Sunday, August 25, 2013

We See a Different Frontier - Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

We See a Different Frontier is an anthology of postcolonial speculative fiction. It's not something that has a high chance of succeeding commercially so it started out as a Peerbacker project in 2012. It managed to gather quite a bit of support, mine included, which enabled to editors to expand it beyond the original length they were aiming for. The volume that was published in august 2013 contains 16 short stories, an introduction by the editors, a preface by Aliette de Bodard and an afterword by Ekaterina Sedia. This afterword in particular, puts the whole anthology in perspective. Don't stop when you finish the last story. Sedia has some very interesting things to say.

Colonialism is an uncomfortable subject for me. I'm from the Netherlands with has a centuries long history of colonizing other parts of the world. The Republic's influence stretched from New York and Taiwan to Sri Lanka and Brazil, although the biggest impact was probably felt in Indonesia, the Cape, the Antilles and Suriname. it brought the country great wealth over the backs of the local population. Massacres, slavery, murder and discrimination, there are a great many black pages in our nation's history. The Netherlands still struggles with its colonial past. Relations with Suriname and Indonesia are strained to put it mildly. Acceptance of our role in the slave trade is grudging at best and the question of whether or not to compensate the descendants of the victims of that trade is far from settled. The colonies may have gained independence or self-government but that clearly is not the end of it.

This anthology touches on a lot of this uncomfortable truths. The stories are written from to point of view of the colonized. It is a direct opposite science fiction's tendency to transplant the myth of the American frontier into space or a secondary world. A lot of science fiction and fantasy is seen though the eyes of explorers, conquerors and settlers. Expansion is glorified and the cost of it to others is often seen as either inevitable and an acceptable price or a minor footnote in the story. There is something very attractive about the chance to start over, build for yourself instead of taking over what others have been building on for centuries. What more does the western mind need than a blank slate, unexploited resources and a self reliant attitude? There's a fair few novels in the review index that cater to this taste to some extent. Only the slate is rarely blank. Cultural and ecological havoc is nearly always the result. The cultural aspect is examined from various angels in this anthology.

The stories in this collection deal with some very complex issues. Where, for instance, is the line between respecting local custom and cultural appropriation? There is no sharp distinction between the two. Or should we perhaps use cultural assimilation as a more neutral term instead? How about suppressing cultures? Whole languages and cultures have been destroyed by banning the use of a language, forcefully relocating people from their familiar environment (or simply destroying that environment) or by removing children from their families to raise them as considered fitting by the colonial powers. These are blatantly destructive actions but not the only ones that put pressure on a culture. The assumption of a new language or the influence of the dominant culture's media output continue to chip away at local cultures long after the colonists have given up power. On the other hand there is the question to which extend you should hold on to certain cultural practices. Cultures are dynamic and change due to inward pressures as well as contact with other cultures. Can you actually revive or even preserve a culture under pressure? At what point does a culture become an idealized version of its historical self?

Once you realize the complexity of the issues involved admiration for the editors' selection sets in. The quality of the writing in this anthology is remarkably high but as usual, some stories had a bigger impact on me than others. One of the ones I particularly liked is Old Domes by J.Y. Yang, a story that among other things, deals with the question why so many places that were once part of a colonial empire don't appear to have much of a history before the colonists arrived. Yang's story is set in Singapore, a place that had been inhabited for centuries before the arrival of the British in 1819. There is a melancholic atmosphere about the story but the exploration of how history is written attracted me the most.

Ernest Hogan takes us in a completely different direction with his story Pancho Villa's Flying Circus. It is something of an alternative history set in the second decade of the twentieth century. As the title suggests features the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, albeit briefly. Hogan takes on the early stages of Hollywood, and shows us his version of what would become the dominant force in cinema in later years. It's a quite brutal piece of writing really. It leaves the reader feeling distinctly paranoid.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia evokes quite different emotions. The protagonist is a girl from the slums of  Mexico City. When an alien invasion rolls over the world her life changes completely. It is a form of captivity but with clean clothes and three meals a day. While some of her fellows are planning rebellion, she sees opportunity. It is a very practical attitude and gives the story a cynical aftertaste.

Sandra McDonald's Fleet uses a post-apocalyptic setting. The story takes us the island of Guam, for centuries at the mercy of various colonial powers but now completely cut off from the rest of the world. Despite the horrors the world has inflicted on the island, a lookout for ships from the rest of the world is organized with strict instructions to bring any outsider to the Elders directly. Without giving the clou of the story away, it is quite a horrific tale.

The final story of the collection is Rochita Loenen-Ruiz' What Really Happened in Ficandula. The story is inspired by a real event in the Philippines during the American occupation of the archipelago.  Essentially the story is about the kind of violence that can occur as a result of vast cultural differences and ignorance. The author alternates snippets of of past events with the life of a girl raised in a colonial society as a second rate citizen. She is about to disembark on a new planet carrying the history of her people, ready to start a new life. The question that she ask herself is whether or not she should bring history along. An interesting feature of the story is that in effect, she becomes the colonist.

We See a Different Frontier is a fascinating piece of reading. It tackles a theme that is so hugely complex that there are countless of ways to approach it and the stories the editors reflect that. The diversity in these stories is stunning. The anthology offers no easy answers but makes the reader aware of issues that are rarely raised in science fiction. In her afterword Ekaterina Sedia mentions that the collection left her 'a bit whiplashed' and that is not far from how I experienced it. These stories are challenging and thought-provoking, qualities that good speculative fiction in my opinion needs to possess, but at the same time they manage to cover ground most readers of the genre will be unfamiliar with. This anthology is one of the best themed anthologies I've had the pleasure of reading. It deserves a larger audience than it is likely to get.

Book Details
Title: We See a Different Frontier
Editors: Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad
Publisher: Publishing
Pages: 213
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9573975-2-1
First published: 2013

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Four Years Old

As usual I missed the anniversary of the blog. It turned four on August 17th. I think there is still some life left in it. In fact, I'm thinking of expanding it. Maybe I'll even remember the date next year :P

To celebrate their will be a new review tomorrow. Hopefully. It is proving to be a difficult one.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jaran - Kate Elliott

Jaran is my eighth read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. That means I'm finally more or less on schedule. It's the first book of a series of four, being released in e-book format by Open Road Media. They have been kind enough to provide me with a review copy of this first volume. Jaran was originally published in 1992. It was the first novel Elliott published under this pseudonym after her first three novels sold modestly. Since then, a steady stream of fantasy and science fiction novels have appeared. Definitely a notable voice in the genre for the past couple of decades, it is only fitting that I sample her work for this reading challenge.

After a brief expansion following the discovery of interstellar flight, humanity's empire has been incorporated into that of a more advanced and much older alien civilization. Their rule lies lightly on their subjects but not everybody is comfortable with it. Charles Soerensen starts a rebellion and when it fails is, incomprehensibly to most humans, rewarded with a position in the empires nobility. Lacking children, Charles appoints his much younger sister Tess to be his heir. She wants noting to do with it, preferring her studies in linguistics over a life of political intrigue but she is drawn into it nevertheless when she uncovers an intrusion into the fief of her brother but one of the alien factions. Against her better judgment. she decides to investigate the matter and ends up cut off from interstellar civilization, marooned on a planet with a pre-industrial society. It will take a continent spanning trek to get back in touch again with her brother. As time passes, Tess becomes increasingly unsure if getting back is what she really wants.

I guess you could call this novel science fiction, it has aliens and spaceships and incomprehensible technology after all. Most of the novel is set in a low tech environment however, giving much of the narrative more of a fantasy atmosphere. For good measure Elliott also adds a generous measure of romance to the story, making it something of a hybrid. I don't think fans of had science fiction will find this book to their liking but for readers who read across multiple genres, there is lot be be had here.

Most of the story revolves around Tess. There are short interluded featuring Charles scattered throughout the novel. They are mostly concerned with the search for his missing sister and his political manoeuvres. A lot of these scenes are used to impress on the reader that the planet Tess is on, is not quite what it seems. One unanswered question for instance, is how human beings came to populate it. From these sections it becomes quite clear that this book is the first volume in a much longer work. The bare outlines of what Charles is trying to do become clear but not much beyond that.

Tess' story is much more fleshed out. She faces a whole lot of challenges after being marooned. Learning a new language, adapting to among a nomadic tribe, learning to ride on horseback and use a saber and of course come to terms with the conflict between the duty she has to her family and the feeling she is developing for Ilya Bakhtiian, the leader of the tribe she is adopted into. A large part of the novel is devoted to the complicated relationship between Ilya and Tess and to be honest I thought it dragged a bit. Elliott is quite wordy throughout the novel. I think it could have been a bit more concise here and there.

Elliott uses the conflict between a group of fiercely independent nomadic tribes and encroaching agricultural civilizations as a source of conflict and the driving force for Ilya's actions. He is the man who can  unite the tribes and push back the settlers. There is a district echo of Gengis Kahn here. Ilya is a hard man, driven by an all consuming vision for the tribes. His struggle to unite them is probably harder than the campaign he means to wage against the settlers. The nomads are used to being divided into a thousand tribes, warring and feuding against each other. Their independence is ingrained in their culture, expressing itself in every aspect of life, from leadership to sexual morals. Ilya's ideas are unprecedented among the tribes, getting them to agree, by the strength of he personality, his strong arm or the power of his arguments, is half the victory. Ilya is arrogant, harsh, ruthless and apparently quite irresistible to Tess.

Tess' journey is not only physically demanding. Along the way she finds out that she wants different things from life than her brother envisions for her. She is torn between returning and staying with the tribes. Of course she is a well educated woman and quite aware what awaits the tribes once Ilya pushes them forward in battle. The universe is far larger than they can imagine and this knowledge presses on Tess. I think that aspect of the novel is a bit underexposed. The temptation to enlighten them must be overwhelming. Her brother, in a way, can't resist it.

Jaran is a novel that promises a lot for the next volume in the series and offers a decent story arc of its own. That said, it is not a particularly demanding read. If you can let yourself be carried away by Tess' dramatic journey it is a very entertaining read. There is a deeper layer to the novel that I would not have minded seeing more of however. For a novel with a print length of almost five hundred pages, it makes very little progress in the political intrigue that is introduced. It is a very good adventure novel but demands patience from the reader who wants more than that. I can see myself reading the next volume in between some heavier reading.

Book Details
Title: Jaran
Author: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 496
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1992

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sidney's Comet - Brian Herbert

A lot of Brian Herbert's bibliography consists of collaborations with other authors. There is Man of Two Worlds, written in collaboration with his father Frank Herbert, the Dune sequels, written with Kevin J. Anderson and a couple op books written with Marie Landis. I haven't read Man of Two Worlds yet, although I do own a copy singed by Brian Herbert. I have read a stack of the Dune sequels, which range from entertaining to horrible and I can't say I liked Hellhole, set in a universe created by Herbert and Anderson, a whole lot. I did like the bibliography Dreamer of Dune on the other hand. All in all a bit of a mixed record so I wanted to read one of Herbert's books that he wrote solo to see what he is capable of.

Sidney's Comet (1983) is his first novel. Herbert had written two non-fiction books before that of which I know nothing other than the title. The novel is set in a far future where the world is divided in three nations. One of the three lives by the creed of a prophet known as Uncle Rosie, who advocates extreme levels of consumption and full employment to combat all problems of society. The mountains of garbage that are created by this rabid consumer society deposed of by simply slinging it into space. One day a comet is spotted on a direct collision course with earth. It appears to be made up of all the garbage that has been flung into space over the course of the centuries. Government denies its very existence but behind the scenes a plan is worked out to deal with the threat.

Herbert is clearly aiming for satire with this novel. His economic system completely absurd and the author uses it to created a string of humourous scenes. The entire economy is run by the state, which arranges for full employment. Any activity that can be taken over by a product (which in turn allows for more jobs to be created) is discouraged. This includes such basic things as walking. Exercise is only encouraged in government run fitness facilities. Jobs are cut into tiny pieces to allow as many people as possible to have a job and a sprawling system of government bureaus, each with their own procedures and miles of red tape, have been established. What I found interesting about his economic system is that it can be read as social commentary on the materialistic 1980s US society as well as a condemnation of the failing planned economy that existed in the USSR at the time. Herbert seems to have combined th evils of both to come up with this scenario.

Economics are fused with religion in this novel. Uncle Rosie, the man who founded the current system is worshiped and his writings are held sacred. The idea that consuming makes one happy and free is a key element in this way of thinking. It goes so far as to say there is no higher honour than to die as a result of product failure. In fact, products are designed to fail at multiple points so they can be replaced and thus offer more jobs to be filled. To die as a result of product failure guarantees a place in the happy shopping ground. It's a ridiculous concept but people appear to buy it. No pun intended.

The main character of the novel is, fittingly, and anti-hero. He's the biggest loser you ever come across in science fiction. He's overweight from overconsumption and a passive lifestyle, has a girlfriend who only keeps him around until something better comes along, has fantasies of being an astronaut that have come to nothing and a meaningless job in a government agency that processes forms for reasons unknown to any of the characters. In other words, not someone you'd want to trade places with. He is pretty mercilessly mocked throughout the novel but is only partly aware of it. I suppose he is the right character for this kind of novel but I can't say I enjoyed reading his sections very much.

The novel contains so man impossibilities and absurdities that the only way for it to work is for the satire to grab the reader. For me it didn't. I got the impression that Herbert was aiming at something of a cross between Kafka and the kind of humour his father employed in his short story the Tactful Saboteur. Maybe with a little Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure. Fact is, that most of the book isn't funny enough to pull this off. For most of the novel the exaggeration and ridicule is there alright but the comical element that would have turned it into a good satire failed. Maybe Herbert was shooting at too many targets. Religion, capitalism, consumerism, government, democracy... he takes on quite a lot. Sidney's Comet is an ambitious debut, I have to give him that, but in the end I didn't think it was a very good read.

Book Details
Title: Sidney's Comet
Author: Brian Herbert
Publisher: Cosmos Books
Pages: 266
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8439-5918-5
First published: 1983

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Who Fears Death - Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death by the Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor is my seventh read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. Not bad considering I only started in May. At this pace I may finish the challenge after all. Who Fears Death was one of the more interesting books that came out in 2010 so of course I missed it back then. It was nominated for a Nebula and the Locus Fantasy Award and won the World Fantasy Award. Okorafor tackles some very difficult themes in this book, stuff that I haven't come across in many other works of speculative fiction so it is not that surprising the book received so much attention. Thematically this is a very unflinching look at the combination of problems some parts of Africa are facing these days. Structurally, I was less impressed with the later stages novel, which is firmly grounded in a number of overused Fantasy clich├ęs.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Sudan, where the light skinned Nuru people are waging a war of genocide against the dark skinned Okeke. The main character, Onyesonwu, is born from the rape of an Okeke woman by a Nuru man. Her mother flees the violence and Onyesonwu grows up in a region relatively unaffected by the violence. As an Ewu, a half blood child born of violence, she is something of an outcast in Okeke society. It is believed that a child born of violence can only be violent herself. The situation doesn't improve when Onyesonwu starts to display extraordinary powers. This combined with her rather temperamental character seem to prove the superstitious Okeke right.  She is destined for great things, that much is clear.

According to Okorafor the origin of this story can be found in an article in by Emily Wax in the Washington Post in 2004. It discussed the use of rape as a weapon in the Darfur conflict. Arab militias systematically raped black women with the intend to make 'light' babies. It is one of the most horrific things that went on in a conflict that is still ongoing. Okorafor is fairly graphic throughout the the novel and she certainly doesn't shy away from showing the full effect his crime has on the victims and the children born from such rapes. People with personal experience with sexual violence may not want to read this.

The setting of the novel is said to be post-apocalyptic but this part of the story is a bit underdeveloped. It is a future Africa where technology is more advanced than what we are used to but magic has found a way into everyday life too. Traditional structures of society have survived in a way, with the community being lead by its elders. I'm not entirely sure how much of it Okorafor based her society and its customs on one that exists in present-day Sudan. The exact location isn't that important to the story anyway. A lot of what drives the story could easily be transplanted into a different kind of setting.

Like any child would, Onyesonwu is looking for acceptance and this search leads her into a second important and controversial theme; that of female genital mutilation. Onyesonwu feels that going through the ritual that is performed at the age of eleven, she will gain the respect of the Okeke and form a bond with other girls. Her mother thinks it is a barbaric ritual so Onyesonwu doesn't tell her about it. Again the description is graphic. Even without possessing the parts that are mutilated it is painful to read. What makes is even worse is that, to an extend, it works. A lasting friendship with the three girls going through the ritual with is is formed.

Onyesonwu's motivation for going through the ritual is nothing short of tragic. Despite her mother's wrath, she feels she has come out a winner at first but she clearly doesn't understand what she has given up to gain a small measure of acceptance. That realization comes much later. The way Okorafor deals with this difficult subject could have been one of the strongest aspect of the novel but I felt the effect of this tragedy was somewhat lessened by Onyesonwu's solution for this. It is one of the many places in the novel where she is able to use her powers to overcome the consequences of rash decisions. She often does rash things and speaks harsh words but rarely does she have to face the bitter consequences of what she has wrought.

When Onyesonwu starts exploring magical abilities she quickly runs into another wall of sexism, tradition and superstition. Magic is for men. She cannot possibly train to become one. Her cycle and her ability to get pregnant would pose too much of a risk. Onyesonwu is determined though. Her father, a great sorcerer himself is trying to kill her. She needs to be able to defend herself. In the end sheer violence is the way to break down this all, again confirming to the Okeke what they already believed, Onyesonwu is a violent creature.

The story turns into something of a messianic tale later on in the novel. Survival is no longer enough, the genocide that is being committed against the Okeke must stop. This is the point where I think the novel lets the reader down a bit. Okorafor has challenged to reader with a number of very difficult and painful themes thus far and then proceeds to put them into the frame of a fairly standard fantasy story. The prophesized heroine who, at great personal cost, savers her people from certain destruction. What saves it from being a complete letdown is that Okorafor continues to use her characters hard. This story burns up a lot of them before their life has well and truly begun.

After finishing the book I thought is was no all it could have been. The novel's strengths, the way it deals with a number of very uncomfortable themes are partly undone by the choice to make Onyesonwu into a messiah. It did occur to me however, that without the hope the prophecy provides it would have been a very dark book indeed. Maybe a little too hard, many people will have trouble with it as it is. Then again, women facing this kind of violence and prejudice in real life don't have the luxury of magicking their way out of it. I think I feel Okorafor may have gone a bit too easy on her readers to get the full effect out of what she has written. Nevertheless, Who Fears Death is a book that is very much worth reading. It is a brave attempt to tackle themes that are rarely discussed in genre fiction. As such, it is very notable work.

Book Details
Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Daw Books
Pages: 386
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7564-0617-2
First published: 2010