Science fiction no longer frightens me
Posted October 18, 2007on:
I have carried So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy and my culture destroying moleskin around, unwilling or unable to engage with the entire collection in as thorough a manner as I initially intended. To get it off my back I’ll just write how I felt about the darn thing.
It wasn’t bad. A few of the stories were damn good. Most of them had interesting premises and there was only one story I could not finish because a great deal of it took place on a space ship with beings that clicked, sat in “trays of brine” and had dorsals, or some weird shit like that. I could only manage one of two selections in the “Allegory” section. The rest overcame my resistance to SF literature so I bought Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Slatterly (first seen at Stainless Steel Droppings); it gave me enough courage to give ol’ Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer another try.
One of the best things about the collection is that most of the stories incorporated non-European myth. As a fantasy reader that is the default source for most of the novels I read, with the exception of A.S. Byatt and Lian Hearn who pull from Arabic and Japanese culture and myth.
The stories that incorporated the aboriginal myth and culture of the Americas were the most fascinating. Three of the four were science fiction, but of the three my two favourites did not utilise a futuristic, technological, we’re-living-in-a-sky-dome-eating-powdered-eggs setting. In “The Forgotten Ones” by Karin Lowachee the native warriors of a tribe are scouting near the shore, keeping a watch for “Lopo” invaders who come in with “their long boats and their guns and their tall hats”. What they get instead is a spaceship manned by persons who look like them but have strange accents and a completely different manner. The strangers eradicate the Lopo from the village and order their “children” to board the spaceship in order to be taken to their true home. “Refugees” by Celu Amberstone has a group of urbanised First Nation characters moved to a different planet to live with a more traditional tribe. They are all told by curiously absent leaders that earth was near extinction, something the residents of the new planet accept but the newcomers doubt.
The Lowachee story reads like an alternative history, to an extent, reaching back to a time when Western Europeans were exploring beyond their borders. The ending is turned around, with the invaders being like the natives, at least superficially, who style themselves as neglectful parents who forgot their children in the wrong world for too long, and have now come to take them to their true home. What appealed to me, besides the unexpected twist, was the process of recreating a people’s past, of creating a myth, a different story and a different path which impacts the factual historical narratives of the real world. It’s what pulls me to fantasy and my reaction made me even more puzzled at why so many science fiction fans view their books as working in a remarkably different world from fantasy*. However, this review asserts that So Long contains a lot of “literary” SF/F so….yeah I don’t know.
“Refugees” is set in the future, but the lifestyles of the newcomers, based on what a reader can tell from their clothes and speech, are not unfamiliar at all; the unfamiliarity of the locals’ lifestyle is mostly drawn from their Native culture. In this story the main conflicts are the friction between the Westernised first nations and the traditionalists, and the grossly unethical genetic weeding the alien leaders carry out among the population. Any newborn who does not meet the strict standard of perfection is killed. Amberstone also reveals from the first paragraph that the locals themselves are beings from other planets, but for some reason it takes me the entire length of the story for me to internalise this fact. Qwalshina, the first person narrator, seems so settled and content with her “Benefactors” and her land, that it’s easy to assume she lived there all her life. It takes the earthlings’ (I feel so weird using that word) questioning attitude and the Benefactor’s brutal response to their actions to underscore her foreign origins.
Both stories are first person narrations but the language works to different effects. In “The Forgotten Ones” Ara speaks in a broken English that helps to evoke a historical setting and reinforce her aboriginal identity. Qwalshina’s English is modern, which again fits the setting, and so Amberstone depends on charting the story’s progression on the seasons and phases of the sun and moon — “Awakening Moon, sun-turning 7” — to immediately hint to the reader, before the first paragraph, the culture explored. I noticed too that the broken English and overtly spiritual (for lack of a better word) content in the first story made it seem more mysterious and mystical for me. Lowachee then replicated that experience for her warrior characters when they meet their foreign parents from a different planet.
Another favourite of mine was “Trade Winds” by devorah major. It was the biggest surprise for me because it hit two of the major SF hallmarks that give me the willies: 1) all the action takes place on a spaceship (space station)…in outer space and 2) one of the two main characters is an alien. A weird looking alien with “soft green skin” (green!) with webbed “creamy green fingers.” (Ewwwww.) Yet from the start I willingly sank into the fiction, did not chuckle with fear, roll my eyes, or flip to see how long it was.
How did she do it? The most persuasive element — a common characteristic in this anthology save for one or two exceptions — was evidently equal fascination with the story, the characters, the tension, pacing, characterisation as was with any of the SF elements. In fact the latter did not stand out at all, except as perceived through Jonah’s thoughts, the human who interacts with Enrishi, the alien. It forms a cohesive, seamless whole, and my attention was never broken by explanations of how any particular thingamabob worked.
It was also poignant, but then many of the stories in the collection are. Jonah is a translator from earth trying secure a trade deal with Enrishi, an alien from a race who call themselves voyagers. They do not have a permanent home but travel through the galaxies constantly exploring. Her people had made some contact with humans before, but neither race speaks the other’s language, or knows much about each other’s culture. Jonah has spent ten years on the station learning as much as he could about the voyagers and maintaining enough contact to improve the level and quality of communications.
Here is one thing, I thought, that SF proponents weren’t fooling themselves about. The extremes of the plot brought to the fore the complications and rewards that arise when one seeks an understanding with another who, in major, unavoidable ways, exists in a different world, with different ideas, all encompassed in a language radically different than yours. As Jonah’s meetings with Enrishi progressed one saw how attempts to interact on the mildest of personal levels, a handshake, were blocked by Jonah’s superiors who were frantic about everything, from the possibility of Jonah’s contacting a horrible disease, to his negotiating gaffes for the water deal. In the end, despite all good intentions, a grave misunderstanding (at least for Jonah) occurs that emphasizes how individuals are regularly sacrificed for larger goals. And no matter how good Josh thought his relationship was with Enrishi, his comparatively weaker position in the hierarchy, and the inevitable gaps of understanding between them, left him at the mercy of her and her people’s desires.
That yawning separation between different peoples is underplayed in fantasy, I think. (Please note that I don’t think the fantasy genre has any obligation to bring it, however, I’m just pointing something out.) Though there may be different races, they live together in the same country, certainly on the same planet, and even if they are from different worlds, some compromise is reached. There’s a handy translator somewhere willing to lend a hand and to try and clear up misunderstandings. In So Long Been Dreaming the writers are less optimistic.
devorah major created a perfect moment in this collection for me. The thing just worked. I was so disappointed when I searched Amazon and saw that both of her novels were contemporary African-American family dramas (going by the descriptions).
Other notable stories were “Griots of the Galaxy” by Andrea Hairston; “Toot Sweet Matricia” by Suzette Mayr (awesome excerpt here); “When Scarabs Multiply” by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu; and “Out of Sync” by Ven Begamudré. I have books from the first three authors on my book shopping list.
*This meme is usually built on the idea that SF deals with ideas and fantasy is just about a special person with a sword on a quest, an opinion I could only ever meet with astonished, pitying laughter. I recall reading one blogger (somewhere) that did a series of critiques on fantasy as a genre, to which I thought of contributing a reply until I saw him/her describe the home of the dwarves in Khazad-dum, the famed Moria of the Second Age in Tolkien’s books, as a bloody factory. Only a SF reader, I thought to myself, raised my eyes, and closed the window.