Friday Fiction: “Danny Dunn” series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine

This week’s Friday Fiction is inspired by Rachel Manija Brown, who reminded me about the “Danny Dunn” series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. They were quite formative for me, so thank you Rachel!

The first book came out in 1954 and the last in 1977. The first handful featured Danny Dunn (a curious kid way too smart for his own good), his friend Joe Pearson (a hilariously mopey budding poet and writer), and Professor Bullfinch (basically your stereotypical jolly scientist, for whom Danny’s mom is a housekeeper). Later on, Irene Miller (a Cool Girl who is just as into/good at science as Danny, her father is also a scientist) joins the team. Sometimes Professor Bullfinch’s frenemy Dr. Grimes shows up.

The books are written for older kids in school–you generally need some scientific understanding to enjoy them. They’re pretty fun, and very funny, and frequently formulaic. The formula runs something like this: Professor Bullfinch is working on something scientific. Danny et al mess with it in some manner. Adventure and shenanigans ensue!

Danny Dunn plots were usually a blend of adventure and SF, although some of the them were adventure-only. Like the one where they got stranded on a desert island. Anyway, the SF ones were probably the first SF books I ever encountered. I honestly can’t remember how old I was when I discovered the series. A kid for sure. A kid who hadn’t yet heard the bigram “science fiction.” But even if I had, I’m not sure I would have applied the term to the books.

Here’s an example. One of the first books I read was “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.” The main plot concerns Professor Bullfinch’s enormous computer (think UNIVAC and punch cards). When the professor leaves on a business trip, Danny promptly uses it to do his homework (proving the authors truly understood kids). I’m not a youngster, but when I was in high school, we had a standing PC at home. Danny Dunn’s machine was another world away. It was science fiction, all right … historical science fiction.

However, it was quite accurate, which I didn’t realize how much I appreciated until I got older and attempted to learn Java and Python. In that story, Professor Bullfinch had previously taught Danny how to program the computer. Danny realizes that he can use programming to do his and Joe’s homework, especially computation-heavy subjects like math … and does so. After he turns in the typed pages, his teacher objects on the grounds that it is not really “doing the work” if a computer is doing it for you.

Danny retorts that you have to understand the problem in order to program it well enough to have it do your homework, so he is totally “doing the work,” he is just being efficient (and perhaps a bit smug) about it.

Danny’s mother (more similar to Danny than he figures) realizes that while this is true, it is also Danny’s strategic weakness. So she gives a suggestion to Danny’s teacher that she call Danny’s bluff. And she does! She tells Danny that since he is SO advanced, and SO smart, then she should assign him more advanced work. After all, he’s got a computer to do it for him. Danny charges ahead but quickly realizes that it is a lot of work to do learn new knowledge and then to program it sufficiently that he can get the computer to spit out answers on command! Mom and Teach were right all along.

Curiously, debugging is not part of the plot. Just as well, I think poor Danny had enough to deal with at that point. Eventually he admits defeat and goes back to doing homework the old-fashioned way. The book ends on a brief discussion of humans vs computers and the professor declares that no matter how smart they get, computers will never have human creativity. (Someone needs to write the fanfic where Professor Bullfinch encounters story-writing neural networks.)

As you can extrapolate, the books were wholesome and fun and it was so nice to see a girl interested in science who was never, ever condescended to in the text. (Okay–Danny briefly tries, is slapped down hard, and never tries again.) In fact, Irene had some leading roles in the science plots. She made it seem incredibly natural and fitting that girls should be interested in science and should pursue a scientific career.

I have told some incredulous people that I never felt–as a child–that as a girl, I was unfit for science. Although I eventually encountered sexism and misogyny in science, that did not happen until college and graduate school–so judging by some stories I’ve heard, I was very lucky for a time. Which is a somewhat sad assessment, but that’s a different discussion. The point is that the Danny Dunn series were an extremely important part of my childhood experience that eventually led me to trying my hand at a science career. (It didn’t work out, but that’s hardly the books’ fault.)

Speaking of science careers, where would Danny have ended up? From the books, Danny is clearly ahead of the curve on intelligence. It’s unclear just how much, but I could easily see him going to–for instance–MIT for college. At the very least, he’d have one hell of a personal statement. Perhaps he would have pursued graduate school afterwards, although I could just as easily see him setting up a tinkering lab and inventing something and starting his own company.

And having known a lot of people with that level of intelligence, I must say that what really and truly stands out about the Danny Dunn series to me–at a level that approaches fantasy–is how ridiculously and wonderfully well-adjusted he is. If he continues down his path in life, he’s going to be the polar opposite of the Tortured And/Or Asshole Genius archetype. He has a best friend who is not into science but who is his equal! He is kind to an equally smart and well-adjusted girl! He still has a lot of room to grow (see above). When he messes up, he fesses up. His intelligence is occasionally no match for judiciously applied wisdom and experience (see above). And he still needs and loves his friends and his family.

As a former Smart Child, I used to wish I was smarter. But–to mangle that quote from Harvey–today I think it would be nicer to be more loving, and to be more loved. But of course, I hope Danny Dunn and his family and friends went on having both in their lives.

Friday Fiction: “A Very Young …” by Jill Krementz

(L-R) Book covers: A Very Young Dancer, A Very Young Skater, A Very Gymnast.

This week’s Friday Fiction is a threefer of nonfiction books that follow young kids doing cool things: “A Very Young Dancer,” “A Very Young Skater,” and “A Very Young Gymnast”, all by Jill Krementz. (Krementz had a whole series of “Very Young X” books, of which these were likely the most popular.)

What is it about ballet, ice skating, and gymnastics that is catnip to (certain) little girls? I don’t know, but they enchanted me as a child. When I moved to the US at age 7, one of very few entertainments I had available to me was the public library. I was barely able to read English at the time, so I wandered the aisles aimlessly and somehow stumbled into those books. With their beautiful photographs and minimal text–the books are all “narrated” by their 10-year-old subjects–they were perfect for me. All three follow affluent young white girls growing up in New York City in the late 70s, training for each of those passions.

“A Very Young Dancer” follows Stephanie (last name not given, but easily searchable), a girl training in ballet at the famous School of American Ballet–the one that Balanchine founded and that feeds into the New York City Ballet. She lands the role of Marie/Clara–the star!–in SAB’s Nutcracker. It follows her through the performance and then sees her settle back into the rhythm of regular hard work at SAB, post-Nutcracker.

“A Very Young Skater” follows Katherine Healy, a girl training in figure skating. It ends with Healy doing a figure skating exhibition event.

And “A Very Young Gymnast” follows Torrance York, a girl training and competing in gymnastics. She qualified for the Junior Olympics while the book was in publication.

As a person with an obsessive personality, I realize now that what I loved about these books, in addition to how beautiful these athletes’ movements were, was the obvious amount of dedication and love that these kids were putting into their work. I loved the thought of my job being to do something beautiful over and over until it became even more beautiful.

(“A Very Young Dancer” was also my introduction to ballet, of course. I didn’t get to take lessons until I was in my 30s, but what can I say, the book worked.)

As an adult, I went back and wondered what became of these kids. Google told me.

York probably had the most conventional path in life. After the events of the book, she was invited to train at an Olympic gym. Although that was once her dream, she turned it down on the grounds that she felt satisfied with what she had already accomplished and did not want it to consume her life. Today she is a photographer and has, as far as I can tell, no links to gymnastics.

Athletically speaking, Healy was by far the most successful of the three. She wanted to be a ballet dancer herself. She also entered SAB and danced the Nutcracker lead in 1978 and 1979. (I have not been able to stop wondering: did she and Stephanie ever meet? Stephanie’s book came out in 1976, so I suspect they just missed each other.) I have seen Healy called a child prodigy in both skating and ballet. I don’t know about skating, but I’d agree about ballet–check out these videos of her dancing at age 10 and at age 13. I’ve seen pre-professional students who don’t have her quality of movement. Her command of movement and port de bras makes me want to weep.

Healy won a handful of international ballet competitions and when she was merely 15, joined the English National Ballet as a principal dancer. That’s the kind of thing I’d say was too unrealistic for a story. Today she teaches ballet and I think also skating. I’m honestly a little surprised that she isn’t more famous. Just imagine if she’d been born in the Instagram era.

What about the actual very young dancer? Although her book inspired a generation of girls to take up ballet, Stephanie’s dance career was over just after it began. Despite having danced the lead in Nutcracker, she was, to be blunt, kicked out of SAB just a few years later. It’s not really clear why, and anyone who knew has long since passed. That said, what evidence remains does suggest that she was not progressing as quickly or as well as her teachers would have liked. As one might imagine, it was a shock going from a literal poster child for ballet to being booted from a famous ballet school. Stephanie now lives in Wyoming, in a life as far removed from ballet as possible. (And if you didn’t believe me when I said that this book was popular, well, I hope the fact that a New York Times article focuses on her after-story is convincing. That, and the mention that superstar Wendy Whelan got inspired to dance from the book.)

I went back to the books to see if there was any hint of these outcomes–any seeds of the future–in the children’s own words about themselves. It’s easy to read too much into these things, but one thing I noticed what that York and Healy come across as more serious and, well, professional in their books. Unlike Stephanie, they discuss technique in their narration, which implies a deeper level of understanding and ownership of their work.

That’s probably far too much tea-leaf-reading to apply to the words of 10-year-old kids, but it does align with what I know to be true. If you want to succeed at the highest levels, you pretty much have to be your own coach. Of course it helps to have piles of wealth and privilege and the world’s best teachers behind you (as all three girls did), but even then, they can’t do it for you.

A bigger issue is probably that, at least according to her interview decades later, Stephanie didn’t actually enjoy ballet enough to progress in it as a career. She said that classes were laborious and unpleasant. I’ve heard the same … from professional dancers. You’re going to have shit days. There is no job in the world with no shit days.

None of this is to judge Stephanie in a bad light. Shit days are much harder to deal with when you are 10 than when you are 30, unless you are one of those preternaturally mature children (I have the feeling that York and Healy both were). I am only sad that she didn’t get to discover for herself that ballet was probably not her calling, and that the choice was ripped away from her so abruptly and quasi-publicly. As a child, it must have been enormously difficult to process.

I suppose all that is to say: for all that I idolized these girls, and for all that society loves to fawn over stories of successful children, there are benefits to being a grown-up. Like maturity. Perspective. Context. Fantasies aside, I would never have been able to handle being a professional ballet dancer at 15 or training for the Olympics at 12.

I once heard a successful older woman who runs her own business say that that professional success comes for you when you are truly ready for it. While that flatten a lot of aspects, for me, I find that it has been overwhelmingly true. So I hope that we can all have, and take, the time that we need to get on our own paths, Very Young or not.

Friday Fictions: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This week’s Friday Fiction is “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine. I want to thank @superyarn for cluing me into this book. She did so by first recommending Martine’s short story “The Hydraulic Emperor,” which was so cool that it made me want to read “A Memory Called Empire.”

By the way, if you’ve already read one story, I think you would probably like the other. Both feature poetic and Borgesian turns of phrase and an aesthetic that I think of as cyberpunk Byzantium (Martine is a historian of the Byzantine Empire). Their aims are quite different though–Hydraulic Emperor is an incisive thought experiment that instantly put me in mind of a William Gibson/KJ Parker mashup, except with aliens.

Whereas Memory is a gorgeous sprawl of space-opera-as-political-thriller. What surprised me was how much it luxuriated in every beat of the plot. The story never rushes, even during scenes where characters are dying. The bulk of the plot–flashbacks notwithstanding–takes place over a couple of sleepless days, which you wouldn’t guess from the sheer mass of the book. Which you also wouldn’t guess from the e-book (which is the version that I bought, because living abroad discourages the purchase of paper books), because the engine of the story flowed so frictionlessly that I was never tired or bored or anything but gently propelled from one page to the next.

Speaking of plots. Lsel Station is an independent world near the enormous and enormously influential Teixcalaanli Empire, which spans multiple star systems. When said empire abruptly requests a new ambassador from Lsel–without disclosing what happened to the previous ambassador, Yskander, who had been there for decades–Mahit Dzmare is chosen for the role.  She must go to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s capital city-planet and try to untangle the situation, not to mention survive.

Fortunately, or so Mahit thinks, she will have help in the form of an imago: a chip surgically implanted into her brainstem that carries the knowledge and personality of her predecessor. It’s not another person in your body. It’s more akin to the Trill/Symbiont situation from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, only the Symbiont is another member of your own species.

Naturally, the imago promptly malfunctions when Mahit, and the ghost of Yskander, face their first crisis. Now Mahit can only rely on herself … and the Teixcalaanli people around her. Who consider her rather a credit to her inferior culture.

This sets up Mahit’s primary internal conflict. On the one hand, she knows that Lsel is always in danger of being swallowed up by the ever-hungry empire. On the other hand, she loves consuming the empire’s culture: its language, its names, its popular culture.

And through Mahit’s point of view, we experience the gorgeous culture. The capital planet is a lush and golden place where you may dine on stuffed flowers (plus or minus poison), where jewel-colored birds dance in vertical gardens, where the emperor sits on a sunburst throne of golden spears.

(A brief aside. Although Lsel’s technology is far more important to the plot, and the #Teixcalaanli #Aesthetic is generally about being lush and beautiful and quite literally organic (Mahit says at one point that Lsel station doesn’t have many animals), there is one very important bit of Teixcalaanli that is technological: their capital city is run on algorithms. The subways are fully automatic based on traffic patterns, and–anxiety of our times–the city’s police force, the Sunlit, are an unholy fusion of people and AI into a collective mind. They are literally faceless and indistinguishable behind their identical gold masks. The algorithms governing their actions are said to be flawless and impersonal, but the text reminds us that no algorithms are. Very au courant.)

Even Teixcalaanli names are gorgeous: they are mathematical poetry. We meet Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, et al. Speaking of poetry, the Teixcalaanli cultured elite communicates through poetry to an extent that is, in my opinion, only matched by Chinese palace dramas.

There is a scene where Mahit watched several Teixcalaanli natives spontaneously play with poetry forms, and she realizes that even though she has studied their language and culture all her life, she doesn’t have that skill. And she is pulled apart on the inside between wanting to have that skill and being ashamed of having that want. Because the Teixcalaanli Empire are colonizers who would swallow her world whole. Because to Teixcalaanli citizens, she is and will always be a barbarian who cannot compose such verses, who does not have that native fluency in language and cultural understanding.

This was the part where I fell in love with Mahit. Because I know that immigrant feeling all too well, even though we have experienced vastly different aspects. The major difference between us–other than her ambassadorial status–is that I applied for citizenship. I joined the empire. (No regrets. But that’s a different blog post.)

SFF is full of empires, because empires have power and power makes for stakes and stakes make for plot (YMMV; I’m being general here). What’s interesting to me about “A Memory Called Empire” is that Mahit, an outsider, is helping to stabilize the Empire. You don’t see this a whole lot. You get overthrowing the monarchy and restoring the rightful heir and so on, but rarely do you get a protagonist who decides that the only winning move is not to play.

At the end–mild spoiler alert–Mahit gets to ask for whatever she wants from the Empire. She asks to be allowed to go home before the Empire can conquer her, too. In a book full of politicking and rebellion and murder, it’s a zen moment when she seizes back her destiny. She knows that in a day, a week, a month, a year–she could get recalled anytime–but in the meantime, she is home.

I think the part of the fantasy that grabs me the most isn’t even how gorgeous the Teixcalaanli Empire is, but that Mahit both wants to go home and has a home that she loves to go to. My home is different now, and I’m happy enough with it, but I am very slightly envious of Mahit. Only very slightly, because who knows what will happen in Book Two, which I have preordered! (Well, book one set up a future plot involving aliens so I imagine the payoff will come, or start to come, in book two).

But in the meanwhile, I would like to imagine myself there on Lsel Station, in spirit, to welcome Mahit home.

Friday Fictions: The “Wizard of Oz” series by L. Frank Baum

This week’s Friday Fiction is the “Wizard of Oz” series–the portion by L. Frank Baum. I don’t mean that I dislike the books written by other authors, but rather that I’ve never read any of them.

All are free to read at Project Gutenberg.

I find it impossible to sum up the series because the books are so different from each other, but they’re mostly fantasy adventures of Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas, who gets transported to the wacky magical Land of Oz. Over the course of the stories she becomes a Princess, makes loads of friends, solves magical problems, and so forth. They’re written for kids but you can find political/socio/economic jabs in there if you’re paying attention.

I think most Anglo readers encounter the first book, the musical, or the movie through cultural osmosis by age 10. The first book, while very fun, is very different thematically from the rest of the books. Which is probably why I didn’t know until I was a teen that there was a whole series after! Baum essentially expands on the world of Oz and its magical inhabitants and all their weird adventures.

It must have helped that Baum was untroubled by the notions of “continuity” and “consistency” and pretty freely either retconned or wholesale ignored contradictory bits in his earlier books as he went on. He also, like Doyle, attempted to can the series at one point but was convinced to retcon that as well after a massive outpouring of written protest from kids.

As a kid, what I loved about the books was the completely nutters “magic” “system” of Oz, which was basically whatever tf Baum felt like making up–BUT he apparently had occasional fits of fans-arguing-on-the-internet levels of specificity:

“The very fact that Dorothy lived in Oz, and had been made a Princess by her friend Ozma, prevented her from being killed or suffering any great bodily pain as long as she lived in that fairyland. She could not grow big, either, and would always remain the same little girl who had come to Oz, unless in some way she left that fairyland or was spirited away from it. But Dorothy was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or “destroyed” in other ways by evil magicians, were she not properly protected.”

I also must say that I wouldn’t have liked it half as much without the gorgeous illustrations of John R. Neill, whose Ozma went through several evolutions to become a Gibson Girl swathed in impossibly, gorgeously flowy robes. I don’t actually like Ozma that much as a person or a ruler, but she is one of my Princess Aesthetics Ideals. It influenced me hugely (right up there with Sailor Moon!) as a scribbling teenager. In fact, looking back, the fact that the series was so girl-centric is probably a large reason that I loved it so much. There are a number of dudes in the books but they’re … honestly … mostly set-dressing. Girls do the majority of the fighting and the magic.

As an adult, I still enjoy everything above–especially the art–but when I do a reread, I find myself interested in the fairly unvarnished ways that his brains made it into the books. For instance, in The Road to Oz, the Tin Woodman goes on a rant about how money does not exist in Oz and is a terrible thing (one wonders how he would know that, if money didn’t exist in Oz …) and we should all be making transactions with love and kindness. And in a later book, Baum has Ozma (who is quite magically powerful, although insistently not ALL-powerful) deliver a lecture about how life would be pointless and sad if you had everything magically come to you and that the only joy in life is serving others and making their lives better.

Whatever you think of those two opinions, Baum held some indisputably shitty ones. He wrote two very nasty pieces about Native American genocide. Like, even for the time, I think they were astonishingly awful. I wouldn’t say this really comes through in the books, but there is a pretty stark omission of non-white shades of skin, whether it’s for the humans or the fairies.

And on a far pettier note, it always annoyed me that Ozma outlawed the practice of magic other than for herself, Glinda, and the Wizard. It rather seems pointless when the entire land of Oz is … magical … and seems unnecessarily hierarchical when you’ve got an essentially socialist country. But I guess if everyone can have an emerald the size of a sofa in their living room, then you need something to distinguish the ruler …

But you know what, we can do better. In fact I like to think that Baum predicted that we would. Here is a quote from his foreword to The Emerald City of Oz:

Perhaps I should admit on the title page that this book is “By L. Frank Baum and his correspondents,” for I have used many suggestions conveyed to me in letters from children. Once upon a time I really imagined myself “an author of fairy tales,” but now I am merely an editor or private secretary for a host of youngsters whose ideas I am requested to weave into the thread of my stories.

These ideas are often clever. They are also logical and interesting. So I have used them whenever I could find an opportunity, and it is but just that I acknowledge my indebtedness to my little friends.

My, what imaginations these children have developed! Sometimes I am fairly astounded by their daring and genius. There will be no lack of fairy-tale authors in the future, I am sure.

About that, he was certainly correct.

Friday Fictions: “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge

This week’s Friday Fiction is the terrifying and beautiful “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

You know the Rilke quote, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”? This. This is what he was talking about.

So let’s jump into the plot. Zéphine is the crown princess of Retrouvailles, a nation guarded by an army of magical unicorns who have a contract with the queen, the Reine-Licorne. Zéphine, whose title is Demoiselle la Plus Pure, must perform the unicorn dance on her nineteenth birthday, when she begins to look for a suitor. And at the unicorn dance, she presents a suitor to the army of unicorns. If they like him, the two can wed and one day Zéphine will become the new Reine-Licorne. If they don’t approve … they run the man through on their horns. Repeat every full moon.

That’s a pretty good taste of the aesthetics of this story. And it only escalates from there, and I loved every bloody minute of it.

I love stories that takes the beautiful and make it terrifying. In fact, l generally love stories with a little bite to them. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the occasional happy ending where everyone wins, but my favorite stories all have some sort of sacrifice. Some sort of unfathomable choice being made. I’m sure this speaks volumes about myself and my worldview.

(Or, let’s bring in guest lecturer Edward Elric: “A lesson without pain is meaningless. For you cannot gain anything without sacrificing something else in return, but once you have overcome it and made it your own, you will gain an irreplaceable fullmetal heart.”)

And this is true of the story. Zéphine loses everything she loves over the course of the story, but she does gain something too: self-determination. In the beginning of the story, she’s hating herself for being too weak to commit suicide. By the end of the story, she’s surveying the wreckage of her life and kingdom and helping rebuild both. And she is willing to fight for herself. Bleed for her people. And the others around her learn from her lesson as well, and take their own steps. She has a hard-won, clear-eyed understanding of her world and how to work within it. She doesn’t hide from the beautiful terror; she embraces it and makes it her own.

Long live Zéphine, la Reine-Licorne.

Friday Fictions: “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

Today, Friday Favorites returns under a new name: Friday Fictions.

And since I recently moved to Switzerland, we’ll make it topical: this week the book is “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. The book was written in German; I read an English translation. It’s free to read online at Project Gutenberg (English, German).

This book was apparently once a classic of Western kid lit but I didn’t read it until a few months ago on a whim. It turns out to be very Swiss, and very charming if you like the trinity of God, Nature, and Dairy Products.

So, the plot! Heidi is an orphan who has been raised by Dete, the sister of her dead mother. Dete has a chance at a new job but can’t bring a child with her, so she drops Heidi off with Heidi’s grandfather on a mountaintop.

The grandfather is known far and wide to be a crank, and the village gossip network scolds Dete all the way down the mountain. Fortunately for Heidi, grandfather takes to her very well. Plus Heidi is basically a five year old manic pixie, so I suppose Dete didn’t do too bad a job. She has a fantastic time with her grandfather, his goats, Peter the goat boy, and living on bread and milk and cheese (SO much cheese toast), and enjoying the great outdoors.

But then Heidi turns eight and Dete takes her off the mountain to be a lady’s companion to Clara, a young girl with unnamed but serious health problems. Clara’s family is ROLLING IN IT. The housekeeper is none too pleased at the thought of basically a mountain goat of a girl who can’t read or write being a companion for the young miss.

“Mercy upon us! you do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeier, greatly horrified. “Is it possible—not able to read? What have you learnt then?”

“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching SWISS truthfulness.

Heidi and Clara become great friends, which eventually leads to Clara going to Switzerland and the whole gang coming together. And then A Miracle Occurs, of the same type that The Secret Garden invokes at its end.

Like I said, this book is VERY SWISS. To begin with, it is obsessed with nature and God. Like there’s a literal repentance scene and a whole Prodigal Son arc with the Grandfather. The Swiss are less obsessed with God these days but let me tell you, those two things are still your only options on a Sunday, unless you drag yourself to a Hauptbahnhof. In case you are wondering, public transit does run on those days. Gotta convey you up those mountains and/or to church somehow.

The nature comes, well, naturally. There are pages and pages about the grass, the flowers, the fields, the trees, the wind, the snow … and it’s accurate, too. Spyri wasn’t making it up. OTOH God drops in seemingly at random points in the text, swooping in here and there to be given credit for this or that development.

The book is also, as you may expect, heavy on the dairy. Not for nothing is there a Heidi brand of milk.

Now for the famous wheelchair bit. Before I read the book, this was the only thing I vaguely knew about the plot. For the uninitiated (spoiler alert? although the book was published in 1881): Clara needs to use a wheelchair when Heidi meets her. When Clara goes to Switzerland to visit Heidi, she starts to get stronger and healthier from Nonstop Dairy. Grandfather starts giving her very light PT, holding her up while encouraging her to put some weight on her feet.

Then, Peter the goat boy gets really jealous of Clara spending all this time with Heidi and shoves the wheelchair down the mountain. Later on, Peter (IMO) totally gets what’s coming to him, but in the meanwhile, Heidi gets Peter to help her give Clara more PT, supporting her while having her try to walk, and over the course of months, Clara eventually does become able to walk, although at the end we still see that she needs to lean on Heidi.

If one were inclined to give a charitable explanation to this, one could say Clara was suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency, which eating healthy food in the mountains was able to reverse. If one weren’t, then it’s a miraculous cure steeped in dairy-fueled ableism. I’m not in a position to make that judgement.

But there’s something I am in a position to say something about. I found myself unexpectedly thinking over and over about the character of Dete, Heidi’s aunt. She actually isn’t there very often but is responsible for kicking most of the plot into action. The text is on the side of Dete being a selfish person, first for leaving Heidi with Grandfather so that she can have a job, and then for dragging Heidi to Frankfurt as child labor. I don’t dispute that those weren’t kind actions. But I keep thinking, what choices did Dete feel like she had? She is a servant at the mercy of capricious rich employers. Her parents are dead and her only living relation is an uncle who is literally a hermit with two goats living in a mountain shack. And she can’t have a child with her while she works. Living in righteous poverty with a child is still living in poverty, and that’s not some kind of noble decision. Poverty is bad for kids! Trying to secure a financial future for Heidi as well as herself is not cruelty in and of itself. Dete is by no means a saint, but I feel a little uncomfortable that the text casts her in a bad light for wanting to make some freaking money to support herself and her sister’s child.

Of course, Dete ultimately succeeds, in that by the end of the story, Clara’s family loves Heidi so much that they consider her one of the family and will provide for her once Grandfather passes on. And the book makes an anvil out of the religious idea that God can turn bad things into good things, so you could consider that another instance of the same point. By that point Dete has pretty much vanished from the text so I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that I will always come down on the side of giving women more choice in their lives. Ende.

Friday Favorites: “Dancing on my Grave” by Gelsey Kirkland

Today’s Friday Favorite is “Dancing on my Grave,” a memoir by Gelsey Kirkland, one of Balanchine’s baby ballerinas who joined the New York City Ballet at 15. She was also something of a notorious (but reformed) bad girl figure in the ballet world. If you know anything about her it’s probably that she 1) danced with Baryshnikov on TV in “The Nutcracker” (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube) and 2) did a lot of coke on top of starving herself.

If you know anything more, it’s probably that she was a unique, brilliant, expressive dancer. I’m painfully crushed that we didn’t have today’s cameras in the 60s-80s, because I wish I could see her in HD, but even looking at the blurry videos that do exist, you can get an idea of her brilliance. She cultivated an airy, innocent yet knowing, childlike and delicate quality to her movement. And she expressed with every cell in her body.

Kirkland is probably my favorite dancer of all time. Her movement aesthetics are the same as mine, and I really connect with how she discusses ballet. I have often said that what I love about ballet is the shaping of space with your body. In an interview with Dance Magazine, Kirkland expressed it far better:

Many dancers think of performance as the audience… and themselves, that is, two-dimensional. They need to build a three-dimensional world and draw the audience into it. When you radiate épaulement, let’s say in croisé, you are opening up a whole arc of light with your body. You have to open this circle constantly, so that when you move through space you create a state of wonder and the audience discovers this with you.

But the absence of light is darkness. The book is an extremely unvarnished retrospective, penned while she was—as the end of the book describes—getting off coke and Valium. In addition to the drug abuse, she dealt with eating disorders. It really does fall into the “tortured genius” category which really makes me wonder how much better she might have been if she hadn’t hated herself for most of her life. But she also claims, and I see no reason to disbelieve her, that all that hatred meant she focused and obsessed on making her dance better because it was the one area of life where she could control. Obsession leads to practice, and practice approaches perfection. So perhaps if she had been born into a healthier family, Kirkland’s career would have ended young when she decided that Balanchine was an asshole and walked out of the School of American Ballet. No doubt it would have been healthier for her. The paying public admires achievements, but doesn’t like to think about the cost, unless it’s also shown as a performance—a grotesque one, especially.

That aside. The book is a fascinating look for me, as a person who enjoys dancing ballet, into the unbelievable amount of work Kirkland put into her dancing. We’re talking all-night practices. She was a complete perfectionist. The book doesn’t really linger on her studio time, but there are others who were there with a camera. Kurt Froman got his hands on some footage of Kirkland (among other things) practicing the famous Kitri jump for 50 minutes, over and over.

She paid for it financially, too. She found her own coaches, not just in ballet but in kinesiology and mime and other types of dance. She was learning nonstop for her entire career … although I suppose the cocaine didn’t help.

On that note, I can easily see why cocaine was so attractive to her. My understanding (never having tried it) is that coke, aside from the euphoria, makes you feel really confident in yourself. If I hated myself as much as Kirkland describes hating herself, I too would be instantly hooked on being free of that feeling. Speaking as one who drinks alcohol to occasionally stop the noise of a mind that sometimes just won’t shut up, I understand self-medication completely, without necessarily promoting the act. I should also mention that (as described both in and out of this book) plenty of other dancers at the time were doing various drugs for various reasons. The dancer whom Kirkland said introduced her to cocaine died a year after her book came out, probably of an overdose.

For those of you worried about a sad ending, I have good news. Kirkland did get away from drugs and returned to the stage. She discovered teaching while at the Royal Ballet, and today helms the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. She gives beautiful, frank interviews and is all about coaching the next generation of dancers. She’s an artist still, and she’s even happy. May we all come to that point, but hopefully with far less trouble.

P.S. Kirkland wrote a second memoir, The Shape of Love, which is also on my to-read list.

Friday Favorites – Selections from Clarkesworld Issue #151

The original internal purpose of Friday Favorites was, s2g, to get me to read more short fiction. So let’s get back to it! This week I read issue 151 of Clarkesworld (note to self: update link when it is taken off front page), which had lots of good stuff. Here are my two favorites:

“Skyscrapers in the Sand” by Y.M. Pang. Like the song*, “Skyscrapers in the Sand,” at the fulcrum of this story, it’s a short, pretty, wistful, deceptively light-touch tale. In a post-climate-apocalypse future, an old woman named Xuming buries a time capsule in the desert that used to be Shanghai**. The capsule is the opposite of the Golden Record sent out into space; it plays one song for humans who will one day resurface to their own planet.

I love cities and I love memories and I love the people caught in the web of those things. I’m thinking again about Borges and his Book of Sand and its infinities. Love is like that, isn’t it, fractal like coastlines–one unstoppable force against another, along with the erosion it brings. Ask Xuming, if she ever makes it out of the desert.

*Also, I really want the song to exist! It comes as no surprise to me that Pang is also a poet.

**I especially love the setting of this story not only because we don’t get to see enough mentions of Chinese cities in Anglophone SFF, but because Shanghai became a desert, which is a great word joke. For the non-Mandarin-speakers, Shanghai translates to something like “on the sea” or as I prefer, “embark upon the sea,” but now that the port city is buried under sand, its name is an artifact, a fossil in the desert.

Social Darwinism by Priya Chand (NSFW). I’m not sure how to best describe or summarize this story, but let me first say that it is extremely Sign Of Our Times, even though it is set in a far flung future, the kind where you can pop a pill and then tentacles will temporarily replace your hair.

Ishtar Kim is a synthcode cam girl, servicing clients with her extremely changeable body (see above re: tentacles). But it’s not just her body. Her mind is modified too: her mother gave her the “need-attention mod” when she was a child. As a result, Ishtar literally, sexually, gets off on attention, which drives every second of her life and her work. Yes, internet, Chand wrote a story taking the concept of attention whoring seriously.

When I say Sign Of Our Times I mean that such a story couldn’t have been written pre-Mark Zuckerberg, even though the human need for attention has always existed and there have always been people whose need was a few standard deviations from the norm, which probably goes a long way toward explaining some of the more flamboyant mystics and such in ancient times. It’s just easier to recognize now and we’ve even put a name on your success rate, “analytics.” And you know, I’m calling myself out, too. I’m typing this in between refreshing my Instagram and my Twitter and of course I’m going to be checking how many people read this blog post. Some days you watch the cam; some days the cam watches you.

Friday Favorites: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m reposting a review of Peter Watts’ “Blindsight” (free to read online) that I wrote years ago, with a few updates. Wow, I used to write longer reviews back in the day …

“Blindsight” is a first contact story in a technologically advanced future, where humans have finally gone where they aren’t biologically meant to go, which is to say, they are generating and discovering more data than their brains and meat can handle. Cybernetically augmented people act as the conduit between the technology and the people. One of these augments is the protagonist, Siri Keeton, who had half his brain removed as a child, resulting in losing much of his capacity for emotions and empathy. As an adult, Siri specializes in interpreting incredibly high orders of data and patterns, thereby acting as a middleman between humankind’s incomprehensible technology and humankind itself.

Sidenote 1: this book was written in 2006, predating Apple’s Siri, but you could take it as an accidental prophecy.

Sidenote 2: I’m not super on board with how Watts talks about autism in this story. It’s not my place to talk about it, so I’ll point you to Ada Hoffman’s commentary.

One day in 2082, Earth is visited by a group of projectiles that flash over Earth and then vanish, leaving no clue behind. Siri is sent with a similarly enhanced five-man team towards the unknown, in order to investigate. The crew is incredibly complicated and interesting, all manifestations of the author (a professional marine biologist) exploring a number of neurology, biology, and cognitive science theories such as manufactured multiple personalities, sensory augmentation, and even resurrected vampires.

The first contact is a harrowing one, and as incredible discoveries about the aliens come to light, we find ourselves asking along with the protagonists the big question of the book: what good is consciousness? It’s a risky proposition for an audience that is only able to process the story through consciousness. The titular real-life condition of blindsight–in which a person with blindness resulting from brain damage to their visual processing center, can nevertheless respond to visual stimuli, such as catching an object that they are unable to see–is used to convey to us how it “feels” to be a creature with intelligence but no sentience. Uncoupling “intelligent responses” from “sentience” is an interesting move, because that is one enormous question of AI: at what point could humans make a sentient machine? Can we ever tell if it is a sentient machine, due to the fact that we can never see from the machine’s “mind”? “Blindsight” makes the argument that it doesn’t matter. “Blindsight” says: we don’t really know what thinking is, or what a soul is, or what it really means to be a sentient thing. Therefore the only logical response is to use the only measure we have of intelligence, which is that the entity is capable of learning, of pattern recognition, of improved performance, at which point this begins to sound very familiar to computer science folks.

Many people act as if the be-all end-all of machine learning, of making a “thinking machine”, necessarily ends in sentience. The hypothesis posed by “Blindsight” is that such a statement is being human-centric, perhaps even sentience-centric. Rather, it is entirely possible, and perhaps evolutionarily favorable, to become extremely intelligent without developing sentience. Such organisms would not so much think as calculate, sifting and gathering through patterns and then reacting. Living in the void of space as they have for ages, crunching the pure hard data of natural physics and mathematics, they have perfected themselves. But human data is infinitely messier, often purposeless, stuffed with what entertains a sentient mind but is meaningless to a data processor.

So–who’s going to win?

In the book, the reader is invited to “pretend you are Siri Keeton” and if you do so successfully, then you might end up rooting for the aliens made of pure data. And I actually did briefly, which is perhaps the highest praise a book like this can receive, and which is why I put this down as a favorite. I wouldn’t say it was a fantastic emotional experience reading this book, but as a conceptual exercise I found it incredibly well executed.

We never actually find out who ultimately wins–Siri isn’t there to see it–although he closes the story with a hypothesis … which I will not spoil, but which I disagree with.

The book (or Siri) posits pretty hard that humans are cognitively weaker than aliens made out of pure data, because we have the useless middleman of a consciousness slowing things down. Last I checked, humans have built some pretty spiffy machines that can crunch data at incredible speed, and in Blindsight it’s advanced beyond what we can imagine today. So I truly see no reason that humans are inherently disadvantaged.

I feel like the battle of the races in Siri’s mind is a metaphorical one, and ends the way that he–nearly an alien himself–finds the most comforting.

Then again, perhaps I’m doing the same thing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.