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Archive for February, 2017

Not that we should confine our celebration of authors of the African diaspora to just one month (belated happy Black History Month!), but to close out February I thought I would highlight some African American authors I’ve either been reading recently or have loved for a long time (and maybe a few I’m still looking forward to reading). But to open–there’s a new Afrofuturist short fiction magazine out there called FIYAH, and it looks great! As has been pointed out lately, the world of speculative fiction is not immune to racism structural or otherwise, and black authors have suffered in the short fiction market as a result. The establishment of FIYAH does not let us off the hook, of course–the goal (or a goal) with this journal and its predecessor Fire!! of the Harlem Renaissance is for the larger discourse (or more concretely, you and I and all concrete individuals engaged in this as readers, writers, editors, etc) to see and repent its(/our) complicity in the marginalization of black voices.

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Delany has been one of my favorites for a while now. Note the cover for Babel-17, which does feature a female protagonist, but an Asian one. Ursula LeGuin had similar problems with her EarthSea characters being portrayed as white on the covers of her books.

The two authors always brought up in a discussion of black science fiction and fantasy are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and that will be the case here as well, though I do recognize that there were times when they were awkwardly bundled together solely for being the only black people in the room (which is not to say we can’t speak of them together as black authors–I’m doing that here, duh–but prioritizing that connection at random can certainly reinforce the marginalization we are trying to counter here). Delany, along with Ursula LeGuin, is one of the New Wave authors who became favorites of mine post-college (and to a degree post-Tolkien, or at least the point at which I embraced fantasy that was not just imitative of Professor Tollers). Delany’s science fiction writing is mostly confined to that period from the 60s to the 70s, followed by a foray into poststructuralist fantasy in the 80s, but to my tastes his early sci-fi remains fresh and original even next to the more avant-garde elements of today’s market. I especially love Nova, a novel which anticipates cyber-punk while remaining solidly in the genre of space opera, incorporates the Tarot in an interesting way (as does Calvino–lots of potential work meta-narrative moments there), and to my mind also has some nice echoes of Ahab and his white whale, though I wouldn’t push that too hard. Babel-17 is an interesting and trippy space opera with a linguistic novum at its heart, and to my mind a must-read for fans of the New Wave. Empire Star was apparently meant to be packaged with Babel-17, though this was only done more recently–equally trippy, and I hope to teach it one day. The meditations on cognition, intelligence, and the arts are all very worthwhile, and well-woven into the fabric of this weird but engaging story.

The late Octavia Butler I am less familiar with, I’m afraid, though I have been impressed with what I’ve read. I’d heard of her before, of course, but I was primarily turned on to her by Orson Scott Card’s in-depth analysis of her prose in his book on on writing science fiction and fantasy. What I’ve read of hers can be pretty uncomfortable–she had a knack for weaving the despicable and the morally ambiguous into disturbing but productive and interesting stories–but it is well worth it. I’ve been especially wanting to read her Lilith’s Brood novels for a long time, and will hopefully get to them soon!

There are two more recent authors I want to specifically mention here: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. I’d read Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few months ago and have been meaning to write a review, but I like to have an illustration ready before I write reviews, and never got around to making one. Maybe after I’ve read another book of hers… In any case, THTK was a solid, entertaining, and highly original bit of fantasy, and I strongly recommend it. An original cosmology, a realistic and rich diversity of cultures, courtly intrigue, and a well-developed apotheosis–this book has got it all! Again, maybe a more thorough review later. I’ve read at least one short story of hers as well, but simply with regard to her novel writing have to note that she has been quite prolific since her debut. If her other books are even half as good as THTK they are well worth reading. Do yourself a favor and check her out! You can find her website here.

wp_20170228_12_55_34_proI discovered Nnedi Okorafor through her collection of short stories, Kabu Kabu (I’ve read several so far and gladly recommend the collection on their basis). While I love Jemisin’s work as well, I feel more kinship to Okorafor’s narrative style. Her first fantasy novel for adults, Who Fears Death, is a skillful blend of both science fictional and fantasy tropes, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa but primarily focused on a realistically drawn and ethnically complex society featuring supernatural elements and magic practitioners drawn (to what degree I am not qualified to say) from African culture. I’m still working through this–the story is quite dark in a lot of ways (that tends to slow me down), and we are clued in early on to the fact that there will be some tragedy involved in the conclusion, but don’t let that scare you. This is a beautifully written coming of age story as well as a fantasy of the somewhat “messianic” sort (think Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, etc). The prequel to this book came out in 2015–I wish it were a sequel, because then I would be able to pretend the tragic foreshadowing in WFD are red-herrings, but alas…

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch from when I reviewed the first book–not as cool as the covers for the actual book, alas.

Okorafor is (deservedly) getting the most attention at the moment for her novellas for Tor.com Publishing, centering around the young heroine Binti. I’ve read the first and am making my way through the second now. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, so check that out! In sum–space opera, with a lushly developed far-future that, alas, can only be hinted at in a shorter work like this, but also a story which acknowledges the continued existence of marginal communities and nicely works the tension between globalization (or here, galacticization?) and local identity into the main plot. It is also a story about a university, so of course I like it. 🙂  I’ve noted before that the Binti series feels a bit YA to me, though I don’t believe it is being marketed as such. I think this is a function of the age of the protagonist (though the same could be said of Who Fears Death, but that has some clearly adult themes going on), Okorafor’s experience as a YA writer (that is where she started), and the shorter form of the novella. In any case, it is delightfully good, and I heartily recommend it! You can find Okorafor’s website here.

A couple of authors on my radar but whom I have not gotten to yet: Nalo Hopkinson, who has been a significant figure in speculative fiction for a while but who does not get as much press as some others mentioned here, and Kai Ashante Wilson, who has had two novellas published with Tor.com as well.  From what I have been hearing he is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in fantasy, so check him out now!

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WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProFinally getting around to reviewing one of the books I picked up in Sweden a couple summers ago–Havsmannen, or The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren. Already translated into English, alas–I would have liked to take it on myself.

“Havsmannen” means “the merman” in Swedish, hence the English title. Regular followers of this blog may remember that a couple years back I reviewed two fantasy short stories about sea-folk, Alyssa Wong’s intense but powerful “The Fisher Queen” and JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt”, itself actually more rooted in Scandinavian “merman” and “draug” traditions than Vallgren’s novel–Havsmannen only references the general Western tradition of mermaids (even if we have a man rather than a maid here), rather than specifically Scandinavian traditions of people living in the sea. Incidentally, both Alyssa and JY are rising forces in the world of speculative short fiction, and I heartily recommend following their work.

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Not a scene from the book–just one of my earlier mermaid pics. 🙂

Vallgren is no slouch either, of course. I first encountered him through his prize winning novel Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia (literally “The story of monstrous love”), in English as The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Both that novel and Havsmannen are great examples of a “literary” or “mainstream” author making use of the tropes of speculative fiction, something that seems to happen more often in Scandinavia (or perhaps these are just the stories I pay attention to), where the sci-fi and fantasy market is fairly anemic when it comes to native genre authors, but the related tropes find their way into “respectable” literature often enough (including, for example, Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s epic space poem Aniara). A Danish review of the book cited on the inside cover describes Vallgren as blending “hyperrealism” with the supernatural element of the merman–as is often the case with the trope of “realism”, we can take this as referring to the novel’s close, “unvarnished” view of the lives of some of the most vulnerable. I assume this is an element in much of Vallgren’s work–I still haven’t finished Barefoot because I couldn’t get myself to read further once the madame of the brothel the main character grows up in decides it is time to put his very underage playmate “on the market.” Havsmannen has some tough stuff to read as well, and it is very worth a trigger warning–if you have abuse in your past, or just know that you would not be able to read through accounts of severe abuse/bullying of children, then this book is not for you. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the comparisons to Stephen King (I don’t know whether I would call Havsmannen horror per-se, but there is a definite family resemblance). Speaking of horror, this novel also reminds me very much of Sweden’s biggest writer of philosophical horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead, and others. I don’t know to what extent the rest of Vallgren’s oeuvre lines up with these sensibilities, but in my mind I have them grouped together as a particular way in which the supernatural shows up in contemporary Swedish literature (for a slightly different [and Finnish] realistic take on that theme, see Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll).

So once more: Trigger Warning for graphic accounts of the abuse and bullying of children (and no, I don’t mean “he pushed me” type bullying), and Spoiler Alert for my final comments below.

The narrator of the story and the main protagonist is Nella, the protective older sister of Robert. Their parents are a mess (drunks, addicts, criminals, whom they can’t help but love at the same time their parents continually betray and abandon them), Robert has a learning disability, and throughout the story they are plagued by the increasingly serious persecution of Gerard, initially a school bully but much much more as we proceed through the book. The merman doesn’t come “on screen,” so to speak, until relatively late, though, knowing the title of the novel, we guess early on that he is the secret held in a boat shed by the mildly criminal brothers of Nella’s friend Tommy. To an extent the merman is incidental to the central action: Nella’s efforts to preserve her life and Robert’s, escape as much bullying as possible, and keep the two of them together. The desperation of their situation and Nella’s willingness to sacrifice herself and others for Robert is at the heart of everything that happens, though we do catch a nice blend of ecocritical and social themes, as the abuse and plotted exploitation of the merman (as well as the bloody business of the mink farm, where the merman is later kept) is at the hands of down-and-out working class men grasping at whatever they can to get by, or, preferably, to get-rich-quick–it saves us a bit from creating too easy an ecological villain, instead showing a messier reality “on the ground” as it were.

Perhaps as part of its “hyper-realism,” the story, or at least Nella’s narration, gestures towards a lack of narrative coherence in the “real-world.” The novel opens with Nella saying “There is no beginning and there is no ending. I know that now. For others perhaps there are stories that lead someplace, but not mine.” (my translation) Of course, the novel does actually have a narrative arc, and when we reach the end we know we have reached the end–but of course, we get to walk away. In the prologue that opens with the quoted lines, we discover that for Nella stories are what she uses to soothe Robert with the promise of a brighter future. We also know that she is aware that her “victory conditions” are likely impossible, in particular staying with Robert if they are taken away from/abandoned by their parents. This drives her distrust of adult authorities (who, to be honest, are often revealed to be incapable of resolving many of the at times quite horrific predicaments the children find themselves in), in turn prolonging the conflicts revolving around Gerard and the Merman. I find it a realistic portrayal of the reality for many children in this situation–surrounded by horrors and adults who are either untrustworthy or incompetent (or simply bound by the often problematic rules and aims of the adult world). Fulfilling the potential of speculative fiction as a genre or narrative practice, the irruption of the otherworldly merman into this perhaps too-familiar world serves to draw out these complications and make them visible in a new way. The epilogue shows the two children separated, though back in touch again–Nella’s key victory condition of staying with Robert (who is now safe, but not in the friendliest of foster care situations) has not been met, and so this story has not fulfilled the function she has for stories. No beginning and no ending, only the ongoing tension regarding Robert’s well-being. This is a story of trauma, and insofar as trauma entails a lifetime of working-through, we are certainly not meant to hold this gloomy perspective against Nella.

There are nevertheless spots of hope and positive momentum in the narrative–not the sort of nice-and-tidy happy endings of the stories Nella tells Robert (which, we must be honest, are the stories you need when you are in the position of our two protagonists–is there a sense in which their story cannot be a story “for” them? I suppose that is the case with any story about kids but written for adults…), but sacrificial love shines bright throughout, even if caught up in all the horror and impossible choices that confront our protagonists specifically as well as any neglected and vulnerable children. The merman, in addition to the thematic functions addressed above, also comes in to the semiotic system of Nella’s relationship with Robert and their parents, and his disruption of this system (or resolution of the underlying tension) is the arc and closure this story provides, even if, being a story of trauma, we must agree with Nella that in an important sense there is “no beginning and no ending.” Initially the merman is just another victim–not even one Nella is related to, and so a potentially dangerous distraction from her efforts to ensure her own and Robert’s survival. But Nella is compelled to help him, at increasingly great risk to herself. So initially the merman’s victim position reinforces Nella’s usual position of surrogate parent, stepping in where the actual adults have abused or neglected the victim. But from there the relationship is complicated, breaking up the fixed positions of Surrogate (Nella) Victim (Robert) and Adults (incompetents). The telepathic merman is physically adult (and dangerously so in spite of his weakened condition), but must be cared for. As the story progresses he uses his telepathic connection with Nella not only to request help, but to reassure and comfort–where Nella was the one to tell Robert comforting stories in which everything ends up all right, now it is Nella’s turn to be told all will be well. Can an adult promise that? No, and Nella will be more aware of that than most–but she has personally gone to great lengths to back up her reassurances, at significant cost to herself and others, and at the end, just as she is doing the same, she is finally displaced from her position as surrogate adult and gets to benefit along with her brother from the sacrificial action of the merman.

I will have to finish up here–forgive my lengthy notes at the end, this was my first opportunity to “think out loud” about the book. This novel would fit in perfectly with my “Nordic Otherworlds” course, and I was going to assign it (while I was still reading it myself) last time I taught Reading and Composition–but on realizing how graphic and intense some of the abuse was (no, it is not like that constantly–just some high points) I decided to put it off for the time being. I haven’t read the English translation, but I’m sure it is fine. I recommend it, with all the reservations I mentioned above. No shame in deciding it is too much for you.

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