Richard Chwedyk sold his first story in 1990, won a Nebula in 2002, and has been active in the field for the past thirty-two years.
GOING OUT IN STYLE
Well, the curtain is coming down, the swan is waiting in the wings, the song is sounding. One phase in the history of GALAXY’S EDGE is coming to a close. It’s time for me to pack up my bindle and find a new train to hop.
Funny thing: I feel like I never really hopped this train in the first place. I’ve been running behind it, or alongside it at best, for most of the journey. Which is not to say that it hasn’t been informative, educational, and even fun.
I was also fortunate enough to acquire this gig at a time when the field, and the publishing world in general, was undergoing fundamental changes.
Or does it always feel that way?
Perhaps, but for some reason this feels different. “Professional” publishing, for the most part, seems to have become more “corporate” than ever, trying harder than ever to manufacture saleable product, which seems, from a corporate perspective, to necessitate more sharply defining categories and genres. Conversely, our authors are producing work that, where it doesn’t defy the old categories, confounds them. Smaller presses and independents are making their own rules, and it’s always been from them that the innovations have come.
At one level, it’s a fascinating time to be reviewing books. Which makes it a little sad to find myself turning in my last column.
And yet, the less time I spend putting together columns, the more time I have to read.
Tasting Light: Ten Science Fiction Stories to Rewire Your Perceptions
edited by A. R. Capetta and
Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?
Perhaps they have, and I was just not on the mailing list.
While many of us (looking at the mirror now) have lamented the perceived lack of interest in short science fiction by younger readers, and have also noted that much science fiction in the YA market are variations on dystopic themes or heroic fantasy gussied up with zap guns and warp-drive starships, MITeen Press, through the editorial auspices of A. R. Capetta and Wade Roush, have done something about it with this fine collection of ten stories. The hardcover edition premiered last autumn, so I’m late in including it here, but the trade paperback will be coming out next fall, so I’m not exceedingly remiss (this time).
The goals of this anthology seem to be threefold: 1.) familiarize YA readers with the joys of short science fiction; 2.) with the emphasis on science; and 3.) to do so with as much innovation in style and approach as the authors can provide. One of the stories is written as a sequence of text messages. Another is a graphic story. The others, written in more familiar prose styles, are not slouching in exploring the boundaries of narrative form.
Every story here is of a quality that, if it doesn’t command your attention, is worthy of your committed perusal. That being said, the ones I enjoyed most were “The Weight of a Name” by Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson, Capetta’s own “Extremophiles,” Elizabeth Bear’s “Twin Strangers” and “Melanitis” by Junauda Petrus-Nasah. The graphic story, “The Memory of Soil” by Wendy Xu, is also great in its literal approach to its title. Perhaps because it resonates with the attitude to nature I encountered in Nancy Marie Brown’s book, of which more later.
Would that more of our “big,” i.e. “professional,” publishers would think along these lines. Science fiction in many respects has always been at its strongest in its shortest form. And the move to more digital publishing extinguishes many of the arguments against short fiction getting low sales. This may be a good time to re-emphasize the joys and importance of short fiction to a new generation. In fact, there may never be a better time than now.
by Salman Rushdie
Let me say this at the outset: this is a fantasy novel.
The reason I’m saying that is, apparently, critics and Rushdie fans either can’t say the word, or can’t find the word—fantasy.
There, I’ve said it again.
When a goddess speaks through the mouth of a little girl who is her namesake, it’s fantasy.
When that namesake has a lifespan of 247 years, it’s fantasy.
When an entire city is grown from a bag of magic seeds, it’s fantasy.
When your protagonist can change humans into other animals, it’s fantasy.
And Rushdie, no matter what else he is or what else he does, is a fantasy writer.
Rushdie is a great storyteller, and he first embraced storytelling at a time when the literary currents in which he chose to swim were churning in the opposite direction.
Much of this story is based upon folklore and history—like much fantasy. And, like much contemporary fantasy, he uses folklore and history to explore contemporary themes. It’s not so much that he is doing anything different as he is doing some things better.
The tale of Pampa Kampana, and her founding of the city of Bisnaga, a sort of feminist utopia, and the tale itself—and how the tale is told—is very much at the heart of the novel. The prose is presented as a translation from Sanskrit, and as a reflection of that language, so that its cadences and vocabulary seem of another time as much as its content may reflect ours.
In a way, it is South Asian Tolkien.
Did I say that?
I did. And I mean it.
If you’ve never read Rushdie before, read this one. Just … read it. Forget about the Booker Prizes. Forget about the controversies. Hard as it may be, even try to forget about the fatwa and the more recent horrendous physical attack that nearly took his life. Leave that aside, and just enter the reality, the fabric, of this novel, and allow it to perform its enchantments.
If you’re any reader of fantasy, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory.
by Tim Akers
You can check with my editor: I turned this column in very, very late.
I have an excuse. I’ve been waiting for a copy of Wraithbound to arrive. And I’m pleased to say it was worth the wait.
The premise is simple. Young Rae Kelthannis, the son of a “stormbinder” who is stitched to an elemental wind spirit and can command those forces of nature, wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. Hastily, and against his father’s wishes, he attempts the procedure—and botches it. Instead of stitching himself to an air elemental, he is bound to a demonic wraith. The world in which father and son live is already dipping into chaos, and the mayhem picks up from there.
I’ve only recently become familiar with Tim Akers’s work, and I’m highly impressed with the economic precision of his prose and his real gift for keeping the action moving throughout his novels. In Wraithbound I believe he gets even better. My perception may be a bit blurred because for once I’m actually starting with the first book in a fantasy series, but his storytelling skills are impressive. And on a thematic level, this novel demonstrates the kind of clarity and maturity I wish were more evident in other volumes of this sort. I’m anticipating the release of the next volume in this series, especially since this time I won’t have to read it on deadline.
Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth
by Nancy Marie Brown
I’ve never reviewed a nonfiction book here, at least not that I recall, but this humble meditation that brings together Iceland, its folklore, climate change, particle physics and … J. R. R. Tolkien(!) is very much worth your attention, no matter where your interests lie.
I’ve said, I think, in these very pages (if not, I’m saying it now) that fantasy, like science fiction, is not so much a literary category as it is a way of looking at the world (and Damon Knight said something like it before, so there!). In that way, we might find Tolkien the most important of the topics included in this book. Brown quotes from his seminal essay, “On Fairy-stories” extensively. I’ve always read the essay as a kind of manifesto, not for fantasy itself but for a way of looking at fantasy, and the insights it can provide for how we perceive the world around us. The sentiment is echoed in another book from which Brown quotes, about James M. Barrie. Neuroscientist Rosalind Ridley, in Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie, points out that fairies, like paper currency, are things that exist and have value only if everyone agrees they do. There are differences between solid objects and socially constructed ones.
Ridley writes: “There are also occasions when art tells us something that science only recognizes at a later time.”
That’s not news to us. But Brown puts this together with Icelandic beliefs in “hidden folk,” like elves and gnomes and such, and how they are held even by hard-edged rationalistic scientists and intellectuals, and how these beliefs inform their attitude towards the environment. Desolate stretches of the countryside, with nothing visible but ice and stone, are seen as having something akin to a sentience, if not a consciousness. They are “alive.” We might regard our environment differently if we considered it as connected to ourselves, through the hidden folk, and in turn we connected to it. We might make different choices before digging up rocks to build a highway or an oil well.
And the means by which we can see the world this way is through the fantasy of “fairy-stories”—in the widest sense of this term.
I’m presenting this thesis in only the most elementary fashion. The detail to which Brown gives her thoughts are wonderfully lucid and thought-provoking. In a way, it’s what we in the field have always understood, but greatly appreciate its being articulated so beautifully in this book, so that others might see what we’re talking about.
by Robert Lanza and Nancy Kress
The Story Plant
And speaking of consciousness …
Robert Lanza is a brilliant scientist and remarkable thinker, but perhaps the smartest decision he ever made was to collaborate with Nancy Kress when he decided to present some of his farthest-out concepts in novel form. Great scientists do not have an outstanding record in the novel-writing sweepstakes. Kress not only is as fine a professional novelist as is working today, but she has explored some similar themes as Lanza presents here with her own work, most notably genetics and the uploading of consciousness—whatever that is.
Tolkien once said in an interview that at the heart of all great literature is the inevitability of death. What’s at the heart of this novel is to find a way of overriding that certainty. Dr. Caroline Soames-Watkins, whose brilliant career has been derailed by a twitterstorm, is hired by her great-uncle, a Nobel laureate, to work on that very project, with himself as the subject.
The question of surviving natural death often boils down to the question of what actually survives. If you download the memories of a dead person, are you saying a person consists of memories and nothing more? If you can succeed in transferring a neuro-system into some other entity or host, does that mean all that matters is the neuro-system? What is the nature of consciousness, and how much of it is dependent upon the biosystem that houses it? What is the nature of personhood?
Questions like these can be perplexing enough to make a reader want to swear off consciousness forever. And yet Lanza explores them thoroughly in ways that don’t make you think you’ve accidentally dropped LSD. Kress has created characters and settings to house these big ideas in ways that feel perfectly natural and emphasize the tensions and attractions which weave these characters together. This is supposed to be a “novel of ideas,” and yet it doesn’t feel like one, or not “merely” like one. It is a human (even all-too-human) story with all the depth and breadth one looks for in any good novel, and does so with an enviable simplicity of language and structure.
If anything underscores the mysterious complexity of consciousness (and its scary doppelganger, the unconscious), it’s a novel, or any work of art, really.
Which makes, I guess, Observer, the novel itself, its own best argument. And a most convincing one at that.
High Noon on Proxima B
edited by David Boop
Yes, yes, I know. I reviewed David Boop’s previous anthology on this theme, Gunfight on Europa Station, not very long ago. This time, though, I think he’s outdone himself in attracting some fine science fiction with western themes. And I’ll emphasize science fiction, because very often with “genre-bending” stories, the SF gets a little lost. As Boop makes clear in his Foreword, the authors have done their painstaking homework. And the results are evident.
Especially notable are stories by the always-reliable Brenda Cooper and Walter John Williams, not to mention Ken Scholes and Susan R. Matthews. Thea Hutcheson’s “Five Mules for Madame Calypso” took me by surprise; I thought stories about bordello ships were abandoned after Mike Resnick stopped writing them a few decades ago. “Justice and Prosperity” by Milton J. Davis is, frankly, a brilliant evocation of African American themes brought into a new perspective. The story from which the anthology takes its title, “High Noon on Proxima Centauri b,” by Cliff Winning, moves its action swiftly and effectively while juggling seemingly impossible loads of astronomical information with grace.
It’s all fine work.
Often, when editors return to themes like this for a follow-up collection, the results are not unlike “sequel syndrome” with popular films. In this case, Boop gets better, or his authors do. Personally, I wouldn’t tempt the fates with another in this series, but if Boop proves more intrepid than I, and rides the bronco one more time, I’ll be more than willing to slap a twenty-dollar gold piece down on the bar and say, “Hit me again.”
by Kit Reed
Let us now praise Kit Reed.
I first encountered her work in the pages of F&SF. She wrote the kind of short fiction that I considered “experimental” at the time. Kind of a cosmopolitan Carol Emshwiller, with a touch of Margaret St. Clair and even a little Robert Sheckley. Innovative, sophisticated, witty. I still like her short fiction best, but fans also highly value some of her novels, especially Little Sisters of the Apocalypse.
Her novel, Fort Privilege, has always intrigued me. Critics in the field at the time seemed to pay little attention to it, though it displayed the kind of maturity and stylistic skill they called for. It was like a dish they ordered from the kitchen, then sent back without comment.
Which isn’t an inappropriate metaphor, since the novel is about a contingent of New York City’s super-wealthy, luxuriously ensconced in the fortress-like Parkhurst apartments (modeled on the famous Dakota) on Central Park West while the metropolis becomes an enormous reenactment of Escape from New York. Most of the city’s elite have retreated and, in the world of this novel, there isn’t much between the super-rich and the super-angry “rabble.” Led by the current owner, the Parkhurst residents intend to have at least one more defiant fling—not just interested in fiddling while Rome burns, but adding an entire symphony orchestra doing back flips on roller skates.
I think the novel was not accepted at the time because it didn’t engage in the usual class-struggle stereotypes. The wealthy Parkhurst residents, though far from admirable, are not execrable caricatures of all we hate about the super-rich. The mobs outside, justifiably raging against the inequities and filled with criminal intent, are barely depicted at all. Every critic seemed to have a predetermined notion of how this story should be told, and no regard for the story Reed was telling them. She had a distinct take on the growing disparity between the wealthy and everyone else. It wasn’t that different from the social justice issues the critics were looking for. In fact, in some ways she had taken those issues for granted to focus on other aspects of human behavior under such severe divisions.
Those aspects? Hard to summarize, if I really have a handle on what they are, but they seem to be expressed or alluded to in this passage early on in the novel, from the point of view of Bart, our closest protagonist and one of those not quite “to the manor born”:
… What if things were as bad as everybody said? The Parkhurst was impregnable. The worse things were outside, the harder you danced. There was a kind of bizarre recklessness about this that pulled him along. They danced before the Battle of Waterloo, he thought; the night before the Sepoy uprising at, he thought it was one of the stations north of Delhi, there was one hell of an officers’ ball. Better have fun tonight; no telling what you would be called upon to do the next day.
We don’t need to see the rioters in Central Park to understand a common thread may run between “them that got” and “them that don’t.” To do so might spawn moral questions that are, in this novel, beside the point. And in these times, when the divisions between the “gots” and the “don’ts” have grown further than could have been imagined in 1985 (at least by many of us), it may be worthwhile to rediscover, or reexplore, this novel by an author of speculative fiction who never went for easy answers.
For which we should be ever grateful to her, and always remember her.
Copyright © 2023 by Richard Chwedyk.
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