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.
My friend Kristin King asked a while back for book recommendations on Facebook, as you do. But she was looking for something very specific: science fiction dealing with schools. I only came up with two titles for her. First, John Varley’s lovely, haunting, and somewhat contrarian Beatnik Bayou, then my own rather hard-to-locate "Walk Like a Man".
Originally published in George R.R. Martin’s New Voices III anthology, and now available in the 2004 collection The John Varley Reader, Beatnik Bayou tells how a far-future child learns from and eventually outgrows her teacher. The teacher’s development has been artificially arrested at a point beneficial to the student. That part of the job description carries with it a whiff of tragedy — especially as we realize as the story ends that the teacher actually likes the career’s built-in limitations.
“Walk Like a Man” appeared in 2015 in the first and only issue of the wondrous literary journal Bahamut. It takes place in a future school whose primary raison d’être is socialization rather than the imparting of knowledge. Which is why my AI protagonist attends.
With help you can find many more examples, even without expanding the search into other speculative fiction subgenres. Isaac Asimov’s “The Fun They Had,” set in 2157, similarly supposes that learning per se can be imparted without schools; children discover a book describing groups of students attending classes together and dream longingly of sharing the experience.
Lots of school-related SF tales use this Matrix-like template of downloadable knowledge (as when Keanu Reeves declares “I know kung fu!”). Not all of them, of course; Zenna Henderson’s Holding Wonder collection includes short stories based on different plots, such as “The Indelible Kind,” in which a teacher and a student rescue a Russian cosmonaut. The Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor take place at an exclusive off-planet university.
Horror typically replicates the awfulness of the compulsory school experience. Stephen King’s Carrie, for instance, details the vindictive bullying and ostracism that sends his telekinetic heroine into a killing frenzy. But The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey changes that up; it starts off in a school for zombies.
School-centered fantasies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Okorafor’s Akata books postulate schools for teaching the practice of magic.
My favorite of this genus is A Wizard of Earthsea, by the late great Ursula K. Le Guin, in which fledgling magician Sparrowhawk matriculates to such a school on the Isle of Roke. I’m also partial to her short story “The Day Before the Revolution.” Though elderly protagonist Laia Odo doesn’t teach anarchist theory formally, classes of all ages take field trips to visit her. She enjoys the company but privately abhors her role as surrogate mother.
Of course “The Day Before the Revolution” would be classified more as SF than F, bringing us back to where we started.
If science can be defined as a way of knowing, then some of these sorts of school-related stories can be considered meta-science fiction. At the very least the overall category merits an additional “s”. A list of readings in SSFFH by Seanan McGuire, Greg Bear, Naomi Kritzer, Caroline Stervermer, and its other authors would make a lovely syllabus.
Is Sue Burke’s first novel, Semiosis (Tor) hard or soft SF? It takes place on an extra-solar planet, chronicling three pioneering generations of an Earth-based colonizing effort. But it’s by a woman, and it deals primarily in the “squishy” biological sciences. So, hmmmm.
Even before they land, the book’s colonists are in a jam: their 158-year voyage has brought them to the wrong sun! Failures in on-ship hibernation systems, and crashes destroying a third of their equipment further handicap the enterprise. They forge ahead — what else is there to do? As the colonists adapt to packs of predatory flightless birds and plant-based intelligences, Burke’s title (which my online dictionary defines as “the process of signification in language or literature”) gains meaning and resonance. The author’s clear, straightforward narrative style underscores the intrinsic ambiguity of interspecies communication, and the dangers and potentials of that ambiguity.
How to Stop Time (Viking) by Matt Haig reads like a paranormal romance — think a masculine version of the novels of Deborah Harkness or Diana Gabaldon. Yet it can easily be classified as science fiction. There’s nothing inherently impossible in a genetic mutation that allows its bearers to live 15 times longer than the rest of us. No supernatural abilities are necessary to ensure the successful machinations of Hendrich, who nicknames his fellows in longevity “albatrosses” and uses them to run his murderous errands. The love that binds protagonist Tom Hazard to his 17th century wife Rose, and then again to 21st century French teacher Camille, is completely understandable and human. I was sometimes impatient with Tom’s interiority and fecklessness, but quite pleased at the presence of disabled and nonwhite characters sans unnecessary (in my view) rationales for their existence. A fine and fascinatingly down-to-earth look at longevity.
The Sea Beast Takes a Lover (Dutton) collects short stories by UC Irvine MFA graduate Michael Andreasen. His debut is marketed as both “contemporary fantasy” and “literary fiction.” It could be categorized as what my old writing instructor Howard Waldrop calls “a New Yorker-cup-of-coffee-style story” — if the coffee cup were being held out to you by a tentacle. Yes, you take about the same amount of time to read one of these stories as you would to drink a latte. And yes, per Howard’s annoyed assessment, there are times when protagonists’ situations seem static and their character arcs flat — or as he puts it, “The deer is dead at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story the deer is still dead.” But as you sip you’ll ruminate on greasy-skinned Rocketeers and bodhisattvan baby brothers, on Kerouac-reading mermaids and disappointed adulterers comparing their mistresses’ breasts to raw eggs. Which is not without its rewards.
The organizers of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference probably prefer for it not to get lumped in with genre conventions. Academia is the watchword, with works in fantasy, horror, and science fiction considered noteworthy simply because they’re outside the literary mainstream. Panel titles (and it’s pretty much all panels) include “The Mentor/Mentee Relationship for Creative Writers,” “From Thesis to Published Book,” and “Building a Social Justice Curriculum.” I’m there.
Meanwhile, the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird is also hovering at and around the traditional convention plateau without quite landing there, having approached it from a totally different direction. Abolishing economic boundaries between professional writers and fandom, the Outer Dark asks all attendees to pay their way. The focus on genre edginess and the presence of authors of color such as Craig Laurance Gidney and Silvia Moreno-Garcia are elements carried over from the compellingly intersectional podcast with which it originates.
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.
Whenever I give an SFFH reading I also sing. And at their public readings, Pan Morigan and Andrea Hairston sing and play original songs inspired by Andrea’s novel Redwood and Wildfire.
No one knows how or why music so easily evokes emotions, but we three are certainly not above using it to do so. If I want people to long for an age yet to come I repurpose the lyrics of “Ode to Billy Joe” or rewrite a lullaby I learned off a Miriam Makeba record. Andrea, Pan, and I aim our skiffy at your earhole, and we’re not the only ones.
In fact, there’s a whole aesthetic movement, Afrofuturism, highlighting the connections between all Afrodiasporic art forms and speculative fiction. The musical groups Sun Ra Arkestra and Parliament-Funkadelic are foundational Afrofuturists: in the 1950s, Sun Ra traced his origins to Saturn; and Parliament-Funkadelic invoked a Mothership connection many a 1970s freakazoid knew in their alien(ated) heart to be true. Not just knee-deep, they were totally deep, and Jimi Hendrix’s homages to the genre range from the black magic fantasies of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” to his Philip José Farmer-inspired "Purple Haze." Michael Jackson’s songs provide a similarly wide spectrum: there’s the horror-evoking zombie menace in “Thriller” and the intergalactic love revolt of Captain Eo framing “Another Part of Me.” Prince not only read and sang speculative fiction, he embodied it. Present day Afrofuturists include Janelle Monae, who sings of androids, and Seattle DJ and author Gabriel Teodros, contributor to the anthology Octavia’s Brood and to CopperWire’s “hip-hop space opera” Earthbound.
And of course the intersection of SFFH and music extends beyond Afrofuturism. Certain of the lyrics to Steely Dan’s 1977 hit “Deacon Blues” derive from Alfred Bester’s classic SF novel The Demolished Man; the band’s name itself is taken from that of a dildo central to William S. Burroughs’s phantasmagoric Naked Lunch. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust metasaga explores the life of a glamrock star modeled on Bowie himself, and while it’s not strictly sfnal, it intimately concerns the ties between music and imaginative fiction. Which are everywhere, once you start looking: punk rocker Poly Styrene belting out “The Day the World Turned Dayglo,” Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Tim Curry exhorting us to do the Time Warp, Queen Bey calling for a ring to adorn her robot hand. Everywhere, musicians invoke SFFH.
And the reverse? Writers of SFFH inspired by music?
Early in my creative process I will often steal titles, settings, and incidents from songs — sometimes making off with entire plots, as when I lifted the storyline of a 16th century English ballad for “Cruel Sistah” (Later I wrote the lyrics to the blues my ghost sings at its climax).
A brief survey of my fellow social media addicts yielded dozens of similar anecdotes. Writers take inspiration where we can find it, from Television’s “Marquee Moon” (Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood) to Beethoven’s Ninth (“The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig Van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs” by Carter Scholz). Whole volumes are devoted to the concept, like Stars, a tribute anthology composed (hah!) of stories focused on specific Janis Ian songs.
SFFH authors put together playlists of music we listen to while writing particular stories; we write about instruments only nonhumans have the physical capability to play; we pen national anthems for imaginary countries and revolutionary hymns for nonexistent religions. We dance about extrasolar architecture.
Someone should probably write a book about it.
Marie Lu is best known for writing dystopian YA, but it’s not much of a leap from that subgenre to Batman: Nightwalker (Random House). Lu’s latest novel is full of urban grit and darkness, and at just-turning-18, Bruce Wayne’s appeal to Lu’s target audience couldn’t be more powerful. My high school sophomore niece said she hated me when I showed her my limited edition’s poster insert celebrating his hunkiness. At 62, I’m less vulnerable to those sorts of attractions, but the book’s first line hooked me: “The blood underneath her nails bothered her.” Ambiguously villainesque Madeleine Wallace is a perturbing and therefore appropriate opponent for a Bruce Wayne still battling the unacknowledged trauma of his parents’ recent death. Rich and isolated, gadget-loving and anti-authoritarian, Lu’s hero is a completely plausible adolescent version of comics’ favorite vigilante.
Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon (Knopf) combines, like Lu’s Batman, the self-sacrificing purity of an ethical investigator and a fascination with horizon-adjacent technology. And that’s about all the two books have in common. One is relatively straightforward, the equation to which a wave reduces; the other is as complex as the treasure-filled history of life beneath the sea. Broken-fingered Ethiopian artists; scheming, boastful, lovelorn math geniuses; and gigantic shark spirits roam the pages of Harkaway’s magnificent epic in hypnotically recursive patterns. Ostensibly it’s about the suspicious death of a dissident in a hyper-surveilled society, but there’s no way a mere synopsis or review can do Gnomon justice; the author himself admits that this book is too big to have ever fit in his all-too-human head. It must suffice simply to say that reading Gnomon will change you, and that afterwards you’ll be content with having changed.
Elysium Fire (Orbit) by Alastair Reynolds also occupies that sweet spot found between police procedurals and science fiction. A sequel to The Prefect, it pits the Panoply, a sort of omnipresent, laissez-faire police force, against an epidemic of inexplicable, brain-frying murders. 25th century civilization comprises thousands of habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, and constant, electronically-aided polling makes for a true democracy. Dogged by the climbing death rate and a rabble-rousing secessionist, Prefect Tom Dreyfus and operatives Thalia Ng and Sparver (a genetically enhanced pig) struggle to preserve the integrity of their far-flung beat. Their struggles would be stranger and yet more enjoyable if Reynolds’ accounts of inevitable social change kept up with his depictions of the high tech ubiquitous in this shimmering bubble of an outer space utopia. I didn't quite finish the novel by deadline. I'm going on with it now; I expect cool action, but no major cultural novelties.
Looks like I’ll be giving the keynote speech next month at Amsterdam’s Other Future’s Festival. I highly suggest you get on over there, too. Other guests will includeNnedi Okorafor, the great Grace Dillon, and Wanuri Kahiu, director of the Kenyan science fiction film Pumzi. There’ll be music to listen to and movies to watch as well as talks to attend. Plus, you know, it’s in Amsterdam.
Closer to home, check out Escapade in Los Angeles, “The Slash Slumber Party!” Slash, in case you didn’t know, is fan-generated erotica pairing nominally het characters of the same sex: think Spock and Kirk nuzzling each other’s throats. Escapade’s also big on shipping and vids; shipping’s like slash with less of a homosexual mandate and a longer dramatic arc; and vids are fan-produced, music-coordinated, trailer-length films repurposing scenes from (usually) sfnal shows. Escapade features hours and hours of vidding premieres, uncensored.
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.
When I was little, my parents subscribed to Life magazine. It was our weekly dose of glossy photojournalism: enormous pages full of news and human interest stories. Though it’s been more than fifty years since I saw it, the Life article predicting 21st-century fashions still troubles my mind’s eye. I’ve lost the names of the designers consulted — famous ones, no doubt, given the publication’s prestige — and am left with a problematic whirl of brightly patterned muumuus, bald heads, and an inexplicable dearth of earbuds. Apparently Life was following a long tradition of magazines getting such predictions horribly wrong.
Has SFFH fared any better?
My favorite antidote to the unease Life stirred up in me is Samuel R. Delany’s brilliant, multiple award-winning novelette “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” What works best for me is an early throwaway line about “a crowd of giggling, goo-chewing schoolgirls with flashing lights in their hair, all very embarrassed at wearing transparent plastic blouses which had just been made legal again” — that “again” signifying the undeniably cyclical nature of fashionableness.
And really, despite the sober idiocy of the formfitting unitard look promoted by matinee serial fodder like Buck Rogers, and the camp idiocy of the shoe phone used in the semi-futuristic TV series Get Smart, that’s what the genre has consistently gotten right: the inevitability of repetition and change. Another example: characters in Bruce Sterling’s 1998 novel Distraction wear hats as routinely as actors in a Frank Capra film. Headgear’s a given, barely remarkable — our current hatlessness is noted as a brief historical aberration. Actually, who’s to say it isn’t?
Speaking of shoe phones, while they were one of Get Smart creator Mel Brooks’ finest standing (ba-dum-BUM!) jokes, they do reflect an emerging reality: wearable communication and computation devices. Google Glasses have not taken the nerd community by expected storm, but their sfnal prototypes are popular, from William Gibson’s cyberpunk through Accelerando and related works by Charles Stross.
Another sartorial SFFH trope — disposable clothing — seems even further from realization. So far, 3D printers are no help. The kicky-mod-paper-dresses of the 1960s have given way to hazmat suits and adult diapers. And ubiquitous though recycling hoppers are on many fictional space stations and starships (I oughta know, having installed them in a few of my own stories), the process by which their contents get reconstituted into wearables is never explored. Therefore, we’ll score this concept as pre-execution.
A final kind of fashion in which SFFH takes the lead: body modification. Representations in imaginative literature range from integrated technology such as the “Zeiss-Ikon” eye-cameras in Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” through the race-encompassing genetic modifications enabling my “Maggies” to work unprotected on an alien world, to the DIY anti-hallucinogen-manufacturing brain implants employed by the biohackers in Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous. Call me bereft of acumen, but I’m betting we’ll always want to improve ourselves, always be willing to revise our bodies and genomes. And that the sorts of revisions we make will vary with our abilities, but also, naturally, with what we perceive as new and cool.
Anna Kavan’s Ice (Penguin), out now in a spiffy “50th Anniversary Edition,” is ultra-cool, and experimental enough that it will always in some way be new. This surreal proto-feminist account of a nameless male bureaucrat questing after a nameless female fugitive in the down-crashing shadow of a global eco-catastrophe is an astonishingly easy read, given its uncompromising weirdness. Lyric simplicity underlines the glacial starkness of the coming of a worldwide winter:
Banks of solid ice edged the narrow channel of blackish water, fringed with grinning icicle-teeth. I jumped ashore, snow blew out in great fans, the launch disappeared from sight. There were no goodbyes.
Conflating the crystalline fragility of the fleeing woman with the overwhelming power of the encroaching glaciers, opening up narrative discontinuities like bottomless rifts in a polar icepack, Kavan earns every iota of the respect paid her work by Anais Nin, Christopher Priest, Brian Aldiss, and Jonathan Lethem, author of this volume’s awestruck introduction.
Renowned multiple award-winning anthologist Ellen Datlow has edited dozens of books stuffed full of good stories. Her specialties are dark fantasy and horror, and her latest, Mad Hatters and March Hares (Tor), provides a new way of combining these genres in her authors’ original tributes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Unusually, Mad Hatters’ Table of Contents includes more females than males. Perhaps that’s due to the femaleness of the original series’ main character? If so, the point remains unbelabored. The spotty magic of Priya Sharma’s “Mercury” poignantly underlines capitalism’s careless reliance on toxins and its heartless expediency in the light of loss or damage to the lives of its creators. Catherynne M. Valente recounts a braided tale, “The Flame After the Candle,” in which an adventurous schoolgirl climbs through an old, neglected mirror to find relics left by a New York encounter between Alice Lidell — the real-life model of Carroll’s heroine — and Peter Llewelyn Davies, the boy on whom J.M. Barrie based Peter Pan. These and Andy Duncan’s brilliant “Worrity, Worrity,” which soaks the dry biographical material of Carroll’s illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, in an elixir of fabulous coincidence, are the strongest stories in an anthology featuring strength after strength.
Two authorial decisions make newcomer Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (Philomel) a standout. First, no wypipo: in this fantastic China analogue, the closest readers come to a Caucasian viewpoint is the occasional mention of “barbarian” violins. Not that the realm of Feng Lu is suspiciously isolated; an ambassadorial entourage from the Nipponesque land of Kamatsu plays a major role in helping heroine Xifeng attract her emperor’s romantic regard. Second, said heroine is actually our villain — at least, I’m betting that’s how the rest of this series will shake out. Dao’s depiction of Xifeng’s struggle against the evil within is vivid and believable, her horror at her own burgeoning monstrosity always seems as if it might keep her from perpetrating her evermore dastardly deeds. Riveting inner turmoil sets the stage for an epic conflict to come.
Seattle’s Rustycon has been happening for over 30 years. In addition to the usual writer and author Guests of Honor, they’ve invited a Gamer and a Furry as GOHs. Membership runs between 500 and 700 people, so this will be a small crowd of fandom's usual suspects. That’s January 12 through 14; mark your calendars.
On the following weekend, in fabled, far-off Detroit, I’ll be the Fan Guest of Honor at ConFusion Through the Looking Glass, latest iteration of the first con I ever attended. Back then, I dressed up as GOH C.J. Cherryh, my idol; now, I’m joined in playing myself in that role by several big names, including two who are also my friends: Annalee Newitz and Kate Elliott. Though I’m a little worried about the acclimatization of Kate, who currently paddles a blissful Hawai’ian kayak. At least she’ll have her fantasies to keep her warm. You too?
Food in space! It isn’t always as vividly and goofily named as the cafeteria offerings listed above, lifted from the infamous Pel Torro’s godawful novel Galaxy 666. In fact their polar opposite, the tasteless and efficient food pills are fairly ubiquitous; they make an appearance as early as the Victorian SF story “The Senator’s Daughter” and are heavily featured in Twentieth Century media such as the cartoon series The Jetsons. The closest supermarket reality ever came to the dream of full nutrition in an easy-to-swallow pill was “Space Food Sticks,” a forerunner of modern protein bars which tasted like sweetened library paste mixed with chalk dust and rolled into brown cigar-shapes between dirty, sweaty palms.
Soylent Green, the mysteriously complete protein in wafer form whose ingredients are the icky crux of the 1970s movie of the same name, inspired Soylent brand “meal replacement” powders and drinks. Apparently the recipe for this version differs significantly from the cinematic one.
Vat-grown or printed meat such as Frederik Pohl’s immortal Chicken Little are often presented in SFFH as the food of the plebian masses: cheap and unappetizing, a sort of edible handjob. But they also stir up consideration of ethical questions around vegetarianism, the necessity for the suffering of living beings, and the negative environmental impact of traditional agriculture. The snobbishness evinced against faux foods is at times reversed, with one Jack Vance character, an advanced traveler to parallel dimensions, nauseated at the prospect of having to consume “the enlarged sexual organs of plants.”
But aesthetic issues aren’t always at the forefront of reasons given by SFFH characters for eating artificial meat. The closed ecology envisioned for most interstellar vessels necessitates it. And the low probability of finding nutritionally adequate foodstuffs off Earth necessitates it for longer than the duration of voyages already lasting years, decades, even generations. Working models based on truly rigorous planet-level biochemistry yield systems like that of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora — unfamiliar forms of life inimical to our own. Various authors have dealt with this problem in various ways, including ignoring it, attributing its absence to a panspermian history of the universe, committing their fictional populaces to the eternal operation of huge hydroponics farms, and combinations of all three tactics.
The atevi homeworld described in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is a somewhat gentler version of the hostile planet-wide habitat; certain spices favored by the natives are pukingly poisonous to colonizing humans. Cherryh’s linguist hero Bren Cameron succumbs to near-fatal food pranking in one of the many nastily humorous cultural clashes she depicts.
A Jewish friend once remarked on the anthropology of keeping kosher, “The best way of maintaining a distinct tribal identity is to have strict rules about what you can and cannot eat, and how, and when, and where…If you can’t share a casual meal with your neighbors, you’re not going to share much else.” SFFH comestibles — including some arguably sentient beings — maintain the genre’s tribal identity by getting us to think about eating in familiarly estranged ways.
Take, for instance, Provenance (Orbit), Ann Leckie’s standalone follow-up to her multiple-award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy). Both high and low class characters eat “nutrient blocks,” though only a former prisoner thinks to hoard them against possible hard times ahead. Provenance is the story of Ingray Aughskold, who stands to inherit her adoptive mother’s wealth, power, and eventually her identity. Between slurping down rehydrated noodles and munching nutrient blocks, Aughskold attempts to execute her daring plan to outshine her brother, the rival for their mother’s heirship. It’s an involved scheme centering on the theft and forgery of “vestiges,” super-sought-after memorabilia collected obsessively in Aughskold’s corner of the fictional Imperial Radch universe. But the plan has far too many moving parts, plus Leckie portrays her heroine as a bit of a klutz, always losing hairpins and accepting villains at face value. Her plan fails — entertainingly, of course. Add a Jack Vanceian flair for futuristic styles of dress and speech and Leckie’s trademark use of pronouns to matter-of-factly deconstruct the gender binary and you have a valiant successor to that rightfully much-vaunted debut trilogy.
Critics and publicists compare newcomer Kari Maaren, author of Weave a Circle Round (Tor), to Madeleine L’Engle and E.L. Konigsburg. This debut novel certainly introduces readers to charmingly eccentric characters similar to those these vintage authors wrought. But it has its thoroughly modern elements as well: gaming is a legitimate creative venture; mixed race backgrounds are truly background; and blended families are equally unremarkable. The plot resonates nicely with typical youthful angsty outsiderness: 11-year-old protagonist Freddy Duchamp inadvertently goes time-traveling with one of her new nonhuman neighbors and discovers that her sad inability to conform may not be such a handicap as she thought it was…and that her pedantic baby sister and their barely tolerated stepbrother can help her outsmart archetypes-gone-wild who want to rule over her by virtue of the power of storytelling.
Peter S. Beagle, author of The Overneath (Tachyon) knows that power well, and wields it with the skill of a lifelong practitioner. Though the thirteen stories collected in this latest volume probably won’t change the lives of millions and provide a generation with its standard for what fantasy ought to accomplish — which his classic novel The Last Unicorn most assuredly did — they are lovely, strange, and an utter, heartwrenching joy. Two, “The Green-Eyed Boy” and “Schmendrick Alone,” are Last Unicorn prequels, telling how that book’s belovedly klutzy magician set off and limped along his career path. “Olfert Dapper’s Day” draws on material Beagle found when researching historic unicorn appearances. But my favorite story is the one featuring real-life author and shameless eccentric Avram Davidson, “The Way It Works Out and All.” Perhaps that’s because I so admire its subject, or perhaps it’s because Beagle’s clear-eyed-remembrance-cum-cautionary-tale perfectly sums up how reading this collection feels: like wandering through the Overneath that is its title, the reality between our many worlds.
Don’t be fooled by the name: Anglicon is and always has been a decidedly local event. It will take place this coming December in SeaTac’s Doubletree hotel, the “Angli-” content provided, as is customary, by Guests of Honor and programming. Not one but two former Dr. Whos are coming — the fifth and seventh; Anglicon’s panels and masquerade will also reflect volunteers’ fascination with British TV-and-film-based SFFH. Proceeds benefit an area PBS station and British media purveyor.
Smofcon is a sort of meta-convention. In SFFH fanspeak, “smof” derives from the collapse of an ironic acronym standing for “Secret Master of Fandom.” Smofs run cons and other vital SFFH functions, and at Smofcon 35 in Boston this December, Massachusetts Convention Fandom, Inc. will present panels on the best ways to do that. Want to learn how to pick good Guests of Honor? How to run an inclusive event welcoming to all races, abilities, and genders? These folks can help.
I’ve just returned from NINC — that’s Novelists, Inc. — a professional conference attended mainly by writers of romance and mysteries. Among the many differences between this crowd and my usual cohort was an absence of what is often referred to as "the fannish physique." In other, blunter words, obesity. At this event, weighing 280 pounds and straining the capacity of my O cups, I was a definite outlier.
Which goaded me into speculating about how the literary dimensions of SFFH reflects its physical oomph. The answer: That’s changing. For the better.
My first encounter with sfnal fatphobia came when I read Dune as a child: Baron Harkonnen, the book’s bad guy, is mountainously fat. Stereotypes of the obese depict us at one of two temperamental extremes: unrelentingly jolly or unrelievedly evil. Harkonnen’s the latter, but at the precocious age of thirteen what really struck me was how badass his anti-grav wheelchair must be in action. I wasn’t even a little "chunky" at that point, but wow was I jealous of him zooming around and zipping up over people's heads and popping in and out of palatial spaceships. Only later did I realize my hatred for him was actually supposed to be blended with disgust and pity. Not envy.
Pity is evoked much more successfully in James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” which I previously discussed back in January. Perhaps because the author’s also going for empathy? Or perhaps because the heroine’s obesity is caused by a malfunctioning pituitary gland and thus in no possible way her fault.
Yet, with a wealth of futuristic medical technology at their disposal, why should anyone be overweight? The protagonist of Tanith Lee’s novel The Silver Metal Lover is tricked into fatness by her insecure mother, but loses her excess flesh with the support of an adoring robot. It’s all done with chemicals.
Horror novel Thinner’s body consciousness is of course horrific. Published as by Richard Bachman right before Stephen King admitted that this was a pseudonym of his, it’s deeply problematic in its depiction of curse-wielding so-called "gypsies." They cause the book's obese lawyer to shed pounds speedily, involuntarily, bringing him to death’s threshold.
The comic Bitch Planet’s Penny Rolle is probably the best example of fat-positivity in recent SFFH. It’s an ironic feminist take on exploitive "women behind bars" stories; the "Bitch Planet" of the series' title is the nickname of a dystopian dumping ground for "noncompliant" women. Rolle’s body is by definition noncompliant because it defies standard beauty standards. Which suits her, and me, just fine.
In another instance of a nicely-adjusted attitude toward body image, the narrator of "Venus Rising" by Carol Emshwiller (collected in Report to the Men’s Club speaks of young women maturing in terms of them “coming into” their fat.
In my own SFFH I do my best to represent non-stereotypical obese characters. The narrator of "Maggies," published in Sheree Renée Thomas’s second Dark Matter anthology, crushes out on a genetically engineered underwater terraformer whose extra-thick layer of fat insulates her from an alien planet’s cold seas. In "Otherwise," published in the YA anthology Brave New Love, 220-pound lesbian teenager Lo knows she’s lovable and loved. As are we all.
Though Chessiecon resembles traditional SFFH conventions, it has only existed three years. It’s put on by the Thanksgiving Science Fiction Society as a sort of living memorial to a deceased local fan hight Jaelle of Armida. TSFS’s primary goal is promoting women writers; eleven of their twelve Guests of Honor have been women, so they’re backing that idea up with action. Chessiecon’s Turkey Award is given in recognition of awesomely bad writing á la Bulwer-Lytton; the implied irreverence colors the rest of the con’s programming as well.
This November’s World Fantasy Convention emerges from a pair of controversies: one focused on its HP Lovecraft-shaped World Fantasy award busts, the other on racist panel proposals of the past. Also it has survived the death of its founder, David Hartwell. Smaller than the similarly named Worldcon with which it’s sometimes confused, World Fantasy’s attendance tops out around 1000 smart, funny, incredibly interesting people — but there’s still time to sign up to be one.
An Excess Male (Harper Collins) is Taiwanese-born author Maggie Shen King’s debut novel. Expanding an idea originally published as a short story in Asimov’s SF Magazine, King fast forwards us to the lopsided genderscape of a future China shaped by the government’s infamous “one-child” policy. Her clearsighted, even-toned writing acquaints us pleasurably with plausible, engagingly flawed characters: Wei-guo, a 40+ bachelor finally in possession of the dowry necessary to purchase the position of third husband in an established marriage; that marriage’s wife, May-ling, hopelessly infatuated with her gay first husband Hann; Hann himself, balancing love for his child with desire for members of his discreetly naughty badminton team; and Hann’s brother and May-ling’s second husband Xiong-xin, whose autism is even more illicit than Hann’s homosexuality. Fearlessly piercing stereotypes in her assessment of what truly makes a family, King also seems to hew effortlessly close to cultural values, making the stresses and rhythms of her characters’ interactions feel authentically unfamiliar to this US-raised reader.
Not so with Elizabeth Bear’s latest novel in her entrancing Eternal Sky series, The Stone in the Skull (Tor). Though set in Asianesque fantasy lands, plot arc and scene beat and sentence all connect easily with a Westerner’s literary expectations. Those aren’t necessarily dependent on having read the three earlier Eternal Sky books, either. I found very little overlap between the old series and the one this new book begins in terms of characters: a slave-poetess here, an immortal automaton there, an aging veiled assassin everywhere. And the Lotus Kingdoms whereThe Stone in the Skull’s dynastic disputes occur lies at the edge of the previous trilogy’s map. There’s a secret message sent to one ruler, a disaster engulfing another…but summarizing its action conveys very little of this book’s undeniable attraction. That attraction is much plainer in Bear’s starkly vivid descriptions; her spare yet luscious language; and the stubbornly endearing people inhabiting her enthralling imaginary world.
A veteran SF author who’s also an engineer working in U.S. intelligence, Philip K. Dick Award-winner David Walton draws on his dayjob expertise in The Genius Plague (Pyr). Fungal sentience originating in the Amazon threatens the integrity of the intelligence community by influencing its members’ thoughts and desires. It cures the Alzheimer’s afflicting the protagonist’s father and rouses support for ecologically sound candidates and practices. But it’s also behind some rather nasty massacres and assassinations. Codebreaking and computer servers stand between the National Security Agency and this sporulating mind’s crop dusters and smoothie stands. It’s unclear by the novel’s end if humanity’s defenses will prevail. Or even whether they should. Perhaps we’ll know that after reading a sequel or two.
A cover’s the first thing you see when you look at a book. Maybe the spine alone — a wash of color, font(s) spelling out its title and the name of its author (with any luck, legibly). You see more if the book is “faced out,” that is, displayed so the front cover’s facing you, and you’re getting the full force of the artist’s and designer’s skill. What can you tell at first glance?
For starters, expensive treatments such as embossing, cut-outs, and foil or metallic inks mean the publisher thinks they’ll be selling lots of copies. Traditionally, the publisher’s got an in-house team taking care of the cover business; traditionally, authors have little to say about how their books are packaged beyond, if the publisher’s feeling extremely gracious, a chance to nix the chosen art. Which Tor gave me with Everfair; editor Liz Gorinsky showed me a preliminary sketch done by the brilliant Victo Ngai and I pointed out that the human hand in it should be black. And she made it so.
But protagonists’ races aren’t always something you can tell from a cover, alas. “Whitewashing” is the term we use for this problem. For every piece of representative and lushly dark Kai Ashante Wilson or Nnedi Okorafor cover art, there’s a counterexample, such as the weirdly pale version of Lilith Iyapo shown on the original edition of Octavia E Butler’s Dawn. Of course that last book was published thirty years ago; nowadays, a mostly abstract or alphabetic cover like the one on Zen Cho’s wonderful Sorcerer to the Crown is the compromise.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with alphabetic cover designs — one of my favorites is the cover for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, reproduced here on a t-shirt. But I contend it’s shabby of publishers to routinely use graphics to conceal information they think you shouldn’t have.
Because there are times they do exactly the opposite for the information they think you should. Goggles, top hats, and dirigibles on a cover signify steampunk; spacesuits and cratered, airless planetscapes signify “hard” science fiction; busty contortionists in jeans or leather catsuits signify “urban fantasies” about werewolves and private eyes. Delving deeper into this code, specific artists are identified with specific subgenres and even with particular authors: Thomas Canty with high fantasy, Kinuko Y. Craft with Patricia McKillip (I review a classic McKillip re-issue later in this column).
Publishers speak cover art fluently. If they want to.
Another thing you can usually tell from a book’s cover: who else thinks it’s cool. Traditionally, publishers are also in charge of soliciting “blurbs,” as the two-or-three sentences of praise bestowed by big names are called. The results can be edifying. If the book jacket prints a statement from Samuel R. Delany or Junot Diaz saying a debut novel is brilliant, I pay attention; if it’s lauded as amazing by someone who…isn’t…I pass it by.
So yes, often you can judge a book by its cover. But then there are those times when things go horribly wrong. The cover art for the first printing of Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others has a clumsy Ayn Rand-paperback feel entirely at odds with the collection’s ambiguity and subtlety. “There’s a Bimbo on the Cover of My Book” laments a familiar filk song (folk songs for members of the SFFH community). “All too accurate,” one commenter proclaims of the song’s full lyrics.
One way around these messes is to self publish. Another is to publish with a small press such as Tachyon, Aqueduct, or Small Beer. In both cases authors are better able to plead their book’s cases to the judge and jury of the reading audience.
There’s a first time for everything, including AfroComicCon, a Bay Area “comic book, art, media, science fiction, technology awareness, web TV, film, and writing convention.” You get all that for a ticket costing $7 to $30 — depending on which events you opt for. A free-of-charge Youth Community Day is promised also, though no details are available yet. Jaymee Goh and Zahrah Farmer Castillo are two of this fledgling con’s fourteen featured speakers.
VCON, on the other hand, has existed since 1971. This year’s VCON 41.5 is billed as a “relaxacon”: light on programming, heavy on socializing. It’s a format that will likely work both for longtime attendees who just want to hang out with old friends and newcomers who’d like to get a feeling for the con community. Structured only around the length of a movie or the rules of a game, VCON 41.5 could be a revealacon as well.
As noted above, recent covers for Patricia McKillip’s fantasies are almost always painted by Kinuko Y Craft. Except when they’re not; a new reprint of her groundbreaking World Fantasy Award-winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (Tachyon) is graced instead by Thomas Canty’s art. And why not? McKillip’s soaring prose, lyrics to songs our hearts have forgotten they knew how to sing, deserves Canty’s accompaniment. The feminist underpinnings of the book’s plot — a self-sufficient woman who refuses to be stripped of her autonomy starts a war she swore never to fight — deserve our attention now as much as they did in 1974, when Beasts was first published. If you’ve never read it, you deserve to. Or if, like me, you read it long ago and have made do since with a tiny but affordable mass market paperback, you deserve Tachyon’s elegant trade paperback edition, at least half as beautiful as McKillip’s story. Which sounds stingy as compliments go, but is actually extremely high praise.
Frankenstein Dreams (Bloomsbury USA), a retrospective edited by Michael Sims, is fourth in his series of Victorian SFFH anthologies. The book begins with a detailed introduction, then proceeds to work by Mary Shelley, author of what’s arguably the first modern science fiction novel, and ends with Arthur Conan Doyle, whose iconic sleuth Holmes epitomized the scientific approach to mystery. In between these two Sims manages to introduce several authors less familiar to modern SFFH readers, or probably to modern readers of any genre. He also takes the somewhat regrettable liberty of excerpting a minor and wholly non-sfnal Thomas Hardy novel, justifying it as an illustration of the anxiety the time’s scientific discoveries provoked. Other excerpts — of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, of Shelley’s superb Frankenstein, of Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, and of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde — may tempt the antho’s audience to read the complete novels they’re taken from. They stand up poorly to the real short stories appearing here, though, such as Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar” or my favorite, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom.” Gender issues are addressed in “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller, and racial prejudice in Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Senator’s Daughter,” but for the most part Frankenstein’s Dreams seem to center on explicit monsters and the implicit estrangement of members of the era’s dominant paradigm.
Something's got to happen. Who wants to read about happy characters dwelling contentedly in the land of status quo with no worries, no desires, no agendas? Paying customers prefer action. We authors love our characters (who are often facets of our own selves), but in pursuit of stories others will read we torture and provoke them, prod them, plumb their depths.
Conventional Western wisdom declares that at their heart, good stories are about conflict. In the U.S. we’re taught to categorize the types of conflict found in a story in simplistic terms: Man against Nature, Man against Society, Man against Man, and Man against Himself. (Note the gender specificity.) And writers are trained to satisfy readers with these closely educated tastes.
But I counsel my students to aim for a slightly different focus. Because conflict can be just as boring as its absence.
Consider the pitched battles of epic fantasy. Good fights evil, and unless we’re in the territory of grimdark authors like Joe Abercrombie, the outcome’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. Though epic battle is frequently deemed a Western trope, its use is by no means restricted to European inspired fantasies: despite my deep admiration for his short fiction, Ken Liu’s novel The Grace of Kings wore out my patience with its repetition of military scenarios well before I finished the book, and that was only the first volume of his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. Battle after battle. War after war.
So what else is there? What keeps readers scrolling? I say it’s tension.
Kishōtenketsu, a traditional East Asian narrative structure explained in depth on the tumblr of still eating oranges, is one alternative. As Nils Odlun notes in the first article linked, in kishōtenketsu the author turns their focus from conflict to a different aspect of the story. Conflict may produce the tension necessary to attract and keep readers’ attention — there may be a struggle, complete with winners and losers — or there may be something else going on that dramatically changes what the characters and, through them, the audience, experience. The point is not the event depicted on the page but its effect.
Weirdly, my tension epiphany occurred as I watched the end of Doctor Zhivago. Yes, I know this is a deeply problematic movie, and not even SFFH — but I still managed to learn from it. As Omar Sharif chased Julie Christie through the streets of Moscow, dying of a heart attack before getting her to notice him, I was caught up in their story as never before. He had to reach her. He would never reach her. This gap between “What is” and “What must be” was the space where the spark of my imagination leapt to life. The arc it jumped.
Where else in fiction do I find these seductive lacunae? Lots of places. Karen Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, can be read as your standard conflict, but the djombi Lord’s heroine contests with for possession of the Chaos Stick is also, according to kishōtenketsu theory, the means of resolving the disequilibrium this prize’s presence creates. In other words, I find tension’s power there because I’m searching for it. I put it in my stories in hopes you’ll seek and see it or stumble across it or figure out somehow it’s there.
Looking at magic in unfamiliar ways, the emerging authors brought together in The New Voices of Fantasy (Tachyon) freshen up the genre’s much-sought sensawunda. Within these pages it’s everywhere: in amorous mobile skyscrapers, ravished tornado shelters, and blissfully ignorant anthropologists’ notebooks. Most effective are the tales of those whose difference could easily have disqualified them from inclusion in past authorial pantheons. The half-sulking, half-singing cadences of Sofia Samatar’s Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” might not have made it into this newly formed canon because of her East African heritage, despite her academic status; the mazing reflections of Usman T. Malik’s British Fantasy Award-winner “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” might have been brutally trimmed back or eliminated altogether, their South Asian cultural currency disregarded as valueless. But we’re all so much the richer for the strange, beautiful wealth to be found throughout this entire book.
The Punch Escrow (Inkshares) by software marketer Tal Klein also affords a novice’s take on established SFFH tropes. As numerous YouTube videos and late-night TV hosts have pointed out, our Star Trekkian concept of teleportation basically boils down to a traveler’s duplication followed by their murder. In 1995 James Patrick Kelly addressed teleportation’s ethical dilemmas in his Hugo winning novelette "Think Like a Dinosaur"; Klein’s revisitation features a narrator whose day job is being a professional smartass and who lards the text with breezy, confident-sounding footnotes full of quantum foam and peeing mosquitoes. Good fun.
So what’s a new voice? What’s an old one? Is there anything in-between? Daniel H. Wilson, author of The Clockwork Dynasty, already has beaucoup books out, including the awesome Robopocalypse and its sequel, Robogenesis, and my personal nonfiction favorite, Where’s My Jetpack? Clockwork’s steampunky cover promises brass gears and leather and lots of them, and readers looking for the Retrofuturism typically associated with these trappings won’t be disappointed. Much of the book’s action takes place in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, with forays into modern times and also, interestingly, into the distant past of the Chinese empire. One of the novel’s two viewpoint characters is (this is not a spoiler, trust me) a robot created millennia ago by vanished supermen. Wilson’s academic expertise is robotics, enabling him to make his references to the spinning, metal-impregnated ceramics animating these Ur-androids’ somehow credible. According to him robots have been with us always. Though new, they’re incredibly old. A neat trick in perspective and a pleasing one.
The self-proclaimed largest SFFH convention in the whole freakin universe, Dragon Con, is also home to the Dragon Awards. Like Worldcon’s Hugos, the Dragon Awards are recent victims of Puppy voting manipulation schemes. Unlike the Hugos, award categories include both comics and graphic novels, and four separate game varieties. This wide spectrum of choices reflects the literature-plus orientation of Dragon Con, with its weighty emphasis on movies, cosplay, and a myriad other ways to interface with the unknown.
Another large, multifarious SFFH shindig, Archon, has historically taken place in St. Louis, MO. Its occupancy of a hotel in Collinsville, IL likely has more to do with negotiated stay rates and facility availability than the travel advisory issued by the NAACP, but this is still a good opportunity to support a forty-year-old institution without validating its home state’s troublingly oppressive legislation. Plus Seanan McGuire tops this year’s list of Guests of Honor, and plenty of swoony pros are sure to attend among the approximately 2000 others showing up.
Some folks consign SFFH to the nether regions of literature. Never mind that the world’s earliest tales, whether duly recorded and or merely oft-repeated — Beowulf, The Story of Hong Gildong, The Blazing World, the Ramayana, and many others — can also easily be seen as fantasies, horror stories, and fictions based on then-current science. Modern speculative fiction, say these critics, is formulaic and predictable and totally unworthy of readers’ time and attention. Of course this bothers some of us.
Much like oppressed African Americans dividing themselves up according to skin color (if you’re ignorant of this phenomenon, read about the paper bag test), the SFFH community divides the genre into a hierarchy of smaller subgenres. Top of the heap depends on who you ask, but the cases for both the “literary” and “hard” versions of science fiction have their proponents.
Literary SF supposedly hews most closely to mainstream or “mimetic” literature’s values, which latter ostensibly focus on conveying consensus reality to its audience using conventional techniques. (Note that mimetic is the label applied to this sort of writing by nonmimeticists.) Calling a book such as John Crowley’s Engine Summer literary SF implies that it’s descriptive, character-centered, and pretty much plotless. Two out of three right.
The term “hard SF” is generally accepted to mean fiction which extrapolates from known science. But that’s not all there is to fitting into the hard SF category. For one thing, plenty of lists of this subgenre’s best books include those in which it’s possible to travel faster than the speed of light, such as the wonderful Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. Nothing we know now says that’s ever going to be possible. For another thing, what qualifies as science can be a little less inclusive than what’s covered by the dictionary definition. Physics is always good, ditto mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry. But biology will frequently be left out of the science category, with the lamentable result of lists excluding Nancy Kress’s thought-provoking “Beggars in Spain.” And don’t even ask about anthropology, sociology, or other “soft” disciplines.
One factor keeping writers out of the ranks of hard SF authors in the past was being born non-white and non-male. That’s changing, though there’s a lag effect due to previously published criticism.
Space opera, a subgenre of interstellar tales long associated and often overlapping with hard sf, has recently rebooted itself. So-called “New Space Opera” takes social justice concerns seriously, and seems to have attracted proportionately higher participation by women and people of color such as Gwyneth Jones), Vandana Singh, Ann Leckie, and Aliette de Bodard.
The popularity of subgenres is time-critical: for the moment, steampunk’s star has waned; stories of zombies, though the monsters of their premise are typically cold-blooded, are hot right now; cyberpunk’s flame burned bright at first, then flickered, then revived; dystopic and utopic fiction battle it out for supremacy on the virtual shelves of online retailers around the globe. Categories of SFFH both arise and die; Tobias Buckell’s Sly Mongoose owes much of its neo-pulp feel to the vanished subgenre of boys’ diving adventures.
People enjoy categorizing the world. Even if and when the SFFH community emerges from the literary basement we’ve been relegated to by some of taste’s arbiters, we insiders will probably see distinctions between more of our genre’s subgenres than outsiders could ever know or care about.
Spoonbenders (Knopf) is Daryl Gregory’s tenderly hilarious take on the dysfunctional family life of showbiz psychics. The publisher calls Spoonbenders “literary fiction.” But I’m going out on a limb here and saying that since Gregory has stated publicly that he doesn’t think distance viewing, precognition, or hands-off cutlery-mangling really happen, this book is some variety of SFFH. Chapters alternate viewpoints between a pot smoking, masturbating teen prone to out-of-body experiences; a crippled con artist; a human lie-detector; and a man whose tortured existence proves that a genuine ability to see the future would make obsessive compulsive personality disorder a picnic by comparison. The action alternates, too, switching between the scenes set in the 1960s and the summer of 1995. The plot involves revenge, with the inexplicable Rube Goldsbergesque machinations of precog Buddy providing a ticking time bomb, and the denouement a highly pleasurable explosion.
Though most of the stories in Christopher Rowe’s new collection Telling the Map are SF, its cover is reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s weirdly off-kilter illustrations for disturbingly dark children’s books. That cognitive dissonance is a perfect replication of Rowe’s style: in “The Border State,” long-awaited sequel to his acclaimed 2004 story “The Voluntary State,” Rowe pits hymn-singing, bicycle-racing teens against a nanotech-wielding rogue AI; in “Another Word for Map Is Faith,” earnest Christians remake the world in the image of holy maps — with deadly consequences. Delightfully strange, these ten stories transport readers to futures full of sentient cars pining for their owners, automated horses, and tomatoes grown to give blood transfusions — an odd and interesting and deceptively bucolic setting for the narration of some astonishing events.
Peter Pan, fantasy’s favorite sociopath, is the villain of Christina Henry’s Lost Boy (Penguin). Subtitled The True Story of Captain Hook, this new novel follows the pattern Henry established in her earlier novels Alice and Red Queen, retelling a familiar tale from a wrenchingly different viewpoint. Hook, known here as Jamie, is revealed as Peter’s original playmate, brought to the magical island of Neverland as a boy; over a few days, first-person narration details his realization of Peter’s centuries-long betrayal. Much of the book’s content is non-canonical: giant spiders menace Jamie and his fellow Lost Boys, who arrive in Neverland via a tunnel rather than flying there. Fairies and fairy dust are unheard of. Sweat and dirt and blood are sprinkled liberally throughout the pages. Still, elements of the story are predictable, and the author’s fast pacing can’t keep those — and the ending — from being absolutely no surprise.
I’m Armadillocon 39’s Guest of Honor, which means I’ll do a reading, give a speech, lead a workshop, participate in panels, and eavesdrop on panels about my writing. And lend an air of grace and credibility to the overall proceedings, I hope. Of course I encourage you to attend; besides my presence and the others listed officially on the con’s site, I happen to have heard that you’ll be blessed with appearances by Joe R. Lansdale, Chris Brown), and L. Timmel Duchamp. Yes, it’s in Texas. But Austin, okay?
Not all the cool kids are coming to Armadillocon, though, because Worldcon, the 75th World Science Fiction Convention, takes place in Helsinki the very next week. Sure it’d be great to do both, but I’m not. Though I wish I could. Worldcon’s GOHs include Nalo Hopkinson and Tiptree Award winner Johanna Sinisalo. Plus it’s in Finland, which is probably quite a bit more hospitable in August than Texas, temperature-wise. Just remember not to feed the trolls.
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.
Last night I dreamed, prosaically, that I was conversing with my oldest niece. My half-sobs kept trembling up to disturb the surface of our conversation; I excused myself to her by saying how much she looked like her mother, my baby sister, dead now four years. Then I woke, realizing that the face and voice I’d been talking with didn’t merely resemble my sister’s, they were my sister’s, back when she was young, vibrant, beautiful, cancer-free. Alive.
So there you have two forms of immortality: survival via remembrance and via genetic legacy. But this has never been enough for the bulk of us. Like religion, SFFH has sought for centuries to address that lack. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, continuing through George Eliot’s 1859 novella “The Lifted Veil” and beyond, the fantastic genres have consistently questioned the supposed impenetrability of the barrier between life and death. Which you would naturally expect from ghostly tales of haunted mirrors and clairvoyant ascetics and so forth, but sometimes science and technology get dragged into the fray.
“Corpsicles,” as they’re facetiously referred to, are one example of sfnal immortality made (perhaps prematurely) real. The thought is that frozen people — whole bodies, or, less expensively, just their heads — will be thawed and restored to life decades after they’ve died. Though Walt Disney was an early supporter of human cryogenics, he didn’t get himself frozen, (let alone become the first corpsicle, as is often rumored). That honor goes to Dr. James Bedford, whose body, after his death in 1967, was cooled to a temperature of minus 79 centigrade and is now stored at Alcor Life Extension's Arizona facilities.
The answers to moral, technical, and other questions rising from the practice of cryogenic suspension — Would revived corpsicles have legal rights? What would motivate their resuscitation? Who could be held responsible in the case of accidental thawing? — are explored by quite a few SFFH authors. In addition to those listed in the linked articles I recommend Tanith Lee’s novelette “The Thaw.”
Another favorite sfnal way to cheat death is to upload one’s memories and/or consciousness into another living being’s brain or, more typically, into a computer. In Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed, her villain Imaro does the first at will; he couldn’t care less that his head-hopping dislodges and kills a body’s original tenant. James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” examines a problem that develops when transferring consciousness to artificially created bodies. William Gibson and most cyberpunk authors opt for the machine upload scenario, and of course ethical quandaries can be involved there as well, as readers of my Making Amends series (“The Mighty Phin” et al.) are aware.
The aforementioned Gibson famously said: “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.” Which may well be the truth when it comes to a third form of sfnal immortality: medical advances. Already we have a sharp disparity in average life expectancies due to the availability of insurance and the quality of care afforded the rich as opposed to the poor. Already we have toilets that monitor urine flow and analyze hormone secretion. Bruce Sterling’s 1996 novel Holy Fire) extrapolates these points out to a time when his protagonist shops for an affordable, reliable life extension treatment. Never mind the excruciating pain she must subject herself to — this is a largely financial decision. Also one on which market forces, planned and unplanned obsolescence, and general demographics come to bear.
Despite In Search of Lost Time’s (Aqueduct) omnipresent cancer treatment medtech, this standalone novella resonates less with the hard science stylings of cryogenics, uploads, and gene-tailoring than it does with the happily-ever-after limbo at the end of fairytales. Author Karen Heuler’s heroine Hildy discovers that chemo infusions targeting malignant lesions on her “tempora” — an imaginary area of the brain — allow her to see, manipulate, and ultimately steal other people’s time. Her superpowers neither free nor cure Hildy, though. Instead, she struggles to integrate them into a humane and principled philosophy while fending off the self-interested alliances of warring would-be time-mongers. She girds herself for battle in red-heeled boots, silk head scarves, and penciled-on eyebrows, but kindness and self-reflection prove to be her most kickass weapons.
Firebrand (Tor Teen) is A.J. Hartley’s second novel set in Bar-Selehm, a gritty, steampunk analogue of South Africa. Steeplejack introduced readers to Anglet Sutonga, who began the book as an impoverished young laborer among Bar-Selehm’s chimneyed rooftops and ended it hired by her government’s main opposition party as a spy. Now Sutonga, member of a racial minority distinct from the region’s ruling whites and indigenous blacks, becomes entangled in a plot involving smuggled war refugees and stolen blueprints for a deadly machine gun. With her usual flair for leaping headfirst into trouble and sorting out the consequences later, she takes on a psychopathic assassin, a supernatural legend come to haunting life, and a hate-spewing white supremacist in her pursuit of truth and at least an approximation of justice. The results satisfied both my cautious mind and my crusading heart.
Seattle-area Futurist Brenda Cooper’s Wilders (Pyr) is the first volume in her new Project Earth series. The premise is promising: megacities house most of North America’s population, with the surrounding land slated for “re-wilding,” a sort of remediation-cum-restoration project. Our entry point into this near-future scenario, though, is the somewhat feckless Coryn Williams, whose older sister Lou strikes out on her own as soon as she can to do cool stuff like reintroduce wolves to the prairie. Coryn, abandoned, must stay a couple of years after that in the milieu that mysteriously led their parents to kill themselves — there’s a paragraph on possible reasons for their suicide on page 196, but by then Coryn has achieved adulthood and set off with her robot companion to track Lou down. Revolt among non-city dwellers and deception among city rulers make for a gloriously unpredictable denouement and hold out hope for more action in the rest of the series.
Westercon is your prototypical large regional science fiction convention. Past iterations — all taking place, per the organization’s website, “west of the 104th meridian” — have featured art shows, filking (fannish folk music), and everything else con-goers have come to expect from full-service conventions. This is its 70th year of meeting those expectations.
But wait — do you like SFFH books more than the genre’s movies, cosplay, games, and such? Then Readercon is your cup of vodka. Two tracks of panels talking about books and one room of dealers selling them. That’s it for programming. Authors are the only Guests of Honor — two living and one dead per year — plus a plethora of guests of no particular honor but plenty of literary distinction, like Samuel R. Delany, Kit Reed, and Jonathan Lethem.
Wednesday, May 3 — last night as I begin to write this — Annie Proulx gave a talk to the University of Washington’s librarians about global deforestation. It’s the topic of her most recent novel, Barkskins, a non-genre account of lumbering’s three hundred years of greed and waste. She knew whereof she spoke. But unlike fellow octogenarian Ursula K. Le Guin giving her famed National Book Award remarks, Proulx did not send chills up and down her audience’s spines. We had to listen carefully to hear her small, hesitant voice as she told us how she’d gathered beechnuts in the woods of New England as a child. “You can’t do that now. Those places are gone.” Difficult to digest that truth. Quietly, more unpalatable facts followed: the impact of hunting on carbon sequestering hardwoods, the reasons behind scientists’ agreement that we’re now living in a sad new Age called the Anthropocene, an era of high human impact on the biosphere.
Her topic’s emotional freight seemed almost too heavy for Proulx herself to carry: the speech ended abruptly, and I overheard her confessing to one of the inevitable cluster of admirers afterwards that she wished she could have continued. Maybe it really is too much for any individual to bear — the knowledge that we’re destroying our own habitat.
Pushing my way through the librarians and donors surrounding her — did I mention this event was a fundraiser? It was — I put in Proulx’s hand something she was in no position to offer me: hope. Specifically, I gave her a postcard for an anthology called Sunvault, a book of “solarpunk” stories postulating a future in which we overcome our species’ doom. Solarpunk, aka “ecospec,” aka “cli-fi,” is a subgenre of SFFH confronting the looming threats of melting ice caps, rapidly rising oceans, monster storms, and the thousand other slings and arrows of climatic catastrophe. Think Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising and Hurricane Fever, or more recently Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which I reviewed here briefly last month.
It’s not that the authors of ecospec deny climate change’s existence or impact (though I do know of one major SFFH publisher who enforces an outright ban on stories dealing with it). It’s just that that’s not where we stop. It’s where we begin.
Where do we go from there? How do we get to somewhere better? Depends on the writer. Fictional fixes applied to unsustainability can be technological or magical or political or any combination of the three; they can come from alternate timelines or aliens or marginalized humans, the forgotten past or the distant future. In addition to fixes there are adjustments: do we change our environment or change ourselves?
The answer, of course, is both. You get great ideas for doing the former and mental practice doing the latter when reading and writing cli-fi (or whatever else you want to call it; futurist Brenda Cooper, author of the forthcoming cli-fi novel Wilders loathes that particular term for what she writes). Proulx’s earliest published stories were SFFH. Maybe she’ll wend her way back to the genre and lay her burden down.
Held annually here in Seattle, the Locus Awards Weekend isn’t exactly a con. There are panels, but usually no more than four. Readings, but only one. Parties, but just two. The main attraction is the Saturday afternoon lunch-cum-awards ceremony, emceed by the mighty Connie Willis with kibitzing from the indefatigable Nancy Kress. In honor of Locus magazine’s deceased founder Charles N. Brown’s sartorial preferences, Hawai’ian shirts are de rigueur — the gaudier and less authentically Hawai’ian the better. And though Locus is a serious publication (it’s basically the trade organ for English language SFFH), and the Locus Awards are serious awards, the ceremony itself is rather silly, with attendees vying for plastic bananas and novelty-store fake-grass Hula skirts.
Another not-con, NubiaOne Fest, will take place at a library in Auburn, Georgia over the evening June 16 and the afternoon of June 17. Figuring aficionados of Afrodiasporic SFFH would need something to tide us over between State of Black Science Fiction 2016 and SoBSF 2018, Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade pulled together a sampling of their larger events’ programming, with participation from visual artist John Jennings, fellow authors Valjeanne Jeffers and Jeff Carroll, and others.
Now in its third year, The Brass Screw Confederacy proudly proclaims on its website that it “ain’t no Con.” A steampunk performance festival seems more like the proper description. Taking advantage of Port Townsend’s Victorian seaport architecture, costumed participants attend period-appropriate self-defense classes, play Tactical Croquet, and enjoy specially staged musical acts such as Frenchy and the Punk.
At least as prestigious as the Locus Awards, the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Awards will be presented May 19. Full disclosure ‐ my debut novel Everfair is on the final ballot. (AAAAAAA!!!!!) So with much personal interest I read the anthology commemorating last year’s contenders, Nebula Awards Showcase 2017 (Pyr). The field is overflowing these days with year’s best anthologies whose contents are chosen by experienced and renowned short fiction editors, but this is the only selection mandated by an entire organization’s membership. Surprisingly, the results don’t bite.
It’s an honor just to be nominated, and in addition to the winning short story, five other finalists in that category appear in their entirety. This is a boon to those of us who haven’t managed to hunt them all down. Here we have a chance to catch up on what professional SFFH authors believe is the genre’s forefront.
But this book’s pages aren’t infinite. Poems and longer works are represented only by their categories’ winners (poems, novelettes, and novellas) or by excerpts (novels). In the case of the new Damon Knight Grand Master C.J.Cherryh, who has written over 60 novels, we must content ourselves with excerpts from only two. Which could be sad-making. But add essays on other recipients and lists of honorees since the Nebula Award’s inception in 1965, and you have a complete yet handy-sized cross-section of SFFH’s most recent fruitings.
City of Miracles (Broadway Books) concludes multiple award-winner Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy. The series starts with the premise of magic as a tool of oppression: generations after the powerful gods which white, slave-owning “Continentals” worship get gunned down by a brown-skinned revolutionary, the pantheon’s occult legacies and byblows still cause the rebels’ new government trouble. Returning to Bulikov, setting of the first book, City of Stairs, Bennett leads readers through an astounding landscape: war-ravaged, partially restored, and lurching unsteadily into the future. Former enforcer Sigrud je Harkvaldsson deserts the seclusion of this fantasy world’s northern forests to investigate the assassination of his only friend, Minister Ashara Komayd. Is there Divine involvement? The presence of a toxic pocket universe say yes. Harkvaldsson survives entry and exit unfazed. He goes on to face down intimate truths and torturers with grim, love-steeped dedication; his painful eventual triumph is depicted with wit, restraint, and all Bennett’s artless-seeming art.
Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Read past columns here
The future science fiction depicts has never been the future. So-called Golden Age SFFH of the late 1930s to mid-1940s projected its times’ values and aesthetics onto imaginary eras flung far over the event horizon. Robert A. Heinlein’s literal space cadets, like his juvenile hero Matt Dodson, are all heterosexual men, though daringly cosmopolitan in their inclusion of differing nationalities — one of them even speaks French! Later, New Wave SFFH from the 1960s and 1970s espoused antiestablishment rebelliousness in the spirit of contemporary countercultural freakazoids like Abbie Hoffman and feminist SFFH authors including Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ pulled off populating the future widely with women-as-subjects rather than “love interests” or unattainable ideals thanks to the then-current examples of Gloria Steinem and Mary Ann Weathers. As the real-life present changesthe SFFH future does too. Because the present is what it’s based on.
Sometimes there are gaps in the projection. SFFH’s gatekeepers — publishers, editors, agents, producers, distributors, reviewers — may not feel the zeitgeist some authors are trying to represent. Or a few years pass in which features of the present that some authors want to riff off of can’t be plausibly placed in what’s called a “near-future scenario”: a setting mere decades off. You’d think doing that would be easier than making a case for far-future stuff, but no. An analogy: a character in Isaac Asimov’s story “The Ugly Little Boy” likens time travel to scratching your ear. It’s easier to do with your fingers than your elbow, though the latter’s anatomically closer. And it’s easier to posit certain changes as manifesting in a distant epoch than trying to plot out the path we’ll take between now and then.
Sometimes the continuous parade of global events or scientific discoveries renders a particular future dissonant with the resulting new present. These dissonances can accumulate: the absence of pocket calculators, cell phones, and GPS on the technological side; no trace of Brexit or Trump’s presidency on the political. Suddenly whole oeuvres, whole shelves, entire imprints lose their tenuous verisimilitude. The works of Heinlein and Asimov are obvious examples, but no writer is immune to this trap. For instance, my stories “Lazzrus” and “Sunshine of Your Love” — one published in November and the other yet to appear — mention a connection between cloning and obesity, but since I wrote about it that connection has been disproven. Stories such as mine can now only be appreciated as historical artifacts despite the dates they supposedly occur.
Social evolution also causes whole swathes of SFFH to date. Many SFFH classics impress newer readers as horribly offensive. Sexism and misogyny, racism, ableism, and other discriminatory mindsets pair frequently and unselfconsciously with more progressive and deliberately provocative attitudes; look at Bester’s The Stars My Destination and McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.
What’s the solution? For us authors, the answer is to keep writing. Write some more. Write what works in the moment, and don’t worry that the moment ends, demolishing as it can your most recent futures.
Writers gotta write. Readers gotta read.
Keep reading. Keep writing. And SFFH’s futures will die only to be reborn.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, New York 2140 (Orbit), is as large and complex as the city it’s named for. Ever optimistic, Robinson depicts a Manhattan that despite being half-drowned by melting polar ice caps rises Venice-like to meet the challenges of hurricanes and investment capital with its celebrated insouciance. The author has famously advocated for the shameless use of infodumps — those frequently lamented expository passages so often necessary to the construction of SFFH’s brave new worlds. Entire chapters of this book are nothing but. Readers who look down on infodumps can easily avoid them. Why would you want to, though? They’re relatively short and scattered through with treasures. And they blend so well with the rest of the book’s chapters, written from the viewpoints of a reality show star-cum-dirigible pilot, a pair of subversive finance software specialists, a big black cop more than a little reminiscent of the late Octavia E. Butler, and others. Viewpoint and non-viewpoint characters are fascinating, believable, and varied. Add Robinson’s vivid descriptions of natural and artificial beauty and his inventive neologisms — portmanteau words like delanyden and gehryglory — and the result is a portrait of a protean, mythical New York, a place deserving of our honor, our respect, our attention, and our lasting love.
Just as optimistically disruptive, Electronic Frontier Foundation advocate Cory Doctorow gives us Walkaway (Tor), a novel daringly bridging the gap between a highly likely near-future dystopia and a happy post-human millennium. The effortlessly involving plot follows the sexual and romantic entanglements, guerilla parties, philosophical arguments, torture, kidnapping, and escapes of a disaffected heiress with the nom de guerre Iceweasel; an outer-space-hungry cross-dresser named Kersplebedeb; Disjointed, an aging scientist working on a cure for death; and a dozen more revolutionaries. In this fictional world the word “walkaway” is both a verb and a noun. When you walkaway, you lay aside all conventional burdens and burdensome conventionality and head for a walkaway, which is an anarchic place like Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, but more widespread, and supported by an impressive array of abundance tech. In contrast to what’s termed the “default,” no one works unless they want to, no one gets paid, no one starves, no one fights. How do we bring about the future we want? By living as if it’s already here, say Doctorow and those of his characters who walkaway.
Sometimes cons resemble TAZs. At the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts last month, another attendee asked me which con was my favorite. Like at least half the people partaking in that convo I named WisCon. Certainly it’s the preeminent gathering of feminist SFFH fans in this hemisphere. Certainly it’s the most thoughtful congeries of Social Justice Warriors this side of the Inn Earnest Giraffe Emulation. And certainly I’ll be going again this year, along with my mother, who in the audience of her first James Tiptree, Jr. auction there laughed helplessly at the idea of trying to explain to her friends exactly what these whacky women were doing. (I think this was during the Titty-Shaking Duel.) You should probably go, too.
Then there’s the Nebula Conference, aka “the Nebs.” It’s a weekend of workshops, panels, and disco anthem performances, culminating in a nerve-wracking ceremonial banquet for those on the Nebula Award’s final ballot. Like me. I’ll be working a paying gig, though, so perhaps you should go in my place?
Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Read past columns here
Many people say you can’t teach anyone to write. Just Google the phrase “Can’t teach how to write.” Half your hits will be refutations of the idea — which means half those discussing it think it needs refuting. Creative writing programs proliferate across the country, around the world, and all through the virtual ether — and yet they’re slammed by pros as too academic, too expensive, for dilettantes, for cowards, a scam to employ lazy and/or inept has-beens as teachers and enrich institutions catering to the dimwit dreams of talentless wannabes. The thing to do if you want to write, detractors of formalized writing instruction opine, is to actually write. You can learn to write, they say, but only from yourself.
What can be learned can be taught, counter the refuters. Writing is not an innate talent. It’s a skill. It can be imparted.
From my perch in Genreland I see both sides. As genius author and critic Samuel R. Delany wrote in Starboard Wine, in an essay titled “Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction,” the ability to read SF is an acquired one. Seeing words such as “The red sun is high, the blue low” on a page calls for work on the reader’s part. Why is the first sun red? Atmospheric interference? Age? Plus there are two suns — so neither is Earth’s sun — which is yellow, right? And on and on...readers familiar with the possibilities produced by just one SF sentence take them into account easily, and are easily able to handle the similar wealth of possibilities inherent in some fantasy and horror texts. Mundanes (the SFFH community’s term for outsiders) almost always have a harder time. They’re unused to the protocols that help us discriminate between literal and figurative versions of statements such as “Her head exploded.” And without understanding those protocols, SFFH is as difficult to write SFFH as it is to read.
One remedy for being outside the SFFH community is to enter it. Being surrounded by others who see what Howard Waldrop is saying does great things to one’s gestalt. Reading, participating in discussions, attending conventions and film festivals, and taking workshops are all good ways of getting inside. At Clarion West, Clarion, Milford, Viable Paradise, and other SFFH writing workshops, students learn from each other as well as from the official instructors.
There are also books to assist us: Cory Doctorow’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, and Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, to name a few. The last example was based on the class of the same name I taught with my co-author, Cynthia Ward, which shows you that I not only think it’s possible to teach writing SFFH, I have even actually attempted it.
But I restrict myself in these attempts. I focus on particular elements of writing SFFH: dialogue and dialect, narration and inclusivity, characterization and representation. Most of the time these daysI teach online in partnership with K. Tempest Bradford, and we expand on specific topics covered in the Writing the Other book.
Is teaching writing possible? Do I succeed? Authors tell me they’ve written entire books because they took my course or read my book. But there are bound to be failures. Some people are just no good at writing, and no good at writing SFFH in particular, whether or not they’re well taught.
The big regional convention hereabouts is Norwescon, coming up April 13 - 16. In addition to the usual panels discussing topics such as Utopias, spacetravel, and the future of brain-sharing, there are filmmaking contests and masquerades. And lots of workshops — including miniature versions of the weeks-long ones mentioned above. The Philip K. Dick Award is presented at Norwescon, too, at a banquet studded with witty speeches.
Eastercon, aka Innominate, occurs the same weekend as Norwescon, but several time zones away, in England. There, too, a banquet will be held to showcase the presentation of awards: in this case, the coveted British Science Fiction Association’s picks for best novel, short fiction, nonfiction, and art. A longstanding tradition (the first Innominate happened the year I was born, 1955) it hosts the other events con-goers expect as well: gaming, dancing (at a “Pyjama Disco” this year), panels,etc. All this, and Marmite too!
Definitely falling into the pulpish “with a mighty bound” school of SFFH, Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (Aqueduct Press) mashes up elements of Tarzan, Dracula, H.G. Wells’ Martians, and the Sherlock Holmes mythos in a spy caper set aboard the HMS Titanic. Amid thesteampunkish thrill of weaponized gloves and a stolen set of blueprints for Jules Verne’s proto-submarine Nautilus, Ward’s heroine experiences the throes of vampiric lesbian love and finds herself questioning her terribly problematic views on souls. Though short, this book throngs with action and its characters’ piercing emotional reactions to its tight plot.
John Scalzi’s latest space opera The Collapsing Empire (Tor) shares the breezy, conversational tone of his popular blog, Whatever. Popes, cutthroat merchants, and dying emperoxes (in Scalzi’s non-gender specific nomenclature) complain about the weight of their coronation robes, the idiocy of officials, and the obstinacy of assassins. The novel’s premise is that after centuries of human use a faster-than-light path between star systems is fading out of existence. Within a decade.Switching viewpoints between a reluctant heir to the pan-stellar throne, a nerdish provincial mathematician, and a lusty smuggler of refugees, the author’s entertaining account of this so-called Interdependency’s unraveling inevitably ends in a cliffhanger. There will be a sequel. Maybe more than one — as noted on Whatever, Tor andScalzi just signed a 10-year contract. However manybooks he writes in this series, if they’re as easy on the eyes as this one, they’ll be welcome.
Smells Like Finn Spirit, (Tor) local author Randy Henderson’s third and final fantasy in the Familia Arcana trilogy, is as 80s-referential as the first two. Maybe more so. Though his rock star girlfriend is doing her best to catch him up on cultural developments that took place during his twenty-plus-year exile in fairyland, hero Finn Gramarye’s humorous take on the continuing war between fairies, wizards, and magical beings such as sasquatches and weresquirrels depends heavily on knowledge of that decade. Fortunately he gets cooperation in his preferences from those surrounding him: a sorcerer battles him in an illusory maze in the guise of Donkey Kong. His girlfriend disarms murderous fairies by singing pop songs with pointed lyrics.And so forth. If you’re unfamiliar with that time period, you’re best off reading volumes one and two of the series (Finn Fancy Necromancy and Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free) before starting this third one. Become grounded. That’s the best way to enjoy the buzz of being swept off your feet by Henderson’s guileless giddiness.
Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Read past columns here
The first story published in the SFFH series I mentioned last month, the Slate Magazine series on life under Presiden Trump, is a love story: Hector Tobar’s “The Daylight Underground.” Love moves the immoveable, and SFFH is rife with its primal and paradoxical power. Sometimes love is the motivation for the accomplishment of impossible journeys, as in John Crowley’s post-apocalyptic novel Engine Summer: hero Rush that Speaks traverses time and the troposphere in search of his lost love, Once a Day. Sometimes love’s workings are changed by a story’s science fictional or magical or horrific elements, as in Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling, her last novel, in which a predator builds a polyamorous romantic relationship with its prey. Or as in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, in which a human linguist’s sexual involvement with his nonhuman bodyguard gradually adapts to very different emotional defaults rooted in their distinct biologies. Sometimes love is the means by which science fictional or magical or horrific change is brought about: in Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness, ambisexual politician Estraven’s desire for male ambassador Genly Ai contributes to Estraven’s gender transformation.
There are plenty of other intersections between SFFH and love — even if we restrict our definition of love to the sort that’s sexual and romantic. Love and the fantastic imagination are twined together in a very twisty knot.
Often we fantasize privately about love — we dream impossibly erotic dreams, tell ourselves “meet-cute” stories that have no chance of ever coming true, and watch porn movies in our heads that we know we’ll never film. SFFH’s public fantasies have to have a greater degree of verisimilitude.
One of my favorite SFFH books-to-read-with-one-hand is Margaret and I by Kate Wilhelm. An Amazon reviewer called it “a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization.” My note on the first page of my vintage 1978 paperback says it’s “good, and hot too!” Wilhelm’s undated inscription (probably circa 1999, when we met) informs me that I was “too young the first time around.” Surely not — when Margaret and I originally came out I was almost 16.
As for the less carnal sorts of love, when I want to swoon over the ideal knight, I read Tanith Lee’s Cyrion, or another novel-in-short-stories she wrote, Kill the Dead, or her somewhat-problematic romanticization of chattelhood, The Silver Metal Lover. When I want to get all starry-eyed over a lady, I turn to the strong and endearingly pessimistic heroines of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and The Two of Them.
Then there are authors providing what you might call reliable surprises: Samuel R. Delany, who can write lyrical passages about the joy of snot-eating and the richly erotic pleasures to be found in cutting up raw potatoes. And Kai Ashante Wilson, who blows my professional author defenses to smithereens with rude yet gently balmy whisperings about entanglements between princes and soldiers and dead musicians.
Then there’s Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel Amberlough.
Love and sex drip from the pages of Amberlough (Tor) like mead from the rim of an upended bottle: sweet, yeasty, and bound to bring on fever-filled dreams. Set in an imagined secondary world similar to our own, this tale of espionage aimed against a Nazi-style populist movement is all too relevant to the current moment. Statuesque drag queen Aristide so truly loves twinkish spymaster Cyril DePaul that he fixes him up with a pseudo-girlfriend in the form of the frankly polyamorous Cordelia Lehane, Aristide’s costar at the decadent Bumble Bee Café. As in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series, there’s no magic per se to be found within the pages of this fantasy of bedside manners, only the stinging fascination of seeing heart-stealing characters play out their desperate gambits against an ever-so-slightly defamiliarized background. From the slang for cigarettes (“straights” rather than “fags”) to streetcar-riding butch lesbians dodging brawling fascist demonstrations, Donnelly provides plenty of second-worldly details. It’s the sensual ones that stick, though: a breath, and then a knee parting thighs and then another, softer breath. The sights and sounds of a temporary heaven on earth.
In Calabria (Tachyon Publications), Peter S. Beagle’s story of an Italian farmer encountering a gravid unicorn, is reminiscent of his 1968 masterpiece The Last Unicorn. But the new book emphasizes the interior transformations caused by this mythical animal. A simultaneous affair between 50-ish widower Claudio Bianchi and a fierce motorcyclist young enough to be his daughter reads alternately as metaphor for the irrationality and vulnerability of love and as simple wish fulfillment. The unicorn colt’s sire, black and furious, appears near the book’s end as counterbalance to the dam’s white beauty, a compelling vision of the positive masculine principle lacking in Beagle’s early work.
Readers of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the mainstream literary scene’s many small, high-prestige magazines may be familiar with Colombian American author Juan Martinez. Best Worst American (Small Beer Press), however, is his SFFH debut. Faithful to the transparency of contemporary genre-adjacent practices — simple statements of the unlikely, repeated refusals to linger on any comfortable thought or image — Martinez can still manage to impinge directly on the genre of SFFH itself via his subjects: immortal strippers, the end of the world, suburban housing developments empty of everything except myriad ghostly stillbirths. Brevity is another hallmark of modernity, but though this slim volume is filled with sleek, bold flash, its longer stories are also intensely affecting. “Hobbledehoydom” examines gracelessness in love in the light of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s sad self-diagnosis. “Errands” follows an unfilial nine-year-old on a shopping trip through the forest where her parents live. Weirdness builds upon delectable weirdness throughout the whole book.
The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts blends academic conference and SFFH convention together, and the result is a warm, salty success. Every March scholars and professional writers gather at the Orlando Airport Marriott Lakeside to explore fiction that flows along courses more outré than literature’s mainstream. A robust programming track includes dissertations on clones, robots, vampires, and the philosophical questions raised and answered by their imagined existence. There arealso readings by writers and panels on which they expound on their work — my favorite pronouncement being Ted Chiang’s description of himself as “entirely stitial.” Plus the pool’s lovely, the bar’s relaxed, and the alligator keeps her distance.
Ted’s remark, in case you missed his reference, was made in response to the label “interstitial.” Fiction which is interstitial occupies the notional territory between genres, and FOGcon 7’s theme is “Interstitial Spaces.” This new Bay Area convention welcomes authors Delia Sherman and Ayize Jama-Everett as its “Honored Guests,” and would like to welcome you as well. Highlights include the annual “Unaward Banquet” and Clarion-style writing workshops.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.