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The Future Alternative Past: this dystopian hope

Unreality show

Interviewers sometimes ask me which mode of science fiction is easier to write: Utopia or dystopia? Look around you, I answer. Dystopian fiction is basically mimetic (realistic) fiction. It’s way, way too sodding easy to depict a scenario so ubiquitous; I choose to get my jollies envisioning the Utopian coolness that could be.

Equality and perfection are two hallmarks of Utopias. Especially for members of non-dominant groups like myself — women, queers, racial minorities, etc. — the status quo has long been anything but egalitarian, and its operating methods far from perfection. Even able, cis, white, heterosexual, young, middle class males are having hard times lately, though. Or so I hear from friends who fit those default categories.

We haven’t always inhabited this particular nightmare, and for decades science fiction/fantasy/horror has produced cautionary tales which could have warned us away from it. Thus my unease at the rise of “reality shows,” those television programs, common since the beginning of the millennium, in which supposedly unscripted action features non-actor celebrities and unknowns. I first encountered mention of them in extrapolated futures I wanted no part of, like James Tiptree, Jr.’s short story “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and “Baby You Were Great” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” both by Kate Wilhelm. Novels from William Gibson, Barry Malzberg, and John Brunner fleshed out the picture: corporate ownership of governments; 24/7 surveillance; a culture of jaded, passive cynics.

Now a reality show star has been elected President of the United States. Now I’m living in the sort of world I didn’t even like reading about. Now I want to know how to change life’s channel.

So of course, being me, I turn to the imaginary.

Of published work, the most optimistic science fiction/fantasy/horror written recently on the topic of elections is Malka Older’s Infomocracy, a June 2016 publication that leaps a couple of decades ahead to a time when “microdemocracies” — non-geographical communities of 100,000 citizens — cover the globe. While Older’s depiction of how such a system would work — and fail — if put in place is entertaining in a governance geek way, this novel gives no turn-by-turn guidance on getting where it shows us winding up.

More promising in terms of finding a way forward, perhaps, are a pair of projects only lately underway. Ben Winters, Philip K. Dick and Edgar award-winning author of Underground Airlines, is putting together a series of stories “contemplating the future of our nation and world during and after a Trump presidency.” Scheduled to start appearing in Slate Magazine on Inauguration Day, these stories will be set in the 2016 presidential election’s immediate aftermath. Judging by the list of authors participating, bitterness, irony, and parody will probably be mixed with inventive strategies of resistance.

One prominent name on the list is crime fiction writer Gary Phillips, who will also edit The Obama Inheritance, an anthology in which contributors “riff on any one of dozens of teabagger-alt right conspiracy theories.” Time-traveling John Birchish saboteurs intent on destroying the president’s birth certificate, Michele wielding Pam Grier-worthy kung fu skills, and scenarios even more psychedelic than these seed the book’s proposal. In audacity there is hope.

Couple of upcoming cons

Held February 3-5, Foolscap is a small, local convention that wants you to decide what it will consist of. Members plan the weekend’s programming at a Friday afternoon meeting, scheduling panels and discussions around set pieces such as an auction, a banquet, and writing workshops. Their first Guest of Honor was Octavia E. Butler, and 2017’s is Patricia Briggs, but this con’s website claims that “Everyone is interesting.” Come take advantage of this least hierarchical of fandom’s famously non-hierarchical communities. And bring your brain; quoting again from Foolscap’s website, “Ideas make the best toys.”

Radcon is a more conventional convention, so to speak. It features the usual panels, gaming rooms, film viewings, and masquerades. Idiosyncratic strengths include well-organized school visitation sessions for professional writers; a chill, rambly hallway scene with an upright piano providing mood music; and a rave-like dance party.

Recent books recently read

If SFFH’s Golden Age is 12, as some insist, the genre’s Golden Format is the short story. Just the right size for having adventures in, short stories allow authors and readers to experiment with settings, ideas, characters, styles, so forth, so on, without making us invest huge wads of wordage. And anthologies with unifying themes both inspire these experiments and bring them together, thus making it easy to compare the ways they work.

The editor of Latin@ Rising (Wings Press), Matthew David Goodwin,focuses on SFFH by US-connected Latinos/Latinas/Latinx writers. The closest comparable anthology is 2012’s Three Messages and a Warning, a book of new SFFH by modern Mexican authors. Though over a third of Goodwin’s selections are reprints, they’re of recent enough vintage that this book feels fresh and damp, as if the ink hadn’t yet made up its mind to dry. In particular I enjoyed the Klein bottlesque plot curvature of Kathleen Alcalá’s “The Road to Nyer” and Ernest Hogan’s far-too-relevant politipunk story “Flying under the Texas Radar with Paco and Los Freetails.”

Paying less attention to source than content, Jaym Gates and Monica Valentinelli, co-editors of Upside Down (Apex), asked contributors to invert “tropes,” worn storytelling clichés such as “The black man dies first” (full disclosure: I have a story in this book based on that very cliché). Their directive results in surrealistic premises such as the trendy small-appliance bodymodding in Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Refrigerator in the Girlfriend.” But it’s also interesting to see how some authors subvert their chosen tropes rather than simply standing them on their heads, as when in “Those Who Leave,” Michael Choi’s Asian scientist is emotionally driven rather than a stereotypical personification of cold, passionless intellect. Plenty of pleasure of all kinds here, including deeply moving weirdness from Michael Matheson and Haralambi Markov. A section of essays by academics and writing professionals on tropes in general and certain toxically tempting ones in particular adds further depth to this already thought-provoking anthology.

At the opposite end of the length spectrum from short stories lies the realm of the series — quartets, septologies, and the like. Charles Stross’s Merchant Prince series began, according to the late David Hartwell, as this notoriously “hard” SF-loving author’s attempt at writing fantasy. Sharing the multiverse premise and settings as well as several “worldwalking” characters with the Merchant Prince books, Empire Games (Tor) could be considered their seventh volume or, as it’s billed, the first of a related yet different series, the Paratime trilogy. Either way you read it, Stross’s latest will deliver vivid, unexpected, complicated fun.

The Future Alternative Past: Besties

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

This time of year, everybody does it. I’ll be doing it soon myself: Making up lists. Second-guessing my picks. Justifying them. Libraries, book stores, bloggers, radio shows — pretty much anyone with an ax to grind and a public platform to grind it on will be sharing lists of the best books published in 2016. Or read in 2016. Or reviewed in 2016. Bests of one sort or another. Because there’s this urge to sum up any positive gains we’ve made by living through another year.

I contribute to annual “Best of” lists for Locus magazine and The Seattle Times. For the Times I pick one book — there can be only one — out of all those I’ve reviewed, and say in a single sentence what it’s about and why it’s the best. For Locus’s “Recommended Reading” I and several others spend weeks voting on a curated list of story titles. As I write this there are over 300 entries on the list. We hope to finish with around 120.

Aqueduct Press’s blog Ambling Along the Aqueduct hosts a series of posts covering the best books the publisher’s authors have read and/or the best music we’ve listened to and/or the best shows and films we’ve watched in a given year. After constructing and contributing to more restricted catalogs of bests, it’s peculiarly freeing to be able to write about not just the latest but the reconsidered greatest. In a past post to the series I geeked out on rereading the Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy Sayers. Not only is Sayers no longer writing these, she’s dead. So is Octavia E. Butler, yet Kiini Ibura Salaam praised Toshi Reagon’s musical production of Butler’s Parable of the Sower in her “Best of 2015” round-up for Aqueduct. Because she could.

Similar in function to these lists are the numerous flourishing SFFH Year’s Best anthologies. Editor Gardner Dozois claims that if you don’t want to read his series’ most recent volume (he’s been compiling them since 1984) “you can squash a bug with it.” It’s true that these are pretty thick tomes. They include insightful analyses of the field and page after page of Honorable Mentions. Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and the deceased David Hartwell have put out rival anthos, and for twenty years Ellen Datlow co-edited a companion Best of series for horror and fantasy. And there are others. SFFH is rich in short stories, especially with all the online magazines and crowdfunded collections available. These multiple “Best ofs” barely dent the surface of the genre’s tar pit, which is filled with inky gold.

Refining further on the concept of bests we come to awards. In SFFH there are many, and many are the ways their winners get chosen. Some selections are juried, like the Philip K. Dick Award for original US SFFH in paperback. Others are decided by polls, like the coveted Nebula Awards. But polls of whom? You have to be a member of SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) to nominate or vote for Nebula candidates, and becoming a SFWA member takes more than money. Becoming a member of WorldCon, however, is a strictly financial matter, and WorldCon members select recipients of the equally prestigious Hugo Awards. As variously moody and/or diseased voting blocs have shown, you need not even attend. Slates for both the Rabid Puppies and the Sad Puppies have made their marks on the Hugo Awards for a couple of years running. Though their clearest mark so far has been a sweep of most Hugo categories by an author named “No Award,” that could change. I’ll let you know come next September.

Here come some cons

Meanwhile, there are other conventions to attend to. Maybe even to attend?

Arisia happens January 13 - 16, 2017, at the Westin Boston Waterfront. That’s in BOSTON! In JANUARY! Ride the “T” (like Seattle’s light rail, but older and better) from Logan airport to the hotel and then refuse to leave the Westin’s beautiful, wide-windowed lobby filled with Weeping Angels and anime characters for the rest of the cold, snowy weekend. Arisia is a good regional con, drawing on the Eastern Seaboard’s large and diverse fandoms to present panels featuring the likes of Smith College’s self-proclaimed Drama Queen Andrea Hairston, along with the usual weapons demos, masquerades, and so on. Such a good time to be had! I’ve gone to many an Arisia — handed out awards there, actually. I hope to go back some day.

However, next year I’ll be skipping Arisia in favor of the Black Comix Arts Festival taking place the same weekend in San Francisco. BCAF is part of that city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. 2016’s festivities were graced by Nigerian-American SFFH author Nnedi Okorafor, and 2017’s guests will include authors Tananarive Due and Ayize Jama-Everett, artist John Jennings, and, well, me. Join us!

Recent books recently read

When the World Wounds (Third Man Books) is Kiini Ibura Salaam’s second short fiction collection. Her first,Ancient, Ancient, won the 2012 Tiptree Award with its fantastical and exuberantly sensual depictions of nonstandard gender roles. In language as richly raunchy as ever, she writes here of sentient wolves on the prowl, swamp witches caught up into the sky by extremely local storm fronts, and a ghost using the detritus of a tragic flood to make magic masks. Want to read fiction that’s original and strange? Here you go.

In Last Year (Tor) by Robert Charles Wilson, time’s colonizers face the same dilemmas as those confronting European imperialists. Following the logic of the many-worlds interpretation of time travel, 21st-century intrusions into mid-Victorian Era US history create new universes, where new events transpire. A modern entrepreneur opens a resort in 1876 Illinois and sells his contemporaries luxury tour packages. But how can he bear to make money off voyeurs watching horrible things happen to real people — the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the genocide practiced against Indians? And what of the new atrocities their presence may trigger? Through the unassuming viewpoint of reformed drifter Jesse Cullum, Wilson shows the complex power differentials operating between staff, 19th-century natives, 21st-century tourists, and renegades intent on averting coming cataclysms. Add racial and sexual politics and you’ve got a book that’s both fun and challenging.

Alison Littlewood’s depiction of Victorian times in The Hidden People (Jo Fletcher Books) is a bit different: It takes place in a past divided from our present by more than years. The author’s fascination with “fairy burnings,” in particular the 1895 death of Irishwoman Bridget Cleary, led to this meticulously imagined novel of a bourgeois London gentleman investigating a northern cousin’s immolation under similar circumstances. In Yorkshire, Albert Mirrals gradually finds that the rational explanations he once entertained for what he believes was his cousin’s murder — domestic violence, jealousies — become entwined with the lyrical madness of possession. Quotations from Yeats and other poets magnify the effects of Littlewood’s carefully period prose.

The Future Alternative Past: our inaugural science fiction, fantasy, and horror column

New column! New Every month, Nisi Shawl is going to present us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Welcome Nisi!

Hello from your new skiffy columnist! I’m very gratified that I’ve been asked to provide you with monthly doses of clear-eyed science-fiction-fantasy-and-horror analysis, accompanied by the lamentation, kvelling, and Inside Baseball-like scuttlebutt you’d expect from a longtime reader and writer of that sort of thing. I promise to guide both trufen and neos (if you don’t know who those terms describe, you’re the latter) through the fantastic genres’ winding byways in the most pleasurable and interesting manner possible. In addition to my more general genre outpourings I’ve been charged with noting any upcoming conventions you may be interested in, and bringing you brief looks at recently published books.

Let’s begin with the conventions. Why?

Well, one major difference between science fiction/fantasy/horror (abbreviated hereinafter as SFFH) and other literatures is the communitarian legacy of early science fiction conventions. Damon Knight and the Futurians — a science fiction fan club rather than a surf rock band — organized the first World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, way back in 1939. Though frequently eschewed by people of color, who can feel unwelcome in some of SFFH fandom’s whiter iterations, conventions (aka “cons”) have formed the genre’s powerful exoskeleton for almost 80 years now. Admittedly there were a couple of decades when falling con attendance rates were taken as predictors of SFFH’s fast-approaching demise. And many of those who did attend during the late 70s, the 80s, and even the early 90s, were as grey as they were white, leading to the expectation that con-going fandom as an institution would die of old age.

Lately, though, newer cons such as San Diego Comic-Con have sprung into existence. Appealing to a broader and often younger demographic, they embrace art forms reviled by some trufen (SFFH fandom’s hardened nerdcore): comics, movies, and even cartoons!

Though there’s no doubt some overlap in their memberships, two good examples of what I’m talking about can be found a couple hundred miles south of Seattle, in Portland, Oregon. By the time you read this, Orycon 38 (November 18 - 20, 2016) will be underway or over. As the number indicates, this is the 38th consecutive Orycon convention. I’ve attended quite a few. The panels, workshops, author signings, dances, freebie tables, art show, and vendor areas I’ve grown used to at other cons are always in evidence, with local literary luminaries supplementing the presence of national and international Guests of Honor such as Peter S. Beagle, Octavia E. Butler, and Steven Barnes.

But though you're probably not going to make Orycon, you’ve still got a good shot at attending Newcon PDX 5 (December 30, 2016 - January 1, 2017). Again as evidenced by the number, this is Newcon PDX the fifth. I’ve never been to even one of these. Events promised on the website range from a Cosplay Contest to a Swimsuit Cosplay Contest (“cosplay” is costuming based on characters found in popular books and shows), from gaming to tabletop gaming, from karaoke to a “Lip Sync Battle Royale.” As the self-proclaimed convention for “every flavor of nerd,” Newcon PDX of course offers panels, too, as well as special areas for vendors and artists. Photos of past attendees show a crowd with a hearteningly diverse racial make-up.

This last point is a great one because the historic whiteness of con-going fandom has been damaging — to POC who read and wrote and acted in SFFH works but felt unwelcome in its social spaces, and also to fandom as a whole, since they’re thus denied firsthand experience of our secret superpowers — or, to put that less fancifully, our perspectives and backgrounds. In 2009’s RaceFail, our participation in social media made it impossible for our existence to be denied, and POC also developed our own virtual and IRL safe spaces: the Carl Brandon Society advocated for them and organized panels on how to increase inclusivity at cons in particular and within fantastic literature as a whole, while groups such as the State of Black Science Fiction carved out online spaces for nerd-of-color community-building. Then, in 2010, Kate Nepveu ran her first auction to raise funds for Con or Bust, a nonprofit she created to offer scholarships to self-identified POC who want to attend cons. At first under the umbrella of the Carl Brandon Society and now on its own, Con or Bust has raised and distributed tens of thousands of dollars. That’s sadly still very necessary, as my write-up of the 2015 James Tiptree, Jr. Symposium at Eugene’s University of Oregon shows. Perhaps this year’s symposium, held December 2nd and 3rd in honor of writing goddess Ursula K. Le Guin, will be a bit more variegated.

Recent books recently read:

Invisible Planets (Tor) demonstrates the power of Chinese SFFH authors to transport their audiences to worlds no one else has imagined. From the title story, a cultural cue-enlivened tribute to Italo Calvino’s phantasmagoric novel Invisible Cities; through the gently dissolving existential melancholy of “The Fish of Lijiang;” to the quotidian dystopia inhabited by hunters of escaped sentient pets in “The Year of the Rat;” translator and editor Ken Liu presents great stories wonderfully different from typical genre fare. His introduction and three other authors’ essays attempt to define this corner of the genre with some success.

US-born author Stephanie Burgis lives in the UK, but as Congress of Secrets (Pyr) makes clear, she has lost the majority of her heart to Vienna. Set in the 19th century during that city’s glittering celebration of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat, Congress follows the exploits of scam artist Michael Steinhüller and courtesan-turned-aristocrat Lady Caroline Wyndham. These two knew each other in their youth; now they meet again amidst the collision of revolutionary pamphleteering and the schemes of a faux prince with secret police and alchemical vampires. Tending a bit toward romance, this historical fantasy is loaded with sensual delights.

Rick Wilber’s popular “S’hudonni” stories have given rise to no mere novel: Alien Morning (Tor) is the first volume in a projected trilogy. Told from the viewpoint of a jock sidelined by a knee injury, Alien Morning depicts Earth’s gradualist invasion by scientifically advanced extrasolar beings who claim, at least, to be friendly. Our hero, Peter Holman, is a likeable and semi-successful journalist pioneering immersive broadcasting technology who “just happens” to record a fleet of the beings’ vehicles. Soon he and his siblings are inextricably tangled in the rivalry between two alien factions. The twists in this tangle are the sort you ought to expect, yet they’re never trite or pat. Resolutions to some issues appear in this book, while others await sequels for their unfolding.