Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

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.


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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My poor amateur watercolor skillz… A practice sketch, inspired by Leckie’s series, though done a while after reading, so I won’t claim it matches the universe of the books… Apologies for the bad scan, can’t seem to manage a good photograph or scan of my watercolors, and my photoediting options are rudimentary at the moment.


Since news of the first book came out, I’d been looking forward to reading Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. From the beautiful (if generically sci-fi rather than plot-specific) covers by John Harris to the buzz over the protagonist’s confusion over gender grammatical and otherwise (an anthropological touch that I found very well done), it seemed like just the sort of sci-fi I would like. Took me way too long to get to it though–I always have way too many books going at once (there are some many I started over a decade ago in the chaos of grad school that I haven’t been able to finish yet…), and between fun reading and work reading I just always have too much to cover–so Audible has been a Godsend lately, and I finally caught the series as an audio-book. I had a different narrator for the first book than for the other two–looks like you can get the same narrator for all three, so look into that if you go the audio route.

I am going to try to avoid a very in-depth review, since there are surely plenty of those already, and I don’t want to overdo the spoilers. I suppose my elevator-summary would be that this is a great far-future space opera, escapist fun at the same time that it brings intelligence and (let’s say) anthropological nuance to its world-building, plot, and character development. Some have pointed out a sort of kinship with Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though we should note that Leckie has stated that she had not read Banks until after her own work was well developed. The comparison occurred to myself as well, but it is a matter of family resemblance (late 20th/early 21st century New Space Opera), rather than clear and direct inspiration–far future cultures, prominent if not main characters who are the AIs for spaceships, politics dirty, idealistic, and otherwise at scales ranging from hyper-local to galactic, the complications inherent in dealing with alien species, etc. There are significant differences as well, in particular in the political settings for the stories. Banks’ Culture is a sort of Utopian projection of liberal ideals into a post-scarcity future and the problems the Culture encounters when interacting with those very different from it, whereas Leckie’s story is set in a militant, religious autocracy that dominates the human population of the galaxy, but has run up against some very strange aliens that far outstrip them in abilities. Leckie suggests reading the work of CJ Cherryh for a more accurate precedent, and regardless whether you find them similar or not I heartily second her recommendation.

The books follow Breq, the assumed name of the last remaining ancillary (human body integrated into the consciousness and control of the AI of a ship) of the troop carrier Justice of Toren (slight spoiler, but not much–this all becomes clear fairly early). The first book is woven of two threads, Breq’s present (and the contemporary storyline of the whole series) and past (the events that resulted in Breq being the last survivor), and I felt like this was very nicely done–I was a believer by the end of the book, at any rate. The two sequels are entirely rooted in the “present” and are a bit more connected as far as plot causality goes, so you could almost think of the trilogy as two books, the second one in two volumes (but don’t worry, the middle book has a complete plot arc).

Feminine pronouns are used throughout, regardless of gender, as the Radchaai (the culture Justice of Toren belongs to) does not distinguish between male and female either grammatically or socially. I felt this was believable and well-done, and a welcome bit of social speculation added to the far-future prognostication–and it proves an interesting bit of color for plot and character development when Breq is forced to deal with cultures that do distinguish (think of a “grammar-heavy” language like Icelandic, where the forms you use must change according to the gender of the person referred to). The gender-play of the book also ties in to the central plot points of Radchaai imperialism and the question of the personhood of AIs (check out this recent article at Strange Horizons for more on that as well on the ways the term “gender” is used with expanded range in contemporary discourse on the topic–though I suggest you wait till you’ve finished the trilogy). I can’t get into these threads too much without spoilers, but I will say that I liked how Breq’s development as/insistence on being a person and not a thing is done in a way that nicely emphasizes the intersubjectivity of personhood, with Breq’s own (somewhat deeply hidden and often grudging–Breq is BAMF AF) love and compassion infecting those around her (and incidentally, the ship AIs provide a nice opportunity to bring both BAMF and rather maternal characteristics together). The divided self, recognized as itself an inescapable part of subjectivity since at least Freud, if not the Apostle Paul, is also productively exploited, as the sheer complexity and extent of the transhuman intelligences in the story entails the possibility of more obviously divided selves–and this in turn provides opportunities to explore the ways in which the “self” is more an artifact of one’s place in a social network than it is some mystical singularity out of nowhere–and all this in ways that are essential to the plot and which make the whole thing more interesting.

It’s been a decade since I’ve read CS Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, but I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to gesture towards the interests of later Reception and Reader-Response theory. In particular he argues that there are two types of reading–reading that transforms us, and reading that is purely escapist and “fun.” Neither is necessarily morally superior to the other, and he suggests that this is more a factor of the way in which we come to a book, rather than something inherent to the book itself. But of course, the text is not absent–it is as much a part of the process as the reader (otherwise we are just projecting onto a blank screen), and a person will find some texts more challenging and difficult because they demand more of you (what texts work this way can vary depending on the person, of course), while others seem tailor-made for escapism (escapism not in-and-of itself a bad thing, in moderation–but I would suggest this is also where we tend to become more prone to masturbatory power-fantasies). Science fiction and fantasy at their best can sustain the tension between these two ways of reading quite well, and Leckie’s books, as well as many others I’ve reviewed here (Zen Cho, Lois McMaster Bujold, and short fiction from Rose Lemberg, Alyssa Wong, JY Yang, and others) do very well on this count. Highly recommended. 🙂

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A friend recently shared Atlas Obscura’s post on Hollow Earth theories. At once fun (because it is always entertaining to look at the crazy stuff folks once thunk, plus it’s a neat setting for fantastical tales) and terrifying (given that there aren’t only the flat-earthers and young-earthers out there [confession: I was one of the latter for a period as a child], but also the hollow-earthers). The article mentions Dante’s Inferno as a potential first-visualization of such an idea (I believe the genealogy of the idea has been traced back further, but hey, not my specialty), stops briefly at Halley, then skips on to 19th century pseudo-science, before getting into science fiction from Jules Verne onwards–which completely misses my favorite hollow earth story, Niels Klim’s Journey Under the Ground (links to various digital transcriptions of the English translation here).  I’ve taught Niels Klim at least 4 times now, in various incarnations of my “Scandinavian Other Worlds” course (somewhat an overview of the history of Scandinavian literature, somewhat an exploration of different variations of the theme “Other Worlds”), though I am not an early-modernist (I’m a [Scandinavian] medievalist first, maybe a Scandi folklorist after that, then a general Scandinavianist), so the info provided below is brief and just a matter of a few things I found helpful/interesting/insightful when teaching it.

Image from Wikipedia

The story, from the same period as Gulliver’s Travels and clearly influenced by the same (though I’ve heard one person suggest it might go the other way, positing a very early Holbergian draft…) follows upwardly-mobile Niels Klim, who, on attempting to explore a mysterious cave in the mountains (and Scandinavian legend tradition re: underground populations of “under-earthers” is a relevant echo here, even if the story here opts for a very different direction), falls deep into the earth, emerging into the center of the earth, which consists of three parts–the lands on the firmament (the underside of the crust), a mini-sun in the middle, and a small planet (later we learn it is called Nazar) circling that sun. Niels is brought to the surface of the planet by a giant eagle, and there meets the inhabitants, who are sentient trees.

The larger narrative can be divided up geographically to a degree, and while Holberg’s point with the whole, apart from, well, entertainment, is fairly polemical, his strategies for his polemicizing shift from utopian to satirical with each location/section–though I suppose both elements are active here and there throughout: utopian in Holberg’s visions of social perfection, satirical in his biting commentary on contemporary Denmark and Europe.

Potuan Maiden by Callego

Haven’t consulted the text in a while, so no promises this is an accurate depiction–but hey, close enough to an illustrious many-branched Potuan maiden.

First we have Niels’ initial stay in Potu, a country on the planet Nazar. This is an explicitly Utopian portion of the narrative, as may be clear from the name (Potu is derived from Utop[ia] in reverse–also, apart from this name, the language of the Potuans might be considered an early conlang, though I don’t know whether it was a serious enough construction to really be labeled such…). We get a first glimpse here of Niels’ role as buffoon, a role Holberg would use in his comedic plays as well–a particular characteristic would be taken to extremes in a buffoonish character, or such a character would seek to live outside his proper place and abilities, and so would be exposed to ridicule, such that the audience could point and laugh and say “Oh, OK, that is definitely not the right way to do things, is it…” (so not satire on specific real-world people or institutions, but on generally attitudes, behaviors, etc), but here this is primarily in terms of Niels as European foil to this logical and perfect society of intelligent trees. Examples of the perfection of the Potuans: no arguing allowed over religious points, and the religious outlook is vaguely Deist (so no Catholics and Protestants burning each other); apart from a hereditary ruler (this is the age of Absolute Monarchy and Villainous Aristocrats, after all) all jobs are assigned according to who can best do them (instead of matching the prestige of the job with the prestige of the person); as a development of the latter point, we get a pretty gender-progressive stance from Holberg (not Klim, alas) as the Potuans think it ridiculous to exclude women from, for example, prestigious government posts, so long as a given woman is most suited to that particular job; and introducing any change to society must be brought to the learned to consider, and if rejected the innovator will be executed–so that people will only offer an innovation if they are really very certain about it. Careful thought and consideration is the name of the game here, and Niels Klim is too hasty to even listen to the rules, and from the start the Potuans pity him, and he bridles under his reduced estate (ie, no longer so upwardly mobile–hm, maybe this subterranean position has a figurative connection to his career…). This brings us to the next section…

Unhappy with his humble position as courier (since, not being a tree, he can move quite fast), he convinces the king to let him go on a journey around the planet, surveying the other societies there. Here we might say we’ve gone Dystopian, though perhaps it is better to understand it as more satirical education via buffoonery, just projected on to the level of entire nations. Each place he visits has one particular thing taken to extremes (again, in true buffoon fashion, contradicting the Golden Mean)–a place where women are not just equal, but in fact in charge (which nicely illustrates how lame it is to actually be a woman in a patriarchal society); a place where everyone is a philosopher; a place where people live too long; a place where people know when they will die; etc. And of course, while many of these might be taken to derive from some vision of perfection (“wouldn’t it be nice if everyone…”), put into practice we see that nothing taken to extremes is good. So there!

This ends with him returning to Potu, but he is still unhappy–so he decides he will make a name for himself by introducing an innovation! Sure, it means risking his life, but a clever, upwardly mobile Norwegian boy like himself (OK, my blog title says Danish, but Norway was under Denmark at the time, so whatever) should have no trouble, right? So he suggests that women not be allowed to hold office. Well, it doesn’t go well, but because he is a stupid foreigner (not in so many words, but that is essentially it) they decide to exile him to the firmament instead–the inside surface of the earth’s crust. This is done using eagles of the sort that initially brought him.

Image from Wikipedia

On the surface we can still detect some dystopian elements and buffoon-at-the-level-of-nations polemicizing, but to a large degree this is where we finally actually start getting a narrative interesting in its own right, moving into adventure mode, and later into conquering hero mode–but all still very much a parody, and involving countries of apes, of tigers, of horses, and other animals, and of very primitive humans, along with our hero going from clever courtier to galley slave to “Yankee In King Arthur’s Court”-style antics that make him a celebrated, and then cruel, and, frankly, stupid conqueror and emperor. And OK, we do get one more intriguing bit of explicit satirical commentary as Klim discovers a manuscript from an subterranean explorer who went up to explore the surface–there are of course many details relevant to that period in European history (it is targeted satire, of course), but it essentially comes down to “Holy crap, those Europeans–smh.”

Klim screws up and has to run (spoiler alert), and ends up getting blown by a wind back up through the hole he fell into–on exiting he is mistaken for the wandering Jew (another bit of folklore to add to the “underearthers” reference), but ends up finally being taken care of by an old acquaintance, who helps him get a minor position–but of course he will forever remember that he was once a magnificent ruler and has a queen and princely children somewhere in the earth below, and the story itself is framed by a preface purporting to answer the ridicule of those who say it is all, pardon my language, balderdash (not a Danish/Norwegian word, btw). I tend to assume this was all tongue-in-cheek and that no one was going to be mistaking this for anything but a polemical flight of fancy, but hey, not a period I usually work with.

Like the Atlas Obscura article points out, the Hollow Earth idea has been around a long time. Wikipedia seems to have a good summary (and actually mentions Holberg), but if I remember correctly, this edition/translation has a good introduction covering not only Holberg, and not only the story’s place in the Hollow Earth tradition, but in literary history more generally. Alas, it is not in print any more, and the used paper back versions are a bit pricey. 😦 But again, feel free to read it for free online!

[EDIT: Holy crap, to think that only days after I published this that whole election thing happened. I’ve got to say, our president elect seems to have stepped right out of a Holbergian satire. Klim-as-buffoon ranges from relatively harmless ridiculousness as he gets himself exiled for his attempt to capitalize on his ostensibly ingenious misogynistic policy recommendation to very harmful (=world war level) ridiculousness as this very small-minded and entitled man pushes the martial, imperial, and colonial programs of Europe to extremes in the subterranean world after managing to displace an emperor–and when he himself is displaced from his ill-gotten throne he is full of his tragic downfall, oblivious to his role as hyperbolic object lesson. I’m tempted to get into political cartooning… but I suppose a centuries-old Danish utopian satire is not going to be the most accessible allusion for US politics…]

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One of my 2015 Inktober illustrations

I’ve participated, in a weak way, in previous Inktobers, but this was the first time I managed to post something every day of the month, even if I didn’t follow the official list. A few of my pics have been turned up in my other blog posts, but I thought I would just lay out every one of them here, since they are a bit difficult to search through on my tumblr and I didn’t post all of them on DeviantArt. Most of the art I’ve done the past 2 1/2 years has been pen bush sketches, and there are some bits from this month I really don’t like, and no pics I’m entirely satisfied with, but I definitely feel like this month has helped a lot–I don’t know how visible the improvements are to everyone else, but I feel like I know what I’m doing a lot more, and have a better sense for my own particular style.

For the most part these are 1) sketches pertaining to my potential webcomic that I’m playing with, 2) other fantasy/saga/folktale/science fiction pics that are a bit more developed, even if nothing here is polished enough that I’ll be posting it in my store without cleaning it up digitally, and 3) super quick sketches/doodles to make sure I had something for that day. Regarding the latter, this past weekend I was at a conference and could only post doodles from the margins of my conference notes, but I did end up with some extras, so there will be more than 31 pics below. Clicking a pic should link you to one of my original posts either on tumblr or deviantart.

And of course, now that Inktober is over NaNoWriMo is here and I will be cheating by resuming my novel from last year–so we’ll see if I’m as consistent with that as I was with my art…

All that said: Enjoy! 🙂

Very quick set of Inktober sketches for today. Hoping to return to karate after…. um, over a decade, so I guess that was on my mind. Realized afterwards I set her belt way too low (looks like she has a long torso and short legs…), and I don’t think I...

Inktober day 5. Having trouble getting into it today, but I think that’s because I’m more comfortable with characters in landscapes than straight-up character design–or maybe bears are just tough for me, I don’t know. Anyway, it became more just...

Inktober day 6. Super hurried, as I’ve had a full day. Fortunately I’d invented my new patented scribble tree technique, illustrated on the left, while doodling during a course from my health provider just an hour before, so I threw together this 2-4...

Inktober day 9–stomach has been giving me a ton of pain last night and now again tonight (I’ve got a lot of gastro issues…), so this grimace was all I had the wherewithal for. Hm, and I was maybe a bit more generous with my hairline than real-life...

Inktober day 10–another super quick sketch. Stomach still killing me, so nothing polished. Ouch…

Inktober day 11. Super quick profiles. Still not feeling great so very little energy for creating or thinking. :(

Inktober day 13. Too tired for much, but scribbled a different design idea for the mc of my potential comic. I don’t think I’ll actually do the giant jet pack look tho. Away from my scanner, so just a crappy tablet pic this time. Really would like to...

Inktober day 16. Another sloppy-quick sketch. What if I had to work the same way that the scribes whose work I am working on worked? Hm, say that fast five times…
Hopefully will have a more thought-through and polished piece tomorrow. Somehow have to...

Inktober day 17 oh my goodness working so late on this paper but I wanted to get this in and now I need to see if I can submit a poem before the deadline for this magazine closes  (never mind, too last minute and technically that poem is already...

Inktober day 23- very quick sketch after reading a short story by Murakami.

Inktober day 26–up late super stressed about this paper I’m going to present soon, so this is pretty hasty. Some vikings, and a big headed viking guy. Seriously, I don’t know why I drew the torso facing forward, the pose makes his head huge and his...

Inktober day 27–argh, no time for this. Scribbled something out with my MCs for the webcomic idea, but no time to refine or fix anything. I know, bear looks like he is in pieces. Back to scholarizing for me. Hope I will find time for something more...

Inktober day 28. Just a quick scribble as I am scrambling to finish everything before I get together with the other presenters tonight. Then I give a response and a paper tomorrow, and Sunday can relax and just listen to other people’s papers. 🙂 Yay...

Inktober day 29! I did some sketches in my notes, but can apparently not post them all at once with the browser on my phone, so more to follow.

Another conference doodle. But no, doesn’t actually represent Matt’s Bertell, just ended up near his name…

And another conference doodle

Inktober day 30. Again from my doodling during this weekend conference. Will post a few more of today’s doodles shortly.

Another doodle from the conference.

Another conference doodle.

Another conference doodle. I promise I paid attention to everyone’s papers…

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A quick sketch of Miles Vorkosigan, aka Admiral Miles Naismith, the main viewpoint character (but not the only one) throughout the series. Will try to get a better version up eventually…

My current candy-reading (or listening, since I’ve subscribed to Audible) is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. I’d run across the series maybe 5 or 6 years earlier, but it had been 4 years since I’d last stalled out reading through the books (in chronological order, as opposed to the order written). These books are addicting–so much so that I’m inclined to call them a “guilty pleasure”, but there is enough nuance in worldview, enough (for a 80s-onward military space opera) expansion of representation, enough of a critical attitude towards cultural militarism in the same breath as a sympathetic rendition of characters who love military culture and action, that I don’t want to give the impression that this is “dumb” reading. It’s good escapism, sure, and tailor-made for that in many ways–but it is also a thoughtful exploration of our humanity and our contemporary cultural issues through the lens of space opera. And yes, this is pretty standard space opera/military sci-fi–or at least, it won’t surprise anyone as far as the setting or tech goes–but the elements are, I think, treated well and creatively, with enough twists that you can’t take this as a clone of any old space opera setting.

You can check out the list of books/stories in the series on Bujold’s website here, though the Wikipedia entry for the Vorkosigan saga also has a good chronological list, including info on the omnibus editions, which is where I first started reading–the omnibus editions are also nice since they include the short stories and novellas, which, as I’ve recently been reminded, are themselves at times very central to the overall arc (the novella “Borders of Infinity” certainly is). Personally, I love the narrator for the audio books, so I’ve recently started working through the series on Audible (alas, until I start a podcast or youtube channel I can’t become an audible affiliate–otherwise you would be able to support this blog by signing up for a free trial membership at Audible. Well, you can still sign up, it just won’t benefit me at all.).

The saga starts with Miles Vorkosigan’s parents, Aral Vorkosigan, from feudal, militaristic Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, from advanced, liberal, and progressive Beta Colony. I started the series with the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor, and I do recommend starting there–the two novels are good, if not as riveting (for me anyway) as the first Miles book (The Warrior’s Apprentice, which I’ve read at least 4 times), but all the rest of the series is all the more meaningful when you come to it already caring for the family–the backstory (really stories on their own right, the first of the two published before any of the Miles stories) really does enrich the rest. Miles himself is a great viewpoint character–well, this is not to say everyone will like him, but I’ve found him very engaging, and have found my own particular ways to resonate with his character, even if he is in many ways very different than myself. Additionally, Miles is a disabled character. Whether or not his portrayal successfully evades any degree of “abelism” I can’t speak to–we might extend this to other points where the Vorkosigan books are relatively progressive when in comes to representation, in that I’m reluctant to offer any authoritative judgement re: how well Bujold succeeds (this is of course not meant to diminish Bujold’s writing at all–we’re all caught up in systems of privilege, patriarchy, etc, and we all, whether we are the privileged or the unprivileged, have our path working our way out of that). Tung, one of the main characters, is Asian, and certainly the universe is not wholly white, but my impression is that it is not always a complete rainbow; there are many strong female characters, but the books I’ve read so far, minus the latest and those in Cordelia’s honor, are very thoroughly centered on Miles, and the female characters are viewed through the filter of his particular longings–but to be fair, they disrupt this wishful lens quite often; and homosexuality and bisexuality do come in, though the only book I’ve read here where it is especially prominent is one that comes off a bit awkwardly, with a whole planet of men that women are not allowed to visit. Well, I mention all this because I’ve seen others touting Bujold’s progressive representation, and I do think it’s worth celebrating (and it is an enjoyable part of the series, giving us a more realistically full universe)–it is definitely a selling point, but I don’t know that everyone will be equally impressed.[edit–I’ve read further in the series now, and my impression is that Bujold continues to expand and deepen the representation of queerness and genderqueerness–the whole series is, I think, a neat set of pictures of the potential and boundaries of (relatively) progressive (but still “popular”) sci-fi from the mid-80s till now]

Well, that’s my recommendation for now–I’m just this week further in my reading than in my previous reading, so it’s fun entering into new territory! If you are just trying to decide whether this series would be for you, I suggest checking out The Warrior’s Apprentice–if you like it enough to keep going, check out the Cordelia books (Shards of Honor and Barrayar–collected as Cordelia’s Honor), then move on through the rest in chronological order (or whatever order you want–they are all self-contained, but I find that much of the fun is in the references between books).

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I’d been excited about Tor.com’s move to publishing longer novellas in addition to short fiction (or the novel-length material at their parent company Tor Publishing)–I love the vast tomes of epic fantasy that have been taking over the last few decades as much as anyone, but I also love the shorter novels of earlier eras, in particular the New Wave (I’m thinking in particular of the shorter novels of Ursula LeGuin and Samuel DeLany), and I think it’s a great move on Tor.com’s part to explore this middle-ground. While I appreciate getting a variety of lengths of fiction packaged together in one volume, when I encounter a novella in, say, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I tend to put it off, read the shorter fiction, and then forget about it–I enjoy the experience of reading mid-range fiction like this a lot more when I get it packaged separately (and the price is reasonable–$3ish for my digital copy. The paperback is nearly $10, which is a bit harder to swallow for something so short). Looking forward to reading many more from their growing list. I decided to start with Binti (click the link for a description and preview) by Nnedi Okorafor, and that is what this post will be about. Long story short–this is an excellent short Space Opera where competent world building fits perfectly with the central narrative of an engaging and believable protagonist, who in her turn fits the genre’s need for a “special protagonist” while remaining very relatable and realistic.

I’d been looking forward to this novella since it was first announced as one of the initial stories in the series. I confess the gorgeous cover influenced me a bit (that goes for all of these books though–my goodness, whether for their short fiction or for their novellas Tor.com has really got the cover game down), but I’ve also been wanting to read more by Okorafor since hitting one of her short stories a year or two ago. I’d picked up her novel Who Fears Death a few months back, but I’ve got too many novels I’ve been trying to work through lately–Binti was the perfect size to squeeze in while still working through my other books. It was definitely a quick read–the paperback is 96 pages, so you go through it a lot faster than you expect for an independently packaged text.

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch–I won’t say this is at all a canonical vizualization of Binti, and not exactly what I had in my head while I read, but it’s what came from my pen when I started doodling after finishing the book. Will hopefully get a better version (both scan and drawing) posted eventually…

The eponymous main character really makes this story–well, the fascinating far-future science fictional world, more glimpsed than spelled out in this short work, is also a main attraction here, but the narrative arc of the story, however filled with action and tragedy and problem-solving, is clearly Binti’s own character arc, and climax and closure are most satisfying when you look for them in the transformations she goes through, rather than in the resolution of the conflict on its own. Those used to longer and more complex stories (novels as opposed to short stories or novellas) may get frustrated, but you have to take it for what it is–more of a glimpse of a larger world, and a look at a particular transformative moment in the life of the main character.

To me the feel of the book is definitely YA, from the prose to the treatment of character and obstacles (as well as the youth of the MC), but if we want to think in terms of shelving at the bookstore this is definitely more at home with straight-up science fiction–this is Space Opera by someone who is well-read in the genre and has her own very competent take on the various tropes. In fact, I really loved Okorafor’s vision of a realistically diverse Space-Operatic future. Binta is Himba, and so right away we get a vision of what it looks like to enter the world of interstellar society from the perspective of a minority–and, gratifyingly, we get a vision of a future in which ethnic communities persist, rather than being erased in favor of a Star Trek-like liberal Western uniformity. Prejudice still exists, another bit of gratifying realism, and is, I think, treated very well–we get it all from Binti’s perspective, a realistically youthful one, and we get to see her reactions, her almost mundane expectation of prejudice, and the way this extra weight plays into this coming of age narrative (which it is, of course–practically a Rite of Passage in the anthropological sense. It even takes place in liminal space–literally the space between worlds–and she has a very different, in this case unexpected, identity, at the end). This all feels like a realistic element of this future world–it is specific to the concrete situation(s) of this future setting, rather than feeling like just a projection of our contemporary issues. Prejudice, systemic and otherwise, along with the drivers and mechanisms of imperialism and colonialism are real forces in cultures, societies, and individuals, and I appreciated seeing that realistically and appropriately explored here.

Communal and individual identity are also very central here, and Okorafor makes excellent use of the tropes of Space Opera in her exploration of Binti’s crisis of identity. Binti is 16 in this story, an appropriate moment for a coming-of-age story, and as I’d mentioned before she comes out the other end as, in certain ways, a very different person, but along with this movement at the level of her individual identity we also have the tension between her individual identity and her communal identity–or perhaps better to say on the one hand the tension between her identity as Himba and her identity as a member (or member to be) of the interstellar and interspecies academic community, and between her communal identity (Himba, family, culture, roots) and her individual identity as the “special one” (not meaning that to be sarcastic, despite the scare-quotes), her identity as the Space Opera protagonist with her special gift (she is marked as exceptionally gifted, and the moments when she starts “treeing” in the narrative seem like they must be intentionally reminiscent of that prototypical Special Spaceman Paul Atreides in Dune with his bred talent for seeing the future). So much of what happens (I’ll avoid spoilers) involves sacrificing what she used to be or could have been in favor (though not in all ways by her will) of becoming something new. She chose a path that would take her away from her previous identity, but ended up being transformed much more than expected, and against her will. The trope of “Special Protagonist” is so ubiquitous and overdone that it is on the one hand almost required for the genre, but on the other must be handled well and with an eye for loss and sacrifice, unintended effects, if it is to avoid turning into pure wish-fulfillment. Okorafor does this very well, and we get a story that is at once a meditation on loss (both in terms of personal choice as well as at the hands of other agents, both personal and impersonal) and a narrative of empowerment (in the face of, or alongside, the oppressive realities she is stuck with–her parents’ fears are ultimately well-founded, even if we see Binti learning to thrive as best she can).

For a spoiler-heavy review/analysis check this out. More historical context and nuance here (especially regarding the imperialist/colonialist overtones in the world of the story), and I admit it makes me feel like my reading is overly rosy (we should keep in mind, after all, that everyone else on the spaceship dies without any resolution on their behalf–and much of Binti’s transformation in the story is against her will and yet stays with her forever). Check out more of Tor.com’s novellas here–they look amazing, and I’ve got another 4 or 5 cued up on my Kindle–and of course check out Tor.com for short fiction and articles relating to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror. The two latest announced novellas (scheduled for next Fall and the one after respectively) are by Cassandra Khaw–I’d only just heard of her through this announcement, but have already read a couple of her short stories (“Disconnect” and “When We Die On Mars“) and am really excited to see what we get from her!

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