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Posts Tagged ‘Empire Star’

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. ūüôā¬† 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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Image from Wikimedia

Around a week ago Delany was given the Damon Knight Grandmaster Award at the annual meeting of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The award was announced back in December, but I thought I’d post about it now that the event has actually happened. The Grandmaster award is a great way to recognize those who take this particular corner of “genre fiction” beyond the limitations both the literary world at large and even its own fans place on it, not writing “respectable fiction” in disguise, but digging into the unique potential of fantasy, science fiction, and related genres to do something unique, something that cannot be done “elsewhere” or with other tools. Browsing the winners of the Nebula Awards each year is certainly a fine way to find new work and new authors (I am reading recent winner Ancillary Justice at the moment, which makes good use of the potential of science fiction world building as a way to interrogate our conceptions of gender), but you really can’t go wrong with the list of grandmasters, which includes Damon Knight himself, founder of the SFWA and author of a book on short story writing that I am rereading for the first time in over a decade, Gene Wolfe from last year, another super duper favorite of mine (whose fantasy duology I discuss here), Golden Age sci-fi giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (both of whom I read constantly in Jr Hi and High School), and Ursula LeGuin, like Delany coming out of the “New Wave” of sci fi and fantasy of the 60s and 70s (my favorite period, I think), and right up there with Delany as one of the authors I most look up to.

I love the cover art--I recognize the artist, but can't remember the name...

I love the cover art–I recognize the artist, but can’t remember the name…

I’m a huge fan of Delany’s science fiction (and his fantasy in the Nev√®r√Ņon¬†series), and just reread two of my favorites of his recently,¬†Nova and¬†Empire Star (I was going to continue on to reread¬†Babel-17, which is now included on the flip side of¬†Empire Star, as originally intended, but I seem to have misplaced it in just the last couple days…).¬†Nova¬†was the first book of his I read, and I think it is probably the best to start with–his work can be a bit difficult (which I admit I like–you need to read things that push you to grow in your ability to engage in a nuanced way with a complex world), and¬†Nova is the most accessible I’ve read so far, at the same time that it has far more substance than 99% of the genre fiction out there. It is a short novel, so those used to the monstrous 700 page beasts on the market today may be a bit frustrated with the piddling 200+ of many New Wave era novels, but I really wish short novels like this were more “in” today–let’s have more variety, not less. In these 200+ pages, however, you will find a well-wrought reworking of¬†Moby Dick (-ish… not really a thorough retelling, just a homage to the obsessive-chase motif) through the lens of the Tarot (which Italo Calvino also makes use of, and which allows for an interesting perspective on narrative itself), using the latter along with the character Katin as a way to dwell on novel writing as an art form (and in fact, this is a great meta-novel for those interested in the purported death of the novel, given that Katin is attempting to revive the art centuries after the last novel has been written), and along with all this anticipating the melding of human and machine that will later be explored in cyberpunk. Jo Walton has a great discussion of this old-but-still-so-fresh novel over at Tor.com, where she also gets into many more literary connections in the book which I did not list here. I may return to Nova again¬†one day (it is among the most reread of my collection), but for now I suggest seeing what she has to say!

IMG_2690Babel-17 and¬†Empire Star are also relatively accessible, though I found them somewhat less so than Nova, and somewhat less satisfying–but much easier than his¬†Nev√®r√Ņon stories, so check them out anyway! Where¬†Nova is (in part) a meditation on the role of the novelist,¬†Empire Star is (in part) a meditation on the role of the poet–but also hits on the issues inherent in living in a society built on slavery, which stood out a lot more to me as I reread it about the same time that I was checking out this article.¬†Empire Star can feel a bit like a cheat when you get to the end (don’t want to spoil it though), but in a way the “cheat” is part of the “consciousness novum” of the book (as in simplex, complex, and multiplex consciousness–it is a sort of Bildungsroman of the protagonist’s progress from one to the other), and so fair.¬†Babel-17, with its linguistic novum, was always meant to be paired with the novella¬†Empire Star, though this has only recently been the done. I can’t say I was especially¬†won over in terms of believability with both these stories (well, his -plex terms are actually super helpful for thinking and discussing about complexity of awareness versus intelligence, so I don’t think I really have too much of a complaint there), but I don’t think that is the point so much–it is more about using the tools of science fiction to think in a new way, or see our world from a new angle, putting pressure on things we take for granted in order to make them appear explicitly before us, rather than sitting in the background. And look, how many hard-science nova¬†are really up to snuff from the perspective of actual scientists…

I’m afraid I haven’t read Delany’s famous¬†Dhalgren yet, though I hope to get to it (and I have a copy). I did read Triton, which I did not enjoy as much as the others I’ve listed here (it was still really interesting, just didn’t engage me as much), but if you find you enjoy Delany’s style, it is certainly worth checking out. I’ve read the introduction and two of the stories to¬†Tales of¬†Nev√®r√Ņon, one of which basically took a young female protagonist through the theory of deconstruction in a period long before Derrida came along. Oh, and the introduction to the book is written by an academic who is aware that he is a fiction. Gives you a bit of a feel for the book, haha. Gender and sex are common targets of Delany’s deconstructing narratives, and some of his books can get pretty “mature” (in the ratings sense), which I realize can be difficult reading for those not used to that (I’ll include myself in that category, though I’m pretty OK with reading things that make me uncomfortable–maybe not all the time though). Delany is generally a pretty unusual and interesting person, both within and without the science fiction community, so I recommend checking him out! There is an interview with him here, though it doesn’t seem to be opening for me at the moment.

So there you go–easily one of my top picks (maybe my top pick, actually) for intelligent science fiction for people in the humanities. Hoping to get around to reading¬†Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand soon, so maybe I’ll have a post about that up eventually! Though it would be really nice to get back to some of my own writing–finally got a new project underway, and it would be nice to finish off the draft sooner rather than later.

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