The SFF Librarian Reviews, Nov. 2020
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction and fantasy librarian for one of the world’s largest SFF collection, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so every month in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s find strange new worlds together!
There’s something to be said for the dramatic power of claustrophobia and its ability to heighten narrative tension. Tales of a small group of people forced into close quarters, in inescapable situations, are ever popular because they make excellent laboratories for exploring the heights and depths of human psychology. Max Barry takes that Lifeboat-like dramatic intimacy and applies it to the vast canvas of the space opera genre in Providence (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020, $27.00). Set aboard the eponymous warship (well, technically, Providence Five), the novel is set seven years into an interstellar war between humans and an alien race termed “salamanders.” A disastrous, fatal first contact jolted Earth into mounting an all-encompassing existential conflict, of which Providence Five is the latest addition to the human arsenal. Aboard the massive vessel is a mere crew of four: Jackson, Anders, Gilligan (or Gilly), and Talia. The inevitable personality conflicts and growing feelings of uneasy isolation take their human toll, even as the ship proves victorious again and again against vast swarms of salamander attack vessels.
Barry’s story is not a simple one of spaceships slugging it out (although there is plenty of that to be had), but a narrative with intense, darker questions at its core: how do we draw people into the inhumanity of war, and hold them there? What price do we pay for survival? What happens when we find that, rather than the hero of our own narrative, we are instead an ancillary at best? As with the best science fiction, Providence explores the limits and the defects of the human condition that must inevitably follow us into deep space when we finally get there. One might even say that doing so will not be determined by us, but is instead a matter of a higher providence.
It has been a remarkable year for World Fantasy Award-winning Sheree Renée Thomas. Not only was she just made the incoming editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the editor of the storied Dark Matter anthology series has recently released an exquisite new collection (her third). Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, 2020, $16.95) is a deeply felt, beautifully written group of stories with music—and the music and rhythms of life—running through every story and every line.
Note the story “Shanequa’s Blues – Or Another Shotgun Lullaby,” perhaps the central story of the collection. A man named Mopti is on a quest like that of his blues-loving uncle before him, to locate a mysterious piece of music called The Great Going Song. At a tiny record shop in Mississippi, he meets the shop owner, who tells him the record’s story:
“…They say the album is made of the perfect sound, full of all the colors of our world. It’s a miraculous key, said to open doors that only a god can.”
“A god?” Mopti didn’t like this kind of talk, and the more the man spoke, the more he sounded like Uncle Oumar’s strange, manic notes.
“Only one number in our universal spectrum is the same color and sound, the core frequency of creation, nature, life. The original musical scale has only six notes, but they say that there are actually nine.”
“Nine? Now you’re speaking my language,” Mopti said. “I’m an accountant. I speak numbers fluently.”
“Ah,” Old Player said. “But these are the kind of numbers that can change a world, a kind of sacred geometry.”
In Thomas’ work, music is a divine and transformative act: it creates life, changes lives. It heals, it reveals, it shapes. It calls the ancestors, it defines the future. And it forms a common chord and theme that joins the horror of “Thirteen Year Long Song” to the strange post-apocalypticism of “Nightflight” and “Stars Come Down,” to the alien encounter story “Head Static,” to the vampiric “The Dragon Can’t Dance,” to the hopeful fantasy “Madame and the Map: A Journey in Five Movements.” Thomas deftly and gracefully shows the reader how humanity—in its various stories and legends, and in how it survives the greatest sufferings – is the Great Going Song. Her words are fitting lyrics to the music of life.
Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is justly forgotten, but its gritty revisionist spirit lives on in much superior form through Lavie Tidhar’s novel By Force Alone (Tor, 2020, $27.99). Tidhar has a flair for historical reimaginings (Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, Unholy Land) and here he turns his attention to a thorough rework of the Arthurian legend. In Tidhar’s post-Roman Dark Age Britain, the Knights of the Round Table are little more than a mafia of brawny criminal thugs. Arthur himself is a young gang lord who rises to inherit the throne of Britain, Guinevere the leader of a girl gang of outlaws, Lancelot a wandering adventurer and master of mysterious martial arts. Most of the magic (though far from all) and pageantry (and all the nobility and medieval conceptions of honor) are completely divorced from the familiar Matter of Britain we know so well. The book is riven with Deadwood levels of profanity and brutal violence
In a lesser hand than Tidhar’s, this might all seem cheap and superficial (a charge laid by many at Ritchie’s door regarding his film). It seems the easiest literary trick to ask, “What if the thing you love was actually THE EXACT OPPOSITE?????” However, a legion of skilled authors has reworked myths, legends, and fairy tales into alternative narratives in just this way, often with great success. Those that manage it do so because they have the skill to recognize that deep human and societal truths lie within these traditional stories, and that the reuse of familiar narrative settings can add an extra level of enjoyment as the reader is obliged to think of their traditional associations with a particular character or plot in new lights and with a new consciousness. This is not to excuse cheap reboots, but to say that when done well, these kinds of subversions can be fun as well as thoughtful. By Force Alone is such a one—by recasting Camelot as a criminal enterprise-turned state, Tidhar rethinks the concept of monarchy as rule not by destiny’s (or even birth’s) anointed, but as the inevitable result of a ruthless struggle for power. All the ceremonials and high-flown language we use about monarchies cover up the fact that it is rule, or the rule of their undeserving descendants, of thugs who seize power and commit crimes in the process. It’s a lesson that could certainly apply to more than one government today.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. The author and editor have worked together in the past on another publication. No review copies were arranged by ARB.
The cover image is by Tomáš Matouš.