The SFF Librarian Reviews, June 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!
[Beginning with a full disclosure: this is something of a themed month. All the authors featured this month have donated their archives to the collection I curate, and therefore I’m the archivist for each of them. Obviously, that says something about my opinions of the beauty and creative genius of their work.]
It truly boggles the mind that Kelly Robson has only been publishing since 2015. In these last six years, Robson has produced a body of work that is rich with humanity, powerful emotion, and the difficult choices we sometimes must make in life, that stands head-to-toe alongside noted writers of much longer careers. Readers of well-crafted fiction should welcome Robson’s new collection Alias Space and Other Stories (Subterranean Press, 2021, $40.00) as a gift. The book contains nearly all of Robson’s short fiction (published in a number of venues) – a treasure house of the human condition and our capacity to love and do good towards each other. As Robson says in her introduction, “I think strangers can care for other strangers. I think the act of nurturing changes a person for the better. I think that love, trust, hope, and all the higher values are real and possible. I think humans are strongest when we find ways to work together, even though lasting cooperation is hellishly difficult to achieve. And I fervently believe that humanity will survive to the stars.” (11) Her sentiments are more necessary than ever, and they are clearly expressed in much of her work. Let this be a time of much hope, in our reading lives as much as anywhere else.
Robson is not merely a Pollyanna putting optimistic words to paper, however. There are deep veins of darkness running through her fiction as well, which only adds to its multidimensionality. Her 2015 Sturgeon Award-finalist story “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” is savage in its horror and violence: inspired by the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence and murder committed against First Nations women along the highways of western Canada (Robson herself is originally from Alberta), the story presents a revival of the title character from painful post-violation death by a friendly alien parasite. What seems like a story of either easily resolved resurrection, however, is deceptively simple: the high dramatic point is neither Jessica’s victimization nor her alien-induced rebirth, but her deliberate decision to eschew the powerlessness thrust upon her by society and instead make her own fateful choice that directs her future. A similar shift from sadness towards determined optimism also denotes Robson’s Sunburst-nominated “Two-Year Man” (2015), set in an alternate dystopian European nation that is ruthlessly caste-divided and where children are gestated in tanks. It is a sad, grey society – frequently a heartless one, as “defective” babies are disposed of. The protagonist, Mikkel, a low-caste lab custodian, smuggles home one day a deformed baby before it can be destroyed, in an attempt to make a family. The ending is bitter, but at the same time charged with an ongoing sense of hope. “He would find more babies. Night after night he’d search for them. Maria had survived, so others would survive, too, and he would find them. Find every baby and bring them all home until Anna healed. He would fill their home with love. It was all he could do.” (31) Of course, that quixotic hope seems doomed to failure, but it is nonetheless real. Mikkel’s nurturing spirit lives on.
Robson sees hope for a better future in all sorts of places, but she seems drawn to people living on the margins. Her 2018 story “What Gentle Women Dare” is an historical take on James Tiptree’s classic “The Screwfly Solution”, and like much of Robson’s work explores the fallout from the abuse of innocents. In 1763 Liverpool, a prostitute named Lolly – beaten and borne down by a lifetime of exploitation and tragedy – encounters an alien visitor attempting to understand humanity’s propensity for violent conflict. Their fateful conversation, drawn from Lolly’s experiences, will eventually lead to a catastrophic alteration in Earth society, but one with the possibility for reduced levels of violence and injustice and for a better life for Lolly herself. At what cost? What *will* a gentle woman dare for security and safety, in the end? The answers to those questions lie in the reader’s imagination. Another Sturgeon award-finalist, 2017’s “We Who Live in the Heart” gives us former surgeon Doc, a stubborn and angry colonist dedicated to their own independent style of living (leaving them out of step with the bulk of spacefaring humankind) and preference for small loose-knit communities. Those emotions have driven Doc away from “civilization” into a small group inhabiting the head of a floating space whale. Crisis erupts when other colonized whales begin acting strangely and risking the deaths of other inhabitants. In the process of helping others, Doc finds new connections in a new relationship and in the hope of a new and beautiful future. Doc is no less stubborn for their experiences, but changed even so. “The whole planet is ours, with unlimited horizons.” (416).
I first encountered Robson through her 2015 Nebula-nominated novella “Waters of Versailles”, winner of the 2016 Aurora Award for Best Short Fiction and included in Alias Space. Reading it, I knew then that she was going to become a giant in the genre one day. The story is set in a richly described 18th century Versailles, a world on its own with its particular culture of rival wits and cutthroat court politics. Ex-soldier Sylvain is an outsider to this world, trying to break his way in through his skill as an engineer. The improved plumbing, new toilets, and dramatic water features he installs are, he believes, the passports to his fame and fortune, but the secret to their success lies with the capricious magical sprite he has captured and must keep hidden. The fantastical element of Robson’s story is almost secondary to her description of court intrigues and the personal and psychological costs to penetrating a hostile social order. Sylvain’s sometime mistress Annette d’Arlain says to him at one point, “You seek to raise yourself above your station…Those who do have no true home. They leave behind their rightful and God-given place and yet never reach their goal. It is a kind of Limbo, a choice to begin eternity in purgatory even before death.” Sylvain responds that “I don’t seek to raise myself. I am where I belong. The palace would be poorer without me”, to which Annette ripostes, “But you want to be the first man of Versailles, even at the destruction of your own self and soul. You are striving to be better than every other man.” (272) The story is one of Sylvain’s gradual realization about where he (and his captive sprite) truly belongs and what makes him happy as a human being. It is a triumph of the natural over artifice and artificiality. It is also a triumph, the first of many, in the literary career of Kelly Robson.
Continuing with the theme of hopeful genre literature (or, if you must, ‘hopepunk’), in these dark times I find more and more that hopefulness and demonstrated competence are literary turn-ons. And despite what some might think, these actually provide good grounds for conflict. One sterling example of this is L.X. Beckett’s novel Dealbreaker (Tor, 2021, $29.99), the space opera sequel to their 2019 future epic Gamechanger. That first book was set on Earth in 2101, during the so-called “Bounceback” (an age of vast planetary renewal following the “Setback” – our own age of environmental degradation, violence, and “fake news” – and the “Clawback”, during which humanity wrested itself and the planet back from the brink of destruction). In Gamechanger, Beckett presented a beautifully constructed world where financial capital has been replaced by social capital, where the environmental and social damage caused by the mistakes of the past is being slowly and carefully repaired – a world where queerness and non-binary natures and boundless creativity are matters of course, and populated by a new generation working hard to make it better and bring it into a golden future. Of course, drama demanded that darker, conspiratorial forces were at work with their own selfish agendas – but in the end, hope and the drive to move forward triumphed, as humanity found itself in a position to start moving outwards toward the stars.
Dealbreaker is set several decades later, as the children of the Bounceback generation have taken the lead in helping Earth usher in a new age of progress that will, hopefully, allow the human race to enter into the larger galactic community, while yet retaining all that it fought so hard for over the previous century. In this sequel, Beckett focuses on a smaller group of core characters, most importantly Frankie Barnes and her primary partner (in an intimate pack of spouses) Maud Sento. Redoubtable ace spacecraft pilot Frankie is a key figure in ‘Project Bootstrap’ – the result of the grand bargain that humanity has struck with the various alien empires out in the galaxy. If the Earth wants to escape annexation or absorption by these states, humanity must show itself capable of kickstarting that new age of accelerated scientific development and interstellar travel and proving itself stable and intelligent enough to be trusted with access to galactic territory and trade. Obstacles arise from both aliens and humans looking to break the deal for their own advantage, demonstrating that even the most successful Bounceback from the edge cannot account for the greed, selfishness, and elitism of some intelligent life forms.
The idea of aliens judging humanity as ‘worthy’ may be an old one in science fiction, but Beckett shines it up all new and brilliant with a stable of characters who seem very true to life in their emotional depth (the loving relationship – in all the intimacies and frustrations that marriage carries – between Frankie and Maud is particularly well-drawn), whether human or AI. Beckett is a master of character development in that they manage to obscure the natural-artificial divide and make the humans and the artificial intelligences equal in sympathy and affection. The opening scene of the novel, in fact, marvelously demonstrates this – the chapter opens with a party being held in VR among Frankie and Maud’s family, human and otherwise. The scene isn’t full of dramatic tension or vital story events, but it is a beautifully drawn portrait of relationships in this future society. No one is treated as other, affection is freely exchanged and accepted, and all the entities involved are treated as just another one of the pack and its intimate circle of friends. There is a great joy in such a scene, in imagining the interplay of people (and everyone here is a “person”, one way or another) in what will pass as ‘normal’ in a positive future.
(Beckett even brings a very human pathos and realism to the character Scrap of the All, a tiny fragment of a collective alien species, who plays a pivotal role in the dramatic events of the novel. Readers with any semblance of a heart will come to enjoy Scrap in all Their facets.)
Dealbreaker is a grand novel of great implications for humanity. It’s bold in its optimism and its call to work for the betterment of all, exciting in its share of zipping spaceships and races against the clock to save lives, and rich with witty, clever dialogue. The book works well as a standalone as well, it should be noted, but readers should not deny themselves any portion of the pleasures of Beckett’s writing by skipping Gamechanger.
If Marshall Ryan Maresca has proven anything with his new fantasy The Velocity of Revolution (Daw, 2021, $17.00), it’s that the one thing quality fantasy was missing until now, was tacos. Well, tacos and motorcycles. Maresca’s characters roam the restive and war-torn city of Ziaparr by foot and cycle, and I swear they stop for street tacos once a chapter. That is not a criticism, by the way – in fact, it’s a wonderful, specific detail about active street life that makes Maresca’s Ziaparr different than other fantasy novels. Maresca is no stranger to urban fantasies – his Maradaine novels are set in a colorful, multicultural metropolis in which magic, criminality, heroes, villains, and secrets swirl through the streets and alleys. But Maradaine resembles a more ‘typical’ fantasy setting, whereas in Velocity Maresca gives us in Ziaparr a city all too sadly familiar in these times. It is emerging from under the shadow of a destructive war, riven by social disruptions (exacerbated by an oppressive caste system) and suffocating under the regime of a dictatorial occupying force. There are trains, there are trucks, there are motorcycles roaring down highways (and rivalries over which make of cycle is best), there are guns, there are lies and propaganda spread across the airwaves, there are people trying to make a life in the ruins. And, yes, there are street tacos. All these give Velocity a particular relevance and immediacy and sense of modern life that make it unlike many other fantasies. (Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence comes to mind as another “lived-in” sort of urban fantasy, Charles De Lint’s classic Newford being yet another, in a very different sort of way.)
The book’s title is wholly appropriate – Velocity of Revolution not only moves at a driving pace, but speed itself figures heavily into the story. Both resistance fighter Nailia and City Patrolman Wenthi experience their best selves, their true selves, when barreling down the road on the seats of their cycles. Speed is part of their personalities, and what is more, speed turns out to be the key to the magic that may save the resistance, the city, and the innocent victims of the regime. More broadly, though, the book demonstrates how a resistance movement- pushed by increasingly unjust events – eventually achieves its own unstoppable momentum, moving ever onward and ever faster towards a just resolution. In these times, that is certainly cause for celebration. And this singular novel is as well.
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.