Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published in Clarkesworld 2/19. This review contains spoilers.

Ecological disaster is looming on Earth. Hazel is hiking from her spaceship through a barren, inhospitable landscape to the Library. As she walks, she records a message for her brother Saul, which will take six months to reach him across 32 light years. She thinks she might be the last astronaut ever and her expensive, high tech spacesuit doesn’t seem to be working very well. She sends the family her love. Despite the creaky suit, Hazel makes it to the Library and is admitted. She continues to record messages for Saul, describing the physical plant, the Archivists, and the contents of the Library. The messages give us info on first contact with explorer Librarians and how Hazel was chosen as a cheap solution (because she has an eidetic memory) to do research on possible disaster remedies at the alien Library. When Hazel finally locates the memory tablet she is looking for, the researcher Dr. Ryu appears. Rhu is pretty snippy, diagnoses Hazel as having a depressing worldview, and at first refuses to share her research. Hazel convinces her with a description of how hopeful her brother and his family are for a future with children, and reveals that she, herself, aborted a child years ago out of hopelessness. She’s not coming back to Earth. Love to the family. ‘Bye.

This is a creative format, written in second person, with everything accomplished within the messages Hazel records for her brother. What we get is adequate to describe the setting, the situation back on Earth and something of the history of how Hazel got where she is. However, this doesn’t really come alive, and the messages end up having the feel of exposition, a.k.a. info dumps. Despite the SF setting, there’s no real science in the story. The bleak setting for the Library and the presence of the Librarians is briefly explained, but none of this feels real or reasonable. For one thing, the Library has no visible means of support. Is there a spaceport somewhere, or did Hazel crash land her ship on the surface? If the world is so dead and barren, where do supplies come from? Are the Librarians creating everything out of rock? Shipping stuff in? What miracle cure does Hazel expect to find here? And how did Hazel get across 32 light years in a timely fashion? I expect the description of disasters on Earth, the revelation of Saul’s hope versus Hazel’s hopelessness, and the aborted child are all included to create an emotional thread through the story, but this didn’t capture me.

Three stars.

Not Latina enough: Is the requirement for #OwnVoices changing?

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Referring to my last blog: That is such a troubling statement about Latina heritage on File 770 that I think it needs another look. For anyone interested, here’s the full quote: “Macmillan f’ing up by publishing American Dirt, a novel rife with negative Mexican crime and drug stereotypes (which was written by a white American woman who says she has “Latina” heritage because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), but not publishing books by actual Latinos.”

You’d think Cummins would be the new face of multiculturism: she’s of Irish and Latin American decent, was born in Spain and lives and works in the US. However, this particular File 770 poster says the publisher f’ed up because they published her, but not actual Latinos, indicating that Cummins has, instead, lost her claim on Latin heritage. One might consider this contradiction a mental glitch, but seeing that the perception is widely shared, I have to assume it really is an expression of the current climate surrounding #OwnVoices writing—the “current climate” does seem to be something the File 770 regulars are on top of. Apparently Cummins, at 1/4 Puerto Rican, isn’t considered Latina enough to have written this book, or even to qualify for minority status in Macmillan’s stable of writers.

So, there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this situation. First, Cummins, secure in her belief she is Latina, and her publisher Macmillan, apparently never thought about being challenged on this book. Next, you’re not a Latina, African American, Native American, disabled, LGBTQ, or anything-else writer, unless you’re out; plus, coming out after you’ve been Twitter mobbed won’t help your case with the mob. And last, the requirements for #OwnVoices writing may have actually tightened so that 1) descendants of first generation ethnic minorities may no longer count, especially if they don’t retain ethnic names 2) an ethnic minority can only write within the narrow limits of their own background and/or 3) an ethnic minority can’t be successful enough to get a seven-figure advance.

These possibilities have repercussions, of course. Should minority writers now consider whether they’re “brown enough” to write something ethnic? Specifically, can only Mexican Latinas now write about Mexico? Cummins isn’t the only minority to fall into this trap recently. About the same time as this controversy, Isabel Fall withdrew her publication at Clarkesworld because of similar criticism. Certainly Fall never questioned her own credentials to write the story, but should her trans status have been publicized in advance to head off criticism? Does the response to both Fall’s story and Cummins’ novel suggest that authors need to publish any minority status they might qualify for on their books/websites/blogs?

This has been a growing trend, of course, but is it now required? Or is that obligation actually an invasion of privacy? Should writers be required to put their ethnic heritage, their gender identity, their age or their medical status out there for a discussion about whether they’re qualified to write their particular story? Should publishers request proof of minority status before going to press so they can post it and head off criticism? And last, is this minority status automatically cancelled when a writer becomes financially successful?

Since Cummins is judged not-Latina-enough to write about a Mexican Latina character, maybe we should now have another look at who’s publishing as an #OwnVoices minority. For example, should we question Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones, who grew up in Texas and has a white name? Or Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims African and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo heritage but writes about Navajo characters? Should we maybe question the light-skinned Nisi Shawl about her qualifications to represent the black experience?

And last, that question about financial success is still hanging there. Cummins has obviously hit the mainstream taste with this novel. It is sitting pretty securely atop the New York Times Bestseller List. So, why doesn’t the Latinx writing community support her?

Latina or white? Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt

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This is another case of author bullying. I’m running a little late on it, but after a recent comment on File 770 that someone with a Puerto Rican grandmother isn’t a real Latina, I’m going to check in. I would have questioned the comment on File 770, but I’ve been censored by Mike Glyer again. Presumably this means he supports the statement and doesn’t want it challenged.

The controversy is about the novel American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins. This is what Oprah Winfrey called a “heart-wrenching” novel about a Mexican family’s efforts to escape from a drug cartel and cross the US border. The novel was recommended by Oprah for her book club and then promptly met by trashing on social media as “brownface” and cultural appropriation by a “white” woman. Cummins revelation that her grandmother was Latina did nothing to stop the furor. This generates some interesting questions. First, what is the definition of Latina? Second, why is someone ¼ Puerto Rican identifying as white? And last, is the issue of #OwnVoices and/or cultural appropriation valid in this case?

First, the definition of Latina: Jim Crow laws would define anyone with a drop of Latin blood as Latina, but these laws are now (supposedly) defunct. However, Native Americans currently use a definition called blood quantum to assess eligibility for tribal membership. According to this principle, someone with ¼ ancestry is considered fairly close, and therefore would be eligible for membership in all but the pickiest tribes. So, a similar analysis suggests that having a Puerto Rican grandmother should definitely qualify Cummins as Latina.

Okay next, why hasn’t she been embracing her heritage and marketing herself as a Latina writer? Research suggests that certain ethnic groups embrace separatism and victim politics, while others opt to work within the system as it is. The US has a long history of immigrants that assimilate into the “white” race. This is, of course, easier for more-or-less light-skinned European types. Although Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants faced initial racism, they fairly quickly assimilated into the white structure of the US. Trying to force other groups to assimilate (i.e. Native Americans) gave the process a bad name in the 19th century, but this remains a highly successful method of “becoming white.” US residents have a very flexible attitude toward culture and skin tone, and as it turns out, Latin immigrants expect to become white within two to three generations. According to Pew, about half of US Hispanic/LatinX residents mark the “white” box, stepping up to assume white privilege. Plus, the number changing their response from LatinX to white has been increasing lately, presumably as the benefits of minority status drop off and family affluence increases. So, does her identification as white erase Cummins’ Latina ancestry? How do you erase something like that, anyway?

And last, is this a case of “brownface” and/or cultural appropriation? One of the problems with knee-jerk, mob-action bullying campaigns is that they don’t investigate the facts before exploding on social media. Presumably Cummins feels a real connection to the Latin immigrant story, or she wouldn’t have felt compelled to write a heart-wrenching novel about the issue. Everyone might have considered shutting up and apologizing when she announced her Latina heritage, but instead they opted to double down and disparage her credentials as a real Latina. Cultural appropriation? Well okay, maybe, because her heritage isn’t Mexican, but you could easily make a case that being Latina is qualification enough; discuss the crime and drug trafficking problem in Puerto Rico, and count the number of Puerto Ricans that migrated to the mainland US after the last weather and corruption disaster. How closely are we going to split hairs on this issue?

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Are activists bullying editors and small publishers now?

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For anyone who’s really tired of hearing about the RWA dealings, I promise this is the last blog about it. In the last post, I mentioned there are a number of issues that stand out in the recent controversy. I’ve discussed one, but here’s another.

There has been a movement on Twitter for some time now to bully writers based on allegations of racism. This happens especially in the Young Adult genre, an apparent attempt to make examples of vulnerable minority writers, in particular, to publicize issues of racism and cultural appropriation. One particularly egregious example includes Jenny Trout attacking black writer Fionna Man for a fantasy novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. More recent incidents include attacks on Laurie Forest for The Black Witch, a book that addresses racism; on Amélie Wen Zhao for Blood Heir, a book about an enslaved population, and on Kosoko Jackson, a gay black author for A Place for Wolves, about a gay black protagonist in the Kosovo war. However, the incidents that sparked the RWA meltdown are a little different; in this case, Courtney Milan and her Twitter army attacked two editors and a publisher.

As in the author bullying attacks, the Twitter activists picked an editor and a publisher they thought were vulnerable. Sue Grimshaw is a freelance editor and in 2019 was working at Jack’s House and at Glenfinnan Publishing as an acquisitions editor. Sharp-eyed activists on Twitter noted that Grimshaw had “liked” several tweets that expressed conservative views. Grimshaw had also worked as a book buyer for Borders when the company policy was to shelve African American romances separately, and some romance fans reported encounters at conferences where she seemed uncomfortable with questions about diversity. Based on this, Milan and other activists began to suspect that Grimshaw might hold conservative views. Although this was only a suspicion, they still went after Grimshaw as an anti-diversity editor. Jack’s House fired her based on the Twitter campaign, and the Twitter activists then put pressure on Suzan Tisdale at Glenfinnan to do the same. Tisdale refused, and Grimshaw’s co-editor Kathryn Davis also stepped up to defend her. Milan then went after Tisdale and Davis. The two of them approached the RWA separately with complaints, which management encouraged them to make official.

So, an important point that emerges from this is that Milan and her team of activists attempted to destroy an editor’s ability to find work in the profession based on a mere suspicion that she might hold conservative views. They moved from a few “likes” on Trump quotes to a campaign that labeled Grimshaw a racist gatekeeper who was reducing diversity. When Davis and Tisdale tried to defend her, they became racists, too, which damaged their reputations as an editor and publisher, respectively.

I may be wrong, but I’m thinking this attack on editors/publishers is a new direction for diversity activists. Of course, Vox Day attacked Irene Gallo and Tor after Gallo called him a neo-Nazi racist, sexist and homophobe on Twitter, but in that case, Gallo attacked him first. Making an example of an editor and publisher on suspicion, without any real evidence of anti-diversity, looks to me like something completely and dangerously different. And Milan was an official in management of the RWA at the time? It’s no wonder Tisdale filed a complaint. Grimshaw, apparently, did not. But she did delete her Twitter account.

So, what should we think about this? Should all small publishers and free-lance editors now be concerned that the Twitter activists might go after them? Should they all try to fatten up their reputations as diversity friendly? And what recourse might wronged editors/publishers have when they lose business over alleged transgressions? A civil suit? Should professional organizations get ahead of this with a fund to help with libel litigation?

And last, let’s hear it for Sue Grimshaw’s ghosting ability.

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