The SFF Librarian Reviews, Jan. 2021
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, 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!
Somewhere in a parallel universe, musician George Clinton decided to become a novelist. The books he wrote were rife with characters moving through life to their own intense grooves, plots that rapidly shift to the downbeat, powerful and hypnotic narrative rhythms and basslines, and dialogue in which throb soulfulness, insouciant humor, and the celebration of a people’s strength. Well, that universe might not own Clinton’s funky beats, but here in our world we do have our own literary George Clinton, in the person of one Zig Zag Claybourne. Claybourne’s new novel Afro Puffs Are the Antennae of the Universe (Obsidian Sky Books, 2020, $16.95) is best described as the sheer joy of being alive, rendered in print. Claybourne’s work is like nothing else in literature, and like little else in art besides, perhaps, the music of Parliament or Prince. (Claybourne helpfully provides a soundtrack of recommended listening to accompany the book, which definitely helps set the mood for the story and provides a window into his creative process.)
A sequel to the rollicking 2016 adventure The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan, Afro Puffs turns away from the eponymous duo of the original (who as this novel opens have blasted off into deep space for an offscreen mission) and towards their female associates, lovers, and friends. Taking center stage, the redoubtable Captain Desiree Quicho leads a team of fun-loving, ass-kicking, brilliant women of color against an assortment of evil conspiracies, mad scientists, and rogue AIs. Above all, though, the true enemy of Desiree and her friends is the age-old human compulsion driving some to govern the lives of others and treat them as things to be controlled, not people to be loved. That kind of greed and egotism violates the harmony of the universe. Joy and freedom are the ways that things are supposed to be, Claybourne posits, and the real heroes are the ones who try to make that life possible for others. Whether on board an ocean-voyaging ship, a shuttle blasting through space between the moon and the Earth, inside the hidden reaches of Atlantis, under the sands of the Sahara Desert, or even in the sleazier parts of Tampa, Florida, people share this world. We owe it to each other to love each other. And we need to be free to find our own grooves.
In a powerful speech near the book’s conclusion, Desiree says to one of her adversaries, “I’ve met more people around this entire world who fed me, sheltered me, sometimes even clothed me, for no gain but my company. Before I knew what Thoom was, I knew true humans…I loved people who gave zero damns about the gains of wealth. Instead, they enriched me. You take and take, and for what purpose? It must be so sad to wake up with ‘You are part of the problem’ pounding your forehead like a migraine until the only relief for you is to brutalize someone…Change yourself…because you are poison as you are. You exist as disease. It benefits so few, least of all you, who could be growing, building, and evolving” (267-268). Claybourne, a writer deliriously in love with life, writes with both irreverent humor and deep feeling about this struggle inherent to the human condition, but he knows well that it is not forever. He knows, and his characters know, that the beat can be changed.
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I’m increasingly taken with this ongoing trend of what we might call “social justice fantasy,” works that meld traditional fantasy tropes to stories that resonate with contemporary concerns about economic divides, social and gender inequality, and capitalist exploitation of the poor. Works such as Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother, C.S.E. Cooney’s Desdemona and the Deep, and Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches carry on the great SF&F tradition of analyzing the contemporary world through fantastical lenses, here dusted with a little touch of magic. And in our society today, with ever-widening chasms between the few rich and the many poor and with growing sensitivities to injustice, it’s more appropriate than ever to expect our beloved fantasy genre to do its part in calling attention to these issues. They affect fantasy readers as much as any other group, after all.
To this list of “social justice fantasy” works we now add C.S. Malerich’s historical fantasy novella The Factory Witches of Lowell (Tor.com, 2020, $14.99), which gives a magical autonomy and renewed voice to the famous Lowell “mill girls” of the early 19th century. Lowell, Massachusetts, was an early epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution, famed for its many textile mills that were faster and vastly more efficient than previous generations of spinners and weavers. Many of these mills employed large numbers of young women, who lived near the mills in boarding houses and created intimate and active social communities. A newfound sense of independence resulted in several strikes by mill girls in the 1830s and the formation of an active Lowell female labor movement in 1845. Malerich takes this inspiring historical moment, spices it with the equally historical tradition of suspecting independent-minded women of “witchcraft,” and literalizes that tradition. The result is an appealing narrative of strength, solidarity, and resistance.
Judith Whittier is a mill girl ablaze with the desire for justice and fairness (so much so that her compatriot Hannah Pickering can “See” her very soul lit up). Judith and the other girls can use spellcraft, but sickly Hannah—weakened from the poor health that results from long inhalation of cotton lint – has a deeper understanding of the mill girls’ potential. The two and their fellow workers/boardinghouse residents determine to rise up and claim what is owed—better working conditions and fairer wages. At the core of their effort is the importance of connection, literal and figurative—not only must the girls stand together in worker solidarity (as in real life), but they must realize that, as Hannah says to her friend, “Think, Judith: spells are built on metaphor and connections…Find a connection to the mill’s machinery, even outside the walls, and they’ll be influenced inside” (49). Equally important, though, is the understanding that capitalism and the laws made by rich men (“Capitalists have their paper-craft”, states Hannah) are another kind of witchcraft, ultimately to be countered by the downtrodden making a stand both magical and mundane.
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Does the universe really need humanity? What if we were suddenly gone, not just from Earth, but from everywhere? So much of science fiction from its inception is centered (naturally enough, since humans are doing the writing) on the impact that humans have on the universe or on alien civilizations. But what might happen should we go missing, and vanish from galactic memory? It’s an intriguing question asked by Zack Jordan in his epic space opera The Last Human (Del Rey, 2020, $27.00), and the answer is not necessarily flattering to us.
The book begins aboard Watertower Station, a tiny settlement within a galaxy-spanning civilization called the Network that encompasses over a million species—a Federation or a Culture writ exceptionally large. The Network is a place of peace and prosperity, where things like war, genocide, poverty, and famine have long been eliminated; should any Citizen species choose to reject or renounce membership, it may go its way. However, as one of the interstitial texts describing the Network that are strewn throughout the book notes ominously:
If a species decides to reject half a billion years of work towards this end, that is its own choice. If, however, it decides to undermine said work, then the Citizens of the Network are themselves left with no choice. They must assume that the species in question wishes to introduce that which others have spent eons eradicating.
And thus, the species itself must be eradicated.94
Within this dazzling multicultural universe resides Sarya the Daughter. Sarya is the novel’s eponymous character, living aboard Watertower with a false species identity. She is the adoptive daughter of Shenya the Widow, a deadly, blade-covered, insectile apex predator, whose loving yet troubled relationship with Sarya is beautifully, emotionally rich and well-drawn. That mother-daughter bond is key not only to Sarya’s initial survival, but to her growing strength of will and determination as the book progresses. It also is one of the novel’s many—and among the most heart-wrenching—representations of choice. The power and responsibilities of choice are recurrent themes in the novel. Shenya makes the fateful choice to rescue and adopt Sarya, which though it ensures Sarya’s survival also sets her on a path that forces her to hide who and what she is. The Network promotes as its cardinal virtue the ability of species to choose or reject membership. The immense alien minds at the heart of the story offer Sarya choices of a destiny that may or may not be real choices. Whatever choices Sarya makes throughout the book will have incredibly far-reaching implications for the future of what remains of the human species. And humanity itself has suffered grievously from its own deliberate choices (as have its victims), as one of Sarya’s alien acquaintances, Mer, rages in a passage that sadly calls to mind so much of what we humans can do to each other:
This is our galaxy, Human…A few fires in a universe so huge, so cold, so dark that nobody knows what’s in it. So much darkness it would rip your mind in half to think about it, and nobody knows anything about it. So what do we do? We band together, a million species with our backs to our fires and our talons to the darkness. We keep our weapons for the night—not each other. And every single one of us understood that—except your Gor-damned species. What the hell kind of morals do you people have? You had a fire. Your people got to grow up in a nice little place, with food and light and heat and everything you needed—just like the rest of us. And then when the rest of us said hi, what did the Humans think?…You thought, maybe we can take their fires too.376
When Sarya chokes out that Mer is killing her, Mer responds, “Yes, but it’s what I choose to do.” What we choose to do in our lives has consequences, particularly in a society both dense and rich with other people. And those consequences can be lasting. Although Sarya is the Last Human, she bears the weight of the fateful choices that her ancestors made, as well as those of the higher powers that would seek to exploit her humanity.
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Early in 2020, we were all enthralled (at least I hope we were) by Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune, a story Zen Cho accurately described as “an epic in miniature.” Set in a fantasy analog to imperial China (with strong Vietnamese influence), the first in Vo’s “Singing Hills Cycle” centered on Chih, a story-gathering cleric investigating the history of their nation. They are accompanied by a talking bird named Almost Brilliant, and together the duo become involved in uncovering the truth behind the known lives of the current and previous Empresses. Salt and Fortune (and Chih) are concerned with the truth of things: what stories are told, and by whom? Whom do the traditional stories leave out? Most importantly, whose truths and voices are erased when history is transmuted into accepted fact? Pointed questions, worthy of deep consideration by us all.
Vo returns with a sequel: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (Tor.com, 2020, $15.99), which returns us to the wandering Chih (sadly, this time sans bird). This time we find Chih riding atop a tamed mammoth through a mountain pass on another quest for knowledge. As before, Chih’s natural state of being is investigative: their first line of dialogue in the novella is a question about a tavern owner’s family history. Both their historical knowledge and need to know true from false soon become vital to the plot, as Chih, the mammoth Pilek, and Pilek’s driver Si-yu find themselves in a confrontation with three tigers.
The tigers are not mere tigers, however. They are women and guardians of the mountains, and they are hungry. However, their hunger is temporarily turned aside as Chih—scholar and archivist to the end—asks to know their story. Hoping that their notes will survive and be committed to the archives at Singing Hills should their party be eaten, Chih stumbles into the legend of Ho Thi Thao, the tiger-woman, and her great romance with Scholar Trung Dieu. The remainder of the novella concerns the unspooling of that legend—the commonly-accepted version Chih knows, and that which lead tiger Ho Sinh Loan claims to know:
“What do you know about Ho Thi Thao?” asked the tiger.
“Well, my job is rather to find out what you know,” Chih said, remembering at the last moment not to smile. Smiling bared teeth, and Chih knew that theirs would not hold up next to the tiger’s.
“Singing Hills does archival and investigative work, and I know for sure that we would love to have your account of the marriage of Ho Thi Thao.”
“Our account,” sneered the tiger. “You mean the true one.”
“Of course,” Chih said brightly.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“No, I think you are going to tell us what you know instead,” said Sing Loan.
“We’ll tell you when you get it wrong,” growled Sinh Hoa abruptly, her voice like falling rocks. “We shall correct you.”
“Best not get it wrong too often,” advised Sinh Cam, her voice like dangerous water.
“What are you doing?” hissed Si-yu.
“Telling a story,” Chih said, and they wished that Almost Brilliant was there to scold them for such a foolish thing.36-37
And so the story unfolds, during which Chih’s version—the “official” version—is shown to be lacking a key element: the deep passion Ho Thi Thao holds for Dieu (and by extension, Thi Thao’s agency as a full, loving being). That absence is what denies the story not only its truth, but its human essence, which is somehow worse. I mean, when one thinks about it, we have no way of proving that the tigers’ version is any more factually true than Chih’s. But it seems truer, because it grants Thi Thao a full measure of autonomy and emotional range. It’s a story much fuller of human richness, and therefore somehow more true. When the Tiger is a lovely, poetic meditation on the secret histories so often lost under layers of custom and assumptions that hide the emotional complexities of real people.
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.