Reading Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond, and We See A Different Frontier

Another review from Vector, this time from last year.


We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad (Futurefire.net Publishing, 2013)

Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall (Rosarium Publishing, 2013)

As I’m writing this review, the shortlists of two awards have just been announced. One, for the three David Gemmell Legend Awards, featured seventeen white men. The other, for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, included women and writers of colour on its shortlist of five. Which shortlist then is the more representative of contemporary SF and fantasy publishing? The answer is, of course, the Campbell Award. Yet given the nominating process for the Gemmells is much, much broader in its intake than that of the Campbell, one has to ask just how it happens that so many readers of speculative fiction either do not seem to be aware that it is also being written by women and by writers of colour or, worse, simply don’t want to acknowledge that fact. This is 2014, for heaven’s sake.

This is a question that Bill Campbell, co-editor of Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, has frequently asked himself. As he puts it,  ‘mainstream, American corporate culture ‘whitewashes’ all culture – past, present, and future – giving people the false impression that America has been, is, and always will be the “White Man’s Country”.’ This is reflected in much of the science fiction emerging from the USA in the last half century or so. I pause here, briefly, so that someone may observe – as someone inevitably will – that the protagonist of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a person of colour. Or that Samuel Delany is a writer of colour. Star Trek! Octavia Butler! While not denying that all these facts are true, an argument that relies on such a small number of data points to prove that US science fiction is not a purely white male enclave is a poor one, especially when it is the same two writers of colour who are continually offered as proof of the genre’s diversity. We can surely do better than this.

What is all too easy to miss is that fantasy and science fiction is being produced by writers of colour but that it remains, for whatever reason, not as immediately visible as the work produced by Anglo-American writers. In part this might be that such stories are not published in mainstream genre venues (several of the stories in Mothership are reprinted from ‘literary’ journals) or simply because these stories are scattered through a wide variety of small-press publications and anthologies, lost in the welter of fiction being published. It takes projects such as these or small press magazines such as Crossed Genres, which has a specific brief to recognise diversity in what it publishes, to draw the attention of the wider reading public to what’s actually out there. Likewise, it has not always been easy for writers of colour to publish collections of their work, though the burgeoning independent publishing scene is mercifully changing this.

Mothership, edited by Campbell and Edward Austin Hall, and We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, are part of an informal movement that directly opposes the idea that science fiction is, or should be, exclusively a white male Anglo-American activity. Charles Tan and Lavie Tidhar have been pushing this idea strongly for some years through the award-winning World SF blog, now alas in abeyance, and it has also been heavily promoted through social media. These two anthologies, both crowdfunded, take different but complementary approaches to demonstrating the genuine diversity of contemporary SF with Mothership offering us a dazzling variety of authors and stories, while We See Things Differently is more philosophical and structured in its approach.

In Mothership, Campbell and Austin have brought together a staggering range of authors, a good half of whom are new names to me (I thought myself reasonably well-read but clearly I’m not). If a preponderance of the authors are resident in the US, this only serves to show how ridiculous is the assumption that SF must be by and about Anglo American men. And if a good percentage of the stories are reprints this serves only to remind us that the genre has been rather more diverse for rather longer than most of us realise. Campbell and Austin also work with a commendably broad definition of genre, what Austin calls an  ‘open-arms, fantasticated-tales-by-and/or-for-and/or-about-people-of-color approach ‘. In practice, this means that a story such as NK Jemisin’s ‘Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows’, a neat take on the effects of the tiny universes we build for ourselves online (all the while in dialogue with EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’) can sit alongside Charles R Saunders’s ‘Amma’, about the fate of a woman who can transform herself into a gazelle, told by a griot in the marketplace, while Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac’s ‘Dances With Ghosts’ is, unsurprisingly, a ghost story, one which wittily reframes themes familiar from Native American novels such as Momaday’s A House Made of Dawn.

These stories challenge the reader’s expectations and assumptions in other ways. It is all too easy for ‘white people’ to look to indigenous writers and writers of colour and either expect to be educated about another culture or to assume that because you read fiction written by someone who identifies with a particular cultural group, this means you have gained knowledge of that group. Throughout Mothership there are stories that subvert such assumptions; indeed, the collection’s opening story, ‘I Left My Heart In Skaftafell’ by Victor LaValle, should stop such nonsense in its tracks. LaValle’s African-American narrator is on holiday in Iceland and notes the reactions to his skin colour from others on the trip but his story isn’t about that; it’s about the narrator’s sustained encounter with a troll. Lauren Beukes’s ‘Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs’ is rich with references to animé; it tells us about Beukes herself, not what it means to be a white South African. SP Somtow’s ‘The Pavilion Of Frozen Women’ is a story about a serial killer, with hints that the killer might have been driven to it because of the pressure of being part of an indigenous minority (and the narrator is herself Native American) but it is primarily about the events leading up to the deaths rather than the issues behind them.

There are so many different kinds of story in Mothership, and stories of such high quality, it is actually very difficult to single out particular favourites. Other than the stories already mentioned, I was particularly taken with Tobias Buckell’s ’Four Eyes’. This deals mostly with a young Jamaican man, Manny, finally acknowledging that his destiny is to become a ‘four eyes’ or obeah man. What really intrigued me is the way in which his teacher, Jimiti, easily accepts that La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is his spirit guide, although ‘she ain’t even the right mythology for me to see. And she had ask me, “what the right mythology, Jimiti? You a two hundred-year-old blend of cultural mess”’.

Other outstanding stories include Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Waking the God of the Mountain’, which deals with issues of territorial sovereignty and deep, powerful ties to the land, as well as Rabih Alameddine’s delicate, tender ‘The Half Wall’. But there are so many good things in this anthology. If you want to get some idea of just how diverse SF can really be, Mothership is a great place to start.

We See A Different Frontier takes a slightly different angle, as its subtitle makes clear: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology. Aliette de Bodard’s preface takes up this theme:  ‘When we read science fiction stories where colonists leave their home and hearth, and make contact with funny-looking aliens, we are uncomfortably reminded of the days when English or French or Dutch colonists came to foreign shores … and gradually took over everything under the pretence of “civilizing” barbarians. ‘ The voices we hear in WSADF, then, are those of  ‘the invaded; of the colonized; of the erased and the oppressed; of those whom others would make into aliens and blithely ignore or conquer or enlighten ‘. In other words, these are the voices which supposedly don’t exist, the voices of the Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous subalterns. Yet these subalterns are only too eager to speak.

Shweta Narayan’s exquisitely allusive ‘The Arrangement Of Their Parts’ leads off the collection. The story’s setting appears to be the Mughal empire in the time of Aurangzeb, its sixth emperor, described in this story as a usurper. One of the sons of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, Aurangzeb engaged in a series of wars to overthrow his brothers and gain the throne. This, though, is simply background to a story in which the Englishman, Sir James, encounters what appears to be some sort of automaton. To judge from his workshop, this is not such he has encountered; the others he has dismantled. The Artificer Devi, however, has something else in mind. it is possible to read this story simply as a cyberpunk interpretation of the presence of the British in India, but it seems to me that there is also another more slippery layer of allegory in play, given the significance of the peacock in Indian culture. Sofia Samatar’s ‘I Stole The D.C.’s Eyeglass’ takes us into not dissimilar territory. We see from the point of view of the colonised what it is to be under the rule of an Englishman but also how supposedly lost indigenous technology is brought into play, not only to escape colonial rule but also, and perhaps more important, to escape the mindset inculcated by colonial rule. In Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Them Ships’ the unnamed narrator, a slum dweller, finds herself enslaved by aliens, along with wealthier members of her own country. Chief among them is Leonardo, who  ‘acts like we are totally partners … but he would’ve never even looked at me if we’d bumped into each other on the street ‘. For the unnamed narrator, life under alien rule is not necessarily that bad – there is better food, better conditions; for Leonardo it is intolerable and he compares her to La Malinche, the indigenous woman who acted as Cortes’s translator. The story serves to remind us that under colonial or postcolonial rule, there is no one experience common to all.

As Ekaterina Sedia notes in the collection’s afterword, the main theme of all these stories is the  ‘push-pull of the contradictory demands of assimilation versus appropriation ‘. We see it manifested in so many different ways through the stories, from the suppression and reclamation of a language in NA Ratanayake’s ‘Remembering Turinam’ to Sunny Moraine’s ‘A Heap of Broken Images’ which addresses such issues as guilt tourism and its effect on the culture that has to deal with it. More than one story touches on the presence of anthropologists and their relationships to the cultures they study, including Dinesh Rao’s ‘A Bridge of Words’ which suggests that in the proper circumstances this can be productive rather than appropriative (underlining, of course, that this is rarely so). And, intriguingly, JY Yang’s ‘Old Domes’ considers the fate of old buildings, swallowed up by so-called regeneration. Jing-Li is a cullmaster of buildings, trained to extinguish the spirits of buildings, spirits made out of the history accumulated in their very fabric. Afterwards, the buildings are reused. In this case, though, the spirit of Singapore’s old Supreme Court is reluctant to go. Again, one might read this as an allegorical story, interrogating the assumption that modernisation is good, and that eliminating the old is a necessity in order to achieve that modernisation, but the story is rather more subtle than that, looking at different responses to history and how it affects a relatively new state.

If Mothership is a joyful celebration of diversity in science fiction and fantasy, WSADF is a more focused, more directly political consideration of the effects of colonisation on writers and how that is expressed in their fiction. A number of authors have work included in both anthologies but again in WSADF there are several writers whose names are new to me. In reading Mothership and WSADF together, I feel rather as I did when I encountered Alberto Manguel’s 1983 anthology, Black Water, which first opened my eyes to the variety available in fantastic literature if one did but look hard enough. Reading both these books should prompt SF readers to take a long hard look at the world around them and then ask themselves why they are not reading more by such amazing authors. Because the point is that more diverse genre fiction is out there. It may not be on the shelves in one’s local bookshop but we live in an age when it is easily available online and there is no excuse for not reading it.

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