found it a difficult novel, and it's hard to imagine that I could provide a better reading of it than Jones' "Postscript to A Fairy Tale," which finds in the novel a Cinderella story and a parable of the failure of what's now called second wave feminism to achieve gender equality.

The Two of Them begins with two agents of the Trans-Temporal Agency, Ernst and Irene, arriving on a hollowed out asteroid that houses a neo-Islamic culture where women are treated like ornamental birds in a cage, supposedly for their own protection but really to keep them under control. What Ernst and Irene's mission is, and what the nature of the Trans-Temporal Agency is, is left unclear, but when Ernst and Irene discover the twelve-year-old daughter of the emmisary who greets them and discover that she wants to be a poet but will never be allowed to in this culture (where her aunt Dunya was declared insane for wanting the same thing), we flash back to Irene's adolescence as a bright, awkward, misfit in the USA of 1953. This is pretty clearly an autobiographic element in the story, and I feel that Russ used a similar situation in her Alyx story, "The Second Inquisition." Like the girl Zubeydeh, Irene is unhappy with her options in a culture that is repressive of women like her housewife mother. When a mysterious friend of her mother's named Ernst shows up at the house, Irene is fascinated and soon finds out that he is an agent of a mysterious agency that exists somewhere in an alternative reality. (It seems to me that the agency is not Trans-Temporal so much as Trans-Reality, where Reality conforms to the Many Worlds Hypothesis).

Back in the neo-Islamic asteroid, we find out that Ernst recruited Irene into the agency, rescuing her from the limited future she was facing in her home reality, and that they have been lovers and colleagues in the agency for many years since then. They have a very close, loving relationship, and when Irene decides that she wants to rescue Zubeydeh by recruiting her as Ernst recruited Irene, Ernst is willing. But as Irene mulls the situation, she realizes that rescuing Zubeydeh doesn't accomplish much. What about Zubeydeh's pill-popping housewife mother, who seems to prefer her cage to freedom, or her mad aunt, or Irene's own mother left behind in the home timeline, or her disabled best friend Chloe, who is so socially isolated that she lives vicariously through operas that Irene dismisses as heartless stories about women trapped and killed by social rules while men (especially the morally-ambivalent baritones) are free to have fun while they suffer.

The Two of Them is difficult partly because it's so conflicted. Irene is consumed by guilt for her failures and limitations. She wants women to be as free as men, but she can see that women are often their own worst enemies and complicit in their own oppression. The novel is also self-aware of its own contradictions. This self-awareness starts out as awareness that all stories are artificial, as Irene dissects the cliches of operas and the neo-Islamic poetic fables on TV on the asteroid. Trashy romances that Zubeydeh consumes with a passion and wants to eventually write herself. The fact that Irene and Ernst are moving between probabilities also emphasizes that in some ways they are choosing which story they want to inhabit, which in turn underlines the fact that the one we're reading about is just as arbitrary and full of plot holes as any of the others. Russ takes glee in mocking her own story, in fact, and examining the ways in which it doesn't make sense. Eventually a shocking death occurs, and the novel seems to start unraveling before our eyes, as Irene tries to fix it by imagining that it is a comedy instead of a tragedy.

Yet the nightmare of history won't allow Irene wake up in a comedy. Irene has to face the reality that the oppression of women is deeply engrained in the world and is always working against her, constraining her choices. Ironically, once she cuts herself loose from the agency, which she comes to see as a conspiracy against women, granting freedom to a select few such as herself while abandoning the rest throughout the multiverse, she loses all power of self-determination.

I've always found the end of the novel hair-raising, as Irene dreams of a dream of the mad aunt Dunya, about a valley of dry bones: "Innumerable skeletons are spread from wall to wall, and piled up immeasurably into the half-grey, half-lost rocky ceiling so far from any open love or light, are skeletons lying as they fell long ago in aeons-old attitudes of terror or flight, bones intermingled with bones, heaps of bones choking the dry watercourse and stretching back between the valley walls, a dry, silent carpeting as far as the eye can see." These are pretty clearly the bones of all the women who have died in servitude to men, and nothing in that valley has changed for a very long time. This is an expression of hopelessness and fear that true gender equality can never be achieved in the face of the long history of inequality.

But then, magically, a voice begins to whisper, "Shall these bones live!" and creates a breeze that begins to rustle through the bones, promising new life. I never really understood this ending until a couple of years ago when I discovered that it's a reference to a passage from Ezekiel, where Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones and then hears the voice of God, '“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel."'

I'm still not sure what Russ intends with this reference. I don't think she believes gender equality will be wrought miraculously by a supernatural being. It seems more likely that the miracle will be caused by books like The Two of Them, in which women are given a voice, even if only a bare whisper. Of course, while Russ kept writing for a short while after this book was published, she all too soon fell silent herself. But of course Russ was a Jew and would have been well aware that throughout history the people of Israel have never long been free of oppression, enslavement and exile. There's a deep sense of pessimism in this book, for all the agile acrobatics and humor of the narrative. One thing I noticed this time through is that Irene is furious the whole time, but she is also aware that her anger causes her to make strategic and tactical mistakes. Looming over all of this is the question of whether sympathetic men -- such as Ernst -- can be allies in the project of equality, or whether we are doomed by our culture to keep replicating the same power relationships that our culture has stabilized for thousands of years. It's a powerful meditation, if ultimately a gloomy one.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Dreamsnake.jpegI don't find this novel in my book log, which I started in March 1979, which is kind of remarkable. It implies that I had already read it by that time, which is logistically possible because the hardcover was published in March 1978. But I couldn't afford hardcovers back then, so I either got it through the SF Book Club (May 1978) or borrowed it from a friend. The paperback didn't come out until June 1979. I read McIntyre's first novel, The Exile Waiting, in July 1979, and I'm pretty sure I read those two novels out of order. I don't remember for sure, but I probably met Vonda when I came to Seattle for Norwescon in March 1979, so it's interesting to consider that I had probably already read something by her by then.

In any event, my memory is that I had problems with Dreamsnake, although now having read it a second time it's hard to reconstruct what my objections would have been. I think I probably didn't understand some of the subtler things McIntyre was up to, and I probably found it lacking in the kinds of swashbuckling adventure I still looked for in those days. Not that there's no action in Dreamsnake, and in fact the kind of action there is is one of the subtle things McIntyre is up to.

This is above all a novel about snakes and horses. Earth is a post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, and other than one domed city that has contact with offworld aliens or colonists, which is what The Exile Waiting is about, people live an agrarian or nomadic life at very low tech levels, at least on the surface of things. For example, when they travel long distances they travel by horse, so horses are important characters in the story. I was thinking of it as a kind of post-apocalyptic Arcadia, because the nuclear catastrophe provides a kind of civilizational reset that allows McIntyre to explore some utopian or countercultural ideas about how things might bet organized more equitably. The setting is a little reminiscent of Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast series, or even Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow.

As we follow the Healer, Snake, through this wasteland, we begin to learn that there's other tech at work, however. The Healers use genetically-engineered snakes to treat disease, specifically by modifying the venom glands to produce healing enzymes that are then injected into the patient via snake bite (ow!). The dreamsnake of the title is an alien life form that produces a venom that seems to be like an opiate in killing pain and causing people to enter a dreamlike state of consciousness. Amongst other things, it's used as palliative care for people who are dying a painful death. The crisis of the novel is that Snake loses her dreamsnake. Come to think of it, the primary use is probably to numb patients before they're bitten by the big snakes with the medicinal venom. Dreamsnakes are extremely difficult to come by, so her career as a Healer is in jeopardy. Snake sets off on a journey to try to solve the problem, and through her journey we learn more about this world.

Along with the genetic engineering, the post-apocalyptic people have also learned to control their own fertility through a mechanism that I'm not sure is fully explained. For men it's a matter of controlling the temperature of their testicles so that the sperm is killed. For women, one supposes they are either able to dissolve the ovum or block it from being released or something along those lines. One of the smart things McIntyre does is explore the ways that useful tools like this somatic self-control and the gentically-engineered snakes can be used badly or mistakenly. For example, people can become addicted to the dreamsnakes. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Sonczewski's A Door Into Ocean, which was published later.

There's also a connection between the two novels in the shared interest in nonviolent solutions to conflict. This is perhaps where my younger self would have been most out of step with Dreamsnake. The thing that McIntyre is inventing here is how to tell a dramatic story about a female protagonist in which the climax isn't the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. Throughout the novel she shows problems being solved through cooperation and consensus. The brilliant thing she does in the final climax is resolve the overriding crisis of the novel through cognitive breakthrough. Cognitive breakthrough is a common trope in science fiction, but it often comes on top of the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. McIntyre was part of a movement of New Wave and Feminist writers who challenged this paradigm, and she cleverly points out that cognitive breakthrough -- the scientific Eureka moment -- can work dramatically to replace the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist.

Although I should add here that McIntyre does embrace one conventional heroic -- and indeed traditionally female -- trait: endurance. Like every Andre Norton protagonist ever, Snake is pushed to the limit of endurance and beyond. Her toughness and ability to take the pain is a token of her heroism, alongside her ability to solve the scientific problem.

Without getting into spoilers, the cognitive breakthrough in Dreamsnake also connects the novel to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which was also published later. It's a brilliant stroke involving the explanation for how the dreamsnakes reproduce, and again, how human scientists failed to understand it for so long through their own cognitive biases. This is gripping stuff once you're attuned to it.

McIntyre is modifying a very traditional kind of science fiction story here. I can see why it won a Hugo, because it both embraces the conventional and tweaks it for the current moment. For example, group families are at least as old as Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and McIntyre rings some variations on it based on the counterculture of her time, from the polyamory of the Healers to the way that they don't marry or bear children but only adopt orphans. When one Healer adopts an orphan, the child becomes the responsibility of all Healers, and it will be raised to be a Healer.

On a final, personal note, I have to say that throughout this review I've had to fight the inclination to refer to the author as Vonda rather than McIntyre, because I do know her and consider her a friend. I have one of her awesome bead creatures sitting right here on my desk. [Stops to fondle bead creature.] I was frequently distracted while reading the book by the fact that some of the characters were clearly based on other people I know, or at least people like them. Maybe that's another reason I liked it better the second time around. It's not that I was in it, but my friends were.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
I think it's worth noting that I have taken my last dose of chemo, hopefully for the rest of my life. My brain surgery was on December 10, 2016, so it has been over a year of treatment that knocked the crap out of me. Surgery, radiation+chemo, then twelve months of chemo. The chemo was on a 28 day cycle, so more of a lunar month, really. I should look into whether it really is some kind of witchcraft.

Anyway, I'll continue to use the Optune for the time being, but it doesn't make me feel like crap. The pattern of the chemo in the past few months was that I'd take it for five days, and then the nausea would kick in after the last dose, sometimes a couple days after. My neuro-oncologist said that this was a normal development as the body got more saturated with the chemo over time. This round I started feeling nauseated enough after my third dose that I began taking extra anti-nausea medication during the day. (Usually I just took the anti-nausea meds right before I took the chemo and went to bed.) Based on my last two rounds, I have five or so days of nausea ahead of me, and then I hope I can stop taking so many damned pills and start the recovery process. My previous neuro-oncologist said it could take a few months for me to get back to my status quo ante. I'm hoping I have a head start, but we shall see.

In the meantime, hallelujah, and get thee behind me, chemo! You will not be missed.
randy_byers: (yap)
Yesterday was a milestone of sorts. I saw an oncologist (not my new neuro-oncologist, but a sweet old medical oncologist who is filling in now and then during a transitional period), and he gave me the okay to start my twelfth and final -- FINAL! -- round of chemo. Yes, friends, fourteen months (nearly fifteen) since the tumor was discovered, the treatment phase is almost over. Amen, and hallelujah, brothers and sisters! I took the first dose of the chemo last night, and I'm not really feeling the effects yet. No doubt I'll soon enough be feeling fatigue and nausea. In the meantime, it's hard not to anticipate the celebration to come.

So I've started thinking about how I want to celebrate. One thing I've been dreaming of for a long time is getting back out to La Push for some nature therapy, and fortunately I have a friend who appears willing to take me out there. I may even be able to drive a little on this trip. (I haven't driven at all since the tumor was found, although I was legal to do so once it had been six months since the last seizure.) Other than that, should I throw a party? If nothing else it would be a good excuse to clean my room, which is another thing I haven't done since the tumor was found. It's pretty gross in here! So that's a good possibility, maybe in early April.

In late April I'll be going to Corflu in the LA area (arriving Thursday, departing Monday), which will be my first convention since Sasquan in August 2015. A week after getting back from that I'll be flying with my brother and his family out to a couple of islands in Micronesia. We're going to stop in Pohnpei to visit the mysterious stone city of Nan Madol -- the site, amongst other things -- of entry into the subterranean world in A. Merritt's The Moon Pool. Then onward to Yap for a couple of weeks. These are bucket list things to do. A last trip to Yap was the first thing I thought of when I started thinking about a bucket list.

Budget permitting, I hope to visit friends on the East Coast later in the year, and I hope to travel to Belgium and the UK in 2018. When I'm not traveling, I hope to be writing. The first writing project is to finish rewriting my TAFF report and to finally get it published. Another thing I'll probably work on at some point is to pull out all my LJ and Facebook posts about post-tumor life and see whether/how they read as a story. I had been thinking about putting together another collection of my fanwriting, but that seems less pressing at the moment.

Some of you may be wondering whether my treatment will really be over once the chemo is over. It's true that I will be given the option of continuing to wear the Optune. I've been told that it will be my choice, but I'll need more information and guidance before I make a decision about it. It's definitely a ball and chain to deal with, and so far there isn't enough data to draw any clear conclusions about how much additional time it would give me, especially as the way it's being used has been evolving. Anyway, I'll be getting an MRI in the middle of March to establish a post-chemo baseline, and I'll talk to my neuro-oncologist then about the Optune and quality of life.

There is still a fairly long list of practical/legal matters I've been putting off until after treatmen: a will; a living will; designating someone with power of attorney for me and someone to make medical decisions once I'm incapacitated. For now, however, I'm just going to think about celebrating the end of a long ordeal. Yippee-ki-yay!
randy_byers: (cap)
I'm one of Sarah Gulde's TAFF nominators, and because the voting deadline is coming right up, we are taking the unusual step of posting the PDF of the new issue of Chunga (#25) before we've mailed out the paper copies. If you haven't made up your mind about who to vote for yet, please download the PDF of the new issue, read Sarah's delightful article about the Nerd Camps she's organizing in Portland and then read my endorsement in Tanglewood. Then download the ballot using the link on this page and vote! Instructions for how to vote online can be found on the ballot. Pay close attention to the eligibility requirements, because not everybody can vote for TAFF. Good luck, Sarah!
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Diski In Gratitude.jpgThis book was recommended to me by [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. It's a cancer narrative of sorts, but it's also a memoir. Diski had a highly unpleasant childhood, with two dysfunctional and abusive parents, and an adolescence spent in and out of psychiatric institutions. Eventually, because she had gone to school with her son, Diski was invited to live with Doris Lessing, which she did for four years before Lessing decided she was a lost cause and kicked her out. Diski was the basis for Lessing's novel, The Sweetest Dream.

Diski eventually realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and published a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer and given two to three years to live. This book was the result of the diagnosis, and it was published in 2016 right before she died at age 68. I really struggled with it. I found her a very sour personality -- understandably so considering her difficult early life -- and I found her inability to reconcile herself to death strangely alien. (We'll see how that goes once my cancer really starts to eat me.) Her writing style is allusive in an almost stream of consciousness way, and I found the allusions hard to follow at times. I almost bounced off the book in the very first chapter, as she wrestles with how to write about cancer in a non-cliche way, going through all the conventional approaches that she desperately want to avoid. The self-consciousness was deeply unappealing.

Then, however, she moved on to her life with Doris Lessing, which I found more interesting, even if neither she nor Lessing comes off as a person I'd want to spend time with. But ultimately I was impressed with her honesty and willingness to delve into difficult, unresolvable feelings. As Ron said, she explores the way that gratitude and ingratitude define each other, and she's never sentimentalizes the way in which her own feelings about Lessing and life shuttle back and forth between the two poles. I'm prone to irrational optimism and sentimental romanticism myself, which is one reason I really struggled with the book, but I think her relentless investigation of fear, depression, and mental illness was a reality check I needed to receive. Not everybody has the privilege of a sheltered upbringing or of a loving family and circle of friends. In this section Diski also writes about the famous people Lessing hobnobbed with. Suffice it to say that Idries Shah comes off as a creep and an asshole in her accounting, but R.D. Laing comes off better.

By the end of the book, her free associations had a kind of magical realism to them, tying together completely disparate ideas and alternative, if not contradictory, theories into a unique vision and response to the conundrum of her life. I doubt I'm capable of resisting the cliches as powerfully as she did, but I ended up admiring her for the ability to do so and for creating a vivid depiction of the people she knew and the crazy, messy era of sex and drugs, literary heavyweights and mental hospitals she lived through.


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