Category Archives: space opera

Christmas Stars: What to Get Your Younger Brother

When they finally prove the existence of the chronoton – that’s the time particle for you folks who haven’t been wallowing in science fiction lo these many years – no doubt the Christmas season will be involved. Some mad scientist will put together one of those rad boxes with der blinken lights and point it at some American trying harriedly to pack up a bunch of boxes and sign cards and survive the company Christmas party without vomiting up gross milk-based hard alcohol concoctions & anger about the recent massive layoffs on management, and the scientist will actually see the chronotons pouring off this frazzled American. Christmas sucks up all your time. All of it. It’s a black hole; a gravity well; an event horizon of weight gain and family squabbles. 


Given my tendency to misuse science concepts in the service of my Christmas melt-down, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that some enterprising editor put together a truly awesome Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of fictional delights: You got my Christmas in your science fiction! Yum. There are two things that I’m astonished by when think of Christmas Stars: Fantastic Tales of Yuletide Wonder. First, that there are enough science fiction stories about Christmas to warrant a pretty hefty anthology. Second, that some of my favorite SFF Christmas stories – which includes “Santa was” by Neil Gaiman collected in Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders and something by Charles de Lint that was about a talking dog – aren’t even included in this anthology. And third, that I can even think of other stories that could be included, but weren’t. I guess that’s three and not two. I’ll come in again. 

So, science fiction nerds, get your ass in gear and get down to whatever random thrift store has this lurking on its shelves. I’m not one for evil gift guides, but if you haven’t been able to think of anything for your younger brother, and you don’t want to get involved in the specifics of his Warhammer obsessions – honestly, whatever you get him will be wrong – this is the book for you. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s got on a little space suit, and so do the reindeer, and the sleigh is a spaceship. Oh, yes.


Light by M. John Harrison

Now this is one of the weirdest ass books I’ve read in a long while. This is not a criticism, just an observation. It’s really defying me to encapsulate the story and themes in 50 words or less, but I’ll try to give it a whirl. Three different plots lines follow three different people in three different times. This is not really accurate either: two of these time periods are the same, or overlap, and one of these people is not really a person anymore, but a sentient space ship working on the purpose for a weirdass alien artifact. The contemporary story follows a serial killer who is working on quantum computing. The third follows a man who has just been dumped out of a tank and is running about in something approximating a Noir plot, but with lots of cyberpunkery as ornament. 

This book made me have a couple revelations about genre, and for that I thank it. I don’t generally enjoy super hard science fiction because it’s really weird and schematic. The authors tend to get their duuuuuude on about concepts, and then they forget about good writing and character and all that. I’m up for this occasionally, as I have humanities-type person aversion to reading about science, so I enjoy hard sf for the narrative wrapper that it puts around scientific thought. I’d rather eat glass than read something written non-fictionally about the Technological Singularity (c.f. Kurtzweil, et al.) but it’s cool as a bit of play in a story. (Also, I know, please don’t freak out, that the TS is more bullshit and masturbation than *actual* scientific thought. It was just the first thing I thought of that I would rather see in fiction than in a treatise or similar.)

Anyway, I think it might be time for a massive digression. I recently watched a pretty fascinating conversation go down on Goodreads between a romance novelist and a reader who doesn’t generally read romance. The author spent a lot of time explaining where she was coming from in terms of the characters, how she was trying to say something about sex addiction within the confines of the romance genre. This got me thinking, why did she confine herself to the romance genre? She talked about the editing process, how her publisher edited pretty hard, and how some things got lost in the mix. Why not try to publish something that would break out of the romance ghetto? 

I’m going to answer my own questions in true asshole fashion. She wrote a romance because that’s the genre she enjoys. I read Light because a friend of mine, who is also an sf nerd, gave this to me for my birthday, and he must have thought I’d enjoy this. And I did. The language is totally killer, slick with a sort of cyberpunky Noir damage, but with these quick sketches which nail character in short, hard strokes. I hadn’t really seen the relationship between Noir and cyberpunk before I read this; the way both tend to rely on hard-luck and the image of the Street; the chase and the mystery; the beauty of the flickering neon and ugly marketing of a gutter-level view on things. 

The code parlors, the tattoo parlors – all run by one-eyed poets sixty years old, loaded on Carmody Rose bourbon – the store-front tailor operations and chop joints, their tiny show windows stuffed with animated designs like postage stamps or campaign badges from imaginary wars or bags of innocent-coloured candy, were already crowded with customers; while from the corporate enclaves terraced above the Corniche, men and women in designer clothes sauntered confidently towards the harbour restaurants, lifting their heads in anticipation of Earth cuisine, harbour lights on the wine-dark seas, then a late-night trip to Moneytown – wealth creators, prosperity makers, a little too good for it all by all their own account, yet mysteriously energised by everything cheap and tasteless. Voices rose. Laughter rose above them.

But then the real heart of this story has to do with sex, and it’s totally uncomfortable and tricky as hell within a genre that doesn’t really lend itself to that. I love science fiction like the brother I never had, but space opera, cyberpunk, doesn’t generally have much to say about early childhood trauma, internalized body issues, sexual abuse. Or if it does, it says it in ways that are stupid and juvenile. (Sorry, science fiction. *arm punch* You know I love you.) Why did Harrison choose to write about this in this genre? Who the fuck knows? But probably because this is a genre he enjoys, and he clearly has fun in it & knows the idiom like a fever dream. 

SPOILERS BELOW

So my mention of the technological singularity in the first part of the review wasn’t a total accident, although my equation it with scientific thought mostly was. Harrison brushed up against the singularity in the almost god-like Shrander, and in the ways that bodies are replaced and renewed, put on ice, cloned, proxied, etc. Science is often a collection of data, but those data are put into narrative by scientific thought and theories; the hypothesis is a story looking for causality. Sometimes I think all the ridiculous “theorizing” that goes on about the singularity – how it is already here, how it will make human life perfect or something, is this strange narrative that says more about our discomfort with our bodies than anything. Harrison kind of rips this apart. Seria Mau becomes disembodied because of childhood sexual abuse, but taking the body away doesn’t take away her trauma. She keeps murdering her human cargo – sorry for this bad phrase, but it kind of works – because they keep having sex. The narrative, fractured though it is, drives her to heal her own fractures and get her body back. Her brother twinks out in a tank, living in stories that play for him in the cliched idiom of the Noir plot, and his non-seeing is part of his not-seeing in childhood, not understanding what was happening to the sister he loves.

END SPOILERS

I guess I’ll just say one last thing, not under cover of spoiler  This book does not make a lot of sense in the end, in terms of plot-lines, and lots of reviews seem to grumble and imply that you need multiple reads to dig it all. Maybe. But I think it’s pretty cool how the symbols just sort of rolled together like the patterns on dice, and didn’t slip-knot into a hard conclusion, but into the impression of a conclusion, the bones held in the hand for the next hard throw. Inside the hand is bones too. Ah.

Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

This review is something of a mess, written over months, and at least four separate reading sessions. Which works in some ways, because Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is a mess. I thought it was a short story collection, and while I admit it’s my bad for misreading the term “anthology”, it’s not the best anthology. I can’t tell who Grace Dillon, the editor, thinks she’s writing for. Heavily academic, full of lots of jargon and dense, offhanded references to theory, writers and history that blow past your average reader. I have a good background in science fiction, and a shakier one in Native (North) American history – a minor in college coughcough years ago – and I could barely keep up. 

I probably should have just given up, but it got to be a grudge match: Grace Dillon, you will not defeat me with your horrible introductions and promiscuous use of epigraph. There’s a lot of very cool material in here, a lot of both explicit and implicit criticisms of science fiction as a genre, new and odd angles on science fictional narrative, etc etc. It’s a good place to get a broad polling of indigenous voices in a genre that is often extremely colonial in nature, which is what I was looking for when I picked this up. 


It’d also be a good place to start building a syllabus or a master’s thesis, but as a pleasure reader primary, I didn’t take much pleasure in that aspect of the anthology. Quit freaking mansplaining what is going on and just cut to the chase! The excerpts should have been doubled in size and the introductions cut to a paragraph. Terms, in general, should have been better defined – I don’t think there was an articulated definition of either science fiction or indigenous, which might seem like talking down to the reader, but in an anthology predicated on contested things like genre and identity, I think more down-talking would have been preferable to the over-the-head talking.  

So I’m going to give this points for existing, and for having fairly strong selections, but I’m going to take many of them away for the huge editorial drag going on. 


—–

This was the book I brought to read while standing in line to vote. W00t. 

Notes in progress: 

So far the short stories have been excellent, but the introduction and prefaces to the individual stories are written like a Master’s thesis, by which I mean pretty jargony and hung up on some really abstruse stuff. The editor has this pretty big boner for the concept of slipstream science fiction, and it’s often pretty cool watching her twist herself in knots trying to make some of these stories come off as science fictional. It works a lot of the time, like the odd, dreamlike story “Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters” by Diane Glancy which centers on the technological intrusion of the icebox – culture transmitted through technology and all that. Plus, it’s just really beautifully written, despite the dialogue being in dialect, which I normally loathe. 

“Custer on the Slipstream” by Gerald Vizenor is a harder sell, at least the way it is being sold here. At first glance the title seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the Master’s thesis – slipstream! fiction! – except that it’s referring to the 70s version of slipstreaming, which is using the wake of rig to pull your car along. I’m not saying it doesn’t count in the collection or anything, but it seems (at least partially) like this is a mordant satire about the concept of “Indian time” – you know, “he runs on Indian Time, therefore he never shows up at the right hour” – instead of being about “slippage” and “culturally constructed expressions of time space that run counterfactually with national narrative” or whatever. (These are not direct quotes; I am being a bitch here.) 

Without even explicitly naming the concept of Indian Time, Dillon seems to fall into the usual apologia about how Native people are more in tune with the planet and nature and stuff – and, I don’t actually dispute that time sense can be, and often is, culturally constructed – I just kinda get bothered by implicit justifications for racist terminology that use other stereotypical characterizations of Native America. The perception of the concept of Indian Time, by both whites and native people, might more be a function of the crushing poverty and often physical remoteness of most Indian Reservations, which might make it hard to show up at the BIA to treat with Custer at the hour set for such an event. (Which is, of course, not even getting into the fact that much of Native America is urban.) Which is kinda the point of the story – partially – so all this talk about slippage feels like it’s missing the point. In other words, I think this story works in the collection, but not for the reasons outlined in the intros.

Anyway, then onto an excerpt from The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, which I enjoyed until I had to just stop reading. In the intro, Stephen Graham Jones has some really interesting stuff to say about reading science fiction as an indigenous person – how so much sf encodes Western Expansion narratives in ways that are, of course, totally racist, but at least the SFnal shift makes chinks in the colonial narrative that your usual Cowboys and Indians story doesn’t allow. Sure, Klingons are noble savages – indeed, down to using Crazy Horse’s famous exhortation that “It is a good day to die” as a war cry – but there’s a red-shift in the characterization. Badump tss. 

What I read of The Fast Red Road was totally PKD style identity freak-out and pretty great, but as just an excerpt of a larger work, it was difficult to track what was going on. A slice of an identity wig out is hobbled, because so much of a wig out relies on a series of reversals that can only be considered as a gestalt. At that point I paged through the table of contents and figured out that roughly half of these entries are excerpts from larger works, which seems a little ominous to me. I have given myself permission to chuck things as I go if they refuse to work in single-chapter form. 

I started into the excerpt from Flight by Sherman Alexie, but then it was time to vote! 

Vote Vote! 

A few more notes:

This is not true, but I will say it anyway: the intro to the excerpt from Flightwas longer than the excerpt. Or boy did it feel like it. The section of this book I read on the plane yesterday was all bits of larger works, and Dillon’s intros are beginning to wear, though I don’t feel like I can skip them lest I not know what’s going on. The intro to Flight feels like a shoehorn job, because the very brief passage from Alexie’s story doesn’t feel science fictional at all, but more in line with coming-of-age identity mind-fuckery. That is a perfectly cromulent literary device, I’m just calling bullshit on every act of mind-fuckery being science fictional. Plus, and I hate to say this out loud, but I don’t like Alexie’s writing style all that much. I read a bunch of his stuff years ago until I learned I should probably just not. He’s really choppy and spare, and I can see how he’s good at what he’s doing, but he’s just not for me. 

The excerpt from Refugees by Celu Amberstone (which, annoyingly, does not appear to be in the database) was the first of these bits that got me wanting to read the larger work. Taking place on an alien planet which had been seeded with Native people seven generations before by an alien race, and are now in the process of folding in modern Vancouverans (-ites?), the ideas felt like stuff from Octavia E. Butler‘s Xenogenesis Trilogy, but written by John Crowley. Sort of. Not to be too blurbily reductive. The aliens are lizard-people, which has this really nice recoil to it, even while the (possibly hopelessly naive) damaged narrator – who was born on the alien planet – tries to understand what all the shouting is about from the Earth-born folk. There was a lot of nuance here, and motivations were murky and dangerously misunderstood – a pre-industrial utopia which might just be another reservation – conflicts between urban and rural. Really nice.

The Black Shipby Gerry William is hard core space opera, which is perfect. Space opera 100% encodes the colonial narrative in its little mechanical heart, and William is firmly aware of this, running the tropes with a twist. It’s like if Chickotay weren’t horrifyingly lame, all the potential of the conflict between the Federation and the Maquis running out into make-out sessions about Honor and the Chain of Command. 

Oops, I skipped over “Men on the Moon” by Simon Ortiz. I’ll get to it later.

Midnight Robberby Nalo Hopkinson is another one I’d pick up, partially because it turns out I dig her style. She’s got a way of blending folk tale and idiom into SFF settings – at least going from this, and the other book I’ve read by her, The Chaos- while having this just splendid sense of the weird. Reminds me a little of Sheri S. Tepper in that, although I think Hopkinson is more playful. Good use of dialect too. 

The other Gerald Vizenor selection – this time from Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles - did not turn my crank at all. I dig he foresaw the whole ecopunk peak oil situation in 1978, but the writing feels dated, and the excerpt goes nowhere. 

That could certainly be the fault of our intrepid editor’s choice of excerpt though, a problem I see in the next two selections as well: the first from Mindscape by Andrea Hairston, and the second from Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller.  I was only able to get through the second selection with some teeth gritting – and I don’t think I got much out of it – and the first I was unable to complete. Which is not to say that either are bad, just that as small selections – often shorter than the editorial introduction – I couldn’t track the characters, cultures nor conflicts in a meaningful way. Throw in stylized dialect like in Golden Clouds, and I’m out. Books teach you how to read them; they build their characters and dialects and cultures so it isn’t an assault. (Certainly, beginnings can be assaults, but that is part of the learning process.) Being told how to read them in humorless academic introductions is not the same as the lessons you get in novels about how to read that novel. 

As uncharitably as I’m feeling about the editor right now – I am growing to hate her penchant for epigrams and academicese – I don’t think any passage would work, so it’s probably not her choice of passage that is at fault. These are complex, multi-cultural novels – not in the mealy-mouthed sense of multi-cultural, as buzzword for tokenism, but multi-cultural in the sense that its characters are all vocal and distinct cultural voices, and I don’t think we’re used to seeing that. Although there is absolutely a pan-Indian identity these days, the Native experience (in America, anyhow) is one of profound multi-culturalism, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and histories. And sure, some of my ancestors came from Sweden, and some from Wales, but that all just lingers on at Christmas. As a white person, I experience my Americanness – no past, glowing future – in a way that is monolithic: I am not Swedish-American or Welsh-American or any other hyphen American. I am American. Native people in the states have a second hyphen, or a third: they come from Native America, but they also come from a tribe, or tribes, or a profound and complex hyphenization. An other that is deeply individual. 

Things begin to pick up for me as a reader when I hit the “Native Apocalypses” section of this this book. I haven’t been making note of this, and I apologize for my laziness, but these excerpts and short stories have all been grouped under various headings: Native Slipstream, Contact, etc. I’m on much steadier ground when the end of the world is seriously freaking nigh. Which might be a thing with this collection: I am a reasonably assured sff genre reader, but I’m little hazier when it comes to aboriginal fiction. I imagine if you came in as someone with zero interest in either of those things, you would be seriously at sea. This collection assumes you can 1) tolerate academic writing 2) read sff 3) have even  passing interest in indigenous fiction. Add it up before you pick this up. 

Anyway, so Sherman Alexie’s “Distances” kinda blew my mind, and I’m sorry I said his stuff didn’t work for me. This totally does. I have a shine for narratives about the black plague, that enormous pestilence and upheaval that profoundly reordered European history. A third to a half of Europeans dead? Jesus. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen statistics that say that as much as 90% of the population of the Americas was dead by European diseases before the people of the interior even knew contact had occurred. ZOMG. Talk about your plague narratives. And talk about how for Native America, the end of the world has already occurred. There are stories of rivers so alive with fish that they could overturn the boat in the European discovery narratives, and that’s because the millions of people who used to fish those streams were dead. Jesus. Dillon finally starts speaking to me in her intros, pointing out the sterility of most Western post-apocalit, when the world would rightly explode with verdency if we were out of it. This is the line that killed me, every time Alexie wrote it: “Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.” 

“When This World is All on Fire” by William Sanders is maybe more perfunctory as a short story – I could see some of the reversals coming – but I liked the more intimate reversals that were the set-up. The value of land changes as the waters rise, even the shitty, half-discarded land of the reservation, but the people, they keep being held to standards of blood and upbringing and jurisdiction. 

From The Moons of Palmares by Zainab Amadahy. I skimmed this one heavily again, because the set up was impossible for me to understand. The same excerpt problem again, though I could dig the space opera encoding from the not-Fleet perspective.

From Red Spider White Web by Misha. Well, this killed. I admit I have a long running love for the cyberpunk street-level diction, and this delivers the whole Sino-fetistist artist whackadoo milieu with a bullet. I dig the masks. I dig the main character selling her ass by the holographic proxy. I dig the scene where she holds the schoolchild down and undoes her masks like profanity. Hot damn all around.

 One more section to go!

Even though I had something like 20 pages to go, it took Herculean effort to pick this sucker up again. I had forgotten I even liked the armegeddon section, but for our last group of writings, we’re back to abstruse and hard to follow, as least as it comes to Dillon’s intros.

“Terminal Avenue” by Eden Robinson is a fine short story, and kind of a relief because it is a short story. Occurring right at the moment of a beating of a Native kid by faceless authority figures for his physical transgression outside a new, urban reservation, the story is impressionistic and almost Proustian in its digressions. The arm coming down reminds the boy of other happier transgressions, ones that didn’t end in a traffic stop. Native America is often conceptualized as rural – and certainly the reserves are, often harshly so – but urban environments have their reserves as well. Don’t cross the boundary lines.

From Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Another selection, this time somewhat easier to follow, although the introduction completely fails to hit what seem to me the themes. Mordant, funny satire of commercialized Native America – con men in buckskin, Carlos Castaneda and his Yaqui bs – but met up with Native people using the commercial face of Native America to their own ends. Lots of terrorism and violence, which is interesting in post 9/11 world, because this was written 1991. Maybe Silko was right about the Ghost Dance.

From The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones. I just don’t even get this. Something about an android Lone Ranger and his embarrassed Tonto. I suspect the passage is too brief, and the intro fails to illuminate. Again.

From Star Waka: Poems by Robert Sullivan. You’d think something called Star Waka would be this big nerd joke about Star Wars slash Trek – the way waka sounds like war, but then turns out to be a boat, the way waka could be like walk, you know, or trek. And maybe that’s a thing in there somewhere, but as a single poem, it’s not.

And then that’s it!

Finally.

I Wish Someone Like Me Lived in This World: Leviathan Wakes

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz. 

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! That’s not what happens here. The characters here are more types than actual people, true, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places. 

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read. 

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test - and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel Test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read. 

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz! 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.