Burning Sky by Rachel Pollack (1989)

"Violence cannot destroy the body of the Goddess, for Her body is the world itself." - Rachel Pollack“Burning Sky” (1989) by Rachel Pollack (4489 words)

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Sometimes I think of my clitoris as a magnet, pulling me along to uncover new deposits of ore in the fantasy mines. Or maybe a compass, like the kind kids used to get in Woolworths, with a blue-black needle in a plastic case, and flowery letters marking the directions.

Two years ago, more by accident than design, I left the City of Civilized Sex. I still remember its grand traditions: orgasms in the service of loving relationships, healthy recreation with knowledgeable partners, a pinch of perversion to bring out the flavor. I remember them with a curious nostalgia. I think of them as I march through the wilderness, with only my compass to guide me.

*

Julia. Tall, with fingers that snake round the knobs and levers of her camera. Julia’s skin is creamy, her neck is long and smooth, her eyebrows arch almost to a point. There was once a woman who drowned at sea, dreaming of Julia’s eyes. Sometimes her hair is short and spiky, sometimes long and straight, streaming out to one side in the wind off Second Avenue. Sometimes her hair is red, with thick curls. Once a month she goes to a woman who dyes her eyelashes black. They darken further with each treatment.

Julia’s camera is covered in black rubber. The shutter is a soft rubber button.

The Free Women. Bands of women who roam the world’s cities at night, protecting women from rapists, social security investigators, police, and other forms of men. Suits of supple blue plastic cover their bodies from head to toe. Only the faces remain bare. Free Skin, they call it. The thin plastic coats the body like dark glistening nail polish.

Julia discovers the Free Women late one summer night when she can’t sleep. She has broken up with a lover and can’t sleep, so she goes out walking, wearing jeans and a white silk shirt and high red boots, and carrying her camera over one shoulder. On a wide street, by a locked park, with a drunk curled asleep before the gate, a man with a scarred face has cornered a girl, about fourteen. He flicks his knife at her, back and forth, like a lizard tongue. Suddenly they are there, yanking him away from the girl, surrounding him, crouched down with moon and streetlights running like water over their blue muscles. The man jerks forward. Spread fingers slide sideways. The attacker drops his knife to put his hand over his throat. Blood runs through the fingers. He falls against the gate. The women walk away. Julia follows.

Julia discovers the Free Women one night on the way home from an assignment. Tired as she is, she walks rather than take a taxi home to an empty apartment. She has just broken up with a lover, the third in less than two years. Julia doesn’t understand what happens in these relationships. She begins them with such hopes, and then a month, two months, and she’s lost interest, faking excitement when her girlfriend plans for the future. Recklessly, Julia walks down the West Side, a woman alone with an expensive camera. She sees them across the street, three women walking shoulder to shoulder, their blue boots (she thinks) gliding in step, their blue gloves (she thinks) swinging in rhythm, their blue hoods (she thinks) washed in light. Julia takes the cap off her lens and follows them, conscious of the jerkiness in her stride, the hardness in her hips.

She follows them to a grimy factory building on West 21st Street. As they press buttons on an electronic light Julia memorizes the combination. For hours she waits, in a doorway smelling of piss, thinking now and then that the women are watching her, that they have arranged for her to stand there in that filth, a punishment for following them. Finally they leave and Julia lets herself inside. She discovers a single huge room, with lacquered posts hanging with manacles, racks of black handled daggers along the walls, and in the middle of the floor a mosaic maze, coils of deep blue, with the center, the prize, a four pronged spiral made of pure gold. On the wall opposite the knives hang rows of blue suits, so thin they flutter slightly in the breeze from the closing door.

Over the next weeks Julia rushes through her assignments to get back to the hall of the Free Women. She spends days crouched across the street, waiting for the thirty seconds when she can photograph them entering or leaving. She spends more and more time inside, taking the suits in her hands, walking the maze. In the center she hears a loud fluttering of wings.

She tells herself she will write an exposé, an article for the Sunday Times. But she puts off calling the paper or her agent. She puts off writing any notes. Instead she enlarges her photos more than lifesize, covering the walls of her apartment, until she can almost imagine the women are there with her, or that the maze fills the floor of her kitchen.

And then one day Julia comes home—she’s gone out for food, she’s forgotten to keep any food in the house—and she finds the photos slashed, the negatives ruined, and all the lenses gone from her cameras.

Julia runs. She leaves her clothes, her cameras, her portfolios. She takes whatever cash lies in the house and heads into the street. Downtown she takes a room above a condemned bank and blacks out all the windows.

Let me tell you how I came to leave the City-state [earlier it was just “City”] of Civilized Sex. It happened at the shore. Not the ocean, but the other side of Long Island, the Sound connecting New York and Connecticut. I’d gone there with my girlfriend Louise, who at nineteen had seduced more women than I had ever known.

Louise and I had gotten together a few months after my husband Ralph had left me. On our last day as a couple Ralph informed me how lucky I was not to have birthed any children. The judge, he said, would certainly have awarded them to him. He went on to explain that it was no coincidence, our lack of children, since any heroic sperm that attempted to mount an expedition in search of my hidden eggs (Raiders of the Lost Ovum) would have frozen in “that refrigerator cunt of yours.” Ralph liked to mix metaphors. When he got angry his speech reminded me of elaborate cocktails, like Singapore Slings.

I can’t really blame Ralph. Not only did I never learn to fake orgasms properly (I would start thrusting and moaning and then think of something and forget the gasps and shrieks) but even in fights I tended to get distracted when I should have wept or screamed or thrown things.

Like the day Ralph left. I’m sure I should have cried or stared numbly at the wall. Instead I made myself a tuna sandwich and thought of sperms in fur coats, shivering on tiny wooden rafts as they tried to maneuver round the icebergs that blocked their way to the frozen eggs. I don’t blame Ralph for leaving.

Anyway, he went, and I met Louise window shopping in a pet store. That same night we went to bed and I expected to discover that my sexual indifference had indicated a need for female flesh. Nothing happened. Louise cast her best spells, she swirled her magician’s cloak in more and more elaborate passes, but the rabbit stayed hidden in the hat.

I became depressed, and Louise, exhausted, assured me that in all her varied experiences (she began to recite the range of ages and nationalities of women she’d converted) she’d never failed to find the proper button. It would just take time. I didn’t tell her Ralph had said much the same thing. I wondered if I’d have to move to my parents’ house upstate to avoid safaris searching for my orgasms like Tarzan on his way to the elephants’ graveyard.

*

Julia runs out of money. She disguises herself in clothes bought from a uniform store on Canal St. and goes uptown to an editor who owes her a check. As she leaves the building she sees, across the street, in the doorway of a church, a black raincoat over blue skin. Julia jumps in a taxi. She goes to Penn Station, turning around constantly in her taxi to make sure no blue hooded women sit in the cars behind her. At the station she runs down the stairs, pushing past commuters to the Long Island Railroad where she searches the computer screens for the train to East Hampton.

On track 20 she hears a fluttering of wings and she smells the sea, and for a moment she thinks she’s already arrived. And then she sees a trenchcoat lying on the floor. Another is falling beside her. A flash of light bounces off the train, as if the sun has found a crack through Penn Station and the roof of the tunnel. She tries running for the doors. Blue hands grab her wrists. Blueness covers her face.

*

No. No, it happens along Sixth Avenue. Sixth Avenue at lunchtime, among the push carts selling souvlaki and sushi, egg rolls and yoghurt, tofu and pretzels. Julia’s pants are torn, the wind dries the sweat on her chest, she’s been running for hours, her toes are bleeding, no cabs will stop for her. She turns a corner and tumbles into a class of twelve-year-old girls. The girls are eating hot dogs and drinking Pepsi Cola. They wear uniforms, pleated skirts and lace up shoes, brown jackets and narrow ties. The girls surround Julia. They push her down when she tries to stand up. Somewhere up the street a radio plays a woman singing “Are you lonesome tonight?” The girls tear off Julia’s clothes. They pinch and slap her face, her breasts. Grease streaks her thighs. The girls are whistling, yelping, stamping their feet. Now come the wings, the smell of the sea. The girls step back, their uniforms crisp, their ties straight. They part like drapes opening to the morning. A woman in blue steps into the circle, bright shining as the sun. Spread fingertips slide down Julia’s body, from the mouth down the neck and along the breasts, the belly, the thighs. Wherever the woman touches, the welts disappear. She lifts Julia in her arms. Slowly she walks down the street, while the crowd moves aside and the whole city falls silent, even the horns. Julia hears the cry of gulls searching for food.

*

Over the weeks Louise changed from bluff to hearty to understanding to peevish as her first failure became more and more imminent. She suggested I see a doctor. I told her I’d been and she got me to admit the doctor had been a man. She lugged me to a woman’s clinic where the whole staff consisted of former lovers of hers. While Louise went in to consult the healer on duty I sat in the waiting room.

I got into conversation with a tall skinny woman wearing a buckskin jacket, a gold shirt, and motorcycle boots. She showed me the French bayonet she carried in a sheath in her hip pocket, explaining it would “gut the next prick” that laid a hand on her or one of her sisters. I asked her if she’d undergone any training in knifeware. Not necessary, she told me. Pricks train. The Goddess would direct her aim. The Goddess, she said, lived in the right side of the brain. That’s why the government (99% pricks) wanted to burn lefthanded women.

“Janie’s a little strongminded” Louise told me as she led me down a corridor to see Doctor Catherine. The corridor’s yellow striped wallpaper had started to peel in several places, revealing a layer of newspaper underneath.

“Did you sleep with her?” I asked.

“Only a couple of times. Did she show you her bayonet?” I nodded. “She kept it under the pillow in case the police broke in to arrest us for Goddessworship. That’s what she calls women screwing.”

I didn’t listen very closely to Catherine, who didn’t like the name “Doctor.” I wanted to think about pricks training for their life’s work. They probably do it in gym class, I decided. While the girls try backward somersaults and leap sideways over wooden horses the boys practise erections, and later, in advanced classes, learn to charge rubber simulations of female genitals. At the end of each lesson the instructor reminds them not to speak of this in front of their girlfriends.

Catherine didn’t find my G spot or raise my Mary Rose (I strongly identified with Henry Vlll’s sunken flagship and all its chests of gold. I cried when they raised it, all crusted in barnacles and brine. That left only one of us hidden in the murk.). She did give me some crushed herbs for tea and a bag of tree bark to chew on while I lay in the bathtub. Louise raged at me whenever I neglected my treatment. “You can’t let yourself get negative,” she shouted. “You’ve got to believe.”

In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles. Six, no, nine of the women weave in and out of sight, sometimes whispering to each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes standing before Julia and silently mouthing words in a foreign language. Across from her the blue suits rustle against each other.

Julia learns to catch bits of food thrown at her from across the room. Twice, no, three times a day one of the women brings her water in a stone bowl. A gold snake coils at the bottom. Sometimes the woman holds the bowl in front of her, and Julia has to bow her head and lap up as much as she can. Or the woman moves the bowl away just as Julia begins to drink. Or throws the water in her face. At other times she gently tilts the bowl for Julia. Once, as Julia drinks, she discovers that a live snake has replaced the metal one. The head rises above the water and Julia’s own head snaps back so hard she would bang it against the wall if a blue hand wasn’t there to cushion her.

They shave her head. No, they comb and perfume her hair. They rub her with oils and smooth the lines in her face and neck, slapping her only when she tries to bite or lick the cool fingertips sliding down her face.

Once or several times a day they take her down from the wall and force her to run the maze. The women surround the tiled circle, hitting the floor with sticks and trilling louder and louder until Julia misses a step or even falls, just outside the gold spiral. When she’s failed they yank her out of the maze and hold her arms out like wings as they press the tips of her breasts into champagne glasses filled with tiny sharp emeralds.

On the day Julia completes the maze the women dress her in shapeless black overalls and heavy boots. They smuggle her out of the country to an island where a house of white stone stands on top of a hill covered in pine trees. The women strip Julia. With their sticks they drive her up a rock path. The door opens and a cool wind flows from the darkness.

A woman steps out. Instead of blue her suit gleams a deep red. It covers the whole body, including the face, except for the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth. Her muscles move like a river running over stone. Her name is Burning Sky, and she was born in Crete six thousand years ago. When she walks the air flows behind her like the sundered halves of a very thin veil.

*

One night, after a fight, Louise kicked the wall and ran from the house. The next morning, the doorbell woke me at 6:00. Frightened, I looked out the window before I would open the door. There stood Louise in a rough zipper jacket and black turtleneck sweater. She saw me and waved a pair of rubber boots. Afraid she planned to kick me I didn’t want to let her in but I couldn’t think of how to disconnect the doorbell. She’d begun to shout, too. “For heaven’s sake, Maggie, open the fucking door.” Any moment the police would show up.

While I buttered toast and boiled water Louise announced our plans for the morning. We were going fishing. Dress warm, she said, and gave me the spare boots she’d brought for me. I had to wear two pairs of socks, and my feet still slid around.

In her pickup truck I tried to sleep, despite Louise’s cheerful whistle. But when we got all our gear and bodies in a rowboat out in the Sound, it turned out that Louise didn’t plan to fish at all. “Now, goddamnit,” she said, “you can’t whine and get away from me. I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”

“What?” I said, ruining her powerful speech. Her meaning became clearer as she began to crawl towards me. She scared me but she made me want to laugh too. It reminded me of the time Ralph had locked us in a motel room with a bottle of wine, a bag of marijuana, and a pink nightgown. At least motel rooms are comfortable. Maybe Louise considered rowboats romantic.

I decided I better hold my face straight. “You rapist prick!” I shouted, and tried to grab an oar to threaten her but couldn’t work it loose from the lock. I snatched the fish knife and held it with both hands in front of my belly. “Keep away from me,” I warned.

“Put that down.” Louise said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I’ll hurt you, you prick.”

“Don’t call me that. You don’t know how to use that.”

“The Goddess will show me.”

Apparently this all became too much for her. “Shit,” she said, and turned around to grasp the oars for the pull to shore. I sat slumped over and shivering. My hands clenched around the knife.

*

In a ceremonial hall hung with purple silk and gold shields the women tattoo a four-pronged spiral in the hollow of Julia’s neck. They present her with a blue suit. With four others she returns to New York on a cruise ship secretly owned by the Free Women. They wear disguises, like the Phantom, when he would venture out as Mister Walker, wrapped in a trench coat and slouch hat, to rescue his beloved Diana from Nazi kidnappers.

Despite the women’s clever tricks someone on the boat recognizes them. A television anchorwoman, or maybe a rightwing politician. This woman once served Burning Sky, but disobeyed her leader on some assignment. Now she comes to their suite of cabins and begs the Free Women to readmit her. They play with her, attaching small intricately carved stone clips all over her skin. She suffers silently, only to have them announce she had forgotten how to break through the wall. They can do nothing for her. She goes away, later becomes Prime Minister.

When we got back to the rental dock Louise began to lug the boat onto the wooden platform. “If you want to go home,” she said “give me a hand.” I took hold of the rope to tie it to the iron post that would hold it fast when the hurricane came.

At that moment a woman came out of the water. Dressed in a black wet suit with long shiny flippers and a dark mask that completely hid her face, she stood for a moment rotating her shoulders and tilting her head up to the sun. Her spear gun pointed at the ground.

My heart began throwing blood wildly around my body: my vagina contracted like someone running for her life. “Will you come on?” Louise said.

I stammered something at her. Louise had never heard me stammer before. “What the hell is the matter with you?” she said. Then her eyes followed the invisible cable connecting me and my beautiful skin diver. She looked back and forth between us a couple of times while a wolfgrin took over her face. “Sonofabitch,” she said, and laughed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know,” I said, and Louise got to see another first. I blushed.

It was certainly a day for firsts. That evening, in the sloppy cavernous apartment Louise had inherited from her grandfather, she took out her collection of “toys”: whips, handcuffs, masks, chains, nipple clips, leather capes, rubber gloves, and one whalebone corset, c. 1835. No wet-suits, but it didn’t really matter. I hope none of Ralph’s sperm remained camped inside me anymore. The spring thaw came that night, and the flood would have washed the courageous little creatures away forever.

*

The Free Women order Julia to go alone to her apartment and renew her professional contacts. At first she finds it hard to function without her instructors. She hates going out “naked,” as she thinks of her ordinary clothes. With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.

Gradually the dream fades. Julia stops dressing up in her Free Skin at night, she goes on holiday with a woman reporter who asks about the tattoo on Julia’s neck. Julia tells her she got it to infiltrate a group of terrorists. When the woman falls asleep Julia cries in the shower and thanks the Virgin Mary for her deliverance. She wonders how she ever could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.

An order comes. Something simple, maybe embarrassing a judge who suspended the sentence of a man who raped his five-year-old daughter. Something with a clear moral imperative.

Julia takes off from work to decide what to do. In a cabin in the woods she tries on her Free Skin and lies in bed, remembering Burning Sky’s face, and the way her fingers looked extended into the air. She remembers lying with the other women in a huge bed, how they slid in and out of each other, while their bodies melted inside their blue suits. She remembers hanging from silver manacles, remembers dancing to the heart of the labyrinth.

Julia returns to the city and locks the blue suit in a metal cabinet. The day of her assignment passes. She falls into a fever, attended by her reporter friend. When she recovers and the woman has left, Julia opens the cabinet. Her Free Skin has vanished. In its place lies a Chinese woman’s dagger, five hundred years old, with an ivory handle bearing the same spiral sign that marks Julia’s neck. Terrified, she waits for retribution. Weeks pass.

*

And so I left the City of Civilized Sex in one great rush on the back of a skindiver. Now that she’d preserved her record Louise lost interest very quickly, but at least she gave me some leads to “your kind of trick,” as she delicately put it. I didn’t know whether she meant the lovers or the activities.

I discovered not only a large reservoir of women devoted to farfetched sexual practices, but several organizations, complete with buttons, slogans, jackets, and conflicting manifestoes. After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but their hunger for community. Had I left the City only to emigrate to another nation-state?

It wasn’t so much the social as the sexual conformity that disturbed me. Everyone seemed to agree ahead of time on what would excite them. I began to wonder if all those people in the Land of Leather really liked the same sort of collar (black with silver studs) or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism, and gave up her dreams of finding leather clothes and objects of exactly the right color, cut and texture.

As my imagination began to show me its tastes I became more and more specific with the women who tried to satisfy me. That first night with Louise she could have tied me up with a piece of filthy clothesline and I wouldn’t have complained. A few months later I was demanding the right ropes (green and gold curtain pulls with the tassel removed) tied only in particular knots taken from the Boy Scout Handbook.

And even that phase didn’t last. For, in fact, it’s not actions that I’m hunting. No matter how well you do them they can only approximate reality. City dwellers believe that fantasies exist to intensify arousal. Out here in the Territories the exiles should know better. I want to stand on a tree stump and yell through the forest, “Stop trying to build new settlements. Stop trying to clear the trees and put up walls and lay down sewers.” I want them to understand. Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.

*

Julia’s life becomes as pale and blank as cheap paper. She goes to bars and picks up women. They all go away angry when they get back to Julia’s apartment and Julia just sits on the bed, or else goes to the darkroom and doesn’t come out. Julia returns to the ritual hall. She finds it replaced by a button factory.

She drives out to the beach on a hard sunny day in December. Ignoring the cold wind she strips naked and walks toward the water, both hands gripping the Chinese dagger. She raises it to the sun to watch the light glint off the blade. But then she notices flashes beyond the knife. Small spots on the horizon. As she watches, they grow larger, become blue sails, then a row of boats coming out of the deep. Each one contains a single woman. The sails rise out of their shoulders like wings. They call to each other like birds, their voices piercing the wind. When they land they detach their skins from the boat masts and the plastic snaps back against their bodies.

Julia falls down in the wet sand. A wild roaring in the Earth drowns out the sea as the six women lift her to her feet (six is the number of love, with Julia they become seven, the number of victory). They wash the mud and loneliness from her and dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.



The only true happiness lies in obedience to loving authority.
Charles Moulton, speaking as Queen Hippolyte of Paradise Island to her daughter, Princess Di,
Wonder Woman Comics, c. 1950

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Uncanny Valley Digest: The Triumph of Mechanics by Karl Stobl

Stobl was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe. He started a fantasy magazine predating Weird Tales by two years. This story was written in 1907, before both world wars. It was not translated into English until 2016, primarily because Stobl was relegated to the literary dustbin for joining the Nazi party prior to WWII, becoming a high official in the Nazi writing and propaganda campaigns. We read this story so you don’t have to.

David: He’s a full on Nazi. This guy likes his shirts brown.

Group: HA!

David: Is there anything Nazi about the story? I don’t think so.

BunniculaChris: Well, there’s a gesture toward the inferior beings reproducing too much.

David: Where’s the sci-fi?

Chris: The self-reproducing mechanism. Earliest instance of a “grey-goo” problem, that disassembles everything into itself, and can build nothing else. A rabbit that has a litter of six overnight.

Here’s looking at you…

Nowell: I feel like this is a mild recapitulation of Frankenstein, though a little more sinister, where the scientist says, “You’d better grant me my wishes or else.” No one understands me, the brilliant scientist, everyone laughs at me until… they feel the wrath of my hideous revenge.

David: It’s still sci-fi if there’s a punchline.

Chris: It’s not really a punchline, more the creepiness of rabbits.

David: At least this is the first story we’ve read this summer that has a character, and scenes.

Nowell: I love the line, “I don’t think you know what a billion is,” and the images of a snow covered city, which is actually rabbits. A fun little vignette. Though let’s be honest, Hopkins is a total asshole. 🙂

Suhail: At least it’s not an essay, like the last two. Another grad school story.

David: Interesting that it, like Rokeya’s story, has been ignored by the canon, but for totally different politically (in)correct reasons.

Suhail: The concept reminds me of that Dick story, do you remember it, Dave? The one with the ant swarm, where the shoes are reproducing like bunnies…

David: That’s “The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford”

Suhail: Yes! That one.

Chris: It reads better as a thought experiment. I think it’s a joke.

Click to enlarge.David: The science fiction and bureaucracy interact and have a Brazil-like effect (the 1985 Terry Gilliam film.)

Chris: It is Brazil-like.

The industrial rivalry. Of course, the mad scientist is a creative American who’s figured this trick out, and he’s playing fast and lose with German expectations.

Chris: An O. Henry story, with rabbits.

David: What do you mean?

Chris: There’s a twist. The story is meant to set up the twist.

David: It’s a fleshed out story. From academic perspective, it’s approaching or prefiguring the pulps.

But, again, not fun to read. We read this one so you won’t have to. Join us next week, when we’ll discuss Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Sky”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Sultana’s Dream By Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Our Sultana’s Dream discussion clinked like porcelain at a tea party! The story had the same essay quality and social critique agenda of The Star, but in a firmly feminist perspective. Everyone present appreciated the story for it’s intentions and for it’s technological whimsy, but it was not exactly “fun to read.”

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, (also Begum Rokeya) was a British Indian citizen. She was a Bengali Muslim educator and feminist social activist. Pioneer of education on the Indian subcontienent. A heroine of Bengali and greater Indo Pak Bangla culture. Her life was all pre-partition India, so in modern terms her homeland during her lifetime was the Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontient. She advocated for total gender equality, and education of girls and women was the first necessity to establish equality.

Suhail: It was cool. It was imaginative. BUT, another essay story. Ho hum. I liked the way she thought out the technological solutions to basic needs problems. She sticks to the basics and gets thorough: unlimited clean water, unlimited solar energy, no violent weather, no need for rain (or mud). Homes are more secure. Clean transportation technology is exclusively aerial, making streets and railroads obsolete. Garden and plant technology has made even streets and

What do you do when you miss your train of thought?

David: The flying cars. It’s right out of Ralph 124C41, plus.

Suhail: There is a parable-like oversimplification of men and women, but even here again she sticks to basics. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with her that on the whole men are more violent than women, but to imply that only men are violent is too convenient. BUT, the beauty of it being a simple inversion is that any criticism we can apply to the way the women run things is merely a valid criticism of the way the men are already doing it.

Wait in the station for the next one.

Chris: Heh, nice.

Nowell: Interesting narrative, especially for the time. Love the floating personal airship thing, seems like something out of anime, very steampunk. Intrigued as to what the whole “sacred” discussion was about, with certain men relegated to the zenana being “sacred” by relation. Didn’t have time to research, maybe someone else can provide some insight. I didn’t read the intro from the anthology, did it say things about any backlash or was the tale kept secret for many years? At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it has a very pointed, angry criticism of the men in India. And if I had to wager a guess, rightfully so!

Ryan: Colorful, silly, cute short story during a time of woman’s suffrage. A political statement at a time o the precipice of great change in gender dynamics. Her tone is utterly defiant of men for thier foolishness and oppression. It’s the inverse of Indian culture of the time. The imagination was embracing a science consciousness, one of peace and harmony in a world without men.

Suhail: I like the alternate history of the wise Queen’s legacy and the keen way in which Lady Principal won the war – by blinding the enemy with sunlight cells.  Trouble is, and it belies the flaw of a lot of Utopia stories, What made that the final war? It’s a “mannish” flaw, women won the final war with an ultimate weapon, and for some reason no one ever begrudged them anything again. Unlikely. What happens when the losing country develops their own sun cell bombs? That decisive overwhelming military victory is the precondition for all of this utopia. But that is a flaw in most utopia stories: “If we just use my for of dictatorship, everything will be fine.” Socially, I like the way she’s reversing the roles for a commentary and satire, especially at her historical moment for the feminist movement.

Ryan: It was a dream, which I find interesting having written Asleep In Green. And because it was a dream it’s allowed to be anything the author wants, to flying cars and solar power have a grounding. Also important to mention these hadn’t been invented yet, which makes it sci-fi.

Tasty BBQ wins the evening.

Chris: It’s not superstitious, just a little ‘stitious.

Suhail: Heh, nice.

David: From an academic perspecive, it’s fascinating to grad students.

Chris: Our list is interesting as artifacts in sci-fi development. But they’re not that fun to read.

Suhail: She thought this out. It’s cool, and many aspects of it are likely, if we accept the premise that women are without sin simply by virture of being women. But no, Suhail, it posits that even sin in women, among women, would be rectified in a peaceful and fruitful way instead of (as with men) in an aggressive and punishing way.

David: This would be good for Lena’s race and gender class. Like Wells, it’s designed to move the needle of public opinion.

Chris: She just flipped one switch, reversing the gender roles. It’s not some explicit political magic.

David: A bit of both. It’s not colonial oppression that she’s bothered by (because she doesn’t mention it, at all), it’s the lack of women’s equality.

Women’s rights march on Fifth Avenue in New York City, 1976. Courtesy of Bob Adelman

Tune in next time when we cover Karl Hans Stobl’s “The Triumph of Mechanics.”
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Margin notes:
P.1 A walk in the garden. A utopia story. Crowds, but no men.
P.2 Purdah and the purdahnishin. The Muslim practice of full social segregation of women and men. Women wear full body clothing and veils, they live in zenanas, separate partitions of the house from men. The near total seclusion of men from women.
P.2 Park and Garden technology. Grass is a cushion. Carpets of moss and flowers. These are streets! Street flower technology that can not be harmed by being stepped on.
P.2 Men in society are equivalent to wild animals in a marketplace.
P.3 Animal/parable response. A lion is stronger than a man, but does not dominate men. Strength is not a sufficient condition.
P.3 The female new world order. 2 hour work days in the lab. Because men used to smoke and bullshit for 6 hours of their workday anyhow.
P.4 Disease is cured. Solar ovens. Solar power cells for all energy! How did it become this way? The back story begins.
P.4 The good queen. The two women’s universities. The solar power, and water harvesting balloons. Weather control. All invented by women while men were building their military arsenals.
P.5 The men called the women’s abundant energy and clean water “a sentimental nightmare.” The men ended up in the zenanas. They were not overpowered by arms.
P.5 Do not reply with words, reply with deeds if you get the opportunity.
P.5 A refugee crisis leads to way. The war wipes out all men over age 16. The surviving boys are kept in the zenanas. The women decided NOT to fight in their mens’ stead. Use your brains, ladies! says the Queen.
P.6 The women agree that they would rather commit suicide than be enslaved. So they will try one wild hope first. The boys are hidden away in the mardanas (renamed zenanas). Lady Principal with 2,000 ladies marches out and use the solar cells to blind, panic, and fry the opposing forces. Then they concentrate the solar cells even more and destroy all of the enemies weapons and munitions.
P.6 How lucky. What happens when the vanquished aggressors develop their own solar battery nukes?
P.6 None of the women commit crimes. And if they do they need only be chastised. And the young boys who grew into the mardana system became excellent fathers and good cooks.
P.7 All aerial travel. No roads or railroads. Nice! Mechanical farming. We don’t need burly men for manual labor, either. All necessities are easily cared for and seen to.
P.7 Bare bones religion: “Love and Truth.” Liars are exiled unless they repent sincerely.
P.8 A quick assembly hydrogen bubble helicopter air-car. It’s how everyone gets around without roads.
P.8 Men are less moral. Women prize knowledge of the gifts of nature. A different value system.

Uncanny Valley Digest: Arthur C. Clarke (and Kubrick’s) 2001: A Space Odyssey

Our 2001: A Space Odyssey discussion was a voyage of Discovery! (wink) Welcome to our new members, and thank you for your participation. It was also great to see folks who’ve become prized and familiar over the past 5 years. (Yes, that’s right, readers, this summer is our 5th in the Valley. Here’s to many more!)

We started the discussion with what we liked about the book: the readability, the predictions (like the app-style UI of reading the news sounds just like an iPad), Clarke’s light touch and fun with science and technology popularization, the impressiveness of the long journey through time and across the entire solar system, the tiny creative ways in which Clarke teaches the reader about science and physics. (Even though you may only weigh 30 pounds on the Moon, you’ve still got that 180 pounds of mass, so be careful when changing direction, it’ll be harder than it seems.)

Suhail was particularly taken with the subtlety of HAL’s corruption. HAL was set on the course for psychosis because he was ordered by Mission Control to withhold information from the crew regarding the existence of the monolith. But it goes even deeper. In essence, Mission Control gave the monolith assignment to HAL, making the crew redundant backup workers that HAL was required to keep alive. HAL cracked, then panicked, because he was tasked to lie to the crew. Where does murder come from? Can a computer commit it? In this vein, David mentioned that Clarke very literally takes us into Mashahiro Mori’s original Uncanny Valley, regarding the aesthetic moment when a robot resembles a human just truly enough to creep out a real human.

The second half of the discussion was about what we didn’t like about the book: the obvious, to the point of being almost entertaining rather than offensive, western white male characterization of women (and reality) as mere extensions of space-man’s noble goals. The naming of space pods after women because of “their unpredictability.”  Also, Clarke’s lack of a voice other than his parochial pedagogical scientist-father narrator.

Chris thought the book might have been more interesting if Clark had tried inhabiting characters that weren’t mere duplicates of himself (basically all knight-in-shining armor western problem solvers like Heywood Floyd, Frank Poole, Dave Bowman, et al.) Clarke’s conceit runs deep in that regard because he basically frames all of the evolution of intelligent life on earth as a process meant to lead homo sapiens into space ships. Kind of silly when you take it in the big picture. Clarke does not seem to know how to write about the true unknowns, the inscrutable puzzles of existence. He has to fit everything in a box. But since the end of the book is literally about transcendence, there is some difficulty in making the ending come together.
Suhail: “He doesn’t have a mystical voice.”
David: “He can’t tackle the sublime, the Eldritch, the unknown. Life isn’t that certain and simple-”
Suhail: “-but Clarke is.”
Group: HAHAHAHAHA!

Kubrick's 2001: A Space OdysseyMovie/Book Relations: The movie significantly enriches the book’s characterizations. Alternately, the book makes the movie’s scenes (the dense, long shots) make more cohesive sense. Kubrick’s characters are a lot richer than Clarke’s. It’s a great symbiosis, even with the inevitable alterations which an adaptation to the screen brings. (Especially the technical “show-don’t-tell” syndrome, Clarke’s authoritative jargon for his enthusiastic popularization of science.) Lots of the book and the movie come off almost like an R & D video for Lockheed Martin. (Here’s how it’ll be, folks.)

David: “This book is precisely what sci-fi is reacting against now. A really racist sexist paradigm that convienently ignores the uncertainties of reality. I’m proud of today’s sci-fi for tackling this paradigm, actually.”

This lead to some discussions about Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, and way beyond, to where science fiction may have began. On the origins front, we were torn between Shelley’s Frankenstein being the first sci-fi, or Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream).

BANANA BREAD BREAK! (Thank you, Marta!)

Octavia E. ButlerAdditionally we kicked around some demarcations for what constitutes science fiction. For example, Octavia Butler’s genre-straddling Kindred is considered sci-fi because of the time travel, but doesn’t contain a single technological element after that. It’s mostly a historical novel, but it works as sci-fi somehow, because it shows us the world of slavery through the perceptions of a modern feminist. Suhail thought that sci-fi was marked by any presence of “fictional technology.” David added that sci-fi is characterized by an attempt to “literalize the figurative.” This bit of the talk got good, but my notes are insufficient, because I was so involved.

The 2001 novel, written from 1964-68 (before the moon landing, mind you) is the last ornament on Golden Age sci fi, science popularization, cheap gender and culture tropes, lots of love for the gear, explaining how the hard science might actually work. Nikita mentioned how this was similar to Gernsback’s Ralph 124C41+.

Nikita: “The element of sci-fi where explaining the technology is a pleasure in itself.”

Lena: “The science fiction and fantasy arena could be anything. So why not make it anything? Where are the diversities? Why the hostility toward other voices?”

Wrap-up: A great book, and movie. It’s worth your time, but also give yourself a chance to see how much things have changed (especially culturally) based on Clarke’s approach.

Please join us next week where we discuss “The Star,” by H.G. Wells.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!
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For more detail, here are page-by-page reading notes.

Clarke’s Introduction
viii – Going for “mythic grandeur”
xvi – Written in 1964-68, before the moon landing.

Part 1 Primeval Night (p. 1 – 40)
The history of humanity in 33 pages.

Part 2 TMA-1 (p.41 – 104)
All of short Chapter 7. Indicative of a dense technical style. Clarke’s better at this than characters. Lots of detail about how this technical process of space travel might realistically be manifest. (pp. 42, 46, 48, 60-64, etc.)
44, 45- social/political problems are as bad as ever. overpopulation, food supply, starvation, nukes, etc.
49- The last space opera before space travel IRL
51- virus mutations
46- Space travel as common as air travel. Why hasn’t this happened?
47- Trite and flat spoonfed characterization. Just get used to it.
48- Technical detail, plays like an R & D video for Lockheed Martin.
54- Planetary erosion. How many moonrocks are no longer on the moon?
55- Clarke, the great predictor, heh. The tone, though.
56- Movie Note: In the movie, at least he calls his daughter, not the secretary. Flat, Heinlein-y characters
61- Easy to relay in space.
61-62 He oversells space food.
63- Detailed, app-style UI/UX descriptions
65- Am I watching Mad Men? White privilege paragraph
66-68 A well-written passage about scale, where 1000s of feet is miniscule.
72- Art for sanity’s sake.
72-3 Good detail about moon life and weight vs. mass
73- Classic technological optimism style.
77- The space-born humans —- I dunno.
83- Nice contrast to Moon Watcher’s 1st experience with the monolith.
90- Sagan stole this trick in Contact.
94- Good detail.
98- None of the sci-fi writers seem to have predicted the digital camera – heh.
99- What do the primes mean? What are they telling us? That ET realization.
104- The trap sprung.

Part 3 Between Planets (p.107 – 146)
108- We’re going to Saturn, not (as in the movie) Jupiter.
108- The sequel is built in. (Also 137, at Europa)
110- Hibernaculum. A joke to Dave’s homunculus problem. Heh.
110-11 Foreshadowing. Trip lights. emotion
112-3 Space infancy. Mother’s milk.
116- The HAL/IBM joke. Fixed it!
117- Tiny white privilege reveal
117- AI fact check. What course did AI actually take?
119, 129 HAL foreshadowing
120- Chapter 17 Technical. R & D Video for Space Exploration
122- The advancement of cross-disciplinary learning at the expense of colleges and universities.
125- Scientifically speaking, Discovery has Salvadors
128- Clarke’s uptight dweeb side: Why not just let them have their porn and masturbation instead of drugging their sex away?
130- Great scaling of the asteroid belt.
132- The asteroid flyby. Still target practice

Part 4 Abyss (p.149 – 211)
150- An important consequence of isolation.
169- Silence as a response. Tsk, tsk.
180- Poole attacked. Maybe HAL was just trying to get the AR-35, not Poole.
180- When it’s time to emote, it’s all “show-don’t-tell”
182- Movie Note: Poole’s death is very different.
184- How is murder born? Can a computer commit it?
192- Chapter 27. HAL’s mind. The lie. Redundancy. The Fatal Flaw. (123- HAL’s size, 127 Games)
197- A potent image. Trapped in an air bubble in space, from air island to air island.
(And the powerful contrast of how unnecessary all that will be once Bowman transcends.)

Part 5 The Moons Of Saturn (p.215 – 255)
218- BARSOOM. Heh. Nod to John Carter’s Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)?
219- Sounds cruel. Does that even qualify as an experiment?
220- The core of AI is the study of our own human psychology.
220-1 Don’t Panic :o). HAL’s motivations laid out. They forced him to lie, and it made him implode.
225- Heh. Neils Bohr: “Your theory is crazy – but not crazy enough to be true.”
227- For Clarke, technology is a rung on the ladder to God. If consciousness could be housed in a machine instead of an organic body, eventually it wouldn’t need the machine, either. (245 – 6, and 249)
231- Clarke as a science popularizer.
232 Saturn’s rings and the monolith and us.
234- “the western side” of an orbit. Cute white privilege seep.
238- Bowman holding it together.
242- “Call it the Star Gate.” Why? :o)
243- Second monolith, EXPLAINED. Chapter 37 (Part 1 callback)
246- Ensconced in a comforting world-view that all of evolution was set up to lead homo sapiens to spaceships. A playful, and silly, conceit. Clarke’s uptight dweeb side.
249- Star Gate’s job is to bridge the organic to machine interface of mind, to be the next rung on Clarke’s Mind ladder – from body to machine to transcendent spirit in space.
251- “In all history, he was the only man to have seen this sight.” Heh, Clarke’s white privilege pipe dream in a nutshell.
251- Brave, chivalrous Bowman.
254- Bowman won’t be needing air anymore.

Part 6 Through The Star Gate (p.259 – 297)
260- Movie Note: The long psychadelic light show of the Star Gate travel.
261- A nice way to approach hallucinogenics: “a sense of calm expectation.” “The world around him was strange and wonderful, but there was nothing to fear. He had traveled these millions of miles in search of mystery; and now, it seemed, the mystery was coming to him.”
262- seems to be describing an interstellar freeway exchange at these monolith Star Gates all situated on one synthetic planet, a hub of Star Gate pathways.
263- A conceit.
263- Cool shipwreck image! Missed the interchange, ha.
264- A passing ship.
265- He takes his highway.
267- Handy, scientific, globular cluster deduction for guessing how far he might be from home.
269- He visits a binary star system
271- He visits a starship graveyard
275- He visits a dying red star orbited by a tiny brilliant white dwarf, which is drawing up an energy column of flame wider than the earth and several many thousand miles long.
291- Bowman set back to Zero. Next stage in Clarke’s body-machine-transcendence Mind ladder
292- Callback to Part 1
294- The double star was a re-birthing place.
295- Like when a drug trip grazes near “bad,” but all is well. The life form Clarke is trying to describe reminds me of Cordwainer Smith’s “Game of Rat and Dragon” space entities (but less malevolent).
297- Bowman pauses at Earth, stops nuclear war, then heads out to the great beyond. Last page.

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

If you buy one book this summer...Science fiction lovers, attend! Summer is smiling upon us, and the weather is balmy in the Uncanny Valley. Who needs Virgil when you’ve got Total Dick-Head David Gill and sci-fi author Suhail Rafidi to guide you through the storied landscape of shadows and wonders, crafted by some of science fiction’s best writers, past and present.

This summer, we’re reading one novel and six short stories over the course of six Monday evening gatherings. For those who traversed the Valley with us last summer, good news! All of the short stories are selected from same anthology we used last year, The Big Book Of Science Fiction, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. So if you bought that prodigious doorstop of a book, crack it open – time to go again!

Where & When? (IRL and Online)
Six Monday night discussions, 6:00 PM Pacific (6/25, 7/2, 7/9, 7/16, 7/23, & 7/30)
If you’re in the Bay Area and can make it live, contact us for the address.
Otherwise, the Google Hangout link:

https://plus.google.com/hangouts/_/g5stgywth5n76vwbbyicm4jkqea

What Are We Reading?
The novel first. In honor of the 70mm re-release of Kubrick’s classic, we’re reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This novel was simultaneously written as a screenplay, forged in collaboration between author and director, as the film was being produced. Much like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.H.G. Wells, care of Tantor Media

June 25th: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Arthur C. Clarke

July 2: “The Star” (1897) – H.G. Wells  [Download PDF]

July 9: “Sultana’s Dream” (1905) – Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain

July 16:“The Triumph of Mechanics” (1907) – Karl Hans Strobl (Gio Clairval 1st English translation, 2016)"Violence cannot destroy the body of the Goddess, for Her body is the world itself." - Rachel Pollack

July 23: “Burning Sky” (1989) – Rachel Pollack
“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” (1995) – Geoffrey Maloney

July 30: “The Poetry Cloud” – Cixin Liu (1997)

BONUS NIGHT (TBA): In honor of this year’s Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odysseyre-release of the groundbreaking film, we will be hosting a Sunday screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned, and get reading!

Mark your calendars. Start reading 2001: A Space Odyssey, and join us for the first meet on Monday June, 25th. From David and myself, see you Monday evenings this summer.

With The Total Dick Head Himself!

Keep track on our Facebook Page:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/496095803825881/

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

The Deepest Cut

Come October With Us
Come October With Us

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Come meet author Suhail Rafidi at the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Last week, Suhail Rafidi fielded questions about the editorial process for Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Here, the discussion turns to the specific matter of editorial cuts. We got a story from Suhail that we did not expect…

So you rewrote Cetus Finalis ten times. Does your editor Ryan see every draft?
No, I’m not that pampered. But out of personal interest, he reads about 3 or 4 of the drafts, mostly at the later stages.

Does your editor make a lot of cuts?
It depends on the project. He is true to the art, and cuts deeper than I ever would. He wants to see the vision of the book brought forth as vividly as possible. A good editor makes a great book possible.

cutskiThat’s a half-assed answer…
Yes, I’ve known him to make a lot of cuts. And when it’s time for that, my feelings don’t matter, the art does. My feelings can matter after the edits. The very first time we worked together, he was reading an early draft of TJ & Tosc. The first thing he did was throw away the beginning 15 pages, and say “This part is boring. Start here. Drop us right into the action.” I was stunned, but impressed. He was right and I never would have seen it.

I will tell you the deepest cut he ever made, and it may elucidate one of the reasons Cetus Finalis has been years in the making. Once, I think it was the 6th draft or so, I handed my editor a 170 page manuscript of Cetus Finalis. He gave me back 52 pages, saying, “This is the best part. Start over.”

Why did he cut that much?
He said, “This 50 pages is literature. The whole book has to be like this.”

Cut Chair, by Peter Bristol
Cut Chair, by Peter Bristol

Wow. What was in those 118 cut pages?
It doesn’t matter, ultimately. But since you asked: Cetus Finalis originated as a parallel story, an American Revolution historical fiction style book. Originally, two parallel storylines followed a pod of whales and a village of fisherfolk whose lives intersected at two critical junctures, at the beginning and end of the book. My editor cut out all of the human storyline. He said that he was experiencing his humanity more vividly through the whales than through the human characters, so get rid of the humans. Make it a whale story, a real whale story. Make the humans just one encounter with another species, just like all the other ones in the whale narrative. He was right. It made for a much more beautiful and otherworldly finished novel. But it also gave me a lot more work to do.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an editor cutting that much…
tantrumI was pissed, I’ll admit, but he was right. For a couple of days, I could barely talk to him. And he was staying at my house, so it was a little awkward. [Laughs.] In my mind, I was thinking, How could you cut so much? Did you even read it?! He was patient with my artistic moodiness.  He even let me throw a little tantrum a couple of days later. “Oh, that’s what’s bothering you?” The tantrum ended when I said, “I can ignore the changes you make any time I want to, but I trust your judgement.” He came to San Francisco to read the book. It would have been foolish of me to ask for his help then not accept it. Despite everything, the cuts improved the book. He takes personal interest in my work, and reads it thoroughly or not at all, with a keen eye for the story’s vision. Thank you, Ryan Hurtgen! I know you’re out there.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website, suhailrafidi.com.

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Please join Suhail Rafidi for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

The Editorial Skein

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. New book by Suhail Rafidi. September 2016.Last week, Suhail Rafidi discussed the significant amount of rewriting entailed in completing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Another essential factor of writing a novel for consumption by a paying audience is a good editor. There comes a time in every large writing project when the writer is in too deep, and needs the wayfinding insight of a good editor. In this week’s installment of Cetus Finalis propaganda, Suhail Rafidi answers more detailed questions about his editorial process, and his editor.

What does an editor do?
An editor pares away the junk of a book so the author’s vision can shine through. The author knows what they want the reader to see, but there so much extra junk in the author’s mind that invariably makes its way onto the page. The editor steers it ever back to the clearest vision of the story.

Why is an editor so important?

One Of The Ways It Works
One Of The Ways It Works
There comes a time in the process of writing a book when the author becomes too close to the work, too embroiled in the minutiae, and can lose perspective of the wholeness of the book, the totality of the story arc. A good editor will look at the work as a discerning outsider, with no sympathy for the invisible desires and motivations that can convolute the manuscript. A good editor can tell you honestly what needs to be cut (usually a lot), or about a character “I need to know what she’s thinking right now,” or about a scene, “This is weak storytelling.” Writers don’t typically like to listen to truths like that, but I feel it makes all the difference.

Learn more at ryanhurtgen.comTell me something about your editor. Who is he? How did you find him?
My editor is Ryan Hurtgen. He is a composer living in Los Angeles, and one of my personal heroes. We met as strangers in Nashville in 2009 and formed our very own two man writing group. We could tell right off that we had compatible aesthetic sensibilities, and that was the magic formula for editing each other’s work. We could look at the work as disinterested and critical audience members, instead of the creator who still has a crush on his work. That was a big deal, and goes a long way to creating a finished product fit for mass consumption.

asleepingreenAt the time Ryan was composing Rene Breton’s debut album, Asleep In Green, which was released with a companion book of short stories. We agreed to exchange labor. He edited TJ & Tosc, and I edited Asleep In Green. When we began working together, we did not know each other, and we only got together to work on writing. After that, a friendship grew, helped considerably by our compatible aesthetic sensibilities. I mention the bit about not choosing a pre-existing friend as an editor because I think it is important to select an editor who does not know you as a person, because they’ll pay more attention to the writing then to you. They are more likely to be honest about the book’s audience and less likely to pull punches about how to improve your work.

Tune in next week when Suhail reveals a flabbergasting story about the deepest cut his editor ever made, and how he dealt with it. Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website, suhailrafidi.com.