Sunday, February 23, 2014


Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond
Edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall

This is a book I was interested in reading after I heard about the editors' Indiegogo campaign (which, full disclosure, I did not contribute to). It's is a speculative fiction anthology, and, as is typical, the stories within aren't even in quality. A few are poor; a few a bland; many are good; and a few are excellent. But a range of quality (or, perhaps, the range is in the reader's taste?) is par for the course in an anthology. In any case, a few weak stories don't mar the reading experience the way a few weak sections would hurt a novel. So, yes, it's an anthology, and if you like reading short speculative fiction, it's probably your cup of tea.

The biggest issue with this book is labeling: It's not what it says on the tin. The title suggests science fiction - Afro-centric science fiction - but the contents are speculative fiction, including fantasy, from a range of cultures. Which, of course, is a totally valid theme for an anthology, but it's not what most readers are going to expect given the title and the cover art. (The stories include those with African, Asian, Caribbean, Latino/a, and Native American themes, as well as a couple of Euro-centric and white-American stories. Of course white American culture is part of multiculturalism, just like WASPs have ethnicity and white is a race, but in an anthology designed to showcase diversity that usually isn't privileged in the genre, I found their inclusion an interesting choice.) The stories range from those that are decidedly future to those set in the present and even several set in the past. In other words, it's not all Afro, nor all future.

So, that's a bigger weakness than uneven story quality - because it's a marketing error, and part of the point of the anthology is to get some of this stuff out to a larger audience.

Alright, titles matter. But aside from that?

What I'm taking away from the book is a couple of authors I was unfamiliar with. It didn't come as any surprise to me that N.K. Jemisin or Junot Diaz, for example, could write a good story, although it's always pleasurable to encounter new pieces by writers you generally enjoy. However, there were some writers whose names I was previously unfamiliar with who I am now on the lookout for - Chinelo Onwualu, Vandana Singh, S.P. Somtow, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Joseph Bruchac, Daniel Jose Older, Tade Thompson, Tenea D. Johnson - I am ashamed to say I had heard of none of them. What this means is the anthology has done its job. I can quibble about the title all I like, but at the end of the day I think you should read it, and also I have to go make my Amazon wishlist longer.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


by Jeff VanderMeer

There are only a few writers currently publishing whose books I buy as soon as they come out. Of those, Jeff VanderMeer undoubtedly does the best job of building up anticipation among his readers, thanks to his generous use of social media. (It's a good thing for Thomas Pynchon he is famous - otherwise no one except his wife and his editor would notice when his books dropped.) VanderMeer has been talking about his Southern Reach trilogy on Facebook, etc. for what seems like decades now, although of course reader years are like dog years, and now the first volume, Annihilation, is finally available.

VanderMeer is a writer of speculative fiction - certainly on the fantasy rather than the science fiction end of things - but this book edges farther into horror territory. It's the story of an expedition into Area X, an area that has been sealed off from the general public for an unknown period of years. This expedition, consisting of four women, is to go in, explore, and record what they find. What they find is a seemingly flourishing natural area with a few disturbing oddities.

By the end of the novel, we only know a very little more about Area X than we did at the beginning. This would prove deeply unsatisfying in most novels, making me suspicious the writer couldn't actually decide what was going on. It would work in a short story, and it works here, where we know there are two more volumes to come.

The story is told by one of the expedition members, a biologist whose innate reluctance to share personal details fits well with the mission's spare ethos. Team members, for example, know each other by title rather than name, and their lives prior to joining the expedition are not discussed.* We come to know more about the biologist over the course of the book. We also know more about Area X, but it becomes evident just how little that is.

Luckily for impatient readers, all three books are already completed; the second volume, Authority, comes out in May. Oh, and if you don't usually buy books right away because of the price of hardcover books, the trilogy is in paperback from the get-go.

* VanderMeer has said in a couple of interviews that there is no physical description of the characters in the book. Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true; the lighthouse keeper (who may or may not be a character) is described only in the briefest of ways when the narrator sees his photo, and one member of the exploration team has her hair pulled back, which tells us (a) she has hair and (b) that it is long enough to be pulled back. That these two exceptions stand out so strongly, though, only reinforces the general truth of his statement.

But this leads me to wonder in a more general way about what constitutes physical description. We know the characters are human women, which tells us they don't look like panda bears or magpies. Our narrator walks, which means she isn't in a wheelchair, and she does things with her arms, so she isn't missing any limbs. She wears clothes. That's not a lot to go on; she could be black or white, tall or short, elegant or awkward. But we know we aren't reading about a be-tentacled being at the Alpha Centauri Naturist Resort.

One way to describe a character is to be very obvious about it: "Bea looked in the mirror and saw a 5-foot-four slender brunette with a 34C chest and shapely buttocks." Better writers drop clues along the way - "Bea asked Biff to get the sugar down from the top shelf" tells us that Bea is on the short side. But to do the reverse, to tell us nothing about the characters at all, is nearly an impossible task. If you have them move about a room, what verb can you used other than "walked" (unless the character is a slithering slug, or in a wheelchair, or pure energy)? You can get cagey and use "moved," but the reader sees that as an obfuscation, as a withholding of information.

Which is all to say, "no physical description" is an asymptote a writer can approach but never quite reach.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Re-read review

Emily's Quest
by L.M. Montgomery

L.M. Montgomery's most famous character is Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but to me Anne was a far-distant second to Emily Starr, protagonist of a three-book series. Emily, like Anne, is an orphan living on Prince Edward Island, and both are intelligent and possess a strong sense of self, but their personalities and lives are quite different.

Unlike Anne, Emily lives with her father until the age of 8, when he passes away - her mother having died many years earlier. Upon her father's death, Emily moves in with her mother's family, strangers to her. The first book, Emily of New Moon, is her struggle to come to terms with her father's death and make a place for herself in a household that isn't entirely welcoming. The second book, Emily Climbs, tells of her years away at high school, although to modern readers it feels more like a college story. The final book, Emily's Quest, describes her attempt to build a writing career and find love.

It's her passion for writing that sets Emily apart from Anne, who, for all her intelligence and good cheer, doesn't actually have ambitions. (It always amuses me when screen adaptations try to make Anne a writer; aside from starting a youthful writing club, Anne has no ambitions to be or success at that endeavor.) Emily's friends - a much more closed circle than Anne's - are equally ambitious, and what's more, all end up succeeding at their chosen careers. Throughout all three of the books, no matter what else Emily deals with, her authorial ambitions are always present - with one important exception, as we'll see below.

As the book opens, Emily has moved back to New Moon after high school, having turned down a job offer with a big-city magazine. In modern U.S. terms, she's chosen to move back to the family farm in Montana instead of taking that entry-level job at The New Yorker. She settles down to write, while her best friends go to the big city chasing their dreams. She has several brief relationships of no significance; the reader knows her heart belongs to her friend Teddy, and we think he returns the sentiment, although both of them refuse to make the first move. Meanwhile, she begins to find commercial success as a writer.

As the "romance novel" of the trilogy, Emily's Quest could have been the book that undercut the message of the previous two books, a message that argues quite subtly for female independence. Certainly, this is the message many of its peer novels sent, such as Emily of Deep Valley (no relation) or A Girl of the Limberlost. Getting with the man of their dreams meant, for those heroines, giving up their own dreams and adopting their sweethearts'.

Emily tries this tactic. A manipulative older male friend undercuts her writing ambitions, and Emily hurts herself in an accident. She gives up writing and turns to him for comfort, going so far as to get engaged and furnish a house. While she breaks the engagement because she realizes she doesn't love him but her friend Teddy, the novel doesn't take the expected turn and get her and Teddy together. Instead, Emily rebuilds her life as a single person. She takes up writing again. She also suffers a great deal of loneliness - hardly surprising, for a woman of almost 30 living in a house of elderly relatives, with few people nearby she has much in common with. But the loneliness is bearable compared to the extinction of self she underwent during her engagement.

Nevertheless, it becomes even harder to bear when Teddy and her other best friend, Ilse, get engaged.

When I was a child, I thought this book was the most trifling of the trilogy, because it was just about boyfriends. When I was a little older, I realized how sad it was. There was a time, around my 30th birthday, beset by minor health issues and as single as it is possible to be, when I couldn't even re-read it. Only recently have I realized how progressive its message is, and how out-of-step with its time. First, the books tells us, you have to be yourself, who you are meant to be, and "you" includes women. Only after you achieve that can other people add to your happiness. It even makes a good argument for ladies making the first move, as that's how Ilse eventually gets what she wants - and Emily, in hindsight, could have saved herself a great deal of grief this way.

There were a lot of books I obsessively re-read as a kid, but this was the only character I really saw myself in - I sympathized with with many characters, but I identified with very few of them. This trilogy played a big part in developing my sense of what a female writer could be like. (It also made me extremely annoyed when everyone started naming their daughters "Emily" a few years ago, because, dammit, I wanted to use that name.) It goes into some surprisingly dark corners for a children's novel of its era, and is remarkably progressive for a novel about a woman's decision about who to marry. Even now, I'm not sure if the "quest" is to find a life partner, or to succeed as a writer, or to become a fulfilled human being.