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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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Reading Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed. Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

Having finally exhausted my archive of Interzone reviews, it’s time to move on to my archive of reviews for Vector, the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal. Except, of course, that the bulk of them were written either before the advent of the easily affordable personal computer, or else were written on an Amstrad PCW and not converted to a more easily readable format. At some point in the future, much scanning will ensue. After that there was a long and mysterious reviewing hiatus, which I can’t now account for. However, there are a few reviews from my return to reviewing for Vector, although that archive seems to be a bit of a mess. So the next few reviews may dot around a bit.

I kick off with this review from 2011 …

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2011)

Why are we so obsessed by the thought of the world ending? For those of certain faiths, apocalypse is not so much an ending as a new beginning, the revelatory lifting of the veil, at which point they, as believers, will finally see what the rest of us cannot. For others, the thought of the world ending is so incomprehensible, they have to keep pushing at the idea, trying to imagine what it might be like. They make elaborate plans for coping with every possible eventuality, enjoying the exquisite thrill of horror this provokes, before comforting themselves with the fact that it hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t. Some people, like me, suspect that the apocalypse has either been quietly underway for years already and has already gone too far to be stopped or else that it will quite end suddenly, in a breath.

Most apocalypse scenarios assume that people are significant participants in it yet what struck me most forcefully when I saw John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings at the Tate Gallery’s recent exhibition was how insignificant humanity was to the whole business. Tiny figures crowded round the edges of the paintings, almost tumbling out of the frames in some instances, but it was the huge boiling skies, the volcanic eruptions, the floods that were the stars. This apocalypse seems to be an intensely visual experience so how might one write about it? Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, a collection of short stories partially inspired by the exhibition, takes on this challenge with, I have to say, mixed results.

Several stories are directly inspired by Martin’s work but none are entirely satisfactory. David Bryher’s ‘Architect of Hell’ features the correspondence of Mulciber, architect of Pandemonium, to Martin, to whom he has turned for inspiration. Bryher seeks to account for Martin’s extraordinary vision of the world but the story seems slight, perhaps because Martin himself is never present. Scott K Anderson’s ‘A Private Viewing’ is a more harrowing story of revenge, suggesting not only that last year’s riots were harbingers of the end days but that Martin’s paintings themselves might have the capacity to provoke madness. Archie Black’s ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’, its title taken from one of Martin’s most famous paintings, leads the reader into a hideous post-apocalyptic future as a group of explorers travel south through the former United States. Both are well written but felt more like exercises in craft than attempts to stir up genuine emotion.

In fact, deeply-felt emotion is something this collection seems to lack. Instead we see superficial people behaving badly when the end times arrive and a parade of the selfish and clueless pass by, from Lauren Beukes’s overweening ‘Chislehurst Messiah’ to the guests of the ghastly dinner party disrupted by the end of the world in Magnus Anderson’s ‘Another Abyss’, not forgetting the survivors of Andy Remic’s ‘Πανδαιμνειον’. It appears this time around that the bastards rather than the meek will inherit the earth.

Curiously, it is assumed for the most part that this apocalypse will be a Christian one. This allows for a certain amount of poking fun at those who sincerely believe in the Rapture (such as in Chrysanthy Balis’s ‘The Harvest’) but also permits a deeper questioning of faith, present in Jonathan Oliver’s challenging ‘The Day or the Hour’, Tom Pollock’s nicely observed ‘Evacuation’ with its conflicting love stories and, less successfully if more polemically, SL Grey’s ‘OMG GTFO’, the only story to touch on the other Abrahamic faiths. By contrast, Kim Lakin-Smith’s ‘Deluge’, Charlie Human’s ‘The Immaculate Particle’ and Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s ‘The Last Human’ eschew the contemporary world for fantastical settings but while all are competent stories they sit oddly in a collection which, for the most part, focuses on the familiar. The apocalypse seems to prefer to stay close to home.

Inevitably, the fictional equivalent of the terrible desire to laugh at a funeral comes to the fore a number of times, as authors try either to treat the End Times with a light touch or else reinvigorate the trope with a new twist. Den Patrick’s ‘The End of the World’ seems to fall into this category, as does Lou Morgan’s ‘At the Sign of the Black Dove’ and, much more successfully, Sam Wilson’s ‘Postapocalypse’, which sets science and belief against one another in a very entertaining way. I have mixed feelings about Osgood Vance’s ‘Closer’, not because it isn’t well written and in its way touching but because apparently we can’t even manage the end of the world without an sf baseball story!

Which brings us finally to Sophia McDougall’s ‘Not the End of the World’, the last story in the collection and by far the best. It unfolds slowly, as we meet the inhabitants of Frau Holl’s boarding house, situated somewhere in wartime Germany. The various inhabitants go about their war work, worry about the possibility of being called up, are fearful without being clear what it is they are frightened of. Time hangs heavy, the days run into one another. Only gradually does it become clear that something strange is happening, starting when Elly sees a stream of soap bubbles float past her window, something almost unimaginable in her austere world. This story dips deep into the well of emotion without ever becoming sentimental; the dignified composure of those who know what is happening is set against the blissful ignorance of those who don’t but who are safer than they can possibly imagine. In its understated way, this story says more about the nature of endings than all the other stories put together.

What this anthology demonstrates is that apocalypse itself is a very slippery concept. We think about it probably more than we care to admit, particularly given the present state of the world, but it is difficult to find anything to say about it without resorting to well-worn tropes and images. With single stories we overlook this so it is only when an anthology brings together a group of stories on the same subject that we realise just how difficult it is to encompass the nature of apocalypse. We are too small to see the whole picture. We can only ever experience it in fragments and those individual pieces don’t always fit well together because our personal visions of the final ending are so different. We joke to keep it at bay, or we torment ourselves with the emotional horror of it all. Only rarely can we find the grace to simply accept whatever comes, as and when it arrives.

 

Reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Another review from Interzone in 2013

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes, HarperCollins, 391pp, £12.99

In 1931, a homeless man lets himself into a derelict house in Chicago, using a key he finds in a jacket he’s stolen. He finds a room whose walls are covered in artefacts joined together by lines, with names, in the man’s own handwriting, yet he has never been here before. One of the names is “Kirby”.

In 1974, a man gives a young girl a toy horse for her circus game and promises he’ll see her again. Fifteen years later, he attacks her with a knife and leaves her for dead. Her name is Kirby.

Kirby Mazrachi is one of Harper Curtis’s “shining girls”, young women destined to die because they literally “shine” with potential. Harper’s job is to identify each one, then “claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out”. The house sets the agenda; Harper is simply its tool, killing as casually as he might rip the wings off an insect, never questioning the elaborate ritual of taking and leaving objects that the house forces him to carry out. Though he sees extraordinary transformations every time he emerges in a new decade he remains fundamentally untouched by them. He learns to navigate the world but makes no contact with it.

While the novel follows Harper’s activities during a window of eight months in 1931-32, that window opens out onto a huge vista encompassing almost twenty years of Kirby’s life, and beyond that the lives of other victims, from the 1930s to the 1990s. We know their names, what they do, and in some cases, what they would have become. We see how others grieve over their loss and inevitably wonder about the consequences of the deaths that are not fully explored. Indeed, given the occupations of some of the “shining girls”, we also think of all the other women put at risk by their murders. The historical sweep of this novel demonstrates over and over the pressures experienced by women who attempt to make a life beyond the home.

Kirby, the survivor, attempts to come to terms with the assault by tracking down her would-be killer, talking her way into an internship on a Chicago newspaper and persuading the man who reported her own attack to help her search the archives for related murders. To the reader, aware of the near impossibility of Kirby’s task, her tenacity is impressive. It is not difficult to see why the house might want such potential to be extinguished. Kirby was always going to be sharp, funny, competent; having escaped she is all the more so.

Obviously, this is not a conventional novel about a serial killer, although Kirby’s investigation into the circumstances of her assault is a compellingly written murder mystery. Nor is it a conventional supernatural horror novel; though this is another narrative form which relies heavily on the use of threats or violence towards women to drive its plot forward. Another subtext points up the tensions between a deterministic model of the world in which women are expected to fulfil their domestic roles rather than achieve autonomy in choice of career, sexuality or reproductive rights.

The Shining Girls is subtle and deceptive. It is possible to read it as a smoothly executed if somewhat odd mystery-thriller, but that would be to miss its multilayered portrait of the precarious situation of women in the twentieth century. Perhaps Beukes on occasion manipulates the plot a little obviously in Kirby’s favour, and lays too much stress on the brutality of Harper’s killings. Having said that, given how easily we ignore the fact that so many women are killed, in genre and in real life, because they don’t conform to a predetermined idea of how they ought to behave, this may be a very small price to pay if it prompts us to think more deeply about what we are reading. And there can be no denying that the most harrowing scenes in this novel involve those left behind to account for a life ended far too soon.

 

 

 

Kitschies 2013 – shortlists announced

The Kitschies, the annual prize for books containing elements of the “speculative and fantastic” are proud to announce their shortlists for the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” fiction of 2013.

This year’s shortlists are selected from a record 234 submissions, coming from over fifty different publishers and imprints.

The Red Tentacle (Novel), selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

• Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
• A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
• Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
• More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
• The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also selected by the above panel:

• Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
• A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
• Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
• Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
• Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art), selected by Craig Kennedy, Sarah Anne Langton, Hazel Thompson and Emma Vieceli.

• Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz) / Design and illustration by Sinem Erkas
• The Age Atomic by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot) / Art by Will Staehle
• Homeland and Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Titan) / Design by Amazing15
• Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key) / Art by Gianmarco Magnani
• Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human (Century) / Art by Joey Hi-Fi

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the Seven Dials Club on 12 February. The winners will receive a total of £2,000 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic Tentacle trophies and bottles of The Kraken Rum.

The Kitschies, sponsored by The Kraken Rum, are now in their fifth year, with previous winners including Patrick Ness, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville and Nick Harkaway.

– END –

Further information for editors:

“This was an awe-inspiring year. For the Red Tentacle, we could have built a shortlist composed purely of iconic names, and we had to reject at least one book which may be a work of genius because it did not entirely mesh with the Kitschies’ cardinal virtues: ‘intelligent, entertaining, and progressive’. The debuts are pretty breathtaking, too: broad in scope, deft and compelling. It’s been an education as well as a privilege to judge the prize, and a vast relief not to be in competition with these writers.” – Nick Harkaway

“What an honour to be confronted with so many beautiful books, it can make any creator feel…quite inadequate. Their overall quality made judging a tricky business, and many post-it notes were lost to the greater good, but our entire judging panel was professional, balanced and placated with The Kraken Rum. We didn’t even draw blood.” – Emma Vieceli

For more information about the prize, its criteria or the judges, please see: http://www.thekitschies.com

A breakdown of this year’s submissions is available:
http://kitschi.es/1aDKq03

More about The Kraken Rum:
http://www.krakenrum.com

The finalists’ covers can be downloaded here:
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/520auwuq1gqw4te/H0Px3if09q

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Novel

My grand plan was that I would read and write about all the nominations for the best novel category in the BSFA awards. So far I have read them all and blogged about two! However, blogging about the rest will have to wait until I’m a little less busy generally (and I still have the Clarke Award nominations to get through). But I can say how I will be voting.

1 – Ian McDonald for The Dervish House
2 – Lauren Beukes for Zoo City
3 – Paolo Bacigalupi for The Wind-Up Girl
4 – Tricia Sullivan for Lightborn
5 – Ken Macleod for The Restoration Game

And this will, I think, be the first time I have ever voted in the BSFA Awards having read or examined every single nomination. I’m beginning to feel as though I might be a grown-up!