The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a really interesting work of SF criticism focused on the Dark Other, specifically on Black girls/women on the peripheries of popular media properties. Thomas takes the lessons of the title works and others and uses them as exemplars of larger issues in the genre. She deliberately eschews the old-fashioned academic convention of obscuring/abstracting the critic’s voice: she is coming from a very specific place as a late Gen X Black woman from Detroit, and she explicitly (as well as implicitly with her prose choices) rejects the idea of some universal construct called “the reader” who can stand for every reader. This is extremely constructive.

In addition to the titular works, Thomas spends a fair amount of time on the TV show Merlin and also on both the TV show and the book series The Vampire Diaries, examining the ways visual adaptations of preexisting material interact with fan expectations. She has deep roots in fanfiction fandom and is not afraid to use that experience as a lens in this work.

Frankly I think a lot of white SFF writers could benefit from seeing Thomas’s perspective laid out in detail with examples. The power of “I didn’t realize I was doing that, and I’d prefer not to” is pretty strong, and it has to be in the face of “I don’t worry about that kind of thing.”

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is so timely that I can’t even predict how someone will read the phrase “this book is so timely” in the gap between writing this review and posting it. So timely. You might want to read it for that reason. You might want to avoid it for that reason, but if so, definitely read it later, because this is good stuff. Wineapple does not fall into common historian traps like referring to white Southerners as simply “Southerners”; she is willing to state flat out when one of her subjects is known to be lying and when they might or might not have been lying but definitely were wrong.

The first section, about the Reconstruction before impeachment proceedings, made me think a lot about the essential problems of forming a civil society with people who don’t think you’re human. I feel that most American schools under-teach the Reconstruction. The end of the Civil War is presented as a triumph; the path to the Civil Rights movement sort of a hand-waving muddle. Culturally there is a focus on a narrative of progress: no longer slaves! full civil rights! Yay! Wineapple goes into clear and succinct detail on the sorts of crimes that did not end with the Civil War–in fact in some directions intensified–and their impact on Black Americans for more than 150 years. Even if you have some background in this material, she handles it well. It’s very clarifying, too, how a person can consider themself to be on the right side–can even be, more or less, on what history will consider the right side–and still not have done the self-examination enough to grow in their treatment of other people, their perspective on others’ needs. This book is a thorough demonstration of how choosing the right side is not enough, dreaming of a just nation is not enough.

There are characters in this narrative, compelling, astonishing characters. Thaddeus Stevens and his family of choice, Frederick Douglass, Vinnie Ream, Ulysses S. Grant and his incredibly touching friendship with William Tecumseh Sherman. No perfect people, but fascinating ones, well-drawn.

The impeachment itself is a parade of dead ends, times when people were ready to give up, things not making a lot of sense. It ends abruptly. But it’s an incredibly useful perspective to have, in a century where Nixon and Clinton shape our view of censured presidents and what good censuring them does. You don’t have to trust the process. It doesn’t always result in the most justice for the most humans. But there are things that are worth doing even if they can’t be completed. Even if there’s still more to be done 150 years later. Having a torch to pass along is better than extinguishing it.

Also, Andrew Johnson: screw that guy, man. I have all sorts of more nuanced historical take here–and so does Brenda Wineapple, way more nuanced than mine–but really it’s probably never a bad moment to roll your eyes at that guy. Blech.

Books read, early May

Charlie Jane Anders, Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. This is a slim collection, and every story in it is engaging. I had no desire to skim even the ones I’ve read before. Definitely worth having.

Daniel M. Bensen, Junction. This is a very modern version of a very classic SF thing. There is a portal to an alien world, and the humans in the story have to navigate the alien biosphere. Lots of interesting creatures here, and also a different set of group dynamics than the ’80s standard for this type of thing. A fun read.

Stephanie Burgis, The Boy Who Learned to Dream. Kindle. This is a short story that I belatedly realized is set, not in the universe of Stephanie’s stuff that I’ve enjoyed already, but in the universe of Stephanie’s stuff that is still on my to-read pile. It was fun and appealing but probably better once you’ve read the appropriate series…so I want to hurry up.

CJ Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher, Alliance Rising. A new installment in this series, and I had fun with it. It did point out to me how substantially men are the default in Cherryh’s work as a whole–random receptionist, bartender, passerby, all skew far more male than humanity does. It ended up feeling very weird in that way. But I still had fun with the space station politics.

Lynne Kelly, Song for a Whale. A Deaf girl gets fascinated with a whale whose song is different from other whales’, and goes into some Pretty Wacky Hijinks to try to get to where she can (legitimately scientifically) communicate with him. This is not science fiction, it’s fiction about a scientist, albeit a very young scientist. And also her gran. Which I like a lot.

Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. I suppose “and on a boat” would be an unwieldy subtitle, and yet the ancient pathways MacFarlane is retracing are mostly rather than all walking paths. Still, this is chatty and interesting and thoughtful and inspiring. I like MacFarlane’s work so far.

Mary Oliver, Thirst. This is a volume of grief upon the death of her partner. There are some lovely things in it, but I feel it’s not something to go into unprepared for a lot of loss and a lot of eternity. Sometimes that’s just what you need, and sometimes it’s far too much. (Sometimes both.)

Andrew Reeves, Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian Carp Crisis. This is about American watersheds, particularly the Mississippi watershed, and what can be done, is being done, needs to be done about invasive carp species. It’s frustrating and illuminating and generally an interesting book, but you have to have a pretty high carp tolerance.

Chris Santiago, Tula. I heard this poet at a live event and put his collection on my list to read. He’s a Filipino-Minnesotan poet who draws a lot on family experience for his poems. I recommend seeing him live if you can, but the collection was worth reading also.

Bogi Takács, Algorithmic Shapeshifting. Discussed elsewhere.

Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land. Discussed elsewhere.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and Brandon O’Brien, eds., Fiyah Issue 10. The theme of this issue is hair, and it’s handled in a really strong variety of ways. This is one of the things that Fiyah can do that other publications just can’t do, and I value them so much for it.

G. Willow Wilson, The Bird King. I know, I know, people get to write what they want to write, what they get paid to write, all sorts of things…and Ms. Marvel is lovely, but…I am so glad, so very very glad, that G. Willow Wilson wanted to write another novel. This one is historical, set at the very end of Muslim structural presence in Spain, and its characters are vivid and lovable and loving and flawed and so much fun to spend time with.

Algorithmic Shapeshifting, by Bogi Takács

Review copy provided by the author.

This is what science fiction can do.

There is more about alienation and difference in this slim chapbook than most thumping space epics manage. Takács draws deftly on both eir own experience as a multiply marginalized person and eir gift for listening to the experiences of others to create poems that illuminate the diversity of the universe, personally, cognitively, emotionally, with vivid flashes of image and turns of word.

My favorite poems in this collection were “Never Cease” and “The Tiny English-Hungarian Phrasebook for Visiting Extraterrestrials”–each searing and astonishing in their own way, each making me gasp with the turns their perspective took. But there are so many strong works in so few pages here–so many unexpected angles–that I know I’m going to reread the whole thing more than once. Highly recommended.

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Human history repeats itself.

This is a central thesis of Unholy Land, but what shapes the book is what ways Tidhar wants to show human history repeating itself. There is no good solution in this book. There is no timeline in which people treat each other generally decently. This is a very meta book, a book full of layers of alternate worlds, histories that might have been–but they all come back to guns and oppression and prejudice and fear.

Tidhar is Israeli-born and has lived in lots of places. He’s speaking from a position of knowledge, personal knowledge, when he writes about the permutations of Jewish homeland and disapora Judaism. There are all sorts of things that he does quite well in this. But the overall thesis is not an upbeat one about the nature of people in general, and you should be prepared for that going in.

Books read, late April

Hala Alyan, The Twenty-Ninth Year. I picked this up at random from a library poetry display, and it is very typically, almost stereotypically, a volume of poems about drinking and bad relationships in one’s twenties. But Alyan also wants to examine her role within the Palestinian disapora, so the typical twentysomething narrative shifts under those pressures. Her moments of crystalline observation are equally distributed between the mundane and the political.

Joe Berridge, Perfect City. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. Process and workflow from one of the most famous biographers of our time. Some of his own shortcomings are also on display, as I suppose happens to us all, but it was an interesting glimpse of a world no one could now inhabit and how he managed to inhabit it and do this massive life’s work along the way.

Lara Elena Donnelly, Amnesty. Discussed elsewhere.

Mary Moore Easter, The Body of the World. Many of these were historical persona poems, putting herself in the shoes of ancestors and other figures from the past in ways that were empathetic and illuminating. This was another random poetry month display selection, but it was probably the best of the lot–I didn’t know Easter’s work before and will definitely seek more of it now.

Audre Lorde, The Marvelous Arithmetic of Distance: Poems 1987-1992. This was a very slim volume, the tiniest glimpse of Lorde’s work. This iceberg tip made me want more. It made me want something like….

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Volume Two. Immersing myself in this poet’s work has been so rewarding. Not every poem is a gem. It doesn’t work like that. But there are a lot of gems among them, a lot of poems that made me catch my breath and give the world and the people around me a longer, different look.

Emma Reyes, The Book of Emma Reyes. This is a bunch of letters written by a Colombian artist about her earliest, poverty-stricken childhood, which was in the early part of the twentieth century. It has the slightly random shape of much autobiography, but it’s short and lucid and interesting.

Justin Reynolds, Opposite of Always. This is an extremely sweet teen romance, with time travel or whatever else you call Groundhog’s Day style looping shenanigans. It has sad bits and goofy bits and is so very very much fun. I am not usually a sucker for romances, but I enjoyed this a lot.

Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. There is a spectrum of plays that are just as good to read as to see onstage vs. plays that make almost no sense as a script. This is a “choreopoem” but still, the script for a theatrical production, and I can tell that I was missing out on a lot by reading it rather than seeing it performed. Still, it’s related to Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo, which I love, and seeing how differently Shange is developing her ideas in a different medium is pretty great.

Jane Yolen, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Discussed elsewhere.

Perfect City, by Joe Berridge

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Not every science fiction writer can be Malka Older or Arkady Martine–in fact, statistically, hardly any of us can. The rest of us who are writing science fiction could use an assist in thinking about cities, and that’s where Joe Berridge comes in. (I think he did not think of being a resource to science fiction writers when he wrote this, but I am what I am, and this is what I do.)

Perfect City surveys a handful of cities in depth, with glancing mention of more, based on Berridge’s experience in urban planning and design. He talks about what’s working in Toronto, what makes Singapore vital, what problems Belfast has overcome and how. This is a general-audiences book, not a technical manual for fellow urban planners. Berridge wants to think about where you can get good dumplings as well as what kind of developments encourage the positive cycle of cultural opportunities (including good food), public appreciation, and widespread support.

Berridge’s cities are not my cities. He’s mostly concerned with the largest of the large, and there were times when I felt he slipped into valuing population size and economic output at the expense of other urban values. (Montreal does not wish it was Melbourne. It just…doesn’t.) He doesn’t spend a lot of time on some of the technical details I think are most interesting (environmental impact of infrastructure: how do we do this well–just for example). But he’s attempting to balance lessons from Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and figure out how to apply them in a future setting, and that alone is valuable. He sees thriving immigrant communities as a positive in ways that we are going to need to cultivate in an era of climate refugees.

Also it’s charming to have someone talking earnestly about home-ownership rates and methods, housing density, etc., suddenly lapse into rhapsodies about where you can get good food. That’s the kind of thinking about cities that makes sense to me, human and entirely mingled.

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, by Jane Yolen

Review copy provided by the publisher. I also have the privilege to know the author a bit socially.

We’ve now had several decades–all of my lifetime, in fact–with fairy tale variations, reconceptions, recreations as a major subgenre. So the question about a collection like this can sometimes be: is there anything new to say here? Is it possible to fracture a fairy tale in a way that is not in itself a predictable part of canon at this point?

Happily the answer here is not just yes, but “yes and I will even show you a little of how it’s done behind the scenes.” I was pleasantly surprised to reach the end of the collection and find not only notes on each story but a poem to go with each–sometimes very directly, sometimes with glancing notes on the same theme. Many of these stories are from previous decades, and Yolen takes time in the notes to talk about how she thought of them then–particularly interesting when they span a cultural shift of awareness around who gets to retell tales from whom.

I’d come upon some of these stories before in other collections of Jane’s, but I’m never sorry to see “Granny Rumple” reprinted–it changed my world when I first read it, and I think it can do the same for writers and readers who encounter it for the first time now. Jane’s warmth and humor permeate these tales, and breaking familiar stories like Snow White and Cinderella in more than one way in one collection gives us even more perspective on what these tales can still do.