Tag Archives: aliette de bodard

Reading The Immersion Book of SF, ed. Carmelo Rafala

Another review from Vector, in 2010. <hr>

The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala
(Immersion Press, 2010)

Immersion Press, according to its website, specialises in “limited-edition, single-author collections and short novels”. As The Immersion Book of SF is neither, one should perhaps regard it as a calling card, introducing the Press’s authors and laying out its wares. It is a mixed bag.
The majority of these stories feel as though they belong in the Eighties rather than in the 21st century. Chris Butler’s ‘Have Guitar, Will Travel’ is a prime example, with its faux-Gibsonian plot about the consequences of a rock star becoming infected with virus software. Although competently written, the story is unsurprising. Al Robertson’s ‘Golden’ is similarly predictable, its disillusioned salesman receiving tantalising hints of a world where humans have continued into space, its ‘surprise revelation’ heavily signalled. Both stories also suffer from a sense that the sf elements are window dressing for studies of emotional upheavals rather than integral to the story.
This feeling permeates the collection. Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Father’s Last Ride’, dealing with a daughter’s coming to terms with her father’s life as an “aurora rider” might as easily use a non-sf setting and occupation and achieve the same cathartic ending Jason Erik Lundberg’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Son’ is, like the de Bodard, a nicely observed mood piece and there were hints that it is moving beyond a merely evocative account of an mostly absent father with a taste for tall tales but it doesn’t fully realise its own premise.
‘Dolls’ by Colin P Davies and ‘Grave Robbers’ by Anne Stringer are very disappointing. Davies’s story, about child pageants taken to competitive absurdity, swirls aimlessly before ending in a desultory fashion. Stringer’s story is the weakest in the collection (although Eric James Stone’s ‘Bird-Dropping and Sunday’, a leaden fairy tale, runs it a close second). The idea of grave robbers uncovering alien artefacts is not new and Stringer does little to refresh it. Gareth Owens’s ‘Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Contract Evolution’ has the most ingenious title but, as with so many of these stories, there is no sense of anything beyond the conclusion and it feels more like a writing exercise than a fully-fledged story.
Gord Sellar’s ‘The Broken Pathway’ has flaws but he works hard to create a world beyond the story and sets up an intriguing clash of cultures, expressed through geomancy and cartography. Finally, Lavie Tidhar and Tanith Lee show how it should be done. Tidhar’s ‘Lode Stars’ skilfully packs a fully-realised space opera into twenty pages of story which is full of telling detail and wrong-foots the reader throughout. Lee’s ‘Tan’ is tiny and has an improbable premise involving dead aliens and a sun tan but works because of an unforgettable final image.
But these three stories are not enough to sustain the rest of the collection. The retro feel – even down to the cover picture with its pouting female astronaut, hair floating softly, breast-shaped bulges built into her spacesuit – seems neither intentional nor ironic and as such suggests that the Immersion Press view of science fiction will be traditional rather than innovative. This might not be a bad thing in itself but let it at least be good traditional storytelling rather than, as in so many instances here, something lack-lustre and unappealing.

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.

Accessing the Future – How Not to Do Disability SF

I’ve already written about Accessing the Future, an exciting new anthology that seeks to “publish speculative fiction stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—along with the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future”.

Its editors are Kathryn Allan, who has edited Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave Macmillan), and Djibril al-Ayad, co-editor, along with Fabio Fernandes, of We See A Different Frontier as well as being editor of The Future Fire.

With fifteen days to go before the fund-raising campaign finishes, I invited Kathryn and Djibril over to Paper Knife, to talk about a few of the stories that they feel get portrayals of disability spectacularly wrong.

Thank you, Maureen, for welcoming us to Paper Knife and letting us complain (and snark) a bit about some of the terrible examples of disability in science fiction out there. There are LOTS but since we don’t want this to be an encyclopedia of “what not to do when you include a person with disability in your story,” we’ll just highlight a handful of the examples that put the bee in our respective bonnets.

First off, let’s give an example of the type of story that is quite common: where a “negative” representation of disability appears thoroughly “positive” on the first read. One such story is Edith Nesbit’s “Uncle Abraham’s Romance,” a truly lovely ghost story about the narrator’s old and disabled Uncle Abraham, and the story of the love he almost found when a young man. This piece is deeply sensitive; the characterization of the gentle, resigned, peaceable old man is perfect, carried in every ounce of the story down to the subdued, monotonous tone of the prose itself. There is heartbreaking pathos in the repeated refrain, “Although I was lame, and the girls laughed at me.” In many ways this is a very positive story; Abraham’s disability is believable and not mocked, he is in no way less than human, and the reader has nothing but sympathy for him.

But that right there’s the problem—he’s a figure of sympathy, of pity. His disability causes him to fail at the one thing that might have brought him happiness, and he spends his whole life alone and, if not unhappy, certainly lonely and regretful. Although Nesbit is to be praised for humanizing the character, this story never questions the prevailing stereotype that a person with disability is defined, constrained and ultimately defeated by their disability.

So yes, it’s possible that a writer can be well-intentioned, but they nevertheless end up repeating harmful stereotypes and assumptions about disability. Now, on to the undeniably “bad” examples!

H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau is particularly disturbing and awful with it’s descriptions of animal-people-monsters, heavily relying on words like “cripple,” “dwarfs,” and all types of medicalized terms for people with disabilities. If you were ever curious about the transformative possibilities of vivisection (which is surgery or experimentation on live animals), this is the book to read. Wells was a well-known proponent of eugenics, and much of his early work (like The Time Machine) explores the potential “horrors” that could be prevented through eugenic programs. Ugh. Pass.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is often talked about as a novel that explores the dangers of eugenics (a.k.a., genetic engineering) but it is really about the dangers of state-controlled eugenics programs. Huxley was against big government but fine with using eugenics to remove “degenerates.” Don’t believe it? Here’s a line from his follow-up work, Brave New World Revisited:

And what about the congenitally insufficient organisms, whom our medicine and our social services now preserve so that they may propagate their kind? To help the unfortunate is obviously good. But the wholesale transmission to our descendants of the results of unfavourable mutations, and the progressive contamination of the genetic pool from which the members of our species will have to draw, are no less obviously bad.

Pro tip: don’t refer to anyone, ever, as a “congenitally insufficient organism.”

A. E. van Vogt’s Slan is just crap. Honestly, how did this book ever become one of the touch points of early fandom (spawning the “fans are slans” slogan)? Don’t answer! Not only is Slan poorly written, but it’s chock full of sexism and advocates for the world where some people are better than others (e.g., they are more intelligent) and so deserve to be in control (and those that are too different/less intelligent are ignorant monsters who deserve to die). This is one “classic” that needs to go away.

William Gibson’s “Winter Market” is an interesting story about the philosophy and metaphysics of mind-upload, in which a young woman with a “wasting disease” who uses a mechanical exoskeleton chooses to “upgrade” to living entirely in cyberspace to escape her disabled body. This story is sometimes discussed as one of the foundational texts of the debate around whether the human brain can ever be replicated in a computer, whether personality can be captured by electrons and bits, and whether the person could live on in the machine if you switched off and discarded your body at that point.

It’s a powerful story, but it starts with (and never questions) the assumption that a person living with a disability, with a body that needs prosthetics in order to move around, in constant pain, doesn’t have much to live for. We love the tech and the grittiness, but Gibson never stopped to consider that actual people with disabilities might not want to transcend the physical world in favour of digital avatars. Sigh.

And we certainly can’t forget Robert A. Heinlein’s “Waldo,” in which a disabled man develops superpowers through sheer force of willpower. Not only does this story succumb to the the worst of Heinlein’s glorificatory corporatist and libertarian instincts, but Waldo is a distilled example of the “inspirational” or “motivational” disabled person. He is a genius inventor, a fabulously rich industrialist, and incredibly hard worker (because everyone wealthy and powerful is so by merit), and he ultimately discovers how to tap into the power of parallel universes and to control almost every aspect of physical matter, including his own (because people who don’t manage to overcome their disabilities apparently just aren’t trying hard enough).

Amusingly, this story is now only available as a double-bill in a volume including a novella in which trade unionists are literally the servants of Satan. Note the description of Waldo (in bolded, 40 point font, no less) on the back of the book Waldo and Magic, Inc. (1970): “Fat, Ugly, And Hopelessly Crippled On Earth.” So. Much. Cringe.

Let’s end on a high note: because we don’t like being unremittingly negative, we encourage you to go and read some examples of good representation of disability in SFF for yourself, in stories by Anna Caro, Jack Hollis Marr, Nick Wood and Aliette de Bodard, or check out some recommendations of longer fiction from Kathryn at Pornokitsch. And, of course, please help us bring even more realistic representations of disability in SF into the world by supporting our co-edited anthology, Accessing the Future at Indiegogo.

You can also follow Kathryn and Djibril on Twitter, as @bleedingchrome and @thefuturefire respectively, and check out #disabilitysf for more blog posts about the project.

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Short Fiction

I’m still reading my way through the BSFA Award Best Novel nominations but took a break to read the nominations for Best Short Fiction last night. Again, kudos to the BSFA for gathering the short story nominations together in this convenient booklet.

Nina Allan’s Flying In The Face of God and Aliette de Bodard’s The Shipmaker form an unintentional diptych, dealing as they both do with women in the science-fictional future, but the two authors handle the subject in rather different ways.

Allan’s Rachel, training to be a flier on the Aurora Space Program (clearly some sort of deep-space project), is leaving Earth, probably for the last time. Already set apart from those around her by the effects of the Kushnev Process, the conditioning she undergoes as part of her training, she is cutting her final ties with this world. We see her through the observant eyes of her friend, Anita Schleif, herself the daughter of an astronaut, Melanie Sheener, who died on her ship when Anita was only a few months old. Anita is also a documentary-maker, working on a film about the women of the Aurora Project; it is perhaps her way of trying to come to terms with her mother’s own career choices.

I like this story in part because of the simplicity of the language and in part because of the way Allan situates the story in a setting that is close to ‘now’ yet obviously at some point in the future. I like too the way it raises more questions than it answers, and I like the delicacy with which Allan draws the relationship between Rachel and Anita.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Shipmaker is very different in terms of setting. We are far in the future and far from Earth; the journey was made so long ago that it is now Old Earth and we are living in an interstellar world. At the heart of the story is the building of a space ship; ships, we are informed, are ‘living, breathing beings’, controlled by a human Mind, and their construction is as much about fitting ship to Mind through a myriad small touches as it is about riveting sheets of metal together. Dac Kien, the Grand Master of Design Harmony, is therefore perturbed when the Mind-bearer, Zoquitl, arrives on her half-built ship ahead of schedule.

The story is, I suppose, a meditation on the nature of creativity; the link between birthing a ship and birthing a baby points for this, although to my mind it’s a little too obvious I’m also not entirely comfortable with some of the implicit assumptions that seem to lurk under the surface here, but that is a personal thing (in the same way as Hélène Cixous’s insistence on women writing with white ink, the milk of motherhood, rather gets on my nerves; I can’t engage with it as a concept). I’ve noticed in other stories that de Bodard’s characters also tend to be very passionate, in a way that doesn’t really speak to me, and I find I prefer the slight detachment and melancholy of Allan’s piece.

It turns out that I’d already read Peter Watts’ The Things. It’s an enjoyable enough riff on John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There, written from, effectively, the point of view of the aliens who have taken over the men. It’s competently executed, as one would expect from Watts, but, oh, I don’t know, it just doesn’t set me on fire. I find it difficult to get overly enthusiastic about revisiting old stories, except on the rarest occasions. We honour our history and all that, but how far do we need to go.

In a way, history brings us to Neil Williamson’s Arrhythmia. I am at a loss to understand quite what it is about this story that seems to have attracted people’s attention. The music of the young will break the rhythm of the old is hardly an original theme, and I’ve seen it done more than once over the years. Williamson seemed to me to strain rather too hard for effect; it was all a little too 1984 for my taste, and if Williamson was reaching for allegorical effect, I don’t think he really pulled it off. I had the impression that he was writing about punk (possibly the most manufactured musical rebellion ever, thanks to Malcolm McLaren, and no more significant than the arrival of rock and roll in the Fifties), but as Paul Kincaid pointed out it could as easily have been set in the Fifties or the Thirties, and for that matter, it made me think of the early Sixties too. This may be a good thing, it may be a bad thing, but this was really not a science-fictional thing.

So, in this category, I’ll be voting as follows:

1 – Nina Allan for Flying In The Face of God
2 – Aliette de Bodard for The Shipmaker
3 – Peter Watts for The Things
4 – Neil Williamson for Arrhythmia