Erasing the Past to Change the Future?

9 Comments

There are a number of issues that stand out in the recent RWA controversy. It would take a while to work through them all, but one thing that caught my attention is the apparent culture clash between one set of authors who thinks their work should be historically accurate, and an opposing author who charges that this perpetrates a dangerous, racist stereotype. More specifically, this is a look at Courtney Milan’s comment, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” This raises the questions: 1) whether Chinese women in the 19th century (as featured in Davis’ novel) were “submissive,” and 2) whether it’s racist to say so in contemporary fiction (as claimed by Milan).

First some background: Actually, there’s a long history of various cultures attempting to control women and their child-bearing capability, so enforced submission isn’t a problem that’s particular to Asian cultures. In general, Asian cultures are more collectivist than individualist. That means all members of society are required to show a responsibility and duty to the family, the community and the nation that should be stronger than his or her individual interests, i.e. everyone is expected to sacrifice for the greater good. I gather this expectation falls heavily on daughters, as much of the recent work I’ve read from Asian women seems to be about rebellion.

Besides this, the submission of women in Chinese culture in the 19th century was enforced by other customs, including foot binding. This procedure was promoted as enhancing beauty, but actually it crippled girls, reduced their mobility and prevented them from running away. This made it easy to control them in marriage, and also made them good workers in cottage industry. The end result of these social customs was outward compliance, though women generally developed methods of intrigue and manipulation to advance their individual interests.

So, is this mandated submission now a dangerous racial stereotype? Apparently, the answer is yes. Research verifies that the “submissive Asian woman” is a stereotype that persists, and that some men seek out Asian women with the idea they will be sexually submissive. When this turns out not to meet their fantasy, of course, rates of domestic violence escalate.

So, all the authors in the argument are correct in what they say. Now the question arises as to what writers should do in a situation like this. A story that is historically accurate has the advantage of exposing the practices that controlled women in the past, but it also has the danger of suggesting to some readers that these practices were appropriate and that Asian women are still somehow trained to be submissive. A story that erases the social conditions (like foot binding) leaves the reader with a false idea of how societies work and what dangers have historically limited personal freedoms. Issues like this aren’t singular to romances with Chinese characters, either. European women in the 19th century were controlled in various ways, too, not to mention African women. So what choice should the community of writers make? Should we agree that it is now sexist/racist to feature any subservient or submissive female characters in our work?

Checking through a few romances, it looks like the solution to this problem over the last few years is the headstrong heroine in a historical setting who somehow manages to have her way and her lover, too, a man who appreciates her willful character. Speculative fiction doesn’t even have to provide the romance. See Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, for example, where an Asian girl masquerades as a boy to save her father from having to serve in the war, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series that suggests women really did have a place in the early US space program. Both these are fantasy, but does it really have a purpose? Disney’s The Last Jedi came right out and said that Rey would never accomplish anything until she cut herself loose from history. Presumably isolation from the past is expected to give young women better self-esteem and more readiness to grasp opportunities. Will it work? Can we really change the future with fiction that rewrites the past? Or is this strategy only creating a dangerous ignorance?

Getting back to the issue with the RWA, men don’t generally read romance novels, so it seems unlikely that Milan was concerned that Davis’ book would influence their stereotype of Asian women. That strongly suggests she was: 1) attacking Davis with words she knew would cause damage, 2) using Davis’ book as a pretext for an activist rant on Twitter without regard for consequences, or 3) both. Now that she has generated a backlash, is she really a victim?

Happy Holidays!

Leave a comment

A Merry Christmas to those who observe it, and a happy New Year to all! Everyone please have a safe and peaceful holiday season.

bells

Review of “Emergency Skin” by N.K. Jemisin

12 Comments

This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, edited by Blake Crouch. Jemisin is the multi-award winning author of The Broken Earth trilogy. The story runs 33 pages, and this review contains major spoilers.

An agent is sent to Earth, which the Founders of a new colony abandoned years ago. Most of the inhabitants of the new colony wear an artificial composite skin, but the Founders have promised the agent a perfect white skin and a long penis if they are successful in retrieving samples of the HeLa culture for use in life-prolonging applications. In order to monitor and direct the operation, an AI is implanted in the agent’s brain. Although the AI says the Earth is likely destroyed and the inhabitants ugly and devolved, the agent finds everything healthy and beautiful, with residents living in elevated cities that do little or no harm to the environment. The residents recognize the agent’s composite skin and readily offer samples of the HeLa culture. Intrigued, the agent activates their emergency skin, which produces a dark covering that includes “wooly” hair, and makes plans to stay with one of the Earth residents. Should they abandon their mission?

This is an experimental format, as the author writes in second person (you) and records only what the AI and the Earth residents say. This means the reader has to infer anything the agent thinks or says in return. As usual, Jemisin has set up a resonant foundation for her story. This particular one seems to be an allegory of rich whites fleeing the neighborhood while taking advantage of black contrubutions. Because of the format, there’s not much in the way of world-building, action or characterization. All that remains nebulous, second-person hearsay, and the reader has to work a bit to translate the message, which takes shape gradually as the story progresses.

HeLa is a culture of cancer cells harvested from Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died in 1951. The culture is apparently immortal and has been proposed for species-hood because it has a unique genome derived from both human and HPV chromosomes. It has been used for scientific and medical research since the 1950s, in important and highly profitable projects including Salk’s development of the polio vaccines. The culture has never been patented, and because of its commercial value, it remains controversial because the Lacks family has never been considered “owners” or compensated for its use.

Besides featuring the HeLa culture, Jemisin injects racism and genderism into the story by having the Founders dangle white-maleness as the sought-after reward in their culture. However, judging the difference between the worlds, the agent chooses a dark and (possibly) female skin over this, in order to better experience the culture of Earth, where getting rid of the wealthy elite has allowed the “ugly” dregs of humanity left behind to come together and save the world.

I know it’s necessary for the allegory, but there’s a fundamental inconsistency in what the Founders’ AI says. If the Founders think the Earth is in such bad shape, why have they sent an agent to look for the HeLa culture there? It lives in a science lab.

This is well executed as long as the message is seen as political commentary meant to provoke emotion. However, in real world terms, the idea of removing wealthy whites to improve the world seems simplistic. On the other hand, is Jemisin suggesting that black people need to stop lusting after whiteness and take care of things themselves? That’s a more complex subject.

Four stars.

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

2 Comments

This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Finalists!

Leave a comment

The World Fantasy Convention where the award is presented takes place October 31 – November 3, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. Two finalists in each category are chosen by previous convention attendees and the other three are added by judges. The panel of judges for 2019 is international, including: Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas and Tod McCoy. This year there’s a noticeable overlap between the fiction categories here and the Nebula and Hugo finalists I’ve already reviewed. I’ll start up some reviews of the rest in the fiction categories right away. I don’t know if I’ll get to the anthologies and collections.

NOVEL
In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
Witchmark by C. L. Polk (Tor.com)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)

NOVELLA
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)
The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018)
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION
“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine, July 2019)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed, October 2018)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny Magazine, March-April 2018)

ANTHOLOGY
Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler (Ate Bit Bear)
The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books US/HarperVoyager UK)
Best New Horror #28, edited by Stephen Jones (Drugstore Indian Press UK)
Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (Saga Press)
Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo (Tor.com)

COLLECTION
The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (Saga Press/Head of Zeus UK)
Still So Strange, by Amanda Downum (ChiZine Publications)
An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, by Andy Duncan (Small Beer Press)
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Phantom Limbs, by Margo Lanagan (PS Publishing)

ARTIST
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
Jeffrey Alan Love
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL
C. C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Irene Gallo, for Art Direction at Tor Books and Tor.com
Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)
Catherine McIlwaine for Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition (The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford)
Julian Yap, Molly Barton, Jeff Li, and James Stuart for Serial Box

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL
Mike Allen, for Mythic Delirium
Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine
E. Catherine Tobler, for Shimmer Magazine
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald

Leave a comment

This is a time travel novella released by Tor.com in April of 2018. Print length is 144 pages. McDonald is an award-winning author, having won the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This review contains spoilers.

Emmett Leigh is a sometimes poet and book dealer who specializes in the World War II era. At a bookstore closing, he finds a copy of a poetry book titled Time Was by E.L. Anonymous. Inside is a letter from Tom to his lover Ben. Emmett posts to Facebook, asking for any information on the principals, and is answered by Thorn Hildreth, who recognizes the names. She lives in Lincolnshire, inherited an archive of WWII memorabilia from her grandfather, and also has a photograph. Emmett’s friend, an Imperial War Museum archivist with a photographic memory, locates other photographs for him, but oddly, these are from different time periods. Emmett and Thorn are forced to the conclusion these two men may be immortals, but further research shows they may be time travelers instead, who use the poetry book as a way to leave messages for each other in different eras. Can Emmett unravel the mystery?

The narrative switches between Emmett’s research and the lovers’ encounters. The story comes together gradually as Emmett investigates, and we learn about the wartime research project that created the time stresses, still playing out, that left Ben and Tom lost in time. We also learn about Emmett’s personal associations as he researches. He strikes up a brief relationship with Thorn, which soon fails, and finds out interesting things about Tom’s mentor, the author of the little book of poetry. The big standout in this novella is the imagery, as the text is accompanied by magical, haunting, atmospheric descriptions of the surroundings, including visuals, sounds and scents.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much in the way of plot here. Emmett’s research unfolds, first revealing the mystery and then following it through. There’s not really much of a hook or action line, either, and I wasn’t really surprised by the revelations at the end. However, this is a great little love story, and definitely worth reading because of the lyrical quality of the prose. I was also glad to see some equal time for a gay male love story here, as SFF output seems to be trending lately to lesbian relationships.

Four stars.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

8 Comments

This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: