Monthly Archives: July 2015

Feminist Sci Fi Analysis: Software Objects and Objectified People

We’re getting down to the wire with the Pedal Zombies Kickstarter project! 

One hundred and twenty six worthy souls have backed the project, bringing us to just over half our funding goal. We’ve got less than six days left to make this happen. So we’ve added a bunch of new reward levels, featuring custom fun stuff ranging from a letter about the future for your kid to read when they grow up to a custom voicemail greeting from the voice of Zordon of Eltar.

Or you can just get the book, which is a pretty sweet deal in its own right!

Onward to the most popular custom reward last time around: the feminist analysis of sci fi classics recommended by backers. 

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang

This analysis is at the request of Mason in California (who, based on his avatar, is an actual zombie!). It’s a longish story, and you can read the entire thing on the publisher’s website. This one was good thinking. The first word of the story is “Her”—referring to a woman named Ana, who plays online warcraft-esque games, is applying for jobs as a software developer, and who goes on throughout the story to navigate a world full of white collar professionals that seems to have gently broken free from any kind of marked expectations or reactions stemming from gender or race. 

It’s not exactly a utopia, though. The tone is of strong connections forged and broken and a pervasive loneliness. The software objects of the title are “digients,” sort of next-level virtual pets programmed with a rapidly developing intelligence and personalities. Over the years, the digients become more human-like, but the human consumers move on to other interests. Ana a few others continue to care about the digients they’ve raised and have to make tough choices to keep them real, valid, alive in the online world. Instead of the social order we’re used to either accepting or trying to bend, the world of this story is defined by the rifts between people—calling into question what it means to be a person, a family, a community. The only thing that can be counted on is the definition—and power—of legal corporate personhood. All else is overshadowed, especially questions of personal identity such as gender; your legal status and your access to funds are what identify you above all. 

It’s a dystopia that almost makes the messiness of negotiating identity seem preferable. Is the story motivated by nostalgia for more complicated times? Or does it contain a warning that achieving racial and gender parity doesn’t mean much if wealth is still what rules the world? I’ll take the latter and run with it. baby robot illustration from the lifecycle of software objects

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

In a not-so distant future, the world is ruled by agribusinesses staying only a step ahead of famine and food disease, and the Kingdom of Thailand is on the verge of sinking into the sea. This novel follows a handful of characters around the city in its final days. There was a lot to like about this book, especially the complicated plot, intense political, military, and corporate intrigue, and the two strong female characters, one of whom is a loyal soldier and the other one of whom is a genetically engineered slave. 

All of this might make for another interesting analysis along similar lines of what personhood means in a world run by distant corporations, but I got completely thrown off track by the book’s repeated in-depth violent rape scenes. To some extent they served a purpose in the plot, and the victim gets revenge, though even the revenge is designed to be more satisfying to the reader than to the character, who after all just wants to be left alone. But I do wonder: would a woman writing the same story have felt the need to drive that point home so luridly, in such precise anatomical detail, and with such relatively brusque treatment given to the eventual revenge and redemption? You can’t get away from vivid reminders of sexual violence these days just while walking around in the world, browsing the books at the grocery store, reading the news, opening twitter. These prolonged scenes felt gratuitous and bruising, like being told a stranger’s unwanted confession of violent fantasy. 

Sale: Culinary Cyclist original edition!

Culinary cyclist new coverWe’re making a beautiful new edition of The Culinary Cyclist: A Cookbook and Companion for the Good Life that officially comes out September 15. It’ll have a new cover, some light edits, and—most exciting—recipe conversions for Europe. 

In the meantime, we still have a few dozen copies of the original edition left in stock and are offering them at $6 (that’s 40% off!) until we run out or the new one arrives from the printer. Even better wholesale discounts apply. Get ’em before they’re gone!

Sale: Culinary Cyclist original edition!

We’re making a beautiful new edition of the Culinary Cyclist that comes out this fall. We still have a few dozen copies of the original edition left in stock and are offering them at $6 (that’s 40% off!) until we run out or the new one arrives from the printer. Even better wholesale discounts apply. Get ’em while they’re here!

Call for submissions: Bikes in Space 4: Utopia / Dystopia

Announcing…. a call for submissions for the fourth annual Bikes in Space anthology.  futuristic elevated cycling highway

Our 2016 theme is: Utopia / Dystopia

Bicycle transportation is often seen as a means towards a utopian project. The joy of cycling, the environmental and health benefits, and so on, are spoken of almost evangelically, and many riders and advocates have lain awake imagining a world where the bicycle reigns supreme, or at least roams free. Some of the political backlash against cycling is a reaction to this dream of a bicycling future; a dystopian fantasy of a society where cars are outlawed and the freedoms they represent to many are curtailed. Yet others love bicycling but question dominant visions that often seems exclusionary and class-divided. 

For the fourth volume of Bikes in Space, Microcosm’s Elly Blue Publishing invites you to imagine, write, and submit short stories and art on the theme of bicycling and utopias, with a feminist perspective. Golden visions of feminist pedal powered communities vs patriarchal auto-dystopias are fine. But even better are tales that complicate the idea of a fully perfect or fully terrible society, show unexpected viewpoints, and are fun to read. 

Bikes in Space is an outlet for speculative fiction (or related genres) short stories with a feminist perspective that incorporate bicycling or bicycles in some way. What these things mean vary, and we seek a wide range of styles and viewpoints.

Most stories we publish are approximately 2,500 words. Some are much shorter, a few are slightly longer. In general, make your story the length it needs to be. 

We especially seek stories that convey perspectives that have not traditionally been seen and heard in science fiction, and encourage people who don’t see themselves as fitting into any sort of science fiction establishment to submit stories.

Please email submissions to elly at microcosmpublishing dot com. The deadline for submissions is Nov 1, 2015. 

To get a sense for the types of stories we publish, check out the original Bikes in Space zine, the second book, and of course volume 3, Pedal Zombies (the best way to get it before August 4, 2015 is via our Kickstarter project).

Big thanks to contributor Aaron M. Wilson (he has a story in the first volume, and wrote a series of bicycle sci-fi reviews for Pedal Zombies) for the idea, inspired by this year being the 100th anniversary of the original publication of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story Herland.


More Feminist Science Fiction Analysis: Genderless Worlds

Slowly, but surely, the Pedal Zombies Kickstarter campaign is wending its way to its goal. We got a nice boost yesterday when Cory Doctorow blogged about us on Boing Boing (praising our production values, no less—we swooned). We also found out that some less-enthused Redditors discovered us, but were disappointed that they only assigned the project 4 Oppression Points. Can’t win ’em all.

As promised, here’s another batch of feminist science fiction analyses. (Read the first two here!) Both of these books were requested by Bikes in Space 2 backer (and two-time contributor) Emily June Street (keep an eye out for her reproductive apocalypse story “Breeders” in Pedal Zombies):

I read this book when I was a teenager and my main memory is of mortification upon reading the sex scenes—I thought that someone might walk past me and just know, perhaps through telepathy or x-ray vision. Returning to it as an adult was in fact a bit nostalgic; not just for the dimly-remembered story of a woman who makes what turns out to be a one-way trip to a planet where a virus has long-ago killed everyone with XY chromosomes, but for an era of half-awed, half-ashamed discovery of early-90s feminism, lesbian separatism, and a sort of post-Mists of Avalon ecological mysticism. Times and tropes have changed so much in 20+ years, but slowly and organically enough that it wasn’t until I reread this that I was able to pinpoint exactly what I’ve seen them change from.

What seems amazing now is that the thing that sets Ammonite apart from other books I’ve seen about all-women worlds is, well, the actual lack of men. No hapless male explorer needs to stumble on this strange society in order to interpret it for a bewildered audience. There’s no Lysistrata-like parable here of how zany and strewed up things can get when women are in charge and men become the underdogs, and also no posturing about how much better a world run by women would be. Maybe it seems like a subtle difference, but it’s a big thing. Instead of a parable about gender differences, the story becomes a case study in genderlessness. Femininity just isn’t a thing on this world, so there’s no need to interrogate what it means. Instead, its inhabitants have a whole complex range of traits, interests, backgrounds—a range usually reserved, especially in science fiction, for the default gender (ahem, men). 

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I remember reading books by Ursula LeGuin as a young person and one of the many things that set them apart is that the human characters of her very distant worlds of the very far future were almost never what we’d think of as, well, white. It’s kind of an obvious point if you think about it—why would race in a galaxy far, far away exist in the same exact way that it does now? But back then, space was populated either entirely by white men, or when others were allowed in, governed by the same unfortunate racial and gender power dynamics of the authors’ time. That’s still very much the case in today’s writing about the future, unfortunately (and oh, the movies, let’s not get started). But there’s a refreshing trend away from that. Ancillary Justice, in winning the 2014 Hugo Award, has come to represent it. The book has inspired many science fiction writers and readers to question their assumptions about race. And at the same time, it’s sparked a countermovement of writers, readers, and losers who don’t approve of science fiction that describes anything but the heroic white male norm. 

The book is lots of fun. It’s a good, classic story of humans and robots and empires engaged in an interstellar, interspecies war. The main drift of the book is the conflict, at points embodied in one consciousness, between two different ways to manage an established empire: Constant, cruel expansion, or methodical, democratic dismantling. On a smaller scale, the book is about personhood: What does it mean to be an individual, the protagonist of your own story? Who qualifies, and who gets to choose? 

Class hierarchy has more meaning than gender in the ruling group. Skin color is meaninful: dark skin is a hallmark of the aristocracy, though it is mentioned that both skin color and gender can easily be altered by anyone with a decent paycheck.

In some of the societies in the book’s expansive universe, gender is so unimportant as to not even be marked by language. The protagonist, who comes from this culture, constantly screws up pronouns as they travel from place to place. For us earthbound readers, the author defaults to the pronoun “she” to describe every character, even if we’ve been told that character happens to be male. The result is pleasantly disorienting. As I read the book I was constantly backpedaling mentally, realizing my subconscious assumptions one at a time as Leckie blasted them to bits with plasma guns. I’m excited to read the next two books in the series.

I’ve got one final batch of reviews coming up in the next 10 days. In the meantime, please check out the Pedal Zombies Kickstarter campaign and consider throwing down $13 for a book and some stickers… or $50 for a chance to see your own sci fi choices raved or panned here!

Podcast Episode 1: An interview with John “Jughead” Pierson

Check out this brand new episode of our first ever podcast:

The premiere episode of Microcosm Publishing’s brand new podcast, featuring Johnny “Jughead” Pierson of Screeching Weasel and the Neofuturists about growing up as a musician, an author, and an actor in a chaotic household and how it directed his adult life when these hobbies turned professional.

Feminist bicycle science fiction lives! (Or does it?)

Our newest Kickstarter project has gone live! This one is for Pedal Zombies: 13 Feminist Science Fiction Stories, published under our Elly Blue Publishing imprint. The project is being managed for us by the Zombie-Living Alliance, which aims to promote peace, understanding, and an end to violence between the undead and the few remaining living. We hope that Pedal Zombies will prove to be a small part of that reconciliation. (John Kerry has yet to comment on his availability as a mediator.)

Backers will get a bunch of goodies, including a discount on the book + shipping, some undead rights bike stickers that we’re creating just for project supporters (oh yes, they’ll be good), and other fun rewards. We’re also bringing back popular custom rewards from the last two Bikes in Space projects: One of which allows you to choose a sci fi book or story and I’ll read it and write up a feminist analysis of. Last year, acclaimed hard sci fi author David Brin jumped in to the fray to leave a fairly amazing comment defending his book Glory Road. Will we be so lucky this time around? Time will tell.

Last time I around I got a bunch more requests, so I’ll run the analyses in several separate blog posts. Here are the first two:

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Luke from the UK asked me to read this. I did, a year ago, on the train, rolling through Utah’s endless salt flats, and then I promptly lost the book. But I still can’t shake the nightmarish imagery of a post-apocalyptic soviet city, in which scavengers and the militaristic government compete to seek out mysterious and dangerous alien relics. The awfulness of this toxic future is, as in real life, accentuated for women. The men in the story risk their lives on dangerous missions in the forbidden zone; the women encounter violence on the street and in their homes. The line between a sexist depiction or a straight-up description of a sexist world is harder to parse here. The book was written in an era in which the USSR brooked no overt criticism. It’s absolutely a veiled critique, and not necessarily a feminist one—but it’s also clearly an honest amplification of the authors’ own brutal reality.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My mom recommended this book (thanks, Mom!), and I devoured it in one go, quickly followed by the other two books in the trilogy rapt with excitement and dread.

Roadside Picnic, the story is an ugly dystopian tale of a terrible pre- and weird post-apocalypse. It’s absolutely clear to see what Atwood is critiquing here, and it’s all very gendered. The future in these books is an all-too believable future, where corporations rule the earth. Across all social classes and places, women are treated as less than human and violence is the norm. The plague that nearly wipes out humanity is brought about in a gruesome drama of domestic violence.

But at the same time, the women in this book, oppressed as they are, have agency. One character who grows up as a child sex slave says that it doesn’t bother her; she’s never known anything else and she’s learned to get by. But her sexist oaf of a boyfriend is tortured by her history, the unfairness of it. Another character uses the term “trading” to describe what someone else might call prostitution; she trades what she has for rides, food, gifts for friends. Far from being a victim or ashamed, she’s an astute trader and builds a stunning artistic career. If you’re wondering how to honestly depict ugly, violent sexism without glamorizing or reinforcing it, these books are a solid primer.

More reviews coming soon. In the meantime, please check out the Pedal Zombies Kickstarter project and consider chipping in to get a hold of some fantastic, chilling, funny, all-too-possible stories. Thank you!


Xerography Debt #37

“We don’t just blindly provide ‘good’ reviews—we’re here to support a community and foster its members. If your zine is reviewed,you earned that ink. Keep up the good work!” opens this issue of the review zine with perzine tendencies. Since 1999, Davida Gypsy Breier’s H.P. history-preserving tar in Xerography Debt might be best summarized as an obsession for all involved, none of which are likely to be as wealthy as the preserved zine king depicted on the cover. Billy da Bling Bunny Roberts recently said “It’s the glue that holds the zine community together.” Maintaining three issues per year, the 37th issue of Xerography Debt is still the same ol’ charming personality, allowing a hand-picked cast of contributors to wax philosophical about the zines they love, where those zines find them in their lives, the history of Irish zines, and incessantly complain about postage increases. The reviewers hand-select hundreds of zines to write about and the result is enthusiastic, satisfying, and under-saturated! In an age of blogs and tweets, Xerography Debt is a beautiful, earnest anachronism, a publication that seems to come from a different era, but is firmly entrenched in the now. And they want to review your zines in future issues: Davida Gypsy Breier / PO Box 11064 / Baltimore, MD 21212

Strategies Against Amateurs: Four questions for Joshua Ploeg

joshua ploeg in a candid moment

I just spent an entire month in a smelly van with wickedly funny rocker and vegan chef Joshua Ploeg, author of four Microcosm cookbooks, going around on the Dinner and Bikes tour. Tour life is a mixture of hectic and regimented, and in that time we never got a chance to sit down and do a proper interview. You can follow Joshua’s schedule here, keep track of his doings here, and buy his new album here (vinyl) or here (digital)

You’re the Traveling Vegan Chef—and that’s so much more than just going places and cooking. What does it mean? How is what you do different than, say, a catering company or a chef who works at a restaurant?

Well, I go from town to town, usually on public transportation or rideshare… I don’t really bring any gear, not even my knives lately. I cook often in apartments or homes for dinner parties, sometimes in random facilities for multimedia or art events and presentations, sometimes popups in restaurants, and occasionally a wedding thrown in there. It’s pretty ramshackle… the good things are I get to hang out and party with the hosts, I don’t have a boss and the trips usually cover themselves as I go along. I’ll spend a few days to a few weeks in each town then move on to the next. In a way it’s sort of a medieval model crossed with a punk rock touring concept.

What was the first cookbook or cookzine that you wrote? How many have you made since? Any favorites?

The first one was a comb-bound, photocopied tome called Something Delicious This Way Comes: Spellbinding Vegan Cookery. It was fun. That’s why I started touring with dinner parties, I was trying to sell that thing. Although I had been doing random events and regular dinners already for several years before that started, I just stayed mostly in my own area (the Pacific Northwest) before. I’ve made I think eight since then, with several more in the queue, with two publishers and still some self-made items as well. I like This Ain’t No Picnic a lot because it has some fun photos, interesting commentary, playlists, etc. It’s fun conceptually and is fairly interactive and involved a bunch of friends in the whole affair. Also So Raw It’s Downright Filthy which I like because it has pictures of garbage and is a garish colour.

Your band Select Sex has a new album! Tell me about it!

Yes, comes out end of June/early July! It’s on the German queercore label Our Voltage. They also put out Vow, Body Betrayal, Red Monkey, Wishbeard and our Select Sex 7″ so far. Vinyl will be limited and is an import. People will be able to mail order them, or can get them at our live shows. The download will be easier to come by, the label should have a link to that. The record is called Strategies Against Amateurs. You’re welcome! It’s good hardcore with some pretty melodic parts, I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve been on so far. Catchy and moody but also pretty brutal here and there. Live show wise, I have some exciting things planned for the next year as far as performance. Gonna take it up a notch. You’ll see. (Update: You can now get Strategies Against Amateurs on vinyl or as a digital download.)

Can you talk about how your music and your cooking are connected? Logistically, thematically, methodologically, however else you’re thinking about it?

My music has always been chaotic and not pretty, so is my life, so is my cooking. It can be challenging, I use weird but functional methods sometimes. I believe in using what you find around you and living in the circumstances you find yourself in and shopping where the people in each place shop and selling your stuff at a reasonable price. Sometimes things are abrasive or challenging, not everyone is going to like everything I do. I don’t try to alter the course for greater demand or pay any attention to trends. I do this more or less how I want to do it and it is generally only affected by logistics. If it is too screwy for some but inspiring to others, fine. It ain’t pretty but it is beautiful.

This interview with Joshua Ploeg is part of our ongoing series of author interviews. The previous one was with Teenage Rebels author Dawson Barrett. The next is with cartoonist Bikeyface.

Meet the Microcosm workers: An interview with sales director Thea Kuticka

thea kuticka at the beachA big welcome to our newest Microcosm worker, sales director Thea Kuticka. Thea has been here for a month, getting to know our systems (aka, epic wading through lots and lots of spreadsheets), getting acquainted with everyone, and sharing her experience and insights from over a decade in publishing (and also her home grown blackberries, yum!). I asked her some questions over email.

You’re the newest staff person at Microcosm. How are you settling in? What’s your favorite part about your work space here?

I’m very excited to have landed at Microcosm and feel lucky to be working with such a welcoming group. My favorite part of my workstation is a hand-sewn Harvey Pekar mascot sporting a Microcosm patch. Pekar is an excellent reminder of the extraordinary events that can come out of ordinary life.

What’s been the most fun?

Spontaneous conversations about food and book cover art and the pink plunger. [Editor’s note: We learned something new in the office last week: pink plungers are designed for sinks with a flat bottom. Incidentally, we are always on the look out for books to publish about DIY handy work!]

You came to us with a whole lot of publishing industry experience. Can you recap some of the highlights?

I caught the publishing bug in Eugene, Oregon, where I started out watching friends assemble skate mags with glue and scissors and plenty of hours at Kinko’s. I soon volunteered with some literary magazines (Emergency Horse, Two Girls Review, and Northwest Review), and was lucky enough to get a job at Black Sun Books (I harassed the owner daily until he finally gave in). At Black Sun, I found an amazing mentor who taught me a lot about acquiring and selling books, by hand, by suggestion, and by listening. Later highlights include working for a nonprofit Chicana/o publisher in Arizona, then joining Dark Horse Comics at a time when the big box stores were clamoring for manga and comics in book format. More recently, I fell into an outreach role for a start-up publisher with a list of beautifully created children’s books.

What’s your favorite kind of book to read? Any recent standouts? Or long-time favorites?

harvey pekar at the officeMy favorite kind of book to read is one that will inspire me creatively. I look for stories that come from a creative impulse. These are inspired novels and memoirs such as Woman Warrior or Blood Meridian or Giving Up the Ghost. I’ll read National Book Award books and then pick up a book on the Zodiac Killer.

I don’t like to admit this, but I am an impatient reader. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages I tend to set it down. I love all types of cookbooks though (eye candy!), especially about fermentation (Wild Fermentation, yes!). 

New favorites include Ruby by Cynthia Bond, a haunting ghost story of survival with a satisfying dose of magical realism. I recently discovered Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A new edition had been released with this haunting cover art by Thomas Ott and I had to read what was inside. See how easily persuaded I am?

What’s your favorite kind of knotty publishing problem to figure out?

There’s something very communal about sharing a good book, and for me the question is: How to get a book that I love into everybody else’s hands. Once I discover a book, I can’t help but talk about it and want to share it. There’s something intimate about reading that touches all of the senses—this may sound weird, but if a book doesn’t feel good in my hand, I have a difficult time sticking with it for two or three hundred pages. I know, they say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but the thing is we do. We judge the cover, the size of the text, the blurbs on the back and the people who are saying, read this fucking book, it’s a New York Times pick damnit!

It’s not enough to create a good book. Now you’re competing with all of these other forms of entertainment, because for most people, reading is such a commitment (wait! There’s a movie?) that the challenge for publishers is to overcome information overload. Readers think they already know what they want to read until they find the one book on the one subject they haven’t yet discovered. It’s like being the first on your block. It’s what makes you want to share. We’ve become such expert browsers that we may have forgotten that at the heart of all of this is a community, and for a publisher like Microcosm, books are the community that informs and inspires. All of the rest—the social networking, the online gamers, and niche markets is gossip that involves books, so it may as well be Microcosm’s books. There’s so much potential emerging in the industry and that bodes very well for readers and writers alike.

Can you talk a little about the direction you think the publishing industry is heading, but also what you would like to see the future hold for books and readers?

we have always lived in the castle coverI’m optimistic! And this is coming from someone who tends to see the glass half empty. The desire to read is as strong as ever—it’s just how we read and the tools we use to access those ideas that have changed. It used to be TV that would kill the book, then it was gaming, now it’s ebooks. But what hasn’t changed is our insatiable need for more—we still want to be entertained, inspired, discovered—there’s a huge collaboration going on now between readers and publishers.

What this all means? The consolidation of big publishers has created opportunities for smaller publishers by providing a place where readers and authors can feel understood and appreciated. A company like Microcosm now has the ability to respond more quickly to market changes than a larger publishing house. Because readers are savvy, they adjust their habits to conveniently fit their needs. The variety of platforms also increases the ability for readers and publishers to get the word out. The downside is that there’s more of a strain on resources for small publishers when it comes to outreach. But that’s a different conversation.

How we discover, read, and access books may change, but if a publisher rethinks their strategies by printing closer to their distribution centers (domestic) and adjust their print runs to more realistic numbers, they will be more nimble in the long term.

Lots of books don’t find their readers no matter how hard you try, but it helps to take chances, and the digital world (because Twitter is free buzz) helps publishers do this—the tone is less formal, more collaborative, but the goals are similar. Rather than depending on the Oprah Factor or the coveted Publishers Weekly review, publishers can begin to understand that their readers have become some of the best advocates and sales people for the books they love. The difficulty I see now is how a small publisher can maintain an edge and still remain sustainable.

This is part of a series of interviews with Microcosm workers. The last interview was with Nathan Lee Thomas.