Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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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.

Review of “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

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This is a speculative fiction novelette released by Subterranean Press in April of 2018. It runs 88 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Connie Willis, she is an old hand at SFF, a multi-award winner and New York Times Bestseller. This review contains spoilers.

Jim is in New York City to make contacts for a book about the uselessness of nostalgia for obsolete technology. He does a radio interview where he gets in an argument with the host about how this applies to books. On the way to a meeting with a Random House editor, Jim is caught in a terrible rainstorm and ducks into a shop for rare books called Ozymandias Books. Although the store seems small, it opens into a storage area where Jim looks through the collection and eventually gets lost. He is rescued by a busy clerk and hurriedly catches a taxi for his appointment. When he tries to find the shop again later, he can’t.

“Ozymandias” is a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet from 1817 about great works that crumble and disappear. That states the story’s theme pretty clearly, about how we’re in danger of losing the body of knowledge contained in out-of-print books, now generally dumped in the landfill because they’re replaced by electronic media. Willis is excellent at creating entertaining characters and making things go wrong, and her work is always entertaining to read.

On the not so great side, nothing happens here. Jim leaves his interview, walks around, ducks into the store, looks at the books, leaves, and then can’t find the shop again. That’s it. It could have been a piece of flash fiction, but instead it’s been padded out to 88 pages. I was left feeling this is pretty empty.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Apex magazine in February of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A librarian watches as a skinny black child discovers the library. The boy clearly loves escapist fantasies and chooses books like The Runaway Prince. He turns out to be a foster child. The librarian feeds him a compendium of fantasy books, but keeps away the book that he really needs. When he tries to hide in the library overnight, she decided not to notice. When he starts to smell of futility and the death of yearning, she begins to wonder: What should she do?

This is another character-driven story without anything much in the way of plot. The boy comes into the library over a period of time and the witchy librarian watches him. This is an allegory, I expect, of what actual librarians see in rural counties when disadvantaged children come in and discover a different world outside their own circumscribed place. It has an upbeat feel at the end, as we can assume the boy uses the magic book to build a successful life somewhere else.

On the negative side, this feels long and relies on mechanics that are a little too visible. It’s clearly aimed at avid fantasy readers who will love the books the boy reads. It uses pity to make an emotional impact as the poor kid spirals deeper into depression. The story has a couple of digressions about other disadvantaged children that make the social justice topic clear, but I thought this detracted some from this particular boy’s story. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the magic book is that she gives the boy to rescue him. Of course, this is symbolic, but it leaves something of a gap in the narrative. Actually, why aren’t they passing out magic books for everybody?

Three and a half stars.

Bio of LGBTQ SFF pioneer Sheridan Le Fanu

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Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin, Ireland, to parents Thomas Philip Le Fanu and Emma Dobbin. This was a literary family, and Sheridan had an elder sister and a younger brother. In 1826 the family moved to Abington, County Limerick, where his father worked as a rector. Although the children had a tutor, Le Fanu mostly educated himself in his father’s library and was writing poetry by age 15. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, but never practiced law and instead took up journalism. In 1838 Le Fanu began contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story “The Ghost and the Bone-Setter” (1838). He became owner of several newspapers after 1840, including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder.

On 18 December 1844 Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett and the couple had four children. Susanna died suddenly in 1858, and Le Fanu gave up writing for a while but later picked it up again, publishing short stories and novels with folklore themes. Although Le Fanu was apparently straight, his lesbian vampire novel Carmilla is notable as an influence on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

This information is from Le Fanu’s article at Wikipedia. You can read more here.

Bio of Hispanic SFF pioneer Jorge Luis Borges

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Jorge Borges (1899-1986) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the son of Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam and Leonor Acevedo Suárez. The family was middle class, though not wealthy. Borges was home-schooled until age 11, and soon afterward the family moved to Switzerland because of political unrest in Argentina. Borges graduated from the Collège de Genève in 1918, and after World War I the family moved to Spain for a while and in 1921 returned to Argentina.

Borges published his first book of poetry Fervor de Buenos Aires in 1923 and by the mid-1930s was writing existential fiction in a style called “irreality.” In 1938 he nearly died after a head injury, and after recovering began to write in a different style. In his 1941 story “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (The Garden of Forking Paths), he wrote a combination of book and maze that can be read many ways, arguably the first example of a hypertext novel.

In his later years, Borges lost his eyesight, but continued to work with his mother as his secretary. In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the Prix International prize, and in 1971 the Jerusalem Prize. In 1967 Borges began a collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni that made his work available to English-speakers. In 1967 Borges married the recently widowed Elsa Astete Millán, but the marriage failed after three years. In 1986 he married his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry. Borges died of liver cancer on 13 June 1986 in Geneva.

Borges’ works include philosophical and political themes, and he is recognized as a pioneer in magical realism, with some critics considering him to be the originator of this type literature with the release of his “Historia universal de la infamia” (Universal History of Infamy). Regardless of his marriages, he was rumored never to have had sex. The philosophical term “Borgesian conundrum” is named after him, which is the question of whether the writer writes a story, or it writes him/her.

This information is from Borges’ article at Wikipedia. You can read more here.

A look at RaceFail 2009

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Edward LearIn 2009 Elizabeth Bear posted a blog on “Writing the Other.” This was meant to be simple writing advice on how to deal with characters as diverse as stag-horned ponies to Jewish former Army Captains from St. Louis. Bear recommended considering these characters as unique individuals, rather than “other” and writing from that perspective. This sounds like good advice at first glance. However, the post provoked a firestorm of comments about cultural appropriation by privileged white writers who take minority characters and make them over from the white perspective. Various people got their feelings hurt, and pro writer MacAllister Stone called the whole thing “abusive.”

We’re back now to the question about freedom of expression in fiction writing. It is definitely true that an African American writer can fill in current cultural details about a contemporary black American character better than a white person could, but does this ability qualify the same African American writer to write about African characters, for example? What about the US African American experience would inform this process? Would that be cultural appropriation on the part of the African American writer?

Can a Chinese American writer from San Francisco write authentically about the culture of ancient China? Or does the fact of being born into contemporary American culture negate this ability? Would a Chinese American author writing about African American characters be a case of cultural appropriation? Or is cultural appropriation only about white privilege?

Do minority readers/writers have a point about cultural appropriation? Is it a problem that writers of a particular ethnic background write their characters based on their own viewpoints? Or, as Ann Rice says, is this just another case of author bullying?

When does activism become bullying?

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“Speak up” is something we hear a lot in reference to making positive changes in our community. This is something activists are expected to do. After all, if nobody knows there’s a problem, then they won’t do anything to remedy it, right? In the previous blog, Lamb’s last recommendation was that we speak up about bullying, for example. This is meant to raise the profile of the issue and influence sites like Amazon and Goodreads to institute policies that make bullying more difficult. People also feel they have to speak up when they think they see things like racism, sexism or homophobia. But, is all this speaking up a good thing? When does it cross the line into something else?

For example, I’m sure Jenny Trout thought she was working against racism and child rape when she attacked Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Clearly she thought she was using her position as a best-selling author for a good cause when she directed her fans to harass Man’s booksellers into withdrawing the book from circulation. However, this act turned out to look like terrorism instead, because Trout hadn’t researched the book and its author well enough to realize what she was really doing.

In another example, N.K. Jemison made a very activist speech at Continuum 2013 in Australia that discussed racism, sexism and homophobia in the SFF community, as well as past abuses. In the text of the speech she’s posted, she doesn’t mention Vox Day’s name, but she does complain that he is “misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole.” Then she suggests that the 10% of SFWA members who voted for Day are “busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” She then complains about the silent majority of enablers who don’t come out to oppose this.

How should this to be taken by members of the SFWA? Is it a call to action, or an attempt at bullying?

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